Current 03/2010

Computers

Our secretary and our bookkeeper were the first to use computers in our studio and they needed special training to use these machines. Our small company even needed to develop its own bookkeeping software to meet our humble needs. We were a young but already well established design firm but we needed so far only one phone (land)line, a typewriter and a slide projector. This was our first step into the digital era.

 

 Computers1

 

Typesetters and lithographers were the first companies using computers in our professional environment and we designers had to understand their machines at a very basic level to properly instruct the production of our designs. Generations of typographers in Europe only dealt with the Didot point system, but now suddenly typographers were faced with a plethora of measurements systems mostly because many machines were produced in the US or had to be used there as well. This was the moment that a certain level of uncertainty entered the profession. You didn't know exactly any longer what was going on in production. Individual typesetters were starting to invent their own letter spacing system encouraged by the machine producers to give each typesetting company a commercial cutting-edge. The results were horrible. This was the time that too narrow or too wide letter spacing became popular with some. Our design firm begged typesetters to only use the default manufacturer's settings and leave all their own inventions off. Quality of type dropped suddenly dramatically. Manufacturing speed became the major consideration. Technicians and marketeers set the quality norm. And it took type designers and manufacturers a long time to figure out how type would produce the best visual result in the offset printing technology that became the only printing technology around. Block print disappeared. These were the meager years in typographic quality and it didn't help that American companies had a peculiar idea about what was 'modern' and what was not. It took them more than 20 years for mediaeval numbers to reappear in font character sets for instance.

The most technological advanced designers started to buy the Apple Lisa. The Total Design company in the Netherlands was one of the few agencies that invested in enormously expensive Dutch made, sort of 'Doctor Who' like consoles. It all looked smashing in their interior but these machines provided small technological advance (about Illustrator 1 level) only for a very short period of time. The investments almost brought this design firm on its financial knees. Designers became gradually heavily interested in digital production. The Apple Macintosh started the graphic production revolution. However, the Mac was still a bit expensive for some, so prudent designers started with less costly machines. Developments from there onwards went fast though. All designers became Mac addicts. The WYSIWYG interface in combination with the Postscript format wiped out typesetters and traditional font foundries. The lithographers were soon to follow. The landscape of industrial graphic production was put totally upside down within a decade or so, after being in operation for centuries. Every design firm gradually got their own computers to help doing the design work, first heavily depending on DTP'ers but most designers were progressively becoming DTP'ers themselves. Computers were fickle instruments back then. It didn't need much stupidity to have a bomb appear on your screen, and networks seemed to be more often down than up. A network needed the constant attention of hollow-eyed technicians who were at constant risk of becoming a part of the unreliable network themselves. It was during this time that economists often wondered why all these heavy investments in digital equipment and software did not produce productivity gains. The major problem was that top management dreamed about the new computing possibilities without having any real knowledge of, or direct personal experience with the new technology, leading to making bad investment decisions. It was the golden age for computer technicians and software developers. They could get away with murder, because hardly anybody had any clue about the implications of what they were saying. They were willing to computerise any procedure never mind how absurd the cost or return ratio. But every manager embraced the computer because they were scared shitless to miss the digital boat. No impressive production enhancement was likely to come from this high leveled crowd hysteria. Gradually, every tool and machine became digitised. The telecommunications industry had to counter regular tsunamis in its business model and for them there are still no calm waters in sight. The internet, mobile digital phones and other wireless equipment started to change the global community forever. At the beginning of this development, I felt that my expiry date as a graphic designer had become due. I had the gut feeling that in time this new technology would affect deeply all organisations and individuals in the way they work and live, but I felt very uncertain about how this would work out most likely. So far, I had been very confident in advising big organisations about how they could deal with the new graphic environment. To keep my position as a reliable counselor, I felt my advice should include from then onwards the extremely important new media as new channels of communication and weigh their importance against the more traditional media. I failed to have brilliant ideas about these matters and I left my position with a deep sigh of relief. In retrospect, almost no-one at the time had any clever ideas about how the new technology would affect us. We all would got wired, so much was sure, but the already dreamy atmosphere where hardly anyone still knew what he or she was really talking about when digital technology and the new media were concerned became at this stage in time pretty delusional. Very exciting though. I remember the first 'Doors of Perception' conference in Amsterdam. The atmosphere was electrifying as if we were entering a complete different world - and of course we did - but it wasn't the one most of us anticipated back then. First, we needed the dot com bubble to burst before forming a more realistic perspective on this new era. Very few were critical in an interesting way from the start, I remember one American speaker at the ‘Doors of Perception' who used to raise cattle on his farm, before turning into a new media guru because he discovered as he explained that 'there was more money in bullshit than there was in bulls'. Today, every designer spends most of the day behind a computer screen. Many other people do as well. The software we use has become monkey proof, no more bombs. The young can more or less use many different type of software for their amusement or professionally which has broadened their scope of expression immensely. Most do not master any software completely, nor do their instructors, but nobody is really interested in that. Never mind how silly we build up a file, or use our equipment, the computer will digest it all. Everything we manage to appear on our screen can be produced in whatever medium we wish. There are no longer production constraints, nor in size, or in production method. We no longer need handbooks or knowledge about production. Just plug, play and blast your mind away. This circumstance has resulted in landfill sizes of design crap, but also in seas of splendid beauty. The ongoing complexity of software applications make any attempt to master them entirely maybe a silly endeavour. Typography software effectively has created limitless options on how to shape text. And if that is still not enough you make you own font files with not too much effort. Professionalism and amateurism have never been closer together. The computer has made most executional skills redundant, as a result the concept or idea became even more important as well as the design trend to move away from all the overwhelming but also uniforming power of the computer and return to manual ways of creating. The way we deal with technology has somewhat matured. But only just. There is a steady group of production technicians around who collaborate with designers. There are no longer computer illiterates among young people. But the level of relation and integration with technology in designer's work varies immensely. Most designers are not interested in technology at all, but a few have very advanced technological knowledge. They have integrated design and technology much more closely. As a result, all kinds of interesting new design specialisations linked to technology have emerged. Although the biggest game changer in design has been the shift to the PR and communications aspect of it, which coincided with the arrival of the complex, but extremely easily accessible, and varied global communication networks. The real dramatic change over time has been the arrival of the ubiquitous computer in everything that surrounds us combined with the explosive use of telecommunication. Humanity has created an artificial extra digital sense for itself. One that we can put in our pocket or our purse. Most of our important actions have now also a digitised format, which makes it transmittable, storable and therefore retrievable. But it also means that it is impossible to exist without an artificial (seventh) sense that is capable of sending, receiving or browsing digital information as well as translating it to be used by one or more of our traditional senses. We work and communicate mostly with the help of digital tools and our telecommunication connection is always open. Our seventh sense never sleeps. Grandma can now be part of the family of her grandchildren living on the other side of the globe through a free Skype connection. Grandma is every day for as long as she wants on a screen part of the family again, as she was in person in the old days. The impact on social behaviour has been tremendous. Soon our daily tools will effectively be consoles connected to a global network that contains all the software we use and will store all our files and our digitised activities. And these consoles will become paper thin over time. Privacy or even solitude will become odd concepts. Our artificial sense will keep us connected to all others in the network all the time and the same counts for universal accessibility of all records of human civilisation. The last part will explode to effectively automatic and extremely detailed electronic diaries of every individual connected to the network. It is a wonderful and frightening world where the real and the imaginary will blend more closely and humankind and machine will share ever closer traits.

Letter from Greece

I am hard working in a country with low level education in design. I am proud to work not only for my family's money but also for doing social design, making work for the new left newspaper «DROMOS», making workshops for new designer for free and when I send posters in festivals and biennales I send original work making in order to work in the streets. Yes in my country we are living in a very difficult period. The only good thing is the weather and our landscape. I send you some of my works for social design. I find the way to show them here and there in Greek magazines and newspapers, in the facebook etc. Thank you for your time. I am an active designer as design is one of my three loves. The other is Jazz and fine espresso. Have a nice day my friend, love and peace, Dimitris Arvanitis

 

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A Stylist’s View On Design

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Olympic Icons

 

The article I saw prominently presented was an entertaining graphic animation about the history of pictograms for the Olympic Games. The author is Steven Heller. Steven is a typical American phenomena. His name is connected to over 100 book titles about - or related to - graphic design. Sometimes, he only writes the introduction of a book but his name appears more prominently on the cover of that book as the name of the author. Successful occupations in the US tend to end up in some form of industrial activity. Seen from this side of the ocean I always had the feeling that Steven was nominated by all graphic designers working in the US as their official ‘chroniqueur’. His name seemed almost invariably connected to all publications about graphic design over there. He also (co)authored many books about style. During my training as a graphic designer 'style' was an alien concept. Stylists were doing windows of shops, they were not considered to be designers. Seen with today's eyes, such a division is bizarrely rigid.

The first time I saw a book about style in art was in the library of the American consulate in Amsterdam. It was during my time as an art student, the two buildings were located not far away from each other and their art library was impressive. In a book I took from their shelves I saw a still life picture that was copied many times next to each other, but each copy had a different style, as if each still life was painted by one of the great masters. So there was a van Gogh style still life, next to an identical one in the Morandi style, and so on and so forth. I was both perplexed as I was intrigued by these images. I had never seen anything like this, this was against everything my teachers were trying to teach me. Style was not a thing you could isolate from a work and use it to dress up something else, that was utterly kitsch. It was like cursing in church. A designer should never be really interested in visual style, let alone look for one to adopt, a style was by definition something personal like a fingerprint, it was inseparably connected to one's work. Separating style from the rest was what made decorators different from designers. Decorators employed existing visual styles, designers may develop a personal style of their own over the years just like everyone has a distinctive handwriting. A decorator was capable of creating a particular atmosphere by combining existing elements that are known to create a specific effect. Like putting a fake snowman or a colour copy of a Rembrandt painting in a shop window to encourage Christmas sales. Designers do not have primarily the task to create a specific atmosphere, they have the duty to develop an interesting personal view on everything related to their design specialisation in a progressive manner —and obviously find an intelligent, professional answer to a brief. The two professions had little in common.

There is another typical aspect of styling. The result is intended to make things more attractive in a bourgeois sense. When copying the van Gogh style the 'crazy obsessiveness' of van Gogh has to be eliminated, the result has to emphasise on the attractive aspects of his work, the bright colours and the vividness of his brush strokes. A soft-focus version of van Gogh. Commercial styling is by definition an activity to make things look pretty, valuable, chic, expressing wealth. It is the instrument to create the preppy look, to make it posh, plush or 'bon chic bon genre'. Or by contrast, to make it look cheaper in a bargain sense. Styling, or decorating is the most used visual tool to help sell stuff. Decorating performed on its highest level can be an impressive activity.

When I entered the profession of graphic design there were two clubs of graphic designers in the Low Lands, one who's members were doing the traditional commercial work like advertising and one that brought together designers occupied with the rest of graphic design activities from designing books to corporate identities. In the beginning, they considered each other as two different pencil pushing species but after some time the two clubs merged. Both had started to enter each other's professional fields and the differences withered somewhat away.

 

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Left, Lillehammer 1994, right Athens 2004
 
 

Visual styling has always played a far bigger role in the US than in continental Europe, because most graphic design in the US was closely linked to promotional activities, it is primarily seen as an activity that could help sales. The designer in the role of author is an unfamiliar concept. Moreover, visual styling is much more important in all big societies than it is in small ones, because it creates order in large and diverse communities. Americans see style as a sort of dressing you can put over a salad to create an Italian or a French flavour, for instance. Style is a sort of visual sauce and an instrument for social order.

I was thinking about the importance of style in an attempt to comprehend the preferences of Steven Heller in his commentary about the different pictogram series designed over the years. What particularly puzzled me was the large difference in his appreciation for the series of the Lillehammer Winter Games (Norway) pictograms and those of the Athens Olympic Games. The series for Lillehammer were groundbreaking at the time because it was the first time that the visual identity of the organising country was given full priority when choosing the design concept for the pictograms, which is today the norm. It was the first time the Olympic pictograms were purposely 'styled' (ancient Norwegian cave drawings were taken as a starting point for the designs) to create an atmosphere linked to the identity of the organising nation. Hardly surprising, the pictograms were designed by an American living in Norway (AGI member Sarah Rosenbaum). The Greek series were heavily influenced by the Norwegian concept. The Greek designers took their famous ancient vase paintings as a starting point. Steven dismisses the Norwegian series using a bogus argument of lack of functionality while he puts the Greek series high on his Olympic platform of pictogram design.

I failed to understand why. The Lillehammer series are very strong graphic symbols that successfully radiate the same mystic power of the original cave drawing, while the Athens series are more a marshmallow version of the original vase drawings, pleasant, easy chewable but not having the same impressive pictorial strength of the original examples. I came to the conclusion that Steven dislikes the Norwegian series because they're not pretty. They do not have a preppy look, while the Athens series do possess that quality.

Steven Heller looks at graphic design with the eyes of a decorator, a stylist.

Updates

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