Guest theoretician Rick Poynor: Social Reruns


Over the years Zgraf has been bringing together designers, theorists and critics with the intention of examining basic issues and the position of design in contemporary society in order to continually point to the significance of design as a profession. Each new edition is accompanied by a new theme, new partners and a new location. Zgraf 12 has, this year, chose ‘Social Reruns’ as theme and Rick Poynor as the guest theoretician. Read more below…

Anyone who was been involved in graphic design for many years is likely to reach the conclusion that the activity is inherently cyclical. A graphic style emerges, usually by a gradual and somewhat mysterious process. A first wave of “early adopters” notices the style and begins to use it. The new style is now fashionable. Its exponents are in the know and delight in being one or two steps ahead of their slower moving colleagues. At a certain point almost everyone notices the style and it becomes commonplace. A really successful style comes to seem like the inevitable look of its time, but in the style’s ubiquity lie the seeds of its downfall. It starts to appear trite, over-familiar and dull. The early enthusiasts don’t want to produce design that is merely ordinary and they are the first to drop it. Eventually, everyone is bored with the style, it ceases to communicate and gradually it disappears. This is not, however, necessarily the end of its existence. When the social and cultural moment is propitious, a strong style may be rediscovered and return. The revived style can never be the same as it was the first time, though, because it will inevitably be tinged with the feeling of being retro, a nostalgic quotation and rerun of something more vital that took place in the past.

These reruns are a phenomenon of the modern age, from the rediscovery of the Gothic style in architecture and art by the 19th-century Victorians to the 1960s counterculture’s appropriation of Art Nouveau’s luxuriance to express the hedonism of that era. The clay we are made from doesn’t change in essence and human beings have an irresistible tendency to reenact what has already occurred, as we acknowledge in the common phrase “History repeats itself”. In the Bible, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes puts it like this: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” In philosophy, the idea of the cyclical pattern is expressed in the concept of the “eternal return”, which originated in ancient times, in Egypt and India, and was taken up by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This theory holds that the energy of the universe will manifest itself in recurring, similar forms into infinity.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the same ideas keep resurfacing in graphic design, yet from the inside the phenomenon can look like suspiciously like stagnation. According to the postmodern analysis of contemporary culture advanced by the American critic Fredric Jameson and others in the 1980s, the repetitions of popular culture, seen for instance in the proliferating remakes of Hollywood movies, were a sign of an exhausted, late capitalist culture devoid of original vision, which could only replay the triumphs of the past. It’s entirely typical of the cyclical pattern of our diminishing attention spans that this critique has already been forgotten (because postmodernism is no longer a fashionable concept) even though it explains so much about the present. Meanwhile, the remakes and revivals continue at full throttle. The Canva design tools website – “Empowering the world to design” – lists “nine graphic trends you need to be aware of in 2016” and the first of these is “‘Modern’ retro style”, which derives not from the pre-1960s vintage era, but from the more recent, but to some still excitingly dated look of technology from the late 1970s to the 1990s. Trend number 7, “Dramatic typography”, offers the jaw-dropping revelation that, “typography isn’t just for reading – it’s for making a statement. Look out for big, bold type that’s the center of attention. You can create drama through size, but also through color, texture, or arrangement.” Trend number 8 imparts the remarkable news that designers are replacing stock photography and graphics with custom imagery and illustrations – “this tactic of making imagery more personalized and relatable should continue to grow.” It’s as though someone with zero awareness of design history were writing, but the author of the list is an accomplished graphic designer.

For a larger example of the rerun, let’s consider the case of “ugly” design. In May 2016, the AIGA Eye on Design website ran an article about “The New Wave of Anti-Design Magazines.” According to the writer, white space, good taste and luxury are passé; what holds sway now in independent magazine publishing is “the ugly, the untidy, and the cheap”. The illustrations used to clinch the point included Mushpit magazine, which knowingly cultivates the dishevelled air of having been thrown together by inspired amateurs. While some may imagine this to be an original trend, it’s actually no time at all since the last revival of ugly design, documented, in 2012, in the book Pretty Ugly: Visual Rebellion in Design. The editors, TwoPoints.Net (their actual credit), pinpointed six styles of ugliness in contemporary graphic design – Deviant, Mundane, Deconstructed, Impure, Mishmash and Deformed – but nowhere did they mention that all these visual tropes had already been identified back in the 1990s as stylistic traits of postmodern design. Before we briefly revisit that decade, we should also mention that in September 2007, Creative Review magazine’s editor, Patrick Burgoyne, reported a tendency in magazine design that he designated “The New Ugly”, his judicious use of the word “new” implying the existence of an older form of ugly design. Burgoyne was alluding to Steven Heller’s notorious essay “Cult of the Ugly”, written for Eye in 1993, in which the prolific American writer excoriated what he saw as an unacceptable style that demeaned graphic design. It’s not my purpose here to debate the rights and wrongs of Heller’s position, but ugly design was not, as he well knew, an invention of the controversial postmodern digital experimentalists of the 1990s. The broken forms, pictorial fragmentation and disharmony that anti-design revels in can be found in punk graphics of the 1970s and early 1980s and, before that, in the countercultural graphics of the 1960s. And we don’t need to stop there. The calculated use of ugliness in art as an affront to convention and a search for a deeper truth goes back to early modernism and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).

What I hope this whistle-stop case study indicates is that the only way to critically appraise the constant remakes and reruns of pre-existing graphic styles, as though they were something intrinsically new, is to cultivate an awareness of graphic design history – both the distant past and the recent past. This is easily said but harder to achieve, because it seems to be a natural tendency for new generations to disregard the activities of their predecessors, especially the previous generation, as though these hadn’t happened. The new arrivals attempt to learn their own lessons and to forge their own generational identity, only to end up making similar discoveries and mistakes because history repeats itself. But it’s a waste of effort and not very smart to “reinvent” what has already been invented. Instead, we could simply acknowledge that these visual approaches are there on the shelf already as a set of possibilities and they can be deployed, in full awareness of their history, whenever they are required. This is in any case the reality of our age. We live in a time of cultural pluralism, after decades of mutually cancelling isms, in which any graphic outcome is potentially available for use, and there is nothing stopping us, apart from the constraints of fashion and taste, from jumping between wildly different aesthetic devices.

What matters most of all is a design’s context. The way forward for progressive graphic designers is to ignore the insidious influence of fashionable stylistic memes, where the primary concern seems to be to impose on the graphic sphere a lack of true differentiation, and instead to pay close attention to the particularities of each project and what it’s trying to communicate. This idea is certainly not new. The ideal of flexible practice is often stated as a goal for graphic design, although designers who proceed with this degree of freedom are in curiously short supply. Most designers tend to operate within strictly prescribed aesthetic limits. Nevertheless, a graphic method determined primarily by context has limitless potential; it could run – or rerun – forever because the everyday sites and contexts in which graphic design takes place are infinitely variable.

As a visual language, graphic design should express a multiplicity of viewpoints. It should be as protean as written and verbal expression because anything less is a denial of visual communication’s essential social function. We don’t have uniformity of politics, outlook and opinion so we should not have uniformity of graphic address. The designer who is imaginatively open to the manifold possibilities of communication is already performing a vital social role. While some would like to see a wholesale reorientation of graphic design towards social usefulness and a shared system of social values, we cannot expect this Utopian prospect to reshape our society any time soon. The struggle to achieve that condition of balance and social justice will be long and hard and it would be absurd to pretend that graphic designers are in a position, as a group, to redefine social relationships in a society where many people actively oppose that goal. Individual designers are nevertheless free to orientate their practice towards a consciously held ideal of social improvement and they can certainly help the wider cause by their own example. Through their enlightened work set-ups and choice of collaborators, and the values these choices embody, designers can propose an alternative way of living and working, and this may influence others at both a conscious and unconscious level. The designer is in a position of social responsibility and wields a considerable degree of “soft power” as a public communicator. This awareness, allied to a deep sensitivity to design’s many contexts, should surpass the pointless reinvention of already existing styles.
Rick Poynor

Rick Poynor is a British writer, lecturer and curator, and Professor of Design and Visual Culture at the University of Reading. He was the founding editor of Eye magazine in London and a co-founder of the Design Observer website. His column for the American magazine Print has been running since 2000 and his essays and reviews have appeared in Blueprint, Creative Review, Icon, Frieze, Etapes, and many other publications. Poynor’s books include Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World (2001), No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism (2003), Jan van Toorn: Critical Practice (2008) and Sergei Sviatchenko: Collages (2014).





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