Monday, April 23, 2012

Infrequently-Asked Questions, #2

Asked via Facebook:
Q) It's not an area I know much about, but are these 'iconic' designers?

A) For the benefit of the easily-confused (and don't assume this excludes you): An 'iconic' designer is not someone who designs icons & logos. Most graphic designers (the kind we're dealing with here) do that.

Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Bruno Munari, and Paul Rand are the designers in question. The short answer is: Yes. The longer answer is: At least three of them are, indisputably, with the other two up for grabs.

Glaser, Bass and Rand came along at a time when a 'graphic designer' generally meant a guy hired by local newspapers or printers to put together ads for their clients. His skills (relative to other designers) were not generally considered crucial to sales. All that really mattered was legibility and a fealty to whatever message the advertiser cared to convey. The graphic designer merely carried their water. These men were among those at the forefront as this dynamic underwent some meaningful change.

They were iconic in that they became the standard-bearers for their emerging profession. To the general public, and especially to those who study design trends, they embodied graphic design in the same way The Beatles embodied the 1960's, or Elvis embodied rock 'n' roll. Like their musical counterparts, they both rode the crest of change and drove it.

Rand demonstrated the importance of corporate identification. He created the IDs of some of the best-known brands on the planet, and many of his icons are still unchanged and in use today. (Some of them - such as Enron and NeXT - outlived their companies.)

Bass extended the importance of design to motion picture titles, and pioneered a trend that led to the creation of motion picture title design becoming an industry (and an entertainment) in and of itself.

Glaser blurred the line between 'graphic design' (once mostly elaborate typesetting) and what came to be seen as 'graphic art' and even 'fine art'. He was helped a great deal, of course, by advances in print technology during his lifetime.

There were others who pointed the way. Men such as Bruno Munari and Leonetto Cappiello contributed significant innovations to the emerging graphic arts field, but Glaser et al were in America and amidst the forces in communications technology and commerce that drove this train. They were in the right place at the right time, and were equipped to lead and run with the trend.

I personally think of Scher, though a talented designer in her own right, as making her contribution primarily by communicating on behalf of the design community (to such degree that exists).

Glaser made his name partly because of The Push Pin Graphic, a promotional magazine for him and his colleagues. The magazine also was a seminal force in expanding the public's mindset re what graphic design could accomplish. One issue in particular is memorable to me because it speaks to my desire to find the patterns and connections of human events.

Issue #77, themed 'Machines' (1979), ran a piece called The Death of the Machine. It lamented that we had entered the Age of the Black Box, in which a machine's function could no longer be discerned by way of its form. In the following illustration (crudely pulled from Amazon) you can see how the designers made their case by displaying a pre-existing machine (a telephone, linotype machine, train, clock and bus) aside a bloodless line drawing of its boxy new counterpart:

This yearning was rarely well-articulated, but it was deeply felt among the public. And this abiding desire to sense the nature of the thing from its look finally emerged full-blown as Steampunk Culture, the conceit of which is that (necessarily) utilitarian Victorian designs can be employed to achieve modern-day results. They can't really, of course, but much of culture is a rebellion against the status quo. Besides, there's a compelling romance to these old-school shapes that completely eludes the black box.

To be clear, this trend hasn't come about due to a yearning for Victorianism per se. In fact, there are concurrent trends called dieselpunk, decopunk and cyberpunk which eschew Victorianism but embrace a similar attitude toward technology.

Steampunk is reaching new heights of popularity even as Apple sells more 'black boxes' than ever. The soul of the new machine, it turns out, is in its software. The surface can (and should) be a blank slate, as devoid of personality as possible. But even while we embrace the new, we long for what we have left behind. The heart wants what it wants. Don't ask it to be logical.

other Infrequently-Asked Questions

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