The Cut, (modeled after other reality shows such as NBC's The Apprentice)about "16 aspiring designers."" /> The Cut, (modeled after other reality shows such as NBC's The Apprentice)about "16 aspiring designers."" />

Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Cut: When Life Imitates Art (I Mean Design)

I dreamt a few nights ago that I was watching a television game show called Photoshop! in which designers, as contestants, were asked to capture images from the web in front of a live studio audience. Suddenly a photo of a horse merged with a long-stemmed bottle to become a giraffe. The audience roared! Beaming, the designer of the horse-bottle-giraffe combo retreated behind the studio curtains as another designer emerged, ready to one-up his opponent with still loftier flights of Photoshop-fancy. This process appeared to repeat itself somewhat interminably (although it did start to get interesting when the giraffe started to talk) when, mercifully, I woke up.

It occured to me just then, in that fleeting instant of sleep-induced delirium before one is truly awake, that all the boundaries have blurred. The boundary between software and entertainment; between work and play; between TV and the computer. And now, thanks to yet another reality show about design on television, the boundary between design as it really exists and design as the entertainment industry would like us to believe it exists. Somewhere in there is the boundary between good and evil, and I'm pretty sure I know which side the networks are on.

You knew all this already, of course.
Or did you?

Enter Tommy Hilfiger.

Last night, CBS Television in the US debuted its new series, The Cut, (modeled after other reality shows such as NBC's The Apprentice) in which: "16 aspiring designers will attempt various challenges that will test their talent, business acumen, sales and marketing expertise, resourcefulness and sense of style. Living together in a loft in Soho, New York, competitors will have to confront the complexity of the fashion industry — and each other." In promotional spots for the show, the contestants' initial undertaking involved designing a billboard on Times Square in New York. Since when is designing a billboard a fashion exercise? (Answer: when it's a global lifestyle brand.)

On to the contestants. Chris C. is a MFA candidate at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, majoring in graphic design. Restaurateur and Vanderbilt University graduate Chris S. has no professional design experience, but is determined to prove "great designers can be found in unexpected places." Additional "unexpected places" include a contestant who alleges to be a former Republican press secretary, a one-time Miss Minnesota and a professional skateboarder. Needless to add, they're all ridiculously good-looking.

And why not? Design is a natural topic for television. A search of the word "design" on HGTV reveals no fewer than ten different shows, from Bed and Bath Design to Design on a Dime to my personal favorite, Curb Appeal. Here, a posse of design experts remake the facade of a house in just under twenty-eight minutes. (For anyone who has ever lived through a protracted saga of home renovation, the experience of watching this show falls somewhere between therapeutic massage and an unparalleled narcotic high.) I am personally vexed by this network's annoying tendency to use words like "design" and "decorating" interchangeably, a sloppy editorial conceit somewhat akin to CBS's misguided notion that aspiring fashion designers are perfectly capable of tackling billboard design problems. (In just under twenty-eight minutes, naturally.)

At the same time, design is not now, nor has it ever been a discipline requiring certification to practice. What better material for a reality TV show? And yet, the idea of design icons — like Tommy Hilfiger — fueling a national appetite for fame and fortune suggests, erroneously I think, that talent can be won. It's a misguided reading of Horatio Alger: in this televised version of the American dream, design is a lottery, its rewards instantaneous and unpredictable.

What about work? What about process? What about, say, talent? When did it become okay to blur the line between design as a discipline and design as a spectator sport? A part of me wants to believe there's a future in design on television. The idealist in me, harboring the skeptic in me, which is really just a front for the cynic in me, isn't so sure.

Last night, I had another Photoshop dream: this time I was using the lasso tool, literally trying to reel in ideas for the conclusion to this essay. When I woke up, my first thought was how horrifying it was to have two dreams about the same software program in less than two days. It depressed me to witness the deeper preoccupations of my subconscious reveal themselves so crudely, when I suddenly realized that I was, in fact, rather enjoying these fragmented episodes of suspended reality. Of course, the entertainment value lay in their loopy, illogical narratives, in their irreverence, in the very absurdity that I had unwittingly authored while (presumably) sound asleep. In these dreams, I felt no responsibility, no sense of challenge or duty or anticipation or even involvement in the plot permutations, and indeed, I had no urge to participate in their consequent resolution. No, here in dreamland, I had nothing to lose. That's what made it so liberating, so goofy. So unrewarding. And so very unlike any design reality I know.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [16]

What I found interesting was the the team that won did so solely from the typographic/graphic design solution of one of the players. Everything else about both billboards was terrible.

I was wondering how long it would take you to
write this Editorial after the commercials aired.

Commercials, of Hilfiger's Reality Show have been frequent in D.C.

I missed the show, if it were on.

It's easy to Sensationalize Design with Edits, and Cuts. Many of these programs Bastardize Design. Process and Craft is always left out.
Usually on the editing room floor.

I thought is was curious, the Apprentice never revealed TANA (Sales Excutive, Street Smarts) actually came up with the brochure Design until the Season Finale.

All the while, KENDRA, (Real Estate Broker, Book Smarts) took credit for conceptualizing the Brochure Design.

It'll be interesting to see if Martha Stewart will be a difficult Task Master or try to soften her image.

I'll watch Tommy Hilfiger's show with Jaundiced Eyes.

I suspect Karim Rashid, Phillipe Starcke, or BRUCE MAU will be next.

Design is GLORIFIED. While Designer(s) that are UNDERVALUED.

I don't think design is ever going to be all that interesting to Joe and Josephine Sixpack plunking down into their couch and chair. And why should it? In watching last year's Project Runway, while my design and art director friends enjoyed both the design challenges and the bitching back and forth between the characters, all my non-design and art director friends enjoyed only the aforementioned bitching. Reality TV has a hold on americans because it gives everyone watching an opportunity to feel a little superior to the gauche behavior exhibited by most of the type A a-holes that end up being cast onto those shows.

The Cut is just another bland piece of a tired television format. I wonder at what point cash bonuses started being offered around to provoke monstrous tantrums to help spice up otherwise dull challenges offered by an even duller Tommy Hilfiger.

Here's my pitch for getting a show about graphic design onto the fall schedule: Rogue designer goes from town to town in his vintage Volvo and horned-rimmed glasses saving small-town newspapers and church newsletters with his superior type skills: the show name? S.K.U. (Special Kerning Unit.)

>I suspect Karim Rashid, Phillipe Starcke, or BRUCE MAU will be next.

You guessed right, Maven. I just read that Karim is working with the Home Shopping Network on a new show titled "Made in the USA." The show will feature amateur inventors competing for the chance to sell their inventions on HSN - which could result in a big-bucks bonanza...and perhaps a big ratings boom.
debbie millman


Any possibility of turning 'designmatters' into Reality TV.

I beg to differ Karim thinks he's KING OF THE WORLD. Guess he and Sagemeister will have to duke it out.

Luv Ya,


Jessica: "It occurred to me just then, in that fleeting instant of sleep-induced delirium before one is truly awake, that all the boundaries have blurred. The boundary between software and entertainment; between work and play; between TV and the computer."

As an educator, I picked up on this about a year ago (or maybe 10 years ago?). Seeing how my students manage technology and entertainment, I realized that, with IPTV looming on the horizon, we are all in for a wild ride (but esp. TV network, TV advertising, and cable). Suddenly, time schedules for entertainment will no longer matter (except for live events and cinema). Copyright will also bite the dust once and for all (shocking, I know, and hard to accept, but I think the war is over - well, at least war #1...).

Regarding design by the untrained masses for entertainment: Ellen Lupton gave an interesting talk at the Phily AIGA education conference recently on DIY. I think she has a book coming out on it? At first, all this DIY design is depressing for us designers. But you know, I think the more people hear "Design", even in a sad place like a reality show, it can only help us in the long run. People have to start somewhere to get-it. Might as well be with Hilfigger, Stewart, Rashid, and Lupton! We all know it has vanished in the middle & high schools in the U.S. - let alone the universities (for non designers).


The increasing attention on "design" in the entertainment industry could go either way; or perhaps, both.

In the short term, it undermines what it is we actually do, and how we do it. This can't help but make life more difficult for designers: especially smaller, independent firms who are already struggling for recognition from clients (larger, established companies will likely be completely unaffected).

It also reinforces "designer" as the career du jour, encouraging thousands of people to enter it for exactly the wrong reasons.

But in the long term, these are perhaps just the ugly, toddling steps of the entertainment industry to represent a little-known profession. When you think about how doctors, lawyers, cops, psychiatrists, etc. were portrayed 30 years ago, to how they're portrayed now, you usually see more "reality" represented in what it takes to do those jobs.

(Although ... from my limited understanding, it would appear that little or no progress has been made for the depiction of cops since "Barney Miller." And if I were a cop, crime scene investigator, or lab technician, I am certain I would go ballistic with rage over each and every episode of C.S.I.)

So perhaps 30 years from now, we'll be inundated with Design Dramas, where whole teams tackle all aspects of design problems and we wait with baited breath to see if the client accepts the comps, and worry for young Tim and his repeated kerning errors. Will the evil Brenda be finally exposed as nothing more than a Holographic Photoshop whiz? Will the company's best Idea girl take that job with Dodecahedron? And will they win the award for the brilliant multi-dimensional diagrammatic walkthrough of US budget spending, or be beat out by the trite, hyperanimated eye-candy of Dancing Underwear?

Only time will tell.
marian bantjes

Living in England, I have not seen the shows under discussion BUT I feel graphic design needs to be able to address a much wider audience. These types of show, are not addressing those who have already 'seen the light' but a much wider audience who will consume graphic design in the same way they might consume any product. Product design had a similar experience when, in the late 70s/1980s, it found itself catapulted to the front row of visual/consumer culture - family firms like Alessi or the design group Memphis becoming the iconographic representation for a whole generation of designers. There work entering the market to be consumed by an increasingly knowledgeable consumer, who themselves had been educated by the associated industry of design discourse; books, exhibitions, art magazines and, of course, tv programmes...

Who was it that said,
'Reality is what happens after the cameras leave.'?

Anyway J.H. dont worry too much about having photoshop dreams. The other day I referenced Command-Z while absolutely conscious, drinking coffee with a friend. Undo didn't work!

John-S.K.U. Brilliant!

Reality shows are just game shows. Americans, Europeans, Asians -- all love game shows. It's a new spin on a very old format.
Raising the design consciousness of the States, of course, is not. Places like Northern Europe and Japan where an everyday engagement with design and style and beauty have become great labratories for new designers in part, IMO, because the culture at large respects/expects good design. Imagine if we continued treating designers like athletes. This can only be a good thing, for designers working as well as the cultural literacy of the U.S. cultural as a whole.

Rashid already has his own "DJ" compilations.

1. I would watch S.K.U.
2. I've now realized I'm not insane for dreaming of photoshop selections and contrast changes occuring in everyday life.
3. In light of this reality show talk, I can't help but consider: what about... *design should be invisible*?

I do agree the world would be a better place (ahh, heavenly) if design were something the general public was more aware of. Things in life would be more efficient, not to mention more aesthetically pleasing. However—the most successful designs I admire are invisible. The magazine spread that communicates with the right graphic/copy ratio and the most perfectly selected type doesn't necessarily cause it's reader (with the exception of nearly everyone who might read this post) to say "hey, great type selection." Rather, those properly selected and balanced elements point to the content and concepts presented.

If design and designers are humbled by lack of mainstream attention to methods and processes... would it push us into greater efficiency? Or are we all too self-centered to let it go without our name on it?

Finally, someone addresses HGTV's saturation of the word design. Everytime I see a preview for one of these "Design Shows" I wait with baited breath hoping, this one will really be about design. But sadly, never the case. I thought Project Runway was a great show and although I haven't yet seen The Cut
I am sure it will prove to be another one of the more quality reality shows out there. Any reality show that can educate the average viewer on the fact that being creative can be just as grueling and intense as selling hot soup in 80 degree weather, is ok in my book. A reality show that focuses on branding and print design projects could be a huge success. I have acutally thought a lot about this - the tone could be "Apprentice" in nature, that is two firms competing on the same project, but the show could showcase large and small firms and the different dynamics of the two. I think if people were introduced to the process that a design project goes through before completion they would gain a better understanding and possibly more respect for the industry itself. In small firms there is usually one or two people doing a departments worth of work, juggling many client projects simultaneously. I think viewers would be into that, especially seeing the other side of the spectrum where there are many people, many departments, all giving and taking to get the job done. People like to watch other people under pressure. What has more to do with pressure and deadlines than the design industry?
Danielle Bravaco

I just saw the one last night where the teams were asked to trick out an suv for the rap singer fabulous. It's too bad Tommy Hilfiger has to act like Donald Trump acted on his show. It would be much more entertaining to me if both teams were hired straight out into his creative group, and instead we watched Tommy show them the ropes and what really happens in a creative group. We could see him mentoring designers on an individual basis, showing them how to work as a team and build on office culture and basically build them up. In the real world there's alot more teamwork involved that doesn't center on one person being the sole authority on all things design...and usually when that person, who has the level of acheivement and success that makes people see them as that authority, they realize that more people helpled them along the way than just themselves. I think Tommy may want to give back more than the show allows him to, but if thats the case, why do the show?
Ken Kelleher

I have watched "The Cut". I think that Hilfiger makes a fool of himself and ends up looking like a jerk. He orders peope around and criticizes them harshly. What ever happened to being a nice guy? Concerned for others?
Originality is supposed to be important in design but his show is a blatant ripoff of the Apprentice.

When he does try to original, instead of saying "You're fired," he says, "You're out of style". Wow. That's pure creative genius.


I think viewers know that the "reality" is not in the working premise of the Apprentice et al variants, as they are so over-the-top in that t.v. kind of way. It is more like a drag version of Republican mom and dad, which corporate culture once it meets t.v. always veers close to: just recall Reagan.

Viewers work, hold jobs, and know that this is not how it works, even in fantasies of corporate culture. What they do more likely see are the results of staged settings - confrontations, power relations where A-Types suddenly make some odd decision that reveals how they "think" and so on. Trump suddenly getting bitchy with one of the Assistants who has mouthed off, etc. Flare-ups, sudden surprise reactions that don't match to character, etc.. It is a method focused on short attention span audiences, and developing - or designing - a character solely by identifiable brief flashes of perks and tics that reveal more than their big empty "how things work" statements.

I mean, what is interesting as opposed to all those reality shows of surviving nothing more than egos on an insland, etc... with corporate culture, for example, watching Apprentice, Project Runway et al, one can register a sort of queered- and camped- corporate culture, with a queen in the middle.

As for design's lack of recognition, or confusion with decoration. Yes, of course - but I don't believe it stems from t.v. - a t.v. program that tries to show another angle to design would not necessarily fail. I just think that the related arts fields are forever deemed either inconsequential or with great mistrust in American culture.

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