The American Institute of Graphic Arts, a 23,000-member organization of graphic designers, defines graphic design as "a creative process that combines art and technology to communicate ideas." They break down this process into four categories: image-based design; type-based design; image and type, best known as typography; and symbols, logos and logotypes. At the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, "Graphic Design-Now in Production" takes those four categories and sorts them by the eight communicative devices they aid through a colorful and, in one case, interactive, display.
Starting from the right, the exhibit unfolds throughout CAMH's upstairs gallery in a circle of colorful signage. The pieces are categorized into Brands, Books, Posters, Typography, Film and Television Titles, Magazines, Storefront and Information Design, with a summary describing the historical and current role graphic design plays in each. In the middle of the gallery, four glass-covered tables hold historical and modern leaflets, pamphlets and programs. This organizational method is likely done to minimize what is already a potentially overwhelming jumble of graphic images.
It does work to the viewer's benefit; graphic design is assumed to be the domain of flashy Times Square billboards, not homespun manuals. By designating each medium to a section of the museum, "Graphic Design-Now in Production" shows not just how much graphic design has proliferated, but highlights mediums which are overlooked, such as Books and Film and Television Titles. How quickly one ignores the Mad Men television title typography, a red-and-white Helvetica that perfectly preludes the show's bawdy and bloody content?
There are some individual artists, but most of the pieces displayed are made by graphic design firms or teams tasked with producing public materials. Take the New York Times Graphics Department, whose newspaper front pages reveal a far more complex journalistic process than that of typing a story into a computer screen. With Powerful Quake and Tsunami Devastate Northern Japan, Killing Hundreds, a front-page report on the earthquake and ensuing tsunami that ripped through Japan in March 2011, the NYT team used maps and photographs that visualized what was written. In other words, the pictures provided the equivalent of thousands of words.
Brand New is a display based on a website of the same name founded in 2006 by Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio. The is the only interactive exhibit in the room, featuring before-and-after pictures of logos. Using yellow discs, guests can vote for which logo looks best: the former or the latter.
Oded Ezer is an Israeli designer who amps up posters with stunning typography. Helvetica Live! is a blow-up of the straight-laced font; unlike its blood-stained brother, this Helvetica is basic black, with a creepy addition: edges that twist into looping "mechanical creatures."
A few feet down from the poster section, Anthony Burrill doesn't change the font; he only decorates large posters with "large-scale letterforms that admonish or uplift the reader."
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"MAKE YOUR MARK ON THE WORLD," reads one. "I LIKE IT. WHAT IS IT?" asks another. "DON'T SAY NOTHING," warns a third.
CAMH is filled with magazines, political posters, video clips, T-shirts and even a chair, all influenced by graphic design. It's too much to talk about in one post, really -- or take in during one visit. Luckily, there are a number of scheduled lectures and talks with graphic designers going on until "Graphic Design-Now in Production" closes on September 29. Visit www.camh.org for more information.