Jessica Helfand | Essays

Annals of Academia: The New Exoticism

It's May — the month of hay fever, television sweeps and final reviews. Of the first two, I can say only this: as a veteran allergy sufferer, I watched the swan-song episode of The West Wing in an antihistamine-induced haze, and it didn't help. From what I have read, most of the other season finales were a snooze even without the added drug boost. (On the upside, I did have a couple of rather memorable dreams, including one in which I was kidnapped by George Clooney.) It is possible, even likely that the Senate Intelligence Confirmation Hearings for General Michael Hayden, President Bush's choice for CIA director, pulled more listeners last week than watching any of a number of highly-touted last episodes. Not that this is any indication of edge-of-your-seat suspense, mind you. In perhaps the best sound-byte of the week, New York Times columnist David Brooks said that Michael Hayden's confirmation hearings were the dullest event in the history of the universe since the creation of sedimentary rock.

Yet just as pollen count and television consumption are measured this month, so, too is the work of thousands of dedicated design students all over the country — indeed, all over the world. Like television, schools enjoy a summer recess between the months of May and September, and design programs engage in their own seasonal cliff-hangers.

We call them final reviews.

In an essay I wrote a few weeks ago about the state of current design, I criticized what I perceived to be a kind of content-free tendency to make work that revels in a kind of illustrative never-never land. This stylistic urge is something of an epidemic, and, I feared, indicative of a weirdly escapist mentality: why tackle real ideas and solve real problems when you can just make things look cool? This ultra-dense, layered-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life stylistic bias is fundamentally anti-modern in form (more, not less) and frequently at odds with content (dense, not readable) and from all indications, it's everywhere.

So when, this spring, I participated in final reviews at nearly half-a-dozen schools across the United States, I confess that I fully expected to see this sort of thing everywhere.

But I didn't.

What I saw made me rethink my position, because I think, infact, that many of these students are onto something. What I saw in many cases was thoughtful and engaged, bold and striking and self-aware — not self-conscious. I think this work may indicate the beginning of a visual language that's not so much escapist as experimental: and okay, the kinks may not have been worked out yet, and there's still a little too much content-free nonsense for my taste, but taken as a whole, there may be every indication of the emergence of a new way of expressing ideas. Sometimes provocative, often beautiful, occasionally cryptic and impenetrable, it is, nevertheless, new. This work is not so much a reflection of as a reaction against the current state of modern culture, in particular to the banality of the media: to its didacticism, its obviousness, its almost perverse celebration of non-fiction. If the public's appetite for media moves increasingly toward libertarian fare, toward a world in which surveillance is a given and community-mediated reciprocity is the norm, then what happens to imagination?

I'm all for principles and geometry, clarity and communication. But I'll go to my grave fighting for the role of imagination in what we do — and this is what I think is beginning, ever so slowly, to be reclaimed by smart, provocative, thinking designers everywhere. This work — the best of it, that is — represents a new kind of exoticism, strange and unusual, compelling and odd. If post-colonial exoticism grew from Nineteenth-Century cultural expansion, then what's our excuse? The short answer could be that it's a response to the hygienic purity of modernism, a technological backlash: the rediscovery and celebration of the hand-wrought, the personal, the beautiful. (Maybe it is escapist, after all.) I suspect the longer answer is a good deal longer. Good thing, too: with schools closed and the networks on hiatus, we've got all summer to think about it.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Education , Graphic Design, Media

Comments [8]

As a recently graduated student myself I've realized that the layered, trashy, maximalism tended to be a lot easier to hide your mistakes in, while the clean minimalism had a certain nakedness to it that forced you to take it to the next level in terms of ideas and true creativity.

You're right in that, used as a conscious vessel for an idea, breathtakingly complex patterns can be very effective. However, the main part of the ones I've seen are nothing but pointless ornaments.
Peter Sjöberg

You're right regarding the technological backlash. It's important to note that this movement is more widespread than just design.

Throughout the past several years, we've taken on more and more personal gadgetry that, while shooting for ubiquity, has certainly fallen short. Now, mp3 players, digital cameras and PDAs have consolidated into the most difficult to operate phones that I've ever had the displeasure of using.

I've got a bad case of technolust, but even I've come around to this way of thinking. My Sony Clie sits on the desk gathering dust in favor of 2 Moleskine notebooks.

I believe what we're seeing is, in part, a desire for young designers, like myself, to learn about the hands on aspects of the undustry that we've missed out on. I started in web design and was given the opportunity to learn print on the job. All of my education has been based in Adobe or Macromedia. The little I do know about letterpress, lectraset, and bluelines has usually been a brief mention followed by 'oh, you're probably too young to remember that.'

A friend of mine has told me of a trip he took to India. He believes that part of the reason the food he had there was so good, was because it was a hands on experience... that there was a connection with your meal that utensils lessen. As a designer, I want that connection with my work. To bypass the divide between mouse and screen and impact my work directly. To embrace mistakes, rather than having my left hand fixed to cmd+z.
Justin Paluch

Igaminoaitn? Wtha's taht?

Seriously, since when did we stop appreciating the beautiful and the hand wrought? Even artists and designers who have sworn off drawing in their own work recognise the beauty and value of the presence of the hand in art. Who can stand in front of Bernini's Ecstacy of Saint Theresa and not go slack-jawed?

Sublime has become a dirty word in academia, having been replaced by so many fields ending in "studies". This studies, that studies, whatever studies. But the sublime is still running around out there. It is still human, despite so many attempts to dethrone it. It is still in the hand. There is cross-over from the digital age. I think Bill Viola draws on it. Surely there are more not coming to me right now.

Anyways, I don't think we've rediscovered anything. Critics just like to talk, so they say painting or illustration or fill-in-the-blank is dead every now and then to cause a stir and congratulate themselves on their own brilliance. After a time, everyone wakes up from the hangover and discovers that, wait!, this or that ISN"T dead after all, and hooray, what a treasure we have in X, Y or Z.

So, keep your eyes peeled, and your ear to the ground, for as long as you've got eyes and ears the real stuff, the grey matter hiding behind them, will always trump your Mac. It is, after all, just a really expensive pencil.

I very rarely feel the need to contribute to these discussions, but I read "The decriminalisation of ornament" in eye and JH's post "The Propensity for Density" roughly on the same topic, and usually where it ends up is a snarky (and quite frankly redundant) debate about oranment vs. content. I think the potential in these maximal, multilayered, and beautiful peices is that all those forms could have meaning. The next step in developing this style into something that could potentially last as opposed to where it stands now, (which is ephemeral at best) is to reconcile the ornament with communication. We're all in the same gang.

A wise man once told me, "History is the set of lies commonly agreed upon."
Erik Braun

While at Reading (Dept of Typography) the best advice I got was from Stuart Bailey who told me to avoid trying to fit as many ideas into a design as I could, but to stick to one and do it well.

This may seem like a statement of the obvious to some, but I truly believe that realising that you don't always shout in order to convince is the first real step to becoming a good designer.


Byron's got it - those forms could have meaning. I think of the Gothic cathedrals and Arabic designs of the middle ages, both of which are endlessly complex, but every detail is meant to reveal some aspect of divinity, and as a whole, is meant to reflect the complexity of the created world, and the incomprehensible mysteries of God. That was medieval, of course, but even today the complexity can contain - and be - the content, if it's done carefully and deliberately. Much of today's maximilism is closer to Rococo fluff than Gothic density, but it doesn't have to be.

Some traditionalists believe that "content" and "meaning" is synonymous with modernism. Historically this is not true, there was indeed content before the Bauhaus. Perhaps content exists outside of modernisms clean facade. We just forget that. Pity.

This may be a backlash for designers that are not intereseted in communicating content. For those that do this is another way of getting the job done and there is no need to fear or repudiate it (if your content is beautiful, ornament may be the best way to communicate) It is nice.

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