This is the first in a series of original articles that build on eight years of writing reviews. Where other publishers do well to bring us the zeitgeist and explore the pragmatics of graphic design BP&O will seek the abstract and meta. This first article experiments with two interwoven narratives; the delineation between the practice of collation and curation in design publishing and how the new metrics of the net impose themselves on today’s design work.
The language of graphic design can quickly become a demarcated space of constrained thought. Is it brand identity, visual identity or graphic identity? Each of these contains shifting nuances that positively shape or subvert understanding and can impose themselves on an outcome.
The word curation, for instance, is reconfigured and gains new meaning as it moves from art to design to popularist term. We are now encouraged to curate our lives, social groups and experiences, the brands and objects we buy into and our Pinterest and Facebook feeds. It could be argued the latter have cone to now curate us. The association, within the context of a pragmatic and goal-orientated notion of graphic design practice; an expression of purpose, becomes one of pretence, often denigrated and quickly dismissed.
Instagram, Pinterest and image-only blogs have not helped further the conversation. Keen to appropriate the art-world language of cultural discourse and provocation the increasing use of the word curation by account holders overstates what is often a cursory aesthetic response; a display of taste, a disentanglement of context, content and form. As such, the potential for lasting cultural transmission is diminished, extending no further than a second of screen time.
The democratisation of publishing, the ease and now broad acceptance of reposting the work of others (all exposure is good exposure), as well as the blog, Instagram account and Tumblr-as-self-promotion, has developed a culture that conflates aesthetic taste with credibility and insight. A following built on the capacity to aggregate, frequently. Many accounts go no further than aggregating aggregators. Design consumes itself. Work by designers for designers, satiating an algorithmic hunger, desire for profile and prestige, marginally done within the framework of a client brief.
Design work is often measured by its stylistic immediacy, clarity and simplicity of an idea, and increasingly, the impressions it achieves, the engagement it provokes and the value it has to whatever platform it’s posted on. Nuance, sleight of hand, depth, concept, strategy and long-term cultural value are marginalised online. Simplicity dominates design discourse, a received-wisdom that underestimates a desire for and the potential of mystery, ambiguity and intellectual challenge. These new forces shape outcome; the material is now designed to migrate as images online and the quantifiable datasets afforded by social media, in some way, legitimise an approach but do not further an intangible depth of meaning or the potential transformation of the individual. The net and the way it collectivises and segments both people and content does not, for now, deal well with the immeasurable, the abstract and the ambiguous.
In the practice and feeback loop of collation, holders of design accounts have struggled to explore the curatorial potential of chronological streams, disruptive algorithmic feeds and digital space. There is no blame here, only an observation, a skew towards styling over ideas, immediacy over residual impression, images over case studies, collation over curation. This also extends to the channels in which designers choose to release their work; from monthly journals to weekly magazines, then to daily blog features and hourly social media posts. Frequency and reach become entangled. A graph of inverse proportion emerges; broader access to graphic design is tempered by the shorter periods available for thought. The drip feeding of in-progress work introduces a whole new world of design-by-Like. That is not to say that there is no value in this, only to acknowledge emerging forces.
I propose that there is a conflation. That presenting a clearer delineation between collation and curation within design publishing we may facilitate a new kind of visual discourse. Collation and curation are vastly different practices. The former, the one that many design publishers (and individuals) are engaged in, is one of news and archival, a platform to share work, often bound to the notion of time-value (the chronology of the news site or blog, the Instagram stream or Facebook feed). Put differently, the latest is the greatest.
The credibility of a piece of work; its potential to be continually reconfigured yet, remain rooted in concept and strategy, seeks to subvert time. However, where publishing requires an increase in frequency and volume to sustain itself, familiarity (saturation across multiple platforms) finds the value of work amongst designers (consumers of design content) explicitly tied to time. The older something gets, the more saturated and familiar it becomes the less value it is perceived to have. Yesterday’s work gets buried under the weight of now and the promise of tomorrow. Graphic design increasingly seeks to serve both the client and the designer-as-consumer. Self-published studio monographs, shops and events are folded into this new economy.
An algorithmic governance fosters, facilitates and necessitates this mindset, corporate (client) and individualistic (studio, designer) goals are catalysts for platform growth; a desire for visibility and recognition, potential social capital, work opportunity and outward expression of “taste” are leveraged. A heightened stylistic sensitivity and a like / follow reward feedback reduces the desire for further research.
A culture of credulity has developed from further metrics such as frequency, followers, reach and engagement. A visual delight and an aesthetic immediacy shape the understanding and predilections of a new generation. Metrics impose themselves on the young designer and algorithms exploit those on the periphery. An economy of the eyes and the mechanical and binary responses of the collective serves the platform only.
Curation offers a subtextual opportunity where collation does not. It does, in some way, engage in the time-value of collation; new work is needed to further contextualise what has come before and, ultimately, because of current power structures, is necessary to build a readership. However, beyond this, there is the framework in which to express a position, bring forth a proposal, to develop a mode of visual critique. The chance to use the many works of others within a single ongoing project such as a blog or Instagram account to place the previously unassociated side by side as a way to create a narrative, making the most of the sequencing of images to express a philosophy, to provoke thought or help others synthesise their own ideas.
I would argue, and this is now a central premise of BP&O, that in a tighter curatorial remit, in the choice of work, in the intentional and fully-realised relationship between a new project and what has come before, dialogues can form. It becomes clear, the more time you spend with the site, what I believe makes for credible design and how this has shifted, perceptibly, over time. An essential component of this is the “Collections” series and in the hyperlinking of work of now with that of the past. This is the curatorial nature of the site. It is both concerned with the individual AND the collective, the tension and ideas that may happen in the space between. The now-value and chronology that founded the blog format is subverted in order to create new relationships between disparate works and encourage new ideas within BP&O’s readership. Further, ambiguity and allusion, as well as abstract thought, are curatorial tools used throughout the site to sharpen perception. Indeed, there is a material craft and aesthetic joy to much of the work featured, but this sits alongside the intangible and meta, the conceptual and strategic. Even if there is a misunderstanding, even if I reach too far, that idea may find itself materialised within the work of others.
This curatorial practice can be extended to include the image-only chronological feed or stream. Consider your stream spatially, stacked and tiled, individual tiles intersecting the posts of others. Leverage or subvert the chronological and algorithmic. Create relationships between previously unassociated works. Provoke as much as please. Explore ongoing subtextual threads and well as the one-off and eye-catching, make the most of ambiguity. These are techniques to encourage thought. The saturation of Instablogs and finite new work requires fresh thinking, a curatorial approach over collation will distinguish.