An Attitude Towards Design

In 1925 Laszlo Moholy-Nagy coined the term “typophoto” in the periodical Elementaire Typography (Hollis). He was trying to clarify a new medium of graphic design: the synthesis of type and image. Moholy-Nagy considered typophoto an idea about designers mastering the use typography and images as a combined method of communication, and to be more precise in how they communicate with their work. Type and image are no longer two separate things that happen to be together on a page, but were now a single unified idea of messaging and meaning within graphic design. He was also talking about not just precision, but also sophistication and creativity—using things like metaphor and symbolism in how designers communicated with their work. Moholy-Nagy had a visionary idea of what graphic design should (and would) become. In the new world of graphic design, type and image are not two different things, but really one, new thing—a synthesis—and this is what I find particularly fascinating.

In a more basic way, typophoto is simply what it says: the photography of typography. During my undergraduate design studies when I discovered that I could actually photograph type and make it do new things, an entire universe of design opened up to me. Over the years this had led me to an even deeper path exploring how I work: I am especially drawn to using the camera as a tool of graphic design. To me, the camera is a device that helps me to create form, rather than record existing form. It can be a tool of creation, not recollection. Even so, typophoto has become much more to me than images of type. On a macro level, typophoto is really about my attitude towards design, a way of thinking about the relationship of Mitch Goldstein, Designer with how I make, what I make, and why I make it the way I do.

Typo-Photo: The Class
Exploring this attitude has become not only the core of my thesis studies while pursuing my Masters in Fine Arts in Graphic Design/Visual Communication at Virginia Commonwealth University, but also the basis of a class I have taught twice at VCU called Typo-Photo. I changed the name from the correct “typophoto” to the more fragmented “Typo-Photo” to indicate that this is a derivation, not a re-creation, of Moholy-Nagy’s ideas. The class provided a place for me to explain and test ideas I was looking at for my thesis. This class ran in the Summer and Fall of 2011 at VCU, and was made of mostly graphic design students in their senior year. My description of the class was:

This experimental workshop will explore ways to integrate the camera and photo graphic image-making into your design process to create engaging and unique objects of graphic design. We will look at examples of historical and contemporary uses of typophoto, staged photography and expressive typography. We will learn techniques for working with your images and integrating them into your design work. We will spend the majority of the semester using the camera to experiment with new design processes and discover alternative ways of working with type and image. Lectures about relevant topics and demonstrations of technical processes will occur throughout the semester.

I also had some specific objectives I was going to convey over the course of the semester, beyond just using a camera and type. These included:

Learn how to use emergence and play in your design process.
Discover how to use the camera and other imaging methods to author design work.
Learn to synthesize disparate design and methodological elements in your work.
Explore authorship and the pursuit of your own voice as a designer.
Learn methods for incorporating type, image and type as image into your design.
Learn to work with typography as an expressive, emotive element of design.
Embrace the unpredictable, fortuitous nature of working experimentally.
Learn how working with extreme design constraints can inspire your work.
Learn how to use and exploit the friction of making to elevate your design process.

The students were assigned a total of four projects, each based on an idea present in my version of typophoto: Play, Emergence, Fortuity and Synthesis. The Play project was simply that: playing around with a camera and typography. Students had a week to create at least 100 compositions using a couple of given words. The Emergence project tasked them with creating a promotional poster for an exhibition of their choice at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, using techniques they had discovered during the Play assignment. It was called “emergence” because by having a basic idea of the content and context of the poster, the poster itself would emerge from the process of creation. I encouraged the students to not worry too much about what they were going to do, or how they were going to work, and instead asked them to think briefly about the content of their poster and then simply go for it: start making stuff. This way of working is something I do regularly and I wanted to see how others would use it. The results were generally very favorable—students worked with type and images in ways many of them had not considered before. Encouraging them to experiment let them arrive at posters that were outside the more predictable formal ideas they had worked with in the past.

The last two projects are really one project in two parts: Fortuity and Synthesis. First, I had the students watch the great Danish film The Five Obstructions where filmmaker Lars von Trier challenges his mentor Jørgen Leth to remake one of his short art films five times, while adhering to bizarre limitations imposed by von Trier. During Fortuity each student was asked to choose his or her favorite project they have done while at VCU. Then they were asked to blindly pick three random—and somewhat ridiculous and silly—limitations out of a hat. These limitations were then used as a catalyst to re-imagine their project in any way the saw fit. The Synthesis part of the project asked them to synthesize what they had worked on so far with a randomly chosen short essay from the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency website into some kind of deliverable object, thing, performance or experience. These two projects diverged significantly from the strict idea of Moholy-Nagy’s typophoto, but still embraced the idea of creating new things from disparate ideas or entities.

That is what the students did, but what was the class really talking about? Conceptually the course was about two big kinds of ideas wrapped up in the typophoto attitude towards making: systems of discovery and the exploitation of process. The course manifested these ideas both in how the students worked and how I taught the class—so both the students and the teacher got a lot out of the class.

A lot of graphic design is taught in a prescriptive way: this is right, this is wrong; this
is good, this is bad. I think this is fine as students begin the journey to becoming designers—they have to start somewhere and being trained in the mechanics of design is a good place
to start. There is technical, vocational knowledge to being a designer that must be learned
at the beginning of the education process. However, there is a point at which prescriptive teaching must end, and reactive teaching must begin. This is the moment when students stop trying to make the teachers happy and start trying to make themselves happy. When they stop thinking in terms of right and wrong and start thinking in terms of interesting or not interesting, engaging or not engaging, exciting or boring. Instead of pushing through to a final deliverable or idea, they instead react to the process of making and see where it takes them. Understanding prescription and reaction are both valuable, and designers work with both throughout their careers, however in design school reaction takes a notable back seat to prescription.

As a course, Typo-Photo was not very interested in prescription, it was primarily interested in reaction. These students were seniors and ready to try something outside of what they had been taught so far. For the Fortuity and Synthesis projects, the only real impetus was to just be making—don’t worry about how useful the stuff was, or what it would become, or how it would be marketable, or how it would round out your portfolio. Instead, just shut up and make stuff. See what happens. Let the process tell you what you were doing, instead of you making your process do what you want. I was so intent on them not worrying about and getting paralyzed by what they were doing that during Fortuity I explained there was no deliverable at all—the project did not end in any kind of thing they needed to be concerned with—all they had to do was make and see what happened. This freed them in a number of ways: since they did not have to make anything useful, they were free to make anything they could imagine. Since there was no deliverable, there was no attempt at reconciliation of format or size or medium. Since there was no specific content or direction, they were free to diverge at any given time in any direction. The project was about discovery, and the class was a framework for that discovery to happen. When the Synthesis part of the project came into play and they were asked to now create a deliverable, they had already made so much interesting stuff that the preoccupation with the “final thing” was gone, it was now just another step in the process.

What the students were doing were creating systems of discovery: working through their projects in whatever way gave them new stuff. The medium was irrelevant, what mattered is that they were setting up what ifs. Things like “what if i made these abstract images into an animated film with a zoetrope?” Or “what if I make by using the stuff from the last round of making to make the next round?” Or “what if I kept working into a reflected pattern?” The what ifs resulted in some wonderful, unexpected things that would not have happened had the students been concerned with the use of their making.

Students also learned to exploit their process. Since every student was working with different content, different aesthetics, and different attitudes, each was free to push their own process as far as it could go. The initial two projects—Play and Emergence—emphasized the tools of abstraction and discovery, like the camera. Many students had never used a camera to manipulate form and typography before, but doing so loosened them up in terms of how to use these tools at our disposal. Some students stuck with the camera. Others played with video, or a scanner, or natural media in unusual ways. Ultimately what they were all doing was using design methodologies in ways that resulted in unexpected things. Instead of predictably pushing pixels around InDesign, they were seeing what happens—instead of letting the tools use them, they were using the tools.

Students also leaned to work with their process in a manner of improvisation. In improvisational theatre there is the golden rule of “yes, and...” This basically means that an offer (an idea, situation, element or concept) made by one actor is immediately accepted and added to by the other actors. In design, this means that the students are co-creating with their process—they make their design an offer by way of a process, the process then offers something it created, and the student builds on that making, and so on. Instead of simply trying to get to the end of the project, they are just getting to the next offer, and then adding to it over and over. This encourages the students to simply see what happens. They were part of an improv acting troupe, only in graphic design: getting together where their process and saying “what if?” and “yes, and...” and then letting it take them wherever it wanted to.

An Attitude Towards Teaching
The class encompassed a lot of ideas that all were interrelated with each other—an overall conversation about how designers make and think about design. There was also another, more secluded conversation, and that was between me, the teacher and the activity of teaching design. I have been teaching design for more than six years, and this class has helped me understand and clarify the things I find important as a teacher of design. Most of the specifics of the class, like improvisation and unpredictability and gesture are ideas I am also investigating in my, but this class helped me understand a more specific idea about the role of the teacher in the design classroom, and how that changes from teacher to teacher and even from class to class. The design teacher is a lot of things—some right and some wrong. I have seen teacher as coach, as friend, as art director, and even as belligerent asshole. There are teachers who are your mom, your friend, your enemy, or your mentor.

Who I think I am as a teacher—and what I see too infrequently—is an instigator. VCU Interior Architecture professor Camden Whitehead has been known to say that “a design teacher should give their students the tools, lead them into the woods, and let them fight their way back to civilization.” The teacher is the person in the classroom who instigates the activity of discovery, the one who lights the fuse on the bomb of process. I think this is a valuable role for a teacher to have, especially one who is teaching upper class or graduate level design students. Students remain interested in being told what to do and how to do it for only so long; but give them a catalyst to investigate and discover in thief own way keeps the students on their toes and encourages them to direct their own education. During the class I felt like a benevolent devil sitting on their shoulders, whispering “what ifs” and “yes, ands...” into their ears. My role in the Typo-Photo class was both as critic and as instigator—in addition to critiquing student’s work, I was daring them to do it in the first place.

Hollis, Richard. Swiss Graphic Design. New York: Yale University Press, 2006.

The Five Obstructions. DVD. Directed by Lars von trier and Jørgen Leth. Denmark: Zentropa Real ApS and Koch-Lorber Films, 2004.

McSweeney’s Publishing. “McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.”