Communicate, the 40-year retrospective of graphic design, currently at the Barbican in London, affords a rare chance for the public to view graphic design in a gallery space. Of course, there are those who say graphic design has no business hanging on gallery walls; the place for graphic design, these pragmatists will say, is in the marketplace, solving the problems of commerce.
But you only have to look around to see that graphic design has become a cultural force that – occasionally – transcends the mundane requirements of business, branding and messaging. It’s part of the culture now. We seem to have reached a point where we can enjoy graphic design as graphic design. In Communicate, curator Rick Poynor has assembled a potent collection of exhibits that can be enjoyed purely for their aesthetic and practical worth.
Yet Communicate has been shamefully ignored by art and cultural critics. The Times and The Guardian unimaginatively turned to Poynor to write about his own show. But why didn’t Jonathan Glancey, Stephen Bayley or even Will Self wander down to the Barbican with a sharp pencil and an even sharper critical eye?
The only blip on the otherwise flatline of critical interest was a whimsical think-piece by former Melody Maker journalist Caitlin Moran. In her column in The Times Weekend Review (Wallowing in the Shallow; 18 September 2004), she delivered a dismissive and sniggering rebuke to graphic design in general, and the Communicate show in particular. Now, I admit we can’t have it both ways: if we want design to be taken seriously, we have to be prepared, as designers, to take criticism, and as a rule designers are not very good at taking criticism. Design doesn’t have much tradition of criticism: boy bands, computer games, stand-up comedians, architecture, interiors and furniture get written about, but no one thinks it’s worth reviewing graphic design.
So personally, I welcome Moran’s views. But she should be careful about allowing the word ‘shallow’ to appear above any article she writes. This word aptly describes her attempt at a critical appraisal of graphic design. She kicks off by declaring ‘Let’s face it – the primary purpose of graphic design is so that people who wear too many trainers to buy proper art have something to put in their front room.’ She goes on: ‘Communicate… is a slightly classier version of walking around the bit in Ikea where they have all those framed pictures of giant peonies for £12.’
There’s more in this critical-lite vein. In Moran’s view, graphic design is something you hang in the bathroom, and she fails to take seriously either design’s professional manifestations as a modern business tool, or its more cultured role as a way of defining the zeitgeist in a world dominated by the visual. She reveals her hand when she writes: ‘As amazing and iconic as the cover to Sgt Pepper is, it’s dwarfed by the record that sits inside it. No one’s had their life changed by the cover of Sgt Pepper. No one’s fallen in love to it. No one’s described it to someone in a coma. Michael Jackson didn’t want to buy the rights. It doesn’t make you cry.’
It’s possible to challenge almost every daffy assertion made by Moran here. Take her shallow-as-a-puddle opinion that graphic design isn’t life-changing. She clearly hasn’t met many graphic designers, or bothered to ask the ones she has met what made them become graphic designers in the first place. If I had a fiver for every designer who decided to become a designer because of an epiphany-like exposure to a Peter Saville Factory record cover, or seeing the mid-1980s work of Neville Brody, I’d be a wealthy man. You might not choose to ‘describe’ graphic design to someone in a coma (you’re right there, Caitlin), but an encounter with a piece of graphic design might well set someone off on a satisfying and fulfilling career that lasts a lifetime.
It’s hard to get angry with Moran, though; it is refreshing to find graphic design discussed in a serious newspaper, even if the tone rarely rises above the level of a Hello editorial (I presume Hello has editorials?) And Moran’s response is at least preferable to the well-known female art critic who one design editor invited to review the exhibition: after visiting the show, she flatly refused to review it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the critical elite have avoided writing about Communicate; according to the Barbican press office: ‘Daily attendances are more than double that anticipated, and in the first five weeks the figures are over half our budgeted income.’
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