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An Aura of Aggression

Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction speaks of the aura of work being lost when it is mechanically reproduced—the thingness of the thing is gone when it is not an original thing. Perhaps what the age of mechanical reproduction has removed more than aura is aggression. I use this word not to mean anger, or violence, or confrontation. Aggression in art and design suggests that makers exhibit an outward confidence with bold gestures within our work and the practice of making our work, of being assertive in what we do and how we do it.

I think designers fear aggression. There is a tendency to withdraw, hold back or otherwise tread lightly with our clients, with ourselves, with our process. Many designers are uncomfortable telling their client what their hourly rate is. Design students are timid about presenting something new and unusual they did to the class. Even design teachers tend to be shy and anxious about giving truly critical critique and appropriately bad grades when warranted. Say what you will about the work of Stefan Sagmeister, you have to applaud his aggression: he makes no apologies or qualifications about his work. Yes, he makes words from styrofoam cups and bananas and urine. No, he is not sorry he did it. You not liking it is your problem, not his. He works aggressively, and it results in things that I sense makes himself happy first, and his clients happy second.

The point here is not to suggest more designers make sentimental typographic aphorisms from fruit. The point is that I question how designers work and make, especially knowing that we work primarily in reproducible media like print or photography or on the web. I wonder if the sense of aggression when pasting up a composition or carving letters out of a hunk of stone is lost when clicking a mouse or kerning type. There is too much celebrated graphic design work out there that can best be described as flaccid. The preoccupation with dead, boring, blasé aesthetics is something I do not understand—I think it is time to consider bringing the aggression back to design.

© Mitch Goldstein /