The Unchanging Faces of Design

MattTheory2 Comments

Who will replace the aging figureheads of graphic design?

Type “Graphic Designer” into Google and you’ll get an array of pictures that probably look something like this:


These are the individuals that we search for when we want to know about graphic designers. But what do most of them have in common? Well for starters they’re all white, male, the majority of them are dead (or black and white!), and—there’s nothing to say there’s anything wrong with it (or any of these things)—but most of them are getting on a bit if they’re not dead already. These are the contemporary kings of Graphic Design we admire, learn from and iconise. I liken them to old master painters. But why is this?

Old-school designers, as I categorise as the above, may have an element of pride about them, an ego-centric motive that transforms them into a figurehead. Take, for example, Stefan Sagmeister (bottom – 4th image in) preaches his personal design philosophy. His commandments in the form of mottos (Things I have learned in my life so far) attract ‘followers’ to his religion. On the other hand, perhaps developing a style may allow the consumer/student to identify with a designer’s methodology, and thus iconise the designer to a position outside design, edging on art and aesthetics. I can argue that the reason we may have no clear young design icons is because there simply aren’t any. There may be many reasons for this, one is that in the current economy, specialising or developing a style is deemed as unhealthy in the design world, and should be left to illustrators. This makes sense, seeing that we have learnt that designing for different target audiences should be approached with different methodologies and styles Massimo Vignelli (bottom – 2nd image in) is a prime example of a designer which can be seen as fundamentally wrong in today’s standards; that a designer can just use one typeface—Helvetica.

Another idea is that designers are instead prone to emulation, or perhaps an openness and flexibility. Emulation being copying the style or idea from an existing design or concept and applying it to their problem solving. In an age shaped by the internet—from anything from politics to fashion, lifestyle, and even language—arguably we have a problem with progressing with culture because of this. As Will Self stated in his BBC article “Should the baby boomers leave the stage?”:

“But I invite you to consider this – were the demographics of our population still the same as they were in the 1960s, when the majority were young, that pace would have been a great deal faster. To take perhaps the most culturally, socially, economically and psychologically radical transformation – the shift from print and film-based broadcast media to bi-directional digital ones – this has been incepted and largely managed not by the young but by the old.”

Where design is concerned I believe, beyond reasonable doubt, that we are stuck in a postmodern loop of which we are constantly looking up towards the baby boomer population for reassurance, instead of carving a new rebellious path or culture, Hipsterism has become the norm, where creating something that emulates the old, alienates and undermines progress with originality.   It could be argued we live in a time where either I suggest some (fairly abstract) reasons to the cause of this, of which there could be a combination of each:

  1. The fragmentation of culture gives us no set target on what we should focus our energy on, leaving us plugging metaphorical holes in a sinking ship.
  2. The internet has disconnected us from acting upon real social issues/crisis. We may be closer to one another information-wise, but then again further apart than ever when it comes to real-world issues.
  3. There are not radical enough changes to events for us to notice or act upon them, and instead we focus in on sensationalism.

However, this idea may have always been present in culture, we progress through emulation, whether it is apparent or not, we still consume whether it is right or not. In part of my university thesis, titled “Anything Goes?*”, I covered covered these very issues, I argued that although what was happening was no different than before, a rift has formed due to the loss the of emotion and meaning in graphic design, we favour something seemingly clever, useful and pleasing, but ultimately empty and devoid of meaning; causing us to follow false signifiers. It could be argued that this is the basis for consumerism.

Although we are stuck in a cultural catch-22, I think the profession of design has progressed—via a democratic evolution, through the internet—to becoming a practice that anyone can be a part of.  There are millions of internet tutorials, forums, and thousands of books. There is more ethnic and gender diversity on Graphic Design in my year at university than previous years, more female than male. And yet we still choose to look up at these dusty old or dead designers with a longing as if we know design process will never be as romanticised, individual, and applied in the way it was before the internet; but then again this could just be a false nostalgic reaction to an idea to that of a more exclusive time. But wouldn’t it be great if when I next type “Graphic Designer” into Google, we will instead see a set of colour photographs of fresh faced, living, practicing Designers gazing back, it is only then we will know there is progress.

MattThe Unchanging Faces of Design
  • Sean Clark

    I think designers will still have a profession, it’s like photographers, they still have the artistic creativity to have it as a career.

    • Matt Grey

      I Agree there, I think there has been a step up in looking not just for great visuals, but great ideas as well