Aesthetics and the Ideology of Design

Vanessa Kanan Corrêa and Stuart Kendall delivered this paper as part of Design(ing) Criticism, a panel moderated by Carma Gorman and Elizabeth Guffey, at the College Art Association Annual Meeting in Boston. The other panelists were Johanna Drucker, Dennis Doordan, Denise Gonzalez Crisp, and Bruce King Shey.

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This paper makes two related claims. First, that writing about graphic design has historically espoused an ideology of communicative clarity, effectively ignoring the physical nature of graphic design objects and the precise nature of communication in design. The ideology of communicative clarity suggests that design objects are best when they communicate a client’s message simply and directly, without confusion, ambiguity, or delay. Yet – and this is our second claim – design objects are physical objects: they are part of a physical world of sensation. They fascinate before they communicate. In design, physiology comes before ideology and communication is secondary to seduction. Circumscribed by the ideology of communicative clarity, writing about graphic design generally fails to engage with the true form and the first function of design objects. Design writing, in other words, is rarely writing about design.

The ideology of communicative clarity is, of course, not unique to design writing. Rather, its tenets originate in the Western tradition of Platonic idealism. This paper will explore this ideology and its limits as it functions within writing about graphic design. First, we will trace its roots in Tschichold’s modernist conception of design, wherein the essence of design is conceived as “clarity”. Thereafter, Steven Heller’s short essay “The Cult of the Ugly” will provide us with a more recent exemplar of the ideology in its confrontation with postmodern design. The second section of our paper articulates the logic behind the success of this ideology: to wit, its role in marketing graphic design to corporate clients as a facilitator of communication. Yet, and as we demonstrate, even when design writers attempt to promote a role for design that is not beholden to business, as they did in the recently reissued First Things First Manifesto, they often remain bound by the ideology of communicative clarity.

The third section of our paper considers two examples of design writing that nearly escape this ideology. Both suggest a means for accessing the reality of design objects but both also remain bound and limited by the ideology in different ways. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville praises “ambiguity” as a means of requiring a reader’s thoughtful “participation” in design objects, as if all design objects, no matter how clear, were not, like other aesthetic objects, already and inherently ambiguous. And Edward Tufte praises density and dimensionality in design but only so long as these things are subservient to communication.

Our conclusion draws together remarks in support of our second major claim – that design objects are first and foremost physical objects and must be considered as such prior to being considered as carriers of communication. If design writing aspires to discuss design objects at all, it must begin with a discussion of the physical nature of design objects, which is to say with a discussion of their sensual and hence aesthetic nature and appeal. This second claim is, of course, the larger of the two. It informs all that follows. Indeed, as the basis of our criticism, it runs throughout.

I.

The ideology of communicative clarity is rooted in the logocentric Western tradition. In his Republic, Plato puts words in the mouth of his mentor, Socrates, to the effect that the visible world is not the true world, its objects are but shadows cast on the wall of a cave. The true world lies beyond our sight, in invisible Ideas of which the shadows are mere copies. Plato’s Ideas, or Forms as they are sometimes called, present the essence of our shadowy things: they are singular – in opposition to the myriad copies visible in the material world – and they are simple, presenting as they do only the most primary elements of the thing or concept in question. For Plato, the world of Ideas, the world outside the cave, is a world of clarity and light. The world inside the cave – our world – is by contrast a world of shadow and ambiguity. Plato’s goal, as a philosopher, was to bring clarity and simplicity of both thought and expression into our world of dark ambiguity. And his work was convincing enough to have influenced the following twenty-three hundred years of civilization. Nietzsche described it as the “worst, most durable, and most dangerous of all errors”.

This is obviously to suggest Platonism – and indeed all idealism – has had its critics. We need not list them here. Our point, simply put, is that they are certainly not to be found among writers about graphic design. Jan Tschichold’s 1928 manifesto The New Typography is a seminal text in graphic design writing and it is permeated by Platonic idealism. “The essence of the New Typography,” he writes, “is clarity.” Tschichold argues that the historical concerns of typography and graphic design with “beauty” and “art” had, until the early 20th century, obliterated the essential quality of typography. Tschichold aligned himself with well-known modernists such as Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy by championing the abolition of the “ornamental”. Ornament was to be replaced by “clarity of appearance”. Clarity, for Tschichold as for Plato, requires that one reduce the communication under consideration to its essential elements, that if be stripped, in other words, of ornament, anything that might distract a reader from the intended message.

In his impassioned treatise on the “battle between the old and the new,” Tschichold so enthusiastically and convincingly took up Plato’s mantle that contemporary design writing continues his search for clarity and his will to reduce communication to its essential elements. What were these essentials for Tschichold? His text and its illustrations demonstrate that we are not simply to replace the old ornaments with the new geometric and abstract forms of the New Typography. Rather we are to understand how the removal of decoration will expedite the reader’s comprehension of the message. “It is essential to give pure and direct expression to the contents of whatever is printed, just as in the works of technology and nature, ‘form’ must be created out of function.” He notes “extraneous additions [i.e. ornament] can never produce the pure form we demand today.”

Tschichold outlines the New Typography in an argument for pure form – form unencumbered by the naiveté of decoration. “Today we see in a desire for ornament an ignorant tendency which our century must repress. When in earlier periods ornament was used, often in an extravagant degree, it only showed how little the essence of typography, which is communication, was understood.” For Tschichold, the urge to decorate is akin to bad design.

Arguing against ornament, he further elaborates the difference between the tenets of the New Typography and the historical use of embellishment in type and graphic design: “It is absolutely necessary,” he says, “to omit everything that is not needed. The old ideas of design must be discarded and new ideas developed. It is obvious that functional design means the abolition of the ‘ornamentation’ that has reigned for centuries.” For Tschichold, forms follow the “laws of nature” and “are drawn towards greater clarity and purity of appearance.”

By emphasizing  the aspect of communicative clarity in design, Tschichold turns his back on the aesthetic nature of design objects and on the aesthetic decisions that are required to make them. Speaking of the typographic arts as historically decorative, he claims, “Problems of formal aesthetics (choice of type, mixture of typefaces and ornament) dominated considerations of form….today we have moved considerably closer to the recognition of its essence….” Tschichold lays the groundwork for future calls to clarity and for the rejection of everything that seeks to foreground the materiality of the design object. He argues, “Our age is characterized by an all-out search for clarity and truth, for purity of appearance….We require from type plainness, clarity, the rejection of everything that is superfluous.”

Tschichold’s The New Typography, for good or ill, can be historically celebrated or dismissed as a paragon of modernist design sensibility. Tschichold himself moved beyond it in significant ways in his later writing. Yet, while much of the modernist spirit and style has passed away, the ideology that informed The New Typography and its approach to design has not. Graphic design as a field is indistinct from “communication design”. Communication Arts is a premiere journal in this area of design. Robin Kinross’ book Modern Typography (2004) presents a history of typography guided by the ideology in question: the entire field thereby subsumed within and organized by the ideological frame. Perhaps the most significant recent “theoretical” approach to design is that of “Information Design”, an approach that prioritizes empirical research into the problems of communication and legibility, rather than into design as a whole.

All of this in mind, it is unsurprising that the ubiquitous design journalist Steven Heller should adhere to the ideology. In a representative piece, “Cult of the Ugly”, Heller observes with horror a world of design in which “order is under attack and the forced collision of disparate forms is the rule”. For Heller – who is perhaps the most visible, current avatar of the ideology – ugly design is “the layering of unharmonious graphic forms in a way that results in confusing messages”. Heller’s emphasis is on the clarity and orderliness of communication: confusing design is quite simply bad design.

The value of design is relegated to its function as a means of communication, which, it must be said, seems reasonable. What would be the use, after all, of a design object that did not communicate? What client would pay for such design? What else could or should be the priority of design if not communication?

Even in light of the general acceptance of these claims, Steven Heller’s unexpectedly vitriolic and vehement militancy in favor of the ideology astonishes. His terminology alone might give any designer pause, exploiting, as he does, the language of the pulpit coupled with the rebuke of the parent. In “The Cult of the Ugly”, non-communicative design results in “confusion,” “Frankenstein’s little monsters,” “confusing messages,” “artlessness,” “excesses,” “ambiguity and ugliness” and even, amazingly enough, “sin.” This barrage of “questionable aesthetic output”, Heller argues, is the product of “too much instinct and not enough intelligence or discipline”.

Ugliness, it seems, undermines the primacy of the mind over the body, of civilized restraint over animalistic instinct. Heller’s imperious condescension in the face of primitivistic “experimental” design reaches a fevered pitch by the end of the essay: “Ugliness,” he asserts “is valid…when it is key to an indigenous language representing alternative…cultures.” It is invalid when it becomes a “style that appeals to anyone without the intelligence, discipline or good sense to make something more interesting out of it.” Indigenous alternative cultures, however politically correct, do not seem to possess the rationality required to identify their own aesthetic failings, failings seen “clearly” in the bright light of popular design culture. The practitioners of “ugly” design reject the “verities” of balance, harmony and communication, in favor of irrationality and excess. Significantly, Heller’s piece ignores the genuinely aesthetic issues proposed by the problem it investigates: why, for example, is “ugly” design appealing?

Heller is, in short and putting it mildly, against density and for clarity in any form. As he is still the most visible – if not in fact hegemonic – presence in graphic design writing, one can only wonder at the extent of the damage his influence has perpetrated.

II.

The ideology of communicative clarity is itself useful: It is an ideology that helps design function, which is to say to sell itself in the corporate marketplace. Pragmatic, no-nonsense business leaders rely upon graphic designers to help them sell their products. And designers rely on business leaders for business.

The products of design are necessarily diverse and it is important to keep this diversity in mind. The products that benefit from graphic design include almost everything under the sun: every package, every book or newspaper, every document, every street or building, public or private. Graphic design guides us down highways, lures us into stores, and seduces us into selecting one product over another from crowded shelves. It helps us assemble our goods and tells us who and how to call when we need a doctor. Graphic design is there in the fine print on medical and insurance forms and its there for our lawyers after the fact. It is in every image and text: literally on every street corner. Products, in other words, can be frivolous or functional; they can be insignificant or imperative to our continued health and happiness. They can be public works or pieces of private enterprise. Graphic design saturates our world.

But design doesn’t work alone. Designers work for clients who hire them to give shape to messages. Clients have something to say and designers have the expertise to communicate that message to its intended audience. The process gets sticky if a client thinks that the designer has more on his or her mind than the message at hand, if the designer seems to be adding something to the message or misdirecting it. The designer’s job is simply to carry the client’s message over into design. It is not to change that message. The designer’s job is to communicate the message, or so it would seem. The ideology of communicative clarity takes flight from this nest. If a designer cannot promise to communicate a clients message and cannot promise to do so with utter clarity, why should the client hire that designer?

The promise of communicative clarity is a promise spoken in the language of pragmatic commerce. But it is not a promise made in keeping with the practice of design. Messages can be conveyed in myriad forms. Design selects and fixes those forms. Its mission is less to communicate than to catch the eye of its reader and to hold it. Communication happens only after a designer has captured someone’s attention. Communication is secondary: it is a by-product of design. This is not an argument for sensationalistic design. Sensationalism has its place but so does sobriety. No one style will function under every circumstance. Nor can one step into the same style with the same effectiveness twice.

The ideology of communicative clarity functions in the designer-client relationship as a means for designers to calm their client’s qualms about the process. But unfortunately it also effectively elides the true nature of the design process and the true contribution of design to the client’s enterprise. Design writing and hence designers themselves lack a language in which to speak about the actual nature of their contributions to commerce and culture.

This however has not stopped design writers from criticizing the relationship between design and commerce. Most of this criticism mistakenly blames the relationship itself for its problematic products. The much discussed First Things First Manifesto and its double – “2000” redux edition – offers a now classic example of this mistake.

The redux edition of the Manifesto shouts from the rooftops: “Consumerism is running uncontested… We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting, and democratic forms of communication – a mind shift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning.” Note the key words: the proposed design will be “useful” and “lasting”, “communication”; the manifesto proposes a “mind shift” toward the “production” of a “new” kind of “meaning”.

Naturally the “manifesto” – itself the simulation of a manifesto published at the end of the heroic phase of modernism – didn’t amount to much. But it didn’t really propose much either. Certainly nothing like a real revolution in the way that designers think about either design, consumption, or the relationship between design and culture. The Manifesto condemns consumption, while nevertheless suggesting that consuming some things is better than consuming others. The argument itself is garbage.

The design the signers attack “manufactures demand” for tennis shoes, coffee, and dog biscuits, among other things; as if consumers’ dogs shouldn’t be eating biscuits. The design they promote includes “cultural intervention”, “charitable causes”, “social marketing”, all lumped under the heading of “information-design”, and said as if promoting dog biscuits was in some way not a “cultural intervention”.

“Culture”, for the signers, seems to reference primarily the rarified world of the Fine Art tradition and its attendant marketing apparatus, as if Fine Art needed design to come to its rescue. (Which of course it does. Would we even see or care about Fine Art if not for the wall of design that surrounds it? And, conversely, would Fine Art exist today without the visual ecology of design off of which it parasitically feeds?)

It’s hard to argue with the signers’ support for “charitable causes”. Good designers are good people. They do morally upright work. They are generous: givers not takers. But moralism obscures the class issue here. Six figure salaries and social connections too often help self-select charitable designers.

In the manifesto, “information-design” is design at its most pure: pure communication, pure information, pure meaning; no ornament, no frivolity, no dog biscuits. We shouldn’t mention it but manufacturing demand for high quality dog biscuits that are actually good for dogs might in fact contribute to the good of all.

“Consumerism … running uncontested”, again the hysterical cry. But consumerism, individual and social consumption, includes all kinds of things. Dogs consume biscuits. Cars consume gas. Readers consume books. Museum go-ers consume Fine Art. Believers consume the sacred. Book designers contribute to our culture of consumption just as much as other designers do. Information designers produce information for consumption. Ideas – philosophy, religion – need design too.

First Things First redux envisions a socially useful designer, a producer who contributes communication to culture. To design this designer, they propose a “mind shift”, as if designers were thinkers first and foremost, rather than the educated sensibilities that they are. As in Plato’s allegory of the cave, the manifesto proposes “lasting” design (implicitly denigrating ephemera; which is to say topical, timely design). It mirrors, inversely, the truth.

Interestingly, and as another measure of the ideology under consideration, Michael Beirut was among those who wrote critically of First Things First redux, but he did so without violating the ideology of the piece. After mocking the manifesto, he concludes hopefully: “Designers actually can change the world for the better by making the complicated simple and finding beauty in truth.” For Beirut the problem with the manifesto consists in its utopian suggestion that designers retire from the market that sustains them. His own proposal is that designers can change the world by working in it and by pursuing the age-old ideals of truth and simplicity. Beirut’s proposal is just as Platonic and ideological as that of the manifesto. We are not arguing that he is wrong, only that his position, dependent as it is on “truth”, is circumscribed by the ideology in question.

III.

This is not to say that the general tenets of the ideology of communicative clarity have not had their detractors along the way. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville’s essay, “Some Aspects of Design From the Perspective of a Woman Designer” (1973), for example, tackles the problem head on, although from a somewhat limited feminist perspective. De Bretteville questions – and rightly so – “the desirability of simplicity and clarity.” Her analysis regards the urge to simplicity as an outgrowth of fascistic elements operating within modernism and, by extension, the male-dominated design field of the early 1970s. “Control,” she argues, “almost inevitably operates through simplification.”  The call to simplicity, from de Bretteville’s perspective, underscores the prevalence of gendered and debilitating social roles – typically devaluing the ‘female’ experience –  that ultimately, for her, culminates in the polarization of men and women, work and home, the rational and irrational, participation and exclusion.  Straightforward messaging,  particularly when there is something to sell, limits participation.  Observes de Bretteville, “Control is undermined by ambiguity, choice, and complexity, because subjective factors in the user become more effective and the user is invited to participate. Participation undermines control” [her emphasis].

All well and good. Her observations about the reified roles for men and women, the reinforcement of stereotypes through rigid iconography and so forth are right on the money. And arguing against the totalizing urge of modernism is a legitimate complaint, but, as we’ve noted, talking about clarity – or its opposite – is not talking about design. De Bretteville has effectively executed the same rhetorical move as the shapers of FTF 2000; that is to say, her position is simply an inversion of the prevailing dogma. Inserting ambiguity, she argues, will provoke participation from the viewer. But every act of reading requires participation, whether it is presented clearly or otherwise. Nor need participation be necessarily critical, whether the message is ambiguous or not. More importantly, and too our point, what of the cases of such extreme ambiguity that the viewer finds it simply too much effort to engage at all?

De Bretteville has her eye on the ball, but unfortunately it’s the wrong ball. Her argument is posed as if pointing to some essential quality about design, although in fact it stays on the surface without actually discussing that surface. Graphic design can inspire and engage – in short be “good design” – whether it is clear or ambiguous. Ambiguous design can serve the rationalistic corporate master just as easily as modernist design, and ambiguity can sell a product just as quickly to an unthinking audience as the clearly crafted hard sell.  If it’s not clarity or ambiguity that motivates the viewer’s engagement with a piece, then what is it?

Edward Tufte’s writings on graphic design offer a partial answer. Like de Bretteville, Edward Tufte argues against simplification in design. But unlike her, he praises density and dimensionality, complexity in short, rather than ambiguity. Despite this emphasis, Tufte doesn’t escape the ideology of communicative clarity. His writing does however open a discussion of aspects of design that have gone largely unnoticed.

Tufte’s Envisioning Information, for example, “celebrates escapes from flatland … Revealed [through] design strategies for enhancing the dimensionality and density of portrayals of information … [His] investigation yields general principles that have specific visual consequences, governing the design, editing, analysis, and critique of data representations. These principles help to identify and to explain design excellence – why some displays are better than others.” “Enhancing dimensionality and density”, for him, means increasing the number of dimensions that can be represented on a surface and the density of the data represented per unit area. For Tufte, graphic should be rich and complex with information.

Tufte’s bête noir is “Chartjunk”, the visual clutter of the poorly designed object. When design announces itself, either as ornamentation or through clunky incompetence, design is chartjunk. This notion recalls Heller’s diatribe against the “cult of the ugly” and Tufte justifies it with a quotation from modernist Paul Rand on the ideal invisibility of design. Chartjunk impedes interpretation and therefore should be eliminated.

In contrast to this notion, one must wonder if design should aspire to an ideal of invisibility. To put the point strongly, isn’t all design fundamentally ornamental? In Plato’s terms, isn’t all design a mere shadow of the Idea it communicates? Similarly, what’s wrong with design if it is? Might we not be better off if design announced itself vigorously as such, the way “special advertising sections” call themselves out?

Tufte’s project is prescriptive and what it prescribes is dimensionality and density, what one might call “intensity”. In Tufte’s analysis, some displays or designs are better than others and those designs are better because they are more intense – rich, in his reading, with information. But dense design is not only rich with information. It’s rich with visual complexity, with visual pleasure. Significantly, the pleasure of Tufte’s books is not only in the information contained therein: we don’t need to be able to understand his Japanese train schedules to enjoy them.

We are not claiming that Tufte is disinterested in communicative clarity: far from it. His project as a whole intends to reform graphic design so as to intensify its communicative means. Along the way, however, and by reforming those means, he has shifted the ground of the discussion about graphic design, away from mere clarity, toward intensity.

Tufte dreams of a world without chartjunk: without junk or garbage, a world without waste; a world of perfect utility. But for Tufte, eliminating chartjunk is – and this matters – only the beginning. The goal of Tufte’s analysis is ultimately to enhance the dimensionality and density, the intensity of design. The best design is rich with information, densely and intensely presented. By valorizing dimensionality and density, Tufte casts the ideology of communicative clarity at least partially aside and steps into the realm of the senses. In this way, he provides a marginally positive model for design criticism.

Conclusion

Plainly stated: design attracts: it fascinates before it communicates. The pleasure of design is thus both before and beyond the realm of mere communication. It is before communication because the pleasure of design precedes the reader’s grasp of the design object’s message. It is beyond communication because design objects continue to fascinate us long after the products they advertise or the messages they convey have ceased to be culturally comprehensible. Poster collections worldwide testify to this fact. But how can we begin to understand it?

By focusing entirely on communicative effectiveness, on clarity or on a certain lack thereof, design writing rarely if ever engages with the formal nature of design objects. Swiss typography, for example, in typical appreciations, emphasizes a minimal, rationalist approach to communication: But what of the physical nature of its objects? What of the relationship between these objects and the culture(s) in which they were produced? What of our own cultural relationship to these styles? An alternative, aesthetic history of design could be written: one in which the aesthetic value of objects unfolds within a simultaneous history of design and culture.

Aesthetics, etymologically speaking, is the science of sensation, a study in the sensual nature of objects, which is to say, of their form. While the sensual nature of an object, image or text refers to our physiological response to that object, to its tactility or the demands and rewards it offers our eyes (and minds), aesthetic criticism embraces that physicality and endeavors to locate its value within our world; to say, for example, precisely how we respond differently to leather-bound, letter-pressed books and to newsprint advertising mailers. Aesthetic criticism tells us how an object is what it is; how it functions; what are its parts and how they are related; and where, within culture, the object finds its supporting discourses, its sources of reference, relevance, meaning and value.

Aesthetic criticism is equally sensitive to objects and to culture, to the efforts of the creator and those of the consumer. Art criticism – prior to the rise of Cultural Studies, prior to Visual Culture – was primarily aesthetic criticism. It is ironic that aesthetically grounded art criticism has failed to embrace graphic design objects, given that graphic design creates the substantial majority of our visual culture today.

As we’ve seen, journalists writing about graphic design and graphic designers themselves have historically and consistently avoided the problem of aesthetic criticism, and hence the critical function in general, by espousing (or arguing against) the ideology of communicative clarity. The ideology of communicative clarity avoids the problem of aesthetics and restricts discussions of design to rational, utilitarian ends. It permits designers to easily and persuasively delimit the design process for clients; clients who pay the designer’s fees and are often motivated by quantifiable ROI. Yet design objects remain aesthetic objects, sensual, physical objects embedded in a cultural context. Design criticism must be aesthetic criticism, a criticism that would locate design, through formal evaluation, within its cultural context. It would tell us how design functions, what it means to us, and why we care so much about it. Design criticism would tell us what is beautiful in our visual and sensual experience of everyday life (and not only in our museums). This criticism would be written for designers, for their clients, for critics and thoughtful readers of all kinds, and of course, for consumers.

No design magazine currently carries a column on aesthetic criticism. Even a passing use of the word “criticism” on any of the fashionable design blogs results in a reactionary confusion of critique – Kantian, metaphysical, aesthetic – with mere negativity. The mass of contemporary writing about design is in fact not criticism at all, and it does not aspire to be. Much of it is mere homage, advertisement or appreciation; that it is imprecise, un- or misinformed, shallow in its enthusiasm or narrow in its range is permitted by its avoidance of aesthetics and of the critical function in general.

Perfectly utilitarian products (whether objects or information) are interchangeable, but design creates the sense of uniqueness. The Platonic idea of the letter ‘a’ is not as important as what a specific, typographic letter ‘a’ does on the page. The power of design is in its specificity. What is lasting in the design object is precisely that aspect of the object that eludes utility, namely, its design. Graphic design, at its best, is visual but it is also tactile, singular but multivalent, culturally embedded but also timeless.

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