Design from the Edge

Gary Dickson reflects on Graphic Design...

Gary Dickson reflects on Graphic Design In the afterword of his novel Children of the Mind, science fiction author Orson Scott Card makes an interesting observation: "...Japan and Scandinavia were both edge peoples. They came into the civilized world in the shadow (or is it dazzled by the brilliance?) of a dominant culture". This may sound a bit obscure for an article relating to graphic design.

Bear with me.

Genghis Khan He goes on to reflect on other historic "edge peoples" and how many of them swept through a dominant culture, often taking power for a time and then exiting -- leaving behind a profound and long lasting influence. There are many examples of this phenomenon -- the Arabs to the Romans, the Turks to the Muslim world. But my personal favorite is the Mongolians who conquered many larger civilizations and in fact at one time ruled an area that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. But they are perhaps best known for their conquest of China. For one hundred years or more the Mongols ruled China. It began with the destruction of Beijing by Genghis Khan. Within 50 years the Mongols led by Kubla Khan ruled nearly all of China and maintained that rule for the next 100 or so years. Many people don't know that it was this dynasty that built the Forbidden City. The impact of the Mongol "interlude" is profound and undeniable. All this by a small, obscure group of backwards cattle herding barbarian tribes. How cool is that!

Center vs. Edge

Card makes some noteworthy observations regarding edge-peoples, center-peoples, their characteristics and their relationship to one another. He writes that center people do not fear losing their identity and that they assume everyone else wants to be like them. They know that they are the highest civilization and that all others are either a bad imitation or simply a one-time mistake. Of Edge peoples he observes that they realize they are not the highest civilization but that they oft times raid, steal, conquer and occasionally stick around to rule for a while. In some cases they undergo radical changes so that they can compete, he says

Quoting  begins When they are on the rise they are insufferable because they are unsure of their worth and must therefore brag and show off and prove themselves again and again... Quoting  ends

Here it comes.

As I reflected on Card's observations it occurred to me that the same pattern can be found repeating itself throughout even the many sub-cultures of the world including the graphic design world. An outsider makes a brief foray into the mainstream and has a significant and long lasting impact. It is a historical lesson -- often it is an outsider who affects a difference on the dominant culture. There are echoes of this pattern from the macro to the microcosm -- from the dominant cultures of the world to the smallest subcultures. The lesson in all of this for me was one that I desperately needed to hear. Up until a few years ago I was a part of the design world's center people. But those days are now gone -- thank goodness!

What makes up the "Center peoples" of the design world? The most obvious characteristic for any culture is geographic. But just as Card observes, "True Center nations have been few in history." the same may be said of the design world. No one would argue that the Swiss and the Germans have long been at the center of the graphic design world. But over the years a few other edge communities have swept in and have themselves become centers -- New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are probably the biggest. Aside from geography there are other significant features of these center groups.
      Most noticeable are the characteristics of the individuals who make up the center. These features include the following:

  • age: late 20s to mid thirties;
  • race: white;
  • gender: male;
  • class: upper middle to upper;
  • education: BFA from a private art school or major university;
  • location: must live and work in or around a major city;
  • must have worked at a noteworthy design firm but recently started own business.

You must maintain a healthy share of these details if you want to be a part of the design worlds central culture. Lately little more than my education qualifies me. So this notion of being part of the edge culture struck me as reassuring. As I have pondered it I have begun to realize that it is clearly the truth.

There have been several different types of edge designers who have had incredibly significant, even historical impact on design. Many examples in just the last 3 decades from -- the geographic edge, the industry edge and the many facets of the demographic edge. Great design often comes from places that the center-people of design might be too blinded to recognize.

Edward Fella Edward Fella* was a good mainstream designer who just happened to be self taught. He did decent work for decades and was at the point in his career where many might be contemplating a condo in Florida. He could have gone on to retire one day soon, leaving behind a respectable body of work but nothing truly extraordinary. Fella decided to go to college and since doing so his amazing experiments in typography have had a huge impact on the design world and will undoubtedly continue to do so for many years to come.DavidCarson

Edward Fella designed from the edge -- who would have looked to a student well over the age of 50 to do such extraordinary and impactful design. Occasionally there are industry outsiders who swerve into our community and lay siege.

In the early 90s an english teacher by the very ordinary name of David began helping with the design of a surf culture magazine. David Carson didn't know any better than to do the strange things that he did with type. Later, Carsons work on Raygun magazine nearly turned the design world upside down. Who says english teachers can't do interesting design.

Next: Geographic Outsiders

Gary Dickson

See other Dickson articles:
GO Design from the Edge... some noteworthy observations regarding edge-designers, center-designers, their characteristics and their relationship to one another: "Would you rather Design from the Edge?"
GO Inspiration in a Bottle: sources of inspiration that may just take you to the next level of creativity! "Where does your inspiration come from?"


© Copyright Gary Dickson In 1989 Gary began doing color prepress production. In 1998 he earned his BFA in graphic design (graduating from CCAC with distinction), was an intern for John Bielenberg and went to work for Horton Lantz Marocco in Seattle. In 2000 Gary left HLM to open his own studio - Epidemic Design. Please visit his studios website and view his work at Epidemic Design.
      Permission to publish this article electronically or in print must be obtained from author prior to publication -- bylines must be included with publication.


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