A Visual Shift

I recently stumbled upon an article from a talk given by Milton Glaser, which I’m ashamed to say I’m not familiar with, but nevertheless was very inspiring. It more or less was one of those, “name 10 things from your life experience that will give me supernatural abilities” kind of talks, and although I may not be able to see thru walls yet it certainly does open your mind.

The section that most paws at my sleeve is number 6, which for convenience I’ll post here, but you really should check out the whole talk and the rest of the site.

I think this idea first occurred to me when I was looking at a marvellous etching of a bull by Picasso. It was an illustration for a story by Balzac called The Hidden Masterpiece. I am sure that you all know it. It is a bull that is expressed in 12 different styles going from [a] very naturalistic version of a bull to an absolutely reductive single line abstraction and everything else along the way. What is clear just from looking at this single print is that style is irrelevant. In every one of these cases, from extreme abstraction to acute naturalism they are extraordinary regardless of the style. It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty. I must say that for old design professionals it is a problem because the field is driven by economic consideration more than anything else. Style change is usually linked to economic factors, as all of you know who have read Marx. Also fatigue occurs when people see too much of the same thing too often. So every ten years or so there is a stylistic shift and things are made to look different. Typefaces go in and out of style and the visual system shifts a little bit. If you are around for a long time as a designer, you have an essential problem of what to do. I mean, after all, you have developed a vocabulary, a form that is your own. It is one of the ways that you distinguish yourself from your peers, and establish your identity in the field. How you maintain your own belief system and preferences becomes a real balancing act. The question of whether you pursue change or whether you maintain your own distinct form becomes difficult. We have all seen the work of illustrious practitioners that suddenly look old-fashioned or, more precisely, belonging to another moment in time. And there are sad stories such as the one about Cassandre, arguably the greatest graphic designer of the twentieth century, who couldn’t make a living at the end of his life and committed suicide.
But the point is that anybody who is in this for the long haul has to decide how to respond to change in the zeitgeist. What is it that people now expect that they formerly didn’t want? And how to respond to that desire in a way that doesn’t change your sense of integrity and purpose.

-Milton Glaser

Before I get to my bit I’d like to point out how awesome that in just this one section he has referenced Picasso, Marx, Balzac and more. It just doesn’t seem like this type of ancillary material is as common, regardless of profession, in the American educational system. My wife did point out though that this can also stem from living a privileged life. I asked some people I know, who are currently finishing their undergraduate studies, what type of courses they took outside of their major, and the required core(math, science, etc.). Most of them working middle class, like myself, and the responses I got were not surprising. Some mentioned they don’t really recall them or more interestingly was that they did, but said it was useless. In this case the topic was philosophy, but it’s the opinion of it being useless that intrigued me the most. True, maybe there aren’t jobs on Career Builder for “philosophers” outside academia, but certainly we can assume that the great works of people such as Glaser wouldn’t have been what they were if there were no Marx or Picasso or Kant or Freud. It’s that very limited depth of field that handicaps our way of life. We act on on the ends over the means, but I digress.

When Milton talks about visual shift is when I began to ruminate. I started to think about how we go through shifts in style in regards to typography, clothing, automobiles, homes, language and it got me to thinking. This can also hold true with lifestyle. Recently, I’ve become unsatisfied with the lifestyle of the average American. Not in the sense of material possessions, but rather what it is that we do in life.

“Your born, you take shit. You get out in the world, you take more shit. You climb a little higher, you take less shit. Til one day you’re up in the rarefied atmosphere, and you’ve forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake son.,” delivered by the magnificent Michael Gambon from the movie Layer Cake about sums it up. The American Dream. I think that the everyday process of typical life in this country has become cumbersome to me, and I’m looking to make a shift. Perhaps this is typical of someone my age, but I’ve noticed this in more than just myself.

Of course, all this might just be normal. To draw from Milton’s talk once more he mentions later that “doubt is better than certainty.,” and “One of the signs of a damaged ego is absolute certainty.” I strongly believe that this is the cause of much frustration in the human scape. We often try to create absolutes in a world where there is no absolute. Ever. Milton mentions that there is a fine line between skepticism and cynicism, and knowing the difference goes a long way.