“. . . between an architect and a tailor.”
Before saying anything about our profession, I sincerely thank, first, our host Design Society and its industrious and patient team. Thank Shenzhen Design Week to include our exhibition in its satelite program. Also our sponsor the Macau Shenzhen Economic and Cultural Promotion Association. And especially my respected colleague and good friend, He Jianping, for his conception and masterful execution of this exhibition. It’s his project and I’m deeply grateful to him for this honor. Hsie hsie.
In college I was initially undecided between majoring in Painting or Literature and decided that it was much easier to draw one picture than to write a thousand words.
At Hunter College in those days some of the cream of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters were our teachers. But except for one class in printmaking and for reasons not understood at the time, I felt uncomfortable with painting. In my senior year, the printmaking teacher was assigned to discuss post graduation directions with me. We agreed that I had no future as a painter so he asked me what I had enjoyed doing at college.
I told him it was the extra-mural activities, like art editing the college newspaper, magazine and yearbook, creating posters, etc.
My mentor said: “You know, I also teach printmaking at Yale in a new department of the Art School. Why don’t you come up and study Graphic Design?”
I replied: “Sure, what’s Graphic Design?” You see, at that time the only term I recognized was commercial art.
What had been a craft, albeit one that traced its lineage back to Gutenberg and even further back to inscriptions on Trajan’s column in the Roman Forum was, by the 1950s, morphing into a sort of profession. But, is graphic design really a profession? I’d like to explore this question with you.
To me, a real profession is one where you have to have a license or other formal recognition because malpractice could have serious consequences. It is said that while a doctor’s mistakes are buried, those of a lawyer are left hanging from the gallows for all to see.
Incompetent graphic design may keep the shredding machine busy, might get you lost in a strange city, or send you to the wrong gender toilet. But nobody suffers physical damage.
Incidentally, there is some confusion about the distinction between design as art or craft which was defined by Alan Fletcher (a classmate at Yale) as follows: “A designer tries to solve his client’s problems. An artist tries to solve his own problems.” We’re designers, not artists. Like most of us, I prefer to receive assignments, not to make them up. This explains my discomfort with painting, mentioned earlier. I have no message to offer the world. But I love to solve communication problems for others.
I should point out that this idea of Art as something higher, and dreamed up by inspired individuals following their passion, has only been around for the last 150 years or so. Before that artists worked to order. They were hired to do portraits, landscapes, murals and religious works. Like a taxi, they didn’t start moving until the meter was on.
One of the few criticisms made of Paul Rand was that he didn’t look for clients but rather for patrons. The implication was that like many of the designers in the 30’s and 40’s he had his own personal design style.
The big shift in 50’s design was away from a consistent painterly ‘style’. Designers formed in that period prided themselves on not being recognizable, not repeating themselves. Their satisfaction came from analyzing a client’s specific communication problem and coming up with a solution not resembling anything they’d created previously.
Can you picture a doctor who prescribes two aspirins a day to every patient he sees no matter what the complaint? You get the analogy of a designer who pushes some variant of his style on every client.
The joy of design, for me, is in new challenges, and surprises. Ideally a design solution reflects the client’s personality, not mine.
Our clients tend not to be thrilled by shapes and colors. We must express to them the reasoning behind a design solution in the form of a story, which explains the concept underlying our design proposal.
Sometimes, and this should be our little secret - we might even make up the story after having created the design. Now, this is not actually dishonest. Many creative workers find out their true purpose after the fact. I’m sure you’ve had hints of how your subconscious can be working away even when you’re not.
Another virtue of telling a story behind the design is that it gives the client something simple to explain to their board, or wife.
There is another little secret. Most of our best ideas … come from the client. There should be no shame or guilt attached to this revelation.
Like a management consultant or a psychoanalyst, we most probe deeply and listen attentively to our clients. It is from delving sensitively into our client’s story that we might uncover the idiosyncratic, the quirky, the fresh ideas they themselves didn’t appreciate they already had.
So, as a profession, design is a modest one; useful but not terribly prestigious. Somewhere between that of architect and a tailor.