Yes. It’s shit. Dogshit, if you will. But it’s more distressing than the usual dogshit because it, to me, is a harbinger of a burgeoning movement that could possibly eradicate notions of any non-dogshit design from the design conversation entirely.
What’s the concept? It’s possibly a result of academic notions of post-structuralism, deconstructionism, and semiotics*. Possibly it’s a winking (and, to my mind, snide) appropriation of unschooled design (it’s also a failure at that, since it looks like nothing more than a Yale MFA attempting raw design). Possibly it’s a publicity stunt mocking/copying the fallout from the Gap.
So, to recap, at best, it is:
- High Concept
- A Crappy Joke
- A Crappy Stunt
What it is not:
This post is not about it being a shitty logo, or shittily executed. It’s obviously both of those, and I think that’s the intent**. It’s about, in some sense, the future of design. I mentioned Yale on purpose, not just they’ve got their heads so far up their asses, aesthetically and conceptually, but because they’re such a prominent design program, that I think we’re seeing the fallout of the ass-headedness, starting with Urban Outfitters. That UO is a bad logo is kind of whatever; that it’s the first shot in a school of anti-design is more worrying.
(A side note on the snideness: theres something off-putting about a joke at the expense of “bad” designers that’s so inside that only a small clique would truly get it. This is maybe apropos for an indie band or fashion house, but it feels weirdly cruel and inappropriate for something like Urban Outfitters).
“There are too many [graphic designers], the [graphic design is] terrible, and it’s because you have been taught to have self-esteem.” – My Hero.
The Yale website is a case in point. There’s so much that’s so wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to begin. Bear in mind that this the public face of an MFA program that costs $50 grand a year. I think the primary problem is that it’s a wiki: anyone can edit it. Conceptually, that’s fine. It’s an idea. I get it. Practically, what you end up with is design-by-committee, which is never good. Good work comes from dedicated designers working with thoughtful decision-makers. When everyone has a voice (to protect their self-esteem and the idea of inclusion (versus the tyranny of ability or dedication)), you wind up with stuff that looks like this:
My problem is not necessarily with the idea. The idea could work for some clients, unschooled design can work, especially for fashion, where twee or obscure aesthetic choices can communicate subtler shit than a flyer for a used car auction. All of that is cool. And I also support school as a period of experimentation where you’re free from commercial pressures.
What’s disturbing to me is that, what if you wanted to learn how to actually design something? You go to Yale, you plunk down your dough, and you basically spend your time being encouraged to codify what you already think (not much – cats parachuting! How delightfully outré) into academic theory. Then your book is filled with ugly, stupid theory and nothing else. Because you never learned anything else.
More and more (and because of stuff like the above), I’m preferring to think of myself as a commercial artist. There are things, as a commercial artist, that I must do: speak in the client’s voice; maintain a level of professional craftsmanship; constantly improve; be self-critical. When I look at Yale’s homepage or their MFA shows† I don’t see design as I know it to be – as commercial art, as visual communication, as part of a tradition of craft. I see privilege combined with fear.
Privilege in that you’d have to be fully sponsored by your parents and therefore unconcerned with ever having to earn a living to believe that this kind of navel-gazing means something outside your Yale MFA class (and no, “green” doesn’t count††). It’s the kind of privilege that’s been so privileged, and so drenched in self-esteem, for so long that it has no idea that it’s even privileged. This may seem to be out of left field, but the kids organizing a giant pillow fight in NYC is much the same. Cute? Twee? Sure, fine. But we’re in the middle of two wars and a recession. Yet this is what we organize? This is what we communicate? Our own cuteness? Isn’t there something more substantial that we could put our minds and our efforts into? In short: Yale design is the flash mob pillow fight of graphic design.
And fear because it seems to me that these kids want to be conceptual or abstract fine artists but are afraid they can’t hack the art world. Yale MFA design seems to be a back door to that world. Which is fine as far as it goes. But it ain’t design.
And so we’ve got Urban Outfitters, as junky as a license plate, but rather than low-grade bureaucratic shit, it’s now got a conceptual imprimatur as the house style of an expensive elite institution of higher learning. We’re gaining shit design from both ends of the spectrum (high and low design), and we’re losing craft, ability, and beauty in the bargain. Welcome to shitsville, everybody.
* For a quick tour of all this junk, read some Roger Scruton. You’ll disagree with his conclusions but you’ll be enlightened by his alacrity.
** Conceptually, there’s something to that “screw the rules” idea; something to the idea of ugliness and subversion. But “I’m gonna compress the letters and apply a stupid Illustrator warp” doesn’t come up to the standard of knowing and obliterating the rules, mostly because the end result looks more like self-satisfaction than any kind of thought process.
† Take a look at these theses. I’m all for exploration, but I can’t tell what any of these projects are supposed to be without reading the explanations. Purposefully obtuse work is okay, but it just is not graphic design.
†† Green is the Medici of the new millennium – a quasi-religious aesthetic based on notions of purity and good and ideology rather than beauty (so sue me).
When I first saw the ad for Long John Silvers’s Buttered Lobster Bites™ my thought was that this had to’ve been a bright blue and yellow carton filled with the batter fried end result of some horrible technology that I didn’t even want to think about: some new method of lobster generation that involved petri dishes but not salt water; some new high pressure hose system to flush out previously discarded molecules of lobster flesh. I pictured PhD scientists working on laboratory “lobster” meat or the mechanics of shell flushing that would adhere to minimal food safety standards and meet internal pro forma for new product profit margin.
Which would be bad enough – though it’s my own twisted thought process, and, as it happens, inaccurate. Closer to the truth is that LJS lobbied the FDA to get langostinos classified as lobsters. Ah – there’s your profit margin. Below is the langostino (prawn) that the FDA says is now a lobster.
And here’s a little gem from the press release (and just think of the meetings and man-hours that went into writing that thing. I’m all for capitalism, but is this really the best use of our brains and energy? All this time and energy and money getting the FDA to change a definition; to do market research on how fake they can get the lobster and still have people buy it; even to write this horrible piece of shit press release). It gives me Wallace-ian fantods.
“Our customers tell us they crave the taste of lobster, but they don’t have $20 to spend – and an hour to waste – in order to get it,” said Don Gates, Director of Marketing for Long John Silver’s. “Now, with the introduction of our new Buttered Lobster Bites, customers can enjoy the taste of real langostino lobster at a fast food restaurant, served quickly and at a great price.”
I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure a lot of customers say a lot of things. What gets me, though, is, do you really want lobster if you simultaneously don’t want to “waste” an hour and spend $20 bucks? Isn’t that part of the whole lobster dining experience? That it’s a treat? When did everything become appropriate for all the time? It seems like something right out of a social satire from the last century – wanting everything, wanting it now, and settling for a simulacrum of the actual experience, as long as the lobbyists can wangle the word “lobster” onto the package without a lawsuit. This is everything I hate about “marketing.” We used to, I don’t know, make things. Or make them better. Our bright minds worked on solving problems. Now we seem to devote so much of our resources to fudging at the margins. I find it disorienting, I guess. I mean, maybe we’ve just got so much time and energy and money that it doesn’t matter? We’re out of diseases to cure, inequities to address? Oh. Wait.
Anyway. Here’s a photo I took of a Canadian McDonald’s (note the backpacker-ish maple leaf, to distinguish it from those louche American McDonald’ses). But at least the lobster here is (probably) local, and (probably) lobster (or the scavenged remains of what were once real lobsters). I don’t think I’ll ever want lobster from Micky D’s, but still.
Also, I’m a little late to the game – some decent blog posts on the how stupid LSJ thinks we must be to believe that real lobster can be had buttered and fried into little balls for 3 bucks a throw are here and here.
Design and subversion.
This is more half-baked than most, since it just started germinating like yesterday, so you may be following me down a road that just ends with no destination. You have been warned. But I’m wondering if it’s possible to be subversive with design work. Increasingly it seems like there are the worlds of journalism (such as it is), of satire, of protest, of scholarship, and of capitalism. Of course, capitalism has fostered some of those worlds and tainted others, but in the end, the only connective tissue seems to be the capitalism. And capitalism, for all of its wonders, is also a really effective means of imposing self-censorship on us all. We all gotta eat and that means money and that means not offending the money.
Of course I could create a (usually) unsubtle anti-war poster* but these things seem to be mostly exercises for the designer, created to be posted on the Internet, preaching to the masses (those masses, being made up primarily of designers, tend to reward this kind of thing). Or I could create a scathing anti-capitalist dissertation, but – and the academy seems to be as eager to distance itself from the commercialism of our society (for good and ill) as the economic powers are to have that distance – that is also more of the same choir preachage. I could write a play or make a YouTube video of a puppet show or just about anything else. But, if you take the many-worlds model above and then think of how much more fragmented are our methods of media consumption (personally tailored news feeds, eight bajillion channels of narrowcasted niche cable tv, etc.), you have to wonder how anyone can deploy a message that might reach those fragments and those worlds. Comedians, I guess, are pretty effective at it. And El Vez (seriously – you should all check out a show). But apart from them, the only really unified element of American society is consumer culture.
So I’m wondering if it would be at all possible to create something subversive that could piggyback on a commercial campaign. The closest I ever came was a brochure design for an anti-cellulite unguent for Jenny Craig, featuring a before and after picture where the before was a lemon (for the bumpy skin), the after was a tomato (for the smooth). Of course, neither image is a flattering one – you are a lemon if you exhibit the normal signs of aging; and you are a sex object (tomato) if you don’t. It was killed, but only because they didn’t want to pay for photography. Nobody got the joke (granted, it’s not a great joke).
Here is where I’m supposed to wrap this up into some kind of insight or resolution but I don’t have one yet. Maybe I’ll get back to it, maybe not. Hurray for free Internet electrons!
Clarification: This is sort of what I’m talking about, maybe. A CEO for a book company is talking about how to sell books, and his presentation (which was good, overall) relates retail trends to recessions. He calls these new retail elements “revolutions.” What bothers me is not his industry-specific evangelism.
It’s that the only revolutions we have are limited to retail business. There isn’t an art revolution (it’s too dependent on the art market), or music revolutions (ditto) or groundbreaking television or movies. It’s like selling shit has become this enormous smothering blanket and I suppose it’s just boring me to death right now. Creating something to sell is boring, and creating something in opposition to selling it on principle is boring. I want something in between. I want something ugly and amazing. I want the opposite of the iPhone. Unfortunately, genius, as ever, is in short supply, and I think that’s what it’ll take.
*I know Guernica is a painting, but really, it’s nothing more subtle than a political cartoon. I mean, really, how much of a genius does it take to create a painting, the meaning of which is: war=bad.
Perhaps I spoke too soon. Perhaps I was just in a mood. But it could be that Grand Theft Auto IV is what I was talking about. There’s a nice review here, and beyond how intriguing the game is, I’m heartened that it’s being taken seriously by a reviewer. I feel slightly less bleak. So, hoo-ray!
Football is everything that’s wrong with America.
Okay, sure, our economy is currently choking out its death rattle, we’ve got homegrown terrorists, and don’t forget the dime store culture of our mass media. But other than that, football is everything else that’s wrong with America.
This isn’t about whether it’s a fun sport to watch, or better or worse than other sports*. It’s that, looked at objectively, football has got to be the worst allocation of educational resources imaginable. Football is virtually the only activity that you simply cannot enjoy after college. Think about it – painting, music, baseball or softball, tennis, bicycling, rowing, reading, swimming – these are all things that you can continue to pursue into your dotage. But football ends usually sometime before youth itself.
Then there are the injuries and deaths. I find this astounding – we live in a society that bans peanuts on what is, objectively, some pretty thin evidence of potential harm.** But at the same time you’ve got children dying from football (weirdly, in looking for a link to football deaths, you find that they slice them up into “heat-related,” “dietary supplement-related,” and “spinal cord” as if it makes any damn difference – they all have to do with the culture, expectations, and design of the game of football) but we just don’t seem to care as much, basically because it’s football. You’ll take our game when you pry it from the cold dead fingers of my neighbor’s child. Literally.
Of course, the only argument in favor of football is that it makes money for schools. There are two things that are infuriating about this argument to me. One is that, let’s face it, it really only makes money for the football program, which is only nominally a school function. The second and more important is that the purpose of school programs is to educate children, not turn a profit. The subtext of the money argument is that art programs and band and like social studies are drags on the system since all they do is educate and don’t make any money.
- It isn’t and it’s worse, by the way, but that’s, like I said, not the point.
- * Here’s a quote about peanut allergies from Salon:
The claim that 150 to 200 people die each year from anaphylaxis (one kind of peanut allergy reaction) is grossly exaggerated. In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control cited just 14 deaths due to anaphylaxis. The only known registry of deaths from anaphylaxis noted 33 deaths between 1994 and 1999. Remember, all of these estimates refer to the total number of people who had an anaphylactic reaction for any reason, not just from peanuts or other foods.
Facts ought to be stubborn. In the past, Munoz-Furlong has stated that one child dying from an allergic reaction is too many. But Harvard doctor Christakis, again, puts things into perspective. “There are no doubt thousands of parents who rid their cupboards of peanut butter but not of guns,” he writes, comparing the alleged 150 children and adults who died from peanut allergies to the 1,300 who die from gun accidents each year. He goes on to note that 2,000 kids drown each year. Indeed, the most common cause of death in kids is accidents. “More children assuredly die walking or being driven to school each year than die from nut allergies,” Christakis writes.
Not much of a rant, but it’s kind of amazing how blank your mind can get from overwork. You get into this mode of just working, always moving on to the next thing, getting stuff done. Which is, in its way great – one of the things I like about being a designer – evidence of your work having gotten done. But I’m all work all the time lately, thus the suffering of the blog (weep for the empty blogs. Weep and pray).
Anyway, the scans will start again tomorrow. As for today, I don’t have much of a rant. But you can make your own – just read this article and a rant will come to you, I’m sure.
What else – more Fairey shit. Hopefully this’ll be the last I’ll say about it. I have the attention span of Tom Arnold after nine speedballs and a six pack of Jolt, so I’m already tired of thinking about it.
So anyway, he’s suing now. Good strategy, if irritating. I just hope he doesn’t win. And I think it goes beyond whether adding “Hope” makes it something other than the photo. It’s that he did it for money and we’re supposed to pretend otherwise.
“Appropriation” or not, valid or not, why not just pay the photographer?* Plus, isn’t it a tiny bit absurd that Fairey’s claiming the photographer has no right to be paid, when he himself is most certainly paid? And, seriously, that stuff about him being a street artist is a bit tough to take when you look at his client list.
I wonder how far his defense will take us. Buy some shirts and let’s find out.
*I understand the Creative Commons argument, but a nagging part of me wonders how the (reductive) “information wants to be free” argument can be implemented in real life. I have a difficult time envisioning a world where creatives–and other generators of information–aren’t paid, because you have to eat to continue the making of the stuff.
Branding without Branding
Not really a rant, but it’s Tuesday, so we’re stuck. But anyway. When our nephew was out and we were doing car stuff, we cruised by Western Exterminator so he could see the Little Man sculptures on their trucks. They ended up being the nicest exterminators you’d ever want to meet, and very proud of the Little Man (note the spring attached to the hammerhead so it’s animated when the trucks drive). Which got me to thinking about logos and (hobbyhorse, I know) marketing.
The Little Man is more than a logo – he’s kind of an institution in Los Angeles. He’s not just known, but loved. And I also think he’s emblematic of the company. Of course it wouldn’t be as successful as it is if the company was terrible, but I also think the reverse is true. Somebody at the top is bright enough to embrace a really great mascot logo and not update or eliminate it. Northwest Airlines criminally changed their logo and shortly afterward, they died merged. Washington Mutual became WaMu and died. I think it’s in part because the company leadership didn’t understand their companies, or at least speaks of a kind of administrative chaos. But I’m digressing.
What got me about WE was the preponderance of other logos that were created before there was branding or marketing as we know it today. Coca-Cola, Ford, Lucky Strikes, even Nike. They were just drawn by really good designers (or in the case of WE, Yellowpages ad artists (or Ford’s accountant)). These logos escaped groupthink by being the product of an artist and a decision-maker. I think that’s the key. Any time you’ve got a committee made up of people who do nothing and have essentially no power, but who simply block the door between the creative and the executive, you get washed out crap like NWA.
The Little Man is a strong reminder of what can be done when the process makes sense. The question I have is why isn’t it like this more often? And how did marketers get in there?
Life in the Shipping Container Age:
I’m not sure I can make this make sense, so bear with me. I have this feeling that much of our modern age has been determined by the invention and large-scale deployment of the standardized shipping container: globalism, consumerism, and branding, specifically. Once we were able to regulate and make use of economies of scale in shipping, we were able to trade with China as though it were North Dakota – the oceans became railroads. This ease is basically, globalism (without any troublesome factual research or study of economic theory, but I mean that that new trading landscape put all of Asia essentially next door to us). And now that we could get cheap goods really easily our consumerism went through the roof (Wal-Mart‘s expansion coincides, roughly, with the rise of the Shipping Container Age). And because all of those products, from Wal-Mart house brands to Nikes, came from, literally, the exact same place (at times, the exact same factories), the products themselves became functionally indistinguishable, which is why we had to get into “branding” them.
I think this idea crystallized over the past two weeks. We had a gearhead nephew in town and took him on a whirlwind tour of great car things in Southern California. I’m nothing more than a spectator (the neph’s a real wrencher) but these places were amazing. First, it was really surprising to see manufacturing in America. I know it still exists, but it’s not like there are manufacturing cities anymore. And second, and more surprising, was the way these companies work: they make the most excellent products they can, at a stunningly high level of craftsmanship, and have a (small, admittedly) customer base that will pay for really great work. Oh yeah, and third: the companies comprise a society of sorts – they work together (at times), and meet and talk and maintain a collective history and whatever.
All of these things struck me as being utterly different from the branded world I normally live in. In the Container Age, we have economies of scale and economies of economizing – cheap products mass produced with only a minimal level of quality – all encroaching on, or replacing, societies. There is nothing to care about, apart from the accounting of the profits, and no way to organize a community around, a big box store (or what’s in it). And of course there is no craftsmanship, which is why Nike shoes are sold as the idea of Sports and as feelings rather than as shoes.
Of course the world’s not going back, and I don’t suggest that these are all evils (as bad as the conditions can be, we are seeing a growth of a Chinese middle class that will bring even larger changes to the globe in the coming generation). Just that “branding” has begun feeling as empty as it fundamentally is.
I know the summer movie season is over, so this is a bit less imperative than it was some months ago, but are there any stories to tell that don’t involve comic book superheroes? It seems like 7 out of 10 movies involve capes and jetcycles and supercars and guns and ridiculous heroism and equally ridiculous villainy. Granted, I’m not a comic book fanboy type, and to them, it’s probably a golden age ofthe adolescent power fantasy splashed large and unending in great waves of expensive cgi pixels, but, fuck, enough. Enough already with the characters who are nothing more than collections of costuming, speculative weaponry, and a moral certainty that relates in no way to actual life. All the hoohah about the latest Batman movie. Isn’t it just another Batman movie? Batman: the one with the motorcycle thing. I just don’t get it. For awhile, okay. But superhero movie number seventeen thousand and eleven? Are we done yet?
On a side note: eighteen thousand gazillion comic book movies, and no Wonder Woman? Is it because women prefer to achieve in reality rather than watching a simulated (and highly bogus) achievement onscreen? Because the stunted man-children of the comic-con set are already so fragile and intimidated by women that a supergal would just be too much?
I mean, seriously, it’d be worth it just to get that theme song out into the culture again.
Not the Billy Joel/Attilla version. And yes, this is just a gratuitous way to get a shot of the album cover art into a post.
Why is the government in the marriage business at all? Why does it administer something that religious people define as so blatantly religious? Why don’t we all just get civilly unioned? Then your church would be free to provide or deny “marriage” to whomever they wanted. Marriage stays religious, the government stays unreligious; and giant churches can stop spending huge wads of money to make the lives of a lot of my friends less free, and we can move on. Bingo bango, problem solved.