The New North (2)

Image: record cover Joy Division with New Alphabet by Wim Crouwel

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3.1 Exploration
Graphic design is the discipline that practises and studies the processing of messages into visual codes. A graphic designer makes information accessible (signposting, user instructions), recognisable (logos and emblems, corporate identities), and attractive (advertising, packaging). The Bauhaus (1923) design curriculum regarded design as the convergence of applied art, applied science, and applied technology. In a related model from the sixties, science disappeared and two new areas appeared: communications and industry. Visual communication here is a mixture of communication and art. When visual communication overlaps industry and borders on marketing, it creates advertising.

With the processing of messages into visual codes, the question about the relation between code (form) and message (content) arises. Although both are closely interrelated, I see the beginnings of two divergent directions in practice. One direction strives for unity between code and message, stressing the poetic function. The other, however, specifically cultivates the distinction between the code and the message, mainly playing with the reference function. In the latter variant, the designer is engaged in what Susan Sontag calls ‘stylisation’. She wrote:

‘Stylization’ is what is present in a work of art precisely when an artist does make the by no means inevitable disctinction between manner and matter, theme and form.

I assume there is a connection between stylisation and the importance of affection in the perception of mass communication. This results in the code and the message losing their close interrelation and the poetic function being eroded. The designer Lorraine Wild stated in old-fashioned unionist style:

We want to see the work change, to see design get away from what a colleague of mine calls ‘greasing the wheels of capitalism with style and taste’.

The graphic designer solves problems either by sticking to rules (corporate identities), a convention (title page of a book), by making the most obvious choice (stationery), or by consciously avoiding rules and conventions and striving after originality instead. The tendency towards originality is often accompanied by the pretension of an artistic (writer/designer) calling, stressing the poetic and emotive functions presented in Jakobson’s diagram. The Dutch poet H.H. ter Balkt regarded writers as resistance fighters in technocracy:

The Romantic Movement, the last impassioned poetic stream, tried – with its characteristic zeal and enthusiasm, fury and misguidance – to arrest the crumbling and loss of the individual’s freedom, bought up by the happy, new machinery of industrialization (the Goliath who was to win).

Four kinds of knowledge can be classified in graphic design. ‘Transversal’ is what I call the knowledge applied, in varying combinations and within certain media and genres, for instance: typography, identity design, and information design. I also consider comprehension of the most important theories within communication sciences, psychology, and marketing to be transversal knowledge. Besides, knowledge of media is essential in order to be able to adapt information to a medium or genre. This includes both their workings and their technology. The knowledge of processes correlates with graphic design and creative processes. Finally, to get commissions, a designer needs to build and expand his knowledge of a specific domain.

The information designer Robert Waller pointed out a development which he called the ‘de-skilling of printing’. He has noticed a de-skilling in the production of print due to the general availability of this means of production. Complex technologies – typesetting, scanning, printing – are now available to large numbers of users in the form of electronic office and home equipment. This means that graphic design is no longer the exclusive domain of the professional designer and that both the user (receiver) and the commissioner acquire professional knowledge.

3.2 Transversal knowledge
The influence of digitalisation becomes clear from the development of typography. Parallel changes tend to take place in the techniques and interpretations of new technical possibilities. The Dutch designer Wim Crouwel based the radical form of his New Alphabet (1967) on the ‘cellular structure’ of computers which only allows constructions with 45 or 90 degree angles – in the assumption that this would never change. Gerard Unger reacted by writing:

I don’t see a reason for the development of an alphabet with a completely new shape. With the introduction of a new alphabet one expects people to adapt to it. Whereas it would be more logical to demand an adaptation of the machine.

Unger’s Demos (1975) took pains to fit into a grid at that time refined to 250 lines per centimetre; all the limitations having disappeared only a few years later. The characters are no longer defined as bitmaps, but are programmed as outlines with the help Bezier curves. This resulted in a different interpretation of digitalisation: graph paper dissolved into a software operated screen. Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum based their Beowolf (1990) on the programmability of shape. The anti-aesthetics of this Beowolf mirrors the machine aesthetics of the New Alphabet. Software and typography find their first functional application in the Myriad (1992), the continuously variable and modifiable multiple master typeface of Adobe. The strenuous introduction of the multiple master principle into daily practice was caused by the time-old phenomenon that technology sometimes provides solutions to problems that were never considered a problem.

Identity design concerns itself with brand, corporate and product recognition. Identity design implies personality. I don’t believe that the relation between the two is primarily one of sincerity, but one of pretence. The world being a global village besides being a theatre, Marshall McLuhan and Shakespeare meet in The Globe. When an identity does not need to refer to one’s own identity, then identity design becomes a role play in which the laws of the theatre rule. In his presentation, Roman Jakobson gave a beautiful example of the Russian theatre school:

A former actor of Stanislavski’s Moscow Theater told me how at his audition he was asked by the famous director to make forty different messages from the phrase ‘This evening’, by diversifying its expressive tint. He made a list of some forty emotional situations, then emitted the phrase in accordance with each of these situations, which his audience had to recognize only from the changes in the sound shape of the same two words.

The actor here is a virtuoso, dissimulating impostor. The Lee Strasberg interpretation, on the other hand, insists on actors actually feeling what they impersonate. The film director Elia Kazan, himself a Lee Strasberg pupil, wrote:

The actor becomes aware that he has emotional resources; that he can awaken, by his self-stimulation, a great number of very intense feelings; and that these emotions are the materials of his art.

In an essay on working with complexity, the architectural researcher John Habraken formulated principles that can also be applied to the practice of identity design:

Designing in a dialogue with form, compares to an improvisation on a theme. Variations and transformations are developed on the original pattern.

The concept of the theme enables people to cooperate and communicate by means of form. Besides, the theme directs the development of variation within systems. Habraken wrote:

Both theme and system draw a boundary around what we do. Within a system boundaries are explicitly determined. Within a theme, they are implicit. A system consists of rules; a theme is a convention. In general, a system permits many themes, but a theme always presupposes some system. Both bind people to each other, that is to say: those who accept the boundaries set. In other words: both are, each in its own way, the result of people agreeing on certain matters. The implicit character of a theme binds it more to a specific social group. The explicit character of a system makes it transferable from one group to another. (…) Once we regard the thematic aspect as a means to determine our actions and cooperate with other people, then will we realize that we are free to depart from the conventions within which we work. At any moment we will then be able to introduce elements or make moves outside a theme. Thematic and non-thematic mutually determine each other, as the exceptional cannot exist without the conventional and the quality of form is expressed by the tension between the two.

The twin concepts theme and system are related to ‘personality’ and ‘programme’ and Susan Sontag’s ‘matter’ and ‘manner’. The relation between the two aspects changes within identity design. The passive, monolithic identity moves within a harness of regulations, whereas the dynamic ‘interest identities’ take openness and the receiver’s influencing for granted, and that of other persons involved.

In information design – as in graphic design – the boundaries are vague and the contents variable. In general, the discipline concerns itself with the accessibility and user friendliness of information, and, in particular, with information in the service of accessibility and user friendliness. The rise of the digital media has led to the accelerated development of information design. Clemens Mok, a specialist in the field of digital media, describes the field as the organisation of systematised data (text, image, moving image, sound, and music) or the determination of information structures. He places information design in between two sister disciplines: ‘information arts’ as the arrangement of data, and ‘information architecture’ as the combining of information structures into information systems. Information design is connected with ergonomics, psychology, and instructional design. It is also closely linked to interaction design and interface design. Interaction design concerns itself with the information structure and navigation of graphic user interfaces, whereas the design on screens forms the field of activity of interface design. The link between information design and cartography is illustrated by, for instance, Henry Beck’s London Underground Map (1932).

Transversal knowledge is disseminating towards informatics, linguistics, business administration, and organisation science. The latter two press upon identity design, Internet design, and the management of corporate identities. The study of transversal knowledge is essential because graphic design finds itself at a crossroads of the written, visual, and programming languages.

‘Culture is extra-genetic information and language is its agent’, the linguist George van Driem said. Linguistics is the systematic study of languages. Important questions are: What is a language? How does a language work? What do languages have in common? and How does one describe a language? The essence of linguistics consists of the study of sound patterns (phonology), of the combinations and order of words (syntaxis), and of the meaning of words and sentences (semantics). There are natural languages, but also constructed ones, for instance: mathematical and musical notation, and programming language. All languages consist of elements that belong to groups, together forming end groups. Sign systems – pictogrammes, for instance – are often used as a supplementation of the spoken or written language. Following Noam Chomsky, linguists commenced the search for prevailing rules as regards the structure of a language. Chomsky states that each sentence has a layered structure. It has a surface and a deeper layer. The change from the deeper to the surface layer is called transformation. It is possible to describe that change in a grammar that consists of rules for sound patterns, word order, and meaning.

3.3 Knowledge of media
Media can be subdivided on the basis of the techniques used and within a medium there are numerous ‘genres’. Print, for instance, is the medium of the printing technique within which books, magazines, and posters form genres. Other subdivisions are based on the degree of interaction or life span. In marketing communication, media are regarded as a collection of communication instruments, for instance: advertising and public relations.

Some media and genres flourish for some time to lose attention afterwards or be replaced by fresh developments. In 1915, Guillaume Apollinaire described the Paris street scenery as follows:

We read flyers, catalogues, and placards that shout at us:
This is this morning’s poetry (…)
Texts everywhere, on boardings and walls,
Signs and posters screech like parrots.

Ten years later Mart Stam en El Lissitzky warned: ‘One has to take into account that modern man (especially in big cities) is inundated by inscriptions and posters.’

Seventy years after that warning, the designer Roman Cieslewisz answered the question whether the poster as a genre is vanishing:

I think it is. It’s no longer the means of expression it used to be, partly because of competition from television and partly because of the blandness of the subjects – the household appliances and food do not inspire great design. Posters need strong themes, which at present they lack. As a form of communication, they belong to another age.

Cieslewisz pointed out the mutual influencing of medium and information. The best-known statement on this subject comes from Marshall McLuhan:

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.

The film director Brian De Palma spoke from experience:

When you work in an art form, you’re aware of what its primary strengths are and I think film is one of the few mediums in which you can deal with sex and violence you can’t really do it on television or on stage. So they’re elements to be explored in film.

The differences in the use of a medium also influence information. Only 16% of the Internet users read each word, whereas the majority scans. With the transferral from paper to a screen, the number of words would therefore have to be halved. In relation to graphic design, Robert Waller points out the ‘artefact structure’ of a medium or genre, a collection of characteristics determined by its specific manifestation, for instance: the page numbers and running headers of a book.

The principles developed for brands and products in advertising and identity design are closely related to the characteristics of the mass media. McLuhan and Derrick De Kerckhove stressed their manipulative workings. They concluded that by watching TV we are incorporated in one huge corporate identity. Derrick De Kerckhove wrote:

At the psychological level, interactivity is a kind of recovery of the type of autonomy that broadcast was threatening to remove from us. We derive an awful lot freedom as human, individual, private subjects from learning to read and write. The moment TV came along, we began to put on a corporate identity – and I don’t mean here a corporation in the sense of a business, but a global, collective identity that emerges as we watch TV. When we turn the TV off, we become a private person again.

The sociologist Manuel Castells contradicted that idea:

I believe that our way of thinking is increasingly expressed in the mass media. The media don’t manipulate, they are cultural entrepeneurs, they try to discover what works and what doesn’t. We are in the media, the media are in us, they are part of our reality. We don’t live in a virtual reality, but rather in a realistic virtuality.

3.4 Knowledge of processes
The change of inflexible products into dynamic systems requires a process- related approach of graphic design. Besides, the steering of processes makes this craft better understandable and controllable for users, designers, commissioners, and producers.

Design processes are interrelated with internal (organisation, creation) and external processes (commissioner’s organisation, production, distribution). The internal graphic design process generally consists of five steps: formulation of the problem, concept development, elaboration of the concept(s), specification of the elaborated concept(s) for production, and evaluation of the process and its results. The evaluation can lead to a reformulation of the problem that forms the starting-point for the following stage in the process.

The design educator Wolfgang Jonas suggested a 3-tier design process to be able to move from a vague sense of discomfort to a concrete solution. In the analytical stage, the problem is systematically illuminated from as many sides as possible. In the projection stage, an ideal situation is outlined in which the problem has been solved. In the synthesis stage, the requirements for the realisation of the ideal are considered, resulting in design solutions. Wolfgang Jonas calls this 3-tier process ‘second-order design’. The 5-step graphic design process restricts itself to the synthesis stage, that’s why he calls this ‘first-order design’. He regards ‘second-order design’ as a continuous, open system, while the ‘first-order design’ focuses on effectiveness.

Another design educator, Alain Findeli, sketched the consequences of design within a system. The traditional designing process differentiates a problem (a), a purpose or solution (b), and the work of the designer as the causality between a and b. In the new situation there is a condition (a) and a subsequent condition (b) of a system. User and designer are both part of this. It is the designer’s job to understand changing forms and to stimulate the system to develop into a specific direction. Both a and b are transitional stages; they no longer correspond with the problem, the purpose, or the solution. Findeli found support with the art historian Andreas Broeckmann:

Instable media force us to regard art as something that changes constantly: as the dynamic, temporary, result of a cooperation between artists, programmers, technicians, designers, and other participants in the artistic process.

Broeckman calls digital media ‘instable’ to emphasize their process-based character.

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