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J o h



n 9

D r u c k 9 r


D3 SIGN theory


and others authors


J o








D r u c k 9 r


Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Lisbon; Communication design // 1ยบ Semester Docente: Pedro Almeida


Lisboa, Portugal.



D 3 SIGN theory â • and others authors



i n d e}




v i e w

Brief apresentation of Johanna Drucker

Page: 9

“ 8

Barthes; Roland

Saussure; De Ferdinand

Lupton; Ellen

Pages: 10 e 19

Pages: 11

Pages: 12, 15, 16, 17.

McLuhan; Marshall Pages: 13, 20, 21, 22.


with n

n 9

D r u c k 9 r


Macedo; Newton De

McCoy; Katerine

Moura; Mário

Pages: 14

Pages: 18

Pages: 23, 25, 26

Pages: 27


J o h 9




8 10

J o h 9n n 9

D r u c k 9 r



associate professor in the art history department at Yale University, Where she taught contemporary art theory. She is currently chairing a graduate program at Suny/ Purchase devoted to the theory of art and design. Her publications include T h e a l p h a b e t i c L a b y r i n t h (Thames and Hudson, 1995) and

The visible Word ( University

of Chicago Press, 1994). She is also ell known for her




9 11

12 10

Why is theor y useful in the teaching and practice of art and design?



It lets you see that there are ways to talk about things at a level that articulates the ways in which meaning is produced, It is a


not just what meaning is produced ple

of the

In a nontheoretical reading




Here is a simple exam-

you understand that the meaning

STOP sign is an imperative command that you

, as a socialized

, you would describe the relation between “material codes of production” (the shape of the sign, color, conventions, placement, size, et cetera) and the “production of meaning in a social system ” Having distinguished these two things – material codes and prodution of meaning – you could begin a critical analysis


In a theoretical reading


of the variety of relations between these two aspects of any sign in different historical or cultural circumstances


“...uma metalinguagem é um sistema cujo plano do conteúdo é ele próprio constituído por um sistema de significação; ou ainda, é uma semiótica que trata de uma semiótica.”, “É evidente que a semiologia é uma metalinguagem, visto que se encarrega a título de sistema segundo de uma metalinguagem primeira (ou linguagem-objecto) que é o sistema estudado; e este sistema objecto é significado através da metalinguagem da semiologia. A noção de metalinguagem não deve ser reservada para as linguagens científicas...é o caso, por exemplo, do jornal de Moda que “fala” as significações do vestuário; caso ideal contudo, porque o jornal não apresenta geralmente um discurso puramente denotado; portanto, para concluir, temos aqui um conjunto complexo em que a linguagem, no seu nível denotado, é metalinguagem, mas em que essa metalinguagem por sua vez fica presa num processo de conotação: em princípio não há nada que impeça que uma metalinguagem se transforme por sua vez na linguagem-objecto de uma nova metalinguagem; seria o caso da semiologia, por exemplo, no dia em que fosse “falada” por uma outra ciência...” 10 12

Barthes, Roland; Elementos de Semiologia, Edições 70

13 Let me take a reactionary approach. Theory also establishes a vocabulary that tends to be exclusionar y; it is a foreign, even nonsencial, language.

Those things are true,


but you have to realize that the language

of THEORY is not the same as the content of THEORY. When people first learn THEORY, they get confused as to whether they’re learning a language or a set of ideas. Within the academy, the use of esoteric


language is

rewarded with prestigious positions at prestigious institutions. I think it’s best to speak THEORY in the vernacular – to just use ordinary language to talk about things that THEORY gives you acess to.

“...supõe que as ideias são anteriores ás palavras...”, “signo linguístico une um conceito e uma imagem acústica...O carácter psíquico das nossas imagens acústicas surge...quando...podemos falar connosco ou recitar mentalmente um poema.”, “O signo linguístico é uma entidade psíquica de duas faces...”, “ Esta definição levanta um importante problema de terminologia. Chamamos signo à combinação do conceito e da imagem acústica; mas no uso corrente este termo designa geralmente só a imagem acústica...”, “O laço que une o significante ao significado é arbitrário...”, “É porque o signo é arbitrário que ele só aceita a lei da tradição, e é porque se baseia na tradição que pode ser arbitrário.” Saussure, De Ferdinand; Curso de Linguística Geral

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W h y r e t a i n a n y t e r m s f r o m t h e l a n g u a g e o f t h e o r y, t h e n ?

There are certain terms that come out of theory-speak, such as



“subjectivity”, that are

useful. Nothing else serves as a good shorthand for those concepts. You could talk about them, but it would require more explanation. I remember the first time I read a book by

Derrida, I just wanted to

throw it across the room. I thought, Why is this guy bothering to do this? And then you make your way through it.

“Deconstruction, like critical strategies based on Marxism, feminism, semiotics, and antropology, focuses not on the themes and imagery of its objects but rather on the linguistic and institutional systems that frame their production.”, “ How the external image of things get inside their internal essence? How does the surface get under the skin? Western culture since Plato has been governed by such oppositions as reality/representation, inside/outside, original/copy and mind/body.(...) Desconstruction attacks such opositions by showing how the devalued, negative concept inhabits the valued, positive one.”, “A crucial oposition for Derrida is speech/writing. The western philosophical tradition has denigrated writing as an inferior copy of the spoken Word. Speech draws on interior consciousness, but writing is dead and abstract. Writing sets language adrift, untehering it from the speaking subject. In the process of embodying language, writing steals its soul. Contrary to this view, deconstruction looks at writing as an active form of representation. Writing is not merely a bad copy, a faulty transcription, of the spoken word; writing invades thought and speech, transforming the sacred realms of memory, Knowledge, and spirit.” 12 14

Lupton, Ellen; Writing Design Research; Phaidon.

15 It is like reading a novel in a foreign language. It takes months to get through a book that would ordinarily take a week.


But after a couple of year s can read those novels in a week. And the same t h i n g h a p p e n s w i t h t h e o r y l a n g u a g e . Yo u g e t g o o d a t i t . B u t I t h i n k



at this stage is to translate

WIDER AUDIENCE. theory for a

“ Suponhamos que alguém substituía as riscas e as estrelas da nossa bandeira por um pedaço de tecido onde aparecia escrito bandeira americana. Embora ambos os símbolos transmitissem o mesmo sentido, o efeito seria bastante diferente. Traduzir para a forma escrita o rico mosaico visual das riscas e estrelas implicaria despojá-lo de grande parte das suas qualidades de experiência e de imagem colectiva, embora o vínculo literal abstracto permanecesse quase igual.”, McLuhan, Marshall; Compreender os Meios de Comunicação Extensões do Homem, Relógio d’Água.

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16 Can you give an example ?


If you’re trying to raise the consciousness of

young women,

for instance, you might talk about things like

beauty contests or the

sex industry.

You could ask: What is excluded by the fact that beauty is so highly valued in our culture? And likewise, questioning the sex industry: Who’s really making Money off it, and how does that system work? Why is it that sexindustry jobs are the one type of work available to women in our culture

where they can make quick,

easy money?

What does that say about this culture?

“Deconstruction can be used in feminism in many ways. It can be used to denote new meaning for the feminism and feminist theory itself. It can also be used to criticize masculinist contexts or to negate, dismiss or censor the concept feminism and lastly be used in the reinscription and redeployment of the feminist concept.”, “Many feminists believe that feminist politics should be focusing on deconstruction, so that they can change the traditional stereotyping of women.”, “takes the idea of binary opposition further by commenting that women are always the other. Active/passive, culture/nature, strong/weak, all the first ones of these pairs represent the man and are meant to be the ‘norm’ from which the second part deviates.”

14 16

17 Does graphic design require a theoretical foundation?

On one level,


absolutely NOT.

I don’t think theory is ever going to make somebody better at creating a printed page,

I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me, a Web page, an object, or anything else. Now,

who think theory is a useful creative tool. I don’t believe that. People who work from a theoretical perspective, whether it’s in design or the visual arts, often do very stilted, self-conscious work that ultimately is only an illustration of the theoretical position.

“Theory can function both constructively, as a tool for generating design ideas, and analytically, as an evaluation method.”, “...If Lubalin and other protagonists of the “big idea” aproach to design worked intuitively, why, then, does theory matter?... But this antitheoretical approach is still theoretical.” Lupton, Ellen; Writing Design Research; Phaidon

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18 16

But should there be something working in design in addition to pure talent or intuition?

I DON’T THINK that design needs theory, but I THINK designers need theory. Everybody should have a course in Ideology 101, beginning in kindergarten, then in sixth grade,

I think we are so blind to ways in which we absorb the culture around us. We need to be given the

then again in high school, and as a freshman in college – because

tools for thinking through our relationship to the power structure – something for all those people who went to see Forrest Gump, didn’t know that it was a modern version of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, and thought, “Wow, what a Great movie.”

“If Lubalin and other protagonists of the “big idea” approach to design worked intuitively, why, then, does theory matter?...But this antitheorical approacj is still theoretical.”, “ Theory can function both constructively, as a tool for generating design ideas, and analytically, as an evolution method.” Lupton, Ellen; Design Writing Research

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19 On the other hand, what can the visual arts or design offer to theo r y, a n d h o w c a n t h e r e b e t h e o r y t h a t ’ s s p e c i f i c t o t h e v i s u a l w o r l d , t h a t i s n ’ t m e r e l y b o r r o w e d f r o m t h e o r i e s i n o t h e r, n o n v i s u a l f i e l d s ?


There are many aspects to visual experience that have no parallels within the linguistic sphere, for exemple, focus.

How does FOCUS work?

What is the degree

of resolution in relationship to focus and a visual work? How does it communicate to us, and how does it help to produce meaning in a particular image and a particular circumstance? Questions like these could be explored in theoretical terms that would grant the visusl realm

Language is the tool we use to analyze it, but there is no linguistic analogue. We would not be borrowing a concept

its own specificity.

such as discourse versus narrative, first person versus second person – any of those models.

“ Kepes, Dondis, and Arnheim each employed “gestalt psychology”, a theory developed by German scientists during the 1920s. For all three of these writers, as for numerous others working in this tradition, design is, at bottom, an abstract, formal activity; text is secondary, added only after the mastery of form. A theory of design that isolates visual perception from linguistic interpretation encourages indifference to cultural meaning. Although the study of abstract composition is unobjectionable in itself, design’s linguistic and social aspects are trivializad or ignored when abstraction is made the primary focus of design thinking.” Lupton, Ellen; Design Writing research; Phaidon.

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What do you propose?

You’d probably go to cognitive science, perhaps the work

of J.J. Gibson,

Visual Perception and the World, or to Rudolf Arnheim’s

Gestalt psychology or to writers like William Mitchell and W.J.T. Mitchell – even to the history of style. If you were talking about advertisements, you’d address body language, body posture, body style, not to mention hairstyle and grooming.

“A formação das formas no campo da percepção é apenas a fase externa, sujeita a contínuos retoques, dum processo de adaptação do indivíduo ao seu meio, da tendência para um estado estacionário de equilíbrio a cada momento novamente perturbado pela acção dos excitantes exteriores.”, “...gestaltismo conclui o carácter espontâneo da organização das formas, tiram certos críticos a conclusão oposta, de que nessa organização intervêm factores de ordem subjectiva, psicológica. Das mesmas experiências donde o gestaltismo conclui a Pragnanztendenz, como lei geral da organização das formas...” Macedo, Newton De; As novas tendências da psicologia Experimental a teoria da forma, Coimbra, Imprensa da Universidade.

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21 D e s p i t e t h e o r y, d e s i g n e r s c o n t i n u a l l y r u n u p a g a i n s t w h a t m a r k e t ers believe is necessary to identify and attract consumers – market research, which is more practical than theoretical. And this is where I have a problem with theor y being applied to design. At some point it seems totally removed from the object and ignores an important part of the significance of that object, which is its appeal.


Some things THEORY can’t explain at all. It can be a useful prescriptive tool for analyzing structures, relations, the historical specificity of situations. But there is an analogy to those mass-produced china dolls with faces painted on in about half a second. Those faces are a little cockeyed here, a little bit crooked there. It’s a grimace, it’s a smile – and yet, when you describe the dolls in theoretical, structural terms, they are all the same thing. If you’re standing there as a little child picking one out, you want to pick ou tone that has the expression that you like.

I don’t think there is any theoretical model sufficiently sophisticated to explain why you’d pick that specific one.

“...Saussure decidiu-se por significante e significado, cuja união forma o signo; proposição capital e à qual é sempre necessário voltar porque temos tendência a tomar signo por significante, quando se trata de uma realidade biface;...”, “O plano dos significantes constitui o plano de expressão e o dos significados o plano de conteúdo.”, “...o significado só pode ser definido no interior de um processo de significação de uma maneira quase tautológica: é esse “qualquer coisa” que aquele que utiliza o signo entende por ele. Voltamos assim justamente a uma definição puramente funcional...”, “... não podemos separar a sua definição da do significado. A única diferença é que o significante é um mediador: a matéria é-lhe necessária; mas esta, por um lado, não lhe é suficiente e, por outro lado, em semiologia, o significado também pode ser substituído­ por uma certa matéria: a das palavras. Esta materialidade do significante obriga-nos uma vez mais a fazer distinção rigorosa entre matéria e substância: a substância pode ser imaterial (no caso da substância de conteúdo); portanto só podems dizer que a substância do significante é sempre material (sons, objectos, imagens).” Barthes, Roland; Elementos de Semiologia, Edições 70. 19 21

22 20

Why do you think that some designer s want to embrace these critical models?

Par t of it is the inevitable colonization of every area of inquiry by theory, once theory upped the ante of academic and critical discussion – if you can´t “do theory” in your particular domain, then that domain is not going to have the same clout as those employing theory. There’s been an increasing trend toward giving the history and theory of design a place within the academy. And why

Design is a interesting and legitimate a historical discourse as any, and the amount of information we get through shouldn’t this be done?


is much greater

than what we get through fine ART SORCES.

“A palavra escrita foneticamente sacrifica universos de sentido e de percepção anteriormente assegurados por formas como o hieróglifo ou o ideograma chinês. Embora culturalmente mais ricas, estas formas de escrita não permitiam ao homem a possibilidade de passar rapidamente do universo magicamente descontínuo e tradicional da palavra tribal para o quente e uniforme meio visual.”,“Este facto nada tem a ver com o conteúdo das palavras; é antes o resultado da repentina brecha estabelecida entre as experiências auditiva e visual do homem.”, “Pois o ideograma é uma gestalt inclusiva, não uma dissociação analítica de sentidos e funções, como a escrita fonética.”,”A civilização constrói-se sobre a literacia porque a literacia representa o processamento duma cultura através do sentido da visão prolongado no espaço e no tempo através do alfabeto.”. McLuhan, Marshall; Compreender os Meios de Comuniccação Extensões do Homem, Relógio d’Água

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23 Can theory be pushed too far?


Sometimes its application to commercial products gets very parodic. I had a terrific student who wanted to do an analysis of cereal boxes in terms of psychoanalytical structures of desire. The spoon represented the phallus and the milk was the mother.... Come on – it’s a cereal box! What else would you show, a knife and fork? I couldn’t go for it because it wouldn´t tell you anything about the cereal box that you don’t already know,

THEORY doesn´t tell you something you don’t already know, then why do

and if

YOU NEED IT ? “Theory can function both constructively, as a tool for generating design ideas, and analytically, as an evaluation method.”. Lupton, Ellen; Design Writing Research; Phaidon.

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Can theory tell us anything about g raphic design that we don’t already know?


for analyzing historical and cultural codes, but also for tackling new design challenges. You may be familiar with a particular phenomenon, say, Hollywood cinema, but not be able to articulate the way it works as a narrative system. When you gain an insight into the formulas of such a system, you realize they mutate in relation to different expectations about morality, and that’s what i call a “theory moment.”

YOU are able to IDENTIFY the working of


(unfaithful wife must lose family versus unfathful wife is allowed a second chance). Or you learn the distinction between discourse (which is the structural organization of a text, such as the distinction between an author and narrator) and narrative (the actual story). When you watch an episode of the television series My So-Called Life, you realize that the author of the show is giving you one side of the story while the young woman narrating the episode in first person is telling you another. These simple distinctions are powerful in talking about the structure of news, fiction, documentaries, and any other instance in which we tend to align whoever is speaking with what is being said.

“ escritas pictográfica e hieroglífica, usadas pela cultura babilónica, maia e chinesa, representam uma extensão do sentido da vista para armazenar e acelerar o acesso à experiência humana. Todas estas formas fornecem uma expressão pictórica a significados orais. Como tal assemelhamse ao desenho animado e resultam pouco práticas, requerendo imensos signos para a infinidade de dados e de operações da acção comum. Em contraste, o alfabeto fonético consegue, através dum reduzido número de letras, abranger todas as línguas.”, “ O homem letrado experimenta uma forte dissociação na sua vida imaginativa, emocional e sensorial, como foi proclamado há muito por Rousseau e, depois dele, pelos poetas e filósofos românticos.” McLuhan, Marshall; Compreender os Meios de Comunicação Extensões do Homem; Relógio d’Água

22 24

25 But how does this work with graphic design?


These distinctions become increasingly important as designers tackle the difficult task of figuring out the presentation of complex information and databases. The

structure of presentation

or display, like the layout of a traditional print media newspaper or reference


book, already encodes levels of and importance into the work at the level of discourse (the material structure of the piece). But in a mobile, fluid, information environment, such hierarchies may be unsuitable or , since the iformation (discourse and reference) are not the same: a company’s employees are not the same as a company’s operational structure. Imagine a phone book for an organization that is organized spatially according to rank and position rather than alphabetically, but which could be rearranged to display decision-making trees relevant to specific tasks or projects within the organization – and you have an idea of the ways structure and information begin to relate. The implications for understanding the ways structure and information begin to relate. The implications for understanding the way that structure is a part of information will become even more crucial as designers work in database navigation and organization, where relations between discourse (apparent structure) and reference (intended meaning) will be mutable. As structure and information interpenetrate, the designer’s task requires more rigorous theoretical skills.


“Form is not the enemy of content, and form can become content as well as a container of content,...” McCoy, Katerine; Cranbrook

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Can theory have an adverse effect on g raphic design?

I think too much theory can make you too sophisticated for your market.


can start to produce graphic design that’s interesting only to

other designers.

I saw that happen while teaching in an architecture department. Theorydoused architects designed some interesting things, but they had nothing to do with living. They might be compelling ideas, but when it really came down to it, I didn’t want to live in an uncomfortable environment in order to have my consciousness raised about how family structures are merely functions of the bourgeois mythology of the nation-state!

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27 One of the current design tropes is multilayer design, which often v e r g e s o n i l l e g i b i l i t y. I s t h i s a v i s u a l m a n i f e s t a t i o n o f t h e o r y ?


Somebody asked me this question in another interview and I was puzzled by it, and so I asked Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, the head of Yale University’s undergraduate design department, what she thinks. Does it have to do with a phenomenon of the illegibility trope seems to signal, There’s so much stuff

we’re not really trying to get you to read this; we’re just trying to get you to look at it long enough to see whatever logo is on it. This is an admission that most

already out in the world that

text produced at this point is just


“...the complex nature of signs and moves communications into the complicated landscape of multimeaning, layered contexts, thus marking multidimensional interpretation of meaning.” McCoy, Katerine, Cranbrook.

25 27

28 How would you analyze it?


As frustration on the part of the individual:

Will anybody pay

ATTETION to anything


Well, why should they?

The culture we live in promotes a notion of the celebrity as the privileged object of attention, and people often think that if they’re not being perceived at a celebrity level, then they’re not being perceived at

And Then:

all. Since

when has

existence been about being

perceived? It’s suposed to be

about experience.

“The designer was no longer just a translator, but a commentator, partner, and participant in the delivery of the message.” McCoy, Katerine; Cranbrook.

26 28

29 Who or what do you think exemplifies this noise factor?


David Carson’s work seems like visual noise and style for its own sake, part of this celebrity

phenomenon. You do

radical extreme

something that’s at the of what people think is acceptable to produce yourself as a celebrity. Reasonableness, middle-of-the-road positions, and moderate analysis are never going to


“Segundo Michael Bierut nos meios empresariais começou-se a preferir a simples “Inovação”, mais “tecnológica” e “fiável”, deixando o “Design”, mais “artístico” e “temperamental”, de lado. Para Rick Poynor, estas preferência significa que no mundo dos negócios, o design se tornou demasiado importante para ser deixado ao cuidado de designers. O problema, segundo parece, é o ego dos designers e a sua preocupação excessiva com o lado visual das coisas, entendido como sendo mais superficial; para evitar estes tiques, surgiu um novo profissional, o design thinker ou innovation expert, que se coloca como intermediário entre designers e clientes, e “vende” o design como um processo essencialmente empresarial, do qual é gestor. Muitos designers acabam por enfiar este barrete, evitando também eles as associações ao lado mais “estético” do design, recorrendo ao jargão do marketing ou da gestão quando falam de design. Segundo Poynor, isto resulta numa visão empobrecida do design que , inevitavelmente, dá origem a design mais pobre, que deixa de ser visto como um processo cultural, mas apenas como um processo empresarial, um subproduto da economia.” Moura, Mário; Design em tempos de Crise, Braço de Ferro

27 29

30 28

Wi l l t h e re b e a ny t h i n g fo r c r i t i c a l t h e o r i s t s t o d i s s e c t i n ye a r s h e n c e ?

Graphic design is absolutely ripe for symptomatic analysis. You have to look at two aspects. First, what is the internal discourse of design, and what are the narratives that it tells itself about what it’s doing? And also, What is the external discourse within which it functions so that it represents certain things? Discourse is like the individual. It tells itself certain stories, and

it believes them, and

they are true. But if you step outside of it, you think, how in the world are they telling themselves that? And


28 30



Design: Nรกdia Pascoal Tipografia: Baskerville por Jonh Baskerville (1757) e Helvetica por Max Miendiger(1957).

29 31


[ 30 32



Barthes; Roland Elementos da Semiologia; Edições 70

Feminism term_paper_topics/2009/04/whatdoes-deconstruction-do-for-feminismand-how-can-deconstruction-be-usedas-a-tool-for-feminism.html Lupton, Ellen Design Writing Research; Phaidon

Macedo, Newton De As novas tendências da Psicologia Experimental a teoria da forma, Coimbra, Imprensa da Universidade.


McLuhan; Marshall Compreender os Meios de Comunicação Extensões do Homem, Relógio d’Água

Moura; Mário Design em tempos de crise, Braço de Ferro

Saussure; De Ferdinand, Curso de Linguística Geral. Dom Quixote.


McCoy, Katerine; Cranbrook.

31 33

Design Theory by Johanna Drucker  
Design Theory by Johanna Drucker  

Academic Work about Design Theory and Johanna Drucker