Jessica Helfand | Essays

On Considering the Source

A friend of mine, a painter, recently saw a group exhibition at PS1 in New York in which he was struck by the absence of primary source material. Although intentionally abstract works, these paintings all referenced extremely specific aspects of contemporary culture, most of them heavily filtered through the media.

Put another way, these artists weren't abstracting simple forms — natural forms, geometric forms, simple and universally comprehensible forms — but were instead referencing ideas that had already been parsed by various media sources. While on one hand, this work could be said to be mirroring a particular generation of artists who have come of age in a heavily mediated world, my friend was conflicted: does our willlingness to accept the cultural and biographical bias of the maker mean we are also meant to forgive the absence of original ideas?

In the wake of last week's indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the question of where sources come from is on everyone's mind. And while it might be said that questions of national security are not likely to be compromised by a group of abstract painters, the question of source material is, I think, one that deserves a second look.

Because it is by its nature tied to the exigencies of public communication, graphic design is perhaps less overtly prone to this type of critique: after all, in traditional practice, there are a series of external transactions — involving clients, budgets and a host of personal and public agendas — that frame the process, if not the actual product of the design itself. Art, on the other hand, does not invoke the same kinds of interpersonal complexities, although there is a long tradition of patronage, going back to the Medicis, that shows the artist does not create work in a vacuum. Yet beyond the obvious — the clients, the curators, the governing factors of economics and what the market will bear — the central question remains: when is an idea original, unmediated — and pure?

Clearly, there is nothing that suggests the notion of pure has any relationship to the world we live in. But at the same time, the idea of targeting original sources — and by conjecture, of seeking original ideas — seems like a goal we should, in all fairness, support. (There's a certain amount of semantic confusion here that easily leads to a kind of involuntary hypocrisy: we want to breathe clean air and drink pure water, but we don't want our art to reference "purity" because that wouldn't be a reflection of the world in which we live.)

This is not to suggest that purer is better — but that the notion of a primary source, meaning unmediated and unmoored from a host of other complexities — has become something of an endangered species in our time.

Designers, who might be said to embrace a slightly more pragmatic vision of making work and disseminating messages, feel the burden of communicating the complexities of an age in which "pure" resonates as utopian, sugar-coated, and false. (There is also the very real fact that "pure" in graphic design recalls the neutral, overly homogenized, and borderline fascist tone of the International style.) And it's tricky: it's all been done. How can anyone ever use Futura Bold Italic again and not evoke the purview of Barbara Kruger?

These sorts of assessments — of which visual metaphors, messages and meanings drive and are driven by people participating, as makers, in an ongoing repository of visual culture — lie at the cornerstone of a kind of ideological polemic about design versus art. Isn't it all subjective? Who is to say what is original? And how do we know if it is?

And why, frankly, should we care?

Let's return to the idea of sources. To the designer, "referencing" an earlier style or maker can be seen as a kind of post-modern pastiche. When done with irony, it can be deliriously enchanting — Paula Scher's open gesture to Herbert Matter in a series of posters for Swatch, in the early 1980s, come to mind. Sans irony, we're left with blatant plagiarism, and at the risk of really painting myself into a corner, I will refrain from giving examples. At the same time, we yearn for new visual languages to emerge: so scratchy handwriting replaces the clean alignments of mechanically-rendered type and we applaud ourselves for letting go. We photograph signage on our cell phones and upload images to share online: here, through digital concensus, we sanction our societal acceptance of this itinerant, manmade vernacular form, whereupon it becomes streamlined and secondary, no longer the stuff of impulse, the magic of outsider art.

Sources are precious. Original ideas, even more so. The nature of design practice means that we will always, by necessity, need to reference existing information, but in our race to the finish, let's not forget that in the very process of translation — from idea to form, from one thing to many things — we are not obligated to imitate, replicate, and indeed — mediate.

There is one more piece to take into consideration — and that's the piece that involves reality. One has only to consider the popularity of Reality TV to understand why any of us with a healthy imagination would see the blurring of fact and fiction as material worthy of compelling inquiry. But beyond the seduction of the blur lies the deeper, more pressing question: what does the truth look like? Lately it is easy, too easy, to see reality as something distanced from the truth. Writing of the greater concerns over social displacement and substance abuse in yesterday's New York Times,, a psychiatrist warns that the growth of technology has cleaved us from a greater reality of self. His examples, in the context of my argument here, are indeed cause for concern:

"We say that we are "going" places on the Internet without ever leaving the room. In elaborate Internet-based games, people pay thousands of dollars to own "real estate" that isn't real at all. We watch newscasters (who increasingly could double as models or comedians) report on terrible tragedies, then shift gears and joke about the weather or a baseball game. And we learn to mirror them, to respond to our own losses like channels we can change. We can wage wars that kill tens of thousands of people with "smart" bombs. But we see little, if any, blood. And we can count the dead between episodes of our favorite sitcoms. We sit still for a cloudy sense of whether our president was elected to his first term. Then the president in the television drama "West Wing" delivers a political statement about the war in Iraq, and people actually pay attention."

I come back to my painter friend and his dismay over seeing paintings gesturing to life as filtered through a million video games, the composite lenses of youth culture in America. Is there any there, there? Perhaps if he'd thought about it before subscribing to his own fictionalized account of a series of unrelated events, Scooter Libby might have experienced a moment of unfettered truth-seeking and chosen to keep his own counsel, remaining silent instead of vocal — a choice that has now placed him squarely at the center of a Federal investigation. Of course, graphic designers need not fear that their transgressions, on the whole, will put them in such epic jeopardy. But a little introspection might not be such a bad thing — and where sources are concerned, we would do well to look, think, and look again.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [25]

Great post, Jessica.

This has me thinking about how selfish people (can be) and that (people) will do whatever it is they think they can get away with. It sounds overly simplistic, but I can't help that think this was probably - consciously or not - a driving force behind the events that have placed "Scotter" Libby in his current situation.

I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that there are designers who act this way as well. Certainly sources are important to the design community, but I wonder, when it comes to use, where do we draw the line? Is turning to a design annual or logo lounge for inspiration "cheating" or is it simply a wise use of the resources of the past, a way of putting to use all the work that's been done before you? Does it matter?
Andrew Twigg

What bothers me NOT is the source of inspiration.
What troubles me MOST is not Acknowledging the SOURCE of INSPIRATION.

Ideas in their abstract sense are not copyrightable until they are put on paper and filed.

What happens when you share information with someone and they take your idea and Develop it and take sole credit for it without acknowledging you. Which I'm sure happens many times. How does one show Intellectual Property
when an Idea is Pitched and someone steals it?

But other than Calling them what they Really Are Brain Dead, NO TALENT BASTARDS!!!!!!

Ripping Someone Off definetely the Lowest Form of Life.

Even if it is used to Sell Ephemera.

What I love most about Paula Scher she did get permission from Herbert Matter or his Family to use said imagery.

More people should learn from this practice.



we are not obligated to imitate, replicate, and indeed — mediate.

I think I understand how we might try to avoid imitating and how we might successfully avoid replicating. Can you explain what avoiding mediating would mean?
Gunnar Swanson

I suppose it assumes we're always the middleman. But everything else in the new economy suggests that the middlemen are out — in other words, in a world that no longer requires the designer as translator, enabler or even emissary of communication, why are we still plate-spinning — instead of asking the really tough questions? And answering them?
jessica helfand

It seems like there are two compteting concerns here. One is that someone like Scooter Libby blurs the path to sources in order to bolster a false presentation - lying. The other, in the case of the P.S.1 exhibition, is artists, and other creative producers, seemingly borrowing indescriminately without respect, acknowledgement or awareness of their sources - a lack of purity or simply ignorance. These, to me, are very different things. I don't see anything wrong with work "filtered through a million video games" if there is some sense that the producer knows what these million games are, has some sense of their meaning, and can convey a good measure of this to us the viewer. There is nothing wrong with referencing and borrowing. This is what communication and other culturural productions are all about. Communication that makes you aware of its sources simply has more depth.
Trent Williams

In terms of art history, original ideas rarely, if ever, existed. Rather, artists, (as well as designers), are constantly creating under the pretext of formal and conceptual dialogues with visual or spiritual predecessors. Rodin with Michelangelo, Picasso with Cezanne, Michelangelo with Donatello, Cezanne with Courbet, Duchamp with les Incoherents of the 1880's. The same goes for literature. Even with outsider art, true originality is hard to come by. I am of the belief that the only original "thing" that an artist, designer, or any other type of creator, has is their singular perception and ability to translate this into a medium. Because formally, ALL work is referential. Even cave paintings. That is simply part of the nature of creating.

Perhaps what we are facing is the surface of a deeper cultural trauma- the need for personal distinction in the midst of global homogenization. A reassurance that each of us truly exists as singular, without the fear of the other. Otherwise, why should using Futura Bold Italic be considered a sophomoric use of Kruger, even if I duplicate her work all the way down to appropriating the original context? Have I done her harm? Have I done her body of work harm? I'm going to go out on a limb here- the true force of Walter Benjamin's premonition-like observations is coming unto its own. And maybe we are revolted by a numbness that accompanies the repetition of what was hoped to be ephemeral.
grant ray

Speaking about design sources: I have two questions, if I may interject:

1. Whatever happened to Ms. Jennifer Sterling? I don't see her designs, annual reports or posters anywhere for 2-3 years now? Tried to google her up to no avail.

2. Pro bono and socialy conscious design work sources? Who does a good design work in America?
Can the DesignObserver's bloggers suggest who does consistently interesting design work in the non-for-profit sector in USA? Annual reports? Publications? Source for work full of conviction and distinguished? I could think only about two-three names, design firms based on looking at American design magazines. Subject deserves a closer look, no?
Advise please.
Alain, Paris

I call the era we are in FRAGMENTATION.

Like sampling of music, or a painting of vidio game graphics, or a copy of a design. Mixing of music and design, motion and painting.

Everything has been fragmented, and artists, designers, society are putting fragments together to create something.

Partly because of technology, and partly because the everything has been done phylosophy.

We are in the era of FRAGMENATION. Modernism is over.
Nathan Philpot

I think the discussion that you can have about these trends in art are just as interesting as commenting on any artist of any period and any degree of (supposed) originality. If Artists go on and do giant inflated golden Hello-Kittys or Installations with playstations, the interesting thing is to find out is why they do it and whether it's a relevant commentary on todays society.

For all those who would like to document on this subject matter there are two books from NICOLAS BOURRIAUD, a french art-critic: 'Relational Esthetics' and 'Post Production' He develops a very interesting body of thought around these trends.

Whatever happened to Ms. Jennifer Sterling?

I not sure I have a Concrete Answer.

I'm almost certain Jennifer is trying to reinvent herself. That's one of the inherent Problems of being a Media Darling and having a very strong Identifiable Style. Lesser Talented Designer(s) begin to emulate your work and your work becomes so diluted. Art Directors begin to hire other Designer(s) to replicate what you're already done.

Happens to the Best, I remember Art Chantry saying he had to leave his locale and begin from scratch because the Art Directors that couldn't afford his FEE hired other Designers to Rip his Style. When the Style is as Inimitable as a BASS; RAND; GLASER; CHWAST; FOLON; UNGERER; FRANCOIS; you expect Repercussion.

Educated Guess, Jennifer Sterling is doing some SOUL SEARCHING and Reinventing herself, by changing her style.

Genuine Design Genius comes from EVOLUTION!!!!! Like the aforemention GOD's; I'm sure we'll see Jennifer evolve and leave her imitators scratching their Bastardizing Heads.


wasn't jennifer sterling but a branch-off, i.e., copy of tolleson anyway?
john blake

Pro bono and socialy conscious design work sources?

This doen't really relate to the discussion, but I couldn't find Alain's email...

So, a short personal (and biased) list (not necessarily based in America) with a bit more of a radical slant:
John Emerson
Free Range Graphics
Eggplant Coop
ALR design
Sandy K
Tony Credland
Nous Travaillons Ensemble

I can think of many, many more, but I've opted to leave out commercial firms that do good pro-bono work on the side to focus on smaller companies of a more radical nature...
kevin lo

does our willlingness to accept the cultural and biographical bias of the maker mean we are also meant to forgive the absence of original ideas?

Unfortunately, to the greater society at large, I don't think this question has an answer, nor does that greater society care. Why should they?

From what I've seen, the open-source web development community is an example of the free exchange of ideas and intellect that is refreshing.
Tom Michlig

wasn't jennifer sterling but a branch-off, i.e., copy of tolleson anyway?

Not qualified to answer. I did say she was perhaps reinventing herself.

I'll entrust this question to the High Priest Himself The Super Magnificent Monsieur Phelix Sockwell.



HIgh priest? .. of huckstering lowlife, scrap-happy turd shinings. Don't prop me up, Wavey Mavey- you'll be left alone, scratching.

As for Sterling, I suppose perhaps she feels a littel dejected after the AIGA 365 Annual a few years back? I actually loved that annual- it was one of my favorite. Look at it now- its terrible!

Back to the subject: I'll paraphrase Glaser and say that if something doesn'tget immitated it won't recieve the credit it deserves. Put another way, styles and methods have to travel their course, be copied and lose significance in order to breed new thinking. Kinda like that old ATT logo. Remember it? Ahh, those were the days, eh? If no one ripped it, it never wouldve gained such cultural traction, and we wouldntve gotten past it.

felix sockwell

The disassociative thing reminds me of the controversy over the Smurfs' village being bombed in an Unifec commercial in Belgium. The sad part is that real images of real people suffering the effects of war no longer have the same emotional impact on audiences - and would likely have not raised any controversy at all.

At any rate, the traditional creator/content relationship is on the cusp of a radical change forced by technology, and no one is ready for it/wants it. No one wants to give up their baby, whether it's a signature graphic style or a digital song. Why can't a signature style eventually enter the public domain (otherwise known as vernacular?) Maybe all acts of creation are shared human resources?

Ack! How can we accept something that radical while we attempt to copyright riffs on human genes. Certainly the genepool of all things is a shared resource - I want a vote on what goes in/out!


Maybe all acts of creation are shared human resources

Hear hear!
Tom Michlig

Somehow I dont believe the problem posed about art and so on, but that attracts me to instead look for what else might I find going on within - something like the real source material?

Regarding that PS1 feeling - maybe something obvious is overlooked: why assume anyone who paints and in an exhibition space is an artist or producing art! Of course not. It is no secret that it is easy enough to get into even PS1 with those groupshows and so on. There are levels... Just like designers, artsts know which exhibition project frameworks or institutional frameworks are having some level. If cultural productions were like stocks, the visual arts are the easiest to convert to junkbonds. But then, that is part of the challenge. Who wants a correct culture?

Maybe what is being sensed is just seeing something LIKE art...

Why are the terms 'pure' and 'sources' linked and enlisted here? Cultural productions are to have some authorized clear backstory? Huh? For WHOM to verify or police? Easily leads to the proverbial info-paranoic condition...which leads me to the fact I agree government requires that - especially this one in the US - but art? Should we return to the whole lie about 'good' art verification and validation by some centralized heirarchy of museums and critics?

Arts were always existing in transitional space and different systems are at work proposing what could be viable for the moment - the sources thing has been around since the 80s and still alot of challenging art has been produced (often aware of and utilizing that dilemma) and parallel various discourses developed - and alot of that other uninteresting stuff. The real issue is the official art system, the way art institutions refuse to develop around the challenges implicit and instead find some packaged visual correlate (site -specific! installation art! new painting...etc.). Where are those arts institutions that produce in relation to the transitional character, the value in that dilemma of being contemporary, and drawing from the networks of discourses pertaining to artistic practice and art production, rather then some "true" center. I can suggest some sources on THAT...

I am going to leave "Libby" hanging here...



You've made an excellent case for designers to question (and account for) the origins of their ideas. Beyond the concept's ethical merits, acknowledgment and consideration of those who have influenced our work serves multiple ends.

How do we understand our relationship to media? What is the relationship between "reality" and mediated experience? How do we illuminate a few of the myriad connections between ourselves and our increasingly fragmented cultural environment instead of obscuring them in layers of mystification? All appear to be questions of context. Which raises another question: Can meaning exist devoid of context?

The process of acknowledgement presents the opportunity for serious reflection upon those ideas influenced by interactions of our history, culture, and common humanity. Present also is a chance to remind ourselves of the reasoning surrounding our choice of profession, and to recognize those who sparked our interest and helped chart our paths. Wedding work to context and a lineage of thought grounds actions with meaning and directs others in meaningful new directions.

Thanks for the provocation.
Terence McKeown

Thank you Design Maven for wise words about "source", Ms. Sterling,

Thank you Kevin Lo for unknown to us nemes of designers diung socially conscious design work in America.

Yes, we read here about some of the outstanding design examples of a few NY-based design companies: World Studio, Illic, Emerson Wajdowicz, Sagmeister, etc. but they are all commercial firms doing non-for-profit assignments and all New York centered I guess.

Thanks for new American sources, the whole socially conscious design work should be one day a subject for your new thread D.O. Editors?

Alain, Paris

For true originality, I think, artists need spaces where the world is itself, not wholly human-dominated. Some years ago, I wrote an essay suggesting that human cultures sometimes drain both their literal and metaphorical wellsprings. It wasn't a very good essay. I didn't know enough, and I don't believe I do yet; it would have to be a book. (Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse has written at length of the draining of physical wellsprings.) And yet I think there is something there. Instead of engaging the sources of ideas: the physical universe, the living world, the nature of our minds, and all sorts of forms, spatial and temporal, we are instead doing increasingly self-referential work. I think this is characteristic of cultures that arrive at a human world that is itself largely a human construct; urban cultures. I think for this reason we have begun more and more to echo the Roman empire at its disipating height. I hope it is possible to preserve the wellsprings.
Randolph Fritz

Rather than urban culture, isn't it simply media culture? Maybe the idea is to unplug for a bit and refocus on individual voice. This afternoon I picked up the new illustrated edition of William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White's Elements of Style. The emphasis is on developing uncluttered prose and a natural voice that is free of cliche. Responding to the young writer's temptation to parrot the advertising copy that wallpapers his world, White writes:

"Advertisers are quite understandably interested in what they call "attention getting." The man photographed must have lost an eye or grown a pink beard, or he must have three arms or be sitting wrong-end-to on a horse. This technique is proper in its place, which is the world of selling, but the young writer had best not adopt the device of mutilation in ordinary composition, whose purpose is to engage, not paralyze, the reader's senses. Buy the gold-plated faucets if you will, but do not accessorize your prose. To use the language well, do not begin by hacking it to bits; accept the whole body of it, cherish its classic form, its variety and richness." (p. 118)

Lately I've been feeling overwhelmed by secondhand sources in graphic design, whether it's the winking tweak of existing icons and styles (Adbusters, the recent crop of street art, etc.) or a good deal of the current discourse surrounding design and "visual studies" - much of it by people who are able to write about what's on TV or their internet browser rather than having actual experiences. The relationship between individual & mainstream is increasingly porous, even as it grows more shrill. Perhaps I'm hanging out in the wrong places, but my visual environment is an echo chamber. I'm certainly complicit in this, and it worries me.

It's all been done is easy, perhaps even true, but it's a dead end. If a designer/artist wants to challenge and perhaps even introduce new ideas - political, social, or commercial - how is this done without directly referencing, let alone repurposing, the existing material at hand? Seems like the only satisfactory answer is a clean break with the past. New times demand new forms, etc. This sounds like Modernism, but I think that's okay. Resist fragmentation. As White suggests, learn basic construction, then seek an original voice that steers clear of the existing babble (or gold faucets).
James A. Reeves

resist fragmentation? unplug? a clean break with the past? doesnt this lead to suburbia?

today, isn't the use of existing forms more relevant than the forms themselves? a piano is still a limited set of 88 keys, but has the instrument been exhausted of all of its possibilities for creating sounds? its similar to language: its continual and imaginative use allows for its own regeneration and ensures its relevance.

media are a part of our everyday world. why shouldnt they be engaged more in our work and our own self-assessment as a culture? i for one grew up on television, video games, shopping malls, recorded music, computers, and advertising as well as family, friendship, travel, literature, religion, and analog music. why should i unplug and close myself off to all of that?

i dont think that originality is what is missing, but more imagination. not imagination in the sense of creating fantastical worlds a la harry potter or the lord of the rings, but rather in the sense of having a strong perception of reality, of seeing what is available as evidence and making the necessary mental connections in order to come into a unique vision of the world.

Dogged faith in the new certainly led to suburbia (and far worse) but that was a specific historical moment in which all kinds of terrible decisions were made. I don't think increasing the demand for unique visions and primary sources in our classrooms, galleries, media, etc. would lead us down the same road.

I absolutely agree with you about the impossibility (and irresponsibility) of working in a vacuum. Thinking it over, I suppose my concern is with the proliferation of visual work that operates in a "respond-react" mode without really offering anything new beyond commentary. The fast play with past & present styles and icons is certainly fun and sometimes exciting, but if it becomes a defining feature of our visual environment, where does this path lead?

Here's the question that I'd like to test-drive: if writers are taught and expected to provide a unique voice and, more importantly, a sense of firsthand experience, why not possess the same criteria for visual work?
James A. Reeves


I think that the rules are different for different kinds of visual work. Fine artists might tell you that they have the �appropriation card� to throw down in such instances. And I might let them get away with it. Is it safe to say that designers have a greater responsibility to society than fine artists? A one-of-a-kind artwork in a gallery, while open to the public, does not have the same exposure as design. A designer�s communication is public via mass production, distribution, or placement. Therefore, in design, I believe that sources must be acknowledged, if only to nod to the depth of knowledge held by the designer as a creator of widely disbursed public messages.

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