My worry is that in the absence of commas as indications of a contemplative pause, in the absence of my intonation (perhaps an indication of sincerity), in the absence of the glasses I wear in front of dark eyes and brown skin (my mother says they make me look like an intellectual), this writing, like many that have come before it, will fall victim to some sort of prescriptive behavior, asking you, the reader, to take a series of fragmented points and then connect them into an “idea,” which ideally produces some sort of action. However, I’m not yet as skilled as I would like to be. I probably couldn’t convince you to do anything unless I tried really hard (I already did in an earlier draft of this essay, and have since reverted back to what you are currently reading). Writing escapes me in a way that design doesn’t, which is only to say that my effort to articulate a certain line of thought in writing should be judged as successful if it helps to dismantle any problematic assumptions I have made in the process of articulating it or/maybe provide clarity as to what assumptions made should be further explored (or at the very least gives someone something to laugh at).
Language seems to have a strength to it that has always drawn me to literature, poetry, and speech. However, in the absence of a voice, I hesitate because what I want to articulate (subjective discussions around aesthetics, power, and cultural production) lives in a world with much less rigidity than the world of written text. It might also be that speech loosens language and allows it to become abstract enough to handle for someone with a suspicion of their own abilities, as if to say something out loud is to make it safer to believe in. But “this” is not a lecture, or comfortable conversation in one of my friends’ living rooms. This is rigid, and will be left unchanged after automatically syncing to my Drive for the last time.
The greatest pop-star of my generation sings us to sleep (play this in the background; you can probably skim through the rest in half the time).
I want to begin with the assumption:
The display of art is identical to the production of graphic design, both in its participants and in its function.
There exist three points in its actualization.
The artist: this is the designer. The museum, gallery, artist-run space, or independent commissioner: this is the client. And finally there is the consumer who occupies parallel roles in both relationships. Regardless of context, we are beholden to the transfer of capital when engaged in public or private activity under capitalism. Both function to transfer or retain value for the client which sustains engagement with the consumer. An inescapable link is created between mass culture, independent production, and commerce.
All graphic design is un-considered because it is a projection of the self. Designers generate metaphor because they operate under the mask of objectivity. To attempt to produce aesthetics in relation to a market, or to manipulate the market, is an inherently self-defeating project as an independent producer.
To be more specific, ad campaigns, mood boards, identity re-development, etc., are produced in relation to the abstract. To encapsulate an “idea” into a symbol is to undercut the complexity of the “idea.” The process of simplification, the transition to metaphor, lose their ability to have a substantive effect given that the symbol won’t operate within fixed parameters. For example, the application of a logo to a brand should ideally be simplified to “‘This’ is a symbol for ‘that,’” or, in practice: the Nike swoosh is a symbol for a shoe company. But, if this is true, what happens when you put the Nike swoosh on a backpack, or an ad in a stadium, or an ad campaign about “Equality”…
“Nike, the monolith of sportswear has long supported all athletes. Whether big names or small-town heroes. From countries far and wide. Of all builds, sizes, and colors. Whether male or female. Nike is the common denominator. This sense of equality is essential to sports, to competition, to success, to sportsmanship. And in today’s hostile political environments it is under attack. The men and women at Nike decided to take a stand for equality in and outside of the field.”
—Bureau Mirko Borsche
“This” is not a symbol for “that,” but instead, a symbol for the context or culture around which we should understand “that.” In this way, we begin to see designers are producing constructions of culture which rely on their visual metaphors to solidify themselves as truth.
A metaphor produced by a graphic designer is only powerful when operating in relation to that which has cultural (or economic) authority. These types of metaphors are useless if there is nothing to validate it externally. As brands accrue power, usually in relation to their economic value, symbols generated to represent brands also gain the power to manipulate the context or culture they are operating within. In many ways, our production is dictated by the constraints of products and marketing efforts that already exist within the physical and digital spaces we occupy. This does not render a negation, only produces a pause as to why an idea’s visibility is tied to its profitability. One only has to look to the nearest branded object around them and momentarily reflect on the brand’s latest media strategies in relation to contemporary culture. I’ll go first, I’m writing this essay in my brand-new pair of NIKE SB KOSTON 3 HYPERFEEL, White/Deep Royal Blue.
The truth of symbolic metaphors generated by brands comes from the cultural value of their producers. In many ways, this correspondence between truth and capital complicates the role of the designer and other cultural producers. While a designer or design firm may have their own social, cultural, or economic capital, the success of the work (metaphor) produced is more often than not related to the social, cultural, or economic capital of their client (or space in which the work is eventually displayed). If a designer produces something and it is rejected by the client, it could be argued that the work was a false metaphor for the company for which it was produced. After it has been accepted by the client it somehow becomes true. Following this logic, all design work produced is inherently false metaphor and in the absence of the client any or all design produced is equally false. Furthermore, if we were to ignore the social, cultural, and economic capital of the client, much if not all design work produced is false metaphor tied to nothing more than the designers themselves, their subjective histories, and limited worldview. However, I believe in pursuit of metaphor the designer successfully creates a metonym through their own relationship to the abstract concepts they are attempting to represent. In this metonym you see laid before you, the designer: their ideals, ethics, worldview (I would even argue fear). Perhaps there is an implication of a smaller, more specific context, one that is not fabricated like the metaphor, but a translation of the space in which the metaphor was produced. The scope of this metonym’s usefulness is probably very limited. I currently work under the assumption that the limitations are derived from, but not limited to: race, class, gender, sexuality, location of the producer, location of distribution, etc.
To re-articulate: I don’t believe passive participation in production cycles that offload the generation of value to larger institutions will ever be productive given that this value will most likely be a reflection of the larger institution, not the actual producer. I’d even go as far to say that to produce in service of a client is to be complicit in the devaluation of content given that false metaphors that shape culture actively devalue independently produced content.
However, reality dictates a necessity to play along (only if you/I value our current level of financial/social comfort), but after a certain point I wonder if my ability to observe this is a byproduct of some irreparable personal flaw (I actually own two pairs of NIKE SB KOSTON 3 HYPERFEEL; the second is in the Black/Yellow Strike/Gum Light Brown/White colorway). Perhaps because of this my voice only should reach those currently in a similar context as me. Maybe an articulation of critique is only relevant in that it exposes my own biases, and maybe without true sacrifice I’ll forever be satisfied contributing to systems that actively oppress me and my peers.
I’d like to close with an idea that I’ve been considering putting into application in relation to time-based media. (If in fact) Power has a connection to the autonomy of content, a hesitant proposal:
Literal scene vs. constructed scene—In this particular instance, a concept rendered through time-based media activates three points in relation to the viewer.
a. Surface: Compression of 3d space into 2d
b. Metaphor: Implication of concept rendered through surface existing outside the initial context of creation
c. Abstraction (feeling) Intentional manipulation of the metaphor to distort the appearance of the surface. Usually in an attempt to produce sympathy outside the initial context of viewing.
The former (literal scene), is defined by what can be immediately perceived, or qualified through the senses, aesthetics and physical/digital context. The literal scene is a subjective state of viewing. In observing such a scene, a consumer is only exposed to an implication of a metaphor. The surface is unimportant, almost tertiary to the context being provided for its consumption. The surface only exists to produce a third point—an abstraction of what originally existed with a singular purpose, to be moved through rather than retained. Subsequently, the surface dissolves in the absence of the consumer, only existing as a footnote to the abstraction.
The latter (constructed scene), has no life outside of its viewing. It destroys itself upon completion. Its existence is not reliant on the presence of a consumer; in fact, the consumer’s position is based on chance and/or privilege. The surface of the constructed scene contains a singular metonym internally, bypassing the process of implication. The surface assumes the role of author, a non-human agent bearing no responsibility to the reality of the consumer or any party involved in its distribution. Context is irrelevant, “context” in the consumer’s reality is nothing more than a tool for manipulation.
Rahul S. Shinde is a graphic designer based in Philadelphia, PA. He is the senior designer @ GrayBits.