no.3, vol.14, mei 1995

the way of the mouse


April Greiman made a hectic visit to Holland as jury member of the Rotterdam Design Prize, gave lectures in Amsterdam and Maastricht. Reputed as 'leading lady of design-with-the-mouse', April Greiman was one of the first to introduce the computer into graphic design practice - a pioneer's position

"I think I am a unique bridge between two generations: my whole education came from teachers of the Swiss School, and after graduating I went to Basel. So among other things I've learned to handset type... To embrace, comming from such a craft-like education, the Mac is at first sight quite shocking!"

[Greiman is an important inspiration to young 'New Wave' designers, through educational activities at CalArts and Cranbrook. But her fame is not exclusively connected to the computer; Typical of her work are the evocative layerings of images and reproduction techniques, and the combinations of images and texts from very divers sources. Though such a working method is easier to handle on a computer than with cutting, pasting and photographing, it's not exclusively tied to digital imagery - it's more about a way of seeing and speaking, that is encouraged by the tool: not 2-d and static, but 3-d and dynamic]

"From very young I've been fascinated by two things: space and scale! From my first business-card I've been thinking in terms of space, and of how much space you can imply in a surface..."

"Video and early computer resolution were looked down upon by the industry, it was found course and hard and cold. But I wondered if this texture couldn't be of value after all..."

[Apart from its esthetic value it also served as a signal:]

"For a time I did my best to show the natural language of this instrument, so that you can see how different the texture of this medium is, how different it speaks to you. I made it a point to show these differences in texture, in the language of the tool. There are a lot of people who use sophisticated computers and spend $700 an hour to make seamless images, and for me that's a shame, to spend all that money to make something that in the end looks like you've used an 8x10 inch Ektachrome anyway! It's stupid! Then you don't aknowledge the language of the tool, and the process!"

[Greiman, showing a photo of her studio:]
"This must be an old photo - it shows drawing boards. We don't have those anymore."

[The practice of graphic design has radically changed: with the enthousiasm of an early adopter Greiman shows first applications of new technology in her work - exeriments with Quantel and anti-aliassing programmes that break down jagged edges of low-res computerimages into seamless color gradations (The SCI-ARC logo)]

"The more I enlarged and blew up those sharp-edged structures, the more the program would break them up into more and more beautifull little colored buildings! That was the architecture of the computer! So I asked the paintbox operator to save this image and he said that he couldn't do it; this was precisely what the program according to its design was forbidden to do! It was designed to show no pixels or sharp edges. So I had a photo made - a photo of the monitor image!"

[Chance is the most important present that working with the computer gives you:]

"I find that a profound aspect of this technology. On a certain level there occur new images, that you didn't put into it yourself, that you weren't looking for... Even a simple box like the early Mac has shown me things that I wouldn't have thought of myself, because of my own 'programming', my own education and methods! The hybridisation of very clear information, of images that you put into it, resulting in other images that are not at all as clean and regular as you would expect from a mathematical machine - That's fascinating!"

As a simple example Greiman shows the logo of a computer-graphic company, Computer Visualisations: the image grew out of a program-mistake. "It brought forward the word 'compute' and it showed the proces! It perfectly fits the company!"

Chance and hybridisation are recurring code-words in Greiman's tale of what she describes playfully philosophical as: "The way of the mouse". Hybrid Imagery, the titel of her book from 1990, has become her motto.

[Hybrid Imagery: images that have been put through a series of technological 'seeves' becomming alienated by the proces: paradoxical forms of technology-bitten images and of technology-become-image - this way incorporates a level of content that doesn't result in directly readable information, but nevertheless is of eminent importance to Greiman's work]

"The computer is the first tool that mimics our consciousness. It reveals itself through its own language and thereby it encourages creative dialogue, and assists intuition and chance."

[The computer is to Greiman not only a tool, but an instrument that enables a different approach to images, metaphores and meaning]

"When I bought my first Mac I thought I'd bought a tool, but now it has develloped I realise I didn't buy an instrument, but I bought myself into a process! This is an important metaphore: we're moving in the direction of a process-oriented approach."

[Greiman counteracts the illusion of an in-itself complete image - finding, apart from readable information, also an image-space for the associative processes that accompany this communication - Greiman doesn't like explaining her images; it's not just about nailing down interpretations, it's about making them possible]

"Design must seduce, shape, and perhaps more importantly, evoke emotional response," she wrote in Hybrid Imagery.

[Greiman dislikes intellectual debates about form versus content and value judgements concerning esthetic or ideological a-priori's]

"Think with the heart! Form and content simply exist together - in particular with the electronics revolution where form is content."

And, referring to the 'dream-as-creation' of the Autralian Aboriginals, she states that only the Dream is original and creative: "People just copy, in spite of all possessiveness, ego-boosting and copyrights... Who owns what? And for how long, if at all?" When I shyly answer this rethorical question with: "untill it's copied?", she says: "Exactly! And then you try to do a better job!"

[considering Greiman's fascination for space and time on the graphic surface, and her interest in advanced technology, it's no suprise that she started working in the new 'interactive media' - 'Infinite Illusions', eventually 80 hours of design history on CD-rom,is now an experimental demo. A lot has to be developed still, especially in terms of 'interactivity']

AG: "To call something 'interactive', simply because you can click here for sound and click there for moving images... There still is no program that is intelligent and that exeeds that simple formula. It still is binary, still yes or no. And because I've had the bad luck to handset type, I know how problematic good typography in this medium is. Good typographical programs as Quark or Pagemaker, where you have relative good control, are not yet available in multimedia environments."

MB: "To start with, you're bound to the low resolution of the computer- or videoscreen; why would you look for typographical subtlety or detail, when you can't show it in that course medium anyway?"

AG: "I'm not even talking about a high level of detail here, I'm talking of something that isn't just vulgar... But the main problem with this sort of projects is actualy not the form, but the navigation: how do you access the information on the CD? Nobody wants to deal with that, they all want to make images and typography! You can do that for about five minutes, then it becomes boring!
A related problem is how people think about this medium: you're still talking in terms of 'home-page'... But these aren't pages, this is no book! We now have brought together completely new technologies but we're still using the old metaphores! But it's not about objects anymore, it's about environments. These are environments, spaces, not pages!"

MB: "It seems to me a matter of language too: in booktypography you're dealing with a very sophisticated 'programminglanguage' - pagenumbers, paragraphs, indeces, a whole world of typographical accents that structures the tekst and that is understood by everybody. Such a 'language' is very young in the new media..."

AG: "Yes, and so it's easy to fall back on old metaphores... Even progressive clients think like that; With Infinite Illusions the client said: we need a pagenumber for each piece of tekst. I said: as soon as we're puting pagenumbers on a CD-rom, we're going back a hundred years instead of going forward! What you want to know is where you are in the space of the CD-rom - you're talking about localisation, not about pagenumbers!"

Greiman advocated in Maastricht - cheered by her collegues of the Jan van Eyck Academy - a greater envolvement of graphic designers in the devellopment of navigational tools and the imagery that goes with it.

"I think that the potential of these media is as great as that of the printed media. Art and science haven't realy got together in these media... The visual quality of the net often is garbadge; the usual typography often obstructs the content - it gives you a lot of information and tells you to work your way through it yourself, as if somebody throws you the loose pages of a twenty volume encyclopedia in your face! What matters is how you access this environment and how you organise it!"

Greiman's idea of interactivity is that of a dialogue between tool and user: "Something that approaches Artificial Intelligence: you pose a question and instead of answering 'yes' or 'no', the system asks you ten questions back! I think that, because of such a chance factor, the computer is 'intelligent' in a certain way... After all, this tool is an extension of ourselves, and our own program is implicit in that of the computer. We both deal in metaphores!"

max bruinsma