Michael Bierut | Essays

What is Design For? A Discussion

In the first of a series of debates about issues in graphic design, held at Pentagram's London offices on 8 June, Creative Review editor Patrick Burgoyne asked Rick Poynor and Michael Bierut, what is design for? This is an edited transcript of the discussion published in Creative Review's August issue. A few additional edits have been made for its publication here.

Patrick Burgoyne I'd like to start by asking you both for a definition of graphic design and to outline what you think is wrong, and right, with graphic design today.

Rick Poynor This statement, for me, sums the whole thing up. It dates from 1960 and it's by John Commander, a leading art director of the time, who said, "To design is to create images which communicate specific ideas in purely visual terms and utter statements whose form graphically embodies or enhances the essential nature of the notions to be communicated."

But for me graphic design isn't quite the issue. I don't see my focus as being on graphic design. What interests me is visual communication and graphic design is a part of that - it's one of the ways you may approach visual communication. The problem with the discussion we've generated within graphic design is that this term has limited some of the discussion.

There are many things that are good about graphic design. It's a fantastically varied, vibrant, interesting field with fantastically talented people. We're living in quite a good moment now. We seem to have come through the crisis of confidence of the 1990s and the industry feels healthy. The downside is to do with the kind of visual environment that graphic design is helping to shape. As graphic design becomes more sophisticated and pervasive, so there's an enormous capacity for it to become manipulative and I guess that's my biggest fear. Design more than ever has a real responsibility to do with the nature of the media world that we all now inhabit.

Michael Bierut I agree this is about as good a definition as I've read. As a practising designer I've always been struck by how often we formulate a theory of graphic design that magically corresponds to the way that we ourselves do graphic design. When I decided at 15 to become a graphic designer without ever having met one, I did so because I realised that I didn't have any true artistic ability. I couldn't fathom how artists could go up to their studios and do this work for months on end. Then I saw things like record sleeves and movie posters and thought, well, this is good because it's like art but the idea comes from someplace else, then your job is to respond to that idea. So without any sense of selling out, I became a graphic designer.

The problem with that is that it implies a passivity which isn't always about people doing what the client tells them. Often it comes from a very circumscribed idea of what your involvement is meant to be. Too often graphic designers see their job as taking something and making it look cool. We can do that effortlessly because there's so little functional requirement to what we do, so a lot of times it has to do with coming up with a style. The days I look back to with admiration were when graphic designers didn't understand quite so clearly what their roles were and neither did their clients. The Eames didn't clearly understand what the limits of their scope were supposed to be and clients didn't either so they were able to take money from IBM and to make a transcendent piece of design that added to the public good and, almost as a by-product, looked cool.

PB Have graphic designers shifted too much toward being persuaders rather than communicators?

RP You've really raised a complex issue here. There is almost a confusion between graphic design as an activity and advertising as an activity. If you trace the historical origins of design, it's bound up with advertising. In Europe there is this sense, from the 1950s onward, whereby, as design becomes more professionalised, it separates itself from advertising. Those post-war idealists were setting themselves up as communicators in opposition to persuasion, which was seen as a manipulative way of treating other people.

So, the idea was that information is the pure thing, and the visual communicator's job is to convey that information as objectively as they can. But while that might still stand as an idealistic model, as we well know, as emotional, irrational beings, led by our desires, any view of design which insists on pure objectivity seems to reduce us to machines - we aren't like that. Advertising understands this perfectly and increasingly plays up the emotional side. You tap into a person's desires. Design is hopelessly enmeshed in this now. Design is hugely persuasive. When you talk about notions of cool you're absolutely talking about notions of persuasion. Does design want to be part of that process?

MB That's very much at the heart of it. When I first read First Things First [the 1964 manifesto calling on designers to use their skills for more worthy pursuits, which was reissued in 1999], I was reminded of when sometimes, when a crime's committed, people will confess to it even though they didn't do it because they're dying for the attention. Part of FTF sort of reminded me of that - designers are so eager to think they are manipulating the whole world and they're dying to confess. It's very empowering to think that you can manipulate the whole world but speaking as a working designer there aren't too many moments in the day when I think that I possess that power.

PB A lot of the criticisms raised in the original publication of FTF in the 1960s are equally valid today. Back then [British member of parliament] Tony Benn was talking about designers wasting their talents on the frills of society. Why wasn't there any shift? What chance do we now have of changing?

RP FTF was revived for very specific reasons. Its core concern seemed to be more relevant than ever. What has changed as a result? How can I possibly say? You put things out in the world hoping that it might be relevant to someone, but these things are subtle, imperceptible. I got enough feedback personally to sense that there was an audience for whom it was meaningful. It didn't offer any specific answers, but it served as inspiration. In terms of it forcing some kind of huge change in the body politic - this is a ridiculous notion. All it was saying was that you're a designer, you have to make decisions about your life and where you want to invest your time and talent. Are you doing what you want? Would you consider other possibilities?

MB The main message of FTF was that designers should think about what they're doing, and I think there's much evidence that the level of discussion of all kinds has been transformed because of it. If I had a big complaint I would say that there is an alternate reading of FTF where it where it seems to suggest that the core of society - the mass market - be abandoned by designers in favour of the frills. What I dislike is the idea that either you can sell out or you can be marginalised and there's nothing in between: you can either do cute things that no one will notice and will have no effect on the world or you can sell out and put out shit that will be reproduced in the billions and end up in every landfill on earth. There's got to be some route in between which will be found by smart people who are engaged with larger issues in the world. In New York after 9/ll a lot of people were thinking what can I do as a graphic designer to help? I hate to say it but posters weren't really the answer at that time: a cool T-shirt wasn't going to ameliorate pain or address the root causes of that event. There is a way for designers to get involved but it requires engagement with much bigger ideas in the world and not to think that the limit of your scope is to figure out how you make the T-shirt. I am concerned by our eagerness to retreat to the margins where we can work undisturbed - and unnoticed.

If you see the role of graphic design as giving you a platform whereby you can express your unique vision then, unless you can tailor that vision so that people are going to pay you to partake of it, you aren't going to get them to pay you any money. I never had a unique vision to tailor - it's something I've only heard about - but, to me, if there's one bit of advice I always give students it's that the thrilling thing about graphic design is that you get to participate in the larger world. I have this sense of the loneliness of the artist: the great thing about graphic design was not that people paid for it, but that you got to be an active participant in the real world and that your work is seen by people who don't require any special qualifications to enjoy it. How much of that larger world do you want to engage with?

RP This idea of the person at the margins having no influence and then the person in the corporate world who is making a difference because his work has a big audience: I don't buy that dichotomy. When you look at the important cultural makers, not just designers, but photographers, film directors, musicians, over and over they are people who are preserving a position of some kind of independence, being able to pursue their own direction, which produces work which is of immense cultural value.

Does it matter if their audience is small? I'm inclined to think the contrary. The 3,000 people who buy an independent product are engaged in a kind of cultural exploration which is the very stuff of self-education and growing as a human being. Smallness is not a barrier to significant, influential work. If, as a designer, you choose to position yourself there then you've got my support because it's culturally important. It's difficult, a struggle, but it's hard to imagine a world without those people. Without them it would be a monoculture, full of people who shared the same mass experiences, and ultimately it would stagnate. New ideas tend to originate in the margins where those makers are freest.

PB There are thousands of designers working in socially responsible areas like the NHS [National Health Service] but the industry's heroes (and Creative Review as well as other magazines must accept some culpability in this) are the ones working in the corporate sector or in music or the arts: is there a kind of celebrity aspect that makes people think that the cool thing to be working on is record sleeves and that other options are so far down the chain as to be perceived as almost a last resort?

RP That's absolutely true. There was a time when it was extremely unusual for a design magazine to publish a profile of anyone. There is this obsession with personality now but, having said that, in a culture that is obsessed with celebrity isn't it inevitable that designers will start to get treated in the same way and will themselves long for some of this treatment? In terms of design's presence and profile it's no bad thing - it might help to further the cause of design. But if you don't do something with that stardom, that's really rather sad. If high profile designers can help to direct discussion into more productive areas that would be useful.

MB If you went back and looked at what design discourse in the US was dominated by in the late 1950s early 1960s, there was this real optimism about what design could do to improve daily life. The great design artifacts of that time were not done for little charities; they were all commissioned by giant corporations - Eames and Rand for IBM and so on. There was this sense that the captains of industry were the proper people to steward us into this golden post-atomic age.

Speaking as someone who enthusiastically sold out, every time I've done something just for the money, no matter how much they paid, it was never enough. More than half of the work I do now is for non-profit organisations, but that world is neither as acquiescent in terms of helping designers realise their dreams nor as impecunious as you may think it is. They are going to push you around as much as a big corporate client. There's no big Nirvanah there.

Daniel Weil [Pentagram partner, speaking from the audience] It seems that we have been getting away from the social mission of design. In previous decades it was much closer to ideology and very ethical. Are there designers who are ideological in approach today?

RP I've met a few, but they stand out as being out of their time. It's extremely unusual, but then it's unusual in society in general. The age of non-ideology is one we all inhabit so it's no surprise that design is not generating this social intention.

MB My first job in New York was for Massimo Vignelli from Unimark who was an ideologically convinced Modernist. One client after another would come to them with some horrible logo and the guys at Unimark would just shove all that aside, and set the name in Helvetica medium. It wasn't cynical or just a way to make a buck but a way of casting aside all this horribleness and it was purely ideological.

RP That was a moment when, for some designers, the demand for rationality held sway.

MB And they wore white lab coats as they went about this precise work. Massimo sees his mission fully realised as being to redesign everything in the world personally, failing that it would be for people to copy his style and do it that way. Now in an un-ideological age where everyone has their own ethics, you don't see great movements but instead little battles being undertaken.

RP There was some sense in the years after World War Two that design's purpose was to help make people's lives better by designing their environment and information more effectively. This issue of the designer's responsibility came up again and again - it was almost a leitmotif. Now designers, as members of society, do not feel that same sense of social responsibility and this is part of a much larger social shift. The reasons that it's disappeared are very complex, and partly relate to the nature of work. Up until Reagan and the financial deregulation of the 1980s, there was, as Michael mentioned, this sense that the corporation existed for the benefit of society, that it had to give something back. Now there's a denial of social duty by corporations, so it's no surprise that we have absorbed a new set of attitudes. That's the challenge now: how can you reconnect with other people? But it needs larger social and political shifts before you will see any widespread change in attitudes among designers who, inevitably, simply express the values of their day.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Theory + Criticism

Comments [9]

The above reminds me of that wonderful Tibor Kalman quote: "Graphic design is a means not an end. It's a language not content." It's funny because most of my favorite designers have worked on editorial design which is very much about story telling, and different than selling something. With the rare exception most magazines seem to be less and less focused on story telling, and perhaps that's why what Tibor did with Colors seems to stand out so much. My one hope is that newer mediums like the web might give designers new opportunities to tell stories and focus on content...
Michael Pinto

I appreciate how your comments about FTF seem a little hesitant to completely embrace the manifesto. (I am referring to your writing in "Looking Closer 4" as a second example). Maybe I see the "alternate reading" that you mentioned, but it seems to me that the manifesto promotes an elitist point of view that negatively changes the whole intention for design. It seems to say that design is only socially responsible if it is done for charity or non profit organizations. I think your ideas address the flaws of the manifesto, and I think it could benefit from a high profile person like yourself revising it yet again. There is a site called ChangeThis that is spreading new manifestos with the goal of spreading important ideas and changing minds. I am rewriting FTF and I would love to hear some criticism. You can find my manifesto here.

I hope you are wrong when you say designers no longer see "design's purpose (is) to help make people's lives better by designing their environment and information more effectively," and "designers... simply express the values of their day." If you are right, that seems like a serious tragedy.

There are plenty of idealistic, highly motivated designers, and always have been, but I was talking about what seemed to be the prevailing view during the 1980s and 1990s at the commercial heart of the design business. I do think, though, that since the end of the 1990s, these issues have come back on to the agenda for some designers. (Adbusters, FTF, No Logo were all signs of this growing concern.)

These remarks were made in London to a mainly British audience and, first and foremost, they address what I believe to be the case in Britain. I guess you are probably based in the US. Do you sense a strong current of social idealism running through present-day American design? And if so, does it outweigh the social and cultural impact of commercially driven design?

So far as your point to Michael goes, my alarm bell always starts ringing when I hear the word "elitist". It's become one of those contemporay negative words that people tend to use to claim the moral high ground and identify themselves virtuously with some notional idea of a wider public, which the supposed elitist is then positioned against. There is nothing wrong, though, with having high standards - in whatever field. It's another aspect of being committed, idealistic, and having a clearly defined position.
rick poynor

You are right to assume that I am from the US. I am probably idealistic to a fault, and although I still hope you are wrong, I am not qualified to recognize a "strong current of social idealism" in the US. The majority of designers I know and work with are passionate, idealistic, and full of integrity. It is tough to measure that against the "social and cultural impact of commercially driven design." Regardless, we both agree that this is an important issue.

I agree that "elitist" is an overused catchphrase. I am not saying that it is elitist to have high standards. I tried to simplify my revised manifesto into one sentence, and obviously, that makes it very easy to shoot holes in. Rather than fill your site with my complaints about FTF, people can see my alternative version here if they are interested.

the notion of 'elitism' is interesting. people make decisions on where they want to work, and what sort of work they do, and it is a struggle to do good work, the sort of work that many of the signatories of FTF 200? do. someone struggles for years to do something good and true to their ideals, and finally gains some recognition for it or makes a living off of it, and they are referred to as 'elitist' and even naive. while someone who starts off with a good job, makes good money, never has financial struggles because he is doing exactly what corporate clients want, is somehow the 'everyman', because he designs things with mass appeal.
manuel miranda

I couldnt care less how designers choose to catalouge themselves or what the size of the audience is, what has always interested me in design is the exploration of an idea and the process of arriving at the solution and how much care has been taken in the project.

What troubles me is the growth of people with good technical skills producing work with almost no underlying concept. A lot of students are opting to do the BA and get the skills needed (how do i do this in photoshop!) rather than explore themselves and design by doing a BFA. Another example is the outsourcing of design work (3-D rendering labs in India) which makes it more of an assembly line profession rather than a critical exploration.

As an Indian, Design was never the top shelf option for me but i agree that what attracts me the most is a chance to play with a global canvas, a chance to utter a visual and see how it interacts and develops. One thing that i have observed is that design at times seems to be a privilige especially in a growing economy.

But what drives me and i hope drove others in this profession is the passion to make our enviorment better and a hunger to learn more. I plan to spend the next few yrs learning about the actual print + physical design as that is something i know i am lacking in depth. I guess it boils down to how much a person wants to learn and grow as a designer not just follow trends.
Aashim Tyagi

nice website aashim. i find your comment about being a designer who 'utters' and creates 'utterances' that contribute and live in the global visual vernacular a very interesting idea. have you read arjun appadura's modernity at large? he writes a lot about the dispersal of mass media around the globe, and even has a term 'mediascapes' to discuss it.

in the discussion above, i think michael bierut refers to a time when an entire spectrum of political possibility existed in the world, where different systems of government were in place in different countries and existed between freemarket capitalism, as represented by the USA, and state-regulated communism, as represented by the former USSR. indeed times are extremely different, with only four communist countries remaining in the world, and many countries struggling to gain foreign invesetment in resources, and extreme capitalist intentions driving most corporations today.

europe seems to be a place where some sort of ideal about the role of graphic design and communication in society has a sanctioned public place, at least from the american point of view.
manuel miranda

Thank You Manuel for the kind words.
I will check out the book you mentioned, it seems very interesting.

I agree with you that europe seems like a place engaged in design. I have often times found that in the USA the quantity overrides quality at times. Look at majority of the advertising and buzzrods ( Value, Deals, Supersize, Supermart) it is at best complacent design. People i find are no longer interested in looking for an experience but rather they want the comfort of the known.

Even though Europe is more engaged in new explorations ( think fashion, architecture, design) I think its the emerging economies and the newer,fresher and richer middle class ( India, China, South America) which will be more willing and hungry for new experiences. It would be interesting to see how do we (designers) respond to that. Once again as an Indian i'll use India as an example.

Convegence of old + new technologies and ideas in places like India is creating a new stronger aesthetic. One, which is not only aware of its own surroundings but also in touch with global design language. This interaction is very exciting as it provides grounds to experiment with tradtions and create a language which is not "Indian" but global. Hopefully it will rise from the silly paisley patterns or scanned images hindu gods and will finally be able to communicate on a global scale.

I can't wait.

Aashim Tyagi

This essay was written in response to this Design Observer interview. I have posted it on speak up and informed those participating in that string that Design Observer was the origin, so I thought I might post it here hoping for Design Observer's take.

One of the defining characteristics and driving forces of late capitalism expresses itself in the momentum of competitive markets. Within a market economy saturated with competing goods, the difference between product, information or service, A or B, comes down to design. Recently, for this reason, design has received media attention for its more integral role in the life of companies. In the July 5, 2004 issue of Business Week, the editor's note describes design as part of a company's core competence.

Design's origins in the work of expressionists, futurists, cubists and constructivists fighting against the spirit of capitalism, evolved dramatically in the work of the Bauhaus around the turn of the century lead by Walter Gropius. The practical innovations developed by the Bauhaus profoundly effected design's relationship to industry and perhaps respectively to its anti-capitalist roots. Since the time of the Bauhaus design education, answering the demands of industry has taken on the character of training in the arts of service industry more than a branch of liberal art education. By the early 1970s, design was more commonly known as commercial art than an art of its own, the innovation which defined the spirit of the Bauhaus with its numerous achievements of form, affecting the most basic aspects of life, had given way to more conditional and constrained form making.

In the 1980s and 1990s design like so many other institutions found itself dealing with the developing rhythms of multinational capitalism and media society, with planned obsolescence and rapid fashion and style changes, design came under the spell of a perpetual present, and lost focus of both its past and a drive toward self-definition. Within this postmodern frenzy the field became defined from without by its clients. To quote Business Week editor, Stephen Shepard, "Companies use design like paint, to slap on a color or fancy shape after engineers and marketing people had come up with a product. Out of this dynamic design became more identified with one aspect of form, style, and designers, saddled with the waning myth of individuality became quasi celebrities identified by their individual style and forms."

Design defined from without, as an accessory in the function of markets, has led over the course of several years to a more sophisticated, yet no less capitalist identity. Style and functionality have become more and more integrated leading up to the current developments of "experience design", where design in some people's eyes, has reached its zenith as a service to the western ideology of conquest in its drive to remake the world into a well-furnished environment for man.

This view of the state of design captures the feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction expressed in the First Things First manifesto. However, this is not the only way to look at design and society; it is probably somewhat accurate and at the same time, a very harsh assessment of a profession functioning in an age of multinational capitalism and media. To sight only one positive aspect of design today, consider the rise in variety and multiplicity of style and how those increased options have enriched people's lives, giving them affordable personality enriching choice. First Things First, at its depth, seems to be a call for meaning, a call for the definition of the practice from within, and perhaps for the creative abilities of not just design, but for humanity, to be refocused to include a deep and abiding contemplation of purpose.

Out of this dissatisfaction and negative criticism there is a rich source of potential. It is a sign of the times, of our tumultuous, dizzying culture of metaphysical angst. First Things First 2000 reflects a larger feeling in the body politic, from the pages of Tricycle to Wired , writers are reporting on a fundamental absence of a clear sense of purpose for both technology and society. In the September 2004, issue of Wired , Bruce Sterling opens up the question of technology and the crisis of purpose. His article focuses on the problem of technological singularity, which he defines as a moment when runaway advances have outstripped human comprehension and all our knowledge and experience become useless as a guidepost to the future.

The glass half full then is that FTF2000 is a calling, and that it has come at a crucial time. Dissatisfaction is a key ingredient for change. The opportunity for design today is to attend to itself unconditionally. Having reached the art of "experience design" It is natural now for the form of life processes to be considered with the aim of reconnecting to the source of life's meaning. The questions of Ontology could be vitalized in our processes of making; deeply investigated and contemplated in an effort to give human dimension and form to the rolling momentum of technology and economy.

What is design for? As questions go, this is an important one. On the surface it seems to beg for a practical answer, and in many discussions of this topic today, and in the past, various excellent points of view have been brought to light.

Practical answers such as the post-war view that design's purpose is to help make people's lives better by designing our environments and information effectively, cannot serve as ends, the fundamental questions which ought to guide such action remains, more effective for what, what kind of a life, and what is this life for? These more fundamental questions draw out the problem of meaning, arguably among the greatest questions for which the human condition bares responsibility. With meaningful experience, as with other qualities of experience, people express certain common elements that distinguish it and lend it the character of meaningfulness.

Design, like so many other institutions today, shows signs of being affected by a crisis of meaning and value. So long as design remains determined by outside interests, by practical aims and authority, the meanings of the practice will produce a kind of value relativism. The institution of design may overcome this state, and become more vital as it supports the development of purposes, which come from within the art energy and qualities in and through which its products are produced. In philosophical terms, design must arrive at its "unconditional imperative" as a foundation of action.

The challenge is to nurture a culture of practitioners aware of the art's purpose, guided by a horizon of possibility for life and society. Design educators empowered by a renewed discourse on what ends design may serve, contribute to the development of a culture of design unbound by the traditional conceptions of design as the generator of typography, fonts, information structure, products and style alone. As an art, when not strictly bound by market conditions, design can become a profession dealing with deep and vital questions of life and society in and through its giving of forms.
Brett Combs

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