Spring 2001

Freedom in the graphic galaxy

Minimalism. Maximalism. Chaos. Software advances plus a reconciliation of two strains of Modernism may finally lead us towards a new screen aesthetic

When the history of new media is written a century from now, will critics describe these comparatively early, incunabula-esque days of the ‘modern’ internet like the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud once did the modern city – as a perfect setting for a season in hell? Or are there likely to be advances in both theory and practice that suggest more promising aesthetic contributions to this emerging new discipline – contributions that will one day reflect the degree to which designers actually made a difference?

Increasingly it seems, we may have good reason to be optimistic. Somewhere in the extensive experimental space of the digital hemisphere, designers are beginning to author, design and engineer websites that question the essential morphology of the screen in ways that skew our perceptual expectations. With advances in software plug-in integration now permitting more seamless cinematic representation online, they are dislocating the visual syntax of the screen and raising critical questions about the social and sensory dynamics of its multidimensional space. Today’s most promising new media designers are probing that space intellectually, by reconsidering the presentation of content; they are testing it architecturally, by reassessing its compositional imperatives; and they are challenging it theatrically, by reorchestrating its multiple media components. Collectively, these experiments are pointing the way toward a new screen aesthetic that depends as much upon our understanding of design history as upon our willingness to forego previous conclusions about that history in order to welcome what might be, at long last, a new avant-garde. All of this is predicated on the basic notion that the screen succeeds best when understood as a balance of fundamentally opposing forces: it is all about the tension between structure and freedom.

There is, as it turns out, considerable historic precedent to substantiate this view. The emergence of twentieth-century Modernism was essentially framed by similar tensions: from war to liberation, economic depression to post-war optimism; and in the parallel universe of aesthetic manufacture, from the restrained formal vocabularies of early Modernist painting to the effusive reactionary backlash of late Abstract Expressionism. For designers, these were fertile years in what would come to be an emerging avant-garde, yet the trajectory of Modernism had an oddly bifurcated impact. On one hand were staunch minimalists, disciples of the Bauhaus who advocated a kind of pure, almost fetishistic formalism – a visual rhetoric born of geometry, reduction and reason. On the other were those whose love of narrative and passion for varied, often lavish forms of visual expression would find equal representation in the emerging and increasingly idiomatic imagery of the twentieth century. Each would participate in and contribute to our critical understanding, today, of what graphic design really is, deeply affecting its rich and often unruly definition.

Now, at the turn of a new century, some of the most provocative visual explorations online are coming from sites that embrace a fusion of both strains of Modernism. These are sites that benefit at once from the structured clarity of rational thinking and the capacity for inventive, unorthodox (and often quite personal) expression. The first is all about structure: indeed, the rigours of screen manufacture required to bring a site to life – the meticulous coding, the complex engineering – lend themselves quite naturally to certain practical design choices, among them, pared-down type specifications, harmonious grid systems, and balanced, if asymmetrical compositional arrangements. (Consider the streamlined formal codes of The New Typography, Swiss Modernism and other enduring emblems of the hygienic International Style. Think minimalism.) But the second, an equally valid outgrowth of twentieth-century aesthetics, is all about freedom. Here, the designer is liberating a subjective point of view as an enhanced expression of fact – not at the expense of it. Design in this context is perhaps less pragmatic than pluralistic. (Consider the ornamental excesses of nineteenth-century chromolithography, the exaggerated mannerisms of twentieth-century political caricature; the idiosyncratic composites of any of a number of postmodern graphic assemblages. Think maximalism.)

Today, as design embraces methods and media beyond the purely two-dimensional, its phenomenological legacy – quite simply, its objective relationship to human experience – is informed not only by this broad panoply of social and aesthetic history, but also by certain formal conceits that derive as much from the parallel disciplines of film and painting as they do from design per se. Such an interdisciplinary reading – one that in spite of new media’s largely ‘virtual’ character considers its fundamental material contribution to the evolving theory and discipline of graphic design – has never been more critical.

It is film, perhaps even more than painting, that deserves our attention now, given the increasingly dynamic opportunities for design on the computer screen. In the early days of pre-verbal cinema, the American poet Vachel Lindsay wrote extensively about the aesthetics of film language, comparing screen images to Egyptian hieroglyphs, action films to sculpture; he once defined crowd scenes as architecture in motion. (Lindsay’s prescient observations offer a particularly apt analytical model to us today, as we consider these similarly ‘early’ days of design on the ‘modern’ internet.) But what has been said of the actual screen space itself? Hugo Munsterberg, a noted Harvard psychologist before the First World War, was the first to attempt to define the architectonics of screen space, calling our attention to the meaning that certain camera movements can induce in our projection of depth onto the screened image. Such delicate psychological choreography is precisely what begins to happen on the Web: only here, instead of camera movements, it is mouse movements that induce meaning and trigger changes in visual dynamics which, in turn, affect our perception of screen depth. This assimilation of interactivity – the idea that user input modifies screen display – fundamentally relocates the creative parameters within which design is constructed and consumed. As paradigm shifts go, this one is seismic.

In the MonoCrafts ‘classic’ site (yugop.com/ver2/ [no longer online]) screen space is in continual flux. The user rolls over words to reveal pictures, pictures to reveal texts, navigational buttons to reveal kinetic constellations of dynamic matter, rather than static points of access. Screens perpetually redraw themselves to create animated interfaces that alternately conceal and reveal their content. A moving horizontal axis slices the main screen, giving birth to smaller, semi-translucent frames that resemble a floating filmstrip. Subnavigation is presented as an annotation or an afterthought, a kind of expository text that fades in, on rollover, like a fleeting whisper. The pure formal language employed overall, however, is surprisingly restrained: it’s orderly and monochromatic, geometric and spare. But present, too, is a strikingly lyrical component: in the main interface, a muted nature photograph appears in the background. In ‘Book of Typo-Beat’ a disembodied keyboard is superimposed upon it – typing upon one’s real keyboard displaces the screen keys, creating an abstracted typographic landscape, a letterscape. Later, in ‘Nervous Matrix’ the nature image subdivides into quadrants and refreshes as a series of aerial photographs of urban grids. And throughout the site, an animation of blurred dot patterns (a cross between a German Expressionist film and a study in molecular fission) swirls in a balletic haze while site components are loading. It’s ethereal and boundless: screen space as graphic galaxy.

The newer version of the site, (yugop.com [no longer online]) adds subtle shifts in colour gradation combined with floating typographic constellations to create even greater dimensionality, depth and dreaminess. And it is dreamy: you meander laterally through these sites more than you browse them sequentially. The many lyrical ‘sitelets’ (‘Poetbot’ for instance) accessible from MonoCrafts make streamlined navigation – the point A to point B kind – essentially impossible. Moreover, returning to the site in search of something you found a day before is often completely impossible. In addition, the use of a kind of elasticised rollover, in which dragging the mouse literally seems to stretch something on screen, produces a kind of disturbingly asynchronous vertigo. Like many sites that experiment with eye-hand-screen coordination, it’s all about delayed reactions and suspended responsiveness, like your computer is experiencing the latent sensory lull of an antidepressant. It’s digital Prozac.

The über-shockwaved Lessrain has a tighter response mechanism, yet rationalises screen space in a similar way: only here, instead of a black abyss, the arena of the screen is preternaturally white. Perceptually, it’s a wash: the absence of background colour suggests an equally infinite territory. While there is less apparent kinetic activity (and sound) overall in this site, the main interface features a playful gavotte of cascading type that makes primary wayfinding a particular challenge. Navigation here is more straightforward: tiny boxes that resemble a kind of futuristic morse code take you forward and backward across an essentially Cartesian axis. (The site is more a portfolio than the experimental MonoCrafts, and therefore benefits from a more linear underlying structure.) With such organisational parameters in place, the use and range of imagery here is delightfully eclectic, from a kind of Charles and Ray Eames-worthy photographic mise-en-scene to animated oyster shells and ‘al in wonderland’, a modular photographic study that plays with the form of the fractal storyboard by juggling individual frames, modulating colour values, and ultimately, questioning the relationship between user input and the narrative sequencing.

Like many experimental sites making use of plug-in capabilities, Lessrain.com suffers from a slow uptake: shockwave reloads interrupt cinematic flow and consequently, inject an unpleasant note of technological mediation in an otherwise engaging series of visual explorations. It reminds us of the degree to which film – and increasingly, sound – provides the sensory glue enabling these design experiments to coalesce on our screens (and arguably, in our minds.) But is that enough? The Futurist painter and sound artist Luigi Russolo once described film as needing to detach itself from reality in order to fulfill the evolution of painting. It may be that the opposite is true of the Web: interactive media is social media. It needs to reaffirm its ties with reality and restore, perhaps, some of its more civilised conventions – the exchange of information, the reciprocity of language – in order to fully connect to the viewer. In the end, sites seem to fail when both information and imagery are awash in abstraction; conversely, they succeed when there is order to sustain the chaos. Avant-garde thinking aside, being lost in space is deliriously engaging as long as you know that at some point you can relocate yourself. Being lost indefinitely? That would be a hellish season, indeed.

Jessica Helfand, designer and writer, Connecticut, US

First published in Eye no. 39 vol. 10, 2001

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