Written by Meghan Dove
For Prof. Shalon Noble
Graphic design is a combination of advertising, fine art, and typography with an emphasis on giving “order to information, form to ideas, [and] expression and feeling to artifacts that document human experience” (Meggs 588). In the graphic design industry, Fibonacci sequences, the golden ratio, and fractal patterns greatly influence the forms of letters in typography, the proportion of page layout in book design, and the hierarchy of printed posters. Deviations from industry traditions are often met with fierce opposition. New ideas are often perceived as monstrous. The primary definition of monstrous in the Oxford English Dictionary is “Of a thing (material or immaterial): deviating from the natural or conventional order; unnatural, extraordinary” (OED). Because design has a strong foundation in nature, any break from tradition results in a work that is the very definition of monstrous. The design community rejects innovation the same way that society rejects the monstrous because it is a deviation from the conventional order resulting in the unnatural and extraordinary.
The longest-standing traditions in typography and graphic design are based on pleasing proportions found in nature. Inventors and artists of the distant past were the originators of many of the natural and mathematical foundations of the industry. Leonardo DaVinci’s illustrations of Luca Pacioli’s De divina proportione (1498) and Geoffroy Tory in Champfleury (1529) were particularly influential. In Champfleury,Tory illustrates majuscule letters based on the ones found on the Trajan Column that was erected in Rome in 113 C.E. On the Trajan Column,
The simple geometric lines of capitalis monumentalis (monumental capitals) were drawn in thick and thin strokes, with organically unified straight and curved lines. Each letter-form was designed to become one form rather than merely the sum of its parts. Careful attention was given to the shapes of spaces inside and between the letters. A Roman inscription became a sequence of linear geometric forms adapted from the square, triangle and circle. Combined into an inscription, these letter-forms molded the negative shapes around and between them into a measured graphic melody of spatial forms, achieving an eternal wholeness. (Meggs 31)
In his 1529 book, Tory stresses the importance of proportions based on natural form by superimposing letters from the Trajan Column over grids containing figures of the male body that are similar to the ones depicted in Leonardo Da Vinci’s illustration Vitruvian Man. These texts, written just after the invention of the printing press in 1440, have shaped the entire industry and remain canons of graphic design.
The influence of the naturalistic in design aesthetics continues in present design practice. Frederic Goudy is a typographer who cut over 100 fonts of type. Many are still used today. He was so influenced by the Roman monumental capitals that he “made an illicit rubbing of three letters from a Roman inscription [in the Louvre], which later became the basis of his [type] face Hadriano. In Rome he studied the lettering on the Trajan Column and the arch of Titus in the Roman forum” (Loxley 96). From the Romans to Goudy and from engravers working on stone to modern computer font families, we can see a common naturalistic influence. According to Robert Bringhurst, one of the most influential typographic theorists of modern times,
Scribes and typographers, like architects, have been shaping visual spaces for thousands of years. Certain proportions keep recurring in their work because they please the eye and the mind, just as certain sizes keep recurring because they are comfortable to the hand. Many of these proportions are inherent in simple geometric figures – equilateral triangle, square, regular pentagon, hexagon and octagon. And these proportions not only seem to please human beings in many different centuries and countries, they are also prominent in nature far beyond the human realm. They occur in the structures of molecules, mineral crystals, soap bubbles, flowers, as well as books and temples, manuscripts and mosques. (Bringhurst 144)
Graphic design looks beyond the natural phenomenon visible to the human eye. Designers use forms found under microscopes and laws of proportion that nature herself builds with. The foundation of design education and the rules that govern the industry follow the rules observed in nature. Due to the naturalistic roots of the industry, innovation in graphic design and the breaking of tradition is very unnatural to people trained to observe proportion and is rejected as monstrous.
Criticism of Neville Brody’s typography in The FACE magazine and Irma Boom’s work for the Dutch Postal and Telecommunications Service are two examples of design being criticized by the industry as a result of its perceived monstrosity. In the 1980s, while working for The FACE magazine, Brody broke typefaces into pieces and combined disparate elements. He ignored historical precedent, put logos upside down, and showed typographic elements previously only seen in post-production. By doing these things, he upset the natural proportions of art and design that he was taught in school. For putting an image of the Queen of England’s head on a stamp sideways, he was nearly kicked out of school (Farrelly). At the start of her career, Irma Boom completely ignored what the stamp collecting book she was commissioned to design was expected to look like. She printed on unusual paper, deviated from a standard typographic layout, added sketches, and included inspirations. Though in later years her book would be seen as a triumph of innovative design, Boom received hate mail when her Dutch Stamp Annuals were published (Riechers). According to the Oxford English Dictionary definition, both Brody and Boom created monstrous designs when they broke from convention. The second definition of monstrous in the Oxford English Dictionary is “Of a person: strange or unnatural in conduct or disposition” (OED). By breaking with tradition, both Neville Brody and Irma Boom were not only creating something monstrous, but were behaving monstrously. The works that they created were monstrous in that they were unusual, deviated from the natural order, and were extraordinary. The industry responded to these manifestations of the monstrous in the same way society responds to monsters, by rejecting them.
The graphic design industry’s response to the monstrous designs of Irma Boom and Neville Brody are reminiscent of the rejection of the monster in the novel Frankenstein. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein creates a monster out of parts of dead humans. He builds on existing scientific theory to create something that deviates “from the natural or conventional order; [is] unnatural, [and] extraordinary” (OED). Many members of the design community saw the work of Brody and Boom in the same light. Their designs were unnatural. They broke with the standard of pleasing design taught to graphic designers everywhere. Brody, in breaking apart typefaces that have been compared by Tory to the human body, was essentially taking body parts and reassembling them into something grotesque and disrespectful to the creators of the original forms. Like Frankenstein, he was playing god. Respected designers and critics turned their backs on his irreverence for tradition and rejection of natural proportion because it was monstrous. The industry’s rejection of the unnatural goes beyond a distaste for the aesthetics, as does Frankenstein’s. At the core of their rejection of the monstrous is fear. Frankenstein created his monster thinking that it could be the next step in the evolution of humanity. Before bringing it to life, he praised himself as the creator of a new species that would bless him “as its creator and source” (Shelley 82). He thought that generations would look to him as a father and that the world would be changed by his improvement on the design of the human body. When his dream of creating a new life form became reality, the potential for his creation to surpass humanity changed from a dream into a nightmare. Brody and Boom posed the same threat to traditional designers.
The thing that terrifies Frankenstein the most about his creation, that also terrifies traditional designers, is that the monstrous, new, and extraordinary will render them obsolete. The graphic design industry depends on rules and regulations that were created when men were using chisels to create letters and the use of the printing press dictated that margins and linear form be perfect. With the advent of new technology, designers are no longer forced to adhere to the naturalistic rules of the past. While this doesn’t mean that they completely ignore them, it does mean that adventurous designers are moving beyond the rules and taking design to a new level. In 2005 Brody stated,
You have to set up criteria. The criteria is, what are you intending to achieve? – and then the way you approach it will be, ‘OK, do any of these rules serve me?’ If they serve me practically, then I think that’s something we have to maintain, we have to consider. If they simply serve me by way of tradition and fear, then we’ll reject those elements and process it. (McCormack)
Frankenstein applied similar criteria when he learned the laws and methodology of science at school but then rejected the field-wide belief that what he was trying to do could not be done. The threat this poses to traditional designers, or in the case of Frankenstein to traditional science, is that people entrenched in tradition will be left behind by these new monsters. It is not just the creations of Frankenstein, Boom, and Brody that are monstrous to traditionalists; it is the creators themselves. They are strange and unnatural in conduct. Traditional graphic designers learned their craft from men who worked without computers. They worked most of their careers without computers and learned a theory that didn’t foresee computers. Although traditionalists and old school graphic designers have adapted to use new technology, their theories are based on outdated means of production. This is why many designers are still creating for the web as if they were designing a printed page. They don’t know how, or refuse, to adapt to platforms that don’t function in a traditional way (Sen). Designers, particularly design educators, continue to enforce outdated ideas because they are not capable of thinking beyond them. Without mandating strict adherence to tradition, old school designers might find themselves unable to make the transition between printing press-based theory and the new digital generation. In much the same way, Frankenstein feared that if he gave his monster a mate, the two might procreate and take over the world. He refused to create a partner for his monster because he believed that “one of the first sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (Shelley 190). The monster is faster, stronger, more resilient, and functions beyond the restraints of human anatomy. It has the potential to replace its creator as young graphic designers have the potential to surpass their teachers. While Frankenstein’s rejection leads to his own destruction and the presumed destruction of his creation, the design industry only rejects innovation until such time as it makes the transition from innovative to a societal norm. Rejection of the designs of Boom and Brody stopped after other designers had time to copy them at which point they were adopted into the canon of design history.
The graphic design industry has historically rejected new ideas that break with tradition only to accept them after they become popular with consumers; this rejection followed by acceptance mimics societal behaviour towards the monstrous. There are numerous historical examples of design being criticized and rejected at the time it was created only to become an essential part of history at a later date. Many of the most influential designs of the past century were considered monstrous or grotesque as a result of their deviation from traditional ideas. Aubrey Beardsley is one such example. Today he is considered a key figure of the Art Nouveau movement in England. His book illustrations were a combination of Japanese prints, the work of William Morris, and the Kelmscott Press. They were so shockingly “evil” that Morris considered legal action against what he thought was a bastardization of his work (Meggs 223). Neville Brody and Irma Boom are now considered to be two of the foremost designers in their field in spite of the criticism they received at the beginning of their careers. Brody is the Dean of the Royal College of Art; Boom is a member of the elite AIGA. In the same way that Beardsley, Brody, and Boom’s designs have been popularized, Frankenstein’s creation has gone from being something terrifying and monstrous to an accepted and treasured trope in literature. What started out as an abhorrent creature featured in a horrific tale of death in which an entire family is annihilated, has been turned into an often humorous and cute character recognized throughout western society. In Boris Karloff’s 1931 movie Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s intellectual and homicidal monster is transformed into a caricature. The monster is further homogenized into an affectionate father in a California suburb in the 1966 sitcom The Munsters. When Frankenstein was written, theories of evolution and natural selection were at the forefront of scientific discussion. In evolution,certain mutations that are advantageous to a species are passed on to future generations as a result of natural selection. The manner in which the graphic design industry slowly accepts and then absorbs new ideas is a form of evolution. What is strange and new is slowly absorbed if it works well for the industry. The work of Beardsley, Boom, and Brody are examples of deviation being improvements of traditional design. Though they are unnatural in relation to the past, they are improvements and are being passed on to the future.
For over two thousand years of written history, human beings have relied upon the forms and shapes found in nature for our ideas of what is beautiful. Designers are trained to create what is pleasing to the human eye, and when there is a break from naturalistic tradition, the result is usually less pleasing and more jarring. Jarring is not necessarily a bad thing. The designs of Irma Boom offended people; however, today they are part of the book design canon. The disproportionate darkness of Beardsley’s designs is part of what made the art nouveau movement stand out. Brody has inspired an entire generation of designers to question the rules and only follow the ones that apply. If the goal of a designer is as stated by Megg’s History of Graphic Design,then adherence to tradition and what is natural should be secondary to giving “order to information, form to ideas, [and] expression and feeling to artifacts that document human experience.” Fortunately, the industry is slowly accepting new ideas, and realizing sometimes that which seems monstrous at first is an improvement on convention.
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About the Author: Meghan Dove is a typography obsessed graphic designer in love with the demonic use of language and the semiotics of visual communication. She is practitioner of calligraphy and a student of making paper by hand who is on a mission to become a lady of letterpress. Meghan has a passion for illuminated manuscripts, the perfect proportions of the printed page, and the evolution of the written word. She believes that the only thing better than a good book is when the same book is well designed. Her work can be seen at meghandove.com