On Design Maxims
Here I present a selection of the results of my practical work as a designer which I realised during a career of many years, followed by some observations in general about situations and phenomena that presented themselves and influenced my field of activities – and in due course my own life – and which cannot be passed over. A survey of my work as a teacher of almost thirty years and the diversity of my widely branching activities as a designer in the field of visual communication has been assembled in my book „Design: Method and Consequence. A Biographical Report“.
The procedure has always been for experts to devote a great deal of their time to a look into the mechanisms of communication, and for many decades they pondered over possibilities to have direct communication. Particularly because information today mostly intends to instruct, influence, manipulate. Communication, whether direct or indirect, was looked upon as a mysterious process that had to be explored and developed. Today we have a technology: the internet. Everybody is able – as long as he has the technics at his disposal – to virtually and visually communicate with everybody else. Partly quickly and purposefully.
The form of communication, however, as well as design in general, is treated as a matter of equipment, as an additional benefit of marketing strategies. Design has degenerated into a factor of sales promotion. The objects of our day-to-day life or a functional customer service are robbed of their fundamental functions, the meaning of contents loses importance while strange confusions are tolerated.
The old Greeks were very familiar with each and every aspect of human life. They said: Panta rhei – all is flux. This statement is valid today and for evermore. Everybody is under way, everything is in motion, everything is subject to change and at an excessive speed. This holds true in almost every sector of our existence. Even so, nobody knows where this wind of change will blow in the course of the twentyfirst century. The twentieth century brought about developments that nobody would have thought possible at its beginning. This applies not only to social life and its circumstances, but also to the everyday occurrences that keep coming to our doors delivered by the new technical possibilities. Without this the modern mass society would not exist. Progress takes a heavy toll. Not only did the pursuit of profit create the affluent society, it furthered lack of restraint on all levels of living conditions and in the material environment.
This boundlessness is followed by loss of concentration; quality and quantity of design are out of all proportion to each other, there are no ideas as to how to face the twentyfirst century. On all levels, in all channels shortcomings are produced in increasing amounts.
Pictograms: a language of images
Since the middle of the past century, the technical development of our means of transport and associated facilities has expanded to a degree that it is becoming more and more complicated to use. People are more mobile than ever before: they travel from one town to another, from one country to another and from one continent to another, and for this they require instructions for use which suit the particular function. This includes a universally comprehensible supply of information which is located in the centres of public transport and not only indicates the routes to and from the transport facilities and provides guidance within those centres, but also gives instructions on how to use the transport facilities themselves.
The worldwide presence of transport facilities, and the internationality of user groups, makes communication by means of the spoken language more and more difficult and is now almost impossible. This is why an additional system of communication which bridges the language barriers is indispensable where rapid recognition and understanding of the different situations is vital. This system of signs is composed of pictograms, although not all the signs now being presented to us accord with the semiology of signs: Not all of the pictograms are icons. That is to say, they are not all meant to be likenesses. There are also symbolic and indexical signs appearing as diagrams, ideograms, and logograms.
Ever since Otto Neurath first started to create a system of images and signs for an exhibition held in Vienna in 1920, so many systems have come into being that it is difficult to classify them. Rudolf Modley worked on the further development of Neurath’s Viennese method at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and, in 1934, founded the Pictograph Corporation which made available to the public the more than one thousand pictograms which he had produced. It was then that the idea of standardizing these signs was first thought of. Legal protection was also considered.
The pictorial signs were originally intended to illustrate statistics, but were later developed further and used for a language transmission code. However, hardly one single designer working on a system of guidance denied himself the opportunity of supplying a new creation of his own. People still do not wish to admit that one determined system of signs could be applicable to every situation. This makes standardization more difficult, even though the German Standard Committee repeatedly tries to achieve it. Thus more and more signs come into being, creating confusion rather than guidance in our environment. There is also an uncontrollable plagiarism going on which does not exactly make our world of signs any more tolerable.
It took me a long time to realize that on the one hand a designer is obliged to make his design ability available – one reason being his realizing that he is part of the economic cycle and must secure his own existence –, while he must, on the other side, reflect on the fact that due to his work the number of signs coming into being is swamping our visual environment.
In my own design work, I proceed on the basis that a pictogram, being a non-verbal means of communication, has to visualize an object or a situation, and thus is different from an illustration which depicts an assumed situation or object and is more or less subject to the criterion of being aesthetically pleasing. The meaningful abstraction of a pictorial process is what is required in the process of communication, expressive figurations are to be avoided.
Design and Visual Research
Research is usually defined as the totality of the methodical and systematic procedures and creative intellectual endeavours which, within a scientific framework, are employed to acquire new knowledge that can be put to examination.
When this definition is transferred to the design of visual situations, the procedure of applied research can be used to perform practical tasks relating to the visualization and purposeful application of communicative processes and perceptional features. The procedure can be applied in order to create and alter the conditions required for obtaining data which are relevant to design, and it serves to confirm or refute not only any theories that are evolved, but also any design hypotheses and design laws. As an empirical method, such as is usual in the natural sciences, this procedure brings about important results in experiments in which independent visual variables are recorded and their effect on dependent variables and other factors is investigated.
In my work, I use working methods that serve for the systematic preparation of such research especially in the visual field. The parameters surface, space, colour, dimension, direction are components of such research. In contrast to emotional methods of discovery, visual research that uses the accumulated data supplies a stock of visual configurations which – together with the empirically ascertained facts and the knowledge which has been gained from experience – is then available for the design of visually aesthetic objects.
„Proportions – design paraphrases on the subject of Pythagorean Geometry“, 1981
A booklet that analyzes how visual objects are created by using geometrical devices on the basis of laws of proportionality. This analysis is based on a piece of work which dealt with the value of classical axioms where graphic designs are concerned. The various geometrical proofs of Pythagoras’ theorem were investigated with the aim of subsequently visualizing the results. It was further intended to use the possibilities of pictorial creativity to portray the interrelationships of an aesthetic production that has a wide field of application.
A portfolio of 21 aquatint etchings with designs of some of those geometrical proofs was produced as an additional feature.
If today we talk about design maxims, we cannot overlook the fact that our living conditions, our economic and social crises affect the shape, the design of the objects of our daily life, in certain cases even change them or make them questionable. But many things change in our times and this will inevitably influence the attitude, the claims on the results of a design.
There is no doubt: The twentyfirst century will produce human beings whose awareness is different, who make different demands. This became clearly recognizable in the last few years before the turning point. A new mercantilism has developed. He who joins the players at the stock exchange is progressive, those who live on their own hands’ work and want to produce something real are considered outdated. Capital has become a substitute for religion, because there is no more religious conception of the world that would set society its measurement and goal. Spiritually founded values that impart certainty, that are not ideology, that allocate an acceptable position in a suitable project of humane wellfare are not to be found. Here, too, design has renunciated the necessary sustainable demand. Design by means of capital calls for responsibility of those who live and work together. It must not act as a peripheric arrangement that contains a core of opportunistic pragmatism. What is our Basic Law good for if nobody reads it or acts accordingly?
Luckily, missionaries from the right as well as from the left gave up their efforts to change our society with the help of politics and ideologies. Nevertheless the overcoming of the many-opinioned octopus made us forget that the monetarism as a kind of substitute function brought about a change of mind with people that modified our society more than anything else before. This is called the Zeitgeist (spirit of the age). Some components helped to avoid hot wars which we experienced before because cold war was invented and gave the Western world a period of peace that lasted longer than in any other historical period.
Our time, however, is not solely peaceable, although the Western world is proud of having realized the common old dream, a European community. The states which were enemies sixty years ago and fought each other are peacefully united in the European house. But there are states in Europe that do not yet live under this common roof. And the Balkan demonstrates ever again that wars are possible in spite of the experiences of the last martial century. Still, people lose their lives for reasons ideological, ethnical and even economic. Mankind did not learn through experience. Still violence is executed and wars are waged, although the population of the world longs for peace. Many a battle is stimulated by interested parties, many wars are forgotten wars. Be it Ireland or Algeria, Spain or other regions of the world. Apparently peaceful regions experience terroristic attacks that always claim human lives. This is war. September 11 showed us a worldwide network of fanatics who sacrifice their own lives in order to destroy the lives of thousands. Terrorism frightens the world the more so as everywhere new wars are taken into account out of a craving for power and destruction. War is an instrument of politics again. Power potentials are applied in order to stress threatening gestures. War is a matter of conversation much like a weather report. Wars that people do not want, that politicians use as a means to further their interests. The generation of grandchildren forgets the wartime atrocities their grandparents had to experience.
We have to talk about this, even if we are convinced that design is something peaceful. The field of design comprises a vast number of concepts. What do we live through these days? It is hard to keep quiet. A people that taught us the American way of life, that made us believe that democracy and human rights are the determining values of life, starts a war, involves others as if a new world had to be created. Billions of dollars are spent to make bombs clatter down on towns and countrysides. Like in a computer game. And the media look on. Even worse, this same people that worked hard to gain the good reputation it had during the last years allows a man to become its president who is supported by a sectarian community and whose imperialistic behaviour puts the people’s existence at stake. Dictators always are killers, whether their name was Hitler or Stalin, not to talk of their many imitiators. In the end people were able to get rid of them and their providential ideologies. Not today or tomorrow, but eventually – as long as the people wanted to. As they said: „We are the people.“ As long as the actual crisis lasts, how can we seriously discuss design…
Even so: The culture of a social group is founded in the typical forms of its life as a whole and its mental state and standars of value. If we use the term culture in connection with the term design we assume that a designer’s existence relates form, contents and value of a consumer item that is being manufactured artificially. This item is the counterpart of the grown nature, it is an artefact.
I ask for the maxim that has to be presupposed if a design is made, its comprehensibility, the sensible use, the functional benefit a design has to consider. I do not talk about a particular style, an aesthetic rule, just as a design,, whether analogous or digital, may follow a great variety of forms. My point is that a design has to start from the actual job. The premiss is:
What are the requirements and what new development can result in something new?
The prerequisite of the design of a visual information, be it analogous or digital, is that pictorial messages for mass communication processes are understandable and easily understood.
Understandable means that the signs used are familiar; easily understood means that the visual complexity of a message must not be exaggerated or superimposed by connotative clichés or accessories. The main point is not to intend the beautiful appearance, but the correct expression.
In order to achieve a meaningful design for the communication of signs it is important to have a rational concept. A constructional design – i. e. an analytical procedure that leads to reflective results – cannot be executed by intuitively seeking chance results. Constructional principles are not an end in themselves, but have to enable a reflection on function, use and application.
If function is considered as a process depending on facts and matters, the design is no less functional. The mingling of aspects often leads to misconceptions and is passed on without questioning the realities and social interconnections of today.
The human culture is determined by pictures and signs, and valued by symbols. Symbols intend to give new values, to enlarge values. Symbolization as an identifiable committment is observable everywhere in our world of objects. Often a mere syntactic quantity is described, while a semantic contents is neglected or alienated. It was the symbols that changed a visually notable world, not so much the signs. Symbols want to go further, to reach beyond the matter, they symbolize, in short. Our modern world of objects is a world of symbols that do not intend to describe the origin of the object, but to increase the utility value. The objects for use today are mostly are „black boxes“ that eventually are covered with a new visible expression. The personal computer for instance is a complex configuration of interlinking structures, energy sources, materials. Its visible appearance is pulled on afterwards like a costume. This does not mean that a designer is not able to do better, on the contrary it shows to what degree he depends on the general situation of strategies of development, production and distribution. For he had to realize that his work supplies the look of the products that creates the symbol value.
In much the same way more new symbols are invented for a visual information than signs established. Signs that would transport an understandable language. A typograph is quick to say that a serif letter symbolizes scientific rigour better than a letter sans serif. „Scientific rigour“ is declared to be a symbol for value. The fact is neglected that a typeface configuration has to do with the aspects of letter development, ergonomic facts, legibility or design economy. There are more examples for the application of syntactic means that have to do for the symbolization of signs. Ancient recipes for aesthetic transformations are digged up because people feel unsecure opposite a modernization of design.
There is a series of polar factors of meaning for a design maxim that have to be considered during design operations:
means definition of design qualities that in any case is oriented towards the existing facts. A reflexive design on the other hand calls for a procedural structure of the facts.
of the interpretation of a design is a means for a new evaluation. A sign that has a function has to follow the causality of the facts that are to be communicated.
of a design product may be achieved through additional means one of which often is ornamentality. The objective means that relate to function and benefit of the object supply the pertinence of the design.
4. Chance results
that have no purpose, that are open to interpretation of the message or information with a purpose to establish a new order of observation and interpretation miss the pertinence of the design. A design that fulfills a purpose follows the all-embracing principle of pertinence in the correspondence of material and design economy.
means distancing the sign that stands for something. The differentiation of symbol and sign means an evaluation. A sign points to an object or a fact. A symbol goes beyond the sign, it is behind the fact. A symbol is not in accordance with the truth of the message of a sign. The utility value of a visual symbol is not verifiable. It can be judged only by the product.
6. The value
of a product is fed by an utility value that is persented by a symbol. The pertinence is reflected in a sign as an equivalent.
7. The condensation
of all measures that result in a design, a visual object, will as an affirmative definition show some sort of interested aetheticism which would rather belong to a work of art. An objective aestheticism is developed from the facts of the job, from the design that corresponds to the task. Each line, each outline that corresponds to the configuration presents an objective aestheticism which expresses more than a configurative borrowing of an art that is an end in itself.
A design that is to serve man has become more comprehensive and special qualifications are required for a modernization of our perceptible environment. This holds true since today we know more about the medium that has become the message more than ever before.
© Herbert W. Kapitzki, Berlin 2003
last changes: 8/12/2003