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FUCK CONTENT – Michael Rock

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“A movie is not what it is about, it’s how it is about it.”

Michael Rock, NY, prof. Yale School of Design
Koolhaas bad grafisk designer, Michael Rock, 2×4 INC, om at skabe grafiken til OMA´s kommende IIT student campus center. Resultatet var en nyfortolkning af den gotiske tradition indenfor kampus arkitekturen, hvor  små dæmoniske statuer ville lave sjove ansigter, som kommenterede det akademiske miljø. En påmindelse om at vi bevæger os mod at være mere billedorienteret end text baseret! (kilde). Resultatet kender vi med de små ikonografiske karakterer, som indgår i billeddannelserne af IIT´s historiske personligheder (link).

Jeg var ikke lige klar over at det var Michael Rock der var manden bag IIT – det var teksten, The Designer as Author , 1996, jeg kendte ham for. Og på hans eget website, 2×4 INC, er han senere kommet med en opfølgeren Fuck Content, som reaktion. Læs texten nedenfor:

Fuck Content, 2005

quote11A few years back (1996) I wrote a now widely distributed article entitled, The Designer as Author (PDF). In it I argued that designers aspire to be authors because we are insecure about the value of our work. We often feel if our work were more significant, we would garner more respect. We envy the power granted artists and authors. It is this deeply-seated anxiety that was behind a movement pushing designers toward the origination over the manipulation of content.

Remarkably, this critique of the “designer as author” has been turned almost completely on its head. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that article referred to as my call to arms, my call for designers to become authors. The misreading of the argument is evidence that the anxiety identified therein rages unabated. I attempted to argue that design itself was content enough, it didn’t need to be supplemented. Apparently that argument didn’t take.

The issue comes down to one of Content. Content is the holy grail of beleaguered designer. The misconception is that without content, design is simply a hollow shell of dubious “gestures”, wholly without value. In addition, a century of modernist mantras have hammered home, in one variation or another, the notion form follows function. Its only a slight variation to say: form follows content. And so content is seen, invariably, as the source of form making, always preceding it. Form without content then is some kind of bastard child, unloved and unloving, cloying, sallow and craven. 

The apotheosis of the anti-form campaign came perhaps in the oft-repeated Crystal Goblet metaphor: i.e. that design (the glass) should be as transparent a vehicle for the transmission of content (the wine) as possible. Anyone who favored a more ornate vessel was clearly a cad or an oaf (and probably both). This example has been taken up ad nauseum by hysterics on both side of the ideological spectrum: those committed to clean, simple classical or modern forms have embraced it as a manifesto; those expounding more elaborate typologies have decried it as a fascist rant. But both camps have accepted its basic truth, that the wine is where it’s at.

This false dichotomy has circulated for so long, we have started to believe it ourselves. It has become a central tenet of design education and the essential benchmark against which all “good design” is judged. So a strange transformation has taken place: designers think, as it is the authority that lords over their work, that the control of content, or the development of it, is a more essential act than the shaping of it. Designers search out good content as a measure of good design.

“There is no such thing as bad content, only bad form.” Paul Rand famously remarked, “This explains the place of form in art.” Rand was not, of course, defending hate speech or schlock or banality; he was simply making the point that the purview of the designer is the shaping of form, not the authoring of content. In a way, it doesn’t matter what the work is about, the designer’s hand is visible in the treatment, not the writing.

So what else is new? This seems to be a rather mundane point. But to fully recuperate design from its second-class status under the thumb of content you must take another step. You must say that treatment is a kind of text itself, equal to, and as complex and referential as, traditional forms of content. The materiality of a designer’s method is his or her content and through those material/visual moves, a designer speaks.

The example I used in Designer as Author is still apt. The film director is held in esteem as the auteur of a film that he didn’t write, score, edit or photograph. What makes a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock film is not the plot but the way he manages to make every film, no matter what the content, about filmmaking itself. His great genius is that he is able to create critique in a genuinely popular and entertaining form. He speaks through his profession.

The auteurship, and the meaning of the work, of the director’s work is embedded not in the story but in the storytelling. Similarly a designer trades in storytelling. And so the elements that must be mastered are not the narratives themselves but the devices of the telling: in this case, typography, line, form, color, contrast, scale, weight, etc. So a designer speaks through his or her assignment, literally between the lines.

If you look at the span of graphic design, you discover, not a history of content but a history of form. Those evolutionary changes in form suggest a profession that continually revises and reshapes the world through the way it is rendered. The stellar examples of graphic design are often in service of the most mundane content possible: an ad for ink or cigarettes or machinery. But despite the banality of the content, the form has an important, even transformative meaning. The difference between designers is revealed in the unique way each individual designer approaches content, not the content they generate.

This signature treatment reveals a whole range of issues both personal and contextual. A designer is intimately connected to the work her or she produces. It is inevitable that work bears their stamp. The choice of projects in each designer’s oeuvre lays out a map of interests and proclivities. And the way those projects are parsed out, disassembled and reorganized, and rendered may reveal a philosophy, an aesthetic position, an argument and a critique.

So the trick for the designer is to find ways in which to speak through treatment—a whole range of rhetorical devices from the written to the visual to the operational—to make those proclamations as poignant as possible, and to consistently return to central ideas and repeatedly re-express. It is in this way that a designer builds a body of work and that body of work starts to become a kind of organized content in itself. The content is in short, always Design itself.

Recently after giving a lecture on a similar topic I stopped by Starbucks to pick up a coffee on my way home. In America Starbucks has a program to print provocative quotes on their paper coffee cups. My cup that day happened to sum it up quite nicely. There, attributed to film critic Roger Ebert, my cup announced: “A movie is not what it is about, it’s how it is about it.”

© Michael Rock 2005 

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