Words that Cling : Deconstructing Love, Language & Graphic Design
I am not a designer who also writes. I am not a writer who also designs. I have learned that I am something other.
I think it is safe to declare that graphic design primarily communicates via visual language. Acquiring fluency is a career-long work-in-progress. I, on the other hand, have spent most of my career in a strange side space sort of like one of my German professors in college whose native language was Italian.
I approach research, concept development, and design through writing. I am a graphic designer whose visuals are the translation of concepts derived from a development process that is almost entirely based in language and writing.
In some of my early graduate reading, I was re-introduced to the idea of palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but traces of the original remain. But it is also a useful metaphor that references something having diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface, and something that has changed over time and shows evidence of that change.
Regardless of the hat we are wearing at any given moment, we are perpetually remaking and rewriting ourselves through our experiences; but despite our best efforts, we can never escape the skins we are in. Traces will always remain, traces that will inevitably interact with and affect the new layers of self-writing and interpretation. We all have words that cling.
The traces of our experiences - emotional, sensual or linguistic - are a major component in our creation of constructs, those tidy little bundles of complex, abstract ideas like love, poverty, and gender that help us make meaning of our lives. As social beings, that construction of meaning tends to be a group effort defined through common language — both verbal and visual. While we are constantly tweaking our constructs as we acquire new information and experiences, we often continue to use the same language we have always used to describe them. Attendant to this idea is the Structuralist theory that we don’t use language to describe an objective reality but rather, through our use of language, we effectively create our reality. If you’ve ever had an argument about whether “khaki” is brown or green or gray, you are aware of how slippery this slope can be. And is it any wonder that the entire modern music industry can survive on songs about the miscommunication of “love”?
When we consider that much of our communication, visual as well as verbal, is based on these abstract constructs, it is little wonder that using these languages to exteriorize our interior experience is an inherently faulty system. The intention of our communication is sometimes held captive by our systems of communication – personally idiosyncratic systems of which we are often unaware.
An awareness of this deceptively unstable “common” ground is vital for graphic designers who act as the conduit and translator of ideas between clients and audiences. It is a critical awareness for educators as well. Broad life experiences, professional experiences, and open worldviews help reveal the amorphous nature of our constructs and the limitations of our communication systems, but extra-personal awareness requires active and often intentional pursuit.
Deconstruction is a philosophical and critical movement that suggests a distinct avenue for this pursuit of growth. It questions the ability of language to represent reality because words essentially only refer to other words. To remedy this, a reader must actively approach a text with the intention of eliminating any metaphysical or ethnocentric assumptions and finding new, more objective language with which to construct meaning. The philosophy promotes an awareness and dismantling of text.
Deconstruction also has a definition in the material world where it is defined as the selective dismantling of building components, specifically for re-use, repurposing, recycling, and waste management. What possibilities could a hybrid definition of deconstruction present? What can be learned and revealed from UNmaking? And more specifically, what opportunities do dismantling and exploring the multiple layers of our personal, construct-riddled palimpsests afford?
Four semesters of exploratory, personal work, and one thesis later, I would answer that physical, material, text-based deconstruction can be a method of facilitating intellectual deconstruction and the increased awareness of personal, social, and cultural constructs. If we deconstruct something, effectively objectifying all the pieces and parts and inner workings, it is possible to see the effects of their interactions more clearly. In theory, any meaning embedded in subsequent creative efforts is responsively more informed and considered as a result of this self-aware deconstruction.
In my first semester, I broke a forbidden plane and randomly dismantled my busted and broken construct of love on the pseudo-private space of my dining room wall.
In my second semester, I dismantled the conversations of a developing relationship.
By my third semester, I began to more broadly recognize the scaffolded and accretive nature of our experiences in the development of our constructs. The more I took things apart, the more I understood about how I put things together. In all of these excavations, the disconnected, dismantled pieces evoked questions I may not have asked or examined otherwise.
I have said to many people over the years that I do not often realize or recognize the truth or knowingness in my thoughts and feelings until the moment when I speak or write them. I do not fully own them until I have processed them through and articulated them with words. Language requires a certain dismantling of thoughts or feelings into their component parts and a subsequent reconstruction of intended meaning. Here at the end of my two-year journey, the conclusion that I must needs approach the concept-driven discipline of design through words is almost painfully obvious. I can only shrug my shoulders and say that I didn’t know this before. Or perhaps, rather, I didn’t OWN this before.
In the summer between my second and third residencies, Silas encouraged me to write a manifesto. Manifesto is one of those words for which I think most of us hold a general, if slightly vague, definition. Manifesto is related to manifest, which occurs in English as a noun, verb, and adjective. Of these, the adjective, which means “readily perceived by the senses” or “easily recognized,” is oldest, dating to the 14th century.…
Writing my manifesto was a tremendous experience of self-recognition as a writer, an artist, and a human being. It became a wayfinding device —a map of where I had been, a legend of what I know, and a compass to explore the unknown.
There are words in my art and art in my words.
I will find the right words because to use the wrong words is to take the easy way out of living.
I will filter them through love.
There is no intention I cannot manifest.
I will not be the best prisoner I can be.
I will have an appreciation of work as idea and idea as work.
Making connections is my gift.
The connections I make matter.
Evidence of process is evidence of a human changed.
I will leave evidence of myself, of my hand, of my heart in my work.
Quite some time ago, I put a tagline of sorts on my website declaring myself a “translator among creators, clients, and audiences.” I knew, before I really knew, that at my core, I am driven by a fierce need to communicate, to hear and be heard, to connect as deeply and completely as possible. What I have come to know in the interim is that my choice of “translator” was, is, critical to my self-understanding.
Translate is defined as expressing the sense of (words or text) in another language or converting into another form or medium. Synonyms for translator include facilitator, liaison, connector. I would add synthesizer, writer, designer, teacher.
As I was writing this, I was aware of my propensity to use quantities of similar words— a building of idea/form through layering - a process akin to the development of a construct. This collated language is the creation of a third space and understanding that is the result of the friction and energy between and among the layers of palimpsest, among the words that cling.
My thesis exhibit is the manifestation of understanding this creative, constructive process - a process which I am at cause over and affect of. It is an ardently structural piece consisting of excerpts of 25 years of handwritten love letters written to and from me. Having dismantled my old construct of love, I made myself a new one.
The concurrent activities of the deconstruction and exploration of all these layers have yielded a great many answers, but the more meaningful discovery and development is of a framework within which the continuing onslaught of life and design’s questions can be grappled with.
Legitimizing this personal method of approach to design has been paramount to my development as a designer, but has been equally important for myself as an educator. I have a better understanding of where I stand, but more importantly, I understand and can now articulate why I’m standing here and why I think it is an ideology/methodology that merits attention.
As designers, we have adopted visual mediums for this fool-hardy undertaking of communication. For most students and young designers in particular, visual fluency is still in the developmental stage. Concepts, not to mention creative, ego-risky, self-generated content, get short shrift in the pursuit of idealized visuals which are frequently frustratingly, distractingly out of reach. Words and language and writing are often a more familiar, if not necessarily favored, medium for exteriorizing their ideas.
As such, I see an opportunity for writing as a bridging design activity, as an exploratory arena in which to both create and deconstruct, to engage with the idea of themselves as content creators, and an opportunity to reveal the construct-imposed limitations — as well as the possibilities and connections — that emerge in the ideation phase of design without the pressures of visual production.
Based on my two years of personal experience, explorations, and the beginnings of research and application in my classroom, I believe the intentional deconstruction of ideas and concepts through writing and language-centric processes helps dismantle our pre-conceived notions and lays the groundwork for more meaningful communication. In the current educational environment in which students feel a desperate need to produce THE “right” answer, the use of writing and deconstruction as processes for defamiliarizing their visual communication expectations can help them uncover their own restrictive constructs and open up greater fields of creative exploration. It allows more questions to be asked without the fear of commitment to a particular answer in the form of a visual or information structure or “appropriate” style. Rather than “What color should it be?,” the questions could include “What of my experience is informing my concept? Are my experiences and understanding the same or different from other people’s? What then, do I need to consider in regard to images, text, color? Am I communicating an idea or just decorating it?
It may seem odd to include a teaching section in my design portfolio site, but it is an absolutely integral part of who I am as a designer as well as a person. Teaching undergraduate design students has forced me to think deeply about my fundamental skills as well as my core values as a designer. Teaching is a dialogue and I have learned as much, if not more, from my students over the last few years than they may have from me!
I also had the unique pleasure of teaching K-12 art for a year at a small international school in Xi'an, China. I've included some of their work here, too, because planning these projects was an intense learning process for me. I had to integrate grade-level appropriate teaching/learning objectives into interesting projects all while acquiring the materials in China. We can talk about it over beers sometime...
Sevenly was founded in 2011 with the mission of leading a generation toward generosity. Based on a simple, core belief that ‘People Matter,’ the Sevenly team activated the now global ‘cause art’ movement and started creating 7-day cause campaigns, inviting customers to purchase “advocacy art, apparel and accessories” that donate to non-profits. Each campaign and every product would also create conversations. Now widely recognized as one of the world's leading 'social good' companies, Sevenly activates its signature 7-Day Campaigns and curates ongoing, cause-themed Collections created to change lives by raising funding, awareness and followers for the world’s greatest causes.
Part of my job as Creative Director was to create new art for the shirts and accessories. These are some of my favorites!
NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED - Honoring Strong Women
These two reviews from happy Sevenly customers pretty much sum it up: Love it! Three strangers stopped to tell me they liked it on the first day I wore it! Solidarity with other persistent humans! My 75-year-old Mom is Rocking this Shirt! I kind of procrastinated on her birthday in April ... and Mother's Day in May ... then I saw this. She flew down to meet me in DC in January for the Women's March and we had a blast. I had to buy this for her. I didn't tell her it was coming. I got THE most excited phone call from her a week ago. She LOVES it and wore it to the Clinton County (NY) Democratic Party fundraiser the next night. Home run!
LOVE > HATE
Designed for the Back-to-School Don't Bully Collection, sales of this shirt help provide resources to prevent bullying through Stand for the Silent.
The design was created to support and spotlight an unsung hero — MK Hill, of The Arrows Nest in Memphis. At just 27, MK's made her home a community refuge to children of all ages in crisis foster care. Proceeds from the Family Matters! Collection go to help her and her team in their amazing show of love.
If you ever want to truly understand something, teach it to someone else. For the past five years, I have been teaching undergraduates the ins and outs of good logo design. My approach changes from semester to semester as I am constantly re-evaluating and redefining what does, indeed, make a good logo. There are, however, some adjectives that remain constant: simple, memorable (preferably with a dash of clever), and versatile. These are a few of my logo designs that I believe hit that mark.
I sometimes describe myself as a designer on the outside and a writer on the inside. As such, books, magazines, calendars, annual reports, brochures and so on feel like my sweet spot. On more than one occasion, clients have told me how much they appreciate the fact that I actually read and process the content of what I am designing. In our Pinterest-obsessed world, it is easy to forget that good design isn't just about decorating, it's about communicating clearly and effectively.
As the trend in web design continues to move toward cleaner and more consistently templatized layouts, the opportunities to "splash out" visually have become fewer. Content has rightfully become more important than container. I started my web design career building HTML sites from scratch. I had a brief and unfortunate fling with Flash. And I had an early introduction to WordPress by way of customized CMS in Joomla.
I am reluctant to use the word "branding" here but it rolls off the tongue a little more easily than "the development of brand through the consistent application of visuals and messaging over time." Because a lot of my work has been with either smaller clients/businesses with limited budgets or larger clients who are often too busy to get truly invested in a branding strategy, a great deal of my "branding" work has been by stealth. It usually starts with something as simple as a consistent color palette or typeface and builds from there. A handful of projects and few months or years later, clients often look up from whatever they're doing and go, huh, wow, we really have a great look and message going for us now. It has been a pleasure to be a long time freelance designer for Kindermusik International and I think they would agree that my long term influence has been of benefit.