Summer 1997

The aesthetics of transience

With computers as the means for limitless manipulations of signs, designers now exalt subjectivity and impermanence

Whoever wants to summarise today’s culture in one word, would say complex. The world has lost its transparency. There are no more clear-cut connections between things that we can analyse within the trusted framework of a “philosophical central perspective.” Such is the spirit of our times. The most important and successful metaphor for this new condition humaine – and its favourite tool – is the computer, the device that makes it possible to link everything with everything else, regardless of source, place, context or medium. The computer enables us to simulate those connections, to represent them in a way and on a scale virtually unthinkable before. The computer is the great equaliser of information: the shopping list and the literary masterpiece, the snapshot and The Night Watch, Plato and Prygogine – on the hard disc they’re all bytes, on the screen all pixels. Without history, without materiality, without a fixed form and, most important of all, without Einmaligkeit – uniqueness. Every form of information that has gone through a computer is one form of many.

This transience is not just temporal, it is qualitative as well: the computer annihilates the difference between texts, images, sounds, moving and still. Forms that appear on the screen disappear at a mouse click. A similar click and a drag defines a paragraph of text or a segment of time and parks it somewhere, where it sits, and “unidentified digital object” waiting to be transformed into something visible or audible. The instability of anything stacked in a computer – the ease with which it can be erased or silently modified – has its paradoxical counterpart in the idea of the total and constant availability of everything. With an exponentially growing Internet of linked computers, the metaphor of the “endless library” comprising everything that has ever been written or thought or imagined becomes a hardly virtual reality (for those who have the right passwords).

In the graphic design of the past decade, computers have become ever more present. The Apple Macintosh is the indispensable tool of the trade. To say that things have changed intensely over this period is a cliché by now. But what has changed, apart from the practise of designers, who have evolved from artistic craftspeople to computer-operating information agents? The question remains whether the computer has engendered a truly new imagery – one that extends beyond perversions of type and the abundance of superimposed pictures.

One is tempted to point to such visual renewals of graphic language and say: “Look, it’s only the surface that has changed.” The use of computers has greatly stimulated a new king of formal exuberance that was much harder to attain with the older tools – though not impossible. Much of what we recognise now as the hallmark of computer-aided design has been done before with photographic and other means.

“Layering” had become a code word before the computer was widely used, but the device has made it considerable easier to combine and pile and mix outrageous quantities of fonts and images. The computer has also acted as an equaliser: with the right programming the formal differences between text and image manipulation became irrelevant – behind the keyboard and mouse the designer combined the trades of editor, typographer and lithographer. In a certain sense, this also eliminated the differences of content between text and image, mainly to the detriment of precise textual content.

Where the Modernist grid tends to separate text and image, and order both types of content in a rigidly hierarchical way, the postmodern aesthetic favours much more open relationships between fragments of content. It favours the kind of ad hoc narrative that is the grates asset of good storytellers, rearranging the basic elements of their tales each time they tell them. So it is more than the surface of graphic design that has changed – the very principles of transparency in ordering information, which have ruled the trade for so long have been challenged. More than ever, graphic design is now about subjective interpretation of signs.

Influenced by postmodern thinkers such as Derrida, Lyotard and Baudrillard, a view of graphic design has evolved that evaluates every visual communication in terms of the underlying code systems. The face value of a word or an image is not enough in this view, any combination of words and/or images is a game of connotations. This language, game, moreover, surpasses the obvious – sometimes to the extent of losing connection altogether.

What counts in this way of looking at visual information is that it is possible: a word and an image, words and images, can have a meaningful connection. Which meaning is greatly dependent upon context and on the interpretations made by designers, whereas the “readability” of those meanings is, for the large part, delegated to the eye of the beholder. Obvious meaning is obsolete – one cannot say anymore whether something is true or false. So why bother with fixing meanings?

From the context of this lack of certainty, after a decade of technical and theoretical developments, comes the most deeply influential change in the formal language of graphic design. There has emerged a new aesthetics of ordering that is not concerned with the traditional, hierarchical division of clear-cut meaning, but one that challenges the idea of ordering – and meaning – itself. An aesthetics that by means of composition and typographic manipulations consciously points out that each solution is one of a myriad possible ways of presenting the material, of telling the story. It is a temporary way. The primary task of this aesthetics of transience is to show the abstract possibility of meanings and relations. In this view it is not the designer’s task to fix them once and for all: readers and viewers do that for themselves. The design shows how that can be cone – for a while.

Readability, in this context, is no longer the holy grail. The readability of the fragments is often subordinated to the “readability” of the whole. What counts is not so much the simple message as the complexity of possible connotations, allusions and meanings implicit in the message. To give form to that complexity often becomes more important than to give form to the message itself. The message is in the complexity.

Since the end of the 1980s designers have been experimenting with every trick and token that has ever enriched the long tradition of typography. For how could one better visualise the idea that any information is ultimately an “empty” sign, waiting to be interpreted (or “intended”) by its context or its reader, than by making use of the enormous library of signs that is the typographer’s tool kit? Composed of a plethora of typographical accentuations and punctuations, of pointers, lines, boxes, and games, it was readily available for a new purpose! And it was used in abundance because one had to do justice to the complexity of the new world view.

But do these pointers point to something? Do the lines connect or divide one thing form another? Do the boxes and frames isolate one message from another? Are the bold caps more important than the light italics? Questions that indicate the obsolescence of the old typographical law book. Virtually everything that has ever been invented to organise content and make meaning transparent is used for the opposite, in free-plan compositions that never hesitate to suggest that any pointer could have pointed the other way and that any box could have contained something else as well. Typographical accentuation, the archetypal helper-language, has become a language game. Most conspicuously this change shows when words and sentences randomly cross the lines of a frame, changing from roman to bold or italic, or changing font halfway through a sentence or word. Words (or fragments of words and sentences, or single letters) reappear elsewhere on the page, drifting aimlessly through the layout like amoebae. Beneath, above and in between them, other fragments float with the same seemingly purposeless intention. “The chance encounter of the sewing machine and the umbrella on a dissecting table”, Lautréamont’s image with which the Surrealists represented the ultimate absurdity, has now become an image from vulgar reality. More and more we seem to accept that this is the way information works: chunks of possible meaning with no apparent connection, other than their synchronicity, whirl through our environment like seeds on a spring breeze. Then they settle on a page or a screen, and flower for a fleeting moment.

Even the most conservative of designers, in the old guilds of typeface designers, have been affected by the spirit of the times. Letters without fixes outlines seem to disintegrate on the page when read, and some typefaces combine the most incongruent extremes of the typographical spectrum. Little more than a decade ago, computer type designers had to cope with the extremely limited resolution of screens and printers, and concentrated on making basically readable letters. Now the computer aesthetics in typography is best represented by letters that suggest that in their curves and lines lies the whole of typographical history – for the time being. Letters have become a viable means of self-expression, as is shown abundantly in Faces on the Edge: Type in the Digital Age by Steve Heller and Anne Fink (see review page 84). And they are not made for eternity anymore – a host of contemporary “fonts” have been designed specifically as one-offs used for a single publication, or even a single headline.

It will be clear that this aesthetics of transience has little use for the grid, the ordering too par excellence of late-Modernist graphic design. Here, too, the computer has brought about or accompanied more than a formal change. It has made it considerable easier to arrange fragments on a page in a jigsaw way and this echoes a change in attitude: if a visual order seems unattainable in real life, why simulate it on the page or the screen? In this aesthetics, any order is seen as contingent, a provisional grouping of elements that could as easily be organised in another way, to convey a different meaning. If the grid appears at all from time to time, it’s more often than not used in a subversive way, in ways that (with Baudrillard in mind) may be called “obscene”. The lines that were once meant to guide, as invisibly as undercover agents, the mass of letter and images into orderly tracks, now operate as brassy agents-provocateurs, who stir up the excitement on the page rather than subduing it. Again, this use of the grid suggests the futility of fixing hierarchies.

With the availability of 3D-software and the rise of new media such as CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web, it is tempting to see the screen, not as a flat surface, but as a window on a three-dimensional space. Behind it one can see a fragment of an endless universe that extends in all directions. This not only makes arbitrary the content of the screen, but also its boundaries. The change in attitude mentioned above clearly shows when this virtual space of the computer is transferred to the flat space of the printed page, once the measure of all formats and proportions. Stimulated by a growing precision of printers’ techniques, designers then to revel in images that bleed off the pages and letters which are just on the edges or just over. Marginally cut-off letters are a trend. Along with the popular use of 3D-imagery, such as drop shadows, shifts in perspective, and overlaps, all this shows a tendency to consider the limits of a page or a screen, as no more than circumstantial, as an arbitrary and ephemeral technicality.

The way of thinking for which the computer is the best metaphor has so much pervaded our culture that an explicit allusion to the technical complexity of this apparatus – or to complexity in general – is not always needed to construct a complex image. The “return to simplicity” heralded here and there does not necessarily imply a return to the old ideals of clarity and unambiguity. A few years ago, the design avant-garde showed an almost obsessive drive to empty their newly filled hard discs on to a single page, but this trick has now been repeated so often that the message can do with less. There has grown a broad understanding of the complexity, the temporariness and contexture of any message – an understanding shared by designers and audiences. The “inter-text” does not have to be made explicit in exuberant visual detail. It is implicit whenever a combination of messages occurs. So do not think, when you see a poster with a single image and one word on a serenely white surface, that the designer is offering you a simple illustration with text! The complexity is no projected within the reader. Could it be that the “real” message is the image, with the text as illustration? Could it be that both combined mean something completely different than when seen individually? Of course it could! Much of what today looks simple and well organised, is so only at the surface. Underneath rages the complex network of even the simplest combination of text and image – in the eye of the beholder. And again, most of these designs leave no misunderstanding that this is just one of many possible and imaginable layouts – many contemporary theatre of advertising posters come in three or more variants.

Now that there has evolved a wide understanding of the fact that one cannot understand everything, the question of interpretation has changed. A graphic design does not have to be self-explanatory – viewers or readers will do most of the explaining themselves. With this, the associative playground for designers has expanded. And it is used enthusiastically, not least in advertising, where over the past few years we have witnessed an explosion in mysterious or seemingly nonsensical combinations of a few images and a catchline. You can make out of it whatever you want, as long as you remember the brand name, images, more and more, take the place of words or sentences. Icons that combine denotative meanings with a wide range of connotations are telling the audience stories that few copywriters could put into so few words. On the other hand there are the words that become icons: Nike’s “Just Do It”, or Calvin Klein’s brilliantly compendious “Be”.

There has evolved a broad range of new graphical routines – mostly reinterpretations of old ones – that combines elements of very disparate sources. How do all these elements hold together, if they are not fixed by universal rules or common habit? They move. It seems that movement is the single most important aesthetic principle of contemporary graphic design. It is suggested in the obvious arbitrariness of organising systems and the resulting “flow” of words and images on the printed page. It is often hard these days to characterise a book or a magazine by showing one or two spreads. Such publications are built like a movie, like a storyboard for a time-based medium. The importance of movement is most conspicuous in the media of CD-ROMS and the World Wide Web. Where bandwidth and operating speed allow for it, words and images float over the pages, coming from nowhere and vanishing into another fugacious screen. Sometimes movement in itself becomes the most important message of the design – another way of expressing complexity and the transience of meaning.

The computer has resulted in a visual language that is mainly virtual: an enormous amount of cultural and subcultural codes that wait to be “clicked on” to trigger a wildly meandering associative process in which everyone recognises what they want. Ultimately the computer, as a metaphor for our cultural dealings, has changed the wryly serious meaning of the word “information” into something infinitely more playful. This added meaning has opened the possibility for less unilateral ways of communicating, for the notion of visual language as a game of words and images played out by both sides – designers and readers. Like poetry, the aesthetics of transience invites the reader to look between the lines – and behind the screens.

First published in Eye no. 25 vol. 7, 1997