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Comments (33) Posted 10.28.03 | PERMALINK | PRINT

William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand

Culture Is Not Always Popular


A Keynote Presentation by Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel
Vancouver: 25 October 2003


Jessica Helfand: At a faculty meeting not long ago, a colleague of mine suggested that smart designers need to resist the impulse to over-intellectualize things, as though such efforts are counterproductive — if not entirely paralyzing — for the designer seeking to make work. Upon hearing this, I was immediately catapulted back to an episode in high school — which, sadly, had been permanently etched on my memory — when a teacher suggested that in order to be more "popular," I might consider using fewer big words around my peers. Specifically, he noted, around boys.



Even for this talk, we were encouraged to be "engaging" and "visual." The implied caution? Don’t use big words, don’t be too intellectual. Remember, this is an audience of visual people.

Where does this come from — this notion that thinking and making are seperate acts? That graphic design must be inherently anti-intellectual because it is a creative enterprise? And why is being "popular," — and by extension, participating in "popular" culture — understood somehow as antithetical to an engagement with the larger world of ideas?



William Drenttel : Designers talk about creating a body of work, but they seldom talk about acquiring a body of knowledge. They take pride in being makers, but seldom identify themselves as thinkers. They claim to be emissaries of communication — to give form to ideas. And while we would like to believe this is true, it seems to us that all too often, we, as designers, are called upon merely to make things look good — rather than contributing to the evolution and articulation of ideas themselves. This is an age-old criticism of design, but it seems especially relevant this morning as we talk about the Culture of Design.



In a recent interview, the British designer Peter Saville was quoted as saying, "graphics is the communications platform for culture." The syntax here is very revealing: Whoever thought we’d be hearing the designer of New Order talking about "graphics" let alone "communications platforms?" So, what is he REALLY saying? That design is a lens onto culture? Or that our culture is only evident and visible through design? Whatever the answer, we’re struck by the presumption in this statement that design = culture.



We’re not so sure.

We believe the "Culture of Design" has become implicitly about branded culture: culture that we can see, that we can name, that we can buy and sell and package; culture that is synonymous with style; culture that resonates with novelty and which, by conjecture, dismisses history as mere nostalgia; culture that determines and drives our reactions to the constantly changing pulse of modern life.

So this morning, we want to ask three simple questions. Every time the word "culture" is used at this conference, we’d like you to ask yourselves:

  • Whose culture are we talking about?

  • Is this the culture we want?

  • Is this the only kind of culture possible?

  • JH: Almost a decade ago, at an AIGA gathering in Kansas City, designers pleaded for design to be recognized as a powerful force in commerce and modern life. The consensus was that AIGA should help put design center stage and, on some levels, this desire has largely been fulfilled: today, less than 10 years later, design is generally acknowledged as a ubiquitous element in contemporary culture.



    The assumption was that designers influence just about everything — from toothbrushes to television titles, bridges to brochures.

    This ubiquity is evident in everything from corporateculture —



    to world culture —



    to sports culture —



    to media culture —



    all adding up to something we call popular culture —



    And all of these, let’s be honest, performing increasingly as functions of a much larger branded culture —



    Coming full circle, to Vancouver, even "design" has become its own, well-designed brand.



    WD: Obviously, there are many ways to look at this. One of the benefits of weblogs is the opportunity for ongoing critical discussion. Last week, Jessica and I launched Design Observer, a collaborative blog with Michael Bierut and Rick Poynor, as a forum for a broader kind of critical writing on design issues — broader because its collaborative; because it’s international; and because we rarely agree on anything.



    In the spirit of such thinking, we’d like to take a few moments to look at design and its impact on culture from a more critical perspective.

    I’d like to begin with AIGA — and here, as a former president, I want to commend AIGA for its many dramatic strides forward in increasing the purpose and profile of the profession. But consistent with such strides is a level of critical discourse which seems, in many ways absent, from our conferences and our publications.

    For instance, we are troubled by AIGA’s generally uncritical endorsement of branding, both as a process and as the primary programmatic focus for the profession. We are troubled by the loose interchangeability between between "designing" and "branding."



    So to revisit the Peter Saville position: design is not only a communications "platform" for culture, but is now vetted by an AIGA-approved 12-step program for problem-solving, innovating, and generating value.

    We are not making a flip attack on an organization we value. We do not doubt that these ideas are appropriate for many design practices. We do not doubt that these concepts will play well in the media as AIGA seeks to gain attention for our profession. And we appreciate the shift from an emphasis on award-winning design artifacts to a deeper discussion about process, participation and impact.



    But we do believe that we are fundamentally restricting the pluralistic character of design by adopting a fixed vocabulary for process. Not everyone in this room sees "generating value" as a rationale for what they do. By expanding the very definition of design, are we simultaneously narrowing the rich variety that makes design such an exciting profession?



    Further, we would hope that creating brands is only one of the many potential outcomes of "designing." "Branding" is primarily a function of the designer’s engagement with material culture: again, this is NOT the only culture there is, and it is NOT the only culture in which design can make a difference.



    So, we wonder: why hasn’t there been more critical discussion of these issues in the year since the AIGA board adopted this new focus? Such discussions are critical to a mature profession, and imperative if we want to consider and ultimately, contribute to the culture – or cultures — of design that we want to create in the future.

    JH: The American writer, James Baldwin, once observed that it is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the human mind.



    Regrettably, the current state of design education does little to refute this notion: our curricula primarily support the strengthening of formal skills and the cultivation of conceptual abilities. Intellectual diversity — and by extension, an understanding of cultural diversity — is less encouraged, but why?

    In most design schools, for instance, we discouragelearning a second language because it requires too much time in the language lab and therefore away from the studio. Along the way, our young designers aren’t expected to really study science or math; history or anthropology; economics; music theory or literature. They’re not even really required to learn to write.

    How is this possible?

    The state of illiteracy in design schools is staggering, but sadder still, it mirrors a basic scarcity of cultural literacy across the nation. A recent study revealed that when asked to name 3 boy-bands, 97% of the US population had no problem: however, only 17% could accurately name three Supreme Court justices.

    So if knowledgeis power, isn’t what we, as designers, contribute a function of what we know?

    And what is it, exactly, that we DO know?

    In an educational context, is The Power of Design really just a brand itself? Is it the promise of an exciting view of culture? The packaging of design as a lucrative career choice? Or are we talking about …

    Power through communication?



    Well, there is little in the culture of design education that places a premium on achieving a level of literacy which, in our view, goes hand-in-hand with designers being truly knowledgeable, and capable, and thereby empowered to participate, in an increasingly cross-disciplinary world.

    Power through voice?



    Certainly there is an abundance of experimental student work that aggressively critiques corporate rhetoric or denounces commercial culture: work that, if nothing else, is commendable for its sheer gutsiness. Often though, we see voice expressed less as an act of subversive will, and more as a staging of false identity: this work says a lot about designers wanting to be artists, using "design" as a weak metaphor for "art" and expressing their personal experience without practical context or intellectual foundation.

    Power through craft?



    While design education has a long and distinguished history of reinforcing formal principles, it is often assumed that a student’s "intellectual" development is perhaps of less immediate consequence.

    Is it powerfulto develop a typeface based on the letterforms taken from one’s apartment signage?

    Is it powerfulto make a video of the dramatic lighting conditions between ramps in a parking garage?

    Is it powerfulto tabulate the color shifts in a series of expired plastic bread tags over the course of nine months?

    Each of these are student projects I have seen over the past few years: exquisitely designed, these projects were meticulously produced as evidence of a kind of working methodology in design. Yet while conceivably empowering to the student, such projects, more often than not, are framed by what the student already knows.

    The distinction here is that while such independent work encourages our students to think for themselves, our narrow-minded curricula restrict their capacity to use their minds to truly advance their ideas; And in turn, we limit their ability to advance themselves.



    WD: This polemic raises many issues, but let's return to the idea of culture. We want to propose a different view of culture, one that presupposes a more expansive view of the world that design inhabits, not limited by form or function, budget or brief, process or style. This notion of culture — which we call intellectual culture — operates from a different premise, and quite possibly, demands a different educational approach: for at its core, it suggests that in order for design to really matter, designers need to think and know more about things besides design.

    Our premise is that behind the best design there is not only an intelligent process and visual solution, but an intellectual foundation based on history and ideas.

    To expand upon this premise, we’d like to take a look at one particular set of ideas in our culture — in the realm of science.



    In a recent issue of Emigré, Jessica and I published an essay on what we call "faux science": it’s a cultural critique of the indiscriminate appropriation of scientific imagery for the making of cool things. Along the way, in an effort to understand design as it might relate to realscience, we began to do a little research.



    In the history of chemistry, we focused on the Periodic Table of the Elements and discovered numerous, and quite varied, examples.

    Here’s the first publication outside of Russia of the Periodic Table by Mendeleev from 1869.



    And a classic wall chart by Henry Hubbard from the 1950s, which went through 12 editions, and hung in thousands of classrooms across the country for decades.



    Since the last edition of the Hubbard wall chart, we have discovered 16 new elements. These discoveries have confirmed the genius of the Periodic Table as a template that not only summarizes information succinctly, but also provides a system for predicting future outcomes.

    Yet for designers, the Periodic Table, like other areas of science, is often just a genre that’s ripe for appropriation, offering an easy visual metaphor and a ready source for imagery:

    From art by Damien Hirst —



    To an identity program by Lana Rigsby for Strathmore Elements —



    To a chart in a recent GQ, by Fred Woodward, on nerdiness —



    To a self-promotion book by Stone Yamashita —



    To a chart on cereal typologies published in 2wice



    To yet another self-promotion book, this one for Fold 7 in the UK —



    To type specimens by Test Pilot Collective —



    To dingbat specimens by Scott Stowell and Chip Wass —



    To a periodic table of desserts —



    To a periodic table of sexual positions —



    To a periodic table of Turbonium, for Volkswagen —



    We celebrate this kind of design — with awards, in publications — yet, such visibility also suggests the degree to which we do NOT see designers thinking about realscience: and if we do, we rarely acknowledge or celebrate their contributions.

    JH: For the past three years, Julia Wargawski has assigned the Periodic Table as a studio assignment at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. Her course investigates the process of graphically representing information through mastering the principles of visual organization — but students also learn about conductivity, oxidation and isotopes.

    Here’s an example of a redesign of the Periodic Table by Purvi Shah, a junior —



    One from Christian Drury, also in his junior year —



    In her senior thesis exhibition, Emily Korsmo’s project was actually a redesign of Stowe’s Physicist Table of the Elements —



    And an interactive version of the Mendeleev table by Stacie Rohrbach, at North Carolina State University, which is currently featured on the AIGA/Loop site.



    Louis Pasteur once said that knowledge belongs to humanity: "it is the torch," he wrote, "which illuminates the world." Why can’t designers — as visual communicators but also as engaged thinkers — be the ones to carry this torch? Why are projects like these more the exception than the rule?



    Here, for instance, is the first visualization of the complete DNA sequence published by Science Magazine in 2001: quite possibly the most important scientific discovery in recent memory. Do any of us know who designed this?



    Our point is that genetic mapping is a significant example of a powerful scientific development that will fundamentally change the way people live, if they live, and how they live. Our ability to address and, ultimately, amplify the meaning of this information is only partially based on our our skills as visual communicators. This is not about branding; it’s about life. It’s about whether we, as designers, are going to participate in its scientific and cultural dissemination — ,and more critically, whether we are even capable of participating.

    WD: We’re not claiming today that we have all the answers, or that we’re even remotely capable of fulfilling the challenges we’re proposing this morning. In fact, what we’re going to show you now will illustrate just how hard this is, and what a struggle it continues to be for us.

    It is therefore with some trepidation that we’d like to share a bit of our own experience, as designers, working in the area that we call, albeit a little hesitantly — intellectual culture.

    Like most of you, we need to make a living. We work in a small studio with only two employees in the northwest corner of Connecticut.



    For the first five years that Jessica and I worked together, we had a fairly traditional practice, including a lot of work we’d classify as branding.

    We designed interfaces for internet companies —



    Websites for newspapers —









    About 18 months ago, we asked the question: Could we sustain a practice if we stopped doing brand-driven work and only did projects with some kind of real intellectual content? This definition is a pretty slippery slope — obviously more thematically driven than "intellectually" rigorous — and we are not suggesting that brand-based projects don’t have their own value and intellectual challenges. But on a very personal level, we wanted to try to create a different body of work, engaging with different kinds of ideas — and collaborating with different kinds of clients.


    As we began to work against these criteria, every new project seemed to raise its own questions.

    JH: The answers were pretty humbling and almost immediately, we were forced to consider the limits of what we know:



    Does an 18-foot accordion-fold book with over 3,000 entries charting the evolution of Greek mythology benefit from a knowledge of history?



    Does the statistical analysis characterizing econometrics inform the typography on this college textbook?



    Does an understanding of the "culture wars" within journalism today benefit the online extension of a university journalism program?



    What about student journalism? Can a student newspaper be conceived in such a way as to help redefine educational parameters for the way journalism is actually taught?



    What about the role of religion as portrayed in the media?



    How much do we need to know about Judaism to promote literacy about Jewish culture and literature?



    Or the evolution of American foreign policy since the Vietnam War?



    Or the complexities of US diplomacy in the Arab-Muslim World for this report to Congress?



    How does an understanding of the rampant mutation of flu viruses inform preventative public health initiatives?



    What about the history of propaganda, political caricature and comparatively radical, early forms of medical malpractice?

    WD: In our publishing imprint, Winterhouse Editions, we are always looking for projects in which we can exercise such diverse interests, and where the design considerations must be reconsidered in light of subjects with which we little familiarity.



    Jessica’s interest in 20th century information dials and other kinds of circular media ...



    … led her to rethink primitive, early forms of navigation.

    My interest in the darker side of life often seems to lead me back to German literature. And while Jessica and our children did stop me from naming our puppy Kafka …



    … we co-published this book, Kafka Goes to the Movies, with the University of Chicago. Faced with an interesting but problematic work of scholarship, the design became a way to fix the book and to deepen its visual narrative.



    Last month, I bought the world English rights to this book — a literary description of the destruction of Hamburg in 1943. Probably not a bestseller, but potentially an important book that grapples with the problem of describing — withoutaestheticizing — the horror of urban destruction. In many ways, it resembles certain critiques of writing in the months following 9/11.



    Recently, a young historian brought us this Victorian scrapbook — 240 pages of newspaper clippings pasted into an old geometry textbook — meticulously documenting every weird kind of death and murder that transpired over the course of a single year: 1894. The gruesome detail evident in the language suggests a cultural interest in death at the turn of the century that is a new topic in American Studies.

    JH: This summer, we collaborated with the writer Lawrence Wechsler on the design of a new magazine prototype.



    Omnivore is a celebration of what Wechsler calls: "A distinctly American innovation … the extended, writerly, not necessarily immediately topical piece of non-fiction reportage … an endangered form of writing that is one of the greatest contributions of American culture to world literature in the twentieth century."

    Here in the 21st, Omnivore pairs unlikely subjects —



    From Helen Wilson’s photograph of a denuded clementine to a stripped-down billboard in Bucharest, revealing the menacing eye of former Romanian dictator, Nicholae Ceaucescu —



    To discoveries of moons circling asteroids —



    To work by a remarkable range of writers and artists including Oliver Sacks; David Hockney; and the South African dissident poet, Breyten Breytenbach, among many others.



    WD: But if Omnivore pushed us by challenging the perceptual juxtapositions between pictures and words, our year spent redesigning The New England Journal of Medicine revealed a different set of challenges. In collaboration with Michael Bierut, our process involved working closely with a group of physicians whose view of information design was dictated not only by the expectations of their readers (who are primarily doctors themselves), but more importantly perhaps, by the scientific imperatives of the material itself.



    In retrospect, we were able to bring to The Journal a more refined typographic vocabulary, as well as some basic editorial insights. But because of our lack of knowledge about real science, I don’t know that we ever really understood how to effectively visualize and communicate discoveries and innovations in medical research. Given the Journal’s seminal, groundbreaking data about personal and public health issues — the outbreak of SARS, for example — did design really contribute anything?

    If our experiences in the past year have taught us anything, it is that we do notknow enough to participate in any of these project in the way we might like. The good news is that — and every student in the audience should hear this — we were able to make a living without focusing on strategy or branding or marketing. There are other types of work out there where designers can play a role, and where acquiring a body of knowledge becomes an asset both professionally and personally.



    JH: Several weeks ago, two Americans and a Russian shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in physics for theories about how matter can show bizarre behavior at extremely low temperatures. Bear in mind that where we live in the Berkshires, it was 22 degrees last week when we were finishing up this lecture: Another benefit of science is that now, at last, we have a rationale for the "bizarre" behavior that led us here today.

    But it is sobering, nonetheless, to consider how culture awards real contributions. The French cubist painter, Georges Braque once said that art is made to disturb, while science reassures. Design, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle: it is both and it is neither, playing both ends against the middle: and it is this middle-brow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road intellectual apathy that diminishes the real power of design: its power as a humanist discipline. We believe that to engage that discipline — and the many cultures it serves — means simply being better educated. This has perhaps less to do with culture, and more to do with having a cultivated mind; less to do with technical virtuosity, and more to do with intellectual curiosity. Less to do with popular culture — and more to do with culture, period.

    WD: Francis Bacon once said that knowledge and human power are synonymous, and it is in this spirit that true power is perhaps ideally achieved: it is power informed by learning, collaborating and considering how the ultimate quality of our lives is made, whether in reference to our health or our schools; our environment or our foreign policy; our aspirations in science or in space; or our humanitarian achievements, as people, in war and in peace.

    It's that simple. And it’s that complicated.



    [ end ]
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    A Design Epistle

    Design is a process. As a process products may be produced . . . or not, aesthetic elements may be included . . . or not. As a process communication will be fostered, knowledge will be promoted and truth acknowledged.

    Because design is a process it can be taught, measured, evaluated, owned, learned and improved. As a process, design can be applied in creative ways but does not require creativity. As a process, design also needs information and opinions from those without creative credentials but whose experience and expertise is critical.

    Design as a process defines a structure, where possibilities are conceived, nested, nurtured, hatched, fed, weaned, grown, released and rejuvenated. It is where a curriculum can be developed, methods identified, exercises planned, tests given, standards met, graduate and post-graduate degrees earned. It is where certification can happen as well as accreditation, codification and preservation.

    Design as a process is a structure without form, agreement without capitulation, collaboration without loss or forfeiture of individuality. It is where the unconceivable is conceived and made whole.

    Design as a process doesn't limit participation, it encourages it, complements it, compels it, engages it and even permits conflicting agendas to find sanctuary.

    Design as a process shapes instincts into instruments, tools that produce measurable results.

    Art and culture are parameters of design as a process, the way love and passion are parameters of procreation. They are wants not necessarily needs.

    To those who understand process, how it works, the routes it takes, its elements and choices, mechanics and parameters, the advantages are available and rewards are inevitable.

    Define the goal, provide the conveyance and you will structure success.

    Design is a process.


    Joseph Michael Essex
    10.29.03 at 03:05

    An eloquent position that I find a great deal of resonance with.
    Sadly, I'm not surprised that members of the design community took issue with what, to me, is a no-brainer (bad pun intended).

    As a rejoinder to Mr. Essex -- yes, design is a process.
    But isn't it a process of making decisions?

    At each step, one is confronted by matters ranging from large to small; from point size to whether a new logo is even needed. This then raises the question of how one makes those decisions. Ahhh, philosophy... There's no need to bring up Kant, thank you, but hopefully one can see where a cultivated mind is an advantage.

    Ms. Helfand and Mr. Drenttel are merely suggesting that designers better utilize their unique positions as synthesizers of information (culture, language, etc. -- whatever) by making THOUGHTFUL choices.

    In contrast, choices based on market analysis (aka "the evils of Branding", herd mentality, mass mediocrity, neurosis) are easily rationalized in a corporate environment. Choices made at a purely formal level may satisfy the tyranny of the eye; yet further erode designers' roles into the merely decorative.

    A thoughtful approach to design requires an active engagement of the world and is difficult to resolve in billable hours, market research or general consensus. Hey, nothing great was ever easy -- or cheap.

    Thanks for the forum.
    Good luck.
    M Kingsley
    10.30.03 at 12:22

    Thanks for posting this. As I mentioned over on Speak Up, I have a brain like a seive so I really needed to read this before I could comment on any of it.

    I was writing this last night when the power went out, and it's only now that I've been able to make it back. Just as well--gave me some time to think.

    I think that you are right in your call for more intelligence in design thinking and communication; we have only recently crawled out of the mire of judging by aesthetics, and we still have a long way to go. However, I would hate to see design discourse go the way of art criticism, where the language has become so obscure and exclusive that it has not only alienated the general public but created an elitism within the [art] community that one must either emulate or fake it to be taken seriously.

    It is also very important not to confuse intelligence with education. Education enhances and expands intelligence, but a lack of education does not preclude intelligent discourse. You really can express big ideas without using big words, and the bonus is that you reach a wider audience and gain greater acceptance for your ideas. One of the risks you run when you speak in phrases such as "Tufte has invoked the principles of Evelyn Wood speed-reading in his reductivist ad absurdum take on the discipline of Graphic Design." is alienating the very audence you wish to reach.

    On the other hand, just because I can never agree with anyone completely, not even myself, I have an understanding that your education and your experience shapes your language and your tools of reference. I've travelled quite a bit, and I used to get the same "who the fuck do you think you are" reaction when I would say, e.g. "This reminds me of something I saw in India ..." My brother is a sociology prof., and is insanely bright as well as very well educated. People who don't know him find him arrogant because of the way he speaks. I know that's just his experience, just as others may refer to something they saw on Seinfeld, he may refer to something he read by Kant, and I may refer to something I experienced in Indonesia. And Jessica is right, you shouldn't have to pretend to discard half your knowledge just to please people.

    I'm not sure where that leaves us in the critical thinking arena. I would hope that there is some middle ground between our "high" and "low" communication skills. I actually think that this lecture as written here, has found that balance. I find it interesting and thoughtful without being alienating, whereas the "Tufte" article -- what the fuck?

    But of course anytime you say "It's time for intelligent discussion," you are also saying "I am intelligent." and this will get people's backs up as much as if you said, "Us beautiful people need to stick together." -- maybe more, because there is an undervaluing of intelligence in North American culture. If there weren't, you wouldn't have George Bush for a president.

    I agree that designers should be more educated (in particular I should be more educated--my lack of knowledge is outright shocking. I think by your standards I may not even have the right to call myself a human being), but more importantly I think everyone should be more educated. I'm not going to get started on one of my "commodification of education" rants, but I think it's pretty obvious that our education systems are designed to turn out workers rather than thinkers. If I were benign despot of my country i'd make everyone take a class in something every year, (I'd have a bias towards the humanities, but that's just because I'd be a flaming liberal benign despot), and I'd also be shipping teenagers off to 3rd world countries for a year before they could graduate. The populace would hate me! I'd have to amass a huge army to defend myself ... but i digress.

    Do you need to know the law to design a journal for lawyers? Do you need to understand finances in order to design an annual report? I think it would help, but we can't be and do everything: that's just impossible, so I think it's very important to ask, research and collaborate. That's why we work closely with clients, so that they can bring their piece of the knowledge into the picture. It has to be a collective effort. We would go mad if we tried to do it all.

    As for this whole branding thing, yes, branding does seem to be the dominant "culture" of graphic design, probably because it's the one that the public understands the best, and because its influence is overt. This is why I think that it's important we don't jump into the cultural arena with industrial design and architecture too quickly; we still have these issues within our own subculture of graphic design to work out. Not sure I'm being to clear on this point, but this post is getting a little long.



    marian bantjes
    10.30.03 at 04:17

    Oh, just a note: I think it would be better if you changed the order in which the comments appear to first to last, that way people can read the thread linearly.
    marian
    10.30.03 at 04:19

    Bill, Joseph, Jessica, and all other contributors to this site whom I consider friends, thank you for this stimulating and worthy dialogue. I am here because I have found myself in the position of having to defend this presentation, made in Vancouver last weekend, already on a number of occassions in speaking with designers. My personal take on the subject, as originally posted on Speak Up, follows almost as originally submitted:

    Bill and Jessica made a presentation that turned out to be a fire-starter, and I believe this was the case mostly due to a fear of certain realities. Here's the bottom line I gleaned from their well-considered points: designers do not know enough in order to participate in global social and cultural change in the way they say they desire. If the best we can do is use intellectual artifacts (periodic table) to infer knowledge, then we have a long way to go. Pure and simple. They were not pointing their finger directly at you or you, they were stating a fact about the collective we. We say we want to be instrumental in changing points of view, we want to participate in dialogue on enormous, meaningful issues, essentially change corporations and organizations and even governments, etc. Does anyone really think we (collective again) are knowledgeable enough to do that? I don't; although, I do know a few amazing, "intellectual" designers that should be sitting at the big table (and some already are). Bill and Jessica are not pompous--they are challenging the pomposity of some designers who want to make value "power grabs" without having the tools to do so. It's a challenge, not a castigation.

    At least, that's the way I read it.
    Lance Rutter
    10.30.03 at 05:37

    The Cultivated Mind; The Cultivated Library

    It's obvious from the quotations used in JH|WD's lecture that they read. Reading is a critical part of extending one's knowledge base. I believe that a cultivated mind requires an engagement with content that extends beyond design. But rarely do I see a designer with a library of books other than design monographs.

    Designers are proud of these libraries. The books are sometimes rare or out of print. Some designers I know are fanatical about their books, refusing to bend the spines or dog-ear the pages. But how are these books read? (Or are they?) Is it more about glancing and less about reading? Whether it's medium, typography, color, the grid, printing, or computer applications, designers love books about design, but glancing is not reading and design books are not the only means of cultivation.

    There are design books that occupy every facet of our practice. Mostly, in designers' libraries, I see books that are well designed (or over designed) like the big books that design firms, studios, practitioners, and heroes publish. These are books that focus on the artifacts, in almost the same way design annuals function. Such books are inspirational, and are helpful in generating ideas. Call it stimulation. Call it appropriation. Call it borrowing. Call it driving oneself to create. Whatever you call it, it's part of a process of getting from one point to another. It serves the purpose of doing and making, assisting form generation. We see what is possible and are motivated to generate form. Sometimes it's about ambitions of being included in the design canon; sometimes it's about finding a solution for your client; and sometimes it's to pass a critique the next morning in Typography 123. This ethical dilemma of doing and making in such a reactionary method is another story for another time.

    Now let's get onto the other books, the ones we read for pleasure and ones that cultivate us. There are just as many books out there that are not about design, but are also important. They can be about psychology, super heroes, physiology, science, art, sports, religion, geology, ecology, philosophy... well, you get the point. The others stretch our ideologies in fascinating ways. It's not that we should discount design, but let's look elsewhere. Let's read. I'm not suggesting that you hybridize your knowledge from books on Winnebagos with your design practice. (But if you do, I hope you enjoy yourself.) Instead, look for analogies and metaphors. Think. Books about art can shed light on the subjective versus objective debate. Books on ecology can tell us the significance of being environmentally conscious, and help us develop long-term goals as green designers. Books on philosophy can incite us to question our roles, the artifacts we create, or why we're driven to create. Other books and other interests are needed for thinking. Thinking is an important part of design. If our cognitive abilities are not flexed in fresh ways and new directions, our mind will plateau. The discipline of design will remain stagnant.

    Books are important to designers because they comprise our matrix of doing, making, and thinking. Our libraries, like our cultivated selves, should not be limited.

    (See also, Bibliography as Biography)
    Jason A. Tselentis
    10.30.03 at 11:43

    sorry for the cross posting, but I thought it was important to respond here too

    I've now had the chance to read the infamous presentation. After reading the presentation a couple times, I still have no idea why so many people are up in arms. After reading it I'm sad that I couldn't get past my own arrogance to attend the conference. After reading it I changed my opinion of what was written in rant and perhaps some of the harsh thoughts I've had towards the authors of Faux Science. After reading it I'm glad to hear that it effected Matt in Canada, that can only bode well for the GDC. After reading it I'm happier to be a designer.
    surts
    10.31.03 at 08:38

    I just wanted to say that I'm happy that someone finally said it.

    Throughout school, brand-based work was shoved down our throats...it was the only examples we were shown. I've not ever looked back or thought to work on commercially driven pieces since. I did my time in studios and left because my desire to learn wasn't being satisfied during the 9-5. I'm sticking to musems, NGO's and literature/cultural pieces. So today, on my own, I've been thinking a lot about how my work will continue. I'm facing some of these same issues that are mentioned here.

    On thing though - this old argument bugs me.

    I've found that if you want to be involved and contribute to the evolution and articulation of ideas (rather then wait for end product and make it pretty) you have to be there and ask to be involved, get on a committee and get friendly asking about the company, (not just the most recent datasheets...but any wacky thoughts Sarah in Finance might have had yesterday and then a month after that and a month after that).

    Most people don't know that a designer would be interested, heck most ideas for design pieces aren't even formally decided upon, its water cooler brainstorming. We blame clients for not involving us early on...but we never ask to be involved and we're never around.
    -t

    tsprowl
    10.31.03 at 11:54

    To put it in a nutshell, it's probably a good idea for designers to approach the field of design from the vantage point of a good-old-fashioned liberal arts education. History, literature, political science, philosophy, religious studies, general sciences, and the history of art and architecture, film lit, etc. as opposed to the peg-in-hole job-filling approach of vocational "design schools."

    Look at the giants of design whose work IMNSHO still hasn't been excelled: Paul Rand, Seymour Chwast, Charles and Ray Eames, etc. Their designs are timeless, evocative, and deceptively simple - and in the decades that have followed, I can't think of anyone whose work approaches their level.

    Their work was informed by a sensible humanism, instead of a "rejection of history," and a voracious intellectual curiosity backed up with an attention span longer than that of a caffeinated tsetse fly.

    Today's crop of design-school grads have 10,000 options available at their fingertips at all times, but could they design a book cover with cut-out paper and a Rapidograph, as Rand did? They will likely graduate from school without ever using Letraset, let alone a phototypesetting machine, let alone understand letterpress, or even calligraphy. Quickie 'design diploma mills' are shortchanging them of the basic hands-on elements of their crafts - Cultural education? Fugeddaboudit!

    I suppose it bears asking: did the Eameses et al. do better, richer work because they were smarter, better-traveled, better-read and applied themselves harder, or do we merely perceive their work as longer-lasting thanks to 20-20 hindsight and their 'iconic' status?

    There is an unwritten judgement in this piece: that 'popculturized' designers do worse work, or more derivative work, than their formally or self-educated peers. Is that objectively true? (I admit noticing the copycat table-of-elements thing, but once upon a time, all cars had fins, too.)
    aj
    11.03.03 at 12:47

    30 years ago, designer and teacher wolfgang weingart, agreed that design needs input from fields such as sociology, communications theory, semantics and semiotics. weingart asserted that design needs "flexible technicians" capable of combining such specialized knowledge with an understanding of design problems, and that this interaction should happen in school. by doing so, design can expand its visual vocabularies. indeed, design can bypass social science methodologies by deducing something new from the information that would otherwise produce only known experiences.

    weingart's message still resonates today. although what constitutes intelligent design seems less clear. does an "intelligent" client help set a designer on an intelligent problem-solving path? if a designer creates work for an academic institution, is the result "thinking design", due to subject matter? or can all design be considered intelligent design? is it a process? is it the designer? helfand and drenttel continue weingart's discussion started in the early 70s, in an attempt to end the non-thinking work that piles high around us as nothing more than visual clutter.
    murphy
    11.05.03 at 01:43

    Design = A Culture
    aphex
    11.05.03 at 06:58

    As a designer that works for a science company, I can tell you that there are a lot of very bright people doing lots of interesting things here. We have an agreement whereby researchers do a lot of great things, but w/o communicators/designers, no one knows about it. This company has only two designers, myself - web/motion graphics & a graphics/print designer that work with writers and other businesses people so our visual and written ideas get out to the public and other interested parties.

    My knowledge of our particular field of science was minimal before working here, but has gone up considerably after talking to researchers and reading many studies that we publish and particpate in many show-n-tells. I know our scientists value us and we value them. Trouble begins when some of the business/IT people take for granted the "non-scientific" knowledge in the organization and think it's "easy". It's not. We have proven our value and the powers that be have seen it and understand our contribution. You need to constantly be in front of people and generating ideas. People fear the unknown and don't want to tread in new water for fear of failure.

    This whole topic is quite interesting but I have always felt as a person, and as a designer or whatever role I'm currently living in, that life is about learning and there are many opportunities to gain knowledge, both wordly and otherwise. We are bombarded with too much information, but how much of it is really turned into knowledge?

    Thanks for this forum. I was at the conf. in Vancouver and can say that Jessica and William's address was very well received and I certainly could relate to it. Art ≠ Design.
    kf
    11.06.03 at 02:47

    Note review of AIGA conference by John Calvelli, Faculty, Graphic Design, Art Institute of Portland:

    http://design.umn.edu/go/knowledgeCircuit/current.Calvelli.AIGA

    William Drenttel
    11.30.03 at 02:13

    I come from an illustration background and am doing an MA with the University of Huddersfield which is collaborating with Attik.

    Attik always held a place of awe in me. They worked in every medium and do a lot of beautiful work. They were really on the forefront of the whole dot-com era vision of new media.

    The culture there is "rockstar" - confidence, bleached hair, reckless abandon, style, youthfulness.

    The interest is in cool surfaces for brands. From a critical standpoint this seems a vulnerable position in light of the thoughts from your beautiful minds.

    I worry enough about these conflicting values enough to detract from healthy relationships.(semiotics/content, universal/personal, art/design, "success"/"unsuccess", modernism/humanism, post-modernism/classicism, style/concept, intent/perception)

    So do you I guess. There comes a point where worry becomes unhealthy. I don't eat sometimes because I work and read so incessantly. I forget important things.

    So while I love thinking, I am afraid that too much will continue my isolation. My isolation is self imposed though, because the very people around me are so unopened to thoughtfulness or the action of listening.

    All wisdom points to a small band of people like you who do love this thoughtful approach.

    One moment I'm told to break conventions. When I do-I'm told it's wrong, uncommercial and worth a D.
    Then I get a letter from one of my heroes thanking me for sending something and cheering me up.

    Curious a seemingly style driven company like Attik though hunted down the necessary funding to allow 15 students from around the globe to pursue their visions (or lack thereof) for free.

    The funny thing about smartness is that an aura of it can be created fairly easily. I watched Bruce Mau awe a crowd of several hundred people as he talked reverently about slides of other people's work.

    Someone asked a straightforward question and he answered, "I'm moving on a vector."

    The audience gasps at the genius.
    Bruce is well read and an interesting design voice but his real skill is brilliant self presentation.

    For some reason the ability to speak poetically seems to be more valuable to designers than innovation or even formalism!

    Again, I watch in shock as this plays out in front of me here at times. Vacuous concepts, weak visuals, derivative facades combined with the right buzz words become "excellent solutions".

    The more I work, the more I realise that most designer's opinions about design, people, art, culture, illustration are wrong. The reasons for this do indeed come from a lack of openness to learning. We all need to look at things as openly as a child remembering:

    Design is a belief system.

    "Broad is the road that leads to destruction. Narrow is the road that leads to life and few there be that finding it."

    Here's another curious biblical quote,

    This is from John 1:1, the word, "word" here is translated from the Greek, "logos" I've replaced the english word with the Greek logos here for interest. It strangely summarises all we have discussed.

    "In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. He was with God in the beginning.
    Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood."
    Ben Weeks
    12.05.03 at 12:17

    Look! Design Observer just got their first spam comment (almost as remarkable as a baby's first tooth). Welcome to the madness. Make sure you ban the IP address in MovableType, otherwise it will go haywire on all your entries.

    (you can also delete this comment)
    Armin
    01.14.04 at 01:14

    Au contraire -- thank you for this advice. Guess my spam voodoo doll isn't working very well. And I learned my lesson about deleting comments last time! Seriously though -- thanks.
    Jessica Helfand
    01.14.04 at 01:36

    [This comment was moved by William Drenttel from post about Perioid Tables to this thread on Feb.8, 2004.]

    I know that the phrase "sin of faux science" above is a joke but you've certainly displayed more than a bit of disapproval for the very idea of adopting the form of this ubiquitous scientific graphic sans content. The whole periodic table thing reminds me of the '80s fad of the fire hazard chart—remember Arsinio Hall's leather jacket with those four squares at 45°? How does the use of the periodic table form differ (morally, philosophically, or practically) from any other aping of "vernacular" whether laundromat signs, old office supplies, or color bars (depending on whether you're from CalArts, Minneapolis, or just about everywhere) abstracted from its meaning? Is it just a synecdoche of graphic designers' collective ignorance for you or is there something that I'm missing?
    Gunnar Swanson
    02.08.04 at 02:13

    Gunnar,

    I hesitated answering you because the meaning of synecdoche is beyond me. Dictionary.com says it's: "A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword)." Still over my head, I think.

    Anyway, the "sin of faux science" was meant playfully: after Jessica and I had criticized this trend in visual culture, Michael Bierut sent me an example of his appropriation of the Periodic Table for an architectural organization. This is why I said he "fessed up."

    On one level, yes, I believe the Periodic Table and other icons of science have become a new "vernacular" ripe for visual appropriation. On this level, the Periodic Table is just like a fire hazard chart — just another cool thing to use in graphic design.

    There is a larger point, though. Your question, "How does the use of the periodic table form differ (morally, philosophically, or practically) from any other aping of 'vernacular'?" gets directly to the the issue we are raising.

    The Periodic Table is not just another visual element or icon. It is a living and breathing part of modern science. This cannot be said of a fire hazard chart. It is fine to adapt the graphic language of the Periodic System, but the challenge we wish to make is why designers, and especially design students, are not engaging the fundamental science underlying the Periodic Table. (This is why it is appropriate to note the discovery of new elements on a design site such as Design Observer.)

    In fact, there are educators engaging science (and the Periodic Table): Stacie Rohrbach at CMU, Julia Wargawski at Parsons, and Tony Brock at NCSU, to name a few. This is the positive side of our critique.

    The other side of the coin is that science has become "just another genre that's ripe for appropriation, offering an easy visual metaphor and a ready source for imagery." When we celebrate such "design solutions," we are celebrating not just the creation of a new vernacular, but designers distance and lack of engagement with some things that really matter.
    William Drenttel
    02.08.04 at 02:54

    As a designer, it seems that most things that are really "good" or "well designed" are things where the design is not the first thing you think about. It is just perfectly executed. There is so much consideration to the function of an object, message or building's function that one would not ever contemplate the "message"... it is just "that" obvious. Like the chairs the Eames designed, they are just that, chairs.

    The point is that we are not making a graphic that represents us, but simplifying into graphic form, an idea; be that a periodic table, a chair or a building.

    The power of graphics is that it stimulates the right side of our brain, it leaves an impression. It uses the feelings projected by a graphic to communicate an idea to the user. Tapping into this power, we must first know the message and then we need to understand the aesthetic values of our user.

    It is very simple to say that our clients only want us to make things look good. But more honestly, they want us to make things appropriate. It is this level of appropriateness that make a design "good" or "bad". Artists contemplate the creation of aesthetics, designers use these aesthetics to communicate ideas.



    Judy Wong
    03.27.04 at 01:33

    That this presentation-cum-essay merely urging deeper thought has had the polarizing effect it has had emphasizes the extent to which anti-intellectualism has trumped an engaged and curious stance toward the world. I'm glad to see this posted and hope readers will get over their fears related to their own limited points of view to consider how we all might participate at a higher level in this fractured world - a world that demands, daily, for every one of us to contribute our talents and energies in the most thoughtful ways we can imagine.
    Bonnie Schwartz
    03.28.04 at 09:54

    Heard William Drenttel speak last night. Good.
    Made it clear to me why reading on the train on the way to work is usually more interesting than what I do when I get to work.
    Turned on to "Design Observer". Yummy.
    Feel better to hear MB say "95% of creative profession is shit work." It's a reminder that I should enjoy the work with intellectual content and still not be unhappy doing the shit work. Speaking of... better get to work.
    Kathe Stoepel
    04.16.04 at 10:27

    Hi!
    I was wondering if anybody can tell me what kind of impact popular cultue had on graphic design.
    Jessica Johnsson
    05.10.04 at 11:35

    The last post asks a huge question, which can only be answered with reference to published works on the subject. I would start with the usual suspects: Meggs' History of Graphic Design, and have a look at the index. Ellen Lupton's Mixing Messages is another starting point. You might also consider doing a subject search on an arts/design database such as the Design and Applied Arts Index (DAAI), accessible through a design library.

    As for Helfand and Drenttel's presentation, I appreciated the opportunity reading it online. These ideas represent a thoughtful point of entry in the continuing question of design's status as an "institution of culture". While I agree in principle, there are many stumbling blocks to surmount in the project. To use their example, for instance, how is thinking about real science precisely NOT something a designer could do? How is the category "designer" constituted significantly by the degree to which it must ignore or only cursorily recognize these outside disciplines? In order to attain the status of designer, one must necessarily NOT pursue other modes of inquiry. It is not the fact of this choice that is problematic, only that the choice must necessarily come at the cost of the other discipline (in this case "real science") and to the benefit of design. While this priviledging seems logical and natural, it elides what I believe is a core problem: the inclination to consolidate design as "a discipline" (however "pluralistic") with "a history." It reinforces the idea that design is an institution of such adequate cultural weight and substance that its current codes of practice can withstand the questions that will necessarily come about as a result of Drenttel and Helfand's proposed inter-disciplinary strategy.

    To continue where the authors left off, my question would be why should the benefit of such a strategy necessarily be 'for the sake of design'. How perhaps does the more complicated position of "designer" get overlooked in the greater project of consolidating design as a cultural institution? Are not Drenttel and Helfand's concerns not, in the end, selfish? Shouldn't we not valorize and encourage this mode of reflective occupational selfishness precisely to the detriment of design as we know it?
    Will Temple
    05.13.04 at 01:34

    As I enter my fourth year of teaching, I have noticed a clear and irrefutable pattern that belies the notion of "design education": a commercially driven obsession with production over inquiry. The scarcity of intellectual rigor in design education can be attributed to its ironic absence within academic culture itself which raises tough questions about what motivates us to teach, what we value in practice and in our personal lives, how far we are willing to go in order to enrich the lives of students, what risks we are willing to take as faculty to get there, and how much credence we give to the demands of commerce.

    The value of teaching design cannot solely be to impart information related to the mechanics of making which is purely vocational - it rests upon the willingness of faculty to bring to the classroom a body of knowledge complementary to design. That design exists somewhere between art and science clarifies its position as a mediator poised to amplify (borrowing Jessica and William's term) meaning. But amplification is an outcome of knowledge and knowledge is an outcome of inquisitiveness. The latter - the very thing that gives design its humanistic and philanthropic edge - isn't there. Unfortunately, design education today very nearly amounts to herding.

    Your message, though hard to realize, is a hopeful and inspiring one. Thank you for sharing it.
    Anthony Inciong
    06.28.04 at 03:53

    "Mans vanity tends to delude themselves into the greatness of their own wisdom" - Thomas Hobbes

    How do I as a person, a community member, a "designer" cultivate and nurture the qualities of humanity that I desire? How do we develop strategies towards becoming more whole and actualized people?

    What can I contribute? Will the world be any richer for my having been here?

    Is it important to understand the minutae of typographic style if one cannot percieve or appreciate greater relationships in the world around us? Is is important to make a buck if you have no animus, no lust for life and the new opportunities that each breath, each new day make possible?

    Whether or not I "make a living" as a graphic designer is irrelevant.

    This is about life.
    Grow, explore, create.
    Caleb Fegles
    10.01.04 at 04:32

    In Vancouver I was drawn to this discussion the most for the very reason that throughout my design and non-design education, culture (as a generalist definition, patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular class, community, or population) has been a crucial part of observation

    But with the great amounts of observation one can be surrounded by, sketch, or think about, comes the other phase, which is just as important and I would have a question about....how to translate that into a profession that values the "branding" aspect, or more practical sections of design to the more theoretical, abstract notions which could be a) tied to social causes, or b) have no "real" (monetary) value but show more promise to those involved in research.

    I had always thought design could transcend that, but then one of my instructors in design school told me I'd be better off in academia. Should that be the answer? I look at some of my peers and realize it would take a very long time to smooth out the confusion one can achieve through trying to merge current design education with a more well-rounded humanistic perspective...does that inherently mean grad school?

    It seems to bring back the notion of the circularity of time. In a way, design is process, a conduit for communication, and it feeds off experience but most of all, from a certain degree of acceptance that there is more out there that we consider "new" but has been in existence for a long time, in a different form.
    alr
    10.03.04 at 11:30

    These most recent comments, coming a year after we first delivered this talk in Vancouver, remind me that many of the questions initially posed here remain deeply valid. At its core, the role of education is a much larger issue than any of us realize. At the risk of a partisan digression, one has only to consider the tone of last week's US Presidential debate to recognize that George Bush's "aw, shucks" posturing is something with which a great deal of Americans can identify. Such a realization prompts the question: is the dumbing down of the American public amplified by one candidate's monosyllabic patter while his opponent's complex phrasing projects an elitist know-it-all? Now consider the parallel in graphic design: where is it written that we can't think and make work at the same time? And beyond the critical formal skills we need to attain and sustain as makers, what is it, exactly, that we're thinking about?
    Jessica Helfand
    10.04.04 at 09:18

    It has come to my attention in the five years of my undergraduate education that many of the students I run into in my design classes tend to be shallow, with little intention for their career besides making money. I originally took up Graphic Design for these sames reasons. I am a photographer and I was seeking sublimental income, in turn I found yet another field that drove me to express myself and search for a way to communicate with the world (well maybe just my community at this moment). Non the less, I was a little more then thrilled to find this particular article, it expresses concepts that are so often over looked in the classroom. We discuss what our begining salaries should be, what a good protfolio looks like and what sort of advertising firm we should strive to get into (at the moment I am one of only two people I know that is not minoring in advertising. Is that bad?). The work we pump out is geared towards impressing with flashes trendy designing instead of with content and ideas.

    I have been lucky enough to have stumbled upon a prof. who teaches (preaches) more about concept then actual designing. More about ethics then money. I have never met a person who confuses their students just as much as he inspires them. These concepts of culture, ethics, content, research, understanding,must all be discussed more often instead of the pop culture nonsense that my fellow students are so often consumed by. This is an article I would suggest all my peers to read, and I know of quite a few who would be udderly horrified at the idea of having to think at the exact same time that they are creating. I think as a whole the student body of designers (at least at my university) must be challenged to think and research more, this is a simple as paying attention to the nightly world news(don't forget to filter the bs). It is important to remember that we never stop learning, whether we know it or not, and really there is nothing wrong with being a little intellectual from time to time.
    Leslie Tomaszewski
    10.20.04 at 12:05

    I am also guilty of entering the field of graphic design in order to make the money to pay the bills. I think that once you get more in depth with the field itself, at least in my case, you start to desire a more abstract or experimental form of your work. Some people are fine with the 9 to 5 day in day out, operating as a graphic design robot to produce ads and other media for stuff that we don't need. Maybe i'm just skeptical on the junk that society likes to process for us. It seems to me that there are always the shallow people that just look more on the marketing aspect of graphic design, and have no deep emotions or reservations about anything. Maybe its time that they start to feel something and become more experimental. But, unfortunately that will never happen, since there is so much pressure from the corporate path to perform and create in a certain manner that is the most efficient, instead of most creative. These people get sucked into that world and never get out. Even if you have to take a job like that that is a robot position for a couple of years, i would suggest going out and doing something that you truly feel passionate about, because otherwise there will be very little actual creativity in your work and it will show. I don't really see happiness coming from something without passion, and people in general need to think a little more abstractly when it comes to design and marketing.
    Josh Perlinski
    10.27.04 at 10:28

    This entry comes one year after your original posting. Talk about being late to the party.

    With full realization that this may be read by no one, I nevertheless could not help but respond to some of your engaging thoughts.

    The general point of your presentation is thoughtful, and worthy of great consideration. I have to agree with the argument that we can broaden our influence to both our clients' needs and to culture in general by broadening our base of knowledge and awareness. I also observe that such efforts are not often recognized with much enthusiasm within the design community.

    However, there are a few sub-points I have to question further, or at least clarify.

    First of all, I'm not so sure I agree that that the AIGA has an uncritical endorsement of branding. However, it does acknowledge that branding is a powerful way that we can contribute to the success of business -- which forms a considerable client base for many designers. To paraphrase Jeff Smith, CEO of Lunar Design in Palo Alto, business leaders have an orientation of "design for value," or design that helps create financial value. Designers tend toward an orientation of "value for design," or focus on originality or helping people live in a better way. I see AIGA merely trying to help designers understand the difference in those orientations.

    In another part of your presentation, you bring up a valid call for broadening our base of knowledge. As a graduate (20 years ago) of an unglamorous state university, I had to take a broad set of foundation courses including biology, psychology, human development, and environmental science. Interestingly enough, I have been able to utilize the first 3 classes for my work for health care clientele, and the last course for my environmental science and engineering clientele. I need to point out, however, that I will never, ever have the same level of knowledge in those areas as my clients. It's completely unrealistic. However, the knowledge I received from my education in those areas was useful because it gave me a foundation to talk in terms that the clients could relate to. It allowed me to have a dialogue with them, and a base to understand the complexity of what they were needing to communicate. I have no pretensions of being a part of their science -- only in being able to help them communicate it to their audiences. (I can create interpretive signage to explain the process of purifying leachate through a series of engineered wetlands, but I'll never have the scientific knowledge to actually improve the process.)

    Finally, I want to make sure that in our effort to recognize and value knowledge beyond design, that we don't devalue our visual/design knowledge as second-rate. Howard Gardner makes a strong case that there are different types of intelligence and thinking. While logic/reason based intelligence is what our society generally regards as "Really Intelligent", it is only one type of intelligence. Visual/spatial intelligence (the natural strength of most designers) is different. But it is every bit as valid. If your argument is to support and broaden our natural visual intelligence by broadening our knowledge and intelligence in other areas, I'm all for it. But -- please -- let's not sell the visual/spatial stuff short. Society does that already.

    In conclusion, I want to thank you for posting your presentation, and for furthering discussions in this area.
    Daniel Green
    10.27.04 at 01:41

    Culture is at the heart of everything we, as designers see, make, and do. The problem is that everyone in the corporate design world is too caught up on selling their newest thought. The bigger problem is that the thought that is being sold has many times no relevance to the people that actually belong to the culture that will be using the product or thought. The answer is in the user. The user who is apart of the culture. The culture that is apart of the product. The product that is apart of the user's daily life. The daily life that we as a culture all live in. By understanding, not just defining the user, we will begin to understand the culture. And by understanding the culture, not just defining the culture, we will begin to understand the product that is needed. And by understanding how the product relates to every user in the culture, we begin to realize how to better our daily lives. To not include culture in every design problem is problematic to say the least.
    VInce Schell
    02.08.05 at 05:53

    Substance trumps style. Every time.
    james beam
    08.23.05 at 10:35

    And yet, it's not Art.
    PJ Brunet
    08.25.05 at 01:35


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    William Drenttel is a designer and publisher, and editorial director of Design Observer. He is a partner at Winterhouse, a design consultancy focused on social change, online media and educational institutions, and a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management.
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    Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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    DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









    BOOKS BY William Drenttel

    Looking Closer 5
    Allworth Press, 2006

    Looking Closer 4
    Allworth Press, 2002

    Looking Closer 2
    Allworth Press, 1997

    Looking Closer 1
    Allworth Press, 1994

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