I can hardly remember what I spoke about at our first conference 20 years ago, but I do recall repeating my mother’s spaghetti recipe, which for those of you who weren’t there, was the most appreciated piece of information I presented.
First, put a 1 pound package of Mueller's spaghetti in a large pot of rapidly boiling water. Allow to cook for 45 minutes to an hour, or until most of the water has evaporated. Add half a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup, and a half pound of Velveeta cheese. Continue cooking until all the contents have amalgamated. Allow to cool and de-mold from the pot. Divide into 1 inch slices and fry in chicken-fat.
When I was in my early teens, I went to a neighborhood Italian restaurant in the Bronx, and ordered spaghetti. The waiter brought me a bowl of strange-looking stringy things covered with tomato sauce. "No, no," I said, "I ordered Spaghetti, SPAGHETTI!"
What has happened to our field since our first conference 20 years ago cannot be considered without examining the more troubling question of how the world has changed—since I have less than 15 minutes, I will not attempt to objectively summarize that question, but say that speaking subjectively, the world seems more fragile and imperiled than it did in the mid eighties. Perhaps the world always seems at risk. In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a world war, the Holocaust, McCarthyism, Vietnam, Korea, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the Cold War—and in these times, AIDS, genocide in Africa and Bosnia, 9/11, global warming, the war on Iraq, the acceptance of torture, the Patriot Act, the tsunami, the devastation of New Orleans and the gulf coast and overshadowing everything else in our minds—the emergence of international terrorism.
The political exploitation of the fear of terrorism is as alarming as terrorism itself. It has caused me to examine my role as a citizen and to think about whether designers as a group have a dog in this fight, to use a pungent down-home cliché. Our dog in this fight may be human survival.
My personal response to this condition has lead me to become more active in civic life. As designers, we’ve been concerned about our role in society for a very long time. It’s important to remember that even modernism had social reform as it’s basic principal, but the need to act seems more imperative than ever.
After 9/11, I produced a poster that was distributed around the city by students from the School of Visual Arts as well as wrapped around a million copies of the Daily News. It seemed to reflect what all of us were experiencing after the tragedy. Of course, the design problem, in the case of personal interventions, is how to become visible...how to enter into the bloodstream of the culture.
"Make it clear." This fundamental assumption of communication would seem to be an attainable goal. Objectify the audience, understand their desires—appeal to their interests, eliminate the extraneous and presto "effective communication."
Well, maybe not.
Some months ago I came upon a book by Leo Steinberg called the Incessant Last Supper, based on what may be the greatest single work of western painting, Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper. I've always loved the painting and have been looking at it for over a half-century beginning with a penny print I bought in kindergarten. In 1951, not many years after World War II, I visited it for the first time. It was in terrible shape, covered with mold and dirt and darkened by centuries of wear and bad restoration – Nevertheless the genius that Leonardo had invested in the work showed through and could not be denied. I had occasion to visit Milan frequently because I was doing a lot of work for Olivetti, at that time one of the most progressive of all European industrial concerns. In the eighties they initiated a complete restoration of the painting. Sadly, Olivetti is no longer an extraordinary example of how a corporation could be a good citizen as well as a profitable business, in fact it no longer exists. On one of my visits to Italy, they arranged for me to visit the painting in the process of being restored.
An attractive middle aged matron in a brown business suit was concentrating her attention on the face of Christ, high above the floor on a scaffold that had been constructed next to the painting. I say painting instead of fresco because, as many of you know, the Last Supper was an experiment in using untested pigments and binders that Leonardo was interested in. This is one of the reasons the work has fared so badly since it was first created. Dr. Pinin Brambilla Barcillon, who had the incredible responsibility of restoring the work single handedly, motioned me up the scaffold alongside her, inches away from the head of Christ, the centerpiece of the painting towards which all forms converged – I cannot describe my emotions as I realized the privilege of seeing Leonardo's work from a vantage point that few will ever have.
The head was a pointillist composition of tiny dots and fragments of color that dissolved into an abstraction as you got closer. Dr. Brambilla sat behind an optical instrument that illuminated one square inch of the painting's surface at a time (a day's work) as she looked through a magnifying lens – Her primary tools were a scalpel, a cotton swab, soap and water. Layer by layer she was cleaning away the dirt, waxes, varnish and over-painting of centuries. I tried to imagine what might be going through her mind, considering that if she took one extra swipe with her swab, the world's most precious patch of paint could be irreversibly gone. As it was, only half the original pigment of Christ's face existed once the various retouchings had been carefully removed. After revealing the real Leonardo fragment Dr. Brambilla would float in a thin neutral film of watercolor around it to unify the image.
As I looked at it, I realized that re-creating the image in the mind, out of the bits and pieces that remain, makes the work even more evocative than it might have been originally, a point I want to get to a bit later. I've returned to re-visit the sublime masterpiece at ground level many time since then and I urge all of you to do the same since the painting and the space it defines are unreproducible. The first thing you'll observe is that your preconceptions about Leonardo's style are challenged—it is not dark and defined by dramatic chiaroscuro: on the contrary it is more like an impressionist painting full of fragmented cerulean blue, white and pink. Despite all of this I never understood why the work was so compelling until I read Leo Steinberg's remarkable book.
At this point some of you must be asking "Am I at the right keynote? What does this have to do with marketing or communication?" Bear with me.
The painting is a demonstration of how the brain works and a revelation of how belief conditions our senses of reality. It is not an attempt to illustrate one moment in time. That apparently was too simple for Leonardo. If you approach the work with the idea that it illustrates the words ‘one of you shall betray me' all the figures in the painting assume poses that clearly respond to those words with shock honor and revulsion. One of the principles of Renaissance communication was that the position of a figure revealed character and emotion.
On the other hand if you shift the message you hold in your mind to the institution of the Eucharist, "Take this and eat: this is my body," the meaning of the apostles' gestures change before your eyes in response to this first call to communion. Think of it, two completely separate ideas in two different moments in time being simultaneously conveyed.
The mural is filled with irreconcilable contradictions. The table is too large for the space its in, yet too small to accommodate the apostles. Christ is enlarged (astonishingly this is almost never observed) so that seated he is as tall as Matthew and Bartholomew who are standing. Because Leonardo is interested in saying two different things at the same time, the painting can be read left to right where the apostles on our left have only heard the announcement of betrayal and those on the right are responding to the theme of the Eucharist. On the other hand, Christ is also speaking directly to us with his dual nature expressed in his two hands, his nervous right simultaneously referring to the treason dish and a glass of wine, his left offering redemptive self-sacrifice. It's important to understand that the apostles are not aware of the entire gesture. They, after all, can only see Christ in profile. Only we can see how all the forms in the painting converge on the triangular form of Jesus to represent his divinity.
Of course for us the question is why would the most lucid mind in human history introduce so much ambiguity in a work that intends to affect its viewers? Ambiguity incidentally is a military term that means to be attacked from two sides at once. The answer may have to do with the way we process information. The human brain is a problem-solving organ, a characteristic that probably is at the center of our dominance over other species. The brain frequently remains inert until a problem is presented to it. In the case of The Last Supper, the profound ambiguity it contains alerts and stimulates the brain into action. DaVinci clearly believed that ambiguity was a way of arriving at the truth. As a result, the painting moves us in a deeper and more profound way than any direct statement.
I suggest that all of us involved in communicating ideas to others can learn a lot from Leonardo. Of course, the truth of the Last Supper has been unfolding for centuries and our work usually has to be understood in seconds. Five hundred years later another genius, Pablo Picasso, spent many years depicting subjects from several different points of view at once, understanding that any single point of view was a misrepresentation. Before I go any further, let me apologize to Leo Steinberg for reducing his brilliant observations to a simple-minded proposition.
In our practice we frequently use a less elevated version of the ambiguity principle to create a puzzle that the audience can solve within a short length of time. Clearly, the period of time between seeing something and understanding it is critical, too short and the viewer is not engaged, too long and you lose his attention and frequently generate confusion and resentment.
Since ambiguity seems often to be a central and powerful tool of communication, the next question might be what is its relationship to telling the truth. Of course the truth has never been easy to determine and one could say that at this moment the truth has become more elusive than ever. Yet we must begin with the presumption that telling the truth is essential for human survival.
Several years ago on a flight from Las Vegas to Dallas a hostess entered the aisle with a vigorously steaming tray of hot towels. As she approached me, I observed that the steam was actually coming from a wineglass next to the towels—"What is that?" I asked the hostess, who I later found out was a former kindergarten teacher and grandmother. "Dry ice and water," she replied, "Is that for the drama?" I asked. "Yes," she replied. For whatever the reason that brief conversation continues to haunt me.
What can it mean when a freezing glass of dry ice is used to simulate a steaming towel on a plane trip? Can this modest deception benefit either the airline or its passengers? Where was the decision made to do it? In the boardroom? In the advertising agency? On the flight itself? Does the airline believe that the drama of the steaming towels will suggest a policy of concerned service? What happens to the customer in the last row of the plane when he is handed a cold towel while the tray above his head is steaming madly? Does he doubt his own nervous system? Does he believe he has had a stroke? What makes me uncomfortable with all of this? Why do I believe that harm is being done?
I once created a test called The Road to Hell. I had just finished illustrating a section of Dante's Divine Comedy for an Italian publisher. When I first got the assignment I was unhappy that I had been given Purgatory as a subject as opposed to Inferno. As an illustrator, Hell had always seemed more interesting to me. Frankly, I never quite understood the difference between Hell and Purgatory. As you may know, the difference is simply that those in Hell are not aware of what put them in Hell and are doomed to be there forever. Those in Purgatory are aware of their sins and consequently have the possibility of getting out by moving to a higher plane. This fact immediately made Purgatory more relevant to me, in part, because Purgatory is where most of us are right now. In any event, awareness of what we actually do in life seems worth thinking about.
Let me read you The Road to Hell, a series of questions that become more difficulty the deeper you go. The first couple are easy, would you—
1. Design a package to look larger on the shelf?
2. Do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
3. Design a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it's been in business for a long time?
4. Design a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
5. Design an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
6. Design a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
7. Design a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
8. Design a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn't work?
9. Design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
10. Design a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
11. Design an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user's death?
When I gave this test to students between the ages of 21 to 28, I discovered that in a group of 20, 3 or 4 of them were willing to go all the way—That is, participate in advertising a product whose use might cause the user's death. These were generally idealistic young people as yet seemingly uncorrupted by money or professional life. However, they drew the line at harming their family, friends or neighbors.
The other day in the country, I thought I'd make a Greek salad for lunch. Tomatoes are not quite in season but I had some good onions, peppers, cucumbers as well as a small square of feta and some excellent olives, olive oil and Greek oregano. As I was adding the feta to the salad I checked the nutritional label; it read 70 calories per serving. "Not bad" I thought, and crumbled the cheese into the bowl. Something made me examine the label again. Under "number of servings" it said 7. I had just added 490 calories to a diet-conscious lunch for my wife and myself…I wondered how did a thimbleful of feta become a serving? You all know the answer.
After lunch I turned on the TV to watch the ball game. A commercial for a nasty-looking green salve to treat arthritis was on, showing a smiling young woman testifying to the efficacy of the medication. "I was barely able to move my fingers" she said, "and now I can type for hours without any pain." At the bottom of the screen in 6 point, barely visible type, were the words "results may not be typical". Could I have picked any more trivial examples to indicate the lies we experience in daily life? Perhaps not, but the truth is we are subjected to a thousand of such misrepresentations every day of our lives. So pervasive is the culture of small distortions that we can no longer recognize them as lies. To quote Mc Luhan, "The fish in water doesn't know it's in water"—nevertheless the assault has changed our brains and our view of reality and truth.
Most of us here today are in the transmission business. While we don't often originate the content of what we transmit, we are an essential part of communicating ideas to a public that is affected by what we say. Should telling the truth be a fundamental requirement of this role? Is there a difference between lying to your wife and friends and lying to people you don't know? Certainly one thing that makes lying easier is thinking of the audience not as citizens but as consumers—the consumer is another species, and in professional life they are often thought of as the "other". To quote Elaine Pagels in her book, The Origins of Satan, "The social and cultural practice of defining certain people as ‘others' in relationship to one's own group may be, of course as old as humanity itself." While marketing is obsessed with the way groups behave it doesn't generally conceive of those groups as being our fathers, mothers, sisters or friends, this would make the job far too complex. Rather, these groups are thought of as ‘markets' with generalized characteristics that make manipulating them seem ethically acceptable. One thing seems consistent, the greater the psychic distance the easier it is to persuade people to act against their own self-interest.
The issue seems more significant than ever. Today, given the aggressive distortion of truth and reality that pervades our civic and business life. It is not a coincidence that Karl Rove, a brilliant marketing man is, next to the President himself, the most important man in Washington and perhaps the world.
What is truly frightening is the degree to which lying has become acceptable in our public life. I'm not sure when the word "spin" replaced "lie" but it is characteristic of how our language has become a way of deflecting or distorting reality. We seem to be awash in lies from business, the government, and almost every institution we have traditionally looked to as a source of belief. Our government has embarked on an investigation to determine whether the atrocities performed at Abu Ghraib were aberrational or systemic. What would be equally important is an examination of whether lying has become systemic in our nation and the way our government speaks to us. The relative lack of public outrage as government and business lies are revealed is troubling, and may indicate how the American sense of what truth is has been profoundly shaped by our most pervasive educational medium, advertising.
Actually it works two ways, advertising influences our relationship to government and government influences our view of advertising. A recent somewhat homophobic ad by Anheuser-Busch (no relation), in addition to characterizing Miller as a "sissy" beer, "outed" the Miller Beer Corporation as being owned by a South African company, paralleling the outing, by unknown government insiders, of CIA Agent Valerie Plame. As you all know, that event was triggered because her husband told the truth about whether or not nuclear materials were being shipped from Niger. In my memory this is the first time that the patriotism of a competitor has been questioned in order to promote beer sales. Marketing can be shameless.
Politicians and businessmen have re-discovered the power of Lenin's old idea that a lie repeated often enough, becomes the truth. This dark assumption throws a pall over America as well as the entire world and endangers democracy itself. When people believe that their government systemically lies to them they become cynical. Cynicism breeds apathy and a sense of powerlessness that causes people to withdraw from public life. It is not coincidental that less than half our population votes. If only 44% of our country vote and we are equally divided ideologically, it means that 20% of the electorate control the fate of our nation—this has become a profound threat to the future of our republic and democracy itself. We can only call this a systemic scandal and observe that those in power have done very little to change the condition. Which raises one last question. From our government's point of view, have we become the "other"?
I've discovered that the best way to start a talk is with a joke you like, then try to build your speech around it. So the joke:
A magician performing in a small theatre announces, "Tonight I'm going to perform a brand new trick, never seen before anywhere in the world. I'll need a bit of assistance from someone in the audience. You, young man, could you come up and help me?"
The young man, a sturdy six footer, joins the magician on stage. The magician says, "I'd like you to take this sledge hammer and hit me directly on top of my head with all your strength". The young man, a bit confused says, "I can't do that sir, I'd kill you". "Not to worry" says the magician with a confident smile, "Just hit me right on top of the head." The young man reluctantly picks up the sledge hammer and hits the magician with all his might. The magician goes down like a pile of bricks and lies quivering on the floor. The paramedics are called immediately and take the unconscious magician away in an ambulance.
10 years later, the magician remains in a coma in a nursing home in New Jersey. He has never came to. A nurse, making her morning rounds, notices that his eyelids seem to be fluttering. Excitedly she calls all the doctors who come to his bedside. At one moment, the magician opens his eyes and sees all the doctors and nurses gathered around him.
"TA-DA", he says.
Perhaps the parallel is that all of us in the field of illustration are beginning to feel we've been struck in the head and have fallen into a coma and are waiting to wake up at a more generous time. I'm not sure that better times are coming within my lifetime, and I have little practical career advice for others in the field.
Like all of us, I frequently think about what has caused the decline in the use of illustration. Since nothing occurs in a vacuum, it seems to relate to a transformation that has occurred to the American ethos. I believe it to have something to do with the pervasive and powerful effect of advertising and television. I know TV gets blamed for almost everything in American life, but as they endlessly say about computers, television is only a tool. Television is the tool of advertising, the most universal educational force the world has ever witnessed. Sadly the lesson plan of TV involves only one principal, endless consumption. If you turn on your TV set and look away at the nearby wall you will discover that the reflections produced by the light from the TV set constantly vary dramatically in contrast and intensity. These contrasts are paralleled by the sounds emitting from the same source. It occurred to me that abrupt changes in the intensity of light, were indications of danger that our neurological system has evolved to respond to. What effects can a lifetime of exposure to this assault produce? After all, our children are subjected to it within months of being born. When a shadow passes over a field mouse, it becomes alert to danger. Every cell of our body has been programmed to respond to light. It's obvious that the intensity of visual and audio contrast has increased though the years. I assume that our brains' response to this continuing onslaught is a protective deadening to our neural receptors. I am convinced that the passivity and indifference of the American public to their own lives and interests, is some how related to this phenomena. It is hard to believe, but a poll taken recently indicated that two thirds of the American public could not name even one of the democrats running for president. Not to mention that three times the number of Americans believe in Satan than evolution. We have lost our sense of what is real, and replaced it with an addiction to the virtual reality created by television, entertainment, and advertising. Incidentally the constant juxtaposition of images like that of a woman crying over a child lost in a fire and a commercial for Pampers amplifies this sense of meaningless and daily stupor.
One can make the case that we have lost the capacity for abstract thought. When we read or listen to the radio, the mind forms images in response to the suggestion. The same thing can be said to occur when an illustration provokes the viewer by its symbolic relationship to reality. Abstraction encourages the mind to bridge the distance from suggestion to reality. There are certain tribes in Africa that do not distinguish between their dream life and their daily life. We find ourselves in a similar condition. But one must note that the reality that television has provided us with does not serve out deepest needs.
In our world, reality has been replaced by forms of entertainment that require little mental activity, and encourage apathy and indifference. How else can we explain the incredible passivity we witness that characterizes the American people at this time. The misrepresentations of government, the outrageous dishonesty of business, the attack on our civil rights, the collapse of our educational system and the failures of our social safety nets have produced almost no response or indignation from the American public. When Bush orders an aircraft carrier moved at a cost of 1 million dollars so he can land on the deck without San Diego being visible in the background, he is aware that this manipulative misrepresentation will not affect his popularity, even after it is disclosed. I am certain, as it becomes increasingly obvious, that we were deliberately lied to in order to justify a war with Iraq, there will be no general sense of betrayal because we no longer understand the relationship between cause and effect.
The virtual reality created by television is expressed through predominately photographic means, our culture's most dominant way of expressing "reality". Susan Sontag has written brilliantly on photography, in fact, that is the title of her early book.
"Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up and thicken the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs are really experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciences in its acquisitive mood…" Photography has another intrinsic characteristic that illustration lacks. The innate sense of capturing a ‘real" moment in time proving that the subject actually existed. This separates it from other works of the imagination and makes it a perfect vehicle for advertising. Our society requires a culture based on images to furnish entertainment and to stimulate buying. Above all, photography seems to validate and protect the existing social conditions. Because of its believability, photography is unexcelled as a tool to generate desire, which in part explains the diminished role of illustration in advertising. In a culture that values commerce above all other things, the imaginative potential of illustration has become irrelevant. For those who control the narrative of American life, illustration is now too idiosyncratic, harder to control and are less reassuring than the photographic imagery we have all grown up with. This is not to say that illustrators exist outside the world of commerce. On the contrary, we are all embedded in that world. But the need to express some aspect of our personal vision makes us suspect, at a time when the bottom line is the bottom line.
The greatest irony, of course, is the emergence of the so-called reality TV. Whose reality are we talking about? Producers have discovered that they can discard the last impulse to conceive of television as a creative medium, (as vestigial as it is) eliminate the writers, who have been negotiating for more money and create a show completely controlled by marketing. The result demeans and further infantilizes the American viewer.
A Greek myth tells us that the first drawing came about as a woman traced her lovers' shadow in the sand as he was about to leave for war, where he might be killed and never seen again. The intent of the drawing was to keep his presence alive. The myth, of course, is not literally true since all of us know the remarkable cave drawings that are unexcelled in all human history. Tracing shadows, on the other hand, is an elegant way of describing the act of illustration. If illustration suggests illumination then the shadow is central to its meaning. All of us who create imagery know that the relationship of dark to light is unavoidable. Although Freud, like all true artists, offered us only one way to view the world, I've always been attracted to his notion of the struggle between Eros and Thanatos, the pull towards life vs. the pull towards death, that seems to occupy the human psyche, as well as the world itself. Eros is the mother of sex, love, feeling and the desire to make things. The words, generation, genius, genial, genital, and generous are all contained within its purpose. Thanatos embraces darkness, obscurity, evil and entropy. Although the dialogue between these two forces predates history, the anxiety of this moment in time convinces us that balance has gone awry.
When I was eight, I contracted rheumatic fever and was confined to bed for almost a year. I entertained myself during that time by creating armies, cities, animals and machines out of clay on a 3-foot wooden board with a deep groove ending in a knothole at one end. It created a landscape of unlimited possibilities. At the end of every day I would destroy everything I had made and dreamed through the night of starting again the next morning. My darling mother would bring the board each day with a glass of orange juice and a soft-boiled egg. After breakfast, I would begin my work, I realized then, and even more today, that making things had rescued my life. I know that all of you have had a similar realization.
There is a reason for all of you here to continue making things even though, vocationally speaking, this is the most difficult of times. The deepest role of art is creating an alternative reality, something the world needs desperately at this time. Everyone here today chose to be on the side of Eros, that is you've devoted your life of making things, rather than controlling things. I used to feel that it was strange that artists are self-anointed. Now I realize it could not be any other way because above all, art is a view of life itself. It cannot be given by others or taken away by dealers or marketing men. Real artists are always working for nothing because they don't see their essential role in society as being simply to exchange goods. They turn up first in the anti-war demonstrations, not because they lack patriotism, but because they revere life.
Art is the most benign and fundamental way of creating community that our species has discovered. Mozart and Matisse, children of Eros, make us more human and more generous to one another.
As dark and as difficult this moment is, it will change and everyone in this room today has a significant role in that transformation because like all people who make things, you are inevitably on the side of light.
YOU CAN ONLY WORK FOR PEOPLE THAT YOU LIKE.
This is a curious rule and it took me a long time to learn because in fact at the beginning of my practice I felt the opposite. Professionalism required that you didn't particularly like the people that you worked for or at least maintained an arms length relationship to them, which meant that I never had lunch with a client or saw them socially. Then some years ago I realized that the opposite was true. I discovered that all the work I had done that was meaningful and significant came out of an affectionate relationship with a client. And I am not talking about professionalism; I am talking about affection. I am talking about a client and you sharing some common ground. That in fact your view of life is someway congruent with the client, otherwise it is a bitter and hopeless struggle.
IF YOU HAVE A CHOICE NEVER HAVE A JOB.
One night I was sitting in my car outside Columbia University where my wife Shirley was studying Anthropology. While I was waiting I was listening to the radio and heard an interviewer ask 'Now that you have reached 75 have you any advice for our audience about how to prepare for your old age?' An irritated voice said 'Why is everyone asking me about old age these days?' I recognized the voice as John Cage. I am sure that many of you know who he was – the composer and philosopher who influenced people like Jasper Johns and Merce Cunningham as well as the music world in general. I knew him slightly and admired his contribution to our times. 'You know, I do know how to prepare for old age' he said. 'Never have a job, because if you have a job someday someone will take it away from you and then you will be unprepared for your old age. For me, it has always been the same every since the age of 12. I wake up in the morning and I try to figure out how am I going to put bread on the table today? It is the same at 75, I wake up every morning and I think how am I going to put bread on the table today? I am exceedingly well prepared for my old age' he said.
SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM.
This is a subtext of number one. There was in the sixties a man named Fritz Perls who was a gestalt therapist. Gestalt therapy derives from art history, it proposes you must understand the 'whole' before you can understand the details. What you have to look at is the entire culture, the entire family and community and so on. Perls proposed that in all relationships people could be either toxic or nourishing towards one another. It is not necessarily true that the same person will be toxic or nourishing in every relationship, but the combination of any two people in a relationship produces toxic or nourishing consequences. And the important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn't matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energized or less energized. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.
PROFESSIONALISM IS NOT ENOUGH or THE GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF THE GREAT.
Early in my career I wanted to be professional, that was my complete aspiration in my early life because professionals seemed to know everything - not to mention they got paid for it. Later I discovered after working for a while that professionalism itself was a limitation. After all, what professionalism means in most cases is diminishing risks. So if you want to get your car fixed you go to a mechanic who knows how to deal with transmission problems in the same way each time. I suppose if you needed brain surgery you wouldn't want the doctor to fool around and invent a new way of connecting your nerve endings. Please do it in the way that has worked in the past.Unfortunately in our field, in the so-called creative – I hate that word because it is misused so often. I also hate the fact that it is used as a noun. Can you imagine calling someone a creative? Anyhow, when you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.
LESS IS NOT NECESSARILY MORE.
Being a child of modernism I have heard this mantra all my life. Less is more. One morning upon awakening I realized that it was total nonsense, it is an absurd proposition and also fairly meaningless. But it sounds great because it contains within it a paradox that is resistant to understanding. But it simply does not obtain when you think about the visual of the history of the world. If you look at a Persian rug, you cannot say that less is more because you realize that every part of that rug, every change of colour, every shift in form is absolutely essential for its aesthetic success. You cannot prove to me that a solid blue rug is in any way superior. That also goes for the work of Gaudi, Persian miniatures, art nouveau and everything else. However, I have an alternative to the proposition that I believe is more appropriate. 'Just enough is more.'
STYLE IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED.
I think this idea first occurred to me when I was looking at a marvelous 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 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.
HOW YOU LIVE CHANGES YOUR BRAIN.
The brain is the most responsive organ of the body. Actually it is the organ that is most susceptible to change and regeneration of all the organs in the body. I have a friend named Gerald Edelman who was a great scholar of brain studies and he says that the analogy of the brain to a computer is pathetic. The brain is actually more like an overgrown garden that is constantly growing and throwing off seeds, regenerating and so on. And he believes that the brain is susceptible, in a way that we are not fully conscious of, to almost every experience of our life and every encounter we have. I was fascinated by a story in a newspaper a few years ago about the search for perfect pitch. A group of scientists decided that they were going to find out why certain people have perfect pitch. You know certain people hear a note precisely and are able to replicate it at exactly the right pitch. Some people have relative pitch; perfect pitch is rare even among musicians. The scientists discovered – I don't know how - that among people with perfect pitch the brain was different. Certain lobes of the brain had undergone some change or deformation that was always present with those who had perfect pitch. This was interesting enough in itself. But then they discovered something even more fascinating. If you took a bunch of kids and taught them to play the violin at the age of 4 or 5 after a couple of years some of them developed perfect pitch, and in all of those cases their brain structure had changed. Well what could that mean for the rest of us? We tend to believe that the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind, although we do not generally believe that everything we do affects the brain. I am convinced that if someone was to yell at me from across the street my brain could be affected and my life might changed. That is why your mother always said, 'Don't hang out with those bad kids.' Mama was right. Thought changes our life and our behavior. I also believe that drawing works in the same way. I am a great advocate of drawing, not in order to become an illustrator, but because I believe drawing changes the brain in the same way as the search to create the right note changes the brain of a violinist. Drawing also makes you attentive. It makes you pay attention to what you are looking at, which is not so easy.
DOUBT IS BETTER THAN CERTAINTY.
Everyone always talks about confidence in believing what you do. I remember once going to a class in yoga where the teacher said that, spirituality speaking, if you believed that you had achieved enlightenment you have merely arrived at your limitation. I think that is also true in a practical sense. Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being skeptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between skepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one's openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right. There is a significant sense of self-righteousness in both the art and design world. Perhaps it begins at school. Art school often begins with the Ayn Rand model of the single personality resisting the ideas of the surrounding culture. The theory of the avant garde is that as an individual you can transform the world, which is true up to a point. One of the signs of a damaged ego is absolute certainty.Schools encourage the idea of not compromising and defending your work at all costs. Well, the issue at work is usually all about the nature of compromise. You just have to know what to compromise. Blind pursuit of your own ends which excludes the possibility that others may be right does not allow for the fact that in design we are always dealing with a triad – the client, the audience and you. Ideally, making everyone win through acts of accommodation is desirable. But self-righteousness is often the enemy. Self-righteousness and narcissism generally come out of some sort of childhood trauma, which we do not have to go into. It is a consistently difficult thing in human affairs. Some years ago I read a most remarkable thing about love, that also applies to the nature of co-existing with others. It was a quotation from Iris Murdoch in her obituary. It read ' Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.' Isn't that fantastic! The best insight on the subject of love that one can imagine.
Last year someone gave me a charming book by Roger Rosenblatt called 'Ageing Gracefully' I got it on my birthday. I did not appreciate the title at the time but it contains a series of rules for ageing gracefully. The first rule is the best. Rule number one is that 'it doesn't matter.' 'It doesn't matter what you think. Follow this rule and it will add decades to your life. It does not matter if you are late or early, if you are here or there, if you said it or didn't say it, if you are clever or if you were stupid. If you were having a bad hair day or a no hair day or if your boss looks at you cockeyed or your boyfriend or girlfriend looks at you cockeyed, if you are cockeyed. If you don't get that promotion or prize or house or if you do – it doesn't matter.' Wisdom at last. Then I heard a marvelous joke that seemed related to rule number 10. A butcher was opening his market one morning and as he did a rabbit popped his head through the door. The butcher was surprised when the rabbit inquired 'Got any cabbage?' The butcher said 'This is a meat market – we sell meat, not vegetables.' The rabbit hopped off. The next day the butcher is opening the shop and sure enough the rabbit pops his head round and says 'You got any cabbage?' The butcher now irritated says 'Listen you little rodent I told you yesterday we sell meat, we do not sell vegetables and the next time you come here I am going to grab you by the throat and nail those floppy ears to the floor.' The rabbit disappeared hastily and nothing happened for a week. Then one morning the rabbit popped his head around the corner and said 'Got any nails?' The butcher said 'No.' The rabbit said 'Ok. Got any cabbage?'
TELL THE TRUTH.
The rabbit joke is relevant because it occurred to me that looking for a cabbage in a butcher's shop might be like looking for ethics in the design field. It may not be the most obvious place to find either. It's interesting to observe that in the new AIGA's code of ethics there is a significant amount of useful information about appropriate behavior towards clients and other designers, but not a word about a designer's relationship to the public. We expect a butcher to sell us eatable meat and that he doesn't misrepresent his wares. I remember reading that during the Stalin years in Russia that everything labelled veal was actually chicken. I can't imagine what everything labelled chicken was. We can accept certain kinds of misrepresentation, such as fudging about the amount of fat in his hamburger but once a butcher knowingly sells us spoiled meat we go elsewhere. As a designer, do we have less responsibility to our public than a butcher? Everyone interested in licensing our field might note that the reason licensing has been invented is to protect the public not designers or clients. 'Do no harm' is an admonition to doctors concerning their relationship to their patients, not to their fellow practitioners or the drug companies. If we were licensed, telling the truth might become more central to what we do.
So many legends, so little time. Rick Grefe has asked me to speak briefly on the value of continuity in our profession. Of course one could take that charge to mean the short history of design, perhaps beginning with Peter Behrens, who is credited with invention of identity programs and coordinating graphic and industrial design activities. Or one might consider our history as beginning with the first cave paintings at the dawn of history.
I prefer the longer view that relates our activity to the fundamental needs of the human species. A species whose most distinctive characteristic is making things for a purpose, which turns out to be the actual description of what we do.
Any grandiosity or self-importance that this cosmic description of our activity creates in us will be quickly erased by the discovery that in a typical design class only 30% of the students will have any idea who Paul Rand is and will not be able to identify Eric Nitsche or Lester Beall, let alone Joseph Hoffman, Edward Penfield or Gustav Jensen. Incidentally, Jensen was a mentor to Paul Rand and, Cassandre aside, perhaps the designer he most admired, but I would not be at all surprised if most of us here tonight have never heard of him. – So much for understanding our own history.I have always believed that there is a psychological and ethical difference between those who make things and those who control things. If form making is intrinsic to human beings and has a social benefit, then we can think of the "good" in good design having more than a stylistic meaning. Linking beauty and purpose can create a sense of communal agreement that helps diminish the sense of disorder and incoherence that life creates.
The part of design that is involved in fashion and marketing has the least need to examine and understand our history. Examining what has happened over twenty years seems to provide enough information to meet professional requirements, but if our field aspires to be significant and worthy of respect, it must stand for something beyond salesmanship. Being a legend is an accomplishment that is hard won and sadly ephemeral, but being part of human kind’s desire to make useful and beautiful things links us to a glorious history.
Two weeks ago I developed a sudden, painful wrist condition. I went to a fancy hand doctor who told me I probably had a "gouty" incident. That’s not "Gaudi" the great Barcelonian designer and architect. It’s gout, as in those 18th century engravings of rich, fat men with inflamed big toes. My wrist is fine but while I was in the doctor’s office I noticed a document on his wall called "What A Surgeon Ought to Be" written in the 14th century. I’ve changed a word or two but it seems like good advice for our profession.
What the Designer Ought to Be: Let the designer be bold in all sure things, and fearful in dangerous things; let him avoid all faulty treatments and practices. He ought to be gracious to the client, considerate to his associates, cautious in his prognostications. Let him be modest, dignified, gentle, pitiful, and merciful; not covetous nor an extortionist of money; but rather let his reward be according to his work, to the means of the client, to the quality of the issue, and to his own dignity.