This past February, the designer Pawel Pokutycki and I were in touch after a long hiatus. He was preparing to visit New York in March—a visit that, like thousands of others, was canceled by the pandemic.
Despite the disappointment, something very valuable was salvaged from our conversations. We had been sharing our enthusiasm for the writers Jerzy Pilch and Olga Tokarczuk when Pawel introduced me to the work of Marcin Wicha. Wicha is as sardonic as Pilch and Tokarczuk, and like them, he writes about politics. He’s not concerned with the Gomulka era as Pilch is, or in nature, like Tokarczuk. Instead Wicha takes on the politics of objects.
Though Poland is his context, Wicha has tapped into the foibles of celebrity design politics worldwide, where only those with distinctive brands survive. Viewed from a consumer perspective that equates good design with the likes of Mad Men-era interiors, the everyday essentials like the tax forms, postal receipts, and voting ballots Wicha cites are completely off the radar of cool. Design, he argues, was meant to be an antidote to clichés, but I will let Wicha correct the record. He’s much funnier than I am.
Wicha has a subversive wit that has no truck for starchy prose. His generation (and their parents) endured stodginess for decades prior to 1989, a not incidental factor in appreciating their work. The fact is that my own interest in Polish (as well as Russian, Hungarian, Czech, and Slavic) literature was seeded by a Cold War childhood. It fed a persistent curiosity about life under different regimes that Americans called ‘communism’ and our estranged sisters and brothers called ‘socialism.’ Only later would I learn that the two are not synonymous; the former being an all but unattainable utopia, the latter being the pragmatic way forward under existing conditions.
The nuns who taught me in grade school didn’t split ideological hairs between the two. They worried that the Russians were coming. They believed that the invading atheists would ask each and every one of us in suburban New Jersey if we believed in God: if we said ‘yes,’ they would shoot us; if we said ‘no,’ we were damned to hell. That is when, like Wicha, I first began to appreciate the value of saying one thing and meaning another. I only wish that someone had given me the double-barreled weapon of his “humor and skepticism.”
I’m not sure it would have made me a better citizen, but I’d be a better writer for it.
“Please choose an extension number or wait to be transferred to the front office” and the voice of Louis Armstrong down the phone:
And I think to myself, What a wonderful world!
I wonder who chose this song. The manager of the crematorium? The answering machine retailer (“I have something suitable for your sort of business”)? It’s conceivable that the sweetly hoarse golden oldie/evergreen is number one on some mourning playlist— incidental music most frequently chosen for the cremation ceremony.
This trope often appears in American comedies. Ashes in a bag, a box, a biscuit tin. The mortal remains in a little vase on the mantelpiece, in a kitchen cupboard, on the windowsill. “What do you keep here?” “Grandma.” A flurry of hilarious hijinks ensues. Gag upon gag explode. A cat knocks the urn off its place. A drunk partygoer mistakes the ashes for cocaine. Finally the climax: the ritual of scattering the ashes, always in windy weather, so that the playful breeze can blow the grey cloud straight into the mourners’ faces. Later—an orgy of sneezing, coughing and brushing down clothes.
We used to watch many dumb movies together.
I came home, where he no longer was. My mother’s friends had gathered, there was general commotion.
“On the Warsaw or national pages?”
“Are you allowed to keep the ID card photo?”
“Would you happen to have a bit of cream? Normal milk is okay if you don’t.”
The management of the cemetery. The crematorium. Life has been divided into a series of tasks to be completed. The feeling of helplessness caught up with me a few days later, as I was leafing through a glossy catalog of urns at the funeral parlor.
All the models looked like a cross between a Grecian vase and a Chinese thermos flask. They sparkled with glitter. They shimmered with chrome. They were gold, white-gold, malachite, and black. They had ornamental handles and grips. Some looked like old-fashioned preserving jars with wire clips. Others resembled Winnie-the-Pooh’s honey pots. Plastics dominated, but the range also offered natural stone (apparently nature has off days too).
And— obviously— crosses. Carved. Painted. Stuck to the side. Protruding on top (like a miniature of the Giewont mountain). Of course, there was also the inevitable crown of thorns, Mother of God in half-profile, and Pensive Christ. Poor dad. A non-religious Jew, completely uninterested in issues of faith, ended up outside the target group.
The alternative was a flower—a white lily or a fading rose. According to the funeral industry, Poland was inhabited by two kinds of people: Christians and members of a florists’ cult.
I flipped through the catalog the parlor’s boss was getting impatient. Under her gaze I finally chose a model. It was slightly less decorated its shape was a bit simpler and even the white rose looked rather discreet.
Later, for a few hours I deluded myself that it was OK. But it wasn’t. Dad would have never agreed to a receptacle like this. It’s vile to disregard somebody’s sense of aesthetics just because they’re dead.
My father’s taste defined our lives for many years. His verdicts were impetuous and definitive. We lived in an aesthetic minefield. In time I learned to avoid the traps and as I beat my safe tracks, I felt a growing sense of complicity. We became brothers-in-arms in this war against the whole world.
The thing was: dad wouldn’t let ugliness cross our doorstep.
We lived in a state of siege, like the Amish of the visual. The political system was against us. As was the economy. And the climate. A centimeter outside our door an oil-paint dado and terazzo flooring began. The elevator with the melted buttons was waiting, along with the block of flats, the landscape of late socialism.
When talking about the people we loved, laconic diagnoses are out of place. What concerns our loved ones should be complicated and unique. In fact, it was simple and typical. Simply put, there are people whose day can be ruined by a plugin of the wrong color. Who prefer to stay at home than go on holiday to a seaside guest house where the carpets are repulsive. The poor wretches tortured by billboards of plaster finishing coat.
Yes, yes, I know. Taste is a category of class. It sets out hierarchies and divisions. It reflects our aspirations and fears. It allows us to put on airs, to lie to ourselves, to cheat. And so on.
At least in terms of the urn I had it my way. In the orphaned agenda, I found the number of a sculptor dad had worked with once. I called. I explained the issue. The funeral was in two days. The artist listened to me with no surprise. He thought a while.
“I made flower boxes for a church in Ursynów. If I take off the legs, it’ll be perfect…”
And so I buried my father’s ashes in a black granite cube. The name and surname were carved into one of the sides. Font—Futura. Majuscule. Two times five letters, elegantly justified, just as he liked. I was bursting with pride. The urn was beautiful. The problem was that the only person who could appreciate that, the only person whose opinion mattered to me, was already dead.
Nostalgia is one thing. I think we’ve got a more serious problem. In the past, to create a drawing or sketch a design, you had to overcome the resistance of matter, gain control over the world, even if only within the page. Subdue the breaking lead, the bleeding watercolor, the spilling ink.
The words design and disegno (or drawing) share roots. Or actually one Latin root. To design is to mark. Design starts when an idea becomes an object. A mark on a piece of paper, a scrap of a napkin, a model.
An idea saved on a computer remains a thought. We store it on a disk and postpone its confrontation with the material world. We are the helicopter parents of ideas.
And then we’re surrounded by objects and buildings created by abstractionists. Three-dimensional visualizations. Structures created in defiance of reality. Even once they’re built, they seem artificial. Unreal and disembodied, like holograms put up in the city center.
I’d like to mention my father’s capricious tools. The T-square, a long ruler which moved on runners made of string. Technical pencils with hair-thin leads. Those leads were sold in second-hand shops, in small beige boxes with the words Made in Japan on them. A triumph of precision from the land of Godzilla.
The Rapidograph pens were the most important. Made of cherry-colored plastic and tipped with a silver needle that could prick you and as I’d been warned leave a mark for the rest of your life. Back then I thought that was a very long time.
It’s surprising that Rotring never switched over to the production of tattooing tools. But the dependable Germans didn’t change their manufacturing profile. They still sell Rapidograph pens, and their largest concession to modernity is a hybrid pencil with a soft tip for drawing on all sorts of tablets.
When it came to clearing out my father’s studio, I got rid of the plotter. Once expensive, now it was worth less than the material it was made out of. A business called “Eco-something” (electronic waste management) picked it up and threw it into a van. In exchange I got an appropriate certificate.
I kept the useless Rapidographs. They take up less space and they still hold a drop of dried-up ink.
Short Course of Anti-Design
Felt rugs inspired by folk design. National pavilion inspired by folk design. Wooden toys inspired by folk design. Inflatable furniture inspired by…whatever.
We’ve got things to boast about. Admittedly, the chances that our bottom will touch a piece of designer furniture are slim. It’s more likely that we’ll read a newspaper article entitled “Polish Designers Among World’s Best” or what’s more likely run our eyes over a website headline:
“Global Icons of Polish Design See the gallery.” Someone writes those pieces. Maybe even believes it. Maybe even correctly.
But those are the Himalayas of design—while we live in the valleys. We sit on trams. We struggle with the doors to the private backyard we post packages and letters. Quality of life is not determined by the most brilliant achievements of design. To be honest, they are the least important.
The real tests of Polish design are:
- the slip for a registered letter which is easy to fill in provided that your name is Jan Byk and your eyesight is that of an F-16 pilot from the base in Krzesiny;
- the tax return form with grey-on-grey boxes and vague descriptions, whose message is: find an accountant to fill this in, then pray and keep your fingers crossed;
- the school primer nauseatingly colorful, chaotic and graced with portraits of smiling victims of genetic engineering;
- motorway signs, especially for the Grodzisk Mazowiecki exit (I really didn’t want to go to Poznan).
A lousy doctor remains a doctor, at least until their license gets revoked. The same goes for teachers or journalists. Nobody claims that tabloid articles write themselves. Meanwhile the word “design” only applies to high-quality items. The price of 100 zloty or above is best. The popular conception about everything else is that it is self-generated. Nobody invented the post office slips. They just exist. Inevitable like the weather. Immutable like the climate. More permanent even than the climate, more certain than the political system, older than the historical era.
It’s the day of the local elections. The authority’s structure is complex, so voters receive four ballots each. A pile of colorful sheets of paper with the names of the candidates and their committees. By the way, one of the ballots is in fact a booklet, an A4 brochure.
What transpires? The number of invalid votes exceeds twenty percent. On top of that, the party which was first on the list receives a surprisingly high level of support. There is a suspicion that the confused voters made a tick on the first page of the brochure (hence voting for the party with the first position) or on all of its pages (invalid vote). The campaign team of the accidental beneficiaries is triumphant. The smiling leader announces the success of his program. The rival parties are infuriated. Confusion and political crisis escalate. Somebody suggests that the scandal could have been avoided if the booklet had had a cover or title page. Somebody else points out that the instructions were printed in too small a font size. “Poles have failed the IQ test” proclaims a famous columnist and in a sense he’s right. The state is testing our intelligence. This is not the supermarket, you have to make an effort when interacting with the administration.
Interestingly, the words “design” or “layout” do not appear in the discussion about the ballots. Evidently design has nothing to do with the situation. In Poland “design” is an area of human activity that consists of Bringing the World to its Knees with a Felt Rug Inspired by Folk Design.
I have seen packaging for crisps being manufactured. I have observed the process of designing the bag for salty sticks. I know a thing or two about chewing gum packets. Which is why I can promise you that more attention is devoted to every green onion, every crunchy bacon rather, and every wave of minty freshness than to the blueprint of voting ballots.
Officials don’t know how to commission, assess or receive products of design. The state doesn’t see the need to fund that industry. Put a full stop there and it’s not that bad.
Unfortunately, the Ministry of Finance—which hasn’t modified its tax forms for years—scraped together some pennies and commissioned a logo: the stylized letters “m” and “f”. Grey, red, plus the effect of the colors overlapping.
The sports department used to bear the symbol of a colorful little man. The single human figure could have been a surprise given the recent successes in team sports, so the next minister made a change; the little man was replaced by two intertwined boomerangs.
The Ministry of Health got itself a monogram in the shape of an interrupted ECG. The Ministry of Culture—plain lettering spiced up with a square full stop (testimony to its intellectual minimalism). The best one is the environment department with its romantic landscape: green mountain and blue river (or lake). An earlier iteration was even completed with a little sun.
The voting ballots were already being printed when the whole country became engrossed in a discussion about a new brand for Poland. A debate raged as to which combination of red lines would best express the energy and dynamism unique to the citizens of our homeland. This is what designers are for.
The ex-deputy PM is giving an interview. The good gentleman hasn’t played any political role in a long time, so he’s now being treated with a certain respect. There is a vague impression that things were better when he was in power. And even if not, that’s meaningless. Practical failures add gravity to theory. In the conversation, he rightly praises the factory which produces trams. He says:
People from PESA have gone to universities and started recruiting, among others, recent graduates of the Academy of Fine Arts. They’ve come up with the idea of producing carriages prettier than Italian ones and selling them all over the world.
Unfortunately, the keyword here is “prettier”. The expert’s finger is pointing out the task. The professionals from the Academy of Fine Arts are supposed to make sure that the tram looks pretty. The ex-deputy PM doesn’t expect them to devise a better form. To cram more passengers inside. To seat them more comfortably. To transport them more safely. To save some energy or material. Let them make it so the trams are prettier than Italian ones. The prettiest ones in Europe. It’d be best to add the patterns from the traditional dress of Polish highlanders and a pantograph in the shape of the Kashubian leluja ornament—the world will be conquered. Maybe even The Economist will write something about it.
The curse of prettiness looms over Polish design.
“Make it a looker.”
“My favorite font is roman.” announces the chairman.
“And some more interesting colors, please.”
Design is like the police. It’s never there where it’s needed the most. The aforementioned objects—voting ballots, forms, and manuals—aren’t examples of bad design. They stem from a different order. They are results of anti-design. Design is a process. Anti-design is a state. A quagmire into which clients, contractors, and audiences sink. Anti-design is an attitude, a way of thinking, an approach to the world. It is indifference, laziness, sleet, bacterial infection, the stuff of officials. It has its own rules, as stupid and self-contradictory as anti-design itself.
“We need a logo and a brand book. You know, a primary and secondary logo, clear space, minimum size, color palette” one of my clients said.
“What about incorrect use?”
“We’ll come up with that ourselves!”
Here are eleven rules. Sloppy, stupid, contradictory, and useless—like anti-design in general.
- Habit is the poor man’s ergonomics. People will get used to everything. Repeat chairman Deng Xiaoping’s words: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white. What matters is that it catches mice.” Remember that color doesn’t matter. The cat doesn’t matter. The mice don’t matter. Even the catching doesn’t matter. “Doesn’t matter” and “whatever”: this is the motto of anti-design. People will get used to it.
- And after all, some things are more important (you don’t need to say what things).
- Don’t bother with details.
- Think only about details. One detail in particular is best.
- Allow problems to surprise you. That’s why they exist.
- Don’t correct mistakes. Come up with new ones.
- Break the rules. Introduce them only to break them. Break them only to show that you’re allowed to do more.
- Appreciate intuition. When talking about a project, use the phrase I’m no expert, but… . Your ignorance is the golden key to power.
- Be guided by taste, not common sense. Someone else’s taste is preferable. Refer to the opinions of third parties as often as possible. If you’re showing the design to your wife and three colleagues, call it a focus group.
- Demand ornament and decoration. Demand the “WOW” effect. Mention the “WOW” effect at every juncture. Also say: “I’m not bowled over by this” and “this doesn’t blow me away”. Create a general impression that the point of the project—if it gets commissioned at all—should be to inflict serious bodily injury.
- Care only for what shows. Each zloty and euro spent on the project must be visible from a distance. Everything hidden below the water line is unimportant (we call it “the Titanic principle.”)
And if you’re a designer, say yes to everything. With a smile on your face. The way to artistic failure is paved with success, in the words of… (I don’t know who, but somebody must have already said it.)
Paul Rand, Our Compatriot
In his day Steve Jobs had a poster printed with a portrait of Paul Rand and the tagline “Think Different”. Other posters from the series showed Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, or Jim Henson.
Paul Rand came from Brooklyn. If his parents had not left for America, if he’d been born in Europe, if he’d survived the Holocaust and if…that’s quite a lot of “ifs”, but in some alternative variant Rand could have become a Polish poster artist.
He had it all: irony, a feel for type, a good hand. It’s easy to imagine him designing avantgarde book jackets for the Prasa Wojskowa publishing outfit. Decorations for the International
Workers’ Day parades. Illustrations for the publisher Nasza Księgarnia, posters for Wydawnictwo Artystyczno-Graficzne, Orbis travel agency and the Film Distribution Office. And, of course, competing fiercely with Henryk Tomaszewski all along.
In America he became the symbol of creating symbols. The Lord of the Logo. The favorite of giant corporations: IMB, UPS, ABC, Westinghouse… His signs, yearly reports and posters make up the history of corporate America’s golden age. The history that you want to remember. Climbing stocks. White houses of the middle class. New Fords on the driveways. Breakfast cereal on the table.
Apparently the parallel stripes of the IBM logo were inspired by a check—its most pleasing part, the field where you enter the total.
Rand was able to give corporate symbols a modern flair in an era when modernity was still new, un-tired, and expressed itself with simplicity. Used Helvetica or Futura, primary colors, simple outlines.
However, there was something Central European about America’s most famous graphic designer. He could smuggle a molecule of humor and skepticism. Of course, in designs for massive concerns there’s no room for skepticism… at most for a slight, almost imperceptible whiff of irony. Enough to keep one’s common sense and not descend into megalomania. Look at the UPS logo and its parcel wrapped with string, or the three ducklings in the Tipton Lakes sign.
Paul Rand liked simple forms. Children’s drawings. Cutouts. He gave businesses their trademarks but made sure that the corporate identity retained some humanity. He promised that reality could be comprehended.
He was also fantastically confident. When presenting a project, he would hand clients special booklets which described his creative process. No hesitation, no alternatives, no versions.
No “concepts to choose from”. On a dozen pages, using pictures and a minimum of text, he showed his—the great Paul Rand’s—progress towards the goal.
He died in 1996 and took the optimistic era with him. Soon everything went wrong. One of the last logos Rand designed was for the Enron corporation.
In 2001 Enron went bankrupt and it turned out that accountants and auditors were hiding gigantic losses. There was a scandal, TV kept showing the entrance to the cave of thieves, the office building and monument with the company’s logo: a tasteful sans-serif E, tilted at a 45-degree angle.
Because there’s so little time and so many funny kittens, because we pick up emails, listen to the radio, browse Facebook, talk on the phone, because our brain hasn’t yet switched fully to multitasking… what was my point? Problems with concentration. And that the best way of communicating thoughts is a list. Even Moses understood that.
I’ve always wanted to collect the wise and useful remarks on design that I happened to hear in various places and situations.
Here are some of them:
1. “Everything is complicated” – this is my company’s motto; it is also known as the Plumber’s Curse.
There’s an urban legend that if one day a plumber looks at a U-bend and says: “No worries,
I’ll fix it in no time” the trumpets of archangels shall sound and the end of the world will undoubtedly be nigh.
Fortunately we won’t be hearing these words any time soon. Plumbers and designers know that nothing is simple. Even designing a business card requires attention and consideration. If someone says otherwise, they:
- are a Zen master,
- haven’t analyzed the problem sufficiently.
2. Nothing is Simple and Everything is Complicated are also the titles of two albums by illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé (the one who did the Little Nicholas books). One of the subsequent volumes was entitled La Grande Panique.
3. “We’ve got a strange profession.”
This is what my first boss said. We were working on a project for a telecommunications company. After fourteen hours at the computer and God knows how many corrections, the marketing people kept calling to say that the sun still isn’t cheerful enough, that it’s got an ironic expression, a disdainful pout, etc. We worked at the sun’s smile for fourteen hours. A strange profession.
Since then I’ve gained a lot of experience. I took part in discussions about the expression of a rhinoceros (“he should look like a king, but a good and fair one”) and the character of lizards. I smoothed out wrinkles. I slimmed down bodies. I removed executed members of the politburo from photographs… Oh, no, that wasn’t me. But I did reply to emails like the following without batting an eyelid:
“The laptop should have a nicer smile. Now its smile looks like a railway track and makes us think of horror films.”
I know one thing: you shouldn’t take this profession too seriously.
4. And besides, the words of veterinarian Siegfried Farnon, hero of the All Creatures Great and Small cycle, apply to designers:
“It’s a funny profession, ours, you know. It offers unparalleled opportunities for making a chump of yourself. [ … ] It helps to be good at the job, of course, but even if you’re a positive genius humiliation and ridicule are lurking just `round the corner.”
5. “You have to throw out used-up marker pens” I owe this piece of wisdom to a certain typographer. He found it very irritating that people don’t get rid of used-up felt pens, ballpoints, and markers. They keep heaps of useless items on their desks, and still have nothing to jot down a phone number with.
It’s stopped working? Off to the bin.
I think that this rule can be treated metaphorically.
6. “[I]f using ground tinned coffee, my advice is to buy it in small quantities and frequently switch brands. Apparently the first cup of a new brand of coffee is what the first drag on a freshly-lit cigar is for the smoker.”
So wrote Nela Rubinstein in her cookbook. My business partner says the same thing. When designing, you need to change—tools, techniques, styles.
7. “One can say something new even in the most overused convention”—my colleague, Andrzej J., used to say. It’s true. Nothing’s ever over. The most overused, familiar and banal means can create a new, original project.
8. Naturally, point 7 is contrary to points 5 and 6. This contradiction expresses an important thought about design.
9. Above all, you need to learn. Always, from everybody. From those who know. From those who don’t know. From those who have no idea, but, irritatingly, are right.
Learn from friends and enemies (so they’re of use for something). From younger and older people. From clients, colleagues, random passers-by.
“We all of us of education / A something somehow have obtained…” I learned my best lesson about design from a certain countess.
Here’s how it happened. Somewhere in Poland, amid meadows and marshes, a slow river rolled its waters. The place was quiet, clean, rare species of birds waded through the grass, so members of the local authority decided to invest in tourism and commissioned a logo.
This is how I found myself at the most unusual presentation of my life. Mayors of nearby villages crowded the room. The tables were laid with products of local cuisine.
We’d sent the designs earlier, by post. Now we showed some slides. I made a speech. There was a silence. The mayors exchanged glances, nudged each other, whispered under their breath.
“Maybe madam would like to?” offered one of them.
“Oh, yes” the others joined in. “Madam, please, do say something.”
The countess raised her eyes. She was an elderly lady with a stern expression. Later I learned that she’d spent most of her life as an émigré, but after the collapse of Communism returned to her homeland and reclaimed the family estate.
“Madam, what do you think about this?”
“Shh, madam will tell us.”
“I will tell nothing” she said, sprinkling her speech with English words. “I don’t know, I’m not interested. But I showed this my husband. My husband, he is Englishman. And my husband, Englishman, he looked and said: this is fish. Fish is sea. Here is no sea. No sea, no fish, no sense!”
“But this is a catfish, madam, I mean, it’s a land fish of ours.”
“Is no land fish! Fish lives in water.”
“I mean, inland.”
“It’s a river fish, madam… They live hereabouts. They were biggest right after the war, when they’d fed on dead bodies… Grandpa told me they’d catch…”
“And?” protested someone. “Planning to tell the tourists that catfish have grown fat on dead bodies?”
“What about the anglers?”
“Grandpa once caught a catfish as big as…”
“Gentlemen, I ask you, no discussion” interrupted the heiress. “Catfish is fish. Fish is sea. Here is no sea. No sea, no fish, no sense.”
“How about the second design, madam? The one with the sun?”
“I don’t know about this, I am not designer” said the countess. “But I showed this my husband. He is Englishman. And my husband, Englishman, he said: sun is beach. Beach is sea. Here is no sea. No sea, no sun, no sense.”
“How about that kite?”
“Why are you asking me? I don’t know about this, I’m not interested. I said I am not designer… But I showed this my husband. My husband, Englishman, looked and said: kite is beach.
Beach is sea. Here is no sea. No sea, no sun, no sense.”
“And the ball? I kind of like it, so colorful…” tried one of the mayors.
“My husband, he said: ball is beach. Beach is sea. Here is no sea. No sea, no sun, no sense.”
“And the one with the bear?”
“My husband, Englishman, looked and said: here is no Russia.”
I frequently repeat those words to myself:
A few years ago I visited a cutting-edge printing house.
“We’ve had research done,” said the manager, “which suggests that, basically, the only people who still read books are girls from the 9-13 age group.”
“So what are you going to do?” I asked.
“We’re buying a glitter machine.”
Marcin Wicha is a graphic designer, essayist, writer, and author of books for children.
The Urn was originally published in Words Without Borders (November 2018). It was translated from Polish by Marta Dziurosz.
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