no.28 vol.7 summer 1998

Rescue meaning

The metaphores used to describe today's supply of information through diverse media are, to say the least, alarming: Bombardment, Avalanche, Overload, Deluge. If these are the terms with which the information society characterises its very core, than we must certainly live in dangerous times. And indeed, information-stress is a certified disease amongst modern managers, the millennium-bug threatens to become a plague of biblical proportions, and even the most dedicated digerati get sick from the overdose of cookies and spam they are forced to swallow on the Web. So much for 'Virtual Reality' - it's real, and it can be nasty.

What do designers have to do with all of this? Very little, I'm afraid, because they do not control the sources of the flood. And very much, because they could help build bridges accross it. It is of course a complaint as old as the discipline - that, when one looks at the generality of communication products, designers seem to be more concerned with providing eye candy of the cheepest sort, than with organising content in meaningful ways. But in a world where the visual consistancy of the cultural environment is as challenged as in ours, the focus on superficial aesthetics is becoming a hazard. Design serves the difference, aims at making things look different, even - or especially - if they are basicly the same. More and more, the term 'designer' is becomming associated with the most eye catching, but in essence also most ephemeral aspect of the trade: style. But what is the realtionship between 'style' and the content it is decorating? Or has the decoration become the content?

The 1990's have seen an intensification of research into what visual languages can communicate, or at least show. For a long time, serious designers have focussed on the complexities within messages, and on how to deconstruct and reassamble these in terms of structural, formal and artistic qualities. This can culminate in very thoughtful and beautiful products, but - as those who tried to 'do' the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum in one day know - an amassment of individually high-quality works does not necessarilly result in a meaningful experience. Often it's the guidance that counts more than the availability of data. But how can designers be guides, if what they are doing is at best concentrating on the structural and stylistic clarity of a message as a thing in itself, unrelated to other things?

The organisation and integration of links to meaningful contexts outside the product seems to me to be the next step... One circumstance that makes us talk in terms of 'avalanche' and 'bombardment', is that the public eye perceives the bulk of 'information' aimed at them as a solid mass. Although all these messages that are channeled through an ever expanding array of media may desperately try to look different, they are often experienced as belonging to the numbing monotonous drone that accompanies the barrage. In a media-saturated environment such as this, undifferentiated information, by sheer mass, threatens to outweigh meaning.

In my view, the responsabilities of a graphic designer in times of information overload gravitate more and more towards the rescuing of what is - or can be - culturally meaningful in public and commercial communication. A responsable way of safeguarding the message against the pull of the data-swamp is to have it act as an 'agent' that links together cultural contexts and individual contents.

In order to see what this means in practical terms for designers, we have to come back to the much debated theme of the designer as editor. What an editor of a magazine or a newspaper or a tv show does, is to find ways to connect the disparate messages he/she is presenting. The easy (or lazy) way to do that, is to pour them into the meltingpot of what is called the 'format' - in graphic design terms this would be the 'style'. A more responsable way would be to find what could be called 'links', themes and associations that will connect a great diversity of contents and references in a meaningful manner, much like Dickens' "links of association", that are such a guiding concept in Steven Johnson's book 'Interface Culture'.

Now who will decide what is meaningful or not? This is where, in my view, the role of the designer changes most profoundly. He/she has to find additional content, that will (if done well) undoubtedly affect the content and meaning of the message. The designer becomes an editor - and in some aspects, Editor In Chief - of the communication product...

Adding content to a message, in order to link it to a wider field of cultural references, is not in itself new, as is evident from the company brochures and books that for instance Dick Elffers made in the 1950's. But as a design strategy, it is becoming increasingly topical. To 'rescue meaning' from the crushing weight of data-avalanche means that one has to communicate more than mere messages. Oliviero Toscani's and Tibor Kalman's work for Benetton campaigns and Colors magazine suggests a direction. The fact that they have both been heavily criticised for 'appropriating' cultural and social contexts for the benefit of commercial public relations, also indicates the risks involved in broadening the scope of references in what used to be highly self-contained fields of communication.

Linking a design to the rest of the world of messages and images, requires an editorial point of view. In a sense, the designer uses their commission to convey a vision of their own, an interpretation that may go well beyond the message they're supposed to serve. This may look rather parasitic, and indeed, it can lead to self indulgent statements by designers who care more about their own agendas than they worry about those of their clients. But it can also result in a more symbiotic relationship between the message and the added content, that in a sense feeds off it. It may feed back in rather nourishing ways.

Obviously, in an applied art such as graphic design still is, the traditional notions of organising and enhancing a client's content still apply - after all, it's the client who pays the bills. But there are more ways to enhance a message than to just make it look different from other messages. You can also try and make things look related.

max bruinsma