Modernist myth #1: The Strips project

Jonty Valentine
Jonty is a lecturer, graphic designer and sometimes a curator and writer. Alongside his teaching commitments, he runs an internationally acclaimed design studio with Amy Yalland—Index—which specialises in publication design and graphic design for artists and cultural institutions.

In the beginning They created the page. Now the page was formless and empty, except for two grid lines. And then They said, “let there be strips”. And, “let them be placed in relation to each other”.


The project

For many years in different institutions, iterations of the Strips project have been taught to graphic design students to ground them in composition. As a design student yourself, you may know that the aim of the project is to explore two-dimensional compositional relationships. This might sound like a deceptively simple and open-ended exercise, but the crux of the project is often overlooked: relational composition. The classic initial misunderstanding for students is to see it more broadly as being about creating figurative compositions, but it is not about creating images. And students who think it is natural to see landscapes, animals, faces etc., in their compositions, will have to work through a confused first week of project.

It is difficult for some to switch their reading to a relational and formal one, and keep that reading within the frame of the page; assessing the parts of a composition, and how they act in relation to each other. The challenge then for students is to discuss (in an objective way), and to name the relationships between black shapes, between black and white shapes, between white and white shapes, etc., and to resist contriving imagined, spooky or figurative references. A secondary point of the project is to begin to build a shared language amongst the class. This is crucial in setting up the basis for future meaningful and in-depth critique of more complex projects like stationery or publication grid design that we might attempt later on in the course.

The technical parameters or ‘rules’ of the Strips project, the underlying grid and specifications, are unimportant. It doesn’t matter if you use four, five or six strips, if you restrict shapes to rectangles or allow more complex quadrilateral shapes. The rules are meant to coax students into doing asymmetric, unbalanced compositions. This is partly a nod to the idea that it can often feel more productive for students to work with restrictions – that is, it is hardest to design when you can just do anything, and have nothing to push up against… But it is more fundamentally about introducing a Modern as opposed to Pre-modern approach to graphic design composition.

Modern vs. Pre-modern graphic design 

You know this, but to explain it a bit more… The ideas and terminology behind the project can be tracked back to books like Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie, first published in 1928.1 Essentially the New Testament of modern graphic design, like all great manifestos, it sets up the argument (really a salvation narrative) that everything in the past is bad and needs to be rejected in favour of the future way, the New. So the New was ‘Modern’ and the past was ‘Pre-modern’… This entailed the rejection of ornate illustration and calligraphy in favour of the mechanical reproduction techniques of photography and typography, or what Tschichold termed ‘typo-photo’ image making.

Another fundamental idea that Tschichold promoted was a shift in the number of ‘levels’ or relating planes within compositions. This might be most simply evidenced, in typo-graphic terms at least, by how Pre-modern typographic design was symmetrical,and as such essentially one-dimensional in the articulation of spatial relationships – whereas Modern design employed a more complex regime of asymmetrical, two-dimensional spatial relationships. I don’t think I am overstating it to say that this should be seen historically as being as close to an actual invention, a legitimately radical innovation for graphic design as I can think of – and it demanded a new way of thinking and designing for print. It allowed for much more complicated inter-relationships and triangulations of compositional information. Enter, our favourite project. 

My version of the Strips project brief was from a suite of introductory projects that I inherited from my undergraduate tutor, Max Hailstone. I suspect that he got it from Franz Werner, who in turn was probably channelling Wolfgang Weingart… Armin Hofmann… Emil Ruder… And this roll call of what I see as the canon of graphic design educators is the real value of the project. It allows students access to a lineage of typo-graphic design studentship. It is kind of like being inaugurated into a secret club, one that has roots back to the Bauhaus.2 I like this because it suggests that ultimately the real meaning of the project, the only way it really makes sense, is if it is explained as part of an inter-textual index of graphic design education.

The Counter 

What I have said so far is of course open for criticism, and for that I want to concede to Rosalind Krauss’ great body of essays that dismantle many modernist myths including the myth of the ‘Grid’.3 This is a text that you will no doubt all have read. Krauss was writing more directly about art—specifically about the work of artists of the so-called Modern Art movement, whose project in the end resulted in making art that referred not to the real world, but to the Art World; ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. However, Krauss’s arguments can be equally, possibly even more directly applied to graphic design:

In the early part of this century there began to appear, first in France and then in Russia and in Holland, a structure that has remained emblematic of the modernist ambition in the visual arts ever since. Surfacing in pre-War cubist painting and subsequently becoming ever more stringent and manifest, the grid announces, among other things, modern art's will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.

Krauss criticised the use of grids for being empty, self-referential, an impoverished way of reading or making art. Grids—and in my mind I am inserting the Strips project here as being of the same ilk—are self-referential because they only refer to what is within the image, and not to the actual world that we live in:

In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back to nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of the single surface. In the overall regularity of its organisation, it is the result not of imitation, but of aesthetic decree. Insofar as its order is that of pure relationship, the grid is a way of abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to themselves; the relationships in the aesthetic field are shown by the grid to be in a world apart and, with respect to natural objects, to be both prior and final. The grid declares the space of art to be at once autonomous and autotelic. 

And that all sounds bad right? But it could just as easily be understood as beautifully summing up the point of the Strip project. That is, that they are compositions that are not meant to reference the world. If they are to be at all readable they will self-reference like any texts do, and work to help articulate the hierarchies and relationships contained within the parameters, the implied system-logic of the project. These compositions should be seen as a kind of text themselves, as referential, as inter-textual as any literary text. We might be going around in circles here a bit… Modern? Post-modern? I think the point I want to make is that these Strips compositions ultimately reference the subject of ‘graphic design’. Krauss would see this as a limiting, empty and impoverished reference. But I have a bit more invested in defending the independence of that subject from the colonising influence of say the fields of literature, or art for that matter.

Closure 

The problem with the modernists was really that they believed in projects like this a bit too evangelically rather than seeing them as merely useful and poetic rhetorical devices. I know the Strips project is problematic. It’s definitely worth asking if we should still teach it. Personally though, I like the way that it sets up an argument for graphic design being a visual language that has to be learned and practiced. There is nothing natural about it. It has its own (visual) vocabulary and syntax, one that has been developed over a long time. Now I know this all may sound like a stubbornly modernist position, possibly asserting the very definition of Modernism’s project of differentiation of cultural spheres... But although flawed, I like that it aspires to a modernist ideal that is very useful at least for first year students: the ideal of graphic design education being about learning an autonomously developing, specialised visual language that isn’t merely intuitive and can’t simply be self-taught.