Design In Question Installation: Design Nomads

We’re lucky we got a fireside chat, even though the world’s on fire.

CONVERSATION

As a class, we were asked to read two chapters from the Graphic Design Reader, a set of essays from design history:

  1. What is this thing called graphic design criticism? Parts I & II by Rick Poynor and Michael Rock
  2. Education and professionalism, or what’s wrong with graphic design education by Katherine McCoy

After reading, our group (Angela Lian, Eleanor Schiltz, Emily Bowen, Chinwe Oparaji, Jay Li) each came ‘round the table to meet, with 25 questions from both articles. Our team was one of the only groups where all of us were taking classes in-person. These hours-long conversations were fruitful, intuitive and refreshing, in light of COVID-19 that inherently shelved our studio experience (and the soundbites are chaotic — re: designer as plumber). This time was also extra precious since it was a full-circle exercise in our design career, having done a project in our first design semester exploring our field.

Seeing as to how both essays are from at least 20 years prior, we were initially worried about its relevance. We were surprised and disappointed that a lot of the same concerns from those articles were still echoed today, and we as a group struggled to make sense of our disjointed time as BU graphic design students. We felt like we had to fabricate the answers to our own questions, with our design ancestors offering little insight into a rapidly evolving graphic design/visual communication/art (??) that they probably couldn’t recognize today. Rigor, principle, morals, pragmatism, creation, destruction & love are nothing new, but they faithfully guided the depth and breadth of our casually difficult inquiry.

SYNTHESIZE

To synthesize our thoughts, we needed to refine the conversation into five distinct themes. From 125 initial questions, we each chose five, making the total 25 to have a second conversation with. Our five themes are anchored in the idea that there is a constant push and pull between structure and freedom in the field of graphic design that is creating problems while trying to solve them.

  1. We agreed that because of our multidisciplinary and multifaceted nature, graphic designers struggle with feeling grounded in the field. Thus, we are nomads in the professional world, living between art, technology, and culture.
  2. Tension exists beyond structure and freedom in design. There’s tension between design practice and criticism, practical and critical design, tenure and talent. We’re constantly within a grey area, which isn’t necessarily bad, but how much do we need to define?
  3. In terms of craft, we found that graphic design sits at a crossroads of technical and artisanal, technical and conceptual. We are unique in that our process of achieving an output is never formulaic, and that our freedom does not equal direction.
  4. the structure of the field affects its accessibility. We are not seen as professionals, and graphic design requires a degree of demystification in order for it to be understood and valued. But establishing a clear structure and hierarchy for the professional world to see may affect the accessibility of graphic design, possibly making it easier or harder to enter than we want it to.
  5. We examined the function of graphic design itself beyond capitalism. As a profession that largely functions as a spectrum of customer attraction & retention, we needed to evaluate the value of graphic design and the problems it actually solves.

INSTALLATION IDEA

After several long conversations post-synthesis, we were left with our dead-end questions that had no concrete answers. Initially, it appeared as though our process was leading us to a hypothetical dead-end. However, we agreed the content we needed to move forward into form-making was already created: the list of questions we’d asked ourselves during the reading. Design doesn’t have to be bred from the known and answerable. Representing the questions, whether typographically or figuratively, was enough inspiration to allow us to begin generating fast poster-based musings about our queries.

While the questions spurred from our reading of a dense, critical text most likely only read by those entrenched in graphic design education and discourse- were familiar to us as design students, we had to be conscious of the fact that not every viewer of this show would have a design background. We had each generated 25 posters, some of which were extremely abstract and lacked any context, and needed to display them in a cohesive and accessible manner. We considered a sculptural solution, and the idea of a giant question mark was introduced. It teetered on the line of absurd and possibly too literal an interpretation. But the “?” glyph is instantly recognizable as a symbol of inquiry, confusion… a question. There was a balance we needed to strike between our experimental, graphic riso posters and an inviting display that’d make our questions resonate with those outside our little bubble of graphic designers.

INSTALLATION

Our first step was to print the posters on the risograph. We took designs we liked from each of our 25 iterations and overlaid them with each other’s designs. This way we had a collection of collaborative posters. We built the base of the question mark with cardboard, and then covered the entire sculpture with our risograph posters. The base layer was created with full 11x17” posters, and cut-outs of the posters were then added on top.

The next step was the gallery install. For the question mark we originally used removable velcro strips, but the sculpture turned out to be too heavy, so instead we attached it with screws to the wall as if it was a picture frame. Next we hung the remainder of our posters on the wall in a gradient fashion, creating a movement effect and mimicking the collage on the sculpture. In the same way as the question mark we started with full posters at the base and added cut outs from the posters on top to emphasize the dissipation effect.

CHANGES IN PLAN DURING INSTALLATION

Pre-construction of our huge question mark, everyone knew that we were going to cut a piggy bank-style slot in the structure. We wanted some of our risograph posters (the ones that had coherent questions on them) to be displayed in a readable fashion. The audience would read the posters and, prompted with a Post-It note and marker, write their thoughts about the question and drop them inside the question mark.

But then we finished the laborious process of building this beautiful form and overlaying all of our risographs on top — when it came time to cut into it (and make it into a piñata essentially), no one wanted to do it. By the time we installed it on the gallery walls, we quickly realized that putting a hole in the question mark was no longer an option.

Which meant our whole interactive part of the installation was out the window.

It was T-minus two days till critique at that point. Our question mark hung on a white wall. There were a few risos wrapping around the wall behind our sculpture that we took down because it didn’t feel right. We came ‘round the table once more, throwing out quick fix interaction ideas.

Maybe the questions can be in a QR code for people to answer in a Google Doc; besides, COVID, so being contactless makes sense.

It was one of many ideas that were scrapped because they felt either too separate from what we’ve already made or they weren’t interactive enough. What if the QR code was hand-drawn? Scrap. What if we wrap a podium with our questions and put it next to the sculpture? Scrap. What if the questions are underneath the question mark? Scrap.

It’s T-minus one day and a few hours, there is a list of things that we don’t want to do and a few things we’ve reassessed: one, we don’t think it’s imperative for the audience to answer the questions in a physical way, it’s okay to just have them think about it. After all, we couldn’t come up with definitive answers to our own questions. Two, we were running low on time.

At that point, we faced the reality that we don’t do an interactive aspect in the installation and let the posters and question mark sculpture speak for itself. We all seem satisfied with the idea so Angela and Emily rushed to the gallery and saved the day.

During the takedown, we decided to repurpose the exhibition riso prints into a book. We moved the question mark to our senior studio as memorabilia, but the prints on the wall were collected, and Emily turned them into a French folded book. The prints can be seen within the inner pages of the book, while the pages themselves can be used to write, draw, etc. We’re thinking of making into a studio check-in book that could be a documentation of our spring semester together and included in our thesis show. Who knows…

In the end, our piece became a reflection of the tension between structure and freedom in graphic design. On one hand, the question mark is a very defined form, but on the other, it became a canvas to experiment and build on top of. We are Design Nomads wondering, will our questions ever be truly answered?

Graphic design student at Boston University

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