Working methods

Sans and Baum partner Lucienne Roberts works her way through the book Restart: New Systems in Graphic Design

There’s no denying that the language of graphic design is seductive.

Graphic design projects often look more enticing when reproduced in books, displayed as if they are out of context, juxtaposed against contrasting projects and appearing to have some form of professional approval. From this point of view Restart: New Systems in Graphic Design doesn’t disappoint.

The work of 37 designers/ design groups ranging from recent graduates (Sara Maconkey), to old timers (Peter Saville, Bruce Mau and J Abbott Miller) and many in between (Graphic Thought Facility and Angus Hyland) is shown. The work is varied and both visually and conceptually exciting.

Yet, the basic premise of the book seems flawed. What is the ‘restart’ referred to other than part of the ongoing organic changes and shifts intrinsic to all the visual arts? A definition of the word ‘system’, as applied in the selection of work, would have been helpful. It seems to be used here to mean ‘method of working’, but surely there is method to all graphic design and always has been? I am suspicious of attempts to newly classify graphic design because they often result in superficial terms that glorify style over content and demote the potential usefulness of the exercise.

The projects shown in Restart range from the commercial, by which I mean commissioned by a client with a set of objectives and a budget, to the self-initiated where the practitioner sets the limitations. The process of working is so wildly different that it is hard to draw any useful comparisons, but in making this selection Emily King and Christian Küsters do raise some important and fundamental questions about what graphic design actually is. We still seem no closer to defining its relationship to art and commerce. Perhaps this is the new definition we need?

Work that uses graphic elements, but is not commercial I consider to be a form of fine art and not graphic design. The majority of real graphic design acts as a vehicle to convey messages that have little to do with graphic devices in their pure and abstracted form. This is a humbling process and places you, as a practitioner, in a broad social and political landscape. A reference is made in the introduction to the First Things First manifesto, the primary call of which is to embrace this role, to consider this responsibility and to place work in a less narcissistic context.

The ‘system’ applied to the typography of the book plays with the notion of a universal font with all its weights and expanded/ condensed versions. The text is flowed into a set of boxes and changes weight, rather like a type specimen sheet. Conceptually this is fun, but when it comes to reading the text it is annoying. Perhaps we don’t need so many new systems after all.

Restart: New Systems in Graphic Design by Emily King and Christian Küsters is published by Thames & Hudson on 15 October and priced £16.95. The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London SW1 is holding a talk on 2 October at 6.45pm

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