From Street Signs to Catalogs, Design Has a Graphic Effect

Hip exhibit in New York shouts message about the influence of type and images in daily life

"The problem is that people don't understand what design is," says Dianne Pilgrim, director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution. She admits, "If you get 10 designers in one room, you would have 10 different definitions. Design is bigger than what men think of cars and what women think of fashion."

After a one-year hiatus for renovations, the museum, housed in Andrew Carnegie's 93-year-old New York mansion, is taking another whack at educating the public.

"I want to make the museum accessible on every level," Ms. Pilgrim continues. The director, who uses a wheelchair, has a personal interest in making it physically accessible. A new ramp, elevator, and mechanical device to open the massive glass-and-bronze front doors have accomplished this goal.

She also wants to make the world of design accessible in an intellectual sense. "We want people to be aware of how design impacts their lives every day, every second," Pilgrim says of the inaugural exhibition, "Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture," on display through Feb. 16, 1997.

The show highlights more than 300 examples of graphic design from the past 15 years. It includes posters, books, videos, even a mock-up of a street kiosk with magazines and Skittles candy. "We want viewers to look at the show," Pilgrim says, "and then go back out on the street and realize how bombarded we are with graphic design."

One gallery makes this point by literally surrounding visitors with backlit blowups of various styles of type. It's like being trapped inside a giant, glowing light box. One recognizes fonts like Bell Centennial, a typeface used in all United States telephone books.

The Neuland font is an example of typecasting. Derived from German Expressionist art, the letters are rough and heavy. With its dark, bold folk aesthetic, the font is often used for book titles related to African subjects.

The proliferation of typefaces including quirky, broken lettering (one is called "hey Stupid duh") shows how digital technology has transformed graphic design. With the right software, anyone can create a new typeface, which in the 1980s gave rise to a sort of Macintosh mannerism. Strict legibility was no longer the aim in designing type. Expressing personality ruled. If readability has suffered, adding humor to lettering brings a compensating gain.

Whimsical, rather than neutral, type helps to sell a message by engaging the eye and evoking emotion.

The exhibit demonstrates how manipulating typography, images, and color in different scales, contrast, density, styles, and orientation shapes our perception. These design elements can promote understanding, stimulate the mind or feelings, and express meaning. They can also sell a product or idea.

Milton Glaser, with Seymour Chwast of New York's Push Pin Studio, is the godfather of visual communication through design. His playful poster for the Adriatic seaport of Rimini, Italy, sells the resort using only color and type. Against a background that is sand-yellow on top and sea-blue on bottom, Glaser spells out RIMINI, with the "feet" of the M causing ripples in the band of blue "ocean."

The Carnegie mansion is a formidable backdrop. With its rococo plaster moldings on the ceiling and carved, dark wood paneling on the walls, rampant Victoriana nearly overwhelms the contemporary album covers and street posters on display.

Yet the message does come through that the design field has been in constant evolution since it came of age for corporate use in the '50s. Commissions to establish corporate identity through graphic design of logos put the profession on the map. As an example of a successful design, for 93 percent of Americans, the symbol of a bell within a circle rings a bell. (That's how many recognize the logo as a sign for Baby Bell phone companies.)

In the 1970s, the Swiss innovator Wolfgang Weingart (and American disciples like Los Angeles-based April Greiman) rebelled against slick, bland corporate design. "I feel typography," Weingart said, launching the "new Typography" movement. Others followed his intuitive approach and created personal compositions blending text and icons.

Katherine McCoy at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was influential in the 1980s and early '90s. Blurring the distinction between seeing and reading, she overlapped text and images for complex compositions at the outer limits of legibility.

A famous Time-Warner annual report in 1989 asked "Why?" on its cover and, inside, stirred together text with images of Madonna and Bugs Bunny. In place of the usual corporate style of serving up dry facts in text blocks, this pictorial approach teased readers. "If you have to work a little to get something, you will remember it longer," said the designer for Time-Warner, Aubrey Balkind.

Such flexibility characterizes design in the '90s. Another characteristic is the Post-Modern tactic of pastiche, mixing disparate elements, historical styles, and appropriating Pop-culture artifacts. In a transcribed interview in the exhibit catalog, Balkind explains, "You must allow room for counter-cultures in order to sustain the main culture. If an idea is strong, it should continually be challenged; otherwise, it will die."

Pilgrim agrees that design should not be passively absorbed but actively encountered.

"Everyone is a designer. We're not all creative, but we all have the ability to have an impact," she says. "Corporations, even the government, will change if enough people complain. If we understand someone is making a design decision that affects our lives, we can make a change for the better."

*A handsomely designed book, 'Mixing Messages,' by curator Ellen Lupton (Princeton Architectural Press) is available, and a Web site ( showcases the exhibit.

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