Welcome to Busytown
I produced my Busytown narrative (indebted to the great Richard Scarry) as a way to talk about themes raised by the exhibition Graphic Design: Now In Production, curated by Andrew Blauvelt (Walker Art Center) and myself (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum), 2012. Illustration by Ellen Lupton.
Below is a video of my lecture “Welcome to Busytown: Or Whatever Happened to Graphic Design,” filmed by my friends at Creative Mornings Baltimore. Special thanks to Wesley Stuckey and the great folks at Dooby’s!
I created this interactive graphic using ThingLink, an amazing image-tagging tool developed by Ulla Maria Mutanen. “Welcome to Busytown” is my illustrated dystopia of today’s graphic design world.
From the Introduction to Graphic Design: Now In Production, by Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2012).
A sequence of images from Daniel Clowes’ satirical comic Art School Confidential, first published in 1991, features three equally dismal career paths for the average art school graduate: clerking in an art supply store, flipping burgers in a diner, or becoming a “paste-up artist.” Back then, paste-up occupied the lowest possible rank within the art world’s lowest field of endeavor: graphic design. Paste-up belonged to production, a menial phase of the design process devoted not to high-minded forms and ideas but to hands-on execution.
During the same year that Clowes published his seminal work of cultural samizdat, a major point of passage occurred in the field of graphic design. It was then that digital files became a fully accepted means for transmitting artwork from designer to printing plant. The age of QuarkXPress and PostScript page assembly had finally dawned; the drudgery of manual paste-up was lost to memory. Graphic designers absorbed the labors of the paste-up artist like the body of a dead twin. Designers picked up numerous other production tasks as well, from typesetting to photo retouching, processes demanding special skills and equipment that could now be performed from the narrow perch of the digital desktop. (Flipping burgers remained a separate calling, soon joined by new jobs such as Starbucks barista and Apple Store Genius.) Many designers feared their profession would collapse under the heavy weight of production. Worse, they predicted, desktop publishing would trigger a devastating transfer of power from designers to “secretaries,” a population newly empowered with Times Roman and Helvetica.
These things did not come to pass. The design profession grew and grew. Arial outpaced Helvetica as an object of scorn, and secretaries became scarcer than exorcists and bank tellers. At art schools everywhere, design programs emerged from their dusty crawl spaces, becoming proud engines of growth for colleges and gleaming beacons of opportunity for young artists who were drawn to digital tools and were unashamed to openly consort with commerce. The World Wide Web soon joined Photoshop and Ray Gun (the ’90s alt music magazine and graphic style guide) as gateways to graphic design. The field was no longer seen as the last resort of the failed painter, but as a genuinely interesting pursuit.
Alas, all that glitters is not Gotham Thin Reverse Italic. Graphic design is, indeed, a decent way to make a living, but as the largest design profession in the United States, it has ample room to bore the pants off its own practitioners. Among some quarter-million graphic designers working in this country alone, many love what they do yet experience the occasional pang of existential doubt or seller’s remorse. How many banner ads, business cards, and restaurant flyers can a person churn out before longing for something more? Graphic design MFA programs are on the rise, attracting restless young professionals eager to explore territories of their own making. Designers frustrated with routine client work have looked to authorship as a source of artistic agency and personal satisfaction, searching for authority and self-expression in an all-access world of evaporating expertise.
While desktop publishing changed the journey from initial concept to printed page, recent innovations have transformed the means of manufacture and circulation. Mobile devices, print-on-demand systems, low-cost digital printing equipment, rapid prototyping, and web-based distribution networks have created new opportunities for designers, writers, artists, and anyone else—from doctors and lawyers to school kids and housewives—to take up the tools of creative production. Recent design practice has taken a pragmatic turn, emphasizing process, situation, and social interaction over a fixed and final outcome. Design is a process that anyone can use as well as a specialized discourse whose language is open to exploration and expansion.
Perhaps production—the down-market arena of the paste-up artist—can help cure what ails us. Referring to physical making and economic organization, “production” speaks of process, collaboration, and practical implementation, in contrast with the more solitary and cerebral implications of “authorship.” Worldly, grounded, and pragmatic, production encompasses direct modes of action, from controlling the techniques of manufacturing to coordinating creative teams in order to realize complex projects.