20 November 2009
AGI is a type of club that is as old as humanity, I guess. It is based on the attraction that people in comparable circumstances feel towards each other. Somehow they like to be in contact and gather occasionally, for pleasure and probably for mutual advantage. The medieval guilds were comparable clubs, although they sought more direct power and influence, like the professional organisations or unions do today. Most countries have one or more national associations of graphic designers that function as social networks and as instruments for professional development, promotion, standing and coherence. The ICOGRADA is the international body which coordinates all these local organisations on a global level. This network effectively covers all direct professional interests of graphic designers. AGI is a completely redundant club within this context.
AGI is better comparable with informal clubs of friends born out of the inevitable human desire to select 'the best' and bring them together. The best always know the best. Traditionally, these kind of 'elite' clubs always kept a low profile, even up to the level of becoming a secret society. That made much sense. First, the best do not seek recognition, that's already established. In contrast, the anonymity of the company of peers is much appreciated. It can be demanding to be most of the time the 'primus inter pares'. Second, it is a bad idea to even give a slight impression of competing with the existing and far more useful professional organisations. Third, any organisation that selects its members by invitation only, has no sensible incentive to promote itself. Such a promotion effort can only be seen as an undermining activity of its own chosen status. Champs or celebrities do not need to advertise themselves. Forth - this is a more Calvinistic point of view - superiority should never be overexposed or promoted. The gifted have the obligation to let the community benefit from their privileged position. Chest beating of any kind is rightfully considered as utterly uncivilised and embarrassing behaviour.
The formal duties of a club like AGI are pretty simple and straightforward. AGI needs to find someone willing to organise an appealing members gathering once a year, it needs to invite sufficient new members to keep the organisation alive and it needs to do the members servicing and administrative housekeeping like any other club needs to do. That's about it. A club like AGI should be well aware of its limitations. We employ one secretary half time for the necessary members servicing and housekeeping and the rest of the budget is spent on meeting expenses of our board to see that our basic objectives are met and our half-time secretary is directed. Our board is a fluctuating group of unpaid volunteers, who are more likely to receive criticism than gratitude from the members. The costs relating to the yearly members congress (including the students seminar) is not part of the AGI budget other than for the travel costs of coordinating board members. The financial risks of these essential events are entirely borne by the organising members. We are extremely lucky that these arrangements still function.
Hardly surprisingly, some AGI board members have found it hard to accept these limitations and not always to AGI's disadvantage. Our former president Ken Cato took AGI away from the death pit of a 'designosaurus' organisation. Many new members were accepted and member's fees raised. Ken also initiated AGIdeas, a students conference in Melbourne. The first conference coincided with a small and cosy AGI congress in Australia. Within a few years AGI was rejuvenated and relatively well to do. Ken had taken his extremely successful students conference into his own hands. It still is called AGIdeas but this huge event has nothing to do with AGI any longer and rightfully so, it is way too big to be handled by our AGI club. AGI's new strength and wealth grew further under his successor David Hillman, who desperately tried to create an AGI magazine and laid the expensive foundation of the AGI website. His successor, Laurence Madrelle saw an opportunity to use our prosperity to realise her dream. Laurence wanted an update of the only AGI book ever published, a private enterprise of our late member FHK Henrion. She made the AGI enthusiastic for her idea and found members willing to put much effort in realising it. Her successor Jelle van der Toorn Vrijthof effectively took the burden of realising her dream and spend much of his time working as a publisher and at the same time steering our club away from bankruptcy. AGI can easily underestimate the consequences of its initiatives and overestimate its reach, capacity and competence. Given its current structure, AGI should keep its ambitions in line with its rather modest facilities. Carrying out AGI's three major duties is more than enough and apparently already too much given the rather poor way the board prepares the members for and disseminates the results of our General Assemblies. Our recently past president pointedly remarked that AGI had become a sort of anarchistic organisation. During his farewell speech he promised improvement. A curious commitment for someone just stepping down after 7 years on the board.
The challenge AGI is facing is making a decision about the kind of organisation it wants to become. The inevitable growth in the amount of members has already made our club less personal in the eyes of the early members. Growth always brings changes and I guess there are thresholds in size where organisations have to restructure themselves. I am very sure about the need of a more dramatic organisational overhaul if AGI wishes to realise ambitious goals next to its ongoing duties. And the only way to realise an organisational change is by a considerable extension of and shift of influence to the AGI secretariat. Such a change in turn would have a dramatic effect on our cashflow and would be a big step away from the club we are today.
19 November 2009
I think the problem of the AGI is not the self-conception (Selbstverständnis) of the individual members from all over the world. Please have a look at the different definitions of elite at Wikipedia in German, English and French! The pros and cons of Elite depend on the historical point of view. So I send you, inspired by the image of Louis XIV. in your article at the AGI website, an image of a painting of Adolph Menzel, which I have stolen from the German page "Elite" in Wikipedia. (It looks like the AGI congress in Blois)
Adolph Menzel: "Tafelrunde König Friedrich II." (company at table of King Frederick ll.) in Sanssouci together with Voltaire (3rd from the left) and the leading members of the Berlin Academy, 1850, former National Gallery, Berlin, 1945 burnt. By the way: I think the AGI has to go back to the roots. It was from the beginning a club of friends, very personally and after the World War ll ostentatiously international! The rituals of the big "get together parties" per annum are till today very simple, joyful and effective: We are changing thoughts and ideas, presenting new works, dicovering alien lands and last but not least new members! (and sometimes a lot of drinks!) Therefore I suggest for the next congress in Porto: Each new member should be invited for a lecture - but not longer as 10 minutes! Lectures of old members should not be longer than 10 to 15 minutes as well. One of the bigger hotels should be an official meeting point of the congress (as like as in the past). All participants of the congress should be asked for some examples of their (new) works (or books about their works, new posters or stamps etc) in order to present them in the lobby of the congress-building, (as like as in the past!) Further more I suggest panel discussions at the end of every congress day. In the future: congresses should not take place in big cities. As like as in the past in Montauk instead of New York City and now in Porto instead of Lisboa. And we should ask all members for further suggestions.
Dear Editor and Uwe, Thanks for your e-mails. I agree with Uwe about the AGI venues and the presentations of new members. That's exactly what we intend to do in Porto. It is shaping up to be an excellent Congress, and we hope to supply more concrete information soon and will post it on our site. We are currently looking for a venue for the 2011 congress. It has been politic in the past to rotate conference between east and west, and 2011 should hopefully fall in the far east or far west. Please contribute your ideas, so we can start planning way in advance which makes everything easier. While all ideas are welcome, they are more helpful if they come from an individual or group of AGI members who are willing to take the responsibility of setting up and running the conference. (We are happy to entertain any location that comes with a host). I was very amused by Edo's post, and especially by the paintings both of you supplied to accompany them. I wonder how many foot servants, chambermaids, cooks, butlers, stable boys, (not to mention the portrait artists) etc. served and assisted the "elite" groups, as they enjoyed the pleasure of each other's rarified company. I especially wonder who paid for it. Among designers, "Elite" is a relative term. Their perception of who is "elite" (and therefore, who's company would flatter their own egos by virtue of their inclusion), can vary based on age, region, discipline of design, etc. What I find amazing about AGI, after 18 years of membership, is the immediate appreciation by the older group of the unique talents of new members, once they have entered the group and shown their work. They refresh us and make us continue to feel elite. Then, we all bond and we all enjoy our mutual "eliteness" all the more. Long live AGI.
16 November 2009
16 November 2009
These two designers made their harsh minimalist judgement as Modernists, believers in a form austerity they called functionalism, without giving many clues about why functional design did what it was supposed to do. Functionalism has always been more a matter of the heart than of the mind. (Wim Crouwel was hooked to tinkering on his own modular display typefaces). Design and typefaces can generate impressions like tranquility and order, exuberance, friendliness, extravagance or freakiness. These emotional associations are not for everyone the same (cultural differences can be large) but they can be used as effective communication tools.
However, there is a difference in how the power of these tools are assessed by individual designers. The functionalists believe that the emotional/communicational quality of a specific typeface design is highly exaggerated, other aspects are far more important to make things clear. Stylists and marketing people believe in the super power of all aesthetic aspects even up to astonishing detail. One can play the viewers mood like one plays the violin. And being able to influence the mood is important because any understanding starts with the willingness to listen. I have the feeling that these two different approaches to the appreciation of typefaces are still important but also that it separates for a part (for the time being) design cultures. The small populations up North (like Switzerland, Scandinavia, Holland) and Germany have in general a functionalist's approach. The US, France and the UK for instance have more a stylist's approach to type design and typography. In those countries type fetishism, type nostalgia, type-hype and type conservatism are far stronger. I am always surprised how many design magazines published in the UK or in the US pay much attention to graphic design of the past. It often fills 25 % or so of the magazine's content. Also design 'style' books are almost entirely an American undertaking. Design publications in the Low Lands rarely pay attention to the past, all designs of everything have to be 'renewed' almost constantly. Cultural or historical styling to create a specific familiar atmosphere is rare also in interior design, no contemporary 'Italian' or 'Art Deco' interiors for instance. In big countries there is a need for aesthetic conservatism. I guess to bring order and a feeling of security in large communities. The use of well known 'iconic' design can provide those things. Sometimes, there seems to be almost a phobia to change. One of the best magazines in the world 'The New Yorker" clings almost pathetically to the original typographic design of the magazine. I'm used to the design now, but the typography looks (to me) like the typography on the packaging of herbal tea. I had the above thoughts after reading the column of Alice Rawsthorn in which she confessed being a type affectionado herself. It appears that the Helvetica flu isn't over yet, after affecting most parts of the design world. In the article, there was a love song about the signage of the New York subway, still using the Helvetica typeface in its original design made for print. This has become a rarity among most other subway signage programs in the world which have practically all their own proprietary typeface designs. There is also resistance by the type purists against changes of corporate typefaces. The Swedish Ikea had to publicly defend its change of the Futura for the Verdana typeface. The wining came mostly from American designers, indeed. Type melancholy is a condition more likely to occur in big societies. Edo SmitshuijzenNYT article about type purists
10 November 2009
However, the habit has changed. An essential part of pursuing a successful career today is to pay much attention to the way one is exposed in all the media available. A word of mouth is now keyed in on a keyboard. Having a website is a minimum, participating in various social networks is practically a must and using text is an inevitable part when participating in these networks. Designers need hundreds of network contacts not only to show their work but also to tell about themselves. Today's design marketing demands a narrative next to the pictures, as it is has always been the case in good old advertising. One picture can tell more than a thousand words, but one word can change your life. So many designers have their own design blogs where they tell about themselves, their experiences and opinions (about others and their profession). Having an outstanding visual talent will no longer suffice, designers will have to become serious blabber-boxes in order to survive. Some designers have grouped together to give design websites a stronger public boost. Designers associations all have their own websites, but the most visited websites are designer's initiatives. The 'Design Observer' for instance has changed within a few years from a modest initiative into a digital institution where one could easily spend one's life reading with the absolute certainty that the production of new stuff will increasingly outpace anybody's capacity to absorb it.
Design writing in the English language is still way ahead of the writing in any other languages. The reason is for a part tradition (design and art education is often linked to universities) size and the sophistication of the English speaking economies, and for a part the advantage of writing in the Lingua Franca of our times. The electronic media are the fast growing disseminators of design writing, but the amount of printed material available has also exploded. Currently, design magazines are going through a rough time probably, but most of the well known are still around and there are countless new initiatives. Design eduction is a prolific producer of design magazines. A designer can easily drown in the amount of design related periodicals around, but book production has turned into a tsunami of design information. Publishing in print requires less and less initial investment, so the amount of new design titles keeps on increasing every year. Several of those new titles are portfolio books which require a minimum size, and weigh as heavy as building bricks. These type of books are the new designer's business card (or even a student's portfolio). Also any design related event, graduation, award or celebration requires an impressive volume as souvenir. Essays or guides on practical or theoretical design aspects are still the minority but this section is also growing fast. There have never been so many books about typography around for instance as the new titles released in the past 5 years. Every designer will move a bit into the direction of a 'book factory' like Steven Heller's, I'm afraid. The most interesting part of this fast growing volume of design writing is how design commentary is starting to become part of the content of quality newspapers. A clear sign that the design profession has matured. Graphic design has become a news item fit for mass publication. I do not know how many nationwide newspapers publish regularly about design, but if the New York Times (NYT) has opened the window to the future, we're heading in the right direction. The NYT reports about design issues very regularly, Alice Rawsthorn and Allison Arieff run interesting columns or blogs. Two AGI members, Christoph Niemann and Maira Kalman send in every few weeks or so wonderful cartoon-like contributions. And it is very encouraging to see that most of these columns appear the list of the most read items. An uplifting sign in these tough times. Alice Rawsthorn Allison ArieffMaira KalmanChristoph Niemann
08 November 2009
07 November 2009
The tools I used during the four years of my design education were mostly a pencil and paper, and occasionally some ink, charcoal and gouache paint. That was about it. All my student projects were presented using these tools including the presentation of complicated typographic designs. Every project presentation had the charm of nicely hand drawn illustrations. The display of today's students projects are no longer distinguishable from the 'real thing'. Nothing reveals the study character of these projects other than its design quality.
1. The sophistication of the designer's tools
The most important change for the design profession has been the perplexingly rapid growth in the sophistication of the tools we use. It resulted effectively in a situation where all traditional production constraints have disappeared. Limits in complexity of lithography or reproduction and the related know-how no longer count. Typography can be specified and easily manipulated on a level of subtlety way beyond the detectability of the human eye. Traditional constraints are minimised; anything can be produced in any quantity at any size. Production for all type of media has become relatively easy. Soon, animated and/or interactive graphics can also be produced in any size at relatively low costs. All these developments have created a world of immense abundance, that is still growing and growing. It generated an unprecedented availability of extremely high quality design work. The productivity in designer's practices has also exploded despite that many of the traditional externally done production work is now carried out by the designer.
2. The democratization of design
The wide availability of highly sophisticated and cheap production tools has led to the democratization of the use of these tools. Everybody owning a computer and some additional low cost digital equipment is now a designer, a photographer, an artist, an architect, a writer, film director, composer, publisher and a broadcaster, all at the same time. It seems that the traditional newspaper and TV stations have been seriously hurt or are slowly dying altogether with the people still using them. The young generation turns to the public digital networks where everybody is content provider as well as content consumer. Passive consumption seems to be out of fashion, even stronger, there is much more need to produce content than to consume it. Obviously, this all leads to the production of universes of crap, but also to Open Source software, Wikipedia and news delivered at an incredible speed and detail. The demythologizing of designer's skills and the stronger connection between design and actual production also resulted in the degradation of groups of designers into 'digital bricklayers'. They do pure production work with close to no real designing ambition. The professional field of design was split -in line with what has happened to the rest of society at large- into a wider segregation between a select group of designers working at the top level and a large group at working class level. The masses and the stars cannot exist without each other. There is also a tendency to give the end user a bigger role in the design of a product either by extreme customisation or by so called crowd sourcing. In these cases the professional designer plays no longer any role in the design.
3. The multidisciplinary team
Complex, high level design jobs can no longer be done by an individual or a group of designers. They need the contribution of other disciplines to create effective design solutions. At one end there is a need for technical input to make the design functional in all environments, on the other end there is a need for marketing and communication expertise to enhance the effectiveness of the designs. Both type of indispensable contributions have become complex activities. A functional large scale internet site is a high tech operation and so is the effective marketing and communication for any large scale activity. The working relationship between technicians and designers is in most cases effective and fruitful, the working relationship between the 'communication experts' and designers can easily become more problematic and may still need some fine tuning. The past twenty years have seen an influx of armies of communication experts into the designer's working environment, nesting themselves between top management and designers. That is not a fruitful position in all phases of a design job. Especially in the phase where the designers need to translate the basic ideas of the leadership of an activity into the world of graphics in order to make it easier to understand for everyone and to disseminate more efficiently. That translation is a very delicate process and requires a direct confrontation between the two parties involved (top management and design principals). Maybe this translation process is best explained using the metaphor of translating in various languages. If top management speaks French and designers speak Dutch and communication experts speak Russian, it is not sensible to translate French first into Russian to get the final translation in Dutch, because too much will get lost in the translation. Let the French speakers solve their translation problems directly with the Dutch speakers, that will be much more effective and inspiring.
4. The measurement of design effectiveness
The measurement of design effectiveness has been for the longest time a matter of opinion. Of course sales figures could be quite informative, but sales can be spurred in mysterious ways. It is not always easy to find out what exactly led to the design's success. The massive use of the digital media changed this judgement, because the behaviour of the consumer/user can be traced with shocking precision. Design effectiveness can be measured in large detail and almost instantly. These circumstances have helped determine more objectively what works and what doesn't. Obviously, this doesn't mean that interpretation is no longer needed. First, all data are statistical data which can easily be manipulated. Second, young people have become masters in manipulating the hits of their activities in order to enhance their ranking. Google once started off only to measure quotations appearing in scientific publications to rank the importance of scientific contributions more objectively. Since then Google has been constantly busy to refine their software to keep its claim of objectivity alive against a highly inventive crowd trying to manipulate the statistics to their own advantage. The game of designing has definitive changed, and the possession of digital equipment has become indispensable, but a critical mind and a piece of paper are still pretty handy.
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