Fuck Content


by Michael Rock

In Designer as Author I argued that we are insecure about the value of our work. We envy artists and authors for their power, social position and cache and we hope, by declaring ourselves “designer/authors,” to garner similar respect. That deep-seated anxiety has motivated a movement in design, pushing us to value the origination(起源) over the manipulation of content.

Designer as Author was an attempt to recuperate(休養/調養) the act of design itself as essentially linguistic(本質上語言)—a vibrant, evocative (充滿活力的,令人回味的)  language. I have found, however, that it has often been read as a call for designers to generate content, in effect, to become designers and authors, not designers as authors. While I am all for more authors, that was not quite the point I wanted to make.

The problem is one of content. I think the misconception is that without deep content, design is reduced to pure style, a bag of dubious tricks. In graphic circles, form-follows-function is reconfigured as form-follows-content. If content is the source of form, always preceding it and imbuing it with meaning, form without content (as if that is even possible) is some kind of empty shell.

The apotheosis of this notion, repeated ad nauseum (still!) is Beatrice Ward’s famous Crystal Goblet metaphor, which asserted that design (the glass) should be a transparent a vessel for content (the wine). Anyone who favored the ornate or the bejeweled was a knuckle-dragging oaf. Agitators on both sides of the ideological spectrum took up the debate: minimalists embraced it as a manifesto; maximalists decried it as aesthetic fascism. But both camps accepted the basic, implicit premise: it’s all about the wine.

This false dichotomy has circulated for so long that we have started to believe it ourselves. It has become a central tenet of design education and the benchmark against which all design is judged. We seem to accept the fact that developing content is more essential than shaping it, that good content is the measure of good design.

Back when Paul Rand wrote, “There is no such thing as bad content, only bad form,” I remember being intensely annoyed. I took it as an abdication of a designer’s responsibility to meaning. Over time, I have come to read it differently: he was not defending hate speech or schlock or banality; he meant that the designer’s purview is to shape, not to write. But that shaping itself was a profoundly affecting form.

(Perhaps this is the reason that modern designers—Rand, Munari, Leoni, etc.—always seem to end their careers designing children’s books. The children’s book is the purest venue of the designer/author because the content is negligible and the evocative potential is unlimited.)

So what else is new? This seems to be a rather mundane(普通) point, but for some reason we don’t really believe it. We don’t believe shaping is enough. So, to bring design out from under the thumb of content we must go one step further and observe that treatment is, in fact, a kind of text itself, as complex and referential as any traditional form of content.

A director can be the esteemed auteur(尊敬的导演) of a film he didn’t write, score, edit or shoot. What makes a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock film is not the story but a consistency of style which winds intact through different technologies, plots, actors, and time periods like a substance of its own. Every film is about filmmaking. His great genius is that he is able to mold the form into his style in a genuinely unique and entertaining way. The meaning of his work is not in the story but in the storytelling.

Designers also trade in storytelling. The elements we must master are not the content narratives but the devices of the telling: typography, line, form, color, contrast, scale, weight, etc. We speak through our assignment, literally between the lines.

The span of graphic design is not a history of concepts but of forms. Form has evolved dramatically from one year to the next, and suggests a profession that continually revises and reshapes the world through the way it is rendered. Stellar examples of graphic design, design that changed the way we look at the world, are often found in service of the most mundane content: an ad for ink, cigarettes, sparkplugs or machinery. Think of Piet Zwart’s industrial work. Think of the posters by Cassandra or Matter or Crouwel. In these, form has an essential, even transformative(變革), meaning.

Because of the limited nature of the designed object, individual objects are rarely substantial enough to contain fully rendered ideas. Therefore ideas develop over many projects spanning years. Form itself is indexical. We are intimately(親密地), physically connected to the work we produce, and so it is inevitable that our work bears our stamp. The choice of projects in each designer’s oeuvre lays out a map of interests and proclivities. And the way those projects are parsed out, disassembled, reorganized and rendered reveals a philosophy, an aesthetic position, an argument and a critique.

This deep connection to making also positions the designer in a modulating role between a user and their world. By manipulating form, the designer reshapes that essential relationship. In this way form is replaced by exchange. The things we make negotiate a relationship over which we have a profound control.

The trick is to find new ways to speak through treatment via a whole range of rhetorical devices – from the written to the visual to the operational – in order to make those proclamations as poignant as possible, and to consistently revisit, reexamine, and re-express, central themes. In this way we build a body of work, and from that body of work emerges a singular message. As a popular film critic once wrote, “A movie is not what it is about, it’s how it is about it.” Likewise, for us: our What is a How. Our content is, perpetually, Design itself.

This essay was adapted from a talk given at the Museum of the City of New York on June 2, 2009 and research done for the book Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (Yale University Press, 2006).




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