In our prior conversation, you described the self-reflexive process as learning from yourself and reflecting on your own past experiences as a means of progressing in your future endeavours… summed up in you stating "let each experiment dictate your next move." Could you describe your experiences, experiments and what you have learned from yourself? What is your personal connection and approach to the practice of graphic design?
Looking back and reflecting upon my current body of work, I begin to notice a certain pattern of progression in terms of my design methodology. Thematically the projects do not necessarily hold any noticeable connections, but beyond the exterior level on a more purely methodological plane, each consecutive work is clearly built upon the previous one. Self-reflexivity is an important notion in my personal definition of "design process." Nothing is done in vain. Every project no matter how ultimately unsuccessful in my view, is an imperative stepping-stone upon which my latter experiences are shaped. That is the beauty of the process based on self-reflexivity: there is a constantly present sense of mystery tied into the workflow. In the physical act of production you are guided by certain loosely connected ideas, but it is only upon completion of the work and sometimes even months after, that you begin to truly grasp the meaning of the piece. Elliott Earls once wrote in regard to his design process; "You have to stay in the moment, listen to the process and respond to the material as it develops…I find that I don’t want to grasp the meaning of the work until long after the work is completed. I don’t want to have my 'idea' then 'make' it. I am constantly attempting to use all aspects of the process as a form of interrogation, as a way of coming to a deeper understanding of the subject upon which I am working…There is a difference between ‘knowing what you are doing,’ and ‘grasping the meaning of the work’." To me that statement clearly sums up my present attitude towards how design should be approached.
As of recent I have been mainly preoccupied with the idea of deciphering true essence and meaning of the "design process." Thinking back to when I was in my undergrad and having my work critiqued and interrogated by fellow students and professors, I would always be faced with questions addressing my thinking process—my "design process"; and of course I had to justify every element of my work with some sort of pseudo-deep analytical bullshit, where I would wonder whether anyone is really buying into it. It was then that I began to see flaws with that type of classic educational model (research → idea conception → materialization). It is wrong to approach artistic process in such a rigid scientific-like manner. One’s artistic pursuit should not be targeted at achieving absolute truths: as they do not exist. As Knut Hamsun stated, “Truth is disinterested subjectivity.” Through your art you discover your own personally authentic truths to the subjects that interest you. It was in my later years that I was introduced to “post-facto rationalization” theory, which radically altered my outlook on design practice. One notion that I have been contemplating recently is whether “design process” could be directly transmuted into something completely existentialist in its nature. According to existentialist theory "Existence precedes essence." Although the theory is ontologically based and primarily aimed at the notion of human existence, I believe its core idea could very well be applied to design, and is an area that to me would be interesting to further explore. What the concept "Existence precedes essence" means is that we first exist and only afterwards through action attach meaning to that existence. Does that sum up what I have said so far? Can a designer create with no preconceived assumptions and only afterwards attribute meaning to the work? I believe this type of design process is yet to be examined by designers to its full extent. We as humans are very complex and often utterly paradoxical beings—why can't design reflect that sort of intricate nature instead of being treated as an info simplification tool?
It is difficult for me to speak analytically about my design process as it comes to direct contradiction with my personal belief that design process is something that in itself is cryptic, recondite and pleasantly opaque. For me it is more about learning to embrace and ultimately utilize to my advantage something that I can't truly penetrate. In my personal studio practice, I treat Graphic Design as an art form. Lucidity is not something that I seek to attain in my work; it is just the opposite. I aim at creating work that challenges the viewers to penetrate its interchangeable meaning by creating an emotional connection through its demand of emotional response—be it positive or negative (that is irrelevant). My latest poster titled Judas is a good example of the type of work I seek to further explore. As I mentioned above the actual creation process behind my work is something completely opaque to me. To give a bit of a direct snapshot of what I mean by that, below is a small write-up expanding upon the materialization process behind the Judas piece. It was written a week following the completion of the poster.
"Transcend the banality of our lives by immensely transfixing yourself in the act of creation. You are not merely ‘working on the piece’; the process itself is deeply involved yet consciously recondite, almost impenetrable. You devote your being faithfully to the act of creation, beyond your immediate control. It is that inner unresolved enigmatic fervour driving you forward beyond all reason and logic."
I believe that the ability to clearly articulate the conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of one’s design practice is an indelible asset to a designer; linking language to form remains an important conceptual preoccupation in my work.
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.
“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”
So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the woman his work of art.
“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”
“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.
“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”
To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”
As this anecdote illustrates, it seems as if intuition is not exactly a magical process but consists of ones own capacity owing to their lifetime experiences and experiments. Dan Friedman comes to mind in regard to this subject in an essay by Chris Pullman:
“In the end, as a student, a teacher, a designer and an artist, what set Dan apart, and accounts for his amazingly diverse but coherent body of work, is that Dan pursed an approach not a style. ‘An approach,’ wrote Steven Holt, ‘is a series of investigative questions one asks during the design process, whereas a style is a series of similar-looking answers to whatever question is being asked.’ Dan's approach was based on a conviction about the bedrock values of Modernism and its appropriateness to today's world.”
As you pointed out, the world of academia (and the “industry") demands rationales of our intuitive decisions, in other words to rationally explain the irrational in a world that is just that — uncertain, fragmented, illegible and complex.
However, this all seems inherently contradictory, as a certain disconnect exists between the world of academia and that of the “industry”. This leads to a variety of questions that undermine the very notion (and reality) of our discipline as a commercial art or a “service” — as opposed to a cultural construct. How does one set up a framework for experimentation and intuitive processes in a discipline driven by corporate, marketing, and institutional values? Why is this process of self-reflexivity with no preconceived assumptions not propagated in today’s world of academia and beyond? Could this directly relate to the corporate-driven economic cannon of graphic design or complacency for the archaic and traditional models of learning?
I completely agree with you in regard to the meaning of the terms "style" and "approach". To me both terms are closely linked in a sense that my personal style is defined not so much by the exterior formal qualities of my work, but rather by the coherent methodology behind it all. I find that the visual exterior of the work I create is a natural manifestation of my thought process; the formal qualities of the work are naturally discovered rather than artificially created.
I no longer really pay much attention to corporate-driven design work, as I find it altogether wearisome and quite monotonous. By now these two areas of design (design as a service vs. design as a practice) have separated far too much to be regarded as interconnected in any sense. Both display exclusive necessity to our society, but in absolutely different ways. People often brand the more experimentally progressive work as "design for designers"…but so what? When I really think about it why is that such a negative connotation? Many practices (philosophy, literature) remain distanced from the masses when it comes to more complicated internally related ideas that are only relevant to those particular fields. That is precisely why it is labeled as experimental work; it is not readily applicable to the exterior world, but rather functions as bridging theories that investigate what has otherwise gone unexplored. Conducting experimental exercises in tandem to broader-scoped projects is something that I believe to be vital to any designer looking to boost the complexity of their work. At the end of the day it is all about pursuing work that you truly believe in. Forget the differences between the academia and the commercial world— pursue work that you assert to be progressive and that you believe offers input to the ongoing discourse surrounding design.
Design process rooted in post-facto rationalization is something that most likely will never be accepted by the commercial industry simply because it lacks the logical makeup marketers require in order to sell. And really there is no reason for it to even attempt to penetrate the commercial realm. Sadly the above-ascribed approach to design is not openly propagated in the academic institutions (more specifically in Canada). It was only in my later years of studies that I consequently began to discover more so on my own such subversive approaches to design. It is difficult to comment on reasoning behind the currently dominant classic approach to educational model in design (that is a whole separate conversation on its own)…the more obvious reason might be that graduating students want their portfolios to be filled with sellable work that directly applies to the commercial industry (in order to promptly land a cushy job). By living in a world saturated with so much readily-available information and constant visual pollution, it is understandable for designers to fall to despair, but I am quite optimistic in a sense that I believe there is much yet to be discovered in our field.
You touch upon similar aspects in your piece Too Much of a Good Thing is a Bad Thing, (2012):
“The increasingly high volume of diverse formal experimentation in design practice disrupts the viewers’ ability to absorb and interpret produced works. Before we can process one thing the next comes along. How can we as viewers place significance on anything if design experimentation has become so ephemeral. The overbearing accumulation of diverse graphics makes it impossible to focus on a singular thing for a substantial amount of time.”
You also link and relate interesting points on honesty in your piece Honest Design, Style Matters, Functionality Folly (2009). How does one remain honest in their approach to graphic design amidst the increasingly integrated digital world consisting of: instant gratification, Internet grazing, and a mediated reality? Has the advent of the Internet led to an increased focus on the external as opposed to the contextual? Perhaps a certain dependence and reliance on technology has led to a lull in progression and acceptance of mediocrity. (As Elliott Earls stated in Make/Do, (2011) "vainglory is the symptom, mediocrity the disease…")
There seems to exist a graphic design 'façadism' rooted in a reluctance to dive deeper in order to offer input for an open and critical dialogue (a process in which questions are posed, rather than problems solved). Are we continually scratching the surface?
When I touch upon the subject of honesty in design I mean staying true to your own personal vision of what design means to you and where you think it should go. Producing progressive work by taking an oppositional stance to your surrounding context—Progress by Opposition. To be modern is to be dissatisfied with your surrounding conditions. Living in a blog fuelled era driven by instant gratification and infinite amounts of readily accessible information it becomes difficult to not be influenced on some level by this overbearing mass of visual data. As I stated in Too Much of a Good Thing is a Bad Thing, "How often are we witness to other designers if not ourselves listlessly fixated on the glowing computer screen, monotonously scrolling through absurd amounts of blog posts, merely glancing over the visual content. Such highly concentrated amounts of visual data intake desensitize designers’ ability to value experimentally progressive work as something theoretically meaningful rather than simply 'cool'." As the amount of easily accessible information becomes nearly infinite, the inescapable virus of mediocrity multiplies exponentially. At this point designers begin to recycle visual data, re-contextualizing graphics for no apparent reason other than producing eccentric work with no theoretical backing for the sake of staying afloat amidst the ever-growing mass of visual pollution. I am all for formally subversive and visually exploratory imagery, but there must be some sense behind it, some theory; otherwise it is simply disruptive—complete deviance. As designers seeking to push our practice forward we must propagate dissenting attitude towards our context rather than a deviant one (which currently is more apparent). “Dissent is like civil disobedience. It occurs when people are willing in principle to play by the rules but have a genuine, good-faith objection to the specific content of the prevalent set of rules. They disobey despite the consequences that these actions may incur. Deviance, on the other hand, occurs when people disobey the rules for self-interested reasons.”
The imperative matter that I feel should be further addressed amongst designers is the lack of unity (in terms of vision) between all of the contemporary work. Looking at all the work primarily displayed by design blogs it seems that designers are competing for independence rather than looking to uphold a coherent dialog amongst their work. No one wants to fit in (conform), everyone is trying to top one another in the formal outlandishness of their work — this leads to prevalence of utter relativism. Relativism in design practice in my view is a destructive matter. We no longer have a point of reference to push off against in order to progress. There is a lack of dominating philosophy against which further theories can be built upon. We are stuck at a standstill… that is a daunting thing to be confronted with. This is a classic example of a collective action problem—extreme individualism leads to disintegration of graphic design as a collective all-encompassing practice that binds us all (The dialogue breaks down). Designers must possess interrelated understanding of the field's past, present and future in order to upkeep the ongoing dialogue. Now more than ever, work should be responsibly created with awareness of its place within the design sphere.
Lets continue with your honest design piece, I want you to answer your own question, which is probably rhetorical: How can objects find their use in culture naturally, without the designer having to instil it consciously?
It is a tough question that I am still grappling with and cannot really say that I posses a definite answer as of yet (or if one even exists). When facing that question at the time I was concerned with conceptual design's place within practical world setting. It is again a bit of an existentialist concern—meaning is it possible for a beautiful object to be simply created without any kinds of preconceptions and only afterwards attain its meaning—essentially for the meaning to be manufactured by the object's audience. In this case the designer is a creator, the object is a vessel, and the audience is the mediator of meaning…it's a fairly vague concept that I have mauled over in my head in the past, but at this point it is more of a theoretical exercise rather than something I can comfortably grasp and usefully attach to my work.
The following is a comment by Daniel Van Der Velden from That New Design Smell Issue n° 0,
“Please keep this section going for the sake of exposing the way in which a ‘mainstream design’ discourse has embraced this terrifying sense of adoration, which is so utterly boring yet predominant. You will very rarely hear this type of ‘thank you for your wonderful gift’ comment when an ‘unconventional’ position is advocated, and in that sense the mainstream design discourse cannot even properly distinguish ‘out of the ordinary’ positions/opinions from ‘uncommented/invisible’ ones.”
Walter Benjamin explains The Critic's Technique in Thirteen Theses,
II. He who cannot take sides should keep silent.
III. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs.
I feel this vital matter of a coherent and critical dialogue among our work is key to sustaining our sanity. Could we say that, since graphic design is a relatively new pragmatic discipline, historically rooted as a commercial service/applied art is a reason for this lack of coherent dialogue? However, this seems like an easy way out. As we grow more theoretical, pragmatic and all-encompassing (i.e.: designer as a creator, author, & editor) — how do we explain ourselves without useless rationalizations? As Stuart Bailey elaborates bluntly: “I’ve tried to explain elsewhere how I don’t really see graphic design as deserving of being treated as an independent, navel-gazing discipline. It exists entirely in relation to other subjects. There’s nothing mysterious about this, it just took me a while to realize it.”
How do we create collective action of meaningful critical dialogue that is hard hitting and embraces work of unconventional and subversive nature? Is this something that is not meant for the anonymity of the Internet? Or this lack of criticism — and critical discourse — is just the result of the aggregation of the Internet (and the solution rests outside of the Internet)?
There is a definite lack of criticism in contemporary design practice (particularly apparent amongst young designers/students in Canada, based on personal observations). That statement by Daniel Van Der Velden is very appropriate; pinpointing the parasitic issue of our contemporary moment. Far too often I am faced with fellow designers "liking" everything left and right. I can see how these types of short spanning reactions are a bi-product of our social media driven landscape—express your thoughts in 150 characters or less (or simply click the "like" button). Looking at this problem (lack of criticism) at its root, I think that most young designers simply lack the ability to coherently criticize their surrounding context. It is really all about diligent practice. To get better at it you simply need to practice your writing and begin to look at the world around you from a more critical standpoint. As I have mentioned before, I am a firm believer in progress through opposition. I don't think it is right to solely blame the Internet as a medium responsible for the demise of critical thinking amongst designers; we must take full responsibility for our own actions. As I pointed out in some of my previous responses, the dominance of design blogs has brought about certain issues, particularly causing short attention spans. Overall though, we must come to terms that the Internet is an integral part of our contemporary moment—instead of blaming it we should begin to look for ways of using it to our advantage. It all comes down to a sense of personal responsibility amongst all designers. As the new generation it is up to us to drive our discipline forward: ask new questions, experiment with new forms, and define our historical significance.
I don't think that the lack of a coherent dialogue amongst currently practicing designers is due to our discipline's relatively short history. There has been an ongoing dialogue for the past eighty years—more specifically in the 80s and 90s, which was pretty heated (legibility wars, cult of the ugly, Emigre Magazine, etc), but since the collapse of post-modernism (according to my personal belief), we have come to a standstill. We no longer feel the presence of a philosophy dominating our discipline—there is no longer any push and pull between groups of designers. How do we explain ourselves you ask? I believe that we do that through our work…we continue to push the boundaries of our practice, continue to experiment and question all preconceptions. Ultimately it is through our work that we begin to understand and define ourselves.
Since each experiment dictates your next move — what is your next move? As you have gone through similar graphic design undergraduate education, do you have advice for upper year graphic design students, as they might explore a self-initiated thesis and for post graduation?
Last words go here.
Currently I am looking to further examine direction behind the Judas poster; aiming to produce work that demands a direct emotional response from its audience—exploring various ways in which I can achieve that. Everyone's approach to their practice is different, some general advice that I can offer is as follows: continue to work on your writing craft as the ability to express your thoughts in writing is a vital asset for a designer to possess. Produce work that you truly believe is progressive; avoid being directly influenced by your immediate surroundings, and produce work that stands in opposition to prevalent ideologies. Develop your individual methodology through your work. Create first—understand after. I will sum up this interview with one of my favorite quotes by Honoré de Balzac, "My work is...my doubt."