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Rethinking Those Proud Titles
by Natalia Ilyin

Ten years ago, if I wanted to draw a dog, I sat down and drew one either from life or from memory. If I was pressed for time and no particular dog came to mind, I'd look at my books or go to the library and look up a few pictures of dogs to get my brain going. Then I would draw the dog. And then people would say, “Great dog, Natalia.” or “There’s something odd about that paw.” But it was my drawing. I drew it. If someone liked it, I might sell it. It might end up on someone else’s wall, but I always knew whose wall, and where.

Ten years ago, if I wanted to design a poster, I’d think about the event at hand and design the poster from the metaphors that came into my mind. If I was pressed for time and nothing was coming to me, I’d take a look at books about the subject, or listen to music or walk around and look at life in the street until time and adrenaline and caffeine came together and produced a poster. I would make that poster and it would be my poster. And maybe I would take a picture of it for my portfolio, or maybe it would just go up for the event and then come down. And maybe I would give it to a couple of people or sell a couple, and it was my poster. I made it. People knew it was mine, and knew me and either liked it or disliked it. The project was complete within its own beginning, middle and end: Its lifecycle was its own.

Today, if I want to draw a dog, I Google “dog” and immediately have 147,000,000 images of dogs on my desktop. Of course, I would never think of actually Googling “dog” because the search would produce too many images. So from the very beginning of the design process, even before I know at all what I want to think about, I am editing down the idea so that I can control the results: I am reducing my metaphorical options in order to make the search small enough to be valuable. “Welsh Springer Spaniel” comes in at about 52,000 results in images, whereupon I decide enough is enough and just pick the sixth one I see. It’s cute. It’s serviceable. Enough. I have no idea whose dog it is, what the picture was taken for, when it was taken or why, but I use it as a starting place for my drawing.

Today, if I were asked to design a poster, say, for someone’s CD release, I’d have millions and millions of images at my fingertips to use as starting places. In seconds, I could access everything about every concert poster ever made, everything about every musician ever touted, every image from every designer who ever did anything related to music. It’s a lot to metabolize. It's impossible for me to metabolize images in the ways I used to. Design used to be about going deeply into a meaningful few. But designing is changing, from narrow and deep to wide and juxtaposed. From a skill based in invention to one based in relationship. And there’s the rub.

A few months ago, a couple of students I know, both gung-ho AIGAers and both totally honorable people, took up the task of making posters about an upcoming AIGA chapter event. This event was being held to spotlight the work of Modern Dog, a studio here in Seattle of which we are all inordinately fond. The students’ idea, simple and elegant, was to make a poster about each designer working at Modern Dog, using imagery that pointed to each designer’s interests or influences. One of the Modern Dog designers said he had been influenced by Polish posters, so Sara, the lead designer on the AIGA project, found an image of a Polish poster that interested her, took it as a starting point, made a new drawing, added and subtracted, hand-drew type, finished the job, posted it on Facebook for her friends to see, and went to bed.

The next morning she awoke to find herself caught in the middle of a massive designer debate. Designers flailed away at each other, and had been in a fury most of the night, defending or attacking her. Posts of defense usually rested on the notion of the historical acceptability of “homage” in design, those offended generally assumed that she had “stolen” the idea and tried to pass it off as her own, not realizing the well-known nature of the image.

As this nine-day wonder shooting-match between designers continued with defriendings and name-calling matches breaking up a generally fairly decorous intellectual inquiry, Sara, a cheery sort of person, began to get a beaten-about look on her face, and it made me think of the sort of beaten-about attitude so many designers have these days. And when the media got wind of the argument and started trying to interview her, I realized that the nerve she had touched was far more sensitive than it ought to have been, and I too began to look a bit closer at the continuing phenomenon. Ilyin
Natalia Ilyin ( is a designer, writer and teacher whose current research explores the history of the design of persuasion and the construction of the social Self. She has served as director of programs for AIGA New York and has taught at Yale, Cooper Union, Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Washington. A professor at Cornish College of Fine Arts and one of the founding faculty of Vermont College of the Arts, she also co-directs a refugee relief program that supports community-identified initiatives on the Thai-Burmese border.