Nothingness Aesthetic (Redux) ☾ October 2018

When it comes to instilling politics within design, there seems to be a lack of vulnerability in the aesthetics of such attempts resulting in perpetuating, rather than dismantling, an atmosphere of alienation.

Unsurprisingly, my attempts to find a new path for rebellion within design have always ended up being dorky and belligerent rather than motivational. This constant disappointment lead me to the last resort of investigating the origin of why I care so much about sincere confrontation: goth and punk music. Their promotion of an inclusive scene for individual thought and collective behavior was what I was always trying to achieve in my work. So when I got to the essence of both scenes I discovered that they are built upon the potential of darkness. But darkness usually has a negative connotation: walking alone at night is unsafe; dark emotions are explicitly defeatist; “dark” visuals—or evil imagery—invoke harmful behavior; and many more. So how is it that something considered detrimental has created scenes such as punk and goth that are open to all, regulated by the collective within, constantly evolving their ethics, and at the forefront of style innovation?

Darkness is a void—expansive and without light. If we take a step back and view its blurry boundary as a gentle entry point—allowing one to ease themselves through its gradient threshold—and the lack of light as an opportunity for partaking in non-hierarchical structures, we can begin to understand darkness as a space without the anxiety of absolute limits. One can style themselves without mockery, fail without the implications of disability, and have a discourse without the burning pressure of a spotlight, all while giving one the confidence to be uncertain. And uncertainty is something that we all need help with accepting, but its messy and esoteric aspects, particularly within art, are what instill within us an urgency to inquire. However, the staid world of graphic design is built upon modernist dogma: the pursuit of clarity, certainty, and purity. These are principles to maintain the status quo and the belief in hierarchical systems. Modernism’s constant blinding light, which is decidedly white, focuses our attention on expectations and ethos we presume to be true, distorting authenticity’s definition to be about individualism and tragically resulting in isolationism—or as theorist Eugene Thacker states, it “has convinced us that it is more important to be seen than to exist.”1 Therefore, abandoning modernism’s pursuit of certainty, clarity, and purity for messiness and inexperience would be seen, in the words of curator Eloise Sweetman, as an appeal for intimacy. And this appeal would finally dissolve the preconceived notion that intimacy is a private affair and instead establish intimacy as the actuality that it is: a public affair that welcomes all encounters and teachings.2

In the hopes of engendering this intimacy, I’ve stripped my work down to the basics, realizing that the high-contrast black and white DIY xerox treatment I’ve applied to much of my work over the years was the most rebellious act I’ve done. This process overwhelming decays an image, yet that decay allows for reassessing what moments within the new disfigurement evoke a desire to renew endeavors that once seemed lost for both the creator and their peers. All these years I believed this process was rebellious because it was aesthetically transgressive. What I now realize is that I was subconsciously using darkness as an opportunity to diagnose spaces of disconnect similarly to goth and punk scenes.

According to theorist Marshall Berman, “authenticity is an abyss.” And according to writer and critic James Baldwin, “one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” If we combine these two abstracts, we can see how darkness within an abyss helps to create an environment in which pain can be acknowledged and pacified. For example, the minimal beat and synths in Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow carve out a void so dark that its eeriness allows Cardi B to rap about her foothold on this chaotic world with such confidence that it becomes the infectious element for an audience to rap along with every word rather than a structural hook or chorus. Some Youtubers (vloggers who publish on YouTube), such as Chris Klemens and Emma Chamberlain, have also built dark spaces. Beyond just a form of entertainment, they’ve twisted the mundanity and banality of life into aspects we can be proud of and appreciate. They’ve subdued the pressures of perfection and happiness, allowing the weirdness of normalcy to be reassuring. In these examples, darkness devours spaces that are physical, mental, and time-based; dismantling and destroying them as a means to engender solidarity with one another. And solidarity—knowing you belong to something, that you connect with something—is the true essence of authenticity, the one and only aspect that builds confidence to be urgently rebellious.

In many ways, we must remove hope from our thinking, because hope, at times, defines something as unattainable. Like Seinfeld’s George Costanza, to be hope-less is to consider all endeavors attainable and confrontational.3 And because darkness is everywhere and at all times—such as shadows which give our bodies and our built environment depth and dimensionality—we can without a doubt say intimate “alternatives” exist and they are weirdly expanding everywhere. Additionally, the ubiquitousness of darkness means that subjects currently considered “alternative” in our capitalist and modernist world, such as queerness and gender fluidity, are inherently within darkness, slowly devouring staid language and behavior and replacing them with their (“alternative”) vernacular.

Therefore, the creation of dark spaces must not be considered an outsider endeavor. Instead, we should aspire to be insiders within the places we consider problematic. Being an outsider is passé because it represents modernism’s power to make us invisible and isolated. But to be an insider—within, say, the rank and file of a corporation or an official hegemony—is to truly confront hierarchy and power, destroying avenues of marginalization and escape for those in command. We can no longer afford to continue the mistaken belief that the perpetual talk of alternative art spaces and thinking on the outskirts of conflict equates to political action. Abandoning the mindset of victimhood, we must speak such spaces and thinking into existence and make them unavoidable because the question of “what if” is less powerful than the question of “what now” when it comes to molding the future. It’s not necessarily a designers role to create something new or original—rather by using the chaos that stems from politics, architecture, the humanities, and other constructs within our daily lives, designers can address these indisputable chaotic and negative facts as elements within their work while using darkness to clumsily yet methodically contort these truths not into hyperboles but into constant reminders of what we’re fighting for and against. Designers can add to the din of the continuous droning message of our collective choice for a better future.

With that said, my intentions within graphic design are to harness dark aesthetics to strip anxiety from honesty, embarrassment from normalcy, alienation from the strange, and masculinity from almost everything. However, my views of dark spaces and my actions within them are not final nor without criticism, so let’s jump in and dig that abyss deeper together.

1Thacker, Eugene. Infinite Resignation. Repeater Books, 2018. 
2Sweetman, Eloise. “Roll On, Roll On, Phenomena (Until You Are No More).” School of Missing Studies. Sternberg Press, 2017. 
3George: I don’t want hope. Hope is killing me. My dream is to become hopeless. When you’re hopeless you don’t care. And when you don’t care, that indifference makes you attractive.
Jerry: So, hopelessness is the key?
George: It’s my only hope. 

Britt Gudas Review ☾ February 2019

Based on the furniture of the Shakers—a Christian sect from the 18th century in England that attempted to separate themselves from the “outside world” and to create a heaven-on-earth—Britt Gudas’ elongated gothic table is the narrative of a failed seance. Shaped like a coffin lid, it tells us what modernism never understood about itself, that, like the Shakers, modernist design is a celibate practice, lacking “mystery and emotion, [and] a little too frank about the limits of human nature [while] never preparing us for our eventual end.”1 Therefore, this is a subversive attempt by Gudas to turn the mundanity of zealous modernism-before-modernism designs into something uncanny and possessive.

The uncanny we must understand in the German and Freudian sense, as the Unheimliche—the ‘unhomely’—and therefore as something that “isn’t new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed.”2 The table’s Gothic nature stems from theorist Jack Halberstam’s definition of the Gothic being a “rhetorical style and narrative structure designed to produce fear and desire within the reader [...] emanating from the vertiginous excess of meaning [...] a rhetorical extravagance that produces, quite simply, too much.”3

The table is somewhat familiar, but its short width makes it difficult to conjure and imagine what could be placed on top of it therefore attributing an eerie aura to it. Is this a tiny dining table? An uncomfortable pub table? Most would say no to anything other than a foyer table to place decorative objects such as candles or a vase with flowers—in other words, a table to be forgotten off to the side of some room of some building. Maybe that’s because a one-to-one design of the Shakers boring celibate culture makes it practically useless in the present day. Yet we can’t deny that this table is all dolled-up in gothic tropes, and considering goths are not known for their utilitarian tastes or interests, let’s force it to be something for a goth—a seance table.

Completely submerged in glossy black resin, the coffin lid shape of the tabletop becomes a reflecting pool in which during a seance the beveled edges are the threshold that distort your reflection of the physical world and enclose the center of the tabletop which perfectly reflects your desired otherworldly image. This doubling of ourselves reinforces the uncanniness and eeriness in this work. But a seance for what? With dust particles drowned and embedded in the resin, this table implies that it reflects on the ’then’ and ‘there’ as opposed to the ‘here’ and ‘now’. According to historian Celeste Olalquiga:

The dust that falls on modern things is the decay of the aura, the decomposition of a previous era that, like the tons of shells and detritus that continuously sink to the ocean bottom, creates a new layer of sediment. The dust of modernity, a mix of boredom and death, is the most tangible aspect of the new historical time, a thin patina of shattered moments remains after the frenzy of multiplication has subsided or moved away. [...] Dust is what connects the dreams of yesteryear with the touch of nowadays.4

In addition, the legs of the table are entangled with vine-like ornamentation almost reminiscent of dust’s cousin, ash, or more specifically in this case, volcanic ash and all of its pulverized rock, minerals, and glass. This classifies the table not as an object but as an environment—an open field in which all sound seems to fade except the faint tapping of falling dust and ash. Again, all of this states that the table has a history or rather is built upon histories, consuming them to feed its dark abyss like the swallowing gravitational pull of a black hole. And this is where the gothic fear comes into play. Standing and hovering over this tall reflective table, your (floating) head and ceiling background are littered with the permanently drowned dust, this otherworldly reflection is permeated with the past meaning it is attempting to turn your physical presence into an out-of-body experience—you watching yourself watch yourself in this black hole reflecting pool. With the table as an environment, the intake of our reflection becomes so “vertiginous” that we inevitably are twisted and warped into the objects meant to rest on this table.

Does this mean the table is some sort of capitalist structure for objectifying us? Yes and no, for I believe this table is attempting to deconstruct pop culture’s exhibition of desire. Unraveling Jean Baudrillard’s book Seduction and the statement “if God is masculine, idols are always feminine,” theorist Mark Fisher states, “the traditional problem for the male in pop culture has been dealing with a desire for the unattainable [...] The complementary difficulty for the female has been to come to terms with not being what the male wants. The Object knows that what she has does not correspond with what the Subject lacks.”5 However, all is not lost as Fisher points out that the pop star and goth artist Siouxsie Sioux (from the band Siouxsie and the Banshees) dealt with this dilemma by making art out of her own objectification by a “denial of interiority [...] not interested in ‘spilling her guts’ in a confessional wallowing [nor] demanding R.E.S.P.E.C.T. from her bachelor suitors but subordination, supplication.”6 Siouxsie realizes, like her contemporary Grace Jones, that ironically she has all the power being an object rather than a subject, that idols “do not reproduce, but arise from the ashes, like the phoenix, or from the mirror, like the seductress.”7 In simple terms, this isn’t necessarily a feminist read of Gudas’ gothic ashen mirror table. Rather, Siouxsie and Grace Jones are proof of Goth’s ability to subsume a culture’s negativity and use it to its collective advantage as a means of bewitchment. Gudas wants us to stare at ourselves until we realize we all are being objectified and that we have the power to reclaim that negativity.

But how? As we return from the otherworldly center of the tabletop and cross over the bevel threshold and back into reality, our floating head is reattached to our physical world self. And with the reflection of the room’s ceiling in every angle that you look into the tabletop, there is constant evidence that you haven’t left this realm of reality and thus any eeriness the table may of had dissipates to reveal that reality is haunting you like the invisible omnipresent god of the Shakers rather than you haunting it like Siouxsie’s bewitchment. So, like all of Goth culture—from its impractical fashion to its music’s lyrics—this table and its suggested seance are hyperbolic. In the context of a white cube gallery, wallpapered home, cubicle office, or virtually anywhere else, this table isn’t an unheimliche trojan horse for destroying the homely or subverting pop culture’s desire exhibition. Rather, as a perfect accumulation of Gothic tropes and modernism-before-modernism design, Gudas’ table fits right in with all that we deem safe and sterile and consequently never to be touched or examined again. The dust drowned in the resin, for example, doesn’t remind us that it belongs “to the outside, the exterior, the street, [or that dust] constantly creeps into the sacred arena of private spaces as a reminder that there is no impermeable boundaries between life and death.” It doesn’t cling to our fingertips like the mark from “a messenger of death, [a] signature of lost time.”8 And although our reflection may make us aware of our objectification, it doesn’t direct us toward “the capacity to [annihilate],” a mode in which pop culture becomes caustic to the status quo by “producing new potentials through the negation of what already exists.”9 Finally, the lack of modification or reimagining of the one-to-one replica of mundane modernist design weakens any argument for a forward-thinking aesthetic or discourse through the appropriation of the Shakers’ “ecstatic behavior during worship services.” This is all to say that like the naive teenage suburban goth performing a seance in their furnished basement and mispronouncing the foreign words in Aleister Crowley’s “magick” texts, this table leads us to believe that we’ve found the truth...on the surface.

1Ballard, JG. “A Handful of Dust.” The Guardian. March 20, 2006. ↩︎
2Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny ↩︎
3Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. ↩︎
4Olalquiga, Celeste. “Dust.” The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience. Pantheon Books, 1998. ↩︎
5Fisher, Mark. “For Your Unpleasure: The Hauteur-Couture Of Goth.” k-punk. June 01, 2005. ↩︎
6Fisher, Mark. “For Your Unpleasure: The Hauteur-Couture Of Goth.” k-punk. June 01, 2005. ↩︎
7Baudrillard, Jean. Seduction. New York: St. Martins Pr., 2007. ↩︎
8Olalquiga, Celeste. “Dust.” The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience. Pantheon Books, 1998. ↩︎
9Fisher, Mark. “Is Pop Undead?” k-punk. January 31, 2006. ↩︎

Chris Pinter Review ☾ December 2018

’Tis the holiday season in which nostalgia is all that speaks to us. The warmth of our “homes” during the month of December isn’t from the furnace of a three-bedroom suburban home or the fire burning in a rusty oil drum on the streets—it stems from our memories and the memories of other families’ that we weirdly seem to relate to even though we only hear their stories in passing. Chris Pinter’s painting captures this warm nostalgia, with the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, Paul Rand or Henri Matisse cutouts, and 1960s color palette. Slap some calligraphy on top of this composition and many of our mothers would be buying this up as a Christmas card on sale at their local Hallmark store.

But Pinter’s painting isn’t commenting on this nostalgia—if anything, it seems to be frozen within it. Taken into context of the entire painting, the decorated Charlie Brown tree sits on a windowsill looking out on a barren winter landscape. You can see the reflection of the room’s interior in the imitation of window glass, abstractly represented by the white dots and strips that litter the lower half of the painting and the smudge of white paint in the center of the canvas. Are we supposed to murmur to ourselves, safe up in our bourgeoisie tower, “Oh, what a beautiful sight of the status quo. It’s so angelic without the filth and feral vagrants from the Southside of town, just like the good ol’ days”? Put another way, Pinter’s painting has all the makings of an Edward Hopper painting, but not the incentive to meditate on the idea of (or on a personal level, one’s feelings of) isolationism and solitude that stem from the modernity that Hopper depicted. Hopper succeeded by capturing the feeling of distance: if I take four steps forward I could introduce myself to the woman alone at the café table in Automat; or I’m a stone’s throw away from blasting the windows of House by The Railroad; or I’m close enough to the sunlight white wall of Rooms by the Sea that its blinding glare forces me to squint. Hopper’s work encapsulates the phrase “distance makes the heart grow fonder” and the potential that is elicited from the daydreams of closing such distances. Pinter’s painting, however, borders on a kitsch home decor sign hanging on the wallpapered wall of a suburban mom’s home, stating some sappy quote like “Home is where the heart is”—a familiarity that helps that mother be at peace with the outside world that is struggling to progress; a world she rarely takes a step into. Because such familiarity—an invulnerable safe-harbor-for-the-holidays feeling—only kindles nostalgic dependence in which the heart, and its sympathy, becomes scorched earth.

Nothingness Aesthetic ☾ April 2018

When I don’t know what to do formally with work I’m designing, I filter it through a black and white aesthetic that is clearly derivative of black metal vernacular. I’ve been doing this since I first discovered the methodology during my freshman year of college. But why? So much is lost through the process: whether it’s typography or photography, the details are rounded and flattened, creating gigantic blobs drained of color and gradations. Furthermore, it’s rarely appropriate in the staid world of marketing and branding, so at times it would seem that this process borders more on procrastination than productivity—something Brian Eno has commented on:

I’ve seen musicians stuck for an idea, and what they’ll do between takes is just diddle around, playing the blues or whatever, just to reassure themselves that, “Hey, I’m not useless. Look, I can do this.” But I believe that to have that [technique] to fall back on is an illusion. It’s better to say, “I’m useless,” and start from that position. I think the way technique gets in the way is by fooling you into thinking that you are doing something when you actually are not.

As I write this at the end of my first year of my MFA studies, I worry that the work I’ve done in this aesthetic has been nothing but Eno defined “illusions.” However, at the same time, there is this overbearing presence of uselessness running through my mind whenever I approach work. If this black and white methodology encapsulates such a dichotomy then there must be something deeper or fulfilling within it than a procrastinating habit. Playing with darkness must mean something.

I interpret most things through the lens of music, particularly extreme music: aforementioned black metal, hardcore punk, and even ambient drone (“extreme” for those listeners that don’t have patience). I’ve had discussions with people who don’t understand how I can listen or stomach such doom and gloom noise, yet all I can ever tell them is that the screaming, repetition, sloppy craftsmanship, and toilet bowl production are all somehow calming. However, calmness does not equal pleasure in this instance. Uncertainty haunts my everything, and I believe most would agree with that sentiment. But extreme music creates something with the nothingness of uncertainty, constantly pursing the capture of nothingness’ form, weight, and sound while still letting it continue to be nothingness. In other words, as philosopher Eugene Thacker writes,

the sound of the abyss is not silence, or quiet, or noise, but unsound. That which is unsound—like a building, or a mind—is always unstable, continually about to collapse. […] An unsound is akin, perhaps, to the term ‘unknowing’ […] an undoing or unraveling, denoting both the negation of the ground of knowledge, as well as the paradoxical apprehension of an absolute limit.1

I guess what I’m getting at is this unstableness and darkness is imagination itself. In a world in which “modernity [has caused every] human creation to cover up the anguish of nothingness, bearing its burden with a simulated faith in reason,”2 digging the abyss of nothingness a little deeper—whether it’s through extreme music or a rotten black and white visual aesthetic—is to do our greater good for humanity, keeping imagination alive and well. And to know that others are out there somewhere nearby in the pitch black darkness—digging and scraping to increase the abyss’ depth so that the lights of our ever-advancing surveillance-driven world don’t burn away its mysteries—pressingly evokes camaraderie instead of loneliness within us. Put another way, Jean Baudrillard warned that the loss of night and its darkness brings about a bland homogenization of humanity and its history:

like the situation of the man who has lost his shadow: either he has become transparent, and the light passes right though him or, alternatively, he is lit from all angles, overexposed and defenseless against all sources of technology, images and information, without any way of refracting their rays.3

If darkness keeps our individuality intact, then my aforementioned sense of calmness instilled by extreme music is because extreme music doesn’t impose itself on one’s space and instead creates a landscape of darkness one could belong to,4 consequently reshaping feelings of uselessness as motivation and unstableness as possibility. Therefore, the overwhelming decay brought upon by my black and white methodology allows for reassessing what moments within the new disfigurement evoke a desire to renew endeavors that once seemed lost for both myself and, more importantly, my audience. In addition, this methodology gives me something to believe in and therefore something to resist. Black metal bands and enthusiasts believe in Satan because as atheists they would have nothing to invigorate their imaginations of destroying God and his creations. Philosopher Nick Land elaborates on this idea by stating, “Anyone who does not exult at the thought of driving nails through the limbs of the Nazarene is something less than an atheist; merely a disappointed slave.”5 It would seem then that this nothingness methodology and aesthetic I’ve constantly returned to is not an Eno “illusion” but rather the subconscious means to make our world a little bit darker so that none of us end up as unimaginative slaves to capitalism, graphic design, or whatever else may shine a sterile brightness on our built environment.

1Thacker, Eugene Thacker. “Sound of the Abyss.” Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology. Zero Books, 2014. 
2Puelles, Luis. “Nothing Under One’s Feet: Approaches to an Aesthetic of the Grotesque.” The Grotesque Factor. Museo Picasso Málaga, 2012. 
3Dunn, Nick.Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City. Zero Books, 2016. 
4Brian Eno on ambient music. 
5Wilson, Scott. “Introduction to Melancology.” Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology. Zero Books, 2014. 

All We Every Wanted ☾ March 2018

Despite being a terribly sad song about Ian Curtis’ problems in his marriage, as well as his general frame of mind in the time leading up to his suicide in May 1980, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart is considered a pop song that has been danced to, laughed at, cried to, and everything in between by generations of people regardless of how “hip” they are. For some reason, the despair of this song and other Joy Division songs doesn’t deter people from (ironically) celebrating life. Yet most people see goth culture and music as nothing but wallowing in self-pity—but that’s a misconception. Just because reveling in dismay is not the norm in society does not mean that goths are ultimately sad—rather, they are fascinated by the feelings and actions that that reveling can bring about. So, when mainstream audiences throw Love Will Tear Us Apart on at dance parties it’s not because they want to revisit a moment of loss; rather they wish to contemplate—in a subconscious, celebratory way—some potential in how they can construct their lives.

Some of the most miserable people in this world are graphic designers. Regardless of one’s experience level within the profession of graphic design, most hear or know of more horror stories than success stories. Some of them are so desperately in love with graphic design that they will go to outrageous lengths—such as going into massive amounts of debt to attend an MFA program—to remedy their relationship with it. But maybe that’s why the horror stories keep happening with generation after generation of new graphic designers: they keep running away from the profession’s misery towards some better pursuit or a flash of hope rather than wallowing in the despair.

Based on the lyrics found in the first verse of Love Will Tear Us Apart, one might think Curtis was secretly a graphic designer:

When the routine bites hard
And ambitions are low
And the resentment rides high
But emotions wont grow
And we’re changing our ways,
Taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart again

In the song Disorder, Curtis seems to remind designers of the desire to flee from client meetings:

It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand,
On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it’s a no man’s land,
Lights are flashing, cars are crashing, getting frequent now,
[…] I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling.

For how often designers appropriate the waveforms from the cover of Unknown Pleasures for trivial urban wear and meme-esque ephemera, they certainly have trouble interpreting Curtis’ words or writhing to Joy Division’s melancholic rhythms to build some sort of self-actualization that goth culture stimulates. The band Bauhaus—who should be an easy entry point into goth culture for designers based on their name alone—mixed a myriad of genres outside the confines of punk to create their sound, similarly to the interdisciplinary definition that graphic designers love to advocate for yet never seem to actually realize. So where does this design culture that promotes arrogant behavior and fear of the eccentric come from? It comes from decades-old modernist principles and ethos that, unlike goth culture, are about shoveling self-doubt and anti-intellectualism on its practitioners, clients, and audiences, furthering the voyage on the downward spiral of hopelessness. Designers are taught in their undergraduate studies or graphic design coffee table books that the discipline revolves around a client, and that client will usually suck, but regardless of whether or not the client sucks designers need to translate the client’s message as they see fit while assuming the client’s audience lacks any intelligence to understand any level of wit or sophistication. Designers’ and clients’ lack of faith in people is without a doubt more disturbing than any mascara smeared goth. However, with this bullshit weighing on designers’ minds, graphic design does not need to be rebuilt from the ground up (although it’s education curriculum certainly does): with a designers’ day-to-day tasks shrouded in misery, all they need to do is start generating some sort of authenticity from this gloom like goths eagerly do.

A movement towards authenticity as a designer comes from visually interpreting our personal interests and neurotic human tendencies. It’s an attempt at democratizing graphic design not in how it is made (i.e., platforms such as Squarespace) but in how it’s approached and consumed by a public. And this sort of inclusiveness doesn’t come from a “genius” designer’s ethos or modernist principles that state what is the correct way to design the built world around us. Photographer Diane Arbus once said, “The more specific you are, the more general it'll be,” meaning the inclusivity that modernism says its striving for doesn’t come from creating comprehensive constructs from the outset, rather, as Arbus states, it’s engendered by presenting or formulating our modesty and arcane interests and seeing if anyone responds to or inquires about them. From there we can find the esoteric collectives we all seem to be looking for. Therefore, even if a work doesn’t strike a nerve within any viewer, the act of introducing such eccentric—and in some instances, embarrassing—subjects is a small step toward conveying design that can be trusted, comforting, and participatory when trying to initiate a discourse for and sustained by publics or laypeople, not those in the position to be exploitative.

Graphic designers need not to be afraid of traversing the gothic darkness and eventually through it. Coming out the other side wearing black trench coats, lipstick for eyeshadow, and teased out hair is a statement of who we truly are and that we’re not afraid to show that side of ourselves regardless of what modernism hauntingly tells us to feel or believe to be ideal. But don’t be mistaken by this bold statement: Goth culture is not look-at-me culture. If anything, many passersby are repulsed or confused by goth style, yet they are always asking, “Why do they dress/act like that?” As graphic designers, we can harness this inquiry by stylizing atomized esoteric communities and built environments as human complexities, thus establishing a tolerance and approach towards each other that is visceral, intriguing, and, most importantly, healthy.

Swati Piparsania ☾ April 2018

From their book are we human?, Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley define design as

defense. Most theories of design present the human as under some kind of threat that needs to be urgently countered by design. The defense is seen to draw from some quality deeply embedded in the human, as if design itself is the natural human way to preserve the human. The most radical attempts to reshape the human are typically carried out under this guise of reinforcing and protecting the human. Design is a paradoxical gesture that changes the human in order to protect it.

This definition, although never stated in such a critical manner, is most often considered “good design” within the disciplines of design because it’s never challenged to be any other way. But Swati Piparsania’s work does the opposite of Colomina and Wigley’s definition and that’s why her work is so vital. Rather than protect humans, her designed objects expose humans for who they are, and this vulnerability leads to a discourse in which users—rather than designers—lead the discussion about what is needed, what is wrong, and what is useful in our lives. In a way, Piparsania’s objects make room for each of us to be wrong, giving us opportunities to reflect on how we each participate in our world’s built environments.

While Piparsania’s work may lack conclusive or detailed scientific research, her work is still rooted very much in reality because it is based on what we all survey in this world and either have become oblivious to or believe we don’t possess the means to make a change. Yet her objects are also fictional because, like any great work of fiction, they spark the imagination within a user to reframe or rethink what could be done with something so inconceivably wrong. Furthermore, unlike most designed products that are marketed as necessities, Piparsania’s objects are participatory, letting you decided how you want to behave rather than modernist and Silicon Valley ethos and systems telling you how to feel or do something.

Author Ursula Le Guin, known for her fictional writings, once remarked that “all of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.” Piparsania’s Gridded Walking object is one such guide for us to fulfill our lives, as Le Guin states, in a constant inventive and imaginative way. The object allows up to four standing users to bear their weight against four quadrants of the object to create a mobile conversation pit (the potted plant as a centerpiece also helps to brighten the mood)—nothing needs to be held, and only the conversation of the four users can guide the entrapped group in a new direction. But it’s not until you’ve used Gridded Walking that you realize how it reverses our natural modern inclination to lean back and walk away from a conversation into a form of comfort, letting our egos slide off our relaxed shoulders as we giggle and embrace how we communicate to one another. It’s like a potato sack race, but with eight legs bound together and no end-goal in sight.

Piparsania’s Take Your Plant For A Walk object series takes Gridded Walking’s awkward moments and applies them solely to individual use cases. By taking your houseplant for a walk outside, like we would with a pet dog or even a toddler, we further let our egos and facades drop and, in a way, become confident fools. But foolishness should not be confused with ignorance because the absurdity and humor of this object and activity allow us to be open and vulnerable, leading to design conversations that aren’t about the need to protect or isolate ourselves from each other, but rather that we need to protect each other with unprejudiced compassion.

Ramps, Piparsania’s most recent work, bring these ideas of awareness, activity, and absurdity together once more. Low-level pastel pink wooden ramps liter the floors of a space and suggest that we walk upon them. They are a playground of sorts for adults—although just as much as for children—built upon an invitation of curiosity. Walking over, across, or even within these ramps, one comes to the conclusion, “Does haste really improve our lives?” As Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” By fabricating inclined trails of the less traveled, filled with hinderances and obstructions, Piparsania is building both inspiration and resilience in how we approach the mundane, tragic, dire, and beautiful moments of our lives.

Piparsania’s objects are not representations—they are exactly as we function in spaces and in society. They critique society by letting us behave exactly as we normally would. We are not actor’s wearing these objects; we are not guinea pigs using these objects: we are ourselves, no more and no less. Moreover, and most importantly, Piparsania’s objects are more than just objects—they are a commentary not necessarily on our lives but on design’s overbearing assumption that it knows best. They are reimaginings of how we can construct the built environment around us, with laypeople’s opinions and views holding equal value to designers in that conversation.

A Present For Those Who Are Present ☾ November 2017

Being a great designer has nothing to do with your ability to identify typefaces, or color theory, or how you construct and use a grid system. Instead, great designers are informed and engaged citizens—individuals who understand the history of our society and world, the consequences of those histories, and have opinions that influence their actions of the present day. They build practices in which their citizenship informs their practice and vice versa. But for a majority of us, graphic design history is taught as a slideshow of images, addressing only period styles and the names of famous designers. Educator and philosopher Paulo Freire called this form of pedagogy the “banking model” of education—a metaphor for students as containers into which educators place knowledge.1 Freire argued that this model reinforces a lack of critical thinking and knowledge ownership in students, which in turn reinforces oppression. Students and designers get nothing from this “banking model” of education other than a fetish for nostalgia and commodification.

The publisher Standards Manual is guilty of exploiting this fetishization by reprinting and overpricing vintage brand guideline books that were never meant to be sold in the first place. What are people (designers or laypeople) of the contemporary world supposed to gain from viewing these commodified artifacts? A better understanding of how these manuals use outdated practices? An understanding that corporations and clients rule our sensibilities when it comes to play within our design process? Standards Manual are certainly not approaching the production or the purpose of these “artifacts” in such a critical manner.2 Instead, they are capitalizing on graphic design’s love for nostalgia and superficiality, a product of how we teach and view the profession and discipline’s history. Standards Manual’s reprint of the 1977 Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards System manual, in particular, irks me. To capitalize on the EPA name, and consequently stimulating a conversation about vintage aesthetics, especially at a time when the Trump Administration and the EPA’s director Scott Pruitt are dismantling laws and regulations in order to line their and lobbyists’ pockets with more money, is despicable.

Graphic design history is also seen as vital form of highlighting the fundamentals of the discipline. For example, the work of the Bauhaus or Massimo Vignelli have been vital to the formation of design and should definitely be viewed for novelty’s sake, but graphic design is now a discipline—it’s no longer trying to find its foundation as it was in the past. What graphic design needs to be doing now is evolving its foundation, staying current with the world and its people. Putting a focus on the memorization of outdated Bauhaus principles or branding guidelines of 40 years past doesn’t improve the culture or aesthetics we construct today. We’re living in the hastily evolving 21st century in which the exchange of knowledge has been easily disseminated by the internet. The fundamentals of graphic design can easily be obtained by anyone who has an interest and a passion to do so. Knowledge of the Bauhaus or Massimo Vignelli’s work isn’t mindless baggage, but their practices and works addressed the issues of their time, not ours.

Additionally, Paul Rand’s work—maybe the most prevalent name during the most idolized period of design—has formulated contemporary graphic design as a conservative and commodified construct: no play, no opinions, no dissent—only a pursuit of perfection, clarity, and certainty, all aspects that no one would ever use to describe the world we lived in then or now. Perfection is in the opinion of the viewer, clarity doesn’t always mean strictness or minimalism, and certainty should never be a goal (an urge to inquire, on the other hand, should). I struggle to see many designers questioning the thinking and ordering of the world and instead I see them trying to fit into the profession of graphic design, consequently creating a homogenous world after they willing abandon the idiosyncratic sensibilities and traits of their practices. For a man who had a tantrum when a woman, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, was hired to replace him as the director of graduate studies at Yale University after he retired, I’m not sure Paul Rand and his elitist work and ethos are what designers should be obsessing over or aspiring to be. In addition, there is a severe lack of female and international designers, works, and voices in the graphic design historical canon. Tadanori Yokoo’s visceral work, Maureen Mooren’s acutely conceptual work, and Bretteville’s humanitarian-centric design work and open-minded education curriculum have done more to make our society feel inclusive, diverse, and thought-provoking than Rand and other white men of the celebrated graphic design canon—their contributions of corporate branding and dogmatic modernist principles only perpetuate our capitalist, yes-men society.

Moreover, modernist principles regard a design not as a proposal but as a prescription,3 and those writings of the past were made to direct and shape a profession and discipline still trying to find its footing. Michael Rock’s 1996 essay Designer As Author, for example, was written to question a time in which technological advances with desktop publishing deconstructed the distinct roles of a graphic designer, typesetter, type designer, et cetera, and allowed authorship with those new design tools to be an avenue for anyone. So why is it still gospel for contemporary designers? It’s bullshit to talk about “designer as author” or “designer as whatever” idioms within the context of the present day because they state the obvious—as a graphic designer you should be editing, curating, instilling a point a view and so much more. More importantly, does it not concern designers that there is a severe lack of contemporary and substantial graphic design theory—writing and dialogs that go beyond Fast Company articles about how Google kerned its logo or AIGA Eye On Design designer showcase blog entries? Rereading 1990s design criticism can be fun or inspiring to look back on, but the legibility wars and modernism versus postmodernism debates are no longer a part of our present day profession. We can’t expect Andrew Blauvelt, Lorraine Wild, Jeffery Keedy and the rest of the Emigre squad to be the only voices willing to write or discuss design criticism.

Designers strive to make timeless work, but the output is usually viewed through the lens of style and therefore is a product of its time and place of conception. What is timeless are the histories of business, law, politics, ecology, environmental science, and many others because they are built on theories and tested formulas. Not being exclusive in their understanding of the functionality of the world, these fields have realized that design is the “central metaphor of our time” and have begun to teach design within the curriculums of business schools, law schools, and so many other schools of thought.4 So why doesn’t graphic design reciprocate those feelings? Having a critical understanding and opinions about these fields—who also happen to be clients for many designers—would help inform how graphic design fits within a myriad of cultural contexts while also strengthening and amplifying the relationships between designers, clients, and audiences. Furthermore, if design education were to teach the history of fields other than graphic design, using practices established by Freire that treat students as “co-creators of knowledge” (a truer version of “designer as authors”), it would inspire designers to leave their bubbles of exclusivity and engage in conversation and activism with publics they share the world with.

At this point it should be noted that I’m not advocating for graphic design’s history to be completely abandoned and forgotten. History in general should never be ignored—as the old adage goes, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. To simply abandon graphic design’s history would be ignorant of the fact that improving the present world needs to happen in parallel with an understanding of its history. But there is a difference between referencing history and perpetuating history. A great example of this parallel model can be seen in the work Hagen Verleger did at the Van Eyke Academy. After realizing that the labs and workplaces of the academy were named after men, Verleger created way-finding signage that would be situated adjacent to the current signage except it would use female names. Verleger also rearranged the academy’s library so that all books with male authors or editors had their spines facing inward on the shelves. This revealed a lack of books written or edited by women within the academy’s library. Verleger’s signage is now a permeant fixture throughout the campus and the academy’s library has now devoted its efforts to diversify it’s catalog. If Verleger painted over the pervious signage or removed the male-centric books from the library shelves, the argument would have been diminished because there would have been nothing there to inform viewers of how the past has constructed our present and future. It also worth noting that Verleger is a young designer who is better situated to address contemporary issues than an old-guard designer looking for publicity and quick cash to keep themselves relevant.

(As an aside, old-guard graphic designers have every right to run their practices as they see fit, but there is also responsibility that comes with their celebrity status. To revisit Michael Rock’s “central metaphor” quote, graphic design has seeped beyond its borders. What bothers me is that the old-guard isn’t seizing this opportunity in which the public sphere sees the significance of graphic design and are taking an interest in the field. Instead the old guard, our supposed leaders, fall to the pressure of commerce and milk the defining visual traits that gave them, as individuals, celebrity status.)

The argument to study design history through a political and sociological lens in parallel to the present day has always been alive, its just rarely acted upon, especially by celebrity designers with the loudest voices. Designers need to include more history into their daily practices, but to me that doesn’t mean referencing or imitating major case studies or period styles of the past. Instead of a memorized homogenous design history, our personal memories can be frequented source material. When constructed within a vernacular context, our memories reveal our honest and personal strengths and weaknesses. These memories, most likely, will also be certain shared experiences, and by giving form to these truths graphic design output can be much more relatable for a wider audience. The aforementioned lack of diversity (e.g. people of color and women) problem within the graphic design canon, I believe, stems from the white privilege, systematic racism, and sexism that construct the United States’ past, present, and future. An honesty-driven approach within our practices is a simple and direct solution to instilling empathy within the discipline. It’s similar to a 2016 study, reported by German Lopez of Vox:

Researchers stumbled on a radical tactic for reducing another person’s bigotry: a frank, brief conversation. The study, authored by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley, looked at how simple conversations can help combat anti-transgender attitudes. In the research, people canvassed the homes of more than 500 voters in South Florida. The canvassers, who could be trans or not, asked the voters to simply put themselves in the shoes of trans people—to understand their problems—through a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation. The hope was that the brief discussion could lead people to reevaluate their biases. It worked. The trial found not only that voters’ anti-trans attitudes declined but that they remained lower three months later, showing an enduring result. And those voters’ support for laws that protect trans people from discrimination increased, even when they were presented with counterarguments for such laws.5

Canvassing is an uncomfortable act for both the canvasser and the public being canvassed, but there is a great deal of potential to learn and gain empathy within the construct of discomfort. That said, I can’t think of a better way to sustain discomfort with designers’ practices than to include the public within graphic design discourse and forums. As design history professor Michael J. Golec has proposed:

I have very often heard graphic designers remark that the role of the graphic designer is to “educate” the client on the value of graphic design. Wouldn’t it be an ideal situation if clients came to graphic designers already familiar with the cultural, social, and political relevance of graphic design, because of having attended courses on the history of graphic design? One step towards accomplishing this ideal would be to adopt a more inclusive attitude towards what constitutes an audience for the history of graphic design.6

Too often design is dismissive of its audiences. It has lead to work that audiences don’t trust7 or don’t feel a connection to8, yet graphic designers trivially obsess over critiquing said work. I believe including the public as a voice in our discourse would lead to a profession that is less contemptuous for designers, clients, and audiences. I’m not saying that clients and audiences should boss designers around, but letting them direct conversations—about their needs (rather than us tell them what their needs are) or proposals for inclusivity, for starters—would allow designers to truly construct culture and aesthetics that are progressive and for their audiences, rather than eye candy that feeds graphic designers’ self-preservation mentality. Clients and lay-people want sophisticated and intellectual work, and to treat them like philistines obstructs that pursuit. The blame as to why clients pick boring concepts or lay-people don’t grasp a concept falls on designers and how we treat them and what we feed them, which is usually an offshoot of the banality we feed ourselves. When our practices aren’t sophisticated or intellectual and our solutions are nothing but a layer of sheen on a problem, what else are clients to expect from graphic design?

Lastly, much of what we place within the graphic design canon seems to be classified as “perfect” or “handsome,” terms that are completely subjective, and designers striving for these labels lead the profession to the pursuit of toxic, elitist banality. So I’m curious if another form of design artifacts can enter the canon of graphic design history and if the study of said artifacts would benefit the field, instill a sense of urgency to study graphic design history through the aforementioned critical lens or give a platform to more progressive voices. As D.I.Y. tools such as Squarespace or affordable Photoshop-esque apps become everyday tools for the public, I propose that we begin to study the vernacular graphic design output and artifacts made by the public. Although clients provide designers project briefs, designers should and need to be designing for audiences not their clients. Therefore would we better understand our audiences and publics if we understood why they make what they make with D.I.Y. tools?

By studying vernacular design I believe that we may be confronted with the fact that laypeople are more creative than we give them credit for when their true vernacular—rather than their attempt to copy—is revealed through the ephemera and branding they create on their own. During my time at Cranbrook Academy of Art, on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, I love to see vernacular logos for diners, automotive garages, credit unions, and so many other utilitarian establishments. While it could be argued that this is my personal taste, many of these artifacts inform my design practice: the choice of typefaces, the way that those typefaces may or may not be manipulated, the juxtaposition of imagery and typography, et cetera. Regardless of whether it is “good” or “bad,” these works instill feelings within me: happiness, humor, inspiration, disgust, and everything in-between. Why shouldn’t design be as expressive and visceral as the fine arts? Design that strives to be invisible, or is afraid to be an art form, or is afraid to show a slight hint of sincerity and naivety, advocates for oppression upon it’s audiences and itself as a profession. Artist/designer John Heartfield’s anti-nazi/fascism photomontages have done more to inspire collectivity and emotion than Rand’s iconic IBM branding. See Red Women’s Workshop posters may be vernacular, and their practitioners non-designers, but their practice established an alternative definition for publishing: a social process “where issues and ideas can be articulated and acted upon, where skills are exchanged and knowledge co-produced.”9 To quote Peter Hall’s The Uses of Failure lecture:

We don’t need to justify design’s importance to the world or to the art establishment. We need to look into how design works and where it is going wrong. We need a new generation not to venerate design but to sniff out failure.10

Graphic design history is fine for reminiscing, but to study it in such a manner has lead the profession to commodify and worship banality rather than instill an urgency to inquire about progressivism. “The core of [the] profession is analysis: a critical eye.” Quoting Max Bruinsma, “Every design, in essence, is a criticism of the context for which it has been produced. A good design ‘activates’ those contexts by offering an understanding of, a comment on, or an alternative to, them.”11 When navel gazing defines the discipline, its output, and its history, it’s proof that the profession has abandoned its morals and principles to constructing a more just and inclusive world.

1Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed
2In Standards Manual’s own words: “We strive to archive and preserve lost artifacts of design history and make them available to future generations. Being designers ourselves, we value high quality books. As an independent publisher, we are able to produce our books using only the finest papers, printing, and finishing methods. We don’t cut corners when it comes to quality.” 
3Bruinsma, Max. An Ideal Design is Not Yet. 
5Lopez, German. "Research Says There Are Ways to Reduce Racial Bias. Calling People Racist Isn't One of Them." Vox. November 15, 2016. 
6Golec, Michael J. "The History of Graphic Design and Its Audiences." AIGA. June 30, 2004.  
9Weinmayr, Eva. "One Publishes to Find Comrades." In The Visual Event: An Education In Appearances. Leipzig: Spector Books, 2014. 
11Bruinsma, Max. An Ideal Design is Not Yet.