If Part 1 of this series was centered around the concept of the agency double standard, Part 2 of my thoughts on The Great Tibor Kalman vs. Joe Duffy debate of 1991 will focus around the concept of falsifying authenticity.
We'll jump right back in to the argument where we left off with Tibor Kalman's statement on authenticity. "I am saddened by the idea that our role in this society, as graphic designers in the 1990s, is relegated to Ending different ways to knock off other people’s designs the same way manufacturers knock off other people’s products." Obviously he meant this as a shot across the bow to the Duffy Group, and honestly I can't necessarily find fault in it. The main target of Kalman's rage would be manifested in Duffy's packaging for Classico Pasta Sauce.
Kalman argues that designers shouldn't simply try to create a difference when there isn't one and that Duffy's attempt to build authenticity into a brand that in reality has very little differentiation in product is nothing short of lying. Duffy's flimsy counter-point about re-using glass jars because of their appearance in hindsight seems naively antiquated.
HELLER: …if Ragu tastes the same as Classico tomato sauce, how does the packaging improve it?
DUFFY: Let’s say the package would be saved and reused, like Classico’s is. People use it after the product is gone. They put it on their shelves. They store coffee in it. That is an example of where the package becomes part of the product.
HELLER: Was that in your mind when you were doing the Classico package?
DUFFY: Definitely. Also, packaging that is environmentally friendly obviously can improve a product.
KALMAN: What’s the difference between your spaghetti sauce and any other spaghetti sauce that comes in a glass jar with a screw-on top, in terms of reusability?
DUFFY: The package is one that people like to save because it’s well-designed.
KALMAN: And they throw the Ragu jar away? Isn’t the difference in those packages structurally the label?
DUFFY: No, it’s the actual glass as well. The Classico is like a Mason jar, so it can be used for other purposes.
KALMAN: The Ragu jar can’t be used for other purposes?
DUFFY: It could be, but people are less likely to save it.
KALMAN: How do we know that?
DUFFY: Research. Look it up.
While Duffy's argument that people are more likely to reuse Classico jars because of their aesthetics is laughable in my opinion, both these arguments are slightly misguided. The package doesn't do anything the make the product itself better, but it does make the experience of using the product better. Those are two different things. The progress made in the fields of user experience via web design have given us a new insight that wasn't available to Kalman and Duffy at the time. Kalman goes on to claim that "I think it’s a lie. I think packages are liars; that’s what they do."
To illustrate his point, Kalman points to Duffy's reputation of creating fake nostalgia. "To me, the lie in these old-time folksy graphics is that the spaghetti sauce is any better. The lie is in getting people to believe: Oh, this is an old- fashioned label. This company must have been around for a hundred years. This must be an old-fashioned recipe that uses all-natural ingredients just like my mama used to do.” Again, Duffy goes on a loosely-connected string of justification to attempt to prove that his "authentic italian label" reflects the authenticity of the sauce. I for one don't really buy it. His arguments about French Paper are a little more sound. French Paper is a great example of a company that had it right from the start while the entire industry is only now catching up to what they've done since day one. However, Duffy is definitely stretching in his argument here and while it may have sold to a client in 1990, the justification fails to hold up to time. This point is only furthered by Duffy's example of the Shell oil containers.
DUFFY: The Michael Peters Group did research, and after looking at the product found out that Shell Oil was missing an opportunity in terms of shipping it. Because they were using tin cans, they were shipping a lot of airspace between the containers in the shipping carton. The Peters Group designed something that eliminated 80 percent of that air, and so the company saved millions of dollars.
KALMAN: What was the new material?
DUFFY: A plastic that was made out of the oil Shell sells.
KALMAN: So the Peters Group took a tin can and replaced it with a plastic container? I’m not sure what the environmental impact of something like that would be.
DUFFY: It’s much improved.
KALMAN: I’m not an expert, but it sounds to me the opposite; it seems that the percentage of tin being recycled is much greater than the percentage of plastic. But I’m not sure. I would question the whole issue. And packaging as part of the product really bugs me. That whole philosophy is something I have trouble with.
Kalman hit this on the head, and time only serves to solidify his argument. Indeed, to this day the plastic containers that Duffy designed are still sitting in landfills across the country and will be for some time. While it may have saved Shell lots of money it's caused irreparable harm to the environment and will be around much longer than Duffy himself. As for the tin containers that were used before this switch, they now find themselves on the shelves of antique stores being sold for much more money empty than they did filled with oil. This also serves to underline Kalman's point that Duffy designs with corporate bottom lines in mind.
But nevermind that, we can forgive Duffy and Kalman for their lack of environmental foresight. The dangers of plastic only came into focus in the last 10-15 years with the development of the great pacific garbage patch. Kalman and Duffy both had an unusual commitment to environmental thinking in their time and they should be commended for that. What we should be focusing on here is Kalman's argument against falsification through presentation. He continues:
KALMAN: I think it’s misleading. I’m sure there are chinks in our armor in this area, too, and I don’t want to focus the attack on Joe, but to me the issue is that graphic design is frequently used as a tool to lie, including a lot of my work and a lot of Joe’s work, and that bugs me. I mean, doesn’t it make you a little crazy? Do you sleep okay about that?
DUFFY: Yes. I have no problems because I don’t think it’s lying.
KALMAN: What do you think it is then?
KALMAN: Communicating a lie, though. It’s not communicating the truth.
Again we see Kalman being painfully honest and Joe being painfully delusional. He may sleep well at night but I'm guessing that's more because of the thread count of his sheets than his clear conscience.
While I'm probably being too harsh on Duffy, there may be a larger theme here. After all, Duffy is located in Minneapolis which has a long history of nostalgic design. Having gone to school in Minneapolis and worked at three different agencies there I can say that the retro craze is a favorite fallback of the industry. After all, this is the home of Charles S Anderson and Aesthetic Apparatus. Whether or not you want to argue that it's intrinsically a part of the design culture or just a convenient aesthetic, you can't deny its presence.
But it's not just Minneapolis. Look around Dribble, Ffffound, or any other image aggregate site. From Ohio to Brooklyn, creating a sense of nostalgia is one of the leading trends in American design today. More than 20 years after the argument, Duffy's legacy lives on in generations of graduates from art schools across the nation. Current day illustrators and designers such as Frank Chimero, or Mikey Burton have made careers from re-contextualizing these core elements. I'm not picking on these guys, I've worked with Mikey and played Layer Tennis against Frank, they're both top-notch men and far better designers than myself. Their designs rarely try to force a retro authenticity onto a product or company, but they definitely use vintage illustration and printing techniques to create a vintage feel, though I take no fault with that.
However, there is a big difference between falsifying authenticity or legacy for profit's sake and manipulating nostalgic aesthetics. While I'm throwing stones I should completely admit that I've been a part of this trend on various projects. It's an aesthetic I relate to coming from a semi-rural middle-class family. I grew up around old tractors, oil cans, glass bottles, packing crates, etc. While this may simply be the same flimsy justification I criticize Duffy for employing, I feel okay with own usage of it.
Perhaps the most egregious example in my own work would be Cafe Di Napoli. We didn't attempt to manufacture authenticity but we certainly played fast and loose with the facts. While it was true that Cafe Di Napoli had been around in Minneapolis for decades before the redesign, the new Cafe Di Napoli had very little to do with the Di Napoli of old. The restaurant had been closed for some time and was purchased by a new owner who reopened the eatery and had focused on making the restaurant more of a skyway fast-food option for the business crowd. While the organization was the same in name and the owner swore they used the same recipes, we could hardly find a person who believed that the new restaurant resembled the old restaurant at all.
Regardless we used faux nostalgic ingredients and borderline pandering aesthetics to create something more approachable. Graphically it kind of ironically fit. A careless mishmash of mixed references that somehow created something new out of the history. The design was about as true to the old establishment as the new restaurant was. By re-contextualizing the historical elements we created something new as opposed to falsifying something old. I stand by the final product and it's kind of a moot point anyway since the restaurant folded before implementing any of the changes. Kalman justifies his usage in a slightly different way.
KALMAN: My identification with vernacular has always been about really respecting the vernacular process. I respect the authority of it, I respect the simplicity of it, I respect the naturalness of it-sort of like health food. It’s like design without all of this process and theory.
DUFFY: It’s honest.
KALMAN: Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of vernacular in your work, too.
KALMAN: And that to me is what’s important. Designers have become so professionalized and such pawns to the client and big business that they’ve had to develop all of these defenses about what it is to just have a great idea and do it. Or not even have a great idea, but just do it, the way in the Caribbean some guy will take a black roller and write this 9-foot G-A-S on the side of a brick building.
HELLER: If someone came to either of you with a portfolio with a few pages of G-A-S or, let’s say, something that is quite vernacular-pinball art-would you hire that person?
KALMAN: I’d laugh him out of the room.
HELLER: Where’s the honesty then? Aren’t you appropriating something from someone you wouldn’t hire in a million years?
KALMAN: What I’m appropriating is a process as opposed to a look, okay? And the process is how to think about something in a clear and uncomplex and unfiltered and uneducated way.
Therein lies the entire crux of Kalman's argument. While Duffy claims that its' okay for him to use an aesthetic if it's justified, Kalman believes that it's the process, not the outcome that should be appropriated. He continues with, "In my opinion, this is a pure esthetic pow-pow, but I think those guys have a style and we have a process. Their style may come out of a process-that’s okay with me-but what we have constantly tried to do, and I think succeeded at, is not let our pieces look very much alike but to focus instead on design as an accidental process in which pieces come out looking all kinds of different ways. Often you can’t tell it’s us.