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Notes on Potus - click opera
February 2010
 
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Thu, Jul. 20th, 2006 12:00 am
Notes on Potus

POTUS Typographicus is an article by Steve Heller at VOICE: The AIGA Journal of Design (where Steve also happens to be my editor). It's about how terrible the White House's graphic design is. "While his handlers would never allow the leader of the free world to go out in public wearing a rayon leisure suit and white bucks, they nonetheless use clownish shareware typefaces with hokey beveled edges and cheesy drop shadows to represent his ideas," Steve writes.

He goes on to condemn "typographic transgressions... malfeasance... signs set in garish types with clichéd graphic gimmickry derived from overused Photoshop filters... the use of Roman-like faux intaglio and engraved letterforms to give an air of authority and truth."

Heller treats the administration's design style as a series of errors, warning Karl Rove that "he’d better get his ascenders in gear if his White House minions plan to continue placing banners and digital backdrops above, behind, and below the President while he’s making those key speeches... it is not unreasonable to expect that the most powerful nation on earth could afford more sophisticated typography."

My interest in "the politics of texture" would suggest another approach. I'd argue that the "good design" Steve is advocating (and his use of the word "malfeasance" suggests he sees it as something like a series of professional regulations or standards) will never be adopted by this right wing populist administration because what Steve and I would call good design would be seen by Rove and Bush and Cheney as liberal design. They'll keep giving us "bad" design because it's populist. This regime's distrust of design professionals maps to their distrust of the "liberal media". Just as they see "the liberal media" as biased, infused with the values of sophisticated left- and right-coast urbanites who characteristically vote Democrat, so they see designers as incarnating the same values. Visual bias, we could call it.

It wouldn't be appropriate for a populist right wing government to appeal to people who drive Volvos and read the New York Times Book Review section. In fact, this regime wants to alienate those people, and reject their aesthetic standards. If those people love austere good design, then, damn it, this regime will use drop shadow.

There's a witty little animated film by Cheshire Dave Beckerman about the Roman-like "faux intaglio and engraved letterforms" Heller mentions. It's called Etched in Stone, and I recommend you go and watch it right now. It's about the use of Trajan on movie posters, and tells us that Trajan is a font derived from the inscription at the base of a victory column erected by the Roman emperor Trajan. (Metallic Trajan captions also punctuate the trailer for the film "The Prestige", in which David Bowie plays Nicola Tesla.)

The meaning of Trajan in the contemporary US seems fairly unambiguous to me. Trajan makes an implicit metaphor between the imperial power of ancient Rome and the imperial power of contemporary America. Whether it's made to look as if it were chiselled, or whether the letters are themselves made of metal, it suggests sharp implements, which conjure both the image of monumental permanence and the image of martial hardness -- the two basic meanings of Trajan's column itself. Pure Trajan suggests "right wing"; Trajan with drop shadow, metallic glints or lurid colors suggests "populist". Put them together and you get: "right wing populist". You don't have to spell it out in text; the message is there in the texture.

Here's another insight into the "populist" part of that. In the comments section below "Potus Typographicus" there's an interesting remark from a former employee of a federal agency. "I was actually told to NOT make projects look good," he writes, "lest people assume that a lot of time and/or money had been spent on them. At first, I tried to offer alternatives and suggestions. But they wanted what they wanted and didn't feel that we designers were professionals with any valuable expertise to offer."

Last night I watched a documentary on Arte about Berlin-Germania, Hitler's renamed, remodeled imperial capital. The style he and Speer chose for this triumphalist city was one of ascetic neo-classicism, a Graeco-Roman-Egyptian "forever architecture" of monumental dimensions, organized around new East-West and North-South axes. All diversity was to be expunged from the city, which would henceforth express monolithic and permanent imperial power.

Today, one of the sites of the Nazi buildings which were built (the Nazis didn't expect to have Germania finished before the mid-60s) is occupied by Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie, a light, transparent Modernist building, a cube of glass. The Nazis would have hated its lightness and clarity the way the Bush administration seem to hate clear, clean Franklin Gothic or Helvetica layouts. They'd already forced Mies to close down the Bauhaus, a den, in their view, of socialists, communists, Jews and progressives. They rejected Mies' Modernist style as "un-German". I'm trying to imagine a parallel world where the Nazis build a Modernist Germania of light articulated glass curtain architecture, but it's almost impossible, just as it's almost impossible to imagine the Bush administration producing a banner or a publication I'd actually admire and want to hang on my wall.

But although I'm saying there is an inherent politics of form, I'm too much of a cultural relativist to say that there are objective correspondences between certain forms and styles and certain political ideologies. Sure, martial and metallic forms and mean-looking eagles grabbing globes do lend themselves to fascism, for obvious reasons. But, as a cultural relativist, and above all as a structuralist and a follower of Saussure, with his idea that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, I have to say that my inability to imagine a Nazi city with Miesian glass walls is just that; a failure of imagination. It could have happened. Maybe.

There is no such thing as bad design or good design, the cultural relativist has to conclude, just their design and our design. The downside of that is that we lose the illusion that our taste has universal validity, or is inherently better than anyone else's. The upside is that we stop trying to preach and teach -- meaning, we become a little less imperialistic, perhaps. (Or do we become more imperialistic, and simply say "Our way is better because we have more power than you... and because we say so"?)

There's another upside. If there is a politics inherent in texture, we don't have to leave the realm of aesthetics to be doing something political. Simply working according to our idea of good taste is already waving a banner, proclaiming the values we espouse. Or, as Godard said, "it's not a question of making a political film, but of making a film politically".

85CommentReplyShare

niemandsrose
niemandsrose
Niemandsrose
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 09:16 pm (UTC)
What font says ROI?

Bravo! Best column in a while.

I get the same issues here at my dayjob (in a financial institution)-- I have to justify the incidental good design on my documents by proving, or persuading, that the time invested will produce a return on investment, some measurable increase in efficiency/productivity/customer retention/etc., something which is almost impossible to do.

Of course, it happens with content as well. Respectable spelling/punctuation/grammar/structure are seen here as externals, really, possibly frivolous ones at that. There's a shameful disrespect towards customers, who are assumed not to know (or notice)the difference. I always say, "Nobody may notice if it's right, but the quality customers will notice if it's wrong."

However, again, much like the Bush administration, it appears not to be the quality of our audience, but the raw quantity that seems to count, alas.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 09:25 pm (UTC)
Re: What font says ROI?

Breaking it down to quality versus quantity, though, suggests that what you and I call bad design isn't, in itself, a "quality" for some people. I feel rather this way about PCs versus Macs -- I'm sure there are some people who actually like the crummy design of the PC system, its flagrantly non-designy look... which is, I think I'm trying to say, just as designed as anything else.


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bifteck
bifteck
Meredith
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 09:34 pm (UTC)

What a wonderful new way to criticize the Bush administration! And just when I thought we'd run out...


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ex_newironsh15
chris
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 09:39 pm (UTC)

aha, I had noticed the horrible design coming out of the white house lately but I just assumed it had something to do with the decline of just about everything else in the past few years. (Decaying roads, etc. I guess they have more texture though, a political result of sending our money overseas.)

The Fox News website is a design disaster, with all its gaudy action-film futurism and loud colors. The other news channels, I've noticed, have all started competing with Fox for the Tacky Market. Maybe because (and I hope) the educated in the US have all gone overseas for their news.


gross.

They've started using unconcealed southern accents too, as opposed to the standard "middle america" accents, undoubtedly to make us feel all "homey" while we're watching the news.

"We're gonna tell ya the news now..."

I wonder if this sort of populism is associated everywhere with a decline in presentation. See anything from Poland lately?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 09:45 pm (UTC)

Again, my inner cultural relativist doesn't want to let you get away with saying this is a decline. It's a shift from "our design" to "their design". It's something they calculate and choose with as much care as we calculate and choose our style. It signifies "right wing populism", and it also signifies that this is now the "official" style of the US.


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rodneywhodunnit
rodneywhodunnit
C.M.H.
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 09:46 pm (UTC)

i agree that there is no such thing as bad or good design. it's more about how one coopts and uses such things to communicate an end.

maybe a "bad design" or "good design" label could be made for something less cognizant or lucidly executed vs. something that has utter clarity in and of itself and also what it is trying to communicate to its audience. maybe.

mcdonalds has utter clarity. i love the industrial design of their metallic kitchens. i also love the fact that mcdonald's french fries taste pretty much the same across the globe. i love their communication design down to the font and layout. it screams artificiality, bad health, and early death...and it does it in a beautiful, clearly-articulated, and well-branded way.

i don't have an example of bad design. i have to agree w/ you, it is all relative.


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kamakhai
kamakhai
so extravagant my cataract
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 09:48 pm (UTC)

I agree with your idea of "populist design"... sort of like politicians' haircuts. They could obviously get ones that are more in tune with current style, but they seem to make a point of looking average-to-bad.


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 10:19 pm (UTC)

puppet show



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(Anonymous)
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 10:22 pm (UTC)
Design populism

There was an episode of zefrank's show describing bad design that I liked:

http://www.zefrank.com/theshow/archives/2006/07/071406.html#

POTUS Typographicus was heavy with a kind of critical attitude that seems motivated by this nauseating design elitism I've encountered elsewhere in professional designers. I understand that some of that feeling was also motived by partisan political opinions with which I can certainly sympathize, and it did appear in a trade journal after all -- but even in context it puts me off.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 10:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Design populism

Zefrank is interesting! "Ugly as a sign of mass experiment is pretty damn cool".


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oracolodeifont
oracolodeifont
ed.
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 10:23 pm (UTC)

a little ago there has been a discussion on "ugly" (web) design that works, mainly focused on myspace design. it brings a lot of the pc vs mac idea of design (and curiously one of the columns that started it was from ex ms writer john scoble).
some links:
http://scobleizer.wordpress.com/2006/03/04/the-role-of-anti-marketing-design/
http://www.thinkvitamin.com/features/design/the-myspace-problem
http://bokardo.com/archives/on-why-ugly-design-works/


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 10:33 pm (UTC)

Interesting. That last one says:

"Maybe MySpace is kicking blogging’s behind because most blogs are simply too pretty! Ugly is authentic..."

When I decided to delete my MySpace page, it was because it looked ugly. Only later did I find out that Rupert Murdoch owned MySpace.

I've also been on a campaign against "authenticity" for years!


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pop__kandy
pop__kandy
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 10:58 pm (UTC)
design that honours the content, vs. self-parody

Is it just me, or do most of the examples shown here look like they were put together by the staff of the Daily Show or The Colbert Report? It's telling that the lines between reality and parody are so blurred these days; a cartoonist like Tom Tomorrow's satire is outpaced by events every day.

I disagree that it's all about "their design" vs. "our design." The point of so-called 'good' design is to get out of the way, to honour the content, to draw attention to the important things. Al Gore's slideshow about global warming, for example, is very well-designed to communicate the content, and not draw attention to itself. So-called minimal, fancy, coastal, liberal design is really more engineering-like in its aims, achieving its objective with the least amount of materials and energy.

Contrast this with the tendency of non-designers to "overdo" everything. I can't count the number of times I've seen content-free PowerPoint that spins, dazzles, has 11 fonts in 34 colours...

Going back to architecture and my favourite, interior spaces, how many times have we seen these uptight, emotionally constipated houses (on any number of surprise-redecorating TV shows) where people are afraid of calm, quiet, "Japanized" spaces, and instinctively seek to fill their small modern rooms with disproportionately tall, parody-Chippendale furniture; wallpaper and upholstery louder than the Knebworth Festival; tiles that are way too big for small bathrooms; and generally cluttered with bric-a-brac they can't bring themselves to throw away?

It's not ornate in a good way (like the Baroque, or Art Nouveau, or Hundertwasser): it's busy, overbearing, demanding, bullying design.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Jul. 19th, 2006 11:12 pm (UTC)
Re: design that honours the content, vs. self-parody

This form-follows-function, or form-enhances-content, argument is sort of refuted by postmodernism, though, isn't it? Where decoration is no longer a crime, and something might be good because it's bad, or because it's a reference to something.

I don't believe we can talk about efficiency as a proxy for taste, as you seem to do when you make this formula about "achieving its objective with the least amount of materials and energy". In the end, everything has a style, and whether we like something or don't like it is all about the cultural connotations of a style, not its "efficiency".


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beketaten
beketaten
Juliet
Thu, Jul. 20th, 2006 12:18 am (UTC)

I totally agree with you, but I'd also like to point out that I felt similarly left cold by the Democratic party's campaign posters/stickers.
It seems like, whatever and however extensive their idealogical divisions, all of political design in America is permeated by a worrisome banality.


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kementari2
kementari2
The green fuse
Thu, Jul. 20th, 2006 03:13 am (UTC)
Tyranny of the majority

Why do political parties in America wish to seem populist, with all that entails?

Because we have a largely democratic system, and what appeals to the most people gets the most votes.

Seeming everyday, middle-class, and fallible yet solid and goal-oriented pays off, whether in votes, dollars, viewers, etc. for all types of democratic consumption.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jul. 20th, 2006 05:29 am (UTC)
Re: Tyranny of the majority

Oh, the populist part I understand, of course. It's just when that gets crossed with the imperial imagery that I begin to worry.

I'm much more comfortable with the "elitist" yet well-designed European Union. Their Rem Koolhaas EU flag, for instance:



The barcode is a "witty populism" -- a reference to consumerism, but not necessarily in itself consumerist.

But actually the Europa website is pretty yuck.


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constructionism
constructionism
constructionism
Thu, Jul. 20th, 2006 03:47 am (UTC)
One more thing I have to think about...

This is really relevant to what I've been doing lately.

As an undergrad, I had a few classes - one on changing views of "American-ness" in art and design since the dawn of the U.S., another one on the "History of America's Visual Environment."

I should be paying more attention to the government's visuals, but I guess I haven't had the time yet. I used to work with government documents, but I'm just getting started with this stuff. I spend a lot of time looking at seventies imagery, when federal government programs were expanding.

Design and decor have been crucial to American administrations throughout history, a lot of people don't realize that now. One example that people might be familiar with is the 1930s.
Sometime I'll have to share some pictures from my local post office. I could blather on here about other styles.

Of course, not everyone who does design and graphics for the administration is a Republican, so who knows what is really being communicated here. It looks very cheap and "informational". Could be worse. If I recall correctly, the Reagan administration had a lot of over the top bleary "imperial" colors and such, but I'll have to check on that.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 20th, 2006 03:50 pm (UTC)
Re: The South Korea Peace Project SKPP

just some advice: men aren't attracted to crazy chicks.


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antisyzygy
antisyzygy
antisyzygy
Thu, Jul. 20th, 2006 08:44 am (UTC)

Spot on. In the UK, the cheap-&-cheerful design values of Morrisons supermarkets are also a case in point, as contrasted with the relative restraint of Safeway, who they bought out.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Jul. 20th, 2006 11:07 am (UTC)

Isn't all US graphic design a bit...old-fashioned and naff or unnecessarily flash? Any links to nice material??


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Jul. 20th, 2006 11:19 am (UTC)


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