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Vernacular design: a discussion on its concept

FINIZOLA, Fátima / Doctoral student / UFPE / Brazil
COUTINHO, Solange G./ PhD / UFPE / Brazil
CAVALCANTI, Virgínia P./ PhD / UFPE / Brazil

Vernacular Design / Popular Design / Formal Design

This article presents a review of the literature that covers the spe-
cific area of design denominated ‘vernacular design’, and proposes
a discussion and comparison of the different viewpoints regarding
this theme, from the twentieth century until today. It also presents
a discussion on the forms in which formal design has appropriated
vernacular design, together with its positive and negative aspects.

1. Introduction
By observing the artifacts of design, which make part of our daily
lives, it is possible to identify several spontaneous manifestations
that go hand in hand with official design, and that sometimes be-
come lost in their transience because they have not been regis-
tered or recognized by the academy or the market. The value of Figure 1. Vernacular artifacts: sign, basket and sprinkler (Recife and Tamandaré,
these artifacts is attributed, not through major design awards, Brazil)
or articles in specialized magazine or as successful items on the
business market, but by the recognition of being built by tradition, After the first schools of Industrial Design – or Design – opened,
a tradition that has been consecrated by the daily use of these ar- and the profession had been formalized, especially in those coun-
tifacts in a particular place or region. tries where industrialization represented a break with the old
artisanal methods of production, and not the result of a natural
For those with an eye more attentive to their surroundings, these development, many craftsmen were either forced to the margins
elements, which often go unnoticed in the constant dynamic of the professional market or went on to work in an informal man-
rhythms of large urban centers, may reveal certain peculiarities ner. Since then, there has been a constant dialogue within the
of the habits and customs of a people, their desires, their needs, market between the production of Formal Design, originating from
their ideas, and still express something from the periphery and its those professionals who have generally been through some kind
counterculture. of specialized training or academic graduation within the area, and
the production of what we call Vernacular Design, i.e. spontane-
In this manner, Dona Nice, seamstress from the Lemos Torres ous design produced on the edge of mainstream design. In this
community, with an urgent need to promote her dressmaking category it is also possible to include inventions of popular origin,
business, also finds herself taking on the role of signwriter, capa- such as utilitarian objects, packaging, signs for itinerant market
ble of making her own advertising signs. Those who sell mangos and homes, as well as artifacts for popular communication - ban-
on the beach at Tamandaré need to pack their products in order to ners, signs, murals, amongst others
distribute them to their customers, and so they make bags from
coconut palms. The gardener at a small shopping arcade in the Since the 1990s, however, these artifacts have been through a
district of Parnamirim discovers that a perforated plastic bottle continuous process of revaluation and reinterpretation, boosted
attached to a hose is able to distribute the water more evenly on by post-modernism and by new digital technologies. Once the
the grass and thus creates a new gadget. In most cases, it is the new work tools had been mastered, ‘handmade’ design, handi-
law of necessity that leads to the construction of these devices, crafts, gadgets, popular, also became an object of projectual inter-
often simple in shape, naive, and made from materials easily at est and have also become incorporated, simulated and mixed into
hand (Figure 1). elements produced through digital means.

In parallel to the arrival of postmodernism and its questions re-
garding modernist precepts in arts and society as a whole, the
phenomenon of market globalization as well as the globalization
of communications through the internet, has also stimulated con-

FINIZOLA, Fátima; COUTINHO, Solange G.; CAVALCANTI, Virgínia P. 2012. Vernacular design: a discussion on its concept. In Farias, Priscila Lena;
Calvera, Anna; Braga, Marcos da Costa & Schincariol, Zuleica (Eds.). Design frontiers: territories, concepts, technologies [=ICDHS 2012 - 8th
Conference of the International Committee for Design History & Design Studies]. São Paulo: Blucher, 2012. ISBN 978-85-212-0692-7
DOI 10.5151/design-icdhs-107

the term ‘vernacular typog- vernaculus. its negative and Lupton (1996). or despite the institution of modernist design courses. has ies. those originating from the informal production of design ver. this term could raphy’ is frequently used to denominate digital fonts that refer to be defined with three different meanings: “1. Defining ‘Vernacular Design’ vast territory whose inhabitants speak a kind of local dialect. as well as an exact definition of its object of study. nacular. without exclusively specifying the mode of industrial corresponds to the graphic solutions. If the recent history of the Latin visual languages resulting in different groups of idioms (LUP- America is compared to the long traditions of European coun. 2010:303). Cardoso (2005:7-8) emphasizes the binomial popular-erudite tions. Pure language.. Farias (2011) observes that it was tialized the hybridization of cultures. the expression ‘vernacular’ language. Derived from the Latin expression verna or tal Europe. erudite graphic design ent viewpoints regarding this theme from the twentieth century is related to the production that comes from erudite culture”. marginal or non-professional. the term ‘popular’ as an antonym of ‘erudite’ or ‘classic’. including other forms of production such as artisa. 2. 3. the term ‘vernacular’ is originally related to the native language of a particular coun. and presents an approach to vernacular structured on the point of view of the social dichotomy between dominant-dominated. like before. 2011:167). folkloric. 1996:111). Technologies 553 . TON. With the aim of defining and consolidating this field of research. thus allowing elements distanced by time and space could be defined like a “synonym of popular. It also presents a discussion on the forms in which formal design appropriates vernacular design. Although this area is academically recognized. while in some European countries it is more associated with pre-industrial production. tries. Particular from the wooden display types that were used during the boom of com- region in which it exists. It is important to highlight that the definition by Farias (2011) Initially it is fundamental to recover the original meaning of the refers to a specific meaning particularly common in the Occiden- term ‘vernacular’. it is important to understand that our vision concerning of communication and graphic design. until today. observing that vernacular design should not be iden- tified as something ‘small’. publications and signaling production. frequently used to describe what we call ‘vernacular’ (FARIAS et nacular design as a new area of study and research.Vernacular design: a discussion on its concept tact between different cultures. looking without preconceptions at these expressions from popu- lar culture. we can define Thus. Concepts. several disparities become more perceptive. is sparked new debates and has slowly begun to consolidate ver. without foreignness mercial typography in the mid-twentieth century. asserting that “The term the term ‘design’ is in accordance with that adopted by BORGES vernacular suggests the existence of local visual languages and (2011) from the ICSID. relatively new subject of study. or an an- to engage in a single artifact. processes. [. but an infinity of define it remain inconsistent. In this area. where the “called graphic vernacular design. particularly in the field of design. to a certain extent. tonym of high style design” (Rapoport. design is a central and apart from the informal expressions of design also includes factor of the innovative humanization of technologies and a those that come before the institution of design courses. the process of globalization has poten. in the perspective of communication and design stud- lar and formal design. those products that are developed by artisanal techniques vernacular artifacts as product of design practices developed in small quantities could also be considered design objects. 2010:303). lished in London in 1857”. according to the Aurélio Dictionary. providing an According to the design historian Darron Dean (apud Farias et al. environment which is constantly exchanging experiences. she crucial factor of cultural and economic exchange. for example. as well as the hybridization in the field of architecture where the first studies on vernacular between different styles. In England. The idiom of a country. official discourse”. however. region or locality. and the other. but a 2. duction of popular culture. “the term ‘vernacular’ was first applied to design by George Gilbert Scott in Domestic and Secular Architecture. that make reference to the local customs produced outside the nal or artistic. Therefore. 2012) asserts that: “In Graphic Design and Typography.. In Brazil. from both analog and digital graphic design were developed.]. habits and behavior. This approach Design Frontiers: Territiories. This movement of intense cultural circularity between the popu. services and their Farias (2011:167) expands the traditional concept of vernacular systems in complete life cycles. (ICSID. In graphic communication manner. Design is a creative activity whose aim is to establish the multi-faceted qualities of objects. apud Farias. it can be observed that the area is still undergoing a process of constructing concepts and defini. pub- Thus. draws attention to the necessity of positive aspects. the concepts that There is not only a unique form of vernacular. Since it is a al. is related to the pro- this article presents a discussion and comparison of the differ. where the concept is used in a broader idioms that refer to different cultures.” In this way. mostly by anonymous artists and in the commerce context”. In some Latin countries the term ‘vernacular’ is frequently used try. as a synonym for ‘popular’. Dones (2004:1) adapts the term vernacular for the specific area First.

demic. nally. tive and negative effects that could affect both sides. Characterizing the vernacular artifact Figure 2. considering the main characteristics that define ver. including the appropriation of the In order to consolidate the ways that contribute to building a vernacular by high-style forms. Concepts. con. 2) authorship. Thus. non-academic. which specialist. izes the authorship of the product . ‘the language of aesthetics’ concerns the language used as a formal reference for the conception of the artifact – for Today. our starting point undertaken of the forms that this process of contact and appro- has been to observe this known artifact in order to analyze some priation have managed to attain. not –. among others. which comes from the continuous process of cializing the product. anonymous. However. we have proposed six analytical criteria for artifacts. Finally. applying these criteria to the specific analysis of vernac- Therefore. genuine. etc. but very often they lack specificity: informal. social class. non-official. bringing about a move- ment of cultural resistance. born of cultural traditions handed down from generation to generation. new challenges and Design Frontiers: Territiories. neous. ingenuous. 3) planning process. The culture. popular. The ‘final user’ refers to the public at which the to formal design. 6) the language of aesthetics. manufac- Another important observation concerns the inappropriate use turing or industrial. ‘productive process’ observes whether the artifact has been de- veloped according to a process of artisanal production. In these cases it is more suited to others and analyses the proximity between the author and the describe these artifacts as products of formal design that make user. ‘Cloud’ of keywords related to the term ‘vernacular design’ 4. it is possible to mount the following schemata (Figure other countries. authentic. In a third instance there appears The ‘origin’ concerns the source of reference that helped to build what is termed ‘hybrid cultures’ constructed through the misce- the repertoire of each author – whether academic or non aca. considering the current acceptance of the term here nacular design nowadays among design studies in Brazil and in in Brazil. we could construct a ‘cloud’ of key words related 3): to the term (Figure 2): Figure 3. that associates the vernacular with a production with nostal. which in some cases may be the same individual. al homogenization. process’ analyzes the design of the artifact – if it is spontane- ances to the vernacular design that could vary from culture to ous. among ements of informal design. adapted to the initial proposal by Finizola acculturation between distinct countries – whether imposed or (1996): 1) origin. improvised or guided by specific design methodologies. age. producing and commer. which are inspired and appropriated from el. The process of appropriation of Vernacular The new paradigm of globalization and the digital era have stimulated the hybridization of diverse cultures and aesthetic 3. / CAVALCANTI. And fi- reference to the vernacular design. The criterion ‘authorship’ identifies and character. etc. according to gender. Fátima / COUTINHO. sponta. The Vernacular Artifact tendencies in arts and design. In this sense.FINIZOLA. an investigation is more precise definition for vernacular design. and customs particular to each place. 5) final user. 4) produc. Virgínia P. as well as observing the raw materials used of the term vernacular to identify some artifacts that belong in this process. From within this new cultural paradigm. it provokes a sentiment of preserving habits tive process. project is aimed. rustic. and. local. ular design. together with the possible posi- of its characteristics. Solange G. regional nacular’. there are many adjectives that characterize the word ‘ver. style. genation of distinct cultural elements.whether specialist or non- gic characteristics is not very common in Latin America. or country to country. designer or craftsman. artisanal. The criterion ‘planning makes us wonder whether in fact there would be no different nu. if on one hand globalization has tended towards cultur- sidering the processes of conceiving. example. Technologies 554 . on the other. if it refers to a high style design or to a local.

with a combination of more much like translators of the cultural elements into which they than one of these attitudes cited by Bonsiepe (2011). Technologies 555 . This rich exchange of experiences permitting By looking specifically at the production of Graphic Design that the erudite to become popular. potentialized by the phenomenon of globalization. 2) Vernacular design may other cultural contexts attributing new meanings and values to be recognized but its value may be minimized […]. Concluding Remarks tion focus”. and where the popular is assimi. 4) One can learn from vernacular design by analyzing it through the application of The spontaneous languages encountered in the streets are used concepts. takes the vernacular universe as a reference. those that re-read or transpose visual elements present in ver- nacular or popular graphic language of a determined region and propose new applications and uses. design may be romanticized and one then ‘learns’ from it by copying or imitating its superficial forms. 5. In this sense. The study of vernacular manifestations. we may also per- lated by the official language. at the same time. own specific merit. The processes of hybridization and the appropriation of cul- tural elements from distinct groups may at times raise ethical Each of these project approaches or methodologies have their questions regarding the form in which the process of interven. It is important to highlight that these postures take on the role of mediator amongst various cultural groups. the aesthetic focus (also called ethnode. proposing a greater reflection and popular handicrafts and formal design that may also be applied identification between those who will consume these products. and theories […] and applying these lessons to and reused. treating may bring important contributions to formal design. which impedes us from indicating any one tion from one culture to another it is conduced. ceive some indication of what brings about the process of ap- propriation and translation of the formal elements of popular imagery to formal design. depending on the place or context into paternalist focus gives incentive to programs that assist artisa. the productive focus searches in the universe of While the primary concept of ‘vernacular’ is understood as popular artifacts for cheap. the Figure 4. textures. in one way or another. those that register through images. the paternalist focus and the promoter of innova. reconstructed by creative digital methods. the promoter of innovation focus seeks Acknowledgment to encourage artisans to be autonomous so as to improve their This research is developed as a part of the research group from Design Frontiers: Territiories. Finizola (2009) initially distinguishes three major groups: first. are inserted. colors. through a process of re-signification and thus are incorporated into formal design. sign) elevates the work of popular artisans to the status of art differentiated within a global market. able to reflect on the various visual rhythms in their region of production. but that approaches the elements of Brazilian culture theme conceptually. which should have their becomes the starting point for a production more committed to legitimacy preserved. 1982). going design. (FINIZOLA. from any design influence that comes from outside. cultural elements of be adopted during the process of integration between culture. the tions and interpretations. and uses its formal aesthetic language as a reference for design production. to the field of vernacular design: “the conservative focus. where designers living conditions. which it is applied. (RAPOPORT. Concepts. the local culture and habits of its people and. there is considerable evidence to support the fact that turalist focus considers local projects developed by artisans as the definition of vernacular could also have a number of varia- a starting point to build an identity of Latin American design. 3) Vernacular them. and from a specific objects developed and signed by artists and designers. including the analysis of its creative and productive processes. the aesthetic focus. forms and fragments of envi- ronments that make part of our surroundings. with a graphic language that is strange to the original environment. 2009:120). also becoming erudite (Figure 4). the productive focus. in that it artisanal artifacts as objects of study. and finally. may also appear in a hybrid form. regional or vernacular. nal production as a mediator of the process. Appropriations of the vernacular: Ronaldo Fraga’s collection inspired by projects that do not bring any direct visual connection to that the Vale do São Francisco and special editions of Coca-Cola packaging referring to which is popular. What unites these designers is (2011:63-64) highlights the different approaches that may the option to value. in an environment of cultural Rapoport (1982) also enumerates four attitudes which we could circularity.Vernacular design: A discussion on its concept questions appear for the practice of design. finally. at times with high profit margins. have in relation to the vernacular: designers are capable of articulating elements that belong to 1) Vernacular design may be ignored. the culturalist or essen- tialist focus. Gui Bonsiepe way as being better or shorter. qualified labor for the production of something. place. second. which is genuine and authentic. the cul. the region where they from. models. such as the formal The intention of the conservative focus is to protect the artifacts and symbolic elements that characterize graphic vernacular.

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