no.25 vol.7 summer 1997

The aesthetics of transience

Every message in any medium is affected by the interpretations of designers and viewers. The contexture and evanescence of erratic signs induce new patterns of meaning.

photo: Marcel Vosse

Whoever wants to summarize today's culture in one word, would say 'complex'. The world has lost its transparency. There are no more clear-cut connections between things that we can analyse within the trusted framework of, let us say, a 'philosophical central perspective'. Such is the spirit of our times. The most important and successful metaphor for this new condition humaine - and its favourite tool - is the computer, the device that makes it possible to link everything with everything else, regardless of  source, place, context or medium. That is: the computer enables us to simulate those connections, to represent them in a way and on a scale that has been practically unthinkable before. The computer is the great equalizer of information: the shopping list and the literary masterpiece, the snapshot and the Nightwatch, Plato and Prygogine - on the hard disc they're all bytes, on the screen all pixels. Without history, without materiality, without a fixed form and, most important of all, without Einmaligkeit. Every form of information that has gone through a computer, is one form out of many. A form of temporaryness.

And this transience is not just temporal, it's qualitative as well: The computer annihilates the difference between texts, images, sounds, moving and still. The forms that appear on the screen disappear at a mouse click. A similar click defines a paragraph of text or a segment of time and parks it somewhere, where it sits like an unidentified digital object waiting to be transformed into something visible or audible. This instability of anything stacked in a computer has its paradoxical counterpart in the idea of total and constant availability of everything. With an exponentially growing Internet of linked computers, the metaphor of the 'Endless Library' that comprises everything that has ever been written or thought or imagined becomes a hardly virtual reality (for those who have the right passwords).

In graphic design of the last decade computers have become ever more present, and in the form of the Apple Mac they are now the indispensable tool of the trade. To say that things have changed intensely this decade, is a cliché by now. But what has changed, apart from the practices of designers, who have evolved from artistic crafts people to computer operating information agents? Has the computer resulted in a truly new imagery - one that extends beyond perversions of type and the abundance of superimposed pictures?

One is tempted to point to these very visual renewals of graphic language and say: see, it's the surface that's changed. And indeed the use of computers has greatly stimulated a new kind of formal exuberance, that was much harder to attain with the older tools - though not at all impossible. Much of what we recognize now as the hallmark of computer aided design has been done before with photographic and other means. 'Layering' has become a code word before the computer was widely used, but the device has made it considerably easier to combine and pile and mix outrageous amounts of fonts and images. Here also the computer acted as an equalizer: with the right programming the formal differences between text and image manipulation became irrelevant - behind the keyboard and mouse in hand the designer combines the trades of editor, typographer and lithographer. In a certain sense this also eliminated the differences of content between text and image, mainly to the detriment of precise textual content.

Where the Modernist grid tends to separate text and image, and order both types of content in a rigidly hierarchic way, the post-modern aesthetic favours much more open relationships between fragments of content. It favours the kind of ad-hoc narrative that is the greatest asset of good storytellers, rearranging the basic elements of their tales each time they tell them. So it's more than the surface of graphic design that has changed - the very principles of transparency in ordering information, that have ruled the trade for so long, have been challenged. More than ever, graphic design is now about subjective interpretation of signs.

Heavily influenced by post-modern thinkers like Derrida, Lyotard and Baudrillard, a view of graphic design has evolved that evaluates every visual communication in terms of the underlying code systems. Face value of a word or an image is not enough anymore. In this view any combination of words and/or images is a game of connotations. A language game, moreover, that surpasses the obvious 'denotative' meanings of a word or an image, sometimes to the extent of losing connection altogether. What counts in this way of looking at visual information is that it's possible: a word and an image, words and images, can have a meaningful connection. Which meaning is greatly dependent on context and on the interpretations made by designers, whereas the 'readability' of those meaning is for a large part delegated to the eye of the beholder. Obvious meaning is obsolete, one can't say anymore whether something is true or false, can one? So why bother with fixing meanings?

It seems clear to me that from this context comes the most deeply influential change in the formal languages of graphic design. There has emerged a new ordering aesthetics that is not, as it traditionally was, concerned with the hierarchical division of clear-cut meanings, but one that challenges the idea of ordering - and meaning - itself. An aesthetics that by composition and typographic manipulations consciously points to the fact that this is one of a mirriad of possible ways of presenting the material, of telling the story. And that it is a temporary way. The premier task of this aesthetics of transience is to show the abstract possibility of meanings and relations. In this view it is not the designer's task to fix those once and for all - every reader or viewer should do that for themselves, and the design shows how that is done - temporarily.

It is obvious that in this context readability is not the holy grail. The readability of the fragments is often subordinated to the 'readability' of the whole. Again, what counts is not so much the simple message aswell as the complexity of possible connotations, allusions and meanings that is implicit in the message. To give form to that complexity often becomes rather more important than to give form to the message itself - the message is in the complexity.

Since the end of the 1980s designers have been experimenting with every trick and token that has ever enriched the long tradition of typography. For how could one better visualize the idea that any information is ultimately an 'empty' sign, waiting to be interpreted (or 'intended') by its context or its reader, than by making use of the enormous library of signs with an inherent indicatory function, that is the typographer's tool kit? Composed of a plethora of typographical accentuations and punctuations, of pointers, lines, boxes, and frames, it was readily available for a new purpose! And it was used in abundance because one had to do justice to the complexity of the new world view.

But do al of these pointers point to something? Do the lines connect or divide one thing from another? Do the boxes and frames isolate one message from another? Are the fat caps more important than the small italics? Questions that indicate the obsolescence of the old typographical law book! Virtually everything that has ever been invented to organize content and make meaning transparent, is used now for the opposite in free-plan compositions that in no way hesitate to suggest that any pointer could have pointed the other way and that any box could have contained something else as well. Typographical accentuation, this archetypal helper-language, has become a language-game. Most conspicuously this change shows when words and sentences randomly cross the lines of a frame, change from regular to fat or italic, or change font halfway. Sometimes words or fragments of words and sentences or single letters reappear elsewhere on the page, drifting aimlessly through the lay-out, like amoebae that can dissolve with their neighbour anytime. Beneath, above and in between them other fragments float with the same seemingly purposeless intention... The random meeting of an umbrella and a sawing machine on an operation table, this icon by which the Surrealists represented the ultimate absurdity, has now become an image from vulgar reality. More and more we seem to accept that this is the way information works: chunks of possible meaning with no apparent connection other than their synchronicity whirl through our environment like a flock of seeds in a spring breeze. Then they settle on a page or a screen, and flower for a fleeting moment...

Even the most conservative of designers, in the old guild of typeface designers, have been affected by the spirit of the times: Letters without fixed outlines seem to disintegrate on the page when read, and some typefaces combine the most incongruent extremes of the typographical spectrum. In the early days of computer aided design type designers had to cope with the extremely limited resolution of screens and printers, and concentrated on making basically readable letters. Nowadays the computer aesthetics in typography is best represented by letters which suggest that in their curves and lines lies the whole of typographical history - for the time being of course. Letters have become a viable means of self expression, as is shown abundantly in 'Faces on the Edge' by Steve Heller and Anne Fink. And they are not made for eternity anymore - a host of contemporary 'fonts' have intentionally been designed as one-offs for a single publication, or even a single headline.

It will be clear that this aesthetics of transience has little use for the grid, this ordering tool par excellence of late-modernist graphic design. Here too the computer has brought about or accompanied more than a formal change. It has made it considerably easier to arrange fragments on a page in a jig-saw way and this echoes a change in attitude: if visual order seems unattainable in real life, why simulate it on the page or the screen? In this aesthetics any order is seen as contingent, a provisional grouping of elements that could as easily be organized in another way, to convey a different meaning. If the grid appears at all from time to time, it's more often than not used in a subversive way, in ways that (with Baudrillard in mind) may rightly be called 'obscene'. The lines that were once meant to guide, invisibly as undercover agents, the mass of letters and images into orderly tracks, now operate as brassy agents-provocateurs, who stir up the excitement on the page rather than subduing it. Again, this use of the grid suggests the futility of fixing hierarchies. The resulting image evokes the associative arbitrariness of possible relationships.Especially since the availability of 3D-software and the rise of new media as CD-roms and the World Wide Web, it is tempting to see the screen not as a flat surface, but as a window in front of a three dimensional space. Behind it one can see a fragment of a principally endless universe that extends in all directions. This not only makes the content of the screen arbitrary, but also its boundaries. The change in attitude mentioned above clearly shows when this virtual space of the computer is transferred to the flat space of the printed page, that was once the measure of all formats and proportions.

Stimulated by a growing precision of printers' techniques, designers tend to revel in images that bleed off the pages and letters which are just on the edges - or just over. Marginally cut-off letters are a trend. Along with the popular use of 3D-imagery, like drop shadows, shifts in perspective, and overlaps, all this shows a tendency to consider the limits of a page - or a screen - as no more than circumstantial, as an arbitrary and ephemeral technicality.

Meanwhile the way of thinking for which the computer is the best metaphor has so much pervaded our culture, that an explicit allusion to the technical complexity of this apparatus - or to complexity in general - is not always needed anymore to construct a complex image. The 'return to simplicity' that is heralded here and there, does not necessarily imply a return to old ideals of clarity and unambiguity! When a few years ago the design avant-garde showed an almost obsessive drive to empty their newly filled hard discs onto a single page, this trick has now been repeated so often, that the message can do with less. There has grown a broad understanding of the complexity, the temporaneity and contextuality of any message - an understanding shared by designers and audiences. The 'intertext' does not have to be made explicit in exuberant visual detail. It is implicit, anytime a combination of messages occurs. So don't think when you see a poster with one image and one word on a serenely white surface, that the designer is offering you a simple text-cum-illustration! The complexity is now projected within the reader. Could it be that the 'real' message is the image, with the text as illustration? Could it be that the word is the image, and the image the word? Could it be that both combined mean something completely different than on their own? Of course it can!

Much of what today looks simple and well organized, is so only at the surface. Underneath rages the complex network of contexts that results in constantly shifting the meaning of even the simplest combination of text and image - in the eye of the beholder. And again, most of these designs leave no misunderstanding that this is just one out of many possible and imaginable lay-outs - many contemporary theatre or advertising poster comes in three or more variants.

Now that there has evolved a wide understanding of the fact that one cannot understand everything, the question of interpretation has changed. A graphic design doesn't have to be self-explanatory - the viewer or reader will do most of the explaining themselves. With this the associative playground for designers has expanded considerably. And it is used enthusiastically, not in the least in advertising, where over the last few years we have witnessed a hausse in mysterious or seemingly nonsensical combinations of a few images and a catchline. You can make out of it whatever you want, as long as you remember the brandname. And in advertising too images more and more take over the place of words or sentences. Icons that combine denotative meanings with a wide range of connotations are telling the audience stories that few copywriters could have put into such few words. On the other hand there are the words that become icons: Nike's 'Just Do It' or Calvin Klein's brilliantly compendious 'Be'.

All in all there has evolved a broad range of new graphical routines - mostly reinterpretations of old ones - that combines elements of very disparate sources. How do all these elements hold together, if they are not fixed by universal rules or common habit? They move. It seems that movement is the single most important aesthetic principle of contemporary graphic design. It is suggested in the obvious arbitrariness of organizing systems and the resulting 'flow' of words and images on the printed page. It is often hard these days to characterize a book or a magazine by showing one or two spreads. They are built like a movie, like a storyboard for for a time-based medium. Of course the importance of movement is most conspicuous in media like CD-ROMS and the World Wide Web. As soon as it was even remotely possible (and for many browsers it was too early), letters and images on the web started to topple and turn - movement for movement's sake. And since bandwidth and operating speed allow for it, words and images float over the pages, coming from nowhere and vanishing into another fugacious screen. Movement in itself from time to time tends to become the most important message of the design - another way of expressing complexity and the transience of meaning.

Apart from these superficial stylistics, one could say that the computer has resulted in a visual language that is mainly virtual: an enormous amount of (sub)cultural codes, that wait to be 'clicked on' to trigger a wildly meandering associative process in which everyone recognizes what they want. The same codedness makes it possible to address specific cultural target groups, without alienating others (or intentionally shutting them off). And ultimately the computer, as a metaphor for our cultural dealings, has changed the wryly serious meaning of the word 'information' into something infinitely more playful. This added meaning has opened the possibility for less unilateral ways of communicating, for the notion of visual language as a game of words and images played out by both sides - designers and readers. Like poetry, the aesthetics of transience invites the reader to look between the lines - and behind the screens.

max bruinsma