Can graphic design save itself? What exactly do we need to save ourselves from? Questions like these plagued me after reading Andrew Blauvelt’s essay in Emigre #64 Towards Critical Autonomy or Can Graphic Design Save Itself? This wasn’t the first time Blauvelt’s writing had incited me. Building Bridges: A Research Agenda for Education and Practice called for a refinement of graduate study and practice in graphic design. We should push beyond the limits already experienced. And that’s where his Emigre article put a bigger fire under me. Change what we do, not how we do it. It’s more about point of view than visualizing your point, with a great opportunity for revolutionary work. Obvious? For me it wasn’t.

Speak Up: Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule, Andrew. For those not familiar with your current role as Design Director at the Walker Art Center, briefly tell us what you do and why you decided to migrate there from your position as head of the department of graphic design and director of the graduate program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. How many different roles do you play at the Walker, and what best describes what you do?

Andrew Blauvelt: As Design Director at the Walker I am responsible for the graphic identity of the institution in all of its manifestations. This is akin to being a creative director at a design firm. We design several hundred projects each year. In addition, I coordinate and organize design-related programs for the Walker. This work includes such things as organizing two lecture series each year on graphic design, architecture, and product design, as well as curating exhibitions of design. I also collaborate with colleagues on such things as digital media projects, interpretive and learning strategies, and experience design for our new building expansion project.The Walker position is unique in this country. It blends actual practice of graphic design with opportunities to further my interests in the history and theory of all design disciplines. I accepted the position and left academia because it was an opportunity to practice what we had been theorizing and teaching in the graduate program.

SU: There are varying opinions on art vs. design, art being design, and design being art. Do you believe design can be many things at once, and if so, how does the audience (or designer) benefit from the boundaries being crossed?
AB: I’m not so interested in the art vs. design debate. Both terms can be so vague and I’m not certain how people are defining those terms. However, I think art and design are distinctive areas of practice and they occasionally have overlap and moments of contact. I’ve studied both art and design and I respect each field. Design doesn’t have to be art to be valid or “interesting,” or for any greater legitimacy or purpose. I think the most interesting work occurs with people who are clearly positioned in their own field but who are open to ideas and influences from other disciplines.
SU: How do you see your role at the Walker Arts Center as furthering design education or advancing the design profession?
AB: I’m not sure that I’m strictly advancing the field of design education with my work at the Walker. We do have an internship program, where two designers are selected to work full-time for a year doing the same work as other designers in the department. Interns are selected and recruited from graduating students or very recent graduates. The program is conceived as an educational experience, although they receive a salary. The selection process is extremely competitive and easily matches any graduate program’s pool of applicants. I’d like to think we contribute a little bit back to education and the profession with this program.The Walker design studio produces some of the most original work in its field. There are few competitors to that claim. We set very high standards for ourselves and measure our progress against the leading designers in the profession at large. We hope that the work we produce inspires other museums and other professionals and therefore advances the field through example. I also hope we advance the field through our support of design thinking through our lectures, exhibitions, and other related programs.
SU: What is the design climate like in Minnesota, and how does it hold up against what you experienced while working in North Carolina or Florida?
AB: The design climate is supportive and engaged in Minnesota. Minnesota is a very important center for design activity and thinking in the United States. The professional communities of design are very healthy and active here. All the major museums are actively showing and promoting design (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, and the Weisman Art Museum), the Goldstein Gallery at the University of Minnesota’s Saint Paul campus specializes in design, the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota is the only design think tank in the country, and one of a handful in the world; the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University is very strong as is the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. There are many highly respected designers and architects practicing in the Twin Cities too. I’d say it’s a happening place.
SU: While studying and practicing graphic design in Tucson, Arizona and then Omaha, Nebraska, I became aware of a “regional look” when I visited places like Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, or Orlando. This was from 1992-99. From your perspective, how does design regionalism at the close of the 20th Century compare to today?

 

AB: I trace the whole design regionalism thing to the 1980s. One can date it from Print Magazine’s Regional Design Annual. Cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Atlanta seemed to really stand out. This phase was about decentralizing the influence of New York. In the 1990s there was a much greater diffusion of graphic design happening, mostly through the design publications. The focus then was on individual designers rather than regional styles. Today that phenomenon is translated globally. It’s difficult to locate work that has a distinctively regional character. Most work is informed by things happening around the world, even if they don’t realize it.

SU: There’s contention that graphic design has been demystified because its tools are in the public’s possession. If the public has the tools, and the boundaries that define design regionalism are thinning in our pluralist landscape, then where do you expect fresh or emerging areas of practice to evolve from? What can educators do to stimulate this evolution?
AB: The mistake is to confuse design with its tools. Fresh perspectives on design practice will evolve mostly from the same sources as always: innovative schools, good practitioners, and imaginative clients. It’s always possible, I suppose, that someone in the public with the same tools will invent something new, although it’s unlikely. Such design almost always emulates existing norms, conventions, and standards.
SU: You’ve been criticized for not writing much lately. (Maybe audiences just haven’t seen what you’re writing.) What writing do you have in the works after editing Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life for the Walker Art Center’s Exhibition?
AB: Not sure who these critics are. I’ve actually written quite a bit, considering how many other things I do. There have been articles in Eye (Towards A Complex Simplicity) and Emigre (no.64) that have initiated some debate and even pointed to a very different approach to graphic design that has been very influential in recent years. I only believe in writing something when one has something new to say. Trying to write on a regular basis makes you into a commentator. I write to understand and process new ideas and to think through certain positions.
SU: Over the past two years, we’ve seen a fair amount of design press. Mostly, it’s from an industrial design perspective, but there’s plenty of attention given to graphics ranging from logo redesigns at MoMA and UPS to design celebrities that popularize motion graphics or film titles. Are graphic designers getting attention they deserve from the public, users, and/or media, or are we not given adequate credit for the visual culture we perpetuate?

 

AB: Graphic design probably isn’t getting the attention it deserves (both positive and negative). Mainstream design criticism includes graphic design as an occasional one-off story with the rest dominated by architecture coverage. Of course, all the design fields complain of a lack of coverage. It’s not so much about getting credit as it is about understanding the importance of design in visual culture. Graphic design gives form to the message space or the mediascape, which compared to other environments tends to be amorphic. Its importance is diffuse and the products of graphic design don’t typically compel the kind of public attention that a new building or car design does, for example.
SU: J. Abbott Miller asks, “One always hears complaints about the ‘dumbing-down’ of design in journalism, but shouldn’t we be equally critical of the ‘smarting-up’ of design for academic audiences?” How do we reconcile the distance between the poles? Can we resolve those different genres/approaches into something new, and in your opinion, what value would it have for journalism and/or academic readership?
AB: I don’t believe in one style for writing about design. That sounds dreadful to me. Writers should consider who their likely audience is (which ironically is what designers do all the time): is it a professional crowd, an academic community, or the general public? People who complain about this and don’t acknowledge these differences are too preoccupied with their own particular needs and interests. Designers would be better served by reading all sorts of writing, whether it is academic or journalistic in style.
SU: It’s been almost ten years since you co-authored “Building Bridges: A Research Agenda for Education and Practice” with Meredith Davis. How do you feel the current state of graduate design education compares with your 1995 vision, and what would you change in that vision?
AB: The need for true research is still lacking for the most part. Most of what passes for research in graphic design is what you might call “knowing the subject matter better” stuff. That’s important to do, but it usually doesn’t give you information that can be extrapolated or built upon by others. This schism is a very difficult thing to address because of the priority given to the making culture of design. There are still few models for research, although there appears to be signs of change happening. That was definitely true in the mid-90s when interactivity introduced a whole new dimension into design and people began asking more fundamental questions about use, performance, structure, etc. To truly change things we need to start earlier with better use of class critiques, presentation strategies, project reviews, etc. as opportunities to foster a clearer, more critical attitude that is at the heart of the researcher’s mind. This needs to be addressed at the undergraduate level so that it can be built upon in graduate school. Too often, graduate education is used for retraining on the basics of graphic design, so you can’t move the agenda ahead.
SU: Having worked with so many interesting people, what are the life- or opinion-changing experiences you’ve taken away? And during such collaborations, what of yourself did you want left behind?

 

AB: You’re right, I’ve been very lucky to work with so many interesting people over the years. Most people have something positive to offer, even if it is total resistance. I make it a point to learn something every time I produce something, whether it’s a book design, an essay, a lecture, or an exhibition. Sometimes it’s just a technical problem to avoid, or a fabrication process that works. More often than not it is a confirmation that the best work is produced by those who think deeply, work passionately, and are their own best critics.I do collaborate on design projects. I sincerely enjoy this process. I try to remain open to all possibilities. The best ideas should “win,” not people. Occasionally practicality wins out and trumps all. I have opinions about form but do not feel bound by any specific style. I’m not sure what I leave behind in this collaborative process. I hope that it is the fact that you can collaborate with other designers and create work that is better than if it were created in isolation. Sometimes collaboration is difficult to do, especially when you’re out of school, because most programs encourage you to develop your own approach (which is completely valid), but it tends to make the thought of collaboration seem like compromise or design-by-committee.
SU: In closing, please tell us what excites you about design and give suggestion(s) to our readers about how they too can maintain such energy.
AB: I am most excited by designers who have a clear vision of what it is they are doing and the enthusiasm to pursue it. I am most seduced by designers whose thinking deeply informs and guides their work. The potential of all fields of design is what is really exciting. Designers, when they are good, possess unique talents that they take for granted: problem-solving, problem definition, visualization, organization, etc. Most people are deficient in these skills. The best way to stay energized is to keep your eye on your true goals, even if circumstances do not allow you to achieve it right now. Changing your situation or context is the best way to force new possibilities. Learn to locate opportunities in design projects no matter how small they seem. Be open to change and discovery. Don’t practice design if you don’t really like it. Don’t like the profession? Help change it. Know when to move on to the next challenge.

 

SU: Thanks, Andrew.