‘Trendy’ – a critical anatomy of the role of trends in graphic design

With some variations, it always goes like this: A designer notices a trend. Many of their colleagues use the same font, or align text a certain way, or employ similar illustrations or images. They get angry. The next step is to declare it a ‘trend’. They complain that nobody thinks about design anymore, “it’s all about tics and mannerisms instead of thoughtful and lasting solutions.” There’s nothing wrong with a style replacing another, they concede. That’s the way things are.” However, they lament, “it’s a pity that there’s no interest in analysing the origin and meaning of the applied formulas.” Our designer will only feel fulfilled when they come up with some witty moniker for the trend. They write an article, a post, an illustration, or a poster denouncing the ‘trend’.

This procedure is easy to recognise in Silvia Sfligiotti’s This is Auto-Tune Typographyi. The author goes through almost every step. She starts by describing the trend (a way of aligning uppercase text in a grotesque font). Then she gives it a name (comparing it to the Auto-Tune sound effect). She presents a montage of several examples in a GIF that runs too fast to be useful. And finally concludes that the trend doesn’t even get close to be a conservative take on modernism because “this one […] goes even further in renouncing to visually and typographically articulate a thought.” Sfligiotti guesses that particular fad to be a manifestation of other trends (“‘normcore’ or ‘post-authentic’ graphic design [or] ‘default systems design’”), but she’s not interested in any of that. She prefers another path:

[…] one that acknowledges the existence of conventions, cultural norms, standards, templates, styles, tested solutions, and the fact that designers can rely on them in their work, but doesn’t give up the idea that a project requires the time to be considered before being quickly boxed into an existing shape. When using and re-using graphic formulae, we could at least try to be aware of their origin and meaning (if any), and of the reasons why we’re using them.

Nonetheless, her text also follows a formula, and one we come across again in Rudy VanderLans’s introduction to Emigre No.64ii, in which he describes a new ‘trend’ that, in his opinion, hasn’t been scrutinized enough by the critics: “On the surface it seems to be a reaction to 90s personal expressionism. It is epitomized by a return to Helvetica — and all its bland cousins, nieces and nephews — and it employs simple systems, modules, and grids to replace ideas.” Below, he presents a cartoonish illustration laying out a series of “BLAH BLAH BLAHS” composed according to the mannerism he describes. With fatalism, he concludes that:

There’s little you can do about design styles. They come and go. And sometimes they come back again. But I’m always curious. Where do styles originate? How do they evolve, and why? What do they signify? How does style affect the way we represent and interpret the world?

VanderLans leaves these questions unanswered. He ends his text bemoaning the sad reality of design magazines and criticism and doesn’t go back to the subject. Just like in Sfligliotti’s text, there’s a call for critical analysis, but no attempt to produce it. He doesn’t even name the practitioners of the style he criticizes. That task is left to Mr. Keedy, who, in another article in the same issue of Emigre, identifies the target as the Dot Dot Dot magazine. Keedy’s analysis is more detailed, but the abrasive tone and conclusion are similar: it’s nothing more than a half-baked, superficial contradictory revival of modernism that doesn’t even rise up to practice what it professes. Once again, style without substance or true historical awareness.

Keedy calls this trend “Modernism 8.0” and adds a plethora of sub-‘trends’ to which he gives monikers like “Cuteism”, “In-Faux-Mation Graphics”, “Designerless Design”. The trend has been named. It is curious that, while they throw these names at their successors, the critics from Emigre complain about the regrettable names they were targeted with — VanderLans does it in his introduction, protesting against the “unfortunate” label of “The Legibility Wars”, the pejorative term used to designate the debates between the modernist old guard and the post-modern faction VanderLans was part of, which also received the moniker “Cult of the ugly.iii” Even the epithet ‘post-modern’, especially when abbreviated to ‘Pomo’, was used as a projectile weapon against designers, even when they refuse such a label. April Greiman, an icon of post-modernism in design, rejects it:

I kind of always resented later being called “Queen of New Wave” or “Pomo.” Those aren’t anything that I identify with. […] I felt like as soon as you’ve given it a name, it’s dead.”iv

Greiman knows that naming a style can be destructive — an act of control or an exorcism. Classification can be used to control or eradicate. Many of these labels stop short at defining their targets in the measure that they’re only describing the irritation they provoke. That’s exactly what we read in Sfligiotti’s text: “While I was vainly waiting for this trend to slowly fade out […] I realised I needed a name to define it and to explain the annoyance I felt about it.”

There is a key distinction between naming and knowing something. Richard Feynman tells a storyv about how his father explained the difference to him. When he was a child, the scientist had a toy wagon with a ball in it and noticed that, whenever he would pull the wagon, the ball would rush in the opposite direction. He asked his father why that was happening, and he answered that nobody knew why for real, but that it was called ‘inertia’. For Feynman, the moral of the story is that naming or describing a thing doesn’t mean we know it.

In design, the action of naming trends only informs us about why they are being rejected. When someone describes an object as acritical or ahistorical, they are by and large placing it outside the scope of their own historical and critical analysis. In retrospect, it is absurd that someone has ever described Dot Dot Dot as acritical or ignorant of the history of design, a publication that was always a space for experimentation in design, design criticism and history of design. And of course, this also applies to Emigre.

The uppercase words ranged at the corner of a page that did so much to annoy Sfligiotti maybe have been employed acritically and ahistorically, but this doesn’t justify such a superficial and demeaning approach.

Not long after reading Sfligiotti’s text, I received a literary newsletter with a link to an article in Slate magazine about a tendency in books on conservative right-wing politics called the “Sith Lord palette” — red and white letters on a black background. There is no drama at all, just investigative journalism at its most basic level: posing questions to publishers, authors, and designers; defining a timeline for the phenomenon; and offering simple, descriptive theories for the reasons underlying those choices. When asked if there was anything annoying about having so many similar looking books on the market, one of the authors promptly answers “No, no! It’s the Zeitgeist.” In general, when it’s not written by and for designers, the coverage of this type of phenomena tends to be more curious and informative.

The matter of fact is that the critical and historical discourses within the discipline of design are usually quite poor in regard to form and especially in how they consider how form evolves over time — and this is perhaps the most annoying aspect of ‘trends’. While the issue is often reduced to a generational or philosophical conflict, I suspect that what exalts designers the most is their own incapacity to articulate an in-depth critique of the evolution of formal trends. A discipline dedicated to the creation and investigation of form, design has surprisingly few conceptual tools to think about form in an historical perspective.

What they classify as a ‘trend’ represents something they feel they cannot control or even conceive. It represents an alternative — and inconceivable — way of making and thinking design that coexists with theirs. It represents an Other within the discipline of design. This otherness can manifest itself in a formal, procedural, geographical, or temporal way — most of the time it is a mix of all these characteristics. It can be a formal style that derives from a way of doing that is in turn associated with another place (another city, country, or school) or with another time (another generation).

This otherness, which is inevitable, given that design is a plural activity, calls into question one of the most central tenets of design: its universalist timelessness. As much as, in recent years, some voices have started to decolonize and dismantle the supposed universalism of design, these efforts are almost always focused on how design processes relate to the contents they encapsulate and address, and not with the forms they appropriate. It seems to me that political design is seen as design created for political issues, contexts, and clients. The political character of form, how it is researched and imagined, is always left out.

It is rare to find a critique that focuses, with a minimum of depth, on the formal aspects of a graphic object. At best, this analysis boils down to a general technical description supporting a biographical, psychological, or institutional analysis. Good formally based analyses are hard to come across — a rare example is Robin Kinross, whose essay “Unjustified Text and the Zero Hour”vi remains one of the best examples of how such an everyday form as left-alignment can be approached by outlining its graphic and political history without giving in to commonplaces.

Literary and art criticism have sophisticated tools of formal analysis that can be applied to design. The more specific of these are grouped within critical Formalism — in which can be included movements like New Criticism and Russian formalism, and authors like Roland Barthes, Clement Greenberg or Jacques Rancière. A common misconception about Formalism is that it focuses exclusively on the formal aspects of the works, but it would be more correct to say that a formalist analysis approaches its objects through their form rather than focusing on their author’s biography, the context of their production, or the issues they address — and this doesn’t mean that, through form, it won’t get to their content or context. In his work, Jacques Rancièrevii shows how formal configurations define political configurations and vice versa. Caroline Levineviii, based on Foucault’s and Rancière’s work, analyses, for example, how literary and administrative forms influence each other, which can be transposed from the rhythm of a poem to the time of an institution. Content and context, in short, have their own forms.

In the context of Marxist criticism, Formalism was harshly criticized by Trotsky and later banned and persecuted by Stalin. Its premise of an autonomy of form clashed with Stalinist art, whose political nature was derived from its themes and contents and was presented within strict conventional limits. However, critics like Terry Eagleton point out that an analysis that focuses solely on the work’s content and political themes is nothing more than sociology: “the true bearers of ideology in art are the very forms, rather than abstractable content, of the work itself. We find the impress of history in the literary work precisely as literary, not as some superior form of social documentation.”ix Eagleton considers this Marxism to be superficial.

In design, as in other areas, the Marxist notion of ​​political art as something that derives from and reflects the material conditions of society, contributes to promoting a way of producing and evaluating the politics of design that only considers content, context and themes, and thinks of form as something irrelevant. This is, in most cases, the superficial Marxism Eagleton points out.

In design, this notion finds a fertile environment and easily connects with a functionalist morality inherited from modernism, which sees ‘good design’ as the application of universal forms to variable functions and contents. If form is taken as universal, design can only be evaluated insofar as it fulfils or doesn’t fulfil a function or suits its context or content. In this view, form can only be criticized to the extent that it doesn’t achieve that ‘universality’ — for example, when it’s reduced to a trend.

All this has led to the emergence of the notion of a ‘good form’ as an unvarying universal ideal. It was defined during modernism and all a designer can do is to try materialising it or ignore it and incur in the danger of leaving the field of design altogether. The best designers are those who can embody this concept. The ones who pervert it, those are the worst.

History only enters the field to set up a chronology of objects, people or institutions that approach this ideal in a continuous progression. Periods that do not fit this notion are considered deviations, regressions. At best, accepted as failed experiments, but still consequential — this is how post-modernism, Emigre or Dot Dot Dot are accepted into the canon. This corresponds to an outdated notion of History as a record of the steps towards a predefined ideal of ‘progress’. Luckily, contemporary History is made of a plurality of contributions that do not give in to ideas of progress that purposely promote and favour Western, white, and male ideals above all others.

On the contrary, a formalist history can bring into the canon objects that would otherwise be external to it. In the book Art Since 1900, it is suggested that “the birth of art history as a discipline dates from the moment it was able to structure the vast amount of material it had neglected for purely ideological and aesthetic reasons.”x One of these moments would have occurred, for example, in 1888, when Heinrich Wölfflin rehabilitated the Baroque, which had been despised for almost two centuries, arguing that it should be evaluated by different criteria, opposed to those of Classical art. Based on oppositions between forms (e.g., linear or pictorial, closed or open), Wölfflin’s formalist method opened art history and art criticism to an evolution that was no longer linear and continuous. One style could define itself in opposition to another: if in one period the kerning is tight, in the next it can be loose; a period of block capitals can be followed by one with spaced lowercase letters.

In design, however, ‘Formalism’ is a pejorative term, both in practice and in theory. I find it unlikely that there is any designer who claims this label for themselves. Even Max Bill, who, unlike the Bauhaus, placed the theoretical emphasis of his design on form and not functionxi and coined the expression ‘good form’ as a synonym for good design, used the adjective ‘formalist’ to describe, for example, the Streamline style, which he saw as superficial.

Steven Heller also used the term to criticize histories of design produced under the “formalist lens” that looks at and analyses objects just for their formal appearancexii. This reflects the common misunderstanding that a formalist approach is less viable because it depends on superficial or aesthetic features. Within design, Formalism is used in this sense, to designate criticism or history whose objects are chosen for their visual merits and not for the way they fulfil their functions or are received by the public. However, and as we have seen in relation to Wölfflin, Formalism is not about choosing pretty images. It can be a way of historically framing uncomfortable or inconceivable objects or times.

In fact, and contrary to Heller’s observation, the history of design produced by formalist criteria is quite rare. The great histories of design tend, better or worse, to treat design either biographically (a chain of heroes) or as a history of institutions, technologies, and ideas (with form being treated as one of the latter). One of the few general histories that consistently articulates a formal analysis with a history of ideas, technology and politics is Johanna Drucker’s and Emily McVarish’s Graphic Design – A Critical Historyxiii. However, even here, the authors don’t really get to producing a formalist history, but a history of design that employs formalist analysis as one of its analytic tools.

Ironically, Heller himself was one of the few who attempted a purely formalist historical approach in the book he wrote with Mirko Ilic, Anatomy of Design: Uncovering the Influences and Inspiration in Modern Graphic Designxiv, where he dissects a series of examples of graphic design and lays out their formal genealogy. On large fold out pages, the authors present diagrams that show the recurrence of certain symbols, their origins, and meanings. The graphic identity of an ambulance service, for example, unfolds into small graphic stories of graphic design applied to vehicles, detailing aspects such as the shield and arrow motifs that serve as the basis for the logo, and the utilised effect of chromatic transparency. It is, in effect, an application of Aby Warburg’s iconographic methodologies to the field of design. On a page, they are remarkably similar.

Finally, and going back to the article that triggered this text, these words were not written out of my annoyance towards the trend of denouncing trends. They aim to be read as a critique of this model of argumentation — I should perhaps say ‘form of argumentation’, making my intentions even clearer. I believe that, in design, forms are not limited to graphic form, but rather they include discourse, pedagogy, and work practices. Design criticism has its own forms, which help to organize it but also limit its scope.

For my part, I believe that design would benefit from a more sophisticated and informed discourse on form. I consciously began working on this problem in my book O Design que o Design Não Vêxv [The Design that Design Doesn’t See] and continued doing so in the exhibition and in the book A Força da Formaxvi [The Power of Form], in which I essay a critique and political historiography of design based on a formalist model. This text is just one more step in this direction.

I thank you for your patience, for having read a text that takes seriously one of the things designers often see as the least serious. I hope you have enjoyed.

Translated by José Roseira

i Sfligiotti, S. (2020, August 19). THIS IS AUTO-TUNE TYPOGRAPHY. Medium. https://silviasfligiotti.medium.com/this-is-auto-tune-typography-3953e74cc2ac

ii VanderLans, R. (Ed.). (2003). Rant. Princeton Architectural; London.

https://www.emigre.com/Magazine/64

iii Heller, S. (1993). Cult of the Ugly. Eye Magazine. http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/cult-of-the-ugly

iv Miller, M. (2019, March 22). Don’t Call April Greiman the “Queen of New Wave.” Eye on Design. https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/april-greiman-is-still-ahead-of-the-curve/

v Richard Feynman: Feynman’s Father and Inertia. http://www.youtube.com. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zjm8JeDKvdc

vi Kinross, R. (2002). Unjustified texts : perspectives on typography. Hyphen.

vii RancièreJ. (2018). The politics of aesthetics : the distribution of the sensible. Bloomsbury Academic.

viii Levine, C. (2017). Forms : whole, rhythm, hierarchy, network. Princeton University Press.

ix Eagleton, T. (2002). Marxism and literary criticism (pp. 11–12). Routledge.

x Foster, H., Krauss, R. E., Bois, Y.-A., B H D Buchloh, & Joselit, D. (2016). Art since 1900 : modernism, antimodernism, postmodernism (p. 36). Thames & Hudson.

xi Bill, M. (2010). Form, function, beauty = gestalt. Architectural Association.

xii Heller, S., & Ballance, G. (Eds.). (2001). Graphic design history (p. 298). Allworth Press.

xiii Drucker, J., & Mcvarish, E. (2013). Graphic design history : a critical guide. Pearson.

xiv Heller, S., & Mirko Ilić. (2009). The anatomy of design : uncovering the influences and inspirations in modern graphic design. Rockport.

xv Mário Moura. (2018). O design que o design não vê. Orfeu Negro.

xvi Mário Moura. (2019). A força da forma. Orfeu Negro.

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