22 June 2012
This piece was originally published here. Big thanks Matt.
In 1996 Beryl McAlhone, David Stuart and Edward de Bono conducted what really should have been a forbidden experiment and birthed a monster. They brought forth the incomprehensively successful ‘A Smile in the Mind’ (ASitM from now) and in the process inadvertently established a cult. A sacred text was coupled to an adoring and largely uncritical audience and hey presto a self-replicating machine was set in motion.
At one level, this polemic is superfluous. Like many graphic design rants it’s a storm in a teacup. Yet equally, I am fascinated by the ASitM phenomena and genuinely do not understand why it is so venerated.
Now, from the off, I must admit to not owning a copy of ASitM and for most of my career, this book had never been ‘a problem’— it had always been viewed with a level of suspicion wherever I had worked and within these communities ASitM was neither valorised or circulated. It had already been discounted and was not part of the visual dialectic.
However, from time to time, I have strayed from the path – for instance, when I’ve been freelancing or teaching and found myself in alien territory, surrounded by adoring ASitM fans. That’s when one needs a coherent set of counter arguments— a way of explaining why I (and many others) find the book so difficult.
As Dunne and Raby have rightly observed, “design is ideological” and ASitM is not immune from this. It performs a certain service and operates as an ideological compass. It is quite obviously divisive— totemic, and as many have noted, it draws lines and defines tribal boundaries. It cleaves the design industry essentially in two, almost at the level of ownership. There are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Possession becomes a badge of honour, an instant set of design co-ordinates.
As you may have gathered, I don’t understand why this book is so highly regarded. Kicking off with an appropriately prosaic question: If this is graphic design’s seminal text, should it not be packed with the words and work of canonical designers, crammed with at least a century’s most significant discourse? Yet on inspection it is empty— quite literally vacuous, bereft of the core creators, thinkers and mavericks that make communication design so fascinating. On a personal level, bar one tiny Judy Blame thumbnail, not one of my hero’s is represented. There is a hagiography and ‘bloodline’ I just don’t recognize or aspire to. The continental modernist tradition has been erased and it is as if Marcel Duchamp never happened. 100 years of postproduction has gone too. The core 20th century visual ideologies of formal reduction and collage are supplanted by a singular and depressing conceptualization of ‘wit’.
The whole book is predicated on the notion of the pun, or so-called pleasure derived from establishing visual double entendres. Design becomes a crude delivery vehicle for ‘witty’ ideas and short-lived mental kicks. Which explains the militant disdain for ‘graphic ideas’ within certain circles (ie, 8VO’s “no ideas”). Ideas have become synonymous with ‘the wisecrack’; they resemble the closed loop logic of newspaper headlines and Christmas crackers. What Milton Glaser (probably the most erudite of the ‘smilers’) concedes as a ‘hermetic system’ — there is no room for complexity and no room for ambiguity. The constant attempt to foreclose and over determine meaning, far from rendering ‘the click’ pleasurable, in the end reduces communication to tedium and frustration. There is nowhere else to go and one can ever return, the formulaic ASitM ultimately proves lame and depressing, a one-trick pony—total consumption.
In many ways, much of the antagonism revolves around ‘ideas’ and what constitutes an idea within graphic design. How many times have you heard ‘smiliers’ bleat: ‘its all about the idea’?
Putting aside more nuanced theoretical arguments on what separates a concept from an idea, it is nevertheless possible to make a few basic observations:
ASitM subscribes to a limited and static reading of the term idea. It fails to acknowledge the complex circuits and networks that support and sustain ideas. It ignores the army of entities: chains, traces, materials, affects, actions and behaviours that bring forth worlds and significantly contribute to communication.
This human-centric, cerebral approach to ideas induces myopia that shuts down possibility. It remains unable to access the highly sophisticated toolkit now available to contemporary design, both in production and analysis. Under the ASitM regime, there is no possibility for ideas to be material - for instance, for ‘machine-folds’ or ‘double-hits’ to be incorporated into signifying projects, let alone for knowledge to be hardwired into objects. Equally, it will never understand that ideas subtend media, or that emotions and feelings could legitimately form the foundations of any project. And of course, we return to that knotty subject of ideology, the sovereign clusters of ideas that govern and dictate various methodologies and approaches. Unfortunately the book does not possess the reflective or critical facilities to engage with it’s own ideological baggage. The reductive wit and formulaic conceptualism forbid any of the aforementioned engagements. There is no space for generous, open, poetic, networked and embodied readings of the category of idea— and because of this the book is severely diminished.
So ASitM is strangely out of time - an anomaly or an aberrant blip with an extraordinarily and popular following. Its savant pursuit of the witty idea has lead to historical erasure and omission— core practitioners and movements have disappeared. Of course, this is not serious in itself, as it never sets out to document 20th century design. However, this becomes a problem when these absences are allied to other phenomena. For instance, when its very limited and prescriptive approach to visual idea generation becomes deployed within an unquestioning community of users. This is when the book becomes monstrous, when it is mindlessly read as a bible or manual, within a historical vacuum and with no counter practice or theory to temper it. This is when it becomes a banality engine.