Last fall, I submitted some thoughts on my plan for a practice thesis:
Meanings — can design itself have meaning, or does meaning emerge only through the material design portrays? How could you make a design that meant something without its content?
My experiments could explore what exactly it is that adds meaning. Is it words? Visual cultural references? Gut reactions like excitement/repulsion/shock? What is the least information a design can have and still have meaning? How could design make the same material mean different things?
“You don’t quite say what your goal is,” noted my professor. Aesthetically, this was true. I couldn’t articulate how this was supposed to look, or how exactly I meant to carry out this project— just what my questions were — so I decided to revise my direction, at least for the moment. Instead of digging for sources of meaning in design, I focused on getting better at combining type and image by alternating between digital and physical mediums.
Despite my ever-present slight inner panic about making meaningless work, I began to develop what (to me) seemed like purely visual design pieces. I cut and collaged, scanned and glitched, obscured and revealed. I started to really enjoy myself. I worked for most of the semester under the impression that my work looked cool, but wasn’t really about anything.
But I think I was wrong. My work is very clearly about something:
And perception, and puzzles. I’ve been exploring ways to take apart language.
In the last few weeks, I’ve started to post-rationalize my semester:
I’m drawn to designs in which there’s something to figure out, and I think I’m drawn to language as a material because it’s a systematic provider of information, and breaking or dismantling the system distorts the information in fun/weird/crazy ways.
Language is rich material because no matter how distorted the system becomes, it’s very hard to erase the fundamental piece of information that we associate with letters: “this is language, and language means something.”
Interesting things happen when the “and language means something” part of this statement becomes false (ex: illegible text, or nonsensical prose). We’re so used to seeing language as a source of clarification that meaningless language almost shouts its own version of content: “I’m complicated!” “unravel me!” “help!”
Without putting much thought into it, I started pairing my practice thesis work with bits of literary nonsense, like Neruda’s questions, Gertrude Stein’s writing, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or the Jabberwocky.
Maybe the connection in the back of my mind was that my visual forms felt illegibly nonsensical, so I wanted to pair them with legible nonsense. But pairing differently nonsensical language actually started to feel like it meant something. This really hit me when I designed my Alice in Wonderland “rabbit hole.” It felt exciting. It pulled you into the hole, and once you got there, there was a bit of text — a clue — nonsensical without its normal literary context, but starting to become sensical (please let’s pretend that’s a word) in its distorted aesthetic world.
Visual and literary nonsense combine to act as clues to a puzzle, giving my designs a sense of narrative, or mystery. A story awaits, even if it hides behind the illegible or incomprehensible type. In other words, in my experiments this semester, I contrived one possible way to make design mean something without “meaningful” content.
Does that sound familiar?
It did to me, which is why my original abandoned thesis idea is perched at the top of this essay. It turns out that after a semester of fun with glue and scanners and drop shadows, I hadn’t strayed far from where I started — questioning the basic units of meaning, dismantling design by dismantling language.
This exploration permeates all of my work from this semester: fractal typography, a tabletop-sized poster of adjectives xacto-ed out of a romance novel, a proposal for a fantastical educational vending machine that transforms deleted words into alphabet soup, a series of illustrations that humorously misconstrue the language of ballet. Even my end-of-year photographic documentation plays with meaning and word distortion. My favorite photographs of my work obscure most of the design, revealing only a word or two, surrounded by a blurry sea of implied meaning.
While it may not all be about real-world problems, this body of work is about something, and I’m comforted by the fact that it rubs elbows with education and literacy and accessibility of information — real-world ideas I’ve come to care a lot about.
I have more questions, and more ideas. I’m not sure where this exploration is going next semester, but I think, somehow, it will wiggle its way into becoming my final thesis.