Rick Poynor | Essays

A Swedish Perspective on Critical Practice

Poster for Forms of Inquiry/Iaspis Forum designed by Jonas Williamsson, 2009

This essay review of
Iaspis Forum on Design and Critical Practice: The Reader (Sternberg Press, 2009), one of my Design Observer Recommended Books, was published in 2010, in Tecknaren, a Swedish magazine. This is its first appearance in English.

There is an old saying that every new generation thinks it has invented sex. That is also how it sometimes seems with graphic designers and critical practice. The old-timers just didn’t get it — bless them! — but now, thanks to a mysterious sudden enlightenment, the new guard sees the situation of being a graphic designer more clearly, and more critically, than anyone ever managed to see it in the past.

There is an element of this wishful thinking in The Reader, a thick volume published in Swedish and English, which forms part of The Iaspis Forum on Design and Critical Practice initiated in Stockholm. The forum’s other components were an international seminar and a traveling exhibition, “Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design,” first shown in 2007 at the Architectural Association in London, which inspired the whole project. I read this timely book with great interest when it appeared and I recommend it to anyone preoccupied by the question of where graphic design is now. The Reader contains plenty of astute observation, sharp comment and useful wisdom. It also displays signs of confusion, compounded by moments of naive self-regard, which could have been avoided if some participants had taken a more accurately historical view of even the recent past, never mind the past 100 years of graphic design.

The Reader designed by Martin Frostner and Jonas Williamsson, 2009

The Reader is based on four conversations between designers, supplemented by other interviews and texts. Designers always like to add something to the brief, sometimes to the point of ignoring it entirely, and this is the case here. The proposed dialogue between Abäke and the eminent Swedish designer H.C. Ericson never happens. Instead, the designers present a meandering, ultimately pointless transcript of a car journey chat and a studio visit. This is probably meant to be charming, but it wasn’t worth publishing. An email exchange between Will Holder and Samuel Nyholm is also vague and indulgent. Experimental Jetset declined to engage in a dialogue with Nille Svensson, proposing that they separately answered the same questions from the editors, allowing readers to compare their answers. Here, “rewriting the brief” pays off: these are two of the book’s most absorbing and insightful texts. The dialogue between James Goggin of Practise and the four-person team Europa, which was conducted as requested, is also rewarding.

All of these individuals are designers. This is deliberate but it also The Reader’s weakness. Magnus Ericsson, one of the editors, says the book is an “attempt to let these voices be heard instead of others on the outside doing the interpreting.” This assertion might refer to some aspect of the situation in Sweden of which I am unaware. Another editor notes that there were “virtually no graphic design agencies” in Sweden 15 years ago, which suggests the design scene is still in formation. The reality elsewhere is that graphic designers are almost the only people talking about graphic design. In countless lectures, conferences, blogs, magazine articles and books, what discussion there is represents the designer’s perspective and agenda. A critical forum would have been the perfect place to open up the discussion to other voices and other points of view.

Without this external perspective, The Reader falls into some highly familiar refrains. On the one hand, graphic designers declare themselves to be ideally positioned and apparently uniquely gifted to be able to become involved in every kind of endeavor. According to Goggin, the designer’s “invisibility makes it easier for graphic design to infiltrate and use the systems of other disciplines (art, architecture, literature) by stealth.” Mark Owens, who worked with curator Zak Kyes on “Forms of Inquiry,” discerns an even more sweeping sense of entitlement among some practitioners: “being a graphic designer is more like having a passport that allows you to trespass in multiple domains, whether it be filmmaking, art, writing, publishing, curating, fashion, or even architecture.”

No one pauses to question why any of these fields, already occupied by highly competent practitioners, might need “trespassing” designers to help them do the job, or what it is about graphic design education that would qualify a designer to intervene in such a range of disciplines. (If we are merely talking about carrying out graphic design tasks for these clients, then this is just business as usual.) Leaving aside the designer’s understandable desire to try new things  everyone would like to do that  what does the audience have to gain from an “expanded” interpretation of graphic design’s role? Also, does this new mobility work both ways? Could curators, architects, writers and fashion people start doing graphic design? Would they even want to?

This self-aggrandizing vision of what graphic design could be is accompanied by plaintive expressions of doubt that have also been heard many times before. “Maybe graphic design suffers from a kind of inferiority complex and a desire to be more intellectually challenging,” says Svensson. Perhaps its status is too low, he suggests, for it to be the starting point for more demanding kinds of expression. “Maybe the problem is graphic designers in general are incompetent,” says Holder. “We have the theory we deserve, or at least the one we can generally understand.” He wonders whether it wouldn’t be best to leave others, outside graphic design, to talk about the discipline. This would be just as counterproductive as a situation where only designers talk about design.

The issue of authorship lies at the heart of the dilemma glimpsed in these mutually canceling sentiments. Authorship became a matter for discussion in the 1990s, among an earlier generation of critically-minded designers, because there can be no significant expansion of the discipline, no greater visibility or enhanced status for graphic designers, without it. It is highly visible authorship in the adjacent fields that designers envy and aspire to enter (art, writing, film, fashion, architecture) that gives these fields their social, professional and cultural capital. Goggin, however, sees the “designer as author” debates as “digressive” and suggests that we should forget about the concept. Owens regards graphic authorship as an example of graphic design’s use of second-hand terminology — more graphic design self-doubt — that ended up morphing “into a shorthand for a kind of market-savvy, entrepreneurial form of self-promotion.” (This debatable claim is a good example of why critical discussion of graphic design needs to be more sensitive to context. What Owens says might be true of the United States, though he provides no examples, but it wasn’t the case in Britain, where design authorship was much slower to be discussed and never widely accepted as a concept.)

Other participants in The Reader take a more pragmatic and strategic view of authorship, though this way of thinking has also been visible in the practice for decades. Stuart Bailey, who co-founded Dot Dot Dot magazine in 2000, reports that the “relative scarcity of ‘good work’” from clients provided him and his collaborators with the impetus to create outlets for themselves in their own projects. “I’m convinced that my success as a designer is mainly due to the fact that one can sense the author in my design, a personal ‘voice,’” says Svensson. This, too, makes sense. Why should I, as a viewer, be attracted to and convinced by visual messages in which the author is invisible? Who, in the absence of any apparent author, is speaking through the work? One could argue that a key problem that bedevils contemporary visual communication today is the impersonal tone, off-the-shelf visual language, prosaic corporate voice and nakedly manipulative instrumentality of so many communications. Fully authored graphic design is often much richer, as the history of graphic design has repeatedly shown. If graphic designers give up on these possibilities, beaten into submission by the reductive notion of “everyone as author” (Goggin’s phrase), the practice will wither and the irrepressible urge to create open, complex visual messages that say something deeply felt and meaningful about our experiences will emerge elsewhere.

The Reader does offer a handful of examples of what a more sophisticated way of talking about graphic design can sound like. Is it only a coincidence that two of these contributions come from Dutch designers? Where many graphic designers, even those who aspire to be critical, lack the theoretical tools needed to fully understand their position, both Experimental Jetset and Metahaven seek to incorporate insights gained from regular wide reading into their philosophies and working methods. In an interview with the editors, Experimental Jetset cite Marx, Derrida, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (an early influence), Herbert Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension, and an essay about socialism and print by Régis Debray published in the journal New Left Review. This isn’t just name-dropping. They discuss these sources in clear, unpretentious language and show why they are important for the team’s conception of design. They argue that making is a form of thinking, that ideology is a product of design, and that every designer is an ideologist whether he or she realizes it or not.

With a bravura flourish that is almost enough to make one believe graphic design really does have the potential to be the bedrock of civilized, social democratic visual expression, Experimental Jetset apply Marcuse’s idea that “aesthetics is a form of radical political praxis in itself” to their task as designers, declaring that “the true political potential of a designed object is foremost located in its aesthetic dimension.” By “aesthetics” they mean not only the composition of formal elements in the work, but also the composition of ideas and allusions. They believe, as I do, that the solution to the condition of social alienation described by Marx lies, at least in part, in the “de-alienating power” of aesthetics, and they profess an unswerving modernist faith in the transformative, utopian potential of free aesthetic form.

If this sounds strange in the context of contemporary graphic design, and perhaps even suspect, it is because we so rarely hear design discussed in anything other than commercial and professional terms. Most graphic design is totally depoliticized, relentlessly middlebrow, and proud of it. It isn’t going to change in essence, though it may well get worse, since, as Metahaven rightly observe, “Our discipline has already become fully instrumentalized.” The designers featured in The Reader stand, with varying degrees of acuity, for an alternative. Experimental Jetset assert their commitment to “strong, almost hermetic ideas” realized through form. Why shouldn’t at least some graphic design offer communication as personal, challenging and involving to the viewer as literature, film or art? Worrying about whether or not design is trying to be art is a red herring. Most of the designers here want their work to be accepted on equal terms, but no one claims that art and design are the same.

Strangely, it is the project’s initiators, Kyes and Owens, who seem most anxious to argue with opponents who aren’t cited and might not even exist. They insist on a distinction between “Critical Design” (capitalized), as a “categorical or polemical designation”, and “critical practices” (lowercase), as explored in their exhibition. They seem curiously affronted by any attempt to link the two terms, despite the fact that (a) critical design (its originators don’t capitalize it) began as a method of critical practice and the terms are increasingly likely to be used interchangeably; (b) they use the term “critical graphic design” in their exhibition subtitle; and (c) the key word in both coinages is, in any case, “critical.” Kyes and Owen’s defense of the imagined purity of their curatorial concept, which is merely a launch-pad in the book for broader discussion, hinders them from recognizing committed fellow travellers in the search for critical modes of designing, whatever form this might happen to take.

After all, as design researcher Ramia Mazé writes in her concluding essay, the crucial question we must ask is “critical of what?” and the crucial part of the question — as Experimental Jetset and Metahaven show every sign of thinking — concerns design’s political relation with society. It’s a shame this clarion call was placed at the end of the book: it ought to have been the editors’ starting point. Clearly, though, there is great scope, in Sweden and elsewhere, for further exploration of the aims and methods of critical practice, ideally involving a broader mix of voices next time. If it is to succeed, critical practice must bring with it clients, collaborators, critical viewers and other believers in the vital social and cultural need for a “graphosphere” (Debray’s term). So let’s involve them in the conversation.

At the heart of any future debate, we would also do well to focus on one of the most telling ideas in The Reader, an issue that even critical graphic designers are inclined to neglect because they take what they do for granted. Once you step out of the circle, though, and look at the discipline with detachment, this is the essential challenge. “If graphic design wants to move from being an applied art to becoming an autonomous form of expression,” suggests Svensson, “it has to do so by demonstrating its unique worth that there are methods with which graphic design can communicate in a way that other disciplines cannot.” What exactly, then, is graphic design’s unique worth? 

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [4]

“Could curators, architects, writers and fashion people start doing graphic design? Would they even want to?”
If my memory serves me well, they indeed have for the most part of the 20th century : histories of graphic design are full of contributions by architects (Henry van de Velde, Peter Behrens, Hector Guimard), painters (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Bart van der Leck), poets (Marinetti, Tristan Tzara), etc. Which is fine by me.
Stéphane Darricau

You are right, of course. Many architects, in particular, have always felt they could handle any graphic design they needed, and produce something more to their own taste.

But I wasn't talking about historical figures working in freer times so much as the recent/contemporary period when professionalization (being an expert in one thing) was for a while the norm. Ready access to easy-to-use technology means that the old barriers to entry are now in the process of dissolving, and graphic designers know only too well that non-designers can do aspects of the design job if they wish. Personally, I'm all for this loosening up.
Rick Poynor

Thanks for the review. The idea of a critical practice that explores issues through the activity of designing sounds interesting, however I would think that the idea of a 'critical design product' has little to no agency. The question of aesthetics is also interesting but risks total irrelevance if it is just about expression or communication. The role of aesthetics in concrete practices and the material effects of symbolic ecologies is what demands critical analysis. The Professional Designer centred discussions of status, value etc are self-serving, imperialist, and particularly damaging for a profession that shows no capacity for critical reflexivity.
Matthew Kiem

Thanks for a very interesting article. As someone active in the Swedish graphic design world, I find it quite interesting that noone of the above mentioned people have replied to your thoughts. I would love to hear their thoughts on your words — and actually get that critical dicussion started.
Harald Peter Ström

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