words Christopher Wilson in conversation with Peter Saville
Area is styled as “an exhibition in a book”, its content determined by ten well-known graphic designers who have each chosen ten “rising stars” of the international scene. Christopher Wilson talks to Peter Saville about the book and its place within contemporary design.
Christopher Wilson: The most striking aspect of Area is its size: 400 pages crammed with the latest graphics. Does such a setting do the work justice?
Peter Saville: With most of the work here I’m not being engaged because the pieces are too far removed from their context. The quality of contemporary graphics is relative to context. For example, we know what the criteria and conditions for the design of an Orange billboard are.
The majority of the examples here, though, are far more esoteric than that.
This is the problem. We aren’t familiar with the contexts that underlie these works, and so can’t judge them properly. If this [a record sleeve by Michael Worthington] is for a contemporary art gallery then it’s not very interesting. If it turns out to be for the National Gallery then it scores higher, because we know that trying to get something innovative through the committee structure of such an organisation is very difficult.
Do you see your own influence in any of this work?
I’m partly responsible for raising expectations of the graphic medium as regards personal expression. But I only ever had one avenue through which to operate like that [album covers], and in all other avenues I took second place behind the core purpose of the work.
Area presents illustrators and visual artists as graphic designers. What does that say about the current state of the profession? A cartoonist who supplies his own content is obviously not a graphic designer in the accepted sense.
As long as design successfully communicates the message, it doesn’t matter whether it does so in the form of typography or skywriting. But you can’t say that, for instance, David Shrigley is a communications designer. He is a brilliant writer and artist. Inviting him to do a piece of work could be a great piece of art direction, or it could be completely misguided.
When I interviewed you for DotDotDot in 2001, you described a “shopping approach” on the part of clients. You said that there are so many people out there purveying a look that you almost don’t need to solve problems any more, because the client can solve their own problem by choosing the right person. Does Area contribute to that?
One of the most important roles in our contemporary culture is the design buyer. The local garage or café owner; the small hotelier or manufacturer are all buying design. They wouldn’t have been before, and they’re not trained to navigate the jungle of offers. The uninformed, untrained mind will, in flicking through Area, take it all as wallpaper. They won’t learn anything about why something is good, because none of this work is explained. In the days when graphic work was more easily decoded, the visual concept would be transmitted almost irrespective of size. But most of this work is not easily decoded, and so is reduced to just more stuff. This isn’t really a book; it’s more a set of index cards. In fact, what it is is a kind of , which I suppose is deliberate.
Given that Area has to accommodate so many conflicting approaches and styles, one might expect Julia Hasting’s design to impose itself as little as possible. But it seems overstated – an extra colour is even dedicated to the grid.
This is symptomatic of the entire graphic problem. All of this work represents a client’s message, but there’s also an awful lot of designer self-expression within the given canvas. When there is a synergy and coherence between the designer’s expression and the message to be communicated, it’s fabulous. But more often than not it’s: “Help! I’m trapped inside my client’s brief.”
Area’s preface proclaims the book’s diversity as a positive thing: “From the glorification of a technology-driven process to the re-emergence of the heroic amateur and the ‘home-made’ […] it documents the trends shaping today’s graphic-design culture.” Doesn’t that documentation consign such trends to history?
Yes – it celebrates and consumes them in the same process.
So if you were looking through and found some work made by, for instance, hand-stitching, you’d steer clear of that technique?
If you were shopping stylistically, then yes. But there is no point in shopping stylistically now. If somebody has done something by stitching then hopefully it was because that was appropritate. If that technique was right for something then, it could still be right for something else now.
You’re saying that styling is dead.
It is. But here’s a book filled with styles. I hope that some of the pieces here are sensitive, appropriate solutions. The thing that would make the work good is its appropriateness, not its use of another style in order to attract attention.
One of the most striking things about Area is its similarity to Vitamin P – New Perspectives in Painting (£39.95), which Phaidon published last year. The two books are almost identical in design and editorial approach. Does the format suit artists better than designers?
No, that’s worse.
But this approach trades on the idea of personality – wouldn’t that be more appropriate to fine art? We’re more interested in an artist’s character because it has
an obvious and direct bearing on the work.
We should be able to draw some conclusions about graphic work by looking. We expect the codes in a piece of graphic work to be at least partly legible. What you see ought to have some bearing on what you get. That does not apply to contemporary art. What you see and what you get are usually two wholly different things.
Whatever the pitfalls of the book, it does at least provide an at-a-glance view of 100 current designers and visual artists, and you must still get some kind of feeling of what contemporary graphic design is about.
Yes – it demonstrates that a lot of things are now nicely, entertainingly designed. There’s a new uniformity of design quality. Fine. Mission accomplished. But in becoming ubiquitous it loses its vitality. That’s the real problem now.
Area (Phaidon), £39.95
The Peter Saville Show, Urbis, Manchester, January 23 to April 18