David Bernstein: Repeat Performances

A combination of familiarity and reassurance makes the cliché a powerful, immediate mechanism for connecting with an audience, a theory examined by David Bernstein

“Are you going to tell him or shall I?” “I’ll do it,” I told the producer. We were shooting a series of video training films on the art of the poster. We were interviewing an international creative guru. He had agreed to participate, provided the shoot was in his New York studio – and spontaneous. That meant no rehearsals and no advance notice of the questions.

I was off camera feeding minimal prompts. We taped 15 minutes of insightful comment spiced with sound-bites. But the sound the engineer thought we could live with… we couldn’t. A retake.

Milt Glaser took the news stoically and later that day did another brilliant take. His aperçus were woven into the four videos. I ran them recently, 20 years later. They looked their age, but the words are as bright and relevant as ever.

What makes me a fan, a Glaser groupie, is his facility with – and respect for – words. In his contribution to Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart’s splendid “A Smile in the Mind” he says, “everyone has a different sort of mechanism for being able to trigger ideas… I have always started with words”. There are intriguing examples of this, of the designer at work, in his new book “Art is Work”.

In our video series he defined a key characteristic of good poster design – and, incidentally, humour – as “the disruption of expectation”. To disrupt, you must begin by knowing what your audience knows. It knows clichés. Now, clichés serve a purpose. Communication depends upon a shared language. And commercial communication must be instantaneous. Clichés are by definition familiar – and familiarity breeds reassurance. Designers of public signage and instruction manuals must proceed cautiously when modifying iconic symbols.

Habit is crucial. Our lives as pedestrians and motorists would be endangered were our sense of habit to desert us. But creativity, as Arthur Koestler defined it (in a phrase not unlike Glaser’s), is “the defeat of habit by originality” and the task of the graphic designer is to resolve the paradox of being simultaneously both old and new, making the strange familiar and/ or the familiar strange.

Clichés, therefore, in Glaser’s words, can be used to establish context. “Although clichés are your most powerful instrument they need to be detoxified. You cannot use clichés unless you disrupt them.” Glaser’s “I k NY” is testimony.

In a neighbouring page in “Smile” is a neat example of a detoxified cliché. Alan Fletcher’s design for Designers’ Saturday in London takes what he calls “the three most boring colours, the primary colours”, and “the three most boring shapes, the triangle, circle and square”, puts them against a boring grey background and “turns the ingredients into a party”: pencil strokes transform the shapes into kite, balloon and wine glass.

I use Fletcher to illustrate the thinking of Glaser because having worked (albeit briefly) with both, I know that they are kindred spirits. I could equally cite Glaser to illustrate the thinking of Fletcher. I once challenged Alan to define design. He said “mental utensil”. For Glaser too, design is a means of thinking through the problem rather than decorating the solution. (Again, see “Art is Work”.)

For both Fletcher and Glaser problem and solution are organically connected. “The answer is in the question”, says Glaser in the video. If it isn’t then the brief is wrong. Yet how often is the solution to one brief borrowed to force fit another?

When Doyle, Dane, Bernbach re-invented the VW Beetle and changed the mindset of the US motorist concerning size by showing the car dwarfed by white space, the headline “Think Small.” contained a full point. That dot was no artistic flourish, but part of the argument. Unfortunately, it bred a host of imitators, art directors adding dots without understanding why DDB had done it.

My quarrel with second-rate designers and those who accept second-rate design is precisely that lack of understanding of design solutions.

Glaser’s test of a good poster is simple. Move or remove any element and you spoil it. “The opposite of design,” said Buckminster Fuller, “is chaos.” The designer’s job is to impose order. Most hope that others – colleagues, critics, clients – can see what they see. A few are capable of articulating that insight – doers who teach, like Fletcher and Glaser. The latter’s “Art is Work” failed to delight this journal’s reviewer, but I bet it will inspire readers with its lucid expression of a design philosophy.

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