Inspiration point

Ask a bunch of graphic designers and typographers what they think about artists who use type as their medium and how that work feeds back into the language of graphic design, and you’ll get a mixed response. Anything from “What d’you mean?” to cagey “Ummms” and affirmations of inspiration, to accusations of “It’s a rip off” and a tight-lipped “No comment”. Having said that, a fair few designers had some interesting stuff to say when asked about their appreciation of the fine(art) things in life. Rather than “ripping off” artists who use words, designers are playing a subtler game.

It’s obvious that designers look at the stuff. Visit any studio and you’ll find shelves groaning under the weight of tomes full of nice pictures, by, among others, Barbara Kruger (herself once an art director for Condé Nast), Ian Hamilton Finlay (you’ll find him in architects’ offices too) and Ed Ruscha (his 1962 book, Every Building on Sunset Strip has been hailed, by Lawrence Weiner no less, as an insight into how Americans see the world).

You’ll also find three new books on Weiner, Jenny Holzer (both from Phaidon Press) and Bruce Nauman (the catalogue to that exhibition which every designer I know saw last summer). So, why so shy? Superficiality may be the problem. I’d say that graphic designers are extremely wary of borrowing stylistically from artists, but it happens.

As Michael Horsham of Tomato points out, “Holzer is different to Weiner because of the intent behind the work. And yet you see the two appropriated everywhere. That’s a ‘category mistake’ (see Bertram Russell), meaning an appropriation committed without understanding what’s being seen. So, the re-use never transcends being letter forms on a page, whereas Holzer goes beyond that because she’s working with wit and irony, making anti-consumerist statements.”

When interviewed, Holzer and Weiner are up front about adopting vernacular graphic languages, be it weathered clap-board signage painted by naive sign-writers, or the high technologies of slick, mainstream advertising. And why shouldn’t they be? They’re artists, free to use and comment on whatever takes their fancy.

I’d hazard a guess though, that some designers have actually read those bulky catalogues, because they are well able to create meaningful visual statements via appropriation. Designers may have briefs to fill, but pragmatics have never mitigated against defining an aesthetic or opting for a clever solution to a problem. Designers, too, are capable of commenting on their world. They’re also happy to lampoon, experiment and re-appropriate any vernacular, including the language of the gallery or the underground guerrilla artist, and even advertising itself. After all, in the hyper Post-modern world of media, isn’t everything up for grabs?

“Appropriating a look from fine art is like giving a piece of graphic design an added-value endorsement, because, as designers we’re very insecure about our cultural status,” says Pentagram partner Angus Hyland. “If something is sold as art it must be good,” he adds with a hint of irony, “and so appropriating from fine art suggests a designer is culturally aware. But, in effect, the appropriation has gone full circle, as artists tend to use type in quite a naive manner, and designers are re-using that type in a more knowing, sophisticated way.”

Hyland’s parting comment shows his fondness for chucking the cat among the pigeons. “After all, design informed by design is awful. We need influences from outside, and the first port of call is usually art,” he adds.

Of course, managing to do that in a thoughtful manner is the key. Figuring out just what a certain artist had in mind is a good start, rather than just importing a typeface and a preference for moody photography, everything in boxes and lots of red and black. When it comes to “meaningless” appropriations, designers tend to see themselves as the innocents in comparison to the ad man’s shameless shenanigans.

Jonathan Barnbrook, no stranger to artists, having designed that Damien Hirst monograph with an unfeasibly long title, was almost moved to violence when, “I met an ad person who’d just bought a copy of Ad Busters (the Canadian magazine which loves to rip the piss out of advertising’s self-importance) because he thought there might be some good ideas for ads in it! I laughed, but I should have punched him.” Calming down he adds, “When an artist uses the language of advertising they’re putting the message into a new context and smashing advertising’s ‘closed perception’ – it’s an attempt to define how the world is.” Sounds like a very necessary service being done for us mere mortals by the likes of Nauman and Holzer.

The ad industry is on a busy schedule, and that means lots of ideas, grist to the mill. And as Stephen Coates of August, and the art director © of Tate and Sight and Sound, reminded me, “Advertising [people] are just more blatant about where they pick up their references. After all they have to speak a language the public will recognise. Appropriation is about creating in-jokes and catching the moment,” whether that is Gary Lineker eating crisps or Barbara Kruger teaming up with The Economist to design billboards in their almost identical house style.

Looking for some designers who can handle appropriation intelligently, I rang a number of London’s creative design studios, and found some refreshing confessions. Bryan Edmondson of Sea named Peter Saville’s ability to take conceptual art to a new audience by way of his fashion catalogues for Yohji Yamamoto and his album sleeves for Factory Records, as inspiration. Then he saw the Hayward Gallery’s Bruce Nauman exhibition and, informed by his own belief that, “Type can be anything, it’s a form of expression, not just a bit of Helvetica”, admits to feeling a pang of jealously at the intensity of Nauman’s neon-type message. So, for a poster about British Design and Art Direction lectures, Edmondson had a neon-sign photographed, and continually abstracted it for a series of leaflets.

Type designer Julian Morey has used letter forms by Ed Ruscha and Robert Indiana as starting points for a number of new typefaces, self-published in his Club 21 catalogue. “Pacific is inspired by Ruscha, but he didn’t come up with any original typefaces himself, he simply used military signage, and I’ve made a typeface out of that,” Morey says. He also names Indiana’s collection of stencil letter forms, “which I think he drew, they weren’t real stencils”, as another inspiration. Faces called Brass Plate, Road Works, Sign Plate and Check Out (based on a dot-matrix till receipt) imply that Morey is doing just what Weiner, Holzer and others are up to, taking the vernacular of our urban, commercial and media-saturated environment and turning it into something of his own. Always one for a giggle, Morey’s also designed a face called, appropriately enough, Untitled.

Holzer’s innovative use of typography, as © far as Coates is concerned, has little to do with her choice of letter forms, which he recognises as the “default” font of the technology or medium she’s using, that is, dot matrix, stone carving or print shop quality. But, as Paul Neale of Graphic Thought Facility points out, it’s her ability to place type in the environment, in an unexpected context, that inspires him. So much so that it informed GTF’s recent book jacket design for a new Jeff Dyer publication.

That “environmental” route was also investigated by designer Matt Cook at Intro, working with photographer Rick Guest on a treatment for Depeche Mode’s latest graphics. An LED was programmed with the relevant title information and then photographed. Julian House of Intro adds, “The impetus was to get away from a Mac-produced graphic and incorporate the written elements of the sleeve into the imagery.”

As Stephen Sorrell at that art/ad/design anomaly Fuel points out, “… artists tend to stick with one typographic route, and that’s not the way designers make typographic decisions. But nearly everyone who saw our book, Pure Fuel, who wasn’t a graphic designer called it art. The thing is, is design a service industry, or is it about authorship? We’ve got something to say in whatever medium (and technology has made it easier to cross boundaries, especially into film). Even with commercial jobs, our clients want us to push it.” As a disclaimer though, Fuel’s Damon Murray adds, “You have to consider everything as art today – advertising, graphics, whatever – and in the end it all boils down to consumerism.”

In effect, worrying about where ideas and innovation come from, be it to do with typography, composition or context, is missing the point. Everything in the public domain can be sampled and re-used – it’s all up for grabs. Whether you understand what you’re seeing/hearing/reading before you use it is up to you. If superficiality is all you want, you won’t be alone. Adding something to the pot, though, is a preferable way to operate. Wouldn’t we all rather enjoy design with content, than feel confused and alienated by some mere attempt at glitzy or intellectual window-dressing?

Jenny Holzer

An unabashed pessimist, winner of the Golden Lion Award for Best Pavilion at the 1990 Venice Biennale and the first artist to make the most of Frank Lloyd Wright’s corkscrew Guggenheim – by lining the balconies with spiralling LEDs – the American Jenny Holzer may lay claim to being the world’s most populist artist.

How did she achieve such critical acclaim and general notoriety? Simply by formulating a series of messages (oblique, contradictory, obvious) along the lines of, ‘Protect me from what I want’ and ‘Money creates taste’, using the most prosaic and in-your-face media available.

Holzer moved to New York in 1977. ‘I wanted to find a way to talk about real world issues to a general audience… I wanted to write so that I could be very direct and say exactly what I wanted… this is impossible to do with abstract painting… So, I put alternative content into big brother media.’ (All quotes from Jenny Holzer, by Michael Auping, in the Universe Series on Women Artists, 1992.)

Flashing on to giant screens in New York’s Times Square, London’s Piccadilly Circus and numerous sports stadiums, broadcast between pop videos on MTV, published as national newspaper supplements (working with Tibor Kalman), fly-posted around New York City, Holzer’s informed appropriations cause Joe Public and the powers that be to react in bemused amazement or noisy annoyance. Commissions gracing shopping malls have disclaimers attached, and a proposal to print a magazine cover with blood kept a bunch of doctors and lawyers very busy indeed.

With her words realised in a vast range of media since the first series of ‘Truisms’, which have been described as one-liner summations of the philosophers on her post-grad reading list, Holzer assiduously considers not only the message, but the carrier. ‘I knew that the Truisms weren’t poetry, so they shouldn’t go in a book… There were lots of music, club and political posters around at that time. It was a posturing society downtown.’ So, she went wheat-pasting.

Consciously informed by the discipline of advertising, Holzer can copywrite a major issue on to any size of billboard (I once found a Holzer on the back of a till receipt from the Virgin Megastore). Having worked as a typesetter she also has a practical eye for type. ‘When your posters are up with others, yours have to be eye-catching and visible from a good distance. The bold type wasn’t just for emphasis… I was hi-jacking the voice of authority, the male voice… [but] it was also chosen so people would be able to read them easily… [because] I hope that my work is useful.’

Lawrence Weiner

Lawrence Weiner is a prolific doer, and when he’s not doing he’s writing about it. Sounds a bit like non-doing? Well, that’s the point. Back in the late Sixties, this self-confessed conceptual artist came up with a breakthrough justification: a performance, installation or art object may exist solely as language – as an explanation of the artist’s purpose. Therefore, language was sculpture. He went on to argue that this revelation was comparable to the impact photography had on the art world.

While arguments about the ‘reality’ of photography continue to fox, Weiner is adamant that his words, presented in books, carvings, casts and film titles, are intended to inform. Neither poems nor metaphors, these lists, rule books and statements, if read in the context of his ‘realised’ work, have a clarity of meaning which mirrors their unpretentious aesthetic.

Weiner’s mixed-media messages are, however, influenced by America’s work-a-day environment, as he uses cheap hand tools, building materials, and the contents of a kitchen drawer to realise his ideas. Likewise, his graphic output resembles ledgers, textbooks and instruction manuals, complete with Letraset rules and bold caps. A far cry from the self-consciously crafty genre of ‘artists’ books’.

‘I grew up in a city where I read the walls; I still read the walls and love to put work of mine on walls… My use of language is not designed… I think that I am really just a materialist… one of those people who is building structures out in the world for other people to figure out…’

Weiner was acutely aware of ‘the power’ of ‘chic design’ which, back in the Sixties, was creating elitism while proselytising modernism. A fan of El Lissitzky and Piet Swart, he set up in opposition to fashionable design, and has stated that, ‘…the series called Statements, are so highly designed… there is a design factor to make it look like a $1.95 book. Using the typewriter and everything else was a design choice.’ (Quoted from Lawrence Weiner, Phaidon Press 1998.)

Originally intended as a means of disseminating his work outside the gallery system, ironically, Weiner admits his books have earned him ‘…a place within the design community’, despite it being a hot-bed of ‘power and interest’ just like the art world he was attempting to escape.

Bruce Nauman

Another product of the Sixties de-materialisation of art and an avid exploiter of new media and technology, Bruce Nauman has been defying categorisation since he acquired his first video camera back in 1970. At home using video, sound, photography, architecture and his own body, Nauman makes messages through performance while exploring the artistic process.

An artist who is constantly re-inventing himself, however, is in danger of confusing his audience, and his innovation may be perceived simply as novel (see Joseph Beuys). Despite working in many media, Nauman has a visual consistency to his output which counterbalances novelty, what critic Vincent Labaume calls, ‘slick, “advertising standards” aestheticisation’ (Bruce Nauman, the catalogue, Hayward Gallery, 1998). That simplicity is most notable in type pieces realised as neon signs.

Neon is always inviting, due to its electrifying familiarity. It’s welcoming, glamorous, a bit sleazy and highly evocative. Nauman wanted to, ‘…”really play the game” with the advertising form identified with and inseparable from the modern urban landscape’. Subverting the familiar through his choice of words, he teams up commandments with decrees and provocation with revelation. ‘Run from fear/fun from rear’ …make of that what you will.

Programmed to flash and fade to create multiple meanings from a set number of words, Nauman twists the written message. Unlike the throwaway glance you’d give a shop sign, Nauman’s neons, played on a loop, mesmerise and transfix. His considered use has transformed a commercial medium into a meaningful message-carrier.

Determinedly anti-clutter, the simplicity of neon – do you want it roman or italic? – is necessitated by its form. That simplicity is echoed in Nauman’s use of other media-friendly technologies, with his grainy films of talking heads and disoriented performers (he often turned the camera on its head), having filtered into the vocabulary of TV advertising and the pop promo.

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