Perfectly human

'Graphic Design: Now In Production' at the RISD Museum
By GREG COOK  |  April 16, 2014

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RETRO/DIGITAL An image from 'The Number 23.'

Sometimes I think you can understand everything about our society today by considering it through two themes — the perfection of technology versus the messily human handmade.

We continue to aspire to the notion that, through technology, we can perfect life via bioengineering, smart bombs, “Total Information Awareness,” and smartphones. Simultaneously, we crave an escape from all our devices and turn to urban farming, chopper bicycles, “Stitch ’n’ Bitch,” and Etsy. These can seem like competing aspects of life, but another distinguishing characteristic is how they often sit seamlessly side by site. We check our smartphones while pedaling around on our custom bikes.

You can feel these themes pulsing through “Graphic Design: Now In Production,” a survey co-organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. It’s a collection of posters, T-shirts, museum branding, type design, and newspaper information graphics since 2000 that is on view at the RISD Museum (20 North Main St, Providence, through August 3).

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HANDMADE A woodblock print by Burrill.
On the one hand, you have things that look handmade or retro, like Anthony Burrill’s woodblock printed broadsides with stark block lettering reading “Make your mark on the world,” “Clear your head,” “Work hard & be nice to people” and, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, “Oil & water do not mix.” On the other hand, you have wondrous contemporary digital special effects, like the opening title sequence for the BBC’s How We Built Britain, in which we seem to fly across the landscape, spotting giant buildings shaped like letters spelling out “Britain.”

Other examples of credits sequences for Hollywood movies and television demonstrate how new technologies spawned an opening sequence for the 2007 movie The Number 23 that aped the look of old typewritten texts —  digital graphics trying hard to not seem too digital. Meanwhile, the improved ability for computers to do a lot of the scut work of animation helps make possible the painterly cathedrals and castles of the title sequence of the 2010 TV miniseries The Pillars of the Earth.

Add in the ease of web communications and you can get audience-generated music videos like Roel Wouters and Jonathan Puckey’s 2010 One Frame of Fame for the Dutch band C-Mon & Kypski. They invited viewers to mimic the pose of the band in single frames of the original footage, photograph it with their computers’ cameras, and have them automatically inserted into the flickering final video.

The RISD exhibition might be seen as certain looks around which the human hive mind of the design world has coalesced. But it can also reveal how much the technological tools at hand drive design. The popularity of crisply cutout shapes and lettering might be traced back to how easy the graphic design software Illustrator makes such things. Which can then be conveniently output with laser printing and laser cutting. Similarly, the fashion for layered graphics is interestingly a key feature of the way screenprinting and the software Photoshop work. Technology herds us toward specific styles — and is part of why decades often have distinctive looks. It looks so 2012 because the technology was so 2012.

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