Thoughts on the nature and lifespan of styles in graphic design.

18.October 2012

We can’t get ourselves back to the garden.

Notes on what style means, and how an aesthetic doesn’t necessarily connote a movement

I choose fonts for a living. And because I’m a straight player, I buy fonts rather than boost them, and as a result receive newsletters once a month from various foundries and other sources of type. And yesterday, I got one from FontShop, who are both an excellent foundry and a respectable syndicate for other foundries.

At any rate, this particular issue included a bit about “Hipster Type and Lettering”, which was illustrated with an image of a lovely mid-20th-century neon sign and contained this paragraph:

When in 1952 The Dahl-Beck Electric Company folks needed a sign for their new location, they didn’t approach a graphic design firm. They went to a sign shop. When they needed letterhead or business cards printed, they went to a printer. Did the marks match? No. Was that a problem? Good question. Practitioners of hipster design would argue no. When a company’s design consistency is a lesser priority, that means other things take higher priority, like showing up to the job site on time, performing reliable service, creating a great product, etc. There was likely little discussion of “visual concept” with any of these pieces. The execution was the concept.

Fontshop’s newsletter isn’t a critical publication. This post, written by FontShop’s David Sudweeks, was meant to shill for a range of typefaces that “practitioners of hipster design” might enjoy. It’s advertising. I get that. But there were a couple areas here that bugged me.

The first is a rather large presumption about a school of “hipster design” positing that a company is better off if it places a lower priority on brand. Certainly, companies waste much time on brand tactics1 nowadays: it’s much easier for a corporation to change its logo than change itself, and I have fielded too many calls from client staff asking me “to teach them a little InDesign” so they can “jazz up a press release” or complain that they can’t get the logo to print right out of Microsoft Word2. But I don’t buy that having a consistent visual brand means you forfeit the attention to perform reliable service or show up on time.

Secondly, I won’t deny that however much I may dislike the term, there is now a style of graphic design that a layperson would describe as “hipster”. I hasten to add that I do not consider “style” to be perjorative. Some very solid designers – Williamsburg’s Dan Cassaro, San Francisco-by-way-of-Williamsburg’s Jessica Hische, Portland-by-way-of-Seger-Country’s Aaron Draplin, and others – have drunk deep at the wellspring of mid-century American vernacular and have done some very good and necessary things.

To wit: Mr. Cassaro and Ms. Hische, among others, have done much to resuscitate the craft of hand-lettering3, which had been comatose in this country from, say, the advent of the Typositor (and I’ll let you look that up; I actually spec’d jobs on the Typositor once upon a time); Mr. Draplin has helped us look afresh at the artifacts of the mid-1970s, when the International Style renounced its charcoal-gray suit, donned wide lapels and a lobster-bib tie, and threw its keys into the bowl.

And much of their inspiration comes from the works of humans, anonymous or not, who practiced their craft long before there was such a phenomenon as an MFA in graphic design. The trade has always used nostalgia as a tool (viz. Michael Doret, Charles Spencer Anderson, et al.) but what strikes me about the work of these younger folks is that the work isn’t really nostalgic. They are too young to have seen Happy Days or The Waltons in their initial runs4. They seem to be motivated not by broader cultural cues that may or may not be implicit in the work, but rather in a simple admiration of craft: that techniques that were valid sixty years ago are still valid today. Good craft is good craft.

And they’re right. But there is a fundamental difference between Ms. Hische, Messrs Cassaro and Draplin, and the craftsmen working in a sign shop in Flatbush in 1952, and here it is: context. The Flatbush signmakers were filling an order, and since the phrase “visual concept” probably hadn’t made it across the East River at that point, their execution, as Mr. Sudweeks points out, was the concept.

But you can’t go back to the garden. Although we may wish we lived in a time when nobody except the elect knew the word “font”, it’s not going to happen. Designers today have to work within the context of brand. We don’t have a choice, because we’ve been absorbing hundreds of advertising messages a day since we were in utero. The grammar of advertising might not be hard-wired into us like language, but it’s damned close. When a designer like, say, Mr. Draplin makes something, he is fulfilling his role in a very old dance:

  1. A client has chosen him because it responds to his work;
  2. He makes something that he feels responds to the client’s problem, using the full breadth of his personal and professional experience;
  3. The result is released into the wild, where it is noted by others who respond to Mr. Draplin’s work, and/or to the same aesthetic cues that influence him.

There is nothing naïve about this. All parties know exactly what they are doing (to the extent that is possible in something so subjective). And the same process could be applied, without changing a word, to the blandest corporate one-sheet; or, in fact, to the Dahl-Beck Electricians sign mentioned in the FontShop post. While there may have been “little discussion of ‘visual concept’” before that sign was installed, there surely was when Mr. Draplin presented his ideas. The difference is that sixty years of advertising craft, good and bad, have accumulated since then.

Mr. Draplin, Ms. Hische, and Mr. Cassaro know this. What they and other smart designers are doing is perceiving an emotional need within their clients’ publics, and providing an appropriate response to that need.5

In this context, that need might be expressed as the same motivation that spawns a restaurant centered wholly around a wood-fired oven, food carts, or the desire to execute a small thing like a chalkboard sign really well. It is an assertion of idiosyncrasy and personalization of experience in a long period of corporate opacity: what Wendell Berry calls “thinking locally”.

This is what designers have always done. When I was younger, I helped pour the slick pool of corporatism that these gentle people are – thank the Maker – rejecting. Over the next twenty years, society’s needs will change again, and so will its artifacts, and today’s “practitioners of hipster design” – the good ones, anyway – will be doing something else.

  1. Strategy is a different animal altogether, and most companies pay as little attention to this as they can get away with, because it’s not as fun.
  2. Sometimes, this is due to the client not being provided the right toolkit. A full system of templated business forms is expensive, but important. Businesses want to be consistent, but they don’t always want to pay for it. A subject for a future sermonette, perhaps.
  3. Credit must be given to John Downer, who, apart from drawing very interesting all-weather typefaces throughout the 1990s, was also quietly laying the foundation for hand-lettering’s return.
  4. Happy Days aired in 1974 and was set in the first Eisenhower administration, which had only been over for 13 years at that point. I was a kid in 1974, watched Happy Days, and the mid-fifties seemed as remote to me as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I wonder if, for people of my parents’ age, the experience would be similar to me, today, watching a sitcom set during the first administration of George W. Bush?
  5. This extends even to a timeworn professional practice known as "doing something for the hell of it".