I did a lecture at Meme Design School yesterday on American Graphic Design History.
The lecture was called “Road Trip” and was about social, economic, and graphic mobility in America, all framed by the windshield – America’s equivalent of the grid. Over the course of an hour-plus, I went over the tenets of American graphic design from the pre-Modern period to the Modern period to the PostModern period.
First, we got down to brass tacks as to what this thing called “Graphic Design” really is, or at least how I define it.
While the historical aspect was great and introduced students to a number of designers they might have been previously unfamiliar with, perhaps the most important part of the lecture was helping to define the concepts of Modernism and PostModernism from an American perspective, heavily informed by R. Roger Remington’s book American Modernism. These ideas are things that many undergraduate and post-graduate graphic design students stumble over.
Modernism defined, Part 1: Process Values
- to reject traditional forms and decorative elements
- to seek a solution that was simple and direct
- to be concerned with the process by which the designer worked
- to use systematic methods rather than intuitive ones
- to use rational, objective approaches to the solving of a graphic problem
- to think about relationships in form and content
Modernism defined, part 2: Formal visual values
- to use geometric shapes: the circle, the triangle and the square
Interestingly, one of the facts rarely mentioned in the mythos of the Bauhaus was how notoriously sexist the school was—women were denied instruction in architecture, graphic design and product design and were instead relegated to the field of textile design. (In essence, the message from the Bauhaus to its female students was, “Nice tits, now go weave”.)
Modernism defined, part 3: Typography
- to use sans serif typefaces
- to show contrast in typographical material
- to base work on pragmatic issues printing, paper sizes, photo engraving, standardization
Modernism defined, part 4: Imagery
- The use of photographs and photomontage rather than drawings or illustrations
- The use of silhouetted photographs with white backgrounds
- The use of maps and diagrams
- The use of graphic symbols and icons
Modernism defined, part 5: Organization
- the use of asymmetric page layout
- The use of a grid or clearly delineated page-organizing method
- to apply a planned visual hierarchy in the manner in which the graphic elements were integrated
- to know and apply perceptual laws (I.e. Keeping elements grouped)
- to apply continuity in page flow
This was all backed-up by looking at a survey of American Modern designers like Cipe Pineles and Louis Danziger (their work pictured above), and ran the gamut from Paul Rand to Alvin Lustig to William Golden to Saul Bass, including a large selection of work by European immigrants’ work, including Will Burtin, Alexey Brodovitch, Dr. M.F. Agha, and innumerable others.
We also got into Lorraine Wild’s concepts about graphic design in the 1950s being split into two fairly discernible camps: consumer modern, graphic design which aggressively targeted the general public; and high modern, which was the business of selling design itself to corporations and potential clients.
We went over developments in graphic design in the 1960s and 1970s, as well, including the work of Aaron Burns, Pushpin Studios, Rob Roy Kelly, and the psychedelic poster movement in San Francisco, including each of these practitioners’ contextual relevance and impact in terms of graphic design in Japan.
This was followed by an explanation of the development of PostModern graphic design, starting with the introduction of the term in the 1977 exhibition, “postmodern typography: recent American developments” organized by Bill Bonnell.
PostModernism defined, part one: Principles
- dystopian / non-utopian / deals with the world on its own terms
PostModernism defined, part two: Principles
- juxtaposition / fractured meaning
- interaction of text and image
These ideas were supplemented by a survey of American PostModernist work – from Dan Friedman to Ed Fella, and April Greiman to Lorraine Wild.
From there, I explained the devolution of the inquiries of semiotics and experimentation as a basis of studio practice as instigated at the Cranbrook Academy of Art into the dumbed-down “grunge” aesthetic as exemplified by the work of David Carson, through American graphic designers’ interest into systems-based design, and into the contemporary moment in American graphic design.
The past 13 years have been characterized by a mix of previous graphic styles. Most American graphic design can be summarized as “a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll”. Expressive formal experimentation is often accompanied by retro typographic treatments, and occasionally underpinned by a modern grid.
I summed up the state of graphic design in the U.S. of A. in this final statement:
“It seems that the time for dogma graphic design is over in America—there is just a stretch of infinite highway out in front of us, and simultaneously everywhere and nowhere to go at once, all framed by the windshield.”
Afterward, the students participated in a workshop I called “Looking Through the Windshield” about the analysis of spatial hierarchy, and how we can translate that hierarchy from a photograph to a typographic composition.
Loosely based on Jeffery Keedy of CalArts’ first two steps of his “1-10 Project”, the students used a numeric hierarchy to evaluate provided imagery and then use Letraset dry transfer lettering, Formatt adhesive lettering, and lettering stencils to create poetic typographic interpretations of their hierarchy.
All-in-all, it was a really rewarding day followed up by a lengthy chat with many of the students over coffee at a nearby café – the whole experience was the perfect introduction to teaching at Meme – a good mix of ideas and hands-on synthesis of what was discussed in class.