A random non-sequitur folded into the copy on the screen design. An arbitrary revision of your brand’s color palette. An abstract request for insertion of an additional typeface into your layout.
Why would designers, partaking of an applied art, not be fearful of such changes during a project? What would encourage a designer to be open to such tangents? What would make her meander if only for a few minutes’ time, before closing down from the realm of endless possibility to the realm of get this project shipped before my hide is whipped by my boss?
While such changes can feel painful at first, and often contrary to the intent you want to bring to your work, they sometimes take you down avenues that defy logical interpretation and plug you back into your intuition. New currents can electrify your design work, encouraging a more poetic design execution. But at first, those new currents may feel more like electroshock than a positive stimulus.
In my third year of college, I took a poetry class with a writer named Tan Lin. You can trawl through his read and written work if you want to get a taste of exactly how oblique and maddening some of his poetry was, especially within a conservative English department that leaned perilously into the traditional. Surprisingly, the content of his class stuck with me more than much of what I read when getting my degree, probably out of sheer contrast to the Miltons and Donnes that larded our heavy Norton anthologies. The poets we read included Gertrude Stein, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, John Ashbery, and many others on the forefront of American language poetry.
Until then, I’d been a purist about what was and wasn’t poetry. I was addicted to meter and form, and have the pile of pantoums and sestinas to prove it. I was the guy lampooned in a spoof campus literary magazine for overusing iambic pentameter—the author parodying lines of mine from a recently published work wrote “blah blah blah” whenever the original words felt like filler.
So I didn’t take this class because I thought I would like language poetry. On the contrary—boy, did I hate the stuff.
People say that this language-based style of poetry has a dazzling surface to be appreciated… but underneath that surface, there isn’t much river. Trying to find a trickle of meaning in, around, or through the words became what felt like a fool’s quest. That class was an epic struggle between my rigid, meter-bound ear and poem after poem whose slippery internal logic that defied my conception of art. Pile onto that a steady diet of Abstract Expressionist art in my “Art After 1945” class and seeing plays by Ionesco and Beckett in the after-hours and my notion of what art could be exploded to pieces.
But there was one pivotal moment in that four months of mayhem that still stands out for me even today.
We had been given an assignment to write a language poem. Not an imitation of one of the many authors we’d been assigned. This was meant to be a personal, original work.
I sat down and labored over this poem like none other I’d ever written.
Okay, that’s a total lie. I bashed out some stream-of-consciousness stuff over about 20 minutes. I just let it ride. If it sounded good but didn’t make logical sense, it went in the work. If it made logical sense to me, it got scrambled up until it sounded good, but otherwise was utter nonsense.
This was it. My statement, a big F.U. to my personal beliefs about poetry. That you needed to have capital-I Inspiration strike you from the heavens. That you needed to sit down and write a draft, then perhaps another draft, and after that go through rounds of revision until the meaning of the poem finally revealed itself to you in a crescendo of spondees and trochees. Maybe 30 minutes maximum in the driver’s seat. Leaving plenty of time to have a beer with my roommates, cook some tongue-scorching Indian food, who knows.
I turned in this poem, proud of what I’d done. Actually, “pride” isn’t the right word. More like: petrified. I mean, how do you give feedback on something you’ve created where you have zero capability of describing what it’s supposed to mean or why you think it merits someone’s attention?
Two weeks passed, and at the end of class I received back my poem. At the top, scrawled in blue ink by my teacher, were three words I’ve never forgotten: “Needs more refrigerator.”
Even today, I puzzle over the many possibilities this statement was meant to elicit. I don’t think he means for me to put Whirlpool appliances and their ilk into this wordfest, though in a revisionist rage I tried such a thing and it was pretty funny.
Instead, after much reflection, what I gleaned from his feedback was this: there was no critical frame by which for him to understand the intent of my poem, so his feedback was meant to reinforce that view: that whatever he could throw at me with regard to “feedback” could only help me to clarify how that intent was expressed through the artwork.
This makes sense for going out and attempting to make this type of anti-sensical work. But what does it have to do with the realm of applied art and design?
As I spent more and more time in design, I realized there were moments you could switch on that anti-sensical mode as a method of generating new material on the page or new perspectives on what you could be making to help solve a client problem. The trick was to not let it overwhelm your path: what you wanted to accomplish with the design.
These were a few of the methods I started to bring into my work in the early 2000s as a visual designer:
Establish arbitrary criteria for what makes your work good. Most people say they want your visual design to be beautiful or for users to find the flow intuitive and all that other stuff that gets echoed until it’s meaningless. So come up with some criteria that makes your work exciting, like in the case above where you need more refrigerator. I’ve had multiple creative directors who’ve tried to express this arbitrary sensibility through dance, through onomatopoetic sound, through whatever means by which they can give a hint of a design’s character without limiting it to pure logic. Keep in mind, this isn’t something to use in general critique—this is meant to break through roadblocks or force a discussion into a new space.
Find material that is unrelated to the work at hand but historically or metaphorically rich. If I was stuck on a problem, I would go and try to For example: In trying to create a more modern layout, I spent a few minutes digging into an Art Deco pattern book, whose stylings I had studied in school but at the time I didn’t like and thought had no application to the current project. Surprisingly, one of those Art Deco patterns inspired a pattern used in the modern work. It wasn’t important to the creative director how I established that pattern, only that it seemed to be fresh—even though it was inspired by a wholly different period in history. The same went for viewing short movies or reading passages from books I kept on the shelf for similar uses.
Build brief breaks into your schedule for taking “random walks” into the work. Whenever I was really stuck on a design, I would take 15 minutes to disassemble the entire layout (and any other ones I had attempted), and then randomly reassemble them in a few ways. It was important to do this without thinking about what would make a good or bad solution, just that it was a new arrangement. After I’d done so, there were always one or two paths I could add to my current visual design explorations. Sometimes, it was the pressure release I was looking for in the midst of sharpening an idea until it had started to crumble in the execution.
Create prompts that force you into new paths, then follow them. My “Stop Trying Ritual” from a few years back was one of my more effective prompts, inspired by love of the Oulipo and the Fluxus movement. It’s important that you don’t just use other people’s prompts. You should create your own and see where they take you.
I’m not sure I’ve recovered from the experience I had in college. Nowadays, I have a few of these poets on my bookshelf, and ever so often leaf through them, puzzling again through what the words speak to me. In graduate school, I found myself willingly signing up for a class with Carolyn Forché in which we would read all 16 books (at the time) by John Ashbery and write imitations. My 19-year-old self would have probably committed ritual seppuku like in Harold and Maude before admitting that I’d even consider doing this.
But what I can say is this: any artist’s vocabulary can serve to be expanded outside their range of comfort, just so you have the words at your disposal in the situation you might need them. As a student, this helps to expand your critical perspective. As a working artist or designer, this helps you better orient what you’re doing and break through the boundaries that always slowly slip into place, as you become more deft in expressing your voice.