Writing L O R E T T A . S T A P L E S



Visual Research

U dot I, Inc.




"Every period has its own optical focus."

Lázló Moholy-Nagy - from Painting, Photography, Film, 1925

Today's visual landscape "focuses" on the indistinction between things--on continuity and ambiguity at the expense of legibility as we've come to know it. In print and on screen, edges dissolve into one another to create a virtually seamless panorama. Ten years ago this would have seemed like some kind of visual assault, but today it seems perfectly natural. The blur is the emblem of design in the 90s.

Nothing better represents the dissolution of visual formalisms that, until the 1980s, dominated graphic design of the twentieth century. Nothing better exemplifies the increasing dominance of photographic properties on the whole of visual design space. Nothing better showcases the pervasive technological influence of digital tools, foremost among them, Adobe Photoshop. And certainly, no other visual attribute better characterizes the ambiguities of our time with respect to our own identities within a highly mediated culture.

Pedagogy Meets the Pixel
Until the mid-1980s, it seemed as though the classic devices of alignment--margins, columns, grids--would persist forever as the tried-and-true basis of design pedagogy and practice. The concise economy of these devices formed a compelling foundation: they were measurable, discernible tools for organizing information within the space of the page. And they afforded, through their steadfast underlying presence, typographic freedom.

The declarative presence of letters persists as a driving force in contemporary design, but now subsumed in a provocative aura of doubt. The firm suspension of the page has given way to the virtuality of cyberspace, and letters now find themselves poised delicately in phosphor, considerably more ephemeral than in the past. This new environment, made possible entirely through the computer, has had a more profound impact on current design than most designers--pragmatically preoccupied with the threats and inconveniences of new technologies--care to discern. After all, the effects of the desktop publishing revolution are still being felt.

Type in Cyberspace
The computer, tempered by the intellectual trends of post-modernism (semiotics foremost among them), has made for a space that challenges reading in its most fundamental sense. And if reading is challenged, doesn't it follow that the letters which constitute much of what is read are also challenged? This is a space where narratives stand to be undone by the discontinuities of hypertext, and where letters can exist one moment as flat and two-dimensional, in the next moment as full-round forms viewed as if in flight. This is a space where the medium threatens the message through its own palpable, manipulable presence, and where "user-friendliness" overrides authority as "readers" are given free reign to hop, skip, and jump through this phantom place.

While designers closely involved with the technical parameters of computers delve into the complexities of interface design, those in print choose to pursue more esthetic concerns. Within this arena, the ephemeral presence of text on screen has migrated, ironically, back to the page, aided once again by computerized tools. Software applications like Fontographer and Photoshop have made it easy for designers to make typefaces and, once made, unmake them through myriad manipulations-- "filters" Photoshop calls them. Text and images can be (among other things) twirled, posterized, displaced, spherized, sharpened, extruded, diffused, and, of course, blurred. But not just blurred, for Photoshop provides five blur filters.

Visual Effects and the New Visual Disorder
The wonders of digital manipulation were enough to inspire a font from England's premier typographic instigator, Neville Brody. The name of the typeface: Blur. Released in 1991, Blur found itself in good company. A band of the same name emerged in the English music scene at roughly the same time, and shortly thereafter in the U.S, an eclectic art/culture magazine.

Seemingly overnight, twirls, whirls and blurs began to appear everywhere. In the U.S., they were utilized in the works of many designers ensconced in academia and elsewhere. It was clear that visual effects were replacing the structural visual devices of the past.

While such effects had always been available through photography, they had never found broad utilization within graphic design, due in part to the isolation of graphic design from photographic training. The relative technical elusiveness of photography, prior to the digital revolution, had made it a distinct and optional subset of design practice and education. Needless to say, all of that has been obviated by digital tools and production techniques. They have made photomanipulation available to the masses and extended the very completion of the photographic process: a photograph no longer "ends" on film in the camera or even on the print--it ends tentatively at the last "Save" within Photoshop.

Blurring in photographically based graphic design of the past said something specific--usually about motion or focus with respect to a specific object. Today's blurred objects aren't moving particularly quickly, nor do they necessarily serve to draw attention to a foreground element. Now, blurring connotes a generalized ambiance--an entire space within which one object is scarcely delineated from the next. An edge is the binding that separates a thing from all that surrounds it. And in this new ambient space, nothing seems more extraneous.

Whether stasis is the net effect, or momentum, photography seems to have been a major impetus for effects-driven graphic design, but not just photography--one particular strain of it: video. The proliferation of video imagery popularized by MTV, beginning in 1981, has made its mark on many aspects of picture quality, including cropping, editing, and image texture, not to mention the more subtle relationships between camera angle and scene. And the newness and variety demanded by this segment of the media marketplace has, in turn, been reabsorbed into graphic design. As if striving for the fast pacing of television and the graininess of the TV monitor's low resolution, print design began utilizing video imagery in the early 1990s. Once again the computer provided the means, this time to capture video frames for further manipulation in Photoshop.

So while once the conventions of print were represented on television, now the conventions of television are represented in print. And both are represented on the computer, the tool now used to produce most of the images found on both. Add to this the ubiquitous "multimedia" and the genealogy of hybrids is made complete.

Designers, Producers, or Digital Janitors?
Along with this blurring of the relationships between media, and between original and replica, comes an accompanying blurring of the professional boundaries between designers for each respective medium. The computer has leveled the playing field for all, and now designers in each sector scramble for ownership of at least part of the turf. And increasingly, this turf is the multimedia marketplace.

The digitization of the design arena has rendered it at once more accessible and more elusive. As the necessary hardware/software packages for undertaking digital design continue to drop in price, more and more novices will enter the market as practicing designers, as witnessed in the desktop publishing revolution. Simultaneously, those schooled in earlier design practices, tools, and esthetics will continue applying old principles--inappropriately at times--to truly new design problems. Graphic designers replicate the page on screen when designing their first CD-ROM titles, while video producers strive for the cinematic effects of film and TV. Both struggle with interface design, a practice more akin to industrial design.

The Semantics of Myopia
When the illegible and indiscernible become acceptable norms to us, what does this mean? Especially when the enabling link in all this just happens to be technology? Pessimists declare the collapse of common sense in light of decadent stylistic trends foisted upon a naive public by an elite design class. Optimists hail the liberation of the reader from the strict authority of the writer, and view this new visual landscape as inherently participatory--actively inviting interpretation from the reader.

But whether we have cause to celebrate or to despair, one thing is undeniable: the techniques of digital image-making have combined with the esthetics of deconstruction to create the malleable visual landscape surrounding us today. This trend has been modulated by the "production values" of mass media and scaled by the exponential increase in computer processing power over the last decade. These technological and esthetic circumstances have enabled what we now see, but they tell only part of the story. The question still remains: Why do we allow this?

We are living in a time of profound ambiguity, at once liberating and unsettling. The physical and institutional boundaries against which we've always rebelled, and through which we've traditionally defined ourselves, are in a state of flux as never before, whether political, sexual, or cultural. Without them, we're not quite sure who we are or what we want to be, yet no moral imperative seems to spur us toward a decision. How do we respond, when we can no longer recognize the culprit? And why bother when the next upheaval, whether the act of a political terrorist or plastic surgeon, is so immediately capable of reinventing us?

In this boundless world, we can never be sure where responsibility ultimately lies. For this is a world whose chain of causality includes real and virtual acts, some of which can be reversed with a simple "Undo" command, others of which remain indelibly inscribed in time. We're understandably confused by the interplay between the two, and our efforts to disentangle them only further confound us. Ironically, the quickened pace afforded by this technologically enhanced causality has only slowed our responsiveness to it. Mesmerized, we can scarcely formulate our responses to the sight at hand before the ground shifts, reframing us in yet another disarming context.

Whether all this blurring signifies the promise of infinite possibility or the decadence of digitally enhanced leisure, its manifestation is itself the realization of a larger truth: whatever our opinions, this is the world we live in now--transmutable, mediated, ambiguous. And as we reflect upon the turn of yet another century, just a few short years away, the blur raises a most important question: What exactly did we see, anyway?


©1995 Loretta Staples