Achtung! Erik Spiekermann

Graphic designers are of the moment accepting that their work can be as transient as technology. Architects too, should face up to the realisation that all things, even their buildings, must pass…

Judging a typographic design competition earlier this year in the USA, we noticed that hardly anybody had actually used type — that is, real type, as in printing with premade letters, today called fonts by everybody but us typenerds. Instead of fonts, almost every project used lettering, that is letters specially written for the occasion — by hand.

What little type there was consisted of nostalgic fonts from the Twenties or Sixties, conveying the look of gangster movies or mid-century American modernism. If you look at the state of American politics, you can appreciate that these times now seem gloriously simple and happy. We forget that those days also had their crises, from the Great Depression to the Bay of Pigs.

The best thing that can happen to graphic design is that artwork or proofs are left in a drawer somewhere, to be discovered decades later and appreciated for their naive and cheerful approach to what is now called branding, but back then was just packaging or advertising. Unlike architects, most graphic designers are aware they are not designing an everlasting object that will outlive all of us and may ultimately be destined for the Hall of Fame. Most of our evidence fits within the pages of annuals and trade magazines, where later generations rediscover it with the benefit of not knowing anything about their original purpose.

No so with buildings. Their purpose may be much more generally defined when they’re built, and I would like to believe that most architects want to design something that will be a classic. Unfortunately, you cannot design a classic, you can only wait for at least a generation until other people have come to the tacit agreement that it has become something they wouldn’t want to miss. If you think you can design a timeless object, there is only one way to do so: make it so boring that it’ll still be boring when the investment has been paid. Another thing us pen and pixel-pushers have over architects is that time is more gentle to pieces of artwork. We forget for what or for whom they were actually made and appreciate them only for the aesthetic pleasure they cause.

Not so with a building, let alone a city, which we experience every aspect of every day. We live in them, we see them everywhere and we watch them grow old and even decay. Age is not a friend of cheap construction, superficial styling or lack of vision. While paper objects are recycled into carrier bags or toilet paper and serve a new purpose, buildings often overstay their welcome. When they go, they leave an ugly gap and bad memories. The premise for architects hasn’t changed. While environmental concerns, changing demographics, new regulations and different materials require constant learning, they still have to design and construct objects that provide shelter, enable communication and outlive their initial financing. Fashion, vanity and competition all factor into the equation, but gravity and the dialectic of ideas versus money provide the real constraints, and will do so forever.

Graphic or communication design may have moved from paper to screen, but we still design an image on a two-dimensional substrate. But the audience is now wiping, stroking and tapping, where eyes alone used to do the work of informing or entertaining, so we have to learn how to design with the user at the centre of an experience, rather than a passive reader of linear information.

More than ever our work is ephemeral and only lasts until the next upgrade or model change. We’ve learned that right now there may be somebody working on the next game-changing invention in some garage or other. As long as we understand that our job definitions are as transient as technology, we can keep up by taking nothing for granted, by constantly querying the status quo and by involving the infamous end-user. Involving doesn’t mean having them fill out marketing research questionnaires, but having them be part of our process.

Graphic designers are not really considered intellectual equals by architects who, in my experience, consider themselves much closer to the top of the evolutionary ladder. But perhaps us superficial surface manipulators have learned something from the fundamental changes our profession has gone through: nothing is permanent and the user is not an idiot. Tearing down buildings that have outlived their purpose is an ugly thing and hurts more than discarding old devices or recycling paper. But it could serve as a warning to architects, who should admit that all things must pass to make way for better things.

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