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.



Book reviews — Introducing a new category on the blog

January 1, 2011, 10:27 PM

This post opens the new year with a new category on the blog, Book Reviews. As an incurable book-addict (thanks mum!), I’ve always had problems deciding what to buy first (good design & typography books are rarely cheap, especially for a student). Few websites are of real help, the best being YouWorkForThem (Amazon’s «Look Inside» feature usually being just a nuisance) — others being Jason Santa Maria’s Rec. Reading (very short on details) or Design Observer’s list (short info and far too many). There are dozens of books on typography or grid design, for instance, but few offer a helpful & thorough take on the subject — or bring anything new at all — so we’re usually left asking: which one?

Hopefully, I’ll make things a bit easier. Here are a few points that I’ll try to touch:

  1. show inside photos of the book, as they’re usually the best way to get the feeling & usefulness of the book (plus, let’s face it, we–designers first look at the pictures, no matter how type-obsessed we are);
  2. give a more personal, designer’s review of the book, explaining why it is good (or where it lacks) and what’s to learn from it (rather than just state what it’s about);
  3. compare it to similar books or give further reading recommendations (some are ok for beginners, some require previous readings or knowledge);
  4. keep it short enough — I wouldn’t want to spoil your reading pleasure — “The secret of being boring is to say everything,” according to Voltaire;
  5. quote some of the most memorable parts, the ones that should stay with you for quite some time (also reminders for myself and those that have read the book).
  6. colophon — besides the fact that many times we buy them just for their looks, you can learn a lot not just by reading a book, but also by looking at how it’s made (what typefaces it uses, what kind of grid and so on).

I’ll be reviewing one or two books per month, maybe more, if time permits (images-mostly books are easier, of course, but I try to avoid them, as there’s usually little to learn from them). Unless I buy or get something new that I find extremely interesting, all the books will be from my shelf (if you want one reviewed faster or just a short opinion, feel free to write me). Any comments, ideas or further details are more than welcome, as always.

Thank you for reading, the first review will follow shortly and it’s about one of the greats, Paul Rand — stay tuned.