Introducing a “research tour” project about the archæology of digital graphic design
It’s been a few years since I wanted to apply for a French research grant from the Cnap – Centre national des arts plastiques. The funding aims to help researchers in the art and design fields to conduct free projects. The grant (between 4000-8000€) is directly awarded to the researcher, which is great as it avoids any administrative mishap. The project must be achieved within 18 months, and be summarized in a short written document.
So what is my topic about? Well, since my Design Ph.D. defended in November 2013, I haven’t stopped to investigate the relationships between design and digital. The last chapter of my Ph.D. was a little bit prospective about the implications of the digital in the fields of interaction and graphic design (type design, OS design, etc.).
Then, after my Ph.D., I started to teach undergraduate graphic and web design classes near Paris. I made a small focus on the culture and the history of the digital by asking my students to design a small website (their first website) about the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture from Fred Turner (2006), translated in French in 2012 by C&F editions. It was one of the only good books available at that time about digital culture.
The student productions were good, but we lacked time to go further. In fact, I couldn’t advise any reads in French about the relationships between graphic design and digital practices. There were indeed some technical resources/manuals or online news blogs, but none of this was relevant to the understanding of the digital and its consequences. As the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA, Montreal, QC) recently said: not only what, but “when is the digital?” In 2015, I started to analyze this subject as we launched Back Office, a research journal, dedicated to these topics. Then, with the great help of my colleagues Kévin Donnot and Élise Gay (E+K), we released the first issue in February 2017 – but that’s another story!
During my Design Ph.D., I’ve explored the English field of the “software studies” (Lev Manovich, Matthew Fuller, etc.), but I didn’t know much, at the time, about digital humanities and media archæology. Thanks to the mentoring of French researcher Yves Citton, I started browsing a broader corpus of English books that I tried to connect with some French theory (Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, etc.). Apart from Back Office, I wrote a book titled Design and Digital humanities between 2015 and 2016, that will be published before the end of 2017.
So, when I applied for the research grant from the Cnap, it was evident for me to think about something deeply connected to my research fields. I gave a lecture in 2016 in Strasbourg (France) about the evolutions of graphical user interfaces (GUI), which tend to be “invisible” (such as voice controlled smart objects). On the other hand, I wanted to go further into the history of digital graphic design. How and when did graphic designers start using computers?
The last step to complete the grant application was to find some archive/research centers to open my investigations outside of the french settings. I was lucky to discover the Herb Lubalin Study Center (NYC) in 2013, which holds a great collection of famous graphic designers, such as Herb Lubalin, Otl Aicher, Karl Gerstner, etc. – so it was a no-brainer to go back there. The CCA (Montreal) can also be seen as a hotspot for the reasons explained above. Another interesting place I’m planning to visit is the Vilém Flusser Archive (Berlin), which owns numerous papers, books, etc. of the Czech-born philosopher (1920-1991).
With these places in mind, I tried to elaborate a kind of “multi-cultural” research- studying how the digital was received and defined in various contexts, both historical and geographical. A good example is the book French Theory. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze et Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis (2003) of the American studies professor François Cusset. In that book, Cusset analyzed the links between the new continental French philosophy, and its reception both inside and outside its homeland. Would it be possible to connect this methodology to design studies?
I applied to the grant in late 2016, and received a positive response in March 2017 for an amount of 6000€ (mostly for travel costs).
Here is the summary of my project:
Shapes of the invisible. Graphic archæology of digital design
By studying the progressive merging of graphic design practices with the emergence of personal computing in the early 1980s, and by linking them with contemporary works, this research project studies different ways of working with the “invisible” nature of the digital. For a decade, design dealt with the rise of algorithmic and automatic creative processes (shapes, layout, colorimetry, etc.). Which lessons can we learn from pioneering approaches today? If the digital was born out of computation, how can graphic design help making these invisible operations visible?
The full application project, in French, can be found there.