The Pleasure of Small Problems

Sean Adams, 2014

Last week, I finished a poster for Dialogues: Poster Art of the Soviet Union. I could do anything I wanted. I chose to stay away from 45 degree angles and Constructivist typography. They just didn't go well with Khrushchev's testicle quote. I had a great time working on it, and hope it is useful for the event. But is it graphic design?

For a long time, the battle cry of design has been "problem solving." Well, what isn't? Create an urban signage system to help revitalize mid-Manhattan. Yep, problem solved. Design an information guide and website to help in an environmental disaster, check. Make an identity system and collateral for a homeless shelter, uh huh. But the problem with narrowing the focus of design onto only a tiny aspect is the inherent exclusion of anything that is deemed as not serious problem solving. If there isn't a multi-page case study, with dense research, clear results, and a sans serif font, then it's not design.

But where does that leave the work that is, frankly, just amazing without a giant purpose? Using the metric of justifying all design by the density of the issue negates most of the work that moved the profession forward. That Paul Rand Apparel Arts Magazine cover with the propeller, really? That had a deep purpose and widespread effect on the garment industry? No, so it's out. The same goes for Saul Bass' beautiful poster for The Music Center, Alexey Brodovitch's Ballet book, and a long list of work that shaped me as a designer.

I'll stick with not defining graphic design. It uses words, symbols, and images to communicate. Some of it solves problems that are big, some solve the problem of making me happy for a moment. That's good for me. Leaving this open allows for work that may be simply ridiculously wonderful.

Snowflakes from Hell

My friend, Terry Lee Stone, introduced me to the term, “special snowflake.” This applies to young people who have attitude problems. Typically, for their entire lives they were told, “You’re special. You’re unique. You can do no wrong. There is no such thing as competition, everyone is a winner.” So they start college and are shocked when they are told to do a project over, or that their solution is not world changing. Oddly, there is competition in the world. Oddly, some people are better than us at something. Part of the problem is society’s need to celebrate every aspect of a child’s life.

Now I know there will be huge outcry over my next opinion, but the truth must be told. I believe in positive reinforcement. But I do not understand the graduating ceremony for the end of grammar school and middle school. Graduating from high school is an achievement. Some people don’t. Unless you are taken to live in a Unabomber cabin in the woods, everyone will automatically move from grammar school to middle school, and middle school to high school. There is no choice, and no risk of not achieving this. So, why have a graduation celebration?

This leads me to typewriters (I know it’s disjointed, but imagine living in my head all day). When I started high school, my parents gave me a portable red Olivetti Underwood typewriter. They did not throw a big party for my ability to pass the 8th grade. They didn’t send me on the Grand Tour of Europe for the summer. Sensible and appropriate? Yes.

Olivetti's commitment to design was inherent in all aspects, from product design to graphic design. The roster of design consultants could have been made by following the AIGA Medalist list. Olivetti's designers included Bayer, Rand, Lionni, Pintori, and Ballmer. As opposed to other corporations in the 1960s approach to good corporate identity, which was typically a whitewash, Olivetti's made design part of every aspect of the company.

Looking Back

And now, back to something about plain old graphic design. Down in the basement of AIGA National Design Center in New York is an old vault. The vault is filled with amazing treasures from the history of AIGA since the early 20th century. Most of these pieces were designed by some of the most prominent designers of the time, and celebrate the profession at a specific moment in history. It’s a good measure of “high design” of each era.

Every designer is told that work should be timeless. But that’s impossible. Design is not Darwinian; it doesn’t get better as the world evolves. We are products of our time and place on this planet. I don’t believe I’m doing better work than someone in 1970 just because it’s 40 years later. I don’t worry too much about “timeless” design, which is probably fairly obvious for those thinking I’m still in 1962. To me, these pieces are as incredible today as they were when they were produced. Actually, they’re probably considered better today, because someone down the street isn’t saying, “Ooh, I hate that guy. His work sucks, and I hear he yells at his employees. This poster ain’t that good.”