I can’t escape the feeling that, as a designer, it is of chief importance for me to be able to get as close to creation via pure thought as possible – that the more barriers to free play, or ‘drag ‘n drop’, there are, the less creative I am able to be. But speed and spontaneity in creative practices are, in fact, exclusively modern values. Indeed, for many thousands of years the day to day practices of artists, designers and makers was filled with far fewer of the swift, immediate rendering and publication processes of today’s studios.
Could T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland have been conceived in 1922 without the instant effective publication offered by the typewriter?
The utterly time-consuming task of placing individual movable metal type pieces across a composition stick – literally building the structure of a page piece by piece – meant that a composition had to be plotted and planned before the production of the printed page could begin. The typewriter was an early form of automation that enabled the modern writer to experiment with free association; where a printed sentence or passage could be juxtaposed with another, not in the imagination, but in print.
The author no longer needed to envision how a handwritten text might finally be rendered on the page. Indeed, publication was no longer the end of a linear production process. The archetypically impersonal gestalt of a printed page was guaranteed by the typewriter; its neat, legible and neutral metal type forms enabled a process of printing-by-writing that was devoid of the compromised unclarity of the handwriting of an angst-ridden modern writer.
The typewriter was the medium which brought us authors such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings; and it is also one of several important moments in the development of some of the core creative values that we nurture, however unconsciously, as designers and spectators.
Other celebrated moments
Some other key, and perhaps more popularly celebrated of these moments – which occurred in the visual arts – were those developments in painting that lead to Impressionism and its offshoots: movements such as Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism. These movements saw artists developing new dynamic techniques that were not concerned with the gradual and technically intensive reproductions, such as the illusion of pictorial space and perspective. Indeed, some of the greatest innovations that emerged from each of these movements were those which enabled for the swift and precise reproduction of fleeting and almost intangible impressions and moments; of arresting light, colour, shape and emotion in paint.
Many new practices have been developed since these early modernistic innovations, both in letters and in painterly media, and all occurring mainly around the end of the Nineteenth Century and in the early decades of the Twentieth.
Now, it would of course be crude to nominate speed and spontaneity as the chief outcomes or even the conscious aims of any of these movements – that is not the purpose of this reference. The point is to recognise that the developments of modern art and design were ones that brought forward new practices and affects, such as speed and spontaneity; the curiously conscious employment of feeling, imagination and inspiration – thereby crystallising these as palpable affects; forming new values by changing the very performance of the production of the artwork.
The modern era
The minting of new value codes and qualifications for the modern era can also be observed throughout the history of modern design. Even architecture experienced this electrification, so to speak. Acting in philosophical unison with all art and design, architects employed swift, inspired, rationalised expression which lead to new material innovations, and a new enthusiastic embrace of materials such as steel and concrete. Moreover, logistic and managerial rationalisation enable for the development of factory, or ‘system’ builds. This new approach facilitated the mass, economy production of flats and apartment buildings in the 1960s – notably in Britain. For all the problems that would later emerge with these processes, at the time, architects were able to enjoy the apparent reduction of the great practical gulf between the stroke of the pen and the construction site.
I want to tie off this trip through history in the 1980s; namely at the point of the introduction of the computer to graphic design, and the subsequent (and recently extremely rapid) expansion of creative software like the Adobe Creative Suite.
On the one hand it could be suggested that the transference of the processes and techniques of graphic design, from the paste board – and facilities not at all far removed from those of the painter – to a back-lit field of pixels has changed nothing from the point of view of the practice of the profession. Indeed, bar several stylistic and somewhat philosophical quibbles during what became know as the ‘postmodern’ moment (with radical technical disobedience occurring mostly in and around the music industry and pop visual cultures) design has nevertheless remained much the same profession. On the other hand, however, it could be argued that such an observation is far to superficial. For the introduction of the website alone – as a piece of design(which arguably it was not during the first five to ten years of the internet’s existence) – has changed an awful lot; and, I want to suggest, has meant that many of the modernist values listed above – of swift spontaneous composition – have to be reconsidered.
A technique and an innovation
As I’ve suggested, drag ‘n drop, or the freedom to compose with absolute swiftness, is a technique. Moreover, it is a modernist innovation that apparently closed the gulf between inspiration and application. It is thus an important technique; one that effectively underwrites modern aesthetic values. But despite the fact that this technique is still supported and has even been enhanced by the introduction of all-in-one software packages, the challenges that are presented to the designer by the new interfaces – let alone what new aesthetics these new media may yet surprise us with – are far more complex, multilayered and, as yet, underdeveloped – let alone fully understood. This makes the process of designing user interfaces (UX design), websites and devices for digital marketing curiously difficult. It leaves traps for designers who still wish to employ older, what we could term ‘painterly’, techniques to these new surfaces.
Graphic design has remained much the same as painting for most of its existence. The painter (working in whichever medium: pigment, paper collage, photo collage, etc.) composes freely until some opaquely defined end point – at which the artist is free to step back and convert to the status of an observer. The graphic designer operates in very much the same way as the painter; there is a sense of finality; of ‘finishing’ – where the paint, the glue or the ink are allowed to set, after which point any further changes won’t be likely or even possible. Play-time ends.
But the pixel field of the website or digital application, on the other hand, never rests; there is not end point – nothing drys or sets. The website is in part architectural. It is experienced at multiple sensory levels; it is as tactile (open to haptic perception) as it is visual. (However we still refer to [web-]’pages’; the old medium doesn’t vanish from our conception of what we’re witnessing all that easily.) Moreover the construction of this page (for it rather resembles architectural construction than ‘composition’) is not a straightforward open field of free play – the ‘drag ‘n drop’ of painterly design practices. The design and production of a website and its code is technically intensive. Indeed it requires the designer to be quite the polymath. Alas, fellow designers, it can also be very time consuming.
Today, the computer and digitisation have accelerated this general evolutionary principle of ever swifter execution of tasks to lightning fast speeds. Indeed today we hardly notice the ‘process’ of processes at all. But as digital media and interfaces become ever more important, is it not wise to reconsider those modernist values? And perhaps to liken – in both complexity and intimacy – the complex gestalt of the medieval illuminated manuscript, or even the richly intricate and vivid, compressed structure of the stained glass window, to these new ‘smart’ surfaces?
This post was written by Adam Keefe. For the full experience of this blog, you can read it here. Adam is a freelance graphic designer and art director based in Oxford. Did you find this post interesting? Visit Adam’s website: https://www.cveda.co.uk/