The Myth of Neutrality
“You have two goblets before you.”
Such began Beatrice Warde’s metaphor in her seminal essay, The Crystal Goblet. Originally published in 1932, Warde argued that design (the glass) should be an invisible vessel the contains the content (the wine). In pitting personal style (a decorative goblet) against neutrality (a crystal goblet), Warde’s essay became a manifesto of sorts for the International Typographic (or Swiss) Style that believed graphic design should be clear and objective and the role of the designer should be neutral. “You will find that almost all the virtues of the perfect wine-glass” she continues, “have a parallel in typography.”
Beginning in Russia in the 1920s and later made popular in Switzerland in the 50s, the designers of the International Style—men like Massimo Vignelli, Joseph Muller-Brockman, and Max Bill—were driven to represent information without the influence of associated meaning. The style was based on simple typefaces like Akizdenz Grotesk, Univers, and Helvetica (always flush left, ragged right), photography instead of illustration, and a strict grid system. “In design,” Vignelli said, echoing Warde, “be logical, search for truth, be clear.”
Warde’s metaphor, despite being about specific printing processes in a specific time, has been used ever since to argue for the designer’s quest for neutrality. “Type well used is invisible as type,” she writes, “just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas.” Design should be neutral. The designer’s hand should be invisible. The container must not get in the way of its contents.
I’ve been thinking about neutrality a lot lately. My earliest design classes were, in many ways, descendants of Warde’s ethos. The shadow of the Swiss was long. But as I’ve gotten further removed from my undergrad education, I’ve begun to distrust the notion of neutrality in graphic design. By arguing that good design is invisible, by separating the design from the content, are we devaluing our own work, belittling the design process to mere styling and decorating? Are we refusing to take responsibility for the power we have in communicating, distributing, and translating messages? And perhaps more importantly, are we missing an opportunity to talk about the political, economic, and social impact of the work we’re creating?
Central to the International Style’s system was the prolific use of photography. A photo, they believed, told the truth. It’s unbiased, showing exactly what is in front of the lens. Yet, Susan Sontag, in her classic book, On Photography, argues that even the photographer is projecting a point of view in the image through each small decision about framing, cropping, and exposure:
In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.
Teju Cole, The New York Times photography critic, pushed Sontag’s thesis further in a recent essay on the ethics of photo selection, titled Against Neutrality. Cole began his essay looking at the photo choice to accompany an article on Foreign Policy’s website about Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Maréchal-Le Pen is the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a French politician who’s platform is built upon racist, nativist, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. As Marion tries to build her own political career, Cole notes she “tries not to sound too much like her grandfather” despite being closely aligned with his views. To accompany the profile, the website selected a black-and-white celebrity-style portrait. “What kind of communication happens when a sympathetic photograph is used to profile a figure like Maréchal-Le Pen?” Cole asks, “It’s inviting us to identify with the subject and see the subject as attractive and desirable. If you wanted to glamorize young Maréchal-Le Pen, you’d pick precisely this photo.”
This is fundamentally a graphic design issue. Not only is the photographer making countless decisions, injecting a point of view onto the reality they are shooting, but the designer, in selecting the images that will accompany the text, is either reinforcing or subverting the message being communicated.
Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the content or message of any given medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb”. McLuhan’s classic argument was that the medium through which something is being communicated has as much effect on the receiver as the message it contains. Cole continues:
The photograph and the words arrive simultaneously. They guarantee each other. You believe the words more because the photograph verifies them, and trust the photograph because you trust the words. Additionally, each puts further pressure on the interpretation: A war photograph can, for example, make a grim situation palatable, just as a story about a scandal can make the politician depicted look pathetic. But images, unlike words, are often presumed to be unbiased. The facticity of a photograph can conceal the craftiness of its content and selection.
Like the photographer, every decision the designer makes—every typeface, every image, every color—effects the message being communicated. They carry with them all sorts of meaning. Even a typeface like Helvetica, often cited for its supposed neutrality, now carries with it basic assumptions. “We fully realize that no typeface is neutral, and that the objectivity of Helvetica is a myth.” the Dutch design trio Experimental Jetset, known for their prolific use of the typeface, said in an interview, “But it is exactly this myth that turned Helvetica into one of the most widely used typefaces in the first place.”
We acknowledge this truth in certain types of design practices, while ignoring it in others. Advertising doesn’t hide its methods to encourage purchases but the magazine designer may not acknowledge the biases that come with a photo or color choice. I think about what this means for the interaction designer; for the designer who isn’t simply designing static messages but is designing interfaces meant to be interacted with, manipulated, experienced. Like advertising, interfaces are often designed to encourage particular interactions—to sell, to advertise, to prompt an action—and through the design choices made—the defaults, the selections, the navigation—the designer pushes the user through the desired interaction.
Chris Cox, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer, is fond of quoting Marshall McLuhan. Cox tells new employees how Facebook is a medium during his Monday morning presentation each week at the New Hire Orientation. By arguing for Facebook’s importance in culture, as a place for everyone to share their own messages, Cox is also arguing that the medium is just as important as the message. As Sarah Frier notes in a profile of Cox for Bloomberg BusinessWeek: “How Facebook presents content and the way in which it allows users to read, watch, comment on, and like that content influences how all 1.6 billion members see the world around them.”
Facebook is far from being a crystal goblet.
As typefaces, colors, images, and language contain biases they reflect their creators, so do standards and defaults and algorithms. In a piece for The New York Times on diversity and artificial intelligence from earlier this year, Kate Crawford writes:
Like all technologies before it, artificial intelligence will reflect the values of its creators. So inclusivity matters — from who designs it to who sits on the company boards and which ethical perspectives are included. Otherwise, we risk constructing machine intelligence that mirrors a narrow and privileged vision of society, with its old, familiar biases and stereotypes.
The same is true of graphic design. “All design is ideological”, wrote Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in their book Design Noir, “the design process is informed by values based on a specific world view, or way of seeing and understanding reality.” This is why all the artificial intelligence bots, from Siri to Alexa, are gendered female. This is why early color film couldn’t properly expose black skin, why Facebook’s algorithm surpresses right-wing news, why Apple’s Health app didn’t include period tracking at launch, why Nikon’s face recognition repeatedly thought Asian eyes were closed and Google’s Photos app couldn’t properly identify black people.
And this is why the International Style is associated with Mad Men, with big business, with power. “I was morally opposed to Helvetica because I viewed the big corporations that were slathered in Helvetica as sponsors of the Vietnam War,” Paula Scher jokes towards the end of Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary on Helvetica, “So therefore if you used Helvetica you were in favor of the Vietnam War so how could you use it?” The International Style is no longer neutral, if it ever was. The language of the movement was co-opted by corporations in the 60s and 70s in the advent of corporate identity.
Each decision the designer makes subtly changes the message being communicated or the interaction that’s facilitated, for better or for worse. This is a reminder for the importance of diversity and inclusion, for the values of a few white men from Silicon Valley to Switzerland will always echo a narrow, particular worldview. It’s a reminder for education on cultural differences, for an awareness of the effect our work has on the world. Graphic design is forever tied to the culture it’s born in and to remove it from conversations about politics, economics, race, and power is to devalue its importance, to ignore its power.
“The camera is an instrument of transformation,” Cole continued in his essay, “It can make what it sees more beautiful, more gruesome, milder, darker, all the while insisting on the plain reality of its depiction. This is what Brecht meant in 1931 when he wrote, ‘The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter.’” So too are the tools of the designer: our software a tool for continually creating and manipulating our very own goblets. ✖