Godzilla vs. the IntuitronsBy: Joel Cronkite
Hollywood’s nineties-revisionist Godzilla pissed off the Japanese. Such a crass interpretation of an unofficial but nevertheless beloved national symbol was an affront like few others. Once again, Hollywood missed the point. A better CG lizard was not, in the end, a better Gojira, as he’s known in Japan, since everyone ought to know the soul of the beast resides in the man who wears the rubber suit. They still make Godzilla movies that way in Japan — with costumed actors lumbering through miniature sets of Tokyo — even though they can produce, with great ease, cell phones the size of a thumb or semi-intelligent robotic dogs.
Which reminds me of an argument I keep having. Being a young graphic designer, I’m often in contact with other young designers, not a few of whom like to say to me, "design is all about intuition." Occasionally, I feel compelled to ask them what they mean by that, since I often get the impression that they haven’t really thought about the consequences of what they’re saying. In a lot of ways, they’re like Hollywood: just as rubber suits, though they represent everything essential to the concept of Godzilla, are discarded in favor of the momentary and shallow pleasures of digital models, so too these young designers abandon the essentials of design in order to champion a catchphrase they haven’t begun to explore with any depth.
This is not to say that a few intrepid designers haven’t tackled this question and come away from the brawl with clever and useful methods of making graphic objects. Drawing on the postmodern tradition and its now-familiar stance on things like certainty and meaning has led to such purported virtues as audience-exclusive design authorship, and, in turn, to the insistence on intuition as the primary means to achieve that virtue.(1) I have to admit that these ideas can be compelling, and that they have, on occasion, produced some very good work.
Nevertheless, despite the relative merit of the best arguments, the young designers in question seem to have heard only a single line: design is all about intuition. This then becomes the basis for further reductions: designers don’t need to know color theory; they don’t need to learn about classical typography; they don’t need to study early twentieth century design. Some don’t stop there: designers need not understand history in general; they need not have the ability to draw or write; they have no use for literature, or languages, or protozoology. If something does not contribute to a sophisticated understanding of Photoshop filters, it must not be worth learning. Or so the story goes.
I understand that not everyone has the access, the finances or the patience required for a broad education. I also empathize with the never-ending quest for better technique. I question, however, the intentional pursuit of a narrower field of vision. One of the consequences of such a pursuit is that its proponents fail to see that everything they are saying has been said before. Not long ago I picked up a book of twentieth century writings on graphic design.(2) This anthology covers everything from an 1893 William Morris lecture on books to a 1983 Massimo Vignelli essay about design criticism. What I find most fascinating about this collection of historical documents is that the entire contents of the argument I’m addressing in this essay have been put forth again and again throughout the history of graphic design.
The Futurist ranting of F T Marinetti in 1913 can at times be easily confused with the "radical" ideas designers have been tossing around throughout the 1990s. "My revolution," Marinetti declares, "is aimed at the so-called typographical harmony of the page… On the same page, therefore, we will use three or four colors of ink, or even twenty different typefaces if necessary. For example: italics for a series of similar or swift sensations, boldface for the violent onomatopoeias, and so on."(3) This declaration reminds me of an art school catalog I received in the mail recently.
Some of my favorite comments are made by the man who art-directed the venerable CBS eye-logo, William Golden. Golden deftly deconstructs the "immature avant-garde designer" as a person who mistakes the printed page for an art gallery, and who thinks that abstraction and self-expression are worthwhile characteristics in design. Stressing responsibility to the craft, he asks "that the word ‘design’ be considered a verb in the sense that we design something to be communicated to someone." "I think," he says, "[we] should avoid designing for designers.’(4)
Designing for designers has led to some admittedly stunning work. What is sometimes lacking in such work, however, is a grasp of things like language and context. Clichés and grammatical inconsistencies are dangers when a designer is unable to recognize them. Imagery chosen according to instinct may not be appropriate if content is not understood. Intuition may lead us in the right direction at first, but it has a somewhat murky relationship to final products.
Part of what we need, I think, is a good definition of the word "intuition." The way that this word is handled in our phrase-in-question is limited at best. Originally, intuition was meant to express one of the ways in which the world was transmitted to our minds: a response to an idea or fact that we have not yet learned during formal processes such as education. Its usage in our phrase, however, suggests that an intuited idea cannot be articulated in any way. Rather than meaning, "I knew the answer before I read the chapter," it has been recast as, "I know the answer, and by the way, the chapter was not written by me so I didn’t bother to read it." Intuition used in this way becomes a synonym for self-expression, which in turn becomes a synonym for exclusivity.
This approach, which sees theory in competition with the gut, resolutely ignores the possibility that theory has been written — and is rewritten — for the sole purpose of satisfying our guts in a consensual way. There are plenty of reasons why our guts may not be at eye-level with theory, but it could very well be that few of those reasons coincide peacefully with the everyday practice of design. The gut does very little to enhance a meeting with a client or employer, who demand of us coherent arguments for what we do; it does little to make sense of our solutions, or to place our work in a broader context. Regardless of what genius it may belong to, it lacks perfection, or even the ability to recognize when it’s not being perfect. Don’t get me wrong: the gut is a great tool — maybe the only one you need… if, as William Golden pointed out forty years ago, you’re an abstract expressionist painter.
If we were comfortable divorcing the ideas of intuition and self-expression, we might be able to adequately explore the role of the gut in everyday practice. Good intuitive responses are clearly and indisputably an important part of being a good designer. I don’t think that anyone would ever argue, "Ignore your gut; pay attention only to this list of rules." Holding a strong, innate feeling for design against a designer would, after all, make no more sense than resenting Godzilla his peculiar shade of green. Similarly, people who rely entirely on a schematic approach to design, on regimented scientific principles of composition, are rarely inspired to be interesting. Designers who know all the rules but haven’t got a sixth sense are only getting lucky when they come up with an effective solution — or else they produce the same effective solution over and over. People overfed on academic jargon pie don’t always have all of the answers they think they do, which has given the young designers in question plenty of ammunition.
Nevertheless, we seem to find it very difficult to pry intuition away from self-expression. Since self-expression places first priority on the visual, on esthetic pleasure, it becomes very easy to miss what I’ve noticed about my favorite designers: that the act of design is often but a little magma flow on a much larger mountain, and that the pleasure of the esthetics is the result of far more than some magnetic attraction to what is pleasurable. There’s more in play than the contrast between what’s good for my eye and what’s bad for my eye.
There is, for example, the eye of the client, and the eye of the client’s audience. Both of these carry two immense bodies of thought which include everything from smart contract negotiations to semiotics. Since these are the eyes — and not those of other designers — which ultimately will judge the worth of our work, the claim that we should ignore them is strange.
My recognition of this kind of thing somehow signals to certain young designers that I am in opposition to new ideas, to experimentalism. Yet to me the lack of that recognition signals someone who is so self-absorbed that they have forgotten the human-to-human component that necessitates design in the first place. Never mind that they’re presenting an incredibly shallow approach to self-expression, or that they’re unwittingly rehashing some early twentieth century avant-garde rhetoric; the level of pretense — of ignorance masquerading as bravery — reveals people backing up into themselves, away from the edge they like to trumpet upon.
As a result, yet another consequence of the self-expression hard-line is the dilution of experimentalism. The communicative nature of design makes this especially true. Self-expression should be a tiny portion of the vast network of potentially experimental ideas in design, not the end-all experiment. At any rate, if self-expression is the only tool at our disposal to blur the line between graphic design and fine art, this has pitiful portents for fine art, which already has in its own student population an unnerving number of people who can only define art as, simply, "self-expression."
To some, that’s probably a small consequence. A friend of mine makes pamphlets for an insurance company. Her distance from experimental design vocabularies is, as you might expect, quite remote. Still, the majority of designers who hold most fervently to the concept at hand are students, who traditionally are very interested in at least pretending that they are on the edge of things. Since it is this sense of experimentalism, however misplaced, that seems to fuel future movement in design, granting it the barest minimum of thought cannot be good for our discipline.
Though the first Godzilla film was created by a few talented individuals (director Inoshiro Honda and effects man Eiji Tsuburaya, to name a couple), the concept is in many ways community property in Japan. Godzilla’s legacy represents an intellectual trust established for future generations, one that can only be preserved by an authoritative mastery of the lizard’s historical significance. Design should be the designer’s Godzilla. It should be everyone’s Godzilla. Nevertheless, a movement persists that seeks to jettison meaningful, contextually significant, intelligent design for a flash of self-aggrandizing expressionism.
The last Japanese actor to play Godzilla, Kempachiro Satsuma, once said, "After a rampage, Godzilla always returns to the sea… I try to express with my back the silent message that Godzilla will always come back and fight as long as people keep making nuclear weapons."(5) If a man in a rubber monster suit can make such a claim, it is no burden to expect designers to come up with ample motivations beyond their own personal satisfaction.
First published by www.VisualArtsTrends.com
© Copyright 2000, Joel Cronkite