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In Between a Generation of Greats


>> A week or so ago I went to the Vignelli Center for Design Studies to interview a past professor of mine, Roger Remington. Professor Roger Remington is a Vignelli Distinguished Design Professor who is close friends with both of the Vignellis as well as countless other famous and well-known designers: Paul Rand, Richard Avedon, and Michael Bierut to name a few. He currently teaches design history classes in the Vignelli Center for Design at R.I.T. and is heavily involved in acquiring design collections for the archive at the Vignelli Center as well as the R.I.T. Library. Remington has written several books and his passion towards the preservation of design through archiving and education is insurmountable. Below is the conversation that took place in his office on the top floor of the Vignelli Center.

Hillary: I just wanted to ask your opinion on the print industry and where you think it is going?

Remington: The Print Industry?

Hillary: Yes!

Remington: Well it seems like the print industry is going through a dramatic evolution. Rochester, years ago, was known as a great printing center for high-quality printing, Great Lakes Press. Most of the important companies printed their annual reports here, so there were a great influx and outgo of great designers here for press checks. There were also some really fine, maybe five or six high-quality typesetting companies that serve as the ad agencies and printing companies. So, Rochester has a long tradition of high-end printing. I think now it’s become more specialized in terms of smaller companies that still try to maintain high-quality digital printing. I don’t think we have quite as unique a position we did at one point and I think the printing industry itself is a little bit like the newspaper industry: it’s really struggling to hold its own among the digital age; it’s a big question mark as to what is really going to happen.

It seems in some ways you have a small aspect of people that are interested in printing that is doing kind of boutique letterpress shops around and that’s one end of the scale and on the other end of the scale, you have more high-end digital printing even on the campus here. We have the opportunity to really print high-quality work. So I don’t think that print will ever die. I think that there will always be printing and print material. I think it’s probably going to end up in kind of a different position that it has in the past and you can see this in a lot of ways like I mentioned the newspaper. I think the Rochester newspaper is really struggling to exist and there are many people that say it’s really on its deathbed. On the other hand, you see a tabloid neighborhood or alternative newspaper like City which seems to be thriving at least till my knowledge. So I think that’s another indicator that maybe things are becoming more specialized and that’s kind of the nature of your organization too. You’re kind of reaching out to a certain, very specific market. I think that things are kind of reshaping themselves in terms of media.

If I look for instance at RIT we have 18,000 students here now on the campus and the biggest department is the Computer Science, and in fact, it is the biggest Computer Science in the country! On the other hand, the School of Print Media is struggling to stay alive which I think represents what we are talking about here in terms of the shift in the way people get information, the technology and so forth. I think there’s an effect of this on designers too as part of that process. Many of us were brought up on print media and print technology in the relationship of design to printing. This is long gone. There are no companies doing typography, fine typography in Rochester anymore; everybody does their own. So you see a big shift, I think there is only one graphic design company in Rochester now, Dunn and Rice. There are other companies doing design but they’re part of other groups that do advertising and public relations and things like that so they kind of have a multi-function purpose. That’s kind of where I feel about things.

Hillary: Do you think that there is ever going to be a resurgence of print like we saw with the comeback of vinyl?

Remington: Yeah but even then I think that there could be but I think it would be a specialized market you know?

Hillary: Yeah.

Remington: I’m not sure that vinyl is going to become anything that huge although I still have vinyl records and have an auto system that plays them. So I think that the genie is out of the bottle in terms of the digital world. I think we see this so obviously all around us from the national election to things closer to home. The digital world is here.

Hillary: Yeah...whether we like it or not.

Remington: That’s right!

Hillary: So I am going to switch gears and talk more about you, Who do you think most inspired you a designer?

Remington: Okay. I was not fortunate enough to have a supportive environment growing up in terms of helping me along the roadway of being a designer. My parents weren’t designers or people of the arts.

My high school, it didn’t have any support that way. I had my own personal kind of interest in doing art which is what I understood it was what I wanted to do, but even then I didn’t know what graphic design was. I was fortunate that when I came to art school I had a friend from my hometown who was a year ahead of me at the same art school and so he really counseled me on what was good and what was not so good. The big effect in terms of really focusing my interest was a faculty member that was here at RIT for many years named Hans Barschel. He was an immigrant from Germany in 1938 and he had a very successful freelance career in New York City in the 40s and came to Rochester in the early 50s to design for one of these big printing companies I was talking about, and then they got him to teach part-time at the school and he was so good they made him full time.

I just came along that time but he was from Germany, he’d had a lot of exposure there in Berlin to really top-notch designers of his time so he really opened my eyes to not only the professional world of graphic design but also to a more global view of things which I desperately needed and wanted because I was just a kid from a small town….without much sophistication to say the least. He (Hans Barschel) was my inspiration really. It’s interesting right now I’m writing a chapbook for the RIT Press about him because his archive is over in the library. So it’s kind of come full circle, in a way.

Hillary: What art period or movement do you think is your favorite?

Remington: Well I’m a Modernist. Everything that happens between 1900 and the advent of Postmodernism (say in the 70s or so) would be of interest to me. I think that kind of gives you the book ends on it. You know this anyway from having been in my class and having sat through all my biased opinions on things but that’s important and I think it’s also significant that one of the great designers of the Modernist era, Vignelli, is here and wanted to be a part of RIT, wanted to be a part of what we’ve been doing in terms of archiving. We have really strong ties to the Modernist movement. I feel that the values and principles of the Modernist movement are still alive and still viable; it still allows designers to do the kind of design that will stick around.

Hillary: For the talk series that you have, Design Conversations, is there anyone in mind that you would like to invite to talk?

Remington: Well the speakers that we have come are largely part of what we call Design Conversations lecture series, which is sponsored by the Vignelli Center and interestingly enough it’s now financed underwritten by one of our alums a designer in Philadelphia named Chris Bailey. Bailey Brand Consulting is his company, he’s developed a wonderful firm there. He has forty employees, that’s a lot of designers! We have a monthly lecture series, we have a committee of faculty and students that meets every week and does the planning for the Vignelli Center programming and part of that is to talk about those speakers and who we want to ask and so forth. So it’s kind of a democratic process, usually it’s balanced between industrial designers and graphic designers and a lot of these speakers are people that I know (some of them are friends of mine) and others are people that I’ve wanted to know and I felt were important in terms of what they were doing and so forth. Right now we’re in the process of discussing our speakers for next year and it’s a kind of a give-and-take thing.

This year we’ve concluded our Fall semester’s speakers, we had four different programs. We had Marshall Lawson who is a designer in Chicago and a teacher at the University of Illinois, Chicago. We had Peter Laundy who is a designer in Chicago who was an employee at Vignelli Associates and has a connection there and then spend a good deal of his career in Chicago at the Doblin Group. We had Alan Heller who has designed the chair you are sitting in, not designed it he produced it, Massimo (Vignelli) actually designed it. Alan Heller is always a popular speaker (he’s been here several times) for especially the industrial design students. A week or so ago we had our panel discussion of designers that worked with a very important teacher at Yale University named Norman Ives. So we had a panel discussion of people like that that were part of this event here which goes with the exhibit downstairs in the University and Bevier galleries. Again we’re working now on our speaker list for next year and it’s a kind of give-and-take process of speakers.

Mainly between industrial design and graphic design, but some people outside it also. After the holidays when we start the spring semester we’re having Laetitia Wolff who is the marketing manager of AIGA in New York is going to kick off the spring semester. Then we will have speakers right through April and May. It’s turned out to be a very popular programming event for the Vignelli Center, I think we reach the most people with the speakers. Community people come, certain instructors will bring their classes, not all the student come but there are selected groups that come because it’s industrial design or graphic design. We usually have maybe 100 or 150 people there and that’s always good, we try to have the talks in the University Gallery.

Hillary: Well, if you had your way, who would you have as a speaker?

Remington: Well that’s a good question. We have a long list of names that have popped up as you can see here. Some of these people are really hard to get to come. There are some people here that I know in the design industry from graphic design education that I would like to invite back, people who have really good ideas, strong experience in the history of design. I’d like to broaden our culture view a little bit beyond just Americans.

We’ve done quite well I think in terms of the gender issue, of bouncing back and forth between male and female, and I don’t even think that’s a factor I think that happens organically. Part of the difficulty right now is that in the past there were really giants of design that were still alive and around, I’m talking about people like Paul Rand and others and Vignelli. It’s difficult now because in some ways the generation of our great design heroes has kind of passed. We have some people coming up, like Michael Bierut, who are certainly very competent and important but there’s not the number of them and there’s not the quality of them that there once was across the board. I mean there is an international organization called AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale), which is an international membership organization of top designers.

If you look through these books which talk about the great designers, like this book is a showcase of members of this organization and this was done in 1975. I mean probably almost all of these people are now not practicing or they’re deceased. This was just some of them, there is 107 of them. So this is part of our problem, we’re kind of in between a generation of greats which is on the one hand kind of ironic because we have the Vignelli Center, he was a very strong friend of ours, but on the other hand, I just don’t see that many young designers. I’m part of this organization (AGI) so I go to their international meetings and I’m not impressed with the members that the new members are bringing in, the young members they’re bringing in, in terms of the work they do. As I say we’re kind of in between the cycles (of design greats), and how and who emerges here to take the place of these giants, if we have any, is yet to be seen. I don’t see this as a depressing situation I think we just have to face the fact that the clock is ticking and time is going by and whereas the circumstances of the past were such that we had greats that came out of the design world it’s just hard to identify them now.

Hillary: Do you think that’s because of oversaturation with the media?

Remington: I think that’s part of it. I think that there are too many schools cranking out too many designers. I think that the computer is part of it, that’s made it complicated. I think the biggest effect, again without sinking into a state of depression over this, and my colleague Professor Meader and I bemoan this a good deal and that is...you have a situation now in terms of design education where students are not exposed adequately to formal principles and their teachers weren’t and most likely their teacher’s teachers weren’t. So you have students coming out of school with very weak formal design skills. That coinciding with the opportunity of the computer and making images so easily and so forth has kind of merged the relationship between art and design, a lot of designers really think that they’re making art and they’re not really solving client’s problems.

So that’s a different shift. Now if you look at the exhibit downstairs it’s an interesting model, this is Norman Ives work. Norman Ives was an artist but also a designer, so he was able to blend the two of those things together in a way that really produced very strong formal solutions both in art and design, but again he’s part of the past. He represents a certain period, a certain group. I think that’s fairly rare. You should take a look at the show while you’re here if you have a little time while you’re on your way out. There are some beautiful symbols and marks that he’s designed and a lot of great art that follows a very design oriented grid-like structure.

Hillary: What do you think of the new designers that everyone seems to be obsessed with these days, like Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Hische?

Remington: Well I think these people represent what I said before. I think they represent the transition from Formalism to Postmodernism. They represent the concern on the part of the designer for self-expression over serious functional solutions. They are really popular I think because of this. There’s now a sense of a relationship between music and entertainment and design.

Hillary: They’re all combined.

Remington: They’re all rolled up into a ball of wax and self-expression is at the heart of that. I’m not about that and we’re not about that here but that exists. If you go to Cranbrook (Academy of Art) in their graduate program now that’s what you get, entertainment and design. The kind of type that bounces on the screen to music and whatever, that’s not what I’m about. Whether you call this old-fashioned or out of date I don’t know. I just feel that when I have the opportunity working with students I try to make sure that they have as much of a strong ability at dealing with formal visual aesthetics as possible, from there you start to design.

Hillary: You have a basis you can build from.

Remington: Right! You have a basis and a core. But I don’t get to reach too many students anymore in terms of studio classes I do mostly history classes. You can still learn the same thing from history and that’s what I put my emphasis on as much as I can now.

Hillary: What plans are in store for the future of the Vignelli Center?

Remington: I think that I’d like to see it continue on the trajectory that we started in the last five years in terms of our programming. I’d like to see it become more international. I’d like to see it become even more of a design destination. I think we’ve laid the groundwork for a lot of that now in the last five years. Just to the extent that we can expand our goals, we have these goals of education and preservation, advocacy and collaboration, doing public good and globalism, these are kind of our goals. I’d like to see all of these goals get extended further. That would be my hope. I’ve tried in the last five years since we’ve opened to lay the groundwork for that and I think we’ve been pretty successful in some more than others.

My background is in graphic design so my bias towards a lot of what happens here is graphic design, in spite of the fact that I try to do what I can to make it both graphic design, products, industrial design so it’s kind of the big d of the design. But my natural bias comes through when it comes to speakers when it comes to archive acquisitions and so forth. We’ve added, since we’ve started in the last five years, we’ve added about fifteen collections beyond the Vignelli collection, different designers. About two weeks ago we just received 330 Swiss posters from one donor, so that’s something I’ve really wanted for a long time, a collection like that. It keeps the archivist busy because I’m always on the lookout for certain good things to add to the collection. Plus we’re adding more collections to the library too at the same time. So it’s been an interesting ride. Keep this ball rolling.

Hillary: Well you seem to be doing a great job!

Remington: Well it’s kind of two jobs really. I have my job of administering this place and then I have the job of also being a Vignelli Professor which is the education side of it and trying to provide some leadership around that. Sometimes these two jobs kind of overlap and sometimes they’re more separate my background, my experiences kind of prepared me for both. I don’t care very much for the administrative part, I really like to work with the students but here I am.

Hillary: Well, that’s all I had! Thank you for taking time out of your day to sit down and talk with me! <<

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