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ex nihilo out of nothing

ex nihilo explores the parallels between the philosophy of existential nihilism and minimalist graphic design. This essay briefly surveys existential nihilist philosophy before examining how this philosophy can be applied to designed work. This is not only explained through research, but through analyses of professional work from graphic designers. In addition, an interview with graphic designer Michael Dyer is also documented to further strengthen the arguments made in this essay.

e x nihilo col op hon

designer / author advisors date of publication

typefaces paper stock printing method

james e. bonilla antonio alcalรก / alice powers may 2014

bembo / meta 110 dtc mohawk via smooth bright white this publication was produced using a xerox workcenter laser printer

e x nihilo ta bl e of con t e n t s

1. exordium

something from nothing 1– v

ii. absurdum

the absurdity of a designer’s existence v i –x i

iii. voluntas

the designer’s will to power x i i –x v

iv. libertas

the pursuit of aesthetic freedom x v i –x x i i

v. simplicitas

simplicity through chaos x x i i i –x x x v i i i

vi. nihilitatas

nothingness as a design element x x x i x– l i i i

vii. finis

into the beyond l i v – lv i

colloquium appendices

an interview with michael dyer

i e xo r d i u m something f rom nothing

exordium [beginning] is the introduction to the text of Ex Nihilo. Here, we are given context towards the purpose of this essay, as well as a brief summary of how existential nihilist philosophy relates to minimalist graphic design.

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existential nihilism posits a dangerous idea: life is devoid of meaning and substance. Thus,  mankind’s purpose is to establish that absent 1 meaning in order to define its existence.   This places responsibility on the individual,  because he must be aware of his actions and 2 their ramifications.  Furthermore, his responsibility extends beyond self-reflection and awareness because he is tethered to all of humanity; because the individual is human, he is connected to all humans and his existence 3 informs their own.  This shifts the individual’s role from an internal reflection to an external one.

1. Sartre, Existentialism 36 2. Ibid. 63 3. Ibid. 36

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from the perspective of existential nihilism, graphic design may function as an external reflection. The designer’s overarching purpose is to visually communicate an idea to an audience. More importantly, the designer’s goal is 1 to “eliminate the client’s needs and not serve them.”  The individual exists amidst perpetual chaos, surrounded by the non-essential that is mani2 fest in poorly executed design.  This chaos serves as the catalyst for the nihilist’s basic worldview: that the destruction of all things is the 3 most practical solution to establishing order.   In this sense, it becomes the designer’s role to fashion that order, to create something meaningful from the ashes of destruction.

1. Fronzoni, They 52 2. Munari 43 3. Nietzsche, Will 13

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removing the non-essential leads to the 1 discovery of simplicity,  which contains the potential to create significantly effective visual communication. This establishes a sense of freedom that liberates the individual from the 2 oppression of chaos.  In this regard, the graphic designer’s pursuit of simplicity becomes a solution for the existential nihilist’s absent substance in existence.

1. Gelman, Graphis 22 2. Vignelli, Vignelli Canon 13

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the designer creates “a set of beliefs that manifests itself in the designed object” on behalf of his fellow human. In essence, if the designer practices this methodology, he becomes not only aware, but regulated by the impact and signficance of his actions because he exists in an “environment that has been shaped by people and thus can be 1 changed by people.”

1. Experimental Jetset, “Design Words”

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the absurdity of human existence, selfawareness and reduction are the primary themes within the philosophy of existential nihilism. Minimalist graphic design functions as its parallel, conveying this ideology through visual form by advocating ambiguity and simplicity through the removal of non-essential design elements. As a result, this method of visual communication exercises a series of clear, concise reflections on the nature of humanity that can be developed and applied.

ii a bsu r dum the absurdity of a de signe r ’s existen c e

absurdum [absurdity] discusses the designer’s role from an existential nihilist perspective. In this section, the internal reflection (what it means to be a designer) and the external reflection (the designer’s purpose to his audience) are explored, with an emphasis on determining how a designer can make his work meaningful.

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if the foundation of man’s purpose is to “examine, enlarge and enrich the ephemeral island on 1 which they have just landed ,”  then a designer’s role is more or less the same. Before he develops a solution for a design, the designer must first 2 “experience and describe his message.”  A designer is directly concerned with life; his designs convey messages and ideas that are connected to life in various forms and focused on a diverse 3 range of topics.  It is the designer’s responsibility to experience what it means to exist, for this can potentially inform his designs.

1. Camus 94 2. Ibid. 94 3. Bridgman 26

4. Beauvoir 74

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since existence is mandatory in order to further life, one can assume that the designer will be influenced by living. But what this really suggests is that the designer’s role can extend beyond creating work as a means to an end. If he understands the nature of what he creates and how it pertains to existence, it can humanize his work. By designing for the sake of humanity, he “engages himself in a world in which 1 each object is penetrated with human meanings.”

1. Beauvoir 74

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designing for humanity can be seen as “neither the work considered in isolation, nor the subjective ability to produce... it is the work considered as the to1 tality of the manifestations of the person.”  These manifestations represent not just the designer, but also the world because man is “condemned to exist amongst one another in a precarious, unsettling world” that “offers no truths, but only objects for 2 love.”  The designer may shape his individual existence, but it is those who engage him that confirm his existence and advance his creations.

1. Sartre, Being 4–5 2. Mikics; Zaretsky 203–204

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the connections a designer establishes with his audience is vital because he is part of a network in which all of humanity is inexplicably adhered. He exists in relationship with his fellow humans which formulates the basic fun1 ction of his existence.  The designer’s identity with his own individuality informs his connection to others which affects his work. Graphic design can then be seen as not only a career path, but as a lifestyle that shapes existence be2 cause it “relates oneself to life and a choice of behavior.”

1. Experimental Jetset, “Design Words” 2. Fronzoni, They 4

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the primary function of this form of graphic design is to establish humanity’s cognition through the designer’s work. This suggests that the nature of the work will determine how others will perceive it; the designer becomes responsible for assisting others on their path 1 to self-awareness, in addition to his own.  Thus, the culmination of recognizing oneself forgoes any solitary confinement and becomes a socially-driven decision. This guides the designer to achieving a successful communication that transcends the absurd.

1. Fronzoni, They 4

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according to existential nihilist philosophy,  the designer is an “aesthetically sensitive man”  and “close and willing observer”; his work translates existence into a comprehensible remedy for 1 the absurdity that plagues it.  By reflecting upon these interpretations—that is, the designs he produces—he is prepared to counter the harrowing reality of human existence with his self-awareness. In doing so, he seizes control of his existence and can distribute this power through his aesthetic will.

1. Nietzsche, Writings 34

iii vo l u n t a s the de signe r ’s w ill to powe r

voluntas [power] discusses the designer’s will to power. By establishing his role and purpose as an effective communicator, he becomes self-aware of his potential and cognizant of its effect on his audience.

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the existentialist believes that mankind exists in a world willed by individual thought, not preordained doctrine through other foreign me1 ans.  Parallel to this logic, the designer is set apart from the rest of humanity because he is “fully cognizant of his will to power to give form 2 to things.”  This ability to create can “retain man’s 3 consciousness and solve his precarious nature.” In other words, the designer can be seen as the agent for solving man’s absurd existence because he constructs an alternative realm that establishes meaning in a world that theoretically contains none. This is aligned with Nietzsche’s line of reasoning when he said that “the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon.” 4 1. Beauvoir 17 2. Greiman 12 3. Camus 94

4. Nietzsche, Writings 22

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according to this, the designer is a solitary figure existing on the fringes between two realities: his creative vision, and the world he’s creating for. Through constructing a fictitious world, the designer measures the worth 1 of the world around him by removing himself from isolation and connecting to others through the world he constructs.

1. Nietzsche, Will 11

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the constructed world of a designer is em1 bodied through his creations because they can be tethered to human emotions and represent 2 the “purest reflection humans have of themselves.” 3 In other words, the existentialist’s “objects for love” can function as designed objects created on behalf of humanity. This is based on the theory that turning ideas into designed objects stems from a “primal, human urge” to create 4 and establish order.

1. Experimental Jetset, “ISO50” 2. Greiman 12 3. Mikics; Zaretsky 203–204

4. Experimental Jetset, “Design Words”

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the designer’s intrinsic relationship with the public domain is to create objects that allow 1 them to relate to and understand one another. In this sense, the designer’s will to power isn’t to dominate, but to enhance the world he 2 exists in and bring form to chaos.

1. Experimental Jetset, “Ideology” 2. Bridgman 31

iv li be rta s the pursuit of ae sthetic f reedom

libertas [ freedom] discusses the designer’s pursuit of freedom within design. In this section, the designer is urged to take responsibility for his work and balance his power so it doesn’t turn to chaos. In addition, the method of visual ambiguity is also addressed, as both a functional and aesthetically pleasing principle that creates a limitless amount of possibilities and freedom for the designer. To show this theory in effect, the Dutch design studio Experimental Jetset’s poster Everything That Exists is analyzed.

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the existentialist claims that man’s “condemnation to freedom” forces the individual to be 1 responsible for all of his actions.  This suggests that in order to attain true aesthetic freedom, the designer must establish “boundaries that guarantee his existence” to base all of his creations 2 from.  These boundaries exist so full control and order may be established. This implies that the works of a designer should be rationallybased and logical because it is “erroneous” to behave in a way that would counter these boundaries. Declining these principles of freedom enables arbitrariness, which is absent of discipline and meaning because it is rooted in “ephemer3 ality and shallowness.”

1. Sartre, Existentialism 63 2. Vignelli, Canon 38 3. Ibid. 38

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if the designer’s existential purpose is to attach meaning to his existence, then denying freedom counteracts that. Freedom is an “expansion” of the individual’s existence; it is through freedom that the designer can find the will to create, because he establishes a meaning through his works that “reveals existence as a reason for 1 existing.”  By applying this method to his work,  the designer is encouraged to embrace freedom and all its potential because it can benefit not only his creative integrity, but his audience.

1. Beauvoir 78–80

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freedom can represent a sort of ambiguity within design. Freedom implies limitless possibilities and a potential for both positive and negative outcomes. Ambiguity contains the same presumption: that something can be read in multiple ways, with no definitive answer or meaning attaching itself to 1 the work—“a plurality of meanings.” The individual then adopts the role of the observer, as one who examines the work and interprets its meaning.

1. Vignelli, A–Z 16

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according to the dutch design studio Experimental Jetset, ambiguity exists within the meaninglessness of life and is both “liberating and depressing.1” Their poster Everything That Exists is a direct representation of this ambiguity. The poster was part of the 2007 exhibition Print Run for Charity No. 1046584 at the Kemistry gallery in the United Kingdom. Everything That Exists was displayed amongst a series of other posters created by a diverse group of artists and designers in a charity benefit for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. As such, the central theme of these posters was on the topic of health.

1. Experimental Jetset, “Everything”

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drawing upon their own influences and personal philosophy when creating the Everything That Exists poster, the design studio Experimental Jetset employed the quote from existentialist advocate and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “Everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on living through weakness and dies by accident.” This poignant statement served as the basis for their design and was chosen because the studio believed it “perfectly encapsulated many of the issues” found 1 within existence.

1. Experimental Jetset, “Everything”

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the poster Everything That Exists is stripped to its bare essentials, utilizing nothing but clean typography and a vast amount of negative space as its dominant visual elements. The poster makes use of only one color: a bold, hot pink that demands as much attention from its viewer as the statement itself. The poster is divided by a jagged tear in the center, suggesting that it’s been torn in half. This was done in an effort to show “the abyss existing be1 neath the page,”  a direct allusion to the concept of nothingness.

1. Experimental Jetset, ‘Everything’

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through negative space, Experimental Jetset’s poster Everything That Exists conveys the existentialist’s eternal problem of meaninglessness; the viewer is at first drawn to the piece through its bold content before becoming pulled into its void of nothingness. This can be symbolic of the inevitability of life and death within existence: the viewer’s senses are awakened and activated by the life of the color within the poster, but then eventually fade away within the void of negative space the longer one gazes upon its emptiness. This confirms the aforementioned principle of existential nihilism: that the responsibility to shape one’s existence rests upon the individual first and foremost because “the essence of the 1 human being is suspended in his freedom.”

1. Sartre, Existentialism 113

v si m plic i ta s simplic ity through chaos

simplicitas [simplicity] discusses the contrasts between simplicity and chaos, and how a parallel can be found between them; removing the non-essential to achieve a balanced design. In addition, the idea that simplicity cannot exist without some form of chaos existing at its foundation is also explored. To strengthen this theory in effect, German design studio Zwölf ’s album cover design of Half-Skull and Peter Saville’s album cover design of Unknown Pleasures are analyzed.

v si m plic i ta s c apitulum xxiii

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through his free will, the designer chooses to exist within an environment that is shaped by chaos. But he can bend this chaos to his will; chaos is what drives existential nihilism’s 1 advocacy for destruction.  The squalor of his aesthetic environment provokes him to construct rational, structured design as a reaction 2 to these tumultuous conditions.  If simplicity is the aesthetic representation of this structure, then by that logic, simplicity is conceived through chaos.

1. Nietzsche, Will 13 2. Tschichold 12

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often in a designer’s realm, chaos can be found through the process of creation. Contrary to what one may believe, the path to simplicity is far more complex than 1 the result itself.  Many potential solutions may be explored, exhausted and scrapped before achieving a final result.

1. Gelman, Subtraction 12

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the chaotic process to simplicity is essential to Berlin-based graphic design studio Zwölf ’s design development. Employing a wide range of experimental and alternative methods to design, they embrace the chaos of their process. The result leads to a wellexecuted, thoughtful design that is reductive in its delivery, but layered with complexity through an underlying conceptual foundation.

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zwölf’s process from chaos to simplicity can be seen in the album packaging they made for the album Half-Skull by the drone group Ruin (top left). The music itself is chaotic in its own way, containing layers of dark, brooding soundscapes. In order to effectively convey the grim nature of this album, Zwölf explored a series of experiments with a variety of media (middle left). These media pulled from numerous, unconventional sources, such as blood, aspirin, cigarette ash, vodka, fat and others. They were applied to individual squares of cardboard (bottom left), each representing their respective tracks. They were then layered together to form the final, ominous black square that would become the album cover.

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through an interweaving of various materials, Zwölf ’s solution to Ruin’s album cover (xxvi) was to form a black square of nothingness—the epitome of chaos merging into simplicity. Sparse amounts of type are used within the album, serving a more utilitarian purpose. The main focus is dependent upon the impact of the negative space and the materials used to create the individual squares.

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while the music itself is minimal and abstract, the conceptual nature of Ruin’s album (xxvi)  is a dark journey into the depths of torment and suffering. From an existential nihilist’s perspective, it can almost be read as a commentary on the absence of meaning within existence. The design of the album supports that claim, the black square acting as a foreboding omen to the dark side of humanity. Through the absence of any conventional imagery or typography (apart from the track names and other general text), the album design succeeds in conveying the nature of the music effectively and simply through a chaotic process.

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simplicity and chaos are absolutes at either end of the spectrum of existence, constantly at odds with one another. These two contrasting forms are reliant upon the “negation of the 1 world for its forward movement.”  The two coexist in an aesthetic union that is both paradoxical and harmonious: if no opposing force challenged their respective existence, they would cease to exist as a functional principle.

1. Greiman 13

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graphic design work can only be reduced if there is something to extract from it first— “a being by which nothingness comes to things.” Without some form of chaos at its foundation, the design can’t be reduced because there is nothing to reduce. In essence, simplicity cannot exist without chaos, for one always 1 defines the other.

1. Sartre, Existentialism 109

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the designer manipulates the chaos of his existence through reduction, a method which is not “based on the way [something] looks, but on the process of creating something [by eliminating] un1 necessary elements and steps.”  In essence, it is through “thoughtful reduction” that simplicity can 2 be attained.

1. Gelman, Graphis 22 2. Maeda 1

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this reduction may be aligned with the nihilist properties of deconstructionism, to put one’s 1 “shoulder to the plough and to destroy.”  This entropy represents the “conceptual demonstration of 2 chaos”, whose “final destination is the chaotic world.” By deconstructing the object, the designer is removing all non-essential items that impede his audience’s perception of the work. Through this he provides a clear, concise view of the work and creates meaningful in3 formation from the “meaninglessness of chaos.”

1. Nietzsche, Will 13 2. Hara 9–10 3. Ibid. 10

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the cover for joy division’s album Unknown Pleasures is a paragon of reductive design. Released in 1979, it has become one of the more iconic pieces of graphic design, largely due to the enigmatic image on the cover. The design of the cover and sleeve-packaging was handled by Peter Saville, who would later become known for his work with Factory Records and subsequent Joy Division material.

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the image depicted on the cover of Unknown Pleasures (xxxiii) is a series of thin, inverted lines that form a sort of waveform membrane. The image was previously constructed of black lines on a white background, but this was 1 changed by Saville during the design process.   This resulted in a dramatic shift that evoked the darker nature of the album through an activation of the negative space.

1. Saville, “YouTube”

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this image on the cover of Unknown Pleasures (xxxiii) is enveloped in a vast sea of blackness, almost appearing infinite, the waveform image equivalent to an abandoned vessel floating within dead space. No typography or other identifying content is displayed, which is an unconventional move in a field where clarity is essential. The removal of the typography denies the most direct form of communication and embraces abstraction. The cover demands attention, forcing the viewer to reflect on the ominous and conceptual nature of this image, as one might with a work of art .

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the iconic graphic (xxxiii) on the cover of Unknown Pleasures—taken from The Cambridge Encylopedia of Astronomy—is the waveform of the first radio pulsar psr b1919+21, discovered in 1 1967 by astrophysicist Jocelyn Burnell. A pulsar is a neutron star reeling in the aftermath of a supernova, essentially making it a product of chaos. Through this destruction of a greater whole,  a simplified creation is developed and exists within the realm of nothingness. This pulsar can represent the conflagration that propels the 2 creative urge within the designer.

1. Burnell 2. Greiman 82

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in essence, the image of the pulsar functions as the album’s visual culmination. The pulsar is the remnant of a dying star within the sphere of deep space—the purest form of the void. The cover achieves the same result, engulfing its image within a black emptiness, the negative space signifying the negation of meaning through reduction of form. Parallel to how the creation of a pulsar, the cover represents simplicity in the wake of a visceral chaos: the negative space is awakened through the 1 power of the solitary image.

1. Robertson; Saville, Afterzine 13

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the removal of all other elements on the cover of Unknown Pleasures (xxxiii) was a decision consciously enforced by the band members of Joy Division and the designer Peter Saville. The band’s focus while creating the album was to establish an atmosphere with their work as opposed to communicating their identity;  it “wasn’t cool” to have their name on the front, because it was a distraction from the 1 music itself. In this way, Saville communicates the album’s intended message effectively through reductive methods. The album cover is an exercise in removing the non-essential, using both the absence of color and reduction of form and content to communicate the tone of the album before the music is even heard.

1. Saville, “YouTube”

vi n i h i li tata s nothingne ss a s a de sign element

nihilitatas [nothingness] discusses how negative space is evocative of nothingness. The role of black and white as powerful tools within negative space is also explored—how negative space is defined by the placement of positive elements. To strengthen this theory in effect, Italian designer AG Fronzoni’s poster Un Raggio di Sole and designer Helen Yentus’ book cover designs for Albert Camus’ works are analyzed.

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the essence of existential nihilism is based on the absurdity between absolutes, especially with the concept of nothingness and being. If being represents existence and life, then nothingness represents the absence of that— non-being; nothingness represents where existence ends and begins.

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it’s suggested that nothingness is somewhat of a paradox because it is “being... first posited, 1 then denied.” Similar to how simplicity cannot exist without chaos, nothingness cannot exist without being at its foundation because it is “neither before nor after or outside of being... 2 nothingness is coiled within the heart of being.”  This expands its boundaries to infinite depths, providing “a space within which [the designer’s] imagination can run free, vastly enriching [his] 3 powers of perception and mutual comprehension.” In other words, nothingness is sustained by the being of human existence, so it can contain a limitless amount of potential.

1. Sartre, Being 47 2. Ibid. 55 3. Hara 60

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nothingness can be applied visually through two principles: the absence of color (black and white) and negative space. These two principles often function in tandem, “demarcating 1 the extreme poles in a space.”  Color is nothing more than a series of abstractions until form is 2 attached.  Their visual context is determined by how they’re portrayed, whether through an individual element or as a blank platform for 3 other elements.  Equivalently, without color or form to define it, negative space simply ceases to exist on a tangible level since there is nothing to shape its existence. It is only through the nature of its environment and supplemental content that it becomes representational of something else. 1. Fronzoni, They 45 2. Sartre, Being 33 3. Hara 03–04

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black and white act as the foundational elements of color. They are absolutes at either end of the spectrum, much like chaos and simplicity. In this sense, they can represent a fundamental principle of existential nihilism; their conflicting nature represents the tension between something and nothing. Black and white are perpetually in conjunction with one another because of their need for each other. Their coexistence creates an equilibrium of form and a union of aesthetic harmony. It is through the tension of these opposing forces that balanced design can be created.

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both black and white represent a “precious bond which doesn’t enrich the work but reveals its essential shape... it keeps the counterpoint between 1 order and chaos, a tension that creates energy. ” Black is devoid of color, embodying a power and strength that launches it “beyond any tolerable measure” and into the depths of the infinite. This contains the potential to be a destructive force that swallows the design with its vast 2 darkness; non-design manifest.  In this way,  black acts as a direct parallel to “non-being”.

1. (de Batté 2. Fronzoni, They 50

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white is attained through both the culmination of all colors or through through their re1 moval.  Whereas black may embody themes of destruction, darkness and negation, white evokes cleanliness, purity and emptiness. Through this empty nature of white, it becomes a 2 “symbol of non-being.” This emptiness functions separately from black, white appearing more tranquil and less consuming than the emptiness of black. White evokes a sense of freedom and can contain “spatial and temporal principles” while still maintaining a quality of non3 existence.  Compositionally, white can represent the blank slate from which a designer’s creations emerge. In this case, nothingness is embedded within the design itself as a means of creation. 1. Hara 08 2. Ibid. 36 3. Ibid. 08

vi n i h i li tata s c apitulum xlv

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the majority of designer AG Fronzoni’s work is embodied within the frame of nothingness. Through a career that spanned nearly 60 years, Fronzoni created a wide range of posters, identities and other designs for a multitude of clients. His exhibiton posters in particular are the quintessence of a minimalist, graphic aesthetic. These posters were ultra-reductive, the negative space almost completely encompassing the piece. He was a firm believer in the removal of the non-essential, always striving for “an aim at essential things, to remove every 1 redundant effects... to avoid waste and excess.”  For him, the absence of color and the embrace of nothingness was the ultimate means of achieving pure simplicty. Black and white functioned as the backbone and visual language 2 for the majority of his designs. 1. Fronzoni, “Philosophy” 2. Fronzoni, They 45

vi n i h i li tata s c apitulum xlv i

xlvi e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i


fronzoni’s affinity for black and white (xlv) is exemplified in his poster Un Raggio di Sole [A Ray of Sunshine]. The poster details nothing more than a simple line of text at its center, the negative space seizing precedence. It’s an exercise in extreme reductive design, the only content floating delicately within the space of the black void that engulfs it. By removing all other unnecessary items, Fronzoni has placed the focus upon the communication first and foremost. This activates the content floating in the center as the sole, essential element within the work, the negative space surrounding the line of text merely a supplemental element. It guides the viewer to the content while still remaining aesthetically pleasing and ambiguous enough to attach whatever meaning one wishes.

vi n i h i li tata s c apitulum xlv ii

xlvii e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i


un raggio di sole  (xlvi) illustrates how negative space can be a very powerful device. In addition to isolating the primary content, it [negative space] can function as the act of drawing attention to something one normally wouldn’t see— engaging with the space existing around the 1 content rather than the content itself.  This suggests that black and white are only pure nothingness when they are in solitude. It is the other elements within their proximity that define their existence.

1. Robertson; Noma Bar 47

vi n i h i li tata s c apitulum xlv iii

xlviii e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i


between 2006–07, Vintage International re-released the entire catalogue of existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Armed with a brand new design aesthetic by Helen Yentus, the cover designs of these books epitomized the nature of the existentialist philosophy. All the covers were executed through the use of three reductive principles: black and white, basic shapes and a harmony between negative space and form.  The result was a homage to early Modernist principles merged with a contemporary edge for a new audience.

vi n i h i li tata s c apitulum xlix

xlix e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i


gestalt plays a pivotal role in these covers, (xlviii) akin to the exercises one may learn in design school. The use of proximity, continuance, similarity and enclosure principles are all employed, representing the various themes found within the written words of Camus. These shapes and forms establish a sense of ambiguity that can create a variety of meanings through abstraction and reduction. The viewer is encouraged to determine the purpose of these ambiguous shapes and their relationship to the content.

vi n i h i li tata s c apitulum l

l e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i


much like the written works of Camus, these covers (xlviii) evoke a sense of loss and detachment, allusions to the meaninglessness of existence. In the cover for The Fall, for instance,  we can see a series of black and white squares layered on top of one another, suggesting a sort of descenion into the void. The stark contrast of the black and white forms in these covers establish an interplay of something being created from nothing, forcing the viewer to attach meaning to the work and question his own understanding of the image.

vi n i h i li tata s c apitulum li

li e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i


in arguably camus’ most recognized work, The Stranger, the protagonist Mersault deals with a variety of tragic incidents, progressively growing more detached from the world around him as he descends deeper and deeper into the depths within himself and the chaos of his existence. Mersault counteracts this by accepting the meaninglessness of life. By succumbing to the absurdity of his existence, he denies any sort of fulfillment. This ultimately leads to his total isolation and destruction.

vi n i h i li tata s c apitulum lii

lii e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i


the cover of The Stranger acts as a parallel to its’  story. We can see a variety of black, angular strokes all converging on one point, asymmetrically centered on the page. These can represent the life and daily struggles surrounding Mersault on his descent into nothingness, as the convergence of these forms highlights the negative space as an isolated point. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to that one specific point automatically,  implying that the negative space and minimal typography represent the protagonist surrounded by his troubles.

vi n i h i li tata s c apitulum liii

liii e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i


the cover of The Stranger (lii) suggests that if black and white or negative space had no other elements to inform their surroundings, they would become an empty void. In the same sense, if the designer had no audience to design for, he would have nothing to base his existence and creations upon; his role would be rendered meaningless. Just as the existential nihilist’s existence is defined by his fellow human, the designer’s role is defined by his audience.

vii finis into the be yond

in finis [conclusion], closing arguments are made, urging designers to consider applying this method to their own work.

vii finis c apitulum liv

liv e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i i


with a foundation of existential nihilism, the graphic designer’s role can serve a higher, yet onerous purpose: to establish meaning to existence, to guide one’s audience through life in various ways and to connect humanity to one another through a structured, visual language.  Graphic design is among the many methods of communication that provide order where chaos reigns. At the heart of design lies a will to communicate the ideas humanity attempts empts to build in order to improve existence. If humanity’s intrinsic desire is to strive for excellence and order, then applying this philosophy to graphic design can function as a means for achieving it.

vii finis c apitulum lv

lv e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i i


the density of existential nihilism often leads to the assumption that it coexists with pessimism. On the contrary, existential nihilism is not a meditation over the meaninglessness 1 of existence, but rather a solution for it.  While the philosophy forces the individual to be self-aware and cognizant of the inherent meaninglessness of things, this doesn’t suggest that one must dwell there. Instead, existential nihilism encourages the individual to take responsibility for one’s existence and devise solutions for life’s problems.

1. Nierzsche, Will 13

vii finis c apitulum lv i

lvi e x nihilo c a p i t u lu m v i i


the endurance of humanity is reliant upon a series of basic interactions and conventions; this method of graphic design is a way of bringing life to those conventions. If the designer applies this method to his work, he can establish meaning to existence, thus providing the solution for the existential nihilist’s problem and potentially benefiting mankind.

viii colloqu i um an inte r v ie w w ith michael dye r

michael dyer is the principal designer and founder of Remake Design, a graphic design studio based in Brooklyn, New York. Since 2004, Remake has provided design solutions for a wide range of diverse clients through a strong catalogue of refined, thoughtful and intellectually-driven work. Their conceptual and aesthetic approach is aligned with some of the key themes discussed within this essay, which is why I was very pleased to have him participate; Michael’s insights were an invaluable addition that strengthened and provided a unique perspective to this topic. This interview was conducted through a series of email conversations between January 30–31, 2014.

ja mes bonill a quæ st io i

a large portion of your work embodies a distinctive, reductive approach (i.e. the branding and identity for Judd Foundation). What are the challenges of using this minimalist approach? Is this determined by the nature of your clients’ and their work, or from a personal aesthetic choice?

(see reverse side for answer)

michael dyer dic e n du m i

the most challenging aspect of this approach is not having much to hide behind when the design is mediocre. Reduction places a premium on the quality of decisions and their resulting outcomes. What you are working with gains in significance as you eliminate that which you are not working with. When reductive or “minimal” work is badly done, it’s apparent, and immediately so.  Say you have one dot on a page and it’s in the wrong place. There isn’t much to notice except that the dot is in the wrong place then—using no distracting elements means you have to be very careful about what you are doing. What I’ve been referring to focuses on the formal aspects of design I suppose, but this applies to the conceptual aspects as well. Weak “minimal” work exposes deficient quality in thought as well as form. This approach is determined by me, and the choice is as much philosophical as aesthetic. With some clients (Judd Foundation, for example) the overlap between our approaches is very precise. This is wonderful when it happens but is not a necessary condition for creating good work.

(see reverse side for question)

jb quæ st io i i

on your website, you state that “successful design endures because it is based on the elemental and essential.” How do you determine what is essential and non-essential during your design process? How does this process differ between projects?

(see reverse side for answer)

md dic e n du m i i

this is something that, for me, is determined by trial and error and improves with time and experience. The classic—and not incorrect—line on this is you take things away and see if your design still works, or works better, as a result.  That said, this general type of thinking is oversimplified. It positions “minimal”  and “decorative”, for example, as poles on a linear continuum, and that is an inaccurate and unhelpful construct. There is a lot of work in the worlds of architecture and art that make it very easy to look past this ultra-simplified dualism. And there is of course nothing really minimal about so-called “minimal”  work, really—this is the point made by the artists who were given (and disliked)  that label. A poster by AG Fronzoni, say, is actually a very complex thing. My own determination as to what is and what is not essential is more subjective than not. I go by feel. Perhaps the best way to explain it is that, in all projects,  I believe a certain atmosphere wants to be realized. So you look at your decisionmaking process through that lens: does this help to realize that atmosphere,  or does it inhibit it? I could never put this type of language on my site which is largely speaking to clients, so I use slightly altered concepts and terminology.  But this is how I think about it, and it does not really differ between projects.  It’s the atmosphere that will be different, not the process. The process is just how I naturally work and it’s far sloppier than I care to admit.

(see reverse side for question)

jb quæ st io i i i

you also state on your website that “conceptual thinking and a commitment to precision go hand-in-hand.” Could you provide more insight on how these two principles function together in your work?

(see reverse side for answer)

md dic e n du m i i i

well, again, the language on the site is directed at clients, so that has to be understood as the audience and reason for the tone. The key idea here is that quality of thinking and validity of concept need considered expression in order to be plausible and legitimate. And it works the other way around, of course: precision and refinement devoid of any thought are meaningless. A lot of bad  “minimal” design suffers from this.

(see reverse side for question)

jb quĂŚ st io i v

the removal of superfluous objects is an integral factor in both the philosophy of existential nihilism and in minimalist graphic design. In what ways do you think this philosophy could be reflected in your work?

(see reverse side for answer)

md dic e n du m i v

that is an extraordinarily difficult question. I think it also depends on whose philosophy you are referring to; Schopenhauer and Sartre, despite commonalities of a sort, reached very different conclusions. Perhaps the thing that can be discussed is the creation of meaning. Leaving aside whether meaning is something that is inherent versus projected, in general,  let’s assume that meaning can be created in specific circumstances or acts. In this context, intent and concentration become determining factors; intent because it is a fundamental requirement in the generation of meaning, and concentration because it provides an index of how meaningful something is. If this is acceptable, I suppose there is a case to be made for “minimal” design embodying a high concentration of meaning, because it is realized in fewer elements. Fewer components would carry proportionally greater meaning and, one could argue, the intent is therefore more direct and clearer. Now I’m not sure this is true in my work—or anyone else’s—but it’s something to consider.

(see reverse side for question)

jb quæ st io v

one of the fundamentals of existential nihilism is the desire to establish meaning in an existence that theoretically contains none. From a designer’s perspective, this can be achieved by the client and designer working together as one unit towards the same goal. This is parallel to a statement you made on your website about sharing a “holistic approach” with your clients. How does that approach apply to this theory?

(see reverse side for answer)

md dic e n du m v

well, perhaps my last response answered this question better than the question to which it was responding. I would take your second point and go back at least one step: a client is not a requirement for establishing meaning, although I am sometimes hesitant about self-initiated work done by designers. And I think the true relationship of a designer and client is not always that of working as a single unit, nor is that really always desirable. The friction between conflicting viewpoints can generate meaning as effectively as consonance. There are many paths to the creation of meaning, even accidental ones. But, to your point about the word “holistic” in this context—with my usual caveats about language used on the site—the intent here was to suggest that the dialogue with clients is valuable, and tends to create better work when it is embraced,  intelligently and critically of course. I also meant for this word to suggest that the entire process—from the earliest discussions to the final physical fabrication details—is important to the quality of, and meaning originating in, any good piece of design. The notion that there is no Meaning is perhaps somewhat circular, because we create meaning. If one is especially religious, the thought that Meaning does not exist independent of human thought and action is intimidating and understandably so. But I think that design operates in a smaller field, semi-independent of that larger question. “Culture” is as much of a construct as meaning and it cannot be pointed to any more easily, but it undoubtedly exists. So then this leads back to the qualitative metric—so we can create meaning, but how meaningful is what we have created? (see reverse side for question)

a ppe n dice s

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s


This project, though autonomously-driven, was made in participation with The Corcoran College of Art + Design, two of their instructors and a handful of very helpful contributors. Through their guidance, support, and patience, I was able to create a project that not only encapsulated all the principles discussed within this essay, but display them in an aesthetically-pleasing fashion. My unconditional gratitude goes out to the following individuals:

antonio alcalá, for his sharp attention to detail, thoughtful consideration and his constant efforts to challenge how I approached graphic design. The visual execution you see here would not have been possible without his invaluable perceptions. alice powers, for her incredible literacy, editing and word structure skills. Her eye for misspellings, grammatical errors and awkwardly-crafted sentences forced me to re-evaluate how I approach writing and research. This essay is much more organized and concise than anything I’d conceived previously; I owe it to her for helping me realize that removing the non-essential can apply to writing as much as design. michael dyer, for taking the time out of his schedule to answer my questions. His insights not only validated the points made within this essay, but raised compelling, new perspectives on the subject. lita ledesma, who, as a Corcoran alumni familiar with the nature of this project, assisted tremendously with her firsthand experience. Her patience and constant support as I generated, explained and complained about ideas while writing the essay was invaluable during those sleepless and eternal nights during the writing process. dad, for supporting me throughout my undergraduate years and building a 7 ft’ tall monolith structure (using my sketch as his only basis for construction) for the exhibition portion of this project—within one day. and to everyone else; my friends, colleagues, fellow students, faculty and family members. Your assistance, support and encouragement is greatly appreciated and does not go unnoticed.

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s


selected bibliography de Batté, Daniele. “TxT”. Daniele de Batté. n.d., n.p. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. Accessed 10.7.13 de Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. new york: kensington publishing corp, 1976. Print. Bailey, Stuart (editor); Bridgman, Roger (contributor).  Dot Dot Dot, Issue X: “I’m Frightened”. the hague: dot dot dot magazine, 2001. Print. Burnell, Jocelyn. “Cosmic  Search, Vol. 1, No. 1”. Big Ear. Sep. 2004, Cosmic Quest Inc. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. Accessed 10.7.13.


Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. new york: vintage international, 1983. Print.


Experimental Jetset. “Design Words”.  Experimental Jetset, Jul. 2010. Web. Accessed 10.7.13. Experimental Jetset. “Design & Ideology”.  Experimental Jetset, Sep. 2008. Web. Accessed 10.7.13. Experimental Jetset. “Everything That Exists”.  Experimental Jetset, Sep. 2007. Web. Accessed 10.7.13. Experimental Jetset. “iso50 Interview”.  Experimental Jetset, Nov. 2009. Web. Accessed 10.7.13.

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s


selected bibliography Fronzoni, AG. “Philosophy”. AG Fronzoni. n.d., n.p. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. Accessed 10.21.13 Fronzoni, AG. They Thought I Was Crazy, But They Went Along With It. baden, switzerland:  lars müller publishers, 1998. Print.


Gelman, Alexander. Graphis 347, Vol. 59 Sep–Oct.  new york:  graphis, inc., 2003. Print. Gelman, Alexander. Subtraction.  céligny, switzerland:  rotovision sa, 2000. Print. Greiman, April. Something From Nothing.  céligny, switzerland:  rotovision sa, 2002. Print.


Hara, Kenya. White. zurich, switzerland:   lars müller publishers, 2010–12. Print.


Maeda, John. The Laws of Simplicity.  cambridge, ma:  mit press, 2006. Print. Mendell, Pierre. At First Sight. baden, switzerland:   lars müller publishers, 2007. Print. Mikics, David; Zaretsky, Robert. Virginia Quarterly, Spring 2013: ‘From Solitude to Solidarity’. charlottesville, va:   virginia quarterly review, 2013. Print. Munari, Bruno. Design as Art.  london:  penguin books ltd., 2008. Print.

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s


selected bibliography Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings. new york:   modern library/random house, inc., 2000. Print. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power.  new york:  barnes & noble, inc., 2006. Print.


Robertson, Hamish (editor); Saville, Peter; Noma Bar (contributors). Afterzine, Vol. 1.  new york:  brown griffin, llc., 2010. Print.


Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being & Nothingness.  new york:  washington square press, 1992. Print. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Essays in Existentialism.  new york:  citadel press, 1988. Print. Saville, Peter. “On Design of Unknown Pleasures”. YouTube. Jun. 2010. Web. Accessed 10.7.13. Saville, Peter. “Peter Saville”. YouTube. Nov. 2008. Web. Accessed 10.7.13.


Tschichold, Jan. The New Typography. california:   university of california press, 2006. Print.


Vignelli, Massimo. A–Z. victoria, australia:  image publishing group, 2007. Print. Vignelli, Massimo. Vignelli Canon. baden, switzerland:  lars müller publishers, 2010. Print.

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s

image bibliography xvi ‘Everything That Exists’ Exhibition Poster experimental jetset / 2007

xxvi Half-Skull Album Packaging for Ruin zwölf / 2010

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s

selected bibliography xxvii Half-Skull Album Packaging for Ruin zwรถlf / 2010

xxxiii Unknown Pleasures Album Cover for Joy Division peter saville / 1979

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s

selected bibliography xxxiv Pulsar Waveforms of PSR B1919+21 from The Cambridge Encylopedia of Astronomy jocelyn burnell / 1967

xlvi ‘Un Raggio di Sole’ Exhibition Poster ag fronzoni / 1980

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s

image bibliography xlviii Albert Camus Cover Designs for Vintage Books helen yentus / 2006–07

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s

image bibliography xlviii Albert Camus Cover Designs for Vintage Books helen yentus / 2006–07

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s

image bibliography xlviii Albert Camus Cover Designs for Vintage Books helen yentus / 2006–07

e x nihilo a p p e n dic e s

selected bibliography l Albert Camus Cover Designs for Vintage Books helen yentus / 2006–07

Ex Nihilo (Out of Nothing)  

Ex Nihilo explores the parallels between the philosophy of existential nihilism and minimalist graphic design. This essay briefly surveys ex...

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