Monday, 2 August 2010

Design: Another Reconsideration - Ivan Chermayeff, 1969

When, as a young college design student, I discovered the existence of Ivan Chermayeff I felt I had found the one professional graphic designer that really understood the purpose and role of his vocation. His approach resonated with me as being honest, open and direct - and as such was a refreshing change from what can seem to be a rat race of mimicking styles and trends at speed without pause for genuineness or genius. Chermayeff's own philosophy has had a massive impact on my own thinking about my role as a designer, and the ideals I hold about how I should apply my craft.

Years later, when studying at University I came across an article originally written by Chermayeff in 1969 (and if memory serves correctly re-published in Idea: Special Issue: Chermayeff & Geismar, 1981) entitled "Design: Another Reconsideration". I drank in every word, photocopied it, and used it to fuel part of my dissertation. Since then I have often wanted to read it again, but never found it re-printed or archived anywhere on the Internet.

Yesterday, when visiting my parents, I took a look in their attic and found some of my old college work. Stuffed into one of my essays I was suprised and pleased to find the photocopy I must have made over 10 years ago.

I wouldn't know how to get hold of it now, so I have attempted to transcribe the article from my photocopy.  If Ivan Chermayeff or IP owners of Idea magazine object, I will gladly take this down.

But in my opinion, this is too good to miss.

Design: Another Reconsideration

Every few years, or is it months – on some days it seems like minutes – I ask myself, as I'm quite sure most other designers do, what is it I do every day. What is design anyway? And whatever it is, do I personally really want to do any more of it? Is it of any importance? To society? To communications? Even to clients?
It is easier to begin answering these questions by sneaking up on them; by deciding what design is not.
Design is not what a considerable number of self-described designers think it is.
Design is not art.
Design is not terribly significant.
Design is not always better than nothing.
Design is the solution to problems, real, important or unimportant. The problems of design are not designer problems, they are client problems. Design must therefore grow out of a reasonable understanding of these problems, and their goals and aspirations.
If design solutions do not come directly out of the problems they face, then they will not be design solutions, but be arbitrary, and will probably lean heavily on current fads of typographic or illustrational style. Such designs will also be no good, or to put it another way, will not be design. Truman Capote when asked what he thought of the writing in some best seller, a few years back, replied, “That's not writing, that's typing.” The same thing applies to design. If it's not an answer to a problem, it's not design, it's layout.
I suppose I should backtrack and make clear that “design” refers to Graphic Design or other predominantly visually oriented areas of activity. It include the shell of the typewriter but not the guts.
Because design is concerned with symbols rather than structures, looks of machines rather than their works, typefaces rather than words, a concerned designer can get frustrated.
In order to design a good symbol the designer must understand what it will represent and the more he investigates, presuming a highly cynical, objective, and unbiased questioning attitude, the more likely the designer will want to influence the structure, to change it for the better, or quit.
Every problem of every client is different, and every client is different. (You can argue that they are all the same, but that would be a confession the design is a waste of time and money.) Under these circumstances the only way to keep up or reach a high level of design (in no way synonymous with successful) is to maintain a continuous and unrelenting interest in what the problem at hand really is. It is an old adage that once a problem is truly described, the solution comes along with the description.
Herein lies one fundamental problem with design as a viable activity.
Simply put:
Design problems are more interesting than design solutions.
It seems more challenging to design a new concept, than to design an ad about it. Talking about problems, visually or in print, is not as rewarding or interesting as dealing with them intimately.
All this, of course, is only true if the problems are interesting. Not all problems are either interesting, valid or worth working on or thinking about for a second, unless it's a matter of survival.
I feel it is extremely important for designers to be more interested in areas outside their own. Design is a service operation. Thinking about and developing solutions to other people's problems.
Designers usually don't write very well.
Designers don't usually even communicate very well, even thought communication, or one form of it, is their life's work.
Designers should read.
Designers should make themselves aware of everything.
Designers must be selective.
Designers must think.
Ivan Chermayeff
New York, May 1969
(Source believed to be: Chermayeff, I. (1981). Design: Another Reconsideration. Idea Special Issue: Chermayeff & Geismar. Unknown (1), Unknown.)

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