“I hate logos,” Abbott Miller confesses in Design and Content, a new monograph on his graphic design work, which includes plenty of logos. “…[E]veryone gets obsessed with the logo when they should really be more concerned with how it’s used.”
It’s a gentle bit of contrarianism from the Pentagram partner who has built a career eschewing dated design conventions. As Miller sees it, design is about creating narratives, not just beautiful shiny objects. He describes the luxurious, lovingly crafted books he has made for the likes of artists Matthew Barney and William Kentridge, photographer Ansel Adams, and Swiss design company Vitra as “movie[s] you hold in your hands.” He conceives of an exhibition as “a room with a plot,” as storytelling occupying real time and space, a notion he’s applied to shows on everything from Freud’s Vienna to John Lennon’s life and work to Valentina’s fashion design.
On the occasion of Design and Content‘s release, Co.Design caught up with Miller about the oppressiveness of branding, how graphic design used to be a “dark art,” and how he designs books to seduce you.
How has the graphic design industry changed since you started out in your career?
Graphic design has completely changed. It’s remarkable. As I was coming out of school, desktop computing was just beginning. I lived through this major digital revolution. The big impact has been that design is more widely discussed. It seems less arcane. When I studied it, it was almost like a dark art. Very few people really knew about typography. In school, at Cooper Union, if you were studying type, it was seen as slightly esoteric as a subject matter. Now, there’s just this incredible breadth and public quality to people’s awareness of what graphic design is and its importance. Branding is almost too well-regarded–it’s become so important. Before, you almost had to argue the value of design to a client. Now, it’s almost the opposite. It’s taken completely on face value that branding is critical to the success of a company. I’m not saying it’s not, but the belief in design has gotten stronger and stronger.
I think the phenomenon of branding has become oppressive. As “brand” colonizes more and more experiences and places (and even some people who have achieved brand status) you get a zombie-like effect, a placelessness and over-determined experiences. I prefer the word “identity” to brand because it suggests something more mutable, more contextual. Branding is about a consistency of impression and experience, whereas identity can be about a sense of personality or a sensibility. I think people use the word brand for most things involving design for services and products, but often the things they are referring to are really individual instances of design: a package, a sign, a website, and yet they all get swept into a bigger abstraction called brand.
I think “brand” has a tendency to smother the consideration of the individual components of design. There are very big brands out there that have very cynical attitudes about design, but are nonetheless touted as major brands.
What’s your creative process like? How do you start out on a design project?
It begins with immersion. The process involves getting yourself fully invested in the material to the point where you respond in a way that feels informed by the content and the situation. But it’s hard to analyze when you stand back and ask what the process is, since it’s so intuitive, and it’s very varied–my process in working on a design for wallpaper is completely different than that for a website or a book on an architect.
What are your work habits like?
I’m on email immediately, probably too quickly in the morning. And I’m very collaborative with my team. I really like to talk through ideas and approaches with my team internally. I think the idea of working in solitude is really foreign to me. I almost require the presence of other people to really think through things. I like the social aspect of design–that’s what makes it different than sitting in your studio and being in solitude. Early in my career, I thought about the experience of a more typical independent isolated practitioner, and was drawn to the social scene of a studio. It implied a community of like-minded people engaged in a project and not being so single-minded, which appeals to me more.
What would you say defines your style, your aesthetic as a designer?
Part of my motivation for making this book was putting my work between two covers to find connecting points. But I don’t really pursue a particular visual language or aesthetic. It’s really more the kind of thinking behind the projects that’s the common thread. There’s an excess of play with words, relying on typography as an expressive tool. My approach, whether it’s a literary kind of design or not, always comes from the context of ideas. Type is this incredible stage for expressing ideas. But I don’t think the work really is stylistically of only one kind of voice. That’s something I was curious to see when making this book–am I kidding myself when I say it doesn’t have a style? But in the end, I don’t look at the book and see evidence of a consistent visual attitude over and over.
Do you have a favorite medium or genre of design to work in, whether it’s exhibitions, book design, app design? If you had to pick one to do for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Exhibitions surround you. You touch as much of the environment as you can. They have the power of an event. But the bad thing is, they’re gone after a matter of months. You only have photos. A big part of the monograph was being able to collect a lot of this more ephemeral material and kind of preserve it. Books, on the other hand, deliver this kind of permanence that is really appealing.
With books, you can count on them being around for decades as opposed to months. I love to do books because they allow graphic designers to really be involved with something almost like product design. You make something people really use, that they bring into their home. It’s as close as you get to making a real, tangible something that people want. It’s interesting to have to contend with the seduction a book has to do. It has to earn its way into your heart. A letterhead or a website doesn’t have to seduce you. The kinds of books that survive are the ones that almost transcend–they have to work hard to get bought.
Miller’s monograph Design and Content (Princeton Architectural Press) is available now for $60 here. Click the slide show above for highlights.