Identity and the arts: A talk at Artists Space

Later this month, Dexter Sinister will present “Identity,” an exhibition that, in the words of its description, “charts the emergence and proliferation of graphic identity since the turn of the twentieth century, with particular reference to contemporary art institutions — museums, galleries, and so called alternative spaces.”

Initiated by Artists Space, the project has been run by Dexter Sinister in cooperation with a variety of colleagues for over two years. In the fall of 2009, I was asked by Dexter Sinister and Stefan Kalmár of Artists Space to give a talk to an invited group of 20 or so guests. Part of a series of informally titled “How do we look?”, this initial lecture carried an aim that was deeply reflexive, examining the history of the organization’s own visual identity in the context of both arts-related identities and the somewhat woolier world of branding and visual culture. To facilitate the talk, I was given special access to Artists Space’s archive of printed ephemera — my thanks to Amy Owen and Jessica Wilcox at Artists Space for their help and guidance.

The tone was informal, with people asking me to expand upon one point or another, as we sipped some whiskey with conversation. Rather than adhere to a strict chronology of Artists Space’s identity development, I chose to group its marks around a loose taxonomy that included IMPRINTS, SYMBOLS, MONOGRAMS, LANDMARKS, and LOCKUPS so that perhaps a new story could emerge.

The talk was, for me, foundational to many projects and assignments that followed and informed both the structure of my SVA course and our recent identity work for SALT Istanbul at Project Projects.

The writing below is loose and rough, assembled from my notes and fuzzy memory of the evening — but, truth be told, it’s a story better told through visuals, anyway. Even if the below serves as nothing more than a prompt to visit David and Stuart’s smart and inventive show, then I’m glad to have shared it here. — RG

I thought I’d start out tonight with one of Artists Space’s most important early shows, the Pictures exhibition from 1977. And if you look at the booklet of the show here, you’ll see that at the bottom the name Artists Space has been typeset to match the look of the overall booklet. No standalone mark, nothing too systematic — in the early days things changed a lot from one exhibition to another. Reading this, the analogy seems to be that the gallery thought of itself as a kind of publisher. It’s presenting these things, but it’s not imposing its own external identity on anything. It’s initiating creative projects and then allowing its own identity to be mutable, to change with those projects.

And so with that idea in mind the first group of marks I’d like to look at is IMPRINTS. Imprimatur means “to sanction” or “to give formal and explicit approval,” and this is what I was describing before. Rather than a visual identity the emphasis is on the provenance: on where an exhibition came from and who initiated it.

Publishers have long relied on this mutability. Most famously and illustratively, Knopf has a whole broad set of Borzoi dogs that change to compliment a book’s cover design, tone, and setting. There is no single Borzoi. Instead, there are many simultaneous possibilities. It’s almost Platonic: it’s not a specific book with a specific dog but the idea of a book with a dog on it that assigns the book as a Knopf book. It’s more descriptive, really, than symbolic.

This website for White Columns, designed by Project Projects, works in much the same way. When you reload a page the style sheets refresh, and the site goes from serif to sans and back again. So it’s like the Borzoi dog, in that it opens up the possibility that White Columns can take on a variety of formal details but still remain, essentially, itself. The formal “idea” of the site doesn’t change, just its visual expression.

The more you rummage around the archives, the more you see a range of materials in which the Artists Space identity acts in this way. Here is a a flyer for some film programming from the mid-’80s, looking very theatrical indeed. And this strategy wasn’t continuous, either — between the Pictures show and the design of this flyer different, more formalized marks emerged and were then discarded.

Sometimes there was even variance within a given piece. Here’s a great example from 1988 for a show called Telling Tales. There’s literally one “super” logo, which is set in one typeface, and then there’s a smaller “logo-sized” logo in another typeface.

By the late ’80s the impact of design’s postmodern tastes were readily apparent, and the hybridity of a given graphic system set to the max. Even within the artists’ own first and last names there is variance and expressivity. This piece is from 1989.

At other points around this time, zine culture and DIY publishing became more apparent, as in the booklet design for this Robert Gero show from 1990. Here Artists Space acts as the publisher once again, with the form of its name subordinate to the larger aesthetic system of the booklet.

Here, too, in this small photocopied pamphlet from the ’90s, this vibe is apparent. What’s important to understand here is that imprints don’t need to be large or institutional in tone — they can be homemade, grassroots, inventive, and unmonolithic. Quite casual, really.

And in this casualness I’m reminded of Ed Fella’s wonderful posters for the Detroit Focus Gallery, made over a number of years with great inventiveness. Each poster treats the logo differently, and yet the set is coherent and identifiable, offering a kind of aesthetic consistency that supports the range of activities housed at the gallery. Willi Kunz’s ongoing posters for Columbia’s GSAPP program are another example of this kind of identification strategy. Rather than impose a system that can be executed by anyone, they create a highly particular set of responses that can be recognized without being formulaic.

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Branding & Visual Studies: Foundations and Research

Above, top to bottom: Quaker Oats mascot; Sealand identity proposal by Metahaven.

Almost two years ago, I was asked by SVA MPS Branding Chair Debbie Millman and Co-Founder Steven Heller to teach a course for the new program, which kicked off its inaugural year this September. Over the months leading up to the program’s launch, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in research and to seek out the opinions of fellow faculty as I prepared this class. I am grateful for their contributions, and for the smart and hardworking students that enrolled in the course. I couldn’t have asked for a better group, and their contributions deepened and amplified the themes I’ve laid out here at every turn. I found few resources online for assembling a class of this kind, yet its topics seem to infuse our contemporary discussions of design and identity. I offer the syllabus here as an evolving document and will be adding to it myself over time. I welcome suggestions for additions as well. —RG

Course description: Beginning with the history and underlying ideas of branding and identity design, this course will examine the development of classic identities as well as seminal identity designers and design studios. We will also review contemporary cases that highlight the challenges of brand and identity creation in specific sectors including fast-moving consumer goods, durable goods, services, organizations, places, and ideas. At the same time, we will examine both critical viewpoints around the practice of identity design and speculate on the future of brands and branded environments.

Above all, this course will:

  • Educate and train your eyes
  • Ask you to observe, evaluate, and critique basic claims and assumptions
  • Provide you with a platform for research

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Fair Trade

Above: A spread from The Book Trust Prospectus by IFS, Ltd.

This year, much of the talk about the New York Art Book Fair seems to be centered on the Fair itself. Fueling some of this talk, whether expressly stated or not, is a simple question: how, in the midst of one of the most historic economic recessions on record, as the media outlets decry the final hour of the book, was last year’s Fair the biggest yet? And why does it seem that this year’s Fair may be even bigger still?

Against the backdrop of the recession and the destabilization of the book there are three additional factors that have a bearing on the Fair’s ever-increasing reach: the graphic design postgraduate program that defines a thesis book as its culminating project; the design social scene that functions a bit more like a rock scene, celebrating the making and distribution of new work over the more professionalized goals of acquiring and servicing clients; and the temporary or “pop-up” store that transforms the sometimes solitary act of buying into a networked, participatory, and collective event.

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Being available in response

Frank Chimero, a man full of good ideas, shared another one recently: a text playlist. Basically, it’s a selection of readings that he revisits on a regular basis, “almost a pep talk in text form,” as he describes it. Frank’s list included a ton of good stuff (I’ve done some thinking about “stock and flow" myself), and the wonderful Liz Danzico responded in kind with a great list of her own.

I’m still working on my list, but while I’m in the process of pulling it together I decided I had to share one reading that I’ve been revisiting a lot over the last few days. It’s from Lawrence Weschler’s incredible book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is about the artist Robert Irwin. Chapter 15 is called “Being Available in Response,” which is also the name of a project initiated by Irwin.

The first time I read this chapter I nearly lept out of my chair — I got so excited I reread it three or four times right away.

Rather than trying to explain the project too much, though, I’ll let Irwin (and Weschler) tell you about it as they do in the book. Here’s Irwin:

"I just sort of let it be known that I was available, in a way like I’m saying it to you. I mean, I didn’t put out any ads or anything, but word got around. And you could be, let’s say, up at UCLA, and you’d say, ‘Well, let’s take advantage of that. We’ll have him come up and talk to the students.’ And that’s what I’d do. Or, ‘We’ll have him come up and do a piece on the patio.’ And I would just come up and do that.

"There’s an important distinction to be made here," [Irwin] continued, "between organizing and proselytizing, on the one hand, and responding to interest, on the other. I was and continue to be available in response. I mean, I don’t stand on a corner and hand out leaflets. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not trying to sell anything. But on the other hand, if you ask me a question, you’re going to get a half-hour answer.’”

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New Yorker card

The Gift came, as gifts often do, without my asking for it. Its cover flashed up on my computer screen by way of an server that drew upon a collective memory of what customers like me had already purchased when I logged in one afternoon looking for a particular book on Shaker design. The cover, probably designed in part by The Gift’s author, Lewis Hyde, caught my eye because it featured a drawing that Hyde, who is an English professor at Kenyon College, credits inside as “Basket of Apples.” The drawing, however, is more properly credited as “A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples” and was made 150 years ago by a self-taught Shaker woman named Hannah Cohoon, who would have called it a “gift drawing.” I had first seen it several days before, in an article from The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on the Shakers titled "Shining Tree of Life," where he describes both the drawing and the circumstances of its making:

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Graphic Design & Critical Thinking

How do ideas become visual? How do emotions take shape? What do we assume about the things we see? What do we take for granted? What are our expectations for communicating with others? How do they communicate with us? How should information be organized? In what form does it pass from one person to the next? What are the boundaries between the precious and the everyday? How do we evaluate beauty? When do visual things become ideological? Which kinds of communication are information and which are propaganda? Which kinds of communication are ethical and which are unethical? Who decides? What should learning about design require? How should we do it? What does criticism have to teach us? Who can make design? What kind of rights and authority can those people lay claim to?

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New Black Face: Neuland and Lithos as Stereotypography

"The Neuland Question comes up regularly, and alas without much resolution…." —Jonathan Hoefler

The “Neuland Question” to which Jonathan Hoefler refers involves not just Neuland, a “display” typeface hand-carved in 1923 by Rudolf Koch (Plate 1), but also Lithos, another “display” typeface digitally created in 1989 by Carol Twombly (Plate 2). The Question can be put simply: How did these two typefaces come to signify Africans and African-Americans, regardless of how a designer uses them, and regardless of the purpose for which their creators originally intended them? The investigation of this question has four parts: first, an examination of the environments in which Koch and Twombly created the original typefaces; second, an examination of the graphic culture that surrounded African-Americans prior to the creation of Neuland through a close viewing of tobacco ephemera; third, an examination of the Art Deco (French Modern) style, the graphic culture most prevalent in the United States at the time of Neuland’s release; and finally, an examination of the ways designers use Neuland and Lithos today.

NeulandPlate 1

LithosPlate 2

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The Problem with Posters


It would not be unfair to compare the thematic architecture of this year’s Venice Biennale with that of Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center. The 50th Annual Biennale, called “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer,” was staged in two primary exhibition venues: the Giardini della Biennale, built in 1895, and the Arsenale, a former shipbuilding yard located on the outskirts of town. The Giardini house the enormous Italian Pavilion and 29 other national pavilions built by the participating nations themselves. The recently restored buildings of the Arsenale are home to independent satellite exhibitions and other large-scale shows. Thus, the Giardini, with their bevy of national pavilions, are like EPCOT’s “World Showcase,” the northern half of the park, where landmarks and typical structures from nine countries are presented around a lagoon in a miniature world tour of cultures and cuisines. And, with the inclusion of “Utopia Station”—an exhibition organized by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija—the far end of the Arsenale has become an analogue to EPCOT’s “Future World.”

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Default Systems in Graphic Design

A discussion between Rob Giampietro and Rudy VanderLans about guilt and loss in graphic design.

Rudy VanderLans, editor, Emigre: When writer/designer Rob Giampietro approached me a few months back with the idea to write an article about graphic design in the ’90s, he brought up an unrelated topic during our conversation that I found intriguing; he mentioned the term “Default Systems Design.” He said it was the topic for another article he had been working on for the past few months. It’s curious how certain ideas reach critical mass. In Emigre #64 a number of contributors, independently from each other, each made note of the emergence of a new kind of graphic design that seems to rely heavily on the use of systems and defaults. Just when you think graphic design is in a coma, something’s taking root. Reprinted here is how we arrived at the topic, as well as edited segments of the rest of the dialogue.

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The Typographic “Modern”


Above: The Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany.

To start, when I say the typographic “modern,” I don’t mean Modernity, even though the written distinction is typographic. The project of Modernity spanned a century or more; the novelty of modern typography lasted a few decades at best, and had its heyday in the latter half of the twentieth century, in the twilight, or perhaps even in the aftermath, of the Modern Age. Typographic theorists and thinkers were far less acclimated to philosophical tracts than they were to artistic manifestos, which were themselves generally non-comparative and often stridently rhetorical. So, as the manifesto-writers repackaged the philosophers, the typographers repackaged the manifesto-writers, and, here we have typography in its typical position: twice-removed. Contemporary designers Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller explain, “writing is… a set of signs for representing signs. The design of letterforms is removed one step further: it is a medium whose signified is not words but rather the alphabet.”

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