The word ‘design’ means plan, intention, or draft. Is the common use of the word better? Referring to the cosmetic look of industrial merchandise, their embellishments, that quality about the product which ‘communicates’ life styles and marketing strategies?  There are certainly profits to be made, in all the various chains of the production line. We can freely choose and consume from these identity platforms and brands. We may feel free and mobile, we can combine the merchandise we buy, and it can improve our status. And if we acquaint ourselves with art history and the history of fashion and style, we can participate in various retro projects whose intention it is to make history accessible to us. In the whirlwind of confusion that follows in the aftermath of this transient consciousness of style, we are offered help by trend analytics, cultural journalism and consumer statistics. Our demands and needs are constantly analysed and reviewed, and new professions arise to take care of us [1].


Design and utility

The demands we put on the merchandise may be utilitarian ones. But the design it is more often than not of a cosmetic nature, or even anti utilitarian in nature. ¶ ‘Functionalism’ has patented the term ‘function’ in aesthetics. But objects made pre the functionalist era were hardly dysfunctional per se, and there have indeed been made many dysfunctional buildings, letters and everyday items under the flag of Functionalism. [2] It may seem as if a product is expensive, chances are it may be easier to get hold of something that is not ‘designed to death’. Perhaps the more expensive the product is, the less designed it looks, so that the essence of quality design is a sort of anti-design? Not that the brand is not visible, it may simply be more subtly present. 


Impossible protest

There are plenty of strategies we may use to avoid the concept of design, but none are unproblematic: If we should create a graphic protest, and choose a design that is connected to historical protest movements, like punk or communist propaganda, we would have to design, we would have to plan, for the protest to be efficient. So to protest against design and create anti-design we would need to design.  Another, perhaps more effective strategy for anti-design, would be to use visual silence, so that the visual protest in a sense will be situated in the shadow of the object, refusing to show itself. A mystical quality can be created that in itself may seem attractive. But this is not really a protest, for design environments are absorptive, and may start profiting off this anti-design strategy, so that this mysterious and attractive quality is next to be found on, for instance, a perfume bottle. All in all it is hard to see any real possibility of creating anti-design. There is, of course, always the possibility of staying out of the design/anti-design business alltogether. But what if we need a sign for the toilet? Or we want to make an invitation, or a book page?



I suspect there is a connection between good design and space, pauses, disposition of visual air. This would be self evident to a good musician. The typographic historian John Dreyfus was about to attend a seminar which I attended in Ditchling many years back [3]. He fell ill, and died shortly after. It seems meaningful that the article which he was about to read from, which in turn left an absence in the seminar, was called ‘Watch this space’. It dealt with the space between and around letters. From a historical point of view, I believe we may find examples of so called anti-design. From before this concept was conceived. W.R. Lethaby wrote: ‘Good design is inherent rather than applied’. Which implies that design is not a cosmetic matter. On the contrary it has to do with a reverance to materials and to the history of the object, which craftsmen have been doing at all times. Previous to the period much worshipped in art and design schools post 1920s. Looking back in time beyond the 1920s is seemingly less hip.   ‘It was an important observation of Lethaby’s when he noted, in his essay “Design and Industry” (1915), that “it has been extremely unfortunate that the Arts and Crafts movement in England coincided in time with the violent fashion for antiques of every kind”. This had led, he saw, to an obsession with design as a matter predominantly of style. This was simply “unreasonable”, and indeed untenable in an age having to cope with the increasing mechanization of production.’ [4]


The Arts & Crafts movement

William Morris, who came to represent the Arts & Crafts movement, criticised the inhumane exploitation of man in the aftermath of the industrial revolution. He objected to the superficiality of the Victorian age, where style more often than not was a matter of appearance. He was also responsible for initiating a reform and renewal of many craft disciplines. He printed textiles, made typefaces, printed books, and had a huge impact on other practitioners. Among these we find the ceramic craftsman / potter Bernard Leach and the calligrapher Edward Johnston. There is a letter from Edward Johnston to Bernard Leach, where Johnston thanks him for lending him the Tao Te Ching. A quote from it:


Thirty spokes share a wheel’s hub
Without empty space it is not useful.
Clay is moulded to a jar,
but empty space makes it useful.
Doors and windows make up a room –
Without their empty space it is useless.
So advantage brought by what is there
Totally relies on what is not there. [5]

Johnston was a Christian, not a taoist. But it is unquestionable that taoist thinking influenced him: Consider his words from Formal Penmanship; ‘carefree like the spirit of the stream’. The Arts & Crafts Movement certainly did influence, among others, the Bauhaus school in Germany, which parts ways with its English counterpart in embracing industrial production. Most Arts & Crafts practitioners would put Man at the centre, not Machine. Nor modernity or fashion. A & C objects were meant to be made in limited editions, at a comprehensible scale. The idea that an object can be improved upon one step at a time was widely conceived. History provided more than pastiches. Even limited, small scale activities in crafts disciplines may have a positive effect on mass produced goods and merchandise. A perfect example of this would be Jan Tschicholds redesign of the Penguin paperbacks, which often came in editions of more than 70 000. Tschicholds design is classical, rooted in tradition, but with Tschicholds sensitive, but strict and flexible take, making them examples of renewal of, rather than copying of, tradition. He is influenced by the A & C movement, uses letterforms rooted in Italian Renaissance, designed by people with calligraphic insight. He created the typeface Salon, a Garamond adapted to the technical demands of his day.



In the latin calligraphic tradition the broad edged pen is the central writing instrument. It shaped our letters from around 100 BC up to the time of Gutenberg in the 1450s, when manuscript making by hand was gradually displaced. The first printed books are direct copies of handwritten broad edged pen letters. It is astonishing that design teachers are not aware of this connection. The printed letters we surround ourselves with are historically rooted in our latin calligraphic tradition. And most type designers of merit have a calligraphic background. There is an intimate connection between the crafted and the reproduced object, exemplified in our alphabet.

Do we need more letters? Of typefaces there are plentiful, there are hundreds of thousands, most of them bad and dysfunctional. But enough of them for us to get by with. We only need a few good ones for everyday use. The challenge is to know which ones are good. Sumner Stone, type designer, uses spoons as an example. More spoons are, strictly speaking, not needed, but plenty of people still find a lot of joy in making and using the often tiny variations a spoon may offer. «There are today as many different types of letters, as there are different kinds of fools», writes Eric Gill in An Essay on Typography [6]. He further encourages to «return to some idea of normality». [It is tempting to mention that he could perhaps have applied the same advice to his personal life. Fiona McCarthy’s biography is recommended for those who wish to go down that rabbit hole [7]. Perhaps things and products have this in common with letters; that they may gain from being closer to their basic condition, their basic shape, so to speak. Or certainly be connected to it. Packaging, for example from the 1930s or 40s, often have something innocent about it, something non-cynical. A chocolate manufacturer may simply use a bird as a logo, without it seemingly having any connection to chocolate whatsoever. A product might be sold under the slogan ‘Because it is good’. What marketing analyst and brand strategist, not to mention an AI, could possibly come up with that? Mercantilism and advertising strategies were of course already in existence [8], but its grip wasn’t all embracing, and a certain lack of self consciousness existed, perhaps with the designers themselves. Often despite the fact that the typography as such might be worthy of criticism. I admit this is hard to put words to, well, because the more we claim that something is good, the worse it may seem.


In the periphery

Design, art and advertising have long since committed to a partnership. They are hard to tell apart, and exchange experiences constantly. There are pats on shoulders, money flows, faint smiles are exchanged, not much is said about it, but everybody knows, hipness and fashion comes and goes, the best thing is to be at the peak of the wave, where novelty is born, so as not to get caught in this grudging scepticism, which may turn out to have its own ability to laugh at it all, and perhaps to create something, out in the scarcely populated periphery of our attention span.

[1] This article was originally written at a time when the internet was younger, and the technological changes have, needless to say, been rapid and overwhelming. This article does not set out to cover them.

[2] Functionalism is often associated with the German Bauhaus school of design and architecture in the 1920s.

[3] ‘Pen to Print’, arranged by the Edward Johnston Foundation.

[4] God and Work: Aspects of Art and Tradition, © 2009 World Wisdom, Inc. by Brian Keeble

[5] Tao Te Ching (the Book of Ways) by Lao Tzu. Transl. Gia Fu Feng

[6] Eric Gill, An essay on typography.

[7] Fiona McCarthy; Eric Gill – a biography

[8] For the story of early marketing, see BBC Century of Self, and the story of Edward Barnais

Originally written in Norwegian and printed in Utflukt magazine, 2005.

Ⓒ Christopher Haanes, 2023