Design Observer

Job Board



Featured Writers

Michael Bierut
William Drenttel
John Foster
Jessica Helfand
Alexandra Lange
Mark Lamster
Paul Polak
Rick Poynor
John Thackara
Rob Walker


Dear Bonnie
Foster Column
From Our Archive
Partner News
Primary Sources
The Academy
Today Column
Unusual Suspects


Cities / Places
Design History
Design Practice
Disaster Relief
Film / Video
Global / Local
Graphic Design
Health / Safety
Info Design
Interaction Design
Internet / Blogs
Politics / Policy
Popular Culture
Product Design
Public / Private
Public Art
Social Enterprise
TV / Radio

Comments (15) Posted 05.10.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Adrian Shaughnessy

Philosophy, Graphic Design and Virtue of Clarity


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments (15)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

Thank you Adrian for this link and inspiring discourse. I can fully concur with your thoughts on how students today struggle to create ideas in a succinct manner - opting for more elaborate or detailed solutions. Among my students (poster design) in the past 6 years or so, I have noticed a strong shift towards presenting an idea through complex imagery or imagery that seems to have a resemblance to a still frame from a video. It's quite obvious that the young today are highly influenced by the "moving" image across the myriad of media platforms that they interact with and are incapable of grasping a persuasive idea through more iconic and simple manners. Philosophy, however vast in its applications, may be a pertinent tool in focusing on that one "singular" idea. Thank you again - as I think this may provide me with some ideas in novel creative brainstorming methods for my young talented future professionals.
Gyula Gefin
Graphic Design Faculty - Dawson College - Montreal
Gyula Gefin
05.10.11 at 11:25

Thanks Adrian, good stuff!!

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

Joe Moran
05.10.11 at 02:16

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

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

Though... I dare say that studies in poetry might yield a similarly powerful result.
05.10.11 at 04:04

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

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

While I follow the minimalist school of thought almost dogmatically, I think we shouldn't be afraid to push the boundaries of what the viewer can "understand" or "retain". Of course, this should really only be done where it works conceptually.
05.10.11 at 06:11

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

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

In quality as well as clarity.



Joe Moran
05.10.11 at 08:26

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

Ps I recognise that deer. He’s thinking about philosophy too.
Ruth Blacksell
05.11.11 at 08:39

Did philosophy help design that duck logo?
Mr. Seaton Village
05.11.11 at 04:45

“The duck-rabbit” was used by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his "Philosophical Investigations" to illustrate a point about perception. It can be seen either as a duck or a rabbit. More here
Adrian Shaughnessy
05.11.11 at 05:30

The duck-rabbit predates Wittgenstein's use of the device. It first appeared, differently drawn, in the 1890s.
David Hume
05.12.11 at 06:42

Clarity comes from understanding. When something is thoroughly understood, the outcome is often described as "illuminating". This is also called genius. Very unfortunately, designer's needs to find it out for themselves, although there is much to light up the way. Including articles such as this. Thank you, Adrian!
Tushar Gupte
05.12.11 at 10:06

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

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

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

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

(theres a phenomenology high-five to daniel, btw - im about to write my masters thesis on husserl)
05.13.11 at 03:22

I HEART Philosophy Bites too, Adrian! I stumbled upon it about a year ago and find it remarkably satisfying as well. I appreciate your own clarity in specifying the value of interrogation for designers. One reference I'd add as a tangent to this discussion is Otl Aicher — design's possibly one and only philosopher. In his essay, "Design and Philosophy" Aicher relates the distinction between philosophy and design. Where philosophy lives as ideas in the mind, design by turn is philosophy manifested as our material world. And it is through the design process itself that the interrogation takes place — more commonly referred to as designing as thinking.
Louise Sandhaus
05.16.11 at 11:51

Louise, thanks for the Aicher reference. I don't know the essay. I will seek it out. Aicher was certainly a master of clarity in his work.
Adrian Shaughnessy
05.17.11 at 03:59

'Design is philosophy manifested as our material world' .... this continues to be a popular idea in graphic design but is rarely backed up with any real philosophical interrogation and is given way too often as a statement of fact (philosophy bites might be at the route of the problem). What about asking how design - specifically typographic design - can also be used to interrogate the ways in which language (via text) can operate in active (anti-material/anti-form) contexts. For instance via the activity of publishing and most recently through routes of digital dissemination. This all maps on to the well-trodden philosophical territory of the shift through structuralism to post-structuralism. Jeffery Keedy's 'Zombie Modernism' essay sums up what continues to be a sticking point in discussions around modes of graphic design thinking.
Ruth Blacksell
05.17.11 at 02:32

Now I can see what I was doing wrong.
My work was more a political statement than a philosophical observation.
Great refreshing post
Hernán A. Osorio
05.26.11 at 01:12

Design Observer encourages comments to be short and to the point; as a general rule, they should not run longer than the original post. Comments should show a courteous regard for the presence of other voices in the discussion. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that do not adhere to this standard.
Read Complete Comments Policy >>


Email address 

Please type the text shown in the graphic.

Share This Story


Adrian Shaughnessy is a graphic designer and writer based in London. In 1989 he co-founded the design company Intro. Today he runs ShaughnessyWorks, a consultancy combining design and editorial direction. He is a founding partner in Unit Editions, a publishing company producing books on design and visual culture.
More Bio >>


BOOKS BY Adrian Shaughnessy

Unit Editions, 2010

Studio Culture: The Secret Life of a Graphic Design Studio
Unit Editions, 2009

Look at This: Contemporary Brochures, Catalogues & Documents
Laurence King Publishing, 2006

Graphic Design: A User's Manual
Laurence King Publishing, 2009

Cover Art By: New Music Graphics
Laurence King Publishing, 2008

More books by contributors >>