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The Neutral Swiss: Modernism Fails Through Prescription of Photography—by Stuart

The Neutral Swiss: Modernism Fails Through Prescription of Photography—by Stuart

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Paper given at Typo.graphic.Beirut.2005 conference, explaining the Swiss Modernist error of prescribing photography as the lingua-franca for graphic design images.
Paper given at Typo.graphic.Beirut.2005 conference, explaining the Swiss Modernist error of prescribing photography as the lingua-franca for graphic design images.

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Published by: stuber on Dec 03, 2009
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The Neutral Swiss:Modernism fails through prescription of photography—by Stuart MedleyIntroduction
In the west, most of the few canonical texts we have devoted to graphic designeducation were penned by Swiss Typographers. This is a problem because theseauthors make absolute claims about the superior efficacy of photography in graphicdesign. Given that the central credo of the Swiss Typographers is to effectivelycommunicate the client’s message in a clear and unbiased fashion, these designers falldemonstrably short of their own lofty aims.The only school of thought that has significantly challenged the Swiss School is theDeconstructionist approach. By comparison designers of this bent are reluctant todiscuss direct communication of a message, citing instead artistic notions of thesubjectivity of the author and the audience or post-structuralist principles regardingthe failings of communication: that there can be no concurrence regarding themeaning of a piece of design.Added to this problematic mix is the fact that illustrators (the obvious non-representational image-makers to investigate in this study) themselves on the wholecan not articulate an appropriate response to the question, ‘why illustrate?’I will firstly look at the claims made by the modernists and the post-modernists andthen look at some of the very effective communication possibilities of illustration thateven illustrators, especially in Anglophone cultures seem not to have identified. I willthen look closely at the problems I associate with photography as a tool for effectivevisual communication. This examination will include some relatively recentdiscoveries in the area of cognitive psychology which help to explain photography’sweaknesses and also suggest more powerful visual communicatin strategies.
Swiss Modernism and post-modernism: approaches to type and image
Dealing with the Swiss School first, we can state that its proponents made claimsregarding the superiority of photography as a means of effective graphiccommunication. Joseph Müller-Brockmann, one of the ‘heavyweights’ of SwissTypography also wrote the book on teaching graphic design,
The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems
. Here he said: ‘photography provides an objective picture of material reality and thus conveys an impression of authenticity. It requires no effort tounderstand its message. Where photography is concerned, the modern publicity expertneed not hesitate to exploit all its different modes of expression in order to influenceopinion. When the camera records a situation, it furnishes objective information on an
event, whether it shows a total picture or only a detail’
.Further, when graphic design was expressed by the Bauhaus, the birthplace of themodernist graphic ‘style’ it was with the use of photography. The famous pieces fromthat era, the works of Herbert Matter, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy and Jan Tschichold, givento design students as examples include photography in their composition or areotherwise solely type-based compositions. This
modus operandi
was continued andextended by the Swiss Typographers, vocal proponents of the use of photography asthe only appropriate image source for effective design.Not content with elevating photography, Müller-Brockmann felt it necessary todenigrate illustration which he describes as capturing only ‘the moment of itscreation’, but as we shall see in this study, this is actually one of 
defining limits: ‘comparison will show that the drawing is a subjective expression of the artist’s mind and is restricted to the moment of its creation. It depicts an object ora theme as he experienced it at a specific moment whereas photography shows whatthe camera could objectively record when the shot was taken. The photographersimply points the lens of his camera at whatever it is he wants to photograph. Thedrawing conveys to us the feeling of the artist whereas the camera reproduces solelymaterial facts and events’
.These statements show us modern design’s unquestioning reliance on photography.The text books (and the significance of the word ‘text’ should not be lost to us here)from which these quotes are taken, or those by Müller-Brockmann’s like-mindedcountryman, Emil Ruder, are still in print and more importantly, still on graphicdesign degree book-lists at many tertiary institutions around the globe. Otherimportant design texts have joined these in the canon of graphic design ‘must-reads’.Despite a less didactic approach than the Swiss school these newer texts still sufferfrom the bias towards text at the expense of image. Spiekermann & Ginger’s
StopStealing Sheep & find out how type works
too has become a ubiquitous graphic designvolume for beginners and intermediates. The title itself, gives away its textual bent,and a quick glance through this book will reveal the visual concepts being portrayedthrough photography rather than through other image forms.Effectively then, the texts that disseminate the message of graphic design through tosubsequent generations of graphic designers are either by the early modernists, theSwiss typographic school, or contemporary modernists very much influenced by theirpredecessors.The principle alternative to modernism, the deconstructionist or post-modern
approach to design, sees the designer, not as a neutral conduit for the client’s messagebut more as an artist or author. A reaction against the Swiss reliance on grids and sansserif type saw the deconstructionists throw up explosive looking layouts like paint onto a canvas. The recurring theme was one of computer glitches; repetitively cut,pasted and distressed type in order to reveal the ‘made’ nature of these texts. Theimplication being that, far from providing a conduit for the client, the designer is, himor herself, an author of the message. As this ‘style’ began to be subsumed into thecommercial realm, what began as a refreshingly honest approach to image making isbest critiqued on the following grounds: the designer abrogated responsibility for theappropriateness, or otherwise, of the design to the client who chose it (since thedesigner was essentially repeating his or her own style with each piece). The client,presumably the less visually literate of the two parties, has decided the designapproach for the message by choosing the designer in the first instance.In addition, a rejection of credo and didacticism results in an absence of teachingmaterials. Few post-modernists have authored prescriptions for effective visualcommunication. On the contrary, despite their rejection of the Swiss grid and themythic neutrality of modernist design, the post-modernists have clung to photographyas the principle means of representing the visual world. From the deconstructionistswe are left with a series of ‘eye-candy’ books, held together only by their style andthe editors’ understanding of the theory behind the work. Regardless of what thesedesigners rejected from the Swiss or the Bauhaus, the fact of their homage to theRussian Avant-Garde shows that what they have not rejected is photography as theprinciple medium for expressing image in graphic design.Generally speaking, graphic designs consist of combinations of the two elements, typeand image. It is patently clear, especially from an examination of the aforementionedtextbooks, that, whether Modernist or Post-modernist, the predisposition of designtheorists, educators and professionals, is to concern themselves primarily with type.Indeed, the term ‘typography’ has been largely interchangeable with ‘graphic design’since the Bauhaus. Rarely has discussion focused upon the choice of image in graphicdesign. In discussions regarding type it is the designer’s choice of type that isregarded as of fundamental importance.Indeed, to allow clear choice between faces in the latin alphabet, type is broken upinto styles. Usually: Old style, Italics (Scripts), Transitional, Modern, Egyptian (SlabSerif), Sans Serif, while other typographers and type theorists would dig downfurther: Uncials, Blackletter, Venetian, Geralde. Some theorists, like RobertBringhurst, in
The Elements of Typographic Style
, sort type in the same way art andarchitecture are defined, by movements and eras. But implicit in all of these views,

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