Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

Hustling the greats — cheap bravado or a genuine “naked emperor” shout?

January 28, 2011, 12:41 PM

While reading Adrian Shaughnessy’s interesting review of Kenneth FitzGerald’s Volume: Writing on Graphic Design, Music, Art and Culture book (on the Design Observer), a paragraph caught my attention especially:

It’s not only his students FitzGerald wants to refrain from gazing admiringly at the great and the good of the design world. His own combative approach to criticism means that he doesn’t shy away from roughing up representatives of design’s elite: Alan Fletcher (“The Art of Looking Sideways … a formless data-dump of quotations, aphorisms, diagrams, reproductions, commentaries, and folderol”); John Maeda (“sterile, programmed ornamentation”); Paul Rand (… students will become even more marginalized and disenchanted with their work and status if they attempt to define themselves by Rand’s fallacies); and Stefan Sagmeister (“Made you Look … a fatiguing compendium of almost every optical, production, and advertising-creative artifice devised since Gutenberg”).

I don’t think I need to tell you that this is the design’s equivalent of whistling bare-assed inside the church on a Sunday morning. Does Mr FitzGerald really mean that? Or is he just saying it to shock and draw attention? What should we believe in then, if role models or mentors are over-rated? It’s easy to say “do your own thing”, but so few of us can actually do that.

It has always been one of the best ways to get fast on top (either in gang fights or in public opinion): pick someone bigger than you — hell, pick the biggest of them all — and make him bite the dust. Should you succeed, you’re the man (until another does it to you, of course). Should you loose, do it in style and at least you’ve made the news — more or less.

It seems these days that almost everybody worships individualism. You can see it in almost everything — large businesses are slowly fragmenting, everybody tries to be a “freelancer”, everybody wants to be their own boss — an understandable thing, after all, who likes to take orders all day?. Marriages are shorter and shorter, single parentage slowly gains ground and becomes the “normal” way of growing up a kid. It’s all fine-tuning as the ultimate self-centred society. A planet of “every man for himself only”. Well, to be more precise, a “western” civilisation of loners. And these days — go figure — most of them (us) seem so bewitched by iStuff.

Well, if Mr FitzGerald wanted attention, he’s surely got it. And maybe that’s a good thing. Shouting out that “the emperor is naked” might prove a lie, but it did make you look thoroughly, didn’t it? I still think that apprenticeship as a way of learning was one of the good things we lost during the last fifty years. Having role-models can be very useful, but only as long as we never forget that role-models are meant to be surpassed.

As post scriptum, the cover of the book looks rather nice:

And while we’re at it, here’s another quote from Mr FitzGerald’s book:

It is a delusion that the activity of fine artists is divorced from commercial considerations. It isn’t even a matter of degree. All that separates art and design is the kind of marketplace one chooses to operate in.

Now that’s something with which I totally agree.

Further reading & links:
• Adrian Shaughnessy’s review of the book on the Design Observer;
• Kenneth FitzGerald’s blog post about his book.

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Comments:

Hi Iancul,
Thanks for the comments. Nothing delights me more than people reading what I’ve written—and disputing it. However, I’m here to take you to task on a few things. First, have you read the entirety of the essay where Adrian Shaughnessey took those quotes? There are many words around those excerpts that flesh out my opinions. I don’t just fling out scornful one-liners: I like to think I build cases—that you still may take issue with. Unfortunately, you’ve made a strawman out of me by attributing to me opinions I don’t hold and statements I didn’t make. Nowhere do I write “do your own thing” nor in my entire book, I would claim, do I celebrate “individualism” in the sense you mean. You’re also engaged in what I call the “Either/or Fallacy”: because I critique someone you value for specific reasons, you automatically assume there is only one contrary position. I believe the situation is far more nuanced and complex than assumed. And as far as this “getting to the top”—I wish! If you think that having a book puts me anywhere within light-years of a taste-maker like Steve Heller, can I talk with you about some real estate? Lastly, that is a nice cover, isn’t it? I can say that as I had nothing to do with it, except supply the stuff making up the words.

Bests,
Kenneth

Hello Mr FitzGerald,
it’s always a real pleasure when I write about various subjects and I get responses directly from the ones directly connected.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to read your work, I just found out about it from Mr Shaughnessy’s review. This is why my post contains personal thoughts starting from the quotes taken from your book. It is not a book review in itself, just a side-note maybe. I do have a “Book reviews” section on this website, but this post is only filed in the “Thoughts” and “Books” categories. So, don’t worry, far from me the thought of putting different words in anybody’s mouth.

I’m rarely an “Either/or” kind of person. I keep telling myself that most things are different shades of grey — nothing is ever pure black or white. Also, I think that my closing paragraph quite clearly states that, in my opinion, any kind of model should be challenged, not followed.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment. You might find some other interesting bits around this website, and I can asure you, they’re not very “either/or” :)

Best regards,
Iancu

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