Tibor on vernacular design

An excerpt from Tibor Kalman and Kerrie Jacobs’ polemic on the role of design in culture, published in Print (Jan/Feb 1990):

Often the best design, the most important design, takes place outside the profession,where this is still a true vernacular. A non-corporate, non-designed vernacular. Vernacular is slang, a language invented rather than taught. Vernacular design is visual slang. More than that, it’s design that’s so familiar that we don’t really see it. Seeing the vernacular is seeing the invisible. It is looking at something commonplace— a yellow pencil, a metal folding chair— and falling in love. Vernacular design is so clear and simple that it seems to be from another time. Often it is. Vernacular design happens when a small business hires the local sign painter, print shop, or commercial artist to take care of its design needs. Vernacular design happens when a business takes care of its own design needs. Appreciation of this sort of design shouldn’t be confused with nostalgia, because the vernacular isn’t a bygone era or a style that can be celebrated or revived. Rather it’s a process, a straightforward one, that creates work which has an unfiltered, emotional quality. These designs are some person’s, some regular human being’s, idea of how to communicate— how to say,

“This is a company that sells shipping supples.”
“This is a store that sells sausages.”

It is the unscientific but clear way to say,

“This is a beauty salon,” or
“This is a bottle of soda.”

The vernacular is designed as if design were a regular thing to do, and not the sacred mission of an elite professional class. It’s design that hasn’t been ordered and purified by the methods of trained practitioners. It’s communication without the strategy, marketing, or the proprietary quantitative research. And that’s what’s good about it.