Generative artist and theorist Philip Galanter has taken the idea and systems of complexity, something he utilises in his artworks, and attempted to portray it as a new field of enquiry in relation to the arts with his term Complexism: “the application of a scientific understanding of complex systems to the subject matter of the arts and the humanities.”1
Galanter has become unhappy with the split between the humanities and the sciences. He positions this split in a similar way to Snow's Two Cultures, yet approaches the split not just on the fault line between Science and the Humanities, but between Modernism and Postmodernism. He sees the sciences as occupying that of modernism, with its rational and objective leanings - postmodernism taking the role of the humanities. He views this split as on par with the schism between modernism and postmodernism. While this is an old argument, his proposed solution is based in the sciences of complexity. It paints a way forward in defining a new methodology for the twenty first century.
Modernism moves towards understandable simplicity by creating crystal-like systems that are highly structured and highly ordered. Postmodernism moves towards understandable simplicity by breaking down and levelling structures leaving behind something like an undifferentiated mist. 2
By using the morphological metaphor, Galanter is able to replicate yet transposes modernism, postmodernism on opposing sides, with Complexism in the centre in an “embrace of complexity”.3 He approaches this from the point of a thesis-antithesis-synthesis, “without any specific commitment to literal Hegelian philosophy”.4 It incorporates elements of complexity science into his argument, yet positions it as a means in which to describe a new method of working, and responding to issues that neither modernism or postmodernism solved. He continues on with the morphological metaphors throughout this argument, at each point positioning lessons learnt from complexity as a means in which to answer how best to resolve the stark contrasts between the two.
Modernity, whether in the sciences or in the hands of painters such as Rothko and Pollock, reflects the Enlightenment values in reaching for the absolute, the sublime and the fixed. The postmodern attitude rejects the absolute, and instead posits a multivalent view of arbitrary relative positions that are functionally random. Complexism reconciles the absolute with the relative by viewing the world as a widely interconnected distributed process.
While his proposal remains limited to the small field of discourse that he is engaged in, and will not reach the same traction that other proposals have been met with, notably Bourriaud’s argument that we are now in a period of Altermodernity, it still remains a viable and interesting lens in which to view not just the differences between the two major time cultural phases of the twentieth century, but as a way forward into the 21st century. By viewing the twentieth century as an argument between two opposing sides he situates Complexism as an answer to the two as a structural argument. Another way is to move forward, accepting that there were arguments and oppositions, but that they were not in stark opposition, but as moving forward in a non teleological manner. While I have so far discusses broader themes of the cosmology, physics, evolution and complexity, the very large ad the very small, I will now be discussing the human scale, culture, and more importantly, design.
The concept of Relational Design was created by Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director of the Walker Art Museum. Through a series of lectures he presented at the Museum discussing elements of the term; he cemented the ideas by publishing what could be seen as a manifesto for it on the influential design blog, Design Observer. In his post, Towards Relational Design, he argues that we are entering a third phase of design, one just as important as the previous two: a phase that places an emphasis on context over form and content.
We might chart the movement of these three phases of design, in linguistic terms, as moving from form to content to context; or, in the parlance of semiotics, from syntax to semantics to pragmatics. This outward expression of ideas moves, like ripples on a pond, from the formal logic of the designed object, to the symbolic or cultural logic of the meanings the forms evoke, and finally to the programmatic logic of both design’s production and the sites of its consumption. 7
To further understand the 'ripples on a pond' we need to compare this current mode of design to its 20th century counterparts. It is interesting to note that Blauvelt does not make any mention of Modernism or Postmodernism in his essay, but only alludes to them, referring to them as waves, phases or periods. Perhaps this allusion is to hide the nature of his attempt at a meta-narrative.
The first wave of design highlighted the importance of reductionism and simplification to achieve a universal language that could be exported throughout the world. This desire for a rational and reductionist vocabulary can be seen in the work of the Bauhaus school; continuing on through to the logos and identities aligned with the New International Style of the early sixties. Designers such as Joseff Muller Brockman sought to achieve clarity and perfection through the use of typefaces such as Helvetica and Univers while paying extreme attention to the use of and logic of the grid in creating clear and concise forms. This focus on Formalism in Modern art practice can be seen in the teleologic flow diagram illustrating the transition towards the perceived end states of Modern Art.
The second wave of design was focused on its underlying content: its semantic, symbolic and meaning making potential. The Death of the Author resulting, in the design world, in seeing the Designer as Author. If the meaning of the text could be interpreted on many levels, the designers hand could also be seen as a text to be read. The designer, through the control of form, became the author of the text. A strong example of this notion was the inclusion of the designer Bruce Mau as an author alongside the architectural theorist Rem Koolhas’ book S, M, L, XL. The explosion of publication based experiments in magazines such as Raygun and Emigre Magazine saw designers reacting to the clean and rational layouts of high modernist design. These were attempts to imbue extra meaning in the original text through a Neo-Baroque aesthetic: distorting the typography and layout to make the reader aware of the designer.
Blauvelt then sees the third wave of design beginning in the late nineties, being closely connected to, and informed by, the rise of digital and interactive media. This third period emphasizes design’s context but also includes its “performative, pragmatic, programmatic, process-oriented, open ended, experiential and participatory elements.”6 Illustrating the differences between the three eras, the figure below demonstrates Blauvelts claim that Relational Design is not merely “a movement or style” but a new method of understanding the role of design from a different perspective.7
I will attempt to navigate through these differing aspects of Relational Design as a means of leading up to my case studies, which all interrogate the new process of design. Naturally there is some overlap and causal connections between the different areas. This essay is less interested in comparing Relational Design to the previous eras of the twentieth century and more interested in exploring how it is informed by the scientific concepts I have discussed. Where applicable I will compare and contrast this third wave of design to the previous two. By synthesising the design and scientific discourses I aim to arrive at a unifying argument. The confluence of a relational understanding of the universe and a relational understanding of design I hope to illustrate the strength of my argument.
While I will be going into finer detail in my case studies by analysing the Relational Process as it relates to Logo systems, I feel it would be wise to open up the whole of design discourse in which to explore how Relational operates through a few examples of publication design, experience design and architecture.
Open ended-solutions rather than closed systems; real world constraints and contexts over idealized utopias; relational connections instead of reflexive imbrication; in lieu of the forlorn designer, the possibility of many designers; the loss of designs that are highly controlled and proscribed and the ascendancy of enabling or generative systems; the end of discrete objects, hermetic meanings, and the beginning of connected ecologies. 8
If these are the modes and methods of Relational Design, the need for a philosophical and epistemological basis is paramount to understanding why and how these modes are understood. Structuralism and Post Structuralism view the world as nothing but language: a series of structures and signifiers. If one attempts to get out of this situation, it is determined solely by further referring to language. The Pragmatists - notably Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey and William James - believe that pragmatics need to be brought into epistemology in order to give language a practical use. To determine truth is by determining its practical implications. This is in stark contrast to an appeal to an abstract noumenal truth by an attempt to move outside of language. True ideas are those that work, that lead to somewhere, that succeed. There is no reason to seek the existence of unchanging and eternal laws: language and truth should be accepted on an ad hoc basis. The world is in a constant state of becoming and can only be experienced through lived practice and experience. As James writes:
That ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience 9
Instead of viewing truth as nothing but a social construction “suspended in an impotent haze”, we accept that truth can be gained through lived experience.10 Pragmatism ignores the search for an ultimate truth - it denies the possibility of a dynamic and changing universe. Instead of feeling lost through the “giddy meaningless whorl of signifiers” it is now possible to “nod at syntax and carry on.”11 By accepting the flow of semiotics while carrying on, the context of language is where it is most understood.
This does not discount the possibility of confusion. A problematic aspect of the term Relational Design lies in its title: the term ‘Relational’ having been colonised in the art world by the French Curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics. He used this term to describe the work of a group of artists whose work placed an importance on the “sphere of inter-human relations.”12 This confusion has lead Blauvelt to argue that despite some similarities his term is not “simply reduced to social, human interactions” but “is an attempt to account for a series of disparate approaches witnessed across a variety of design fields over the last decade.”13 While some design theorists have attempted to incorporate Bourriaud’s Aesthetic into design practice, the larger scope of Blauvelt’s term includes the social as just one of the many different relational interactions.
Considering the cultural importance of Relational Aesthetics, it would be ignorant to not explore the participatory nature of a few examples. Designed by UK studio A2/SW/HK the 2002 Turner Prize held at the Tate Gallery included a novel means of allowing visitors to comment on the exhibition. After walking through the exhibition, visitors arrived at a small room in which a grid of small slips of paper were hung into the wall using small wooden pencils. These slips provided visitors a forum to publicly comment and converse on the exhibition in contrast to the invisible and individual comment forms traditionally used in exhibitions. Viewing this interaction through the lens of Relational Aesthetics, the designers had created a microtopia centred around open ended discussion: “negotiating relationships with their audience that is not prepared beforehand.”14 By applying the same pointed criticism that Claire Bishop applied to Relational Aesthetics we must ask “what type of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?”15 This public and visible forum did not provide the audience with a means to alter the results of the Turner Prize. The curators and judges were not influenced by the discussions created on these messages, it was merely a means of providing the illusion of a conversation between those in control of the exhibition and the audience. While criticism of this example is entirely valid, there is another perspective in which to view the changing relationship between author, text and reader.
Galanter provides an easy method to understand the shift between the relationship of these three entities. It places an equal emphasis on all three, allowing all to be part of the same process. Modernism - taking a lead from the Enlightenment - sought to view the author as being in complete control of the text; the reader merely an afterthought. The shift that occurred through Postmodernism inverted this relationship away from viewing the author as in control of the text, to viewing the reader as able capable of many interpretations. In the Modernist relationship, there is no reader, in the Postmodern relationship, the author is dead. There is a missing actor in both examples. Galanter sees the relationship requiring all three components to make it work. This does not deny the role of the author in regard to the “totalising masterpiece” nor does it deny the readers ability to create their own meaning with the text.16 It holds all three as existing within the same relationship, giving each an equal status. We see the role of the individual as not just a Designer/Producer, nor as just an Author/Consumer, but instead acting as an Editor/Prosumer. By being situated between the two texts, the text that he/she reads that informs the text that he/she creates.
The prosumer shapes their environment to suit their needs instead of passively consuming. This is by taking part in the consumption and creation or alteration of the design object. For the August 2010 issue, Wallpaper magazine gave readers the ability to design their own front cover of the magazine. Using a large variety of visual assets such as photographs, patterns and illustrations provided by the magazine the prosumer was able to actively take part in the consumption process. The reader was able to create a personalised front cover while using a range of styles that reflect Wallpapers aspirational content and concept. By incorporating both the reader, author and text into one network a more relational approach was achieved. The designer’s role has shifted away from designing hermetically sealed objects to creating a platform in which the user is able to create.
Our role as designers is less about crafting objects and increasingly about designing tools, systems, and the conditions through and in which others create their own experiences 17
While the example of Wallpaper magazine front cover is a novel means in which users able to create their own experiences, the Manufactured Sites project by Teddy Cruz is a richer and more participatory example. It also provides a means of reflecting on the Pragmatist understanding of the world existing in a constant state of becoming through the creation of “unfinished objects” that need to be inhabited to have any truth value.18 Through the creation of prefabricated modular structures, the architect provided a platform for residents of Tijuana to create homes that are more suited to their personal and cultural norms. By using commonplace quotidian materials to furnish their homes, the occupants were able to create adaptable living arrangements that referenced the traditional building typology of the area. Cruz, in reference to Bourriaud’s Aesthetic, designed lived microtopias instead of the unattainable utopian desires of high modernity instead of living in supposedly ‘universal’ housing commonly enforced by governments. These were not static unchanging architectural forms, but accepted changing needs of the area and the occupants of the buildings.
Recent shifts towards user centred design and the greater focus on environmental concerns are some examples of designers enquiring into the “messy reality” of design’s ultimate context.18 However, I will not be enquiring into these realms, to do so would be to engage in a different essay altogether. I will instead be focussing on the means in which design is created: the new processes of generating form that are a result of changing shifts in attitude.
In using logo design as the narrow scope in which to connect design practice to the broader picture this thesis accepts their simplicity of form. The reductive qualities provide them with the means to distill a wide variety of meanings into an uncomplicated mark. By allowing for an element of abstraction they are able to convey the outward appearance of an organisation’s internal values. The simplest artefact of design will be used to explore how their reductive qualities allow causality to affect all the ripples in a pond: moving from the form to the content to the context. Modernism used the form of the logo in which to create a universal language in which to project the aims and ideas of corporations and organisations throughout the world. These brands of these companies are then be extrapolated via the language of identity systems and branding by creating stylesheets that determine the basic rules for organising the layout and relationship to secondary elements such as typography or photography and illustration. Despite the possibilities the secondary elements allowed, these identities have always remained fixed and static entities. Reductive unto themselves, they have typically been presented on white backgrounds furthering the ideal of the singular logo.
The failure of Modernism and the Enlightenment is based on their premature reduction to, for example, an identity that is closed and given within and in itself. 19
As a response to this perceived failure these static devices have now begun to take on dynamic qualities by using the design techniques of variability, multiplicity, permutation or through modular systems. This provides a degree of flexibility and freedom in presenting the logo, away from the monotony of repetition. Branding has been moving away from simply stamping the logo onto every possible surface towards a space in which the permutations of the logo allows for a more responsive and interesting brand. This is a response to moving away from the structured hierarchy that dominated most of the 20th century to the more network orientated organisational structures and methods of presenting the identity. The differences between print and screen based cultures allow for a greater variety through technological advancements of the mediums of presentation.
In moving away from reduction to an acceptance of complexity the designer and client are able to acknowledge the constant change that occurs in our contemporary society. The formal, symbolic and contextual environment is always in a state of flux; the logo as an organism needs to be able to respond and adapt to these changes. By being aware of where the organisation is situated in a network of relationships can the creation of a dynamic and responsive identity system begin to be designed. The neighbours in this network need not just consist of other companies or brands but the social, cultural, geographic and environmental nodes that it must respond to. The three case studies that I am discussing are for an arts festival, a music hall and two cities: while these are of a commercial nature to some extent they mostly reside in the cultural and public domain. Wide ranging research has shown that the trend of using dynamic, flexible and responsive identity systems has remained mostly in the cultural and public sphere.23 One interpretation of this research shows contends that the corporate sector is determined to be represented in a strong and and unifying image, fearing that their message may become weaker by using a dynamic and flexible logo. Another interpretation could be that the public and cultural sector are more experimental and forward looking in their method of representation. Either way, the new process of creating logos is not just a trend but a considered response to the changing shifts brought on by larger ontological and epistemological methods of viewing the world.
21st century [design] is going to be driven by the integration of these two ideas: the triumph of relational ways of thinking about the world, on the one hand, and self-organisation or Darwinian ways of thinking about the world, on the other hand. 20
If the two dominant fields of science are to be these two ideas, then it would be wise for design to be aware of this integration. Not merely because another field of enquiry is changing, but because design has, is and always will be a part of the broader culture.
1. Galanter, Philip. Complexism and the Role of Evolutionary Art
5. Blauvelt, Andrew. Towards Relational Design
9. James, William. What Pragmatism Means. (Penguin Books. Camberwell. 1907) p73
10. Smolin, Lee. ed. Brockman, John. The New Humanists
11. Brown, Colleen. ‘The Relational Meme’ Fillip Vol 1 (Summer 1996)
12. Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. (France, Les Presses du Reel, 2002) p14
13. Blauvelt, ibid,
15. Davies, Colin & Parrinder Monika. 'Part of the Process’ Eye Magazine Issue 71
16. Bishop, Claire Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics (October 110 51-79 2004) p53
17. Galanter, ibid
18. Davis, Meredith. ‘I’ve got a feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore...’ (Interactions Sep/Oct 2008) p31
19. Julier, Guy. ‘Value, Relationality and Unfinished Objects’ Design and Culture (Vol 1 Issue 1 2009) p96
20. Blauvelt, ibid
21. Felsing, Ulrike, Design2context. Dynamic Identities in Cultural and Public Contexts. (Lars Muller Publishers. Freiburg. 2010) p231
22. Smolin, ibid