Artists, traditionally, condescend to designers. The theory goes that where artists stride ahead of their culture, constantly innovating and challenging perceptions, the designer panders to the status quo and sells out to their client. Any designer who has seen their mock-ups disappear behind corporate shutters, only to be vetoed at the highest level by some kind of aesthetic dictator, may be inclined to agree with this.
Like midwives & paediatricians, or architects & structural engineers, the two professions, though indispensable to one another, maintain a level of separation, competition and mutual distrust.
Even outside the two industries the relative importance of art versus design is hotly contested, aesthetes and cultural commentators tending to favour the former in terms of significance. The contemporary artist is mandated to perpetuate public interest in the arts, to inflame public sensibilities if necessary – especially when interest is dwindling – and to challenge aesthetic and cultural prejudices. The designer, on the other hand, is perceived as a parasite on society, feeding off cultural icons and undertaking a cutthroat campaign of visual commercialisation.
Yet, in order to be successful – and to justify the invoice at the end of each project – the designer must be both challenging to, and embracing of the culture in which s/he works. The self-conscious designer who is serious about their place in design history, fears nothing more than producing generic work, but the greatest modern designs (and I’m talking products like Emigre, Ray Gun and I. D. here), not only embrace their cultural context and design heritage, but enhance it. They must be quintessentially of their time, to an extent that even artists rarely are. This overlapping of life and art describes truly contemporary graphic design, and if you want to see a culture describe itself at the most organic level, you should observe the design and not the art.
A glance at Alan Fletcher’s magnum opus The Art of Looking Sideways – a cornucopia of found art objects, provocative quotes, insightful remarks and seminal designs – instantly reveals an insight into not only the workings of his mind, but into the many and diverse cultures from which its fragments are drawn. For the secular among us, Alan’s book occupies the same intellectual void as the Bible – reassuring us that there is hope yet for humanity.
Of course, the reputation of designers was marred by the universalisation of the tools of their trade. When Apple released the Macintosh computer in 1984, it seemed that suddenly anyone could produce industry-standard graphic work. As well as implementing the digital and information ages in popular cultural history, the spread of home computers also spawned a new breed of designers, referred to posthumously as ‘graphic radicals’. These ‘radicals’ broke the two-decade long hegemony of the ‘Swiss School’ of design which had been led primarily by Massimo Vignelli, and was characterized by refined typography, grid-driven composition, and an obsession with the golden section. Layering icons and text, sometimes to the extreme, defying legibility and design common sense, the diverse work of the radicals had only one thing in common: the clear belief that design carries the message. Slowly, the Western cultures from which these designers emerged have caught up with, and begun to appreciate their contribution to the aesthetic world in which we all live.
The film industry has experienced a similar challenge with the advent of consumer-priced, high quality digital video equipment. The associated low costs of digital filmmaking have allowed practitioners to take risks without fear of marring their career with multi-million pound abject failures. While this has facilitated some astonishing artistic achievements from leading-edge directors like Mike Figgis and Lars Von Trier, it has also made possible production of the most shockingly sub-standard cinematic spectacles in history.
Heralded – like the Internet – as the ‘new medium of democracy’, there is a huge onus on it to behave in a self-regulatory fashion. Although I don’t want to align myself with the familiar refrain of the NRA, I am a strong proponent of the idea that cameras don’t kill films, but the people behind the viewfinder. If we have been presented with a new democratic voice, it is up to us to use it wisely. Sadly – and the parallels with the Internet are even more blatant here – any creative and intellectual developments have been grossly overshadowed by its exploitation by the pornography industry, a million-and-one cheap flesh-fests hitting the shelves each year. The moral? Give ‘the people’ a new medium of expression, and the majority will (literally) fuck it.
However, a growing number of filmmakers and moving-image practitioners have begun to make creative breakthroughs in their work using digital video, mainly by identifying and exploiting its unique attributes. From documentaries to Dogme films, it has made possible the previously impossible.
A new media project centred around the February 15th ‘Stop The War’ march in London has set out to reclaim the title ‘medium of democracy’ from its abusers. The project, devised by Chris Clarke and produced collaboratively by Fifty Nine Ltd and Level Productions, enlisted the help of over 30 filmmakers – some amateur, some professional – to record the demonstration using a variety of techniques, from 8mm cinefilm to broadcast-quality video. Now being compiled and edited, the finished product will be a documentary in the purest sense of the word: one event perceived from many views, in many styles, defying the linear narrative style propagated by the BBC and its rivals.
If, as the march organisers believe, the Britain of here and now is where future world history is being decided, then this defining moment deserves to be recorded. Do not sit back and allow the global media to homogenise the hell out of our experiences. We must go out of our way to make sure we leave a historical legacy we can be proud of, one defined not by the academic commentators of posterity, but by our innovators and pioneers.