wonders revealed


Combine the urge to collect with the inclination to organize, and the resulting activity offers a unique assortment of scientific pretensions. In documenting, designers dutifully observe the minutiae of their efforts, recording with a detail-consciousness bordering on the absurd. (…) The designer is so busy organizing that it is unlikely s/he will have the time, distance, or objectivity to
transcend the work through insight, observation, scrutiny, or point of view, any of which might celebrate the power of an original idea. God forbid that anyone should have an original idea.We’re just too busy documenting it all.



Do we strip visual information of its natural scale and emphasis, and in the process, streamline form to negate design’s meaning and message? Or do we just make it look good by making it look clean, orderly, and cross-referential?
The popularity of the full-bleed photographic tome is based upon an exhaustively micromanaged cataloging of,well, pretty much anything.This inclination to make 300-page books of endless (and often word-free) photographic sequences is science gone astray; for where the scientist analyzes, the designer merely amasses. The poor reader is left to make sense of it all, to locate some hidden narrative or excavate some profound meaning as a consequence of meandering through interminable juxtapositions of intentionally nonlinear thinking: so Times Square (turn the page) becomes Beijing (turn the page) becomes a little girl’s hand poetically situated against a cloud (turn the page) becomes a wad of colorless chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a chair. Full-bleed image saturation abounds: It is an attempt to create an immersive context which, upon closer inspection, is little more than a theatrically staged set of aggressively cropped images meant to create an indelible impression of Real Life or Drug Trafficking or Parked Cars in The Rain. This is not science. This is not even design. This is artifice.

Hegel once posited an inevitable transition of thought, brought about through contradiction and reconciliation, formed along a trajectory of thinking that began from an initial conviction and evolved to its opposite. In the thesis/antithesis/synthesis model of Hegelian dialectics, we easily locate the scientist, who migrates from observation to analysis to discovery.

Meanwhile, the designer catalogs the everyday, making thick, wordless books with pictures that jump the gutter.



Designers have long been drawn to the vernacular, appropriating found artifacts and celebrating the texture of the street. Over time, the vernacular became a way to create instant nostalgia, a surface style that looked authentic but was anything but. From appropriation came inspiration, a postmodern culture of juxtaposition and pastiche. Because the vernacular belonged to everyone, it resonated as real, familiar, and accessible. It was the art of the everyday, beautiful in its ugliness: design within reach.
Faux Science is the new vernacular, a methodology that, while highly disciplined in a formal sense, is still all about appropriation.Arguably, perhaps, the landscape has shifted, too, from grit to grid. It’s not so much a tension of form versus content as
a favoring of style over substance. Science represents an enormous opportunity for designers, but not if their contributions remain fundamentally restricted by what they know. At the core of this critique lie serious questions about the role of education.Why don’t design students study music theory? Why aren’t they required to learn a second language? And why, for that matter, don’t they study science? “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas,” writes John Maynard Keynes, “but in escaping the old ones.”

In other words, design beyond reach.



[HELFAND, Jessica, DRENTTEL, William, Wonders Revealed, in BIERUT, DRENTTEL, HELLER, Looking Closer 5 Critical Writing on Graphic Design, 2006]

Originally published in Emigre, no. 64 (Winter 2003



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