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It’s Not Design,
It’s DiGiorno

Postmodernist Delivery

March 2019

Scroll to the bottom of this page to see this essay in its originally designed form

Designers cannot be inventive. We cannot create ex nihilo, from nothing— without referencing our own imagination, but rather we synthesize. We draw from different sources, knowingly or otherwise, to create something “new” and yet entirely inevitable. We require the ingredients from which to make something. “Invention is a myth. We create only from what already exists.” Malcolm Garrett, a British designer, wrote describing his method, “We must by necessity retrieve from the past to reinvent the future.” And so this rabbit’s hole of limitless amalgamation of the past or “bottomless pit,” as Garrett would call it, has served as the foundation on which we built our society. We as a culture have trained ourselves to understand concepts by way of representation, which designers have promptly exploited. Claude Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist, said, “The nature of society is to express itself symbolically in its customs and its institutions; normal modes of individual behavior are, on the contrary, never symbolic in themselves: they are the elements out of which a symbolic system, which can only be collective, builds itself.” But in a Postmodern world, marked by a crisis of representation and the dissolution of inherent significance, how could a designer form an identity within a society founded on symbolization?

Designers act on a synthesis of representations, where one thing (a signifier) stands for another thing (the signified). The relationship between the signifier and the signified evolved with an ostensibly stable structure of verisimilitude. “But, at some point, it was decided that reality was not the only option,…” architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable observes, “…that it was possible, permissible, and even desirable to improve on it.” The loss of the authoritative guarantee of a stable relationship between the signifier and the signified marked the transition from Modernism in Postmodernism. Where once there were firm concepts from which their founding values designers set standards and made judgements, now only seemed to contain deeper signs and expanding codes. In Postmodernism, there was nothing “out of bounds” for the signified. For example, purposefully adding texture to typography as if it were letterpress printed may have been labeled “improper” or “false” in Modernism but, in Postmodernism, this texture could now signify the type as vintage, handmade, or weathered.

The tools that a designer used to create the signifier— a symbol or image that represents an underlying concept or meaning— had begun to change meaning as culture changed. The meaning behind the use of a blackletter typeface, for example, shifted as society grew around it. What was a product of ornate hand-lettering shapeshifted to symbolize a design as religious, then hardcore, then Germanic, then medieval, then counterculture, and everywhere in-between. The infinite repetition of deeper and deeper signifiers revealed itself in this strange harmony. The meaning of a blackletter typeface only held significance in relation to other typefaces by way of comparison. But this same system that imbued a sign’s meaning also degraded it. There is no innate meaning to the typeface itself beyond an endless series of connotations. A design carries no inherent significance apart from the unique perception of it by the viewer as a product of their cultural upbringing.

Postmodernism permanently altered the power system of connotations in design so that something could represent anything (and, thus, meant nothing).  “A shift occurred from a stage where nothing had meaning to another stage where everything had meaning.” Lévi-Strauss explains, “There is a fundamental opposition, in the history of the human mind, between symbolism, which is characteristically discontinuous, and knowledge, characterized by continuity.” How could designers find their place at the head of this Postmodern opposition?

The path of least resistance was to craft messages utilizing the floating signifier— a sign that points to no tangible object and doesn’t have an agreed upon meaning. For example, the message of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign posters, ordained with the words “HOPE” and “CHANGE,” can be interpreted in an unlimited number of ways. A design around a floating signifier worked with the grain of Postmodern uncertainty— purposefully empty for any viewer to pour meaning into without the boundary of a designer’s imposition.

A different, more applied response to the crisis of representation was to embrace it as a chance to rebel against the semblance of past structure. No More Rules by Rick Poynor teaches this philosophy. Without conventional meaning or structure, designers could play, ignorant of any rules that may be in place. Poynor quotes David Carson, “I never learned all the things you're not supposed to do, I just do what makes the most sense. There’s no grid, no format. I think it ends up in a more interesting place than if I just applied formal design rules.”  

Another approach was to celebrate the lack of rules and endless connotations as opportunity to contribute more meaning. A classic example is Paula Scher’s Swatch Watch poster. Scher appropriated Herbert Matter’s poster design, almost completely, as a “visual joke.” Postmodernism set the table for Scher to appropriate. She was able to take advantage of the loss of significance in the creation of a copy. The prohibition of making almost verbatim copies turned into just another antiquated value whose meaning was reliant on every other value and not intrinsic beyond its interpretation.

During Postmodernism, stone fired crafting of the message didn’t matter. Obsolete rules and misplaced symbology ultimately hindered the development of unfiltered communication. The design itself carries no significance. For a designer to form an identity around imposing undue significance (rather than in play), in the long run, only obscured the singular, person-to-person nature of an artifact’s significance. It’s not design, it’s DiGiorno. Factory-made, shrink-wrapped, cooked up at home. Pass me a slice. ︎

To format this essay, I inputed the entire paper in three word chunks into an online automatic logo generator. The website’s AI determined the design of each chunk based on its analysis of the words submitted. Each autogenerated logo was then pieced together and printed as an oversized broadsheet so the logos could be appreciated and the essay (somewhat) legible.