Designing with Chaos. Sounds formal?
n conclusion, I feel obliged to answer some of my critics who say that there is one aspect sorely missing in my design analyses - and a very important aspect at that. In my numerous forays into form, color, motion and presently chaos, haven't I somehow missed the "what's it all about" of a design presentation? Why is the topic, or content, of design compositions so rarely mentioned in my articles mostly dealing with formal design aspects?
As one reader put it, referring to my early study of contrast, an opposition of the images of a baby and an atomic explosion mushroom would not fit into my theory - although it undoubtedly presents a thrilling example of contrast. Why have I never mentioned the cultural references of objects combined in a composition? Isn't the metaphor used in a piece of design its more important aspect than forms and colors?
The easy answer is that, in fact, no sensible system of analysis can be built for the content of a piece of art - unless my goal is to create another Roget's Thesaurus. There are simply too many sorts of explosions, babies, and other objects that are portrayable in principle, so if I try to put forth a classification to help you navigate a stock photo selection in search of visual meat for your designs, I would most certainly fail. All I could say in this situation is that, indeed, combining "meaningfully opposed" images will have a contrasting effect. But what use is it if I simply describe what is apparent anyway, without any added value of explanations or tips?
Also, I must say that there's actually little novelty in my over-formalized approach to art. Back in 1920s, a group of Russian literary critics formed what was later called "Russian formalism," a movement that later strongly influenced one of the most important schools of 20th century criticism, the new criticism championed by majority of literary critics in Europe and the US.
I would like to point out that both Russian formalists and the "new critics" declared any piece of art to be a self-contained entity. No details of the author's biography, his or her Freudian fears or even declared intentions are to be taken into account, and the cultural references of the piece itself are only considered insofar as they're self-contained and do not require using any external sources.
Paradoxically, it is this intentional restriction that allowed the formalist approach to handle the influx of styles and movements of 20th century literature - and to discover many of its underlying structures and trends. By limiting their analysis only to those aspects that conveniently lend themselves to a scientific method, formalist critics minimized the subjective fluff that plagued earlier works and, for the first time in history, turned literary theory from a fuzzy "it-seems-to-me" stuff into real science.
And here lies, understandably, my own reason for applying the formal approach to design analysis. What I'm trying to do in my articles is achieve the level of objectivity that would allow my readers, even if they disagree over some points, to argue scientifically rather than pursue a useless it's-bad-because-I-don't-like-it sort of argument. This is why I've been speaking mostly about the structure, not meaning of what design works intend to communicate. Interestingly, formal analytical criticism is combined in our century with a predominantly synthetic approach in art itself - but honestly, I would really prefer it to stay that way and not the other way around!
Revised: May 15, 1999