The elastic mist of design

While I was reading Graphic Design: A Primer in South African Graphic Design by Michael MacGarry (David Krut), I kept looking up at a work hanging, framed, on my wall.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek typographic design by Garth Walker of Orange Juice Design in Durban, one of the designers featured in MacGarry’s book. The type Walker has concocted is called Winky, and it’s made of stylised genitals, mostly cocks, twisted into odd shapes and adorned with fetishistic rings and things. It’s oddly reminiscent of those Art Nouveau ornamental typefaces shaped from the bodies of dancers or the like. (It also offers an “authentic rubber smell”.) I’ve long been interested in typefaces, and type and text-based media in general—it goes back to working in my father’s print shop when I was a schoolboy and takes in years of newspaper, magazine and book editing and designing, not to mention decades of consuming such media in alarming quantities.

So Walker’s Winky speaks to that interest of mine, besides being clever and funny. I’ve hung Winky on the wall and treated it like an art work even though, technically, it isn’t an art work. It comes out of a tradition or discourse other than “fine art”. Yet Winky certainly contains echoes of “fine art”, such as the conceptualists’ liking for grids, and of course you can take whatever you like and frame it and hang it on the wall. (I also have a Kentridge poster, dating back to the old Weekly Mail Film Festival, which I had blockmounted, thereby reducing its monetary value to zero.) Doubtless it’s the framing and the hanging that make a piece of design an art work; if it’s in a magazine, say, it’s simply graphic design. Graphic design is an “applied” art: it is generally used to sell something, even if it’s just an idea, whereas “fine art” sells only itself.

I think I kept looking up at Winky (also in this book, I discovered when I got to page 77) while reading Graphic Design because I was wondering about whether one could produce a neat definition of graphic design. How does it differ, formally, from “fine art”? Is it just in the application? Is it about the fact that it’s selling something other than (or as well as) itself? I kept coming back to this as I read MacGarry’s book, further piqued by the fact that in a parallel existence MacGarry a fine artist of considerable talent and invention.

He gives lists of what design is and isn’t, but his first definition, in his foreword, goes like this: “Design is a subjective, personal, creative and idiosyncratic process that is approached, researched and realised by each individual designer in totally different ways.” Rather broad. Substitute “sex” for “design” and “designer” for “sexual being” and it still works. (Obviously I still have Winky on the mind.) A bit later on in the foreword, MacGarry says: “Design is an elastic, slippery mist that drives those engaged in its murky joys to change the world as they see it.” Clearly the key part is “as they see it”. Or does he mean: to change the way they see the world? There seems to be a confusion here between the seeing and the seen. Admittedly, this is a perennial conceptual-perceptual problem for humans. An elastic mist indeed.

Further on in the foreword, MacGarry says designers aim “to re-articulate the materiality of their context with the intent firstly of communicating ideas and languages, and secondly of offering systems, patterns and models for viewing the world—allowing others to understand what they are looking at and where they are.” I like the concept of re-articulating the materiality of one’s context, even if that doesn’t specify what design does as opposed to any other form of discourse. The part about communicating a language I’m not sure about; surely the language is the means[ITALS], a vehicle, of communication? Or is a subtle point being made about the medium being the message? Naturally, a language communicates itself as well as its content, but they are not quite the same thing; there’s a difference between the rules of a game and the actual playing of it.

This is an area worth exploring in more depth, I think, though perhaps such a “primer” is not the place to do it. Discourse theory, applied to the particular discourse of graphic design, might have helped. MacGarry’s definition above does tend in the direction of discourse theory (“patterns and models for viewing the world —”), and there is a quote upfront from John Commander that goes like this: “To design is to create images which communicate specific ideas in purely visual terms and utter statements whose form graphically embodies or enhances the essential nature of the notions to be communicated.”

Apart from a preface, Walker is featured in the second part of Graphic Design, where various designers are interviewed about their theory (if any) and their practice, and their comments are enlightening and often amusing (Oliver Schildt of Rex on the role of humour and irony in his work: “Little humour or irony”; Richard Hart of disturbance replying to “How do you generate new business?”: “I have no idea”). This is the latter part of a book of two halves that do complement each other, without quite making one feel that this isn’t two books yoked into one. The first part is the real “primer” or “skills set” part, which aims to provide a basic introduction to graphic design and to be a reference and resource book for students, and in those aims it succeeds very well. It has pages on line and shape, colour, composition, typography, and so on.

Many examples are given, in both parts of the book, and the visual material is very engaging. If nothing else (if you’re not a student who needs a “primer”), Graphic Design is worth having to page through again and again, marvelling at the inventiveness of South African graphic designers on all levels. Much of the material is drawn from forms where designers have a relatively free hand, which would show their work off to its best advantage; there are few works shown here that come from mainstream advertising, which surely consumes the bulk of graphic design work.

In the “primer” part, interesting questions come up. For instance, when two typefaces are contrasted and described as “masculine” versus “feminine”, is that just a handy reference, or a limiting convention? It says something about the associations we bring to type, certainly, but are all those assumptions easily coded by way of such categories? Perhaps I don’t see “masculine” and “feminine” so much as squareness, heaviness and solidity in the one, versus lightness, curviness and elegance in the other. Are those innately masculine and feminine qualities, or is such a notion a sexist cliché? And where do we draw the line between a cliché and a convention that designers must abide by if there work is to “read” for an average audience? The contrasted types, by the way, are a Helvetica Neue black and a Didot light italic (Didot being a Bodoni clone). Perhaps, as a media-literate person, my associations are more along the lines of The Guardian‘s Pentagram design of 1988-2006 versus the New York Times Review of Books.

Only a brief couple of pages in the book cover “editorial design”—that is, newspaper, magazine and book design (and there are even fewer on web-page design). MacGarry correctly notes that this is a “highly specialised skill set”, so perhaps it deserves a separate volume. South African “editorial” designers could certainly do with one, and there are questions to be asked about the nature of the material in relation to what it’s communicating or selling, as opposed to ads and so on. (Graphic Design itself suffers a little from the frequent problem of design books: the text is rather neglected. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I dislike sans-serifs for lots of text, and here, especially in the interview sections, the text is often too long of line and miserly of leading. Still, it will do.)

I have not gone into detail about the individual designers and their works; perhaps I’ve got carried away in trying to deal with the questions the book raised for me, at least in the areas of graphic design in which I have worked and which I consume most avidly. Anyway, it’s not much fun to take the contents page and add my notes. For anyone studying graphic design, MacGarry’s book will certainly provide a rich resource; for anyone interested in what some South African designers are doing right now, there is much here to please and tease the eye and mind.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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