Stripped/Teased: Declined Design’s Future

| July 5, 2014

I tend to be a bleeding-heart pillow-crying nihilist when it comes to where we, Graphic Designers, or for that matter, we the United States, will be in ten years.

Let’s face it, I listen to too much NPR and am too, too easily led to despair.
How I long for the eighties, when I had my first experience as a style maker. I used to sell costume jewelry surreptitiously out of a cigar box to my classmates, who were hungry to achieve the “Madonna” look. They were simpler times: our economy was growing, and design was experiencing one of its most interesting blossoming phases. What happens when a country founded on “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,”an admittedly adolescent set of pursuits on which to found a country, grows old without growing up? An impressive set of D-T’s is what: distopia, and a period of high-decadence that will end eventually with our fall from grace. How does anyone stay in this country? How does anyone, with such gloomy forecasts, ever go into design?

I walked into class the other day to find that the teaching projector had been high-jacked to blast Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” which has redefined the skanky glamour of women’s prisons for me. When I walk in, every student in the class is transfixed, and I am reminded of Marshall McCluhan’s image of the Mechanical Bride, of which Gaga seems to be some strange, burlesque, quite literal translation. Gaga’s glam rock videos feel like faster and faster mash-ups of Betty Page, Michael Jackson, Liberaci, contemporary fashion, and contemporary art and installation (she has a piano by Damien Hurst, and elements of her videography & set are reminiscent of Matthew Barney). Gaga is America’s answer to the adversity of our position as a flabby, over-satisfied superpower on the decline. Even Gaga’s stage name, which was formed from a autocorrect accident in a text message between her and a friend, seems to make her a metaphor for the zeitgeist of our times.

For my students, Lady Gaga is an answer to where design can go. The way Gaga transmogrifies a recording career into this new hybrid form, and they way she utilizes her haus of design consultants to do it shows my students how they might be able to change into the new designer-amalgums that they will need to be to compete in the future: elastic and fearless problem-solvers who have much more to offer than just type and image.

But there’s more than one answer here. Gaga’s over-the top, faster and faster grotesque mash-ups may hold interest in darkened design classrooms, but something diametrically different was the pop-talk today. I gave an assignment last semester to make a word, one word, one BIG word addressed to the audience of our school: a clear and simple, sight- specific message. Last semester one group installed the word “hello” in loopy tulip-bulb script in our un-lovely art building’s front lawn. The project has garnered surprising support from the grounds staff and committees who are known to nix all plans for change.

Other programs want to know about the bulbs, and this winter, we have all watched the word change through snow and now first budding. Where Gaga choses to make her images and sound as micro-mediated as possible, this project is about setting up a system and letting the design grow naturally, a matrix not just filled with words or images, but living organisms, which will grow and change using self-determination, more or less unmediated, for the next 5, 10, 20, even 40 years. Slow=Good. Sometimes, slow is even great.

Lady Gaga @ Creative Commons.,_Cheek_to_Cheek_Tour_06_edited.jpg

Lady Gaga @ Creative Commons.,_Cheek_to_Cheek_Tour_06_edited.jpg

In terms of solving the problem, this project has managed to interest, delight, even enrage our fellow Fine Arts Building cohabitants into paying attention to our program. While our neighboring bedroom community hates our large Mark di Suvero sculpture, everyone seems to appreciate “hello”. And where we ourselves study many projects intensely, this one word holds our attention for how it changes.

Where communication both between students and between the school and our neighbors feels difficult, this single script word, blooming in flowers on our front lawn seems to communicate so naturally , joyously after so much snow.
Plus, now noone cuts across the grass.

What do the two approaches have in common? I know you are tempted to say “Nothing.” But both attempt to get at something “real,” whatever that means. Something that makes us feel something REAL, gets a rise out of our jaded and desensitized audience. Ok, Lady Gaga seems like a far cry from “real”, but she maintains, this IS the REAL her, not the who went to church school and pretended to be average or simple. The REAL Gaga is her reveling in the beauty of the grotesque, marveling at human imperfection, and all its sordid high-heeled glory. The flowers go the opposite way, and get at “real” through stripping away mediation and finding again what is sublime, again, about nature, earth, growth. If diametrically opposed, they share a similar intention to wake us, to move us. This fevered retreat and ruthless advance are the answers my students seem to aspire to when they sow hope for their future careers: their love-dance in the valley of recession.

Category: Essays

About the Author ()

Jen McKnight is an associate professor of art and art history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Jennifer McKnight earned her BFA at Washington University in Printmaking and her Masters in Graphic Design at California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Her work is recognized in publications such as Print Magazine, :Output, and “Becoming a Graphic Designer: A guide to Careers in Design” by Steven Heller and Theresa Fernandes. Her design writing is published in the AIGA National Education Archives, Redaction Magazine, No Tasarim, as well as in Means by Which we Find our Way, edited by David Gardner and Andrea Wilkinson and Robin Landa’s Graphic Design Solutions 4th ed.

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