Ellen Lupton interviews Dan Friedman, June 15, 1994. An edited version of this interview appears in the book Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996
What’s important right now in corporate design?
There’s a lost generation in graphic design—the people in between the 20s-30s generation and the older guys, the guys in their 60s. In between is the people in their 40s and 50s—my generation. The older generation had laid out the territory of the design profession, setting a standard for the connection between design and business. My generation entered the profession at a time when design was becoming a viable commercial activity, and many designers went straight into business and didn’t engage in teaching and theory—the way Paul Rand had. These are the people who run the corporate design offices—Steff Geissbuhler, Siegel and Gale, Anspach Grossman Portugal.
So the next generation (in their 20s and 30s) is disenchanted with those from the middle generation. This “lost generation” hasn’t contributed much to the dialogue, the discourse, of graphic design.
In all these years, the guys at Anspach Grossman Portugal have never contributed anything that I can see to the design dialogue—that whole generation largely has been consumed by business.
Another observation: there appears to be this sort of “V” in the road right now, whereby commercial design has become either an occupation pursued in a creative, artisan-like way, or the other approach, which is “strategic planning.” In corporate design now, you can no longer service multi-national corporations just by providing better aesthetics. You have to address these companies through their language—marketing, positioning, etc.
There’s a split—most of those interested in corporate design have become more involved in strategic planning. The other extreme is people becoming more and more “artistic.” I have mixed feelings for this development—of course, I have a lot of sympathy for it.
Do we really know what’s innovative at the other end of the spectrum, the corporate end?
Larry Keeley—he’s into “strategic planning.” They usually hire other designers to do the visual stuff.
I remember judging the I.D. review a couple of years ago. An office had entered their redesign of the Holiday Inn sign. It was such a blatant example of sanitization by design. There are so many examples of that.
Design and identity/the identity of design
Is graphic design pervasive throughout society, or is it virtually non-existent? I’ve been asking this question for quite a long time. I don’t know how to answer it. We want people to be aware of what we do, aware of what makes it different and worthwhile, and yet we also want to be inclusive in our definition of “design.”
Even David Carson did a riff on “vernacular” found design at the beginning of his lecture [at conference in London, June 1994]. We are so fascinated by vernacular stuff, maybe because it’s so brilliant and takes so little effort. We aren’t finding in our own work what we admire so much in the vernacular.
Sylvia Woodard’s presentation [at London design conference] began with a history of how blacks have been portrayed in print. And then she talked about how different generations, including her own, have dealt with race in the U.S. She showed a calendar she did about African culture, done in a European style. Can one find ways to express cultural identity through form, not just through content?
Sylvia says that women designers are really angry right now. They’re fed up.
I have mixed feelings about technology. The Macintosh was introduced in 1984 and has been a major influence on this period. But in my own opinion, the emphasis on technology is somewhat overrated. If you look at this country across the entire twentieth century, you’ll see that there’s a tendency to celebrate all new technologies. Yet you could look at how each new technology has contributed to the deterioration of life.
I had to work very hard in my book Radical Modernism to bring myself to optimistic conclusions. I think its important to be optimistic.
What do you think has been important in typography in the last 15 years?
Type in the 80s was about excess; type in the 90s is about restraint.
Certainly, the more avant-garde designers have done some fairly wild experiments; they are accused of being illegible, appealing to a narrow audience, etc. Since I’m familiar with where that work comes from, I find much of it seductive on the one hand, yet also manipulative. It has become an idiom, like anything else. I’m torn between being seduced and being manipulated. This work tends to have no discernible content apart from the formal qualities.
What’s the connection between you, April Greiman, and Wolfgang Weingart?
It’s a long story, and it happened more than 20 years ago. They’re both people I was extremely close to and yet haven’t spoken with for many years.
In a nutshell: I went to study in Ulm in the late 60s (1967). I had gotten a Fulbright to go to Germany, even though I really wanted to go to Basle. I became fascinated with the theoretical approach at Ulm. At Basle in 1968, they had just started the post-graduate program. I wanted to be in the first class. I was one of 2 Americans.
And Weingart had just started teaching there. He was young—about my age. Our relationship was more as friends than as a student/teacher relationship. But it is important to say that I was influenced by him. He was reacting against rational Swiss typography, the work of the previous generation.
The “N” poster that I did [reproduced in Radical Modernism] is an example of classical modernism. The characters were set in metal, set into a bed of plaster. Weingart was fascinated by that—bringing this messiness into the context of the tight world of metal type.
Weingart and I had similar interests. I thought he was incredibly talented. But his method of teaching was problematic to me. My biggest contribution at the time was to develop a methodology for teaching a “new typography.”
Unlike Weingart, I wasn’t reacting against Swiss typography, because that rational system didn’t really exist here except in isolated instances. I started teaching at Yale in 1969. Whereas Wolfgang Weingart was teaching based on intuition, I was trying to verbalize, demystify, the structures of typography. I wanted to create a method. I had to find a way to teach the rules and also how to break them at the same time, since nobody knew the rules.
When Wolfgang started lecturing and teaching in the U. S. in the early 70s, he realized he needed to construct a methodology, too. I believe my work was a useful model for him in that respect.
I was interested in publishing about design as well—I did an essay on my teaching in Visible Language, which also appeared in TM and some other European magazines. But you know, there wasn’t much opportunity to publish then. There wasn’t much dialogue in design at all.
When I started teaching at Yale, talking about semiotics, people said to cool it. Alvin Eisenman called it “scientism”—it wasn’t considered valid.
I never specialized in “typography” as people do now—I only specialized that way in my teaching.
I went to Yale in 1969, and I was there for 3 or 4 more years. Then, around 1972 I went to SUNY Purchase. It was a new program, founded the same year as Cal Arts. I was asked to created an entirely new program in the “Visual Arts,” which was a very exciting opportunity, more enticing than staying at Yale.
In 1972, I was teaching 1 day a week at PCA, flying down to Philadelphia from New Haven. Louis Kahn and I took the same flight. That’s when I met April. I knew I couldn’t keep teaching at both schools. She arrived to replace me. I met her that spring. She had just come back from Switzerland, where she had studied for one year. She wasn’t happy there, except in Weingart’s classes. She had been aware of my work through Weingart.
I arranged Wolfgang Weingart’s first lecture tour in the U. S. in 1972. I did a big poster called “Wolfgang Weingart speaks to America.”
April and I became friendly during the 2nd semester at PCA. From the very beginning, I had discussions with her about her intuitive approach to typography. She was intuitive, like Weingart. He had even done a cover of TM magazine with her picture on it, saying “I feel typography.” I thought that was kind of corny.
Often, I would play the devil’s advocate with April, arguing for a more rigorous methodological approach, especially in teaching. April’s work today continues to work from an intuitive base. Like Wolfgang Weingart, she has excellent intuitions. But I’m still hung up on content. She would say that there is content in the form. And I would say, yes, but it’s a very limited means of expressing content. Consider minimalist painting, such as Albers: there is implicit meaning there. But that’s a very narrow territory to work in. It limits the kind of content you can deal with.
I still follow April’s work. She sees California as a place somewhere in outerspace, moved by primal spirits. I see it as a place where there are earthquakes, mudslides, and gang warfare.
As she sees it, her “heavenly hyperspace” has meaning in it—Jungian psychology, spiritual issues—but to me it’s limited in its ability to deal with other kinds of issues. Her work, like so much work today, is about seduction and manipulation. It’s a little hypocritical for me to criticize it too much, though, because I’m often guilty of the same thing. The difference is, I keep it in my own apartment.
On experimental design and typography: Is it self-indulgent introversion as reaction to begin alienated from the mainstream of the profession? I think so.
I’m not sure alienation is the cause so much as the desire to be “in” with the group that does embrace experiment—in love with the edge.
It’s striking that there’s so much in-fighting among the members of the “edge.” A frenzy about originality. It reminds me of the stuff that would go on during the late 60s/early 70s. Weingart was infuriated that everyone was ripping him off. He was a spoiled brat. But, I think he deserves the ultimate credit for the “new typography.” The reason he doesn’t get acknowledged is that he’s a jerk. People don’t want to give him that.
David Carson keeps saying that he’s self-taught. Finally, it comes out at dinner [during London conference] that he worked for Self magazine at one point…
This petty bickering is one of the things that made me disenfranchised from graphic design.
I don’t know what happened to Wolfgang Weingart. He still teaches at Basle and lectures here and there, but he hasn’t “said much” lately. He’s working on a book that’s been delayed because it’s so thick. His book may reaffirm his importance.
Me, April, Wolfgang: we all influenced each other. We all had egos that were so large we became incompatible. Nonetheless, there are a lot of similariites in what we’ve pursued. It’s been hard for me to separate the personal from the professional.
But at that time, there just wasn’t anyone to talk to about design. Maybe that’s why I’m interested in teaching again now. There’s a lot of parallels between now and then, but now the discourse is much broader. There’s an openness now to issues of content and social issues, which was also of importance in the 60s. The idealism of that time, the optimism—some of that is coming back now.