14. February, 2008
Ever since Greek philosophers questioned the relationship between form and content, the matter has been at the forefront of artistic discourse. The Western consciousness is still very much rooted in ancient theories of art as representation. Design is a part of that, and every designer will have experienced the necessity to translate content into form as clearly as possible, especially those working in advertising.
It would hardly be an overstatement to admit a lack of a strong design tradition in Latvia, and it is most definitely the long isolation period that has not allowed one to prosper. I recently spotted an excellent observation of the term Soviet Design by a columnist at designobserver.com. He described the notion as a contradiction in terms, because good design celebrates the personality while Soviet regime does not even admit to one. A lot has been said about the isolation years, yet it is somewhat striking just how few designers are truly interested in the global design scene, and even fewer are eager to learn from it. Change for the better is yet to occur also in regards to advertising being so overtly separated from design. In advertising, most effort is directed towards putting as much content as possible in an ad, leaving just a fraction of time and space for quality design to flourish. It is my guess that this effort is fueled by the illusion that the presence of obvious content helps an ad be more worthy and sellable in the eyes of the client and the general viewer.
Almost every designer has heard the phrase: „I don’t get it!“ It happens most often not when design itself is dodgy, but simply when the content is not plain obvious. It goes without saying that clarity is a virtue in both arts and advertising, however it is the dominance of content that prevents design from speaking for itself. It often occurs to me that the blatant urge to interpret content and place subjective meanings upon things is not only apparent in Latvian advertising, but in society as a whole. People show open disrespect towards each other in social settings, while eagerness to interpret content in advertising just spoils the form and design.
When content hasn’t overtaken form, one quickly arrives at analysis and interpretation – a phenomenon clearly rooted in the notion of art as representation. „What does it mean?“, „Why is this the way it is and not different?“, „Perhaps this object should be replaced?“ are questions derived from instinct to interpret. To find out and understand are clearly human instincts, yet one’s wish to over-interpret, placing ever new meanings upon one another, destroys the autonomy of form. Discussing interpretation and its place in today’s Latvia, one needs to mention Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation. „In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.“ What Sontag wrote back in 1964 still resonates today as does the notion that what she calls Art can be equally thought of as our daily design work.
I believe that good design is a value in itself. As it often happens with other things of high value, it is not necessarily the most popular. In other words – most people really do have bad taste. Some of the greatest design in advertising has been able to escape the doom of interpretation, such as the ad campaign of The Guardian newspaper.
Looking back at the history of form in quality design, I certainly need to mention Massimo Vignelli’s NY Subway map and signage system, both done in 1966. The Subway signage system is still seen all around NY, while in new Subway maps content has triumphed over form.
Emphasis on form is often said to channel decorativeness, abstraction. Perhaphs that’s why it’s not that much compatible with advertising language (whatever that happens to be). Yet there are numerous examples from all over the world of the type of design, which is both quality design and design that does justice to client. Not a lot more to wish for, or is there? An excellent example is this ad campaign for British Airways.
It is obviously too early to expect this sort of advertising from local players, say airBaltic or pretty much any other big corporate client for that matter. One doesn’t, however, need to look much further to find that Estonian ad design has gone a rather different route. My experience working on design for Estonian national television (etv.ee) and EMT (compare emt.ee and lmt.lv), the largest mobile service provider, has shown that big corporate clients really trust designer’s expertise and take their opinion seriously. It is perhaps one of the reasons why Estonia‘s design culture is so different from Latvia‘s, and design there can easily match the best design examples from around the world.
The urge to interpret will not perhaps vanish from our day to day lives, but what would be the key to turning it into constructive enricher of form? Sontag believes it is necessary to silence excessive and arrogant interpretation, giving way to thorough and intelligent description of form. In her words, it is important to describe rather than prescribe. „Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means,“ Sontag writes at the end of her discourse on interpretation.
While understanding of content might vary among all of us, we do live in a visual world and are able to appreciate good form, – given we have a chance to see it. Let’s hope that we will be blessed to see good form more often in Latvia – be it in design or architecture – and that the courage to create quality design will be more than just a cutesy little slogan.