graphic design as commodity

the instant collection.a little ziplock, but an entire history. and remember, don’t bring a knife to a gunfight….

by Art Chantry (

I found a little ziplock baggie at a thrift store for a couple of bucks. Inside it was stuffed to the max with old xmas seals. bingo! instant collection.

There were also easter seals, boy’s town seals, NAACP seals, veteran’s seals, smokey the bear seals, bible seals, it was an endless stream of surprises – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cool little stamps. all of them worthless. all of them designed by anonymous artists from the years when graphic design was considered next to useless and completely unworthy of documentation. the names of the people who created these marvelous little cathy emotion-jerking images are likely lost to history. oh, I imagine somewhere in the files of the “xmas seal corproation of America”, there are records that could be ransacked to make an incomplete list of the artists. but, chances are, nobody knows a thing about them or their lives anyway.

AC:it WAS being thrown away - that's how i snagged it. nobody pays any attention to this stuff - it's trash culture. it's the stuff we are surrounded with but never look at. and 'all that stuff' i think is the most important conversation in our popular graphic design language. we all get bombarded with design books and 'fine design culture', but that is more like the 'best in show' at the kennel club. it really doesn't do justice to the whole of the canine species at all. and we all know that mutts make the best dogs.

Until very very recently, graphic design (originally called ‘commercial art’) was an unworthy career path. It was for sissies and women – a place to earn a living and not be noticed. the captains of the industry – the biggest names – were all men and they earned the maximum dollars. but they were always considered ‘artists’ and not designers. in fact the idea of ‘design’ as being anything more than something the printer does before he prints your project is also a fairly new idea. If you go back and look at the ‘design annuals’ before WW2, it’s all full of illustrations – pretty and sentimental paintings and drawings and photos. the actual craft of layout or typography or graphic design is almost completely ignored. and the bulk of those artists? women. they were the majority and the backbone of the entire business structure. Women BUILT the career of “american illustration.” they were also anonymous and hidden while the men took the money. It’s the american way.

After ww2, the European approach to design came back over the water with our troops. sure, the refugees from Europe (people like alexy brodovitch) were the first to bring the stuff over we now refer to as ‘graphic design.’ American art students would also study in Europe and be exposed to their ‘new’ ideas. that’s how people like Lester Beall first brought European design ideas into the American mainstream. he wasn’t alone, but he was one of the very first. after that initial launch of European thought into the business of marketing and advertising, there immediately emerged a whole huge avalanche of young turks (people like paul rand) who aggressively copied and competed for the money and the glory, hungry for fame and recognition and eager to sell their skills to the highest corporate bidder. The women were left in the dust and so were most of the Europeans. the returning vets looking for work and a new life sealed the deal and graphic design was officially born into American culture as a commodity.

If you look closely at these xmas seals, you can see it happen. they range from the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s. In the oldest examples, you can spot the ‘American illustration’ style that was so dominant. you will also find the odd European ‘art deco’ stylings pop up here and there (signifying the initial entry of european graphic design thought entering the country). during the war years – as most of the young people were pulled into the war effort – the quality of the illustration work drops and there is more dependence on layout to get the message across – even the limited color use during the war years emphasizes the DESIGN as the primary communication tool. after the war, you can see a huge leap of stylistic change. by the 1960’s, the illustration is no longer the dominant creative effort or focal point. in fact, the illustration styles are crude and graphic and ‘constructed’ rather than ‘drawn’. It’s almost a complete reversal in philosophy.

These wonderful little stamps are almost a history of Amercian design all by themselves.

Art Chantry: … well, getting “paid” is pretty relative. theactual ‘artists’ doing the actual work probably got almost nothing for their work. in those days we designers got paid even less than today (if you can believe it.) it’s never been a very good paying gig, ever. i know the cheap pop fantasy is that graphic designers are all rich. but that’s never been true. the ‘rich’ people are the salesmen. and the really financially successful designers are great salesmen first and foremost. many of them just hired designers to do the design and went out and sold their work their own. it’s called a “studio.” whomever’s name is on the door owns the work….if you ever get around to really researching the history of this stuff (and not just reading megg’s ‘history’), you’ll find little has changed. it’s all been done before and then some. nothing new around here. sure, there is a more modern ‘cult of celebrity’ that can be exploited if you have the stomach for it. but, beyond that we’re just seen as lazy ‘whores,’ barely worth the effort to ignore once you had your way with us. so it goes.

…i’ve fought your battle for over 40 years of hard hard work – and i made an impact out there. but the folks who made the money were the ones who came along after me and started homesteading on the the land i cleared. i got a lotta “cred”, but money never came along out there where nobody understood what you were doing for them. that was for all those ambitious young copycats that followed behind me to scoop up…. i was too busy hacking through the wilderness trying find a path and to just stay alive. i’m damn lucky i had the career i’ve had…. but the term “commercial art” means an awful lot more than the mere concept of the word ‘commercial’ linked to the word ‘art’. the phrase has a long history and an entire culture and a hugely important profession built around it … in favor of the simplest definition of the terminology. frankly, it’s another great example of how the fine arts dismiss my artform. … not ‘commercial art’ at all in any way shape or form. and making the comparison … an insult to a very long historical and utterly belittled profession. no joke…. describe is a fine artist dabbling in commercial art to make a buck to support your fine art. that position assumes the lowering of standards to make the leap. it’s inherently an insult to those of us who treat what we do as a viable and important artform in its

in my case, i think of what i do as a SUPERIOR artform to the fine arts world. no joke.

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