NEW YORK CITY--Even on a sunny summer day on Governor's Island, a serene setting for leisurely picnics and bike rides that's located only a few minutes away from Manhattan by ferry, it's worth heading indoors to bury oneself in the recent history of typography and imagery.
For in Building 110 of this former military facility is an eye-popping and thought-provoking exhibition titled "Graphic Design: Now in Production," on view through September 3. It's a meticulously organized show featuring hundreds of works that represent how designers wield typefaces, colors, iconography, and layouts to persuade us to believe, or buy, one thing or another.
From indie hipster magazines to pharmaceutical company logos, from Google Doodles to data visualizations, from purely poetic uses of color in art works to activist posters, graphic designers have a huge influence on the way we understand our world. And this ambitious, sprawling exhibition (and its ambitious, even more sprawling catalogue) attempts to survey how they have done so since the year 2000. This time period, of course, marks an era when the Internet has upended traditional forms of advertising, communication, publishing, commerce--and even how we make "friends" and other social and professional connections. These are all of the areas in which graphic design has found new cultural significance and commercial contexts.
PRECISE AND INFORMATIVE
The show was co-organized by Andrew Blauvelt, curator of architecture and design at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. (The latter, located on Fifth Avenue, is closed for renovation, hence the Governor's Island venue.) The co-organizers, both on the individual and the institutional levels, are all long-time authorities on graphic design. The two curators are practicing designers and educators. And the Walker and Cooper-Hewitt are each known for presenting two of the most notable retrospectives on graphic design in the past quarter century: "“Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History,” which was on view at the Walker way back in 1989, and the Cooper-Hewitt for "Mixed Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture" in 1996 (which was organized by Lupton).
That these forces have joined to present "Now in Production" suggests that their collective update on the field is ultra-well-informed. And it is; the breadth and depth of the exhibition is staggering and scholarly. It's also timely and relevant for nearly anyone, whether a trained, professional designer or not. That's because, as we all know, the general public's awareness of design's potency has been elevated in the last 10 years, thanks to the successful commercial design strategies of Apple and Target in that time.
Even then, it's helpful that an exhibition like "Graphic Design: Now in Production" is touring the U.S. The wall text is precise and informative for general audiences. In the section on information design, for instance, the wall text reads
"Information designers produce materials such as maps to help people navigate pieces, or charts and diagrams to clarify complex situations, processes, and relationships. The growth of the Internet has generated and revealed new sources of data to analyze, while the latest software tools have facilitated their visualization.
This area of design practice is fluid across disciplines--merging aspects of investigative journalism, statistical analysis, computer programming, and software application development with the traditional skills of illustration and typography. Today's information designers serve as storytellers, journalists, and translators, seeking to organize data in understandable, engaging, and memorable ways."
Whew! So well put, this description is likely enough to seduce a young person in high school or college to pursue a career in graphic design. Or a company to invest wisely in a talented designer or design firm. Or for any one of us, no matter what our profession, to carefully consider how we choose fonts in Microsoft Word, or what Tumblr theme we pick. For, as the show makes clear, today graphic design literacy is one that is shared not only by the pros, but by everyday people.
Take, for instance, one display of before-and-after images of corporate logos of major brands such as Starbucks, the YMCA, Pfizer, and Comedy Central. Based on and inspired by a now-defunct Web site called Brand New, the display asks museum visitors to vote on which logo they prefer, by placing plastic tokens in clear plastic containers. This installation reminds us that the public ultimately judges the effectiveness of a logo--not curators or institutions. Or corporations or designers, for that matter.
THE OLD-SCHOOL AND THE ARTISTIC STAND OUT
Although the exhibition does focus on post-year-2000 graphic design in the Facebook era, including many corporate projects ranging from big-media data visualization from the New York Times to Hollywood film titles, some of the most stunning elements on display are those created on paper and in very traditional forms.
The design collective Aesthetic Apparatus's beautifully dense concert posters, collage-like images layered one upon another and printed on other prints are one example. So is Modernist Cuisine, the over-the-top, the 52-pound set of culinary books authored by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myrhvold. The cheeky woodblock prints by Anthony Burrill are also notable. They are painfully simple--statements such as "I like it. What is it?" in bold, block letters on brightly hued paper--yet attract the eye and mind for their blunt aesthetic and thematic effectiveness.
Works commissioned just for the show veer toward the realm of art. These include some of the most elegant pieces on view: Daniel Eastock's "Felt Tip Prints," which don't even involve text or images or any new technologies. Instead, these prints consist of pieces of paper under which hundreds of regular markers are placed underneath, their ink staining the paper. Sheer poetry, it's the kind of smart art that might leave viewers either scratching their heads or applauding enthusiastically (this reviewer is of the latter camp: Eastock's playfulness and effort at blurring the boundary between the silly and the sublime is hard to beat.)
GRAPHIC DESIGN GETS DYNAMIC, PHYSICAL
While the posters and printed materials on view are intriguing, so too are the more adventurous examples of how graphic design is evolving both as a form and as an industry.
As a form, graphic design is becoming more dynamic, thanks to versatile software and social media that designers can play with. One piece on view, Posterwall for the 21st Century, by the artist group known as Lust, is a striking example and a metaphor for this idea. It consists of a constant feed of graphics that are collected from audience Tweets and other sources, which are fed into a computer program that spits out poster-style images made from this material. These images are featured in clusters, as projections on a giant screen, and seem to be perpetually updated and automated.
And finally, one of the most fascinating sections of the show looks at how some designers are launching products, and not just creating the marketing and branding collateral for manufacturers and ad agencies. From helping to create and then hawking unique birdhouses and axes to designing and selling wall paper, notebooks, and T-shirts, the examples of graphic designers as producers reflect a charming and even inspiring mini-economy. Designers such as Mike Perry, who sells chairs, bags, trash cans and other items with his patterns on them, or Geoff McFetridge, who has designed lovely-looking wall paper that carries stark themes on the relationship between urbanization and nature preservation, are branching beyond being service providers. They are becoming brands themselves.
In the end, this exhibition offers astonishingly thorough education in what the phrase "graphic design," noun or verb, means: which is both exactly as the term describes, and so much more.
Bonus: here's a fun video (produced by the Cooper-Hewitt) of co-curator Ellen Lupton hosting a very quick walk-through of the show, below. It was first on view at the Walker Art Center earlier this year; if you miss the show in New York (note that it's only open on weekends and holiday Mondays), it will soon travel to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from September 20, 2012-January 6, 2013, and next year it appears at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from October 2013-January 2014.
Images: photos by Ellen McDermott; all copyright Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, used with permission.