Manifestos, Design and So Much Talk
An overarching notion of the design field is that it carries a great deal of importance. As a profession it wants to be held in the same regard as architecture or painting. There are efforts to expand design criticism and there have been multiple efforts to catalog design history and construct what makes up its canon. Then the balloon gets deflated. The capitalistic nature of our enterprise tends to erode the notion of design as an art form, and the almost non-existent technical barriers to entering the field have made it a significantly less exclusive undertaking than the field of architecture.
In a recent hullabaloo over the work of the firm Experimental Jetset, we see the cycle played out in real time. As a firm the Dutch trio may have a more unified, codified and explicit design manifesto than most. The results of which are sometimes wonderful, though seen as a whole they can seem a bit monotonous and having what one could call a house style.
I'm sure they would argue vehemently that this is not a result of style. In fact they seem to suggest that they are developing a design context that can exist independently of other fields of art. This is an idea that strikes other designers as a way of helping graphic design achieve a loftier status. When it can be self referential the profession will have reached a point where it is valued on it's own terms (as opposed to defined against the other more vaunted art forms of architecture, painting...). By generating this new context Experimental Jetset suggests that the results can be completely original. They don't have to reference other art to be relevant.
All of this is well and good, and I'm a broken record when it comes to the idea of design as the act of thinking rather than doing, but at some point we need to look at the end product to judge whether or not the theories and manifestos we create are actually relevant to how the world does, or even should operate. In this case the physical results seem wanting.
In the end the effort to completely shirk style only seems to have created a different kind of style. It's filled with interesting thinking but seems to be almost without character. There's a regression to sameness that is self-defeating for what in the end is a field of business. Graphic design is an application of artistic principals, but it's intention is not inherently artistic. As much as some design can be personal expression, in the end there is generally something being served, sometimes it's a heartwarming non-profit organization, sometimes it's McDonald's.
Experimental Jetset does lovely work, and their high level of self criticism and thought have served them well. In the end it's what has attracted them clients. But it hasn't and can't raise design into the rarified air of art. Design isn't art, if it was we wouldn't have the word design.
As an aside to the above: I can already hear the argument that the art world is just as commercialized as anything else. But this totally ignores the difference between the genesis of a piece of art and the genesis of a work of graphic design. Both work to tell you something, but art comes from the individual design comes in the form of a client brief. This is a huge and impassable gap between the two.
Recently as more designers are simply selling the things they make the gap looks smaller at first glance. But calling yourself a designer doesn't make you a designer any more than calling yourself an artist makes you an artist. The genesis and delivery of the idea is what distinguishes the two. If I create a poster entirely spurned on by y own desire and then sell it, it's still a piece of art. Just because it's a "poster" doesn't mean that it's a piece of design. What you end up with are pieces of art that looks like a graphic designer did them. Nobody calls Thomas Kincade a designer even when his artwork is almost certainly done (at least at this point) with almost a purely monetary motive. Some might not call him an artist either, but millions of living rooms would beg to differ.
This is simply to say that design needs to lose the inferiority complex and recognize that it has both a commercial and social value in and of itself without necessarily following the same critical and academic blueprint as art. It's more like a social science. It's where art and anthropology colliding. one looks backward, the other forward and actually creates our present. Isn't that exciting enough?