OP002: For A Good Time Call Sagmeister

OP002 was supposed to be about Weingart's Swiss Typography applied to today's digital context, but I have to postpone that.  Believe me, I'd much rather write about that than this.

First, I have to thank everyone that has been discussing the meaning behind the new identity of Sagmeister & Walsh (S&W). We're not spectators, nor is this sport. However, we have stepped off the bench and onto the field (Isn't this what you wanted, Mr. Beirut?). The fear of saying something out of order is exactly what we are fighting against when we speak up and debate the issues that come up in the design practice. And this debate is successful if the parties involved do have mutual respect for one another's thoughts and arguments. The virtue that everyone's opinion is not only welcome but valuable has to be established before a debate can take place.

I must confess I was disheartened to read that Mr. Hardisty does not respect the opinions of those who would challenge his defense of S&W's work. Unfortunate as this aspect may be for our discussion, I must nevertheless dive in.

Here sweetie, burn this CD after you go puke up lunch.

Sagmeister & Walsh CD, 2013.

The most glaring problems with the supportive arguments of Mr. Hardisty and Co. deal with visual literacy and the male concept of, well, everything. Including bravery.

Visual literacy is concerned with the anatomy of messages and their effect. The initial thoughts when encountering the visual message above comprised of an icon of a nude woman seated on her knees in front of an icon of a nude man performing a symbolic sexual act are important to interpreting their meaning. In his argument, Hardisty mentions the icons are drawn in a similar way to "1960s institutional graphics" and he's right. These icons are familiar to us, in fact we know these icons quite well. They grace the doors of bathrooms designating the spaces reserved for males and females. They instruct us, guide us, warn us, and they divide us. These icons can be said to be a part of a universal set of codes. Thus, the icon of the nude woman on her knees can be interpreted as representing many women, not just Sagmeister's partner, Miss Walsh. Since we are not provided with any other information in the image besides a name and address, we have an abundance of space for hypothesizing. And that is precisely where the message meets noise and where it becomes problematic. How do other people encounter this image? How would they interpret the image having no knowledge of the other pieces of the identity nor additional signifiers of S&W's practice/history/culture/context?

As visual communicators it is our task to find solutions that are not just bold and concise, but also clear. For me, clarity should be concerned with freeing the work of any alienating, unethical, or ego-oriented details; anything that could distract from the intended message and generate unwanted noise. If the intention, as Mr. Hardisty asserts, is to comment "on [our] not-atypical assumptions" then why aren't we given any other information to let us know that the message isn't asserting that men (who make up the vast majority of the power positions in Advertising agencies and Design studios) are the dominant sex? There is simply too much slack for the viewer to run around with and still enough leftover for some like Mr. Hardisty to find justification for their own ignorance or worse. But it's so easy, argues Hardisty. It's right before us. All we have to do is separate the context (if such a thing can be done) in which we can have our laugh from the other one in which this makes S&W come off like scumbags. These supporters ask us to look beyond how we interpret decades of modernist iconography, look beyond the culture of male sexual privilege (aka I'm the one entitled to use sex), and discover a nonexistent zen-like vacuum of neutrality. The laws of symbols decree that there is no neutrality. It's a war zone.

"The Young-Girl inhabits the Spectacle just like a woman in the primitive world, as an object of Advertising. But the Young-Girl is also the subject of Advertising, exchanging itself. This schism in the Young-Girl is her fundamental alienation. To which is added the following drama: Whereas exogamy effectively maintained permanent ties between tribes, the Young-Girl's mana slips through her fingers, her Advertising fails, and it is she herself who suffers the consequences." (Tiqqun, Theory of the Young-Girl, 76)

It comes as no surprise that intent is absent in the other CD design (below) as well, this time featuring the figure of a woman hung over a toilet presumably vomiting. Is this figure Miss Walsh? Is it Sagmeister? We cannot know and shouldn't infer. What we can infer is that this is again the recognizable icon of woman. We are left to burn like these discs and in doing so we encounter many data errors. One of these errors is that the kneeling woman is a pose that indicates submission. But does she bend to consumer metaphysics or to bad seafood? Taken together with the other disc's image they seem to suggest the norms imposed on women by Spectacle to be young, fit, and attractive; to consume and be consumed. Is it necessary that in all the illustrations the woman is always kneeling to some other power, some ownership of her body? For what purpose? If it is an attempt to subvert these notions then the form is unsuccessful and confusing.

Sagmeister & Walsh CD, 2013.
"The deception of porn is that it claims to represent the obscene, making visible the point at which all representation evaporates. In reality, any family meal, any managerial meeting is more obscene than a facial ejaculation." (Tiqqun, Theory of the Young-Girl, 72)
I don't think it is in a designer's best interest to ignore the privilege of being a white male in the design practice. After all, the ignorance with which we play our roles as cornerstones of the present system of domination is part of the role. There is no excuse for a male to not be aware of the advantage that they have with respect to the access to tools and resources that enable one to even start a design studio, gain clients, gain notoriety, hire, be hired, fire people, etc. The things that just happen, the obstructions we don't come in contact with, (to use a typographic term) our counter space; that's our privilege. When I worked for a fair sized advertising agency I had to argue against offensive ideas on many occasions. On one such occasion, a writer wanted to name the agency's celebratory roof-top concert series 'Roofies'. As there were no women present in the meeting (like far too many meetings), I felt compelled to disagree with this writer not only because the name was terrible, but because as hilarious as it was to everyone in the meeting I knew it could make the women we worked alongside uncomfortable. I've told this to many of my male friends that work in other studios and Ad agencies and they have jokingly shared similar stories so whatever voice is telling you that this isn't a concern is absolutely wrong.

Brave Old World

Disney released a film last year called Brave. In it, a young girl demonstrates a very different kind of bravery than we are used to. It's not about obtaining dominance, triumph, conquering, or the promotion of the ideals of a war-like society—typically male qualities. Instead,  there is a conflict in Brave between sheer physical force – which Merida sometimes demonstrates – and the force of a leader who holds the ethical high ground, embodied by her mother." The bravery that shows an awareness of both sides, of the actions and consequences, is one that also happens to work to shift the system of control and hierarchy. Brave work doesn't enforce, it informs. It doesn't divide and conquer, it brings together. That is why brave is the last word I would use to describe the sale of this position of power back to people as a joke 'you just have to sit with for a while.' There is no confrontation of male arrogance, only a sponsorship of it.

Measure your dick (if you have one).

Sagmeister & Walsh Pencils, 2013.

"Modern racism lives in entrenched de facto inequalities, in coded language about "work ethic" and "states' rights," in silent negative spaces like absence and invisibility, and in Newt Gingrich's hair. And in irony." (A Complete Guide to 'Hipster Racism', Jezebel 4/26/2012)
Like the irony in printing a scientific "fact" about racial penis sizes on a pencil. As the Jezebel article points out in several places, a joke about the expense of the powerless coming from a position of the powerful more often than not reinforces and validates status quo positions of power. So besides giving into the cult of ethnocentric scientific absolutism (something the Nazis tried), what this pencil also so 'bravely' reminds us of is that the male is still the center of measurable value (and humor) in the office. No man, you don't get it, it's making fun of dudes that think dudes are the center of measurable whatever you just said. To that I say, go lock yourself in a room and don't come out until you have read Sean Hall's A Users Guide to Semiotics. Again the signifiers aren't allowing for one, sanctifying conclusion to be drawn. With that the lead snaps off, splintering across the desk. You flip over the pencil to the other end where no eraser can be found to remove this specific, alienating concept of sexuality that must humiliate other races for the sake of a hypermasculine punchline. By the end of it, is it all really worth it?

That's the big question for me. It is an identity. It is their identity. They chose to represent themselves in this manner. I am choosing to say there is another way. A way out of sketchy ideas and designing punchlines. The first step is to understand the divisiveness that the matrix of mandatory happiness can bring. The next step is to understand that Design can be about so much more than a witty idea, it can be about feelings. As Peter Saville suggests in the Estate book, you can understand so much of what is being communicated from "the typeface, size, position, spacing, and mood." To that I would also add the choice of materials, the texture, the production. It's how punks are able to recognize fellow punks. The language of signs show us what things are about. What does a banal pencil with an inaccurate statistic about men's sexual endowment tell us about the work that Sagmeister & Walsh do?

A bible for mandatory happiness and an engine for banality.

So far my criticism has focused on three specific objects of the identity package. I have neglected to offer my appreciation for the condoms printed with S&W's logo. Surely this tells us that they are concerned with promoting safe-sex even if rape and sexual assault in the workplace are the least reported (24%) when compared to other violent crimes in the workplace )Bureau of Justice Statistics).

What I have tried to do here is briefly offer some analysis of the visual representations in order to decipher the motives behind them with the goal of helping others avoid these ethical problems in the future. These problems are so often glazed over with syrupy praise by a loud community of fawning admirers and agents of purification. Many will stay entrenched in such a matrix, an easy to swallow pill of an idea that everything must be cheerful, fun, and witty no matter the cost. Saying things like we shouldn't question other's success because obviously they're successful so "they must be doing something right"  is simply hiding in the shadow of economy as ethics. This thinking dangerously ignores the factors that allow for such success in the first place and undermines the progress that has been made so far.

Additional Notes:

1. Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun. Published by Semiotext(e), 2012. 
Tiqqun defines the Young-Girl as an essentially genderless concept. It is about the profiling of citizenry. The homogenization of consumers. Our pacification and our armament. Individual self-control, self-policing taking over for general policing. The control over bodies and behaviors.

2. A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ by Lindy West. Jezebel, Apr 26, 2012 1:20 PM.
 An all out assault on the weaselly forms of racism embedded in one of the most enlightened, neo-liberal groups of society: The Hipster. Worth reading if you like the thrill of dropping in on that 'ghetto' bar on the other side of town once in awhile. [Link]

3. The Facts on the Workplace and Sexual Violence [Link]
With recent disgusting events in Ohio and rape jokes still finding their way into marketing meetings, its probably a good idea to refresh your mind about the statistics of violence against women in the workplace.

4. Gender And Graphics [http://genderandgraphics.tumblr.com]
A Tumblr that examines gender in Graphic Design. This one is particularly appropriate.


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