Note: Originally written on July 14th and sat on for awhile.
The screengrab above shows a poster I was working on today. This stage of the design was probably about 2 hours into it and I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. So I took a break to hang out with my daughter and chase her around the yard with a garden hose. The whole time I was preoccupied with whether the lay-out, typography, colors were right and if someone would actually pay for it. I tried to forget about it though by turning the hose on higher and make it rain on my kid. Later while she played in her pool, I read an interview with The Rapture and it reminded me of these fantastic DFA/Rapture/Black Dice posters designed by Andrew Kuo that I had seen at Space 1026 a decade ago. Still immersed in my own insecurity, I thought “Maybe I should try to do something like those…”. I held that idea for about 30 seconds and then realized I was being an insecure dumb-ass. The intrigue those posters held for me was in large part due to they’re not being (or barely being) communications design, so much as Andrew Kuo’s art with some lettering integrated in it (which is why they’re great, and why it makes no sense for me to adopt them as inspiration). For me to reference the colors, graphics or composition would only serve to make me feel like I had made something “cool” and not that I had made a point.
And this is my problem with most graphic designers. They would have been OK with randomly adopting the style of someone else for no reason whatsoever.
They think that introducing a visual element or a style needs only a justification of “I’m just trying to do something interesting” and there’s no connection to the subject or content except for maybe some post-rationalizing bullshit to make it seem like there’s some intellectual rigor to the work.
When I look at where I left this poster I realize that I was betraying my intent—to find the most direct visual expression for the text—by “just trying to make it interesting”. The larger decisions about color (which is the most dramatic element right now) were not based in using color to highlight or structure information but were driven by thoughts about how I could use more than two colors on a blue sheet of paper. This, because I felt I was doing too many “boring” posters that were only two colors on white paper. Certainly I should challenge myself but this isn’t an exercise in color usage, its an attempt to communicate a written idea and as such, everything should flow from the typography. Every element should serve that text.
I haven’t gone back to it yet, but I suspect when I re-work the design it will look more “MVA” (austere, simple, elegant) and less “interesting” and my conviction about it will be stronger because you will get to the idea faster and accept it or discard it but not be distracted by shapes or patterns or images that are there solely to get your attention. As much as I appreciate “eye candy”-heavy design (and I do appreciate some of it) I don’t want to make things that people own because they are beautiful. No one who isn’t a skateboarder (or doesn’t get the joke, at least) should own this print when its finished. And any skateboarder who needs for it to look “skateboarding” (whatever that is) or “cool” in order to hang it isn’t the audience I’m after. I want someone to buy it because the idea resonates with them so much that they look right through the design. The problem I have with eye candy is that content becomes a means to an end. Its something that has to be there in order for what is essentially a digital collage to become something designed. I want design to be a means to an end. I can’t entirely avoid style but I can make sure that the styles I use are extensions of the content.
Over the last few years I’ve consciously tried to avoid looking at too much contemporary design because I just hate most of it. I think its shallow and without rigor. But looking at what’s popular is helpful as a gut check to make sure I’m on the right track. When I take a look around and realize I’m using the same vocabulary and processes as the people whose work I can’t stomach it gives me that pause that I need to get my head right and get back on the straight and narrow.
So, right now, this poster is at bullshit phase. But happily that’s in the past and I didn’t lose too much time on a dead end of “interesting.” Its strange, this happens more than I’d like it to—forgetting why I make work the way I do and having to jump back to square one to ask the real question “What am I trying to say?”. But, its fine in the end because I end up making the work that I believe I’m meant to make.