Jessica Helfand | Essays

Graphic Design: The Movie

Above Left: Paul Rand, No Way Out, 1950;
Right, production still from The Manchurian Candidate, 2004.

Some time ago, I pondered about the future of graphic design as a reality show, but recently I've become convinced that its real future lies in its actual integrated presence onscreen: design as part prop, part protagonist. Sure, designers have long been called upon to contribute to a film by creating posters or crafting evocative title sequences: Michael's recent post on the magical work of Pablo Ferro reminds us that titles (even — and especially — the low-tech kind) continue to be a ripe area for design exploration.

But what happens when design becomes a kind of dramatic catalyst itself — a plot point, even a character?

In An Actor Prepares, Constantin Stanislavski described a technique for summoning the creative power of the subconscious, a method for harnassing the memory. (His theory of the unbroken line — a passionate defense of coherence, is one of several theatrical notions that apply rather compellingly to design.) If there's any truth to the notion that design is destined for better and more pivotal roles, then how, incidentally, does the designer prepare?

In Steven Spielberg's recent movie, The Terminal, Stanley Tucci plays the kind of irritating bureaucrat viewers love to hate: his xerox machine face-off with Tom Hanks' Viktor Navorsky spawns a barrage of handprints that subsequently become a sort of crude logo for the power of the underdog. Like a high-five caught in mid-air, Navorsky's multi-copied palm is plastered all over the airport. (You could almost characterize it as outsider art if it weren't a movie about, um, never going outside.)

Indeed, there are many such examples — from the Marauder's map in the new Harry Potter movie, where the type moves to indicate the presence of others; to Bill Nunn's "Robbie" Robertson, the meek copy-editor in Spiderman II who manually produces a cover page layout by pushing the type around on his boss's desk; to trailers for the new remake of The Manchurian Candidate that feature a fleeting homage to Paul Rand in the form of a political poster.

More Than Just A Pretty Font
Sometimes the most powerful design in film is also the most silent: consider this anonymous poster for Sergei Eisenstein's third major feature film, October 1917: Ten Days that Shook the World — a reconstruction of the events leading up to the Bolshevik's overthrow of the czarists. The poster is by an anonymous artist, (true to communist philosophy, there was no "lead" or main character; hence, the carefully composed balancing act that is, in this poster, essentially hierarchy-free) — yet here, too, it almost seems as if the letterforms are more important than the characters. A precursor to design's evolution, onscreen, into something more than just background material?

Clearly, neither Stanislavsky nor Eisenstein required sophisticated technology to advance their work. (Arguably, neither did Sofia Coppola: she just took her cinematographer to Tokyo, where the cultural confusion reached an entire new level of visual intrigue through the sheer phenomenon of graphic signage.) Still: what would these Russian masters make, I wonder, of the kinetic type, the living book jackets, the moving figures in paintings in Harry Potter's orbit? Would they be moved, or might they invoke, alternatively, Diderot's famous Paradox of Acting — an early 20th century theory proposing that in order to move the audience, the actor must himself remain unmoved? It is hard to imagine an actor — any actor — dispassionately inhabiting his character onscreen, and engaging the audience in so doing. What, then, does this say of a director? And to the degree that design's fifteen minutes of fame may be approaching more rapidly than we think — of the designer?

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [19]

I believe that the "Paradox of Acting," you are referring to is by the 18th century French critic Denis Diderot. Not coinsidently, Roland Barthes wrote a breakthrough essay entitled "Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein." In any case, I'm not quite sure I understand the relationship between the Randesque billboard from MC 2004, the poster for October 1971 and Diderot's theory of absorption (as opposed to mere theatricality) in acting. Perhaps you could expand?
Michael J. Golec

I think that looking at theatre is an interesting model for design, yet one I rarely hear/read about. These are but a few random (but in my mind, connected) examples of people whose work resonates with me with regard to visual thinking.

Diderot's principles laid the foundation for what in this century became widely known as "method" acting: what is interesting was the clarity he sought in communicating an idea to an audience — again, applicable to design, in my opinion.

I find it thrilling, actually, that so many moments in films I've seen recently seem connected to a design idea. Or is it just the seamlessness of the post-production makes it seem this way? (In any event, the production designer for the Manchurian Candidate remake had a bit of fun jettisoning arrows in a silent poke at Rand.) As for the October 1917 poster (not 1971, as you wrote, unless I am missing something) this sort of graphic/cinematic image is simply masterful in its typographic theatricality. And it is easy for design to do this — to enchant us by virtue of its scale, its beauty — and for us to appreciate it for merely this: indeed, this kind of silent visual drama has been a familiar design conceit for ages. But I think there's something more inventive lurking on the horizon, and to me, it has to do with a new kind of role for design.

Funny: I always cringe when I hear people invoke the notion of "design experiences" but maybe that is exactly what I mean.
Jessica Helfand

The subject comes back again and again, with lots of variations on it's main idea: "Why aren't we, graphic designers, getting the public recognition we deserve, and what can we do to get it'?

Michael Bierut's post about Ed Rusha's work - first with it's approach and later with the discussion it generated - helped me to have a clearer opinion on where the problem may be.

I'll start my point this way: even if Ed Rusha had a hired designer to choose the typography of his paintings, this fact wouldn't make him a single bit less the good artist he is. Obviously, the same way, the hired designer by no means could consider himself an artist, even if the canvases showed nothing more than the letterings he designed. Why? Simply because what is at stake in an artist's work, is not his technical skills, but all the conceptual thinking he made. For more than one century, the respect and recognition the artists gained, came from their ideas, and not just from the ability to create beautiful and well crafted objects. That is considered decorative artwork.

The creation of beautiful and well crafted objects, has been mostly the job of designers. Decorative, with brilliant or poor, but almost always shallow ideas, that aren't nothing more than sophisticated graphic illustrations of other's contents.

It's hard to get some important recognition with beautiful but brainless ideas (unless you are Baron).

But is graphic design the right field to have interesting and more profound thinking? Maybe not, but is it possible to push the boundaries a little further? Great thinkers like Tibor Kalman, David Carson or Bruce Mau showed us all that it can be done. The fact that it's hard to mention many more than these ones shows clearly the big problem in design today: the dramatic imbalance between good thinkers and brilliant brainless virtuosos.
Francisco Capote

Jessica, I saw a little more Lester Beall (see here or here) rather than Paul Rand in the Manchurian Candidate billboard.

I happened to see Citizen Kane on the big screen at a local revival house a few weeks ago. Now that's a campaign poster.
Michael Bierut

I think the interface created for Minority Report (by I believe Imaginary Forces) is another example of what Jessica is talking about. Another one is the visualization of the spectacles sign in the movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

I've also heard of design companies in Hollywood whose main clientele consists of companies that don't exist, except for onscreen. It's a bit odd to think of creating identities for fictional companies, which have no application outside of the imaginary world existing within the two hours of the film in question.

But the real future of design as being a movie prop? I'm not sure I buy it. A career of creating posters for movies that don't exist or campaigns for fake companies that are only real for two hours sounds like a weird sort of pursuit. But then again, it could be interesting to see movie-specific renditions of bookcovers or record covers, sort of like special editions that don't exist but you still wish you had. Would make some nice extras, these non-existant editions, for the DVD.

In addition, relating to Jessica's previous thread on graphic designers in movies, I'd like to take this opportunity to plug the German film "Advertising Rules", aka "Viktor Vogel: Commercial Man". I rented it on a whim the other night. It's a mediocre German comedy, but interesting because it is a portrait of how a young misfit designer turns a tired agency on its head and injects some life into the agency's creative process. It also represents quite well the client/designer relationship, the desire for designers to push ideas in advertising, and how sometimes clients agree to pretty crazy ideas. It also shows in a really funny way how graphic designers lift artistic, self-expressive ideas and turn them into campaigns that push product. Check it out!!
Manuel Miranda

A career of creating posters for movies that don't exist or campaigns for fake companies that are only real for two hours sounds like a weird sort of pursuit.

I would argue that this would be quite a valuable (and probably entertaning) pursuit. You have a captive movie audience, and while in their day to day lives they may filter out a lot of design we consider 'good', in this two hours they essentially have no choice. The designer is not only approached with the usual task of creating an identity for a non-existant corporation or a fictional record cover, but they are given the additional task of making it believable.

If succesful, the audience probably wouldn't notice, but at the same time, it's infusing 'good design' into an audience that might not take notice in another environment. If really succesful, they generate the sort of design discussion in the general public that we saw post Minority Report.
And that can only be good.
Nic Hodges

To Manuel's point, the idea of design as a prop is a stultifying notion -- the artefacts of design are just that: artefacts, which keeps them at bay as static, or perhaps cosmetic layers within the context of the screen. It's when the designed thing generates action -- or thwarts it -- or contributes in some real, palpable dynamic way to the story that it transcends, I think, its mere graphic function.
Jessica Helfand

Jessica- Thanks for your thoughts (and my apologies for the inversion). The relationship between graphic design and Diderot that you raise is suggestive. The issue of absorption is a key component of Diderot's criticism (the art historian and critic Michael Fried has made a career from this observation); that is to say, his interest was in an audience's perception or sense that actors within a theatrical performance are fully absorbed in the activities that make up the forms of life of their characters and are not aware of the presence of an audience. This was also a central component of Diderot's art criticism, where he proposed that the representation of figures absorbed in activities heightened the potential of a viewer's absorption in viewing the painting (and Fried adds, the painters absorption in the act of painting).

Diderot's notion of absorption is compatible to Victor Margolin's discussion of what he calls the demonstrative visual rhetoric of Alexander Rodchenko's posters produced roughly around the same time as the October 1917 poster that you comment on. (See his The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy : 1917-1946.) One significant aspect of Rodchenko's demonstrative visual rhetoric was his use of (the) people doing things (acting or demonstrating, if you will), e.g. shouting the title of a revolutionary periodical. Like Rodchenko's work, the October 1917 poster shows 12 revolutionary figures doing things relevant to the October revolution. Each figure is fully absorbed in his (and her, I can't tell from the reproduction) revolutionary activity, thus demonstrating each figure's commitment to the cause. The typographic treatment of "October" structures these various activities, and thus situates the radical symbolism of the actions shown as they are relevant to a particular moment in history.

As it happens, Rodchenko was involved with avant-garde theater and had the opportunity to work with Eisenstein (a students of mine, Derek Wallen, wrote an excellent paper on Eisenstein's influence on Rodchenko). The "drama" that you describe is one of integration between the figures and the type, which is heightened by the figures' absorption and adds to the "design experience."

By the way, I think Michael is correct. The MC 2004 is closer in style to Beall's Rural Electrification Administration posters (1937-1941). This is a minor point, however.
Michael J. Golec

interesting topic. Of course in music video's design and type can play a huge part in the dynamic of the story.

But when it comes to films:
Se7en: the lusciously designed notebooks of the serial killer play a key part in explaining his character.

Zed and Two Noughts: The word ZOO and various billboard posters play a key part in the film's structure.

Fight Club: the IKEA catalogue sequence. This could be point to where film 'captioning' or intertextuality etc., could really go places if you wanted a further layer of narrative.

Tulpe luper : Peter greenaway's latest has type all over the place appearing around characters, further enhancing the narrative and visuals.

Ninth Gate: revolves around the alternate printing of a set of book illustrations, linking them to the devil

And of course M with peter lorre, where type marks out the baby killer in the final denoument!

david arthurs

What a vibrant discussion this has become. I love David's suggestions — and hope others will add even more film examples to add to this growing list.

I must respectfully disagree with both Michaels however, about the Beall — close in style, yes: but just look at those ARROWS! Why, they're just about dancing right off the poster!
Jessica Helfand

I'd like to rewind (cue film pun) the discussion back to the post of one Francisco Capote. What interests me most about Capote's post are the questions, "Why aren't we, graphic designers, getting the public recognition we deserve, and what can we do to get it?" What interest me about those questions is that they are seemingly selfish questions; however, I realized I might not fully understand the type of "recognition" the questions refer to.

To me the post implies that Graphic Designers, as individuals, should be receiving special attention or notice, to which I ask "Why is recognition important, and why is the public expected to give it?" Don't misunderstand me; Graphic Designers should be making every attempt to raise the publics awareness of the roles they play as professionals that influence the environment the public dwells.

If you (or anyone else) would please expand on your definition of "recognition," I am more than willing and interested to read it.

yes, its a tricky one. Graphic design has always been a noble back-room activity. And in fact there is a fundamental problem with exposing the public (from a clients point of view) to what design is all about and what it is doing to their customers brains in the decision making choices they carry out subconsiously every day.

There are a lot of OTT corny allusions we could make, but if we are the Heinlein style "puppet masters" so to speak, telling the public more and more about how our fiendish schemes are constructed, what we do, what goes into making up an advert, demonstrating to them how to make their own designs etc., the more that message gets confused and the public gets savvy to what we are at.

So if they ever make a B movie about graphic designers taking over the world., it will be their ego's that become their ultimate destruction ;)
david arthurs

Dear Gadapee

The kind of 'recognition' my post refer to, is the one we can find in Rick Poynor's post Link "Where Are The Design Intellectuals?"

In his post, he quotes Ric Grefe who, in my opinion sumarises the main concern: "In September/October 2003, Step magazine published an article by Ric Grefe, executive director of the AIGA, arguing that "design is at a defining moment". "We may only be taken seriously if we can demonstrate our relevance to society's concerns with conviction," he noted, before going on to set out three areas - the economy, culture and the environment - where visual communication could act as a clarifying force."

My question is: what if this relevance is so small that most of the times is... irrelevant? And if it is so, is it a natural limitation of design itself as a discipline, or is it the way designers have been working, most of the time creating only beautiful, decorative and irrelevant pieces of work?

In the first comment to Poynor's post, by Bierut, gives some important clues to help finding the answer to these questions: "But I must add that I am constanty surprised by what I'm told is my capacity to overestimate the interest that design topics hold for the general public. Whenever I've pitched ideas to editors, for instance, I find out that things I think would be interesting to everybody are, in fact, tragically arcane and downright nerdy. Whether it's my own self-delusion or editors' short-sightedness, all I know for sure is that it's an uphill battle."

Hope I helped you to understand my point of view.
Francisco Capote

There are a great many so called "design intellectuals" committed to researching and writing on the cultural significance of design. Journals like Design Issues, The Journal of Design History, Visible Language, the Journal of Visual Culture, Grey Room, Leonardo, Home Culture and others are all publishing quality material. Academic writing may not constitute the kind of recognition that designers desire. But I would propose that this scholarship goes well beyond mere recognition and treats design and designers as active participants in social, political, and cultural actions.

To my mind, design in movies may be a kind of recognition, but it hardly counts for a critical engagement with design.
Michael J. Golec

And yet, Michael, some would argue that a critical engagement with design can't happen in the absence of actually makingdesign. And if different things are being designed, and once designed, those things are being deployed in a new way, then isn't this worthy of closer inspection?

Or, put another way: how is designing something that appears in a film — and is reacted to, or performs in some way so that it impacts upon the dramatic consequence(s) in some tangible manner — any different from designing something online that frankly, nobody is ever going to see unless they turn on their computer? In the sense that this work really only resides onscreen, it can all be said to be virtual. As for the computer screen, there has been and continues to be significant debate about the critical language of interaction design. And as for the movie screen — can we really afford to be so quick to reject its potential for critical engagement? I wonder.
Jessica Helfand

Jessica, No doubt there can be no critical engagement with design without its having been made. But a critical engagement would have to consider the cultural significance of a recognition of graphic design in (or by) contemporary movies. The issue doesn't strike me as being one of virtuality versus materiality. Rather, it is a matter of what constitutes recognition and what constitutes critical evaluation.

Your previous post on Cat Woman and the series of questions that you pose strike me as critical, while the character of the graphic designer in the film is a recognition (or interpretation) of the political, cultural, and social role (or lack there of) of graphic design. The latter led to the former. In the case of Cat Woman, the film posits that graphic designers are not agents, but only dream of being such. This is a critical distinction that bears on the professional status of graphic design, because it may be symptomatic of how the public comes to view graphic design. Has there been a film where an artist lives his or her dreams through the actions of an alter-ego?
Michael J. Golec

First of all, my compliments to Jessica and the participants in this thread for a very rambling and unexpected discussion. I particularly appreciate Mr. Golec taking the time to actually explain the idea of "absorption." So often words like that are tossed around with little more than a note of condescension for context. The concept seems very germane to the orginal post and is explained succinctly.

Another term that might be relevant is that of "agency" as used by Alfred Gell in "Cultural Agency: An Anthropological Theory." Gell proposes that within a social context, an object occasionally acts in much the same way that a person does. This is a departure from thinking of objects as passive containers of meaning and supports the integration of theory from film and theater into graphic design discourse. So, if objects are actors what does that make designers? Directors? Screen-writers? Stage-moms?

J. K. Rowling wrote how it was remarkable that the miniscule writing labeling each tiny ink dot indicated names of each character so that the viewer of the enchanted map could know where everyone was at any given time.
It sounds like GIS technology to me. . .
My point is that her writing is what was thrilling to me, as back in 1999 when I read it, I just knew the 'motion graphics' could be exceptional. And they were.
Typographic dance research viewable at IBM's website includes among many different explorations the ways in which inner thoughts of a protagonist, for example, play a 'typographic' role in a dialogical consciousness put forth onstage. To link this with the topic spinning here on this thread we'd be hoping then, after The Cheese Monkeys, the movie, to see one about a graphic designer who has every project she's working on come alive and whirl, shimmy or glide along with the plot she's on screen to act through, all in a -here's that word -'tasteful' way.
If a story loosely based on Paula Scher's journey so far, was made into a movie would you have Helen Hunt or Cate Blanchette starring? My question brings up the casting director who chooses a type -face for each job.
To comment on The Terminal, Hanks plays the role of a Persian character, rather than Tucci who would have been a closer fit to the real person. So if Dreamworks makes a film about Tintin, wouldn't it be Gene Hackman we'd like to see as Captain Haddock?

The link to the Manchurian Candidate is death, Here's the 2004 Manchurian Candidate


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