Tangible thoughts

The alphabet: the greatest invention of humanity. An infinite combination of utterances is produced through the combination of just 26 symbols or images which we call the alphabet. These symbols are language at a molecular level

Man has always felt the need to make a mark to convey and preserve his thoughts. Every idea, be it big or small, can only be devised and communicated through language.

The alphabet is a system of  delicate visual structures that represent the sounds that we make to communicate our thoughts. According to Tim Donaldson*, ‘letters are highly specialised images, and we have always read words as images’. This set of symbols is the most widely utilised form of communication, and the basis for the morse code and html alike.

Every thought can be traced back to its most basic constituent: letters. What’s even more intriguing, is that our culture and language affects the cognitive classification of reality. This means that the language we speak, and the culture we live in not only determines our thought, but can also limit it.

Language is not only man’s greatest invention, but also his greatest manacle.

* T. Donaldson, Shapes for Sounds (2008)
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Idea… is it enough?

Suddenly design isn’t about design anymore, and craft and form are depreciated in the face of ‘analysis’ and ‘understanding’. This appears to be a half-hearted attempt to recast design as a primarily quantitative and analytical discipline. Yes, design is about analysis and problem solving, but its fundamental impact on the world is in the artifacts and forms it produces. This is the only way ideas survive in design. To denigrate form and artefact-making in design is to destroy its essence and reduce it to a generic role of think tank or consultant. Deprived of form, design is walked into a dead end.
‘The grand unified theory of nothing: design, the cult of science and the lure of big ideas’ by Randy Nakamura

It is interesting that the very first article in the book I’m currently reading at the beginning of this term (Looking Closer 5) tackles the relationship between ideas and artefacts in the graphic design process. After focusing almost exclusively on analysis, messages and ideas for project 3, it is good to take a step back and consider the bigger picture. Through a thorough analysis of the research process in design, I have started to appreciate even more the importance of ideas and solutions rather than immediately focusing on only on aesthetics and design. But ideas need to be given shape and form for them to be conveyed, and that is the only way that good ideas can be communicated.

Ultimately in the realm of design, ideas have to be useful.

Redefining research


A redefinition of my design process:

1. Delve into analysis and open up

2. Appreciate the colourful mess of data

3. Take a step back and organise the data

4. Select, trim & reduce

5. Formulate a clear & concise message

A solid understanding through research is only the first step.

By compiling a mass of data, one creates the ideal environment in which a message can emerge, sparks can occur and a realisation can take place. But as a designer, one should not stop here.

A designer needs to possess the confidence and ability to simplify, distil and extract the essence. The intricate ramifications of analysis have to be trimmed and pruned, thus giving them a discernible, clear and concise form. The output of this process (i.e. a laboriously edited and polished message) is the input for the actual design process. Therefore design becomes an effective articulation of the output of the research process. All the decisions about form (how the message is conveyed to an audience) must not be arbitrary but should look inevitable.

Rather than focusing on creating a unique solution, look for something unique about the problem. Getting the problem right (defining what one wants to say) is the hardest part, but a major part of the graphic design process. This gives design a completely new meaning: it becomes the harmonious integration of content and form.

(Bursting balloons: An image of a balloon at the exact moment of explosion captures the essence of my project and serves as an excellent metaphor for a publication on research methodologies in graphic design – images from my presentation.)

What & how

As part of the research for project 3, I explored the main concepts of Bruce Mau’s Lifestyle, especially those regarding research, meaning and typography. Mau’s views about the role of a graphic designer are very similar to my thoughts and redefinitions of the profession.

Conventionally, graphic design is equated to decoration and ornamentation. According to this view, the designer deals exclusively with form: how something is said. What is said (content) is shaped prior to the design stage by someone else and thus the designer has no influence whatsoever on the message to be conveyed. Design is simply a ‘dress’ and the designer merely deals with the aesthetic, the outer layer, the superficial.

Through project 3, I want to redefine this view of graphic design. Kindled by my desire to convey something meaningful, I have always perceived design as the art of communication. As designers, we deal with the substance of the message itself. We are not simply in control of the tone and volume, colour and scale. Redefining the original ‘problem’ and extracting value are of the essence. Our main role is to understand: to research, relate with the client and become familiar with the audience. Only then can we say something significant. Understanding is the only way in which a meaningful solution be reached.

Design can only be effective when the role of the designer is expanded and extended to incorporate the what is to be said. Thus I believe in the integration of form and content.

Re-writing the brief

Make it yours.

Omit what is unnecessary and include what is seminal. Highlight the areas you believe should be dealt with more than others and re-phrase them to suit your project. Cut, edit, alter, shuffle, prioritise, re-organise and own it. Through doing so, re-work a timeline, add notes to yourself on things to keep in mind during the process, and give yourself clear instructions. Clarity, brevity and efficiency are paramount.

Don’t forget deadlines: contextualise the project in a time frame and make sure that all the stages of the process are catered for.

Re-writing the design brief is a design project in itself.

Nothing, yet everything

Below are some extracts from Kenya Hara’s Shiro (White). His reflections on the colour white and the concept of nothingness provide a fascinating perspective on graphic design, human communication and the concept of negative space.

Emptiness doesn’t mean ‘nothingness’ or ‘energy-less’; rather, in many cases, it indicates a condition which will likely be filled with content in the future. A creative mind, in short, does not see an empty bowl as valueless, but perceives it as existing in a transitional state, waiting for the content that will eventually fill it; and this creative perspective instills power in the emptiness.

An empty state possesses a chance of becoming, by virtue of its receptive nature. Emptiness is a part of this process of communication, since our brain move to fill in that which is missing. In other words, communication and ideas emerge from emptiness. Mental activities like ‘pondering’ and ‘ideating’ do not emerge from a conscious process of ‘thinking’ that begins at ground zero; rather, I believe that they stem from our unconscious impulse to inquire. To inquire is predicated on ‘I think’ – it establishes that emptiness that sets our brains to work.

When people share their thoughts, the commonly listen to each other’s opinions rather than throwing information at each other. In other words, successful communication depends on how well we listen, rather than how well we push our opinions on the person seated before us. People have therefore conceptualized communication techniques using terms like the ‘empty vessel’ to try to understand each other better. For example, unlike other signs whose meanings are narrowly determined, symbols like the red disk in the Japanese flag allow us to let our imaginations roam free of any boundaries; they are like enormous empty vessels that can hold every possible meaning.

… Because non-being longs for being, on occasion it creates a stronger sense of being than being itself.

Shiro (White) by Kenya Hara

My Mau-nifesto

Here’s a selection from Bruce Mau’s ‘An incomplete manifesto for growth’ (2000). I chose the ones that I passionately believe in, and also included some which I definitely need to follow more ardently.

1. Allow events to change you: Growth is different from something that happens to you. You produce it. You live it. The prerequisites for growth: the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them. (Well said Mr Mau)

2. Forget about good: Good is what we all agree on. Growth is not necessarily good. Growth is an exploration of unlit recesses that my or may not yield to our research. As long as you stick to good you’ll never have real growth. (That’s something I need to keep in mind every time I am preoccupied on whether what I am producing is good or not!)

3. Process is more important than outcome: When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there. (Once again, beautifully said Mr Mau)

5. Go deep: The deeper you go the more likely you will discover something of value. (Amen!)

11. Harvest ideas. Edit applications: Ideas need a dynamic, fluid, generous environment to sustain life. Applications on the other hand, benefit from critical rigour. Produce a high ration of ideas to applications. (Learnt this in project 2 – never cut ideas short, dig many holes not a deep one, ideas need the time and space to grow and I have to give them what is theirs by right)

29. Think with your mind. Forget technology: Creativity is not device-dependent (It’s incredible how richer a design process is when you forget technology and focus on the idea. Good graphic design comes from the mind, from the thought, the message)

32. Listen Carefully: Every collaborator who enters our orbit brings with him a world more strange and complex than any we could ever hope to imagine. By listening to the details and the subtlety of their needs, desires or ambitions we fold their world into our own. Neither party will ever be the same. (Nearly all of my significant insights and ideas came whilst speaking about a project with a tutor, class-mate or even a close friend. It is fascinating how our mind manages to coherently convey an idea during conversation)

40. Avoid fields. Jump fences: Disciplinary boundaries and regulatory regimes are attempts to control the wilding of creative life. Our job is to jump the fences and cross the fields. (Especially true in research. Song lyrics, Greek myths, religious texts, have all been rich sources for my projects)


Researching & me

These are the main themes that emerged from the analysis of my research methodology:

1. Pursuit of meaning – constantly searching for meaning, delving into a complex and intricate puzzle of meaning with the hope of revealing or expressing truth or value. I guess this aspect stems from me being a rather ‘reflective’ person.

2. Langauge – multi-lingual approach and focusing quite extensively on language (words, etymology, definition), I find myself starting off a research process by exploring most definitions and roots of individual words (such as equilibrium, time), connotation and denotation.

3. Point of Defamiliarisation – immersing myself in a concept so much that I lose sight of it as an ordinary object – zooming in/cropping so much that I begin to see it in a refreshed manner. This concept of defamilarisation has been quite present during these three months – delving so much into a concept that its as if you’re seeing it for the first time.

4. Complexity of meaning vs. simplicity in aesthetic – sometimes I enjoy the research process so much, that I tend to end up with too much significant material and I find it very hard to distill it into one image/final piece.

Sources, resources

As part of the brainstorming for project 3, I compiled a list of all the fields and sources of research of the previous two projects. There were some elements that overlapped, others that differed and some very interesting sources that I had taken for granted, but had greatly informed the design process of the projects.

Whilst looking at these charts I realised that research is a stage with I particularly enjoy and which kindles the necessary enthusiasm for a project. I find it quite fascinating and intriguing to look for parallels in other fields, subjects, disciplines, time periods and industries. The more information I manage to collect from multiple sources, the more associations I am then able to make between them. Even though it featured predominantly in the initial stage, research was constantly carried out in the background as well.

Typographic masterpiece


I came across a lovely typographic masterpiece on the Creative Review blog. This charming publication called ‘Around the world with the Bodoni family’ by Teresa Monachino features typographic illustrations of  places around the globe using the Bodoni font. Utterly impressive and clever use of typography… pity it is limited to 40 hand numbered and beautifully letterpressed copies and that it costs £95!

(source: http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2010/january/around-the-world-with-the-bodoni-family)