Northwestern graduate student Brett Ommen recently completed the oral defense of his Ph.D. thesis on the role of graphic design in public culture. Brett’s argument is too detailed for me to summarize it here, but he highlights something everyone ought to consider from time to time. Brett claims that an important function of graphic design comes not from the message content but rather from how it covers the surfaces of public space. Thus, even when not attending to the myriad of signs that surround us, we are unconsciously responding to the “surface message” that our environment is intensively communicative. To illustrate this point, Brett took a page from the work of an artistic project called Delete!, which covered the signage along Vienna’s Neubaugasse for two weeks:
Brett did the same virtually, here with an image that replaces the signage in Chicago’s Ogilvie Center with whiteout.
The Center is a late-modern environment that doesn’t encourage civic association, and you can see just how barren it is when the graphic content is deleted. You also can observe how much you see-but-don’t-see. I’ll bet that few commuters could fill in many of the blanks. You might look at a familiar street scene of your own and count how many signs you overlook at any given time. We are awash in information and continually accosted with appeals, yet much of that registers, if at all, only as a form of blind sight. That idea might be extended further: how much of the information about who we are collectively is already right in front of us, but unseen? More important, how is that inattentiveness not only characteristic of our relationship with signage, but also with each other? You can’t and really don’t want to see everything, of course, but what are we missing?
Photograph by Hans Punz/Associated Press. An AP article on the Delete! project is here.