I hypothesise that we are seeing a concept-less generation of design. This may be true of all of the visual arts and all genres of design but here I will focus on the discipline of graphic design and, more specifically, typography in order to focus the argument more precisely. I believe it true that we are witnessing a state of “Post-ideologism” within the design community. It seems apparent that there is a tubula rasa, a considerable lack of, and a continued waning of, high concept or even mildly meaningful typographic/graphic design.
Typography is one of the most overlooked but intrinsic disciplines in graphic design. Although, in recent years it has become more popular, and its popularity continues to grow, with a myriad of “abstract” and “unorthodox” typographic works being produced. This recent interest in abstract typography could possibly be attributed to the digitisation and modernisation of abstract1 graffiti letterforms, coupled with a ready availability of digital design tools opening up and making the creation of digital art (Not Art) and typography accessible to a much wider demographic. It is this wide availability that may have lead to the cross over and amalgamation of abstract graffiti letterforms with more traditional typographic styles, which has, in turn, given birth to a new popularity and amenability in type design. In recent years, the already politically active graffiti art scene has become even more concerned with promulgating ideologies as a tool for activism. We can even see this enter prolifically into mainstream visual culture with the now well-recognised work of Banksy. It is strange then that this increasing ideological influence has not also had an impact upon the graphic and typographic disciplines that the street art scene seems to have so heavily inspired an influenced. This begs the question: why? Is the perceived ideological or conceptual content in contemporary street/graffiti art illusory? Or is the design scene becoming more and more concerned with superficial aesthetic styles and less about conceptual, meaningful design.
In design terms, the optimism and innovation of Modernity is dead and the pessimism and self-awareness of post-modernity too has waned. What seems to be lacking from recent design is any ideological or philosophical content at all. It appears that contemporary design only consists of superficial aesthetics. It could be that Aestheticism (art for art’s sake) is the school of thought prevailing in contemporary design culture, but this is not so. I believe that there is little movement, conviction, ideology or underlying doctrine, only mass apathy that is leading to an abundance of shallow, meaningless design.
The problem we are faced with, from this lack of ideology, is that it leads to plagiarism. Where this most heinous of intellectual/artistic acts is concerned we are presented with a chicken-egg scenario. It does prove to be difficult to pin-down the origin or root of artistic/intellectual theft. Concisely we can see the working of this problem in the following equation:
(Plagiarism comes from lack of concept – lack of concept leads plagiarism.)
Here we see the difficulty. This equation explains how we cannot know if lack of concept in the individual came before it was spurred on by the pre-existing lack of concept (post-ideologism) in the design community, or even broader visual culture. And so we find ourselves presented with circularity that functions as follows:
(Plagiarism comes from lack of concept – lack of concept leads plagiarism –
plagiarism comes from lack of concept…)
This circularity is self-perpetuating and will inevitably lead to a moribund, stagnant visual culture. When there is negligible, or no, emphasis on the ideological foundation of design at all, there is little, or no, (ideological/conceptual) inspiration for the designer to draw upon. This perpetuation will lead to a concept-free design community and a persistent amplification of this attitude. Whether or not it is possible not to plagiarise or if a work is ever absolutely original is not the topic for debate here but if so then the aforementioned phenomenon will certainly limit this possibility. If it is not possible not to copy then from the start of visual culture it has been a ticking clock running down to an inevitable stop or singularity.
To a certain extent somewhat pessimistic, post-modern views on originality and authorship are necessarily true. We cannot, not be influenced by what has come before us. However, it is this coalescence of influence that is itself new. Personal experience in the individual is so complex, far reaching and all encompassing that no two persons can be the same. The possibility of personal-experience-states must be infinite. Therefore it is this amalgamation of influence that is a new form itself and is therefore, I feel, capable of producing original design.
We could also discuss the Barthian separation of the author/designer from the piece. If the author’s intentions are not to be considered, and if they are indeed irrelevant to the piece, on the grounds that ‘To give a text an Author’ and consign to it one single definitive meaning ‘is to impose a limit on that text’, then it is irrelevant whether the work is post-ideological or not as the ideology is imposed by the viewer.2 This is logical and indeed plausible, accepting Barthes’s hypothesis, however, what we are examining is the author. And we look at the piece only as a by-product of the post-ideological designer. Therefore, we must view the situation as follows: if the intentions of the designer conform to Barthian ideals and he/she therefore does not try to assign meaning or ideology to their work then this philosophy in itself is the ideological content of the piece. The ideology is: to be void of ideology, thus generating a paradox or incongruence where this argument falls down.
One might argue that for an artist to be moved enough to create a design or work-of-art initially they must first be inspired in order to create it, and therefore the work is self-justifying and the creation of the piece is itself proof of abstraction. And furthermore, that it is impossible for any work to be free of ideology or concept-less. Thus Post-ideologism cannot exist. This is an argument that, I believe, is based on a linguistic or terminological difference rather than a conceptual one. It sees inspiration as equivalent to ideology. There are important differences and so we must be concise with our elucidations. Ideology can be inspiring and inspiration can bear (create) ideology, in a catalytic manner. However, inspiration cannot be the ideology. It can only lead to the creation of ones own doctrine.3 I offer an analogy in the hope of clarification.
In this case we can see that the initial inspiration (The paintings of Mondrian) indeed led the person to an ideological conclusion. By understanding the rules, and adhering to them, was able to create an original piece fitting the guidelines of the movement. The doctrine here functioned as a foundation or blueprint to the work. Conversely if the person had not sought out understanding of the ideological content (inspiration unlinked or disconnected from any ideology) then they would have only been able to mimic Mondrian’s style on a very superficial and purely aesthetic basis (plagiarism).
Inspiration is, in contrast to ideology, automatic, innate and free from deep thought or conceptualisation. To define ideology in the technical sense, in which I use it here we can see it as:
A pre-conceived abstract outlining aims and ideals that acts as a foundation to a text. The theorem governs, and is fundamental to, every aspect of the piece from aesthetics to structure and methodology.
Inspiration is obviously in contrast to this as it is not pre-conceived nor is it intentional. It is the catalyst or pathfinder to ideology but does not form the dogma itself.
1 Here ‘abstract’ is used in the technical sense meaning non-representational and not the definitive sense in which it is synonymous with ideology.
2 Roland Barthes – Death of the Author
3 Creation of ones own doctrine or adherence to another’s principles as a result of understanding those principles; analogous to being affiliated with a particular artistic movement.
The preceding essay is one taken from a larger work on Art that will be published here soon.