Jessica Helfand | Essays

Designer by Day, Catwoman by Night

In the upcoming July release of the new movie, Catwoman, Halle Berry plays the title Jekyll-and-Hyde role, whose character is split between a shy, retiring graphic designer and an untamed, feline superhero. Naturally, the superhero is sexy and sleek, while the mild-mannered designer ("Patience" is her name) is a submissive loner who comes alive only after sundown: she's a study in black leather and curly claws with deep, red lips to match her rich, croony baritone. As a superhero she is agile; as a designer, aloof. The superhero is keen and cunning, while the designer is timid and apologetic — "mal dans sa peau," ("sick in her [own] skin") according to the French version of the Warner Brothers website.

And so it is that God (or at least Warner Brothers) gives with one hand and takes with the other: think of Clark Kent on antidepressants, with smaller shoulders and better cleavage. The superhero, let it be said, is not the designer, any more than The Man of Steel was a newspaper reporter. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound — of course, Clark Kent was a newspaper reporter, he just never rescued anyone until he stepped into that phone booth, transforming his boxy, bespectacled persona into the world's mightiest superhero.

It looks like Hollywood has yet again dramatized a profession that in truth, is better characterized by toiling into the wee hours. (I, for one, have never known a journalist who ended his reporting day at 5pm any more than I know any graphic designers who are nine-to-fivers.) Does "graphic designer" as a character type suggest a kind of banal anonymity, a chameleonlike identity? Or is it just an amorphous character type: in other words, just as "graphic designer" may be the antidote to superhero, is it also the opposite of villain?

Not that any of this is likely to have an impact at the box office, mind you. In the meantime, we should welcome the opportunity for our profession to be represented on the big screen. Or should we? Personally, I can imagine better personifications, on the screen and elsewhere: maybe we'll see this when William Gibson's Pattern Recognition comes to the screen. In this novel, Gibson's enigmatic heroine, Cayce Pollard, inhabits a world of action and intrigue, where — dare I say it — her nomadic forays in modern consumer culture meet with unprecedented bouts of hacking, sabotage and terror. As far I can tell from reading the book, our heroine has a rather exciting time of it, all without leaping from tall buildings in a single bound. Even more than this, as a so-called "cool hunter" she's keen and cunning in a manner perhaps more intellectually suited to, say, reality.

But then again: when did we ever go to the movies for a dose of reality?

For those on the edge of their seats, we'll know in a year or so, when Pattern Recognition comes to the big screen. Peter Weir will direct. And who knows: maybe Halle Berry will star? Warner Brothers is releasing this film also, leading the dreamer in me to wonder if design has more of a future in Hollywood than any of us ever dared consider. Meanwhile, my inner pragmatist (or maybe it's my inner Rodney Dangerfield) says that the problem with our profession isn't that design isn't taken seriously, it's that we're not getting a cut at the box office. So long as designers continue to inspire big-screen characterizations, there may be quite a brilliant future for us after all.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [22]

Well, we will at last join the ranks of the hundreds of other professions which have been misrepresented by Hollywood. As you already noted regarding the reporter, movies have seldom gone to great lengths to portray real-life professions with any attempt at veracity (with the possible exception of doctors, and that only in recent years--oh, and of course movie producers and directors).

The characters' professions serve only as a shell for something else and are rarely developed beyond a sketch. That "graphic designer" should be chosen as the alter-ego for Catwoman proves either that we're on the public radar screen, or that Hollywood is scraping the bottom of the barrel (not Vet, not Lawyer, not Writer, not Photographer, not Video Store Clerk ... hmmm, what about Designer?).

Welcome to Hollywood, everyone--now can you just whip me up a little something today, tweak that logo and enhance that photo? Cuz ... isn't that how Catwoman did it?
marian bantjes

24hr party people-there's some good stuff (not alot-but it's a good film) about a real life living designer there.

hope pattern recognition is treated sensitively-the notion of whole/broken in the book is beautiful.

Isn't this just another sign that graphic design is increasingly seen as a normal, recognisable, desirable and, from the outside anyway, perhaps even glamorous job?

Whatever the form of work being depicted, films that make the details of ordinary labour part of their texture are often compelling. The concern they show for everyday experience makes them the antithesis of Hollywood pap, which usually treats work simply as a way of "typing" people - as will likely prove to be the case with Catwoman. I'm thinking of the oil rig scenes in Five Easy Pieces; the car factory in Blue Collar; a picture-framer's working day in The American Friend (the Wim Wenders version); the life of a bee-keeper in Ulee's Gold - you really learn about a way of life here. A huge part of the fascination of Girl with a Pearl Earring is the picture it gives you of 17th-century Dutch domestic toil, whether it's tending house, or crushing and mixing a painter's pigments.

In the hands of a sensitive film-maker, a graphic designer's working life, as backdrop to some inner struggle or external crisis, could be made just as interesting, especially if the film was set in pre-digital times. A little-seen film version of Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying included some good 1930s ad agency scenes. Far from Heaven, a movie that dripped DESIGN from every lush celluloid pore, had some lovely hints of 1950s advertising and corporate identity.

Has anyone optioned Chip Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys yet? (So long as Ron Howard doesn't get it.)
Rick Poynor

If anything maybe this is one step toward the public actually knowing what a graphic design does. Maybe someday when you introduce yourself as a graphic designer, people will have at least a vague, although misguided, idea of what you do. It seems that the closest we ever get to seeing a graphic designer on screen is the ever powerful Ad Man. The ad man in these movies, Mel Gibson in What Women Want and Keanu Reeves in Sweet November among many others, seems to be used as an easy description of the worldly, greedy, pompous male. My question is this: What will graphic designers come to symbolize? Will it be an easy way to typecast the ever popular "Metro-Sexual" or will others take the lead from Cat Women and makes us into a weak, downtrodden lot.

Rick, I have often wondered the same thing about Cheese Monkeys. Maybe someone can convince David Lynch to direct it. The ending is ambiguous enough to be one of his films. Of course I don't even know if he would work on a project that he didn't write himself. How about another Jonze/Kaufman collaboration. They would certainly put a unique spin on it.
Bennett Holzworth

Cheese Monkeys would not be my idea of the best way to portray a graphic designer (see my book review on "BE A DESIGN GROUP" blog). A Jonze/Kaufman collaboration might be the only thing that could save that book. I think I would almost rather stick to the generic portrayal in Cat Woman than head in the direction that Chip Kidd would take it. Then again, it might be nice to at least see a controversial view of a graphic designer than to leave it undefined.

The recently deceased Tony Randall portrayed a middle-aged and lonely (and, in the original pilot, gay) 'commercial artist' in the american sitcom, 'Love, Sidney'. In the series, he redeems his shy, introverted daily life by taking care of a single mother and her daughter.

In Alain de Botton's books, the object of the protagonist's affection, and subject of the author's reflections on the nature of love, is often a young female graphic designer (and he does use the preferred nomenclature).

And let's not forget Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of Frank Abagnale, Jr., in 'Catch Me if You Can', which is probably the sexiest representation of any profession one could ask for. DeCaprio works his own long hours, busting out old school graphic moves to get ladies, money, and status, and even goes to jail for it. In real life (according to the endnotes of the movie, anyway) Abagnale's design skills and experience eventually got him out of jail to work for the FBI, and landed him consulting positions for Fortune 500 companies as a check designer).
manuel miranda

In Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear, Jessica Lange is a graphic designer who is shown in an early scene working on a logo design for a travel agency. In a stunning moment of verisimilitude, she explains to her daughter that the project is hard because she is trying to convey both action and stability, or something like that. How many times have you tried to resolve that brief? The rest of the movie she spends being tormented by Robert deNiro, and presumably the never-seen logo remains forever unfinished.

Cape Fear aside, for an accurate view of a 1970s art director that seems to ring as true for me as the oil riggers in Five Easy Pieces, check out Dustin Hoffman in Kramer Versus Kramer. The director, Robert Benton, started out as an art director at Esquire, so he knew what he was talking about. And the scene where the kid accidentally spills his drink on the 4x5 transparencies is, for me, more frightening than the shower scene in Psycho.
Michael Bierut

i am all for inquisitivity, but why do we care if hollywood recognizes what we do? the best part of the design process is realizing an idea, which generally requires alot of thought (and for me laying on my bed and staring at the ceiling) this would not make an interesting film...
frank derose

hey jessica..

i loved ur previous article too.. (and the one b4 tat one too) haha

im a 18 yr old "graphic designer" ( as i wud like to call myself ).. just got into a design school (York University @ Toronto) and i am looking forward to it!..

It took me 2 years to convince my parents to let me go into Graphic Design.. they wanted me to to be a Doctor or a Lawyer or a Surgeon or am Enginner.. basically professions that have be proclaimed by the media (majority of which i think was movies)...

well now ive finally convinced them... and luckily i got into one of canada's best design schools too..

I REALLY REALLY HOPE Hollywood makes more movies wid GRAPHIC DESIGNERS as a profession for their lead male/female... it'll b amazing for everybody.. and our profession will finally be more acceptable in the society... just like doctors and lawyers ...
Moiz Syed

I can't stop thinking about Kenneth Fitzgerald's essay, "I COME TO BURY GRAPHIC DESIGN, NOT TO PRAISE IT" (Emigre No.66); could this be another attempt, by "graphic design", to disseminate itself? I believe the portrayal of graphic design in this film will serve as another small dose of awareness for the masses; keeping in mind the masses are a target market that share an interest in this particular "comic book" film (aside from all the graphic designers who will now eagerly make their way to the theatre, including me). Without leading to far into another discussion—Fitzgerald considered the effect of the "non-designer public" becoming lucid to design's inner workings. In this regard he stated that although inside our industry it may seem to be another victory, "It is, in fact, a sign of the coming apocalypse." (Emigre No.66)

"...why do we care if Hollywood recognizes what we do?"
I'm with you on that one Michael—however mild the case of recognition.

Isn't Jessica pushing a stereotype as much as Hollywood is going against? Must graphic designers always be seen as the cool hunter -- wrapped in couture, unleashing creative with their every keystroke, all the while discoursing on Brockmann, Albers, or Rodchenko? Please, I could do without more of the same old, same old.
daniel harvey

The way they portray her personality during her day job is surely merely a contrast to her alter ego - cat Women and therefore not an accurate description of a "Graphic Designer" Her day job is seeking to describe her as a person, as a character.
Are we our jobs?? And beside that - isn't it just a victory that a Graphic Designer is being played by a woman....
Louise Kellerman

CATWOMAN, is being played by a woman.

Nice observation, Daniel.

I do see a slight shift in Hollywood portraying "Graphic Design" as a profession for female characters in movies. Besides the movies already mentioned, I think in "Duplex", Drew Barrymore's character is a Graphic Designer.

What I also haven't seen is many accurate depictions of male graphic designers. In "40 Days and 40 Nights" Josh Hartnett plays a web designer faced with the horrific challenge of not having sex for 40 days. (Apparently that deal also included not going to work in that time span) And in "What Women Want", Mel Gibsons character is a Creative Director, but his character is just chauvinistic enough to prove to the audience he's not too "Fruity."

But overall it is exciting to see the profession getting exposure. Maybe one day when I tell someone I'm a graphic designer, they'll know what that means, and recognize it as a valuable profession.

One last thing, as far as graphic design in Movies goes. There's this really funny scene in a very bad movie called "American Psycho" where the main character is intimidated by another man's business card and its design. Check that one out.
Ryan Peterson

My first thought about this series of posts -- other than: "Who the hell cares how movies portray us?" -- is that if we're so insecure about our profession that we're seeking validation from Hollywood (of all sources) for its greater social acceptance, we're in pretty big trouble!

Hollywood's job is not to project the accurate or constructive portrayal of anybody. It's to make money creating fantasies for people to enjoy.

(I don't mean to sound condescending by saying this. I'm a huge film nerd -- like, I suspect, many who read Design Observer -- so I'm utterly under the spell of those fantasies too.)

That graphic designers should get a few nods in a few scripts doesn't necessarily say much about who we are, or even how people view us. It just means that a handy (if superficial) definition is helping studios sell that fantasy to the public.

I mean, let's face it: the movie industry has already begun typecasting the designer. A caricature is already emerging.

Need a character who's overly stylish, aloof, flighty, too creative to be an office drone, but not creative enough to be an off-the-grid boho artist? Introverted, talented, removed (but plugged in to the zeitgeist), perhaps a bit enigmatic, urbain but self-consciously gritty? Happy to sit in front of a computer monitor all day -- but with a sure wild streak that may come out after office hours?

It may not ring true for many of us, but it's practically in the Producers' Manual of Character Stereotypes: "Graphic Designer (see also: 'Employed Artist')," somewhere between "Architect" and "Rock Star, Aspiring."

Some professions seem to have enough intrinsic storytelling value that they're naturally brought to the screen, with at least some of the plot revolving around their jobs: soldiers, athletes, cops, scientists, writers, etc.

Most professions don't. It takes quite a movie to bring to life the work of actuaries, shoe salesmen, landscapers, mailmen, bank tellers, middle managers, garbagemen, record producers -- and, yes, graphic designers. C'est la vie.

It can, of course, be done. Who'd ever think the world of sham real-estate brokers would be so compelling until "Glengarry Glen Ross" came around? Or, as mentioned in previous posts, that the manipulation of graphic minutiae would be so intriguing, as it was in "Catch Me If You Can"?

But any influence Hollywood may have on the public's perception of graphic designers would probably be pretty marginal, and, most likely, not altogether positive. And certainly not accurate -- that's just too much to ask.

Some of my friends who are scientists (of the academic variety) cringe at -- or just try to ignore -- movie portrayals of their profession, which, despite the abundance of roles, are almost all laughably unrealistic and narrow. (They claim a notable exception is Jodie Foster's character in "Contact," solely because she has to beg for funding.)

And if you ever meet a pro bowler, don't ask their opinion of "Kingpin" -- a movie that apparently set the social status of their profession back about eight decades. Just mentioning that flick might cause the pro bowler to go into some sort of mad bowling rage and try to make a 7-10 split out of you.

Thus my scientist pals and the pro bowlers of the world might tell us to take solace in the fact Hollywood hasn't paid much attention to our field of work -- and hence isn't distorting it beyond recognition for everybody else.

Frankly, we might be better off.
Jon Resh

Glad you got this discussion going, Jessica. A few of these fictional designers had passed me by, I must admit, but it is great to be assembling a list. One of the possible explanations for the choice of Patience's profession in "Catwoman," to my mind, is the relationship of graphic design to comics and sequential art. (Just look a few entries down at Michael B.'s celebration of the new McSwy's.) This opens the door for an argument like, "In casting Patience (Berry) as a graphic designer, the film places the tools for the production of a comic-book hero in the hands of the hero's alter-ego." An interesting twist for an adaptation. Maybe Doc Oc should've been a graffiti artist in Spidey 2 - he's certainly got the arms for it.
Rob Giampietro

I want to enter another graphic designer into this movie log: Natalie Portman as Lauren Gustafson in Heat (1995). If ever there was a director to stay current, it is Michael Mann. In this thriller of good versus evil, Al Pacino versus Robert De Nero, Lauren is meek and mild — the perfect foil to steal the heart of a devil. She is beginning her career as a freelancer, having designed one restaurant logo and a friend's album. It is hard to watch De Nero's face as she recounts these accomplishments: they seem so slender compared to his steely, disciplined oeuvre. That she would be willing to leave town with him — to hide in Australia — is a testiment to graphic design being doable anywhere. Of course, in the end . . .
William Drenttel

Huh? Was Natalie Portman like 13 when that was made?

Josh Hartnett played a (horny) web designer in 40 Days and 40 Nights. Sure, not as gripping as Heat or Cape Fear, but still...

I believe Portman played the young, suicidal step-daughter of Al Pacino's character in Heat, though Drenttel is correct about the relationship (and the nature of it) between De Nero's character and his love interest (who is indeed an aspiring Graphic Designer). Good Movie.

Well, I finally watched this movie. I wanted to see how they actually portrayed a graphic designer in this movie. The timid designer turned super hero wasn't a great portrayal, but not as damaging as one of her lines in the movie. If think her answer is in response to someone asking "Patience" if she is happy. Her reply is something on the lines of . . . What do you think? I am the practical application (graphic design) of my passion(art) . . . She is an artist not a graphic designer. The movie has been misrepresented in the previews. I am an artist and graphic designer, but I do not see graphic design as the practical application of my art. Of course they cross over, but they are two different things. In the end Patience is a painter who is supporting herself through graphic design. I couldn't imagine a worse portrayal of a graphic designer. I have worked with artists who just do graphic design to support their art, but I think they are in the minority and usually not that successful. Thank you Catwoman for perpetuating the myth of "Commercial Artist".

The only good thing is that it would be hard to take this movie seriously. The characters are hardly developed and the plot is week. Luckily the movie didn't do to well and critics blasted it.
Bennett Holzworth

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