I wrote an essay for the book and am including it here. It expounds on certain themes from recent pieces I’ve written, as well as taking aim at certain trends within graphic design which I find problematic. The essay in entirety follows.
by Ian Lynam
The past year has been one of upheaval for the world, but exceptionally so for Asia. We have seen the growth of China’s economy, surpassing Japan’s to become the second largest in the world. Japan weathered a devastating tsunami, nuclear devastation in the Fukushima area, the resultant economic downturn and the resulting mass exodus of Japan-based foreign creative workers. This was countered with Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and other Asian capitals experiencing an exponential immigration of designers and other creatives.
2011 and the first half of 2012 were times of tumult and immense change for Asia… yet, you wouldn’t really notice it if you looked at the bulk of graphic design that has come forth from Asia (and the world) over the past year. Globally, Graphic Design feels as if it has hit a visual slump. Truly original graphic design work is rare – nearly everything feels like an update of the work of Herb Lubalin and his associates, spins on the blocky display type of NonFormat and copious aping of Archis layouts. Originality in visual concepts and form-making is at a near-standstill — the output of our industry feels dominated by predetermined standards and aesthetics. North America is still in the throes of Zombie Modernism 2.01, a fascination with decorative design akin to transitional-era produce box lettering and design2 and mid-century Modern design work3. Europe is in love with the stripped-down, sparse aesthetics of Karel Martens and his Werplaats Typographie and the low-fidelity look of the British small press mini-explosion of the 1960s and 1970s (with small deviations into Desktop Publishing aesthetic territory)4. Both are still infatuated with three-dimensional diorama work and modular playful typography, and will continue to do so for a few more years, at least.
Unsurprisingly, Western Europe and American graphic design institutions and tastemakers continue to ignore work from abroad. The recent U.S.-curated retrospective of the past decade of activity within Graphic Design as a sphere of cultural activity, Graphic Design: Now In Production, offers almost no work from Asia (and none whatsoever from Africa). Japanese design units such as W+K Tokyo Lab (formally rich, detail-oriented motion graphics), Dainippon Type Organization (operating at the intersection of concept and modular typography/lettering) and Yugo Nakamura’s THA (trailblazing web-based aesthetics and practices) go unmentioned. Korea’s Ahn Sang-Soo and his revisionist approach to the form of the Korean visual language is unjustifiably unnoted. Active leading designers in Taiwan such as Imin Pao, a forerunner in creating dynamic corporate design work while self-publishing typographical concerns, again, gets no mention. Chinese Graphic Design might as well not exist in the American version of graphic design history.
The sum of this is proof that a Western Europe/America-centric worldview is still the norm outside of Asia, and the only way to expand understanding of Asian graphic design is to innovate, not merely work within predetermined formal styles and to pursue client work alone. Now is the time of change — a time for Asian graphic designers to document and promote Asia as a vital geographic and cultural area of production. It might make the design press abroad stand up and take notice, but more importantly, now is the time to write our own histories and our own future histories. If there ever was a time for originality, formal expression outside of known boundaries and breaking new ground, it is the present. Graphic Design in Asia needs an internal boot-to-the-ass, not just in terms of visual style, but in the realms of history, criticism and exploration of theory.
One such project is the Korea-initiated Ondol5. Ondol is a student research project led by Kookmin University professor Chris Ro that explores little-noted Korean graphic design and typographic history in journal form. Despite having only two volumes published to date, Ondol has greatly added to the discourse and body of Korean Graphic Design literature, education and understanding. This type of publication, one that celebrates an indigenous history while promoting an exploration of the visual form of language from a specific nation and acknowledging influence from years of colonialism is an example of groundbreaking work. Ondol involves students in design education while also creating beautiful, form-immersive graphic design.
The past decade has seen Idea in Japan departing from a more internationalist approach to being one that is more Japan-centric and focused on promoting the wide range of engaging work being produced in Japan. This is primarily due to the efforts of Idea’s editor-in-chief Kiyonori Muroga, an individual with faith in the efforts of graphic designers in his country and a desire to promote Japanese Graphic Design as being something other than secondary to American/European Graphic Design work and culture. He has actively promoted Graphic Design work and writing that comes from a singularly Japanese perspective, and has steered the most influential graphic design publication in Japan toward building a catalogue of documentation of this indigenous, standalone sector. Simultaneously, he has directed issues documenting extensive coverage of Graphic Design projects from Korea and China, helping to expand international cultural understanding of Graphic Design activity in Asia.
Graphic Design is not merely cultural hairdressing. It is a vital, viable engagement with culture, history, theory, visual language, and form-making. It is a practice with its own goals, as well as a collective area of production with collaboration as its base. This is the era of documenting our own history. Graphic Design is no longer merely “advertising art” or “commercial art”. It is a high-profile area of critical cultural production that can serve to educate as well as entertain. Graphic Design is, as ever, what we make of it. It is up to each of us as graphic designers to help expand the boundaries of our chosen scope of activity and to uplift it in the eyes of greater culture, be it in our own countries or in the eyes of the world. Relying upon a Western definition of graphic design practice and acceptable activity is wholly unacceptable. We as practitioners define what Graphic Design is.
1 “Zombie Modernism”, Jeffery Keedy, Emigre #34, 1995