Takeshi is a Japanese male who works as an administrator at a medium-sized corporation. Ayumi is a Japanese female who works as an administrator at a medium-sized corporation. They were married in December of 2013 in Hokkaido at a nice hotel. I was invited to their wedding, but was unable to attend. However, I did see a video of their wedding a week afterward.
The marriage was conducted in the fashion of a Western-Christian wedding with a white man playing the role of priest and coordinating the exchanging of vows, while the couple was clad in a Western-style tuxedo and wedding dress. This was followed by dinner service, while the couple made the rounds greeting their guests individually.
The event’s symbolic meaning was amplified by the bride and groom donning Santa and elf costumes to serve dessert at one point—the hybridity of marriage and Christmas feeling very Postmodern. Next was a digital slideshow of the bride and groom, showing them from childhood through adult maturation, followed by images of them together. Afterward, they did another costume change and prepared to bid their guests goodbye. Meanwhile, another video was projected—a slow-motion replay of highlights of the entire wedding that had just occurred with the guest list as the credit roll. Next, everyone left.
This was perhaps the most interesting wedding I have ever witnessed (even if witnessed second-hand from a removed geographical position) due to the collision of symbolism and conflation of cultural ideas that it contained, most notably via the instant nostalgia that the couple and the wedding planner/production team attempted to infuse the event with by projecting the near-instant replay of the event, with time itself being slowed down in the video. As a global culture, we expect some time to pass before a notable moment in life can become crystallized as being worthy of nostalgia. Instead, the producers behind the event attempted to skip the required period of metaphysical ‘fermentation’ and present the event as being instantly memorable, fraught with meaning and, ultimately, to emerge fully-formed as being both worthy of nostalgia and instantly nostalgic.
This case of ‘instant nostalgia’ is not isolated to this wedding, but in fact represents much of what is problematic with graphic design in the West at the present moment. Graphic design, a practice named in 1922 has had more than enough time to “ferment” and become an area of cultural production, research and exploration that is filled with meaning. The difficult thing is that if one peruses his or her local bookseller’s graphic design section, the pickings are slim.
The bulk of design, and more specifically, graphic design books and publications are those steered toward very specific reading audiences. These books can be broken down by subgenre, as most notably:
· a selection self-help-manuals for the budding graphic designer
· a smattering of graphic design history books (either focused on a single practitioner or functioning as general surveys)
· a ton of practical how-to guides
· too many books about typographic grids
· an overwhelming amount of monographs
· a dizzying array of books showing contemporary or near
· contemporary books depicting slices of graphic styles
· collections of logo designs
· packaging prototype books
In Western graphic design literature at present, books-as-tools, style guides, and hero worship dominate — there is nearly nothing suggesting anything outside of the problem-solving/commercial/early Modernist methodological paradigm. Because of the dearth of graphic design books that substantially explore the potential of graphic design, it is normal that veteran graphic designers seek the art and architecture sections of bookstores. And by “potential,” I am referring to expanded forms of discourse (conscientiously abstaining from either the term “theory” or the term “practice in this lone instance—graphic design publishing is, and has always been overburdened with practice-oriented writing and not enough theory). There is nearly nothing being produced in the current moment in terms of graphic design theory. In short, there is a void. It is not problematic that graphic design draws on the discourses of art and architecture, though it is troubling that homegrown discourse within graphic design is so slow to develop. Due to this, Western graphic design literature just offers far less than contemporary art and architecture theory and literature in terms of breadth and depth in approaches to practice itself, as well as criticism and theory. Graphic design culture at large is still caught up with satisfying clients and being goal-oriented to a fault. This is evidenced as much by the dearth of theory and criticism as it is by the apparent lack of interest in these pursuits by practitioners.
The printed legacy of graphic design has rarely transcended its origins in commercial art and advertising art. The bulk of our literature today is too much akin to the manuals offered by commercial art schools’ correspondence courses from the turn-of-the-century. Most graphic design publications today offer preset methods and methodologies, mechanical coursework in various flavors, and are predominantly hydra-like in their combination of over-simplification, banal generalization, atavistic/retrograde approaches to form and practice, and conservative in the applied thinking and writing.
In the West, it is as if we are stuck in a temporal/causal loop—the expanded approaches to graphic design fomented by Postmodernists in the 1990s have (in-effect) ended and there have been few further attempts at an expansion of discourse and practice. Graphic design in North America and Europe relies and insists upon a nostalgia for slices of the early/mid-Modern era. The continued popularity of the writing and design of pioneer practitioners such as Paul Rand (as nostalgiac symbol of Modernism and good, old, long-lasting corporate identity) and Bruno Munari (as carefree symbol of those interested in operating at the intersection of design and art) reifies this, as the West’s continued interest in Helvetica, the Swiss/International Style, et al. This fascination with the then-nascent Modern is symbolic of both a form of cultural constipation (at best) and of what constitutes a stoppage in the development of graphic design as a form of cultural production (at worst). However, approaching graphic design from a different geographic location allows for a renewed perspective of history, and allows one to sidestep being stuck in the time loop of Western graphic design.
Paul Rand is important in Japan for his contributions to the development of nascent graphic design in Japan via his alliances with Kamekura Yusaku and the designers in Graphic ’55 (Nihonbashi, 1955), the first exhibition of graphic design in Japan that catapulted the activities of graphic design into general public consciousness. However, he is more of a footnote/interloper/influence than the de-facto timelord that he is in the West. It is this difference in perception that is important in understanding graphic design culture from a global perspective. What/who is important in one culture is not necessarily so in another culture, or in the case of Rand in particular, brings about a difference in perspective heretofore unknown in viewing graphic design from a Western viewpoint.
Another example is the late Swiss graphic designer Emil Ruder—his published work saw popularity in the West in the 1960s and 1970s due to the clarity and availability of his books in English. In Japan, Ruder is emerging as a more seminal figure only at the present moment due to translations of his work (Emil Ruder: Fundamentals, Seibundo Shinkosha, 2013) initiated by his former student Helmut Schmid. Consideration of individuals’ and concepts’ relative importance to a culture adds an additional dimension to commonly accepted notions of graphic design history in the West, as well.
Japanese graphic designers and educators have always utilized a greater reliance upon abstraction and intuition with their approach to design thinking and practice—semiotics has not come into play in the discussion of graphic design that it did in the West. It is the same for many of the popular topics of the 1990s, such as the influence of the vernacular and the questioning the role of graphic authorship. The majority of essays on these topics have not yet been translated into Japanese, and are therefore not part of a greater discourse.
However, the recent published work of designer and writer Shirai Yoshihisa, notably his essay “On Printers’ Flowers” (Idea Magazine 325, 2007) and reprinted in the book A Natural History of Printers Flowers (Seibundo Shinkosha, 2010), has helped form a critical historical understanding of the decorative/baroque in typography in a conscious manner in contemporary Japanese graphic design. His analysis of decorative ornament has helped provide Japanese graphic designers with an in-depth historical understanding of the use of Western typographic ornament, cultural context, and a detailed understanding of implementation. This exploration of historical Western design is helping to expand design discourse in Japan—providing a deeper understanding of design history and culture.
Simultaneously, Idea editor Muroga Kiyonori has steered the publication to increase its coverage of Japanese graphic design history, expanding literature beyond merely lionizing the earliest practitioners from the 1950s and filling in the historical gaps of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s through exploring less-known but equally important graphic designers. Other writers at Idea (most notably Barbora) have written extensively on the development of both Japanese and Western independent and diy small press initiatives over the past half-century, expanding the history of designers as literal authors on a global scale.
Designer Goto Tetsuya has been writing a serialized feature called Yellow Pages for Idea since 2014, which is an expansive bilingual survey of graphic designers in other parts of Asia (to date in Beijing, Taipei and Hong Kong). This series is of immense importance, as it explodes preconceived notions of Japanese design myopia and symbolizes Japanese graphic designers’ extreme interest in design culture in the East.
Graphic design literature in Japan is moving forward and looking outward. There is an increased awareness of time and space that is pervasive throughout Japanese culture at the present moment, though most of it is nostalgic in nature. Of note in terms of popular culture is the Japanese movie Always Sanchōme no Yuhi (2005)—the film epitomizes retrograde tendencies via a gauzy-lensed look back at post-World War 2 reconstruction-era in Japan and a yearning for “the good old days”.
However, the recent writing in Idea—the lone bastion of sustained deep discourse on indigenous Japanese graphic design—is redolent of a quite different attitude and desire for expanded global discourse and an exploration of domestic culture beyond mere nostalgia. The editorial staff and collaborators involved with the magazine are looking at other means and methods of design practice, thought and understanding.
By evaluating graphic design culture through the twin lenses of time and space, Western graphic design literature and discourse can be kickstarted again. As graphic design theory is sorely lagging behind other disciplines, then perhaps by looking to other cultures’ investigative methodologies and divergent histories, we can find other approaches and perspectives. Without renewing these, graphic design is doomed to an even-further prolonged ‘instant nostalgia-zation’ due to its emphasis on the importance of Dribbble Likes, reTweets, Facebook mentions, Pinterest pins and Behance badges.
Known and accepted histories of graphic design have divergent viewpoints, back stories, and potential approaches that are as-yet unexplored. For example, there is a virtually unknown connection between post-War Japanese Modernism and Swiss Modernism that is as much interpersonal as it is developmental. That Swiss typographers Josef Müller-Brockmann and Max Huber were married to Japanese women is known and acknowledged, but that Huber’s wife Aoi Huber (née Kono) is the daughter of the incredibly important early Japanese Modernist Takashi Kōno is not. The familial relationship between two men who helped contribute to the formation of aesthetics of graphic design for whole countries on opposite sides of the world is something that should be both studied and analyzed.
Perhaps our understanding of the culture of graphic design—its theory, history and practice—is akin to a wedding slideshow. We just see the snapshots—the edited version of history from very particular perspectives. We don’t see things from the perspectives of ex-lovers, second cousins, or father-in-laws. Time must pass for cultural production to be deemed worthy of sustained merit, but most of all, we must be cognizant of time itself and its influence—notably, our place in history, and what we can do in order to ‘un-stick’ ourselves in time in the West. We have the ability to move past this collective cultural moment of instant gratification, not by reengaging with graphic design with nostalgia, but with a renewed sense of inquiry.
Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 1 – Critical, Uncritical, Post-critical (2015).