15. February, 2008
Bob Gill and David Carson visited Riga on separate occasions as part of the Latvian Art Directors Club lecture and workshop series.
In art you do what you want, in design you do what someone else wants. Art expresses something personal while design depends on communicating a message to others. Bob Gill says that the difference between an artist and a designer comes down to temperament: a designer needs to be loved every day. He needs affirmation from his target audience or client, he needs to be understood;it is the goal of his work. The artist’s message is himself, his personal view of the world. Being “misunderstood” often works to his advantage, making him intriguing to his viewers. If art is personal expression, is a designer who expresses himself in his work a bad designer?
After meeting Bob Gill the visual world according to Bob and relating to my own practice was suddenly divided into three neat piles: art, narrative visual communication and decorative visual communication. Or, more simply put, art, design and decoration. Although Gill may call what I have dubbed “decoration” simply bad design, in my view, all three fields are indispensable and equally challenging.
An artist puts himself into his work. He is encouraged to develop a style, a visual handwriting that allows him to be recognized. An artist can allow himself this because he says the same thing over and over again – he is communicating himself. A designer communicates a clear message about something outside of himself: a product. A designer’s message changes with each project, therefore it is nonsensical to use the same language to express each one. Decoration makes information look visually pleasing through decisions based on aesthetics – choices concerning font, colour, composition, contrast, etc.
Bob would say that decoration is empty, bad design that doesn’t communicate. I disagree, as does David Carson. David reads an article and interprets its content visually. He asks himself: how can I communicate this article to someone who doesn’t understand the language it is written in? How can I express the music on a CD through its cover? He doesn’t illustrate the thesis of the article;he dresses the article to mirror its contents. He demonstrates that a message can be communicated through blurry or overlapping type, illegible font, negative space, bright colours or tones of grey. His statement is not explicit;it is not something that can be summed up in a sentence. He describes the qualities of the product instead of stating something concrete about it.
David’s work remains personal: an interpretation of a product based on his experiences. David urges us to put a little bit of ourselves into everything we do. At a time when everyone including your mother can buy the same software, being you is the only thing that makes you different: “All work needs to be personal. It's where the best work comes from, and it's the only way to do something truly unique. Nobody else can pull from your background, upbringing, parents or life experiences. The best work is always the most self-indulgent. Do what you love and the passion will show.” 1
Bob Gill calls designers who put themselves into their work frustrated artists working as designers.
Minimalist artist Dan Flavin made fluorescent light installations from 1961 until his death in 1996 and is considered an icon of modern art. For minimalists, art was not a means of self-expression: “we are pressing downward toward no art – a mutual sense of psychologically indifferent decoration.” 2Yet, as David says, you cannot NOT communicate. Everything you do says something. Silence, white space, an unanswered phone call - all send a clear message. Whenever I see Dan Flavin’s work in just about every modern art museum I have ever been to, although it succeeds in stirring no feeling in me, it communicates a clear message: ”Dan Flavin made me.” Because he maintained a visual handwriting for over 40 years, Flavin’s work has come to advertise him. David Carson has developed a style that he is recognized for. His work over the years is congruous and identifiable. Is he promoting his client’s product or is he promoting himself? Is he saying the same thing over and over again? Maybe. He offers an interpretation of a product that is specific to who he is, and who he is isn’t going to change radically over time. Clients go to him for it. They go to him knowing that they are going to get David Carson.
But can Bob Gill really claim to create work void of personality? Can anyone create anything that is completely outside of himself? Can Bob say that there is no personality in the lines of his illustrations, the curves of his logos, as diverse as his style may be? Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell explains how something seemingly unexpressive and abstract can communicate an entire being: “I was standing next to that huge black and white picture and a middle aged man came up to me and said, “exactly what does it mean?” I looked at it and realized that the picture has been painted over several times and radically changed in shape and balance, in all kinds of things. And suddenly I realized that each brush stroke is a decision, and it’s a decision not only aesthetically, it’s a decision that has to do with one's gut. I happen to be a heavy clumsy awkward man and if something gets too airy, although I may like it very much, it doesn’t feel like myself to me. In the end, whatever meaning that picture has is the accumulated meaning of ten thousand brushstrokes, each one being decided while it was painted. What “it means” is the accumulation of all these decisions in which, if it took months to paint, my basic character has to be involved. When you work steadily at something, your whole being comes out.” 3Of course we aren’t going to read Motherwell’s message as clearly as a designer’s. The average consumer, or even gallery-goer, won’t understand that Abstract #12 is actually the sum of a person’s character. But the message is there, it can’t not be. The task of design by definition is to express ideas clearly, to reach a wider audience than the gallery elite and art historians, but even if you choose to hide your personality, your choice expresses something about you.
You cannot mask yourself entirely, but you can choose what you put first – you or your client. Maybe that is what separates designers from artists. Maybe David Carson’s work is “bad” design…but I like it. And I’m not alone, David 's first book, with Lewis Blackwell, The End of Print, is the top selling graphic design book of all time, selling over 200,000 copies, and printed in 5 different languages.4He is obviously communicating something that people can relate to, and the task of design is communication. Maybe David Carson is an artist working as a designer. Good. He’s taking art off the white and private walls of galleries, where only a limited number of people with specific interests see it, and putting it into advertising, books and magazines, where it is seen by a wide and diverse audience.
Bob Gill can’t reconcile art with design, David Carson smashes them together. The lines dividing art and graphic design are clearly defined to some, they overlap for others. We each do what makes sense to us.
2 Dan Flavin: Concepts of Modern Art Edited by Nikos Stangos London, 1997
3 Robert Motherwell “A Conversation with students” April 6, 1979: The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, Los Angeles, 1999