Discovery by Design

Zuzana Licko

This article was first published in 1994 in Emigre 32.

“Can new design–like new science–discover phenomena that already exist in the fabric of typographic possibility? If so, who owns discovery?”
–Ellen Lupton, The 100 Show. The sixteenth Annual of the American Center for Design.

Although science and design are both based upon experimental investigation, the comparison is not altogether straightforward; science investigates naturally occurring phenomena, while design investigates culturally created phenomena. But if such a parallel is to be made, then we might replace a falling tree by a typographic possibility and thereby ask the question “Does a typographic phenomenon exist if no one recognizes it?”

Potentially, if every graphic and typographic possibility already exists, and each is waiting to be discovered, then we need only create an appropriate context in order to bring life to any of them.

For example, consider the 26 letters in our alphabet and how they are combined to form words. There is a finite number of combinations, or words, if we limit ourselves to words of a certain length; say, five letters. Then, for the ease of pronunciation, let’s omit all words that contain a string of three or more consecutive consonants. Even with these restraints to give some “meaning” within our understanding of words, there will be many words that will have no meaning to us. Does this mean that these are not words? Does a sequence of letters not form a word when we do not recognize its meaning?

It is important to note here, that the meanings of words are not intrinsic to the words themselves; the meanings are arbitrary, since the same word may have different meanings in different languages. In fact, the entire concept of using 26 letters is an arbitrary one. We could just as well have used 20 letters, or 30 letters, or thousands of ideograms like the Oriental cultures. Although these systems of communication and meanings are arbitrary, once they are established, they serve as the foundation for the creation of new meanings, and therefore do not appear to be as arbitrary as they really are.

As another example, consider the grid of a computer video display, or that of a laser printer rasterizer; each point on the grid can be on or off; black or white. Given a fixed resolution, again, there is a finite number of combinations that these on/off sequences will compose. If a computer is programmed to run through all of the possible combinations, some will appear to us as pure gibberish, while others will be recognized as something that we already know or might be interested in getting to know better. Even though all these compositions are randomly generated, only those few that fit into our preconceived notions of context will have meaning. Therefore, it is the meaning, and not the form itself that has been created.

New design is the creation of new meanings; that is, new contexts for typographic possibilities. However, new meanings must be linked to existing ones. Even that design which “pushes the envelope” must build upon existing preconceptions. For unless a critical portion is understandable, the entire piece will be dismissed as complete nonsense. On the other hand, if no portion of the design is new, then it will appear so uninteresting that it might result in boredom and therefore be equally dismissed. Intriguing consumers with just the right amount of unrecognizable information spurs their interest. By initiating these changes of meaning, design educates the consumer to the changes in culture. Thus, design is a very powerful component in controlling our collective consciousness. However, design is also a subconscious process, and it is therefore nearly impossible for a designer to intentionally alter a specific cultural concept.

This process of reassimilation and adding or changing of meaning with each step creates an environment in our popular culture that is conducive to the assimilation of particular ideas. As this environment changes, it makes certain ideas ripe, or “ready to be liked.”

In this manner, meanings change, and over time great shifts take place. Since the creation of new meanings usually results in the replacement, displacement or change of older meanings, we may also wonder if some meanings become obsolete. We may ask, “Does obsolescence exist in design, and can we plan obsolescence?"

It is possible to engineer the components of a car or refrigerator to break down after a certain duration of use, thereby defining the product’s obsolescence. But is it possible to do this with a design style, typeface, or typographic form? Unlike industrial products that have a physical life, the lifespan of a typographic possibility is purely conceptual. Designs become obsolete as they are consumed by our culture, and subsequently forgotten in favor of other ones. Yet what was obsolete years ago is often revived from obsolescence to be reassimilated or expanded upon as appropriate to fit into new cultural meanings. This process repeats itself again and again, making obsolescence a temporary state in the world of design possibilities.

Because this ongoing change is affected by many different forces from numerous directions, it is impossible to predict what will happen next, or even how long-or short-lived any particular design idea might be. Since the life, or lives, of a design idea are dictated by its appropriateness for currently accepted ideas, it would be impossible to specifically plan the longevity of a design without also controlling these forces of style.

This evolution of meanings is also unpredictable over time. Some meanings change very quickly, like the second hand on a stopwatch; others change so slowly that we don’t even see them change, like the hour hand on a grandfather clock. These slow changing ideas are seen as timeless, while those that change quickly are perceived as being timely. The words “timeless” and “timely” often have very strong negative or positive connotations, although neither is good nor bad, per se. The value of either of these qualities lies in the appropriateness of use, and appropriateness is usually a question of efficient use of design resources, or financial viability.

For example, if it costs millions to change the signage in an airport or subway system, then a timeless design is appropriate. However, if a design can be changed every time it appears on, say, an interactive television platform, and especially if such change will stimulate interest and add levels of meaning to the audience, then a timely design would be appropriate.

However, more often than not, it is timelessness that is seen as most valuable. Timeless creations are seen as the result of the process of refinement, and give us the impression that we are always working towards an ultimate goal of perfection, independent of the whims of fashion. This may appear so because history is told as a logical and progressive development. However, histories are composed in hindsight; actual events do not occur with such 20/20 vision. For example, once we identify a design idea as being fully developed, historians then work to explain its development by referring to the appropriate chain of events. However, this process also involves the filtering out of inappropriate events; events that nonetheless occupy the same time line. The inevitability of design ideas is therefore never so apparent when we’re standing on the other end of the time line.

Although each development can be explained as an outcome of any number of preceding factors, this does not mean that any particular course of development is therefore inevitable. The sometimes arbitrary choices that are made along every step subsequently become a foundation for future developments, but there are usually many parallel, equally viable paths not taken.

So, who owns these design discoveries, if we are facilitating their existence through the appropriate contexts? It may be true that all designs exist in the fabric of typographic possibility. However, since not all possibilities can exist at the same time, there must be some way to intelligently choose possibilities that will have meaning; that intelligent force comes from designers.

The discovery of a design possibility is therefore largely a matter of the designer being in the right place at the right time. However, it is the designer’s ability to recognize the opportunity, the talent to apply the idea to a specific creative work, the willingness to sometimes go out on a limb, and the perseverance to convince others that the idea has validity, that deserves claim to ownership. Because, in the end, it is the expertise to communicate new ideas to others that gives credibility to the designer’s existence.