Winter 2002

Songlines

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. Read and appreciated by Nick Bell

One of the privileges of communicating visually is that it is generally accepted that you just ‘do what you do’. Because so much work is arrived at intuitively, seemingly ‘out of nowhere’, it apparently needs no explanation. Design, however complex, can be simply enjoyed.

Yet I have always felt a neurotic need to explain myself, both as a formal exercise, and to connect my experiments to the outside world. Reading is a rich source of support: writers put things into words. A decade ago, the writing of Bruce Chatwin gave me a new way of understanding two-dimensional space.

In Chatwin’s book The Songlines (Cape, 1987), territory is defined – not by its boundaries – but from the interior outwards. A dense tangle of pathways that criss-cross each other. At the time, my ideal (an aesthetic then shared by many designers) was to suspend type and image in a kind of mid-air freeze-frame. Chatwin’s account provided me with a way of explaining design composition, not in terms of the frame, but in terms of movement from the centre. It was both an articulation of something I had found so hard to express in words, and an inspiration.

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