Adrian Shaughnessy | Reviews

Down in the Trenches with Kenneth FitzGerald

The cover of the book Volume: Writing on Graphic Design, Music, Art and Culture by Kenneth FitzGerald

It’s an odd experience to review a book in which you find yourself to be the recipient of a hearty kicking by the author. It’s even odder to find that you are full of admiration for the writer’s calm-eyed analysis of the design world. But I don’t deserve the kicking: more of this later.

Kenneth FitzGerald’s Volume: Writing on Graphic Design, Music, Art and Culture is an important addition to the library of graphic design writing. Many followers of the discourse surrounding design over the past two decades will be familiar with FitzGerald’s texts, principally for Émigré, but also Eye, Voice: AIGA Journal of Design and occasionally for this site. He is currently Associate Professor of Art at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

FitzGerald is a fine writer with a gift for potent phrases (“As no military plan survives contact with the enemy, no design concept survives contact with the client.”) His prose is agile, unmannered, and always at the service of strong ideas born out of wide reading and deep engagement with contemporary culture, of both high and low varieties (look out for references to Thomas Pynchon and Garth Brooks). In other words, he’s highly readable. This is important. Design critics bemoan the lack of interest in design writing (it's a near constant theme in FitzGerald’s book), but shouldn't writers bear some responsibility for this? When designers say they don't read, the onus is — at least partly — on writers to make their writing more engaging. It can’t all be down to language averse designers — can it?

Volume brings together a batch of FitzGerald’s essays and corrals them into four sections. In fact, the book reads as one longish mediation around a few recurring themes: a stubborn refusal to accept received wisdom (Lester Bangs is a hero); regret over the disinclination of professional designers to engage in critical self-investigation; the difference between art and design; design education; and the idea that the design world is as much stratified by class as any other world.

Volume opens with an essay in which FitzGerald questions his fitness to teach: “I warranted suspicion as a recent MFA graduate with ‘little or no professional practice or teaching experience’ … I was teaching some undergraduates with more professional experience than I had.” But his self-doubt is unfounded. In a later chapter he describes some of his classroom exercises. These make him sound like an inspirational instructor, and my guess is that the classroom is his natural habitat.

FitzGerald is at his incisive best when he brings his forensic gaze to bear on the class system that is built into design. In his view, the naked bones of design’s class structure can be seen in the work of elite designers employed by “celebrity-oriented, moneyed cultures (fashion, architecture, entertainment, and the arts).” His willingness to expose design’s stratification extends into his teaching strategies: “I urge students to adopt awkward methods, and embrace the unfamiliar. Often, these are no more exotic than working at a dramatically different speed. This is different from the standard academic tactic of introducing them to ‘new ideas’.” He goes on to note dismissively that “new ideas” usually means exposure to the works of established designers: “Emulating an admired artist is the standard method of directing students toward a sophisticated model of creativity … [students] are called upon to simultaneously regard and ignore the work, as we don't want them copying it.”

It’s not only his students FitzGerald wants to refrain from gazing admiringly at the great and the good of the design world. His own combative approach to criticism means that he doesn't shy away from roughing up representatives of design’s elite: Alan Fletcher (“The Art of Looking Sideways … a formless data-dump of quotations, aphorisms, diagrams, reproductions, commentaries, and folderol”); John Maeda (“sterile, programmed ornamentation”); Paul Rand (… students will become even more marginalized and disenchanted with their work and status if they attempt to define themselves by Rand’s fallacies); and Stefan Sagmeister (“Made you Look … a fatiguing compendium of almost every optical, production, and advertising-creative artifice devised since Gutenberg”).

In the final group of essays (“Inference and Resonance”), FitzGerald moves away from what we might call the politics of design to the philosophy of design. Here he mediates on the big questions that stalk the design jungle, such as graphic design’s relationship with art. He is not in the least starry eyed about art, and he’s quick to point out art world — and design world — hypocrisy and double-dealing: “It is a delusion that the activity of fine artists is divorced from commercial considerations. It isn’t even a matter of degree. All that separates art and design is the kind of marketplace one chooses to operate in.”

This willingness to attack sacred cows makes FitzGerald an entertaining commentator. But it also raises the question — what does he really believe in? Occasionally I have the suspicion that he is a sharp-brained polemicist who can muster an argument in favor — or against — any known view. This is relevant to the kicking I receive from him.

FitzGerald takes me to task for a short review I wrote of Emigre No.64: Rant for Eye (“Back on the old battleground”, Eye 48, Summer 2003). In retrospect, I admit to a bit of over-heated rhetoric, and feel chastened by the swish of FitzGerald’s corrective rod. But I stand by the gist of what I wrote. I criticized the writers in Rant for their preoccupation with a “wished for” design world where designers were free to make the sort of work that restored graphic design to its avant garde roots, yet simultaneously failed to recognise the mundanities of working life in the “trenches” FitzGerald’s word, not mine.

The reason I stand by what I wrote is helpfully provided by FitzGerald himself: in his essay “Trenchancy”, he writes: “Consideration of the spectrum of design activity from Massimo to MacTemp usually focuses on the upscale.” My point exactly: if critics focus only on the Massimo component of design, critical writing will remain irrelevant to most designers.

And besides, not all designers need to engage with critical thinking, design theory and the higher discourse. Those of us who are perpetually examining ourselves and our craft — and doing the same to others — are often riven with doubt, fear and loathing. Sometimes it’s enough just to be good at your job. Sometimes it’s OK not to want to open the box and look inside. But after reading Kenneth FitzGerald, you’d probably want to have at least a peek.

Posted in: Media

Comments [12]

an excess of verbiage makes both the writer and the one written about both deserve a quick kick.

I too have had a kicking by Fitzgerald - well, maybe not a kicking, more a slight nudge and over vigorous tickle. Many of the points he made I agreed with, although the tone was hard to take (although I actually offered him work shortly after the review was published in Eye - there is clearly something Freudian there...). And this is always a difficult proposition faced by any reviewer: the fact that there is a real live human being on the receiving end of your barbed comments. As someone who has been on both ends of the critical spectrum, as both giver and receiver, I know how this feels. Stephen Fry once said being a critic was the most awful thing, because you could make people cry. Maybe, as Fry has said, you should only review things you actually like and want to promote...
Kerry William Purcell

I'm beginning to think there may be a certain cachet attached to receiving a kicking from KG.
Adrian Shaughnessy

Great article Adrian.

I think it's okay to throw in a little 'Ricky Gervais' into the design writing world every now and then to spice things up, as long as it doesn't get too nasty. FitzGerald's opinions on 'The art of looking side ways', 'made you look', abd 'Paul Rand' seems a little negative. They are all fantastic books. Of course a lot of design writing has it's flaws but we all have the power to choose what we take from them and how we're influenced by them.

(on a side note - my own review)
I just finished reading 'how to be a graphic designer without losing your soul' a couple of days ago and it was brilliant. It really helped me rethink they way I've been dealing with one of our clients. I wish I had read it back in first year Uni.
Matthew Brown

Even when I disagree with Kenneth (fairly often) or think he's being unfair (occasionally), I enjoy reading his writing. There's something to be said for craft in both design and writing.

Speaking of disagreement, I don't buy Matthew Brown's claim that Kenneth is unfair to Paul Rand. If anything, he let Rand off too easy. I do agree with Brown about "How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul," however.
Gunnar Swanson

Ken is the only guy on here who was kind enough to send me links (from his personal subscription account) to design articles.

His new DO nickname is "Fitzy Freeloader."



p.s. rum65
Joe Moran

I hope Kerry William Purcell isn’t being serious when he suggests that we should only review things we like and want to promote. There’s nothing wrong with writing from a position of support, but it would effectively spell the end of real discussion and argument in design if everything followed that path. Stephen Fry is not a good guide here. He’s notoriously sensitive about criticism in the press.

The term “hearty kicking” seems unhelpful to me. It makes it sound like Kenneth FitzGerald made an aggressive personal attack on Adrian Shaughnessy — leapt on him down a dark alley or something. Anyone who consults Adrian’s review of Rant and then reads the section of FitzGerald’s book that discusses it (pp. 70 and 72-73) will see that this is not the case. FitzGerald strongly disagrees with the implications of views that Adrian has published and gives his reasons in forthright terms, with pertinent quotation to substantiate his analysis. Anyone who writes hopes to persuade readers with their arguments, but a writer must also expect to provoke disagreement and counter-arguments. And a thick skin has always been an indispensable requirement of the job.

As FitzGerald writes, at the end of the essay that cites Adrian, “In any critical literature, dissent can be found. Rather than instilling conformity, an honest, detailed criticism promotes diversity of opinion.” Isn’t that what we want in design?
Rick Poynor

I agree with Rick. Writers and critics must be free to say what they please. No arguments from me on that one.

But I stand by my use of the term “hearty kicking”. Rick writes: “The term ‘hearty kicking’ seems unhelpful to me. It makes it sound like Kenneth FitzGerald made an aggressive personal attack on Adrian Shaughnessy — leapt on him down a dark alley or something.”

Really? If I’d wanted to suggest that KG had made an "aggressive personal attack" I'd have used the words "aggressive personal attack". "Hearty" implies that it was neither aggressive nor personal; rather that it came out of KG’s strongly held views.
Adrian Shaughnessy

“Kicking” is the key word here, it seems to me, not “hearty”. The construction of the review is circular. It starts with the image of the undeserved kicking and returns to the image at the end.

In the comments, this insistent image of kicking is then used in the first three responses.

So critical argument, a potentially productive difference of views, is rapidly reduced in this discussion to the image of kicking.

There is no such thing as a friendly or painless kicking. Kicking signifies attack. Why use the word at all, if it’s not meant to convey how Adrian actually felt about what FitzGerald had written?

Rick Poynor

It would have been a much better review if Adrian Shaughnessy had resisted the impulse to personalize it by engaging in self defense. He begins and ends with self defense. There is some good stuff in between, but I wish it hadn't been wrapped in a package of self defense.
Rob Henning

Kenneth FitzGerald is the love child of the Delphic Oracle and Edward Scissorhands....
Pesky illustrator

As a design educator I am so tired of students presenting clippings in a sketchbook (and worse - blogs) of admired designers and illustrators as 'research'. It gets them nowhere and surely must weigh heavy - for how can they achieve anything approaching unique (in terms of their own self-perception) when there is such accessible overwhelming on-line evidence that everything has been done? The sense of achievement the student derives, especially with blogs, is an illusion.

Visually 'oppressed' (because that's what some of them are) illustration students are often confused when I tell them to stop looking at other work. They probably think I'm out of the loop but the truth is I'd just like them to get out of 'the loop'.
Angela Hogg

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