Ex Nihilo

How Existential Nihilism Can Foster Meaningful Design

I. Something from Nothing

From the perspective of existential nihilism, graphic design may function as this external reflection. The graphic designer’s overarching purpose is to visually and effectively communicate an idea to an audience. More importantly, the designer’s goal is to “eliminate the client’s needs and not serve them,” (4) as AG Fronzoni once put it. All individuals exist amidst perpetual chaos, surrounded by the non-essential that is manifest in poorly executed design (5) or even the undesigned. This chaos serves as the catalyst for the existential nihilist’s basic worldview: that the destructions of all things is the most practical solution to establishing order (6), so something meaningful can be constructed in its wake. In this sense, it becomes the designer’s role to fashion that order, to create something with purpose from the ashes of chaos and destruction.

Removing the non-essential leads to the discovery of simplicity (7), which contains the potential to create significantly effective visual communication. This establishes a sense of freedom that liberates an individual from the oppression of chaos (8). In this regard, the designer’s pursuit of simplicity becomes a solution for the existential nihilist’s absent substance in existence.

According to Experimental Jetset, a designer creates “a set of beliefs that manifests itself in the designed object” on behalf of their fellow human. In essence, if the designer practices this methodology, they become not only aware, but regulated by the impact and significance of their actions because they exist in an “environment that has been shaped by people and thus can be changed by people.” (9)

The absurdity of human existence, self-awareness, and reduction are the primary themes within the philosophy of existential nihilism. For these reasons, it’s my belief that minimalist graphic design functions as its parallel, conveying this ideology through visual form by advocating ambiguity and simplicity through the removal of non-essential design elements. As a result, this particular method of visual communication exercises a series of clear, concise reflections on the nature of humanity that can be developed and applied beyond theoretical considerations and towards practical, sustainable, and ideally benevolent solutions towards others.

II. The Absurdity of a Designer’s Existence

A designer is directly concerned with life: their designs convey messages and ideas that are connected to life in various forms and focused on a diverse range of topics (11). In many ways, it is the designer’s responsibility to experience what it means to exist (12), for this can potentially inform their designs.

I think it’s safe to assume that a designer will intrinsically be influenced by living and all of its experiences. But what this really suggests is that the designer’s role can extend beyond creating work as a means to an end. If they understand the nature of what they create and how it pertains to existence, it can humanize their work. By designing for the sake of humanity, they “engage [themselves] in a world in which each object is penetrated with human meanings,” (13) according to the existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

Designing for humanity can be seen as “neither the work considered in isolation, nor the subjective ability to produce…it is the work considered as the totality of the manifestations of the person.” (14) These manifestations represent not just the designer, but also the world because man is “condemned to exist amongst one another in a precarious, unsettling world” that “offers no truths, but only objects for love.” (15) The designer may shape their individual existence, but it is those who engage the designer who confirm their existence and advance their creations.

The connections a designer establishes with their audience is vital because they are part of a network in which all of humanity is inexplicably adhered. A designer exists in relationship with their fellow humans, which formulates the basic function of their existence (16). The designer’s identity with their own individuality informs their connection to others which affects their work. Graphic design can then be seen as not only a career path, but as a lifestyle that shapes existence because it “relates oneself to life and a choice of behavior.” (17)

The primary function of attaching existential nihilism to graphic design is to establish humanity’s cognition through the designer’s work. This suggests that the nature of the work will determine how others will perceive it; the designer then becomes responsible for assisting not only themselves, but others on their path to self-awareness (18). Thus, the culmination of recognizing oneself forgoes any solitary confinement and becomes a socially-driven decision. This guides the designer to achieving a successful communication that transcends the absurd.

The designer is an “aesthetically sensitive [individual]” and a “close and willing observer”; their work translates existence into a comprehensible remedy for the absurdity that plagues it (19). By reflecting upon these interpretations — that is, the designs they produce — they are prepared to counter the harrowing reality of human existence with their self-awareness. In doing so, they seize control of their existence and can distribute this power through their aesthetic will.

III. The Designer’s Will to Power

Based on this logic, the designer is a solitary figure existing on the fringes between two realities: their creative vision, and the world they’re creating for. Through constructing a fictitious world, the designer measures the worth of the world around them (24) by removing themselves from isolation and connecting to others through the world they construct.

This world is embodied through their creations (25) because they can be tethered to human emotions and represent the “purest reflection humans have of themselves.” (26) In other words, the existential nihilist’s aforementioned “objects for love” (27) can function as designed objects created on behalf of humanity. This is based on the theory that turning ideas into designed objects stems from a “primal, human urge” to create and establish order (28).

The designer’s intrinsic relationship with the public domain is to create objects that allow them to relate to and understand one another (29). In this sense, the designer’s will to power isn’t to dominate, but to enhance the world they exist in and bring form to chaos (30).

IV. The Pursuit of Aesthetic Freedom

If the designer’s existential purpose is to attach meaning to their existence, then denying freedom counteracts that. Freedom is an “expansion” of the individual’s existence; it is through freedom that the designer can find the will to create, because they establish a meaning through their works that “reveals existence as a reason for existing.” (34) By applying this method to their work, the designer is encouraged to embrace freedom and all its potential because it can benefit not only their creative integrity, but their audience.

Freedom can represent a sort of ambiguity within design. Freedom implies limitless possibilities and a potential for both positive and negative outcomes. Ambiguity contains the same presumption: that something can be read in multiple ways, with no definitive answer or meaning attaching itself to the work — “a plurality of meanings.” (35) The individual then adopts the role of the observer, as one who examines the work and interprets its meaning. What is design, then, if not an interpretation — visual or otherwise—of greater ideas?

According to the Dutch design studio Experimental Jetset, ambiguity exists within the meaninglessness of life and is both“liberating
and depressing.”
(36) Their poster Everything That Exists is a direct representation of this ambiguity. The poster was part of the 2007 exhibition Print Run for Charity №1046584 at the Kemistry gallery in the United Kingdom. Everything That Exists was displayed amongst a series of other posters created by a diverse group of artists and designers in a charity benefit for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. As such, the central theme of these posters was on the topic of health.

The poster

Drawing upon their own influences and personal philosophy when creating the poster, Experimental Jetset employed a quote from existentialist advocate and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “Everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on living through weakness and dies by accident.” This poignant statement served as the basis for their design and was chosen because the studio believed it “perfectly encapsulated many of the issues” found within existence (37).

The poster is stripped to its bare essentials, utilizing nothing but condensed, sans-serif typography and a vast amount of negative space as its dominant visual elements. The poster makes use of only one color: a bold, hot pink that demands as much attention from its viewer as the statement itself. The poster is divided by a jagged tear in the center, suggesting that it’s been torn in half. This was done in an effort to show “the abyss existing beneath the page,” (38) a direct allusion to the concept of nothingness (more on that in Part VI).

Through negative space, the poster conveys the existential nihilist’s eternal problem of meaninglessness; the viewer is at first drawn to the piece through its bold content before becoming pulled into its void of nothingness. This can be symbolic of the inevitability of life and death within existence: the viewer’s senses are awakened and activated by the life of the color within the poster, but then eventually fade away within the void of negative space the longer one gazes upon its emptiness.

This confirms the aforementioned principle of existential nihilism: that the responsibility to shape one’s existence rests upon the individual first and foremost because “the essence of the human being is suspended in [their] freedom.” (39)

V. Simplicity Through Chaos

Often in a designer’s realm, chaos can be found through the process of creation. Contrary to what one may believe, the path to simplicity is far more complex than the result itself (42). Many potential solutions may be explored, exhausted, and scrapped before achieving a final result.

The chaotic process to simplicity is essential to Berlin-based graphic design studio Zwölf’s design development. Employing a wide range of experimental and alternative methods to design, they embrace the chaos of their process. The result leads to a well-executed, thoughtful design that is reductive in its delivery, but layered with complexity through an underlying conceptual foundation.

Zwölf’s process from chaos to simplicity can be seen in the album packaging they made for the album Half-Skull by the drone group Ruin. The music itself is chaotic in its own way, containing layers of dark, brooding soundscapes that are as ambient as they are intense.

The front cover

In order to effectively convey the grim nature of this album, Zwölf explored a series of experiments with a variety of media. These incorporated numerous, unconventional sources, such as blood, aspirin, cigarette ash, vodka, fat, and others. They were applied to individual squares of cardboard, each representing respective tracks on the album. They were then layered together to form the final, ominous black square that would become the album cover.

Individual cards composed of the various materials

It was through the coagulation of these various materials that allowed this black square to come into existence — the epitome of chaos merging into simplicity. Sparse amounts of typography are used within the album, serving a more utilitarian purpose; the main focus is dependent upon the impact of the negative space and the materials used to create the individual squares.

While the music itself is minimal and abstract, the conceptual nature of the album is a dark journey into the depths of torment and suffering. From an existential nihilist’s perspective, it can almost be read as a commentary on the absence of meaning within existence. The design of the album supports that claim, the black square acting as a foreboding omen to the dark side of humanity. Through the absence of any conventional imagery or typography (apart from the track names and other general text), the album design succeeds in conveying the nature of the music effectively and simply, but it is only truly effective through the conduit of its chaotic process.

Simplicity and chaos are absolutes at either end of the spectrum of existence, constantly at odds with one another. These two contrasting forms are reliant upon the “negation of the world for its forward movement.” (43) The two coexist in an aesthetic union that is both paradoxical and harmonious: if no opposing force challenged their respective existence, they would cease to exist as a functional principle.

Graphic design works can only be reduced if there is something to extract from it first — “a being by which nothingness comes to things.” Without some form of chaos at its foundation, the design can’t be reduced because there is nothing to reduce. In essence, simplicity cannot exist without chaos, for one always defines the other (44).

A designer practicing this technique manipulates the chaos of their existence through reduction, a method which is not “based on the way [something] looks, but on the process of creating something [by eliminating] unnecessary elements and steps.” (45) In essence, it is through “thoughtful reduction” that simplicity can be attained (46).

This reduction may be aligned with the predominantly nihilist properties of deconstructionism, or as Nietzsche writes: to put one’s “shoulder to the plough and to destroy.” This entropy represents the “conceptual demonstration of chaos”, whose “final destination is the chaotic world.” (47) By deconstructing the object, the designer is removing all non-essential items that impede their audience’s perception of the work. Through this, the designer provides a clear, concise view of the work and creates meaningful information from the “meaninglessness of chaos.” (48)

The cover for Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures is a paragon of reductive design. Released in 1979, it has become one of the more iconic pieces of graphic design, largely due to its enigmatic image on the cover. The design of the cover and sleeve-packaging was handled by Peter Saville, who would later become known for his work with Factory Records (and more recently, Kanye West and Burberry).

Joy Division — Unknown Pleasures

The image depicted on the cover of Unknown Pleasures is a series of thin, inverted lines that form a sort of waveform membrane. The image was previously constructed of black lines on a white background, but this was changed by Saville during the design process (49) in order to dramatically echo the darker nature of the album through an activation of the negative space.

This membrane is enveloped in a vast sea of blackness, almost appearing infinite, or equivalent to an abandoned vessel floating within dead space. No typography or other identifying content is displayed, which is an unconventional move in a field where clarity is essential, and especially for a rock band with growing popularity. The removal of the typography denies the most direct form of communication and embraces abstraction; the cover demands attention, forcing the viewer to reflect on the ominous and conceptual nature of this image, as one might with a work of art in a gallery.

The iconic membrane— taken from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy — is the waveform of the first radio pulsar, PSD B1919+21, which was discovered in 1967 by astrophysicist Jocelyn Burnell (50). A pulsar is a neutron star reeling in the aftermath of a supernova, essentially making it a product of chaos. Through this destruction of a greater whole, a simplified creation is developed and exists within the realm of nothingness. This pulsar can represent the conflagration that propels the creative urge within the designer (51) — especially within the context of its use on this album cover.

The original pulsar image, taken from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy

In essence, the image of the pulsar functions as the album’s visual culmination. The pulsar is the remnant of a dying star within the sphere of deep space — the purest form of the void. The cover achieves the same result, engulfing its image within a black emptiness, the negative space signifying the negation of meaning through reduction of form. Parallel to the creation of a pulsar, the cover represents simplicity in the wake of a visceral chaos: the negative space is awakened through the power of the solitary image (52).

This was no accident. The removal of all other elements on the cover of Unknown Pleasures was a decision consciously enforced by the band members of Joy Division and the designer Peter Saville. The band’s focus while creating the album was to establish an atmosphere with their work as opposed to communicating their identity; it simply “wasn’t cool” to have their name on the front, because it was a distraction from the music itself (53).

Saville communicates the album’s intended message effectively through reductive methods. The album cover is an exercise in removing the non-essential, using both the absence of color and reduction of form and content to communicate the tone of the album before the music is even heard.

VI. Nothingness as a Design Element

It’s suggested that nothingness is somewhat of a paradox because it is “being… first posited, then denied.” (54) Similar to how simplicity cannot exist without chaos, nothingness cannot exist without being at its foundation because it is “neither before nor after or outside of being… nothingness is coiled within the heart of being.” (55) This expands its boundaries to infinite depths, providing “a space within which [the designer’s] imagination can run free, vastly enriching [their] powers of perception and mutual comprehension.” (56) In other words, nothingness is sustained by the being of human existence, so it can contain a limitless amount of potential. This brings us back to our previous understanding of aesthetic freedom and a designer’s will to power.

Nothingness can be applied visually through two principles: the absence of color (black and white) and negative space. These two principles often function in tandem,“demarcating the extreme poles in a space.” (57) Color is nothing more than a series of abstractions until form is attached (58). Their visual context is determined by how they’re portrayed, whether through an individual element or as a blank platform for other elements (59). Equivalently, without color or form to define it, negative space simply ceases to exist on a tangible level since there is nothing to shape its existence. It is only through the nature of its environment and supplemental content that it becomes representational of something else.

Black and white act as the foundational elements of color. They are absolutes at either end of the spectrum, much like chaos and simplicity. In this sense, they can represent a fundamental principle of existential nihilism; their conflicting nature represents the tension between something and nothing. Black and white are perpetually in conjunction with one another because of their need for each other. Their coexistence creates an equilibrium of form and a union of aesthetic harmony. It is through the tension of these opposing forces that balanced design can be created.

Both black and white represent a “precious bond which doesn’t enrich the work but reveals its essential shape… it keeps the counterpoint between order and chaos, a tension that creates energy.” (60) Black is devoid of color, embodying a power and strength that launches it “beyond any tolerable measure” and into the depths of the infinite. This contains the potential to be a destructive force that swallows the design with its vast darkness; non-design manifest (61). In this way, black acts as a direct parallel to “non-being”.

White is attained through both the culmination of all colors or through their removal (62). Whereas black may embody themes of destruction, darkness, and negation, white evokes cleanliness, purity, and emptiness. Through this empty nature of white, it becomes a “symbol of non-being.” (63) This emptiness functions separately from black, white appearing more tranquil and less consuming than the emptiness of black. White evokes a sense of freedom and can contain “spatial and temporal principles” while still maintaining a quality of non-existence (64). Compositionally, white can represent the blank slate from which a designer’s creations emerge, much like the canvas of a painter. In this case, nothingness is embedded within the design itself as a means of creation.

The majority of the Italian designer AG Fronzoni’s work is embodied within the frame of nothingness. Through a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Fronzoni created a wide range of posters, identities, and other designs for a multitude of clients. His exhibition posters in particular are the quintessence of a minimalist, graphic aesthetic. These posters were ultra-reductive, the negative space almost completely encompassing the piece. He was a firm believer in the removal of the non-essential, always striving for “an aim at essential things, to remove every redundant effects…to avoid waste and excess.” (65) For him, the absence of color and the embrace of nothingness were the ultimate means of achieving pure simplicity. Black and white functioned as the backbone and visual language for the majority of his designs (66).

Fronzoni’s affinity for black and white is exemplified in his poster Un Raggio di Sole [A Ray of Sunshine]. The poster details nothing more than a simple line of text at its center, the negative space seizing precedence. It’s an exercise in extremely reductive design, its only content floating delicately within the space of the black void that engulfs it. By removing all other unnecessary items, Fronzoni has placed the focus upon the communication first and foremost. This activates the content floating in the center as the sole, essential element within the work, the negative space surrounding the line of text merely a supplemental element. It guides the viewer to the content while still remaining aesthetically pleasing, intriguing, and ambiguous enough for one to attach whatever meaning they wish.

Un Raggio di Sole — AG Fronzoni

Un Raggio di Sole illustrates how negative space can be a very powerful device. In addition to isolating its primary content, the negative space can function as the act of drawing attention to something one normally wouldn’t see—engaging with the space existing around the content rather than the content itself (67). This suggests that black and white are only pure nothingness when they are in solitude; it is the other elements within their proximity that define their existence, much like how a designer and their work is defined by their audience, and not in the solitude of their existence.

Between 2006–07, Vintage International re-released the entire catalogue of existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Armed with a brand new design aesthetic by Helen Yentus, the cover designs of these books epitomized the nature of Camus’ existentialist philosophy. All the covers were executed through the use of three reductive principles: black and white, geometric shapes, and a harmony between negative space and form. The result was a homage to early Modernist principles, juxtaposed with a contemporary energy fit for a new audience.

Gestalt plays a pivotal role in these covers, akin to the exercises one may learn in design school. The use of proximity, continuance, similarity, and closure principles are all employed, representing the various themes found within the written words of Camus. These shapes and forms establish a sense of ambiguity that can, once again, create a plurality of meanings through abstraction and reduction. The viewer / reader is encouraged to determine the purpose of these ambiguous shapes and their relationship to the content.

Much like the written works of Camus, these covers evoke a sense of loss and detachment, allusions to the meaninglessness of existence. In the cover for The Fall, for instance, we can see a series of black and white squares layered on top of one another, suggesting a sort of descent into the void. The stark contrast of the black and white forms in these covers establish an interplay of something being created from nothing, forcing the viewer to attach meaning to the work and question their own understanding of the image.

The Fall — Albert Camus

In what is arguably considered Camus’ most recognized and lauded work—The Stranger—the protagonist Mersault deals with a variety of tragic incidents, beginning with his mother’s death and ending with murder. With each instance, he progressively grows more detached from the world around him as he descends deeper and deeper into the depths within himself and the chaos of his existence. Mersault counteracts this by accepting the meaninglessness of his own life and existence as a whole. By succumbing to the absurdity of existence, he denies any sort of fulfillment. This ultimately leads to his total isolation and destruction.

The cover of The Stranger acts as a parallel to the story contained within. We can see a variety of black, angular strokes all converging on one point, asymmetrically centered on the page. These can represent the life and daily struggles surrounding Mersault on his descent into nothingness, as the convergence of these forms highlights the negative space as an isolated point. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to that one specific point automatically, implying that the negative space and minimal typography represent the protagonist surrounded by his troubles. The dead space is brought to life by its environment.

The cover suggests that if black and white or negative space had no other elements to inform their surroundings, they would become an empty void. To reiterate: in the same sense, if a designer had no audience to design for, they would have nothing to base their existence and creations upon; their role would be rendered meaningless. Just as an individual’s existence is defined by their fellow human, a designer’s role is defined by their audience.

VII. Into the Beyond

The weight of existential nihilism’s often dense and depressing subject matter leads to the assumption that it coexists with pessimism. On the contrary, existential nihilism is not a meditation over the meaninglessness of existence, but rather a solution for it (68). While the philosophy forces one to be self-aware and cognizant of the inherent meaninglessness of things in life, this doesn’t suggest that one must dwell there. Instead, existential nihilism encourages an individual to take responsibility for their existence and devise solutions for life’s problems.

The endurance of humanity is reliant upon a series of basic interactions and conventions; this method of graphic design is a way of bringing life to those conventions. If a designer applies this method to their work, they can establish meaning to existence, thus providing a solution for the existential nihilist’s problem and potentially benefiting mankind. And no grain of meaning, however small, is ever insignificant.


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James Edward Bonilla

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Multidisciplinary designer + illustrator who operates where intuition and reason mingle.