Friday, 26 November 2010

Thoughts on Communication Theory

Frame from the film: High on Hope

The interesting thing about communication is that it is a process by which we assign and convey meaning in an attempt to create a shared understanding. It requires both intrapersonal and interpersonal skills and it is through communication that we can develop collaboration and cooperation. As an old fashioned Socialist I strongly believe in communication as being at the core of all political activity and a lack of communication is usually at the core of organisational dysfunctionality and poor politics.
As Graphic Students you specialise in Visual communication or communication using visual aids. We presume that a visual message with text has a greater power to inform, educate or persuade a person than the written language on its own. I.e. it is a synchronistic concept, whereby two forms of communication come together in order to achieve a more powerful effect. In The Mind in the Cave by Lewis Williams (essential reading) it is pointed out that sound, vision, dance and touch were all used to convey shamanistic messages to the tribe. Perhaps the rave is the clearest modern format for this. The film/music documentary ‘High On Hope’ which commemorates the 20th anniversary of acid house, telling the story of the infamous ‘Hardcore Uproar’ warehouse parties in Blackburn in the late nineteen eighties is a good illustration of this. Over 10,000 people dancing in cavernous warehouses across the north-west every week was the nearest to a Shamanistic experience I think we could get.
You could say that one implication of communication theory is that evaluation of a good visual design/communication can be done by measuring the comprehension by its audience, not by aesthetic or artistic preference. In this case the problem in terms of communication theory is that if the people evaluating the design are themselves design professionals they are too 'attuned' to design to be aware of how a non designer would receive the communication.
However it is the old history of rhetoric that really interests me. It is strange and wonderful and as it covers memory training, body language, voice projection as well as the well known 'rhetoric tropes'. It is indeed a deep river to fish. (To use the rhetoric trope 'metaphor'.)
A key book is the 'Art of Memory' by Yates. For designers this book can be an entry into a way of thinking of design as a memory tool or navigation theory for web design.

An image from Digital “Computers” 1450-1750: Memory and Calculating on the Fingers and Hands

Friday, 19 November 2010

Thoughts on Helvetica

Above: Univers

Above: Helvetica

I was talking to the designer Will Holder this week and the old chestnut about Helvetica’s popularity came up. Will works as a book designer/typographer and is mainly based in Holland, but also does a lot of work in Germany. He is very interested in how the sound of languages can influence type. He is also really into poetry and we had a fascinating discussion on American poets and how their voices are materialised in verse. In particular the ‘sound’ of William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings.
For some reason we started talking about Futura and that without it we wouldn’t have Frutiger’s Univers and this brought us to Helvetica. It has often been said that Helvetica was drawn by an idealist and that Univers was drawn by a type designer, but there is something that links the two and that is that besides the fact the fonts were designed in the 1950s, both designers were Swiss and the Swiss have to cope with three national languages; German, Italian and French.
Helvetica could be seen as a cleaning up of a Grotesque typeface from the 19th century and it is this ‘sanitisation’ that interested me. Is it in fact to do with the ‘voice in the head’ that all fonts give us? Futura is in effect still German, even though it is trying to be modern, its weight and tone is still Blackletter and above all the designer ‘sounded’ the text that would be set in Futura in German. I think this is why Helvetica is used more than Univers and why Univers is liked by typographers more than designers. It could be that Frutiger was consciously ‘designing’ Univers with that Futura German voice in his head and that Helvetica is truly Swiss and is ‘sounded’ across all three languages and is therefore in effect ‘polyglot’. The fact that Helvetica’s designer Miedinger used to be a customer counsellor for the Globus department store and typeface sales representative perhaps meaning that his ‘voice in the head’ was more user friendly or more like ‘Esperanto’ that failed aspiration of a common language.
Helvetica is very ‘one size fits all’. Most of the individual letters when laid on top of each other can be seen to be basically the same width and proportion. In Univers you have far more adjustment of width and stroke. Apertures are designed to be read as if you are organically adjusting a relationship rather than closing one form off from another. Univers uses classic roman proportions; and Helvetica relies on a basic consistency of proportion that runs throughout the typeface. Univers is also spaced for text, which means you can use it in small sizes, which I would say is Helvetica’s great weakness.
However perhaps Helvetica is the real Esperanto for our time.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

McSweeny’s politics and format

Typical McSweeney's cover design. A threequarters wraparound.

An example of using three wrap around bands for one cover.

The last two lectures have been about how sight itself can be used as a structuring device that can change the way we react to the world. Both lectures have looked at the gaze (the institutional gaze, Foucault, Bentham etc) where you were introduced to how the disciplining power of looking can shape behaviour and the psychoanalytic gaze which is more interpersonal, and about the power relationship between genders. Both these ways of thinking however link visual structures to forms of control.
I have been looking at McSweeney’s recently. The Dave Eggars’ led publication. The relationship between the formats of visual structures is something Eggars is always pushing the boundaries of and it is possible to think about how the subverting of visual structures can be linked to the way we think about power relationships.
You could think about the designer / audience /user relationship as being a power model. The accepted conventions of print based layout (the grid etc) and format (magazines/catalogues/pamphlets etc) being the equivalent to the existing dominant social forms (late Capitalism/consumerism etc)
However if we want to suggest a break with existing norms, such as perhaps the ‘making of a new political imaginary’ as Gibson-Graham suggests, we might need new formats to contain this new imaginary world.
We have an expectation as to how to read documents that are driven by the layout. The left to right convention, the breaking down of visual hierarchies into headings, sub-headings, bullet points, paragraphs etc, together with type size and type selection based on a particular set of conventions designed to stabilise and order information are all conventions designed to control the viewer. The designer’s training ensuring that the visual ‘knowledge’ therefore ‘power’ is firmly in the hands of the designer. However when something changes it causes discomfort. Especially if we are so used to it we don’t notice it.
We live in a particular Capital dominated political world; we are so used to this that it seems to be the ‘norm’. We are also very used to the left’s critique of Capitalism and this too has now become part of the norm. This is the same with most of the printed documentation we use. If though, for instance, the Zapatista’s goal of autonomous counterpower was realised; “by asserting and creating multiple other ways of being in the world…while at the same time furnishing new tools to address the complex set of problematic power relations it confronts us with…” (Osterwell 2004, p8) we might be asked to revision and rethink our traditional relationships.
So what’s this got to do with McSweeny’s which is about as far away typographically from the traditional anarchist zine as you can get?
For me it’s that “furnishing of new tools” for thinking that lies at the core of what Dave Eggers supports in McSweeny’s. He asks people to test out the boundaries of existing formats, not to destroy them but to see how they can cope with complexities of meaning. That old chestnut “how does the format of a printed publication reflect its content” being central to the debate.
In particular the reinvention of wraparound covers, embossing and the use of traditional typesetting, (It’s great the way they use hermeneutic text, often taken straight from the type setting of old bibles).
I would love to see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia and A Thousand Plateaus typeset by Eggers team and illustrated by Chris Ware.

Chris Ware, cover for McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, issue 13, London, Hamish Hamilton, 2004 (top left quarter)

As their writing attempts to breakdown academic conventions (another form of invested power) the existing format and text layout serves to reinforce old patterns of thinking. But what is needed are formats that link different types of thinking. An example of this is Eggers’ cover for Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends.

Three die cut wrap around covers are used, one nesting inside the other to create a totality composed of separate parts. As a concept this could be used as a central device to construct a book about rhizomatic connections. A book could be mined, (i.e. cut into and holes bored to link other pages) paper stock altered to reflect types of ideas coming through and inserts or foldouts constructed to reflect parallel thinking. Kerning could be seen as a type of stuttering, introduced as a device to slow the reading down or express contextual worry. The grid molded into perspective devices to squeeze text and image into no spaces. Hmmm now the academic / practice divide starts to look interesting.

“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organisations of power, and circumstances relevant to the arts, sciences and social struggles." Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2006) Postcapitalist Politics Minneapolis: Minnesota Press

Monday, 8 November 2010

Hermeneutics and translations

One of the tasks for Contextual studies is going to be to annotate a text that you have read. The process of annotating is called hermeneutics and originates with the practice of annotating Biblical texts. If you have an old copy of the Bible you may have one that uses complex page layout to enable previous commentaries to be read alongside the actual text. There was another issue and that was that the Bible wasn’t written in English and as the literal ‘Word of God’ it was often offered with the original Hebrew text alongside the translation. Therefore annotations and translations were often seen together and had to be given clear typographical identities and spaces within which to operate. The hierarchy also has to be easily understood by the reader, they must not mistake the commentary for the original.

In these images above you can see the way the page designers are starting to provide spaces for the translations and annotations. However, this is a very old problem and the Egyptians were faced with a similar translation problem when the Greek language started to become the lingua franca for the Mediterranean world. The Rosetta Stone, (below) being a wonderful example.

So how does this relate to what you are doing as designers and my role as an interrogator? Well I would suggest that a key element of your job as a designer is to be a sensitive translator. You are often taking information from one context and translating it into another. What do you think of the images below? Are they good or bad translations or interpretations when we think of choice of font as reflection of image concept? The designer is obviously trying to find a font that reflects the suggested time period the image comes from. Could we reverse the process?

In fact the translation itself can be the idea. What about this?

Hipgnosis, 1978

This more conceptual approach is where I think Contextual studies and design start working together. By following the implications of what we are trying to think about a design occurs.
So my brief to you would be to find a way of setting out an annotation that not only answered a contextual studies annotation task but answered a wider/deeper typographic problem of translation. This could for instance be a way of thinking about semiotics. Denotation and conotation being simply first and second order translations.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Reflections on the first lecture, Surveillance and Foucault

One of the key texts this year is Graphic Design as Communication by Malcolm Barnard. He argues that all graphic design is centred on communication. So how could you use the lecture on Surveillance to contextualise this in relation to your practice? (You might work out that I’ve very interested in Communication theories and would personally argue that communication supersedes sociological interpretations)
If you look at how graphic design helps in the formation of social and cultural identities, it is reasonable to suggest that class, racial/ethnic age and gender groups etc. are often represented by stereotypes within the graphic design industry.
Using this issue as a starting point you could look at any single element within a piece of design and pick out how we are being subtlety controlled by the way we are stereotyped.
I would argue that stereotyping is part of the development of the docile body.
In Derrida’s Of Grammatology, he asks how representation inhabits reality. How does the external image of things get inside their internal essence? How does the surface get under the skin? One answer to Derrida’s question is that representation ‘inhibits’ reality. All representations are by their very nature ‘less than’ reality and therefore involve a selection or choice. This choice is going to be one made by the person constructing the representation and therefore will reflect prejudices held on the part of the image maker.
Salen (2001) suggests that all visual form supports structures of cultural standardisation, marking distinctions between what he calls ‘standard and non-standard’ participants. He goes on to look at how typography as a system can be used to mark social difference and how it can become an ‘agent of standardisation’.
So, perhaps some images are needed here to illustrate Salen’s point.

These images (above) may represent a small element within the process of stereotyping but I think we can see that in this case the typography is definitely not neutral and it is leading towards a simplification of what it is to be from another culture. This simplification suggests that we are made ‘dumb’ therefore docile in the face of difference.
More important than that is a deeper issue related to ‘difference’ and that is that by being singled out as different, it is presumed that we ‘know’ what the norm or standard is. This knowledge is in fact the hidden Panopticon.
So as a designer have you ever used a stereotype to initiate communication? For instance an idea of youth as opposed to age or what it is to be female as opposed to male? Have you tried to communicate to an audience based on class stereotypes? Have you seen other designers doing this?

Lupton, E (1994) Deconstruction and Graphic Design
Salen, K (2001) Surrogate multiplicities: Typography in the age of invisibility