A painterly touch

We should have moved beyond the can-design-be-art debate – for without the creative impulse there is no design. So why is it rearing its head again? asks Adrian Shaughnessy

The heat surrounding the search for Dan Fern’s replacement as head of the Communication Art and Design course at the Royal College of Art has caused the can-design-be-art debate to resurface. This really is an argument that should have become redundant by now. But it has taken on a new currency with the appointment of Neville Brody as Fern’s successor. If ever there was a graphic designer who embodied both camps, it’s Brody.

Good design aspires to the condition of art: bad design, on the other hand, can only aspire to the nearest landfill site or recycling bin. The primary role of the graphic designer is to make effective communication. Just so. But this is done best by combining the aesthetic verve of art with the rational pragmatism of design.

Josef Müller-Brockmann managed it pretty well. So did Paul Rand. And Stefan Sagmeister doesn’t do too lousy a job either. Nor, for that matter, does Brody. Yet none of these people would claim to be anything other than designers.

In fact, there are now two distinct types of graphic design. First, there is the stuff where the communication – the message – is the only concern, and any notion of art or aesthetic judgement is regarded as superfluous. I’m thinking of the dross I get sent by various high street banks trying to woo me into their clutches, or the vast majority of magazines that weigh down the shelves in our local corner shops. And that’s before we even get to the billboards and ads that has turned Britain into a giant advertising hoarding.

This stuff has hit a nadir of awfulness: badly written infantile dross with graphic design that would get a foundation-year student thrown off the course. Yet the marketing departments that commission it must think it’s good, because it keeps coming. I spend a lot of time in design schools and I never meet anyone who wants to do this sort of work. Is it any wonder that students’ heads are being turned by the idea of the designer as artist?

The other sort of graphic design is different from the type described above. This is graphic design done by people who make aesthetic judgments and have aesthetic convictions. They care for the need to convey a message – but they approach the job of making visual communication in the same way a painter approaches a canvas or a sculptor a block of marble.

Of course, not all ’arty’ graphic design is automatically good. We don’t want road signs designed by a Mark Rothko fan or a train ticket website designed by an individual who shares an aesthetic view of the world with the Chapman brothers. Yet only someone locked in the dark ages would say that the artistic impulse has no part to play in modern visual communication. After all, it is this impulse that inspired most designers to take up and study the subject in the first place. Without the artistic impulse there is no design. And without design there is no visual communication.

This takes us back to Brody. He started out studying fine art in the 1970s, but famously transferred to the then London College of Printing, now London College of Communication, to study graphic design. In his monograph The Graphic Language of Neville Brody, he recalls asking himself the question: ’Why can’t you take a painterly approach within the printed medium?’ The question is still relevant today. And only a very dull person would say that you can’t.

Adrian Shaughnessy is an independent designer, writer and broadcaster, and co-founder of publishing company Unit Editions

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