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Comments (34) Posted 06.12.13 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Francisco Laranjo

The Whitney Identity: Responding to W(hat)?


(Please wait while the video loads.)

Immediately after the release of the new visual identity for the Whitney Museum of American Art, social media rapidly reacted. “Great,” “bold,” “sweet,” “I'm really excited,” “I’m jealous” or simply “Love it!” were some of the initial glowing endorsements of the work designed by the Dutch design studio Experimental Jetset (EJ). However, what has been largely overlooked is EJ’s description and rationale for the project, which is a masterclass of ambiguity and ambivalence, one that builds upon gratuitous justifications, inconsequential buzzwords and the studio’s recurrently sought refuges.

In the essay “On the Uselessness of Design Criticism” in Idea magazine (2010), American designer Randy Nakamura alerts readers to the naiveté and misuse of out-of-context quotes by EJ. The Whitney project description was no exception, with Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) and Raymond Williams’ “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (1973) being vaguely invoked and loosely synthesized into just a few words — “to put it very briefly” — that serve as a quick prop to their argument.

Nakamura also points out the need for careful historical mapping when using quotations from other disciplines’ discourses and especially from very particular historical circumstances. He notes: “Experimental Jetset has at least the ambition to situate their work in a theoretical framework that reinstates some form of criticality to their practice. But they stumble when they choose to do so using frameworks that are solipsistic, obsolete and of questionable relevance.”

The most troubling aspect of the Whitney’s visual identity is its conceptual foundation, or the lack of it. This is reflected in its form. The so-called “responsive W,” a visual system based on the idea of a wavering zigzag that can assume different shapes, defines the Whitney’s logo and identity. The W, the designers explain, represents both the non-linearity of art history and the museum’s treatment of it. The logo apparently encapsulates the “heartbeat of New York, of the USA”; it is both “open and closed,” “in and out,” “Old World” and “New World,” “industrial” and “sublime.” With this degree of latitude, we might go on to suggest other equally valid (though so far unused) comparisons: Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, up and down, yin and yang, yes and no. According to EJ, the shape “could also represent the ‘dérive’-like journey of the Whitney through Manhattan, moving from one location to the other. It could also symbolize the signature of the artist; or the waves of the nearby Hudson; or the waves produced by sound and vision.”

In short, it could mean anything. By trying to describe their work as simultaneously being something and its opposite, they place it in a particularly comfortable position: almost beyond criticism. This way, the Whitney can just as easily claim to be “Britney.” Or anything else ... and its “anti.”

The ambiguity of the project’s description — and of the project itself — can likewise be seen in EJ’s citation of a diagrammatic “typology of lines” published in 1946 by the painter Ad Reinhardt. “It is exactly in this context,” they say, “that we would like to place the idea of the ‘responsive W’: the line as a graphic agent of systems (and of anti-systems)…” Deprived of substantial context, Reinhardt’s work becomes a prompt to build yet another dubious justification. Their use of sugarcoated, marketing-friendly buzzwords such as “industrial directness,” “low-fi/low-tech casualness,” and “openness,” along with an ultra-fast explanation of the etymology of the word “fresco” to justify the use of the word “freshness,” completes a bouquet of strange arguments.

In “Mad Dutch Disease” (2003), designer Michael Rock of 2x4 recalls the seminal discussion between Dutch designers Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn in the 1970s, while also labelling EJ’s output as an “ideology-free regurgitation of Crouwel's work.” This debate serves as a reminder of two distinct ideological approaches to design and the public role of the museum. Where Crouwel argued that designers should not impose their own views on the content given to them, Van Toorn actively questioned the art museum’s authority as cultural producer, both theoretically and formally. The Dutch designers Metahaven have more recently noted in “Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?” (2013) that Crouwel and Van Toorn were both “tied to institutions that already advocated what the designer then amplified.” But this insight doesn’t diminish the importance of the designers’ individual ideologies; nor does it change Van Toorn’s commitment to the liberation of the audience and to independent research as a practitioner and academic. It does serve here, however, to highlight the shared responsibility of EJ and the Whitney, as commissioner, in this hugely visible public project.

Instead of critically addressing and confronting the context, EJ designed an identity that is the context. Yet despite serving a set of strict formal rules to the “excellent designers of the Whitney’s in-house design team” — who will have to apply them, like all rules, with little possibility for deviation — they still argue that a graphic identity “could (and should) never be a machine, in which one simply ‘inputs’ an image and a title, and out rolls an invitation.”

Undoubtedly, Experimental Jetset’s identity for the Whitney will continue to be retweeted, reblogged, re-liked, and eventually rebranded. When that happens, let’s hope that instead of a “responsive W” we get a reflective and critical institution with an identity that will also do just that: reflect and criticize. Until then, the Whitney Museum of American Art has the identity it sought, not the one it deserves.
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Comments (34)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Can anyone help me. Does this story and the new trademark for the Whitney Museum remind anyone else of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen and his story The Emperor’s New Clothes?
Joseph Michael Essex
06.12.13 at 01:31

I don't think that Walter Benjamin ever talked about logos and identities--which never claim to be authentic, only symbolic connectors. This 'W' obviously is aiming at reproduction, but its so elemental as to almost disappear completely. But it still has a certain dainty strength that fits with the context of the institution and effete Upper East Side.

One image had the w being configured into a 3D perspective shape. "Have we been building an elaborate contraption of self-reflective meta-design culture, only to realize that we may be its ultimate victims?"

What I'm reminded of is the Jim Carrey movie "The Number 23" where he is obsessed with that number for no apparent reason. That movie sucked.
R. Mackintosh
06.12.13 at 03:58

My comment went longer than the original post, so in respecting Design Observer's guidelines for comments, I have published it elsewhere:
http://ianlynam.com/writing-on-design/and/
Ian Lynam
06.13.13 at 02:47

Reading EJ's overly verbose justification for this logo reminds me of the feeling I get when I read much contemporary art criticism. It takes far too many words to explain and justify. INthe case of art criticism, the words often seem to be really tailored mostly to other art critiques. People already in the know. I'm not enough in the know, so I'm often left scratching my head and wondering what it really means. Alas, maybe I'm not clever enough to get it. And maybe that, in turn, means it really IS something. Surely these people who are more clever than me get it, so it really must be something!

Problem with that is that when I look at it still fails to connect with me on any level that really matters. I don't want to look at a painting--or a logo--and have require a lengthy explanation/justification. Look at a classic logo like Paul Rand's Westinghouse W. It's an abstract light bulb, it's electricity, its a W, it's a circuit board--it embodies all kinds of appropriate abstract associations. Those associations are easy to see and get. It just works.

We'll EJ are no Paul Rand, obviously. But have a little more respect for EJ if they could have distilled their explanation of the logo to the few words that are accurate:
"Your name begins with a W, so your new logo is a W. It dynamically changes configurations depending upon where and how it is used."

But I'm guessing the Whitney wouldn't have bought that. I imagine they were complicit in ending up with a logo that requires reams of explanation/justification. Just like much contemporary art, if it requires so much verbiage, folks will think it must be REALLY good! But, as the first commenter suggested, the emperor has no clothes. And I suppose it's a sort of poetic justice that an art museum would end up with a logo that requires so much essentially meaningless explanation and justification.

As an aside, Christian Schwartz (designer of the typeface) was a student of mine for one semester when I taught at Carnegie Mellon University some years back. He was a very talented guy. My class offered him little challenge, I fear. It is great to see his work out in the world, and it looks like a really nice typeface.

But I just do not get the crammed-together ALL CAPs with little or no leading use of that typeface. It's clunky and hard to read. It seems like a purely stylistic affectation. Can anyone explain it to me?
Rob Henning
06.13.13 at 09:28

Experimental Jetset's description of the project is really astoundingly stupid, yet makes surprisingly enthralling reading. The graphic design equivalent of what watching the apprentice must be like for business people, I felt myself getting drawn into it, hoping against hope that it was all some sort of joke; a lost script for the film never made in which Derek Zoolander is a graphic designer not a fashion model.

The sheer idiotic confidence of the statement revealing the grand plan is wonderful in a cringe inducing way:

"...if presenting a straight line is not what the Whitney is about – then what is?
That’s when we came up with the idea of the zig-zag line – the zig-zag being a metaphor for a non-simplistic, more complicated (and thus more interesting) history of art. And as it happens, the zig-zag also resembles a capital W."

Hey guys its not a line its a... zig-zag! KABOOM! Make some room on the awards shelf.

On a more serious note, this article raises what is a vital issue which earnest attempts to produce 'critical' design practice need to face up to: until we develop mature and informed foundational knowledges even at the level of what concepts like 'criticality' and 'theory' actually might be, we have no business in attempting to use them as justifications for our work.

Simply quoting out of context random snippets of 'theory' to support banal design decisions does not constitute a 'theoretical framework'. Nakamura in his article fares little better stumbling into only the very next pothole by criticising and writing off the misguided and misused theoretical frameworks of others which he evidently has very little understanding of himself.

This is a challenge for those of us who desire for design to be a discipline in which both practice and reflection can be genuinely critical. We must raise our game. Tossing around references to ideas which we don't understand, or rejecting these in similar ignorance are strategies which are likely to create a culture in which this kind of embarrassing monologue-to-client goes unchallenged, and drags down the reputation of the intelligent graphic designer.
Pete Buwert
06.13.13 at 11:53

I wish I could edit my comment after posting it, because I now see I made an embarrassing number of typos.
Rob Henning
06.13.13 at 01:31

Maybe the logo and multiple configurations are strong, minimal and 'good,' but the explanations of it are too meta and ridiculous.
R. Mackintosh
06.13.13 at 02:36

I feel that a lot of this criticism is unfair, and is based on a few jpegs and videos that have circulated online, and not on an actual experience of the Whitney. An identity comes to life in its applications across various formats over time, including signage, development materials, programs, advertising, etc. In addition, this identity will merge with a new building in Chelsea in a couple of years' time. I appreciate that it's a diagram of future possibilities, giving the design team at Whitney and its collaborators somewhere to go with it; there's a flexibility that will hopefully allow for mutations, changes, 'responses'.
Manuel
06.13.13 at 04:19

I agree with Manuel--at least that the identity comes alive with is use in the real space. However, it remains to be seen whether it is too basic and lightweight as to be forgotten. The vocabulary seems to derive from the weight of a single thin black zig zag line. It's an identity, but time will tell if it is a memorable one.
Mike Lowe
06.13.13 at 04:31

You have to admit it's interesting. A lot more so then a dumb News Corp logo.
Danny B.
06.13.13 at 05:24

Pablo, that's my main issue with this identity - it's not interesting. Whether it was scribbled down on a napkin in a matter of seconds or created over a lengthy process of trial and error, it just doesn't come off as either inventive or attractive. I also think you SHOULD tell if an identity is a good fit from a few web images, assuming a contemporary identity system encompasses web and interactive.

In the case of Paul Rand, one can see the genius behind his marks just in passing. Many of his identities immediately grabbed you and begged for inspection, no matter the venue.
C. Glatzel
06.13.13 at 06:21

Well, as a designer, I always like the simple, minimal solutions because they give me more time for naps.
Danny B.
06.13.13 at 06:28

And beer.
C. Glatzel
06.13.13 at 06:30

“Does this story and the new trademark for the Whitney Museum remind anyone else of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen and his story The Emperor’s New Clothes?”

Yes. But so does most of what is being sold as contemporary high-concept art and design.
James Puckett
06.14.13 at 01:06

one wonders what the time frame for using "WHITNEY" in the identity is?
or is "WHITNEY" the real identity?
Jonathan
06.14.13 at 05:45

Hello, I was just wondering where you were getting this quote from

“excellent designers of the Whitney’s in-house design team” — who will have to apply them, like all rules, with little possibility for deviation — they still argue that a graphic identity “could (and should) never be a machine, in which one simply ‘inputs’ an image and a title, and out rolls an invitation.”

and if you can who said it?
okaebriann
06.14.13 at 03:11

@okaebriann

All that is under quotation marks can be found in EJ's project description.
Francisco Laranjo
06.14.13 at 03:31

I really enjoy Pablo's comment..."Well, as a designer, I always like the simple, minimal solutions because they give me more time for naps."

Having been raised on the Herb Lubalin, Paul Rand and Milton Glaser, it is mind boggling to me how anyone can make a living today, what... with so many negative opinions of their work. The young lady who scratched out the CitiBank logo on a napkin (if you do not know her name, then you owe it to yourself to learn it...hint - initials P.S.), I wonder if she then had to think up a 5,000 word high school essay to support her brilliant moment of success on a napkin, using

Hell, EJ got the business...I did not. I find it as an insult to all of us, that so many have so much time for intellectual negativity. It is as if everyone is hoping to enter their own masturbation of syllables as a new entry into Marriam-Webster. I do appreciate and respect the level of word speak by others far greater than myself, I just wish so much negativity could be transformed into a more positive delivery.

Maybe I am just to old now, I love my naps. I leave all this to the award judges, who usually vote on their own work anyway, CA - case in point.

Curtis
06.16.13 at 09:22

I think this words by Rick Poynor, originally from an article published in this same blog, summarize it all:

"I admire the ingenuity of Experimental Jetset’s thinking. They have the makings of incisive critics of visual culture. But the aridity of their visual conclusions [...] threatens to negate the values they otherwise defend."

http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=1767

Emma
emma_m
06.17.13 at 03:43

Dear Mr Laranjo:

Having read your article now a couple of times I am still completely at a loss as to what exactly is your point and what you hope to achieve by making it.

You seem to be conflating two separate issues — EJ's "personal reflections" regarding the design of the new Whitney Identity on one hand, and the identity itself on the other — finding fault with one in order to justify criticism of the other.

If EJ had spoken differently about their design, using, in your opinion, a more agreeable series of reference points to justify their work, would that have also changed your opinion regarding the relative success or failure of the identity's design? Your article suggests so.

As far as I am aware EJ are not academics, unlike yourself, so it seems to me to be entirely inappropriate to criticise them because their "personal reflections" do not stand up to the scrutiny of an undefined and completely arbitrary academic standard.

I can remember on more than one occasion when, in the heat of the moment, I have had to pull an adjective or two out of my ass to justify a formal gesture, the use of a particular typeface, and/or colour. I'm not proud of it but it does happen in the course of a conversation or meeting.

Sometimes, a commissioner will latch onto a misused reference blurted out after too much coffee and before you know where you are an entire rhetorical universe has been constructed around a project which will make little or no sense to anyone other than those present at its inception. I will concede though, that if you can explain it well, and that should always be the goal, it will certainly help!

But if you are going to have a pop at EJ for not speaking about their own work responsibly then you'd better put us all in the dock! Seriously, who else doesn't struggle with this?

It seems churlish in the extreme to criticise EJ for this and to be perfectly honest, I interpreted the article, particularly in your tone and use of language, as a personal attack against EJ rather than as a balanced and thoughtful critic of the new identity which, for me, is wholly inappropriate and not at all in the spirit of this blog.

Hopefully my interpretation is wrong, but all I see/read here is one designer simply complaining about another designer(s) under the nobel guise of 'criticism'. Yes, I am aware of the irony!

Speaking of irony, you seem to be equally guilty of making the very same mistakes you are accusing of EJ!

Just as you accuse EJ of ambiguously name dropping and loosely invoking others words to justify their formal choices, you have also ambiguously invoked others critical words of EJ to serve as a "quick prop" to your own attack.

Your careful extraction of the “ideology-free regurgitation of Crouwel's work” quote from Michael Rock's essay was particularly nasty and is not, again, I believe, to be in the spirit of this blog.

Your conclusion: that EJ have failed, not because the commissioner doesn't like the result, or the type on the signage is illegible, or that EJ failed to fulfill the requirements of the brief generally but because EJ failed to consider and address a 'context' which exists largely within your own imagination.

Bizarre.

One last thought: if the subject of this article really was a critique of the new Whitney identity, as it purports to be, then surely you should have expressly ignored whatever EJ think and say about the work in order to be able to assess it objectively?

Sincerely,
Daniel Harding
Daniel Harding
06.18.13 at 11:22

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your comment and for contributing to the discussion.

This article has two goals, both of which were not – apparently – as clear as I intended. First, to criticize the rationale and discourse of the project. Its lack of rigor and ambiguity are reflected in its form. I state this clearly. Second, as a reminder of previous discussions around the importance of having a critical and reflective design approach to the context to which you are designing, in this case, an important art museum, with great cultural influence and significance.

Concerning your other points:
– The article does not suggest that if they had used more "agreeable series of reference points", my opinion would be different. I would not probably criticize the written research and discourse being articulated, but instead the dissonance between their written research and visual output.
– EJ's "personal reflections" are public, and as such, open to criticism and debate, which can only be good for the design discipline.
– I hope I can contribute to the discussion of both the importance of rigorous writing and research, and the need for a more critical design practice. My goal is the opposite of wanting to put anyone “in the dock”.
– This is not a personal attack. It is a criticism of one design project, which attempts to construct a reasoned argument with key references and essays within design discourse in direct connection with the project, not random name-dropping.
– Finally and in relation to the "context", the Whitney Museum of American Art and its material, visual and intellectual importance as a cultural producer, does not exist in my imagination. However, and as a final note, it appears that judging by the comments in social media (the Whitney’s Head of Design, for example), the commissioner likes the result, the type and signage are legible and the requirements of the brief were fulfilled. We need more.
Francisco Laranjo
06.18.13 at 02:05

Comments on the comments:
1. Is an "attack" bad?
2. Was Paul Rand a genius, or just of his time?
3. It's about as interesting as the Newscorp logo, just more boring.
4. Similar to naps and beer, but more boring.
5. Is there ever a real identity?
6. The Citibank logo blows.
Or sucks.
You pick.
Either way, we need more fire in the discipline and less "naps and beer".
Ian Lynam
06.19.13 at 01:30

Please forgive me as I have written a rather lengthy response which I will have to chop up into several parts.
__
While I would never excuse a designer (student or practicing professional) for pulling "an adjective or two out of my ass to justify a formal gesture," I don't have a problem with last-minute reasoning, and in fact, I encourage my own students to develop the skill to think nimbly on their feet. But I do expect an attempt at sound reasoning, and, if in the course of making the attempt, a student stumbles, then so be it. I expect the student to get up, dust themselves off, and learn from the experience. I don't fault the student for making the attempt.

Rather than outright refute EJ's language, why not test their perspective from their point of view? For example, according to EJ, the shape “could also represent the ‘dérive’-like journey of the Whitney through Manhattan, moving from one location to the other. It could also symbolize the signature of the artist; or the waves of the nearby Hudson; or the waves produced by sound and vision.” These words are rather poetic, but hardly so damning as to claim they "could mean anything." What they suggest to me, beyond an at face reading, is that EJ still hold dear to certain humanist values under siege in the current emphasis on instrumental knowledge and corporate hegemonic creep, i.e. the mindset that unless it is knowledge one can use to get a job, it's not worth one's time. (See yesterday's New York Times article, "Humanities Committee Sounds an Alarm," for an example of what I am referring to.) EJ's explanation is more evocative and than literal, more metaphoric than prosaic.
David Cabianca
06.20.13 at 12:56

And here's the rub: In the world of corporate branding, the use of poetry and metaphor involves risk. Clients want direct explanations and connections. There is a certain amount of "thumbing one's nose" at the institution when the justification is couched in florid terms. Is this critical? In my opinion it is, relative to the conventions of graphic design practice when one is sitting in a corporate boardroom among many different stakeholders, each of whom have a separate agenda, and probably have a very limited grasp of what graphic designers actually do.

I am not sure why EJ is being handed an intellectual straight jacket fitted for Jan van Toorn. Is Van Toorn's (or Crouwel's) approach the only valid method to achieve a critical practice? If the answer is yes, then we should expand the finding of fault here to include just about everyone who practices graphic design today. Or more to the point, just when was prevailing ideology—whatever that may be—replaced by Van Toorn's perspective as the only sanctioned form of critical practice? I seem to have missed that memo. Let's not forget that the criticality posed by both Van Toorn and Crouwel's design work played out through their respective editorializing of design output in the form of posters, catalogues, exhibition designs and gallery guides. Van Toorn's so-called "liberation of the audience" was not acted out via a logotype for the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (nor was it found in a logo for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (Crouwel)).
David Cabianca
06.20.13 at 12:56

In contrast to the author's claims, EJ designed an identity whose criticality _is_ located precisely in its context. They have provided an adaptable system rather than fixed wordmark. And while there are examples of institutional logos that are more unconventional, e.g. Vier5's design for the Centre d’art contemporain de Brétigny (CAC Brétigny); Antoine and Manuel's design for the Collection Lambert; or MM Paris' design for Calvin Klein, or this one; or the Walker Art Center Design Department's "Walker Expanded", these four examples continued to be implemented by the authorial designers after their conception. The Whitney identity is sufficiently defined that should a less talented designer be tasked with its use, the results will not be "jarring," but it is flexible enough to be adaptable to the diverse conceptual and representational needs of a large and contemporary institution.

Part of the Whitney logo's design context is the formal quality of the design itself. The letter "W" lends itself to a greater amount of abstraction than most letters, i.e. the repetitive rhythm of the logo would not have been possible had the letter been "R" or "G." This Zelig-like ability of the W was also recognized by Wolfgang Weingart in his use of the letter "M" to work out varying degrees of compositional experimentation circa 1965–68. Of course, the "W" in this instance is a matter of serendipity, but it is still to the credit of EJ, in a vein similar to Ad Reinhardt, they recognized the latent ability of the line/W to easily adapt to a multitude of communicative devices.
David Cabianca
06.20.13 at 01:06

And then there is the design for the Whitney identity considered against the context of EJ's design work itself. EJ's recognizable design signature is portrayed as "regurgitated Crouwel" but in this author's opinion, their work is sufficiently unique to be considered a stand-alone contribution to the discipline of graphic design. Is it as shocking as Crouwel's work initially was? Hardly. But it is a refinement and cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility which itself is no small feat. Is there a critical component to aesthetics? Absolutely. In fact, in a recent interview conducted by Tony Brook of the UK design firm Spin, Wim Crouwel recognized the difficulties faced by designers today. "Now that everything has been done, it is difficult for young designers to create their own voice, to make work that is recognizable as coming from one person. The best design is always 'recognizable' design—design where you can see where it comes from. At least, that's how I look at design. I am glad when I see something and think, oh, that must come from so and so. When I'm right, that's always a good moment from me." (Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey (London: Unit Editions, 2011)) Situated among the competing interests that one must navigate in contemporary practice—particularly when dealing with a large, corporate institution with diverse needs where one will not have a hand in overseeing the final results—I do believe that EJ have produced a critical piece of graphic design because they have also been able to not only satisfy the tenets of the client brief, but have done so within the fold of their own visual métier.
David Cabianca
06.20.13 at 01:06

David, thank you for your great contribution to the debate.

I don’t think that fulfilling a client’s brief and still being able to apply your visual style equals, in this case, a “critical piece of graphic design”. What are EJ and the project ‘critical’ of?

The use of the word ‘critical’ in graphic design is very, very open to debate. We obviously attribute it using different criteria. In “The Reader” (Sternberg Press, 2009) design researcher Ramia Mazé identifies three forms of critical practice. The first has to do with a critical attitude towards a designer’s own practice. In other words, it can be seen as the effort to be self-aware or reflexive about what a designer does and why she or he does it. Mazé argues that this can be understood as a kind of internal questioning and a way of designers positioning themselves within their practice.

The second form is described by her as a the “building of a meta-level or disciplinary discourse.” This is then explained as “criticality within a community of practice or discipline”, and about trying to challenge or change traditions of paradigms. Thereby, this second possible manifestation of critical practice can be seen as the designers’ act of being critical of their discipline, while actively and consciously working towards its expansion and evolution.
Finally, the third possible manifestation of criticality can be that of addressing pressing issues in society. The mounted critique is not targeted at a designer’s own practice, at his own discipline or design in general, but to wider societal phenomena.
What this division shows us is that it is extremely difficult to only operate in one of these approaches or modes of criticality. They inevitably intersect, overlap and contaminate one another. I would argue that a critical practice would articulate these three forms of criticality.
Francisco Laranjo
06.20.13 at 06:22

Indeed, the Jan van Toorn/ Wim Crouwel discussion can seem a straight jacket when used as a device to understand the identity for the Whitney. It served, however, to show distinct approaches towards the public role of the museum and the role of the graphic designer, once they are a key example of a discussion on the subject under debate. This discussion becomes even more useful when used as a starting point to understand the nuances of the social commitment of modernism and how it could be interpreted ideologically in different ways. If the van Toorn/ Crouwel discussion is surely not about black and white, when it comes to debating the role of the museum, they did have very opposite perspectives.

I know that van Toorn's critical explorations on the role of the museum (with then director Jean Leering) did not occur via a logotype. They existed, however, under a particular critical approach, informed by their interest in Critical Theory and the liberation of the audience. This attitude, which produced, in fact, critical pieces of graphic design, both in its visual and written discourse, was documented in a publication. Here are some of the questions asked by van Toorn before the work started:

"What is the choice, and hence the role of the designer and the director? How do we make our standpoint visible? What is the context of the work of art? How do you create an exhibition that will bring about a dialogue with the public so that the art is not consumed under preconceived conditions?" (Vormgeving in Functie Van Museale Overdracht, Lecturis, 1978)
Francisco Laranjo
06.20.13 at 06:23

Despite the fact that van Toorn did not design the logo, the visual output did form an identity, which the Whitney pre-designed printed matter will also form… as a consequence of the thinking behind the 'responsive W'. Having said this, van Toorn's method and ideology are obviously not the only valid means to achieve a critical practice.

I don’t see the ‘criticality in the context’ you mention. Is it ‘critical’ because it is adaptable and flexible? I would call it critical if it was critical of something. Or, if its adaptability would produce some sort of visual criticism, not formal, inconsequential playfulness.
Accordingly, I don’t also believe that “part of the Whitney logo's design context is the formal quality of the design itself.” The formal quality of the design itself is the whole context. As such, and without conceptually and visually questioning the real context and all its agents, it is not, for me, a critical piece of graphic design.
Francisco Laranjo
06.20.13 at 06:23

It's great to see some incisive discussion around these issues.

Francisco Laranjo's remarks about the need for greater explicitness and accuracy when using the word "critical" are particularly necessary and pointed. Yes, critical of what, exactly?

It's also good to begin to expand on Francisco's mention in the original post of the different positions of Crouwel and Van Toorn in relation to design for museums. Some of the earlier comments miss the significance of these references. This is not a debate about whether you happen to "like" the logo or not, or feel that it's terribly unfair to single out a designer's work for criticism. It's about the nature of the museum's role in relation to the public, and about what the designer's role should be when collaborating with the museum.

Can I ask commenters not to break up what are, in fact, single comments into smaller parts. While "writing long" might not always be the most effective way of making points in a comment thread, it's better for readers when arguments are presented in clearly unified statements.

This last batch of comments look like separate comments when they aren't. Please stick to the usual practice when commenting.
Rick Poynor
06.21.13 at 05:20

Very Interesting thanks for the comments,
ppk812
06.22.13 at 05:14

Nobody delays to address why any of these fields, recently involved by exceedingly capable professionals, may require "trespassing" fashioners to help them do the occupation, or what it is about visual communication training that might qualify an architect to mediate in such a reach of orders. (Assuming that we are just discussing completing visual communication errands for these customers, then this is only the usual way things work.) Leaving aside the planner's reasonable craving to attempt new things —every living soul might want to do that —what does the gathering of people need to addition from a "broadened" elucidation of visual communication part? Likewise, does this new versatility work both ways? Could caretakers, modelers, essayists and design individuals begin doing visual depiction? Might they even need to?
ppk812
06.22.13 at 05:18

I was recently asked why I did not contribute to a particular academic journal. I only thought of the appropriate retort when I read Francisco Laranjo piece on the EJ Whitney identity. It should have been "because I am so often so deeply disappointed by academics and the level of discourse they engage in". I wish I had had that one ready when I was asked the question…

I am afraid I can only agree with Daniel Harding in his analysis of the level of criticism that is directed at the EJ's output. The main case being made here is that the EJs would benefit from attending a similar critical training that Francisco Laranjo is undertaking, in order to be rigorous in their reflections about their work. Members of the academic community may consider the following before directing their comments to the area of commercial practice which attempts with some degree of reflection, that is being put out there :
- we are an emerging discipline looking for a critical framework that can be generated out our own practice this needs time
- in a rush to gain academic respectability we are importing rather unquestioned methodologies and ideologies from the Humanities, this does not afford us autonomy unless we take time to thoroughly understand the areas of learning we are engaging with
- while an idea or framework is emerging there may need to be room for a more generous and dare we say creative environment for discussion otherwise we may descend into the same level debate that appears on the PhD Jiscmail list
- Rigour is not necessarily the most useful tool for generating reflections about our practice since its primarily adversarial and is dependent on a tradition that I can be traced back through Canonical Law to the foundations of our current legal system – there are other ways of asking question for instance through inquisitiveness
- the discussion about works that operates in the commercial sector and attempts to be reflective (however sloppily which at times and the EJ can be accused of that) could be discussed within a series of context such as the quality of ideas being marshalled, a sort of conceptual framework for discussion
- the "criticism and debate" when approached from an adversarial approach does inevitably put people in the dock
- and could our esteemed academics please point to at least one piece of graphic design that is internationally recognised piece of work that has broken new ground and tried to grasp new ideas that draws on the tradition of rigorously researched methodologies that PhDs provide – the proof of the pudding test
- and with reference to "Van Toorn’s commitment to the liberation of the audience and to independent research as a practitioner and academic." can we please be told in what way is graphic design as a discipline capable of doing this and what are we liberating the audience from?
Maziar Raein
06.30.13 at 04:27

So, to review, Daniel Harding insists all critical review is contraindicated because he's "had to pull an adjective or two out of my ass to justify a formal gesture, the use of a particular typeface, and/or colour," and Maziar Raein wishes to forestall criticism until some undeclared far future date when we attain acceptable conditions that he cannot detail. Forgive me if I propose we continue on despite their reservations.
Kenneth FitzGerald
07.01.13 at 09:17



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Francisco Laranjo is a graphic designer based in London, UK and a research student at the London College of Communication. He teaches at the University of Westminster and has been a guest lecturer at the Sandberg Institute (NL), Royal College of Art (UK) and ESAD (PT).
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