08 November 2006
Rafael Fajardo, MFA and Rex Koontz, PhD
A Rhizomic Model for Design
Rafael Fajardo, MFA and Rex Koontz, PhD

The Spanish language version was first delivered as the opening presentation of the Jornada Grafica at the Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez, in November of 1998.

This is a paper about what design does in the digital age. It is not a musing on the nature of design, nor is it particularly interested in the difference between the X-acto knife and the lasso tool (both are nothing more than instrumental devices, after all). Instead, we focus on design and the secretion of meaning in a digital world. We ask the question: where are design and designers in the new structuring of meaning we see on the web and in other new media outlets?

Through the exploration of this question we attempt to construct the philosophical underpinnings for a new media pedagogy that is content-driven and not tool-driven, that has a firm foundation in actual design and new media practice but that also challenges rapidly congealing perceptions about the education for new media production.

A Rhizomic Model for Design
Graphic Design practice is in a state of confusion. Clients are bringing designers problems that are infinitely more complex than those they have had to cope with previously. Additionally, these problems cannot be resolved by traditional designers acting alone, but now require a suppleness of knowledge and a broad range of expertise deployed in an intensively collaborative digital environment.

To add to the confusion, audiences for design have become more fragmented and diverse, reflecting the cultural multiplicity, competing paradigms of knowledge, and globalization of markets experienced by economic and cultural forces throughout the world.

This situation has been well documented in the professional literature and fora. Case in point: At the 1995 biennial AIGA conference in Seattle, two imminent designers - William Drentell and Nancye Green - spent forty minutes discussing the confusion that reigns in current design firms. Lorraine Wild, award winning practitioner, educator, and writer recounted this discussion at a symposium sponsored by the Jan van Eyck akademie in the Netherlands, and then reaffirmed and published its arguments in her essay entitled That was then, This is now, but what is next (Wild 1997:19-20). Wild was called on to further elaborate her position in Steven Heller s book The Education of a Graphic Designer (Wild 1998: 39-52). Wild s view, which we share, is that pedagogy must move to respond to these shifts.

Design pedagogy, and to a certain extent the larger design culture, have largely failed to take into account these cultural shifts. We believe that this disjunction between design pedagogy and practice goes to the heart of current debates in design culture, and that a re-thinking of design pedagogy is integral to a reading of the changed landscape of design culture. This changed landscape is just one symptom of what the anthropologist James Clifford (1988) has mapped out for larger movements in contemporary world cultures: that of a rejection of a single metanarrative, in this case the metanarrative of modernist design culture, for competing narratives incorporating new audiences and cultural producers who often inhabit what has been considered the non-modern Third World.

In addition to changes in design culture, the tools of production for print media have changed dramatically in the past ten years and are going to be in a dynamic state of flux for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the introduction of dynamic new media spaces and their attendant evolving production tools present an ever-changing landscape for graphic design theory, practice, and pedagogy.

Thus, both the design process and the audiences for design have been undergoing significant transformations. We need to respond to these changes in some productive fashion, both as design practitioners and design educators.

Graphic Design takes as its task the resolution of communication needs of corporations and institutions. In this tradition, Graphic Design has been subservient to these same corporations and institutions. Projects and programs are initiatied by commission, and intellectual content is generated and channelled chiefly by the patron. While we concentrate on the changing structures of creation in design culture, we acknowledge that the preponderance of design is and will be created on commission. We also acknowledge that the basic tenets of the commission are and will be generated by the patron. This said, there also exists a space wherein the designer actively engages in the intellectual content, and this space is continually expanding and transforming with the advent of new media in design.

New media has created new audiences for design and expanded others. The international scope of design has been more than enhanced, it has been exponentially expanded. A page or site designed by someone in Guatemala may be seen by her colleague in Norway who otherwise would have little or no access to traditional Guatemalan media and the attendant design culture. It is crucial that designers themselves come to terms with these emerging and shifting audiences. Edwin Schlossberg (1998:5) expressed this when he said What I am interested in is calling attention to the discipline of looking at the audience as part of the act of composition or design. This attentiveness to audience has been developed in other domains of the liberal arts, especially Literary Criticism (Fish 1980) and Art History (Freedberg 1989), but has yet to become a mainstay in the training of designers.

Archaeology of the Figure of the Designer and Design Practice
Modernism s influence in the world of art/making may be located in the drive toward avant-gardism and through the legacy of the Bauhaus. Octavio Paz has pointed out the intimate link between the rise of Modernism and the logic of the avant-garde in his geneaology of Modernism: Modernism started in the Eighteenth Century with criticism as a philosophical method. Then Modernism emerged as a political method-revolution which was critical of what existed in the name of the utopia that could be...Finally Modernism became an artistic method-the avant-garde, which made a radical break with cultural tradition...The avant-garde was driven by its escape from the past into the future (Paz 1992). This legacy continues to exert a strong influence on the basic culture and pedagogy of Graphic Design.

The members of the Bauhaus saw history as a dead convention. Hoping to escape that convention they would identify it, codify it, and then reject it in order to create a new canon to guide their lives. What they did not anticipate was that the cycle of rejection - canonization - rejection would turn as regularly as the tides, dooming those of us who follow to participate in the reactionary rejection of what has come before. We continue to rupture for the sake of rupture, starting over again at every turn in hopes of re-injecting the modernist metanarrative with life. In this, perhaps, we are approaching a lack in human dignity, living in a perpetual present, deluding ourselves that we are creating some future. If Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus masters intended to form a dialectic relationship with the history of artmaking, then they seemed to have missed the crucial synthetic moment in the idea of dialectic which would have given us a way out. In order to escape the fetters of a reactionary form of modernism, it is essential to not reject anything out of hand, but to carefully consider what it is to be kept, and what is to be tossed aside.

We must document and codify the existing state of culture, with an awareness of historicity and a clear definition of the goals of change. Thus to understand contemporary design practice one must have access to contemporary critical theory, especially that which deals with the history of cultural movements.

More than simply understanding these cultural movements, designers need to be able to articulate their stance vis-a-vis the intensive pace of change both in culture and in the design tools around which the discipline organizes itself. The Bauhaus tradition of education and the canonized grand masters denied the importance of linguistic ability for the visual artist and designer. The principal heir to the Bauhaus tradition of design in the United States, Paul Rand, stated: A student whose mind is cluttered with matters that have nothing directly to do with a bewildered student (Rand 1993: 217). Rand has long been acknowledged as the eminence grise of Modernist graphic design. From his seat at Yale, pronouncements like this one have carried enormous influence in design culture and pedagogy.

Redefinition of Design Education and Practice
In general, the Modernist graphic designer was to keep her hands busy and her mind on the task. Lorraine Wild, as a practitioner and educator, has argued that in addition to the Modernist visual training of the graphic designer, must be added the following: [1] learning how to learn; [2] learing to use writing to facilitate conceptual development; [3] placing an increased emphasis on verbal expression, rhetoric and storytelling; [4] understanding film and film editing; [5] understanding the structures and narratives of games; [6] understanding the social, cultural and functional possibilities of real and simulated public and private spaces; [7] utilizing collaboration, teams, and consensus building; and [8] using surrealism, bricolage and other forms of subversion to encourage entrepreneurialism (1998:18).

Gunnar Swanson (1994) has also called for a redefinition/re-thinking of design as a liberal, rather than visual art. In fact, design practice has outstripped pedagogy in becoming liberal. Moreover, a definition of design pedagogy that excludes the liberal arts, and particularly critical theory, is no longer tenable in many areas of design practice, especially those that utilize the layering, intersections, and linkages of new media.

Narrative as Node
While the design situation is saturated by the continually changing tools of new media, in pedagogical theory we need to latch onto something that does not change so rapidly yet is still integral to attempts at communication and expression across media. That element is some form of narrative. The creation and dissemination of stories, whether pedagogical, commercial or artistic, is, we would argue, the basic problem of design.

Roland Barthes (1988: 95) states the world s narratives are numberless and the act of making them is universal. More than simple, ubiquitous storytelling, narrative may be seen in his model as the connective tissue of communication theory, a part of which must be deployed in design practice. The static model of design, embodied in the logo mentality, has now been superseded in the layered universe of the web, where logo is in fact a narrative stretched over web pages and spaces. Thus narrative is the space where formal design problems and intellectual content collide, and the designer must control this juncture.

Much of the storytelling done by traditional print-based graphic designers has been done unconciously due to the lack of widespread, high-quality semiotic training. This does not mean that the power of narrative structures had not been treated earlier. Esther Parada, in her article C/Overt Ideology: Two images of Revolution described and analyzed a particular example of traditional print layout as the structuring of a tale. She shows how the New York Times presented a particular bias toward images of Latin Americans in the structuring of their day to day coverage through editorial decisions on photograph choice and page position. In this sense, we are advocating nothing new, but we must point out the still radical ramifications of the semiotic critique to design pedagogy.

Moreover, in the case of new media, these narrative spaces are continually expanding and accelerating their pace of change.
Thus the designer must be able to conceive, create, and understand narrative if they wish to remain relevant in these new spaces. Here the terrain shifts away from the question posed earlier by Swanson, Is Graphic Design a liberal art? and moves towards the understanding of Graphic Design as the design of narrative. Narrative is a large part of that space where the designer wrestles actively with intellectual content. As Parada explained, when designers create narrative spaces, they not only tell a story, but they create content through the very act of structuring the tale. This is especially evident in new media design.

Further, the specific, traditional identity of the Graphic Designer is superceded by our proposed liberalized intellectual structure. Our narrative model dissolves the traditional distinctions between Graphic Design, Industrial Design, Architecture, and the domain of human intention and creates/reveals an underlying discipline or activity of intention->action that we can simply call design. The model allows us to recognize/articulate the underlying interconnections between these (and other) traditionally disparate fields.

Definition of the Rhizome and Sketch of the Rhizomic Designer
Design for us, then, is the signing of the world. It exists in intention, communication act and tangible artifact. It may no longer be limited to graphic practice or surface styling, for the very simple and pragmatic reason that many designers do not function in and may never have functioned in that space. New Media Design, to give but one example of emerging design spaces, is about creating densely layered experiences in which text and image meld with multimedia in an architecturally designed narrative space.

Recent moves in philosophy may serve as a useful model for conceptualizing changes in design practice and their impact on the identity and training of the designer. The same sort of layering and linkages of relationsips have been described in philosophy by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri s (1987) in their book A Thousand Plateaus. In essence, Deleuze and Guattari argue that intellectual pursuits may no longer be bounded by straight linear thought processes. The intellectual may no longer be content with mastery over single topics and lines of thought such as Hegelianism, structuralism, phenomenology, etc, any one of which may be considered as a single, bounded narrative told in a shared, bounded, and isolated cultural framework, that of Western philosophy. Instead, the new intellectual must be prepared to think in multiple fields of enquiry, and most importantly must be able to relate these fields to each other. Their analogies are that of a tree and a rhizome: in the arboreal model of knowledge, one masters a discourse that grows from roots into a trunk and later branches.

This is the classical and modernist conception of knowledge. In the rhizomic model, knowledge is constructed like tubers growing horizontally-the connections may be made anywhere along the grid of growth (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 6-7). In this way knowledge becomes an assemblage where competing voices and discourses are fashioned into richly layered narratives. These narratives do not deny multiplicity, but instead celebrate it. According to Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 7), the rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles. Furthermore, there are no ideal audience members in their model of knowledge, only a heterogeneity of audience groups, who speak different philosophical or cultural languages and dialects.

The analogy with the current situation in design culture is clear: no longer can we master a single narrative, that of modernist design, but instead we must develop the intellectual tools to craft and relate multi-layered narratives. We may also no longer rely on the single, platonic ideal of the modernist design audience, but must instead acknowledge the heterogenous audiences for design as those audiences continue to expand and diversify. In this way, knowledge of the multiple narratives of design culture and its richly heterogeneous audiences, culled from training in critical theory and history, as well as the ability to construct viable multi-layered narratives of one s own, truly is the power of the designer.

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For more information, contact:

Rafael Fajardo
University of Texas at El Paso,
500 W. University Avenue,
El Paso, Texas, 79968
T: + 915 747 5181

Rex Koontz
University of Texas at El Paso,
500 W. University Avenue,
El Paso, Texas, 79968
T: + 915 747 5181