Nov 28, 2011

REVIEW | POP How Graphic Design Shapes Popular Culture | Steven Heller | Allworth Press, 2010

POP How Graphic Design Shapes Popular Culture book cover, cover design by James Victore
Needless to say, with it's bright pink cover and yellow text, this book "popped" out at me. Now, I'm no graphic designer, but I have always been interested in what drives it, since it is always changing. One day the hot thing is a script typeface and the next, it's stiff, block letters. At first glance, this book may not seem to have anything to do with contemporary art. At least, not directly. And this is true. However, as I read through the attention-grabbing pages, I noticed the similarities between graphic design and contemporary art works like those reviewed in class. In a physical sense, the graphic design concepts Heller talks about are incorporated and seen in literal pieces of contemporary art work. While Heller speaks from a designer's point of view, it remained clear to me that many of the topics he discusses can be seen in contemporary art. I found it interesting that I haven't seen the medium with which Heller is most familiar with (graphic design) categorized very often as contemporary art, yet I believe it is, because of its nature. The sense of a transparent veil that covers both subjects is what captured my attention and I was really eager to find out just how far the underlying similarities go. For the sake of clarity, though, I will keep the two "categories" separated.

At 288 pages, the book is surprisingly a quick read. It is organized into nine sections, each with its own subtopics. Heller provides a casual atmosphere within his discussions, allowing for the sometimes-confusing topics to be better understood. The book is also humorous, filled with clever titles and puns. Heller notes in his introduction,
Pop culture is often maligned as fleeting, but history shows that sometimes what is pop in one culture has time-honored resonance in later ones. This book is an attempt to show that pop culture, especially as seen through the lenses of design, illustration, satiric and political art (and other things), is integral to a broader understanding of who we are and where we are going.
Yes We Did victory poster, Shepard Fairey, 2008
In one particular entry, Heller comments on the recent poster images of Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign. The entire aura surrounded by the iconic images is one of "hope" and "change." The images demand a sense of freshness, which is also a concurrent theme in contemporary art. Artists are constantly coming up with hopefully fresh ideas that can function as art, as well as make a statement. One artist that comes to mind is Ron English. His designs are heavily influenced by popular culture. He simultaneously provides a new idea of something familiar to the public already, while inserting his own statement about certain issues. This poster is interesting in that it once functioned simply as street art, but now, one may consider, it functions as art for art's sake. It breaks the tradition of past political campaign designs (boooring!) with it's eye-catching bold and fresh colors and graphic nature. Heller also notes that "artists have turned to design as a means to extend their creative reach."

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, created by Robert Fraser, design by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, photography by Michael Cooper, 1967

Who doesn't love the Beatles? Their mark on recent pop culture is undeniably timeless, as is this album cover. I've seen this cover many, many times, but this time was different. I noticed the cover as a piece of art, specifically collage. It consists of the four-member band in the front, with several cardboard cutouts of famous people gathered behind them, including Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and Karl Marx. Heller comments on the conceptual nature of the cover, crediting Fraser, Blake, Haworth and Cooper with "the breakthrough that launched an extremely popular trend in 'concept cover' art." It's interesting to note that as the Beatles' music became less "pop" sounding (especially seen and heard in their lyrics), the artwork of their albums reflected that change by becoming more conceptual. I was reminded of contemporary conceptual artist John Baldessari, as Heller allowed me to reevaluate something I thought was so familiar to me.

New Jersey Restaurant, John Baeder, 30"x48", 2010

Continuing with the notion of art for art's sake, what's more American than a diner? John Baeder is a contemporary painter, with a goal of recording on canvas every American eatery and diner. Heller comments on Baeder's transition from advertising to this method of recording, saying that although Baeder was known for "functional art," he devoted himself to "art on its own terms." Baeder documented these diners as a mere method of remembering and capturing them. There is no "utilitarian purpose." Heller further notes that Baeder's work is more than just "mastery of form and technique," but it's "a respite to the rigors of problem solving" in design. It simply serves as art.

I really enjoyed that Heller, although primarily focusing on graphic design, is able to relate that specific realm of art back to fine art and contemporary practices. Being able to see similar trends between graphic design and contemporary art was refreshing in the sense that it's all somehow connected. Heller successfully provided another platform for contemporary art by opening a door to collaboration between the graphic artist and the contemporary one.I highly recommend this book to young and old, even if it's just to cure your curiosity about design!

- Kerri Pearson



  1. I am so glad you noticed this flaw in contemporary art! Just take a look around; publications, book covers, even t-shirts and book bag designs come from graphic designers! I don't think you or anyone else should have to justify why graphic design is contemporary art, and it frustrates me as a designer that the closest thing to appreciating graphic design came about in the study of the Guerrilla Girls campaign. We study a lot of performance art because it is something that people are divided on, but never once touched graphic design. I have written a couple blogs on typography which, if you are interested, you should check out. There is a massive world of graphic design and its unfathomable to me that it wasn't touched on. Kudos to you, you made my day!

    -Jennifer Wright

  2. Very interesting blog. I agree with Jennifer above. No one should have to defend the fact that graphic design is contemporary art. I can see why maybe it was a discussion way back when, when cordless home phones were a big deal. But not in this day and age when 5 year olds know how to text. Album artwork, campaign flyers, billboards, etc are all created to catch the viewrs eye, there for it is considered and should always be considered as contemporary art.

    -Amye patrick