Michael Bierut | Essays

Déjà Vu All Over Again

From Fifty Years of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, published over 40 years ago in 1966. Eerie.

Posted in: History, Politics

Comments [27]

In fairness to what appears to be an uncanny situation, Paula Scher was probably well aware that she was initiating her husband's thoughts from 40 years ago

very interesting find.


A few words that come to mind:

hubris, narcissism, superiority complex, egotism, arrogance, megalomania
Fashion Critic

Sad that we live at a time where presuming to have a voice in public policy can be dismissed so quickly as hubris and narcissism. It wasn't always thus.
Michael Bierut

I have to agree with Michael. Hubris and narcissism weren't words that came to mind at all. Vision, optimism, and social awareness were more the tone of my read.
Michael DelGaudio

I read Fashion Critic's comment as being a criticism of the idea that someone should be invited to have a voice in public policy because they are a graphic designer.

Fed up with being governed by barristers and accountants, I look forward to the day when participation in government at any level has nothing at all to do with your job, but certainly does count on your actual commitment. (E.g. no one should be allowed to vote in an election without first taking a test to show they've actually read and understood the policies of the parties involved. I'd rather have a government elected by an educated minority than by a stupid majority... Whoops, I appear to have gone ever so slightly off topic ;-)

In short, just cos you may know what font the manifesto's designed with and the weight of the paper it's printed on, doesn't give you a right to a seat at the table.

I think I may just have agreed with you both!

It's equally sad that people on both sides of this argument, like many other issues of the day, forget that true democracy is defined by disagreement. The designers had a right to decline the White House invitation, and others have a right to find fault with that decision.

Personally, I would have been deeply honored to receive a National Design Award at the White House, regardless of my frustration with the Bush administration. But at the same time, I must respect someone's decision to decline such an invitation.

Lets not dismiss Fashion Critic outright. Hey. I love Seymour and Paula's provocative, thoughtful work as much as the next guy/ gal. They rock and roll.. But it was she who penned THE DEVALUATION OF DESIGN BY THE DESIGN COMMUNITY: I HAVE SEEN THE ENEMY, AND HE IS US" Originally pubished in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design.

Making no hard and fast judgement myself (I'm just a lowly illustrator- far from their status) I offer you two business decisions from our heros: one in which Seymour sells illustrations by the seashore royalty free for $1.00, and another where Paula, one of the best identity/ branding practitioners in the country, has aligned herself with HP's Logoworks.

Did Nostra-Seymour see that one coming too? I can't cast stones as I probably would've sold out as well... because I want to "raise public esteem" for graphic design.
felix sockwell

call me cynical, but a letter from a single (or handful) of star designers declining an awards invitation (yet keeping the award) as a message of objection does more to bring a spotlight to those individuals' political stance than to have any palpable affect on changing bad policy. there's no scale to it. it is symbolic at best and ultimately ineffective. i would rather they go to the awards ceremony and pull a sinead o'connor (a la saturday night live and her pope stunt). that would make a much more interesting headline. but i seriously doubt the players named here have the huevos for something like that (well, maybe with the exception of stefan..)
Gong Szeto

to Gong Szeto: yes, huevos is Stephen Colbert accepting that invitation and then getting up in front of the President and the press corps and making his point. But he's a performer. Admittedly the polite refusal has less impact: however, in the long run, doesn't history judge those who refused to play a long a bit more kindly than those who simply kept their mouths shut?

...this is a familiar commentary-from AIGA meetings gone by--from design journals, from websites. 'We can't get no respect'...and we certainly are not even on the radar when it comes to having a voice which effects policy on any national issue.

An AD for 20+ years, now I have transitioned to an arts/access coordinator for a non-profit org that is all about art and disability culture. I have become stronger in advocacy, influencing government where I live-advocating on a national and grassroots level, and creating issue awareness-but none of it had anything to do with graphic design. It is about inclusive spaces, ADA access and full participation.

The only way I saw advocacy happen in the design field was when our firm would get a public service campaign assignment, or someone would do freebie guerilla-type design projects. Usually it was so they could enter them in the non-profit or unpublished category for some award show. Hardly any coworkers had ongoing advocacy and volunteer-based outside interests from work.

I just don't think visual designers are ever going to get a seat at any 'policy' table unless the design work we are producing benefits the whole community (globe).

To me, rarely is it 2-D people doing important design, it's the 3-D folks, like urban/community planners and architects in the post-Katrina areas of the Gulf...and other countries hit by disasters. It's industrial designers making prosthesis legs or arms, it's photographers documenting misery, or the simple graces of lives of the 'unheard'. It's usually people working for less than half of what most of us (you) make a year...because they are sure that is the work they are supposed to do. (sigh...)

We can do toys for tots campaigns all day, but until we are actually the people organizing the grasroots folks, getting issues out to legislators, holding meetings and making things happen in people's lives...we may remains as useless as most of the stuff clients overpay us to sell. Policymakers? Rare in our profession.

Design is joyous, beauty is necessary--whimsy is life sustaining! But the ability to really effect change probably will happen for most of us when we get out of the day to day and start to spread our wings post-career.

Well for me personally, its not really about us taking our stand and participating in things that will change the course of the world simply because we are graphic designers - in my view, the statement from Seymour Chwast had just simply stated that our field has become so ignorant, that we have been slacking in bearing our responsibilities as the bearer of knowledge, as a philosopher (which in my opinion as well, had once grasped by many great and influential artist/inventor such as Leonardo Da Vinci) to be able to give an alternative to problem that will change lives.

A great example about what im trying to say will be how Leonardo Da Vinci could come out with his flying machine design - solution to shorten travelling time. That particular example shows how far and revolutionary his thoughts is. If he had the same benefits that we have, an unlimited access to an engineer in a just a phone call or collaboration with a team from many different indutries, what do you think he can do?

At the end of the day, the real question is not how come no one would listen to us for a solution but instead why aren't we doing something about our ability of able to look differently? He lives in the past yet he can bring the future so awe close, why aren't we doing it?

Professionals in other fields don't sit around and bemoan how nobody takes them seriously and how if only the President would invite them to some Important Event that they could then decline for symbolic, political reasons . . . I mean, start a PAC or a Move-on or something. Raise some money. Because that's the only thing that has ever or will ever really grab politicians by the lapels. Otherwise it's a whole lot of hot air from a lot of art-school grads and folks who would rather be drawing. Which is fine and all, just a little silly.
Christian in NYC

Did Scher's actions create a front page stir and force the President to change policy? Nope, not in the slightest. The only people who know about it are designers. Did Bush even care? I seriously doubt it. Because, as Christian suggests, the act involved neither money nor power. Unfortunately, Chwast's fantasy (which Scher must surely have been aware of) remains only partially fulfilled.
Rob Henning

I'm in agreement with Christian in NYC. While it's important to have our advocates in the political forum, it's the grassroots where change will really happen. Getting your hands dirty is a prerequisite to preaching your stand. Denying an award will mean little except to yourself.

hey Mister president

i wanna talk about the government

i wanna talk about the poverty deep in our souls

what about the ...well,,, fair?

it sure seems like you just don't care

amendment or addendum to this land was made for you and me ,
counting crow version bonus track on August & Everything After

I roamed and I rambled
I followed my footsteps...

all around me a voice was calling

(ooops never admit to the voices. They'll build you a castle and put you away)


zzzzz~~~~~ back to my dreams.

May we all kick ass where influencing political policies go, of course, at least if that's something we feel like spending time and energy on. But what mainly comes to my mind is something along the lines of: "What? Making the world a somewhat better-looking and easier-to-understand-from-a-visual-point-of-view place isn't professional challenge enough for you?"
Michael Blowhard

Awesome. Even political statements have appeared somewhere else before.

ammre wrote: Denying an award will mean little except to yourself.

Christian wrote: I mean, start a PAC or a Move-on or something. Raise some money. Because that's the only thing that has ever or will ever really grab politicians by the lapels.

These could be equally valid excuses for not voting, because it "doesn't matter." Or, not practicing design because it "doesn't matter." Should we not vote? Should we not care about anything unless its impact is substantial? Should we stop designing unless we're designing the whole world at once?

Maybe Seymour Chwast was a bit overzealous in his assumptions. They didn't make national headlines, and they didn't oust Bush from the Oval Office. But they did stand up for what they believed to be a principled cause, and they did it nobly. And their small impact may not matter to you, but it matters to me.

But hey, I'm only one person — what do I matter?
Ryan Nee

I am so bored with politics. Can't we all just talk about fonts?

Paula and Seymour are great designers that have influenced all of us.
Both are also designers that illustrate, and both are motivated by their beliefs about politics and society. In an interview with Steven Heller in The Left-Handed Designer Seymour talks about his early days as a designer and the artists that influenced him.

"I was active politically, and I was sympathetic to radical pacifist causes."
—Seymour Chwast

It is time we have another design competition based on the theme:
Like Avante Garde's anti-war poster contest announcement. Designed by Seymour's friend Herb Lubalin .
Seymour and Paula can judge the competition, IF YOU WANT IT.
Carl W. Smith

Some of Chwast's best work (in an incredible body of work) is the political stuff. He may have not changed anyone's mind about anything, but he certainly provided some compelling images to buttress a set of values we now have to label "liberal."

That being said, are you not supposed to make any graphic design that expresses a political position, based on a lack of a scientific measurement of effectiveness? Or is that what real culture is all about?

If you want to shape public policy, you shouldn't go to design school. Hubris, narcissism, superiority complex, egotism, arrogance, megalomania, indeed. Typical of the industry.

April 29, 2006
2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner

Michael did the Stephen Colbert appearance at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner influence Michael Rock, Susan Sellers, Georgie Stout, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister to write this letter to the White House?

Carl W. Smith

Design narcisism is this:

Sticking daffodil genes in rice genes to save the world.

The Gates Foundation funds that.


course I'm not sure about that daffodil rice,but Liberty Link Rice.... stuff.

Thankgoodness the dogfood scare of this past year was mislabeled:

Mislabeled wheat flour is contaminated, not wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate.

But now Greenpeace is going after Budweiser about rice in their beer. Course, everybody thinks greenpeacers are fanatics. Except AlGore.

Doug Muhleman, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of brewing, acknowledged in a prepared statement that US-grown long-grained rice "may have micro levels" of a genetically engineered protein called Liberty Link, but added that the protein is "substantially removed or destroyed" during the brewing of beer sold domestically.
The St. Louis company said the rice strain "is fully approved" by federal regulators, who deemed it "perfectly safe for human consumption."

A recipe for branding a revolution: Mix like-minded elite visual thinkers with politics. Add manufacturing. (Maybe) trade unions.

Recalling a little Constructivism history begs the question = what would Vladimir Tatlin, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Naum, Gabo, and Antoine Pevsner, Casimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, or El Lissitsky say or (do).

Is the recipe still good 100 years later?

When I was in high school, I became the first valedictorian to opt not to attend graduation. Naturally, I did not order a cap and gown, and when we had a required, in-school, academic awards ceremony at the end of the year that called for us to don said garments, I substituted semi-formal attire.

It came to my attention that some (sneaker-wearing) students thought my not wearing a cap and gown was "rude" and "disrespectful." But as I collected my awards recognizing four years of hard work — afternoons spent in extracurricular activities, weeknights toiling over assignments until the wee hours, weekends consumed by school work, summers spent working independently on my portfolio for art school — it dawned on me how very rude it was for anyone (especially those students who had disrespectfully squandered their four years) to tell me how I should celebrate my accomplishments.

Upon reading the many comments posted regarding both this and Mr. Bierut's 2006 entry, I found myself revisiting that high school realization. Someone here commented that, "I would rather they (the 2006 finalists and recipients of the National Design Award in Communication Design) go to the awards ceremony and pull a Sinead O'Connor..." You would rather?

Hmm...what's the word I'm looking for here? Let's put Fashion Critic's thesaurus regurgitation to productive use...ah yes, arrogance!

The day one of us is honored, we can — and should — each make our own decisions about how to accept or decline invitations/awards based on personal values. That's part of the reward for doing good, hard work. In the mean time, it is shameful and petty of us to criticize fellow designers for celebrating their victories in ways that are comfortable for and rewarding to them. Furthermore, it is selfish and lazy of us to expect them to make the social/political statements we wish we could make. Design icons are not union leaders, political representatives or clergy; beyond typographic and design principles, it is not their duty to uphold our beliefs.

I am guessing that the majority of posters here, myself included, have yet to be invited to the White House...but not having such a prominent/obvious platform for expressing our opinions does not excuse those of us who want to make a difference from finding other ways to do so. With a little extracurricular effort, we can all find a way to make our voices heard in a manner that best suits us — instead of criticizing others who have already done the hard work and found a forum for their convictions.

Who's willing to do some extra homework?
Leila Singleton

Jobs | July 23