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Decorationism

In Denise Gonzales Crisp’s Towards a Definition of the Decorational (presented in MIT Press’ Design Research), Denise wonders why more design discourse doesn’t revolve around decoration and ornament. While it appears frivolous and bombastic, maybe we should take pride in it. Let’s celebrate excess, adore craft, and reflect on complexity.

Often, designers take pride in form follows function, where we strip away the ornamental and illustrative. This helps communication. Or so it seems. But can’t ornament be communicative? And what about the cultural and anthropological value of ornament? Before we answer those questions, perhaps we should start with the basics, as posed at the close of Denise’s essay: What is decoration in graphic design? What is ornament?

Deliver your responses. Show your samples. Direct us to web sites.

Denise’s Lecture on the DecoRational

If you despise decoration, state your case with just cause.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2146 FILED UNDER Show and Tell
PUBLISHED ON Nov.20.2004 BY Jason A. Tselentis
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Nary’s comment is:

i used to have a wonderful professor who would say: be an art director, not an art decorator

decorating is a luxury. it can enhance good design, but it won't do anything for crappy work besides make it look busy. great design can stand on its own with or without decorations.

that said, for me, decoration and ornamentation is like candy. sometimes i'd get a craving for sugar and i'd raid the candy aisle. and Marian's work

is some of the most beautiful eye candy i've come upon yet.

decoration is to graphic design what spices is to food. good food doesn't need it, but just enough can make it fantastic. too much and it's unpalatable. if the food sucks, spice it to death, and it's still bad.

yes, yes, i've been guilty of decorating things to death but that's because most of the time, i do pretty straightforward, spare stuff. all that food analogy, i think it's dinner time...

On Nov.20.2004 at 09:17 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

In hindsight this seems decorative.

On Nov.20.2004 at 09:32 PM
Jason T’s comment is:

Marian…if you’re out there, what's your reaction to the eye candy label?

On Nov.20.2004 at 09:32 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> why more design discourse doesn’t revolve around decoration and ornament.

Perhaps a rhetoric question but, um, what is that supposed to mean? Really, I don't mean to be smart about it — or worse, ignorant about it —´┐Żbut what would the purpose of more discourse revolving around ornament be?

Now that that is out of the way… I admire decoration and ornamentation, mostly because it portrays a certain madness in in its creator. Heavy ornamentation requires a type of character not found among many people. It is a balance of obsessive compulsiveness, an acute sense of style and, most importantly, an understanding of knowing when to stop.

Ornamentation is also excess, indulgence, abundance… it could almost be the eighth deadly sin.

For me…

On Nov.20.2004 at 10:24 PM
Nary’s comment is:

aaargh...

eye candy is not a bad thing, Jason. >:(

Nary waves hi Marian, i love your work!

On Nov.20.2004 at 10:46 PM
Jason T’s comment is:

why more design discourse doesn’t revolve around decoration and ornament.

…what would the purpose of more discourse revolving around ornament be?

Armin, one rhetorical question deserves another, I suppose. But really, let's get to the heart of it…what is decoration in graphic design? Is it the unnecessary? Is it the organic? What constitutes decoration in graphic design for you? And why is decoration considered taboo? (Or is it?)

Eye candy is not a bad thing…I agree. ;-)

On Nov.21.2004 at 01:05 AM
Su’s comment is:

I had a chance earlier this year to:

1> Actually read the piece Jason mentions, and

2> Talk directly with Denise about her ideas.

(Insert my standard "I'm not a designer" disclaimer here, but...)

Gauging from the responses to this so far, I would guess that those who have have not read the piece, and by extension are completely not getting it. To say that what Denise is after is just more talk about decoration is, well...simplifying things a bit. Also, her decorationalist ideas were not nearly complete at that time, and arguably still aren't. That essay (Towards a Definition...)was largely an attempt to throw out an idea and hopefully get other people thinking about it.

As it's not all that likely you will all run out and by a copy of the book(Although now just $25 at Amazon, and there's lots of other good stuff in there.), you might have a look at a blog she's been writing on and off as a continuing exploration.

It might be particularly helpful to see who she thinks is decorationalist(or more importantly who not).

Nary:

decoration is to graphic design what spices is to food. good food doesn't need it, but just enough can make it fantastic. too much and it's unpalatable. if the food sucks, spice it to death, and it's still bad.

If you get a really nice free-range chicken, it'll probably be edible if poached with no seasoning, but I don't think anyone's going to call it "good." In fact, they'd probably told you you wasted a perfectly good chicken.

Also, Indian food regularly uses amounts of seasoning that seem absolutely ludicrous if compared to other cuisines.

"It's a matter of taste" takes on a literal interpretation here.

I personally don't think Marian will particularly object to the "eye candy" remark. Her stuff's so over the top it would just be disingenous. Now, if the intention was to suggest that that's all her work is, I'm going to go make some popcorn, because this is going to be good..

On Nov.21.2004 at 06:54 AM
Denise Gonzales Crisp’s comment is:

I'm thrilled that this topic is surfacing in such an organic way. I will be participating a bit in this forum, but to start, I need to point out a couple of immediate bits of mis-information.

First, my exploration of the decorative in graphic design is deliberately named Decorational, and I believe this particular way of stating it is critical to establishing the value of the decorative to a pervasively, necessarily rational activity. This intersection, some might say collision, is more pertinent to current discussions and practices (in moments of hubris I believe it actually has the potential to advance discussion and, more importantly, practice).

Another little detail is my name, which is Denise Gonzales-with-an-ess-no-hyphen Crisp. It's the details, guys.

:D.

On Nov.21.2004 at 11:09 AM
Ben Wexlar’s comment is:

I think decoration has a place in graphic design that it will never relinquish. A good design can include it, but for the most part it should make sense being there, right?

I see students approach the same project from different perspectives on a daily basis, and they reflect a lot of the same opinions on decoration in design that I'm seeing/reading here. But, every element added to a page that isn't really relevant can be decoration, even type. There are students who adhere to the clean, un-cluttered look, and wouldn't dream of decoration, while others use it wisely.

I'm rambling now, but I think that if we didn't need and enjoy decoration in life, then we wouldn't surround ourselves with so much of it, and what's the big deal with using it anyways? It can communicate a mood or "look-and-feel", no doubt. Look at all the decorative borders around the buttons and frames of this website...pretty ornate.

On Nov.21.2004 at 02:48 PM
Su’s comment is:

Okay, I was trying to avoid any sort of correctional statement before other than pointing out that it seems this is being approached from the entirely wrong angle, but how a bout just a little seed?

It's common knowledge that "decoration" carries a lot of baggage here, which may be contributing. How about considering the possibility of decoration being part of the sense of a design, rather than saying that it should "make sense being there" or that it's nice-but-unnecessary fluff you add onto a sturdy frame?

On Nov.21.2004 at 03:41 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

A serif is decoration.

On Nov.21.2004 at 04:37 PM
ps’s comment is:

A serif is decoration.

NOT.

On Nov.21.2004 at 05:38 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

NOT.

Prove it.

On Nov.21.2004 at 05:47 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> you might have a look at a blog she's been writing on and off as a continuing exploration.

Ah, this makes much more sense with that backdrop. Thanks Su.

It's funny how you sometimes hear a name, term, place or whatever for the first time and then it pops up constantly from thereon — very organic as Denise put it. I mention this, because this past week Martin Venezky was here in town for the Push Pin event, as well as Marian, and when Marian handed Martin a notoriously decorative set of business cards Martin mentioned how he and some "others" — now I know who the "others" are — were thinking of reviving decoration, and maybe calling themselves decorationists… no emphasis on the rationists though. Interesting…

To Su's chagrin I have not read the book but I did read some of Denise's blog entry this morning. As I ambiguously ended the last paragraph, and without offering much more now, I reitirate that this is all very interesting.

You could say I'm an anti-decorationist professional: most of the work I do through the firms I have worked for is very simple and straightforward. However, I believe I am a closet decorationist. Although I am not certain if I would be of the kind that italicize the rationist part. At least not yet.

> what is decoration in graphic design? Is it the unnecessary? Is it the organic? What constitutes decoration in graphic design for you? And why is decoration considered taboo?

The problem, as I see it, is that as a profession we have labeled decoration and ornamention as superfluous and unnecessary. It is extraneous. It's like Rococco or Baroque, that were deemed by some just a whim of fancy. No real function. And that is no different in the design profession. However, if that is good or bad… I don't know.

I am interested in how understanding decoration can further either discourse or the profession.

Good stuff.

>>>>>

> Prove it.

Serifs serve a function, they are not decorative elements. They help define the shapes and forms of each character to enhance legibility.

On Nov.21.2004 at 05:50 PM
ps’s comment is:

Prove it.

see armin's comment.

especially useful in large amounts of text as they help the eye to follow the line of the text. combine it with good leading and tracking. bingo.

On Nov.21.2004 at 06:08 PM
Jason T’s comment is:

Another little detail is my name, which is Denise Gonzales-with-an-ess-no-hyphen Crisp. It's the details, guys.

:-O

Note taken, Denise. I am so sorry about the mishap. I feel terrible...I usually make every effort to fact check, and since my name is spelled incorrectly so often, I should always be considerate of such details.

As far as this post on Speak Up, I titled it differently, to push for our readers to establish their own "-ism."

Like Armin, I too want to learn more, and will visit superstove to get a fresh point of view on the matter.

On Nov.21.2004 at 07:30 PM
Agrayspace’s comment is:

I have actually had a chance to read (and see in action) the document in question. It is quite compelling. Here is where I am at in my humble interpretation.

DecoRational = Rationalized Decoration

Part of me (the cynic) wants to think that this is merely an attempt for the intellectual designer to come to grips with their emotional attraction to decoration, which stands in contrast to and remains mostly indefensible against the accepted doctrine of modern corporate graphic design. Up to now, its the fluff we can't really allow ourselves to indulge in and feel respectable, yet it's so damn pretty we can't help it.

The other part of me thinks that there is actually something here. The theory follows that if we allow decoration to be rationalized and internalized within the framework of a design concept, that it could illuminate subtleties, and enhance the communicative power within that framework. Ultimately this could theoretically lead to a new visible language for graphic design, one that takes "form follows function" to an unexplored level of integration between content, form and its less "respectable" cousin decoration.

You can see the basis of this idea in most of the comments of the recent poster critiques. A majority of the praise and criticisms surround the idea of how successfully the form and content are integrated and inform each other. DecoRational I believe is proposing that minimalism (the clean and crisp look that we love so much) isn't doing as much as it could to take this integration (which is currently limited to image and text relationships) to the next level. Imagine if the "decorative" elements in a design were deeply integrated within a works content and conceptual framework and did as much as work as the word, in communicating.

There is also an urge in Crisp's essay to allow the digital medium, that graphic design is now completely integrated with, to push the visible language of design beyond the mere replication of industrial age techniques (that our Photoshops and Illustrators do so well) and into one that is born out of the digital realm and replicates only itself. This I find equally interesting and baffling. I can't for the life of me figure out what this could be, beyond just pixelating things. Because how would you draw without the "pen" tool? I'm sure there is a way.

And where this intersects with DecoRational I am up to now, unsure.

On Nov.22.2004 at 12:34 AM
Hrant’s comment is:

Modernism makes my stomach churn.

Less is more my grid-free derriere.

Anybody who's interested in discovering the power of decoration (and is not afraid of the dark complexity of human nature) would do well to take a trip to Russia, especially to its smaller cities. I was in Novosibirsk about two months ago, and the natural expression of decoration there was nothing short of delightful. Here's one of my favorite photos from that trip: three building styles right next to each other, in a rich, deep harmony. Not decoration per se, but seriously eclectic (without being forced), and that could be seen as meta-decorative.

hhp

On Nov.22.2004 at 12:57 AM
TomGleason’s comment is:

Here is a link to a presentation that she did on the subject. 11.6MB quicktime file.

On Nov.22.2004 at 01:23 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Armin: "Serifs serve a function, they are not decorative elements. They help define the shapes and forms of each character to enhance legibility."

ps: "especially useful in large amounts of text as they help the eye to follow the line of the text. combine it with good leading and tracking. bingo."

Of course. Everyone who has been doing graphic design for more than a week knows this.* But here's the deal. You don't need a serif to make a letter, and there is not one single serif type that is the most legible. Or if there is, all anti-decorationists should immdediately drop all other less effective serif typefaces from their libraries.

As well as being functional serifs are decorative. There is no other way to explain the huge variety of highly legible serif typefaces. That is my point. Most of what we do as graphic designers is decorational as well as functional.

You might choose to use red in a design because it is effective, but if you ignore the fact that it is also attractive (or shocking or whatever), if you ignore the fact that you have decorated a white screen or sheet of paper with red, if you ignore the fact that you are trying to sell a message by making it look good**, you are kidding yourself.

Whichever modernist decided that decoration was not inextricably connected with graphic design and taught it to a bunch of people when they were young an impressionable should be smacked, hard.

We decorate. Yes we also create structure and make messages function better and all that, but almost all of all that contains huge elements of decoration. Admit it, and get over it. It doesn't make what you do less important.

I know that the way I have described decoration here is different than most others have defined it on this thread, but I think it is a description that more closely reflects reality. I am very excited about this conversation, and about Crisp's ideas, not because I think they are something new but because as Su wrote, "How about considering the possibility of decoration being part of the sense of a design, rather than saying that it should 'make sense being there' or that it's nice-but-unnecessary fluff you add onto a sturdy frame?" And Agrayspace: "Imagine if the 'decorative' elements in a design were deeply integrated within a works content and conceptual framework and did as much as work as the word, in communicating."

If these ideas are new and challenging to graphic designers, I am grateful (in this area, at least) to have missed going to university.

-

*Although, the admittedly small amount of reading I have done suggests that serifs do more to improve readability than legibility, which is what ps wrote.

**Obvious exceptions are purely fuctional things like forms, ballots, etc.

On Nov.22.2004 at 05:52 AM
fish’s comment is:

it strikes me that "decorationism" is a push to see the word "decoration" in a less dismissive light, whatever the term may end up meaning (and for what community). robert venturi and denise scott-brown did a lot for what may be alternatively called "decorationism" in architecture, and thus ended up contributing what is now a seminal postmodern text back to the architecture community. not everyone agrees with them, but people generally recognize the work as important. gonzales crisp's work seems to strive to canonize something similar in a context one order of magnitude greater than v+sb's.

erm, yeah!

-fish

On Nov.22.2004 at 10:04 AM
Tan’s comment is:

A serif is not meant to be a decoration, but alas, can be misused as one.

As Forrest Gump would say, "Decoration is as decoration does."

On Nov.22.2004 at 11:02 AM
marian’s comment is:

My apologies for not contributing sooner. As Armin said, I've been in New York, and sitting at a computer blogging while in NY when you don't actually live there is a geekiness beyond which I'm willing to go.

Thanks for the compliments.

Now, where to start?

I have a very uneasy and, yes, guilty, relationship with decoration. I do it because I have to; it's an obsession. It makes me happy. And to be honest I've been surprised by the number of other people who really love it. I've shown my work to a lot of designers and people who have shown no propensity for decoration in their own work have had very positive reactions to mine.

Why? I have waited for someone to say "this is just decoration; it's meaningless." and no one has said it (to my face) yet. And yet I myself have days where I think that of my own work. Decoration is a bad word in design, in art, architecture and interior design.

And yet, I do feel that there is something there in my own work (and in others') that goes beyond gratuitous prettiness. In this piece I've somewhat illegibly rendered the words "please say yes" in a way that I intended to express all the imploring hope of those words. The ornament in this case is not "merely" decoration.

But there is something about ornate, ornamental work that seems to stir the soul in most people. How can you look at anything by William Morris and not feel some kind of awestruck love? Interestingly, the decorative arts appear most famously in religious works. There really is some kind of connection to love and inspiration there. The thousand ornamental ways that Islamic calligraphy praises Allah; the glitter of stained glass windows and the excess of carved arches in chruches; illuminated manuscripts! Where there is genuine love and care and craft, I think there is something being communicated that cannot be communicated in any other way.

As with anything else, there is bad and gratuitous decoration, but somehow we've painted an entire art with this brush of guilt (gilt?), and I'm really not sure why.

On Nov.22.2004 at 11:06 AM
marian’s comment is:

Hmmm. after perusing Denise's Decorationalist thoughts (not in-depth, there's a lot to go through), I feel uneasy. Note where she emphasises rationalism, I emphasise emotionalism. I feel as though her reasonings are, well, trying to rationalize something we feel guilty about. Is it not enough to just enjoy something?

Eye candy is an interesting term. I am not offended by it (or I try not to be). I have a sweet tooth. Candy, cakes, sweets of all kinds do not serve any nutritional purpose in our lives. In fact, they're bad for us, and yet I and most others still eat, enjoy and crave them. The moment of eating brings happiness. Now think of the term to "feast your eyes" upon something. Implied in that phrase is the pleasure of eating. We may feast our eyes on Rococco wallpaper, or on minimalist furniture, the line of which is so pure and perfect that it brings us joy. But the act of feasting is pleasure, not nourishment. And in our culture we associate pleasure with guilt, and then we struggle to rationalise away our pleasure ... "No, no, I enjoyed it because it made sense; because it was intellectually stimulating; because it had no pretense ..." whatever.

My guilt over my own work is so intense that it caused me to excuse myself from the design profession. It is so ingrained in me that design is rational communication that I actually see my ornamental obssession as a completely different function. In some ways my brain is split, and the 2 sides (design + ornament) have difficulty talking to each other. What I call my "straight up" design work is almost never ornamental. My rationale has since been that I will leave it to a designer to decide when ornament is appropriate, and then they can come to me.

And yet I wonder ... am I still a designer? Is there a different, emotional approach to design that can be accommodated? I think there is, but it's like one part of me is dragging the other toward this conclusion.

On Nov.22.2004 at 12:01 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Serifs are to readability what tire tread is to driving. In the wet.

There is solid anecdotal evidence and good -if somewhat obtuse- empirical evidence of the highly non-decorative nature of serifs when it comes to immersive reading. Deliberative reading (like looking at a poster) is a different story.

Don't arrive at conclusions about serifs via a comfy personal ideology. Study, and think, for a long time. Or elect to trust people who have.

BTW, for the best treatment yet of readability and its

relevance, see the upcoming issue of TYPO magazine:

http://www.magtypo.cz/

hhp

On Nov.22.2004 at 12:55 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

There is solid anecdotal evidence and good -if somewhat obtuse- empirical evidence of the highly non-decorative nature of serifs when it comes to immersive reading. Deliberative reading (like looking at a poster) is a different story.

Hrant, I love your tire analogy, and I completely agree with you on this except for your framing of it as an either/or proposition. There are many, many typefaces which are very good for immersive reading. Among those typefaces are many, many different shapes of serif. These serifs are performing basically the same function, some are more specialised for certain qualities of printing, some for certain sizes. But within all that function there is room for difference, for designers' unique visions.

I say that fits on the decoration spectrum, not the slap-some-pretty-on-after-it's-done end, the other end.

But I was using the serif to make a larger point, that design & decoration are two things that can & very often do happen At The Same Time, & that this intermingling goes to the core of the discipline.

If this is not actually the case, can someone please make a *convincing argument, not just repeat a prevalent ideology?

-

On a more disturbing note:

Nary: decoration and ornamentation is like candy. sometimes i'd get a craving for sugar and i'd raid the candy aisle.

Armin: I admire decoration and ornamentation, mostly because it portrays a certain madness in in its creator... it could almost be the eighth deadly sin.

Jason T: why is decoration considered taboo?

Armin: I believe I am a closet decorationist.

Agrayspace: its the fluff we can't really allow ourselves to indulge in and feel respectable, yet it's so damn pretty we can't help it.

Marian: I have a very uneasy and, yes, guilty, relationship with decoration. I do it because I have to; it's an obsession... Decoration is a bad word in design, in art, architecture and interior design... I feel as though her reasonings are, well, trying to rationalize something we feel guilty about.

Either major repentance from sin or some serious therapy to get over false guilt is needed here. ("Hi, my name is Jeff." "Hi, Jeff." "I used to be ashamed to decorate...")

-

Finally, why is graphic design "necessarily rational"?

-

*Hrant, I would love for you to address this in regard to type, either here or via email, because you know more about it (an are more opinionated about it) than I ever will be.

Also, TYPO magazine: It is issue 11 that I should get? And is there anywhere online that I can buy a single issue? The most substantive design magazine that I can buy locally is Creative Review.

On Nov.22.2004 at 06:25 PM
Omar’s comment is:

I've never understood how any visual element (context free or not) could possibly transcend functionality. To do so would require it to escape perception. Perception is the detection of information. If a visual element carries information, then that information is represented in the functionality of the whole, since the function of the whole (in the case of graphic design) is to impart information - that is, communicate.

One challenge for the graphic designer, as I see it, is to ensure that no visual element augments a design with information that diminishes the desired functionality.

I've always understood the most important aspect of Minimalism to be the process of reducing the quantity of unique visual elements in a design, for the sake of simplifying the process of ensuring that no element of the design carries any information which could possibly detract from the functionality of the whole.

In exceptional design, every visual element augments the design with information that strengthens the (immediacy of the) design's functionality.

Hmm...maybe I'm lost here.

Ok, now I'm going to stop making sense.

Can someone here argue that decoration implies orthogonality?

If so, I would argue that such a decorative element does not alter the mean (in the statistical/mathematical sense) of the design. But it does reduce the standard deviation - and consequentially alters the makeup/functionality of the design. Get it?

Cheers!

On Nov.22.2004 at 08:40 PM
bomp stomp’s comment is:

wow, Marion,

i'd never've guessed you were so torn about your ornamental impulses. judging by the work on your site, it seems, despite whatever conflicting emotions you may have about it, you sincerely love the act of creating these elaborate little doodles. and, if i do say so myself, you do the 'victorian thing' [which has recently been making its way back into fashion] better than anyone else i know of.

to offer my opinion on the ideological conflicts you've raised about your work: not worth your time. ornamentation has, at least within my familiar circle of designers, become a given. to my pleasant surprise, most of the post-ers here seem to agree that the minamalist, design-only-what-is-essential aesthetic has been eschewed in favor of the design-what-is-essential-but-also-fun! aesthetic. hurrah for that, i say, but we must keep in mind that the nature/implementation of the ornament is also subject to criticism. i'm not talking about the 'what purpose does it serve' criticism, but the much harder 'this doesn't work because...' criticism. again, though, judging from your work, it seems i don't need to tell you this.

On Nov.22.2004 at 10:07 PM
Agrayspace’s comment is:

Its not false guilt. Decoration is more often than not self indulgent and ancillary to conceptual framework and information. But thats not too say that doesn't have its place. Its pretty. We love to look at it because of that. But could it be taken beyond that? What if decoration was also information?

I think the point of DecoRational is too elevate decoration beyond the merely pretty for pretty sake, but as a device to reveal hidden layers of content and meaning. Think Maeda and the way his work is decorative but also born and relective of the content. That is just an example but is key in differentiating how DecoRational might be presenting something slightly different than what we have previously known as decoration.

And yes it could be argued that in a sense EVERYTHING is decoration, like our friend the serif or even carefully employed whitespace. But I find that argument too simply dismissive. Much like the infamous "Whatever".

On Nov.22.2004 at 11:06 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

yes it could be argued that in a sense EVERYTHING is decoration

But that would not only be a dismissive argument it would be a dumb (as in stupid) argument.

I guess what my long postings boil down to is surprise. I didn't have the benefit of a formal design education to tell me that decoration was bad. I just got on with doing stuff, stuff that intertwines what I see as function & decoration so tightly as to be practically inseparable. So then on Sunday night I learn that decoration is supposedly bad, that the industry is full of guilt-ridden designers, and that a few brave souls are daring to say that decoration can have meaning other than pretty.

I say good for them. But from my end of things it looks more like the need is to unlearn some crap and embrace the "dark complexity of human nature"

But then what do I know anyway?

Back to my comfy ideology.

On Nov.23.2004 at 05:20 AM
agrayspace’s comment is:

First of all, I was not arguing for the idea the EVERYTHING could be considered decoration. I was arguing against it. It was my response too the extensive talk about serifs, which seemed to me to be missing the point of DecoRational.

Second, I would like to clear up I don't believe that decoration is BAD and I don't believe that was said. But like anything it can be used BADLY as well as BEAUTIFULLY. My point was that decoration historically is not SMART. Meaning it usually does not inform the content of design but merely decorates it.

And I think most of us would agree the design is most successful when FORM and CONTENT are interlinked. If you don't agree with that then that is where the fork in the road appears.

And lastly design education did not tell me decoration was bad but it did generally teach me that elements in the design that can't be defended to have a distinct purpose are missing an opportunity to be better. Which some would call BAD design. Some would not I guess.

On Nov.23.2004 at 08:49 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Gray, I agree with you. I really do. I promise. Only the first sentence of my last post was aimed directly at you, and I was trying to tell you that I agree with you. And higher up this thread I agreed with the other stuff you wrote. And I have no idea what you learned in school but I kinda said that too when I sarcastically dismissed my own comments.

My only point (which I think actually does fit in this discussion or perhaps around it or underneath it) is that decoration gets a bad rap that it doesn't deserve because it is defined too narrowly and that narrow definition places unhealthy limits on what designers do.

On Nov.23.2004 at 10:12 AM
Paul ’s comment is:

At the risk of dragging this thread back to where it began, let's try to actually define decoration in graphic design. Is it the same as ornament?

I'll take a stab:

I would say that for something to be decoration it needs to be pleasing to the eye. Ornament can be one kind of decoration, but ornament does not necessarily have to be pleasing. Ornament is an kind of UNnecessary visual information designed for effect, and decoration is anything designed to increase the pleasure the viewer feels in the viewing.

Anyone buy that?

On Nov.23.2004 at 12:56 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

> within all that function there is room for

> difference, for designers' unique visions.

Certainly.

And the duality of expression versus function is what makes type design so impossible to perfect, and as a result so magnetic to people like me who relish vying for control while knowing we'll never have it. This is in fact the fallacy of Modernism, that humans can master Life.

But when you consider the serif (its exact shape being another matter) to be a useful structural element (indeed, not something slapped on) towards improving readability, that simply goes against my definition of "decoration".

TYPO:

Get as many issues as you can - it's a wonderful mag. But the stuff I was talking about isn't actually published yet. :-/ Pardon me for being a bit too anxious.

hhp

On Nov.23.2004 at 01:08 PM
agrayspace’s comment is:

Gill,

I was not nearly as defensive as my post suggests. This is a conversation and I am really just posting perspectives without trying to definitive.

Damn this "Internet" conversation device. It enables so much (like have great discussions with people you would never otherwise meet) but it also restricts so much that would normally happen in real conversations (voice inflection, sarcasm, and all that body language that says as much as our words).

I love it and hate at the same time.

On Nov.23.2004 at 04:18 PM
danielle’s comment is:

after critiquing their use of swash messes, I kept november's veer catalog because i was actually fascinated with the way they used the bickham script ornaments and swashes. were they necessary? no. i'd have seen the keywords without them. i don't even feel they complemented the font, images and the concealed theme. but they added character, personality. I was so intrigued by them that i analyzed the rest of the catalog and found myself buying that font later that day. I was sold by the decoration, even though the usage didn't seem rational.

when well executed, decoration with purpose + harmony between elements represents good talent, not impulsiveness.

On Nov.23.2004 at 05:02 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

> Damn this "Internet" conversation device.

Indeed, I've come to realize that it combines the worst of both letters (lack of gestural info) and speech (too impulsive). But would I give it up? Not on your life! It's just a matter of getting the hang of it, and our kids will be laughing at us for all this angst we're having. :-)

hhp

On Nov.23.2004 at 05:12 PM
Jason T’s comment is:

Tom…thanks for the great link to the lecture.

On Nov.23.2004 at 07:41 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Armin ponders:

Really, I don't mean to be smart about it — or worse, ignorant about it —´┐Żbut what would the purpose of more discourse revolving around ornament be?

Denise Gonzales Crisp projects:

the decorative in graphic design is deliberately named Deco rational , and I believe this particular way of stating it is critical to establishing the value of the decorative to a pervasively, necessarily rational activity.

Armin pontificates:

The problem, as I see it, is that as a profession we have labeled decoration and ornamention as superfluous and unnecessary. It is extraneous. It's like Rococco or Baroque, that were deemed by some just a whim of fancy. No real function.

Agrayspace proposes:

Imagine if the "decorative" elements in a design were deeply integrated within a works content and conceptual framework and did as much as work as the word, in communicating.

Marian praecipes:

We may feast our eyes on Rococco wallpaper, or on minimalist furniture, the line of which is so pure and perfect that it brings us joy. But the act of feasting is pleasure, not nourishment. And in our culture we associate pleasure with guilt, and then we struggle to rationalise away our pleasure

Omar pleads:

I've never understood how any visual element (context free or not) could possibly transcend functionality. To do so would require it to escape perception. ...Can someone here argue that decoration implies orthogonality?

For the sake of expediency, I'm happy to interchange the words "decoration" and "ornament". For a continued expediency, I'm also content in the truth that some designers are more comfortable or able to design with greater amounts of ornament than others. To each his own, and let's hope the client's happy too.

When this discussion appeared, I was reminded of José Antonio Maravall's Culture of the Baroque — Analysis of a Historical Structure; which is an amazing exploration of baroque mass culture and the political/sociological functions of the arts. In the last two chapters he describes ornament as one baroque method of instilling 'terror' and awe in the viewer.

And because I know Gunnar loves Antonioni...

— What do you feel when you're painting?

— A shudder.

Michaelangelo Antonioni L'avventura

That feeling of awe extends from say... baroque architectural ornament to the verbal ornament of missives from the state, or the theatrical mannerism of church rites, and acts as another socio-political controlling mechanism.

Theories of 'novelty' are also discussed; which we could consider for the topic of Decoration in Design, and its role in contemporary society. Consider multi-national media companies as a source for awe and novelty... delivering the masses to advertisers and political bodies... creating opinion... etc., etc.

So... did those boomerang patterns in the 1950's reflect jet-set/atomic age society, or did they help rationalize modern science for easier consumption?

What is the function of Kenté cloth in black society?

Are Louis Vuitton or Hermes patterns defined by the rich, or do the rich define the patterns?

See? Decoration is rarely simply decorative.

On Nov.23.2004 at 07:54 PM
Omar’s comment is:

Decoration is rarely simply decorative.

Hmm...I'd say Decoration is never decorative.

"Form follows function" is a construct of the inartistic - an attempt of injecting design with an artificial morality. The divide between form and content cannot possibly exist.

Any notion of function/content is far too insular if it doesn't recognize the function/content added by a "decorative" element - or any visual element for that matter - in a design.

A graphic design's function is to impart its viewer with the information contained within it, however intangible - spiritual, emotional or beautiful - that information may be. Like I said...perception is the detection of information, and consequentially a visual element is percieved if it carries information. The information carried by that element, decorative or not, is superimposed onto the information of the whole to which it is a part of. No visual element - no form - is without functionality in the domain of graphic design.

To recognize a visual element as being decorative is to recognized it exists. And if it exists in a design then it is content and, therefore, not decoration.

Am I being crazy here?

What is decoration in graphic design?

To be honest, I can't argue that it's anything more than ignorance.

Cheers

On Nov.23.2004 at 10:51 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Omar, in general you're not crazy. But you are at times too extreme. You should never say never when you say "decoration is never decorative"; there're always exceptions to the rule. And I wouldn't go so far as to say that design's function is to impart information — one could probably find an exception or twenty to that too. How about: design's place is to be interpreted.

I've had many an instance where we've heard various interpretations of pieces we've designed that, while have no relationship to our intention, are valid and creative on their own. The same could go for a 'random' repeat pattern.

I also take issue with your suggestion that decoration is ignorance. It may be created unconsciously; but the fact that it exists allows the possibility of interpretation and from there, the possibility of 'meaning'.

On Nov.23.2004 at 11:40 PM
Randy’s comment is:

> Deliver your responses. Show your samples. Direct us to web sites.

Anyone? I must get okay'd by the studio; I need to verify that what I'd like to share is “sharable.”

On Nov.24.2004 at 08:06 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Hopefully, I will have a chance to put a little something together (complete with serifs) later this afternoon

On Nov.24.2004 at 08:45 AM
Omar’s comment is:

...design's place is to be interpreted.

That's fine. That doesn't change anything though. I'll still argue that once a visual element is percieved, it is then interpreted. And in our case (graphic design), interpretaion is only the process of converting what we perceive into information - however intangible, phenomenological, or 'meaningful' it may be.

Many thoughts and feelings are (still) inexpressible with words. And I'm afraid a lot of people use that as an excuse to characterize somthing as meaningless - that is, decoration.

I also take issue with your suggestion that decoration is ignorance. It may be created unconsciously; but the fact that it exists allows the possibility of interpretation and from there, the possibility of 'meaning'.

And with 'meaning', decoration ceases to be decoration. That was my original point.

By saying "Decoration is ignorance," I was intending to point out the ignorance of the decorator for not recognizing the 'meaning' of their decorations.

Ignorance is bliss?

Deliver your responses. Show your samples. Direct us to web sites.

Heh...um, yeah.

I don't really know what I'm talking about here; but it seems to make sense to me, and I'm enjoying myself.

Gobble.

On Nov.24.2004 at 10:38 AM
Denise Gonzales Crisp’s comment is:

To suggest that decoration is ignorance is to not understand centuries of craft tradition. M.Kingsley has provided some proof of this in his discussion of the Baroque. I would add Goudy and others (after Baskerville, Bodoni, etc.) who developed extensive decorative parts for font families that were consistent with the ideas developed in the font.

But on a much humbler front, to not see ornament/decoration as valid cultural expression created with intent, knowledge, skill, even discursive power (though it wouldn't be called that) is to devalue, in fact dismiss volumes of culture and history and gender—in other words, perspectives of difference.

This is not to suggest that the primary purpose of heralding or at least valuing the decorative is to represent the underrepresented. As Kingsley aptly points out, the decorative functions in culturally useful ways (useful to those who have the power to decorate—or not to decorate). Ornament is a fascinating visual and material language not easily developed. This way of telling is particularly compelling in the context of these heady days of (1) digital production and (2) a growing understanding of visual semiotics.

On Nov.24.2004 at 10:49 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

1

I loved this sentence from Ms. Crisp's lecture,

"Functionality is completed by ornament."

2

My show & tell

This (pdf 255k) is an advert from a series in a local newspaper. I've shown a decorated and a not decorated version.

It's not a great advert, but I think it is a good example because it lacks much decoration (in the it's-evil-avoid-it sense.)

On Nov.24.2004 at 11:15 AM
Jason A Tselentis’s comment is:

True, Denise. The value of decoration cannot be denied. Whether Scottish tapestries, Celtic ornamentation, or Greek columns, decoration carries significant weight throughout cultures and time. In fact, leaving behind signatures of one culture or another.

It's interesting to consider how a new “industrial” revolution could give birth to a renaissance of sorts. We have these marvelous computers that are capable of so much beyond typographic control, color generation, and form manipulation. With technology, the mechanical, and the tools have driven so much production. (You've identified Loos and modernism as the birthplace of such ideals in your lecture and writing.) But maybe, we should embrace these technological tools we use as designers to revisit the ornamental, organic, and expressive

Much of my own exposure to the computer and its value to design has been about accepting and utilizing the digital, the xy, and the grid-too much emphasis on the rational, the mechanical, and the engineered.

Can we mix these two facets? What would it yield? What are the motivations? Must we simply tone down the rational (xy) and push towards the circuitous?

I go so far as to posit that in out post-911 environment, people have a greater desire to express that which carries or denotes emotion. Whether decoration, ornament, or expression, perhaps designers are searching for something beyond the conventional—a place where they can lose themselves. We can find escape in form, and pleasure in crafting the beautiful and complex. The challenge lies in merging our communicative tasks with the decorative.

On Nov.24.2004 at 11:16 AM
Omar’s comment is:

I think my 'ignorance' comment has been slightly misinterpreted.

Where we disagree(?):

I don't consider "centuries of craft tradition" to be decoration, and there is no justification in characterizing such things as decoration. At least not in the sense that is being used within this discussion - that sense being one which raises the question of rationalizing decoration...

I feel that to suggest a decorationism, is to suggest that what is being classified as decoration has been irrationally (or meaninglessly) created - and that would be quite a trick. In my opinion, the nature of decoration, or any visual element, dictates that its rationalization is inherent in the act of its creation (see my earlier posts). So there is no need to develop a framework for rationalizing decoration because one already exists.

Decorationism is trying to classify visual elements as being decoration or not-decoration - and that is where I feel the ignorance lies. That ignorance may lie on the side of the designer or on that of the viewer. Regardless of where it lies, meaning is being suppressed for the sake of that classification.

What are you running away from?

A lack of understanding does not correspond to an absence of reason.

"Why isn't superfluous, delightful, un-symbolic gorgeously crafted form enough?"

It isn't enough because no such superfluous or un-symbolic forms exist.

How can a form be un-symbolic?

The existence of this discussion seems to suggest that a form can be, but that doesn't cut it for me.

How can a form be un-symbolic?

This is the question I was originally looking to have answered and that I feel Decorationism needs to address.

Ok, I'm spent. Cheers.

On Nov.24.2004 at 05:42 PM
Jaq van der Ven’s comment is:

I fully agree with Omar. The moment that you see a broader sense of functionality, and accept decoration as being functional, it simply stops being decorative. The real emancipation of decoration would be the end of the notion of decoration itself.

Instead of thinking how to revise the idea of decoration, I'd rather be thinking of a new, broader definition of functionality.

On Nov.24.2004 at 06:11 PM
Denise Gonzales Crisp’s comment is:

Jaq. Bingo.

On Nov.25.2004 at 07:48 AM
Denise Gonzales Crisp’s comment is:

OH... and my term is "decorational"... I'm not looking for an ism, or to promote decoration as an end in itself. decorational rhymes with functional, sort of.

On Nov.25.2004 at 07:51 AM
Henrik Tandberg’s comment is:

The modernists forced a simplyfied notion of function onto the world through moral authority. They defined the notion of functionality in too narrow terms. I agree that decorationalism should strive to redifine functionality, but how do we do this without coming to a too narrow conclusion/definition?(like the modernist did.)

On Nov.25.2004 at 04:39 PM
Jaq van der Ven’s comment is:

I think it's too simple to blame 'the modernists'. Modernism was such a broad movement: from Dada to Bauhaus, from Futurism to De Stijl. All these groups had very different takes on the idea of functionality. What people see now as the 'modernist idea of functionality' is quite a caricature. (A second wave of modernists, and the wave of post-modernists that came right after that, turned it into this caricature).

But I'm glad to see that a lot of young designers (Dot Dot Dot, Goodwill, etc.) have a renewed interest in modernism as the complex and paradoxical movement that it originally was.

On Nov.25.2004 at 05:29 PM
marian’s comment is:

I've now had the time to view the video of Denise's lecture, but i confess to confusion about what is being said here.

What Denise seems to be saying is that if the decoration includes referential or meaningful material (e.g. the pattern she made incorporating pieces of the artists' work) it is decorational.

Also note:

Not Decorationalist: Jennifer Sterling

Mostly Because: the work is more akin to automatic writing.

Abductor's Notes:

While it is obsessively sincere, the complex delivery only appears complex. The details do not yield further information or insight.

(emphasis mine)

Omar, on the other hand, says

It isn't enough because no such superfluous or un-symbolic forms exist.

and Jaq says

The moment that you see a broader sense of functionality, and accept decoration as being functional, it simply stops being decorative. The real emancipation of decoration would be the end of the notion of decoration itself.

and Denise says

Bingo

Which is all getting sortof dangerously Bruce Mau in a way, including the [para]phrase "Now that we can do anything, what will we do?"

That is, when you broaden the definition of something to include everything, what does it mean?

And in all of this I still see a kind of avoidance, or intellectualization of something that we are unwilling to accept an emotional response to.

It's not an antioxidant, anti-depressant, or longevity substance, it's chocolate.

On Nov.25.2004 at 05:51 PM
Henrik Tandberg’s comment is:

I am sorry for my obviously too narrow definition of "the modernists" (after all I am a young design student and sometimes i'm in over my head.) My point was however, that as soon as we try to define functionalism, and set rules for it, we limit its complexity. But for design to identify itself it needs rules. So how do we redifine functionality without it exhausting itself? (like the international style kinda did.)

On Nov.25.2004 at 06:05 PM
Jaq van der Ven’s comment is:

Marian says: And in all of this I still see a kind of avoidance, or intellectualization of something that we are unwilling to accept an emotional response to.

But what's wrong with this intellectualization? I think it's quite interesting to rationalize something that is seen as 'emotional' (decoration), and to emotionalize something that is seen as rational (functionality).

So maybe a first step towards this broader sense of functionality is to accept the rational dimension of emotion, and the emotional dimension of rationality.

On Nov.25.2004 at 06:14 PM
Omar’s comment is:

Marian, I don't think broadening the definition of functionality extends the context in which a specific element is functional. An inclusive defintion of functionality does not imply that everything is functional in every way - only that everything can be considered functional.

With this definition, functionality is still context sensitive - and that is where the designer comes into play. Rather than sort content from form, the designer now focuses attention to sorting that which is functionaly relevant from that which is not.

A far nobler endeavor, in my opinion.

But what do I know.

On Nov.26.2004 at 10:56 AM
marian’s comment is:

But what's wrong with this intellectualization?

Nothing, actually. Because really, there's no such thing as non-intellectualization. If we think it, it exists; if we don't it doesn't.

OK

OK

I know.

On Nov.26.2004 at 02:26 PM
Denise Gonzales Crisp’s comment is:

All of your comments will help me refine my thinking. To clarify something: my so-called blog—and I hesitate to use the term because I'm really exploiting the immediacy of the software and not the fact of instant distribution and exposure—is not a public statement but a space for exploration and thinking out loud. The content may not always make sense or survive rigorous scrutiny (thankfully) which is why I call it a research space. No doubt I will be responding there to some issues raised here. Your questions and observations are helpful.

On intellectualizing: At an AIGA National conference a few years ago, I was invited to dine with several notable practitioners—a party of about ten or so. We were sipping wine, enjoying appetizers, chatting about that day's presentations. I was arguing some finer point with a willing debater to my right about design I'd seen in one talk, and suddenly one of the more vocal of the group whose ear had been bent toward our converstation bellowed at me from across the table: "Are you one of those academics?" Well, the whole table paused its chatter and I, flabbergasted but pretty clear that this was not a benign question, asked back "Do you mean... Do I think?" Let's just say I didn't win any points on that one. I have since been carefully embroidering a beautiful appliqué of the letter "A," in scarlet naturally, to wear to such professional affairs.

There is much work to be done. Please. Keep "intellectualizing."

On Nov.26.2004 at 06:09 PM
Randy’s comment is:

Imagine if the “decorative” elements in a design were deeply integrated within a works content and conceptual framework and did as much as work as the word, in communicating.

Since this message is in the “Show & Tell” category, here is some recent studio work pertinent to the thread.

CD Packaging: These musicians write sinking-feeling hipster rock with nautical references. Here we've got enough “decorative” anchors to pull any heart to the bottom of the sea. I'm feeling a little blue :(

Website: Browse around the web and do a little research on this campaign. The details featured throughout the site are related to the story line in many cases. Refresh the page and notice how they change. Certainly not new technology, but its use is linked to the purpose of the site to both inform and distract. Decoration here serves a directed and clearly planned purpose. It still looks like decoration to me...

On Nov.26.2004 at 06:11 PM
marian’s comment is:

Denise, et al, please don't mistake my intellectualization comments as anti-intellectual; they're not. I like a good, thinking conversation as much as a piece of triple-layer coconut cake, perhaps more, but I still think that there is a perceived value in the rational over the emotional in this and many other issues. It never seems to be enough to do or to like something because you love it, or because it just inexplicably makes you feel good. Your ponderings on all of this are most certainly interesting, but for myself they are not always true.

Thanks for thinking. Thanks for talking and writing about what you think. Don't forget to give in to wanton abandon just for the sheer, bloody joy of it.

Can't wait to see that embroidered "A".

On Nov.27.2004 at 03:28 PM
Dirk Brandts’s comment is:

I have since been carefully embroidering a beautiful appliqué of the letter "A," in scarlet naturally, to wear to such professional affairs.

Use a pixel font, and make one leg serifed and the other one sans : )

On Nov.27.2004 at 05:23 PM