Participative communication design cataloguing

A. Physical and cognitive interaction
B. Relationship artefact-place, artefact-time
C. Relationship among participants
D. The process revelation
E. Co-design projects

A. Physical and cognitive interaction

The wish to introduce a character of indeterminacy, casualness,
non-projectuality in artefacts has equally interested both artists and designers. On the contrary, or as an answer to the modernist attempts to abandon subjectivity in favour of machine-like rationality, certain projects provide a framework for future indeterminacy leaving the user or the context to determine the total meaning.

One example is a poster by Paul Elliman for a conference on the work of the French writer Lautréamont, of 1993. The poster has a great formal simplicity: on a monochromat yellow background, six white boxes are inserted between the words “image”, “Maldoror” and “text” so as the conference audience can complete the sentence: a gesture that allows the project to generate a multitude of responses. The artefact completion is achieved only after the participation of the user who chooses, with the words written in the blanks, the final meaning.
Paul Elliman is a British free lance designer, visiting professor in many universities such as Central Saint Martin College of Art and Design, University of London, Jan van Eyck Academie, he writes for many magazines as Eye, Idea Magazine and Dot Dot Dot, is the founder of the Wild School of communication design, a free web university.

Another project that plays with the user’s gestual expressiveness is the cd-cover of the album The information designed by Beck together with Matt Maitlande e Gerard Saint, of the Big Active London agency. The packaging of the album consists of a blank grid cover similar to graph paper and inside a random set of stickers designed by various illustrators and artists. The user is given the opportunity to personalize the album, by using the stickers or drawing by themselves: many users have seen in this simple call for interaction a further reason to buy the CD, in a moment of big problems for the recording companies with the illegal web dematerialized music. Beck himself was enthusiastic about the project, defining it a dream come true, it’s like getting to create 100 covers instead of one: There is no right or wrong way to do it, and that’s the point - it’s everybody’s personal expression. 1

For this project Big Active has won Design & Art Direction Global Award in 2007. Brett Phillips includes Big Active among the best hundred designers of 2008, saying that the adjectives included in the brand actually represent the agency’s qualities; big because it includes specialists in various disciplines, active because every year it produces a large number of high profile projects, many in the recording field among which one cannot forget well known covers for the group Basement Jaxx. 2

Billboard Light Bulb, that the agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO proposes for the Economist campaign, is a very simple interaction, not cognitive but of great effect. At the centre of the billboard with a red-economist background, a big three-dimension bulb lightens by means of a photocell that reacts each time someone passes by. Here interaction is not participation, it does not ask the user anything but it amazes him, and even if vaguely, it reminds the ludic character of the art of the 1980s or 1990s. This surprise aspect often makes the message itself less readable and accessible, but the artefact is more appealing for the public; an elastic business card, whose content can be read only by stretching it strongly, can only be one for a personal trainer.

The rent ads often affixed by students in university halls are another example of communicative artefact that interacts with the user and change on time: on one side of the poster there is the tenant’s telephone number, written on strips one can tear out. This type of anonymous graphics succeeds in solving with a simple expedient a common problem, gives to home seekers a quick and practical method to file the telephone numbers he needs.

B. Relationship artefact-place, artefact-time

The projects that try to relate the communicative artefact to the place where it is shown, are surely unique and expensive pieces.
Leica campaign proposes again the exact photographic reproduction of the background on which the poster is affixed, where the material is zoomed twelve times; with a simple image the agency Advico Young & Rubicam succeeded in highlighting the particular characteristic of the product one wants to publicize, the 12x optical zoom of the latest model of digital camera.
The idea seems to be inspired by the series of billboards by Pierre Huyghe, in which the artist shows some billboards reproducing the action that is taking place behind them. The printed image however has been created ad hoc by Huyghe with the collaboration of real actors; in Chantier Barbès Rochechouart he asks a group of actors to perform as workers in a Paris construction site, he takes pictures of the scene and affixes them in a place where real building workers are at work. During the exposure of the work, passersby are faced with the real workers and their representation. 3 Huyghe creates relation images by inserting life representations in advertising contexts: a praise of work and everyday life.

A project more connected to the surface on which it is affixed than to the place where it is exposed, The bubble project invaded the city of New York last year. How to turn advertisement billboards into art, is the description of Ji Lee’s work on ABC World News. Ji Lee starts by applying simple white bubbles on advertisement billboards, to encourage people to have a critical view of advertisements transforming it into criticism of itself.
The bubble project gives a new readability and space to people’s thoughts about advertisement that succeeds in persuading only thanks to repetitiveness and ubiquity on the public spaces of the cities; it transforms these corporate monologues into open public dialogues. Ji Lee’s project has become a web site and has been exported all over the world, Italy included, with a success similar to the tv format.

The graphic artefacts that have their own time dimension are few unless they have an interaction with the user. The projects here presented, in spite of developing in the paper two dimensions, have their own autonomy and change in time; the user to experience them completely has to repeat the contemplative action.

Lisbon Billboard by Stefan Sagmeister gradually disappears, slowly without any human intervention to modify its surface. This billboard exploits quick yellowing of the newsprint in the sun. Sagmeister tells how the simple exposure of the paper on his study roof in New York with some stencils reproducing the typography, created the billboard, later affixed in Lisbon. Through further exposure to the sun also the typography slowly faded away.
Lisbon Billboard seems to be a poetic reflexion on the value of time made by time itself; a temporary communication. The headline says: Complaining is silly. Either act or forget: the billboard itself seems to have chosen to forget. The sentence Sagmeister has chosen is one of the twenty-ones Things I have learned in my life so far, a book with the projects to which he has found solution thanks to the notes in his personal diary. Sentences written down for himself that become installations, pages of magazines billboards, an infinitely personal transformed into an infinitely public, also because the final projects are always signed by the whole team that has realized them. 4 The Lisbon Billboard in particular is realized for l’Experimenta Design of Bienal de Lisbon, with the collaboration of two typographers Matthias Ernstberg and Richard The.

The ludic aspect replaces the poetic and reflexive one, in the case of the Playboy campaign realized by Philippe und Keuntje, his billboard changes according to the weather thanks to the use of a new type of ink: the image that covers all the surface represents a woman’s chest in a white T-shirt whose transparency is shown when the paper is wet. The headline is Guys, pray for rain. A weather interaction. Other interesting experiments have been made, always for Playboy, on white billboards simple light plays play with female forms visible only for the more malicious.

In 1992 William Gibson in collaboration with Dennis Ashbaugh presented us a deep reflexion on the objects transience and the uselessness of our habit of digital filing, everything sooner or later will disappear. Agrippa, a book of death is a book containing a long poem on the themes of memory and loss, with a floppy disc enclosed. The main feature of the text is its caducity: the floppy disc file is programmed so that it is self destroyed after the first reading while the book is printed on a special photosensitive paper and once opened, for its ink an inexorable decaying starts.

Another case of anonymous design is the indication for osmizze or inns in the Carso of Triest or Slovenia. The osmizze are places where wine and food is sold and consumed directly in the producer’s house. In 1784 an imperial decree was issued that allowed anyone to sell food, wine and fruit must produced by himself in all the year long, provided that the osmizza was indicated with a branch in full view along the road and on the house, confiscation as punishment. These ivy, laurel or pine-tree branches become an information signal with two functions: they identify the place but most of all the branch fading green shows the quantity of goods that are still available in the osmizza, because the branch is never substituted after the opening. This indication is very important because the frasche are open only a few months a year. A signal that changes in time, autonomously and that with its changes gives an updated information in a local language that overcomes the language problems connected to the border.

C. Relationship among participants

Scott Williams and Henrik Kubel’s project(A2/SW/HK) for the Turner Prize Exhibition, organized by Tate Britain, is a debated example in the quoted articles about the application of relational aesthetics to visual communication. In the last room of the exhibition, visitors have the possibility to exchange opinions, discuss and leave a comment: on a wall rows of loose leaf A6 writing paper are punched with little wooden pencils. The talking point has attracted Monika Parrinder’s attention because it was inserted in that particular exhibition, never accepted by the official art circuit over the years for its too irregular character. Rick Poynor’s opinion is completely opposed: he doesn’t see any element of discussion in that environment.

Bringing the contemporary art discussion on post-it support, could be seen as an attempt to facilitate and involve the public in it: leaving an unsigned comment on a wall it’s much easier than answering to an interlocutor. This theory had a confirmation from those who could choose whether to use the microphone or the note: the English Culture Minister Kim Howells decides to leave on these small public post-it his negative comment on the exhibition. 5

Gum election, Stefan Haverkamp explains, is a project that started in october 2008 for the American presidential election, often defined as guerrilla artproject. [Name that shows how a commercial prejudice towards graphic design is still present] it is here presented because it represents the concept of dynamic interaction with the user and the consequent change in time of the artefact. The purpose of the designer was to draw the attention of New York citizens on the election of the 4th November 2008, creating a poster that involves the user through a strong imperative. The poster consists of two monochrome areas, red in the upper part and a blue in the lower one where the stylized faces of the two candidates appear. The typography says Who sucks the most? Vote with your gum. The poster-user interaction in this case is double: first the designer asks the users to print the poster and affix it in their town, proving with photos its development in time. The public facing the poster will decide whether to interact by reading it and acting afterwards. The headline encourages a gesture, sticking their chewing gums on the poster stands for a vote for one of the candidates represented, John McCain or Barack Obama.

D. The process revelation

The main idea in some of Daniel Eatock’s projects could not be far from the one that induced Guy Debord to project a film completely without images. According to Eatock communication can’t consist of a mere matter of surfaces: I am interested in how graphic design can be dematerialized away from aesthetic to a process. 6
In Blank Reaction, the designer proposes to tape record the reaction of an audience listening to a blank tape; by repeating the operation always with the same tape one would obtain a tape with stratified reactions. It is about a reflexion on the users’ cross reactions. With
Utilitarian Poster instead he creates a generic format in which he guides the user through the steps of creating their own advertisement, it includes blanks to insert relevant information such as titles, images, data, contacts. The result will depend on the instrument and the data the user chooses for the compilation. The absence of interaction denies the piece its essential content.

Adbusting is a kind of street-art consisting of defacement or manipulation advertising billboard to change their original meaning from commercial to political. A clear example is the one Mr. Tailon has brought in Berlin underground. It consists of overlaying the image of boring advertisement of famous cosmetic brands one can see everywhere, with stickers from Adobe Photoshop’s interface panels. The aim of this action is revealing the long manipulation of the images of the models’ faces before being proposed to the public as natural beauty to anybody’s reach.
The message is specific and strong, it reproduces the frame around the image while it is being modified on the designer’s computer.


5. Co-design projects

<i>Colors Notebook</i> is a project born from an initiative launched by COLORS Magazine collaborating with the Pompidou Center in Paris and Reporters Without Borders, the association that gives voice to freedom of expression and defends journalists all around the world.7<br/>
This special issue of Colors Magazine, designed by Fabrica for Benetton,
is completely white: it contains fifty pages to be filled with contents. Many copies are sent to famous personalities who are asked to express, to say everything they fell, with the promise to spread the messages afterwards.
Chinese prisoners, people with mental disorders, Southafrican children, artists, astronauts but also common people receive the magazine and after filling it in with their messages they send it back to Colors that promises to organize a travelling exposition with these unique pieces and two volumes collecting the most interesting pages. The audience is involved, it has to elaborate the contents of a magazine that has always been synonym of free thought.
Placing experience and social values communication as first aims has been the philosophy inspiring Colors since its birth.
Tibor Kalman or Oliviero Toscani’s team has always succeeded in matching Benetton trademark with social images, leaving a high level of ambiguity unsolved. The formal devices, the images documentary quality define the audience’s role and also suggest the audience deeper engagement with the communication process.
According to Ann Tyler the magazine first aim is not to persuade either to purchase or to adopt new values but to think about the existing ones; by altering the context and placing the image where the audience expects to see a product, the audience becomes uncomfortably aware of its role as an active participant in the argument. 8

The communication on the problem of AIDS spent plenty of energy but with few results. Co-design techinque in this case can be useful; involving the population, one wants to communicate the importance of the problem, it helps in the creation of a proper language for that social area. This was the starting point that brought Audrey Bennet, Ron Eglash, Mukkai Krishnamoorthy and Maire Rarieya in Kenya to co-project an information campaign on the risks of HIV infection. The improvised designers managed to highlight the key elements, the local easthetics essential to define the language to be used. According to this graphic design promoters there is an unexplored potential that could give the public the possibility to change, thorough one’s own efforts and ideas. 9

This consideration arises from an observation on the agricultural development of the country. The green revolution of the 1960s induced to the replacement of the traditional crop rotation with specialized monocropping using chemical fertilizers and insecticides. Besides soil depletion this revolution brought about many other social problems such as women unemployment. In African countries in this period they are trying to reintroduce preindustrial agricultural techniques not as a romantic return to the past, but to try to save what remains of such a fruitful land. The American agricultural model exported and set in a new society without any adaptation, has created new problems: this method is often applied also to other disciplines. To avoid such problems it is important to pay attention to the context where a determined project will be inserted. To have a clear information transmission, receiver and transmitter have to share a code. The approach this group of researchers adopts implies the involvement of the local population in the artefacts design, supported by a constant consultation with American professors and students involved in the project. Both sides have essential knowledge to share for the project success; the result will be an hybrid cultural jam.
Having posters produced in Kenya by Kenyans has a double meaning: it adopts an effective language for the population and reflects the audience’s personal identity.

  1. Dan Snierson, Design Beck’s album cover, in “Entertainment Weekly”, n. 906, November 10, 2006.
  2. Brett Phillips in AA.VV., Area_2 100 Graphic Designer, 10 Curators and 10 design classics, Phaidon, London 2008.
  3. Cfr. AA.VV., catalogue of the exhibition Pierre Huyghe, 20 aprile – 18 luglio 2004, Museo d’arte contemporanea del Castello di Rivoli, Skira, Milano 2004.
  4. Stefan Sagmeister, Things I have learned in my life so far, Abrams, New York 2008.
  5. Cfr. Nigel Morris, Conceptual bull: Culture minister and his critique of the best of British art, in “The Independent”, October 31, 2002.
  6. Daniel Eatock in Monika Parrinder, Colin Davies, Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of ‘relational aesthetics’ may give designers a new set of tools, in “Eye” n. 59, Spring 2006.
  7. Colors Notebook, Project press folder diffused by FABRICA.
  8. Ann C. Tyler, <em>Shaping Belief</em>, art. cit.
  9. Cfr. Audrey Bennet, Ron Eglash, Mukkai Krishnamoorthy, Maire Rarieya, <em>Audience as Co-designer: Partecipatory design of HIV/AIDS Awareness and Prevention Poster in Kenya</em>, in AA.VV. <em>Design Studies</em>, op.cit.