Design Over the Phone

In Bob Gill’s New York Times obituary, Michael Beirut talked about the so-called Big Idea style of graphic design:

“Bob was not alone in his generation in thinking that you should be able to sell the idea over the phone,” he added, “that it didn’t depend on your color sense or your ability to do a nice layout. But Bob was absolutely obsessive about that.”

The process echoes the Moholy-Nagy modernist experience of dictating paintings over the phone in the 1920s, updated to the managerial environment of Madison Avenue. It was still fashionable among my teachers when I studied graphic design in the early 1990s. I always found it peculiar. As a student, my favorite designer was Vaughan Oliver, whose moody, intricately textured collages would be complicated to describe over the phone, let alone sell.

Selling a graphic design idea over the phone, dissociating it from “color sense” or the “ability to do a nice layout,” at first sight seems to go against the grain in a visual profession that claims its preference for doing over talking. However, it also betrays the accelerating industrialization of the advertising world in the 1960s and 1970s.

At the time, the International Typographical Style had turned graphic elements and surface itself into modular, combinable parts. Designers like Bob Gill did the same to the conceptual aspects of design, turning ideas into modular components transmitted over the line as pure information that could be executed in different ways by distinct artists, photographers, and illustrators. It purported to be a design impervious to trends and taste decay. But it also meant that any designer, any piece of production chain, could be easily replaceable. The scheme conveys that the spoken word is the language of management, not the graphic image.

As with any design trend that claims to be communicating the desires of the client or the public neutrally, it also organizes and hierarchizes design labor, revealing its power structures.

Oddly, the image chosen to illustrate Gill’s career in the New York Times obituary was a poster for Bob Fosse’s 1978 musical, “Dancin’.” The collaged flurry of legs, hands, gestures, bodies seems particularly hazardous to convey over the phone.

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