BY Rick Poynor in Profiles | 06 SEP 94
Featured in
Issue 18

Been there, Seen that, Doing it tomorrow

The relationship between art and graphic design

BY Rick Poynor in Profiles | 06 SEP 94

The complex interrelationship of art and graphic design, always in a state of flux, has shifted again in the 90s. During its late modernist years, from the 50s to 70s, graphic design strove to become objective, to 'solve problems' for clients and to disassociate itself from both the subjectivity of fine art and its own painterly origins in the commercial art of the pre war years. Today, graphic designers are self-consciously reinterpreting design as a tool of personal expression. Ideas which were considered by most professionals to be completely beyond the pale are now commonplace in the design schools of Britain and the US. In the space of just three or four years many of the most extreme, and one might have thought, commercially unviable forms of graphic experiment have been turned into would-be hip multinational advertising.

The speed with which this has occurred means that designers themselves have not properly digested what is going on, or fully explored its implications. The design press celebrates the new relentlessly but lacks the critical tools to assess it and the more contentious claims of the experimentalists go largely unexamined. Although graphic design is currently one of the most vigorous areas of visual culture, hovering on the threshold of full-blown multimedia, it receives little attention outside the specialist press.

In the 90s, for better or worse, graphic designers have breached the final frontier: text itself. Following the example of Emigre Graphics, a West Coast digital type foundry which publishes its own influential magazine, dozens of small foundries have sprung up. Emigre's claim that there is no such thing as inherent legibility and that we read best what we read most is being tested to destruction by student type design projects that now, in the do-it-yourself digital era, manage to find their way to the market. Many of these 'garage fonts' or 'dirty fonts' are distressed to the point of near illegibility, if not psychosis. Minneapolis designer Alex Tylevich's Gaijin (Japanese for 'foreigner') for instance looks like it was scratched out blindfolded with a broken pen.

Such typefaces have received a peculiar kind of apotheosis in Ray Gun, a monthly music magazine designed by David Carson in Del Mar, California. Now selling 120,000 copies an issue, Ray Gun mounts a frenzied assault on traditional conventions of typography. Readers must pick their way through deliberate typos, lines that have collapsed together, strange and uncomfortable type mixtures, irrational size changes, headlines shattered into letter fragments, and tangled line-endings where adjacent columns collide. It is a kind of 'painting with type' and some of Carson's compositions are startling in their unexpectedness; others are just silly. For every reader who writes in to complain another ten say it is a wellspring of inspiration.

On one level Ray Gun cannot be faulted. As design calculated to repel outsiders, it is merely the most extreme example in a lineage that stretches from Oz magazine's late 60s day-glo freakouts to i-D's 'instant' layouts and the logo-philia of Brody-period The Face. How widely Ray Gun's inventions might be applied remains to be seen. Carson advances all the usual arguments about an MTV generation with a much reduced attention span and an ability to process a density of visual information that leaves older, pre-MTV viewers and readers reeling. Recently he added the tagline 'end of print' to Ray Gun's cover and in a published conversation with Neville Brody claimed the magazine 'is a starting point for how things might go'. He did not elaborate, but he has applied a watered down version of his Ray Gun mannerisms to advertising for Pepsi ('I wanna tune in I wanna zone out...') and Nike.

For Carson, this is a perfectly understandable career move: advertising will plunder him anyway, so why not cash in on his own inventions? The effect, however, is merely to conspire in and speed up the commodification of his own design process, collapsing whatever distinction between advertising and editorial content that might have remained. If Carson's design procedures ever possessed a radical intention, or the potential to function as a means of critique, this has gone forever once these same procedures become the visual currency of advertising for soft drinks and trainers. Radical form without radical content is little more than consumer sensationalism. Once the gesture of defiance has been made, the 'I wanna' school of design has very little to say.

Other experimenters with form actively resist the idea of the closed, definitive statement. Tomato, a London-based workshop of designers, image-makers, filmmakers and musicians, explain their work in terms of process rather than finished result. While the fixed frame of the printed page implies resolution and closure, digital media are open-ended, limitlessly mutable, a series of rippling moments from a potentially endless electronic stream. Tomato's printed pieces are best thought of as cross-sections from this continuum. Taking this resistance to closure a step further, Neville Brody and his collaborators at Fuse, the disk-based interactive type magazine, seek to resolve the dilemma of content by eliminating it entirely from their non-representational 'freeform' typefaces - sets of abstract marks and shapes which can be accessed from the keyboard like ordinary typefaces for assembly into electronic compositions. 'I am a painter using digital technology,' says Brody. The assumption, again, is that experimental form is inherently radical.

The excitement of digital discovery means that most of the energy is going into formal research. For many designers, the primary concern is not with what they are saying, or why, but with the 'graphic language' through which they are saying it. In this sense, designers have not changed as much as they might assume: the profession has long been thought of as a neutral service for others, with no messages of its own. Empowered by new technology, graphic designers are winning exceptional freedoms for themselves and there is no reason, given the changing cultural climate, why a more expressive, questioning, personal - in other words artistic - form of design should not be possible. For this to happen, though, designers will need a new sense of critical purpose and a commitment to concerns and issues beyond the visual realm.