Jessica Helfand | Essays

Graphic Flanerie

I have often wondered what a reality TV program about graphic design might be like. Would it feature, say, an imperious figurehead who could make or break the nascent career of a young designer? Would it be modeled on survivalism? On surveillance? On matchmaking? On makeovers? What tension-filled realities might be revealed over episodic time? Or, put another way: where's the drama in graphic design?

Of course, the beauty (and horror) of Reality TV is that drama is generally more of a consequence than a catalyst. To watch any of a number of these shows is to suddenly understand that there is, in fact, a little drama in everything we do. In truth, the effect of watching (let alone participating in) Reality TV is not unlike walking down the street with an iPod: suddenly, the most mundane activities have an accompanying soundtrack, and walking to the bus stop takes on a whole new meaning in your life.

The notion that such activities can conjure up tension-filled situations makes just about everything grist for the mill. Brushing your teeth? Sitting at your desk? Email? Junk Mail? The consumer availability of the crittercam (an attachable camera that can capture an animal's everyday experiences and its precise location) suggests even more opportunities to visualize and televise adventures in micro-scrutiny. And while we can pray for good editorial judgement to intercede, the reality of Reality TV is that such judgments are few and far between.

The tendency to self-edit, however, appears to be stronger in graphic designers than in television producers. And yet, the fascination with everydayness prevails. With honest intentions and perhaps a distant nod to Walter Benjamin, I see students routinely make work that celebrates the everyday: galvanized by the facility with which tiny, digital cameras make picture taking so effortless, they produce books and films and projects about street signage and garbage, an attempt to immortalize the ephemeral. It's graphic flanerie: the banal made big.

If Reality TV captures the banality of dating, job hunting, weight loss and obstacle courses, then how is the design of a beautiful book on garbage or signage really any different? (By the way, Candy Jernigan already did garbage. And Aaron Siskind already did signage. And long before the architecture of the everyday, Robert Venturi gave us ugly and ordinary.) Some have likened this obsession with the everyday to Walter Benjamin, though personally I have always felt that comparing images of graffiti to the experience of walking through a Parisian arcade is a bit of a stretch. Another reading suggests that this amplification of quotidian miscellany is a reaction to the over-democratization of design: put simply, if the tools of design make production available to everyone, then why not take the opposite approach and make a big deal out of the stuff everyone ignores by magnifying nonsense?

I would argue that the magnification of nonsense still demands scrutiny and understanding and, for lack of a better word, taste. Long before agile camerapeople trailed the corridors of NBC's fictitious West Wing, Robert Redford made movie history in Alan Pakula's 1976 film All The President's Men playing Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward: here, Redford raises the on-hold button to a new art form as he deftly volleys between two telephone calls in a single shot. He is on-screen for more than six minutes, and all of them are spent talking on the phone. Where's the drama in that? This turns out to be one of the critical moments in the entire film, which takes its cue from the real-life events that brought down the Nixon presidency. William Goldman's screenplay masterfully lyricizes a plot where the stakes are huge: this is, after all, the movie where Jason Robards (who later won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Post's Executive Editor Ben Bradlee) exclaims: "Nothing's riding on this except the first amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of this country." Hardly the banter of a average afternoon in the studio, but then again, in movie matters, the focus is rarely on the average.

Average may be what Reality TV is all about, but to a good designer, there may be more to life than this. True, Benjamin may have awakened our appreciation for strolling the arcades, but it was Baudelaire who rhapsodized this notion as "botanizing on the asphalt" and Balzac who transformed such observations into poetry. "To walk is to vegetate," he wrote. "To stroll is to live." This ability to transcend the everyday and resonate in the heart, the soul, the mind and the memory—this is graphic design's reality, a reality that is, by all indications, more than a sum of its parts, each one a moving target. Turns out we may find a use for that crittercam after all.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media, Politics

Comments [20]

This is a fascinating post, Jessica. I don't drive and so walking in the huge conurbation that is London is part of my everyday life. Habitual drivers find it impossible to understand this desire to walk instead, when you can get there quicker by car, but it's entirely deliberate, and for me it has become a way of life. Nothing locates you in the ordinary, unassuming moment, in the flow of everyday events, quite like walking. The time you gain by not arriving too quickly where you are going can be spent looking and noticing, thinking and dreaming. It's even better when you are not "going somewhere" so much as drifting, letting chance (or your own subconscious impulses operating through chance) determine what you will find. And in this state of mind you usually find something. This is what the 19th-century flaneurs, the Surrealists and the Situationist "psychogeographers" - why are the French so good at this? - described so well.

A long time ago now I saw a poster in the London Undergound advertising evening classes in philosophy. I signed up after a brief interview, but it turned out to be not quite the kind of introduction to academic philosophy I had expected. What the classes offered a surprisingly diverse group of hopefuls was a distillation of religious and philosophical ideas that have beneficial uses for the way we live. One of the mental exercises we were asked to do required us to sit quietly for specified lengths of time and pay total attention to our surroundings, noticing the tiniest details, listening to the smallest sounds, while all the while trying not to think about anything at all. This is surprisingly difficult to do. The exercise brought home to me (I was then around 20) how rarely we pay this much attention to reality. When you do, you feel fully, mysteriously alive. Everything becomes fascinating and also strange. You realise as well how enervating the babble in your own head actually is and how peaceful it's possible to feel when you forget yourself by becoming totally engaged, through the senses, with your surroundings. Children are naturally better at this than adults and animals perhaps live in the world entirely in this way, their attention turned outwards with no sense of "I".

So this is what I think your students are doing. They are trying to capture these everyday moments, recognising their enormous value (this, here, is my life) and to do justice - though in the end, as you say, it requires great artfulness - to what philosophy calls quiddity: the essence of something that makes it what it is. A few years ago, I started taking photographs to explore this way of seeing (and being) for myself and found that I felt even more connected, through this process of intense looking and composing with the camera, with the essential thingness of things. It's always intrigued me that the one moment people, not necessarily "visual" people, remember and often seem to love in American Beauty, though it's by no means a great film, is the scene where the plastic bag blows around in the wind. So little is happening yet it becomes magnetically involving and unexpectedly moving, as though the image is whispering to us: this is what there is.
Rick Poynor

yes: a derieve. (never sure of the spelling)

the little whirlwind in 'stalker' that acts as the essence of the alien force.

nykvists camera jamming on the final single take of 'sacrifice' as the house burns down.

brendan perry telling me he thought tarkovsky was the greatest artist of the 20th century.

finishing my first bottle of black bush at dawn.

early morning on the bus along abbey road: walking up windmill street in the late summer before 8a.m.

moorcock and mother london and the dictionary of the khazars and alfred jarry and iain sinclair: then, only w.g. sebald.

you telling me i was a romantic.

standing with a 90 foot crane, a crew of fifty, 300 hundred extras. waiting for the right light.

just waiting for the right light.

finding some of it in 'the white goddess'.

stretching out lines along winding roads, from introduction to introduction a silk worm threads map-remaking instead of reading, inside rather than out, sitting on the back step as she sweeps, smoking, a new book on infinity, with real ghosts now that really haunt and sometimes dreams so vivid (buying a gun in n.y., taking it to a hotel room, opening it, looking at it, hiding it under my jacket and walking out to throw it in a bin) that i think they really happened for a while.

the dream of the lake and love in 'time of the gypsies'.

what is the golden rule?


I'm only going to pick two terms from your post: over-democratization and taste.
Your writing seems to agree with condemnation of the over-democratization of design. This would seem contrary to what this site is trying to do, or maybe there's a larger PR objective under the blankets. I understand that you may be using this term to enlighten your position, and do not mean to force you into a corner. However the term taste may do it for me.

What is good taste? Does any one person hold the flame?
I'm sure any random person on the street would not share the same taste as I do. This is the beautiful aspect of design, one's personal taste is not an objective which all need to meet.

Allow me to draw a close analogy. I like eye watering, sweat invoking, spice in my food. On the other hand my girlfriend & partner Catelijne draws her taste from a different source (her personal self) and cannot stomach the tastes which I enjoy. Does one of us have to be wrong and the other right to come to an understanding? No, of course not, we simply don't eat off of the same plate.

Lastly I ask this, is design about banal subjects (not that I find the over categorization of banal subjects enthralling) any less interesting than banality in contemporary design and is there a difference (if so draw it)?
For design observing to bring thoughtful critique further I would think the use of objective terminology is of the utmost importance.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

No PR objective, although speaking for myself, I prefer when the discussion is more about the ideas and less about word choices.

What language do we use when we refer to the idea that that which was once the designer's domain is now in the public domain? Is it not possible, even probable that a non-designer seeking the guidance of a designer does so because there is the expectation that the designer knows something the non-designer does not? In the interest of brevity (here as well as in my initial post) I use these terms loosely. The question is not about Taste as a pre- ordained set of conditions so much as where we draw the line. Would libertarianism have been a better choice? Somehow the more polarized these semantics become, the more one comes off sounding like a despot. And that sidetracks the discussion even further.

Graphic design is hardly a totalitarian regime. On the other hand, in Reality TV, very little is scripted: and if indeed we are evoking aspects of the everyday in our work (whether intentionally or not) then why shouldn't our online discussions reflect this pattern of expression? Finally: to watch most Reality TV shows is to see editing practices which seem to maximize opportunities in the unrehearsed. The result is often quite humiliating. This strikes me as a question of taste in the sense of what is appropriate. Merce Cunningham has been known to perform with little preparation so as to maximize the energy of the dance, though I suspect the results are a good deal less offensive than, say, The Bachelorette.

And how funny that my writing has been critiqued for being too academic—and now to be called upon for the opposite offense!
jessica helfand

Jessica, this is one of the most engaging and elegant posts I've read on any blog. Thanks.

I have but one minor observation. Before graphic design was elevated into a "cultural force" (a Rudy VanderLans coinage), it was commercial art, a craft that required certain skills, like drying ink with the lit end of a cigar, or tracing outlines on a "lucy." How average was that?

Nonetheless, I've been told by old-timers that these same commercial artists would get together at their respective clubs where they'd animatedly discuss the merits of a new french curve, or a great pen point, or all sorts of other quotidian things that only they and other commercial artists would care about.

They didn't care about history, or whether or not their work was art, or what was the new theory. They simply celebrated the act of doing what they did every day.

P.S. I can't imagine a graphic design reality show, but I know why I've never seen a graphic designer on Survivor. He or she'd be voted off right away for talking too much about graphic design.
Steven Heller

Steven, was the Bauhaus a cultural force?
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

In Zurich last month, I saw a wonderful exhibit on Sutnar which originated in Prague. I don't believe it is going to travel here (ironic since many of the pieces were loaned from the Cooper Hewitt) but I have to say one of the more moving things for me in this show was how ordinary the work was: there were catalogues for metallurgists, brochures for utility companies—each rendered by hand, magnificently greeked, composed in what I can only imagine were the shadows of "The Lucy." I suspect that doing such work during the Machine Age was not unlike the way that contemporary designers might see working for media companies today. Could it be that such utilitarian work was its own cultural force?

But more than this, there was a confidence in Sutnar's body of work, a boldness in the energy of the line weights, a thrill in the superbly produced mechanicals—each a testament to an entire world of craftsmanship that seems somehow dormant today. Primary colors. Aggressive geometry. Streamlined yet unusually open, human, coarse around the edges. A different kind of everydayness, perhaps?
Jessica Helfand

In Prague Sutnar invested his highly tutored modern spirit into everyday objects - flatware, toys, books. In New York he brought order and beauty to everyday catalogs, brochures, and telephone books. Every object he touched had to live up to his perfectionist standard.

Among other things the graphic designer's cultural contribution is adding value - aesthetic, functional, etc. - to everyday things everyday. Later critics may celebrate some of them as extra ordinary. Sutnar was not the average commercial artist. Having been weaned on constructivist ideas and ideals, he established his New York practice on the premise that good design could change the world. His small part of it included hardware catalogs, Vera hang-tags, Addo-X identity, and the area code system.

BTW, the wonderful Sutnar exhibit sadly may never come the US although its been offered to various institutions, including the Cooper Hewitt. But the English language edition of the Czech catalog is currently available. Check out www.ladislavsutnar.com

steven Heller

The big eye can be scary. For me, TV as an exhibit space was made real when I saw my drawing and heard my name read as the week's winner during 'children's hour' at age eleven. Many years later in a 'sequential design' class, video of an interview with Paul Rand was shown for discussion and the fact that it hadn't been aired was unbelievable to me. Too bad the lighting conditions weren't ideal or the interviewer wasn't positioned as Couric, Sawyer or Walters would be. That recording is a documentary we'd all appreciate 'as is', unscripted -the questions posed were answered inadequately -perhaps not heard well because he was advanced in his years. Somehow what was being asked didn't seem appropriate, either. Nothing a good 'edit' couldn't put right though, given the new genre of TV programming we'd be emulating. Plus additional footage woven into the piece.
I can't imagine you really interested in Reality TV as a contest of some sort but I can imagine you on Oxygen discussing imagery, the making of it, and the profession of graphic design with Paula Scher -but she might want the barstool.
In fact I may have missed an interview conducted by Candace Bergen with a 'noted' designer, as I am -of course, not glued to the set. I'll admit, it took my breath away -I did have the 'telly' on when "Who is Chip Kidd?" was announced on Jeopardy. That is very 'everyday'. Bill Cahan showed his airtime on CNN at GAIN in San Francisco explaining the rush that it was -in his head and in time.
If A&E producers truly needed guidance for a Reality TV show based on graphic design, the most obvious would be modeled after 'the makeover'. We redesign everything. But matchmaking? Again, you and Paula Scher might have a take on that.

curtis whites' "the middle mind" is very very pertinent here-well worth a read.

You guys rock!
I must say I am a layman when it comes to graphic design theory (although I am now reading Steven's book History of Graphic Design) I started out as a sculpture major at Alfred University, starved many years as an artist, did odd jobs, and then, Thank God, the web came along and gave many people the channel in which to put creative energies and make a living.
I am just so thankful that discussions like this happen in a space that we all can participate. As far as a reality TV show about graphic designers, and using the inspiration of the 'found' and sharing in moments, it seems like we would want to see the interior moments of the designer mabey more than the exterior, because it seems like alot of the time this is where most of the action in the landscape is taking place...a couple of artists on the other hand...making a living, now that would be funny.
Ken Kelleher

Meaning, like beer drinking, onion eating artists, who live in cafes and under bridges, collecting cans of old spraypaint to make their next masterpeice, and arguing with each other at 3 in the morning over who's going to do the dishes...
Ken Kelleher

First of all I love the idea of a reality show about graphic designers. Each episode could be edited together from hours of screen capture footage. The instant messaging! The iTunes! The exporting to pdf!

The fact is, to make a project about garbage a designer has to take a field trip to "the everyday," and the results are actually a representation of what she imagines the banal to be. I don't have a problem with work about the everyday (or "the abject" as they called in the art-world of the 1980's) as long as it has a point of view on the history that Jessica has alluded to and isn't presented as an authentic artifact of chance. Can you imagine how many people worked on the plastic bag shot in American Beauty that Rick mentioned? I for one am glad they did, it was beautiful image.

I agree with Jessica that the choice of what you design is as imporatant as how you design. If Peter Saville had worked with Bananarama instead of Joy Division would we really care about his take on post-modernism? To me it is kind of weird that given the choice, you would look for junk on the sidewalk instead of going to the library or a movie, but ultimately any choice is an experiment in context and it is the context in which a designer works — the people she works with, how she engages the economy, and the content she is working with — that has the most potential for research and experimentation.

On a surface read, what appears to be unscripted, spontaneous, and endlessly eventful is not. Reality TV (and all TV for that matter) is incredibly contrived. Though there are no scripts, there are new lenses, filters, and means for control. The nexus of this power lies in the hands of two roles: the film editor which Jessica and others have already mentioned and a more surreptitious editor, though no less influential, the casting director. David Carr's recent article for the New York Times expresses this eloquently:

The casting of reality shows, once an intuitive, on-the-fly endeavor, has become much more of a science, with its own growing set of protocols and rituals...If film is a director's medium, and television drama is a writer's medium, reality TV is without question a casting director's medium.

Jessica, your students and other young designers who have embrassed the Banal, the Everyday, and the Ephemeral in their work are yearning for an expression of spontaneity that their on-air counterparts seem to have. Though they can be poetic, and exquisitely beautiful, the photographs, posters, products, book-works, installations, and now advertisements (see Urban Outfitters' current scrawl, and warehouse aesthetic) almost always fall short of what is intended. In an attempt to arrive at the essence of something adhoc, these artifacts are merely pained and precious "pictures" of their intended subject. Often the result is not entropic, eclectic, or alive, but a representation of said qualities. I the same way that Reality TV edits down experience to a facimile of the everyday.

Perhaps we will find the true merit of graphic design when it does more than merely edit, and (re)present reality (though that is a valid and necessary end) but when it dynamically interacts, and shapes reality itself.
Silas Munro

the american beauty bag shot as a 're-imagining' of the entire ouevre of tarkovsky, herzog (others), edited, digestible and in the context of an affirmation/cementing of status quo. 'beauty' as re-presentation, netted, chloroformed and pinned.

similar to 'saving private ryan'-see 'come and see'.

dreamworks indeed.

yes: design that is of life, rather than a representation. always.

It scares me to (experiential) death to imagine what would have happened if the conservative blood, which runs through many corporate design professionals, had a vote in the editing process of Jazz (yes, capital J).
An editor edits for a purpose, value, money, etc...
The hottest, most mind blowing, life altering jazz exists only because a stuffed suit was (or is) not there to draw a line. Real life exhales. Editors edit, and hopefully it's good.
Design is ultimately a mediated experience (thank you Laurie Makela!). Reality television is an edited (value mediated experience) version of a pre planned situation (mediated experience).
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

The issue of Reality TV is an interesting one. I haven't read much critical discussion on this media blight, but it is a weird phenomonen (but an extension of our voyueristic tendancies). I remember here in NZ when the Reality TV bug started to catch, and everybody got so engrossed in the 'realism' (and I ask Whos' reality is it?)

But this thirst for the 'real' has had me thinking, 'real' life exists in front of us, yet we are content to mediate ourselves through technology, txt messages (and now pxt), email et al, I can feel my REALITY starting to slip.
Clem Devine

A piece in today's Guardian offers a diaristic account of one artist's everydayness: she's a photographer, but I suspect many designers will identify with the impulse to collect, record, photograph evidence.
Jessica Helfand

I think a graduate program is a good place to look to for graphic design reality TV. Stuart Bailey's intro to 'In Alphabetical Order' about the first years of the Werkplaats Typographie is a pretty good sketch of the hopes and disappointments that go on in a place that you are idealistic about, and the love entanglements that always happen when you seclude a small group of young people from the rest of the world. Reality TV is actually quite controlled and parameterized -- choose 16 subjects, define an objective that must be completed, and see how people interact with each other under pressure. Not to dissimilar from graduate school. Who will be chosen as the favorite by the teachers? Who will get hooked up with the reputable internship for the summer? Who will win the scholarship money at the end? And which student is going to hook up with whom? Most reality TV show participants dont have much contact with people outside of the cast of their show, and there is the regular occurence of gatherings involving alcohol (tho in reality TV they happen off-air), similar in my experience to graduate school. Having been in an MFA program, its pretty easy to imagine a graphic design reality TV show.

Regarding Steven Heller's comments, I think the same 'shop talk' discussion still happens, but instead of a variety of objects being discussed, its more about different software programs and hardware. A lot of people i know fetishize their macs to death -- another everyday object. There is tons of discussion of html vs. flash and Adobe vs. Macromedia and drawing vs. computer programming etc. that happens at happy hours after work and online in blogs. I think it's pretty similar, except the tools have changed, and now women are allowed to geek out as much as men.
Manuel Miranda

I am interested in Rick's post early on in the thread, and its relation to Jessica's idea of the common aspects of our lives becoming dramatic and important to the soul.
I too have been fascinated by walking; the immersion into life you get while walking is unique. It is a sort of meditation. Allowing you time away from yourself, time to look when looking isn't the purpose. For me it is a gathering process. I gather information, feelings, forms.
Jessica mentioned design students document daily life, and TV attempting to make drama from reality. She mentioned Baudelaire, and Balzac, and the realism in their work. The ability these and other authors of realism have had to "transcend the everyday and resonate to the heart, the soul, the mind and the memory" is very interesting to me. I agree with Jessica, this is graphic design's reality, forced on us by our subject matter and still sought by us when we choose our own.
The beauty of the mundane is not in its originality, but in its shared experience. You can't even be mundane unless almost everyone has seen and ignored you. The mundane is something everyone knows and can relate to. And in this shared experience the mundane finds power. Is it some kind of collective unconscious? Through the use of "the common" the designer sympathizes with the reader. He or she can form a bond of shared experience that allows the reader (without any specific education or training) to become one with the work, adopting it for his or her own. If this happens then the work has transcended the everyday.
The key is distiling reality into its most fascinating parts. This elevates it from the mundane into something that can speak to our soul. It is a process of editing, which, with all the talk of reality TV is more than a little ironic.It is the ability to uplift the quotidian in life that exposes life's simple purposes and makes them important. This all sounds very much like Cage and Duchamp with a twist, Maybe it's Zen, finding enlightenment through daily life. I wonder if it is not enlightenment we are searching for as designers documenting the mundane. Maybe it's just the goal, do you show the struggle and beauty of reality or exaggerate the baseness of humanity to delude reality and hypnotize viewers into buying toilet paper and Chevy trucks with 0% down.
John Gordon

Jobs | July 17