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Design Cult

Design Cult

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Design Cult

110 pages
2 hours
Jan 19, 2013


Renowned designer, author, critic, co-chair of SVA’s MFA program in design and National Design Award recipient Steven Heller reaches into the most contemplative recesses of his mind to offer an entertaining new collection of ruminations on the nature and future of design. In Design Cultthe first of a series of three titles published exclusively as e-books through the DesignFile consortiumHeller expounds on such disparate topics as Milton Glaser, Japanese masks, velvet touch lettering, anthropomorphism and people in glass apartments.

DesignFile is the new line of e-books on topics and trends in design published by the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. There will be six to twelve titles published annually, each ranging in length from 7,500 to 20,000 words. Building a consortium with institutional partners and design practitioners, Cooper-Hewitt's series will bridge the academic, museum, design, and publishing worlds. Inaugural members of the e-book consortium are Parsons The New School for Design and the School of Visual Arts.
Jan 19, 2013

Tentang penulis

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the School of Visual Arts MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur Program. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of over 170 books on design, social satire, and visual culture. He is the recipient of the 2011 Smithsonian National Design Award for "Design Mind." He lives in New York City.

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Design Cult - Steven Heller



Section One: The D Word

Curse of the D Word

The Decade of Dirty Design

Cult of the Squiggly

Covering the Good Books

A Mass for Mass-Market Paperbacks

The Digital Book

Modern Playthings

Section Two: So You Want to Be a Graphic Designer

Draw Me Schools of Graphic Design

Homage to Velvet Touch Lettering

Clipping Art, One Engraving at a Time

When Bad Things Happen to Good Logos

In Praise of the Anthropomorphic

Section Three: Cautionary Tales

Harsh Words by T. M. Cleland

How NOT to Be Motivated

Not Bad but Not Great

Miss Branding: A Cautionary Tale

Shepard Fairey Is Not a Crook

Section Four: Design + Power

Hitler’s Poster Handbook

Fascist Seduction

Revisualizing the Four Freedoms

Design in Belgrade: A Jolt of Graphics

Branding AIDS

Smearing Power with Wheatpaste

Up Against the Wall

About the Author



Design is both cult and culture. On the one hand, designers, and particularly graphic designers, are a tribe of little understood yet much needed artists and artisans with their own rituals, lore, and language. They also worship the same design gods (of which there are a few). On the other hand, designers routinely produce objects so essential to everyday life that some of what they make become cultural icons and iconography. Studying this intersection—indeed being part of it as a designer for forty years—has long been the basis for my writing about design history and contemporary practice. I am compelled by the richness of the subject to write virtually every day: That is my ritual.

Before the web, my scribblings were limited by the frequency of the publications and periodicals for which I wrote. One, two, sometimes three months would go by before an article or book would be published—time enough to edit, re-edit, and rewrite to avoid the embarrassing ill-conceived sentence, paragraph, or entire thing. Now, with weblogs, publishing frequency has increased exponentially, while the time for reconsideration has decreased incredibly. In addition to traditional magazine and newspaper stories, I publish at least twice a day (except weekends) on The Daily Heller /Imprint website (published by Print magazine); once a week on The Atlantic’s online magazine; and occasionally on Design Observer and other blogs. For two years I also wrote a monthly column, Graphic Content, for The New York Times T-Style online. That’s a lot of pixels.

The downside of this pace of production is that reflection is a luxury. The upside is that my ability to develop design stories, of which there are many, and see them published in a timely way is totally enabled. My needs are beyond satisfied. Whether readers’ are too is my biggest worry.

This collection of my essays from the past three or four years is aptly a digital publishing project for the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Almost all of them were published exclusively on the internet, either for the blogs mentioned above or other venues. They represent various themes and tangents but always circle back in some way to design as cult and/or culture. I hope they also prove just how wide the berth a design writer can occupy. Design, after all, is everywhere—and arguably everything, too.

Curse of the D Word

Do you make things look nice? Do you spend more time worrying about nuance and aesthetics than substance and meaning? Do you fiddle with style while ignoring the big picture? If your answers are yes, yes, or yes, then you are a decorator.

Graphic designers don’t necessarily want to perceive themselves as decorators. But what’s the big deal? Is anything fundamentally wrong with being a decorator? Although Adolf Loos, an architect, proclaimed ornament as a sin in his essay Ornament and Crime, an attack on late nineteenth-century art nouveau, in truth decoration and ornamentation are no more sinful than purity is supremely virtuous.

Take for example the psychedelic style of the late 1960s that was smothered in flamboyant ornamentation (indeed much of it borrowed from Loos’s dreaded art nouveau). Nonetheless, it was a revolutionary graphic language used as a code for a revolutionary generation—which was exactly the same role art nouveau played seventy years earlier with its vituperative rejection of antiquated, nineteenth-century academic verities. Likewise, psychedelia’s immediate predecessor, Push Pin Studios, from the late 1950s through the 1970s, was known for reprising passé decorative conceits. In the context of the times, it was a purposeful and strategic alternative to the purist Swiss Style that evolved into drab corporate modernism, which had rejected decoration (and eclectic quirkiness) in favor of bland Helvetica. In their view, content and meaning were not sacrificed but rather illuminated and made more appealing.

Antidecorative ideological fervor to the contrary, decoration is not inherently good or bad. While frequently applied to conceal faulty merchandise and flawed concepts, it nonetheless can enhance a product when used with integrity—and taste. Decorators do not simply and mindlessly move elements around to achieve an intangible or intuitive goal: rather, they optimize materials at hand to tap into an aesthetic allure that instills a certain kind of pleasure.

Loos and likeminded late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century design progressives argued that excessive ornament existed solely to deceive the public into believing they were getting more value for their money—when in fact they were being duped through illusionary conceits. These critics argued that art nouveau (and later art deco or postmodern) decoration on buildings, furniture, and graphic design rarely added to a product’s functionality or durability; it also locked the respective objects in a vault of time that eventually rendered everything obsolete. Decoration was therefore the tool of obsolescence.

However, decoration also plays an integral role in the total design scheme. It is not merely wallpaper. (And what’s wrong with beautiful wallpaper, anyway?) Good decoration is that which enhances or frames a product or message. The euro paper currency, with its colorful palette and pictorial vibrancy, is much more appealing than the staid U.S. dollar. While the greenback is composed of ornate rococo engravings, the U.S. bills lack the visual pizzazz of the euro. Of course, visual pizzazz is irrelevant if one is clutching a score of $100 bills: Putting the respective face values of the currencies aside, the euro is an indubitably more stimulating object of design because it is a decorative tour de force with a distinct function. One should never underestimate the power of decoration to stimulate the users of design.

Decoration is a marriage of forms (color, line, pattern, letter, picture) that does not overtly tell a story or convey a literal message but serves to stimulate the senses. Paisley, herringbone, or tartan patterns are decorative yet nonetheless elicit certain visceral responses. Ziggurat or sunburst designs on the façade of a building or the cover of a brochure spark a chord even when type is absent. Decorative and ornamental design elements are backdrops yet possess the power to draw attention, which ultimately prepares the audience to receive the message.

It takes as much sophistication to be a decorator as it does to be a wire framer. A designer who decorates yet does not know how to effectively control, modulate, or create ornamental elements is doomed to produce turgid work. The worst decorative excesses are not the obsessively baroque borders and patterns that are born of an eclectic vision (like the vines and tendrils that strangulated

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