Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Authenticity: A User's Guide by Michael Bierut
I've always considered radio the most verite of news sources, but a recent piece on the weekly National Public Radio show On The Media, "Pulling Back the Curtain", exposed how much work goes into making NPR's reporting sound so, well, real. "The public is far less aware of editing on radio than on television or in print," said reporter John Solomon. "For example, to eliminate words, a TV producer has to use more visible means, such as a cutaway shot or jump cut. Newspaper reporters by form must put a break between non-consecutive quotations, among other constraints." Solomon then demonstrated how a radio producer, in contrast, could digitally alter a recording to tighten awkward pauses, eliminate words, restructure sentences, all to create a new, improved, seamless and utterly convincing version of reality.
The show's host, Brooke Gladstone, suggested in her introduction to the piece that some listeners might be shocked by these revelations. And perhaps some were. But I found it absolutely familiar. Faking it? It's what we designers do all the time.
No one loves authenticity like a graphic designer. And no one is quite as good at simulating it. Recently on Speak Up, Marian Bantjes described the professional pride she took in forging a parking permit for a friend. "And I have to say," she admitted, "that it is one of the most satisfying design tasks I have ever undertaken." This provoked an outpouring of confessions from other designers who gleefully described concocting driver's licenses, report cards, concert tickets and even currency.
Every piece of graphic design is, in part or in whole, a forgery. I remember the first time I assembled a prototype for presentation to a client: a two-color business card, 10-point PMS Warm Red Univers on ivory Mohawk Superfine. The half-day process involved would be incomprehensible to a young designer working in a modern studio today; with its cutting, pasting, spraying, stirring and rubbing, it was more like making a pineapple upside-down cake from scratch. But what satisfaction I took in the final result. It was like magic: it looked real. No wonder my favorite character in The Great Escape wasn't the incredibly cool Steve McQueen, but the bewhiskered and bespeckled Donald Pleasence, who couldn't ride a stolen motorcycle behind enemy lines, but could make an imitation German passport capable of fooling the sharpest eyes in the Gestapo.
And the illusion works on yet another level. Consider: that business card was for a start-up business that until that moment had no existence outside of a three-page business plan and the rich fantasy life of its would-be founder. My prototype business card brought those fantasies to life. And reproduced en masse and handed with confidence to potential investors, it ultimately helped make the fantasy a reality. Graphic design is the fiction that anticipates the fact.
At Disney World, where as one might expect the artifice is raised to Wagnerian levels, the designer in me has always preferred the ingenuity of a motion simulation ride like Star Tours (where you seem to be flying through space but you're actually sitting in a tilting chair) to Space Mountain (where you seem to be going up and down steep hills and, um, you actually are going up and down steep hills.) On another level of design experience, I remember arriving with a colleague for a stay at Disney's Wilderness Lodge, a staggeringly detailed evocation of the classic hotels built in the National Parks one hundred years ago by the Great Northern Railway, complete with pine trees, massive rock outcroppings, and piped-in wood smoke, all courtesy of modern-day Denver architect Peter Dominick. "To build something like this in the Rocky Mountains is nothing," said my friend. "But in the middle of a swamp in the center of Florida? That takes genius."
Designers have a love-hate relationship with our addiction to simulation. In the case of the late Tibor Kalman, it was mostly the latter. "What's going on here? Theft? Cheap shots?" he asked in a footnote to his legendary 1990 jeremiad "Good History/Bad History." "Parody? Appropriation? Why do designers do this? Is it because the designers don't have new ideas? Is it glorification of the good old days of design? Is it a way to create a sense of old-time quality in a new-fangled product? Are the designers being lazy, just ripping off an idea to save time and make for an easier client sell?"
Maybe all of the above. Maybe we just can't resist. And maybe familiar cues are simply the means by which people navigate through a confusing world. Tibor was obsessed with, among other things, spaghetti sauce packaging. In the eighties, Joe Duffy's elegant work for Classico particularly irritated him. I found the packages not only beautiful but useful (in their original incarnation, the sturdy jars were great to reuse) but Tibor was bugged by their seductive beauty, the way they conjured a siren song of ersatz Venetian landscapes and rustic Tuscan hills. But what would the alternative be? What would a jar of pasta sauce look like if it were entirely original? Would you know what it was if you saw it on the grocery store shelf? Would you trust it enough to put its contents on your spaghetti? Is that level of originality even possible?
One might consider the advice of another extremely quotable designer, Charles Eames: "Innovate as a last resort." Simulation, evocation, contextualism: call it what you will, but this thing that we designers are so good at seems to serve a basic human need. Although we hunger for authenticity, it's a hard thing to invent overnight. But that doesn't stop us from trying.
Thanks to Michael Bierut