why we're better than you.

Designers often carry a reputation of snobbery around with them whether they like it or not. (And how unfortunate that some really do like it.) I'm happy to announce that I've figured it out and that it's certainly not unjustified. I've had to think about it a lot though. I don't like being labeled as a snob, but, admittedly, my perspectives on design and how it fits in with other visually-based disciplines has served as a source of conflict in the past; namely in romantic relationships. I've dated two painters and a photographer in the past couple of years and in each of these cases, aesthetic philosophies ran deep. It wasn't so much that we squabbled over theoretical specifics; it came down to a matter of respect.

For those of you completely unfamiliar with art culture, I'll spell out the basics:

First, some definitions as I'll be using them:

studio artists- People who typically sell work in galleries, or show it in museums; the traditional role that you think of when you hear the word "artist." Painters, sculptors, performance artists, etc.

designers- people who plan and produce everyday objects for specific clients: shopping bags, cereal boxes, water bottles, magazines, wedding invitations, books, web sites, movie credits, brochures, annual reports, etc.

So here's the rub:

Studio artists think designers are snobby (because they are; I'll explain) and think of themselves as artistically superior (in many cases) because they have the courage to actually make the stuff they want. They are free to pursue the personal, the unconventional, the idealistic, the academic. They often hope to establish a gallery clientele large enough to sustain them so they don't have to teach. (Of course some of them want to teach too.)

Designers think of themselves as superior to studio artists because often the artistic, political or social statements made by studio artists are seen only by a tiny crowd composed of peers, critics, or the extremely wealthy who may be in the market for a painting. Designers believe that because we have access to such a large audiences with budgets to back us up, we have the power to change the world.

The best example of this justification for design snobbery lives in the example of Alexandr Rodchenko, a Russian artist born in 1891. Rodchenko was making it on the Moscow art scene as a painter. He was palling around with Malevich and all of these famous artists who were producing some deeply philosophical and groundbreaking work. But when the October Revolution broke in 1917 with a peasant uprising and the Bolsheviks took power, Rodchenko vowed to harness his artwork to promote their cause. By 1921, he'd tossed away his brushes and palette altogether and created this manifesto:

“Construction is the demand of our age for organization and the utilitarian use of materials. Constructive life is the art of the future. Art that fails to become part of life will be catalogued in the museum of archeological antiquities. It is time for art to organize itself and become a part of life…Away with art that is a form of escape from a life that is not worth living. Contemporary art is a conscious and organized life that is able to see and build. Any person who has organized his life, his work, and himself is a genuine artist. Work for life, and not for palaces, churches, graveyards, and museums. Work amongst all, for all, and with all, away with monasteries, institutes, studios, studies, and islands. Awareness, experience, purpose, construction, technology, and mathematics-these are the brothers of contemporary art.”

I feel like a crazy Bolshevik saying this, but I find myself agreeing with him. I love that he touches on sustainability (a big topic for designers, as the bulk of our work meets its end in the trashcan.) To me, this concept expands the idea of art to something certainly more design-centric, but also toward a greater awareness of regular people living out their regular lives.

Viewing Rodchenko's work speaks even more loudly to this idea. The beautiful composition and typography of the poster at the top of this entry imbues a timeless quality to this simple piece. It has been reinvented to advertise for Franz Ferdinand and hand bags; there is even a cute rendition involving a cat. But this poster serves a functional purpose equally well as it's aesthetic one. It translates: "BOOKS: FOR ALL INDUSTRIES OF KNOWLEDGE." It advertises reading in a simple, exciting way for a largely illiterate audience comprised of Russian peasants.

What I love about design is that we share in a responsibility to make access to information easier, directions simpler, usability of regular objects more enjoyable, all the while (hopefully) making beauty more common for the everyday person.

Rodchenko spoke of commodities as comrades in building up their new nation: meaning that the intent and purpose of every object could be designed to lift society upward, hand-in hand with the efforts of the people.

Maybe I'm a snob; maybe I'm a crazy Bolshevik. Regardless of the labels that come attached, I am so happy to be a designer.