Design finds a voice, but what does it have to say?

Graphic Design: Now in Production, the Walker Art Center’s look at recent graphic work, raises questions about the profession’s future

Every decade graphic design goes through growing pains, further expanding the definition of the medium and what it means to be a graphic designer. Graphic Design: Now in Production, currently on show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and travelling to the Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York next year, reflects some of those changing notions. Its aim is to explore “how contemporary designers are broadening the field by generating new tools, vocabularies and content”. As the title states, the exhibition hones in on the current “production” of design phenomenon and so also examines the designer’s role as producer and/or author.

The show is overwhelming at first visit. Every piece calls for attention: it is difficult to navigate a room so full of graphic work. Now in Production boasts 500 individual projects, all produced since 2000, but with its nets cast as wide as they are, there remains a considerable number of influential designers, types of media, even entire continents absent. At the same time, designer Daniel Eatock is given a huge amount of space to show 30 of his Pantone Pen Prints, for example, while Christophe Szpajdel displays a whole wall of his death metal band logos. In contrast, a very small percentage of the exhibits are dedicated to new ‘tools’, covered primarily through the work of designer and developer, Jurg Lehni.
That said, a good amount of the work included is stellar. Projects for the Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture by Maureen Mooren and for the Casa da Música concert hall by Sagmeister Inc., really explore the role and definition of an identity system. The self-published Feltron annual reports by designer Nicholas Felton are as beautiful as they are smart. And Philippe Apeloig’s La Lorraine typeface and poster investigate the boundaries of how type can function through multiple forms and systems.

But I can’t help but wonder that if designers are the ‘authors’ here, does that mean they automatically have the final say, that they’re the de facto authority, in relation to their own work? This is clearly not reflected in the practising world. In my experience, the expertise of an established designer can easily be trumped by a client’s personal or uninformed opinion. This is further complicated when you factor in the public’s ability to react and comment on design via the internet. (The Gap and Tropicana rebrands aren’t included in the show, incidentally.)
Yet this thought pattern is encouraged through an interactive voting aspect brought into the gallery’s logo display wall. Visitors can cast ‘voting chips’ on whether they think the old trademark or the new rebrand is better – AOL, the Library of Congress, Starbucks etc. Simply stating a ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, however, creates no meaningful or informed discourse. Indeed, it seems to me that this ‘groupthink’ voice is already invading the field of graphic design, further diminishing the value of designers’ expertise. This is one of the many reasons why designers get less respect from clients and less money for their talents than in the past. If anyone can be a designer (DIY), anyone can say whatever they want using design. And this could be the very reason why some designers are migrating to the kind of self-publishing on show at the Walker in the first place. These designers want a platform to say exactly what they want, free of meetings, bad advice, strict visual guidelines, etc. Maybe this show is a statement about something greater going on.

Furthermore, any examination of the role of the designer as producer or author is interesting only if something interesting is being said. And if we’re saying something so important and communicating it in a clear and compelling way, why is it then so difficult to find such profound statements in the Walker show? Isn’t this what designers do best? The piece that really drives this point home is Metahaven’s FaceState installation, their abstract affront to Facebook. This is a collection of ID cards, tablets with glitter over them and stand-up cards with cryptic sayings. Even here, I felt that the execution – concept through presentation – doesn’t communicate with the same strength and clarity of their past work. Equally, there is a large amount of work authored in a stripped-down, typographic style in the exhibition. If the aim of the show is to display new vocabularies and new content, why do the publications in the magazine section, for example, look so similar even when the content is so diverse?

Walking around, I wondered how the majority of ‘nine-to-five’ designers who do mainly corporate work will see this show. Will they see it as a warped take on what graphic design is, or something to aspire to? Are the curators so caught up in their art curating or academic worlds that they have a skewed perception of what design even is? Does this show display a new class of white collar designer, or the emancipatory yearnings of the proletariat? There is of course a dark side to design that you will never see in a gallery: you will never see the downtrodden designer working 60+ hour weeks to create lacklustre designs for a condescending client, just hoping they have a job next month. That might be a more accurate portrayal of the current state of design but, sure, it doesn’t sell tickets or prints from the gift shop. In general, I’m not sure what story the Walker is trying to tell; there are mixed messages that just leave me unsettled.

I’ve no doubt that excellent design and exploration can be a catalyst for change (and should be encouraged) but in the end, as designers, aren’t we still struggling with the same boundaries and questions that our predecessors had? All this while cut-rate mass culture pollutes every last free space it can using ‘design’ as its production tool. Hopefully the Walker’s show will motivate designers to question both what they do and why they do it, initiating a genuine discourse, even bringing change to the way we work.

To quote Metahaven’s Daniel Van Der Velden, “If you don’t address the politics behind the aesthetics, there will be no real change.” We don’t need another manifesto telling designers what to do, or a new vision for everyone to follow, but I don’t think the solution will necessarily be found in self-initiated work either. Maybe we could all start with a little honest self-editing. The world really doesn’t depend on whether the Walker, you, or I ‘like’ something or not. In the end, Now in Production asks many more questions than it offers answers. 

Michael Cina is a multidisciplinary designer, typographer and creative director of Cina Associates in Minneapolis. See cinaassociates.com. Graphic Design: Now in Production is on until January 22, walkerart.org

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