Over fifteen years ago a shockwave was sent through graphics as designers put two fingers up to the ‘big idea’/‘problem-solving’ tradition and turned to self-expression. They proclaimed the processes they used almost as important as the product itself, and, if they had the chance they’d be re-incarnated as conceptual artists.
Once the predictable flurry of hysteria from the traditionalists died down, it became clear that genuine good could come from this and the savvier students and professionals took the ideas on board. So from Tomato’s early experiments to Carson’s typographic blitzkrieg, the profession received a useful kick up its rear end that knocked it out off its cosy woodcut, centred, brushstroked axis.
How ‘self-initiated’ came to life varied, hugely. In the hands of students it veered into rampant self analysis: endless ‘embroidered-type-on-pillowcase’ projects on dreams and childhood memories; ‘mapping-my-journey-to-college’ posters, or impenetrable typographic essays as design donned Baudrillard’s intellectual beret for the first time.
Practising professionals took it elsewhere – Paula Scher began her typographic ‘map’ paintings at about this time, Stefan Sagmeister introduced his naked body as the canvas for a series of self-mutilation projects. Daniel Eatock has now taken it to new heights, coming the closest to tipping out of design and into conceptual art.
But recently ‘self-initiated’ has mutated into another strain, best described as ‘me-projects’. Taking Sagmeister as their cue, several designers have made themselves the epicentre of their work.
Consider Christopher Doyle, for example. Whilst holding down a day job in Sydney, he produced a set of design guidelines. OK, nothing new there – but the catch is that the guidelines are for himself. For the section on ‘black and white’, there he is, in black and white. He recently entered it into a design competition in Australia, with additional material. The additional material? Himself. Doyle stood by his brochure for a day whilst the judges passed judgement on his kerning (and his shoes).
Another classic example is Nicholas Felton’s annual report. For three years now we’ve studied how many miles he has run, how many emails and texts he has sent, which books he has read. Last year we found out when he met Sarah and when he turned thirty (but were they linked?). We know how much money gathered in his coin bucket, how many photos he has uploaded to Flickr, when he was attacked on the train, and so on.
He’s taken this to the logical conclusion by setting up a website with interactive designer Ryan Case (called Daytum) which encourages others to collect them-data (or would that be me-data?) and publish it too. So as I write, I can tell you that ‘Hannah J’ wishes she ‘could draw better, could read faster and could skateboard’. (It looks like her new year’s resolutions are sorted then).
Felton and Doyle’s link is that they are practising designers and have chosen known (and groan-inducing) aspects of life in graphics (the manual, the annual report) and turned them on their heads, away from dry instruction to bizarre 21st century pastiche.
Why? When quizzed, Felton’s admits that ‘it satisfies a real curiosity that I have about my habits. Why is it a popular document? If there are numerous people out there who think it is fascinating and don’t even know me … imagine how fascinating I find it’. At first your reaction is ‘Oh please….’ but soon you are scouring the pages to see which was the most visited restaurant, his most-drunk beer: a sort of typographic Truman Show, authored by Truman himself.
Doyle acknowledges a long held desire to do more personal work but “never found the time”. He also admits that it was difficult: “I hadn’t counted on the self-examination. What this forced me to do was present myself, raw and true. I’ve always had issues with my weight, so it was it was a big thing for me to pose the way I did.”
The fact that Felton is now extending his ideas online comes as little surprise – it’s here that an up-and-coming designer, or blogger (or both) can grab their moment of fame. Sometimes the level of profile achieved belies their youth: Craig Oldham’s projects gathering handwritten letters from designers and “12 in 12 things you might learn in your first year as a designer” publication have been linked everywhere, but in reality he’s just two and a half years into his working life at The Chase in Manchester. Then there are the blogs themselves, perhaps the biggest me-projects of all. Many design blogs are still written by people whose work, when you follow the ‘portfolio’ link, is underwhelming, although it’s telling that recently the ranks of ‘designers that blog’ have been swelled by British veteran Mike Dempsey and über-gridnik Michael C Place. Their daily musings and observations are fascinating; even when they veer into the banal it still works, somehow.
But Felton is honest in appraising his me-projects: “I’ve been truly fortunate that it’s developed a following. As a result, I strive to make each year more special and more interesting than the last, and it has been an incredible promotional piece for my design practice.” Aha. Now we’re getting to it: it’s a promotional piece, and guess what – he also sells thousands of copies of it each year.
And what became of Doyle’s award entry? Well, he won. Perhaps these ‘me-projects’ are just another form of ‘me-promotion’, after all.
Michael Johnson is design director of johnson banks and editor of the Thought for the Week website.