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few canonical texts we have devoted to graphic design education were penned by Swiss Typographers. This is a problem because these authors make absolute claims about the superior efficacy of photography in graphic design. Given that the central credo of the Swiss Typographers is to effectively communicate the client’s message in a clear and unbiased fashion, these designers fall demonstrably short of their own lofty aims. The only school of thought that has significantly challenged the Swiss School is the Deconstructionist approach. By comparison designers of this bent are reluctant to discuss direct communication of a message, citing instead artistic notions of the subjectivity of the author and the audience or post-structuralist principles regarding the failings of communication: that there can be no concurrence regarding the meaning of a piece of design. Added to this problematic mix is the fact that illustrators (the obvious nonrepresentational image-makers to investigate in this study) themselves on the whole can not articulate an appropriate response to the question, ‘why illustrate?’ I will firstly look at the claims made by the modernists and the post-modernists and then look at some of the very effective communication possibilities of illustration that even illustrators, especially in Anglophone cultures seem not to have identified. I will then look closely at the problems I associate with photography as a tool for effective visual communication. This examination will include some relatively recent discoveries in the area of cognitive psychology which help to explain photography’s weaknesses and also suggest more powerful visual communicatin strategies. Swiss Modernism and post-modernism: approaches to type and image Dealing with the Swiss School first, we can state that its proponents made claims regarding the superiority of photography as a means of effective graphic communication. Joseph Müller-Brockmann, one of the ‘heavyweights’ of Swiss Typography also wrote the book on teaching graphic design, The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems. Here he said: ‘photography provides an objective picture of material reality and thus conveys an impression of authenticity. It requires no effort to understand its message. Where photography is concerned, the modern publicity expert need not hesitate to exploit all its different modes of expression in order to influence opinion. When the camera records a situation, it furnishes objective information on an
event, whether it shows a total picture or only a detail’1. Further, when graphic design was expressed by the Bauhaus, the birthplace of the modernist graphic ‘style’ it was with the use of photography. The famous pieces from that era, the works of Herbert Matter, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy and Jan Tschichold, given to design students as examples include photography in their composition or are otherwise solely type-based compositions. This modus operandi was continued and extended by the Swiss Typographers, vocal proponents of the use of photography as the only appropriate image source for effective design. Not content with elevating photography, Müller-Brockmann felt it necessary to denigrate illustration which he describes as capturing only ‘the moment of its creation’, but as we shall see in this study, this is actually one of photography’s defining limits: ‘comparison will show that the drawing is a subjective expression of the artist’s mind and is restricted to the moment of its creation. It depicts an object or a theme as he experienced it at a specific moment whereas photography shows what the camera could objectively record when the shot was taken. The photographer simply points the lens of his camera at whatever it is he wants to photograph. The drawing conveys to us the feeling of the artist whereas the camera reproduces solely material facts and events’2. These statements show us modern design’s unquestioning reliance on photography. The text books (and the significance of the word ‘text’ should not be lost to us here) from which these quotes are taken, or those by Müller-Brockmann’s like-minded countryman, Emil Ruder, are still in print and more importantly, still on graphic design degree book-lists at many tertiary institutions around the globe. Other important design texts have joined these in the canon of graphic design ‘must-reads’. Despite a less didactic approach than the Swiss school these newer texts still suffer from the bias towards text at the expense of image. Spiekermann & Ginger’s Stop Stealing Sheep & find out how type works too has become a ubiquitous graphic design volume for beginners and intermediates. The title itself, gives away its textual bent, and a quick glance through this book will reveal the visual concepts being portrayed through photography rather than through other image forms. Effectively then, the texts that disseminate the message of graphic design through to subsequent generations of graphic designers are either by the early modernists, the Swiss typographic school, or contemporary modernists very much influenced by their predecessors. The principle alternative to modernism, the deconstructionist or post-modern
approach to design, sees the designer, not as a neutral conduit for the client’s message but more as an artist or author. A reaction against the Swiss reliance on grids and sans serif type saw the deconstructionists throw up explosive looking layouts like paint on to a canvas. The recurring theme was one of computer glitches; repetitively cut, pasted and distressed type in order to reveal the ‘made’ nature of these texts. The implication being that, far from providing a conduit for the client, the designer is, him or herself, an author of the message. As this ‘style’ began to be subsumed into the commercial realm, what began as a refreshingly honest approach to image making is best critiqued on the following grounds: the designer abrogated responsibility for the appropriateness, or otherwise, of the design to the client who chose it (since the designer was essentially repeating his or her own style with each piece). The client, presumably the less visually literate of the two parties, has decided the design approach for the message by choosing the designer in the first instance. In addition, a rejection of credo and didacticism results in an absence of teaching materials. Few post-modernists have authored prescriptions for effective visual communication. On the contrary, despite their rejection of the Swiss grid and the mythic neutrality of modernist design, the post-modernists have clung to photography as the principle means of representing the visual world. From the deconstructionists we are left with a series of ‘eye-candy’ books, held together only by their style and the editors’ understanding of the theory behind the work. Regardless of what these designers rejected from the Swiss or the Bauhaus, the fact of their homage to the Russian Avant-Garde shows that what they have not rejected is photography as the principle medium for expressing image in graphic design. Generally speaking, graphic designs consist of combinations of the two elements, type and image. It is patently clear, especially from an examination of the aforementioned textbooks, that, whether Modernist or Post-modernist, the predisposition of design theorists, educators and professionals, is to concern themselves primarily with type. Indeed, the term ‘typography’ has been largely interchangeable with ‘graphic design’ since the Bauhaus. Rarely has discussion focused upon the choice of image in graphic design. In discussions regarding type it is the designer’s choice of type that is regarded as of fundamental importance. Indeed, to allow clear choice between faces in the latin alphabet, type is broken up into styles. Usually: Old style, Italics (Scripts), Transitional, Modern, Egyptian (Slab Serif), Sans Serif, while other typographers and type theorists would dig down further: Uncials, Blackletter, Venetian, Geralde. Some theorists, like Robert Bringhurst, in The Elements of Typographic Style, sort type in the same way art and architecture are defined, by movements and eras. But implicit in all of these views,
varied and contradictory as they may seem, is that type useage is about choice. Even the names of fonts purport to assist in the task of choosing: Galaxy Run, Entropy, Washout, Biffo, implying by their names, not merely their appearance, the uses to which they should be put. Erik Spiekermann said, ‘There is no bad type, only bad type choice’, clearly stating that choice is the very key to good typography. He also quotes Frederick Goudy as having said ‘Anyone who would letterspace lower case would steal sheep’. A boorish and accusatory comment on the seemingly criminal act of not using type appropriately. Spiekermann & E.M Ginger’s Stop Stealing Sheep & find out how type works, named after Goudy, is not a pedagogical exception in the narrow world of graphic design instruction. Its friendly tone nonetheless toes the line regarding the issue of type being one of choice: ‘You might want to get across that “old” office feel of the typewriter and its no nonsense look. Try any of the sturdy-serif fonts—Corona, Glypha, Egyptienne F—or choose a cool matter-of-fact typeface like Formata, Bell Gothic or Imago. If you want a traditional look, use Concorde, Utopia, or Versailles.3’ Strangely then, when it comes to images, the other element of the graphic design equation, such passions don’t seem to be aroused. Specifically, we don’t hear of images discussed in terms of choice. We might hear the photographer, the art director and the designer discussing which photograph to use from a particular shoot, but seldom heard is whether to use something other than photographs. This is symptomatic of a design education where years are spent honing a design student’s typographical skills, but little emphasis is placed on other visual literacies. In full-immersion design courses these visual instincts are essentially the qualities assessed during admission interview, and not conceived of as a set of skills that may be taught or learned. Indeed, the visual is largely left to the instincts of the individual student. The Illustrative Edge Compounding these problems is the general inability of illustration textbooks to articulate the unique strengths of illustration over photography. However, through a comparison of images it becomes quite simple to examine some of the communication advantages particular to illustration. The image at Figure 1 shows two marketing brands for separate companies in the same business4. The image above suffers from being too realistic (more like a photograph): the rustic sailing ship is too specific to a particular time period, the shoreline just a little too reminiscent of somewhere exotic to allow the reader to generalise the setting. The image below it, on the other hand, makes no pretence towards accuracy. Its naive rendering of ship and
rain do not interfere with the message of bad weather. Indeed, this is a label for wetweather clothing (as is the one above) but conveys its message more accurately, paradoxically, though less visual information drawn less accurately. We see in these images the beginnings of the trend toward distillation in logo design. A trend which is easy to track through the history of particular brands like that for the Shell company, but a trend which is not echoed in communication design in general. Perhaps because this distillation process takes place through ‘design instinct’ rather than through any learned process. Of course the problems I have observed in these areas of communication design are specific to the Anglo-Saxon world, perhaps because the written word is held in much higher regard than the image (Shakespeare has a lot to answer for!) My limited experience of graphic design from the middle-east and the far-east allows me to believe that the non-anglophone world has a much better grasp on visual literacy. Egyptian graphic designer and calligrapher, Ahmed Moustafa explains his view on the prominence of abstraction over realistic representation in the Islamic arts: ‘You cannot say these scientists [Arab scholars translating and expanding on Plato, Euclid, etc.] in botany, mathematics, medicine piled up such a body of knowledge with the notion of not being able to draw. But in the 10th century Ibn Muqlah, the great scribe and translator, made the theory of proportional Arabic script, based on Euclidean theory. From that point it was clear that Arabic script is a comprehensive abstract vocabulary which addresses every aspect of reality, in conjunction with the text of the Qur’an. So it is inconceivable that the artist will go back and portray the outer shell of that reality’5. This Platonic view of the world is, of course, entirely in keeping with modernist notions of perfect proportion and universal ratios. All the more surprising then that modernist graphic designers should prescribe photography, a medium that can show only the ‘outer shell’. In Japan the mainstream cinema is anime or animated film rather than ‘live action’ film, and this phenomenon in itself is worthy of consideration. One of the many noticeable attributes of such film is the way in which character’s faces, even in the more earnest of these works, may momentarily be (grotesquely, to western eyes) stretched into an embarrassed grin, an angry scowl or a hearty laugh in order to give primacy to the emotion being expressed. The universality of the emotion rather than the specificity of the character seems to be of prime importance, and Japanese visuality seems to have just the right techniques to communicate this. One of the noteable differences in visual education between Japan and anglophonic
cultures can be found in a visual mode best described as anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism pertains to investing animals with human traits. I believe that children, as they begin to separate self from other and distinguish between shapes, are drawn to this visual mode because it exaggerates and makes clear the boundaries between things: a mole is clearly not a toad who is clearly not a badger. In the West however, it seems we have become less visually literate since the days of Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. This denuded visuality is evidenced in animation such as Disney’s Home on the Range (Figure 2). This film offers confusion of character since each of the main characters is a cow, instead of using anthropomorphism to clearly delineate between characters. Anthropomorphism in Japan on the other hand utilises some unique and powerful approaches. It is not uncommon to avoid a depiction of a known animal and instead to ‘glue’ together two or more animals specifically to share two or more characteristics. For example, in the children’s film Our Neighbour Totoro6, the Totoro is an amalgam of a rabbit and an owl: he is both cuddly and wise (Figure 3). Photographic Problems Contrasted with illustration’s abilities to bring out certain qualities of image through a distillation of information, photography begins to show its main weakness: Its specificity of reference. The photograph, as Susan Sontag tells us in On Photography: ‘is not only an image as a painting is an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask’7. In other words, when we see a photo of a specific person, it really is recorded light, reflected off that real person; a copy, as close to the real thing as possible, of an actual person. Photography then is an entirely appropriate communication medium if we are documenting that specific person. But in situations where the person photographed is an actor or ‘talent’ for a commercial, photography’s impossible task is to get real, specific people to fit the generic role they are assigned: young mortgagee, sensible retiree, and so on: cast such that they do not draw attention to their ‘not us-ness’. In photography’s 19th century infancy, when the debate about whether or not it could be ‘art’ was fresh, one of the important strands of argument was concerned precisely with photography’s inability to avoid being specific. The quarrel was particularly heated in Britain in the late 1800s between Henry Peach Robinson, who argued that photography could take the place of portraiture painting, and Peter Henry Emmerson, who maintained that photography’s logical role was to capture the world as it existed. While this argument regarding photography’s ‘proper’ place in visual culture has long been played out, the design community (including advertising design) has continued regardless of the reasonably well-documented contentions of the early photographers.
For this reason perhaps Frank Zachary’s (editor of Holiday magazine, New York, 1940s) approach, called ‘environmental portraiture’ plays more to the core strengths of photography: ‘An example of environmental portraiture is a photograph for a special issue of Holiday on New York City showing highways and parks czar and power-broker Robert Moses standing omnipotently on a red girder over the East River’8. In such a photograph, the ‘talent’ or ‘actor’ plays only himself. Psychologically tested truths about the image Cognitive psychologists contend that the visible world as far as the eye and brain are concerned is not something that can be taken on face value. Successful recognition of objects requires that problems be solved by the visual system in order to understand aspects of the world around it. Through a study of caricature and its paradoxical ability to render a person more recogniseable than the person himself, Australian psychologist Gillian Rhodes has found a key to unlock the way in which the human visual system works. Rhodes explains how the visual system in concert with cognitive apparatus allows the brain to map new visual input against stored ‘norms’. These norms exist for whole ranges of visual information and are expanded upon with further experience of the visual world. Where the new visual information differs from the norm, the mind appears to store these differences in a form exaggerated beyond their actual appearance. For example, if a person appears different from the norm because their eyes are closer together than is normal, the brain will exaggerate this difference further still by pushing the eyes closer together in the stored memory of that person. In addition to this mental exaggeration of ‘trends away from the norm’, Rhodes explains that the visual system and the ‘psychological landscape’ to which it is linked, is actually predisposed towards and on the look-out for extreme visual signals; visual stimuli that are outside of the norm. ‘Extreme signals [those that do not normally occur in the natural world] are more noticeable, more discernable, and/or more memorable than less distinctive ones’9. ‘Stimuli that exaggerate some critical property of the natural stimulus, such as its size, contrast or number, often produce an enhanced response ... This preference for extremes seems to be a fundamental feature of recognition systems, and one that imposes important constraints on the design of signals’10. Here Rhodes means ‘design’ in the sense of natural selection but the same holds true for the human activity of design: exaggerated signals (those that do not naturally occur and are therefore not reproducible through photography) actually communicate more
immediately to a visual system predisposed to look for them. According to Rhodes, the ability of the human mind to interpret and understand exaggerated drawings better than photography ‘raises an even more intriguing possibility. If drawings can be interpreted as externalisations of mental representations, then ... those representations might themselves be caricatured. If so, then caricatures would be effective because they match the memory representations better than undistorted images!’ 11 Conclusion Structuralists and post-structuralists tell us that language does not so much reflect reality, since little of language is composed of words that stand for objects in the tactile world, but in fact structures reality for us. The majority of words are used to communicate the nature of relationships between objects, or even further removed, completely abstract concepts which we can not even see with our eyes. Linguistics explains that we can not communicate merely by pointing at things which we can see. And therein lies the problem, in semiotic terms, of the failure of photography: The camera effectively tries to communicate using only object nouns; it can only point at things in order to communicate. As graphic design increasingly becomes referred to as ‘communication design’, and as traditional literacy skills become outmoded, the discipline needs to be in the vanguard of a new visual literacy where equal emphasis is given to both image and typography. I have explained how type choice has been all important in the history of the design discipline. If we are to put image literacy forward using an approach that design educators already understand perhaps the concept of ‘image choice’ is an appropriate way to proceed. One possible way to choose images might be to compare them along an axis of ‘realistic’ vs ‘distilled’: How realistic an image do you require for a particular graphic communication task? If we consider effective communication as a triumph of signal over noise, designers must amplify the signals for which their audiences are watching. Designers need to partially solve the problems of the perception of the world on behalf of their audience: to filter out from reality those aspects which are unnecessary for the understanding of a message or those aspects of reality that do worse, that actually obscure the message. Photography as a communication medium has no such filters. References
1. Müller-Brockmann, Joseph, The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems, Verlag Niggli AG, Zurich 1983. p.27. 2. Ibid. p.27. 3. Spiekermann, E. and Ginger, E.M, Stop stealing sheep & find out how type works, Adobe Press, Mountain View California, 1993, p.155. 4. Mendenhall, John, British Trademarks of the 1920s & 1930s, Chronicle Books, San Fransisco, 1989. 5. Daines, M. Ahmed Mustafa: Finding the essence of calligraphic art, in Baseline, Issue 21, 1996. pp9-16. 6. Our Neighbour Totoro, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Film, Studio Ghibli, Tokyo, Japan, 1992. 7. Sontag, Susan, On Photography, Anchor Books, London, 1977. 8. Steven Heller and Karen Pomeroy, Design Literacy, Allworth Press, New York, 1997, p.46. 9. Rhodes, G. Superportraits: Caricatures and Recognition, Psychology Press, Hove, Sussex, 1996 p.61. 10. Ibid, p.82. 11. Ibid, p.91.
Stuart Medley, 2005.
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