“What Design Means to Me” by Karel Martens

Following up yesterday’s statement by designer Weiyi Li, this brief essay comes from one of her teachers at Yale, graphic designer Karel Martens. Here, Martens discusses how he has come to understand the role of design not only as a craft or a profession, but as an extension of himself.

His take on design is relatively straightforward. Having been brought up in the dogma of Modernism and (at time of writing) now living and designing during a time when those ideals were being so utterly rejected, he draws a middle ground between a completely functional view of design, where the designer’s opinions and beliefs are left out, and a completely expressive view of design, often at the expense of readability: what he refers to as “form about form.” He instead asks for a “form that values content and has respect for the receiver of the message.”

It’s important to keep in mind what was going on in graphic design at the time. Martens wrote this in 1990, in the middle of what would later become know as “The Legibility Wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s.”, a period in graphic design history when new technology and changing attitudes among younger designers resulted in a clash between the old and new guard. Older designers were mostly still rooted in the Modernist, Swiss styles while younger designers were excited to explore everything that new technology made possible.

In 1984, Rudy VanderLans started publishing Emigre, a graphic design magazine which was visually very divisive among designers for its exploration of eclectic type and bold, disruptive typography. Other publications, many founded by young students, started to eschew old rules of readability for the sake of expression. The second installment of the critical graphic design essay series, Looking Closer 2, was published in 1997 and contains many essays on the subject.

It’s clear to see that this essay then is a product of the times, when this sort of debate was a hot topic in the design community. But I think what’s interesting about this is his rejection of content as having some sort of precedence over form. He says:

The content of the message has to come over, but the way in which this happens—the melody—is important, not least because in itself it carries communicative value. It is through form that content comes to us.

This is a sentiment which has more recently been echoed by Michael Rock in his essay, “Fuck Content” and his opening keynote to Bloomberg Businessweek Design 2016, in which he advocates for the legitimacy of design in its own right. In Rock’s words, design makes things coherent. Things in the world become real by design—ideas are given form, ideologies given authority, humans given identity. Design is crucial to our understanding of the world and ourselves.