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Lecture Notes: graphic self-promotion

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Chicago is universally acknowledged for its contributions to architectural design, but its important achievements in graphic design remain underappreciated. Every taxi driver here can allegedly name buildings and their architects, yet it's unlikely that any of those cabbies could identify the work of local graphic designers Dana Arnett or Greg Samata, unless they were relatives.

While the group 27 Chicago Designers doesn't exactly deal with the public's neglect of their profession, it endures as a vestige of a golden age of graphic design in Chicago. Since its founding in 1936, the major activity of the organization has been producing the periodic catalog 27 Chicago Designers, a shamelessly self-promotional book in which each of the 27 members shows off his or her best work. Copies of the book were sent directly to executives at prominent corporations and proved to be a fruitful marketing strategy, drumming up work for group members even during the Depression. Over the decades, membership has carried substantial prestige and remains limited to the original 27 slots. New members are selected only after the death or retirement of current members.

In the days before television, advertising depended much more heavily on print, and Chicago was a leading printing center. The printing industry fostered innovations in typography, packaging, and illustration, so modern design finds many of its roots in Chicago, from the publication of such fine periodicals as The Chap-Book around the turn of the century to the establishment of the Society of Typographic Arts in 1927 and the New Bauhaus a decade later.

Anyone familiar with desktop publishing knows that graphic design involves a lot more than getting text to fit into a box. Graphic design is about making information accessible and understandable--it's about optimizing communication. Some say the term "designer" trivializes the task, preferring the label "visual interpreter."

The onetime anonymity of the profession has given way to the rising profile of graphic designers. The Art Institute's tony Architecture Society recently changed its name to the Architecture and Design Society and appointed Ron Kovach, a member of 27 Chicago Designers, as its president. Kovach says the name change reflects the society's wish to expand its sphere of influence and its recognition of graphic design's relation to other design disciplines.

Meanwhile, 27 Chicago Designers is searching for direction. Slick coffee-table books on graphic design are commonplace today, and such publications as Communication Arts, Graphis, and Print put out lavish annual editions based on their graphic design competitions. Distribution of a volume like 27 Chicago Designers doesn't make as much sense as it did in simpler times, and the group hasn't produced a new catalog since 1991.

John Massey, the club's senior member with 31 years standing, says the group questioned its own viability as members became uncomfortable with self-promotion as the organization's primary mission. Steve Liska, its current president, says he had hoped to get the members involved in some worthwhile pro bono project. "I thought if we did something that was more socially conscious, the positive effects of doing something good would generate positive exposure." But he found that the group was unable to agree about how to devote their energies. "It's like dealing with 27 of the biggest egos in the city," he says, suggesting that 27 Chicago Designers is an organization that "exists almost in spite of itself" and may have outlasted its purpose.

Whatever its future, the group has a noble past and an eloquent present. Looking through the volumes of 27 Chicago Designers published during the last 59 years offers a rich visual history of the profession.

Current members of 27 Chicago Designers are showing their portfolios on Wednesday mornings as part of a free lecture series at the School of the Art Institute, 280 S. Columbus. This Wednesday, March 15, features talks by David Anderson (best known for trademarks and corporate publications), Susan Jackson Keig (a book designer), and Carol Naughton (who specializes in signs and exhibit graphics); each designer will speak for approximately one hour, starting with Anderson at 9 AM. The series continues every Wednesday morning through May 3 (no lectures March 29 and April 19). For more information, call the school's department of visual communication at 899-5190.

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