no.27 vol.7 spring 1998

Sink or swim in the meltingpot
Jambalaya: The Design of Culture Meets the Culture of Design
Seventh AIGA National Design Conference
13-16 November 1997, New Orleans
reviewed by Max Bruinsma

It was with characteristic American modesty that Lucile Tenazas, president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, opened the organization's seventh biennial national design conference by stating that this was "the biggest assembly of graphic designers in history". Not that we could outweigh the 20,000 members of the real-estate tribe that were roaming the streets of New Orleans at the same time, but more then 2,500 graphic design people certainly felt like a crowd. The gathering was titled Jambalaya: The Design of Culture Meets The Culture of Design and New Orleans had been chosen as its venue partly because the city's reputation as cultural melting pot. Four days of information and entertainment left me with a highly sympathetic image of New Orleans' civilisation and architecture, but I'm still wondering what the conference brought me. As it goes with crowds, you tend to get lost in them.

To attain its set objective to "change attendees' lives and directions", the conference's strategy seemed to be: overkill. Apart from opening and closing ceremonies and festivities, the conference itself was concentrated in two days of intensive sessions - addresses, presentations, statements and panel discussions by more than a hundred invited guests, a crowd in itself. The gathering's nickname, Jambalaya, seemed the best way to describe the experience - the typical Southern stew with a plethora of merged ingredients concisely epitomized the idea that graphic design could not be seen as a profession with discrete characteristics anymore. Instead, the program focussed on the outside influences the discipline has to cope with. Janet Abrams, the conference's program director, said: "We invited quite a few people outside of graphic design because that's what it's all about today: design is affecting culture at large just as culture, from high art to popular entertainment is affecting design."

So during the morning sessions of lectures in the nineteenth-century juwelbox of the Saenger Theatre we were addressed by University of Chicago art-historian Barbara Maria Stafford, who continued her crusade for the advancement of the 'knowingness of visual communication'; by Brian Boigon, announced as 'digital entrepreneur and theorist', who tackled the pressing question of "How to control time in a zappers' environment"; by culture, journalism and sociology professor Todd Gittlin, who stated that "clutter is an essential feature of contemporary life", and by performance artist Coco Fusco who confused her audience by presenting a project she executed in South-Africa which included scrutinising her public's identity documents in much the same harrassing way the now defunct Apartheids regime had done previously. The question whether this was an eye-opening experience for the former perpetrators or a sarcastic act of revenge by the non-kaukasian artist remained unanswered, but was intensely debated among the audience.

Professor Stafford's plea for the development of visual communication as a vialble means of intellectual discourse was met with a bit of a yawn, since designers generally see themselves as experts in visual argumentation, and so her rant against "entrenched ideas that pictures are incompatible with reflection" was in a way directed to the wrong audience. On the other hand, especially designers should be aware of the lingering suspicions against the "trichery of images" that are still deeply rooted in our cultural subconsciousness. Stafford's question: "what are intelligent moving digital images?" deserves more than the superficial response that points to the effectivity of  image-prone media like advertising and television. She didn't mention it, but it would be interesting to analyse for instance Mtv's 'Think About It' clips from the angle of the elevated kind of visual discourse she advocates. Stafford ended with a mission call to her collegues: "The task of art-history is to teach sophisticated viewing."

The idea that designers don't have to learn that much in this field anymore, was inherent in a marked animosity against 'intellectuals' in general. Stephen Doyle's intellectual-bashing glee earned him the exhilaration of the packed Saenger Theatre (and on his teasing question if there were any intellectuals in the audience who dared to admit to this despicable status, it felt like I was the only one stupid enough to raise a trembling finger). "Designers think with their hands", Doyle pontificated, thus accurately summarizing the uneasy relationship in the designers' community with intellectual reflection. Nevertheless he made up for his cheerful disdain for headwork by showing some very intelligent works by his own hands: 'book-objects' that both illustrated his amazingly unrelented trust in books as "powerfull objects", and the contexts they inspire. Books cast in concrete, a romantic novel designed as the typical tissue-box - they were, as Doyle said, "words becomming images becomming objects".

The concentrated reflectivity of the morning sessions gave way to the bustle of a trade fair during the afternoons. A labyrinth of rooms in the New Orleans Marriott hotel housed a caroussel of presentations impossible to attend in full. This, obviously, was intensional and aimed to cater to the disparate tastes and expectations of a very diverse (and very large) audience. For those into celebrity there were the presentations by David Carson, Stefan Sagmeister, Irma Boom and Erik Spiekermann, and there were panels on new media, studio management, design for the music industry, exhibition design, typography as cultural expression, literacy, 'zines, video's, icons, and the gourmet design of food. There is no way of summarizing the avalanche of events and information during those two days, nor is it possible to deconstruct a common denominator - and maybe that's what it was all about: graphic design is tied in so many ways to culture at large that it is becomming increasingly hard to address the discipline from a concerted professional point of view. It is made up of all those specific conditions it operates in. And even in dedicated contexts things are not at all clear or agreed upon. A case in point were the different panels devoted to design for digital and on-line media. In his own presentation, Post Tool's David Karam advocated the necessity for designers to be fluent in programming, that is to know what drives the computer as a medium - not just to use it as a tool -, whereas Craig Kanaric of Razorfish reviewed ageold narative conventions with respect to their potentialities in new media, and Gong Szeto (i/o 360) professed his inspiration by other interfaces: telephones, audio/video equipment, architecture, games... Szeto summed up the confusing dimension of designing for such volatile and cross-referential media by stating: "Information is becomming more and more dynamic, and that is a kind of slippery slope to design on..."

And then there were the massively attended presentations by the youngsters, held, as is appropriate for such events, in too tiny rooms with faltering equipment and a suffocating lack of oxigen under the low ceilings. The community is hungry for new talents and new styles, and these were, among others, represented by a streetwise gang of "generation x-traordinary" designers form California. Darby Romeo's Ben Is Dead and Sean Tejaratchi's Graphound exemplified the highly idiosyncratic self-published magazines (or 'zines) that typically serve as outlet for their makers' yearning for autonomy. As Tejaratchi said: "I do what I do. I don't care if it reaches Indonesia." Individual, critical and cheerfully serious, his low budget 'zine collects vernacular graphics on themes like scissors or funerals. Darby Romeo can be best characterized as a post-modern Pipi Langstrumph who jokes at every established code of good taste or craftmanly graphic design. Ame Franscescini, co-designer of Atlas web'zine and her own Future Farmers site, showed an interesting hybrid of neo-cute iconography (dolls, playthings, pink) with a sophisticated use of interactivity in her own web based portfolio, often structured as games or short interactive stories. These web designs, and those of Eddie Opara, a Yale graduate who was one of the winners of the AIGA Student Medallions for Design Excelence, testify to the importance of the game-metaphore as a major inspiration for designing interfaces for on-line media. Gong Szeto stressed this by remarking that visitors to his studio often wonder if any work is done at all on finding the studio's designers clicking frantically away at the latest versions of computergames.

Back on the streets of New Orleans, after another loud debate at one of the conference's massive parties, I wondered what it would have been like if there had been 250 attendees, instead of ten times as much. I concluded that apart from the fact that you would have been able to meet people, instead of shouting at each other over the clamour of a thousand voices, it wouldn't have mattered - you don't clarify a chaotic situation by limiting the number of voices discussing it. In this respect the crowd by itself was a perfect metaphore for the state of the trade: confused and busy.

max bruinsma