“This is Not a Cigar: Rereading Rand” by Susan Sellers and Michael Rock

It’s not so often that you get see an example of design criticism as lucid and thoughtful as this. This reading of Rand’s work, which begins with an examination of a flyer Rand made for a brand of cigars, shows us just how ripe for examination graphic design can be, despite the fact that it often isn’t subjected to close readings.

When reading about design, you often stumble onto people bemoaning the lack of criticism in the field (this was a big topic of conversation during the 90s especially. Looking Closer 2 has quite a number of essays devoted to talking about the various forms criticism might take). Graphic design is often compared to fields like architecture, art, and literature—all fields which involve not only the creation of artifacts but also the commentary on those artifacts by a trained critics. Even today, the question as to why we don’t have a similar culture of discourse around design (usually meaning graphic design in particular), continues to be asked in forums like Jarrett Fuller’s Scratching the Surface podcast.

There are a lot of reasons that have been proposed as to why this lack of critical dialogue around design exists, but that’s left for designers to talk about. For me, a design dilettante, it’s nice to just be able to read an examination into the work of a graphic design icon.

This close reading of Rand’s work is a very insightful examination into the graphic devices deployed in order to make things appealing to men. While some have tried to separate design from its cultural context and present the goal of design as being a solution to a problem, design can only be successful if it is done with an intimate knowledge of culture (how people think, what people value) and that designed objects themselves have a tremendous impact on culture.

“This is Not a Cigar” invites us to look at these things which may seem innocuous at first (a flyer, a magazine), but which upon closer examination reveal that design’s foremost role is to materialize various fictions put forth on behalf of (often wealthy, often male, often white) people.