Spring 2000

Towards a complex simplicity

In the face of global branding, designers are seeking inspiration from the everyday

What defines contemporary graphic design today? The shelves of your local bookshop provide at least one answer. Most books published on the so-called avant-garde of contemporary design represent the institutionalisation of graphic experimentation, only confirming that the radical signs surrounding design in the late 1980s and early 1990s have become thoroughly predictable. Not only has this kind of work become a marketable aesthetic niche, but it is perpetuated by educational institutions that dutifully churn out the latest incremental variations in formulaic fashion, fuelled by the twin myths of expressionism and stylistic pluralism.

In his analysis of the 1980s art scene, the critic Hal Foster describes at least two conditions that identify a state of pluralism: a proliferation of accepted styles in the marketplace and a profusion of educational programmes that together constitute a new academy. I believe that graphic design operates under similar conditions today. The problem with pluralism is that styles become relative options, not critical choices. Although pluralism ensures many styles from which to choose, we lose any sense of critical alternatives because, as Foster states, “tolerance and acceptance doesn’t threaten the status quo”. Instead we have incremental or, in the parlance of 1990s economics, “managed” change. Just as the last round of “radical” graphics entered the profession in the late 1980s, many critics predicted an immediate opposite reaction, not understanding perhaps the speed and depth of assimilation such work would engender.

The prevailing notion of what defines contemporary graphic design took hold early in the 1990s – variously and problematically referred to as Deconstructivism, grunge graphics, or simply, the “cult of the ugly”. In antithetical fashion, some critics foresaw an inevitable reaction to the trend by predicting a return to more minimal or reductive approaches. Emigre magazine devoted an issue to the subject (“Starting from Zero”) as early as 1991, in which the idea of reduction was taken to mean a return to the primal, and in 1995 Carel Kuitenbrouwer presciently saw the turn in contemporary Dutch design away from its baroque excesses and towards a “new sobriety” (Eye no. 17 vol. 5). The prophecies continue with the recent publication of Less Is More, by Steven Heller and Anne Fink, a collection of contemporary design defined by familiar yet retrograde notions of simplicity. In the wake of these predictions has the cult of complexity given way to an ethos of simplicity?

At the beginning of the decade it seemed as if there was an ever-expanding universe of graphic possibilities, yet now it feels as if we have reached the limit. Is there no way forward when everything seems possible? In this infinity of possibilities, we may arrive at zero. But to begin again does not mean returning to the “good old days” of clarity, legibility and objectivity. Starting from zero does not mean that contemporary design arrives free of the past.

There are signs of different forms of design taking hold, projects and solutions that embrace reductive not additive working methods, explicit rather than implicit structures of organisation, a preference for the literal over the ambiguous, and where the ordinary and the quotidian, not the exoticised subcultures of the vernacular, are sources of inspiration. At their best such projects are a critical encounter with problems of representation, both verbal and visual, rather than the next round of stylistic permutations. This shift away from the simply complex and towards a complex simplicity is a condition that I would like to read against many of the most celebrated characteristics of design produced in the 1990s.

A complex simplicity
In the realm of the simply complex, fragmentation is preferred as the viewer assembles various bits of text and image to form an aggregate message. Such work tends to treat language as a free-floating talisman, isolated words drifting across the page in search of meaning. By contrast a complex simplicity relies on enumeration and explication, a series of digressions and elaborations linked in the flow of language. What seems trivial and tangential becomes essential – like so many bits and pieces of data in the detritus of the information age. This abundance of information is employed to dramatic and occasionally humorous effect. Structure becomes paramount in order to handle large quantities of texts and images: a penchant for charts, diagrams and maps prevails. But in the most interesting work what appears to be good old information design reveals, upon closer examination, something more subjective – a kind of over-rationalised explication – that undermines its historical associations of neutrality and objectivity.

The diagrammatic and the eccentric converge in Timothy McSweeney’s, a literary journal in which words reign supreme. This is confirmed by the admonishment on the cover of issue two: “If words are to be used as design elements then let designers write them.” Prone to confabulation, this small, book-like journal is set in only one typeface, Garamond, about which is provided a five-page pseudo-colophon. McSweeney’s is typically bereft of imagery, especially photography, preferring small line illustrations and the occasional diagram or dingbat. Its well crafted covers evoke Victorian typographic guises with elaborate extended prose and marginalia, while intricate charts structure the contents of each issue in much the way that nineteenth-century physiognomy charts tried to map human nature. McSweeney’s relies on verbal explication and finds a visual corollary in the diagram. The contents of issue two, for example, are represented by the number of words per article and approximate reading time, and by a pie chart that categorises the offerings by percentage, for example, “Stories that want you to be happy: 19%.” Carefully ordered, but abhorrent of white space, it leaves no place unused. Witness, from the third issue cover, messages such as “This area was blank for the longest time” or “Nothing need happen here”, or an article printed on the spine. For McSweeney’s the modernist principle of “activated” white space seems empty, both wasteful and useless, because every place is a seen as a potential space to hold meaning.

It is also possible for the form to structure itself. For example, various bits of data taken together form a powerful gestalt in Jeremy Coysten’s poster series on aeroplane crashes and traffic accidents. Coolly rendered as scatterplots, Coysten’s Civil Airline Disasters 1950-1998 fixes the location and death toll of 607 aviation tragedies, their resulting dispersal pattern forming an image of the world. Coysten’s poster was prompted by his own near-miss incident aboard a flight to Australia. A second poster in the series documents road accidents in the uk over one week. In both instances the rational forms of information design have been employed to register the seemingly irrational loss of life. The calculated nature of the statistics contrasts with random events or accidents. The posters are produced for sale and are not commissioned for public safety campaigns. In this way information becomes both a product and a surrogate form of experience.

Sublimating expression
While the overt intervention of the designer figured prominently as a signifier of self-expression, one can detect the suspension of many of the designer’s more subjective decision-making tasks. Like forms of conceptual art, the preferred mode is more detached, relying on systematic approaches to produce solutions. Sol LeWitt once proclaimed that “the idea is the machine that makes the art”. The systematic nature of a predetermined process generates its form, and in this way it is the process itself that becomes the concept. Although the designer has not been entirely removed, what is foregrounded is the visible traces of the process. Unlike some Modernist attempts at abandoning subjectivity in favour of machine-like rationality, certain projects provide a framework for future actions outside the usual control of the designer and are often completed by the viewer.

An example of such participatory, rather than prescriptive, design is a poster by Paul Elliman for a conference on the work of the French writer Lautréamont (see Eye no. 25 vol. 7, page 31). White boxes have been inserted between the words “image”, “Maldoror” and “text”, for conference participants to complete, alter or negate. This simple gesture allows the project to generate a multitude of responses, which as an action echoes the nature of the event’s interpretive agenda. In a similar but more extreme vein, Daniel Eatock’s utilitarian poster project, essentially a generic form silk-screened on newsprint paper, methodically guides the user through the steps of creating their own advertisement, and includes blanks to insert relevant information, such as titles of events, images, persons to contact, etc. In this instance the work is wholly dependent on viewer response, the absence of which denies the piece its essential content.

Anne Burdick’s design for Wörterbuch der Redensarten, a dictionary of idioms, demonstrates an intricate form of complexity that weaves together various texts. Gathered from the work of Karl Krauss’s Die Fackel, a literary journal published between 1899 and 1936, Burdick worked with a group of researchers in Vienna to generate a series of design directions for the subsequent layout of 1,056 pages. The aim of the project is interpretative, not exhaustive, therefore the body of the text comprises only 144 expressions used by Krauss in Die Fackel. The purpose of this dictionary is to register the nuances of Krauss’s concepts and expressions. Representing a decidedly postmodern “tissue of quotations”, Burdick has structured the pages so that the central column of text includes excerpts from Krauss’s writings, while the left column contains citations and cross-references, and the right column contains texts that perform “interpretative actions” on the main passage. Because Krauss often used typography and imagery semantically in his writings, the central column frequently contains images and passages of text lifted directly from the original. Burdick acknowledges that conventional assumptions of design authorship were hampered by both the scope of the project and the barrier of a foreign language. Relying instead on a series of instructions, Burdick’s solution nevertheless bears the traces of the designer’s close attention to the details that would allow the project to realise its most appropriate polyphonic form.

Simple complexity demands typographic experimentation, highly articulated structures and eccentric typefaces. By contrast, a complex simplicity revels in the spartan vocabulary of what might be called “vanilla typography”, where typography has been reduced to a near-zero degree of expression – neither pretty nor eccentric, but quite plain. This is an inverted world where the ordinary stands out from the crowd as a distinctive gesture. By comparison, yesteryear’s shaped paragraph blocks and micromanaged type treatments look like fussy affectations, so many histrionics in the passion play of design. This change in typographies signals not only a shift in fashion, but also helps expose the expressionistic fallacy behind much 1990s design.

Expressionism denies its existence as a language, and thus a style, in order to preserve a sense of immediacy, a supposedly unmediated or direct connection to individual desire and the unconscious. Indeed, in most forms of contemporary design, expressionism has become synonymous with individuality. While modern typography in the 1960s and 1970s could be easily linked with the increasing rationality of the then-emerging industrial technocracy, today’s similar but simpler typography is aligned with the cultural sectors of fashion and art. This simplified approach to typography, while relatively common to many culture magazines, is most often employed in conjunction with the nouveau realist photography of the quotidian.

Picturing the everyday
One of the more influential publications in this genre is Paris-based Purple, which surveys the worlds of art, fashion, fiction, prose and interiors. Segregating the verbal (prose, fiction) from the visual (art, fashion, interiors), Purple’s preferred image is the snapshot, the most immediate form of photographic address. Uncomplicated, unstudied, and frequently unstaged, the snapshot negates the conditions of professional, commercial photography, with its requisite need for elaborate lighting set-ups, make-up, styling and retouching. While images have undergone extensive digital manipulation in the past decade, the recent resurgence of the snapshot makes one wonder whether this form of representation is a critical alternative or simply a fashionable one. The extensive presence of fashion advertising that mimics this look in the pages of Purple suggests the latter.

In this image world, life is collected in pictures documenting the everyday in the face of a highly mediated, spectacularised existence. The moment preserved by the snapshot is valued because it signifies “realness”. This theme appears in cultiver notre jardin, by Jan van Toorn. Using a structure of perforated and folded pages, Van Toorn alternates between colour and black and white images – pictures taken mainly by him – of people, friends and places around the world. Interspersed through the book are quotations about social reality, mediated experience and notions of public and private space, including a quote by social critic Mike Davis, who argues for a re-examination of nineteenth-century realism and its relationship to everyday life. Van Toorn extols us to “cultivate our own garden”, by carving out a space in the public sphere in what have become expanding corporate and institutional fields.

Rather than striving to record moments of realness as it happens, other designers prefer a much more mediated approach to representation. Eschewing visual ambiguity, including the clichéd stylistic affectations of blurriness, the preferred mode of pictorial represent-ation is documentary realness – not an attempt at capturing the authentic, but a much more studied trope that signifies the real but does not try to stand in for it. This strategy is evinced in Jop van Bennekom’s self-initiated project, re-, a magazine about everyday life. In an issue devoted to sex, the cover models (a man and a woman) appear fresh from a sexual encounter – replete with small beads of perspiration on their faces. Inside, the clichés of sex are distributed accordingly – sexual innuendo and phallicism, photos of stained mattresses and bits of blacked-out (“censored”) texts. Importantly, the subjects of re- are ordinary people, not celebrities. The texts remain first-person accounts, either testimonials, diaristic thoughts, or confessions.

The ordinary made extraordinary
With the reconsideration of the ordinary and everyday within graphic design, one may ask whether we are witnessing the end of what was once referred to as “the society of the spectacle”. It is more likely that with today’s campaigns for global branding – the process that transforms the ordinary into the memorable – we long for the less-mediated experiences found in the routines of daily life. Perhaps we can’t recognise the spectacle because it exists all around us.

After attending America: Cult and Culture, last year’s AIGA [American Institute of Graphic Arts] conference in Las Vegas (Reviews, Eye no. 34 vol. 9), it seemed all too easy to leave the spectacle behind as my plane departed. Watching television at home, a group of rather ordinary young men and women dressed casually but alike were singing along to an old Madonna tune. The minimal white stage set and the uninflected karaoke ushered in the autumn season of clothing for The Gap and I found myself transfixed: ordinary clothes worn by average people elevated to a new aesthetic. At that moment it was difficult, but not impossible, to remember that the truly ordinary lies in opposition to the brand. I was reminded of the architect Deborah Berke’s warning, in writing about the transformation of the landscape from banal to branded: “To confuse ubiquitous logos with generic identity [is] to mistake successful marketing for ‘popular’ culture.” At the eclipse of the society of the spectacle, the ordinary is made extraordinary and the trivial and mundane become memorable.

First published in Eye no. 35 vol. 9 2000

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.