As they stepped off the ferry onto Governors Island in mid-June, visitors looking for the Graphic Design: Now in Production exhibition, co-organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, were confronted with a dilemma. Two signs indicated the route to the exhibition: one, attached to a piece of metal fencing, pointed north and immediately above it another, on a signpost, pointed west. When consulted, park staff directed visitors to the north. This faux pas was more a park planning oversight than a graphic design failure, of course, but it did mean that by the time visitors entered Building 110, the former army warehouse where the 8,000-square-foot-exhibition of graphic design is installed, they were newly sensitized to the uses and misuses of the subject at hand.
Graphic Design: Now in Production encompasses hundreds of examples of posters, books, magazines, typefaces, logos, and film and television titles created since 2000 and captured like so many vividly patterned butterflies in frames and cases and on monitors and walls in an installation designed by Project Projects and Leong Leong.
Much of the work featured in the exhibition is self-authored and self-produced rather than client driven, with products like axes, stationery and notebooks, wallpapers, and T-shirts that were devised and marketed by designers. Also well represented is the recent and exciting profusion of books and magazines designed, written, edited, and published by designers enabled by print-on-demand operations. Some, like the magazines Fantastic Man originally designed, edited, and published by Jop van Bennekom 032c, and Gesamtkunstwerk created by Joerg Koch, are excellent examples of the genre.
The exhibition contains very few specimens of graphic design as problem solving—an attribute once at the core of definitions of the discipline but being increasingly questioned in today’s practice and commentary. You won’t find a story about how to design a way-finding signage system robust enough to withstand the indifference of busy park workers, for example. And that’s okay.
But the big social and political concerns of the day—things like childhood obesity, women’s rights in the Middle East, fracking in Upstate New York—are conspicuous by their absence in this exhibition. Judging by the numbers of current design conferences, Kickstarter projects, and book titles dealing with such matters, meaty issues really do preoccupy today’s graphic designers and yet the problems dealt with by pieces in the exhibition are much softer, much less subversive. In fact many of the projects on display seem more like existential musings or doodles made in the moment of pause that the last decade seems to represent. Can we make a typographic sculpture out of wax? What happens if I leave a piece of paper balanced on top of this set of uncapped Magic Markers? And if I use the repeat function in Illustrator to replicate these little shards of glass for a really long time? Not all graphic design has to solve the world’s problems and lots of the work on display here is utterly seductive—the wax sculpture, the Magic Marker print, and the nerve-jarring glass shard poster image included are actually quite stunning—but the mini rebellions against corporate graphic design, clear communication, and modernist ideology that they represent start to feel slight, especially when the jokes are too insidery and when visitors to the exhibition are not familiar with the entities and traditions they resist and critique.
As a major museum exhibition on graphic design, Now in Production’s closest precedents are the Walker Art Center’s Graphic Design in America from 1988, which looked back at the profession’s own history and the Cooper Hewitt’s Mixing Messages from 1996 that examined how graphic language of the 1980s and 1990s sampled its references and dialects from across the high-low cultural divide.
The past decade began with a post-Millennial-hangover-induced sobriety that merged into a recession-induced austerity. It has been an era of anti-design in which many graphic designers have given up the responsibility of having a point of view, a visual style, or any direct control over form. Instead, through making tools, establishing default systems, and coding algorithms that determine output, they favor a more remote practice, in which their role is to set the conditions for outcomes and for the active participation of end users. Innovative practice in this period has been less concerned with traditionally graphic designerly activities like finessing typography and solving other peoples’ problems, and more concerned with rethinking the very contexts in which graphic design is produced.
In seeking a thematic characterization for the first decade of the 21st century, Now in Production’s lead curators, Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton, have identified the amorphous concept of “openness,” writing in the catalogue that, “it is the increasingly open nature of design practices and the open access to tools that reign supreme.” If such a concept sounds broad, intangible, and difficult to make manifest in an exhibition, that’s because it is. In the catalogue and elsewhere the curators freely discuss the challenges of corralling the often invisible, ubiquitous, and increasingly immaterial entity that is early 21st-century graphic design into the shape of an exhibition that will engage and inform designers and members of the public alike.
Ultimately the curators have chosen to display the finished outputs, rather than attempting to represent the production processes by which they were created. Even though the floor above the exhibition houses the studios of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council–supported artists in residence, the working practice of designers is scarcely in evidence in the exhibition. Apart from a few choice examples—a compelling time-lapse video of the making of an issue of the London film magazine Little White Lies, Christophe Szpajdel’s death-metal logos sketched on the back of the printouts of clients’ emails, and Swiss designer Jürg Lehni’s specially designed machine for printing out die-cut posters—surprising little of the show is devoted to process and production, considering its title.
The catalog, on the other hand, emphatically celebrates the way design is produced. It contains excellent essays about design’s production process, photographs of designers working at their computers or silk-screening posters, and, through its Whole Earth Catalog–inspired compilation of fragments of text and image, it embodies the way in which designers view, juxtapose, and filter valuable content and references from the deluge of information plankton that they consume each day. Conceived and designed by Blauvelt and Walker Art Center’s design director Emmet Byrne, the catalog materializes the experience of absorbing significance and influence from what they term “the atomized data flow.” The result, the curators write in the catalog introduction, “is a borderless enterprise whose cut-and-paste methodology embraces the open conflation of design, authorship, and production today.”
Graphic Design: Now in Production surveys a decade in which graphic design has been engaged in intense self-examination—a restocking and retooling. The fact that new technologies enable anyone to be a designer is a new reality and not something to be feared, but it does put pressure on those designers who have dedicated their careers to this pursuit to take what’s been learned in this period of quietude, as it has been termed, and decide on a bold new direction, even if the signposts are hard to interpret.