Out Work is a collection of thoughts on graphic design and life by Sarah Joe, a Singapore-based creative.

Just typing as I think, don’t take me too seriously.


12.02.20 Nothing is more important than the preservation of critical thought and design
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            Found this amazing passage in Emigre No. 70.
            Hal Foster's commentary (see epigraph) about the pluralism of the eighties art scene could be easily applied to contemporary graphic design. Significant aesthetic have been superseded by consensus; not a fight over which style but agreement on all styles. The fundamental principle of pluralism asks not in what style we should design but  rather that we design stylishly. A plethora of these benign styles exist to mix or match according to the logic of the marketplace. Once style was a defining gesture, unapologetically ideological, and a signal that differentiated and codified its subject. Today style has been reduced to a choice, not a matter of conviction but one of convenience.

            This situation of academic and marketplace pluralism, as well as a dearth of critical discourse, are actually related phenomena, each reflecting the condition of the other. Slowly but surely, any critical edge to design–either real of imagined–has largely disappeared, dulled by neglect in the go-go nineties or deemed expendable in the subsequent downswing. However the reason seems not a factor of cyclical economies, but rather the transfiguration of a critical avant-garde into post-critical arrière-garde.

            It is no wonder that graphic design to day feels like a vast formless body able to absorb any blows delivered to it, lacking coherency and increasingly dispersed. This absence of a critical mass or resistant body is at the heart of the current malaise.

            One might argue that graphic design today no longer exists in the form, or material body, we once knew it. So scatted and destabilized are the constituent elements that any attempt at definitions becomes meaningless. The expansion of graphic design beyond its roots in print is simple one symptom of this crisis. Even a broad moniker such as "communications design" looses cohesion the face of a multitude of providers producing all sorts of "communications" for divergent media; be it print, televisions or the Internet. Lacking the specificity of a medium, graphic design tends to be identified more through its varies products that any sense of disciplinary practice. Thus graphic design is reduced to its commodity form–simply a choice of vehicles for delivering a message: ad, billboard, book, brochure, typeface etc. Implicit in this reductive understanding is the denial of graphic design as a disciplinary practice and with it the possibility of disciplinary autonomy.

            The results of most 80s/90s formal experimentation moved quickly from polemic to profitability. Both within the marketplace and the academy the consequence was not to invent wholly new languages but rather develop variations of existing styles. The critical reflexivity that had been the genesis of such experimental work was pushed aside as the promotion of individual expression became paramount. It is no coincidence that the proliferation of design styles corresponded with the increase of the number of brands and the demand for produce segmentation in the market place. The academy reacted with a similar misrecognition by seeing formal experimentation as an end in itself; whereby the exercise of individual expression (more commonly called "personal style") was considered experimental. The situation creative successive generations of work that had all the look and feel of being experimental without actually being experimental. This should be contrasted with the possibility of experimentation that is itself contextualised to the continuity of a historical discourse of design, for example, one that questions not so much the form of design but the possibilities of its practice.