C101 Article

Stills from Citroën Picasso TV ad campaign; courtesy Leo Burnett

Rhetoric and image making

Why do car designers, architects and interior designers spend so much time and money on 'fly-through' graphic presentations? Probably because this is a new form of sales rhetoric that clients find hard to resist. In an accelerating professional world that is driven by results and outcomes, total control and meticulous planning are essential prerequisites to a successful career. In the high-speed world of deadlines you might expect, therefore, that performance and results would be the dominant factors in everything. This is not always so. We also believe in individual freedom, intuition, and a 'touchy-feely' lifestyle. Good design must inspire understanding that can be imagined in at least four dimensions. In this sense, design is a kind of nonbinary decision-making that takes place in the complex world of space, time, form, and meaning. Designers are in a difficult position. On the one hand they must provide creative innovation. Without it, the client might dispense with the their services. On the other hand, they must deliver predictable result by an agreed time and place in the future. This demonstrates the human conflict between improvisation and planning that is visible in the rhetoric of drawing.

The rhetoric of the unready

In a power-oriented world, the combination of freedom and self-expression is a potent force that continues to attract us. We may remember that John Locke's 18th century notions of the individual citizen spawned the image of today's self-defined and wilful consumer. What would such a drawing look like? We may see its expression in Jackson Pollock's action-painting performances, because they were a high-energy version of Klee's perambulatory line-making. They also have a peculiarly male quality, similar to the sketches that some famous designers do. When quick freehand drawing is used in design, we may be reminded of the sinuous intensity of Leonardo da Vinci, or the more muscular decisiveness of Pablo Picasso. Semiotically, frenetic gestures may suggest high energy and a decisively creative approach. This makes a link between mastery and freedom. It is an important dimension that continues to inform the rhetoric of design drawing. We can find it in the casual 'back of an envelope' style that we enjoy in freehand sketches by Issigonis, Starck, and virtually all of the fashion designers. We can also find it in the playful propositions of Ron Arad or the beguiling 'blobs' of Will Alsop.

A current TV advertisement for Citroën cars shows their Picasso model being sprayed by robotic workers on the production line. While nobody is looking, one of the automata starts to doodle freehand lines on a car. As though by magic, sinuous black lines start to appear on the car's roof. The effect is beguiling. It reminds us of the famous film of Picasso in which he improvises onto a sheet of glass facing the camera. In the advert we know, subliminally, that the robot is merely following the choreography of vector-based algorithms. This may remind us of the western systems of perspective that we may find, say, in Dürer, and that seem to reduce choice and freedom. However, the subtext of the advert is that although the car is merely a pre-programmed product it is also playful and creative. This epitomises the ideal mode of design drawing that must appear to be simultaneously predictable and unpredictable, powerful, yet playful.

Ron Arad: Tom Vac , 2000, sketches; courtesy Ron Arad Studio

Rational Perfection + Genius = Desperation

Perhaps this is because the average 21st-century consumer lives halfway between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. We have a brain that was devised in the eighteenth century, and a heart that started beating somewhere near the start of the nineteenth century. Although we are increasingly obsessed with programmable gadgets and automata, we like to see ourselves as individual geniuses with freedom to play. Herein lies the paradox that creates a kind of cynical reason. To give ourselves time to play, we must force ourselves to keep up with the machines that sustain our busy lives. How can we cope with technology when it not only seems to draw with more precision, but it only needs a fraction of the time that we do? If the western perspective, along with its attendant systems of lenses and vanishing points had never been devised, freehand drawing might have given us a very different idea of 'reality'. It is hard to imagine what society was like before the age of politicians, spin-doctors, microphones and cameras. Ours is the age of self-presentation. We expect camera-ready fashion models and other celebrities to show us how to hold certain facial expressions in public. Surprisingly, this is seldom discussed as the ethics of actions versus the ethics of static appearance.

Dynamic, action-based referencing

Imagine that we all spoke in the Hopi North American Indian language. Hopi is famous for having very few nouns. Everything works in a continuum of flow. We can speculate that without nouns there would be little value in inanimate objects, static images, or relics that are dislocated from their context. Many of our assumptions may only make sense from within a western grammar that emphasises individual objects and their separateness. Most of us in the industrialised world live more by the logic of categories, rather than by the logic of flow. For us, the word 'drawing' can mean either the action of mark-making itself (verb), or the residue of that action (noun). This is what makes it interesting. In a sense, drawing is the interface between the static world of materiality and the dynamic world of action. Seen in a verb-only context, objective drawing is strange because it suggests that certain parameters are absolute, and therefore fixed in time. Arguably, it therefore tends to deny the actual presence of the artist. It is reminiscent of classical science in using a reference system that is temporally and/or spatially external to the situated action of drawing. Arguably, Pythagoras and Euclid both had a strong negative influence on the status of human judgement. Some have seen this damage in the drawing of many artists from Piero della Francesca to Marcel Duchamp. An extreme exponent of this approach is Descartes, who was responsible for the X-Y grid system of map-making that is de rigeur in modern military and other high-technology systems. Arguably, his method leaves hardly any room for reference to the situated observer, artist, or to any actual, dynamic subjects that are traced onto the grid. However, the 'objective' use of numbers is still attractive to many designers, and can be seen as part of science's rhetorical claim to certainty and precision.

Will Alsop: Peckam Library , concept painting, 1996; courtesy Alsop Architects

Taking a line for a walk

Some designers use mechanical or digital drawing aids to lay claim to a timeless and e(x)ternal set of referents, but this may also conceal a fear of self-exposure. However, there is also an opposite system of drawing that is based on self-reference. By the end of the 19th century, the mass media had made art accessible to ordinary people. The early cinema enabled everyone to watch artists engaged in the act of drawing, painting, and making. For example, the mythology of the gifted genius selling their sketches in bars had become established in the public imagination. Drawing became a kind of spectator sport and established a new genre for journalism. It had the effect of making the situated experience of drawing both conspicuous and appealing. It is hardly surprising that Klee's infamous idea of 'taking a line for a walk' retained its fascination throughout the twentieth century. To a large extent, we may attribute its perennial popularity to a tireless pursuit for power as unique individuals. There is no quicker summation of what it is to be a 21st-century individual than Klee's proposition. When we pick up the pencil and start the journey, we instantly know how it feels to be a unique individual with infinite prerogatives. The high-adrenaline version pioneered by Pollock has become almost an axiom or proof that confirms our freedom of (self-)expression and, therefore, our power. When we take a line for a walk we are, almost literally, in the driving seat. This fact has not been lost on the persuaders of corporate culture. The illusion of making a choice when we are good and ready is a powerful image. It is more than this. It is a figure run and re-run endlessly via advertisements that remind us of our limitless and transcendent wisdom when choosing a particular product.

John Wood is Programme Co-ordinator, MA Design Futures at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Article reproduced from CIRCA 101, Autumn 2002, pp. 36-39.