well executed mediocrity

graphic decoration. what we learned in school….

by Art Chantry ( art@artchantry.com):

Back in grade school and even junior high school (mostly called “middle school” these days. apparently somebody thought that being called “junior” anything was damaging to our sensitive little minds) most of us were expected to subscribe to various “scholastic news” services magazines. It was always a struggle for me, because I came from such a poor family that these subscriptions (cheap as they were) became a burden because it was never budgeted for.

But, we’d dutifully subscribe and we’d get these really lame little magazines every week. the teachers would teach the “current events” sections of the week’s lessons by making us all read this out loud and then try to discuss it with some sort of newly acquired understanding. yeah right. Imagine 6th graders discussing the israeli/palestinian situation with any sort of understanding or sophistication. It was a prime breeding ground for the more bigoted idiot teachers to try to turn us all into little john birchers or commie liberals. we all hated these magazines.

Recently I found a small stash of these things. I was rather surprised. not only is the reporting rather well done, but the bias is completely neutral. basically, they say almost nothing as comprehensively as imaginable. It’s like reading a rather dull press release for a Rotary club. the memory of indoctrination seems to have been entirely instructor induced. who would have guessed?

But the thing that struck me most of all is the visual style of these little mags. they were deliberately trying to look “hip”, but not ‘too hip.’ basically, they needed to attract the student’s interest without alienating the bigoted teachers. plus, they were likely designed by the 1960′s equivalent of “fresh students”, direct from artcenter or SVA or Yale or your local state college, young professionals taught at the highest levels of the education system as it existed then, working for magazine company that sold to highly educated teaching professionals. this was ‘like talking to like.’

---AC:here's another one (from april 1968). this is the summer that american culture exploded and we started shooting our brightest leaders. but, we were exposed to this extremely safe but contemporary style. no bite, but plenty of taste.

So, what did these things look like? lame. but, they were lame in an incredibly contemporary way. I love this sort of thing – American industry anonymously attempting to echo or even ape the graphic languages of the subcultures around them. they fail every time, but they fail in really interesting ways.

In this case, they fail along the lines of what was considered cool and ‘edgy’ to grad students of the era. like this collage/montage style. It’s the coolest. this is what collage/montage looked like in the mid 1960′s (this is from august 1967.) this is what “professional hip” found imagery looked like in 1967. coincidentally, that was the infamous “summer of love”. not even close, eh?

At the same, it displays an enormous amount of print production sophistication. to prep this artwork by hand would require a rather extensive knowledge of graphic manipulation and printing understanding. never mind that our current collective panic over copyright laws would such a design be impossible today. back then, nobody cared about copyrights (except disney). today, everybody is fighting hand and tooth over the tiniest imagined “infringement of rights.” craziness.

AC:this one is from later that same month (19568). again, it's completely derivative of typographic imagery of that era. it shamelessly echoes the typography of pushpin studios or herb lubalin (and many others). it's not done extremely well (it seem dull by

parison to the work of the designers it apes) yet was still eminently do-able using typositor and compugraphcs typesetting technology. very very competent and attractive. but utterly void and empty.in case you didn't notice, this particular cover has a little "reader enhancement' decorating it. the middle letterforms of the word "jazz" was scribbled in with a colored pen (new to the market back then) by a bored teenage student. classic.

These covers exhibit extremely well executed mediocrity. strange, that’s the very same accusation leveled at contemporary graphic design of today. It’s like a perfect echo. it seems we’ve become people who really know how to put together designs of no depth at all. what we’re looking at here is not really graphic DESIGN, so much as graphic DECORATION. it’s just a nice (aka, in this case as ‘cool’) image to decorate the cover. there is very little point beyond that. that’s what graphic design at it’s very worst always has been – decoration. currently we all work in an era of intensely well done graphic decoration.

At best these covers attempt to copycat styles of the ‘hip professionals’ of the era like pushpin studios, Peter Max, John Alcorn, Lou Dorfsman, Herb Lubalin or any of a large number of extremely visible design/illustration hot shots that were studied in the professional magazines (and thereby design classes) of that era. It’s always interesting how imitative design language is over the generations. we always learn to walk by copying the walking we see of others. we don’t individually invent walking by ourselves. all us young walkers then begin to slowly learn to walk in styles that reflect our own ideas and personalities.

So, in a strange way, the derivative design stylings of these crummy little magazines are sort of perfect expressive form, the perfect intro (like the noncommittal writing style). It introduces us to this language as it exists in practice around us at the time. But it does so in a lame dull imitative unimaginative way that only induces us to explore further for more meaning. thus we all learn. cool, huh?

ever feel like you’re waiting for Mrs. _____ (fill in blank) to call on you because it’s your turn to read?

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