Bred to be Boring

As I touched upon in the last issue, deep in the recesses of time, before likes, reblogs and pins, you could only really see contemporary graphic design in its natural context — record sleeves in record shops, posters on walls etc — or in the two or three compendium books that were put together each year. 

Back when I was studying at Central Saint Martins in the mid 1990s the compendium making the most noise was Typography Now by Rick Poynor, and naturally — as it showcased the work of the previous generation to my own — I hated it. It was full of designers and studios making what I thought of as extremely self-indulgent, narcissistic and just really fucking ugly work. They seemed to be obsessed with showing the viewer that they and only they had created their creations, it was entirely about their own egos, with scant regard for communication, the client or appropriateness — whatever the project or brief, the result would look more or less the same. To my eyes this seemed like a terribly boring and complacent way to work: to tackle a project by making a slight variation to your last project, and the four or five projects before that, and just changing the words to say whatever your current client wanted them to say. 

At the time this reliance on formula (no matter how un-formulaic the designers thought they were being) looked like absolute anathema to the creative process, the opposite to how I wanted to work. From then on we at Multistorey, the studio I co-founded, actively fought against repetition or any sense of a ‘house style’ in our own work.* 

Many years have passed since then, but as I was sneerily flicking through a copy of it at a friend’s studio the other day, I worried myself by the realisation that I’ve become almost nostalgic for that Typography Now era of design egomaniacs. As I survey the world of graphic design all around me, I can’t help noticing that over the last few years, it has grown steadily less and less fashionable to have a personality as a designer. Of course this is no news at the commercial end of the scale, but what really disturbs me is how apparent it has become with the (for want of a better word) ‘intellectual’ design studios. Oh, sorry — I mean practices. 

There’s no distinction between anything, I find it impossible to tell where one person’s work ends and another’s begins. The desire to stand out, to add any iota of personality to the now so sacrosanct content has been eradicated. Often when I’m sent a link to a prospective employee’s personal website, I honestly don’t know whether I’m looking at a Tumblr of ‘inspiration images’ or their folio site. It’s a sea of clumsily pared down and timid work, conforming to one or another of a small handful of accepted layouts, my particular bugbear being the art gallery pamphlet with a few images randomly placed on the cover, with one word the right way up at the top, the second word rotated 90° at the right hand edge, the third word upside down at the bottom and the fourth word rotated -90° at the left edge. All set in Aperçu or a font with a weird lower case g designed by an ECAL student. Sometimes if I have further knowledge of the work, the designer will claim weeks of heavy research behind it, but I’m not so sure it takes reading countless Hans-Ulrich Obrist tracts to come up with that one. 

The reasons for this shift towards quiet conformity are many but intertwined. We mustn’t ignore the natural urge to destroy what came before you, as I felt about the generation before mine, but to destroy it with boredom? I think it’s more insidious than that. Firstly we have a relatively modern malaise — the paralyzing effects of super abundance, which I wrote about last time — there's just too much out there to look at. Whereas in pre-internet days you just naïvely got on with your own work and ideas, as you had no clue to what anyone else was doing, these days you can’t help knowing what current graphic design is supposed to look like, and to either consciously or subconsciously gauge your own ideas and aesthetics against it as either right or wrong. When you add in the factor of young designers (especially in the UK) growing up in an era of constant educational testing from a very early age, the craving for rules and the validation of being told you’re doing something correctly — that you’ve passed —becomes much more understandable.

That became very apparent when teaching the first year on the at CSM in the mid 2000s. Each incoming year, as a whole, was more docile than the previous. The students were constantly asking me exactly what I wanted them to do (to which I'd invariably answer "I want you to surprise me"), whether what they were doing was correct, and what mark I was going to give them. Whereas back when I was studying there the majority of us didn't give a shit what mark we got, as long as we were challenging ourselves and having fun. Rebellion has been slowly bred out of art schools. Especially now they're not called art schools anymore, they're just universities — sorry, ‘Uni’, (my god I hate that word) — like everyone else you were at 6th form with goes to, with the results-driven structures and checking systems that come with that territory. Actually, these days CSM isn’t even a university, it’s a correspondence course. Students come in on Monday morning, get briefed, go home and work in isolation on their laptops (with the internet to guide them). When it comes time to reenter the school for a group crit nobody speaks because nobody knows each other. The complete absence of studio space has killed that potent and driving mixture of gang-like camaraderie and competition that comes with close sustained proximity to your peers, the need to push yourself and each other further with the constant oneupmanship of experimentation, and I’m not convinced that this atmosphere can be recreated or replaced online.

Please believe me, I really don’t want to see a return to those days of Typography Now, but a bit of personality coming through in the work and a casting off of the fear of failure would be very refreshing, however scary that may be in our perpetually public era.

*For a couple of years we believed we were successful in this pursuit, but when friends started describing certain of our projects as being very ‘Multistorey’, it became clear that although there wasn’t quite a house style, we couldn’t deny a distinct way of thinking that manifested itself in the finished product. 


This article first appeared in issue no.2 of Can't Understand New Technology, a print only publication created and edited by the very talented Camilla Grey and Steve Price.