A designer and design critic, Natasha Ilyin talked with Jason Tselentis of Under Consideration/Speak up about her great interest: the contemporary mythic imagery and symbols that designers manipulate, interpret, and act upon – often unconsciously.
‘I first met Natalia Ilyin during a graduate seminar at UW. A designer and design critic, she talked with us about her great interest: the contemporary mythic imagery and symbols that designers manipulate, interpret, and act upon—often unconsciously.
In one of her seminar lectures, she prompted us to look more deeply into advertisements from Clairol, Banana Republic, and the Gap. One of the exercises involved observing the images in a Banana Republic ad, in which a svelte African woman (perhaps Nigerian or Ethiopian) stood with her signature Banana-khaki outfit in front of a 1930s era propeller plane. In the background, a golden wheat field filled the scene. We made visual judgments about the ad and the accompanying images from the campaign: the juxtaposition of the 1930s plane and a very modern outfit seemed ironic, even out of place; the woman wore a digital watch, it had to be present day; and the plane could have never landed in such a hilly and thick area without sustaining some damage. As a Midwesterner, I realized something too: judging by the wheat fields in the background, she can’t be in Africa, it looks more like Nebraska or Iowa. Another professor agreed, “With those hills and wheat, it looks a lot like Alberta to me.” Bottom line: this ad worked by stitching together our visual assumptions, but on closer inspection fell apart at the seams.
Natalia Ilyin wrote te foreword to Stefan Bucher’s ‘The Graphic Eye’.
The experience opened my eyes by demonstrating how designers can act as critical agents, who take apart, examine, and comment on visual culture. Ilyin has been doing this for some time now. She has taught at Yale and Cooper Union, and currently teaches at RISD, Maine College of Art, and University of Washington. Her articles on design and the media have appeared in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Miami Herald, and Portland Oregonian. She’s a contributor to the design press, and her work appears in the anthologies, Sex Appeal: The Art of Allure in Graphic and Advertising Design; Design Culture; Looking Closer 2; and Looking Closer 4. Her first book, Blonde Like Me: The Roots of the Blonde Myth in Our Culture, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2000.
She continues her unique approach to criticism—a mix of memoir and academic writing—in the forthcoming, Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Design in our Time, due out from Metropolis Books this Fall. In this latest book, she confronts Modernism—challenging its ideals and questioning how our culture perceives and experiences its messages. How did a once avant-garde movement become a means for creating desire? What is real and what is perfect? Recently, I had the chance to exchange thoughts on these and other notions with Natalia.’
Speak Up: In Chasing the Perfect, I was very touched by your interaction with jazz musicians during your graduate studies. It felt like you were an insider. Because of those experiences, you realized something, and claim that musicians treat each other differently than designers do. To put things into perspective, compare the way designers treated each other then to now. Have things gotten better or worse and why?
Natalia Ilyin: In that part about music, it was not so much that musicians treated each other better than we do, but differently. I am not particularly interested in getting designers to smile at each other over the water cooler. It is a difference in their culture of creativity. Much about music is intrinsically communal, and much about design intrinsically individual. When you look out over a roomful of designers, you get the sense that they are all sitting there alone together. To this day, we teach designers to design alone. And it shows.
Much about music is intrinsically communal, and much about design intrinsically individual.
SU: Working alone?! For designers, the education received in the classroom follows a mentor/student relationship, and we contend with critiques from our peers, who act as clients in a way. When we enter the workforce, we rely on so many people to manifest an idea. Whether the production team, printing specialists, paper vendors, heuristic evaluators, writers, editors, art directors, junior designers, or html programmers, we need other people. What shaped this urge for creative isolation?
NI: Yes, we do spend most of our time working with other people. But look at what you just said. You are “contending” with peers and clients, you are “relying” on the production team. But how much do you really respect these people as equals?
SU: I see them as essential to the creative process.
NI: Would you want them to dictate an idea to you? Let’s face it, you would not want that. We designers have a deep need for total control. Er. Perhaps I betray too much.
SU: So how would you change the designer’s education to move towards a more social method of working, preparing designers for the dependence and interaction that sits on the horizon?
NI: You’ve just said it. I’d have them work more communally in school: in more groups during their education. And it would be good if they could spend a little time thinking about what design actually does to the people in a culture before they get out and start manipulating forms and images with no notion of the power of their tools, nor an idea of the consequences of their actions.
SU: That sounds like an interesting seminar. As a child of Modernism, you seem rather critical of its principles, all it’s given birth to. But what do you owe it?
NI: Oh, Jason, I am really not a child of Modernism. I am the child of a bunch of white Russians who associated Constructivism with the experience of being shot at in the name of progress. I was a grown woman before I heard the word “Picasso,” without the words “that charlatan” in the same sentence. When I went to grad school, Modernism hit me like a ton of bricks. I am critical of it the way a thinking person needs to be critical—I try to look into it from the outside. Most designers are in the Petrie dish of Modernism. When you are in the Petrie dish, you cannot map that dish’s dimensions. The Modern design language, the Modern aesthetic and ethic, is a language I learned the way an earnest adult learns a foreign language. I’m fluent, but I am not a native speaker. And that’s why I am more aware of the limits of the construct than perhaps other, more native, designers are.
When I went to grad school, Modernism hit me like a ton of bricks. I am critical of it the way a thinking person needs to be critical—I try to look into it from the outside.
SU: Why should designers look at Modernism from the outside? As purveyors of visual culture, what advantage would we gain by stepping out of that Petrie dish?
NI: Designers can’t look at their work from the outside. However, they can educate themselves about the social, political, and philosophic trends that go into creating the language they speak, the language and philosophy of Modernism. In the current vogue for all things modern, practitioners often manipulate forms without much understanding of what those forms mean in a larger social and historical context. In that way these designers are truly postmodernist— they are engaging in what someone once called, “the illiterate use of symbols.”
SU: Funny, I see more and more of that, especially when I walk into a place like Urban Outfitters with so much nostalgic imagery pasted onto T-shirts. Kids wear this stuff with no comprehension or appreciation beyond the graphic quality.
NI: I had a grad student recently who created a great-looking T-shirt with a small illustration of Stalin on the front. He took it around to the undergrads and asked them whether they would buy it. They all wanted it because it looked so cool. They had only a vague notion about who Stalin was, they did not really recognize the face, and none could have told you that he killed 9 million people—three million more than Hitler did. But it was a cool shirt, and they wanted it. There it is: the illiterate use of symbols. I thought I was going to throw up when he told me this story and showed me the shirt. “Is this what we have done to images in my generation,” I thought? “Made everything a game of idiocy and irony? Removed images from their contexts to such a degree that nothing has meaning except as valued by the marketplace?” But, you know. The student that made the shirt was deeply affected by his own experiment. All the people in the class were affected. They weren’t just a bunch of over-mediated, irony-dripping disaffected design robot-hipper-than-thou students. They thought a lot about that shirt, that image. Students like that give me hope for the future of design.
SU: Wow. That’s powerful, and more loaded than Aquaman, Truck Drivers, or Ninjas on short-sleeved Urban Outfitter Ts. Now, you’ve touched on something else that’s relative to your book, and I’m not talking about cultural icons. I’m talking about hope. Briefly characterize the designer that celebrates life versus the designer searching for safety.
NI: You know, for that idea they have to read the book. Preferably after having bought it for full price.
SU: Damn. Well, let’s move on. Designers are visual people, but you wonder, “…why designers are not taught as much about seeing as making. Perhaps we don’t want to see too much.” Seeing is a passive activity, and a designer who celebrates life would enjoy it to no end because it provides a lens for appreciation.
NI: Seeing is not a passive activity. Many different centers of the brain are involved in the relationship of percept and image. And the more you see, actually, the less you may enjoy it. If you are really looking you will see some pretty rotten stuff along with the lovely stuff. You may see heaven in a wildflower, as Blake did, but you may also see that in order to keep wildflowers blooming we have to make sure to protect the areas in which they grow, and that may mean not buying the McMansion on the razed hillside. Seeing predicates responsibility.
I just wish designers would open their eyes a bit. I would like to see them take some responsibility for the ways their work affects real people in the world…
SU: I see. So, as a semiotician and critic, your eyes play a critical role in the work you do, describe the difference between seeing and looking.
NI: Now, Jason, really. My academic semiotic woo-woo years are over. You can look, you can see; you can see, you can look. I suppose people would think that looking is brief and less intense, and seeing is a bit more Thich Nhat Hanh. But I am not so interested in the semantic difference between looking vs. seeing. I just wish designers would open their eyes a bit. I would like to see them take some responsibility for the ways their work affects real people in the world, and make an effort to stop gazing at their own narcissistic reflections in mirrors of their own making.
SU: Unfortunately, I get hung up on semantics, so tell me what design criticism means to you.
NI: It means thinking about other people’s work three ways: as it affects me in an emotional or intellectual way, as it relates to the broader social sphere, and as it predicts or describes trends in the larger cultural context. I am lucky to have become a writer at a time in which it is not a crime to mix personal memoir with academic thinking. Purists may call this a bastardization of criticism, but I call it criticism that people will actually read. And the more they read, the better the profession will be.
SU: Writing’s hard enough, and sometimes the subject matter becomes an obstacle in and of itself. How will you sustain enough interest in design to continue writing about it?
NI: I have been in design since I was 15 years old, and so far it hasn’t gotten dull. First I spent my time memorizing paper samples. Then I memorized typefaces. Then I learned to use large machines. Then I found a hard-drinking letterpress crowd. Then I fell in love with books and Adrian Wilson. Then I sat around David Goines’ press and shrink-wrapped things for him while he made posters and taught me about the Vienna Secession. Then I ran into Kindergarten Chats. Then someone mentioned the Bauhaus. Then there were all the pre, post, and neo modernisms. And then there was Arnheim and then semiotics and then cognitive theory. It’s been a Scheherazade of careers. Just when I think, all right this really is the end of the story, another something interesting crops up. Right now I have very little interest in who is using what typeface, but a huge amount of interest in how we see what we see, in what our brain decides we are seeing, and in what mental and social processes affect that.
SU: How else do you want to contribute to design and its discourse, what are your future ambitions?
NI: It’s funny when you look up one day and realize that you are running out of ambitions. That’s a happy day. A few years ago I was all ambition. And as far as contributing, only time can tell us whether I have done that. Now, I would like to keep my smart clients, keep SisterScarf’s programs for refugee relief funded, write the two books I have to write or my agent will kill me, teach at great schools sometimes to figure out what students are thinking, walk my dog twice a day, hear Pete play music three nights a week, read some, and have a big pile of money in the bank. Some of this is more achievable than other parts. But one’s reach should exceed her grasp.
SU: I can’t help with that bank account, so on that note, I’ll sheepishly close this interview. Thanks so much, Natalia.
NI: Thanks, Jason—looking forward to reversing the roles one of these days soon.
Natalia Ilyin’s design consultancy helps organizations make sure that the messages they send in their visual communications are the ones they want to be sending. She and her associates generally work with the nonprofit sector, though she admits to having Microsoft is a client. She is also one of the founding partners of SisterScarf, a refugee relief organization. She published Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Design in Our Time.
The British mystic William Blake — who lived from 1757-1827—was a writer who illustrated and printed his own writing and poetry: To see a world in a grain of sand; And heaven in a wild flower; Hold infinity in the palm of your hand; And eternity in an hour.“If you kill one man it is a crime, if you kill 1 million, it is a statistic.” —StalinThich Nhat Hanh said, “Every day we do things, we are things that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our life, our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment, we are alive.”
David Lance Goines—artist and writer—founded Saint Hieronymus Press in 1968 in a Berkeley print shop, where he created posters, wine labels, and other graphics.
Adrian Wilson was a fine press book designer. In 1965 he found, perfectly preserved, the earliest layouts for a printed book, those for the Nuremberg Chronicle, circa 1493, and reproduced them in his The Design of Books.
The Vienna Secession from 1897-1939 was a period when Austrian artists merged a variety of styles in an avant garde movement led by Gustav Klimt. Incorporating personal expression, and oftentimes absurd and fantastical imagery, the Secessionists paved the way for the Art Nouveau movement.
Kindergarten Chats, a book by architect Louis Sullivan, advocated expression in architecture, which conflicted with the functional and form-driven structures he was known for.
Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy and Albers were influential Bauhaus designers and educators. Their instructional methods paved the way for the current mentor/student model where art & design education takes place within a communal environment.
Rudolf Arnheim is Professor Emeritus of the Psychology of Art at Harvard University. His books Visual Thinking and Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye sit on most designers bookshelves.
Scheherazade is the title of what Americans know as 1001 Arabian Nights.