Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Philosophy, Graphic Design and Virtue of Clarity


I spend a lot of time looking at the work of undergrad and post-grad visual communication students. The best work is frequently distinguished by an abundance of well-intentioned and sophisticated thinking around social issues. But I notice something else; it can be described as a reluctance to express ideas with clarity and brevity. It’s as if there is a fear — a loathing even — of simplicity.

It’s not hard to understand why. What bright intelligent person would want to produce the sort of facile and simplistic work that characterizes most advertising, branding and consumer driven design? Much more exciting to dive into the murky sphere of ambiguity, mystery and gratuitous complexity.

Yet it seems as if a generation of bright young things is losing the ability to produce simple, clear and straightforward visual communication. This is not a plea for reductionism. Instead, it's a plea for complex ideas to be presented with intelligence, directness, and clarity.

I was thinking about this while cycling round my local park. It’s a large tract of outer-London parkland inhabited by dog walkers, red-faced joggers and mournful looking deer. I usually listen to music while making my circuits. Lately, however, I’ve been listening to philosophy podcasts.

Of all the humanities, philosophy is the one that interests me most. But here’s my problem: I often read philosophical texts only to discover that the experience is like cycling into a headwind. I get to page 20 and my attention flags, with the result that a great deal of philosophical thought remains tantalisingly beyond my reach.

I realise the fault is mine. Philosophy is a subject that requires intense and prolonged study — philosophical writing can’t be dipped into like we might dip into an airport blockbuster. Yet it would be naïve to imagine that philosophers — just like young graphic designers — are never guilty of deliberate obfuscation: If everybody understands what you’re saying, perhaps you’re not saying anything deep?

The podcasts issued by the website Philosophy Bites offer a refutation of the notion that philosophy has to be impenetrable. Here is a guide to current philosophical ideas from over 100 thinkers on subjects such as Personal Identity, Free Will, Scepticism, Plato’s views on erotic love, and Aristotle’s take on happiness The format is simple. Each podcast lasts about 20 minutes and features an interview with a philosopher on a topic that they specialize in. The interviewer — Nigel Warburton — uses plain English to ask a series of succinct questions. He is quick to pounce on any replies that are not readily comprehensible, or which fly in the face of common sense. His vigilance has the effect of compelling the interviewees to respond in language that is clear and precise.

What can designers learn from exposure to philosophy via these elegant podcasts?

Since the 1950s, advertising people have turned to psychology for guidance in how to drill messages into the human psyche. Today, however, there is widespread resistance to the hard sell, and commercial subterfuges are easily spotted. Philosophy, on the other hand, with its focus on truth and ethics, seems more in tune with the contemporary zeitgeist. When this is coupled with the newfound willingness of philosophers to deal with questions that were once considered beneath the subject’s lofty aims, philosophy becomes an important aid for anyone interested in addressing “real world” problems. Multiculturalism, the comodification of the body, emotion, tolerance, and why our response to certain things is to say “Yuk,” are all topics dealt with in Philosophy Bites podcasts.

Thanks to design’s connectedness to nearly every aspect of daily life, the listener repeatedly encounters observations that relate to the practice of the craft. Exposure to current philosophizing refines our understanding of the world and inspires us to develop that most valuable of skills — critical thinking. And as exposure to these podcasts reveal, it is only by subjecting everything we come into contact with to intense interrogation that we can ever hope to understand anything.

But it is not only the philosophical content of these podcasts that will benefit designers. It is also the way in which thinkers repeatedly succeed in expressing complex ideas with clarity, directness and brevity. The almost casual elegance with which all the philosophers deliver their thoughts — no verbal tics or tortuous circumlocutions — is a revelation. Without exception the interviewees are characterized by a lack of the preening self-regard normally associated with modern punditry. Many admit to doubts and uncertainties. Variations on the phrase “If I'm right …” are often uttered. Dogma is notable for its absence. Instead, the listener is invited to eavesdrop on conversations where the human condition is treated with the inevitable uncertainty that confronts anyone attempting to find truth. To see what I mean, just sample the wonderful podcast called What is Philosophy?: each philosopher who is asked this seemingly facile question gives a different response.

Listening to modern philosophers it’s clear that philosophy has abandoned the armchair and moved into the shopping mall and cyberspace. A modern generation of philosophers are helpfully making it possible for us to travel with them and, at the same time, providing a master class in the power of condensed expression.

Comments [15]

Thank you Adrian for this link and inspiring discourse. I can fully concur with your thoughts on how students today struggle to create ideas in a succinct manner - opting for more elaborate or detailed solutions. Among my students (poster design) in the past 6 years or so, I have noticed a strong shift towards presenting an idea through complex imagery or imagery that seems to have a resemblance to a still frame from a video. It's quite obvious that the young today are highly influenced by the "moving" image across the myriad of media platforms that they interact with and are incapable of grasping a persuasive idea through more iconic and simple manners. Philosophy, however vast in its applications, may be a pertinent tool in focusing on that one "singular" idea. Thank you again - as I think this may provide me with some ideas in novel creative brainstorming methods for my young talented future professionals.
Gyula Gefin
Graphic Design Faculty - Dawson College - Montreal
Gyula Gefin

Thanks Adrian, good stuff!!

Just listened to "John Cottingham on The Meaning of Life." Very interesting. Will be checking out more.

Joe Moran

As a lecturer in Philosophy as well as an owner of a design studio, I can tell you that the lessons of the broader discipline of philosophical thinking and writing - with its rigorous practice of deductive reasoning, pattern analysis, and critical exposition - have enormous benefits for isolating, clarifying, and articulating a given project's fundamentals - whether it be identity development or graphic design.

I can also tell you that a solid foundation in cultural theory, communication and technology studies, phenomenology, and social and political thought has also provided a sensitivity to the delicate nuances and complexity of our world, and how design can 'work' in that world.

Though... I dare say that studies in poetry might yield a similarly powerful result.

The best designer is one with an infinitely interested mind, and philosophy is just the sort of thing that requires an infinite interest...

But I think the dense, busy aesthetic is mostly anchored in a reaction to what was popular before. As the 80s/90s ushered in a severe reaction to the uber-clean graphics of previous years, today's youth are again rebelling against the slick presentation of the Aughties — perhaps hoping to reintroduce room for personal interpretation and discovery.

While I follow the minimalist school of thought almost dogmatically, I think we shouldn't be afraid to push the boundaries of what the viewer can "understand" or "retain". Of course, this should really only be done where it works conceptually.

Still listening… and found the episode Barry Smith on Wine reminds me of the old saying, "you can't buy good taste."

Clients and designers both interject their perceptions of good taste on projects. Agree the idea of sharing thoughts on what may or may not be good is the best route to understanding and building a relationship.

In quality as well as clarity.



Joe Moran

It is relevant here to consider the relationship between philosophy and the turn from medium-specific aesthetic models towards social and linguistic theoretical models, which characterised post-1960s art. This ‘linguistic turn’ underpinned the rejection of formalist modernism in art and the move (via Minimalism and Pop) to a decade of Conceptual Art practices, many of which specifically adopted text-based strategies such as the location of art within the active context of mainstream publishing (as opposed to the passive context of the gallery wall). Whist debate about typographic experimentation with post-structuralist ideas featured heavily in graphic design debates of the 1990s, my research proposes that the connection between the theoretical ideas of philosophical aesthetics and these earlier art-based practices of the 1960s and 70s provides a more useful and productive example through which to consider links between philosophy and typographic practice.

Ps I recognise that deer. He’s thinking about philosophy too.
Ruth Blacksell

Did philosophy help design that duck logo?
Mr. Seaton Village

“The duck-rabbit” was used by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his "Philosophical Investigations" to illustrate a point about perception. It can be seen either as a duck or a rabbit. More here http://www.roangelo.net/logwitt/gestalt-shift.html
Adrian Shaughnessy

The duck-rabbit predates Wittgenstein's use of the device. It first appeared, differently drawn, in the 1890s.
David Hume

Clarity comes from understanding. When something is thoroughly understood, the outcome is often described as "illuminating". This is also called genius. Very unfortunately, designer's needs to find it out for themselves, although there is much to light up the way. Including articles such as this. Thank you, Adrian!
Tushar Gupte

i think there is some truth in that - philosophy is a harsh discipline, despite not having much in common with (empirical) hard science. if it teaches anything, it is to be clear and to the point, in the points you make. if there is anything mushy, someone will find it and there goes your point. i found that skill to be beneficial almost everywhere.

there is that wonderful quote from nietzsches second book of "human - all-too-human" (translation my own, i never found it in english): "to improve style is to improve thought." it does not get much clearer (and humbling) than that.

but then, one could find the same conclusion when looking at frazetta paintings: why fuss around when you can make the whole thing straight to the point and in-your-face? another teacher might be mike mignola: why lose oneself in rendering each and every transition when the confident commitment to a definite shape yields so much impact? the best melodies usually are simple. the phrases we laud usually are very direct, with well-chosen words.

while philosophy is a good teacher, my guess is that almost everything can teach confident, almost bold, simplicity when it has this certain quality of unfolding its impact way before rationalizing about its impression even starts.

(theres a phenomenology high-five to daniel, btw - im about to write my masters thesis on husserl)

I HEART Philosophy Bites too, Adrian! I stumbled upon it about a year ago and find it remarkably satisfying as well. I appreciate your own clarity in specifying the value of interrogation for designers. One reference I'd add as a tangent to this discussion is Otl Aicher — design's possibly one and only philosopher. In his essay, "Design and Philosophy" Aicher relates the distinction between philosophy and design. Where philosophy lives as ideas in the mind, design by turn is philosophy manifested as our material world. And it is through the design process itself that the interrogation takes place — more commonly referred to as designing as thinking.
Louise Sandhaus

Louise, thanks for the Aicher reference. I don't know the essay. I will seek it out. Aicher was certainly a master of clarity in his work.
Adrian Shaughnessy

'Design is philosophy manifested as our material world' .... this continues to be a popular idea in graphic design but is rarely backed up with any real philosophical interrogation and is given way too often as a statement of fact (philosophy bites might be at the route of the problem). What about asking how design - specifically typographic design - can also be used to interrogate the ways in which language (via text) can operate in active (anti-material/anti-form) contexts. For instance via the activity of publishing and most recently through routes of digital dissemination. This all maps on to the well-trodden philosophical territory of the shift through structuralism to post-structuralism. Jeffery Keedy's 'Zombie Modernism' essay sums up what continues to be a sticking point in discussions around modes of graphic design thinking.
Ruth Blacksell

Now I can see what I was doing wrong.
My work was more a political statement than a philosophical observation.
Great refreshing post
Hernán A. Osorio

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