In the past 20 years, the art of graphic design has gone from something only a few well-trained people could do very well to something everyone can do rather badly. Despite sophisticated software programs and ever-more-powerful computers, there are still relatively few people who can put words and images together in creative, thought-provoking, sophisticated ways. Just take a look at the average PowerPoint presentation and you’ll see what I mean.
The Walker Art Center’s new exhibit, Graphic Design: Now in Production , is a celebration of the graphic arts, particularly in the areas of typography, information design, magazine and book production, posters, movie credits, and, as it turns out, heavy metal bands. Did you know that one man, Christophe Szpajdel—the so-called “dark lord of logos”—is single-handedly responsible for creating most of those swirly, archaic, demonic-looking Van Helsing logos so popular with death-metal bands? Destruktor, Bliss of Flesh, Moonspell, Sadistic Slaughter, Distilled Blood—Szpajdel created the logos for these bands and more than 7,000 others. Which means, of course, that all of these musicians dedicated to the ideals of anarchy, defiance, and the right to get as many tattoos as you want, are about as creatively diverse as a glass of milk.
But I digress. Szpajdel’s wall of logos is only a very small part of this ambitious show, which spans 10,000 square feet and encompasses a wide variety of design approaches and mediums. Of particular interest are the increasingly creative approaches to information design, which we rely upon more and more to make sense of a world awash in data. A poster by David McCandless called the “Billion Dollor-o-Gram,” uses various-sized color squares to illustrate where America’s money went in 2009. Fully half of the poster, or almost $12 trillion, is a big peach-colored square labeled “Worldwide cost of the global financial crisis.” Another graphic offers a statistical representation of media “scare” stories of the past decade, starting with Y2K.
Corporate branding is also a significant part of the show. You’ll get the low-down on such familiar corporate logos as Pfizer, Google, Starbucks, YMCA, and dozens of others. How these logos connect with and communicate an organization’s identity and mission is a science unto itself, and now that social media allows people to interact directly with brands, a whole new era of branding evolution has opened up.
There are several rooms and kiosks dedicated to graphic design in movies, video, and on TV. And though it’s not particularly edifying to see the opening credits of such shows as Dexter and Six Feet Under played over and over, it does get you thinking about how much thought and energy goes into those opening sequences that you fast-forward through to get to the show.
Somewhat strangely, the largest section of the show is dedicated to the most dated of technologies: magazines and books. Magazines from all over the world on display, demonstrating the many ways in which print publications have been trying to engage and enchant readers enough to lure some money out of their wallets. Books old and new are also on display, which is nice, because it’s worth remembering that the Times New Roman font was not created on a computer; it was it created in the 1930s, when burly men with strong fingers had to set each letter of type by hand. There is also an iPad kiosk where people can see how magazines like Wired are leveraging the possibilities of the tablet computer to enhance the appeal of their content.
Fittingly, the exhibit ends at a section where graphic design intersects with product design. The section looks like a shop where you can buy designer wallpaper, gift wrap, books, tote bags, t-shirts, and various other items—because it is! Here, in what amounts to a brilliant meta-commentary on the idea of "value," the symbiosis of art and commerce full circle.
Curators Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton worked closely with several designers in the Twin Cities, so when this show moves on to New York’s National Design Museum next year we’ll be well represented. Maybe by then the committee that’s trying to re-brand the Twin Cities as a place so exciting you hardly even notice the cold will have its message down.
Graphic Design: Now in Production continues at the Walker Art Center through Jan. 22, 2012.