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Features / Graphic Design

Microserifs: We ask Douglas Coupland about the design details in his seminal texts

First published in Printed Pages Winter 2013

Words by

Rob Alderson

After childhood, the first book cover that ever meant anything to me was Generation X by Douglas Coupland. It’s actually the cover for the 1996 reprint of the novel; a hot, almost violent pink which I would guess is a reference to the “Honolulu Choo Choo pink nail polish” worn by one of the characters in the book. It jumped out at me from the book shop shelves and into my life. Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture is about three friends rejecting the cultural norms of 90s America and swapping freewheeling stories long into cloudless nights. For a middle class boy in the suburban Midlands, it was intoxicatingly other.

Although he didn’t invent the phrase Generation X, Doug’s book certainly popularised it, and made him a literary star. A Warhol superfan, he’s described the book as his “Campbell’s Soup Cans” the work people automatically associate with him. Its genesis came in the form of a 1987 article for Vancouver Magazine; the first line of which interestingly presages the cover that so entranced me. It begins: “Kevin age 25 has popped into a coral pink restaurant designed by marketing computers.”

The writer had more reason than most to notice (and slyly denigrate) a stifled design culture. He originally attended university to study physics, but dropped out after a year to go to Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver. “It was a very large and fortunate intuitive leap on my part,” he says, “that it could be the first place in my life where I felt truly at home.”

He went on to study at the European Design Institute in Milan and later the Hokkaido College of Art and Design in Sapporo, three very different design cultures which all left their mark. “Memphis/Arc Linea was about a week past its heyday, while Japan was entering a design golden age. Milan made me suspicious of hype in both the art and design worlds. Japan, on the other hand, opened a thousand doors in my head. I have a dream once or twice a week where I’m in Kyoto, in a Japanese tatami room reading magazines and the year is 1954. It’s always joyous.”

The onslaught of a new and completely different set of visual reference points is clearly something Doug revelled in. “It was Rei Kawakubo/CDG and Issey Miyake along with Ruichi Sakamoto and avant garde bands. Eiko Ishioka was a big face of it in the west.

“Imagine China in 2013 suddenly coming up with a potent, forward-looking and genuinely new aesthetic that elites around the globe applauded. Nobody expected it.”

He stayed in Tokyo, working for the Magazine House publishing company. “They’d do whole issues on things like Czech cubist architecture while charging insane amounts for ads and we’d go out for $4,000 lunches with whale sushi.

“But what made the magazines superfuturistic was the back end of the magazine which was like eBay 30 years before the fact: the ruthless presentation of catalogue-y images shown stripped on white backgrounds. I could tell it was the future.”

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Doug Coupland circa 2013 is a writer, painter, sculptor and he’s designed furniture and clothes. But his first love was type. “I learned type in the Swiss Modern tradition. My third-year type teacher kept telling us: ‘Type is dead. There’s no possibility of anything new ever, ever, ever again.’ Enter the Mac. I think creativity is creativity no mater what. And Letraset was always way too overpriced, so I was glad to see fonts become democratised that way. I mean, $19.95 for a sheet of 18-point Times Roman? Younger people will have no idea what I’m talking about.”

Occasionally the type-geek peeks through in his novels. In Microserfs, one of the characters kills time in a diner “inking out all the vowels on his menu… testing the legibility of text in the absence of information.” Later the main character Dan feels it is important to note that his boss’s blender settings are recorded on “laser writer labels in 7-point Vranklin Gothic.”

Unlike that boss though, Doug is associated with a different typeface. “Helvetica has become my brand, and I can live with that,” he says. In the past he has written about his love for Helvetica’s ability to “pressure-wash into sterility” any word or phrase, and he admits that seeing it used anachronistically (i.e pre- 1967) on screen is enough to ruin a film for him.

When asked how his design background influences the way he writes, Doug’s reply is blunt. “It doesn’t, at least not consciously.” But his books are full of experiments with type, with words as visuals. (He doesn’t though, he insists, get involved in the cover design for his books).

One of the most exhilarating things about first picking up Generation X were the printed signs, illustrations and definitions that crop up throughout the story. In Microserfs the text is punctuated by jarring pages of seemingly random words and thoughts printed in Helvetica script much bigger than the rest of the book. There’s two pages of binary code and later spreads containing only the word “money” or “machine.” At one stage Doug dispenses with vowels for two pages echoing the aforementioned restaurant menu experiment.

In Jpod there’s 24 pages of random numbers. One of the zeros within this sequence was replaced by a capital “O” and whoever spotted it first won a Simpsons mug.

Doug admits he is fascinated by these games, by “messing with type” as he puts it. “By the mid 1990s I was beginning to realise that words were not enough. Writing takes place in time. Art takes place in space. There are hybrid forms like film, but in my life, the two are separate. I think my brain staged a revolution. By 2000 I was making visual work equally alongside words. Now I look at my old books and it’s like driving past a school I once attended long ago.”

I don’t think Doug is being disingenuous when he suggests that his design background doesn’t affect his writing. I think you need to separate writing into the intellectual pursuit and writing as a physical, artistic act; that of putting words on paper. The latter must be related to his design background; the former need not be.

“Type is where words become objects and objects become words,” Doug says. “It’s the exact halfway point – which is where my brain has always been.”

It’s no surprise he cites Jenny Holzer as one of his main artistic inspirations. Since 1977 she has produced a series of Truisms – phrases like “Deviants are sacrificed to increase group solidarity,” and “Romantic love was invented to manipulate women” – which she projects on buildings and prints on T-Shirts, condom wrappers and at the bottom of coffee cups. When Doug had an exhibition at The Rooms gallery in Newfoundland, he blew up large sections of text from Jpod; he also had one room where Pi was printed out to 53,000 decimal places.

What inspired him to explore these ideas? “Paper! Its materiality, its dumbness, its smartness, its historical resilience and the banality that we spew onto it. I think 11 people saw that show and you’re the first person to ever ask about it… thank you!”

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The books, the art, the chairs all point to a versatile and somewhat restless talent. Creativity – and its subversion and suppression in modern culture – is a consistent theme in his writing. You can trace this right back to that Generation X article, where he articulates the cruel creative Catch-22 that members of Generation X found themselves in. This generation, he writes, was “educated to almost baroque levels, tutored by a system of freedom of expression where all but the most deviant and antisocial behaviour was encouraged in order not to repress creativity…Unfortunately Xers not only achieved broad-based knowledge and the important ability of learning how to learn, they were achieving it when intellectual freedom and creative thinking had never been less in demand as a commodity.”

In Generation X the novel, we learn that Dag came to the desert after quitting a marketing job, where creativity was an act reserved for the weekends. “I worked from eight till five in front of a sperm dissolving VDT performing abstract tasks that indirectly enslave the Third World,” he tells his friends. “But then, hey! Come five o’clock I’d go nuts, I’d streak my hair and drink beer brewed in Kenya. I’d wear bow ties and listen to alternative rock and slum in the arty part of town.”

The theme continues in Microserfs; one of the characters muses on Magritte that if surrealism had been invented in the mid 1990s: “It’d last ten minutes and be stolen by ad agencies to sell long-distance calls and aerosol cheese products.”

Later in the same book there’s a wonderful group discussion about Gap’s reappropriation of cultural icons to sell trousers. “By using Balanchine and Andy Warhol and all these dead people to hustle khakis,” Bug explains, “the Gap permits the Gap wearer to dissociate from the now and enter a nebulous then, wherever one wants then to be in one’s head… this big place that stretches from the Picasso’s 20s to the hippie 60s.”

Interestingly though, Microserfs also suggests how humanity can rediscover its creative potential; through technology. The digital age is presented throughout the book as post historical.

What this means is that knowledge is replaced by memory, which according to Michael “means we’re no longer doomed to repeat our mistakes; we can edit ourselves as we go along, like an on-screen document.” He explains: “The age-old notion of ‘knowledge is power’ is overturned when all memory is copy-and-paste-able – knowledge becomes wisdom, and creativity and intelligence, previously thwarted by lack of access to new ideas, can flourish.”

This is the context of Doug’s fascination with technology. He sees far more than shiny gadgets; he sees creative salvation. “Human beings don’t change,” he says. “Technology changes. And when it does it creates utterly new ways for us to express our humanity. How could that be boring?”

The geeks shall inherit the earth. As Karla explains: “Our species has major problems and we’re trying to dream our way out of these problems and we’re using computers to do it. The construction of hardware and software is where the species is investing its very survival, and this construction requires zones of peace, children born of peace, and the absence of code interfering distractions. We may not achieve transcendence through computation but we will keep ourselves out of the gutter with them. What you perceive of as a vacuum is an earthly paradise – the freedom to, quite literally, line-by-line, prevent humanity from going non-linear.”

It’s against this backdrop that the unashamed geekery of the characters in Microserfs should be placed. The book revels in its nerdiness; the group discuss what attributes they would have if they were Star Wars characters and there’s a (persuasive) discussion about why Windows is male and Macs are female. Doug explores the significance of passwords, usernames and email addresses as parts of 21st Century identity.

Elsewhere he seems well ahead of his time. “Rants are the official communication mode of the 90s,” according to Bug; a neat summation of the Twittersphere and anonymous comment board culture of today. In Generation X the idea of “ultra short term nostalgia” comes up, presaging the obsessions of the Instagram age.

Or take this paragraph about faded Kodak photographs and try to ignore the obvious Instagram parallels. “[They’re] all yellowed and filmy, always with a big faded car in the background and fashions that look surprisingly hip. When you see these photos, you can’t help but wonder at just how sweet and sad and innocent all moments of life are rendered by the tripping of a camera’s shutter, for at that point the future is still unknown and has yet to hurt us, and also for that brief moment, our poses are accepted as honest.”

Rather than looking ahead, Doug’s new book Worst. Person. Ever. is very much of its time, and its sneering central character delights in pop culture references (alongside breathtaking misogny). It’s a vicious satire on current socio-cultural preoccupations, and great fun too; perhaps though technology didn’t quite save the world in the ways previously anticipated.

In fact whereas in Microserfs passwords were a means of maintaining individualism in the technological age, in Worst. Person. Ever. they have become an obstructive rigmarole. When Raymond tries to create an account for a website, there’s a great two page list of the 25 rules that his password must adhere to including: “Must not contain more than three sequential numbers of user’s birth year.”

But maybe technology can’t be blamed for not making the world a better place. Maybe it was ever thus. In an Icon magazine review of Doug’s 2004 design show Canada House in London, Sam Jacob wrote: “Design once symbolised progress. Design was certain that it was a way of bringing a better world. People believed in san serif fonts. Helvetica was going to make a better world.”

So Helvetica too failed to live up to these high expectations. But Doug’s novels, Sam suggested, “are the best descriptions of the sensation of modern design…Sensations of vast profundity amongst things which seem so lightweight… Magic realism in the parking lot of a video rental store.”

Worst. Person. Ever. makes the reader work hard to find that profundity, in this case in the profane. After this book Doug’s attention turns to his biggest ever exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery opening in May next year. “Art,” he told an interviewer recently, “is a combination of family plus trauma plus mode of expression that doesn’t really bear fruit until decades and decades later.”

Now, at the age of 51, perhaps the time is ripe for his first ever retrospective show. His paintings, prints, photographs, installations and sculptures will take over the gallery’s entire first floor, about 10,000 square feet. And from this impressive vantage point, when he looks back now on his time at art school, one lesson resonates above all others. “I was one of those students who stayed until closing every night. I look back and every person from my era who made a go of it was a student who always stayed late. Every single person. Everyone else got sucked away by the world.”