A (Brief and Decidedly Eurocentric)
Natural History of Style

The average breath cycle of a human being (inhalation and exhalation) lasts about three seconds, as does the average spoken phrase — no matter the language.

Corporeality traps us within bodies, time and history. It affects perception and consciousness; communication and understanding. The body and its senses act as filters between self and environment, with variations of interpretation and expression stemming from the combination of individual biology, context, errors or random occurrences.

Style starts with the body. Each creative individual’s style is uniquely their own: a result of nervous system, blood chemistry, metabolism, eyesight, and every other ailment or constitutional element imaginable — as well as personal history.

When we speak of style, we are referring to the method in which the inner state of the artist is conveyed to the larger world. A particular style is made up of the continuity of choices made over time: size, proportion, color, composition, etc. Technical, geographic or historical factors may spread stylistic elements from person to person, establishing a style in the broader sense of the word, but the idea of style stemming from method remains.

Preferences in the creation and reception of a work are better known as taste. This criteria, determined by sociological and intellectual judgments, was defined by Immanuel Kant as sensus communis (collective sense), or the “faculty of estimating what makes our feeling in a given representation … communicable without the mediation of a concept.”

The categorization of style is taste. Taste establishes context; context creates difference. And difference — here/there, present/absent, now/then — is the fundamental building block of meaning. Thus taste becomes an element of communication.

Genre is the abstract term referring to vague, sometimes arbitrary, groupings of context and subject. Styles can be the building blocks of genre, but generally aren’t necessary to define a genre. For example, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner incorporated specific clothing and hair styles, voice-over exposition and musical cues to evoke the film noir genre of the 1940’s. Even without those stylistic indications, the film’s ambiguous morality and narrative could place it in the film noir genre, regardless of the science fiction setting. But their presence quickly telegraphs the director’s intent; making the argument that style cues help create the story.

Style, taste and genre are all part of the designer’s toolbox, as well as part of the designer’s daily struggle. There are quite a few anecdotal reports of designers who become well known for a particular style (the design equivalent of winning the lottery) and then, several years later, find themselves out of fashion — the constant shift of popular taste. The struggle arises from the collision of the Renaissance idea of artist-as-interesting-character, the standard art education encouragement to find one’s uniqueness, and the vagaries of the marketplace.

The first significant art history, the 35th book of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, generally limited descriptions of style to an accounting of material innovations and items pictured. Praise was given to artists like Apelles of Kos for their mimetic ability rather than their expression of an individual style.

Artists’ personalities were not generally depicted until 1550, with the appearance of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, which helped promote the opinion that artists needed to develop formal technique as well as a distinct point of view shaped from their personality and intellect. Based on his rather gossipy profiles of major figures like Michelangelo and Leonardo, a comparison could be drawn between the character of the artist, the quality of his work, and the refined sensibility of his patron.

Fast-forwarding three hundred years later, photography did the double duty of freeing art from representation and speeding up the dissemination of stylistic developments through the mass-reproduction of artwork. Now the focus was fully set on the difference between artist’s individual styles; further developing the cult of artistic originality.

Like any other creative field, graphic designers need to balance the studio and the marketplace. The life-long practice of developing one’s craft and style occurs in the studio, while the marketplace is where one’s style (and taste) is displayed. One learns from the other. Innovations from the studio have an effect on the marketplace, and the marketplace lets the designer know how his stylistic innovations are received. If effective, he gets more work.

Along with this cycle of expression and feedback, the designer also engages in a dialogue with history. Since various tastes help frame ideas, the appropriation of various styles from other eras, other cultures or even fellow designers, becomes part of the designer’s toolbox. As in one’s everyday studio practice, incorporating another style works best if attention is paid to the basics: intent, context, invoked sensibilities, etc.

While it is easy to find an appealing formal device while flipping through a design magazine, the possibility exists that this solution will be little more than a decorative element. That may be fine for some projects, but if we take the position that graphic design is essentially a kind of narrative, then we’re not fulfilling our potential.

No, it’s better to take a larger view and look outside graphic design history when considering other styles. Many formal innovations were the result of technological invention, which in turn came from larger economic, scientific and social developments. Trade with Asia and the Reformation begat moveable type, scientific experimentation begat lithography, and the computer revolution begat PostScript. And at each step a Giambattista Bodoni, a Toulouse-Lautrec or a David Carson exploited these innovations in the development of their own style. A style which was the product of their individual relationship to their particular place and time.

…which brings everything back to the beginning. To achieve any degree of traction, a designer’s work needs to have both relevance to and friction with the world. It needs personality and it needs originality. It needs style. And style begins with the simple act of taking a breath.