Norman Potter, What is a designer
Design is a socially negotiated discipline. Therefore, it is always at least potentially political, even when its content is not directly politically pertinent or meaningful. This is the most succinct and powerful argument to be made against bracketing questions of politics in and of design, or imagining a politically-neutral design practice. Design is not always politicized, but whether it is or not is never a definitively settled question in a free society. And it is never entirely up to designers.
Potter is a modernist. But his definition of design modernism is not that of so many of its self-identified critics. Like ‘modernity’ as Jürgen Habermas understands it, it is a condition of human existence that, once entered, we do not exit. Our criticisms of it—more properly, of what we imagine it to be—cannot help but rely on its methods and insights properly understood.
Design happens in, is informed, enabled, and constrained by, contexts that demand our attention: environmental, economic, cultural, technological, governmental. Modernism in design is the effort to ‘expose and clarify’ the practice of design and its conditions, rather to ‘embellish’ them. Potter would have accepted a distinction regarding modernism that Peter Gay once made regarding the Enlightenment: between a critical strand that asks questions, and an architectonic one that claims to have answered them.
Potter writes that ‘design is a field of concern, response, and enquiry as often as decision and consequence’. This is essentially modernist in the first, critical sense. Modernism in the second sense, a modernism of style, can come or go, can be oppositional or revolutionary or acquiescent or reactionary as practitioners choose. But we can no more give up critical self-awareness than we can give up writing, or fire. That we can choose our practices self-consciously, and shape the conditions under which we make those choices—or choose not to do so—is the modern condition.
The first thing to realize about the deep structure of modern design is that it is relation-seeking. So not only are the boundaries of design negotiated socially; designers reach beyond those boundaries to connect with others, to help them make connections. We do this by helping those who encounter what we make come to terms with its content, to make meaning of their experience with the world through that content and the forms we give to it.
Potter is describing a much humbler role for the designer than the heroic one we inherit from the height of postwar commercial design. The chief evils of our industrial society are, he agrees with Schumacher, overcomplication, greed, degradation, and authoritarianism, all in the name of taking profit, often through pretending to give especially the marginalized in society the cultural connections and experiences they seek simply because they are human beings. While the aesthetic is part of our practice, such a world doesn’t necessarily need designers who set out to make the world more beautiful. It needs designers who set out to help make the world make more sense.
Every human being is a designer. It is useful to remember that our profession includes those who earn their money from doing well what everyone does naturally, in those fields where it makes sense to pause and reflect upon what you are about to do before you actually do it. It is equally useful to remember, as Potter does, that even though we generally think of ‘designers’ as those who have studied design at a college or university, it is possible to study it on your own (as I did). Useful, in both cases, among other things because it helps to keep us humble and may go some way toward explaining why non-designers, clients and audiences alike, so often consider themselves qualified to explain our jobs to us—it is not so hard to imagine they could be right, even when they are not.
Potter is not, however, saying that anyone can do design well. After all, poetry is made of material—words—that any person with the capacity of speech or writing has at his or her disposal, and it is assembled entirely in the open, out loud or on the page. There are no hidden moving parts to a poem. And yet plainly not everyone is a poet. In the same way, even though our tools are more exclusive—because expensive—what we make in the end is open to everyone; there are no secret colors or letters. Still, the conceit of a literature class is that we can study poetry, for example, even if we cannot make it ourselves, and learn what the stakes are of doing it well or poorly. And some will find they have the ability to do it well in the process. Perhaps there should be design classes that work the same way.
Humility on this point is especially important for a modernist approach that as Potter says seeks relationships and connections, tries to come to terms with people and help them make experience meaningful as it ‘gives form and order to the amenities of life’. It prompts us to be ready to explain ourselves to others, but it also assures us that those explanations can matter. Humility also serves to reinforce the fact that good design relationships are grounded finally not in awe, authority, or faith, but in trust.
An exaggerated idea of their own consequence. It is especially academic professionals who are prone to translate every crisis in society into a crisis in their profession, and argue that by becoming better practitioners they can resolve the crisis. I suppose at least this acknowledges the transactional relationship of profession and society.
Too often our idea of how we can make a difference in society as a professional is impoverished: we imagine that the only way we con contribute is by becoming activists ourselves. As a citizen there is nothing wrong with this choice—being a good citizen among other things means precisely to act on issues of concern to us when we perceive the need to do so. But when we read this back into our professional identity, specifically in design education, and define ourselves by our activism, we risk politicizing design in the worst way: I am a good designer by virtue of my social engagement; I succeed as a designer by making the world a better place. Engagement as such is meaningless—people are engaged always with specific causes, from specific points of view, and there is no such thing as ‘better’ in the abstract. The last thing design needs is to introduce ideological sniff-testing into its professional qualifications.
This does not mean that we are left with an ideologically neutral profession, which would in any case be impossible. Because in any practice there are in fact values central to that practice that do have direct relevance to society. To commit ourselves to them does not require us to believe we will necessarily make the world better, or that our professional identity depends on our success. Think of Camus’s Dr Rieux in The Plague, whose job was not to end sickness or abolish pain and death, but to treat the suffering. Not to change the world, but to serve values that make life in the world worth living. Modern design, for its part and as Potter understands it, is centrally concerned with truthfulness and making meaning from experience. Not with any specific truths, or with any given meaning, but with the nontrivial distinction between true and false and between meaningful and meaningless. For designers as designers to promote and reinforce truthfulness and meaning is both professionally and socially responsible.
A designer works through and for other people. Potter is right to note that the discussion of whether or not a designer is an artist is of primary importance to people in art schools, and there entwined with considerations like disciplinary boundaries, curricula, and the distribution of institutional resources that aren’t substantively relevant to either practice as such. But despite this; despite the changing context in which design is practiced—more self-generated projects, new production technologies; despite the fact that artists have long worked under the constraints of patrons and commissions; and despite the fact that some art in the past and today was and is made indirectly, in that the artist provides instructions for someone else to execute—it is still a discussion worth having.
I understand Potter’s definition of the designer and his distinction between design and art to be one of emphasis and priority. The designer, unlike the artist, starts with someone else’s problems and goals, and the conditions under which the designer works consist importantly of different independent and often conflicting interests she or he needs to reconcile, or at least wrestle into some kind of dynamic equilibrium, first. Only after those are addressed is there room for the designer’s insight and expression. In different kinds of design this point is reached sooner than in others, but the order does not change.
The sort of person that would be happy and fulfilled in design (and this way of forming the issue is excellent)—capable of detachment and dispassion, can assess issues and projects on terms other than his or her own, thrives on constraint and turns it to advantage, likes people and can work in teams, accepts complexity and multiple responsibilities and obligations in the regular course of working—is not unheard of in art. Indeed they are more common among artists than I think Potter understood, although I think this says as much about the art world in the industrialized capitalist West, and the perceived need to groom one’s career, market oneself, and produce in ways that meet the needs of galleries, dealers, investors, funding agencies, and schools, as it does about art as a practice (which in any case is as subject to change and renegotiation as design is). But it is still generally true that in the end the artist’s ‘first responsibility’, as Potter put it, ‘is to the truth of [the artist’s] own vision’. The designer’s first responsibilities are to clients, audiences—is there a better term?—, and the truthfulness of the message and its conditions.
Does their education help them to feel desperately a gap between promise and fulfillment? Good design can be the difference between life and death. Besides in obvious areas, like architecture and industrial design, consider the importance of good graphic design regarding emergency exit signs in public buildings that can’t be followed when a hallway fills with smoke, misleading diagrams for assembling dangerous power tools, or impenetrable slides summarizing the flexibility of O-rings in rocket boosters or the damage caused to heat shields by falling ice.
But in many more areas of experience, especially visual design is not a matter of life and death. And now that the tools and technology of design are available to so many, and instruction and examples so much more easily accessible (or would be mainly learned in practice anyway), it is increasingly difficult to justify a formal education in visual design on the grounds of competence alone. A graphic designer is just someone who designs graphically; the quality of graphic work, or its absence, is open to any who care to look. A degree may still be an effective job requirement, but for reasons that over time have less and less to do with the work a candidate is likely to produce. Most of what one needs to make what people commonly think constitutes graphic design can, for better or worse, be imparted without it.
So what is the point—the substantive point—of a formal design education? Potter noted a couple from his own experience: a place to learn to work cooperatively with others, a safe harbor for exploration of one’s possible talents and interests. But these do not require a school; the school simply happens to afford them. The most compelling reason for a degree is to take advantage of an institution which ideally is devoted to the preservation and increase of knowledge, and to the disinterested pursuit of truth. We study design to expand its boundaries, to reflect upon and question it. Each generation of design students (and scholars) can discover again what design is, and what it can be.
Practical reasons—economic, institutional, even political ones—may remain for treating a design degree as a permit to work. And again, in some fields like architecture and industrial design, there are certain competencies of knowledge (material, physiological, cognitive) that more or less require formal instruction. But to keep our heads clear it is important that we know our reasons for what they are, and know when we are (as Potter says in another related context) compromising against principle.
Design education must at the outset be more concerned to clarify intentions than to get results. Every year, especially in state schools where legislatures and boards of regents and trustees can add their influence to that of parents and donors, programs get more pressure to show return on students’ (and their benefactors’) investments. Not surprising, and a well-established trend, especially in the US and the UK—Anglophone countries, as Tony Judt once wrote, seem to outdo other liberal democracies in abandoning the political lessons of the twentieth century in favor of authoritarian social policies and reducing public life to marketing, rent-seeking, and consumerism. But still worth pointing out: design students expect jobs with their degrees; an ever-larger stratus of administrators want self-funding programs with bankable outcomes; it is hard to convince both groups that being able to ask smart questions is more valuable than knowing one has the answers.
The dangers in giving up asking ‘why’ for asking ‘how’ on the terms of Ivan Illich’s distinction between education and training are opaque to many people. Potter in discussing these ideas does not mention it, but there is a class issue here that gets more troublesome the harder that the middle classes are squeezed by economic insecurity and loss of wealth: Reluctance to evaluate an increasingly expensive education by its immediate and tangible economic outcomes feels irresponsible and elitist to people worried about their prospects. And design programs, to the extent that they resemble fine-arts programs, have struggled for a long time to convince themselves and their students and their patrons that they are sufficiently serious about the cash value of their degrees.
Complicating factors: the jobs programs could hold out for graphic design students in the 1990s are disappearing along with the firms that offered them. Bespoke design by specialized firms is becoming a luxury reserved for a rapidly-shrinking number of clients with the resources to afford it; the rest have to settle for more off-the-shelf work. And, thanks to technological advances in design and production, this work is increasingly automated and out of the direct hands of designers to provide; just look at how much more sophisticated self-service web design has gotten over the past five years. Other kinds of design will follow: it’s easy to imagine that in twenty years, web, identity, advertising, and a good deal of information design, for most clients and users, will be largely automated. Even the tools are changing rapidly, in all fields of design, even industrial design and architecture: production methods, prototyping, computer hardware and software.
Maybe the only responsible thing to do is to point out that in this world the ’results’ that students, parents, and administrators want are simply impossible to define, and that the demand for them is really—has long been, is increasingly—the desire to win a game that no one even knows the rules of any longer. Better to take whatever chance we can to ask, what do we really want? What should we want?
The quality of design resides in a close and truthful correspondence between form and meaning. When critics talk about the politics of design, they typically are thinking of one of two things: the content or message which is designed as such (this primarily concerning graphic design, of course), or the semiotics of the design. But here Potter is pointing us to the epistemology of design, and the significance of truthfulness.
Truthfulness can be a matter of physical affordances, the relationship between how something looks and how it works or how to use it (thus Potter’s example of the garden spade). But in graphic design it can also refer to whether a design recognizes, allows for, or encourages a meaningful difference between getting our beliefs right about the world, or getting them wrong. Even when content is not making claims about the world as such, and even when claims on their surface are lies—think about the examples of what Halle Lasn calls ‘culture jamming’—design can, and must, serve the larger purpose of truthfulness.
One of the two biggest enemies of truthfulness is, of course, lying, specifically systematic lying done to prevent people from making meaning of experience and acting on that meaning in the name of their interests and values. Potter is right to single out ‘not lying’ as one of the negative imperatives of his understanding of design modernism. But I think he would accept that lying as such is not always opposed to truthfulness, can sometimes serve truth, and indeed always in some ways depends on truthfulness even when it is done with malign intent. What is the point of lying if no one cares about the truth anyway? This much we learn from Harry Frankfurt’s well-known but still sadly undervalued On bullshit, arguably one of the most important essays in English written in the last fifty years. And Potter would I think agree with Frankfurt that the second and greater enemy of truthfulness is bullshit, the flouting of the distinction between true and false in language designed, not to implant a false belief about the world in the heads of its recipients, but to impart a certain view of the author or speaker.
Here lies the greater political significance of design modernism, as Potter understands modernism: its view that design that does not recognize, or actively undermines, a meaningful distinction between what is and is not the case is bad design, full stop.
Here is ground both for humility and for diagnostic sensitivity in the way a designer approaches his work. Educators and practitioners often encourage their students and colleagues, openly or by suggestion, to look at everything in the world around them as a design opportunity. This is understandable, perhaps inevitable, and maybe even at an early stage of a career or in certain ways a good idea. (If we agree that all humans are designers, we could even say that this is practically a truism: homo faber, the tool user, can’t help but see the world as a chance to act on it.) But Potter’s examples of buildings that don’t need to be (re)built stand for all fields of design. More often than we recognize, or care to admit, design judgment means knowing when design (of the self-aware, reflective, professional sort) is unnecessary, superfluous, intrusive, counterproductive, or wasteful. Just as designers of places, objects, and messages could usefully think more about failure and remediation in design, so we could also think more about the ways in which design of the kind we do is not needed.
And about being able to explain to others why that is, we could add to Potter’s account. If modernism means searching for relationships and connections, a self-conscious and self-critical coming-to-terms of society with itself and what it does, then accountability in speech and writing is something that has to happen outside and around design as well as within it. This could even become a major task of design criticism: to start conversations about design that do not assume it is always a question of what and how rather than whether.
Designers are not privileged to opt out of the conditions of their culture, but are privileged to do something about it. With that privilege comes not just the chance but the obligation to ’work at the limit of what they see to be good’, which means among other things deciding where and what that limit is. In fact, that decision is inevitable, since everything a designer makes is a response to his or her conditions, and will either reinforce or challenge them (it is possible for them to do both, of course).
The choice that is left entirely up to the designer is whether that confrontation will happen consciously and intelligently, or otherwise. One task of a design education, and the duty of experienced designers talking about what they do, is to make this obligation and this choice clear, including the additional caveat that both are part of an ongoing process. Responsibility and intelligence are not qualities we have, they are qualities we perform—every day, in every confrontation between our goals and values and the contexts in which we realize them. Thus it is so important that a designer genuinely likes people, and working with them: these confrontations so often take the form of conversations. Ayn Rand’s heroes, who see the world and the people around them as the stage and witnesses for their greatness, in the end design just as poorly as the conformists she shows them vanquishing. They just do it louder and with more money.
Anyone who sees the modern movement in stylistic terms will fail to understand its radical nature. Modernism today, even for many whose job it is to know better, has become a catchall term for design and design methods that a speaker or writer doesn’t like. This judging from the many and various screeds against modernism, which can’t seem to agree on a single definition, or even a set of family resemblances. Anything rationalized, standardized, polished, simplified, or commercialized can be ‘modernist’, especially if it is promoted dogmatically and defended with complacency. Another way to describe this anti-modernist impulse is as a sort of mass reverse-genetic fallacy that ascribes the evils of design ostensibly or actually influenced by modernism to modernism itself.
The problem is that modernism, as I’ve written earlier, really began as a form of criticism of the judgment behind the styles its original proponents found around them, and as an argument for a new approach to design judgment: reflective, self-conscious, disinterested, contextualized, active, hopeful, and truthful. The work that emerged from this criticism varied from place to place and designer to designer, as we would expect it to. It’s true that some of its proponents came to see their ideas more dogmatically, to mistake their solutions for a philosophy of design and to believe that modernism was about answers and not questions. And in a world that encourages the superficial and the faddish we should not be surprised that many others followed them in this error. But that shouldn’t distract us from the simple fact that modernism is design made self-aware. What it looks like is secondary to and can only be assessed in terms of how and why it was produced, and whether it succeeds.
Indistinct and distinct awarenesses. Potter’s own understanding of modernism has two ‘negative imperatives’ and nine ‘more active principles’ (‘social principles’, he calls them, keeping in mind design as a ‘transactional art’).
n1 ‘What is it decently possible to assert, given the claustrophobic banality of a present, and the seeming threat of a future?’
n2 ‘The need to stop telling lies’.
What makes Potter’s account of modernism so appealing is his refusal to leave its analysis solely in terms of the converging ideas, technological and material conditions, and forms of social and political order of its founding. ‘The human search for meaning’ is where he locates ‘the irreducible, the without-which-not, the verification principle, “truth to materials”, and the notion of accountability’. The stylistic manifestations of modernism grow from here, not from some ‘broad wave of optimism concerning human progress’.
The active principles:
a1 Self-determination. Finding the set of self-generative principles within the design situation as found, teased out by continued work and application.
a2 Reasonable assent. Design should be ‘essentially coherent, intelligible, and open to discussion.’
a3 ‘Every part in a job should work for its living’. Distinction and emphasis from functional differentiation; asymmetry and clear structure.
a4 Use over profit. Design (not to say, life itself) may require compromise, but that compromise will be against principle.
a5 Anonymity. ‘The particular should be seen as a special case of an available universal’. The effort to ‘mass-produce objects of quality at low prices’; an ‘attack upon the art-object as constituted by its scarcity value’; the ‘suppression of unwarranted detail’—all in the service of the person becoming a true individual by transcending an object-oriented ‘conferred status’ and the ‘merely idiosyncratic’. Among other things, standardization and modularity where it fits.
a6 A new design vernacular. ‘Popular, indigenous, locally based, and relatively unselfconscious’, that ‘adds a sense of place to that of space, of repose and location as a counter to mobility’; ‘an interest in the simple and functional’. Inflected by engineering; not opposed to craft and tradition, but to their imposition as an affectation.
a7 The search for relationship as distinct from self-sufficiency. The most central and important of all the active principles.
a8 ‘That there shall be nothing else; and that what there is, shall be contingently respected … The ad hoc, the improvised, the anti-institutionalized; and on the other hand, a healthy disrespect for the tyranny of absolutes. The joker in the pack.’
a9 Design is ‘the translation of mass into energy and relationship.’ This is the ‘dancing-out’ of the seventh principle.
‘The nine principles’, writes Potter, ‘translate very potently into the prerequisites for an apolitical social revolution’. Note that he writes ‘prerequisites’, and not ‘outline’ or ‘plan’. Modernism is about conditions and awareness; it ‘can never be usefully seen as a fashionable option that now happens to be passé. It is a serious demand upon intellectual assent and practical action.’
A cultivated understanding is no guarantee of a specific creativity. Potter meant this to refer to the fact that being knowledgeable and sensitive does not make you a designer. But it also amplifies his point that ‘to speak of “good” design is to speak of, and from, the conditions of our own time, and our response to those conditions’. That is, he is making another point against the idea of modernism as a style or family of styles.
It also speaks sideways to the truth realized by the late pedagogue and media theorist Neil Postman in the context of teaching: the best teachers understand that there are at least as many ways of being intelligent as there are people. The best teachers and mentors can do is to cultivate conditions that help people avoid stupidity, the lack of understanding. This clears the way for them to develop their own creative intelligence.
That this truth is perfectly compatible with, in fact grows from, a modernist approach is apparently lost on those who think the catastrophe of the Second World War and the rise of late industrial capitalism were the apotheoses, not the contradiction and cooptation, of modernism.
A language of gesture and exclamation tends always toward infantilism; a measure of its warmth but also of its inadequacy. Gesture and exclamation are part of the spectrum of human expression, but are better, more effective, as spice and garnish than as substance.
This is even more true of sentiment, understood broadly not only to include what borders on nostalgia, but also in production methods the ongoing vogue in graphic design of letterpress and hand-lettering. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with using these methods as such, and much to be learned from them. But typically there is not much interest in asking why the content of contemporary design made with these methods needs them, which should be a key question in any designer’s arsenal. Their content includes a great deal of gesture and exclamation, not to mention platitudes and questionable self-congratulations. (‘Love what you do’, and so on.) Many aficionados collect specimens obsessively, which is a clue to the nature and limit of their appeal: like Thomas Kinkade paintings, they stoke a need they can never extinguish. (The main practical point of collecting Kinkade paintings seems to be to find out about other Kinkade paintings one needs to collect.) This might explain why some fans of letterpress and lettering can’t distinguish the expert from the poor or the merely competent.
A caveat to this otherwise grumpy analysis: there is an undeniable joy of making in the cultures surrounding these methods. ‘Delight’ of course belongs with ‘firmnesse’ and ‘commoditie’ in the pantheon of design virtues, and for the designer can be the precursor to the sense of ’flow’ in one’s work. The playful and the exploratory are the counterparts to the ascetic and the functional in modernism’s expressions. (Remember Girard and Munari.) But it is the attitude behind the sense of wonder that makes them modern: not to stand and gape, but to keep striving.
Between methodology and intuition. Design suffers from the same problem as politics: Many people interested in getting it right worry so much about getting it wrong that they try to create a theory of how it works—a Method—so powerful that someone could get to its ends without engaging in it as a means in the first place. Which, of course, would make its object finally unnecessary, or beside the point, by dictating solutions before the problems even appear.
Yet Potter is right that methodology often has its heart in the right place, in that it looks beyond intuition, which tends toward the individual and idiosyncratic, not to say the solipsistic. And what designer or design educator has not wished at one time or another for a system that generated self-evident results, if only to stop the questions about why and how?
The brief, and the process of constant questioning, testing, analysis, and revision that builds and rebuilds it, allows and encourages designers to respond to problems without wishing them away or declaring them nonexistent out of hand. It is one of the central differences between design and art that the brief is or should be at the center of what designers do. Intuition makes the brief entirely internal to the designer; method writes the brief to end all briefs. Both approaches in their own way remove work from any meaningful checks or limits, and deny the negotiations, connections, and relationships central to design properly understood.
One way to get the measure of a job is to project its life to absurdity and then to pull back to some sense of boundary. And, in particular, to project into the situations and contexts in which the job exists, to allow ‘new relationships to emerge’ (or, put another way, overlooked ones to reveal themselves) ‘that alter the terms of the argument.’
The ability to do this is not only valuable to designers. Ewan Clayton describes in similar terms Xerox’s failure to recognize the work being done at its PARC in the 1970s, where its researchers had developed the graphical user interface, the mouse, WYSIWIG, Ethernet, object-oriented programming, the precursor to the PostScript document description language, and more. The problem, he said, was that company executives were unwilling to develop these advances, being unable to imagine the work of the research arm outside the context of xerographic document copying and asking always only how these ideas and technologies would help sell photocopiers. It was only in the 1980s, after the people responsible for these ideas had left for companies like Adobe and Apple, that Xerox finally began to reimagine itself as being, not in the copying business, but in the document business. Enough to continue as a printing and imaging manufacturer and business service provider, in any case.
Especially graphic designers looking at a future where much of the activity called ‘graphic design’ will be automated, or reserved for a smaller number of increasingly wealthy clients, would do well to think about their field the same way. What design is, what designers do, can’t simply be reduced to corporate identity work and advertising, indeed to commercial work generally. Or, if it can, then we must resign ourselves to its increasing obsolescence and (for lack of a better word) gentrification.
Caveat: In the 1970s, Xerox was really in the business of selling toner to people who owned its photocopiers; the machines were delivery mechanisms for other products with higher profit margins that needed constant purchasing and provided the company with income over time. This was an instance of rentier economics that has since metastasized in the industrial world (and, thanks to liberally-protected intellectual property and copyright protections, outside it as well). For their part, graphic designers in the commercial world have been accused of framing the work they do in similar ways—setting up standards for what they do and make that requires their ongoing expert intervention and maintenance, subject to standards and expectations they define and patrol themselves. But nothing generates resentment quite like finding a way to force people to keep paying for something they feel they can’t do without. Yet rentier economics is only a malign form of the same reimagination that grows from the ability to see one’s activity in all its contexts and situations; the ‘boundaries’ we pull back to must be ethical as well as practical.
A common and vulgar heresy rife in some of the colleges is to suppose that every design decision must of its nature demonstrate ‘fresh and original thinking’. And on a related point, Potter goes on, ‘it is surely foolish to suppose that everything in the world must be continuously remade or rebuilt.’ Built into design curricula and course expectations, both are pernicious ways of imagining design for students and practitioners alike. Partly because, as Potter notes, these attitudes tend to overlook the importance of creativity in adaptation; partly because they contribute to unrealistic and unproductive competitiveness in school and on the job; partly because they contribute to ’a civilization that sells itself through sensation, preferably with the volume turned up’. A designer’s sense of ownership and accomplishment does not have to hinge on having imagined the world from scratch, and in any case the ability to do so is much rarer than those who would make it a requirement care to admit. Nothing leads to bullshit, intellectual theft, and wasted resources and energy faster and more surely than expecting people to do the impossible.
Anthony Froshaug was right to respond to Schwitters’s ‘never make it as someone before you did’: ‘Schwitters is here quite wrong. Make it AS they did, unless the constraints are changed.’
The designer’s role is to be available for tasks for which his experience is fitting. ‘The modern movement,’ Potter writes, ‘advances by fruitful hypothesis, which is often code-breaking. It steps sideways, by an elegant or “fitting” alternative; and it steps backward by keeping up appearances … A designer’s priority is openness of creative response, the capacity to mix the levels of his thinking, to ask productive questions; he must seek the personal conditions that help him to work in that way, and the social conditions that allow him to. This search will not prevent him from getting on with the job at the limits of the possible, keeping all his tools sharp for the next chance to make himself useful.’ We could say that on this view designers design the social environment around them through their exercise of judgment; they apply themselves to potential or actual design situations just as they might apply their experience or skills or tools to a job. They design a world in which designing is a meaningful activity.
Important here again is a view of a critical modernism: questioning, hypothesizing, relation-seeking, adaptive. Also important to Potter’s modernism is a sense of limits, not just to what designers can or should do, but to if and when they do. His remark that the designer should always work ‘in full awareness that some things are much better done by people for themselves’ makes this sense explicit. I have always wondered why more modern designers inclined to reflect and write about what they do have not tackled the question of which ‘things’ these are and how they have changed over time. Just as good typeface designers will tell you that you can’t design the ‘blacks’ of letterforms without at the same time designing the white spaces around them, you can’t talk about possibilities without limits. In this way they are partners, not contradictions.
An architectonic modernism is essentially optimistic: it believes that advances are inevitable, at least if the mechanisms for improvement are allowed to work unimpeded (and that it is possible to so order them). Limits and failure are the refutation of this way of thinking; they force its proponents to engage in a secular form of theodicy, or silence them altogether.
Potter’s modernism by contrast is essentially hopeful: it strives for the good and the useful in the understanding that they are possible and worth pursuing, fully aware that the human condition is a tragic one, that there will always be shortfalls and reverses, and that nothing remains forever.
The designer as artisan. For many reasons having to do with the material and equipment needs of print production and their shifting nature of digital development, it is hard to map Potter’s notion of the artisan designer onto contemporary graphic design, except for the declining number of local print and copy shops, where ‘design consciousness’ as Potter identifies it typically is lacking or totally absent. The freelance independent graphic designer comes the next closest, but already is removed from most of the production process.
Perhaps we might think of the values of artisanship instead, the reasons Potter suggests for why a designer would be drawn to it: Affinity for a grounded way of working closer to production and materials; impatience for paperwork and the life of the office; disenchantment with the rarifaction and elitism of ‘professional’ design (‘a form of cake decoration when the rest of the world needs bread’); the appeal of decentralized, more community-oriented forms of cultural production. In and around all of these motives would be what Potter calls the ‘coming full circle’ of modernism, insofar as it was originally prompted by the impulse to reconcile the human and humane with engineering and industry: small centers of thought and production as a means for designers to question, criticize, rethink, experiment, prototype; but also to serve, connect, foster relationships. Considered this way, some designers working today, in different ways, do look more like artisans: Karel Martens (and the Werkplaats Typografie he helped to set up) and Jan van Toorn come to mind. Some of the kinds of community-based design being promoted by educators like Bernard Cunliffe. Small shops like David Reinfurt’s Dexter Sinister. The reader might think of others.
What these all have in common—and this is true of design artisanship generally—is that as much as we might hold out the work they make as examples, it is hard to include them as viable professional models in formal design curricula for students completing a degree, at least to the extent that those curricula are shaped by college and university structures. Not for lack of trying, and in any case it’s worth noting that all these examples are connected to higher education in various ways.
But so much the worse for the curricula. At their worst, as Potter notes, artisan shops can become parochial and backwards-looking, and their work fundamentally conservative or reactionary. But the connections designers can maintain with other designers today much more easily than they could in the 1960s and 70s can mitigate this. And as production methods and technologies are becoming decentralized, at its best graphic design artisanship can realize and make practical the critical and creative potential of modernism.
Like buildings, books should be left to settle for a few years before being taken too seriously. One of the chief benefits of books today, more so than when Potter originally wrote his own, is that they serve to slow a designer down. As writers like Robert Bringhurst, Roberto Manguel, and Barry Sanders have noted, reading creates a space in the mind where we can present ourselves and others to ourselves, hold our ideas and values at arm’s length. The book as a physical artifact helps to foster this process by presenting us all its information, but in a format that defies a search by algorithm. We have to learn its topography, traverse it physically, to look through its contents.
Books still have an advantage over screens in their ability to present images at high resolution, though this difference is slowly narrowing. And there are many fine books that present beautiful collections of design images, the death of print notwithstanding. The temptation is strong to collect them almost impulsively, the way one browses images online. Their material power is undeniable and hard to resist. But buying a book is also a commitment by its owner to read and reread it, to navigate and learn its contents, to argue with and against it—not just to appreciate its presence on the shelf. Books are meant to be used; they are tools as well as aesthetic objects, even if the function is aesthetic. Thus we should ask when we consider buying one, not only if it has worth, but whether it has worth to us. Not to turn down an object that brings us pleasure as if the pleasure is somehow a threat, but to ask whether we are buying a book for our own shelf or someone else’s.
What sort of books is it useful for a designer to read? Any sorts that help the job along, says Potter, and those include books that are not directly about design. The best students and the best designers are the ones who have healthy interests outside their fields, even just a few. They lend perspective to the work, help it find its relationships and connections, its limits and possibilities.
Potter does not say so directly, but I suspect the first category of design books in his taxonomy, the coffee-table book, is produced primarily by and for the designer as Fachidiot, the ‘carrion artist’ from the Toltec poem he quotes who ‘brushes across the surface of things’. And into this category we could unfortunately put most online design content, even when it superficially concerns otherwise worthy work. All too often the work becomes a means of introducing the designer, not the project and its context and details (the sort of things a serious designer would want to know). This promotes the lifestyle of designing, not the field or its disciplines; its superficiality protected by its insensitivity to other areas of knowledge (replaced as they are by the accessories of the creative life as imagined by marketers who are also the target audience).
Still, it would be good for even the more demanding designer to be familiar with this material. For one, a superficial story can still lead one to good design, and designers—someone who loves what they do and to share it with others is unlikely to turn away anyone who asks to tell their story unless they are concerned the teller will aggressively or maliciously misrepresent them. For another, it helps us to make connections with clients and other people to know what in their minds ‘design’ looks like, if only to help us translate and come to terms. Insofar as these books partake of popular culture they have something to teach us about the work we have to do. Finally, it helps us teach. This content is the easiest to find online, and it is where many students who want to know more about what designers do will start their own imaginations. Knowing this makes it easier for us to identify the experiences that inform and misinform the ways students approach the work we set them and the questions we ask.
The up-market relatives of coffee-table books. Things in publishing may have changed a bit since Potter made his initial taxonomy of books, since it is not always so easy to distinguish these books into their down- and up-market subcategories. Even from a single publisher, like Phaidon or Taschen, books can fall into one or the other category. Definitely at the up-market end are the books in this category from Unit Editions, though their books tend more towards the ‘theme’ or ‘single designer’ category.
In graphic design there is a lot of pretense built into books in this category—for example, the Victionary books on uses of a single font, like Helvetica or DIN. The pretense is that a book in a trade or other not-the-usual-table-tome format, with a sufficiently edgy design, can distract the reader from its otherwise vacuous content. Nearly all of Gestalten’s compendia (logo collections, contemporary editorial design or print publishing practice reviews) are like this: flash and a lot of talk without much substance, with exceptions for books like Franchi’s edited volume on information graphics.
Despite the high quality of the graphics, these books don’t improve much on well-crafted internet image searches for the kind of work in question. And we might say that the publishers are only responding to a general reticence among designers to dig both critically and responsibly into each other’s contemporary work. We are frequently forced to choose between the hagiographic tone of articles in Print, and the sniping that goes on in the comments section of Brand New. The high-end coffee table books tend to take their subjects’ view about their work as given, so that the only substantially successful ones are those on sufficiently self-critical or reflective designers.
Still, these books can be attractive—and convenient for teachers looking to share examples of design they are able to talk about meaningfully themselves—so they have their place.
Synoptic books. Some books that put design in its larger context don’t even have to mention design. For example, there is Guthrie’s The nature of paleolithic art. Guthrie, a paleobiologist by training and profession, began his book when he realized, first, the connection between cave paintings like those at Lascaux and graffiti he found on signs along the paths leading to them; and second, how selective editors, authors, and museum curators have been when presenting samples of those paintings to the wider public. The new story of the paintings he produces offers important lessons for the semiology of design and the often unexamined assumptions we make about visual culture.
Or, design of one sort can provide commentary on that of others: thus, a graphic designer can learn a lot about visual practice from two excellent volumes on Dieter Rams’s industrial work, Lovell’s Dieter Rams: As little design as possible and Klemp and Ueki-Polet’s Less and More.
Fiction and graphic novels can also be useful (not to reduce them to their function in this regard): Potter was a fan of E C Large’s Sugar from the air and Asleep in the afternoon, which featured an industrial engineer as protagonist and the often infuriating processes of bringing new products to market as plotlines. Another way into issues in the semiology of visual design and the power (for better and often for worse) of the assumptions we bring to our work is Stanisław Lem’s His master’s voice, a story about teams of scientists decoding an alien radio transmission which has lost none of its critical edge in the nearly fifty years since it was published.
In a very different category, Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, about a paper architect, is a moving meditation on the relationships in and between a designer’s work and life (think of it as among other things a quiet rebuke of Rand’s childish and truly cartoonish The fountainhead). A subject typically missing from reflections on design as a profession is the fact of the designer’s life outside work, which exists, along with the people who populate it, whether the designer cares to recognize it or talk about it, or not.
The histories. John Dewey once wrote that to historicize something is to humanize it. True, but it’s apparently hard to make the humans that emerge from design histories into interesting and worthy conversation partners. Even otherwise talented authors, like Richard Hollis (Graphic design: A concise history), struggle with providing a readable and accurate survey even of a single field’s history. Thus the appeal perhaps of more general historical synoptic books that also treat of design—as do James Burke’s excellent televised and printed connective tours de force—or books that focus on a single designer’s career. For factual reference in graphic design, combining Hollis with whatever the latest edition of Meggs’s history is will do well enough. In architecture, Kenneth Frampton’s modern history is a good choice, as Potter suggests.
It’s generally easier to tell a good story by starting narrowly and working outwards, following (in good modernist fashion?) the lines of connection that present themselves, than it is to start broadly and fill in. There are exceptions to this as to any rule, but it’s unlikely that we’ll find the design equivalent to the late Robert Hughes anytime soon.
Books on a theme. Unit Editions’s two books on supergraphics and Higgins’s The grid book suggest one likely continuum of such books in graphic design: from thoughtful and explained collections of examples to mainly prose meditations. (Higgins’s observation that grids, like myths, are stories we tell about the world to make our experiences meaningful is alone worth the price of entry.) In another category, arguing by gesture rather than in words, is Fukusawa and Morrison’s Super normal, about the power of mass-produced objects in daily life. Lupton’s edited How posters work, which grew from an exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, is yet another sort of successful entry.
The trick in theme books is to survey the subject critically and productively and not get caught up in the examples themselves—this tends again to be the failing of Gestalten’s, Phaidon’s, and Taschen’s books on themes, but they are not the only houses prone to this shortcoming, which will land a big enough such book into the coffee-table category: large and disposable. A successful book can focus on passing along methods related to its theme, or demonstrate a single point about its exemplars, or trace the patterns and variations of thinking or making. The more forgettable entries gather images and present them either without any such goal—the book as Pinterest board or scrapbook—or pursue the goal so superficially as to make it hardly worth the effort. Unfortunately, most theme books wind up this forgettable, as light in the memory as having skimmed images online.
Books about individual designers. The same logic applies to books about designers as to books on a theme: the advantage of starting small and working outwards, and the importance of at least images of the work in question. The Lovell and Klemp/Ueki-Polet books on Rams I mentioned earlier are successful examples in industrial design, as is the Phaidon volume on Naoto Fukusawa. In the visual realm: Hyphen Press’s books on the work of Karel Martens (Printed matter), Anthony Froshaug (Typography & texts/Documents of a life, edited and annotated by Robin Kinross), Jan Tschichold (Active literature, by Christopher Burke), and Otto and Marie Neurath and the Isotype project; Wim Crouwel: Modernist, by Frederike Huygen (this may replace her earlier book on Crouwel with Hughes Boekraad); the unique Willem Sandberg: Portrait of an artist, a book about Sandberg’s life story pieced together by Ank Marcar from texts drawn from Sandberg’s own interviews and writings (not many images, but the text more than makes up for it); books on Bruno Munari by Tanchis (Design as art, also the title of a small collection of his essays) and Lichtenstein & Häberli (The air made visible).
What is important about all of these volumes (and I could list others) is that they embody the virtues of their subject: Munari’s playfulness; Martens’s layered essays into form and material; Tschichold’s attention to detail and example; Sandberg’s personability and desire to connect. Or, in Huygen’s case, the courage to discuss what she finds problematic about her subject and his work (Crouwel, I should mention, invited her to do so, but that doesn’t diminish her accomplishment). They also all put their subjects in context, understood broadly, and in conversation with others: designers, artists, clients, the public.
Books by designers. Potter mentions Gropius (The new architecture and the Bauhaus), Le Corbusier (Towards a new architecture), and Moholy-Nagy (The new vision). Important, but also very monumental in tone and scope; to me, just as important for a working designer is a voice that talks through or along the process of designing itself, its practices and constraints, and possibilities and contexts. Hence the collections of Otl Aicher’s essays (analog und digital/analagous and digital, die welt as entwurf/the world as design, schreiben und widersprechen), whether one agrees with all of Aicher’s arguments, are exemplary. More playful and less solemn are Bruno Munari’s essays in Design as art; more philosophical and piercing are Kenya Hara’s in Designing design and White. A wonderful example of starting small, literally at the scale of an electron microscope’s vision, and working out is Fred Smeijers’s Counterpunch (make sure to find the second revised edition). Jan Tschichold’s essays, collected in two volumes, German and English originals, by Hermann Schmidt Publishers, and selected in The form of the book, are must-reads for designers interested in type, if only to have something to frame conversations about typographic design and to react against as needed—in any case for the new designer his writing is a great introduction to the idea that one’s design principles are worth fighting for. Jasper Morrison’s books (Super normal, with Fukusawa; A book of things; The good life; World without words), finally, for meditative discussions of intelligent simplicity and the significance of the everyday in product and industrial design.
There are no female names on my list, which I attribute partly to (a) oversights I’d be happy to have corrected, but mostly to (b) the fact that design generally in all its fields does a poor job of inviting and encouraging women to reflect publicly in writing about what they and others in their fields do. This is certainly connected to whatever dynamic brings women in greater numbers to graphic design (I can’t speak directly to other fields), generally as the stronger students in their classes, and yet leaves men more prominent as the voices of the field. (I suppose design is rather like cooking in this regard.)
Presentation and memorial volumes. The design equivalents of Festschriften for scientists and humanists, perhaps, but typically less ponderous and self-regarding (on the part of the contributors).
I have two examples of such volumes on my shelf. One, Reprint Karel Martens, accompanied a 2015 Martens exhibit as part of the tradition for winners of the Gerrit Noordzij Prize. Even though there are only two essays, contributed by David Bennewith and Robin Kinross, to accompany images of Martens’s work, they are as exemplary for their patient insight and generosity of critical attention as their subject is.
The other is a slim book published by Hyphen Press on Edward Wright to accompany an exhibit of Wright’s design work at the University of Reading, England in 2007. It contains short texts about and by Wright, not many images, but reading makes you eager to see more of Wright’s work in the same way that reading Borges’s or Lem’s reviews of nonexistent books makes you eager to find a volume of the Tlön encyclopedia or speak with Golem XIV—except that Wright’s work actually existed and exists. As I write, Kinross is winding down Hyphen’s operations, but perhaps someone else will oblige readers with a book on Wright’s designs that responds to the desire this book generates to experience them—a definitive goal for books like this.
By the way, it’s a pity designers haven’t found a way to write design fiction, science- or otherwise: volumes of reviews of nonexistent designers and design work, stories that examine past and future trends of and ideas in design in all its fields, that walk the reader through the tragic or comic or philosophical implications of how things were done, are done, might be done.
Exhibit books. The category of books with what Potter calls ‘object-quality’ has gotten much larger in the years since his death. Unit Editions, for example, specializes in them, as do the designers Irma Boom and Karel Martens—both of whose retrospectives they each designed themselves, and demonstrate the same quality. A book that embodies the virtues of its subject matter is a valuable example of the expressive potential of physical form. Martens again is fortunate that every book about him and his work, all published by Hyphen or Roma, is such an object lesson.
A frequent problem with bucking the trend in publishing towards unassuming standards of quality, however, is the price of diverging. Many of these books, beautiful as they are, are simply beyond most reader’s normal means. When this happens because of the simple mechanism of supply and demand, or because of the realities of geography and time, there is not much a publisher can do. In the case of Martens’s Printed Matter, for example, now through three editions and long since out of print, used copies will set even a lucky buyer back five or six times the original and very reasonable original price. But some of these books were collector’s items, with a corresponding price, from the start.
It is important to push the boundaries of what a book can be, arguably more so given the rise of online publishing. But in the face of books whose retail price so limits their readership from the start it is hard not to recall Tschichold’s admonitions against the rarefied and precious book, and his call for books more intelligently designed and that reach a wider readership. If a critical modernism properly understood seeks connection and relationships, then we should view exclusivity with an appropriate degree of suspicion. And the designer, or the design approach, whose work or outlook can only be captured in a very expensive volume perhaps in that way speaks for itself.
Evidential books. Today there are perhaps even fewer of these books than were around when Potter was writing. Books that collect and present evidence (photos, drawings, text) for and against a claim about design, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions, sound quaint except in the context of academics. But even there, in graphic design the last series that arguably falls into this category was the Looking closer series, and they included only texts. (And, for that matter, the editors intended them to collect a range of critical writing past and present on a variety of topics, not to advance a debate on a single one.)
Without the single-claim restriction, these books would tend to revert (as Potter notes himself) to the ‘books on a single theme’ category. The exceptions might be current-trends and state-of-the-field books—for example, Reas’s and McWilliams’s Form+Code, or the Gutenberg Museum’s Neue Schriften/New typefaces. But other possible entries, like Gestalten’s Logos series, are too selective and build too many preferred conclusions into their selection process—as a statistician might say, they sample on the dependent variable.
Essays and papers. Blogs (at first individual and now group), online magazines, and podcasts have largely taken over from the print periodicals and circulating manuscript drafts of Potter’s day. The advantages and disadvantages of this shift are well-known and well-argued, and I don’t plan to rehearse the pros and cons here.
The explosion of online publishing in all its forms does offer authors the chance to get ideas from design in all its fields in front of new audiences, allowing tangible connections (links) to other areas of human knowledge and experience and even the generation of new fields. Manaugh’s BLDG BLOG and Mars’s 99% invisible, for examples, do an excellent job of this. Besides easing the process of adding images to text, which browsers have done from the start, advances in technology now allow seamless and very sophisticated visual demonstrations of the points being made. The interfaces of the applications used to generate them are slowly becoming more user-friendly as well.
Two points: First, for a number of reasons, scholarly publishing has not taken full advantage of this shift in publishing. Indeed most schools and disciplines, unfortunately in design fields as well, still publish as if we live in the mid-twentieth century. Eventually the system of print publication and the frustration of antiquated and overburdened procedures of peer and editorial review will have to change; they are not economically or professionally feasible in the long run. New scholars will find new kinds of editorial and peer filters that make it easier to accept a broader range of publishing platforms in considerations of tenure and promotion.
Second, and off the subject of online publishing in particular: In publishing, scholarly and otherwise, brevity and the concentration of information, experience, insight, and wit deserve a better reputation than they get in practice. Too many books should have been essays and articles; too many essays and articles should have been brief remarks or research notes. The passage in Lukes’s The curious enlightenment of Professor Caritat where the protagonist arrives in Utilitaria and is asked to prove the significance of his scholarship by noting the sheer physical volume of his writing reads more like ethnography than parody. The cult of the long-form monograph deserves to fade away, leaving it only for the arguments that require it. That might prompt authors to think harder about they questions they ask rather than the answers they generate.
Course books. We can divide these books into two broad subcategories: the how-tos and the readers.
How-to books themselves are on a continuum, ranging from the make-it-like-this approach of Rockport’s graphic design books (on layout, grids, color, and so on) to the instructional approach, which books have largely been supplanted at least in graphics by software manufacturer’s tutorials and help databases, and by third-party services like Lynda.com. Books in both approaches may be temporarily useful, but they date quickly: those in the first, partaking as they generally do of the styles and fashions of when they were put together (‘written’ hardly seems correct), date quickly. Those in the second made more sense when the technology of design was more mechanical and moved more slowly. Today updates and new applications are constantly making tutorials and instructional videos obsolete, useful only as long as holdouts continue with older versions. The books of the past era are useful only as historical documents, except as below.
Perhaps the third corner of the how-to continuum are books built around principles of design, sometimes but not always including exercises or projects to reinforce the teaching. These books have a greater shelf-life, but one should take care not to take them too seriously. Design moves, as Bosshard would say, between rules and intuition, and a collection of principles can become rigid, ponderous, and even chiding (see, for example, Bringhurst). The best of these books know this and leave plenty of room for experiment and play: they expect the reader will master the rules in order to break them intelligently. Typography probably provides the most examples of principle-based books, and Middendorp’s Shaping text strikes just the right balance of Calvinist propriety and Dutch progressiveness.
As for the readers: the best are those on a theme, rather than the synoptic ones, because the editors of the former are typically more conscious of the assumptions and biases they bring to their curation and make them clear in the volume. There are some generalist exceptions, like De Smet and De Bondt’s excellent Graphic design: history in the writing. The other quality of a good reader is that it values depth and context over spread: better a half-dozen selections in full, or very extended excerpts, than two dozen quick-takes. Again, there are exceptions, like Gerritzen, Lovink, and Kampman’s collection I read where I am.
Related books, near and distant. This can only ever be a personalized category to every designer who reads.
For myself, I become interested in design in two ways, one direct and one indirect. The direct way was through a fascination with letters and type, then typography, that developed as I worked on my dissertation. The indirect one was a concern for the conditions under which people could maintain a commitment to truth: the virtues of truth themselves, sincerity and accuracy, and a meaningful distinction between what is and is not the case about the world around us. That concern was tied up with a commitment to politics as the way a free people make decisions, to a politics as free of domination as possible, to an understanding of conversation and deliberation as embodying implicit ethical principles without which they would be meaningless. I was also convinced that philosophy and criticism were at their best questioning and juxtaposing, not answering and judging (that last we do for ourselves).
So for me, important more distantly related books to my design practice and teaching would be Arendt’s The human condition and her essays on truth, politics, and citizenship; Habermas’s many books on communication ethics and deliberation; Crick’s In defense of politics; Runciman’s Political hypocrisy; Frankfurt’s On bullshit; Williams’s Ethics and the limits of philosophy and Truth and truthfulness; Lynch’s books on the nature of a commitment to truth and its centrality to democratic politics; and Eco’s many, many books on semiotics and the play of language.
More closely related would be books on language and writing, with an eye toward how the way we communicate shapes the way we see the world: Ong’s Orality and literacy; Goody’s The domestication of the savage mind and The logic of writing and the organization of society; Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death; Fischer’s three-volume opus on human language; Drucker’s books on graphics and epistemology.
But I’d have also to include fiction: Borges, Calvino, Lem, each in their own way just as taken up with the problems of truth and language, ontology and epistemology and semiotics, and each in their own way playing with stories to ask deeper questions. And books on artists: Sandberg, Munari, Werkman. And essayists like McPhee. And before too long I’m thinking about Guthrie’s Nature of paleolithic art and Reps’s anthology Zen flesh, Zen bones … The point is for the designer who wants to think critically about the field to get outside it.
Design philosophy and predicament books. Put another way, the books that concern the emerging and forthcoming tasks of designers. The four most pressing concerns of at least those people living in the Western industrialized world are: Global warming and the closely-related ongoing and impending crises of energy and food production, resource extraction, and waste; rapidly-increasing inequality and the concentration of power and resources in the hands of a shrinking number of people; an accelerating decline in the perceived legitimacy of politics and liberal-democratic state forms of government; and continued and pervasive forms of racism, xenophobia and nationalism, religious prejudice, and discrimination based on sex- and gender-related identities and behaviors, all pernicious both in their own right and as mobilized for and against parties, policies, and institutions as people try to cope with the consequences of the first three sets of concerns.
The more designers think and read about these issues, and (one can hope) feel compelled as citizens to do something about them, however small, the more ‘relevant’ and ‘engaged’ (to pick two common contemporary buzzwords) their work will be. And, moreover, the more responsible their choices will be, even narrowly and professionally defined. As more than a few designers and educators have pointed out, holding the giants of the postwar design world out as role models for students and young designers is not only questionable on its own merits, but also pointless when the jobs and fields in which they worked are disappearing or becoming highly exclusive.
The point in suggesting designers inform themselves about these problems is not to insist that designers themselves, as designers, will solve them (Tony Fry’s arguments to the contrary notwithstanding). But design of all kinds will be necessary to the solutions, if there are any to be found and even just in the sense that good design provides for the conditions under which we are likely to produce them. And in any case there are values central (if not in all cases exclusive) to design that served well make life in the world worth living.
Design theory and practice books. Potter’s own book, obviously, and Alexander’s first few books at least, are good examples, to which Potter adds Bachelard’s Poetics of space and we might add Bollnow’s Human space. Aicher’s collected essays and Hara’s books also present more or less coherent views of design as theory; Tschichold’s essays on book design and typography and Munari’s collected essays on his works and travels are good accounts of or reflections on practice. Some of Walter Nikkels’s essays on book and building design—the parallels between them included—could be included also.
But really, monographs that fall squarely into this category are rare, and after the first examples above the rest trend toward more personalized approaches and specialized topics. ‘Design thinking’ has become a buzzword, and perhaps too contested, sensationalized, and middle-managerial to anchor a general discussion once IDEO and Six Sigma emerged in the 90s. Nevertheless Nigel Cross’s essays and books (Designerly ways of knowing, Design thinking) are useful to frame a productive conversation about the topic.
It is good to look skeptically on this category; I have always learned more from books that start small or indirectly and work outwards or around to larger questions.
Technical books, catalogs, and references. For better and worse, manufacturers’ websites, online help files and forums, and social media have largely displaced printed volumes in their practical, day-to-day how-to roles for graphic designers. Paper and other printing substrate catalogs, and the associated printer’s references (color pre-press, folds and formats, etc.) and manuals of typographic reference (which form a narrow and slightly nostalgic but still active field of publishing) might be the only notable exceptions.
Industrial designers and architects, working as they do with materials whose makers rely on the tactile qualities of their products, still live somewhat in this world, even if it manifests itself also as a collection of scraps around the office or shop used as references. The thick red-and-white Grainger catalogs are likely fairly common around ID studios and workrooms still.
Already in Potter’s time, especially older catalogs were seen as historical documents and sources of inspiration. This is even more true today, especially for example in the type world, where designers frequently refer to printer’s and foundry catalogs and specimens, both to identify older type in use and as the springboards for new designs (and not necessarily just revivals).
Lost with printed technical manuals and catalogs is something similar to what we lose when physical bookstores and libraries disappear: browsing and discovery. The physical act of leafing through a catalog, like being surrounded in stacks of books, inevitably leads the curious to find sources or connections they would have never found otherwise. Thoughtful internet searching and being willing to invest time investigating virtual rabbit holes can recreate some of this experience, but not as immediately. The eye is faster than the fingers, for one thing; for another, there is a difference between seeking diverse connections, however earnestly, and having them thrust upon you. In some cases, quite literally; at least three books on my shelf were handed to me personally by a bookstore owner who saw what I was looking at and made connections for me.
Books on education. To a list that includes writers like Goodman and Illich I would add Postman: Teaching as a subversive activity and Teaching as a conserving activity not only respect and enlarge upon the difference between training (or schooling) and education, but develop a ‘thermostatic’ view of the social role of the educator—at its center, the obligations to a disinterested pursuit of truth and the preservation of knowledge, both change and continuity, as a means of society’s intellectual self-governance. His shorter essays are also worth re-reading, in particular ‘The Educationist as Painkiller’: an argument that intelligence is too diverse and unpredictable to define in advance and impose upon students. The better approach is to teach so as to mitigate the conditions—vastly fewer and more predictable—that promote stupidity.
Books on design education. Wingler’s Bauhaus, yes; and all the Bauhaus-Bücher are now available online in high-resolution scans as well. Even if you disagree with the philosophies and methods they contain, they repay confrontation and argument. I’d add to the list on this subject Lupton and Miller’s The ABCs of the Bauhaus. On the other most-well-known German school of design would be Lindinger’s and Spitz’s excellent histories of the Ulm School, both of which are available in English translation. Jumping the ocean, Molesworth’s, Katz’s, and Diaz’s books on Black Mountain College are well worth exploring. More specialized would be the series of excellent books published by and about the Werkplaats Typografie: Wonder years, In alphabetical order, and Dutch resource.
Good books on the general topic of design education are not very common; more so are books of exercises, which vary wildly in quality. Judith and Richard Wilde’s Visual literacy and The process are very strong examples of the genre in visual design, and should be on the prep list of anyone teaching introductory courses.
Bran tubs and oddities. Bailey’s and Biľak’s Dot dot dot, which ran to twenty issues and has been succeeded (in a manner of speaking) by Dexter Sinister’s Bulletins of the serving library, now in its twelfth print issue (the magazine’s website is a rolling publication), are two remarkable examples of what can happen when designers decide to look closely at their surroundings without preconceptions about relevance. Dot dot dot’s contents started closer to design and then moved out to encompass studio and experiential art, mathematics, history, engineering, speculative fiction, politics, music, food, linguistics … Bulletins has stayed there. In the design world (just) but not of it. Wood’s The national grid (from New Zealand) occupies this space also. Focused on subjects of ‘unexpected creativity’ in the international context is Biľak’s Works that work, now ended with its tenth issue.
All magazines; the age of catalogs like Potter’s first example, the Whole Earth catalog, is probably gone for good—print catalogs being one of the first casualties of online publishing. Design blogs and online journals have taken their place. Most are flashy and faddish, but some—the late Lebbeus Woods’s site, Manaugh’s BLDG BLOG, his partner Twilley’s Edible geography, Atlas obscura—are fresh and thoughtful.
Anti-modern movement. Most contemporary criticism of modernism, I’m sorry to say, is not worth reading on its stated terms. Articles and books might advance claims worth considering on their own merits; one could learn a great deal about the author or the author’s field, but not much about modernism. This is because, again, ‘modernism’ has become for critics a catchall for any trends or ideas they don’t like that can’t be assigned to some other category, like traditionalism or conservatism. Identified by appearance and style, or attitude—this last thanks in part to the arrogance, ambition, optimism, or extravagance of some of the major figures of the modern movement—the object of this criticism bears only a contingent or superficial resemblance to modernism properly, or meaningfully, understood. Keedy’s uninformed anti-modernist screeds—there really is nothing better to call them—are good cases-in-point.
The best criticism of modernism focuses on cases where its proponents lost sight of the critical leverage of their ideas and fix the essence of movement in the answers they were offering rather than in the questions they were asking. Designers have to offer answers—the goal of design work, after all—but there are many intelligent ways to solve a problem, and what ‘intelligence’ will look like has to change with problems and contexts. But this failing is no more endemic to modernism than it is to anything else made by human beings.
The only reliable form of words is a poem. ‘… or possibly a novel’, Potter goes on to say, ‘—all other forms being insufficiently transparent. We read criticism to increase our enjoyment of these things’—what we humans make—‘to understand them, and perhaps to make them better. They are, after all, leavings.’
What ‘they’ refers to at the end is a little unclear, since both the things and the criticism are ‘leavings’. In any case and although what Potter says about why we read criticism is true, what William Carlos Williams said about poetry, and the news, and dying miserably could as well apply to criticism, transparency, and erring. The things we make do and should speak for themselves in some ways, but it is our curse and blessing as humans that they are also not entirely transparent; we need to talk about them to ourselves and to others even just to use them. The human condition is limited—it is why we seek connection and relationships—and the things humans make are as bounded by natality and mortality, and marked by uncertainty, as the humans who make them. (Think of all the human artifacts archaeologists have found that are mysteries to us today, the chain of stories people told about them having been broken long ago.) Reflection and criticism cannot force us to make intelligent choices, but they can at least help us avoid the conditions that lead to stupid ones, and suggest alternatives we might have missed.
Well-doing is the play of love upon inert material; the finding of its forms. ‘—to which the clarifying tasks of our epoch, the finding of each other and the conversion of mass into energy and relationship, are contributory’, writes Potter. He notes himself that we do not need to accept his perhaps-only-half-tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the proper task of the designer in a world of ‘physical entanglement’, obliged to define and question frames of action and ensure that the energy of our attention and work reaches all within those frames, corresponds to the mission of the Christian, in but not of this world and ‘making straight the path of the Lord’, to understand our obligation to study what we do in such a way that ‘quickens response’ and allows ‘life and love to become more abundant’.
The tone of these passages suggests the spirit of care and openness Potter is driving at that he places at the center of modernism. There is no mention of ‘play’ as such, but I wonder if in his reading Potter ever came across the work of Bruno Munari, the Italian artist and designer. Perhaps not: he does not appear in Potter’s otherwise very extensive bibliography, and, as more than a few of Munari’s biographers have noted, Munari was not as well-known as he deserved to be even inside Italy. Playfulness and experiment were the animating spirits of all of Munari’s work, his way of questioning and leaving himself open to the affordances of the materials he worked with.
Potter for his part is rather more ‘puckish’ than ‘playful’. We might imagine a continuum of modernism that stretches from the solemn, like Tschichold and Gropius, to the playful, like Munari, with people like Potter in the middle. One’s position on the continuum would be a question of emphasis: John Allen Paulos wrote once that philosophy and humor were both ways of responding to the juxtaposition of experiences or phenomena that do not cohere. Maybe the same somehow can be said of disinterested criticism and playful experiment: both belonging to modernism; both being forms of questioning and openness appropriate in different times and contexts; both in their own way aspects of the love of the world that Potter describes—seeking connection (coming-to-terms, shared engagement) and creativity (investigation, serendipity).
Joined hands. Potter describes an adjunct to the modern movement through a chain of thinkers whose writings connected to and informed modernism (as he understood it): Kropotkin, through Geddes, Ashbee, and Lethaby, through Mumford and Read, to Schumacher, Ward, and Goodman in his own day. Besides grounding modernism in humanist values, establishing a pedigree of those values is a means—says Potter—of depriving contemporary trendiness and greed of their ability to warp our judgment.
This would be a useful exercise for design students today. Though we can’t expect them to be readers like Potter, we can ask them who the designers are they most admire or want to emulate; ask them to research their biographies and find out who their teachers were; then do the same with that second list, and continue with each successive list. I expect most students would run out of sources for most if not all the lines of this genealogy of designers before they reached the turn of the twentieth century. It could also be done with books and thinkers; even if the first and most contemporary list contains books we find superficial, almost any author will at least name-check their inspirations, allowing us to dig deeper.
Two points to this exercise: First, to get students to see that their work—even if they don’t know what that is yet—has a history, necessarily humanizing it—as John Dewey understood historicizing always did—in the process. Second, with that history established, to look at it critically: is that line of teaching or thinking one that that the student wants to be associated with? How successfully (and from whose point of view) were ideas and practices handed down from one generation to the next? Could we fruitfully go back and reinterpret them for ourselves? This point adds to the first the ingredients of judgment and choice, and might even make the inevitable process of rethinking our relationships to those who came before us (inevitable, that is, to those concerned to think critically about such things) easier to accept and to embrace.
The one thing about the future of which a student can be sure, is that its demands are strictly unpredictable. This is at once so manifestly true that it should be considered foolish to feel compelled to point it out, and so unclear to so many people who have a say in design education that it’s hard sometimes to imagine everyone in question is describing the same world of experience. Testimony perhaps to the ability of bad ideas—in this case, the conviction that learning is predictable measurable—to drive out good ones.
Thus Potter writes that students, especially ones concerned to contribute to society through their work, need first to know and accept themselves—on their own terms as well as on society’s, we could add, the former of which society does not always easily allow. Secondly, they must be willing to educate themselves; this may for many mean accepting the ‘constraints and opportunities’ of a formal education. (Recall that for Potter any diligent designer starts and remains a student.) Potter reminds us of Graves’s dictum that it is easier and more common to hate hypocrisy than to love the truth, and the truth is that formal education, like any social institution, always requires a certain amount of hypocrisy on the parts both of students and instructors. Students who refuse the bargain, the benefits of community for developing one’s skills and acumen before going out all the way into the world, must not imagine the world outside to be any different in that regard, and do not thereby evade the obligation to learn to, as Arendt put it, think what they are doing.
They are thirdly obligated, especially while they are in school, to seek out and learn to feel thoroughly and appreciate what it means to succeed (the ‘sense of accomplishment’ Potter describes). This means among other things demanding and making for themselves opportunities to fail. We can say a lot about the importance of looking for experiences and activities and projects that resonate with us, to be honest about what we love and what we don’t. But we must someday address the most serious flaw in the systems of formal education we have now, which is the fundamental assumption built into curricula and standards of evaluation that learning comes always and only from success. Simply put, there is no institutional recognition that students can learn a great deal from failure—indeed have to fail to learn, one way or another. So long as schools only punish failure, students will have to fight that much harder to meet the obligations Potter describes.
The foundations of judgment in design are rooted in ordinary life. One of the many strengths of Potter’s book is that he ends by suggesting to readers concerned to ‘help find constructive ways forward to a better society’ not the means direct to that end (which would be futile) but two mistakes likely to obstruct it. Those would be trying to ensure a better future by living in it now, and the assumption that method and technique (as contrasted with spirit and attitude) will take you there. Compounding those mistakes, making them more attractive, are the common feelings among students that their successes mean nothing—this observation, I think, is reserved for the most serious students, the ones most driven and prone to self-criticism—and the competitiveness that pervades schools and professional life.
A teacher once told me that the greatest gift a person can give to anyone is their attention. I think Potter would agree that this is just as true regarding the world in general, and go on to note that that gift repays itself directly to designers who learns to observe and know fully what is around them. ‘Ordinary life and human concerns’ are the well from which judgment and decision flow. To be deeply committed to the present and to learn from the past where it will teach us, and to know one’s friends, is what will keep the designer open and responsive—not dwelling on the future or obsessing over one’s enemies (human or otherwise), as tempting as both can be.
There is no role waiting for us. To be a responsible designer means more than questioning the means, goals, and consequences of our work. Every designer is responsible for defining what design is, for fixing in their own way, however small, ‘the place of value in a world of facts’. And every designer does in fact define that role, whether they know or like it or not. Conforming to expectations is as much a choice as challenging them; it is simply (for many) an easier one.
The larger point Potter is making concerns the need for design, and this brings us back to where he started his book. Every human being is a designer. That some societies recognize ‘designing’ as a defined and continuing role—say, in the same way that they do ‘childrearing’ or ‘leadership’—is not necessary or inevitable. It is inescapable from the principles of modernism properly understood that the role of design itself should be subject to constant challenge and redefinition (within the bounds of the practical). But this happens always already anyway, with every choice of the designer and his or her clients, real or potential. That most choices are infinitesimally incremental is of no more consequence than the observation that rocks are worn away by wind and rain only a tiny fraction of an inch every year. There is no certainty in defining design or assigning its duties, only ‘ordered evidence’, and that only up to a point. Past that only ‘the sheer courage of our perceptions’ matters.
The spirit of the modern movement won’t come to meet you; you must go out and make it your own. If modernism were only its stylistic realizations, then it would present itself to new designers as a program in progress: here is where it has been thus far; your task is to find it new applications. But modernism as a critical attitude and a family of questions demands each designer, like Stephen Dedalus, encounter for themselves the reality of experience, and ‘forge in the smithy of their soul the uncreated conscience’ of their field. The truth of modernism is not a noun but a verb.
(This collects and gently updates a series of posts from fall 2016 and spring 2017 on Potter’s book.)