In the 1960s, artists and writers were a little bit in love with the idea of entropy. Few metaphors come bigger or juicier. According to the second law of thermodynamics, energy tends to flow away from being concentrated in one place, and entropy is the word for measuring this state of disorder. If the universe was a closed system, as some physicists surmised, and energy was constantly dispersing, never to be replaced, then eventually everything in creation would grow cold and end. Thomas Pynchon titled an early short story “Entropy” (1960) and science fiction writer Pamela Zoline used this notion in a classic tale, “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967). In 1971, Rudolf Arnheim published Entropy and Art, an attempt to show how art was engaged in a struggle to impose order.
Designers, even more than artists, are battlers against entropy. The designer attempts to create not just aesthetic order, but structural and systematic kinds of order. A vital task, it goes without saying, but, taking the long view, often also a doomed, quixotic mission. You can heave that rock to the top of the slope, but unless you make a constant effort to restrain it, sooner or later it will come rolling down again. In their hearts, many designers know this.
In The Corporate Personality (1978), one of the key early texts positing the need for corporate identity, British identity and branding expert Wally Olins makes the disarming admission that so much design effort is actually in vain. Corporate identity manuals, he confides, are for the most part “written and illustrated in such a way as to bear no relationship to reality at all. They are elaborate coffee-table productions enshrining for all time what the corporation wants to achieve, but not necessarily bearing much relationship to what has actually been or will be achieved.” In other words, the perfect systems these documents conjecture is an unattainable – if not hubristic – illusion.
Entropy’s depredations were revealed with elegant simplicity in a series of eight photographs published in Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine, with the headline “The Hidden Message . . .” Stephen Gill’s pictures show billboards, not from the street side, as they are usually viewed, but from the back. According to the brief captions, the unseen images advertise corsets, health drinks, Gordon’s Gin, the BBC, Elton John’s greatest hits, and L’Oréal – “Because You’re Worth It”. What we see, though, are not the bright, seductive confections of adland, but the rough timber poles and frames that support these messages. The no-go zone on the other side of the fence, behind the ads, is a place in which no one has any reason to exert much control. The ground is strewn with rubble. There are piles of rubbish – old tyres, breeze blocks, oil drums, and skips full of trash. It’s a world of raw, recalcitrant matter, of things breaking up and winding down towards a natural state of chaos that advertising’s immaculate illusions have no reason to acknowledge most of the time.
Gill’s photographs – bracketed in the magazine by the usual ads for Toyota cars and, ironically, the same health drink his picture had blanked – offered the most basic kind of reality check. To discover what lies behind these fantasies, all you have to do is walk round behind them. The entropic “thingness” of what you find there is the point. Far from seeming strange or unwelcome, the stripping away of illusion comes as a relief.