Sailing Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Published:  May 21, 2013
Clinton Duncan
Sailing Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

As graphic designers, we like to look, think and talk at, on or about identity quite a lot. Often we create them as well. We buy books filled with thousands of logos, or case studies on large, successful identities for education and inspiration. Thousands of blogs post news, reviews and announcements of the latest, biggest and best identities from every corner of the globe. When we say ‘identity’, ‘brand identity’, corporate identity’, ‘visual identity’, invariably we’re talking about the logo, design systems and visual language, name and other symbols of a product, organisation, service or entity. For all this focus, the way designers consider identity seems to me quite a bit different to how other fields think about it.

Undoubtedly, identity design is where the best and brightest designers of our industry ply their trade. It’s a place where bag loads of ingenuity, creativity, chutzpah and plain old hustle are required to push any piece of work through tricky approval processes and risk averse decision making. It’s easy to understand why many are drawn to identity; the rewards are big. It’s how we get into the boardroom, speak to people with Director or Chairman on their job title. Successfully completing large corporate or brand identity projects is when our work is certain to be seen by the greatest number of people possible – fame and fortune! What’s not to like?

Yet there’s an uncomfortable impotence at the core of how graphic designers create identities, mainly to do with the breadth and depth we’re allowed to explore by our education, skill sets and client briefs — it’s somewhat appealing to label it an ‘identity crisis’. I can’t help thinking this disconnect leaves the entire exercise feeling hollow, and has me wondering if we aren’t just deluding ourselves. Deluded into thinking our work has much greater impact than just a surface level exercise in shuffling deck chairs, puffed up for the benefit of egos and glorified in slick case studies for our commercial needs. At the end of the process and after all the expensive production outputs, that product, organization or service we’ve worked with is still the same thing as when we started, no matter how massive, or incremental, the ‘identity’ change. We may have replaced every piece of wood in this ship, but Theseus is still a total jerk.

Humans have been considering notions of ‘identity’ since we first started considering things – perhaps even earlier. In his series of biographies, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch noted the paradox of whether, after every piece of wood in it had been replaced, the ship of Theseus was still the same ship. The paradox has remained popular conundrum for philosophers and thinkers, even after all these centuries — variations of the paradox include ‘Grandfathers Axe’ and ‘Triggers Broom’. Ancient considerations of identity, as captured by Thesues’ ship or Heraclitus’ musing “No man ever steps in the same river twice”, were concerned more with defining how a thing bears a relationship to itself, if the identity of a thing changes over time, and how two identical things can remain logically separate; the distinctions between qualitative and numerical identity.

Photography: Anna Pogossova / Paper Engineering: Benja Harney /

“we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations…. It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts,but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle”

Some extend the Theseus Ship paradox to our own body, with the oft quoted (yet apocryphal) claim that every cell in the human body is replaced over a seven year period. An appealing piece of trivia that gives rise to the question; what component of an individual’s identity is permanent, as opposed to transient? Around the turn of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud’s development of a structural model of the psyche names the component of our psyche present from birth, and unchanged right up until death, as the id (not eye-dee, just ‘id’, rhymes with lid).

In Freud’s model, the id is the base instincts of a psyche, concerned with ‘needs’ and ‘forces’. It’s where our libido resides, and a bundle of unresolved, contradictory life and death instincts. The ‘life instincts, a creative drive for pleasurable survival, and ‘death instincts’, a destructive drive towards ourselves and other living organisms. Emerging from the id and reaching out into the real world is the ego – which seeks to please the id in ways beneficial over the long term; it can be seen as the reasonable, common sense partner to the unbridled, instinctive self interest of the id. These two are quadrants forming one half of the model, and on the other side is the ‘super ego‘, which acts like a conscience, regulating our behaviour through notions of morality, and is affected by our environment and those that have influence on us as we grow up – teachers, parents, friends. According to Freud, the ego and super ego can develop and change over time, whereas the id stays permanent, unchanged from birth until death, even in old age, a swirling mass of chaos and excitations.

Death, destruction and self inflicted chaos figure prominently in the world and works of Australian artist Ben Quilty. In his earliest and most well known paintings, rendered in a heavy impasto style and depicting cars, skulls and hamburgers, Quilty was exploring symbols of male identity in Australia. From the muscle cars of our ‘Ford vs Holden’ culture, and alluding to back to the destructive nature of colonialism and invasion. His 2007 exhibition, ‘Pride and Patriotism’, featured portraits of James Cook, John Howard, friends of the artist, his own 6 month old son Joe, as well as self portraits of the artist himself. Quilty and friends were all painted from photographs taken on nights ‘wetting their heads’ – drunken and debaucherous, risking life and liver for no good reason other than observing the ritual of ‘a boys night’.

For an artist who made his name painting Toranas and glistening milk bar burgers with big dollops of lickable paint, the turn towards more directly critical depictions of Australian male identity marked a change of course, and it was hard to ignore. Now, the skulls that had graced the fronts of cars in his earlier works took on new, more troubling meanings. No longer just cool-ass expressions of street tough bad-assery, the visages had became portentous warnings of the self destructive risks inherent within expressions of male identity and power. In the case of Australia, a nation founded on the deaths and near destruction of indigenous cultures (the oldest living cultures in the world), Quilty seemed worried that our sense of identity, our pride and patriotism was also the seed of our own destruction at the bottom of a bottle, and the end of a lonely road.

Quilty’s art follows on from the broad trend amongst recent explorations and considerations of identity, which have focused mainly on personal identity; nominal identity, religious identity, sexual identity, gender identity and ethnic identity. One could (boldly) say suffrage, the sexual revolution and the civil rights movements of the previous two centuries were simply hitherto overlooked sections of western society affirming their right to define their own identity (rather than leaving it to the privileged, older, white men who had all the guns). Once defined, the struggle became to compel society to let go of it’s prejudices, accept equality with, and tolerate the empowerment of, these new, different and thus threatening, identities.

“Mugatu is so hot right now he could take a crap, wrap it in tinfoil, put a couple fish hooks on it and sell it to Queen Elizabeth as earrings” Maury Ballstein in Zoolander

Ballstein is a fictional character, but the insight he unearths while remarking on the ‘hotness’ of the similarly fictional fashion designer Mugatu, is uncomfortably true of how identity is considered in our contemporary society. Warhol’s endlessly repeated (and perhaps equally misunderstood) quote “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” was one part rallying cry for the casting aside of traditional notions of importance in artistic representation; a Prince, Duke or a King can have their portraits become acknowledged as masterpieces of art; but why not a can of soup or a Hollywood starlet? But I also see it as a lamentation from someone notoriously obsessed with fame – primarily his own – who was simultaneously crippled by self esteem issues. In Warhol’s day, he had to work hard to achieve what he imagined every person might be entitled to, in the future.

Warhol’s vision might be coming true; social media’s rapid rise in ubiquity, and it’s integration with every aspect of our lives has created an identity fuck–fest; an orgy of liking, following and friending with strangers, colleagues, friends and family alike. Now, everyone’s a celebrity, for little or no good reason, and people can be ‘famous for being famous’. Today we curate, grow our audience and cultivate a ‘personal brand‘ – everyone’s in the identity business. Real estate agents, life coaches, hairdressers, stock brokers, doctors and politicians — there they all are, online, toiling away building their ‘brand’ with the same sense of purpose and professionalism you’d see in a PR agency, marketing department or advertising agency. Perhaps more.

The superficiality of social media uncomfortably parallels with how the average graphic designer is allowed to consider identity, a limited scope neatly encapsulated by the commonplace identity guidelines document. These documents record colour selections, photography styles, typeface choices, graphic devices, design systems and of course the ubiquitous logo, it’s clear space, acceptable usage and other considerations. Perhaps an explanation of a brand strategy, a snappy two or three word brand essence, values, attributes, a tone of voice and maybe even some sort of narrative that describes the brand’s uniqueness and relevance.

But all of these are progressively outlying layers of the onion, with an emphasis on the visual. Which isn’t too hard to make sense of, we’re graphic designers creating visual identities after all, for the time being anyway. We’re allowed no access to influencing the inner core, the heart – perhaps we could call it the id – of our clients. Thus, without changing that inner core, without re-sequencing the DNA, we’re simply replacing the old pieces of wood on the ship with shinier, new ones. A perfectly acceptable way to derive a living, but is it really deserving of the label ‘identity‘, even the diluted label of ‘visual identity’?

It’s perhaps unsurprising that many in our industry are questioning our own identity; a 2012 AGDA event ‘How to tell your parents you’re a graphic designer” asked whether ‘graphic designer’ still works as a label for the work we do. It’s a time where one half of our industry seems to be holding on to a craft based tradition of ‘making’, clinging to printed books and letter-pressed business cards. On the other hand, are designers re- positioning their studios as brand agencies, primarily in the business of selling ‘design thinking’ and seeking to participate with their clients in high level discussions of marketing, product innovation and business strategy.

Unfortunately for us, whether we stay true to our tradition as craftspeople, or become fast talking powerpoint jockeys, we’re still sailing into the wind of thousands of years of thinkers, philosophers, artists and psychologists who’ve been saying all along that identity is anything but visual. We’re between the devil and the deep blue sea; dearly wishing for more scope, more billings, more significance and influence. Yet we’re confronted with the uncomfortable reality that our clients only wish us to deal in the outer layers of identity, manipulating and modifying external markers and symbols of recognition, and allowed little to no influence on the true components of identity. Now, I’m off to get some wood.

This article was first published in Desktop #293 — Who Are You?

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