Clients, Pithy Quotes, and Jenny Holzer

Kedz shoes designed by Jenny Holzer with the text "PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT." Commissioned by the Whitney Museum.

Clients are the difference between design and art.    — Michael Bierut

Last week I looked at two nearly identical works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Tobias Wong as a way of exploring the differences, and similarities, between art and design. The temptation to sum up the complex relationship between these two vast areas of practice in a pithy statement is as tempting as it is futile. But that futility can be a really useful tool for further exploration. These one sentence definitions can be used as a metric for comparisons, to hold up against real world examples to see when and how the axioms inevitably fail.

Michael Bierut, superstar graphic designer for Pentagram, has said that the difference between art and design is clients. Design is made with a client in mind, art is not. But is this always true? What happens when artists do work directly for clients? Are they suddenly designers and not artists?

Bierut’s distinction is smart in that it doesn’t even mention what designers or artists are physically producing. Instead it gets right to the how and why of their practice. The idea of artists moving beyond mere object production–the dematerialization of the art object–is well documented and explored. What was surprising to me, when I was first exposed to it about a year ago, is that approaches to design have undergone a similar process.

Design thinking is a term popularized by the principals of the design firm IDEO. It refers to using design strategies in a broad context, putting tools usually used in the design process–research, ideation, prototyping, etc.–into practice at a much higher strategic and conceptual level. The process may or may not lead to the production of a new product or campaign. It could just as easily lead to a rethinking of existing resources. The concern is with designing whole processes rather than just designing objects and images. In short, design thinking is the dematerialization of the design object.

When I first heard about design thinking from some colleagues of mine, I thought, what about art thinking? Could the strategies employed by artists be put to use in doing things other than producing artworks? And I don’t just mean moving beyond artworks as physical objects, but rather putting the artist’s conceptual tools to a use other than the artist’s ongoing personal practice. A use involving someone else — a client, if you will.

To my surprise, this had already been attempted early in the careers of two very successful artists. In 1979, six young artists rented an office space in New York, from which they offered “practical aesthetic services adaptable to client situations.” The collective was known as The Offices of Fend, Fitzgobbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince, & Winters. Jenny Holzer and Richard Prince went on to become pillars of conceptual art, whose individual practices did much to define the way text and appropriation function within contemporary art.

A short chronicle of The Offices is included in Support Structures, edited by Celine Condorelli. In addition to scans of documents and notes produced by the group, Support Structures provides this explanation of their practice:

The Offices was founded as a collaborative advisory group, which tried to establish a different position for artists in society, based on the notion of artists as creative thinkers who–like lawyers, architects, or scientists–could be put to use and offer practical and creative solutions for specific situations. The Offices aspirations were to apply authoritative, state-of-the-art advice to clients that may be outside the art discourse: to provide services to society, in a non-art mode, but based on art logic and art practice.

So what did they do? Not much. Member Peter Fend explains: “We were asked by scientists at the California Institute of Technology to help develop a creative media campaign for promoting a scheme for replacing fossil fuels with a marine-biological source. Shortly afterwards, however, The Offices collapsed. No such campaign, nor other campaigns were ever undertaken. Instead, art took quite another course.”

The Offices turned out to be nothing more than a blip in art history, but it’s remarkable for a number of reasons. For one, it parallels IDEO’s concept of design thinking almost to the letter, albeit thirty years ahead of schedule. I also wonder, were these young artists sincere? Were they honestly looking to start a consulting firm, or were they performing the role of a consulting firm as a critical gesture? That ambiguity, not surprisingly, has carried forward into the careers of Jenny Holzer and Richard Prince. Both are experts at quoting snippets from culture that seem clear at first, but begin to fracture into innumerable questions and contradictions once you begin to dig beneath their slick veneer.

Richard Prince, "Katie Holmes," 2007. From a portfolio for W Magazine.

I also can’t help but notice the parallel between Holzer’s famous “truisms” and the design world’s fascination with pithy quotes. I found the Michael Bierut quote on a website called Quotes on Design, which is exactly what it sounds like. You can subscribe to the RSS feed and get a steady stream of design-y quotes, or you can spend hours clicking to get one randomly selected quote after another. Frank Chimero’s Ethos and Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth are two examples of individuals producing collections of quotes which could be called design truisms.

To return to my pithy quote on art and design from last week, my own truism–that design solves problems while art creates problems–The Offices stands out as a shining example of art that creates fruitful and dynamic problems. It has nothing to do with the group’s relationship to clients, however. The Offices is a wonderful bit of art history because it’s so confounding, because its motivations and boundaries are so mysterious. Projects like this bend axioms until they break, and challenge definitions to the point where they’re forced to be rewritten. The Offices keeps anyone tempted by easy definitions on their toes. This is a good problem to have.