Jessica Helfand | Essays

Time Waits for No Fan

I am, in principle, morally opposed to hero worship, but I'd like to announce that in my next life, I'd like to be Nigella Lawson. Like me, Nigella is a mother of two, a boy and a girl, and she is Jewish. She is my age. She is also beautiful and rich. (Okay, okay: the similarity ends there.) As a chef, she is fearless and messy. As a writer, perhaps equally so: Nigella routinely rejects words like braise and simmer in favor of much juicier language: blitz and squelch and my personal favorite, splodge. I think of her in the same category as a number of writers, all of them British (and female) who manage to write with humor, intelligence, keen observation and just a soupcon of self deprecation: I'd put the Guardian's Lucy Mangan in this category, as well as Lynn Truss, whose latest book should be required reading for everyone over the age of, say, six.

Fanship, a splinter group of hero worship, is a natural consequence of contemporary life. Its economic consequences are rampant, and beg the question: when did we start wanting, needing, greedily longing for so much stuff that allegedly brings us that much closer to what we imagine ourselves to be? This is more than mere conspicuous consumption: (although it is that, too) when, for instance, did we start needing so many pairs of sneakers? On a recent trip to Europe, I realized that, contrary to my earlier suspicions, athletic shoes (broadly stated) are hardly an American conceit. Shops in Zurich, London and Rome boasted everything from classic Converse high-tops to knee-high sneaker boots, an invention that could only have come from the drawing board of a man, since it is a simple fact that any woman whose calf measures more than 5 centimeters in diameter looks rather like a dwarfish wrestler when she puts them on. (Then again, let Jennifer Aniston be spotted wearing a pair in public and my economic theory is shot to hell.)

My point is simply this: in spite of our careful intentions, the things we design become absorbed in the public domain, whereupon our well-versed knowledge of target audiences is supplanted by the not-very-scientific endorsement of One Public Person who can make or break their success. Though perhaps less palpable in graphic form than in terms of fashion, the reality is the same: and doesn't all design seek, on some level, to go public? In the "be careful what you wish for" category, this strikes me as cause for concern.

In the United States, as elsewhere, television has kicked design up a notch into the mainstream consciousness in a way that makes me question what it is we're hoping to achieve. A big generalization, but let me qualify: when we redesign something, it is, allegedly, to improve it, to modernize, update, clarify or otherwise enhance the appearance (and, implicitly, the purpose) of something. Fine. So FedEx is reborn in a bold orange and purple identity, noticeable and recognizable and, it might be said, better than it was before. That a designer's help was enlisted to achieve this goal is (perhaps) obvious. But today on TV, the designer is a decorator: on HGTV, Curb Appeal is added to a rowhouse by painting the window mullions, a simple upgrade and one that is eminently achievable in 27 minutes of airtime. But on ABC-TV, the hit show Extreme Makeover introduces a "dream team" of designers in the form of cosmetic dentists, plastic surgeons, and a host of experts whose cumulative adornments further amplify the splendor of the redesign. This is a fascinating, if somewhat terrifying form of design-in-action, accelerated in the interest of broadcast economy as if to suggest that the final rewards of months of surgical intervention take about as long to achieve as, say, the spin cycle on a washing machine. It's deliriously fun to watch, if a bit sickening and sad, but at the end of the day (or hour, as it were) one is left pondering the true reach — and power — of the very act of redesign. Logos? Liposuction? To the uninitiated layperson, what's the difference?

Crooked teeth notwithstanding, to wish yourself into someone else's likeness is ultimately a fiction, and a sad one, at that. Consider the teenage twins on MTV's I Want a Famous Face whose yearning to look like Brad Pitt led them to seek extraordinarily invasive surgery. Curb appeal or cosmetic dentistry? As we nip and tuck at our houses and our bodies, what's next for image conscious worshippers, and for the designers who are ultimately serving as their enablers?

In my vain yearning to refashion my self (or at least my kitchen) in the model of Nigella, I would be wise to consider several basic truths. Number one: cloning is not an option. Number two: I'll never have a British accent, anglophile that I am, nor am I likely to turn my green eyes to her dreamy brown ones unless I consider cosmetic improvements that, being a time-pressed working mother, are unlikely to take place any time soon. No: I don't want to be Nigella Lawson so much as to know her. If nothing else, perhaps our children can play together one day while she teaches me how to make crème brulée. Then she can explain to me, once and for all, the true meaning of splodge.

Posted in: Media

Comments [12]

And speaking of splodge...
Yesterday I went to Apple Store in New York's Soho. For those who have never been there, well, its totally seductive for designers and non-designers. Apple was never a slouch when it came to design, but its current makeover (like draining the rainbow colors from the apple logo so it is liquid-blue, transparently pale and ghostlike, as well as eliminating the 80s beige, and 90s candy colors for white and titanium) made me a total fan (not of a person but of a thing, of an entity).

The Soho store is a monument to this. Bathed in natural light, underscored by blonde wood, and translucent glass partitions. When discussing all that design does to manipulate the mind and soul, Apple has mastered the art and craft.

But like Nigella, Apple has its messy side. Amidst this beautiful (humanistic) technology - screens, towers, ipods, speakers, keyboards, etc. - are these grungy, pimply-faced, scruffy-haired, techie types wearing black pants and shirts (with G5 on the back), who are the physical embodiment of us (kinda). They are the signs and symbols that for all Apple's high-design, it takes a human (messy and quirky) to use it - and in this case to sell and maintain it.

Otherwise the Apple store is just like any other place that makes you wait. (Like Disney World). If you have a tech question, as I did, rather than take a number, one has to log on to a computer linked to the Genius Desk manned by spodgy geniuses and wait over an hour. However, the difference between this and my auto mechanic or doctor's office is the design of the place and the products and my "fanship," made the long wait acceptable.

Design can go far (and this is the double edged sword part) to make one feel good about things that are too splodgy. Apple may be the Nigella Lawson of technology, or maybe not. But Jessica's post prompted this association. By the way, after waiting for 72 minutes, the Genuis Bar tender fixed my problem in sixty-seconds. He was my hero.
steve heller

One wants to be the person or to have the thing, the substance of someone's life or the quality, purpose and the function of an object. Design and Fashion both communicate succinctly the promise of these actualities. We tend to consider it ideal that there is a strong correspondence between what is being promised and what one discovers upon actual involvement or interaction with the person or object. The person lives up to their image, justifies their image, the object functions as well as it seemed it might. But we know the image and substance can be stretched to the point of displacement. So that we see varying degrees of correspondence between image and substance. And the purchaser receives these things in varying amounts according to their purchasing power to the degree that many are willing to accept only the image, the brand, Brad Pitt's face, if they cannot have the thing itself. To some degree we are all willing to do this which is one of the things that makes design powerful. One of the reasons is the the great power of naming things, of branding them. But another is that the image or brand is like a line of credit, a placeholder for which we believe we are always in the process of building support - substance. We would all like to project an image that seems to us a little better than what we at this moment can offer in the belief that the difference is always in the process of being made up. We will soon live up to it.
Trent Williams

It's really all about fantasy as embodied in the surface of things.

You want to know Nigella because you have been seduced by her surface: that presence that she projects (and which has been designed by a team of image-makers) to the outside world. From this surface image, you construct the rest, imagining how fun and personable she would be in your kitchen; what laughs you would have; what pals you'd be.

This is the basis of all fantasy and all celebrity. We are fed enough that we can construct the rest, never having to deal with the unpleasant realities of people's true natures.

It's the same with the Apple store. They create a surface fantasy of the product onto which we can project all our desires for the perfect computer (or technological equivalent) which will arouse us, entertain us, be our willing help-meet, and fulfill our every quivering need without ever having to suffer the headaches of crashes, freezes, lost files or drop-shadowed type!

Those that actually take the extreme measures of changing their own bodies to fit the surface have been so successfully duped that they really believe they can embody a Brad-ness by adopting his physical attributes.
Incredibly, in a society obsessed by the surface and so willing to indulge in fantasy, they may be right.
marian bantjes

I don't cook myself, but I love the idea of Nigella Lawson in all her curvy, sexy, splodgy glory. Last fall, when she married Charles Saatchi, of YBA and "Sensation!" fame, I thought, oh dear, it's all gone a bit pear-shaped. Watch the brand, Nigella! Could anything be more unappetizing? The cows in formaldehyde, the rotting flesh, the frozen blood, the elephant dung. But it only made me like her more: Food, body fluids, Nigella knows it all comes out in the end. What a kinky, earthy connection these two must have! Very Thomas Hardy, dirt in the dairy. They're the Björk and Matthew Barney of the Saveur set.

The point is, these people are just characters to us. We fantasize about what they do and why they do it. The fact that they do what they do, and do it with whom they do it... Well, when it's this perfect, I'm almost ready to accept it as proof of some larger design. God, I love my celebrities.

"We would all like to project ... We will soon live up to it." My god man, I had never thought of it like that. Beautiful.

As daggy 12 yr old I believed in all that advertsing and the media portrayed to me. I felt I was inadequate in so many ways, and if I only bought the right .... then people would see what a "cool" person I was. I realise that I was not alone in this teenage feeling of isolation. I still find myself wondering how people perceive me as I move through this world. Thankfully, the older I get the less I care (but i still have my moments).

Now at 29 I found myself about to embark on a design career after studying for 5 years. Knowing that the majority of jobs advertised in my city are for media related design, how then do I place myself in this industry?

It is a question that I have been trying to answer since my 2nd year at university. Still no amount of pondering has provided me with the answer. I just hope I will be more then just a window dresser, and not add to other peoples feelings that their surface is all important, above and beyond who they are as people.
Charis Robinson

Because graphic design is often used to communicate and thereby add value to something there is always the concern that that thing is substanceless and graphic design is liable. This may be of particular concern because the graphic designer usually has little or no real relationship with the thing being communicated. This concern is often addressed by suggesting that designers be careful about what they represent, that they choose their clients carefully and not lie for them. Another possibility is to assume that in addition to providing some entity with a face, that that face itself is a communication with, and a reflection of, the culture. And that it is in this communication that we should seek authenticity. In other words, that the authenticity is connected as much to its interaction with the culture as it is to the entity the design surrounds and ostensibly communicates. So one might criticize Landor's work for BP as flimsy for using bright colors and a flower to represent environmental concerns rather than, or in addition to, criticizing them for making pretty a dirty business. The phoniness is in not speaking a real language or dialect. It is the same group of concerns brought up in the discussion on Neville Brody. One of the questions was whether or not he himself has been authentic more than whether or not he has been propping up a bunch of fakers with slick half-truths. He was being held to a standard of authenticity based on his communication with the culture as a whole.
Trent Williams

This post reminded me of Jane Dunne's 'Dinner by Design' (1994). I pulled it off the bookshelf and reread parts of it, LOL over the 'lifestyle' story featuring Tom Wedell and Nancy Skolos exchanging words at 2 am -she is half-asleep. . .
"It's too late to clean.",
she says upon hearing him say, "I don't see the comet." - He is standing by the window looking up at the sky in the year of Halley's comet. She knows of his penchant for cleaning.

I suppose what troubles me is the distance (if there is any) between hero worship and surface worship, and, to the degree that those of us practicing design every day are spending a considerable amount of time making better-looking surfaces, what does this say about us and about our work?

Yes, we can content ourselves with arguments about soul, about meaning, about content generating form, but at the end of the day, people respond to design because of what it looks like. Anyone who has ever participated in a design competition jury knows that book jackets and magazine covers are judged independently of what's between their covers: we vote based on what we see, not on what we read, because who ever has the time to do that? This is, more often than not, common practice in many forms of design criticism. To those approaching end of year reviews in schools both here and abroad: how many of us will have read the essays, considered the ideas, truly understood the thinking that went into the bodies of work presented? Or will we merely judge the design, as though it is a stand-alone performance all its own?

Hero worship, surface worship. What's the difference?
Jessica Helfand

What is the difference between literary authorship and graphic authorship?

I agree that many designers should read more often, but I also think that many writers should open their eyes (or maybe close them) and concentrate on looking, then seeing.

Speaking for myself and many other designers I know, we work extremely hard to distill content and create authorship in a purely graphic form.

This is not to say that we don't write.

Weak designers and strong writers have one thing in common, neither will exist without the filling in the middle because this is the where the breath taking content will be found.

When design stops thinking of itself as the bastardized step child of literary writing (neither can draw higher value) and acknowledges that the representation of surface is a plane for understanding, then we all can move on. Every page is still a 2D surface, whether it contains text, images or an infusion of the two (which would seem to be a third).

I think the problem is not with surface, but your perception and seeming distrust of surface.

The only thing beneath the surface of the page is another page.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

I respectfully disagree with you.

I don't think of writing and designing as necessarily separate acts, and neither apparently, do you: otherwise why would you be taking the time to post this thoughtful response? In my opinion, we can't be good designers without being good editors, and we can't be good editors if we're not thoughtful critics.

Criticism is what you're reading here. Not distrust.

Finally, I've never thought of design as a bastardized child of any kind. My point is simply that the culture of design, its practices and to some degree, its pedagogy, all buy into and support the supposition that appearances matter. I'll be the first to admit that graphic design isn't brain surgery, but given the current state of public, televised PLASTIC surgery, there's an air of familiarity that I can't quite dismiss so easily. This doesn't mean that distilling content and creating authorship (as you rightly say) aren't worthwhile objectives, for indeed, they are. But in my view, not to be aware of the pitfalls of appearance-driven consumer worship is tantamount to sticking our heads in the sand. I don't think this is about literary or graphic authorship per se: it's just about seeing consumer culture for what it is. And, to some degree, the same might be said of graphic design.
Jessica Helfand

A personal note to thank you for this post and all others you contribute, Jessica. From one 'Mommy' to another -I have a 16 year old daughter, hope you have a great day on Sunday. For most 'Moms' every day is Mother's Day in the joy we receive in seeing our children smile; better than any thing in 'the market' that a consumption-driven society will impel our loved ones to buy us, like new sneakers or a new kitchen!


Well, I know we're all about design criticism here, but I just want to say that your comment, Shahla, really made my day.

Thank you for this ... and right back atcha.
Jessica Helfand

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