Mark Making

August 22, 2008

Daniela Marx, my great collaborator and friend, and I are working on a paper for the upcoming SECAC (Southeastern College Art Conference) conference here in New Orleans.

http://www.unc.edu/~rfrew/SECAC/

Our “paper” is revisionist history of graphic design, specifically we are re-writing the notion that our history—the history of typography and, therefore, graphic design—was made on the fossils of dead, white, western European males. To do this we have video interviewed a dozen practitioners, ages 21 through 96, living and working in south Louisiana. We call this our “design giant” project, because, we believe there are so many unsung heros of type and design, someone should start to document them.

The video will be fifteen minutes in length, edited from about a dozen hours of audio and video capture. While writing the “hard-copy” (the actual paper to be published by SECAC as the product of this conference) I have been looking up the definitions of “design”. The idea of controlling order and making choices is a common theme in these definitions:

Philip B. Meggs, Alston W. Purvis, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, Fourth Edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2006, Preface vii.

“Since prehistoric times, people have searched for ways to give visual form to ideas and concepts, to store knowledge in graphic form, and to bring order and clarity to information. Over the course of history, these needs have been filled by various people, including scribes, printers, and artists. It was not until 1922, when the outstanding book designer William Addison Dwiggins coined the term ‘graphic design’ to describe his activities as an individual who brought structural order and visual form to printed communications, that an emerging profession received an appropriate name.”

Susan Yelavich edited by Stephen Doyle, Design for Life, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and Rizzoli, 1997, 12.

“Design” is both a verb and a noun. For this reason, the Museum [Cooper-Hewitt] has always been as interested in the process of design as in the end result. Those results—the ordinary objects that we all use to both survive and enjoy life—are preserved to understand the past and hopefully to make the future better.” Diane H. Pilgrim, Introduction, 8. “The act of designing is carried out in many different ways, from the personal choices we make ever day when we set the table or plant a garden, to the collective decisions made in the marketplace of at a city hall. Because it occurs on many different levels, employing different processes and degrees of expertise, design can be understood variously as craft, style, engineering, invention, planning, refinement, as an exercise in taste or an act of choice.”

In addition to order, idea/concept and communication, the word “mark” comes up periodically. The above picture is of marks made in the early morning dew on the window opposite where I write. Tree frogs leave these marks while feasting on bugs attracted to the light, I’ve watched a frog turn a 360 degree aerobatic leap to nail a tiny moth. Is the frog conscious of the mark it makes? Does it exist once the dew evaporates?

Richard Hollis, Graphic Design; A Concise History, Thames & Hudson Inc, 2002, 7.

“Graphics can be signs, like the letters of the alphabet, or form part of another system of signs, like road markings…Graphic design is the business of making or choosing marks and arranging them on a surface to convey an idea.”

Our friend’s Jack Russell terrier “marks” the perimeter of our yard when she visits. In “Never Cry Wolf” by Farley Mowat, he describes the behavior of wolves marking then re-marking their territory when competition pushes the boundary. When we author something, are we merely marking it as our own (as if to say, “this is my idea”.)

Printers and book sellers have been the scoundrels of intellectual property (The Statute of Anne, published 1710, the first copyright law: “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” http://www.copyrighthistory.com/quotations.html.) If you really read the statute it appears the stationers (printers) managed to keep a hold of some of the rights for reproduction of other people’s property (authors), just in a more convoluted manner. Are we just pirates appropriating concept and meaning and making it into forms that please us or suit a personal need?

Philip B. Meggs, Alston W. Purvis, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, Fourth Edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2006, Preface vii.

“Since prehistoric times, people have searched for ways to give visual form to ideas and concepts, to store knowledge in graphic form, and to bring order and clarity to information. Over the course of history, these needs have been filled by various people, including scribes, printers, and artists. It was not until 1922, when the outstanding book designer William Addison Dwiggins coined the term ‘graphic design’ to describe his activities as an individual who brought structural order and visual form to printed communications, that an emerging profession received an appropriate name.”

Personally, I liked when we were responsible for the product of our thoughts, when we were craftsmen and women, our work unmediated by anything more complex than a simple tool—

Jeffrey L. Meikle, Design in the USA, 2005,14, 15.

“…design emerged during the Industrial revolution. Before then, an artisan labored by hand to produce an object whose outline was set by tradition but whose final form varied according to imperfect materials, minor accidents in working with materials, and a customer’s wishes. An artisan’s intention moved from mind’s eye through hand’s motion to the shaping of a physical object. This simple process, involving minute variations in oft-repeated motions under the intuitive direction of a single individual, yielded to a more complex process when the factory replaced the workshop, when production of a series of nearly identical objects replaced the fashioning of unique artifacts. The task of planning and conceiving work was separated from the task of carrying it out. An new type of worker, the designer, devised two-dimensional patterns or three-dimensional prototypes to be copied by other workers using precise machines.”

—when what I made with my own hands defined my vision, and success. Somehow, being that little tree frog, jumping wild, aerobatic loops getting supper seems more noble than dancing my fingertips along an illuminated piece of equipment writing digital words.

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