Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Obey the Visual - Synthesising a Visual Phenomenology?

This post is a draft for a new academic paper aimed at a graphic design journal. It continues on from the previous post, and represents writing-in-progress. Feel free to comment but questions on how or what next will be answered in future posts as I construct my paper.

I will be making a case for the development of a Visual Phenomenological Methodology within Visual Communication later in this paper. But before I do I wish to explore phenomenology’s existing connections. Phenomenology as a philosophical and a qualitative research methodology have yet to truly be adapted within a Visual Communication context. Design journalist Rick Poynor points out that the discipline “has long had an aversion to theory” (Poynor, 2003, p10).

This is no wonder because as young discipline Visual Communication does not have “a couple of centuries’ worth” of academic design literature (Rock and Poynor, 1995) that other disciplines may have. From the existing literature it does have the word phenomena is widely used (Heller & Ballance, 2001; Margolin & Buchanan, 1996; Williams & Newton, 2007; Huck et al, 1997; Hill & Helmers, 2004; Barry, 1997) to describe the internal and external characteristics of graphic outcomes or in pictorial representation. Kenney in his essay on Representation Theory in The Handbook of Visual Communication (2005, p112) discusses image representation through lenses of semiotics, rhetoric and phenomenology, concluding that a theoretical synthesis would be a useful model for understanding image representations.

In Kenney’s later book on Visual Communication Research Designs (2009) it features examples of qualitative research methodologies available to visual communicators such as ethnography, discourse analysis and content analysis. But still nothing on synthesising phenomenology into a useful methodology despite the liberal use of the term ‘phenomena’. At this point a brief review of phenomenology within a Visual Communication context would be beneficial. To begin this I will discuss Shepard Fairey’s “Obey The Giant” sticker campaign called by himself as an “experiment in Phenomenology” (Fairey, 1990).

The Obey The Giant sticker campaign began in 1989 and is still an active piece of Visual Communication as a meme and subversive street art. Using a reductively stylised stencil cut illustration of the deceased wrestler Andre the Giant (see fig. 1) stickers, posters and sprayed images have spread across cities in North America into the western world. The image of Andre’s face hypnotically stares straight out and solely features the command “obey”. Obey The Giant was originally an undergraduate illustration project initiated by Shepard Fairey. In 1990 he wrote a manifesto behind the sticker campaign in which he “attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings” (Fairey, 1990).

(Fig. 1 - Shepard Fairey and Obey The Giant (poster variant). Photo: Elizabeth Daniels)

The underlying tension of the campaign is the ambiguous nature of the relationship between image and text and it’s interpretation. Without Fairey’s context the sticker has been both embraced and rejected by people in the environments it is seen. A cultivated sense of a cultish communication is intrinsically linked to the phenomenon. In a later interview (undated, but at least post-1997) Fairey admits that Obey was “about creating an individual dialogue process that can expand into people trying to interpret it, and asking someone else, and then there’s two people talking about it. Something just going on that people can’t pigeonhole along with everything else” (Goodfellow, N.D.).

When journalists and commentators discuss Fairey’s Obey campaign they usually lead with the first line of his manifesto “The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology” (Fairey, 1990). Fairey briefly contextualises this statement with a brief explanation of phenomenology from a Heideggerian perspective. But this framing of the Obey campaign as a phenomenological experiment is very weak. He himself admits in interview with Goodfellow that he wrote it to satisfy college-educated people who “want you to empirically break down what it is, what it’s doing, and why. So I wrote the explanation for those intellectual Doubting Thomases, who’ve got to stick their finger in the hole” (Goodfellow, N.D.).

Fairey’s manifesto (Fairey, 1990) makes a clear statement that Obey is meant to stimulate curiosity and questioning of both the image itself and the image in the context of its surroundings. To achieve this he claims that the “first aim of phenomenology is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment”. Citing Heidegger, Fairey’s definition of phenomenology is weakly understood, “Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation” (ibid.). As an example of Visual Communication it is a very strong project as an exercise in creating debate over meaning and interpretation. But as an example of Visual Communication using phenomenological theory and practice, it is a misnomer.

(To be cont.)


BARRY, A.M. (1997) Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image and Manipulation in Visual Communication. New York: State University of New York Press.

FAIREY, S. (1990) Manifesto – Obey Giant [online]. [Accessed 20 September 2011]. Available from:

GOODFELLOW, C. (N.D) Andre The Giant Is Watching You [online]. [Accessed 27 September 2011]. Available from:

HELLER, S. and BALLANCE, G. (2001) Graphic Design History. Allworth Communications.

HILL, C.A. and HELMERS, M.H. (2004) Defining Visual Rhetorics. Routledge.

HUCK, F.O., FALES, C.L. and RAHMAN, Z. (1997) Visual Communication: An Information Theory Approach. Springer.

KENNEY, K. (2005) Representation Theory. In K.S. SMITH, S. MORIARTY, K. KENNEY, and G. BARBATSIS (eds) Handbook of Visual Communication: Theory, Methods, and Media. Routledge. pp99-115

KENNEY, K. (2009). Visual Communication Research Designs. New York: Routledge.

MARGOLIN, V. and BUCHANAN, R. (1996) The Idea of Design. MIT Press.

POYNOR, R. ed. (2003) No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

ROCK, M. and POYNOR, R. (1995) What Is This Thing Called Graphic Design Criticism? Eye. 4 (16) pp56-59

WILLIAMS, R and NEWTON, J.H. (2007) Visual Communication: Integrating Media, Art and Science. Routledge.


DANIELS, E. (N.D.) Shepard Fairey [online]. [Accessed 27 September 2011]. Available from:

Monday, 19 September 2011

Moving Across Boundaries REDUX - Dwiggins, Frascara and Cement (2nd edition)

This post is a draft of an introduction for a new academic paper aimed at a graphic design journal. It continues on from the previous post, and represents writing-in-progress. Feel free to comment but questions on how or what next will be answered in future posts as I construct my paper.

Before I begin this (see previous post) I want to establish a context to the problem and solution that I propose Visual Communication as a discipline can address. To do this I first wish to unpack what I mean as ‘aesthetics of surface’ and to establish what I mean by the ‘aesthetics of use’. This will be crucial for the main thrust of this paper’s thesis.

Firstly I want to define my use of Visual Communication as the disciplinary name. The term ‘Graphic Design’ was coined in 1922 by American typographer and printer William A. Dwiggins “to confer a loftier professional standing” (Heller, 2006, p10). In doing so graphic designers were raised from artisan to professional designer, predominantly servicing the commercial world. This new term also 'cemented’ graphic designers into a fixed narrow view of their socio-cultural contribution to contemporary visual culture, that was unfairly denigrated by others as "decorationists/dictators of style" (Laurel, 2003). Design critic Rick Poynor reminds us that the Modernist progenitors of the discipline such as Rodchenko, Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy had naturally “moved freely across the boundaries” in the twenties and thirties “that later, more professionally-minded generations attempted to cement in place” (Poynor, 2004).

In 1999 Poynor made a statement that if, at the close of the twentieth century, the term Graphic Design had become too rigid it was “partly because it sounds like a largely technical procedure, but particularly because it fails to suggest the expanded possibilities of contemporary visual culture” (Poynor, 1999, p28). I argue that the term of graphic designer or graphic design is too narrow to describe the actual discipline that produces graphic forms of communication through the manipulation of the relationship between text | image. The outcomes of the design discipline have been more than graphic design, as it also encompasses illustration and now design for motion and interaction.

Since the end of the twentieth century the discipline has been undergoing true re-evaluation of it’s outcomes and boundaries. Therefore I follow Jorge Frascara’s use of the term Visual Communication as the purer definition of the creative design discipline, as it places the emphasis upon the method [design], the objective [communication] and the medium [visual], rather than just the creation of graphic forms [outcomes] (Frascara, 2004, p4). Frascara argues that the discipline of Visual Communication was deeper and richer than just the perceived design of the ‘artifice’, and it’s designers were more than mere creative facilitators of the ‘aesthetics of surface’ but facilitators of behavioural change. He suggests that the heart of Visual Communication is not the design of visual elements as artifice or surface, but the design of a “communicational situation” within which the design outcome impacts on the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour of its receiving audience.

The composition of aesthetic elements that rightly absorbs the attention of graphic designers is merely surface, tools and processes. It belies the actual true disciplinary strength of designing a communicational event through graphic outcomes that affect the “knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour of people” (ibid., p13) over time and space. Such a relational configuration of image and text affecting behaviour is reliant on a direct relationship with the person interpreting the graphic outcome. This relationship is situated within the internal and external life of the graphic outcome - within “itself, the medium, the place and the time” (Bergstrom, 2008, p82). This is where my argument for Visual Communication contributing more than what is usually expected beyond mere ‘aesthetics of surface’ through a communicational situation into a communicational event within the ‘aesthetics of use’. A way of achieving this, I will argue rests in a phenomenological methodology.


BERGSTRÖM, B (2008) Essentials of Visual Communication. London: Laurence King Pub.

BRUINSMA, M. and VAN DER MEULEN, S. (2003) Deep Sites: Intelligent Innovation in Contemporary Web Design. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

BURGOYNE, P. (2002) GB: Graphic Britain. London: Laurence King Publishing.

FRASCARA, J. (2004) Communication Design: Principles, Methods and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.

HELLER, S. (2006) Better Skills Through Better Research. In: A. BENNETT, ed. Design Studies: Theory and Research in Graphic Design - A Reader. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p10-13

LAUREL, B. ed (2003) Design Research: Methods and Perspectives. London: MIT Press.

MACDONALD, N. (2004) British Web Design: A Brief History. In: R. POYNOR, ed. Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., pp200-215.

POYNOR, R. (1999) Made in Britain: The Ambiguous Image. In N. BARLEY et al. Lost and Found: Critical Voices in New British Design. London: Birkhauser Verlag AG/The British Council. Pp 28-31

POYNOR, R. (2004) Spirit of Independence. In: R. POYNOR, ed. Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., pp.12-47