Tag Archives: Liberal Arts

The Dialectics of Art and Design

This lecture was delivered in the Department of Art and Design lecture series at San Jose State University, on September 14, 2010.

I’d like to question the relationship between art and design. This is might be a foolish question. For most people, it isn’t a question at all. Art is art; design is design; and that is all there is to it. And yet, in our culture, it never quite goes away. Art and design are at once too proximate to one another and too distant, too similar and too distinct. The terms rub up against one another at key historical moments, raising themselves as questions as they have in our day.

The relationship between art and design is not idyll, neither insignificant nor fixed. At the most basic level, it is a question of objects and of actions, of the creative act and the created artifact: to address it is to address the problem of making as a problem for the individual creator and as a problem for the community, whether that community is viewed as a community of critical subjects, citizens, or consumers.

At another level, the question of art and design is a question of institutions and systems, of charities, governments, corporations, and the public trust. It is a question of the structure and purpose of our institutions of cultural self-consciousness, our museums and institutions of higher education. To question the relationship between art and design is to question the way that we encounter and interact with the objects of our world, but it is also to question the way that we teach ourselves to approach those objects and to live with them, it is to question the nature and type of objects that we venerate, study, and preserve – if we choose to venerate, study, and preserve any objects at all. For me, as an educator, the question of art and design is fundamentally a question of education and of general education in particular, and it is a key question. What do we need to know – and what do we need to teach our children in order for them to know – how to live in the world that we have created for ourselves today?

That question itself already bears an indication of the provisional answer that I would like to offer to the question of art and design. To speak of the world that we have created is to speak of the world of design. Learning to live in our created world means learning to negotiate a world of objects and systems created by design and this notion in turn suggests that design education should occupy a far greater place, or play a far greater role, in general education than it does today.

I am not suggesting that we begin to treat design as if it were art – to simply replace art history with design history, for example. Design objects are fundamentally different from art objects; they cannot be turned into self-sufficient or static representations; they aspire to no autonomous meaning beyond their community of users. An education in design – for consumers, citizens, and designers alike – will be different from an education in the finer points of fine art. Design education proposes an entirely different perspective on the created world and this is part of our topic today.

The question of art and design is a difficult question to ask, much more difficult than it probably should be. It is difficult in part because it has been asked before, because answers have been offered again and again over the last one hundred and fifty years. These answers – and the perspectives on the question that they imply – now seem at once familiar and fruitless. Hasn’t someone already answered this question?

The question is also frequently denied or avoided.

It is easy to understand why artists, art critics, art historians, art educators, museum directors, curators, and the governmental and communal supporters of art and the art market would deny or at least downplay the precise nature and pervasive significance of design in contemporary culture and why they would persist in their praise of Fine Art. It is also clear why they would attempt to recuperate design as one of the fine arts, through rhetoric and methods of presentation and interpretation.

The products of the Fine Art tradition in the West and many of the aesthetic objects from around the globe that have recently been recuperated by that tradition are of course fascinating and revelatory objects deserving of celebration, preservation, and study, though not always for the reasons they are currently being celebrated or studied. Put differently, the celebrants of these objects obviously have a measure of self-interest at stake in promoting their study, but this self-interest is not unjustified by many of the works themselves. We should not, in other words, expect artists or art historians to be among the most interested advocates of design, nor should we simply discount their interests. The Fine Art tradition is a fascinating tradition.

Designers love it too. Here I’m thinking of the comments one often encounters in some kinds of design writing, when design writers – often designers themselves – loudly advertize their interest in Fine Art. Design is nice, they seem to suggest, but Art…(The recent fascination with Ed Ruscha, for example.)

This ambivalent relationship is of course at the core of our dialectic. Fine Art is our cultural idol. Designers idolize it too. Even to the point of denigrating design. Design might be clever or even artistic, but it is not art. The gesture here is one of self-promotion by association. A gesture made by someone with the good taste not to praise themselves to mightily.

There are also those designers who either aspire to become artists or who actually do so. Design is not art, for them, for they have become artists. A few years ago, I was on a conference panel with Sheila Levrant de Brettville. Sheila told our audience that to work for a client is to be oppressed.

There are of course other motives for the ambivalent relationship between art and design. Art is good for the design business. Designers can point to it to prove that they are not frivolous. Art is frivolous, artists are frivolous; but design is functional, created at the behest of client concerns. Design might be artistic but it isn’t art.

Designers want to place a premium on design, but not too much of a premium. If it’s too expensive, clients won’t buy it anymore. So long as Fine Art exists, design can be pragmatic, no matter how fun, frivolous, or purely, joyfully, sensuously aesthetic it might actually be.

But these are not the only reasons the question is denied. Some design writers evidence no interest at all in the question of art or design. John Thackara is one. Thackara hosts the Doors of Perception design conferences. For Thackara, contemporary art just isn’t very interesting. Design is interesting. Design does things; it solves problems. It gives material shape to the way that we live. Fine Art might offer an amusing entertainment, a pleasant diversion, but design is real. It changes lives. And who can speak of entertainment when so many things in our world manifestly need to be changed, and changed by design? This is iconoclasm. Art is dead: long live design, or rather, long live artless design.

This position is of course rooted in an ideology of functionalist utilitarianism that goes back to Plato. Who needs a picture of a bed when they can enjoy the comforts of an actual bed? And who wants to bother with an actual bed when they can think about the perfect form of a bed and understand the relationship between the two?

There are several ironies here. The foremost, for me, is that these pragmatic functionalists should in fact be so ideologically motivated. Design has never been purely functional nor art purely functionless. Acting as if it was won’t help us unravel the relationship between art and design nor approach the created objects of our world in a more productive way.

Another irony here is closer to our point. The functionalist paradigm in design is dialectically bound to its mirror image, the functionless paradigm that frames Fine Art. I particularly appreciate the fluidity with which these positions can be adopted and swapped without changing the fundamental structure of the thought complex.

Fine Art is said to inspire disinterested contemplation, while design motivates interest. For some of us, this is a statement in praise of Fine Art. For others, it is a statement favoring design. Each class of objects can either be praised or denied on the basis of this ideological framework even though the framework is and has always been false, or at best only partially true in limited circumstances. Every element of the framework, however positive, is an ideological formation.

According to this ideology, art creates critical subjects while design creates consumers and therefore Fine Art is superior to design. But simultaneously, the world of design is a world of functional, pragmatic realism – the Aristotle to Fine Art’s Plato. Thus the consumers of design are to be praised as active agents, alive in a real world. Viewed in its best light, design provides things that people need and produces and distributes them in the most efficacious way possible, for the benefit of both individuals and society as a whole.

The dialectic of art and design here is a dialectic in which each pole can be praised or rejected from the opposite end: promoters of design denigrate art as frivolous, promoters of Fine Art denigrate design as crass and commercial. Yet the whole system, the entire framework is so clearly tautological and solipsistic, so clearly cut off from the real nature of objects in our world that it is hardly ever discussed. Why bother? Art objects have never been purely free; design objects have never been purely functional. Perhaps it is not really worth discussing.

This framework is of course rather simplistic. Let’s expand the frame: technics.

Though design is often associated with a functionalist ideal – form follows function, etc. – pure functionalism is more rightly found in the sphere of the applied sciences and engineering, the realm Lewis Mumford called “technics”. Our dialectic, in other words, actually has three key terms – art, design, and technics – with design swinging in an amorphous middle space between the other two terms, praised or denigrated for each affiliation in turn.

Here we might pause to recall that the Greeks used the word techne for the activities and skills of craftsman and for the arts of the mind and the fine arts. Techne for the Greeks refers to any act of poiesis, of making or creation and thus encompasses all three spheres of activity –abstract, aesthetic, and technical – without favoring any one form over another.  This is important to remember because it suggests that the Greeks approached the created world from a perspective that is utterly distinct from our own. To see through their eyes would require us to venerate all acts of creation equally, without transforming any created thing into either a functionless idol or a purely functional machine. Such a vision would require a greater degree of fascination or even simple curiosity than many of us, I suspect, possess. It would also entail a sweeping reorganization of our institutions and educational practices and orientation.

Vilém Flusser discusses the relationship between art, design, and technics in a short essay, “On the Word Design”. After briefly elaborating the histories of the relevant terms, he writes:

“The words design, machine, technology, ars and art are closely related to one another, one term being unthinkable without the others, and they all derive from the same existential view of the world. However, this internal connection has been denied for centuries (at least since the Renaissance). Modern bourgeois culture made a sharp division between the world of the arts and that of technology and machines; hence culture was split into two mutually exclusive branches: one scientific, quantifiable and ‘hard’, the other aesthetic, evaluative and ‘soft’. This unfortunate split started to become irreversible toward the end of the nineteenth century. In the gap, the word design formed a bridge between the two. It could do this since it was an expression of the internal connection between art and technology. Hence in contemporary life, design more or less indicates the site where art and technology (along with their respective evaluative and scientific ways of thinking) come together as equals, making a new form of culture possible.” (The Shape of Things, 19)

Flusser’s conclusion – that a new form of culture is possible by design – is perhaps the most interesting part of the paragraph, but we will have to come back to it.

Why did modern bourgeois culture separate the world of art from the world of machines?

Modern science and the Fine Art tradition emerged more or less simultaneously in early modern Europe. And there are instructive similarities between them. Both are fascinated with the world of things, yet both seek to transcend that world – this world – in specific ways. Both extract meaning from the chaos of phenomena and both leave a trail of works behind them.

Both are of course products of the Protestant reformation and the rise of capitalism. Far more thoroughly than Nietzsche’s 1882 proclamation of the death of god, Martin Luther’s revolution banished the sacred from this world and liberated human will within it. A world without god is a world waiting to be shaped by human hands, but it is also a fallen world in which things too are fallen. In such a world, functionlessness is close to godliness, but so is mastery. The aspiration of the bourgeois is to transcend the world through an utilitarianism so pure that it approaches functionlessness. But it is vanity to aspire immediately to functionlessness, such is the fate only of sovereigns and saints, or is itself a gift of god, a function of the muse. This is the core ambivalence motivating the dialectic of art and design.

In one of the founding documents of the modern era, his Discourse on Method (1637), René Descartes advanced an agenda and method for modern science while also distancing himself from the aesthetics realm. Fables or stories awaken the mind, and poetry has a “ravishing delicacy and sweetness”, he says, but such things make one, as it were, a stranger to one’s own thoughts. “Fables,” he says, “make us imagine many events as possible when they are not.” Descartes “delighted in mathematics, because of the certainty and evidence of its reasonings.” He devoted himself to research in theoretical and applied science. In announcing his method and its first fruits, Descartes claimed that his research:

“opened [his] eyes to the possibility of gaining knowledge which would be very useful in life, and of discovering a practical philosophy which might replace the speculative philosophy taught in the schools. Through this philosophy,” he said in the key passage, “we could know the power and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies in our environment, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans; and we could use this knowledge – as the artisans use theirs – for all the purposes for which it is appropriate, and thus make ourselves, as it were, the lords and masters of nature.”

It is interesting that Descartes borrows the purpose of his science from the work of skilled artisans, though the scope of his project transcends and ultimately comes to subsume theirs. The Cartesian vision of technics is a vision that is built upon a foundation of design and that remains proximate to it. But it is also a vision that renounces any interest in the non-quantifiable realm.

In the Classical age, early modern science and industry could still be subjects of Enlightened fascination among the aristocratic classes, and the acquisition of Fine Art could signal both the power of monarchs and the rising fortunes of the bourgeoisie. But as science and industry truly began to take hold in the middle of the nineteenth century, and as art began to assert its value for its own sake, the tension between the poles of the dialectic became too great. Technics threatened to overwhelm the values of art, to reduce the world to a disenchanted realm of pure resource, what Heidegger would later call a “standing reserve”. The Arts and Crafts movement, in its various guises, was born of this tension, with a will to restore the value of work and not just for the bourgeoisie. As William Morris put it, “The cause of Art is the cause of the people… One day,” he said, “we shall win back Art, that is to say the pleasure of life; win back Art again to our daily labour.”

It is obviously enormously significant for our argument that Morris uses the word Art in reference to all created goods, indeed as a reference to the process of creation, rather than in reference to what we call Fine Art. Morris, in other words, is talking about both art and design. He is attacking the soullessness of most industrially produced or machine made goods, though he does admit the place and utility of the machine in modern life. But he is also, and just as intently, suggesting that Art must be a thing of the world rather than solely something for the salon.

His message fascinates me in part for its untimeliness. He wrote at a time when the design fields had yet to truly emerge in even their modern, let alone contemporary forms: a half-century before the foundation of the Bauhaus. And he is all but incomprehensible to us now. What he meant by art has almost nothing to do with contemporary art and what he understood by the machine has almost nothing to do with our machines; yet his enemies are still our enemies. Most importantly, though, Morris was unsuccessful in his task. The aesthetic sense he sought to restore to everyday life and labor devolved into mere aestheticism. The rent in culture that he sought to repair has remained open, at least in some ways, though our current cultural configuration, the space of questioning that has opened up for us now, signals that Morris might be ready for reappraisal in the context of both do-it-yourself culture and rapid prototyping.

But ultimately Morris was, like Ruskin, on the wrong side of history. The Futurists were closer to being correct in their praise of machines. Marinetti’s claim that a racing car is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace surely speaks directly to contemporary popular taste: NASCAR now being among the most popular spectator sports in the United States. When Marinetti proclaims the presence of a new beauty in the world – the beauty of speed – he is praising an experience provoked by design. The futurists understood that the modern world was a world of active experience rather than a world of passive contemplation or consumption. Their works were themselves often either provocations or hymns in praise of experience. They were ushers, guiding users into the world of design.

And that world was then, in the early decades of the twentieth century, finally coming into existence. Jean Baudrillard claims that our technoculture did not really emerge until the foundation of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus, he claims,

“institutes the universal semantization of the environment in which everything become the object of a calculus of function and of signification. Total functionality, total semiurgy… This functionality defines itself as a double movement of analysis and rational synthesis of forms (not only industrial, but environmental and social in general). It is a synthesis of form and function, of ‘beauty and utility’, of art and technology. … It extends the aesthetic to the entire everyday world; at the same time it is all of technique in the service of everyday life.”(Design and Environment”186-7)

With the Bauhaus, our relationship to things changes: functional objects signify with a new fluidity. The whole environment becomes a distinctly new kind of created world. But the transformation inaugurated by that institution was incomplete. The school closed its doors and the union of art and design, of art and technology eluded other schools.

Two cultures (or more)

The split between the scientific and the aesthetic is still deeply embedded in the structure of our cultural and educational institutions today. C.P. Snow famously referred to the arts and sciences as “two cultures”, suggesting that these two cultures had utterly lost the ability to communicate with one another. Jean-François Lyotard described the same phenomenon as the postmodern condition. In the postmodern condition, according to Lyotard, no single rule holds true in both the arts and the sciences.

This division has its roots at the beginning of the modern era, but institutionally, for us, this situation can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century, when two important changes occurred in the organization of higher education, particularly in the United States. The first change had to do with the separation of liberal arts education from professional or vocational education. The second change concerned the disingenuous alignment of the liberal arts with the quantitative methods and scientistic orientation of the social and hard sciences, primarily through specialization and pseudo-scientific research models.

By aligning themselves with the quantitative methods and scientistic orientation of the social sciences, the qualitative or hermeneutic fields of the Humanities proper hoped to retain some legitimacy in a functionalist or utilitarian culture that only grudgingly retained a place for them. Meanwhile, those schools or programs that edged too close to direct application were secluded from the liberal arts, either in the form of graduate degrees, as in the case of medical school or law school, or as a “lesser” alternative to liberal arts education, in vocational degrees. This is another story of mutual ambivalence.  When information or knowledge presents itself as too close to the world, it is disdained. But it is likewise disdained for being too far from it. Medical school and law school retain a curious allure in our culture as essentially vocational programs in fields endowed with an abstract and transcendent prestige. To be a doctor or a lawyer is not to simply pursue a vocation it is to master life or the law.

These considerations are directly related to the study of art and design in several ways. First, design education has historically been denigrated as a form of vocational education or as a vocational alternative to Fine Art education. Second, design has been affiliated, both internally and externally, with empirical methods of research. Design education has thus stood at a remove from cultural study and it has done so rather willfully.

This dialectical relationship – in which the contemplation of Fine Art equals freedom and the consumption of design equals oppression by market forces – is particularly appealing in the academy, wherein education is often perceived as designed to promote personal liberation. Free subjects cultivate their freedom by contemplating Fine Art, or so the story goes. The contemplation of commodities – the objects of design – seems counter-intuitive, in one sense, and, in a more radical but opposed sense, a dangerous imposition upon the real freedom of the consumer.

Liberal arts education appeals to Fine Art objects to instill the exercise of judgment, the cultivation of taste, which will then be available to the consumer out in the real world. It is all but impossible to imagine a liberal arts education structured around the exercise of critical judgment through the cultivation of taste relevant to the world in which we actually live. The students – who are in fact already free, at least to some extent, certainly in their own minds – would rebel. Corporations and governments would quiver and quake. For consumption really isn’t just a matter of opinion. Taste really can be cultivated and doing so would have vast ramifications on our economy.

But this is an extremely complicated question from an institutional perspective. In our time, the divisions between the arts and sciences, between the cultural and the empirical, the abstract and the applied, have become vastly complicated both inside and outside the walls of the academy. The Humanities fields have suffered an almost terminal loss of prestige and the sciences and social sciences have expanded to consider topics traditionally taken to be the purview of the Humanities fields. Defenders of the Humanities are struggling to find a rationale that resonates with contemporary culture (including their corporatized college administrations).

Several movements are taking place simultaneously.

The hermeneutic disciplines have begun to address the world of design with increasing regularity. Indeed, almost every department on campus has some knowledge worker considering some aspect of design culture. Historians pursue Material Culture studies. Sociologists and psychologists study consumption. Literature departments have new courses on graphic novels, digital narrativity, and video games, among other design related concerns: from cookbooks to environmentalism and sustainability. Fine Arts programs are more and more interested in visual culture, much of which is graphic design by another name, as well as in the history of the relationship between art and design.

Even the sciences are beginning to be directed toward design studies in specific new ways. To the extent that science is applied science it is often proximate to a field of design or engineering. This is a significant concern for scientists seeking funding for research. Cash strapped universities become design innovation engines when research can be applied. New fields of science – like synthetic biology – are design fields in their own right, and explicitly so.

Moreover, as all of these fields have expanded, they have become increasingly self-aware, and internally complex, encouraging new modes of research, some of which are celebrated as interdisciplinary. Now we have historians and philosophers of science, for example, working in history, philosophy, and in the sciences themselves. Science and technology studies is a field emerging at the intersections of anthropology, philosophy, applied science, and design. (To be truly interdisciplinary these researches must cross the qualitative-quantitative divide, they must be hermeneutic as well as empirical in their methodologies, but this is rare.) My point here is to evoke the vitality and the disorder of these emergent institutional agendas.

And they are not alone. Perhaps even more encouraging than the academic attempts to rethink our approach to objects and making is the range of extra-academic organizations and institutes that have recently appeared. The Rocky Mountain Institute, the Santa Fe Institute, the Lannan Foundation, Bruce Mau’s Institute Without Boundaries, John Thackara’s The Doors of Perception conferences, Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation lecture series, John Brockman’s The Edge.org, the Ted lectures, the Lift conference, among many other institutes, conferences, seminars, and websites. These are all new centers for research and innovation in design and design thinking. They are operating on the fringes of the academy or in spaces where the academy cannot go, though often building on initial research drawn from the academic context.

John Brockman’s TheEdge.org is particularly interesting to me because of Brockman’s overarching agenda. Brockman promotes what he calls a ‘third’ culture – in contrast to the two cultures described by C. P. Snow.  According to Brockman, the humanities fields have abandoned their historic calling to ask the most searching and revealing questions about the main issues of concern in human life. They have ceded this function to scientists who use empirical methods to investigate these same questions. By doing so, these scientists, at least in Brockman’s argument, bring humanism to science. Brockman is a literary agent and “cultural impresario,” who has been instrumental in bringing a great deal of this research to popular consciousness. Stewart Brand and Jared Diamond are among his clients.

Merely adding humanism to science or applied science does not however constitute a revolutionary turn in contemporary thought. More seriously still it discounts or avoids the genuinely revolutionary turns that have occurred in the Humanities fields over the last forty or so years. And yet these turns have also been discounted by the Humanities fields themselves, which remain distracted by the illusion of total representation. These fields have only grudgingly begun to shift their form and focus from the quest for total representation toward the forces that are actually shaping contemporary culture, like design.

All of these shifts and changes are difficult to summarize. They are not altogether negative. Far from it. The general trend follows increasing development or complexification within disciplines toward an increased awareness of and focus on design, both historically and in contemporary society, without a new overarching appeal to design or design studies as a guiding thread in contemporary education. It is as though everyone were independently working toward the same goal without ever discussing that goal as a group.

Yet the division between the two (or perhaps three) cultures of the academy, between the arts and sciences, is still a serious division and it is a division that can also be found at the center of design studies as an emergent field. Design practitioners tend to pursue empirical research based on a social science model, while design critics, historians, and theorists utilize methods derived from critical cultural studies or at least the philosophy of technology. Many design programs – both historical and practical – are also housed in or with art programs, which favor neither empirical research nor the methods of critical cultural studies. The institutional pairing of art and design – as distinct fields – is also extremely problematic and it cuts to the core of our question here today.

Part of the problem is that we no longer know what we mean by the word Art. As with all things ideological, the word has come to suggest a constant and universal component of human life: Denis Dutton even calls it an instinct. But art, for us, certainly for me, refers specifically to the products of the Fine Art tradition, even though, for many students of art history, it is often difficult to remember that the Fine Art tradition is a relatively new phenomenon, historically speaking. It is still more difficult to accept that it may one day pass away as a sphere of significant cultural concern, or, worse yet, that it may already have.

By suggesting that the Fine Art tradition may have reached its end I am merely echoing the very diverse views of several prominent academic art critics, Hans Belting, Donald Kuspit, Arthur Danto, and Johanna Drucker among others. The end of art may have become even more prominent than the death of god as a field of morbid but persistent speculation. In their writings, each critic observes, in his or her own fashion, with his or her own distinct arguments, the end of art, only to resurrect it with some deus ex machina argument in the final chapters. Yes, the critic intones, the tradition as we knew and loved it has come to an end, but this does not mean that Art is dead, no, it simply means that Art serves a new and distinct, even more interesting function in pluralistic contemporary society, or that a few rogue artists are just now rediscovering the very roots of the form in new art.

Another group of critical writings, of a less theoretical, more journalistic bent, have also spent the last few decades skewering contemporary art and the contemporary art market: James Gardner’s Culture or Trash, Anthony Haden-Guest’s True Colors, Matthew Collings’ It Hurts, and Julian Stallabrass’ Art Incorporated, among many others. Again and again these writers observe the empty aegis of contemporary Fine Art under the sway of commerce and fashion. But they write like betrayed believers, disappointed in their god. Much of the material in these books and articles might be considered anecdotal in hindsight, evidencing the emptiness of particular artists rather than of the cultural form itself, but as chronicles they are profoundly wearying. We don’t have time to engage with all of the anecdotes and arguments presented in all of these books. Their existence alone might satisfy some as to the validity of the observation that something is rotten in the art market.

We might look at Johanna Drucker’s Sweet Dreams briefly as a model of this genre. Contemporary art, in Drucker’s reading, is an art of complicity and ambiguity. By complicit she means that contemporary art replicates many of the forms and assumptions of contemporary culture – which often means consumer culture, design culture – without attempting to transform those positions or to isolate itself from them. Populist, racist, sexist, what have you, the art is justifiable as art. Hence, in a way, its ambiguity. It is impossible to say whether the replicated form or structure is being indicted or affirmed. Contemporary art simply is what it is … but it isn’t: it’s art.

Ambiguity in contemporary art is akin to but the inverse of communication in modern art. Great modern art communicates many things all at once and it does so in the form of an open question, a field of potentiality open to our senses and imagination, and thus to our aesthetic judgment. We complete the communicative circuit through interpretation. Contemporary art, on the other hand, often conveys its ambiguity in one specific act. The specificity of contemporary art is significant: without it the art could not demonstrate its connection to the tradition or to culture or to anything else and hence its status as art. Contemporary art is thus often clever rather than creative (in the fullest sense of this term), the pointed but ambiguous modification of one existent image, idea, or gesture. Very often this singular image, idea or gesture is obscure upon our first encounter with the object. The object in other words does not contain enough information to speak on its own. We need to know something about the artist or about something else to “decode” the work. Only after we’ve decoded it does the work offer itself to interpretation. It is important that we not mistake this reticence for difficulty. Difficult art tells us too much, reticent art doesn’t tell us enough. I would say that the appeal of reticent or ambiguous works is a matter of taste though technically it isn’t. The exercise of taste requires an act of judgment and this kind of art denies, through impoverishment, our capacity to form judgments about it. We can only stand before it waiting for the artist or curator or some informed critic to tell us what we need to know to unlock the work. Only then will we begin to understand just how clever the work really is.

At its best, the art world that appears in Drucker’s account parallels our own world, which leaves me to wonder why I should bother with it when the world itself is closer to hand. At its worst, that art world is substantially less interesting than our world. However impressed we may be with some of its confections, we often lower our expectations when we encounter them. We are pleased that art objects exist more so than pleased by the objects themselves. In general, the objects of the art world are less thoughtfully articulated, less carefully crafted, less communicative, less indicative of anything, less moving, and, however complicit, they are nevertheless set apart from our world, drifting free from the dirty business of life. By our world, I do of course mean the world of design.

If we had more time we might sketch a genealogy of contemporary art, tracing the steps by which the Fine Art tradition expelled its critical, communicative, and expressive functions and became beholden to and a shadow of the world of design. Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and the minimalists all played significant parts in divesting Fine Art of these historic functions.

For now, paraphrasing Arthur Danto, by way of Dostoevsky, we might claim:

Art is dead: everything is possible.

But in such a landscape, the inclusiveness of modernism inverted, in contemporary art:

More is less.

How might we begin to situate design in such a landscape?

Art isn’t art and design isn’t either

The Fine Art tradition may have abandoned several of its historical functions but this is not at all to say that design now fulfills those functions.

Some design writers (Rick Poynor, for example) seem to wish it would. And curators and collectors might share that wish. Design objects are in fact appearing in museums, galleries and auctions with an increasing frequency. Design collections are expanding. And the objects are very often displayed as if they were objects of Fine Art. The practice is always somewhat awkward. Art objects find their natural habitat in the white box. But design objects decidedly don’t. Fine Art benefits from display, which heightens the autonomy of the object. But design objects flounder without a context of functionality or use.

The attempt to recuperate design as one of the fine arts requires one to approach design as a kind of representation, to approach design objects as if they were autonomous in the sense that art objects aspire to be autonomous. But design cannot be isolated and retain its value. Design objects do not present the image of a world, nor do they present the world.

The designed world is not present in design.

Design functions on the model of dissemination, of the relay. Design does not point outside the world nor even suspend it. Design objects always signal something other than themselves; they transport or relay their users toward that thing. One can approach an object of design as if it were a static image or object – as if a car were a sculpture – but the object itself invites use in a specify way and our inability to respond to this demand is a frustrating part of any design exhibition.

However artistically rendered, design simply functions differently than Fine Art does. Design does not and cannot offer a critical self- reflection of its world. The world of design is not an alternative to the world the way that the world of art was. The world of design is the world itself but it is a world that is never fully present. Design objects function like doors in dreams that always open on other doors. This leads to that and that to something else entirely.

The fact that design can lead us – that it can invite use – testifies to the dual nature of design as functional object and sign. Design objects participate in a world of objects and signs that are in constant play – exciting, fulfilling, and diverting our expectations through experience.

Design in other words remains beholden to the necessities of functionalism and communication and for this reason design objects create specific kinds of communities in ways that Fine Art objects do not.

The community of design binds designers, their clients, and the community of users of any given object through the measurable space of the market. Design objects are thus not simply commodities. They are objects that activate multiple necessities of need and desire within a specific material and cultural context. To speak of design attentively is to speak with attention to those necessities and those contexts.

Critical reflection on design does not imply a reflection on creative autonomy. Rather it implies a reflection on the situatedness of all human decision making and on the relationships that are imbedded in every object of human making, not only among people – designers, clients, and consumers – but also other objects and the materials from which those objects derive.

This reflection is not entirely unlike reflection on the historic Fine Art of the Fine Art tradition. To the extent that art and design both communicate through formal or thematic conventions with a community created through that communication, art and design are similar. In contemporary culture, however, design is the art of communication, without, for all that, being Fine Art.

All of this in mind, we can signal several dangers and opportunities for design education.

Since design objects are cultural objects, design education cannot be reduced to technics nor can design research be reduced to purely quantitative methods, without radically circumscribing the tools available for design thinking. When culture is created by design, design education must be an education in culture.

Design education today cannot be built on the purely aesthetic foundations of art education nor can it be built on technics or other purely empirical sciences. Designers must learn how to harness empirical research – the methods of the human and the hard sciences – for cultural purposes.

Flusser’s claim about design and culture can be rewritten for design education: “In contemporary life, design [education] more or less indicates the site where art and technology (along with their respective evaluative and scientific ways of thinking) come together as equals, making a new form of culture possible.

We have entered into a new phase of cultural history defined by a new cultural economy, a cultural economy given shape by design. We need to develop new fields of cultural study based on the material facts of the way that we actually live, new approaches to materialogy, topology, grammatology: the things, places, and rhetoric of design. Because the design fields are themselves complex rather than unitary, this is not an appeal to apply any one analytic model to cultural production as a whole, nor even a claim that cultural production can be understood as a whole. The design fields are themselves diverse, internally and externally, and they collaborate and collide in culture in a manner that cannot be subsumed under the sign of hegemony. Contributors to a common cause – creating the context of everyday life – the design fields cannot assert themselves, independently or as a whole, as isolated or efficient causes or effects of culture. For this reason they are often hard to see. But see them we must, if we are to understand the way that we live now and to improve our chances of living well in the future.

Design Studies and the Future of Our Educational Institutions

This lectured was delivered to the Humanities and Language program at Michigan Technological University, March 31, 2010.

In February 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for offenses against Islam committed by his novel The Satanic Verses. Politicians and intellectuals hurried to Rushdie’s defense. Among the throng, Kurt Vonnegut spoke on a panel of distinguished writers on Donahue, a popular morning television program. He made some brief remarks on Rushdie’s behalf but quickly shifted his speech in a surprising direction. He recounted some statistics about the number of Americans with library cards and about those who claimed to have read a literary work within the past year. Unsurprisingly, these numbers were not only low; they were shockingly low. His point was made. The freedom they were all there to protect was, at best, an underutilized freedom. Norman Mailer made a similar point in a different way a few years ago, just before he died. As a young man, he said, he had set out to become the great American novelist, as the years passed however, he found that Americans had essentially stopped reading novels.

Recent statistics present a more comforting picture of cultural consumption in America today. The latest survey of reading trends conducted by the National Endowment for the Humanities found an increase in reading reported for the first time since 1982. Fifty percent of those polled claimed to have read at least one novel, poem, play or essay in the past year. A poll conducted by Harris Interactive also found an increase in library usage. More Americans have library cards in our recessionary era than in the recent past and more Americans are using them, or at least visiting the library to check out DVDs or access the internet. Sixty-eight percent of Americans have library cards. Of those, according to the poll, thirty-nine percent use them to check out books, presumably including at least one novel, poem, play, or essay. This is not bad considering that only eighty-six percent of Americans reportedly satisfy the most basic standards of literacy. In other words, a mere eighteen percent of literate Americans don’t have a library card. Were Kurt Vonnegut alive today, he might for a change have been pleased.

Still, the standards used in these polls are rather low and the findings somewhat overstated. The National Endowment for the Humanities is satisfied to count as readers individuals who have read only one novel, play, poem, or essay in the past year. What kinds of works were these? In 2006, three of the top ten best-selling novels (for adults) were by James Patterson, two were by Stephen King. In 2007 again, three were by James Patterson, two were by Janet Evanovich. Fun books, but hardly Homer. In 1998, books published by university presses accounted for .77% of the total market.

My point is not to cry “barbarians at the gates” but to rather suggest that maybe we are measuring and even valorizing the wrong things about our culture. The phrase “our culture” may be anathema to many readers (who is the “we” implied in this “our” anyway?). And yet, no matter how diverse our communities may be, they are still animated by energies directed by individuals making choices. We undoubtedly need to develop a more complex understanding of human agency in our mediated world and in order to do so we need to look at the ways that people actually live rather than continuing to focus our gaze on objects and energies that were invented and made popular in the early industrial era.

Are we, in short, a culture of readers? The studies I’ve just quoted implicitly suggest that we should be, even if we are not. But if ours is not a culture of readers, what kind of culture is it? An answer – any answer – to this question obviously has far-reaching implications, and not just for librarians.

Before proposing an answer to this question, let’s complicate it a little further.

Consider the prehistoric painted cave known as Chauvet.

Chauvet fascinates me in part because the cultural apparatus surrounding the cave is as telling about our culture as the cave itself is of the cultures that created it.

The cave is in the mountainous Ardeche region of Southern France and the paintings in it date to about 34,000 BP making it one of the oldest of the painted caves. The quality and quantity of the images also make it among the most remarkable. Chauvet was discovered in 1994 by three spelunkers who were at the time looking for painted caves. They knew what they were looking for and they knew the care that they had to take in order to preserve it. The cave is located on private land and it has never been opened to the public.

The French government sponsors an excellent website devoted to Chauvet, as they do for many other painted caves and national historic sites. A website obviously cannot really give you more than a vague sense of a place like Chauvet, where the experience of getting there, up the mountain then down into the cave, matters almost as much as the images on the walls. But Chauvet is close to the public and access is granted to only a few researchers and “witnesses” every year. “Witness” is the word the administrators of the site use to describe the handful of people not directly involved in research on the cave who have been granted access to it. The website explains: “During each field season, scientific or artistic personalities are invited to visit the cave and share their sensations, emotions and perspectives with the research team. They are specialists of the art of ancient or sub-contemporaneous peoples from various continents, art historians, or artists from France and other countries.”

The Witnesses are scientists who specialize in prehistoric art, art historians, and artists. None of us is likely to be let inside to experience the cave as its painters themselves would have experienced it. Even if we were permitted to enter the cave, we would be wearing protective clothing and be required to stand on special walkways that have been installed to protect the floor, which is a field of debris with archeological and anthropological relevance. These laudable efforts to preserve and protect the cave shape our experience of it.

My question is: Who should have access to Chauvet and toward what end?

The cave was most likely painted as part of a religious ritual with personal as well as communal significance. Would it be absurd for us to want to approach the cave toward the same ends?

Short of that, but related to it, historians of religion and theology are conspicuous, I think, in their absence from the list of “witnesses” invited to experience the cave. The paintings in the cave have almost nothing in common with the products of the modern tradition of Fine Art, yet artists and art historians have been welcomed into the cave.

Who should be invited to witness such a space? Let’s run through our academic disciplines: Philosophers? Psychologists? Sociologists? Historians? Novelists? Who in short are the symbolic knowledge workers who might most benefit from such an experience and who might benefit us – the rest of us – most by having had it?

If we take a step back from Chauvet we can situate this question in a wider and perhaps more productive cultural frame. In 1959, C.P. Snow famously described a chasm that had developed between two different kinds of knowledge workers in modern societies and in modern universities in particular: the sciences on one side and the Humanities fields on the other. The scientists use quantitative measures to answer questions, members of the Humanities fields use qualitative measures: they put valuation into evaluation. Each side is intensively skeptical about the methods and goals of the other.

More recently, the self-described “cultural impresario” John Brockman has  promoted the notion of a “third culture”: The work of scientists and science journalists who have taken on the task of asking wide-ranging and penetrating questions of central importance to human life; scientists and science writers who, in other words, have come to fulfill the traditional purposes of the arts and humanities.

At this point the Humanities fields have arguably all but ceded their social relevance to Brockman’s “third culture”. The best-selling books of “ideas” in our day are being written by scientists, social scientists, and journalists. Here I’m thinking of Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Jared Diamond’s books Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and Naomi Klein’s No Logo among others.

Advanced writing in the Humanities fields, on the other hand, rarely sells. Remember that only .77% of books sold are published by university presses. It is often weighed down by jargon that is impenetrable to lay readers and concerned with what is perceived as minutia by readers outside a specialized subset of a specialized field. It is hardly surprising that academic presses struggle to say in business. If there is an intellectual debate going on in our culture today is it not going on in the Humanities.

Intellectually, academics in the Humanities fields may cling to an Arnoldian ideal of higher learning, but, as numbers dwindle, it may soon be time to be more realistic.

Before we let this go we should observe that still another culture is active in our world today, a culture that is equally suspicious of both science and secular humanism, and that is the culture of religious Fundamentalism, Christian, Muslim and otherwise. Fundamentalism is dangerous and destructive in many ways and its adherents are largely immune to the discourses of both science and the Humanities. In partial anticipation of what follows, I’d like to suggest that design education may offer a positive way out: a means of educating Fundamentalists in the processes and responsibilities of civic life and of engaging them in the actual realities of our shared daily concerns.

All this in mind: What kind of a culture do we live in? What kind of access do we have to it? Who makes it? Who catalogs and contemplates it? Who can tell us the most about how we actually live today? And toward what end: why do we need this information?

My proposal is that we live in a culture of design, a culture created, with our help, and essentially at our behest, by designers. From the soils beneath our feet to the shelters over our heads, everything has been – or can now be – created by design. Our communications technologies, city streets and even genetic code can be and is given form by design, through purely human intentionality.

This observation is almost banal in and of itself, and it has been made before. But we – all of us: designers and design writers, consumers, citizens, students, teachers, users, makers – haven’t really done much about it. It just doesn’t seem to sink in. Most importantly we haven’t begun adapting our social institutions, including our educational institutions, to the ubiquity of design and to the changes in our culture that have resulted from it.

Given the ubiquity and significance of design, it is surprising that we have yet to really begin a social discussion – or even to open up a space for such a discussion – in which the impact of design on our everyday lives might to be understood and I think ultimately enjoyed.

This is not to say that we are not talking about design. We are. Many of us are and in many ways. But these discussions have yet to coalesce into a common stream wherein creatives, critics, and consumers might discuss and debate the meanings and merits of particular design systems and objects.

Many discussions of design are misdirected or rigidly circumscribed:

Popular discussions – like lifestyle magazines or cooking shows – aren’t taken seriously.

Designers themselves tend to undersell the cultural significance of their work for complex professional reasons.

Design historians limit design to its functionalist and utilitarian aspects.

Cultural critics – on the left – denigrate design as complicit with corporate capitalism: they throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Science writers associate their area of interest with science rather than with a broader discussion of design and design culture.

Literary and cultural critics in the academy pay inadequate attention to the delivery platforms and communications technologies that shape preferred genres.

Historians interested in “material culture” tend to downplay the aesthetic aspects of design objects.

Design is betwixt and between, at once functional and aesthetic, useful and cultural, and it is caught in a web of creation than cannot transcend its time or situation. The design fields are special fields within culture: they are eminently immanent, caught within a complex web of purposes, traditions, and values but also and at the same time shaping the future of those purposes, traditions, and values.

In the 1970s, the word “designer” – applied as an adjective – came to suggest something “fancy” or ornamental, though the noun still just referred to the individuals who make patterns that will be manufactured or established by others. Today designers of many kinds – architects and clothiers, but also industrial designers and graphic designers too – are celebrities in their own right and “designer” goods are everywhere. But I am using the term more broadly.

When I use the word design, I’m talking about a specific type of object and by extension of a specific type of culture composed of those objects. Designers in the modern sense of the term actually don’t make things: they create a pattern for a thing that is then manufactured by other people according to that pattern. The pattern is a design. In a craft economy, a craftsperson typically planned the form of the object he or she was making, generally following local and traditional models. Designers emerged in the early industrial era – at different points in different professions – as manufacturing became mechanized and creation and conception could be separated. Designers might heed local and traditional models in their work but they don’t necessarily have to do so and those traditions need not necessarily be their own. Designers might just as easily and in fact in some cases more easily follow an entirely different process in conceiving their creations. Designers start with a problem and think it through, critically analyzing the situation that gave rise to the problem and solving it creatively with a new design.

This process of integrated and synthetic, critical and creative thinking, also includes several other steps and they all matter to us and to the culture in which we live. The design process almost never starts with the needs of a consumer. It starts with the goals of a client of some kind: a manufacturer that wants to market a better mousetrap, an institution that wants a new building, a company that wants to present a new graphic identity to its public. The designer responds to this client-generated initiative by thinking about it. Here research of one kind or another might help: empirical surveys of the perceived needs of the intended consumers, close study of related designs, and other things besides. Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Designers create several potential solutions to the client problem. These solutions are then winnowed down and refined in dialogue with the client and even with potential consumers through focus groups and other forms of feedback.

The success of the designed object in the marketplace is itself determined by a wide range of factors. Government regulation determines what kinds of things come to market in the first place. For any given type of goods, distribution chains stretch around the globe, but they are ultimately far more restricted than they at first appear to be. And of course consumers respond to things in different ways for many different reasons: they are motivated by ideology, by tradition, by the idiosyncrasies of personal taste as well as by the power of advertizing, which is of course another design discipline.

We all participate in the culture of design at one point or another, or maybe even, some of us, at several points. We participate as consumers – remembering that the choice we exercise by not purchasing something is still a consumer choice – and we participate as voters, or citizens, electing governments that will ideally at least act in our own best interest when they establish manufacturing and trade regulations and other consumer protections.

I emphasize the bound or constricted role of the designer and the nature and complexity of the design process because we ignore these things both foolishly and at our peril. We ignore these things out of fidelity to the ideal of a Heroic creator, the mythic, solitary Romantic artist, and out of genuine ignorance: most of us don’t really know much about design or the design process. Nevertheless, recognizing that people – including us – are involved in the design process and that that process is in fact a process might just be the first step in opening up a public dialogue on all manner of topics that threaten our safety and the safety of our children.

Our social discourses about culture, our cultural institutions – our schools, our museums, our professional fields and disciplinary specialties, our government agencies and agendas – have yet to account for many of the most fundamental shifts in the way we actually live. Put bluntly, everyday life has changed enormously since the 1920s, but our institutions and our ideas about life haven’t.

This is of course an unfair generalization. Our schools, museums, and governments have changed in significant ways in the last half-century. Individual classrooms have become more inclusive, and course content has changed in important ways, again with an emphasis on inclusion. By inclusion I am of course talking about a species of representation. Our institutions in general have become more evenly representative of our social body as a whole even as that body has become ever more diverse. But the disciplinary structure of our institutions has not changed. Nor has the social discourse that supports that structure. We universally reject the notion of universality but defend our faith in Art and the Individual.

In short, the material structure of everyday life has changed enormously over the last eighty years but the disciplinary, philosophical, and even to some extent the psychological structure of that life has changed relatively little, and this despite the radical critique of Western civilization conducted by the most progressive of our thinkers. Whether or not one is willing to accept the various tenets of that radical critique – the rejection of a range of chauvinistic priorities, of the unitary concept of the autonomous individual, of essentialist epistemologies, among other notions – one must, I think, accept the fact that we simply live differently now. I believe that we live differently enough that we need to rethink many of our most basic means of understanding the way that we live as well as the social institutions that apply these means as actions.

Most significantly, we no longer live in a world predominately organized by structures or technologies of representation, by images and texts, certainly not by the types of images and texts that are often valorized in our discourses about ourselves, by which I mean those of art and literature. This is not to say that we aren’t surrounded by representations, even drowning in them: our world is saturated with images and information. We obviously still need to improve our ability to interpret and create them. But most of the images and texts we encounter on a daily basis were created by graphic designers. These assemblages might include texts and photographs or illustrations, drawings or even paintings but they are rarely discreet. Rather they are part of a complex network of images and texts that reflect and comment on one another in restless synergy. They appear on billboards and posters, in magazines and newspapers, and even in books. It was fully one hundred years ago that the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire proclaimed handbills, catalogues and posters the poetry of his times. Now even the moving images that splash across our screens – our televisions and computers, our iPods and mobile phones – owe much of their vitality to the creativity of designers, who should be understood as creators who work under client constraint to create meaning contextualized by complex networks signs. Why do we spend so much time talking about art and literature, or even film, when these other forms of cultural production clearly dominate our lives?

We should also notice that these structures and technologies of image transmission, presentation, and memory are only a part of our world and they aren’t even the most pervasive part. They aren’t the most pervasive part – the determinative element – because they do not determine their own platforms and contexts of delivery. Images and texts circulate in and on a world created by design. Urban planners map our city streets, architects build our buildings, landscape architects reintegrate our cities into nature and nature into our cities, graphic designers label our environment with signs telling us where we are, showing us how to reach our destination, and marking our destination. Fashion designers make our clothes, industrial designers make our objects – our toothbrushes and toasters, our tables and chairs – and interior designers help us arrange these things in a functional and pleasant way. Graphic designers design the books, newspapers, and websites that we read. We live in a world created by designers.

Never have human beings controlled so much of the environment so completely as we do now. Never have we been able to select from so wide a variety of sources for materials and goods. Once upon a time cities and neighborhoods grew over centuries, through the combined efforts of generations upon generations of inhabitants. Now they can be created by a small team of developers working with a single architect in a matter of months. Suburbs sprawl like mushrooms overnight and fade as fast as last year’s clothes. Conspicuous consumption can’t be confined to the leisure class and “living without” is not an option. Our only real choice is to opt in with as much wisdom and information as we can. To do that we need to have a better sense of the role design decisions play in shaping our lives.

One challenge is presented by the fact that it’s difficult for us to conceive of design as an isolated part or element of our world. Design describes the process of engagement that created the entirety of the way that we live. Representations can be isolated from the whole, categorized, and organized: understood apart. But design can’t. It’s too diffuse, too pervasive and it is also never quite fully present. Design decisions can of course be isolated, one from another, but design as a total context and process consists of so many decisions and elements that our minds quickly recoil before its complexity. Design is not one thing, it is a world within which we live, and we’d rather not think about it.

The shift from a culture of representation to a culture of design matters for several reasons. To understand it we need to understand what the culture of representations was, where it came from, and where it went.

Representations – art and literature, for example – served and in some ways continue to serve significant personal and social functions. They formed a field apart from the world, a corner of calm amidst the chaos in which an individual might contemplate him or herself and his or her world. Representations were relays and delays for self and society, a pause in presence. And they were much more than that. Collected and collated they were consciousness congealed, history packed in ice, personal and communal memory. Structures and technologies of representation are also structures and technologies of selfhood and society, with their attendant social institutions: structures of government; libraries, museums, and schools structured as repositories of representations. The end of the age of representation signals the end of subjectivity as it has been conceived in the West since Augustine’s Confessions. Obviously this does not mean that people – individuals – will cease to exist. Only that our individual and social discourse about ourselves, our means of thinking about ourselves, of interacting with ourselves, indeed of being ourselves, will change. Thirty years ago, Michel Foucault said the same thing in his writings and lectures about “technologies of the self”. Today design provides the structures and technologies of communication that structure our experience of ourselves.

By technologies of representation, I mean communications media. All communications media create a kind a subjectivity appropriate to them, whether a listener, a reader, or a viewer. And of course listeners, readers, and viewers might eventually become speakers or singers, writers, or filmmakers. Communications media can and sometimes do work both ways. Senders can become receivers and vice versa.

Since communications media create subjectivities they also create communities, groups of people who interact via the medium, whatever it may be. As creators of community, communications media regulate a specific kind of self-social bond, they determine the nature and pace of self-social interaction, they delimit what can be said, when, by whom, and how. Beyond this, but as an extension of it, communications media also imply pedagogies, methods that not only train subjects to interact via the media but also essentially create those subjects by shaping their biological propensities, by providing literal channels through which we can express our desires. But of course the power of speech is closely guarded, a function of class, economics, ideology, and, most of all, connection. Enculturation ensures that those entrusted with the power of speech won’t let the cat out of the bag, won’t burst the ideological bubble or inadvertently deflate the discursive balloon.

Eric Havelock made these observations in his brilliant book, Preface to Plato, and Marshall McLuhan extended them across his career. McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) charted the emergence of the modern “typographic” individual, while Understanding Media (1964) and The Medium is the Massage (1967), most famously, followed the breakdown of that form of subjectivity through the rise electronic media: television and radio in the postwar era.

And today: Media saturated we may be, but design nevertheless creates the context of our everyday lives. What’s the difference? Media disseminates content, of a kind, while design creates form. The form of the media may determine the nature of the content, as McLuhan claimed, and hence also the nature of the receiving-sending subject and of the ensuing self-social bond, but design serves a more fundamental function in culture today, it creates the context in which the media may function. The media are in fact essentially a element of design, which does much more besides.

McLuhan’s “typographic man”, the subject who lives in the Gutenberg Galaxy, is the autonomous individual subject theorized during the European Enlightenment, the hegemonic communications media of which was of course the printing press: a machine used for making Bibles, novels, and newspapers, most significantly. The typographic man (following McLuhan’s usage) is the self-reflective subject possessed of and created by his critical self-consciousness, itself a function of the imagination. The typographic man reads narratives and consumes images that are themselves representative microcosms of his own critical self-consciousness: whirlpools of self-reflection isolated from the totality of the world. Reading texts and images takes time, but this is ok, beneficial even. The typographic man is a rational and linear thinker, living in a period of history conceived in terms of linear progress. He is a mechanized man for a mechanized, industrialized time. He understands how representations work, at least in general, and thus has faith in representative politics and in conspicuous consumption, which is a correlate of the same basic structure.

McLuhan anticipated the collapse of this system. He anticipated the hegemony of a new communications media – the media – and a new from of subjectivity to go with it. Typographic man prioritized the eye over the ear, vision over hearing. His environment was directed rather than immersive. His attention intensive rather than extensive, delayed rather than instantaneous, individual and autonomous rather than tribal, local rather than global. McLuhan’s new model of subjectivity would of course reverse all of these priorities.

And of course McLuhan was a prophet of media in a time when television had three channels, radio was still predominantly AM, personal computers were more than a decade away, and personal audio devices like the SONY Walkman more than two decades away. A revolution in communications media has occurred since McLuhan’s death in 1980 and even that revolution pales in comparison to the revolution in design of which it has been a part.

Looking back, we can see how we got here; we can trace our cultural steps, in terms of communications media, from Gutenberg to Google, though it might be more helpful if we started the story a little earlier in time. A very brief history of communications media might begin with the symbolic forms created by Paleolithic peoples, neatly divided as they were between the movable and the immoveable. Portable forms included everything from small symbolic statuettes and carvings to clothing and body art and ornamentation. Non-moveable forms included parietal images, within caves and without. Surprisingly, the Paleolithic media offer some of the best analogies for understanding our world of design today. Though Paleolithic images may often be representational, the representations do not rely on narrative and their effects are situated within and intended for a specific total environment. As with design today, the images serve to mark individual identities within the social group or to provoke a specific experience in a specific space. These are images designed for interaction rather than contemplation. Despite the immersive environment the images and other elements do not cohere into anything resembling an organic whole.

Communal spaces were at the center of the next revolution in communications media, that being the rise of symbolic architecture, whether funerary or religious. Tombs and temples were constructed to tell us something about ourselves and to stand the test of time, which they did. Writing was also a relatively early invention of the urban revolution, though the transition from orality to literacy did not occur, in the West, until the classical age in ancient Greece. Literacy did not however threaten to become anything akin to prominent until the end of the Middle Ages, when the printing press made books more common and thus less symbolic in and of themselves.

Across these latter periods, the codex form succeeded in part because it could be carried. Gutenberg and the graphic designers that followed his 1439 invention only intensified the effects of that fundamental form. Newspapers and novels appeared more or less simultaneously in the early seventeenth century as vehicles of information produced by moveable type. Oil paintings emerged as the functional image-based analog to these printed texts. Unlike woodcuts or engravings, oil paintings possess a richness and depth of color that satisfies the contemplative eye. They can be moved, and therefore sold. The Fine Art tradition shared a parallel history with the novel and newspapers as a companion of contemplative typographic man, who could carry his communications media with him.

The mass media only began to emerge in the middle of the nineteenth century with the commercialization of the telegraph and the perfection and popularization of photography in the 1840s. Telephones and phonographs followed in the 1870s and motion pictures in the 1890s, by which time city streets where emblazoned with large, multi-color posters promoting all manner of products and entertainments. Industrially produced goods needed all the help they could get in differentiating themselves from their competitors, and the advertising industry was born to provide that help. By the 1890s, the newly founded advertising agencies began to establish their own design departments. Radio and television were late-comers to the scene. Commercial radio did not begin to spread until the early 1920s, and television not until the late 1930s and 1940s, in Europe and America. When McLuhan published Understanding Media in 1964, network television had been broadcasting for less than two decades in America. It was still a cool new topic.

Communications technologies in this era of mass media were technologies targeting masses of people: film, radio, pre-cable television, each in their way, served to create communal experiences for nations as a whole. And I use the word “targeting” intentionally. McLuhan’s media sent its messages down a one-way street. There was no way to talk back, no real way to participate without becoming part of the machine. Today’s communications technologies on the other hand emphasize our participation, within certain limits, while simultaneously isolating us from others, and they do these things in many different ways. Mobile phones, iPods, and portable computers plugged into a wireless internet are ubiquitous and private. Television, whether satellite, cable, or online, can be tailored to personal preference with TiVo, and now offers such a plethora of choices that we can no longer count on the community implied by watching one of the same three channels our neighbors are watching. The VCR was essentially unknown to McLuhan but it already represents an archaic stepping-stone to this era for us.

When did our era of individualized-interactive communications media begin? Can we blame the Kodak Instamatic, first marketed in 1963, the camera that made photography so easy and affordable? Single lens reflex cameras began to democratize a more serious kind of amateur image-making later in the decade. Video games, personal computers and mobile phones were all developed from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, the decade in which cable television began to spread and SONY introduced its first Walkman. In 1984, Apple debuted its MacIntosh, the first personal computer to use a visual interface and a mouse for navigation rather than a text-based command line. During these same years Adobe Systems developed software capable of describing all the elements on a page – lines, texts, images – in a homogenous way that made home desktop publishing a reality and that ultimately transformed the professional practice of graphic design. A decade later, Netscape Navigator made interconnectivity via the internet a viable and indeed exciting reality and smart phones let mobile users send email and browse the web on hand-held devices.

Our world has become still more interactive in the decade since then with, among other things, the introduction and popularization of TiVo, the spread of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), and the new generation of interactive video game systems, lead by Nintendo’s Wii. Of MMORPGs, World of Warcraft, which was released in its most familiar form in 2004, reports 11.5 million monthly subscribers worldwide. While this is a lot, it represents only 62% of the 18.5 million member market for MMORPGs. These figures are of course monthly. Nintendo, for its part, sold 13.4 million of its Wii game consoles in the United States alone between November 2006 and November 2008. Wii is at present the bestselling interactive home video game system. Its motion sensitive controllers let multiple players physically interact by miming game motions. According to their own promotional figures, Nintendo has shipped 77 million Wii consoles to date. By contrast, note that 459,972 people visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York between October 18 and December 31, 2005 to see Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, a show that everyone involved would agree was outstandingly successful. When I suggest that we redirect our analytic attention to the material facts of the way that we live, these are the kinds of facts that I am talking about.

The mass media were extensions of the culture industry rather than extensions of individuals. They extended the power of previously empowered speakers rather than transforming disempowered listeners into speakers. In our era of participatory media, the media are not extensions of subjectivity but rather dissimulators of it. They are channels that conduct our energies without creating or maintaining our subjectivity beyond the thin veil of a digital avatar.

Communications media create forms of subjectivity, subjects and communities by providing a field of self-reflection, a means of self-recognition via representation, a stable space in which one may say “I am that”, whether that be a Homeric hero, a Spanish hidalgo, or some other icon of identity. These media have evolved in our time from forms of representation, operating on a mass scale a century ago, to forms of participation in a special sense of this term. Participatory or interactive media structure our engagements with them without necessarily structuring the subjectivity that is engaged. We don’t mistake ourselves for our avatar nor do we stare contemplatively into the screen of our iPod as we watch videos.

Significantly, this transition has taken place while our cultural institutions – our schools, libraries, and museums in particular – have remained focused on and organized around older forms of representational media and, lately, fixated on expanding or “diversifying” the range of representations represented. Such gestures are symptomatic of our continued fetishism of representational cultural forms and of our unwillingness to change the basic structure and orientation of our thought.

What would happen if we redirected our fetishism of cultural forms away from forms of representation – paintings, sculptures, novels, poems, plays, and the like – toward the immersive, process driven total environment of design? My point is not to say that the older forms are no longer pleasurable either as historical artifacts, or in some instances contemporary expressions, but rather to suggest that the longstanding cultural cache granted them might be tempered by the reflection that none of these forms continues to serve the social function that it once did. No matter how much we may enjoy these forms, they no longer occupy the same cultural space.

The base media of our world have changed from mass media to participatory or interactive media and these new forms of media have emerged within a total context determined by design. The paintings, poems, novels and newspapers valued by typographic man reflect historical conditions that have not been ours for since at least the end of World War Two, if not in fact earlier. As I have already observed, these forms were invented in the early modern era, the seventeenth century. The novel arguably reached its peak as a cultural form as long ago as 1813, with Pride and Prejudice, or perhaps in 1881, with The Brothers Karamazov. It has been even longer since poetry was widely celebrated as the central bearer of cultural codes.

The solitary early modern citizen was replaced by the shocked and alienated late modern masses in the early twentieth century. In the second half of the twentieth century, the masses themselves were replaced by an entirely new form of subjectivity, the subjectivity created by and at work in a culture of design. From contemplation to mediation to participation, this is the motion of our culture over the last four hundred years: from the contemplation of representations to an immersion in design.

Participatory media and design are not representational forms they are relays that function by deferral. Graphic design may occasionally use representations but these representations are imbedded within a total context that is the essential product of design. Paintings, photographs, and poetry fall under the aegis of design, rather than the other way around. Design structures the space and the pace of our lives. It shapes the disposition of our energies like a vortex, in Ezra Pound’s sense of this term: a point of maximum energy shaped by multiple and intersecting material and ideological forces of input, constriction, and output.

The design disciplines establish the total context for human life in our time. Design decisions even regulate our interaction with and preservation of the wild. If the wilderness is to be preserved, as it must be, it will be preserved by design.

The word design in the sense I’m using it does not describe a single phenomenon, a singular mode of cultural activity, but rather a diversity of related phenomena and cultural activities, pursued, promoted, and understood in myriad ways. If culture is a complex of behaviors and material objects, design can be understood as the activity that creates the context for those behaviors and that creates those objects. Design, in this sense, creates culture, as frivolous or fulsome as this might be.

Design decisions give form to the way we live. They create the material context in which we exercise our judgment and our passions. They give material shape to our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and even desires.

Design only functions in concert with human desire: it activates human desire, harnesses it, channels it, and may ultimately even have the power to transform it. Design can shape desire. This should not strike us as a horrifying thought. Design culture is a culture of give and take in which no one – neither designers, their clients, nor the members of the community of consumers – has absolute power. Design always expresses itself against resistances, in a space that offers myriad micro-freedoms rather than any single or overarching ideal freedom.

Economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein have demonstrated the power of design to affect desire in their book, Nudge. A “nudge” is a design solution to an aspect of human behavior that is unlikely to shift without the nudge. Images of flies were etched into the urinals in the men’s room at the Amsterdam airport, for example, right near the drains, to offer users a target of sorts and thereby to discourage “spillage”. Unsurprisingly, the solution worked and spillage dropped by 80%. The nudge, in this case the painted flies, shifted human behavior by exploiting human desire and channeling it down a more “productive” path. Significantly, nudges don’t involve education or training, they don’t offer or require incentives, and they don’t make you do anything that you don’t want to do already. Nudges aren’t ideas that require the support of complex arguments nor are they didactic in any way. Nudges don’t nudge you by changing your ideas about the world. Nor does a nudge exploit an if-then theatrical scenario, it doesn’t ask you to perform a role. Nothing is fake. The nudge simply offers you a chance to do what you want to do anyway. It does however exploit that desire toward the best possible end, within a limited situation. The nudge is a good example of the way that design culture works in general.

To calm our fears: A few general observations about the culture of design:

Design culture is not singular, unified, or totalizing.

Design culture is simultaneously both material and meaningful: it is inherently heterogeneous.

Design culture is nodal, networked, and open, rather than hegemonic, hierarchical, and closed.

Design culture is never fully present nor ever absent, it is structured with relays and deferrals.

Design culture is immersive rather than representational, though it may include representations.

Design culture requires personal and communal participation. But design culture does not exploit, create, or imply a critically reflective autonomous individual. Nudges help us follow constructive desires and he help shape nudges by shaping design.

Design culture is fluid and inherently unstable. Design is a process rather than an ideal: it denies the very notion of an ideal state.

What is left for us to do?

We must rebuild our educational institutions not as a mirror of the world beyond the walls of our ivy-covered ivory towers but as a partner to that world. We must educate ourselves in the products and processes of design culture. And we must educate our designers in the nature and implications of their tasks. We must demonstrate that scientists and engineers are themselves working within the design fields and that these fields are part of culture. Design programs in the United States generally lack cultural and historical components. They seek to isolate design as a specialized function within society without reflecting on the social and contextual character of design decisions.

In order to return to relevance, humanities education must ask questions about the way that we actually live without reducing that life to a series of representations fit for study.

Our knowledge must become process oriented and purposeful: not a collection of facts about the past but a gathering of strategies oriented toward the future.

One hundred years after Edmund Husserl’s invention of phenomenology, I’m proposing another return to the things themselves, asking cultural questions informed by science rather than science questions that take culture for granted.

We need to focus on materials: what is in our things? Where did these materials come from? What extraction and production processes and costs are entailed in manufacturing the object? How did this thing get here? What distribution chains and networks brought it to me? And where will it go when I’m done with it? Can it or its parts be reused or recycled? What ergonomic impact will my use of this thing have on my body?

We also need to rethink our relationship to our home places, about where and how we live, about our buildings, towns, cities, and the infrastructures that link us to other towns and cities. Where does our energy come from? How much energy do our buildings use? Where does our water come from? What are our personal traffic patterns? How are our cities organized? How far do we travel to our destinations and by what means? How much time do we spend traveling to do something rather than doing something?

And we need to think about the symbolic landscapes we navigate every day. How are the objects, buildings, and images of our world meaningful to us? What symbol systems animate our architectures, clothes, images and texts? Why do we buy this couch instead of that one? What ideologies organize these symbol systems? Who created them and how can we engage with and shape them ourselves?

We also need to learn to see the political infrastructures that shape our lives and these too are products of design. The laws of a land are not god given. They are shaped by human authors toward human ends. A civics class is a course in design. Approaching it as such and within a broader context of design education might help break the deadlock of contemporary American politics, inspired as it is, by so much disinformation.

The historical archive and the archive of aesthetic production across the arts can be harnessed with these questions in mind. Aesthetic objects are sensual and symbolic; they can be used to teach us how to see and to touch as well as how to interpret cultural codes and contexts. Some art objects also explicitly engage with the problems and topics of design culture: they reveal the problematic history of our human engagement with our planet, from the inadvertent record of ancient extinctions captured in cave paintings to ancient ruminations on the relationship between nature and culture in Gilamesh or Euripides’ Bacchae and modern reflections on nature and industry, like Thoreau’s Walden and Melville’s Moby Dick. Multidisciplinary courses could be organized around notions like urbanism, transportation or food, analyzing concepts like “home” across cultures, historically and in terms of an architectural problem.

We need to stop expanding the Encyclopédie of representations, stop trying to serve every race, class, and gender with a separate course, and every media with a separate major, and start trying to see where and how and why we live the way we do and what exactly we can do about it.

I’m not suggesting we eliminate academic jobs, only that we reorient many of them toward an understanding of the role of context in creation, the communal nature of the process of creation, and the impact of design systems – hard and soft – on our everyday lives.

The critical tools for these types of inquiry already exist and indeed these questions are already being asked. Momentum is, I think, gathering behind them. Connections are being made. A paradigm is shifting and if we watch closely we might catch a glimpse of a new world begin born; we might even be among those who usher it in.

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.