Celebrity designers, context collapse, and rethinking how we teach design history
My first typography professor loved introducing us to her favorite designers. I remember learning about Paula Scher, Stefan Sagmeister, Milton Glaser, Neville Brody, and David Carson in that class. (She loved David Carson! We saw a lot of his work that semester — this was the mid-2000s, Sagmeister was at the height of his career and the shadow of Carson still loomed.) She wanted us to see work from history, as well as the contemporary work she found exciting so that it could inspire, inform, and guide our own work. Looking at the earliest work I did in school, you can see what designers had caught my interest at various points in my undergraduate career: the Vignelli phase came first, then it was Pentagram. By junior year, I was interested in illustration, and my work looked like Charley Harper's and Frank Chimero's. I had an infographic phase inspired by Nicholas Felton and an embarrassing handlettering period that mostly resulted in bad Jessica Hische knock-offs.
My classmates were the same way. There was a group of us who closely followed design blogs, tracking the 'celebrity designers' of the time. Some of us even got really excited by the two required design history surveys, saving images to our pre-Pinterest inspiration files and trying on the styles of different designers likes costumes. I remember one student particularly well who, following the lecture on Art Nouveau, decided he was going to make every project look like an Alphonse Mucha poster for the rest of the semester. I still cringe at the Russian-Constructivist-inspired poster I designed for a school function. We named dropped in critiques, showing off with our knowledge of history or our awareness of the trendy designers of the moment, completely unaware that half the class was rolling their eyes. For myself and my friends, it felt like part of being a good designer was knowing those names.
When I found myself back in the classroom — nearly a decade later, this time as the teacher — I was surprised to find how many of my students, at every level, had little sense of the history of graphic design, not to mention the 'celebrity designers' of today. Design history is largely foreign to them; it's an optional course in many design programs. It's rare for a student to know Sagmeister, Carson, and Scher (or Rudnick, Hu, and Walsh) if I mention one in class. I once had an upper level student who had never heard of Pentagram. Pentagram!
It's not that this generation of designers isn't consuming design media but the way they do is wildly different than when I was in school. At their age, we read blogs to find out who was doing the most interesting work, but those don't exist anymore. My students aren't reading It's Nice That or Eye on Design. They are on Instagram, on Behance, on Pinterest. Their design awareness, sensibilities, and taste is constructed through likes, pins, and retweets. They might not know the name Michael Bierut or have heard of Wolff Olins but they've seen the work. And they've also seen work from countless other designers flying below the mainstream design press radar.
Consuming design this way creates a peculiar context collapse. Everything moves fast, the thumb occasionally pausing for a closer look, where work from an international branding agency can sit next to a great poster by a high school student in India. These images travel from board to board, retweet to retweet, ever so slowly removing any sense of where it came from — the designer is often anonymous, the subject matter irrelevant. A quick tap saves it and then it's on to the next image. My students don't know the names of designers or agencies or studios but they do know what's trending, the popular styles, and the latest rebrand. Eventually, all the work starts to look the same.
Kids these days, I caught myself thinking. I had become the cranky old man complaining about how the next generation doesn't understand it sooner than I had thought I would. I mean, I'm only thirty and here I was worried about what this meant for the future. It was better when I was in school, I thought.
But what if this isn't necessarily a bad thing? Maybe this is an opportunity to teach design history and culture another way. Maybe it's a good thing for the idea of the 'celebrity designer' to die. The myth of the solo genius, alone in his studio, doesn't work anymore, and far too often it continues to only elevate the white male designer. Design conferences continue to feature the same designers year after year, sometimes even when at least one of those designers probably deserves to be cancelled. This perpetuates a particular idea of what a successful designer looks like and what makes for 'good design'.
Whether intended or not, the images my undergraduate professors showed us became the standard by which we judged design, and the names attached subconsciously became the people we were supposed to be emulating. The design history courses I took a decade ago were surveys: the professor would click through images on the screen in the front of the room; a list of names and styles we had to memorize. We spent little time talking about the content or articulating the context it sits within. Like my students now, I would get excited by something else I saw and use it in my own projects, regardless of context or content. Where we knew names, they know styles. Is one of these really worse than the other?
To be clear: this is not to say that names shouldn't be attached to the work or that we should disregard history. I believe these to be important elements of any design education. But inspiration is not enough. Trends are not enough. Simply collecting images is not enough. To move beyond inspiration, to dig deeper than trends and avoid celebrity design culture, we must make space for our students to reflect on this work and think about how it connects to their own blossoming practices.
In every class I teach, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, I've started requiring students to keep a visual journal — a dedicated place to keep images, PDFs, videos, photos — a simple attempt to encourage them to be more thoughtful about what they are consuming and saving. I try to build time into class for students to reflect on the work they are finding, and at the same time, I'm sharing the things I'm looking at and thinking about. (And I make it clear that what I share isn't always an endorsement.) Together we try to figure out why we are drawn to these things. Or repulsed by them. Or why they are trending. Or where they come from. We talk as a group about art movements and trends and gaps in history. We lean into the aesthetics, the contexts, the politics, and the ideologies that may or may not be embedded in the work. We dissect the visual moves the designer did and why she may have made those decisions. We find out more about the designer, of course, but we let the work speak for itself. Just because it came from a particular designer or a particular studio doesn't mean it's automatically great. Some of the best moments I've had in the classroom are when the students start debating these ideas — amongst themselves, without any guidance from me — trying to formulate their own point of view.
I want to create a space for young designers to feel comfortable conducting a thoughtful interrogation of images, visual culture, and the very profession they are about to enter — perhaps a small step in dismantling the celebrity designer complex while moving beyond the trends of their time. Looking at other design will always be central to the young designer's process, but they should't feel bound to trends, to styles, to celebrity as they move through their careers. The problem isn't that students don't know designers' names or are blindly following trends, it's that it is all moving too fast. Instead of fighting the new consumption paradigms, I've started to embrace it. Where I once looked down on these new modes of consuming media, romanticizing my own college experience, I now see the design students today as better equipped to do this work than I was at their age. They are well-versed in reading images, fluent in media literacy, and far less interested in celebrity. They get to experience more design — from all across the world — than any previous generation. If any of us can move beyond celebrity and dig deeper than the latest trend, it is them. We just need to be sure they have the critical tools, along with space and time, to do this work. The kids, I'm beginning to think, will be alright. ✖