Lecture Notes: a designer in the vast wasteland | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: a designer in the vast wasteland 

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Chris Pullman did not own a TV when he began his career as a designer in 1973 at WGBH, the Boston station that produces about one-third of prime-time PBS programming. At the time, Pullman, a free-lance designer, was teaching design at Yale University. New Haven lacked a public television station and WGBH's signal didn't reach that part of Connecticut. Although Pullman watched cartoons as a kid in Wilmette, his circle at Yale subscribed to the "vast wasteland" view of the tube. "The worst thing in the world was to watch TV," he says. Yet Pullman has emerged as an award-winning force in the hybrid design domain of electronic and print communication.

Failure marked Pullman's design debut. Running for president at New Trier High School, he created his own campaign poster, one that featured two jumbo Ps, as in Pullman for President. He lost. "It must have been the poster," he says.

While doing research for an undergraduate thesis on American history, Pullman was drawn to a corner of the Princeton library that was new to him. "Here the books were collected for their visual content instead of what they were about," he says. The librarian there steered him toward graduate programs in graphic design.

Pullman went on to Yale, where he received a master's in fine arts in 1966. "Frankly, where I went to school, if there was anything worse than going into advertising, it was going into television," said Pullman. "TV graphics, as a field, didn't even exist then."

At WGBH--channel two on the dial in Boston--one of Pullman's first projects was to design an 11-foot-tall, four-wheeled logo--a giant numeral two on top of a Volkswagen chassis. Pullman drove the thing to station-sponsored stunts. "I think of it as the perfect promotional vehicle," he says. When the concept sputtered out, he offered the Channel Two Mobile to the Museum of Transportation in Brookline, which took a pass. Pullman fears its last exit was a landfill.

Other Pullman projects at WGBH included a T-shirt silk-screened with grease-stained palm prints, which was sold to fans of the "Last Chance Garage" show, a food-stained dish towel bragging "I helped make dinner at Julia's" for chef Child's cooking series, and a calling card shaped like a puddle of blood promoting the "Mystery!" series, which was slipped under the hotel doors of station managers attending a PBS sales convention. In a more serious vein, Pullman helped design the striking and sober title sequence, animated maps, poster, press kit, and viewers' guide for the 1983 series Vietnam: A Television History.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts awarded its 1985 Design Leadership Award to Pullman's department at WGBH, lauding the station's "energetic, eclectic and warmly human" look and its style of speaking to viewers "with friendly intelligence."

Now that Pullman is WGBH's vice-president of design with a 23-person staff and holds a senior critic post at Yale, he asks himself: "Here I am in this business that's taking our culture down the tubes, so what can I do?"

He takes credit for "detechnofying and deglitzing" his station's graphics to position WGBH as what he affectionately calls "the dumb but quiet alternative" to commercial TV. "It's like the old vaudeville rule--if everyone comes out singing, you come out dancing."

Too many mindless tricks are cluttering today's video landscape, Pullman says. "Designers fall into this black hole of novelty-for-novelty's sake," he observes, dismissing a 90s aesthetics driven by the special effects that pop up in every new generation of computer software. "Multimedia is a design wasteland."

Pullman, who now owns a television set and even gets cable, will lecture, with illustrative slides and video clips, on "Why TV Looks the Way It Looks: A Designer's Thoughts on the Visual and Cultural Biases of Television" on Tuesday, March 22, at 6 PM at the Arts Club, 109 E. Ontario. Admission is free, but reservations are accepted at 787-3997.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Betsy Bassett--WGBH.

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