Overfilled with emptiness
Overfilled with emptiness
At the recent Typo Berlin '96 conference, Neville Brody described the current state of Web design as being largely devoid of content. Coining dubious terms such as 'post-design' and 'post-information', he portrayed the Internet as a space where the HTML-literate are displaying experimental graphics: client-free, brief-free, without quality-control, purpose or an audience beyond fellow designers.
This is a misleading generalisation. There is a vast amount of useful, socially-oriented content, though most of it appears untouched by graphic designers - and is often clearer because of it. Commercial sites debut at a rapid rate as companies, fearful of missing the Internet bandwagon, translate printed matter to the screen. In the rush, texts are often unplanned and undesigned - or at least not re-planned or re-designed for the new medium. At the moment, there appears to be an enormous amount of undesigned information, and a great number of designers with not enough work and too much time. The two have yet to resolve each other, though the formation of studios dealing exclusively with design for the Web looks set to rectify this.
the 'designer Web pages' identified
by Brody are merely reflecting an
self-referential graphic design scene
The current phase of Web sites reproducing the organisation and style of printed matter was outlined at Berlin by Matthew Butterick. His now-familiar idea of media in transition suggests the period of copying a precedent is a natural stage found in all past media revolutions. This description has tended to refer to Web pages that reproduce the essential linearity of book design, whilst cautiously realising the potential of non-linear hypertext. It also suggests a more general trend: that the 'designer Web pages' identified by Brody are merely reflecting an increasingly inward-looking, self-referential graphic design scene, and can only compound the problem.
London's design bookshops are full of large hardback volumes of new-wave / deconstructed / post-modern graphics from an international roster of designers. They appear in the form of 'awards', 'yearbooks' or 'best-of' collections, with an effect significant and widespread enough to be viewed as a distinct genre. Such books appear to have supplanted the traditional designer's handbook. Of course, collections of work have been around since graphic design became a recognised profession, but particularly since the first Typography Now title was published in Britain a few years ago, the publication and importation of these books has soared.
Surely too expensive for students,
it appears that more and more
design studios are filling
their shelves with these volumes
Given the abundance and expense of these books, they must be selling, so who is buying them? Surely too expensive for students, it appears that more and more design studios are filling their shelves with these volumes. Judging by the prevailing vogue for an increasingly-diluted graphic form, still heavily derived from Mac-based distortion, they are used as instant reference resources for a quick piece of zeitgeist-design: fast-food graphics.
The new-wave forms are inevitably processed; sanitised from supposedly radical roots, until they become as uninspiring and formulated as the tired work in Phaidon's recent 'A Smile in the Mind' (from what could be considered the opposite end of the graphic scale). Both are unjustly revered. The generic new-wave copybook consists of miniature reproductions of posters, or poster-like books and magazines, plus the eternally designer-friendly record sleeves. Generally they appear without enlightening descriptions of context, client, cost or audience - the basic information necessary to bring any given design into the real world, to provide a basis for analysis, judgement, and, most importantly, criticism. Without it, the work is just wallpaper. Worse yet, in the latest Typography Now 2 there are reproductions of student project work - items that never had serious workable constraints in the first place. You can't help feeling that work may be undertaken primarily to get into one of these books; a kind of instant empty fame, from art-school colour-rip to coffee-table gloss. The ever-increasing numbers of these books reveals only how many people want them. Feeding off itself, surely this genre is not in a healthy state. Perhaps there's nowhere else for it to go.
There is a widely accepted argument that plagiarising previous design is a useful part of the learning process. Obvious enough, perhaps, but this is copyism at its basest level - reproducing surface form and little else. If design is problem-solving - thinking - then the proliferation of these books can only be anti-design, justified by the spurious claims of personal expression, blurring of art/design boundaries, competing with an increasingly multimedia-oriented society etc. The arguments are familiar by now, but none are convincing.
Where are the critical books with analytical text that would allow some real insight? These books and their Internet counterparts only mirror '90s society clichés: fragmentation, tribalism, codes, information-saturation, infotainment, cheap/quick thrills, the short attention span, obsession with pastiche, retro-decades from the '50s onwards, or equally self-conscious techno imagery as our current representative. The trouble is, too many designers are happy enough reflecting the time, when they have the privilege and influence to change it; to enhance it; to make it better.
Stuart Bailey, is a typographic designer working out of Singapore. His review of Typo Berlin 96 appeared in Eye 23.