July 20th, 2006


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".