When a designer works with contemporary art, and the artists who make it, what is her role? Where is the overlap? And where are the gaps that define an art or design practice? At Frieze Academy’s Graphic Design for Art symposium, host David Lane—of The Gourmand, Lane & Associates, and Frieze magazine—tackled these questions, among others, alongside Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas of A Practice For Everyday Life; Ken Kirton of Studio Hato; and Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath of OK-RM. Here’s what we learned.
1. Know the differences between your clients.
Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas of APFEL opened the day at the Rochelle School in Arnold Circus, Shoreditch (London). Working predominantly in the cultural sector, they focused their presentation on artist book collaborations, including those made with Jeremy Deller, Linder, and Douglas Coupland. They spoke of the contrasts between working with a commercial gallery or a big publishing house, and how those differences in responsibility can shape a project—from a “total” approach, commissioning editors and texts as well as designing the object, to more regimented processes, with set briefs and clear chains of command.
Artists’ books and exhibition publications “can be a way of showing the process of the curator, artist, and designer in a coherent space.” They are an opportunity to make new artworks, with conversations between text and image, form and function. When Carter and Thomas were designing the monograph for collage artist Linder, they were informed by their prior relationship with their client, having realized the exhibition Linder: Femme/Objet in 2013, and worked closely with her to develop the structure of the book. “She would send research archives in separate packages—lips, flowers, birds, and so on—which made the relationship between practice, references, and process much easier to understand.” The book incorporated many physical interventions: “die-cut pages, paper stock changes and short sections,” flush pages that made the hardback book feel more in line with the structure of a magazine, and details in homage to Derek Birdsall’s work for Monty Python’s Big Red Book, “where these interventions bring the humor of the work to life.”
Carter and Thomas advocated “animating” books by making small interventions to surprise and delight readers; like using uncoated white paper on a book cover that depicts a thumbprint to encourage a more tactile interaction. Their own practice, and the way it interacts with the practice of artists, blurs the line in terms of authorship, and asks the question of when is a book a book, and when is it art?
2. Respect tradition.
David Lane recently completed the redesign of Frieze magazine as its current art director. He described the complexity of working with a publication that has had a life before you, and will continue a long life after. “So what is your role?”
Lane considered the importance of achieving the right volume for design in relation to editorial: “The previous iteration was beautiful, austere, and elegant, but it wasn’t always reflective of the contents. The design had become more polite, and sometimes magazines need to be louder, more modern.” He removed the cover border, gave it a glossy laminate, and introduced section dividers and grids that responded to the busy article structures and paper transparency. He worked with two typefaces, Filosofia and Frieze Grot, which both have extensive variations from copy to small caps, and provide ornaments including the infinity question mark for unanswerable questions—an essential device for such a magazine.
3. Define your role.
Lane also tackled the difficult issue of defining what an art director actually does in an era where every man and his dog seems to make use of the title. “There seem to be so many meanings, but for me it is working on a project from conception to completion. If you are working with existing work, you are a designer. Art direction is about coming up with a total idea—being approached with a problem, rather than a request.”
4. Choose your tools wisely.
Ken Kirton of Studio Hato focused on its interactive projects, including education programs for 2015 and 2016’s Liverpool Biennial and the Serpentine Galleries. He discussed how Studio Hato and its sister company, Hato Press, are inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement—specifically William Morris’ News From Nowhere, a novel that combines utopian socialism and soft science fiction—and concerned with how a printing press can function as a structure for the arts, and as an education model. Kirton described how Studio Hato’s interest in developing tools for the co-creation of work informs its practice, considering “typography a way of making a community, which in the instance of the Pick Me Up identity, meant allowing the public to have input on each of the final letterforms.”
In the case of their first project with the Liverpool Biennial, Dazzle Island, Studio Hato developed a digital tool that provided the infrastructure for a physical artwork made by students at a local school. The work was based on dazzle camouflage, used extensively on ships in World War I with the intention of masking a vessel’s course or speed. Their experiments began with student artists creating various shapes in spray paint, which predictably led to chaos, so Studio Hato responded by building a program for making. “We used digital technology as a tool for co-creation, providing limitations that kept the collective work on track and maintained focus. With digital you can make something fun, interactive, and empowering for your audience.”
Their interactive projects, which shift between digital and physical contexts, also challenge the boundaries between art and design education, and make accessible the often closed-off “art world.” By offering the tools to the public, people are given a voice and the opportunity for direct involvement: “we set the framework and the work is done by the collective.”
5. Learn to be an actor.
OK-RM presented exhibition design projects and artists’ collaborations under the framework of a diagram depicting the relationship between designer, institution, and artist. Interested in “the legacy of the design studio as a space for collaboration and service,” OK-RM’s Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath cited the Danish studio Total Design as a key influence, and called attention to the designer’s ability and freedom to “design their own studio.”
“There are so many outlets for design now, impacting the way designers think and how we are constantly applying our thinking to the new.” As a designer, they said, you are almost an actor: “You read a role and work out how to behave in a way that complements [the artist’s] behavior. You create a story, take on a fictional character, and think about how they would tackle a particular problem.”
6. Don’t get hung up on tired questions.
The conversations of the day ran round and through ideas of role, context, application, and influence, with various points of contradiction over whether or not design can be art or a designer an artist. In the contemporary context, artworks can take any or no form, so the only tangible clarification is that to be art, work must be intentional. When designers flip-flop around definitions of roles and hierarchies of practice, it makes a weighty issue of a rather insignificant question—if you want to make art then make it, and describe it so; if you don’t, then stick to working with problems and instruction, self-directed or otherwise.
Perhaps the most productive role a designer can have, in relation to art and the public, is to take ownership of being the artful mediator—whether that’s via frameworks for publishing, identity, or using their platform to hand over authorship to the collective.