The Poetics of Chance or The Ferret-Jello Hypothesis

Graphic designers tend to work with intent. We often start a project with the idea of the thing—the deliverable. We know we will be designing a book, a poster, a logo. Design is often thought of as “visual problem solving” so naturally, knowing we will end up with a “solution” to our given “problem” in the form of a “thing” is nice and comforting to us—it is a safety blanket inside the complex world of design. However, there is another way to think about making design, and that is not with intent, but with exploration—designing while not necessarily knowing about the deliverable, or what supposed problem you think you may be resolving, or making sure that what you are creating fits exactly into the right parameters as outlined by the design brief. You can create design by simply gathering some ideas, setting up some processes, laying out a framework of making and simply seeing what happens—allowing the making itself to clarify its outcome.

Working this way involves a lot of things many designers are uncomfortable with: things like unpredictability, failure, and working with chance. There is a possibility what you are making will fail. You may get something that will not fit into a prescribed idea of a deliverable. The question is where our interests lay: what can we get when we do not know what we are trying to get to? I think of this as the poetics of chance—the notion that chance begets things you simply cannot plan for, outcomes you cannot expect. Chance brings you to places that you could not predict, and lets you make things you could not foresee. The poetics of chance are often at play in my own work, as I am usually unsure of where I am heading with a project until after I have gotten there.

A Brief History
There are numerous examples of chance in art and design. One of the most admired practitioners of chance was composer John Cage. Cage worked in many forms outside of the standard ideas of writing and performing music, but his most interesting ideas were when he used chance as a tool of composition. Using the I Ching—an ancient philosophical Chinese document from about the 2nd millennium BC—Cage created chance systems for composing music. The I Ching uses a systems of symbols to divine order in historical events, and Cage translated this into a tool to create music. He would essentially ask the book to provide him the notes and the arrangements of his music. In some ways he was playing the book as he would play a piano or guitar. Cage used the I Ching as a tool for creating music for the bulk of his career.

Starting in the 1940s, Cage also worked with and popularized the notion of the prepared piano—a standard piano altered with screws and other foreign objects placed between and around the strings. This allowed the piano to make unpredictable sounds based on how the objects and strings reacted when being played. Cage did not literally throw a handful of screws into the belly of a piano, but instead used the basic harmonic structure of music to place the objects within a somewhat logical structure. The idea was not about being random, where there would be zero control of the instrument, but about chance, where Cage allowed for the unexpected as he did not know what the screws would do to the sound until the piano was played.

To me this idea of chance instead of randomness is what makes Cage’s work so interesting—he is not looking at purely random tools and methods. To put it simply, there is a method to his madness. Randomness would involve a complete lack of control and zero intent in how the tools are used. Something is random when each iteration or action has no relevance to the other iterations around it, like flipping a coin. One instance of the coin landing heads or tails has zero bearing on what it does the next time. Chance—at least in the way Cage uses it—is more about exploiting the unexpected and unpredictable. Cage works with systems of making, and methodological frameworks; from the I Ching to prescribing notes based on the folds in a crumpled piece of paper.

In the 1920s, László Moholy-Nagy started working with chance in his photography, but in a more subtle, innate way. Using the technique of the photogram—placing objects directly onto light-sensitive photo paper and exposing them to a light source—Moholy-Nagy created unpredictable, chance-based compositions. The resulting composition could only be evaluated after the paper was exposed and developed—there was no way to predict what each physical arrangement of objects would result in when turned into a flat, developed image. Moholy-Nagy was continually experimenting with materials and techniques, including using oil between sheets of glass and flashlights to refine and exploit the photogram process. What is exciting about working experimentally the way Moholy-Nagy did, is that there is an inherent amount of failure to the process, as many compositions will not work, both technically and aesthetically, but within the failures were extraordinary successes.

Another example of how Moholy-Nagy worked with chance is his 1930 kinetic sculpture called the Light Space Modulator. This object—made of metals, plastics, cellophane, lightbulbs and other materials—worked as a tool for creating compositions, rather than only acting as a composition unto itself. Moholy-Nagy was interested primarily in the shapes and shadows the object cast onto nearby walls as it moved. In many ways the light-space modulator was a photogram in motion. In a photogram, the objects on the paper are less important than what they result in through the process of making. The Light Space Modulator works the same way—as an object it looks interesting, but running the process allows it to generate things even more interesting than itself.

Another noteworthy individual who experimented with chance was Robert Rauschenberg, who created a series of paintings called Combines starting in 1954. These large works were created by Rauschenberg by going out into the New York City streets and gathering found materials. In his studio, Rauschenberg would then combine these disparate elements in a kind of painterly collage. This idea is reminiscent of the Dada artists, in that Rauschenberg was not as interested in logic and rules, as he was in chance and making. He and the Dadaists were curious about representing the modern, chaotic human existence through fragments and ephemera, instead of traditional still-life and literal representation. Rather than working inside the parameters of carefully thought out meaning and symbolism, Rauschenberg and the Dadaists combined disparate elements to synthesize meaning that could only really understood after the making was over. They put aside pre-rationalization in favor of making, and then figured out what they had made when they finished each piece—allowing chance to become a core part of their process.

A contemporary example of chance used specifically inside of graphic design is the Corraini Editions promotional booklet from 2003 by Italian designer Leonardo Sonnoli. As a publisher of creative work, Corraini wanted to emphasize their creative ideology in their promotional material, and left the entirety of the content and design up to Sonnoli. Placing all of the written content on the front page, Sonnoli decided to let the rest of the signature play with chance. Working with the printer’s marks normally left to the side of a printed press sheet, he enlarged and formed an abstracted language, with forms laid out on sets of printing plates that were changed out at the discretion of the pressman, not the designer. He also used a split fountain on the press—a technique of using two different colors poured into either side of a single set of inking rollers—so that as the press ran, these colors would run together in a gradual and unpredictable way. Sonnoli also specified different coated and uncoated paper stock and varying ways of folding the signatures together so that each booklet was unique in many ways.

Unlike a digital tool like a computer, an offset press employs a physical, analog process that designers do their best to control with computers and software. In this case, Sonnoli embraced the analog, slippery nature of the press and exploited it to create something that was unique and unpredictable. The use of chance allowed for a design that could not have been simply designed, it could only have emerged from the framework Sonnoli created.

Making & Tools
The wonderful thing about embracing and exploiting chance when making design is that by its very nature, you do not know what you will get. This means that your design process has to be an adventure—there is no roadmap when you do not even know what your destination is. This also means you will have many false starts, since using chance in your design process inevitably means making lots of failures. While the rewards for working with chance can be tremendous, there are some issues to be aware of. There is potentially a financial limitation to working this way, as clients generally do not like to spend money for no return. Another important consideration is that designers are often thought of as “problem solvers” who need to come to a “fix” at the end of the process—a solution to the problem. A design process using chance often creates more problems than solutions.

Since chance creates a lot of things that do not work, editing becomes a very important part of the design process. In editing, a designer picks and chooses among all of the output of chance based work. This is actually much more important than it may seem at first. I work often with a camera using unpredictable methods, and I generate lots and lots of stuff to sort though. In some ways, the editing process is actually where the “design” happens—where I see what fits and what does not with the project I am working on. The determination of fit becomes an interesting mix of practical skills (aesthetic sensibilities, looking at legibility, semiotics) and gestural intuition (what feels right, what I am drawn to). Working with chance means the designer has to be open to working both intuitively and pragmatically at the same time.

Chance can be thought of as a tool, rather than just a methodology or approach. The use of tools is something I find particularly interesting about the practice of graphic design. Most designers have very specific and often very polarizing opinions about what they use to make design. Some people are happy at sitting down in front of their computer and moving pixels around a screen. Others will only work with analog tools such as the letterpress or pen and ink. Some are interested only in precise, predictable methodologies, while others only look for happy accidents or serendipity. There is a middle ground, where the designer chooses what they think the right tool for the job will be, using different processes for creation depending on what they think is most appropriate. Chance can be seen as another tool to use at certain times for certain kinds of projects. The use of chance is not necessarily a retaliation against predictability, it is not the only way to work, or suggests that working with predictable tools and predictable methods is wrong. It is simply another tool in the designer’s toolbox.

The Ferret-Jello Hypothesis
A big part of what chance does on a fundamental level is what I call “The Ferret-Jello Hypothesis.” This is a simple idea that states when we push disparate things together that have no relationship, the human brain forces a meaningful relationship onto them. Ferrets and jello have nothing to do with each other, until you put them side by side, and then a dialog begins in the mind of the viewer. Working with chance often involves the practice of physically combining disparate, unrelated elements together into something new—like screws and pianos, or street garbage and oil paints. When the logic of such combinations is disregarded, unexpected and magical results can happen. Inside of a framework of chance is a place where ferrets and jello can come together into something wonderful and meaningful. This is why the ideas of chance are so important to recognize—chance makes things happen that would otherwise never exist, and allows designers to talk in new ways to those who see their work.

I have spoken about chance as a process, and chance as a tool. What about chance as an attitude? Chance can simply become an acceptance of the unknown, of embracing the real potential for failure. It does not need to be about bouncing lights off of a sculpture, or what colors you pour into a press. It can simply be how you approach making. My work is largely based on using chance and unpredictability—I find that pushing pixels around a computer screen results in me creating work that is far less engaging than it should be. However, when I work with chance in an improvisational manner—co-creating with my design process to see what happens—I am often pleasantly surprised with the results. To me chance is less of an ideology or a Dadaist reaction to modern society, and more of a framework to making—it is a tool that gives me favorable results, and an attitude towards making that helps me move past boring, predictable design work. The poetics of chance helps me bring poetry into my design work, making it more emotive and engaging, less literal and predictable.

Moholy-Nagy, László. Vision in Motion. Chicago: P. Theobald, 1947. Print

Robinson, Julia. The Anarchy of Silence: John Cage and Experimental Art. Barcelona: Actar, 2009. Print

“Robert Rauschenberg on Artnet.” Fine Art, Decorative Art, and Design - The Art World Online: Artnet. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.

Leonardo Sonnoli. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.