Most influential designers; Shepard Fairey

The D5 Graphic Design Blog

This is the third part of a ten part blog series, if you’re looking to start from the beginning, go here. As part of their 50th anniversary survey GDUSA published a top ten list of the most influential graphic designers working today (amongst other creative professions). I’m going to work, in reverse order, through these top ten designers and establish just what it is that makes them so damn great and more importantly display some of their best works.

#8 Shepard Fairey

Long before ‘graphic design’ became the common term used for someone who created pieces of visual work to sell a product or advertise an event or service the term ‘comercial artist’ was used. Today the words ‘comercial’ and ‘art’ imply entirely different meanings but when we stop and think about it, should they?

Shepard Fairey is one of few graphic designers living and working today who could truly call himself both an artist and a commercial artist without us questioning the definition of the terms. He has a strong following in both street-art and graphic design circles, with neither one really challenging his motives. There are of course exceptions to this rule, Shepard recalls, in an interview with Henry Rollins how people have frequently exclaimed ‘I don’t wanna see your stuff pasted all around town, it’s such an eyesore’ referring of course to his street art. To which Fairey, quite rightly, argues; why is it okay for an image of an airbrushed girl or a tube of toothpaste to be plastered all around town and not a piece of art, just because it’s paid for, should it make it okay? Shephard is in a unique position when entering into such a debate as both his commercial work and self initiated street-art are “plastered all around town”. He continually argues that we as a society should question not only art and by extension, graphic design but the purpose, effect and cause advertising has:

“The real message behind most of my work is ‘question everything’.”

His story is that of a true artist, son of typically conservative American ‘prom queen’ and ‘captain of the football team’, he rebelled at a young age, got into punk rock and skateboarding and entered into art from that, quite typical, perspective. His success with Obey and the Adre the Giant street-art sticker was one of surprise, even to himself, he said:

“At first I was only thinking about the response from my clique of art school and skateboard friends. The fact that a larger segment of the public would not only notice, but investigate, the unexplained appearance of the stickers was something I had not contemplated. When I started to see reactions and consider the sociological forces at work surrounding the use of public space and the insertion of a very eye-catching but ambiguous image, I began to think there was the potential to create a phenomenon.”

This phenomenon which Shephard regularly relates to Heidegger’s theory of phenomenology is one that I like to think of as a reinterpreted narrative, almost a reminder from history of the roots of comercial art and graphic design. Fairey discovered that repeating an image all around New York City generated a public effect, this, a simple piece of street-art, at the time caused people to question it’s meaning and ultimately caused enough appeal to lay the foundations of a hugely successful clothing brand. What had originally been a piece of street-art has become an unintentional campaign for comercial success. Just as artists in the late 1800’s had discovered how their craft, their skills could be turned to a more communicative and comercial cause.

“The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.”

Interestingly, Shephard repeated his artistic experiment in the theory of phenomenology again later in his career. A strong supporter of the Democratic party and subsequently Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Shephard created a piece of street art to be pasted upon walls, stuck to street signs and repeated all over the internet which supported Obama’s cause. The campaign was not initiated by Obama nor his party but it was a huge success for which, the now president of the United States thanked Shepard Fairey:

“I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign. The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can change the status-quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign. I am privileged to be a part of your artwork and proud to have your support. I wish you continued success and creativity”.– Barack Obama, February 22, 2008.

After hearing all of that, it’s not at all difficult to understand why Shepard Fairey has been named the 8th most inspirational graphic designer working today.

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Shepard Fairey and his work is genuinely inspirational both in it’s style and application. There are alot of quick-to-the-trigger internet types who will dismiss the value of his work, mocking Obey and it’s fan base. These people simply do not realise how the simple hard work of one idea has accumulated so much success and how that message is essentially a philosophy of which most could live by and significantly improve their lives.

Question everything.

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Next week we’ll be looking through the work of  Charles S. Anderson.

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