Autumn 1998

Design is advertising, #1: The whispering intruder

Advertising soaks into everything. It has become the texture of contemporary life. Graphic design has played a central part in this process. But does it have a viable role of its own?

A recent survey suggests there are four kinds of response to advertising in Britain, and as is so often the case with research of this kind, each category has a catchy title. Best news for advertisers are the Enthusiasts. This obliging group of citizens – 35 per cent of those surveyed – can’t get enough advertising. They often prefer ads and commercials to the editorial and programming that surrounds them, love to be intrigued by new approaches and generally want to get involved. Acquiescents – 21 per cent – are a more cautious bunch. They are confused by anything that is overly creative and feel threatened by the avalanche of direct mail, but broadly speaking, they also like advertising. More troublesome, if you have something to sell, are the 22 per cent of us whom the survey dubs Cynics. This group resents advertising’s intrusiveness and trusts only the mildest specialist ads. Last, keeping their heads down at the back, are the Ambivalents. They have no interest in advertising, do their best to ignore it, but take the fatalistic view that one way or another the damn things will probably get to them anyway.

While some might be encouraged to learn that, as the century of advertising closes, a dissenting view is assumed, at least in Britain, to be running as high as 44 per cent, the purpose of this research is, in itself, enough to give you pause. This is not the disinterested report of a sociology department; it’s a tool – created by a media-buying company called cia Medianetwork – to help advertisers know their audiences. One way or another they will make you listen.

What few people contest any longer, whether Enthusiast or Cynic, is that advertising is now the ‘culture’ against which everything else, including our individual attitudes to advertising, must be defined. ‘Advertising has become not only the most universally recognised “art” form but also the most widely disseminated form of public address in American society,’ notes Stuart Ewen, a long-time Cynic and one of US advertising’s most incisive critics. James B. Twitchell, author of Adcult USA, agrees. ‘Advertising is not part of the dominant culture,’ he enthuses. ‘It is the dominant culture.’ And the professor’s book is here to document and celebrate its ‘triumph’.

In the US, says Twitchell, advertising has soaked into everything. You cannot escape it and there is nowhere it cannot be found. It is becoming ever harder for those who have grown up living ‘the advertised life’, as it’s been described, to imagine what the condition of no advertising would be like. You have to immerse yourself in a historical film or have visited a former communist bloc country before McDonald’s and Marlboro and Coke moved in and put down their graphic markers to know what the streets feel like without the pervasive grid of commercial messages. To us, thoroughly tuned in and responsive to the omnipresence of advertising, this peculiar emptiness – for that’s how it now seems – feels both strange and liberating. In these moments purged of the graphic clutter and non-stop clamour of ads it is as though your thoughts are temporarily returned to you. There are no images to measure yourself against, apart from other human beings and the street itself, and nobody is asking you to do or be or buy anything at all.

Of course, looked at globally, there are differences. If America represents advertising at its most extreme and invasive, and American TV, if you can watch it, is the ultimate example of a communication environment whose overriding reason for being is to get you to watch advertising, the situation in Britain isn’t quite so bad. There are still two channels where for an entire evening you can watch television without seeing a commercial. Yet, as you savour the respite from advertising and the reminder that there are, or ought to be, other ways of being in the world, you are only too aware that this is a state of affairs that cannot last. It isn’t normal. It isn’t the way things are everywhere else. You have entered a specially funded enclave that exists, for now, under sufferance. The inexorable pressure is towards advertising and sooner or later, in ten years or twenty, but probably fewer, the advertising will roll in.

One big happy nexus
If advertising is the dominant culture, whereabouts, in relation to advertising, stands graphic design? This is one of the most important issues that graphic design has to face at this point, but it is not a question that graphic designers show many signs of wanting to address. In his essay on the historical relationship of graphic design and advertising in the us (Eye no.17 vol.5), Steven Heller argues, unequivocally, that, ‘If advertising is the function, then graphic design is the form’. Speaking earlier this year, the president-elect of the British Designers and Art Directors Association, Richard Seymour, was similarly insistent on the links. ‘Art direction is design,’ he said, ‘just as surely as pack design is advertising. We’re all part of the same nexus, but D&AD still has a way to go to make that obvious.’ This was an interesting remark. Seymour may have been thinking of public perceptions of the two disciplines, but it’s far more likely that he was talking about the reluctance of advertising and graphic design – yoked together as a single entity by D&AD in 1962 – to recognise that they are two sides of the same coin.

At the most pragmatic level, graphic design and advertising are not the same thing. Thirty-five years of cohabitation in D&AD has failed to convince British designers and ad people that they are part of the same ‘nexus’ because, however close the two factions may have been in the early days, in the post-war period they have led largely separate lives – as businesses, as professions and as career paths for those they attract to their ranks. These professional cultures have their own commentators and their own specialist publications. It is quite possible, as a journalist, to write about ‘graphic designers’ and never venture anywhere near an advertising agency, just as it is possible to write about the activities of advertising ‘creatives’ and never have any contact with the leading names of design. Few commentators successfully straddle both worlds.

This separation encourages both sides to imagine that they are engaged in wholly different pursuits. And certainly there are differences not just in the kinds of work that designers and agencies do, but differences of fundamental approach. From a graphic designer’s point of view, what advertising once evinced, from A. M. Cassandre to Paul Rand, but long ago gave up, was any claim to significant graphic innovation. Designers set much greater store by the satisfactions of craft and in the possibility of personal expression and fulfilment in the act of designing. To agency people, with their sights set on larger strategic goals involving colossal budgets, designers’ preoccupations with the minutiae of designing can look laughable. Yet, as Heller suggested in his article, advertising is only allowed into histories of graphic design – as though design were the dominant practice – when it is deemed (by design people) to have reached a sufficiently high aesthetic level; at that point the base material of mere advertising is transmuted into ‘graphic design’.

The paradox implicit in graphic designers’ prioritisation of form is that it unwittingly confirms Heller’s definition of the relationship between advertising and graphic design: advertising is the function; design is one of the formal means by which it is done. The fact that graphic designers don’t acknowledge the routine design work done by agencies as graphic design does not make it any different in method and kind from the bulk of graphic output. A definition of graphic design that insisted on exceptional quality as qualification for entry would have to exclude most of the work done by designers, too. Most graphic design is aesthetically ordinary, if not, in many cases, poor.

The added complication, in recent years, has been the much-remarked-on use of graphic designers by the advertising agencies. This, more than anything, has had the effect of appearing to confirm graphic design’s continuing usefulness as a hothouse for growing new kinds of form. It was exciting for designers to see typography made so central again – in the work of David Carson, Tomato, P. Scott Makela, Jonathan Barnbrook, Robert Nakata and others – and experience advertising that depended for its effect on graphic form. It seemed, on the surface, to be a reassertion of the cultural necessity of graphic design: see! they can’t get by without us. For those in design education, where most of these new forms had their origin, it was a moment of vindication: there! we weren’t crazy encouraging our students to do this stuff – it has real uses out there in the world.

The ultimate effect, however, ten years or more into the new ‘new typography’ movement (if movement is what it was) has been to confirm, in a literally spectacular way, the total dominance of advertising as the measure and use-value of design innovation. It’s understandable, on one level, that some designers, knowing exactly what was likely to happen to their typographic ideas once they became fashionable, were happy to co-operate with the agencies while the going was good. Considerable reward and high visibility were the results for the lucky ones. Trying to resolve the nagging feeling that they were letting the side down, these designers sometimes explained their ‘interest’ in seeing for themselves how advertising operated, when it might have been closer to the truth to say that they were getting high on the sudden proximity of advertising’s money and power, its very real connection to the heart of things. These designers, hoping to have it both ways, to maintain credibility while pocketing the cash, spoke of using the proceeds, Robin Hood-style, to fund their own projects. The less perceptive (or more dishonest) affected not to see any problem in their position at all.

As time passed, that is increasingly how it seemed. To younger designers, who were still schoolkids when the typographic experiments of the 1980s began, and have only the haziest idea, if any, that these experiments were ever part of a ‘new discourse’ that sought to expose and criticise the operations of design, there is no problem. They wear the swoosh on their feet, the ads are the last word in typographic cool, so what could be more desirable, or natural, after design school, than working on campaigns for Nike? Design’s complicity with advertising’s use of these styles wasn’t exactly hindered by the kind of criticism so concerned to discover ‘coded’ meaning in the contents of our shopping bags that it no longer troubles to ask larger questions about who ultimately benefits from the transaction at the till. Such questions are overtly political, and politics, in the oppositional sense, has been off the agenda in design in the 1980s and 1990s just as surely as it has been exiled from the wider social discourse – so tedious, so passé!

Yet the rhetoric of opposition persists. With impressive sleight of hand, some of those designers who made the transition to advertising continued to talk up their work as though it were the very embodiment of rule-breaking radicalism and progressive change. While any sober assessment can see that this is nonsense – there is nothing remotely radical about upholding the status quo, however stylishly you do it – it is part of a larger tendency, particularly in American advertising, to claim for the consumer the language and ‘attitude’ of uncompromising rebellion. In a brilliant essay in the book Commodify Your Dissent, social critic Thomas Frank shows how, from Burger King’s slogan ‘Sometimes you gotta break the rules’ to Hugo Boss’s command to ‘Innovate don’t imitate’, when it comes to American television commercials, and indeed American business in general, ‘perpetual revolution and the gospel of rule-breaking are the orthodoxy of the day’.

The most widely celebrated graphic design of the 1990s has seen the implosion of all the old formal rules of the craft. In the super-cool, up-for-it, irony-with-everything world of advertising, these new design styles encountered not resistance, but a ready understanding that such powerful signifiers of freedom and non-conformity could be pressed into persuasive commercial use. Disappointing as this outcome might be for anyone committed to the critical possibilities of the new discourse that invented these approaches, it does not necessarily follow that graphic design cannot find other ways to act as a medium for authentically ‘radical’ intentions, or that the discipline can have no viable existence separate from advertising. If design is to sustain and develop a professional and public identity based on a function other than selling, the question remains as to how and through what channels this goal is to be achieved.

The naïvety of idealism
It is a measure of the degree to which designers have preferred not to engage, in a direct way, with their relationship to advertising – opting, like the Ambivalents in the survey, to keep their heads down and muddle through – that discussion of these issues tends to circle back to the same key moments. There simply aren’t that many well-documented occasions when designers forced these issues into the open. In Britain, one such moment came at an early stage in the post-war emergence of graphic design as a professional activity. The ‘First Things First’ manifesto, written by Ken Garland, and also signed by 22 designers, photographers and students in February 1964, functions within the race memory of British graphic designers like a guilty secret chipping away at the collective conscience. Every few years it resurfaces as a focus for renewed but always short-lived debate. As Andrew Howard notes in ‘There is such a thing as society’ (Eye no.13 vol.4), the manifesto’s premises remain as radical today – radical in the true sense of the word – as they did 30 years ago.

Garland’s 300-word call to arms opens by noting how ‘the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents’. The signatories reject the ‘high pitched scream of consumer selling’ and advocate a ‘reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and lasting forms of communication’. The examples they give include street signs, books and periodicals, catalogues, instructional manuals, educational aids and television features.

While ‘First Things First’ is the most visible expression of the dissatisfaction some designers felt about the path their discipline was taking in the early 1960s, it is by no means an anomaly. The pages of Design magazine bear witness to the mixed feelings that attended the birth of the new profession. A review of the books 27 Chicago Designers and 17 Graphic Designers, London, in 1963, scoffs at the ‘treacle’-like mass of advertising, packaging, trademarks and other ephemera: ‘Can the graphic designers of Britain and America really have so little to offer beyond what is superficial and transient?’ An article on the third D&AD exhibition, in 1965, co-written by Brian Grimbly, art editor of Design and signatory of ‘First Things First’, wishes the show’s subject matter showed ‘rather more relevance to society as a whole’; the prevailing impression of the first three exhibitions has been ‘froth and emptiness of spirit’.

In retrospect, however, it was already too late. British graphic design of the early 1960s is the product of European (specifically Swiss) and American influences, and in ideological terms, it was the American influences that prevailed. The formation of D&AD in 1962 was a critical moment. For ‘First Things First’ to have carried much weight with British graphic designers, the sort of principles it contains would have had to be incorporated – perhaps as a charter – in the organisation that was set up to represent graphic design. In fact D&AD’s primary aims were always commercial (it was a great success in this capacity) and such a charter could never have come about in an organisation that also represented advertising, the target of the later manifesto’s criticisms. The linking of the two professions, one strong and established, one nascent and unformed, thus had a powerful determining effect on what graphic design could be or become, while leaving it in a weaker position in relation to advertising – at least as represented by D&AD – that persists to this day. Among the signatories of ‘First Things First’ are some of British design’s most notable mavericks – Garland himself, Edward Wright, Anthony Froshaug, and William Slack of the Architectural Review. But the absences are just as revealing. None of the British designers who came to be identified with commercially successful practice in the 1960s and 1970s participated in this plea for a more socially responsible, worthwhile and durable graphic design.

More recent reactions to ‘First Things First’, published in Circular magazine in 1994, make fascinating reading. The late Maggie Lewis, an advertising typographer, rejects it out of hand as ‘pious, pompous, piffle’, while Gert Dumbar and Erik Spiekermann respond with unqualified agreement and a belief in its continuing relevance. In the second half of the century, the ideological division between graphic design and advertising has been clearer, perhaps, on the European mainland than in Britain and the US. The British and American designers consulted by Circular, possibly reluctant to be seen to be so philistine or uncaring as to dismiss the manifesto outright, maintain a careful distance from its prescriptions with words like ‘anachronistic’, ‘idealistic’ and ‘naïve’. Others suggest that so long as the work is ‘good’, that is all that matters, and this, certainly, was one of the founding principles of D&AD. In the early annuals, advertising and design winners were mixed together as though they represented, and were, essentially the same thing. According to D&AD’s president-elect they still are.

It is, of course, quite possible, even now, to devote yourself to the design of sign systems, educational aids and instructional manuals. But don’t expect your more glamorous colleagues to thank you for it. These are not areas that graphic design chooses to celebrate and they are rarely the reason that young designers want to join the profession. To discover design’s real priorities, you need only look at its organisations, its stars, its press, and the winners of its most coveted awards. In 1965, Design’s D&AD reviewer worried that some ‘serious, carefully designed submissions may have been rejected simply because their subject matter was not particularly exciting’. Anyone who has spent any time judging awards will recognise the feeling.

While allowances must be made for the time and circumstances in which ‘First Things First’ was written, the manifesto’s commitment to fundamental principles makes an inspiring contrast with graphic design’s complacent conviction, three decades later, that it inhabits and serves the best of all possible worlds. Once a phenomenon is thoroughly naturalised, its ‘transparency’ makes its actions harder to perceive. Advertising penetrates everything and you cannot help but breathe it in. Aided by design, it has become the texture of everyday reality, the omnipresent conductor, the whispering intruder in your fantasies and dreams. So go on, tell it what it wants to know. Are you an Enthusiast, an Acquiescent, an Ambivalent, or a Cynic?

First published in Eye no.29 vol.8

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