Blogs The Gradient Amanda Thomas

Design is malleable; design is a verb—http://vrlaine.com—parachoute@gmail.com—Texas (Austin)

The Center for Sensibility: Towards Critical Graphic Design Practice

(But first some background information.) THE WHY NOT IN THE LIFE OF AN ARTIST IS WHAT DECIDES EVERYTHING; IT IS DESTINY. IT IS THE SIGN THAT CONVEYS TO THE INEXPERIENCED ARTIST THAT THE ARCHETYPE OF A NEW STATE OF THINGS IS READY, THAT IS HAS RIPENED, THAT IT CAN BE BROUGHT FORTH INTO THE WORLD […]

(But first some background information.)

THE WHY NOT IN THE LIFE OF AN ARTIST IS WHAT DECIDES EVERYTHING; IT IS DESTINY. IT IS THE SIGN THAT CONVEYS TO THE INEXPERIENCED ARTIST THAT THE ARCHETYPE OF A NEW STATE OF THINGS IS READY, THAT IS HAS RIPENED, THAT IT CAN BE BROUGHT FORTH INTO THE WORLD
—YVES KLEIN

1 Yves Klein Fire

Yves Klein, 1928–1962

To understand this photo of Yves Klein—holding a levitating flame in, yes, pre-Photoshop days—is to understand him as both a playful provocateur and also a critical creator. Many know Klein as Le Monochrome, the man who patented a unique painting formula that resulted in his brilliant, and famous, IKB canvases. Yet, perhaps not as many know of his radical criticality: Yves Klein critically rejected preconceived notions of painting in ways that productively afforded new ideas for the medium. Through writing (which he did prolifically) and creating (in ways that expanded the painting medium), his creations antagonized what painting could be.

But, rather than annihilating the practice, Klein used his tools to re-imagine the very nature of his discipline, and it is his form of criticality that I am most interested in borrowing to draw potential parallels to a critical practice in graphic design discipline.

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Through Klein, I sought to borrow his archetype of antagonizing a creative discipline, in addition to some of his concepts. The Center for Sensibility, my thesis project, antagonized the practice of design and sought ways to productively work against prescribed notions of design practice. Inspired by Klein, I sought ways to immaterialize design, and to show that the doing nothing aspects of design—like research, writing, and organizing content—are viable parts of practice. I explored immateriality in two ways: 1) as a research-based process that enables me to bring new ideas to my practice and share them with others; 2) as immaterial design, forgoing a designed artifact for a designed experience, that permits a community to participate in my project. Inspired by relational design, I sought to eliminate disciplinary boundaries of my university (a school of art and design) to permit a cross-disciplinary dialog about graphic design. These ideas, I thought, could build towards interesting applications for critical practice. Before I jump into my project, though, I’d like to share the ideas and resources which laid the framework for my exploration.

DESIGN SHOULD BE CAPABLE OF GENERATING ITS OWN MEANING FROM ITS OWN RESOURCES
—ANDREW BLAUVELT

Critical practice is not the same as expressing opinion or criticizing a finished design; it is not about taking to the comments section of a blog to tear down a designer or a design. Although that form of criticality is productive in its own right, critical practice is more about expressing disciplinary issues or concerns in ways that help define and strengthen the graphic design discipline.

The motivation for critical practice is within problem finding: locating issues or concerns within a discipline and exposing them to discussion. Or, in the case of Yves Klein, creating in a way that exposes and investigates the concern.

For graphic design, motivations for critical practice are plentiful and many. These motivations re-imagine the way graphic design works; they are productively contrary to preconceived notions of practice. Concerns include designing self-initiated projects or self-propelled research questions rather than client-assigned projects (read the essay Research and Destroy: Graphic Design as Investigation by Metahaven’s Daniel Van der Velden),  or designing to inquire into distribution (like The Book Trust), or, in the case of Forms of Inquiry, exposing design to other creative domains (like architecture or painting) to influence ways of designing. These practices not only antagonize practices of design, but they are fruitful applications of contrary forms of thinking about the discipline. Critical discourse leading to thoughtful application.

IFS,LTD

The Book Trust, 2010

FOI

Forms of Inquiry Exhibition

Andrew Blauvelt exposes some ideas about disciplinary concerns in his 2013 D-Crit lecture “Graphic Design: Discipline, Medium, Practice, Tool, or Other?” (a lecture that is a timely reassessment of his 2003 essay “Towards Critical Autonomy, or Can Graphic Design Save Itself?”). The design discipline of the late 2000s—an amorphous blob akin to the Ghostbuster’s Marshmallow man—ballooned to a vast array of practices: motion graphics, font design, info graphics, web design, systems design..the list goes on. This fur ball of practice weakened the idea of a coherent discipline and, moreover, no forms of practice gave the discipline running room for critical discourse. Waging a war on too many fronts, design had no strict focus, and no foundation for critical discourse—no methods of designing that better defined or strengthened the discipline.

Ghostbusters2

The Marshmallow Man (AKA, the design discipline circa 2000 as an amorpheous blob)

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The Furball (AKA, Graphic Design Modes of Practice)

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From Blauvelt’s D-Crit lecture, “annihilating” the blob of graphic design practice by allotting the discipline running room for critical self-refleciton

In order to “save itself” and move towards critical discourse, Mr. Blauvelt states that design must use its own forms and methods of practice in self-reflexive ways, ways that allow design to generate meaning from its own resources. Design that self-initiates its own projects, self-propels its own research and content, and self-reflects inward (exploring design through designing, or writing about design). These self-reflexive practices build critical discourse, help strengthen the discipline: critical practice forms a core, foundational center that reflects upon the knowledge, skills, applications, and needs of the discipline. By forming this core center, we can make or write according to these principles. Again, critical discourse leading to thoughtful application.

 

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