Deep Thoughts

In 2013 we were featured in ‘Image of the Studio,’ a group show highlighting various designers working in New York City. The exhibition aimed to represent a cross-section of the design industry from famous international branding agencies to small-time independents laboring in obscurity. This wasn’t so much a curated list of the best or most interesting designers in NYC, (many of our favorite studios did not participate), as much as it was a random sampling, a state of the industry poll. 

The brief was simple; use the surface of a square poster to illustrate your design philosophy. Graphic designers are mostly creatures of humble temperament, so we couldn’t imagine anyone producing a bombastic visual manifesto. Nobody wants to look foolishly sincere. As a pro-bono exhibition, it also didn’t seem likely that the participating studios would devote much energy to their responses. Paying work usually takes precedent, and these posters were likely to emerge in off hours, or in between ‘real’ client work. How many of these pieces would be non-committal duds hurriedly finished at the last minute, we wondered … just as it’s gauche to believe in anything too deeply, it is even more unseemly to invest in projects you’re not getting paid for, especially if the work is nothing more than a personal statement. To compose a deeply moving work of astonishing virtuosity would be a little embarrassing. There’s nothing as uncool as strenuously self-promoting. 

We didn’t want to try too hard, nor did we want to fall into the trap of not trying hard enough. For our tiny studio, it was really nice to be included in a show alongside massive companies. A practice is defined by its client list as much as by any philosophy. The scope of the work produced is determined by the size of the problems presented, so it was nice for us to be given equal billing. Everyone was playing on the same field for once.

There was much to consider. We knew we wanted to focus on writing more than designing, but the content of the text eluded us. Perhaps we couldn’t think of what to write because we weren’t guided by any design philosophy? Maybe we stand for nothing? To dislodge our creative block we started typing in a stream of consciousness mode. The words spilling out didn’t form a coherent philosophy, but they did describe the time and context in which we live.

The design was a bit of an afterthought, and in retrospect we wish we had styled it differently. It would have been a more confident statement if we’d stuck to a default 12pt Times New Roman format of Microsoft Word. Instead, we mimicked the design of our site at the time, with narrow columns of News Gothic and tiny pictures. That made some conceptual sense but looking at it now, it doesn’t seem quite boring enough. It’s awkward, but not tough. No matter we thought, as we attached our pdf submission to our email. Even if the form isn’t the best it could be, at least the idea makes us laugh. 

A few days after the submission deadline Cooper Union held a private opening for the involved studios. As we walked around the exhibit I overheard someone float the idea of detonating a bomb: “If we blew up this reception we’d kill every designer in the city … think how many clients we could pick up.”

Later that evening we bumped into Glen Cummings of MTWTF, who joked that we’d inadvertently designed the same poster. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising given that we went to the same design school and nowadays live a few blocks away from each other. Our design ideas have been incubated in the same conditions. 

MTWTF poster submission for ‘Image of the Studio.’

The Base poster was another text-related work. By producing a literal design manifesto, they took the exact opposite approach as us, clearly stating what they believed without irony or affect. In many ways the poster reminds me of the Fischli and Weiss How to Work Better piece; a 10 point list of advice the artists appropriated from the wall of a ceramic factory in Thailand. In both works there is an insistence on learning or process, and curiously, an emphasis on smiling. They are about accepting incompleteness with optimism. I took a picture of the Base poster on my cell phone to record a missing word in the sentence of the fourth point. At the time, the mistake seemed like an unwitting meta-synthesis of the philosophy it was promulgating. 

Base poster submission for ‘Image of the Studio.’

Peter Fischli David Weiss, How to Work Better, 1991. On view at Houston Street, New York, 2016.

For us, the standout poster of the exhibition was by Willi Kunz. Back in the 90’s when we were design students, Willi Kunz was everything to us. His work often harnessed the opposing formal tensions of a strict underlying grid with a more playful surface expression. Dissecting the various counterbalancing elements of his posters for Columbia architecture school in his monograph, he presented his vision like a clockmaker diagramming the mechanical innards of a movement. His work is both analytic and magical.

Willi Kunz poster submission for ‘Image of the Studio.’

The poster submission of his philosophy was simply the form of his studio logo. The idea is so simple and poetic, but like all great Modernist works it implies a program. It isn’t boring, it is perfect.

In case you wanted to check out our text, here it is in a more readable form:

I have been invited to represent my graphic design philosophy on a thirty-inch-square surface. The brief states that this space doesn’t need to be filled, so the design could have dimensions and format more like those of a regular poster, just with a lesser height—a default poster is twenty-four inches wide and thirty-six inches tall. But I don’t want to make an imitation that’s twenty-four by a measly thirty inches. It would be a sad and inadequate thing with those six vertical inches missing.

Diagram illustrating a thirty-inch square intersecting the common US poster (24 × 36") and the traditional movie poster (27 × 41").

Also, there would be something profane in wasting all that paper on the sides. The physical specifications of a brief are meant to be pushed to the limit, not skirted around. It would be antithetical to the spirit of design not to use all ninety square inches. Perhaps this heterodoxy could be embraced by making a poster the size of a postage stamp. Wasting so much paper would then be an act of defiance, which might be interesting. 

Maybe I’m on to something with the belligerence of the trimming idea; the poster could be carved into a hexagon, or the silhouette of Whistler’s mother, or it could be lacerated with a web of intricate cuts—a fine lattice of incisions resembling a giant doily. But the labor required for such a task drains all enthusiasm. I hate handcraft in graphic design production—is there anything more loathsome than a hand-stitched book?

Graphic design is a discipline of reproduction and dispersion. This isn’t to say that all design is ephemeral or that physical qualities are unimportant. It’s just an assertion that a designer should emphasize the physical attributes of design using the tools of mass production—this is the core of our practice.

Enough with the design diatribe, I need to settle the question of the poster shape. For me, there’s something unaesthetic about a thirty-inch square. Perhaps it’s the combination of squareness and bigness. What can the origin of this bias be? The square format of a twelve-inch-record sleeve is positively endearing, maybe because the scale mirrors the size of a human head. A rectangular poster carries a different kind of anthropomorphism, more like a head plus a torso—an upper body that addresses you from across the room. Since ancient Greece, it’s been thought that the best rectangle is one where the side-to-side ratio is 1:1.618. For graphic designers, the canvases of our trade—books, posters, and television screens—usually relate to this golden section. So does nature, as ferns, shells, and feathers spiral outwards in a Fibonacci sequence of golden proportions.

Historian John Man suggests that Gutenberg’s Bible page was based on the golden ratio (commonly approximated as 8:5) and that the printed area also had that shape.

A golden-ratio spiral in nature.

Square paintings are rare, but many photographers prefer film stock with nearly square frames. When conditioned to see the world in a particular format, it’s difficult to rewire your head. I probably like posters to not be square because I’m used to seeing them that way; my culture and upbringing has made me a squarophobe, an irredeemable squarist.

Square watermelons were first grown in Japan, with the aim of making fruit cubes that could be easily stacked.

Perhaps this format fretting is a displacement of underlying anxiety. The real concern is rooted in the content of the poster itself. If I am the subject, there’s a danger of being trapped in a feedback loop, as in the nightmarish scene from Being John Malkovich when the actor enters his own mind. I must get away from myself, because a graphic designer, more than any other artist, depends on “otherness”—an external force to push against or extrinsic content to work with. The beauty of design lies in the dialectic between the boundaries the client provides and the boundaries you give yourself, the structure of the assignment and the superstructure of your response. 

Illustration of John Lennon by Alan Aldridge, 1969.

There is a wonderful quote from a conversation between Elliman and Mevis & Van Deursen, published with the speakers unnamed, explaining the role of restrictions in design:

You can’t overstate the role of restrictions. But not only the ones that come with the job, I mean the given ones, the content, the budget, the time, your own limits, even the expectations of the client or whoever you’re working with. They all restrict you. But I think you have to then introduce a set of extra restrictions based on these, that in a way protect you from them. I think it’s here that you in fact find all the decisions you need. The size, the format, whether to use color or only black and white, whether to use images and type or just type. . . . Restrictions contribute to a search for a kind of freedom, an openness, or to responses that are looser or unpredictable, so that a kind of living voice is kept alive in the work, somewhere between what you want to do and what you cannot do.
    — Recollected Work: Mevis & Van Deursen (Artimo, 2005)

Forget about the object: What about the context? The exhibition space of Cooper Union could be a good source of inspiration. Why not find my poster’s placement and photograph the assigned patch? Hanging a poster composed of a printed photograph of the wall behind the poster would make the design appear transparent. This is as close to saying nothing as can be imagined. 

Actually, scratch that. The idea brings to mind a poster exhibition a few years back that featured a display of banners on the lampposts of Times Square; the studio 2×4 submitted a banner that was literally nothing—a blank expanse of white in lieu of a design. Like John Cage’s 4' 33'', it was about everything except the thing itself. And this path of nothingness is attractive. For a designer growing older, the meanings of visual forms, like semiotic cataracts, start to cloud the vision. Everything has connotations; nothing can be seen without the fog of reference. 

The studio portraits of Tom Griffiths and Jessica Green have been criticized for an inaccuracy of likeness.

What do I stand for? At this juncture let me clarify that this I is in fact the we of a two-person studio. Since we partners think identically on matters of design, a first-person-singular presentation seemed appropriate. All our friends are designers, and they hold the same opinions on design. Thus, the notions presented here shouldn’t be thought of as the product of a person or even a studio, but of an ideology. Perhaps these words should appear in the second person as a disembodied narrator telling you what you already think, since any reader of this text is probably also a graphic designer.

Though designers are meant to reduce thoughts to make them more understandable, I seem to be doing the opposite. Explaining the mental process of design is an infinite task because the mind is always projecting forward; every idea begets another. I feel like Borges’s cartographer making a map as vast and detailed as the real world. At some point, I have to draw a line, and somewhere in that line there has to be a point. 

If you have made it this far through my tortured prose, it may be dawning on you that these evasions of the brief are really a way to answer it. Transcribing my mental process is a strategy of tacking against the wind of the assignment to generate content.

So the last thing to do is use these Tristram Shandy–like digressions to

I am referring to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne’s comic novel which tries and fails to relate the life story of the eponymous narrator because he’s always getting bogged down in digressions. Carlo Levi’s introduction to the Italian edition of this book advances a theory that these evasions are a tactic to avoid death.

If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows—perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.
    — La vita e le opinioni di Tristram Shandy, gentiluomo (Mondadori, 1974).

fill a poster. First pluck a typeface from my usual repertoire—something blunt to emphasize the aridity of the concept. Find an acceptable number of words per line, set the leading and hyphenation, throw in some fiddly captions and footnotes, sprinkle a few images found on the Internet for reference. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. And the dimensions, what were they? A square, definitely. A thirty-inch square.