When I walk into a gallery, I prefer to look at the art without first reading the provided curatorial blurb or even the titles of the works themselves. This is my design eye, always looking to understand the work without the assistance of the written word. Does this work speak to me? Does it tell me its story without the accompanying critical analysis? Do I provide the context or is it provided for me? That said, I do love art that incorporates words and typography – Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Baldessari, On Kawara, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer... But the artwork that has had the most profound impact on my process often has no plastic manifestation, no tangible artifact in the traditional sense. When I first learned about DADA, I really didn’t know what the hell to make of it. Every single artist involved seemed to be doing their own thing – where is the essential cohesive visual statement? When I experienced FLUXUS, I could clearly see the relationship between the two movements. The emphasis was not on producing precious artworks, but on inspiring (or inciting) the would be audience to action so that they too become participants in the creative process. This blurring of the line between artist and audience, between art and life, this irreverent disregard for the hierarchical categorization of all things artistic delights me to no end. There is a playfulness to the “work,” a fleeting timelessness centered on the ever present now. The compulsory this or that duality fades as the “artist” releases control of the process and invites everyone to join in the fun. My writing on The Missing Point over the last two years has focused on expanding the dialogue in a similar manner, so that we may move past the dualistic (conflict) narratives we are provided. While the content on Forth Position will likely continue to be primarily visual, I am going to have some fun breaking through my own this or that duality, and post some (perhaps even a buncha) words here.
I have written previously about the many factors that contribute to the production and replication (or “regurgitation” as a professor of mine once termed it) of design that is tried and true rather than design that is... well... Design. Design with a capital D - as in innovation, creation, and communication. I recently participated in a class titled Design + Psychology at the Pratt Free School. Our graduate student professor brought up the aphorism there’s nothing new under the sun (everything’s been done before) to launch into a discussion about how creativity is a process of synthesis, taking two things and combining them into something new. It got me thinking about what that “new” actually is. Is it new if I have never done it before, even if someone else already has? Would my version of this already done thing not be different as a function of my creation, born of my unique perception and understanding? Is there no value in experiencing it, doing it yourself, if someone else has done it before you? Is it not still a creative act regardless? Take dance for instance – a dancer may move in ways that we have seen before, but we still recognize the creative act of dancing. Even when a dance is choreographed, isn’t it essentially different each time it is danced by a new group of dancers? It would seem that dance is not limited to an exploration of newness as the essential creative act. Expression, experience, and freedom itself all come into play. Time and circumstance, the element of chance, all of these factors are there. Over this last year I had the opportunity to explore these concepts with my students teaching a course called Motion Design: Graphic Design at Pratt Institute. As a first time professor, it was challenging to unpack such a comprehensive subject and format it in a way that would build progressively over the term. In preparation, I spoke with the many professors I know in motion, design, and other related disciplines, and researched the methodologies of numerous others. I share this bit of my experience hoping it will provide some insight (and enjoyment) to educators and designers and those interested in such things.
On the first day of class I have my students do a little peer to peer interview to initiate our class dialogue. They break out into pairs taking about 5 minutes each. They take notes and present one another’s answers. When there is an odd number of students one of them gets to interview me (!). The questions are simple enough, what is your name, where are you from, what’s your favorite food, what do you like to do, and the last one - what is motion design? Answers to that last question vary. There are some general answers like “graphics that move,” and “4D design” (the extra dimension being time). There are more theoretical and technical answers like motion design is about creating the illusion of motion from a series of stills, or it is about using specific programs to make your illustrations move. Their answers provide a reference point for us to begin a dialogue that will continue throughout the semester (and beyond). I ask them if there is a difference between motion graphics and motion design – taking the opportunity to laugh with them about the inevitable conversation where your mom asks “what exactly do you do?”
We watch a video titled “What is Motion Design?” after which I inquire “what do you think of that?” This is a common refrain in the class. It’s about developing trust and respect, letting the students own the dialogue so they can recognize the value of their individual voice. When I ask them what applications there are for motion design they each have the the opportunity to chime in, to experience the importance of their input to our learning process. I write their contributions on the board as they call them out. My notes include a dozen – they come up with a dozen, including one I forgot. I add my single remaining contribution to the list to seal the deal. We’re all in this together now – this is our list. The class is not a competition – we are all here to learn. As Paolo Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
“Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students. This solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole: (a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught; (b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing; (c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about; (d) the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly; (e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined; (f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply; (g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher; (h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it; (i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his own professional authority, which he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students; (j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.”
In my first term the student who interviewed me summarized my what is motion design answer as, “Thomas thinks that motion design is EVERYTHING!” Quite the ego huh? What I was getting at is that everything in life can be a potential source for motion design. Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum after all. Communication is based in common language and cultural coding, and this common language goes much deeper than the sounds we utter. When we have a story to tell, we don’t actually have to connect all the dots. I have found that it is more effective to let my audience make these connections themselves, engendering a more personal experience based on their specific perceptions, not just the ones I provide for them. This doesn’t mean I leave the page blank, however, simply that I allow the space for my audience to participate in telling their story. The destination is less certain but the experience is more lasting.
My experience as an organizer has taught me that people are more likely to mobilize around ideas that they feel passionate about. For that mobilization to be lasting the people must feel that their efforts are more than a means to an end, a demand that will be granted or denied; there must be an intrinsic sense of fulfillment present in the mobilization itself. If we are only concerned with outcomes and goals then the mobilization will be constrained by whether these goals are deemed to be achievable, and ultimately judged on whether they have been achieved. This product over process approach is self defeating in that it generally emphasizes the problem rather than the development and exploration of alternate possibilities. Asking how to solve a specific problem is quite different than asking the people how they actually want to live. Within education there is a similar emphasis on goals and results. There are many extrinsic motivators for student performance – good grades, the recognition of other students, the promise of employment, etc. But these motivators can also act as detractors, setting up a dependency in students on external factors that they do not control. Helping students to ask questions and value their own responses can lead to an exploration of what they feel passionate about. The emphasis here is on dialogue and discovery, on enjoying the journey rather than on arriving at a predetermined destination. My hope is that this process provides my students with an experiential model they can reference throughout their lives, one that helps them establish the sense of self-worth required to prioritize work that they enjoy over work they do not.
A major part of that first day lesson plan revolves around a comparative analysis of the opening titles from Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en. While prepping the lesson for class I sought out online versions of the opening titles to show. It was easy enough to locate the Saul Bass titles and those for Se7en on Art of the Title, but the SOTL titles were harder to find. A smallish video on YouTube (with a hungarian vo) inspired me to pick up the DVD at the library before class. When I dumped the DVD into my class computer, it demanded that I assign a region to the DVD player (apparently the first time anyone has projected a DVD for a class in the lab). Of course I couldn’t do this without an administrator password, and none of the ever helpful student techs working the lab knew this password… Ultimately the DVD had to be played on one of the other iMacs in the lab. So now Hannibal is making faces on a screen (the DVD menu) across from one of my students. As we begin class the student asks “what are we going to see in that movie?” I respond that we are going to look at the titles from the film. She asks “opening or closing titles?” “Opening.” Then she and another student start talking about how they don’t remember the titles from the film and anticipation starts to build… Hannibal continues to make faces throughout my lesson. I really couldn’t have planned it better myself. By the time we got to the SOTL titles, the students’ curiosity had peaked and they were fully engaged, likely expecting some gorgeous mo graph opus. It really grounded the whole point in a way that I could not have anticipated.
First we view the titles for Vertigo and Psycho, both by the legendary Saul Bass. “What is happening here? What can you tell me about the design?” I ask. My students note that the Psycho titles seem more frenetic, that Saul Bass uses stripes to animate the type on and off, that there is no photographic element as in the Vertigo titles. The typeface is a little different from one to the other (slab serif vs. sans serif). The Psycho titles are black and white while Vertigo has color. The students point out that the music is a major factor in both sequences, but that it seems more clearly related to the animation in the Psycho titles. After my students have made their observations I add “One of the things I notice when watching the two title sequences back to back is that most of the Vertigo titles have a centered layout, whereas the Psycho titles seem more unpredictable in their layout. He seems to be following a similar sort of grid here, but I can’t quite place where the type will land from credit to credit. Is this a conscious choice? Why do you think he makes this choice?” This leads to a bit more dialogue about how Bass builds tension, establishing a grid and repeatedly breaking it to a create a feeling of anxiety before the film even begins.
We move onto the Silence of the Lambs titles (thank you Art of the Title for posting these). Commentary from the class starts with one student saying quietly “why is the letter-spacing so bad?” As we continue watching the students moan, groan and laugh, pointing at the screen to locate the flaws in each consecutive title card. Kerning, leading, justification, every rule is broken with even a couple in camera type gags to boot. The critique culminates with another student saying “even with all the obvious problems, I don’t mind the titles and I think they work with the subject matter of the film.” I wait until they all come to a consensus around this thought before letting them know that the credits were produced by one of the most influential design firms of the time ( M&Co. ) and that the design is intentionally “bad.” It’s not a function of typing into After Effects at the default settings (or simply the limitations of the technology of the time as another student astutely brings up), it is a conscious choice. My students can see that the titles are successful in conveying a feeling; their odd, off kilter unpredictable alignment and letter spacing keys us into the unpredictable nature of the film itself. The outline type appears oddly similar to the type used in Vertigo, but here the painstakingly “random” placement of the type, with its solid black fill, “haphazardly” blocks the shots rather than completing a thoughtfully designed composition. There is some hierarchical type scaling as in the Saul Bass titles, but any semblance of regular pattern is subverted the moment it appears. The appearance of unpredictability increases exponentially with ones understanding of the intricacies of typography and design, but as I mentioned earlier – all the dots don’t need to connect. Something is going on here – and the semblance of logic, of a language that we don’t fully understand, is enough to set us on edge.
The good design/bad design duality is one of the most if not the most commonly used/abused critiques in design. Tibor Kalman expands the dialogue by questioning what these terms actually mean, making a case for undesign / anti-design – another beautiful design in a sea of beautiful designs is invisible, and therefore its ability to communicate is neutralized.
“Every curatorial decision, every convention, every rule about what is good design and what is bad design works to narrow your perceptions. You become blind to most of what’s in front of you. Every rule about what is appropriate narrows what’s possible. Appropriate design is design that pleases the largest number of people. Appropriate design is normal design. It’s about keeping things more or less the same. Inappropriate design is a way of confronting taste. Inappropriate design is a way of making people think about why they like what they like and how they learned to like those things. It’s a way of making people unlearn what they were taught in design school. Unfortunately, schools teach students to design by imitating what the professionals do rather than developing their own approaches. And the schools turn out legions of graduates who believe that their best bet for success is to have a portfolio filled with layouts that look like the layouts in everybody else’s portfolios, portfolios of professionals.”
We’re Here to Be Bad – Tibor Kalman and Karrie Jacobs
As a segue I play a short segment from a Charlie Rose interview with Tibor where he actually mentions the titles from Se7en. I ask my students if they have all seen the Se7en titles, calling attention to the important place they occupy in the evolution of motion design. After we watch the titles I again ask, “What is happening here? How do these titles relate to the others we watched?” It is easy to see that while Kyle Cooper, Tibor Kalman, and Saul Bass each have their own approach, the three are dealing with similar themes. Kyle Cooper takes the common themes of madness and obsession one step further with titles that appear to have been made by the killer (John Doe) himself. When an actor plays a part, they may seek to fully immerse themself in the character they are playing, reacting to each new situation from the perspective of that person. In a sense this is what Cooper is doing, asking what would these film titles look like if John Doe made them, or perhaps even more importantly, how would he make them? The metaphorical design coding of the SOTL titles is replaced here by a more literal approach, each design decision a direct extension of the underlying story. Kyle Cooper goes on to revitalize title design through Imaginary Forces and now Prologue, expanding the field and creating demand that was simply not there before his contribution.
What is most important to me about these three designers is that they are all doing something different, breaking with convention, each of them a vanguard in their field and an inspiration to those who follow. Rather than simply finding their place within the existing field, each of them evolves the field through their own individual design voice. It has been nearly 20 years since I first saw the titles for Se7en in a theater that has since vanished from Times Square. Adobe had recently acquired After Effects from CoSA and I was just starting to explore the possibilities. Having written about the consolidation of media in college, the accelerating cultural shift toward the market driven model wasn’t really surprising, but it was pretty alarming. Today the integration of media, culture & politics is so complete that it is practically impossible to see where one ends and the others begin. We can assist our students in navigating this uncertainty by encouraging them not just to do “good design,” but to do work they love. Allowing them the space and the support to tell their story, to discover and develop their individual voice – this is essential. The need to secure employment, to make a living, to have some measure of stability, to pay off that education debt – these concerns are real, but they are also distractions. Similarly, the idolization of newness is a market driven distraction meant to keep us scrambling from one trend to the next, picking from convenient options, but never really making a conscious choice. And therein lies the irony, the pursuit of newness in design manifests as a never ending race to keep up with market driven trends. There is no dialogue in this, there is no participation, there is no individual voice – only repetition of that which has already been deemed acceptable and profitable. Listening to my students revisit the what is motion design question at the end of the term brings tears to my eyes (keep it together Gallagher), no longer simply static answers to fill the form, but passionate testimony to their continuing exploration and their limitless potential.
“Fuck it up a little” – Tibor Kalman quoted in Michael Bierut’s piece Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mentor, Or, Why Modernist Designers Are Superior
Also posted at The Missing Point