Gordon Kaye has been editor and publisher of GDUSA (Graphic Design USA) for more than three decades. He is a graduate of Hamilton College, Princeton University’s SPIA, and Columbia Law School. This comment, connected to our 60th anniversary American Graphic Design Awards™, first appeared in our December 2023 print and digital magazines. He is shown here with Website Editor Sasha Kaye-Walsh, herself a Hamilton graduate and Rutgers University MFA.
“The more things change, the more they stay insane.”
That was the title of an episode of a short-lived tv show called Muddling Through, mostly remembered for launching Jennifer Aniston’s career. More on this later – about the muddle, not the actor.
As GDUSA winds up its sixth decade, I have been thinking a lot about the evolution of graphic design as a discipline and profession, how it has morphed and changed over time, and how to make some sense of it all.
One way to look at the modern era of graphic design is as a triumphal and linear march toward glory. The argument goes as follows: since the mid-20th century the graphic design profession has elevated itself from decorative afterthought to a vital force that reflects, advances, enhances and even shapes commerce, culture and causes. Moving inexorably from backroom to boardroom. Growing in influence and recognition and value in the eyes of business and society. Promising an ever brighter future since we are ever more a visual society, and graphic designers are uniquely situated to crystallize and communicate the truth and essence of the thing. I love this framework of an arc that bends inevitably in our direction. It is uplifting and successfully explains a lot about the broad sweep of design history.
“Muddling through also has truths to tell…”
Still, I also think the less glorious concept of “muddling through” has truths to tell. Every day and in every generation, graphic designers have faced ups and downs, cycles and trends, challenges and disruptions, fears and fragility – with very little of the way forward clean or clear at any single moment. I have been leafing through 60 years of GDUSA news magazines and enewsletters and webpages, and it is hard to miss that the grittiness often outweighs the grandeur, that the trials often tamp down the triumphs, and that the struggle to explain the value of design and designers never ends. Yet you all, collectively, still stand tall, ready to face the next economic, social, or technological curveball about to be thrown. And the next. And, yes, the next. Life, they say, is not so much beginnings and endings as finding the way to go on and on and on. Over the decades, graphic designers have shown incredible durability, deep inner strengths, a breathtaking capacity for reinvention and renewal, adaptation and accommodation, for finding the way down the middle. There is honor in that, too, and a touch of humility.
But enough – too much – philosophy. And, surely, too many words.
Let me just close the circle by noting that our 60th GDUSA Design Annual is living proof that graphic design survives and thrives in 2023, however you choose to describe the journey. The numbers alone are prodigious, with nearly 9,000 entries in the 2023 competition and nearly pieces showcased here and on our website.
The depth and breadth of projects is remarkable, a representation of the best of American graphic design across the ever-widening range of clients, projects and media that creative professionals touch. Most importantly, it is graphic communication for commerce and culture at its best executed by creative professionals who ably and authentically advance their client’s objectives to build meaningful value and make human connections for their organizations, brands, products, services, causes, beliefs.
Triumphal march or modest muddle? Either way, as long as there are designers who can discover and visually express the truth of the thing, we’re all good for another 60 years at least.