October 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

In today’s lecture we looked further into postmodernism and de-constructivism focusing around typography, and theorists and designers associated with them.

We payed specific detail to Rick Poynor and Ellen Lupton (on the influence of modern and postmodern outlooks on design practice)of whom became critically engaged postmodern designers, this means they have moved away from the ideals of the critique of enlightenment which contain the ideas of a collapsing of hierarchies, with a suspicion of progress, challenging to rules and conventions, unmooring from the grid (associative logic), and eye pulling attention. Lupton and Poyner argue that we should distinguish between the ‘period style’ of postmodern graphic design (1980s-90s Deconstructivist and Grunge aesthetics) and more critically engaged deconstructivism typified by the Cranbrook school and implemented in the work of the poststructuralist theorist/philosopher Jacques Derrida. The ‘period style’ of the 80s and 90s favored complexity over simplicity and pluralism, leading to styles such as grunge style graphic design, as we know it today.
We also touched on the subject of the politics of typography, talking about the relationship of serif and sans serif fonts to modernism, and type in relation to the grid. Leading from these typographic politics comes Wolfgang Weingart experimenting with typographic relati0nshiops such as letter spacing/stretching, size, width and slant – it’s with Weingart that we see postmodern thinking beginning to appear as early as the 1970s. Weingart experiments with the fusion of typography, graphics and photographs, with no clear order of priority; the pictorial space isn’t particularly prioritised, it’s flat, with all the layers appearing to be at the same level with no real background or foreground, so there seems to be an equal priority of ordering. On the topic of this unprioritised layering we briefly looked into the period of punk design, here the design takes on a sort of DIY mash up of images and text, this was a very direct response to the spirit of the times, from a ground level; this was a chaotic force being injected into design. Look at Memphis [design] Group’s (early 80s) designs for some examples of layered design constituting towards the flow of design.
The Period style (80s/90s) characteristics include fragmentation, impurity of form, indeterminism, intertextuality, pluralism, eclecticism and ironic return to vernacular, the style favoured the unmooring from the page, associative space, and with a preference to complexity over simplicity. From this the grunge style is developed (which has no critical agenda), as well as some of the development of “Deconstructive Graphic Design” which has an implied critique of design’s norms, values and limitations. Deconstructivist design uses language playfully, this is one of the motivating factors behind the pure notion of deconstructive graphic design. The Cranbrook school design displays a starting point for deconstructivist design, with designs which incorporated complex hybrid design. According to Ellen Lupton post-structuralism, a sort of philosophical perspective that is left leaning (embracing left wing ideologies), attempts to critique or deconstruct what it sees as an ideological structure to the world. When people think about the term ‘deconstruction’, and how it began to feed the imagination, they see it as a ‘taking apart’ in design language. What deconstructivist theorists were trying to do was to expose what they saw as the trickery of the textural ordering of the world and the contradictions of it – about the artificiality of the ordering of categories that we see, and the critique of that ordering, and the contradictions that come with it – this is why it’s so hard to read this style of art. Deconstruction as a critical practice is a mode of questioning.
We next looked at a theorist called Jacques Derrida, and how representation inhabits reality, he said we create a set of hierarchies to establish this representation, there are binary distinctions that do this, these distinctions being between: speech/writing, nature/culture, mind/body, original/copy, truth/falsity. The first term is prioritised, think of it as the rationality associated with a modernist approach, with a truth of things, a superiority, the things that come first. We live in quite a post modern era right now, so these terms are harder to prioritise compared to how they would have been in the 1980s-90s, now we live in a culture of copy. Thinking about nature/culture, it’s hard to actually find a bit of land that hasn’t been tampered with in any way by humans, even all those fields you see, they’re tended to, and most have fences or hedges, this shows that our culture we live in arises out of material conditions. The ordering of Derrida’s distinctions are very problematic to order now in this cultural context partly to do with the fact that we live in a post modern culture. Derrida problematises these distinctions himself. We’re no longer producing work that looks straight forwardly ‘postmodern’, or ‘deconstructivist’, but we’ve sort of internalised these points culturally, Derrida says that the devalued concept lives inside the valued one, e.g. natures invades culture and culture invades nature. In terms of typography, when Derrida speaks about speech and writing, he thinks that the spoken word is a purer expression of someones thoughts, from its spontaneous nature, whereas writing is seen as a poor copy, a fixing of speech, he wanted to show that writing invades speech, he demonstrates this with the alphabet and the graphical devices we use to understand writing. Graph can mean to record, such as photograph which is a graph of light, but it can also mean writing, so there’s a tension between graph as in writing and graph as in recording. Even in phonetic alphabets, but if we look at written language it isn’t a phonetic transcript, there are logical rules in language construction, but there are also these strange sort of bridging constructs such as commas, question marks etc. which have a purely graphical form, so these concepts in writing invade speech. What Derrida did to link this with deconstructivism was to show this expressive quality of the typeform becomes very prominent, which is where we begin to see writing invading speech. Thoughts take shape out of a material body of language, typography and it’s particular shapes and forms it can take begin to change the way we think about something [refer to Rick Poynor’s talk  video].

To demonstrate this deconstruction of graphic design and the idea of it being a mode of questioning, here’s Ellen Lupton’s “Thinking with Type” diagram/illustration, helping explain things through a graphical format.

Poyner focuses upon the influence of these perspectives upon type, making links between the postmodern perspective and runic/surrealist typography. There is no ‘innnocent’ type.

An interesting talk by Poyner at the Conceptual Type conference can be found here:

The other talks from the conference are also (apparently) very interesting.

Ellen Lupton: Deconstruction and Graphic Design: History Meets Theory


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