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Coming around on the visual glut business.

March 14, 2012

I went to the Strand today to hang out and browse some books…which turned out to be a depressing evening with me looking into the dark heart of graphic design.

Last fall, a professor from VCU visited and railed against visual glut. At the time, I think  I posted something like, I want to make visual glut! By which I mean, the ephermera of the everyday. I think I assumed that he meant poorly designed vernacular stuff — supermarket flyers, deli signage, shit packaging. But now I see that the most poisonous design, the most glut-y of the visual glut, is high minded design.

It was just so terrible — essentially every book on the shelves there, in the art/design/architecture section was just so foul-ly designed. With the architecture books, the standard crime was terrible typefaces. Slim sans serifs or something that were meant for no human reader to read at any length. I went to the design section. It just got worse. It was bad typeface selection AND a really active design sensibility. Design that shoves in your face all the time how clever and design-y and active it is.

I hope you don’t think I’m recounting this all with glee. I’m really depressed about this.

This is a spread from Jessica Helfland’s book, Screen: essays on graphic design, new media, and visual culture. Do you notice the irritating gray box in the background?

That continues consistently through out the book. An aggressive “Don’t forget about me! The designer” stance.

It’s just so foul.

Let me say here now: any graphic element that is non-standard and continues on every page is superfluous.


Not to pick on this book. But actually, sure, to pick on it, because she of all people should know better. So many of the books, were just these foul rehashings of the same old shit. It’s one thing when it’s just Phaidon or whoever doing another Design Now! book. But it’s another thing when it’s an author that is supposed to have some cred. (If it makes me feel better, or not, but the content is apparently drivel as well. . Apparently it’s not just visual glut, but drivel through and through.)

I am really just trying to get across the deep sorrow I had there. Again and again. Every book. Illegibly designed. Typefaces and text sizes to make your brain hurt but you at least to feel how much the designer had tried. Whatever content there was in it to be ignored and never read, unless it was pictures.

If we are to make picture books, let us make picture books then. And not waste trees on words that were never meant to be read.

It made me think of Irma Boom, her saying she was excited about the coming digitzation of books. That the ones that would still be printed would then be beautiful objects. At the time I was a little troubled with this en-preciousnessing of books that she was looking forward to. (I cannot afford most Irma Boom books!) But now, I can only agree. Her books are not only beautiful — they are (for the most part) highly legible. I tried not to be melodramatic, but before I left the Strand, I had to look at Project Japan  to sort of clear my palette from all the shit. Forget all the colored pages, forget everything. But in Project Japan, every single piece of text is pleasant and easy to read.

What’s really bitter is that there’s so much beautiful design out there. So much lovely, smart design that makes me weep with jealousy when I see it. But you’re not going to find it at the Strand…these are the books that are popular, that the Strand chooses to feature….. it’s famous designers designing them too. There’s no point. I’m not really in it for the glory, I don’t think, but when  I see the state of affairs, I see that for whatever reason, good smart designers are veering to a real trash-high sensibility. Beautiful books with pages and pages of illegible ultra-light sans serif nonsense. It’s something in the air, presumably, this need to aggressively show off one’s design sense at the cost of everything, sense, beauty, content…

And content-wise, there’s so many amazing artists and designers and thinkers and what-not who have ideas and who won’t be published because Jessica Helfland or Alexandra Lange or Bruce Mau published another re-hash of design criticism or top favorite thing or whatever. Let publishing die. How can I have any pity on them when the Strand — supposedly NYC’s bookstore of choice — carries mile after mile of nonsense?

I don’t know. I’m veering off, or rather again and again saying the same thing. I can go on and on like this, but what’s the point…? Better to edit this down and make it succinct and to the point, rather than adding to the glut…. But at least what I say here is sincere; let the boldest among you try to convince me that the design books have an ounce of sincerity…


Do I really have to start a tumblr — DesignersWhoShouldReallyKnowBetter? I’m not interested in any project charged primarily by disgust, but I can’t take it anymore, especially when these same designers are so self-righteously telling the rest of us to get our regular quote and smart quotes straight and lecturing us about how to keep true to ourselves etc etc.

I wish I were satisfied now that I’d written off this rant. But I’m just quite tired, depressed and confident that none of this will make any iota of difference. If it is any comedic relief, in my sorrow, I have eaten half a grilled chicken. (The comfort food of choice among on-the-budget carbohydrate-phobes.)

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