Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Michael Rock, Graphic Designer

For the first installment of the 2009 Domus Interview series, I talked to Michael Rock, founder of the New York-based design firm 2×4. 2×4 has collaborated with architects for over a decade on projects ranging from furniture to exhibitions to billboards to books. We talked about this body of work as well as 2×4’s current projects, including design for the new CCTV headquarters in Beijing and Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

Ever since I started working with architects a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which they collaborate with people outside of their profession – engineers, contractors, clients, and, in your case, graphic designers. Each of these professions has a particular position in an architecture project and through collaboration reveals its own insights into the nature of an architect’s work. This Domus interview series is planned with that idea in mind; the hope is that by understanding more about the roles of people working along its edges, we can better understand what architecture is. It seems to me that 2×4 plays several roles: you create signage and way-finding systems for buildings, but you also create publications about architecture. To start let’s talk a little bit about those dual roles.

I gave a lecture recently and the title was “In, On, Around and About,” and this is kind of our relationship to architecture. We do work that happens inside architecture and is somehow applied to it and the landscape around it, but we also do work about it.

It was never an aspiration of ours to become sign designers, it was an accidental development of our practice. What’s interesting is that by working at an architectural scale as a graphic designer you operate at a completely different scale than you do for the rest of graphic design work. Often times the work is just bigger or it incorporates materials in a different way, and that work – which is integral to architecture because it’s murals or it’s wallpaper or it’s surface decorations or patterns or signs or way-finding – is all is driven partially by the scale of the work that it’s related to.

But then there’s also the work that is about somehow expressing the ideas of architecture or explaining how it works. In the beginning we did a lot of that, because the architects who we were working with didn’t have a lot of buildings; they were still competing for projects and so we would did things like boards or books or materials that tried to explain an architectural idea. Then it went over into books and magazines, things that were about architecture somehow, which still had to engage architectural ideas, but in a graphic way. So there’s a split between the work which is architectural in scale and the work which is graphic in scale but relates to the architecture itself.

That’s the two major strains that you mention: broadcasting architecture versus work which augments architecture somehow. I think we see them both as commentary or critique in a certain way, because I think that the graphic work in the buildings is always somehow in dialogue with the building itself. There’s a contrast or friction between the things that we do and the architecture. In the most basic sense, if you think about way-finding: it simply annotates the building and tells you how to use it – it tells you to go here or go there, tells you these are the doors you’re supposed to use – and so it’s really basic labelling. But in a more complex way I think it starts to reflect the ideology of the building and it tells something about the story of the building and how you should feel about it.

I think that’s especially true where the elements inside a building are elements of partition and not of structure. You’re basically decorating those elements to give them meaning, saying this is an important wall or not an important wall. You’re providing very basic functions for decorating the space, and in doing that you tend to explain the concept of the building. I like to think that the work that we do in relation to buildings plays this very complex and integral part in the sense that we speak directly to the user of the building about the building. Way-finding is always seen as something that is directly related to the user experience of the building, not to architectural history and not to a theoretical idea but to navigation and to the way that someone moves in the space. But if you just extend that further out it becomes about making a direct address to the users about the building that they’re using.

That happens some times more than others, and it depends on the architect and on the building and what’s possible, but I think that it’s the clash of two disciplines coming together that I find really interesting. I still find it an interesting area to work around and think about, and as technology changes it becomes an increasingly important one, because now you have digital things, LEDs, and dynamic elements that are projected into static elements. Increasingly every building engages the graphic in more and more complex ways. It used to be very typical that the architect would entirely finish a building and then the graphic designer would come in and decide where the signs went, but I think that it’s much more likely now that there is a very early integration of the two practices and the graphic and informational part is considered a component of the architectural part.

You mentioned graphic design in a dialogue with architecture. Is that dialogue the product of a real dialogue that takes place between a graphic designer and architect where he or she explains the priorities and then you try to make them more explicit?

I think it happens in lots of different ways. Sometimes it’s a real dialogue, and in the very early stages there’s a discussion around certain overarching ideals to do with the space, and then that plays out in graphic ideas. For example, in IIT, the building by OMA, there was an idea from the competition stage of having this portrait of Mies on the face of building; the idea of having big portraits was there from the very first concept. They were glued onto the first model that was made, and so there was already a thought about how the building would be graphic. It is a one-story building so the walls don’t hold up the ceiling, the columns hold up the ceiling, and the interior partitions were always just a series of fluid forms that demised the rooms. They were always thought about as covered with things to give them meaning or make them different. There was already a dialogue around that idea – not necessarily what the content would be, but that there would be something there – from the very earliest parts of the design process.

There are other times where as the design develops, there are certain conditions that arise and must be met somehow, but can’t be met with architecture for a variety of reasons – often because it’s too expensive. So then they’ll say, “We have this big blank wall. We should make something more interesting with this.” That calls out for some intervention by the designer. That is something that is unforeseen in the design process, but in the development process certain things come up and you make decisions about them for the sake of the unity of the design.

Other times it happens on the graphic designer’s side in a purely analytical way. You don’t really have that much dialogue with the designers of the building so you make up your own story about it. It’s your own interpretation of the building to a certain extent, and that often happens in buildings that are quite far along and we’re brought into a situation where we don’t have a rapport with the architect so we just make up our own way of working and thoughts about the buildings. Sometimes they match the architecture and sometimes they work against it, to a certain extent. We did an interiors project recently – it was for the New York Academy of Science – where we did a whole series of wallpapers about our own thoughts about scientific inquiry. It didn’t have anything to do with the physical architecture per se, it just became another element of the space.

Do you see your role as sometimes trying to supplement a building in order to provide qualities that it lacks?

I don’t think that it’s a matter of lack and I don’t think it’s a matter of supplement, because one seems recuperative – as if it’s solving a problem that wasn’t solved by the architecture – and the other one seems like it’s secondary. I think in both cases it’s more complimentary than supplementary. It’s another element – like lighting or sound – that’s part of the architectural experience.

I think that a lot of it has to do with completing the atmosphere of a space. If you think of the Seagram’s Building, the graphic element is extremely understated and it’s really played out in these simple ways, in terms of patterning or typography, but it’s somehow completely appropriate for that building. It gives a sense of “50s modern business attire” to the whole thing. You can’t imagine it being done in a different way than in this almost transparent way. With CCTV or a project like that, the spaces are so dramatic, so big, so architecturally complex that the design program is actually incredibly neutral, because it doesn’t need that much. You just need some really basic way-finding. Sometimes you need things of big scale to match the scale of the structural members, because they are such a powerful element in the space, but it’s not a space that’s calling out for a lot of additional material, because the physical form of the building is so incredibly present all of the time.

I think each space has a logic to it and part of the design experience is understanding the logic and somehow creating something that fits there. That doesn’t mean it’s something that is totally compliant in the space, because sometimes it can fit by being really annoying, but it needs to be complimentary to the whole experience. If part of architecture is creating these experiences, then the graphic and the visual is an incredibly important part of it. Often times one of the first things you see when you go into a space is the graphic aspect of it.

The graphic acts almost as a buffer.

Architectural language is something that you experience in an incredibly visceral way, but it’s not necessarily apparent to people right away what it is they’re seeing or experiencing. You might walk into a space that’s very big, so that’s the first experience – it’s big, it’s open – but the intricacies of the architecture aren’t immediately apparent to most people. So often the graphic is an entry to it, something they can understand on a more human scale.

Do you have a particular building in mind?

I was thinking about Terminal Three in Beijing. When you first step in, that space is pretty overwhelming. It’s almost like you have to look at 180˚ to comprehend the whole thing. You’re overwhelmed by this huge empty space and you don’t necessarily understand how the curve of the ceiling works or how the ceiling detail works or how all of those things add up to the overall experience. Often you’re focused on the simple, much more immediate experience of, “How do I find the check-in counter?” And in a way the graphic part has to work against the overwhelmingly architectural space just to make you feel like you can navigate it or understand where you need to get to or how you fit into the whole thing, because your first impression might be absolute bewilderment at the scale of it.

Right, because the concept of Terminal Three is to combine under one roof so many of the elements that are spread across multiple terminals in the typical airport. That’s really a challenge, of course, because if you’re going to do that then people have to understand the system so they don’t end up at the wrong end, which is almost a kilometer away.

In a way that airport doesn’t use any the typical architectural ideas of progression to get you places, because you see the whole thing at once, and that’s such an unusual experience. You’re kind of high when you enter, then it slopes down away from you, so it’s almost like lifting the roof off a building and seeing it without all the room partitions. That’s a situation where the whole way-finding program becomes absolutely essential to what your movement through that building will be, because the architecture doesn’t necessarily lead you through immediately.

Another aspect of the way-finding in airports but more and more in other sorts of buildings as well, is the need for iconographic expressions that are independent of language. You almost need to a develop a visual Esperanto that can communicate even to people who are nervous and rushed and guide them through the building in an efficient way. That seems extremely difficult.

I think that is almost a different discipline in itself, because airports or subways systems have problems unto themselves that don’t necessarily relate to an individual building. In an individual building you usually go through a certain progression of experiences that is pretty standard: you see the building, you walk across something to get to it, you walk through the front door, and then there are certain things after that. In an airport, because there are so many routes that you could take and so many things that you have to do in a precise order to get where you have to go, you really have tell people exactly: step one is this, step two is this, step three is this… In Terminal Three it’s interesting, because you go through the big framing gates where you check-in, and then everything keeps narrowing down until you get on that train. It’s a series of steps and I think it’s even played out on the floor: go here, go here, go here… You don’t really have any free will in the system. You only have one way to go through it and you have to keep everyone going that way, whereas in other places you might want to exaggerate the sense of free will and not make them feel too controlled in what they do.

Airports are, by necessity I guess, authoritarian and design serves that.

I think we’re in a stage where you can control small experiences graphically, but on a bigger level, outside of a single building or airport or highway system, all hell breaks loose and you don’t have much control over it. So you create these little pockets of logic or pockets of unity and then those all fit together in a completely illogical way.

The airport is the exact opposite of a city in a way. Your movement has to be totally prescribed, the graphic has to be totally consistent, you have know how to get from one place to another. Then you can have the shopping street in the airport, but that’s always under signs that say “Shopping Street” and tell you when you’re in it or not in it. There can’t be anything left to chance. Whereas with the CCTV headquarters I think there are certain things that can be left to chance.

What exactly are you doing for CCTV?

Ostensibly we’re doing all of the graphic design for the site and inside the building. How all the signs work, how the way-finding works, when there’s electronic things and when there’s fixed things… But it started off more basic: What do you call the different parts of the building? How is it labelled or numbered? It’s a difficult building because, for instance, do you consider it two buildings or one building when you label it? Is there a Tower One and Tower Two? But what happens when they join together again? One of the towers has a different number of floors between the base and when they join together again, so there’s a certain point where you have to allow for some missing floors on one so that you get to the same number of floors when it joins the other one. There are a lot of basic logical problems to understand in that building.

That was exacerbated in part by certain decisions that were made on a totally arbitrary level at the very beginning about how the sections would be called in the architectural plans. All of the rooms were labelled a certain way on every single plan, and when we got involved and started thinking about way-finding we found a certain kind of illogic to that, because you’d enter in Section E then go to Section C then A, because for another reason the rooms were labelled that way. So you’re stuck with a somewhat illogical overarching naming process. Then from that, you have to work out a new system so that it makes sense again.

There’s also drawing the maps of the site and figuring out what happens outside, in the kiosks and all that stuff. How you get people to know where to drop people off… Then it works down to the really basic things like how do you label the cafes and what does it say outside the elevator to explain how to get to these different parts of the building. There’s a really complicated vertical movement pattern in that building too, because certain elevators go to certain floors and not to others. Then it goes to the more environmental part of it: there’s murals for some of the rooms, there’s parts of the visitor loop experience that are more informational. There’s a lot of different things to do in that building design-wise. And a lot of it is very dry. It’s much more interesting to figure out how rooms are numbered, but like I said in that building there’s so much going on conceptually and architecturally it just needs to be decoded mostly – to just get people simply from place to place.

That idea of “decoding” a building is really interesting. I think that’s an aspect of the relationship between architecture and graphic design that isn’t well enough understood. Something like designing wallpaper is very easy to understand. You get a graphic designer to do that. But there’s another, deeper level of involvement where you have to enforce what the building’s intentions are, even when they weren’t clear from the beginning of the design process.

I think it’s also part of the way that buildings are designed. Usually an architect designs the outside of the building – the basic concept of it, how it works, how it’s structured in terms of providing enough space to fit all the program needs. Then another architect, often unrelated to the first one, comes in and does the interiors. Even if the same architect does the interiors often it’s a different team of people, and it’s only at the end that you really start to think about how people move through it or what they do when they’re there. I’ve been in many different projects where there’s no allowance for where you buy a ticket or something like that way into the process. It’s a museum and no one’s thought about where you wait in line to buy a ticket, because so much effort has gone into the overall architectural expression and the language of the building. And that’s not admonishing architecture, I think you just have different scales of problems that you have to deal with at different times. But at some point you have to deal with these really basic issues like decoding the building and how you use it.

And I suppose it makes sense that you would need an outside perspective for addressing those issues, someone who can think more like a user.

It’s interesting, because I find it difficult to understand buildings even from their plans and sections. I really have to work at that notion, because you constantly have to be imagining spaces not as formal volumes but as spaces that you move through. For instance, OMA’s Casa da Musica in Porto, until I went to that building and went through it I never fully understood how it would work or what the spaces would be like inside. I think it’s so amazing that people can understand that at the level of drawings, because that space is so complex and your route through that building is so interesting, the way one space opens into the next one is so interesting. But it’s a really difficult thing to imagine at the level of drawings.

Photos too generally.

Yeah, photos are such a low-level expression of architecture I think. The pictures that you see of that space don’t have any sense of the scale of it. There’s a really beautiful way that one space leads to the next in that building, but it’s almost impossible to explain through photographs.

Which goes back to the other side of your involvement with architecture.

Right, that’s the side that I feel less accomplished in at the moment. Maybe because I haven’t been designing so much print work recently, but maybe also because I’ve found that aspect so frustrating. It always comes down to this set of similar devices that you have for telling stories, and after a while it becomes really tedious I think: you have a group of plans and sections that are put together, then you have some photographs that were taken by a good photographer, then someone writes an essay about it… Those are the devices that you have to tell the story.

The issue of Domus d’Autore that we did with OMA was an interesting attempt to at least catalogue the possible devices that you could use. It had people’s postings of images of themselves in the buildings and what people were saying on blogs. It had how the television stations covered it and how the newspapers covered it, and it attempted to make a list of all the different types of architectural representations. But somehow they still always seem deficient. So this whole sea of architectural publishing I feel more and more alienated from. There are more and more books, and nothing seems to get at it or penetrate it somehow. It seems like film and something interactive might be a better way to do it. But you deal with it all the time, so you must struggle with the same things.

Yes, also because a building is so complicated and there are so many things that you could try to express. If you say, “OK, I’m going to concentrate on the experiential aspect of this building,” then there are things that you can do – you can interview users, you can ask the maintenance man for a tour, you can ask an author to write a piece of fiction that takes place in the building. But then there’s dozens of other things that you’re ignoring.

I feel really frustrated about how to move it beyond that. I’m doing a book with an architect right now, a totally classical book. It’s a series of 22 essays that he wrote and some pictures of the buildings that he talks about. I’m working with a very typical architectural publisher and they really wanted something “different”. But basically every idea that we brought to them that would have been different, they said, “Oh, but you can’t do that though, because books that size don’t sell…” And so we did all these covers and they were finally like, “What we were thinking was maybe like an architectural detail on the cover…” And I just said, “Well, basically now you’ve worked this book back to being 8 1/2 x 11, it has this kind of typography, it now has an architectural detail on the cover, so it looks exactly like every other book you’ve ever published.” It just seems like all of the interest to do something different hits a dead end every time. For that book, we wanted to make it much more like a novel; if it’s all writing why not really publish it like a novel and make it look like that? But of course there was no capacity to think about it that way.

Rem [Koolhaas] is one of the only people who experiments with publications in a way which is as radical is the way that OMA experiments with architecture. Whether you liked it or not, I think Content (Taschen, 2004) was a really interesting experiment to try to get at his practice in a totally different way. And obviously S,M,L,XL (Monticelli, 1995) was a way and the issue of Domus d’Autore was a way. Each one attempts to crack through somehow or at least throw in some new ways of rendering the projects. I think that he’s come the closest of anybody to making a series of publications which reflect on architectural ideas in graphic ways: the actual graphic form of the thing itself and the way that the writing is assembled and the way that the publication is thought of is equivalent to the buildings in a way.

Rem is someone who puts a lot of thought into the problem of representing architecture, because he suffers from the fact the architecture articulates itself so poorly to the outside world.

Yesterday I went to this conference at a university for a little while. I have to say it was so bad. The presentations were so completely impenetrable, mostly incomprehensible really. I had no idea what these people were saying. In this case it was a conference of architects, but the language was so internal.

Believe me, I know. These academic discussions really are impenetrable and, worse, they drain your enthusiasm for architecture and architects. But what is interesting is that, having done Content and even with MAD Dinner, the book I made last year, it’s become clear to me that if you don’t submit to that internal discussion and you try to do something different, you are almost sure to be dismissed by many architects and critics. If it doesn’t look serious and it doesn’t look like something they identify with, they immediately assume it’s frivolous. I think that is a major obstacle to the sorts of experiments you mentioned: the belief that architecture needs to be very serious makes it so much more difficult to experiment and, once you have experimented, to find an audience that is willing to make the leap of faith and try to appreciate it.

I think it’s a weird combination. In some ways, there is an inferiority complex where architecture needs to be philosophical to somehow counteract the physicality of it. It needs to be proved that it’s philosophical or it comes out of deep ideas. But in doing that it completely alienates all of the people who could actually understand some of what is going on, and that was part of the problem of this conference. One of the questions at the end was so completely over the top. Literally it was like, “I’m really concerned about the post-colonial idea of concrete and its hegemonic position in relation to local stone…” And I feel like I’m a fairly well-read, intelligent person and I just had absolutely no idea. I just thought, “How would I ever answer that question if someone asked it to me?”

I generally support theory and the idea of criticism being an important part of architecture, but somehow it gets to the point where there’s no entry point to it. That’s why I thought that Content was such a daring book, because it didn’t feel labored in its attempt to prove something. It put a lot of things out there in a lot of ways that could be interesting. But what do you feel is the reaction to Content?

Well I’ve heard some very intense reactions on both the positive and negative side. On the negative, it seems that the cover alone turned off a huge part of the potential audience. People didn’t bother to read it or even open it once they saw the crudeness and graphic aggression of the cover. Sanford Kwinter said that. He told me, “Yeah, I took one look at it and then I threw it in the trash.” But actually in China I’ve met quite a few people who really love it, and young architects have even told me that it inspired them to study architecture.

I really like that book a lot. I thought it was actually really daring and unusual, fresh. It took risks where no one else takes risks.

Yeah, I talked once at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and people were criticizing Content and I said, “Look, our attitude was that there was no book like that, so we should make one. If in ten years there are dozens of books like that and Content seems like an amateurish, primitive attempt, then that would be great, because that would mean we have that many more interesting, experimental books. But as long as it’s the case that nobody else is trying to do it, then I think a book like Content deserves a small amount of respect for showing what’s possible.”

Right, what I liked about it was that it didn’t feel derivative. Or that what it felt derivative of weren’t architecture books. What was interesting was that it took a tabloid approach to a subject that had become tabloidized by the way it was covered anyway. I thought that was an interesting critical manoeuvre in a way.

It was one of the only successful attempts that I’ve seen to apply this idea that architects often have of bringing in someone who has no idea what’s going on and getting them to apply that ignorance to come up with fresh ideas. Around OMA there was this recurring fantasy, “Yeah, we’ll let the lady who makes the lunches do the image selection and that’ll be super interesting!” And it almost never works, but it did for Content, because neither of the designers knew a thing about architecture or particularly cared to. So they simply applied this taSbloid language, which was there native language, because they had been doing a magazine like that for years. That’s why in the end it feels authentic, because they couldn’t have done it any other way.

I just feel really worn down by the architectural publishing world to a certain extent. It’s not where I go to find inspiration or interest at the moment. But I think maybe exhibits are a slightly more satisfying way to deal with architecture, because you can deal with lots of different media. You can have models and you can movies and you can have text and sound. In that they’re quasi-architectural themselves, they might be a way to address the difficulty of books somehow.

Some of the animations that are used to describe a building in design I think are pretty interesting in the way that they can conceptually assemble a building and move you through it. I’m talking about those Crystal CG fly-throughs and stuff like that. In terms of telling the story of a building I think they’re pretty compelling. They’re cheesy in the sense that some of the graphic language a little bit cheesy at this point, but I don’t think it’s fully developed as an experience yet. But on a Hollywood level, of course, you can start to make those things really incredible. I’m sure there’s huge potential for it, but it’s super expensive to do at the moment, so that limits what can be done.

Over the years 2×4 has been involved in a few projects that have gradually expanded to include a variety of disciplines and media. The collaboration between OMA, 2×4, and Prada is maybe the most obvious example. I know that you also recently worked on a wine bar here in New York where you ended up doing almost everything from the development of the name and brand identity, the web and interactive components, packaging, to the architectural and interior design. I’m curious about how this sort of total integration works. As you mentioned before, graphic design is a complimentary component to architecture, but so is plumbing or HV/AC and you rarely see the people responsible for those aspects entering any others.

I think that branding has become so embedded in the way that everyone thinks about their business, their organizations, that all design, including architecture, is pushed into becoming an expression of that. If you’re going to build a corporate headquarters now, absolutely you’re thinking about how this selection of architects supports the overall brand of the company. So that’s part of the programmatic demand of architecture now, and because designers have always been pretty integral in developing what a brand is, it’s only a small shift from determining what it is to starting to create the expressions of it. Nike always talks about their “brand DNA”. They say that their brand DNA is so strong and you need to understand the DNA of Nike in order to understand how to make work for them. Once that’s established, everything has to be an expression of that DNA. Of course, you can say that the work Rem [Koolhaas] is doing for Prada is clearly an expression of Prada’s brand. Rem’s an integral part of Prada’s brand, and we’re a part of Prada’s brand also. For a fashion company to associate itself with OMA is a branding statement and then the work that they do for them pushes their brand in certain directions, expresses it in certain ways.

Because of that I think the distinction of what’s architecture and what’s graphic design becomes a little bit blurry, because all of them become equal expressions of this central branding. I think that’s actually a major change in the way that the world works. Of course, it’s probably happened in natural ways before, but when a museum becomes totally obsessed with what its brand is and what it means to have Renzo Piano design their museum for them, it changes the nature of what they’re expecting from their architects and what they’re expecting from their designers. It’s also implying that, for example, if Nike has this really clearly defined DNA and the architects are working from that and I’m working from that, then naturally our work should somehow go together, because we’re all referring to the same object of representation. So I think that the change in our practice comes from the change in that understanding of brand. The more we work with organizations where our interaction with them is considered part of their essential branding, the more the things we work on changes, because we become expressers of their brand in all these different ways.

With Prada it’s different, because Prada has a big brand that we’re a small part of. Also part of Prada’s brand is the unexpected, so if you do something weird it fits, because they’re dealing with unexpected things. But with Nike, for instance, they have very strong expectations about exactly how they represent themselves and what is or isn’t an appropriate Nike expression. So, as in this wine bar project, if you’re in charge of developing the brand of a company – its name and its feeling and the qualities that it’s supposed to exude – then you can move into other things for them as well: what the experience is like or what the space is like or what the interactive parts are like. Controlling the branding part of it allows you to have a much larger scope of what happens next, either by commissioning people or doing it yourself. So, as we’ve taken on these roles where we’ve become much more integral to the establishment of the idea, that allows us to have more scope in terms of the work we do. Does that make sense?

Yes definitely. It reminds of something I read on your website this morning. It was something you designed for the skin care company Malin + Goetz and it was described as “a package that could function both as a logo and an architectural element.”

There was this early modern notion of total design and the expression was always “from the teaspoon to the city”. The architect should be able to touch any one of those things and pull it into a design. And of course people like [Adolf] Loos or [Frank Lloyd] Wright were absorbed in the idea that they would design all the furniture and the light fixtures and it would all make up one huge, purely integrated art experience. I think brand, in a way, has become the newest form of total design. But rather than saying that the idea exists in the architect, it says that that idea exists in this kind of brand manual, which expresses who they are. Then everybody adopts that as their working method. It’s a transformation of the total design mentality, and it’s ceded control from the architect to the client. The client is now in control of the total design idea and everybody becomes their servant.

Mark Wigley writes about this idea that total design was always implosive and explosive, in the sense that it dealt both with the internal workings of something but also how it broadcast. That I think is the ultimate notion of it, where brand DNA somehow controls how the business is run as a practice, how people relate to one another, all of the products they make, but also all of their publications and how they express themselves to the world. It deals with the broadcasting of the subject and also with the design of it. In that way it unites promotion and product design.

There’s something I haven’t quite been able to get at though, which is the sense that there is an insidious aspect to all this, which is annoying and controlling and inescapable. The whole branding notion bugs me ultimately, but I can’t see a way around it either, because it’s one of those notions that incorporates any rejection of it. You know, “We’re the company that’s against branding!” And then that’s your brand.

Right, “Our gimmick is there is no gimmick.”

It’s one of those things that is so totalizing there’s no outside to it. It’s kind of what [Antonio] Negri would say, you have this sense that you want to rebel against something, but the thing is so big that there’s no way to be outside and rebel against it, every gesture is absorbed by it. Branding is one of those forms. It absorbs all its critique. I think that controlling branding gives you a lot of power and a lot of agency, but you never control it totally so you then become a vehicle of it or factor in it somehow. It doesn’t reside in you.

Also when the business-side is given priority, scientifically-justified aesthetic preferences start to influence designs. You start hearing things like “green doesn’t sell” or “books of that size don’t sell” and it seems to me the number of options before the designer contracts.

It does and it doesn’t. There’s a notion of branding that’s also expansive in the sense that, once you’ve established your brand then presumably you can move into anything and take it over. One of the tests for whether something has a strong brand or not is to say, “If [the company] started a chain of restaurants what would they be like? Can you imagine them?” And you can kind of imagine what an Apple restaurant would be like right away. But if Microsoft opened up a chain of restaurants it’s very difficult to imagine what they’d be like. So if the brand is strong enough it allows expansion and redefinition, because it changes the subject rather than the form. It injects its form into it, in the way that Apple went into the phone market and now the iPhone has become a standard that everything else has to react against.

I was actually talking to a guy who used to be the president of Leica, and I was thinking Leica should go into the phone business, because often times your phone is your camera anyway and people expect Leicas to have a certain quality to them. And you can imagine what a Leica phone might be like: super utilitarian, really hardcore, always works perfectly with a great camera in it. It would be in a way the anti-iPhone, because it wouldn’t be about flash at all, it would be about something which is much more utilitarian.

And I think there are a lot of people who would rather have a camera that’s also a phone than a phone with a camera added to it.

Exactly, where the quality of the camera is the thing that is paramount, but you could also call your friend on it. So I think that is what is interesting: the design part is about designing the idea and seeing if it is generative enough to allow you to build all these things on top of it. And I think it works to a certain extent, because whatever you think about Nike they have a really strong image, which you can imagine is generative enough to where they can keep doing new things. They can go into the business of sports beverages or whatever. They can infuse it with those ideas that they have and they could give it a certain meaning or direction.

Of course, the annoying thing is when it goes to a personal level and you think, “Should I live here? Does this neighorhood fit my brand?” The annoying part is that it means you always have to step outside of the thing and look at it in this strange, objective way. Nothing can be authentic; everything becomes a manufactured expression of this manufactured thing. I think maybe that is the heart of what’s annoying about the idea of branding: it always seems inauthentic, it always seems manufactured.

The personalization of branding is scary in a lot of ways. On a macro level, I think you also see that more and more in the way entire nations represent themselves.

Right. China’s now looking at itself as a brand and what does it mean? Every country is.

And China’s an interesting case, because their brand – Made In China – has great recognition but a terrible reputation. So someone has to figure out how to transform the associations that currently weigh it down.

Yes, but Made In Japan used to be just like that and it changed 180 degrees to where Made In Japan is now seen as a symbol of quality and innovation.

Part of it must be simply development and improvement.

But it’s also a choice of which products to emphasize. The fact that Japan went into cars and electronics is different than if you go into milk products and pet food. I guess it’s about the professionalization of image control ultimately.

For major companies, it’s become refined as a technique and the devices for how it’s produced have become very clearly defined. You always had architects and graphic designers and all these people who dealt with different things, but now you have someone who is on top of them, unifying them all, and trying to get them in line so that all their work is complimentary in a way that conveys their message. Before, the architects did their thing and the graphic designers did their thing and since they worked together that was great. But, to come back to the question, the expansion of the scope of work is because increasingly clients are looking for all of these things to be unified rather than separate, so if that can be unified through you then that’s great. If it can unified by you telling them, “We should hire this architect also,” that’s great too. But they’re looking for that unity of message.

Originally published in Domus China 29 (January 2009); republished in Who is Architecture? (Timezone 8, 2010)