Class Dismissed

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Are there certain texts every designer should read? Students are given historical antecedents, like Beatrice Warde’s “The Crystal Goblet” to push against. We’re given technical manuals that define the practice, like Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. We’re given the words of leading professionals who seem to have transcended commercial practice and now define the discipline, like Michael Bierut. But I’m reticent to put any of these texts or authors on a syllabus or introduce them to a classroom. What it means to be a graphic designer (or more importantly, to practice graphic design) changes rapidly. Beyond professional and technical practices, the demographic profile of young designers—and their priorities, aspirations, and the kinds of stories they wish to tell—evolves from year to year. Yet the texts we put faith in often stake rhetorical positions intended to protect against the swift pace of change.

As design practices become more research-oriented and concerned with knowledge production, graphic design is arguably gaining credibility as its own academic discipline. What it has is a set of tools and approaches. What it lacks is a canon. Maybe that’s a good thing; many disciplines would benefit from having less reverence for received wisdom. Instead, what’s important for future designers to read and know rests on ideas originating from sources outside design. I’ve often found students to be most effective when they vampirize ideas and processes from elsewhere—when they act as historians, writers, anthropologists, and journalists inside their creative practices. Reading philosopher Walter Benjamin or poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine might be more necessary than a provocation by Benjamin Bratton. Maybe we don’t need an additional field of design criticism to find meaning in the work we produce. Perhaps instead we have an opportunity to create a discipline that never relies on historical theory, and thus never calcifies.

Graphic design is arguably gaining status as its own academic discipline. What it lacks is a canon. Maybe that’s a good thing.

In graphic design, the discourse is vibrant: Debates about form, conceptual practice, critical engagement, and technology change and grow in complexity with each passing year. But the texts that introduce those ideas—even the monumental ones—rarely seem relevant for more than a generation; they quickly fade from view, or soon seem overly simple. My shelf is stacked with books by European and American practitioners setting out to define and redefine graphic design, how it’s practiced, and what it will become. A small volume that touts itself as The Great Debate goes largely unread. Mostly, the books “every designer must have” tend to be treated as visual artifacts more than repositories of ideas. Metahaven’s Uncorporate Identity synthesized a new and exciting design language with contemporary geopolitics. I kept it on my desk hoping to absorb the depth that I saw in it; so did a thousand young designers who wanted their work to have more meaning. The book featured abstruse prose and a cloud of references its authors rarely unpacked. At this point, I’d be hard-pressed to summarize its key ideas. But by demonstrating that a dense, theoretically informed design practice could exist, the book provided a path for designers to read more broadly and to apply their formal practices to bigger ideas. Meanwhile, there are always books that seek to outline tools and practices—like Ellen Lupton’s design manuals or Alina Wheeler’s Designing Brand Identity. Their advice lands somewhere between the conceptual and the applied. They reject the specificity of software instruction, but miss the opportunity to critically address the tasks they cover.

In my own practice and that of my peers, I often see a tendency to gravitate toward ideas shaped by our educational years, even long after the broader discourse has moved on. Is this how I came to put so much faith in Emigre? Only recently have I stopped asking my students to read Kenneth Goldsmith and Lev Manovitch. Ideas get metabolized and conversations move forward. Young designers seek new ways to think about and apply their work. The authors who gave me a sense that my field had its own intelligence seem hard to explain to my students now. I struggle to justify the demographic homogeneity and the dissonance between seemingly critical writing and corporate output that come with reading the likes of Bierut, Rob Giampietro, and Michael Rock.

In place of suggestions for a set of design texts we must internalize, I propose graphic designers embrace a discourse of forgetting. The material output of our field tends toward ephemerality anyway—so what better way to celebrate the nature of our practice than making forgetting a core value? Of course, this doesn’t mean bypassing reading and theorizing as crucial aspects of what it means to be a designer, but rather to avoid what design instructor Juliette Cezzar refers to as “substituting hagiography for history itself.” The best kind of design writing is writing that knows it will soon be irrelevant.

As I write, I am periodically checking an online discussion my students are having about Laurel Schwulst’s piece “My website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge. What could yours be?” She makes a case for creating self-hosted personal websites instead of using large platforms. The text relies on a series of metaphors to define a website’s potential. (There is irony in the fact that it sits on a site, The Creative Independent, that is funded by Kickstarter and could disappear at any moment.) I hope that by reading Schwulst’s piece my students will gain a sense of what they make as a form of personal expression. Yet in spite of its smart message and its poetic construction, I won’t mind if they forget it in the months to come.