The Best Graphic Design Exhibition Would… Do What, Exactly?

This article was originally published on AIGA’s Eye on Design blog.

As AIGA’s editorial director I think about graphic design a lot, but there’s one thing on my mind every week and that I haven’t figured out yet: how should graphic design be exhibited? This week Sarah Trounce, an account executive at dn&co, wrote about the need for more graphic design exhibitions at museums and galleries, and used her branding agency’s recent show for London Design Week as an example. Not all the comments that followed her article were the angry, ranty things you might expect. Some relevant points were raised, like the fact that perhaps disciplines like fashion, architecture, and product design get more museum love because they’re older, whereas graphic design is much younger, historically speaking.

Other commenters questioned the curation. The majority of studios selected for dn&co’s show are well-established, though not necessarily representative of the field. And many, many others raised an eyebrow at the agency’s own motives. Was this not just a savvy branding exercise to strategically position dn&co in the marketplace while claiming to be purely in the interest of raising awareness of the profession of graphic design?

”London: Re-classified,“ by ico Design
”London: Re-classified,“ by ico Design

I actually care little about dn&co’s motives. Just because a brand, or in this case a branding agency, is involved, doesn’t make something an “evil” scheme of some money-hungry devil. If Target sponsors a Picasso exhibition, does that make the work on view any less moving or relevant? Big brands, Target included, regularly sponsor exhibitions or blocks of time when people can visit museums for free, breaking down barriers (like $20 admission fees) that keep many people away from art they have a right to see. Where’s the harm in that?

The bigger question, for me at least, is how to best show graphic design in a gallery-like setting. The minute you frame the work or hang it on a wall you remove it from the realm it was created to be a part of, stripping away the context. Logos, signage, packaging—these are all “living” things, part of the world we regularly inhabit. I can understand why people have a problem seeing something functional pinned behind glass. But I also see the value in removing that functional item from its regular surroundings so that we can step back and focus in on it to better understand how it works and why we respond to it the way we do.

But there ought to be something else, too, right? I’m still looking for it. If you find it, let me know. Get in touch with me on Twitter @AIGAdesign by finishing this sentence: “.@AIGAdesign, a graphic design exhibition should…” Who know, your comments might just help shape a future graphic design exhibition.