Essays

The young profession of graphic design reached maturity during the 20th century. Within that new professional world, the sphere of work called ‘corporate identity’ became a true metropolis. There are a few classic examples of this development, and all historical surveys mention the visionary approach of AEG, the German pioneers in the realm of electricity, founded back in 1886.

We ought to ask the Guinness Book of Records for recognition. Olle Eksell (born in 1918) was invited to be an AGI member in 1952, along with five of his fellow countrymen, and is now our oldest, in terms of the duration of his membership. Walter Allner (USA), who died in 2006, was born in 1909 and was a member from 1963. In spite of such a long lifetime, dear old Walter never had a chance of beating Olle’s record.

Mendell & Oberer are vestiges of a particular era when both craftsmanship and visual aesthetics were still respected parts of the design profession at its highest level.

In the latter part of the 20th century, in the so-called industrialized societies, design played a vital role in helping business and commerce in the generation of wealth, in the development of the consumer society and in the spread of globalization.

The annual sailing regatta in the northern German town of Kiel dates back to 1882. It is now the world’s largest event of its kind, always taking place in the second week of June. Both World Wars interrupted the series; there were no Kieler Wochen organized in the years 1914–18 and 1940–46.

On 10 May 2006, students, lecturers and design professionals from all states of Australia and from New Zealand, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Abu Dhabi, the United Kingdom, Mexico and the USA, descended upon Melbourne’s premier art centre for the AGIdeas International Design Week 2006.

Lesson 1: Irony

Having taught graphic design (typography and senior portfolio) at The School of Visual Arts in New York for 23 continuous years, I will, for the first time, take a year off from teaching. The first official act of my sabbatical is to write this essay on education.

After 500 years of practically unchanging techniques for cutting the matrix for hot type, technical changes over the last twenty years or so in particular have radically transformed the ways and means of shaping, producing and distributing script.

They had already been really good mates for a long time. Personal friends but, more than anything, friends in graphic art.

In 1995, Cross-Cultural Design: Communicating in the Global Marketplace was the first book to anthologize what Ken Haas and I saw as a growing design phenomenon: the achievements of designers working in cultures other than their own, along with a useful vocabulary for this new discipline.

Stamps are just small prints with neat perforated edges and there‘s no mystique about designing them. The ones I like best look simple, but this is deceptive: their few square centimetres can be a battleground.

This is an understatement: ‘Alan Fletcher’s humour was special.’

In 1978, I wrote an article in a publication entitled About Art, on designing for a museum. That was during the 1964 to 1985 period, when I was designing posters and catalogues for Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Now, thirty years on, it is tempting to see whether the views that were then sacred to me still hold strong. Or are they long past their sell-by date?

 

‘...and the fire and the rose are one.’

– T.S. Eliot

In pride of place on our dining-room wall is a framed poster for the film The Man with the Golden Arm,

signed ‘To Arnold, with affection, Saul Bass.

In the early 60s, the Beatles were filling our ears, our minds and our record cabinets with their new sound and lyrics. The heyday of the Fab Four coincided with the dawn of graphic design.

Nearly six centuries ago, around the year 1450 in the German town of Mainz, Gutenberg was developing moveable metal type made of an alloy of lead, as part of his response to an increasing demand for printed books brought about by the Renaissance.

Membership of the AGI is, at the least, a compliment.

A value judgment by your peers. However, it is not true that every designer is out to achieve that membership. There are those who are against any form of assembly, those who don’t want to be a member of anything, and those who can’t see the point.

The Vienna-born American Richard Neutra played the violin at seven in the morning. Boggeri played every evening, at eleven. For an hour every night he went over the same bars until he achieved perfection. Perfection, though, was not enough for him.

There were real doom scenarios written for the Millennium Night.A night that lasted for 24 hours around the globe. Would the computers that watched over our global energy supply, our transport systems and financial transactions all survive that fatal instant in which ‘99’ would become ‘00’?

Graphic design is a true companion to sociocultural life.  It is a way to communicate culture, business and political contexts, to provide information and comment. The great changes in international society during the 20th century have demanded and created a real avalanche of visual communication. With it has come a great variety of often entirely new media.

Two phenomena mark this decade. HIV/Aids came as a many-headed monster, a plague that would affect the lives of millions and proved extremely difficult to combat. It took several years to develop the first Aids treatments, and these were and are far too expensive for poor countries and poor individuals.

This inheritance from the 1980s would be here to stay for quite some time – if not forever.

Later, realization dawns and you think: ‘Was it really true? Has the world indeed never been a happier place than it was in the seventies?'

Fifteen years had passed since ‘Little Boy' exploded, the bomb that wiped Hiroshima from the map and brought an end to WW2. Years in which the world licked its wounds and worked flat out on reconstruction.

The world was catching its breath, although the mess had not yet been cleaned up, by any means. The hopes and expectations cherished during the war had still to be forged into realities. Food was still scarce, the cry for raw materials loud.

1971 saw the publication of  ‘A History of Visual Communication’, penned by the celebrated Swiss designer and lecturer Josef Müller-Brockmann. The book goes back in time to pre-history. It begins in the caves in the South of France, 15,000 years before Christ, and even shows a page of neat accounts from Babylon, dated to 1800 bc

I don’t know exactly why we designers enjoy living in places other than where we were born, why we’re so fond of travel, why we enjoy other cultures so much. Maybe it’s because we like change, or perhaps we feel predestined to preach the gospel according to Graphic Design in the urban jungles of other countries.  Maybe this is the original idea behind AGI.

As a young designer in New York City, in the early 1970s, I was always inspired by strong urban graphics: complicated graffiti that completely covered subway cars; a painted cigarette advertisement on the side of a building on Eighth Avenue where the giant pack displaying extended cigarettes conformed to the shape of the building; a heroic sign for Pepsi-Cola that still commands attention on the East River when viewed from the FDR Drive in Manhattan.

‘Everyone teaches everyone.’

Pierre Bourdieu, sociologist

‘It’s our own view that often encloses other people inside the prisons we build for them, but it is also our view that can free them.’

Amin Maalouf, author