The proud display of imagination: When it comes to shaping our world, designers know less is not more
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 27 January 2004)

Elegant and articulate design has become so much a part of public life that we now sometimes call on designers just to introduce the work of other designers. The Art Gallery of Ontario demonstrated that point by bringing in the firm of Hahn Smith to create the publications and posters connected with Transformation, which is the AGO's name for the Frank Gehry renovation to be revealed tomorrow.

Hahn Smith, who are Allison Hahn and Nigel Smith, developed the wordmark, slogan, colour palette and brand identity to "unify and make clear all of the activities related to this time of transition and excitement at the AGO."

The AGO chose a firm that's exceptional in the quality of its work yet typical of two broad tendencies in Canadian design: Hahn Smith perform on the international stage and operate in a wide variety of forms. From their studio on Adelaide Street in Toronto they design for the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York as well as the Power Plant and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics in Toronto. They established the layout of the Harvard Design Magazine, and for other clients they do everything from signage to packaging to flatware. In 2001, in the book Graphic Design for the 21st Century, two British critics, Charlotte and Peter Fiell, named them one of the world's 100 best firms.

Design has recently captured unusually wide attention, in part because, on its best days, it answers substantial human needs. We live in the midst of visual chaos but yearn for order. Humans are system-seeking animals, given to creating categories and classes. Designers negotiate the splintered, fragmented reality of our lives to create the coherent and (if possible) handsome world we seek.

Where does good design come from? Gehry's work illustrates one answer. The world knows that his buildings look like sculptures, but few understand that this emerges from his long-term study of artists. In a marvellous book called The Secret Life of Buildings, Gavin Macrae-Gibson finds the sources of Gehry's original inspiration in artists as different as Vermeer and Malevitch. He argues that Gehry absorbed a central theme of modern art, the nature of perception, and expressed it in his architecture.

The ambitions and skills of designers have given fresh shape even to journalism. Visual imagination, linked to a sense of communication, came to the newspaper business decades ago, but in recent times has grown steadily more important. (The design of the National Post influenced newspapers across the country, much for the better; the Toronto Star has been a particular beneficiary.) In recent times TV news design has crept slowly into our collective imagination. Once the news on television was plain to look at; now it's like a carnival.

In the book Looking Closer (2002), John Hockenberry outlines the career of Ben Blank, who was, Hockenberry says, "the television graphic artist's equivalent of Homer, Marshall McLuhan and Edward R. Murrow rolled into one." Blank began in the 1940s painting titles and credits on little posters that sat on easels in the studio and were photographed by the same cameras used to shoot the rest of the program. At CBC television in Toronto similar graphics were handled so much that they eventually looked ragged around the edges (some were painted by well-known Canadian artists early in their careers, notably Graham Coughtry and Louis de Niverville). It was a great technical advance when they were transferred to slides that could be slipped into a slot in the system.

In 1957, when the Soviet Union put a space capsule named Sputnik in orbit, Don Hewitt of CBS News wanted something revolutionary, a moving image for the newscast. Blank attached a small globe to a turntable in his studio, and mounted it against a black background dotted with stars. He painted a golf ball to look like Sputnik, and held it with his own arm, wrapped in blue tape to make it invisible to the camera. "We filmed it for a minute, edited it into a loop, and it led the evening news."

Since then, computer programs have made everything much easier -- too easy, in fact. Once they learned the computer's tricks, designers felt compelled to use them. Now flashing, migraine-inducing graphics clutter the screen. Some TV designers have learned restraint, but not enough of them.

Blank came up with one of the big ideas in his business, showing a graphic image over the shoulder of a news anchor reading a story. This became an essential part of television news coverage, a way to identify a continuing story. Naomi Klein might be upset, but these changing logo-like forms (now often accompanied by music) make communication clearer. The best of them show a precise image that captures the story's essence, like the lone man facing the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Blank's last symbol, before he retired in 1992, was the one that identified Operation Desert Storm, the first Iraq war.

He and other TV artists followed the same upward path as designers in many fields, from cars to books. Typically, they were first grudgingly accepted as decorators of what others produced, brought in when the essential work was finished and told to make it look pretty. But as the process has matured over the years, designers have tended to come in at the beginning, as soon as a project starts; that's now a central principle in the growing field called "design management." In TV news, a designer with some knowledge of events may help decide what's to be emphasized.

Milton Glaser, 75 this year, has been the most omnipresent of North American designers. In 1968 he helped create New York magazine, the prototype for city magazines across the continent; later he redesigned the Washington Post, Time, L'Express of Paris and dozens of other publications.

Some years ago he realized that similar design principles can apply to radically different projects. He created a complex of restaurants in Kansas City, a toy store called Childcraft, a gigantic mural in Indianapolis, and a table for the makers of Formica. Over 15 years he redesigned the Grand Union supermarket chain. At a design conference I once heard him explain that Grand Union was converting several of its locations into low-price bulk-food stores, which meant Glaser had to undesign them till they resembled crude warehouses. He ripped up handsome white tile floors so that customers could walk on concrete and thereby feel everything was cheaper, which might have been true.

In 1976, when New York City was in steep decline, Glaser helped it recover by devising a uniquely appealing logo, "I (Trademark) NY,"

which soon became the most promiscuously mimicked symbol in the world. Had he been able to copyright it, that idea alone would have made him wealthy.

Like Gehry's, his work reflects the artists who have attracted him all his life. Studying Glaser, you can trace the influence of everything from Magritte paintings to Japanese woodcuts, from Picasso portraits to Art Deco geometry. His career has also been one long reaction against the rigid design rules that professionals embraced in the 1950s, when he was starting out -- the straight lines and square corners and limited colour exemplified in the buildings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Glaser hated the pious and puritanical belief that less is more. "All that stuff about revealing structure and reducing things to their simplest forms -- I couldn't go for that," he has said. He wanted romance, elaboration, charm. "Ornament is necessary," he claims. He sees no reason to honour simplification over complexity.

Designers, in print or in architecture, have had trouble accepting that there's nothing wrong with the proud display of imagination; but the recent flurry of Gehry-influenced buildings, and the popularity of Gehry's own work, demonstrate that this obvious truth has finally become, for the first time in generations, the conventional wisdom.

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