Jessica Helfand | Essays

You're Going to Hollywood, Baby

170,000 people in America think they have what it takes to be the next American Idol. And so they come, the talented and the talent-free, waiting in line for days on end in the hopes of securing one of the few prized spots in a competition that has has made Kelly and Clay household words. Young and oddly confident, they are blind to their deficiencies and impervious to the daunting odds stacked against them. To watch the AI auditions (which are currently being broadcast in the US on the Fox network during February, a "sweeps" month here in the US) is to be exposed to a curious epidemic: for while on the surface it's all about fame, it's also about the power wielded by the image, the luck of the draw, the seemingly insatiable quest for stardom that typifies modern ambition. Add a skewed dose of Horatio Alger, a quick dash of lottery action and, voila: your chance is as good as anyone's, so what's a few sleepless nights on the sidewalk?

There is much to be said about the complex lure of reality TV, but American Idol is different. It's unrehearsed and raw, but it's also amped-up by the showbiz veneer of performance (unlike, say, Survivor—which celebrates performance anxiety.) There's what TV writers call "rooting" value, a dynamic which operates on a psychological level in dramatic entertainment, but which engages the viewer on an interactive and financial level in this case because viewers vote for their favorite performers by dialing in on their cell phones. None of this changes the basic fact, however, that there's only one crowned prince or princess at the end. 170,000 to 1? Reality TV it may be, but there's nothing real at all about these statistics relative to real chances: it's a total crap shoot. (Of course, if you're Bob Kerrey or Howard Dean, these numbers probably look like a drop in the bucket. But I digress.)

The closer parallel universe, for me, is graphic design — especially insofar as the cult of personality remains an unfortunate incentive for many young, aspiring designers. I spent a good part of last weekend engaged in a preliminary slide jury of student work, which also involved reading letters of intent from an applicant pool that was considerable. When I later watched American Idol supplicants summoning all their courage to say, on camera, "America will love me!" and "I have what it takes to be the best!" I was reminded of some of these letters, which conveyed the same sense of drive and desperation. ("I will be a design pioneer!")

America needs its idols. It needs its pop stars. It also needs designers. But the inflated sense of worth that seems to accompany these contemporary visions of success, whether defined by performance parameters or design awards, skews the real value of any of these activities. (Nobody sets out to become a hero: it's a designation that comes after the fact, and it assumes some fundamental value at its core.) That any of this is perceived as "reality" is television's prerogative (or, in the case of The Apprentice, Donald Trump's) but where design is concerned, the content really should precede the form. I confess that I love to watch American Idol. I also love participating, as a critic, in graduate admissions — and it's a job I take seriously. But it worries me that hero-worship of any kind plays a role in shaping our young designers. Let's teach them to think for themselves, not mimic their predecessors. Let's remind them that being a pioneer is about having the strength of your convictions, which is not the same thing as being blindsided by accolades. The rags-to-riches phenomenon that is a real consequence of contemporary economics in the West will likely continue, and lotteries will be won. There will be a new American Idol, and new design pioneers, and new opportunities for us all. But design educators have a more immediate reality to consider, and in a profession that has its heroes and its awards ceremonies, its publications and its celebrities, we need to remember what's real and what, in the end, is, sadly, just ridiculous.

Posted in: Education , Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [28]

These are poignant observations that I share, Jessica. So much so, that I considered a thesis proposal utilizing graphic design as a tool: a broad range of communication vehicles would educate designers about how to become celebrities. But in the end, I realized there are plenty of models already out there for designers to study: Paul Rand, Wim Crouwel, or Saul Bass. And with me as the test base for this project, it was far too narcissistic--if there is such a thing.

Jessica, I agree with your call for the real, but how are we to resist cultural forces as pervasive and powerful as this? The desire for personal fame is a hugely intoxicating (and corrupting?) fantasy that now runs through highly developed media societies. The only way to avoid being influenced by such values endlessly amplified by TV and other media is to withdraw. Don't watch TV, don't consume the tripe. Some do this, but the cost is to become a margin-dweller, separate from the life most people lead. Once upon a time - 40 years ago? - critical culture, based in the universities and highbrow publications, could still insist that such spectacles, much milder then, were unworthy, degrading even to the society that consumed them. The few who make such arguments today are ignored. Many intellectuals are transfixed by celebrity culture, fascinated by it as a sociological phenomenon, but caught up in its values, too. (Academia has its super-star players snapped up by competitive universities.) You yourself say that you love to watch American Idol. So do I, even as I despise what it stands for. Why should designers and image-makers shaped by the same forces feel and act any differently?
Rick Poynor

Didn't all artists begin by emulating their heroes? Picasso, for example, didn't invent cubism and quite often appropriated techniques from other artists he admired. It's often followed by a purging of influences and the development of an individual style. I

Besides, doesn't American culture encourage people to go around proclaiming their superiority? If I wrote in a graduate application that I was a rather average designer who was eager to learn more about design, wouldn't this be seen as shooting myself in the foot?

Speaking of image makers, if Pattern Recognition is like any of Gibson's other novels, we'll see it on the big screen in the not too distant future. Would Gibson's Cayce Pollard be the first "visual specialist" romanticized on the big screen? How do characters elevated to such heroism effect the image of the practicing designer? Or is this stretching the issue?

how much of this is just simple fun and the universal desire to take part in something big -- a competition, a party, a concert? the fact that 170,000 people have equal access to this event is an amazing feat of modern communication and organization. isn't it just a different type of experiential entertainment than video games, shopping, or the annual chili fest?

certainly it is a phenomenon worth observing, but i would question how many people truly aspire to win vs. "believing" it is possible. santa claus and american idol. i believe!
chris conley

Maybe on the level of watching the humilation, it's not any different from a chili-fest. But I think from the participants' point-of-view, it's less a function of being part of something big and more an issue of beating the odds. I also think that unlike standard RTV fare which makes a spectacle out of the everyday, American Idol shows how everyday people can produce spectacles, and do it accapella, and with perfect pitch.

Rick, your points are excellent ones: maybe the idea is not to diminish this kind of entertainment, but rather, to know where to draw the line. It's a very real cultural force, and those seeking to deliberately blur the boundaries make it even more confusing, yet compelling as well. (Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, televised marriages — it's an endless list.) On some level, though, I wonder about the celebration of the derivative: I've always believed that appropriation only works when it transcends mere mimicry. It's that transformative moment I miss when I read or listen to students citing their idols, though I confess to being secretly pleased, on some level, as it also implies that they know something about design history before, say, 1985. Anyway, far be it from me to be a margin-dweller: bring on the pop stars and all that goes with it, I say. But when the pursuit of stardom becomes a cultural paradigm shift that migrates to other disciplines (like, say, graphic design,) I wonder what we're doing to stop it?

And Jason: I suspect the only alternative to Gibson's heroine being the first to personify a "visual specialist" on the big screen is if The Cheese Monkeys beats him to it.
Jessica Helfand

Correction: it's over 80,000 contestants — not 170,00 as it appears in the text. Still a big number (just not as big.)
Jessica Helfand

Ah HA!!! You're right, Jessica. I forgot about Kidd's alter ego in the Cheese Monkeys. Rumor is, they're in pre-production on that film as we speak... but listen to me, all googly over this nonsense.

I just finished the Kyle Cooper monograph by Monographics, and it's interesting to note how Cooper rose above the filmakers he was working for. Sometimes, his two minutes became more valuable and appreciated than their two hours. He seems to be handling the fame rather well considering the people he climbed over.

it's not ridiculous >> it's entertaining

i don't think madonna has added anything to music theory or history. in the sense of being a canonical song writer having significant lyrics/content or authoring any new sounds. she is in another category — the entertainer. she is entertaining. she has great theatrical shows. it's not about the musicianship, it's about the showmanship. musicians don't aspire to be madonna, entertainters do. being an entertainer is a valid occupation in america. so if there is some kind of emerging field in graphic design where you put on a good show, and it's not about being based in methodology, theory or history and doesn't contain any significant content, sure why not. americans need something to pass the time by. pop-design. corn syrup design. has some calories but no major nutrional value, but oooh so tasty.

do we even have a "j-lo" designer? where someone gets away with making it about everthing else but the design. all the design heroes i know of actually have talent. sure some not so deep on the critical theory, but really have the 2-d spatial relationship skills down. i don't think we have graphic design curriculums about getting groupie chicks, signing autographs, doing interviews, going to parties. the celebrity of it. we don't design on our computers in front of an audience and wait for their adoration to drive us on.

mimic-ing is fine. role-models are fine. not everyone is cut out to be a pioneer. over time, if you don't have critical distance to notice how you are copying and are not being that original, then chances are, it ain't gonna happen.

are we in a drought of pioneers?

i don't think we need pioneers as much as mentors. threw the baby out with the bath water on this diy thing, and now the plight of the unwashed masses amuses the successful, the talented, the priviledged. ay, elitist bastards!

Funny, I was lying in the bath yesterday, as I often do, thinking about fame in graphic design, and thinking about the relativity of that fame, and thinking about charting some kind of fame index with Paul Rand at the top of the pyramid of design fame and Andy Warhol (possibly) at the top of the pyramid of overall fame. Then I was pondering how to fit the one pyramid inside the other, and also about the fame pyramids of other professions: architects, artists, musicians, neuro-scientists, dentist and how they would fit into the larger fame pyramid (the one with possibly Andy at the top) and relate to the other fame pyramids.

Why was I thinking about this? Mostly I was thinking about my own fame (or lack thereof), my mini-puny-tumescence of fame down at the very base of the design pyramid and the potentially insurmountable odds of making it up through the levels of said pyramid, let alone piercing or scaling any of the other pyramids.

Even though I know that fame is a lottery and it has very little to do with your skill or craft or successful plying of practice without the combined forces of luck and marketing, I still can't help dreaming down here, crushed under the that weight -- the ever-increasing weight -- of other people's fame.

marian bantjes

I have to admit graphic design needs an attitude. A positive one, but still, an attitude.
Let's stretch it even more, graphic design needs a prophet.
The activity is swingging. Maibe not as much in the US, but definitively in other countries. It lacks references, authority, figures that society respects. And yes Jessica, this can only be done by "content really should precede the form."
Graphic design can no longer be neutral in a cultural e social level as well; it is vital.

This is an interesting little pop-fame narrative. It strikes me that here at the Design Observer we have nicely blurred the borders that distinguish famous from otherwise as I, a no-name design kid, sit co-writing a web log with Jessica Helfand and Rick Poynor!


1. I think it is critical to have heroes - if by heroes we mean those who influence our visual problem-solving methodology. It is when we take our personal convictions (visual and moral) and combine them with the discoveries of "our heroes" that we begin to uncover our own voice.

2. We must act differently because we are not seeking the same fame. Whether or not the American Idol has benevolent intentions, they have a specifically branded desire: they are seeking a record deal (and by inference - a chart-topping hit, money, and TRL). We are not so branded and through our chosen clients we have the opportunity to invest our time in projects that we value and through them to SHOW our visual ethics. The desire for fame in design is the desire for a freedom to work with clients in whom we believe. But this is a freedom available to me right now! Better to leave that plastic fame to the screen and it's idols.
Andrew Breitenberg

One of my favorite all-time comments on Speak Up, from pk:

[Edited for brevity]

from my experience, fame sucks. it puts you into a public category where your actions and work are completely not your own. you become a public commodity for everyone to tear apart and reassemble as they wish.

fame doesn't put food on the table. it barely even gets you a better table at a restaurant. it doesn't improve your skills. [...] some people can handle it, if you think you can, then be ready for it - it'll change you, and not always for the better.

Careful what you wish for.

And for my money, I would put Michael Jordan atop the all-around fame Marian. With Clay Aiken a close second.

Jodie Foster was a few years behind me in college, and because we had mutual friends, I had the chance to get to know her a little. VERY smart woman, and very honest, too, about the reality of fame. I remember her telling me once that going to McDonalds was a major ordeal—even getting past the drive-through window involved her wearing dark glasses and some sort of disguise, simply to discourage the inevitable delays caused by well-meaning (but intrusive) autograph seekers. And all she wanted was a hamburger.

Careful what you wish for, indeed: yet we do, at least some of us. I would posit that there is a difference between fame and heroes: we need the latter, while the former tends to skew our priorities. And while luck figures into it (the lottery, the crap shoot) I do believe that those final 32 on American Idol deserve their fifteen minutes, or more, of fame. They've worked hard. They're talented. But it's the idea of coveting the trappings — the creature comforts — that vexes me. At least insofar as I see these behaviors in some (not all) (certainly nobody READING this) young designers. (Hell, even OLD designers.)

What is it, exactly, that constitutes fame? Being a household name? Winning lots of awards? Paul Rand probably had as many enemies as he did fans, and I suspect he liked it that way. (His bark was way worse than his bite, and fame did little to diminish either.) Bradbury Thompson, on the other hand, may be eligible for sainthood simply for being the NICEST famous designer in history. (At Yale, he routinely took the entire 2nd year class out for lunch, and paid the tab. This was a mere inkling of a generosity of spirit that knew no limits.) Famous and nice. Imagine!

BT cared about integrity, imagination, consistency and elegance. He adored his family. He adored Baskerville—some might say too much so. He won awards. He was a household name. But my guess is, he cared about his work, about quality and originality. Did he set out to be famous? Doubtful. But he cared about design, and it showed. Seems to me that THAT'S worth emulating.

Jessica Helfand

Those are all very noble attributes and values that BT projected. It's very nice to hear about the substance beneath his work.

there is a difference between fame and heroes

Yes of course--brothers, mothers, uncles, neighbours, friends, teachers are often our heroes and are seldom famous. But in the broader arena our heroes necessarily have to have some modicum of fame, or how would we know they exist?

We see fame as this dirty word, as though it is ill-gotten, or perverting. So you can do great work, be admired by your employees, respected by your peers and valued by your clients, but after 150 awards (surface, shallow) and a growing demand to speak on your work or your ideas (within a 1-hour time slot), the more you enter the realm of "fame." Is this an inflated sense of worth? Does anyone ever say, "No I won't speak, because this attention is fake" or "No, you may not publish a 600-page book on my life's work because to do so would enable a cult of idolatry"?

Sure, many people seek fame as an end goal, the crown and mantle of Bianca Jagger, but most people just do something extraordinary and next thing you know people put their pictures on their walls or post their quotations on their sig. files.

There's this misguided concept that to labour in obscurity is more noble than to receive the highest accolades. That's nuts. Young designers/students may say "I want to be valued/make a difference/change the profession/be noticed" or they may say "I want to be famous"--I say more power to 'em. The desire to have people stroke our ego is what drives us to perfection.
marian bantjes

The desire to have people stroke our ego is what drives us to perfection.

Actually, shame drives me to perfection: the idea that someone might read a book that I designed and not understand a figure or be confused by the table of contents is often too shameful to ignore, and I'll stay at work as long as it takes to solve the problem.

Generally speaking, I think dwelling on other designers gets in the way of the work.

OK, good point, Rebecca (although ... shame?)--my statement was a trite generalisation. But is clarity all you aspire to? I have designed many a document that at a certain stage could never be faulted for clarity: the message is clear, it is readable--engagingly laid out even. So why not stop there? Many motivations will make me take it further (keepability factor, effective use of resources etc.) but I would be a liar to say that I don't think of my peers and my betters in the design community as one of the factors that will influence my need to look at it again, and try to take it beyond what is expected or required of me.

Why? Because I get a real charge when someone says to me, "Really? You designed that? Wow. I've always really liked that." or "I remember that, I still have one." or even, "Yes, I've seen your work." Someone noticed.

I have never watched American Idol. I'm sure it's the entertainment equivalent of a 5-car pileup. However, I have something in common with those people: I think I have talent, and I want to be recognized for it. Furthermore, I think most people feel the same way. We have a habit of devouring our idols, but let's not eat them as snacks before they've even had a chance to prove their worth.
marian bantjes

And for my money, I would put Michael Jordan atop the all-around fame
Not outside the US!

On the American Idol: This program originated in the UK, where its called Pop Idol.
The later programs are just a mediocre talent contest for entertainers. People watch because either they have been brought up on mediocre entertainment and don't know better, or they have begun to relate to the personalities involved.
The earlier rounds are different. These appear to be a 21st century version of bear-baiting. These shows are dominated not by those with a chance of winning, but by the social-inadequates who have no idea that they cannot sing, dance or whatever. These people are cannon-fodder for the judges' insults. The series relies on the ritual humiliation of vulnerable simpletons to get an audience, adding enough glimpses of the likely finalists to sustain viewing for the later programs.
My feeling here is that people lose interset with every series, until the third where they just aren't interested at all. (That may be clouded by my circumstances as the only person I know who watches it is my daughter, and as she's 10 now, it may be that its just too childish for her these days).

hmm... I'm not so sure about this whole "graphic design needs an idol" angle.

The majority of working graphic designers are not designing open brief wacky projects or free for all design publications full of abstract type and photography, or even get there hands on an alt culture publication to do with as they wish. For the most part design is a collaborative, team, company process, and the majority of designers are in firms working in the tight limits of their employers client list.

In many respects seeing what the Sagmeister's and the Carson's of the world do in the next issue of Eye or Print just makes the average graphic designer feel more and more "sick" about their own shortcoming and how "they never get to do jobs like that".

This design illness manifest I believe soon after leaving design college and realising that in most cases you won't be designing album covers, book covers or funky creative projects for the rest of your life, but will in fact be strapped to a macintosh burdened with 1 day deadlines, software problems and print production woes and stress. Right place, right time, who you know, and 'luck" play a large part in the creation of these design "idols" and more importantly it is creative and open CLIENTS that really make all the difference. So perhaps a "Client Idol" is more realistic.


Do most designers wish they had taken a different path career- and education-wise when they look toward their idols? We're always hearing about great designers that had non-traditional educations and supposedly have more artistic freedom. Quite a aways from American Idol, whose winners are totally owned....

David, someone a long time ago gave me the same speech about how only the lucky ones get to design the cool stuff. I've never bought into that philosophy, it's defeatist - the only luck you have is what you make. Desire and passion drive projects, blaming the client for bad work is an easy way out for not taking responsibility. If you don't like your situation take the steps to change things.

As for the design heroes, I've got more than couple. My attitude is to study those that are at the top of their game and learn as much as you can from them. Seeking fame as a means in itself is a mistake, however wanting to be the best is not.

My last name is Idol, and I do want to be "famous." Fame is a misnomer, in that the referenced definition is commonly making an imprint versus "being famous." Pop stars and idols, while temporarily engaging, are bland. They are as bland as the people who cannot resist calling me their Idol, asking me if I am an idle person, or asking me if I am related to Billy Idol.

Pop stars become bland once they achieve stardom, unless they continue to defy their classifications. The famous are trapped. Carson type is illegible. Sagmeister is a cd cover designer that uses handwriting and printing tricks. Britney Spears is the next Madonna, only young and naive as to how exploiting her body will be a detriment in the future. People create their own subsets, or as a marketer will explain, ladders. Unless the famous change their classification, they will remain once famous in a specific style. Defiance to a style can provoke disgust from the public, unless they accept the style as a new type of popular. The famous try the limits of the public, and sometimes do not recover.

Thusly, fame is not what the famous try to achieve. The famous seek a historical imprint of their achievements. Fame is not the achievement, and hence the earlier questions of substance in fame versus substance in content. To arrive at this point, the famous networked, produced prolifically, and invested in visible institutions.
These institutions exist as AIGA, competitions, American Idol, and Fullbright scholarships. When the famous are prestigous enough, they are admitted into institutions that cannot be applied for, such as the Alliance Graphique Internationale.

Consequently, fame is the real world solution to the goals of those who become famous. It is the value that we bring to our work that will make us different types of famous. Will we become sensationalists, or will we become intellectuals supported by researching our colleagues and profession, by listening to mentors, and by producing substantive work.
Jennifer Idol

Perhaps an interesting side to the 'idol" thing is that g. designers in reality do not get to put credit on their work anyway. 99% of all regular graphic design work goes uncredited and anonymous.

And many famous logo's and "brands" (hate that word) have been designed by non-credited young designers.

If there was no Print or Eye or Creative Review we wouldn't even know of the project itself never mind who did it, as the majority of design itself is never seen in the flesh at all. And the majority of design studios do not credit who is in their company on their website , so anonimity is 'contractual' as much as anything else. Even at design awards they invariable have a pic onscreen of the entry but you will never see the actual design in your hands. So perhaps it is all smoke and mirrors anyway? You do notice that it is only self employed Solo designers who generally get the "Idol' tag. Or is that the "Ego' tag ;)


I work as a womenswear designer in london and reading the comments on this topic, 'tuan, feb 4th'. He talked about the 'J-Lo's' of design. This really struck me I personally feel that Stella McCartney is a 'j-lo'. She was brought in by a corporate giant to refresh their flagging image, and thats where her expertise really stops. She wouldn't know how to make a 'pattern' if it bit her on the ass, and shes' brought in her 'talented' friends to cover her weaknesses. She hasn't done a bad job but it really annoys me that most fashion designers are extremely hard-working and have to train & work for years to refine their skills as a designer, a pattern-cutter, a manufacturer & a promoter. Knowing ones' craft completely is what makes a great designer in whatever design field & at the end of the day their is no quick route to being credible.
helen chased

In the second paragraph of the original essay, Jessica Helfand refers to both Bob Kerrey and Howard Dean. I'm having trouble seeing the connection there. Does she mean "John Kerry," the Massachusetts senator running for president? Or is it indeed a reference to the president at New School? If the latter, please explain the comparison. I don't get it.
matt f

Ok, Matt: you got me. Thanks for pointing out the error.

Though maybe there's a slight Freudian slip in there: let's not forget that Bob Kerrey led a seven-member team of Navy Seals into Thanh Phong village in February 1969, and murdered more than a dozen women and children. Now twenty-five years and counting later, BK's at the New School, but the numbers don't really lie, do they?
Jessica Helfand

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