Mea Culpa

I have made too many beautiful things that no one got.
I have made too many clever things that made no sense.
I have made too many interesting points that were convoluted and lost
.

Introduction

Since I started doing design, I’ve always felt compelled to break form, push it to the limit, see what would happen, do it like it hadn’t been done before, to think up something weirder and crazier than everyone else had. It’s a dirty compulsion, an impulse I can’t control.

It leads to beautiful graphic experiments, fun visual work. But too often, I’ve broken the form too well, exploded past the limits too far: the work becomes incomprehensible, too personal, a formal exploration that can no longer hold content.

As much as I’m interested in form, I am a graphic designer. That is: I want to communicate with people visually. Yet I am addicted to exploration. At heart this thesis is about trying to reconcile these two needs: a need for simple communication and a need for the new. A need for the standard and a need for originality.

Anti.

Anti-hero. Anti-matter. Anti-particle. Anti-climax. These words are formed with the prefix “anti-” that means not antagonistic or opposing, but “identical to in form or function, but lacking, opposite or contrary in essential respects.” They’re common English words everyone knows; anti- itself is a highly productive affix, meaning in the right context, any word might get anti’d by a speaker. Anti- combines the familiar with the new, becomes the expected with a twist. Like an anti-hero, design can be slightly offyet still recognizable as the main protagonist. A protagonist unlike what we’ve seen before.

Drawing from this definition of “anti-”, I formalize a strategy I call ANTI, which uses familiar forms, formats and tropes, but breaks them in some key way. ANTI sounds negative, but in essence, it is a strategy for compromise.

Personal justifications

It’s an amazing gift to visualize ideas as a job.

How then can I not have a fundamental respect for the client—and his opinion—whose money allows me to make images, mess with type and think as part of my everyday? The rare client may want the esoteric, the difficult, design that keeps everyone out except for a chosen few. But most clients want maximal communication—clear, loud messages that resonate.

Clear, loud messages means what is recognizable and familiar. So maximal design wants to follow into tropes, boring solutions that have been tried a million times before.

How does the designer who loves his client keep his sanity? How to communicate maximally while not going mad from cliché, from re-tooling what has been done before? How to communicate while giving room for the designer to breathe? How to communicate while allowing some experimentation, some voice, a point of view?

How to reconcile communication with exploration?

ANTI becomes a sound approach for this reconciliation. Familiar forms and themes allow the viewer in; a small violation allows the designer freedom. Crucially, though, these small violations are not just indulgent moments—rather, they’re used in a structured way for effect.When expectations exist, they can be flouted. Actually, these expectations become currency for the designer: respecting them gains him credence with the viewer until—at just the right moment—one is broken. Quickly, ANTI has been transformed from a personal coping mechanism to a design strategy for creating effect.

Breaking the rules as a way to push forward

What I talk about above—experimentation, exploration, violation, breaking expectations, breaking form—is at heart the same thing: breaking the rules.

That breaking the rules can be productive is old news. But breaking the rules for its own sake, without a concrete objective, seems unnecessary, self-indulgent. In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud defends rule-breaking in art. He posits that there are six facets to any work of art: surface, craft, structure, idiom, form, and idea. McCloud sets up a dichotomy of artists who are primarily interested in the idea/purpose vs. artists primarily interested in form. (Luckily they can switch back and forth.)

"By choosing form, he’d be setting up to become an explorer. His goal, to discover all that the art form is capable of.... his art would just become his purpose and the ideas would arrive in time to give it substance. Creators who take this path are often pioneers and revolutionaries—artist who want to shake things up, change the way people think, question the fundamental laws that govern their chosen art." (McCloud, 179)

McCloud thus explicitly see questioning the fundamental laws (and presumably ignoring some of them) as a way of changing the way people think.

In a satisfying twist, successful rule breakers end up inventing new rules. Walter Benjamin wrote: “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or they invent one.” (quoted by David Shields on “Start the Week”, 2/14/11) Indeed, Benjamin points to something: every time a genre/concept/format is productively dissolved, a new genre (with its own rules, of course) is invented. Breaking convention pushes the state-of-the-art forward.


Defining ANTI

Anti-

The definition of anti- according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary is:

  • 1 a : of the same kind but situated opposite, exerting energy in the opposite direction, or pursuing an opposite policy
  • b : one that is opposite in kind to
  • 2 a : opposing or hostile to in opinion, sympathy, or practice
  • b : opposing in effect or activity
  • 3 : serving to prevent, cure, or alleviate
  • 4 : combating or defending against
  • The key definition here is the first one: “of the same kind but situated opposite.”

    Once found, adopting anti- becomes an easy choice. Consider the words which illustrate this usage: anti-novel, anti-hero, anti-climax. These are words that are both quickly understandable and yet have room for freedom built in. An anti-novel is some sort of novel, yes, but what’s interesting is how it’s not a novel. What’s especially strong about anti- is it’s a productive prefix (like un-, non-, de- , etc.) which can be used by any English speaker to generate a new temporary word that functions within a given context. Temporary anti- words pop up and die in conversations all the time, but for some more popular usages that have persisted, google something like anti-Oscar, anti-drug or anti-villain. As such it’s perfect: both popularly understood with no art or design baggage as well as extremely productive within temporary contexts.

    Genre/format

    For the sake of succinctness, I want to introduce the term genre/format. A genre/format is anything that is defined and framed by conventions, and thus, can be anti’d: where common understandings exist of what something must be, they can be violated. When words like everyone does X, typical, archetype, standard, commonly accepted, usual, conventional, cliché, stereotype, are used, it’s a good sign we’re hot on the tracks of a genre/format.

    A graphic design example might help illustrate what a genre/format can be: a green tea logo. It would be ridiculous to claim that there are a set of rules written down that say what a green tea logo must involve. A “green tea logo” is hardly a genre, a form, or a format as such. But it’s reasonable to say that there is a set of conventions associated with green tea company logos, most notably the color green and leaf imagery. In this context, an “anti-green tea logo” makes sense: a logo that fits within the genre/format and yet exerts energy in some opposite direction.

    Outside of design, a typical Republican politician could be a genre/format. Sarah Palin’s popularity stemmed in part to her breaking that mold of a typical Republican politician. To Benjamin’s point, Palin invented a genre/format: tough lady Republicans have mushroomed throughout United States.

    As shown in the above examples, the term genre/format allows us to talk about temporary categories that can be much more specific than standard genres, formats or archetypes. Indeed, a genre/format can be populated by just one thing: for example, Times Square (to be revisited). Times Square as a genre/format is how it is popularly understood (chaotic, touristy, full of billboards, etc.) rather than an explicit definition of it (an intersection in New York City, etc.)

    ANTI

    Building on anti-, I define ANTI as a creative approach.

  • Take a given genre/format “X”, with its set of conventions that both frame and define it.
  • Acknowledging and working with the conventions, violate one or more of these conventions.
  • The resulting anti-X can be the desired end goal, or it can be a direction to work towards.

  • ANTI or Mannerism?

    My approach is heavily influenced by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s idea of Mannerism. In Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time, a little known book which summarizes the evolution of their thought, Venturi and Scott Brown define Mannerism as their working approach. Though Mannerism is explained over the length of the book, the most succinct definition is a subtitle: “Mannerism as Convention Tweaked.” In this sense, ANTI is Mannerism. Or rather, anti- is a mannerizing prefix: any anti-object acknowledges past convention but breaks it as necessary. Elsewhere, they elaborate:

    "Mannerism…as acknowledging a conventional order that is then modified or broken to accommodate valid exceptions and acknowledge unambiguous ambiguities for an evolving era of complexity and contradiction…"(Venturi and Scott Brown, 74)

    The key here is the idea of acknowledging the conventions—and breaking the rules for a purpose. Why is this thesis called ANTI rather than Mannerism in Design? Why do I talk of an operation that anti’s rather than mannerizes?

    I found another term to be crucial because: Using architecture terminology in graphic design seems tempting, but is frequently problematic. (Consider the many discussions in graphic design about what deconstructivist design might be. A term that is ambiguous in one field becomes extremely unclear when used in another field.)

    Venturi and Scott Brown’s terminology does not seem to have been widely accepted by the architecture community. As they themselves note, it’s important to engage convention—and neither the term Mannerism nor Architecture as Signs and Systems (my personal favorite of the Venturi canon books) are conventionally used.

    Which brings us to their most “conventional” book—or what they are most well-known for, the controversial Learning from Vegas. Referring to Venturi and Scott Brown inevitably brings up associations of Learning from Las Vegas and its defense of the American architectural vernacular which would ultimately occlude rather than clarify the issue of Mannerism and/or ANTI.

    ANTI is everything

    Once ANTI is defined, almost everything new and somehow groundbreaking can be seen through the ANTI lens. In the context of the academic painting reigning in France in the 19th century, Impressionism becomes an anti-painting movement: a painting style which (beyond issues of content) no longer attempts to hide brushstroke. Cubism becomes anti-painting in that it consistently denies a single viewpoint to the painting, an assumption inherent to the painting until that point (in the Western tradition at least). Abstract Expressionism becomes anti-painting in rejecting content—the painting, how it’s made, is the content.

    It goes beyond traditional art, of course; Seinfeld is the anti-sitcom in that there is no arc (with the Chinese Restaurant episode seeming to be the universally acknowledged apotheosis of this) (TIME, 1998); John Cage’s work is anti-composition in that he embraces chance as a composition tool; ripped jeans as an item to buy are anti-jeans whose meaning is quite different than that of complete jeans. The list could go on and on: but at heart, the point is that anything that’s somehow new, that somehow breaks the rules of what came before can be reformulated in terms of ANTI.

    ANTI as object

    Generally, I see ANTI as a movement: a direction to work in or angle to approach from. (Which is to say, it’s unimportant if viewers recognize the ANTI act: ANTI is a working method for the designer; when successful, its ANTIness resonates somehow, though maybe not directly.) But based on the definition given above, almost any object can be ANTI’d and stays an object (rather than approach). A plastic to-go cup becomes anti-to go cup when it’s ceramic; a t-shirt proclaims “ANTI.” rather than a band name or a one-line joke; an old sack for rice is converted into a new bag. Put a piece of trash into a museum, frame toilet paper, make a book out of rubber instead of paper, make a newspaper designed for kids, not adults. These are ready made ANTI objects, easily generated by decontextualizing or by changing a part of the form.

    The very ease of generating such objects makes them somewhat banal after a point. Dutch design is filled with such objects—objects that function while laughing at themselves—and both Kenya Hara and Michael Rock begin to question this endless self-joking. (Hara, much more harshly; he sees Dutch design as essentially empty in its tireless irony (Hara, 432) while Rock only begins to poke at it [Rock, “Mad Dutch Disease.”])

    I suspect that the Dutch design Hara objects to most, and which I, too, begin to find boring are ANTI objects where the object is violated on just one level—the surface/form level or context level. When these violations are nowhere tied to a content violation, the ANTIhood is facile.

    ANTI in layers

    Ultimately, the discussion begins to hark back to “form follows function.” In order for ANTI to be rich, interesting and have staying power, form and context violations must connect with a content violation: otherwise the treatment of form is purely stylistic.

    I’ve kept the term genre/format purposefully vague so that ANTI can be applied as broadly as possible, but a genre/format usually has some common traits which define it at its most typical:

  • physical/surface form
  • content
  • context

  • Each of these traits has any number of subcharacteristics, all of which can be ANTI’d. I see each of these main traits—form, content and context—as a level which works somewhat independently.

    Indeed, if making ANTI objects is easy—objects which easily veer towards the flat—making sure the ANTI resonates on a content level can salvage the design.

    betsy medvedovsky, design, anti, anti means yes, bio, folio, dossier, autobiography
    Periods of Activity
    is an example which works on a couple of levels. On the one hand, it is an anti-book whose pages are not bound (disruption on the form level). But really, it is also an anti-autobiography, a personal work that is completely de-personalized (which, indeed, looks like a dossier and consists of essentially public information). This disruption on the content level resonates with the form level disruption: the dossier feel is reinforced with the loose sheets and folder.

    betsy medvedovsky, design, anti, anti means yes, last minute signage system, pratt, diy The Last Minute Signage System is another example of multi-level ANTI. Both the poster advertising the MFA show and the map of the space are ANTIs: the poster consists of separate sheets that could be added or removed as necessary while the map keeps a running tally of all the changes to the space. These are violations that take place on a form level. But on a content level, the Last Minute Signage System is guided by an anti-signage outlook. If most signage aims to provide a sheen of order, the Last Minute Signage System acknowledges and flaunts chaos.

    anti means yes, betsy medvedovsky, anti, dutch windmill
    Consider also the Dutch windmill, an ANTI object I consider very successful. It actually swaps out just one element: Arabic calligraphic decoration for traditional windmill souvenir decoration. It’s a surface/form level switch that functions on a content level as well—the very Dutchness of the souvenir is questioned by the Arabic text. In the larger context of the Netherlands trying to steer its understanding of itself as a country in light of its large Muslim immigration and the ensuing conflict, the anti-Dutch windmill is a joke with some depth.

    betsy medvedovsky, comic sans, anti, anti means yes, anti-helveticabetsy medvedovsky, comic sans, anti, anti means yes, anti-helvetica Like the anti-Dutch windmill, the Comic Sans studies exploit that the surface is the content. Early experiments using a high design treatment on Comic Sans elicited excitement—but confusion. These were essentially a funny form violation that didn’t offer much interest for further consideration. A famous Helvetica poster re-done with Comic Sans is a bit more interesting, but it is only as an anti-Helvetica series that the Comic Sans pieces begin to be a full-fledged, stand-alone project. Though it is the form that’s violated (the typeface), the explicit targeting of canonical Helvetica designs points to the content violation (high replaced with low).

    ANTI acquires a richness and depth when form and content are violated in tandem. ANTI on a content level gives the piece both sustained interest—and justified the ANTI in form or context.

    First Theme: ANTI as a way of dealing with constraints

    Dealing with constraints is how I come to ANTI. Broadly, design is governed by the fundamental constraint of communicating with others.

    Other constraints that motivate ANTI can be a frustration with the rules, inability to cope with them, boredom with them or the sheer fact that they cannot be cleanly applied to the situation at hand. Venturi and Scott Brown list these reasons one might employ Mannerism:

  • people who know the rules well and are bored by them
  • naive people who misunderstand them
  • need: “necessary approach to architectural and urban design given the complexity and contradiction of the situations in which we build.” (Venturi and Scott Brown, 212)
  • Denise Scott Brown adds from an urban planning perspective: “You break the rules because you can’t follow all the rules of all the systems all the times, or at the same time.” (Venturi and Scott Brown, 212)
  • I want to mention these as a starting off point, while I elaborate some reasons I’ve used ANTI in visual communication (and interpret other designers as having as well).

    Boredom

    Though I’d avoid claiming I know the rules of design so terrifically well, ANTI comes out of my search to marry experimentation and communicative design: a search for how to avoid being bored by graphic design. In some sense, most of my projects fall under this umbrella term. More importantly, this is the category appropriate for any artist who, per Scott McCloud’s categorization, is interested in matters of form and “questioning the fundamental laws” of their art.

    I can, however, mention one concrete project in which boredom as such played a very explicit role. An assignment from long before ANTI to choose an object and photograph it for seven days, each day a different mise-en-scene. I choose an orange. The first few days, I play with it, vaguely using it a just an art material. By day five, I’m starting to get sick of it. I stitch “PURPLE” into it. By day six, my hatred for oranges grows: I make the E-Z Orange: an orange which opens with a zipper instead of the usual hassle of pealing it.
    betsy medvedovsky, design, anti means yes, anti, mannerism betsy medvedovsky, design, anti means yes, anti, mannerism, e-z orange

    (Don’t miscount this hassle: a friend of mine refuses to eat them because of the work involved). By day seven, I hate the thing and try to make the anti-orange: a negation of all an orange might symbolize—an anti-fresh, anti-orange, anti-healthy garbage heap. Interestingly, day seven’s “anti-orange” is not that at all—it’s just an unrecognizable mess. Too many of the rules of orangehood have been broken. Days five and six, however, are a great success: in each one, just one principle of orangehood has been broken—the purple orange and the E-Z Orange are recognizable but different.

    Incompetence/Inability

    A category I know well. What Venturi and Scott Brown list as a reason for Mannerism—a misunderstanding of the rules—I see in ANTI as a close cousin—an inability to deal with the rules. Here I can provide example after example of my own work; I always believe in turning your weakness into your strength: here’s one, also long before ANTI: FALSE. betsy medvedovsky, anti, anti means yes, design, false, magazinebetsy medvedovsky, anti, anti means yes, design, false, magazine
    In the magical city of Atlanta where I am a designer as soon as I say I am, I am asked to design a whole magazine. My inpreparedness for this task cannot be overstated (indeed the results gave me a hint that I should probably further my education), but let’s forget the inside and focus on the cover. I inherit a logo for FALSE, a logo which is clearly ugly, barely designed, a logo which I know I cannot stand behind. Redesigning the logo is quite frankly beyond me, which I’m extremely aware of. Stuck with a logo I hate, I resolve to play with it somehow for the cover of each issue. For The Poor Issue, I tape the logo up behind a jar of pennies. For The Age Issue, I burn it. A logo which I hate, which I destroy: an anti-logo. A destruction which takes on meaning—but born of inability.

    David Carson is frequently cited as an example of a designer who broke the rules of typography simply because he didn’t know better.

    Dissatisfaction with the restrictions

    An easier category: breaking the rules because you don’t like the rules. Irma Boom’s Best Books Catalogue cited above is a great example of dissatisfaction with the restrictions. In a talk she gave at the Walker Art Museum (Boom, Walker Art Channel) she talks about a book she did compiling the best books of the year. Describing this book, she mentions that it’s an honor to be chosen—each year, a young designer is chosen to design it: “And it’s a one-off. You never do it twice.” Immediately after these words, she notes: “I wanted to make two books in one.” So she combines two books into one: flipping through it one direction, you see a book which is the best book covers of the year; flipping through the other way, it is a book cataloguing the best designed book insides of the year. Laughing at the conventions of these best books of year books, she wants to design two books rather than one: thus creating an anti-book, or rather an anti-one-time-opportunity-book.

    Not enough resources to deal with the rules/outsider status

    Conventions often require more resources than are available. Accepting a limitation on resources and flaunting it can become a powerful way to compete. Periods of Activity, the auto-biography in the form of a folder with unbound sheets mentioned above was originally to be printed as a traditional, bound book. betsy medvedovsky, anti means yes, anti, bio dossierThe size of the pages (9” x 15”), however, made signatures too costly. Perfect binding was inappropriate. The book thus quickly became a folder from reasons of necessity—but the unbound sheets now became a major focal point of the project.

    The rules do not allow for enough ambiguity

    One of Venturi and Scott Brown’s original justifications for Mannerism. Ambiguity gets a section of its own later on, but it’s interesting to see ambiguity and conflict in terms of constraints.

    Periods of Activity is again an excellent example. Looking back at my own life, I began to be confused about the order of events—did I really begin to be interested in creative work before I started dating A., the designer? Did I really quit an education in advertising because my grandmother died—or was it a coincidence? betsy medvedovsky, anti means yes, antiThe book form forced events too neatly into a linear narrative of my life which would gloss over the periods of uncertainty, indecision and vague flailing. Unbound sheets allowed rearrangement and hinter at the act of self-construction that writing an auto-biography actually is. A dossier aesthetic naturally fit the content, the emphasis on events and packaged the pages.

    Against content

    Sometimes the content of the genre/format you’re working in is what you are opposing. Kenya Hara, the art director of MUJI, writes that if “If most brands are after, MUJI should be after its opposite.” He thus explicitly seeks for MUJI to become a sort of anti-brand. If other brands are about creating consumerist lust, MUJI must become “not appetite, but acceptance.” (Hara, 238) The MUJI graphic identity is famously quiet and neutral, as much an anti-branding as possible. betsy medvedovsky, anti means yes, anti, muji, kenya hara

    Hara also introduces the concept of “exformation” which could perhaps be situated as the anti-information. (Hara, 371) He proposes design that, rather than telling you what to know (informing), exforms you: reminds how “little we know.” (Hara, 376)

    This concept of exformation, as well as Hara explicitly imagining what an anti-guidebook for New York might look like inspired the Brooklyn Notebook: a guidebook that reminded you how little you know of New York and how much there is to discover, rather than tell you where to go. betsy medvedovsky, brooklyn notebook, anti-guidebook, brooklyn

    The Comic Sans Studies are an example of work which reveals a dubious relationship to the content.
    betsy medvedovsky, comic sans, anti-helveticabetsy medvedovsky, comic sans, anti-helvetica
    On the other hand, I respect and admire the classic designs—and the tradition they symbolize—that are the subject of the studies. On the other hand, I find problematic how this tradition views vernacular design (here embodied as the consistently ridiculed Comic Sans.) The Comic Sans Studies both acknowledge one narrative of design while ANTIing, and thus poking fun at it.

    Second Theme: ANTI as a way of thinking outside the box (while still relating to the box)

    At the very beginning of this thesis, the Mea Culpa mentions smartness and beauty that go to waste if they are not understandable. The fundamental premise in most creative approaches is that thinking outside the box is ideal and desirable. I want to counter that from my personal perspective. Thinking outside the box is rarely the problem; but if you’re flying so far out from the box that nobody can appreciate how creative you are, there is a communication issue.

    ANTI is a way to think creatively while still staying within the realm of understandability.

    Restrictions themselves are what can be opposed

    In this line of thought, constraints are no longer viewed as external. Restrictions may be added, even arbitrarily so, if other constraints are not enough to facilitate a good enough solution.

    In Dutch Resource, Linda van Deursen talks about restrictions: Someone once said that design is always the product of a lot of restrictions, Charles Eames, I think, or maybe it was Charlie Chaplin — but it’s exactly how it is, you can’t overstate the role played by the restrictions.

    But not only the ones that come with the job, I mean the given ones, content, the project, the time, your own limits, even the expectations of the client or whoever you are working with. They all restrict you. But I think that you then have to introduce a set of extra restrictions based on these, that in a way, protect you from them. I think it’s here that you in fact find find all the decisions you need. The size, the format, whether you choose color or only black and white, whether to use images and type or just type.

    It’s a way of setting up rules to a game you are about to play. Rules that create the game. And the clearer the rules, the more fun it is in fact to play.

    Because it’s not about wanting to be dogmatic or something less free, it’s the opposite. By knowing what the rules are or are the limits, you seem to get a better sense of the possibilities. You react more quickly and you make decisions more easily and effectively. You look for all the possibilities for freedom within those restrictions and you play them out. (Quoted in Dutch Resource, 66)

    As mentioned earlier, Mevis & van Deursen are designers I believe use ANTI as an approach. This quote makes their outlook even quite explicit: rather than working with a genre/format whose rules they try to ANTI, they have a set of rules of the game—within which they try to look for freedom. For me, this is a clear example of using ANTI, though perhaps it is clearer if I talk about it in terms of with and against: Mevis & van Deursen are working with and against the rules they have set up. (The next section discusses the idea of with and against further, but essentially I see it as a reformulation of ANTI: working simultaneously with an idea and its conventions and against it as well.)

    Their work speaks to this formulation of their process. Consider also a small project they did for the Dutch Architectural Institute given as an example earlier. An exhibition on new three dimensional design was designed by an architectural studio wherein all the work was hung on ropes from rails so that the work was constantly moving. Mevis & Van Deursen were asked to do the captions for this show. As Armand Mevis recounts in a talk at the Walker Art Center in 2006:

    Actually, I was not immediately attracted to the job because then we would also [normally] work on the catalogue, but the catalogue was done by Jochan Benigan who is a Dutch designer who I really like, so he got to do the catalogue which is of course the nice job and we had to deal with the captions, which is the horrible job.

    At the same time I thought, um, ok, because I think that maybe shows a little bit the attitude we have. Because even when an assignment really seems to be very unattractive, then I think you you just have to sit down and see how it can become attractive job. I was also challenged by the fact that all the designers who were in this show came up with smart and ironical solutions. So I thought, can we come up with an equivalent of this kind of design which is shown with these captions?

    Finally, of course it’s so simple but it took us so much time to come up with it. It became actually this catalogue which we didn’t do and we just made the catalogue and then we cut it off like two inches from the spine. Of course it was a fake catalogue because the real catalogue was still there but everyone who actually went in the exhibition got this little book which contained all the captions…. and of course we played a little bit with the fact that it was cut off…. (Armand Mevis, Walker Art Channel Talk, 3/21/06)

    Thus Armand Mevis sees the fact that they are doing the caption book and not the catalogue as part of the rules of the game—but their end product plays with and against these rules.

    Problem setting

    If Mevis & Van Deursen are typically Dutch, then Bob Gill is a striking example of someone who uses an ANTI approach to produce a sort of self-contained rebellion—a rebellion which can live safely within American corporate logo-hood.

    "The problem is the problem. If we as graphic designers, are to arrive at interesting, original solutions that also communicate exactly what the client requires, we have to start by being critical of the problem. The more interesting the problem, the more likely the solution will be interesting. Here’s an example:

    AGM, a company which makes very small industrial models, wanted a monogram as their logo. (A conventional, boring problem.) Original problem: design an interesting arrangement of an A, a G, and an M to be used on their stationery, their delivery vans, and on the side of their building.

    Problem made more interesting: design an A, G, and M which communicates that the company makes very small models, and at the same time, is large enough so it can be easily seen on the side of their vehicles and on their building.” (Gill, 10) bob gill, agm, logo

    What’s striking is that in Gill’s most interesting formulation of the problem there is a thesis/antithesis quality. In essence, Gill provides a way out of any conventional design problem: when the rules of the game cannot really be played against, it is up to designer to reframe the problem so that it becomes a with and against problem. AGM probably doesn’t want ambiguity or contradiction in their logo, but Gill frames the question as such and comes up with a fun solution.

    Third Theme: ANTI and Ambiguity

    ANTI as gesture

    A number of a projects I’ve talked about show ANTI at the edges. Brooklyn Notebook shows how ANTI in approach can become something completely different in its final form. The Once and Future Poster is another example where it becomes more and more difficult to speak about ANTI. Though in its final form the poster was tiled together from separate smaller sheets and thus became an anti-poster, it works just as well as a single sheet.

    If the poster is a single sheet, how then is it an anti-poster? The poster’s hierarchy is swapped, but it would be difficult to claim that a trait of posters is a straightforward hierarchy. Wherein lies the strength of The Once and Future Poster?

    I suspect that it’s in the simple statement, “The poster is dead! Long live the poster!” printed itself on a poster. It is in the strength of this declaration, its inherent contradiction. These ambiguities and contradictions are at the heart of the piece. This is where ANTI enters. At its core, ANTI is about contradicting one’s own self, exposing one own’s ambiguity. ANTI as an operation requires a genre/format to act on, but ANTI here acts only on the internal idea.

    ANTI here acts intangibly and gently, like a gesture, the trace of a stronger move. There are no more external expectations to subvert or to violate—only the internal ones of the artist.

    I began to think of ANTI as gesture a while ago, but only recently did I return to Venturi’s definition of Mannerism as something that “engages ambiguity–engages ambiguity unambiguously.” (Venturi and Scott Brown, 212) I’m struck with this full circle, from Mannerism back to Mannerism again (which is why I see myself as partially translating Mannerism from architecture to design). ANTI as gesture is no longer about a genre/format and its conventions: it is about engaging ambiguity.

    There’s another way to think about the ANTI gesture: the inevitable joke of this thesis: antithesis.

    Thesis and antithesis

      Definition of ANTITHESIS
  • 1a (1) : the rhetorical contrast of ideas by means of parallel arrangements of words, clauses, or sentences (as in “action, not words” or “they promised freedom and provided slavery”)
  • (2) : opposition, contrast
  • b (1) : the second of two opposing words, clauses, or sentences that are being rhetorically contrasted
  • (2) : the direct opposite
  • 2 : the second stage of a dialectic process
  • Seen this way, ANTI as gesture is clearly about thesis and antithesis: building in opposition and contrast and thus exposing ambiguity. [I can’t find the source, I seem to recall thinking of the phrase “The poster is dead! Long live the dead” after reading about other antithetical statements. But this might be another case of structuring the narrative ex post facto.]

    With and against

    Though thesis and antithesis sits in the background like a joke that I only now get, more and more I think about ANTI as working with and against. With and against is a simple, humble and broad way to communicate what ANTI as gesture/Mannerism as ambiguity/thesis and antithesis might mean.

    Working with and against means acknowledging an idea and working with that idea, while simultaneously working against that idea. With and against sits then with ANTI or Mannerism as Convention Tweaked as the same approach but with different wording. Like thesis and antithesis, with and against builds into itself the idea of opposition/duality/conflict.

    Whether one talks about ANTI as gesture, thesis and antithesis, working with and against or even Mannerism, the end results work might involve:

  • opposition
  • juxtaposition
  • ambiguity
  • contrast
  • internal tension
  • internal conflict
  • threshold of two things
  • Indeed, these tensions fuel ANTI. When coming at ANTI from this angle, its inevitable ambiguity seems obvious. Working with ANTI means at heart, accepting a set of rules and yet opposing (some of) them. The other themes which explore ANTI can be reformulated in terms of this conflict as well. Dealing with constraints is about accepting the constraints and yet trying to find a way around them; thinking outside the box means accepting the idea of the box. That is why ANTI is not and cannot be simply against the rules. In order to be ANTI, one must first engage with convention.Those who are completely unconflicted or unambiguous simply do not accept, acknowledge or engage with the rules. On a social level they may be the hermits, sociopaths or anarchists; on a design level, they create a world of chaos that leaves viewers lost at sea, without any bearings to navigate.

    Conclusion: Using your weakness as your strength

    From constraints to ambiguity

    ANTI began as a reaction for me: a reaction to constraints; a reaction to the very constraint of communication.

    Along the way I began to see ANTI quite clearly as a creativity tool as well. Thinking outside the box is given its own section in this thesis: it’s important to offer up ANTI in this light, especially when it marries such differing designers as Bob Gill and Mevis & van Deursen. But in some sense, ANTI as a creativity tool is still within the realm of the constraints theme: constrained by circumstances, how does one stay creative?

    Only later did the theme of ambiguity emerge, as I realized that some of my work no longer fit into the constraints pile. Or, more accurately, it still fit into the constraints pile, but actually resonated much more on a different level. Periods of Activity is nominally an anti-book (in the pages are not bound) or even an anti-autobiography, but it is above all a depersonalized autobiography. Though it can be seen as a reaction to some constraints, Periods of Activity most exemplifies an inner tension/ambiguity.

    This tension/ambiguity/thesis-antithesis aspect to ANTI was the true discovery of the thesis. Indeed, in some ways it is the most powerful engine of making that’s explored here. Rather than looking outward and reacting, ANTI as ambiguity basically posits that humans cannot have absolutist narratives. ANTI as ambiguity makes a narrative from acknowledging the internal tension of any issue. Times Canyon became a fitting capstone to the thesis in that it most directly engages the question of thesis/antithesis. The simple question behind Times Canyon was: Times Square is hated—so what does the anti-Times Square look like? The execution of individual elements was quite traditional: a logo, illustration, explanations, advertising. There is no longer any need to react to any outside strictures to provide an energy to the project. The central idea is the energy.

    ANTI and Mannerism: revisited

    ANTI began as an idea that was inspired by, but not directly fed by Mannerism. ANTI became more and more a translation of Mannerism from architecture into design. Again and again, themes I thought I had discovered fresh in ANTI—I discovered upon re-reading Architecture as Signs and Systems. The thesis/antithesis angle in particular only emerged quite late in ANTI—and it was with amazement that I later realized this had already been treated by Venturi and Scott Brown as a fundamental tenet of Mannerism. Again and again, they keep insisting that Mannerism is about ambiguity and conflict. Later when I saw ANTI as a need in some situations—when the requirements of a design solution simply could not copy existing models—I remembered that Denise Scott Brown had noted the same about Mannerism before.

    Far from making it weaker, these parallels make ANTI stronger. I did not start out with the intention of copying Mannerism, but independently came to many of the same conclusions after staring at my own work and trying to figure out how it fit in, when pieces were no longer responses to external constraints.

    One important difference between Mannerism and ANTI is that Mannerism is not offered as a creativity tool, though Venturi does incidentally touch upon the issue with his cry, “A bas boring originality!”

    Moreover, though articulation has been a weakness in my work from the beginning, I would venture that the language of ANTI makes it slightly more robust than Mannerism. Anti- is a common, productive prefix in English that speakers use; though some initially think of the opposition meaning, giving some examples (anti-hero, anti-climax) almost immediately makes it click. (Dare I say that ANTI’s total everydayness is actually more appropriate for the work of Venturi and Scott Brown than the word Mannerism?) The prefix anti- allows the conversation to expand far beyond the realms of art and design, especially when thinking outside of the box is no longer the purview of just artists. At heart, ANTI is not so much a creative approach as a way of seeing the world: its articulation in common words like anti- and with and against allows that expansion.

    ANTI and Mannerism: revisited, 2

    This thesis has consistently credited Venturi and Scott Brown as being an influence and a model, at times openly questioning what the difference is between the two programs.

    This issue would have benefited from being directly engaged with. I have said above, in many ways ANTI is a translation of Mannerism from architecture to design and the broader world. But in many ways it’s not. This is perhaps most clear at the most superficial level: our aesthetics differ. I am troubled by the fact that I find much Venturi Scott Brown architecture unpleasant. ANTI nowhere outlines any aesthetic approach, but every piece of ANTI work I’ve created this year has aimed to be beautiful and appealing to eyes beyond just my own. My highly biased judgment is that I’ve been successful (with the eventual exception of the Exquisite Corpse Project, The Once and Future Poster and Last Minute Signage).

    This question of how Mannerism and ANTI differ in actual programs and underlying aesthetic assumptions is non-negligible. My suspicion is that there is something to Mannerism that is almost aggressively combative/ugly; ANTI is a broad approach to the world which tries to subsume the reigning aesthetic in order to communicate more easily with others. This thesis would have profited from delving into the schism between the two. Even divorced from Mannerism, if ANTI does indeed implicitly espouse an aesthetic (beyond my own), a future direction may to be articulate what it is.

    Further directions

    Above I’ve noted that I think that the thesis/antithesis angle may be the most powerful engine of making to ANTI. ANTI remains a crucial tool in dealing with constraints and approaching brainstorming, which this thesis effectively outlines. I would start any future exploration of ANTI should begin with this issue of thesis/antithesis/juxtaposition/ambiguity.

    ANTI-ANTI

    What started out as response to external constraints has ANTI’d itself: ANTI has revealed its own internal force.

    Working from a place of ambiguity, tension, opposition, unease is not an ideal solution. But insofar as ANTI is a worldview, it does not believe in the ideal: there is only what is and what can be done with it. A moment that is depressing, yet full of possibility.

    Post-script

    I started by saying that this thesis is not a designo-political strategy, but I will be the first to contradict myself. ANTI is about coping with the world, about creating freedom where only rules exist.

    It’s up to you whether ANTI is fundamentally pessimistic or optimistic. ANTI means that working with a flawed, conflicted, ambiguous narrative is assumed. There is no ANTI in a utopia. ANTI means acknowledging the way that humans are, for good and for bad. But ANTI means that powerlessness can be turned into opportunity; the world can be worked with and against for change.

    We all exist within the world with our hands, to a certain extent, tied. We can fight openly, ignoring our weakness, or we can acknowledge our weakness and fight smart.