Is Deconstruction within Typography Relevant in the 21st Century?


Deconstruction within typography was used to confront and question the prerequisite structure of what was considered to be good typographic design. This began to take shape over 30 years ago and since then the way designers have treated its application has drastically changed.

20th century deconstructive design led the way for change in the industry and it allowed typography to become a more open means of communication. I believe that the relevance of deconstruction in the 21st century holds significant importance for the continued growth and development of typographic design. It is only natural for the typographic medium to go though ebbs and flows, but for it to fall back into modernisms linear way of communicating can only be counter productive. It is imperative that the application of deconstruction as a means of communicating the complexities of the world we live in remains an active part of typographic design going forward in the 21st century.

Rick Poynor (2003) said that deconstruction had run its course as a style. I will be exploring and discussing this notion further. I will look at how deconstruction has adapted over the decades from its first typographic uses in the 1970s, to its commercialization in the 1990s and finally to how it is being applied to present day typographic design. By first taking a look back I will be able to make a more refined and objective conclusion to this discourse. Is deconstruction within the realms of typography relevant in the 21st century? Or has it already been bound to the pages of history?

Before deconstruction was ever considered, as Poynor puts it, a style, its uses were heavily stooped in theory. The first chapter will explore the methodological roots of the deconstructive theory and how it was applied to typographic design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art by its former co-course leader Katherine McCoy and two of her ex students, Jeffery Keedy and Edward Fella. This is not only to analyse what they produced, but to also examine how their deconstructive work was received by industry professionals.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s deconstruction began to pick up steam in response to its commercialization. Designers and corporations began to adopt what Cranbrook and other faculties were doing with Deconstruction. But these new methodologies being taken did not necessarily coincide with the theoretical approach that had been used the decade before. This transition did not come without growing pains, it forever changed how designers and the public alike viewed deconstruction. Chapter 2 will explore the typographic works of David Carson and Neville Brody in both corporate and creative fields ranging from magazines like The Face and Ray Gun to some of Levis corporate advertising and promotions. The application of deconstruction over varying mediums will be explored to analyse any changes in communicational ability to get an in depth look at deconstructions shift in paradigm, and how this has effected its application within 21st century typography.

To bring deconstruction into the 21st century a more up to date outlook on society’s cultural developments needs to be considered, simplify looking at modern typographic interpretations of deconstruction will not suffice. Cheaper 3 will focus on how typographic deconstruction has become a part of the New Aesthetic, a contemporary visual and theoretical movement that looks at the technological advances of the 21st century and how it has become such an intrinsic part of our society. Selective works from Neville Brody’s graphic design practice, Research Studios will be cherry picked to see what deconstructive methods, if any at all, are still being employed nearly two decades after his typographic work on the publication, The Face. By comparing both old and new interpretations of deconstruction, brining in a fresh theoretical perspective in the form of the New Aesthetic and seeing if there is any cross over between it and the critical thinking of deconstruction, will allow the notion of whether deconstruction still holds relevance within 21st century typography to be explored.

Chapter 1: The History of Deconstruction in Typography

To begin this discourse, deconstructions theoretical origins need to first be considered to get a contemporary and up-to-date perspective on its relevance in the 21st century.

Deconstructive theory is part of a bigger entity than itself, post – structuralism.  Its main concept is to change and reorder the misconceptions and ideals of western culture that structuralism embodies. Structuralism segregates opposites in western culture like, external/internal, image/reality, and representation/presence (Derrida, 1994). The theory of structuralism will regard one as superior, and the other as inferior. Deconstructive theory on the other hand, does not. “The deconstructive method seeks to undo both a given order of priorities and the very system of conceptual opposition that makes that order possible” (Poynor, 2003, p.46). The order of priorities which relates most to the medium of typography is speech/writing. This opposite has been one of the driving forces behind the uses of the deconstructive theory in graphic and typographic design.

Ferdinand de Saussure’s, a Swiss linguist whose ideas where firmly based around the school of structuralism argued that the spoken language and the written word were independent from each other. He believed that “speech draws on interior consciousness, but writing is dead and abstract” (Lupton & Miller, 1999, p.4).  The structuralist view regards speech as superior and writing as inferior. Saussure believed that the alphabet was not a sufficient way of signifying language and that it shrouded the purist form of the spoken word which in comparison, has a meaningful connection with the speaker.

Derrida (1994) opposed Saussure views of speech/writing in his publication Of Grammatology. Derrida believed the written word to be an effective representation of speech. But despite this, he was unsettled by how intrusive it could be. Derrida believed that writing was a faulty copy of the spoken word and that it invaded the thought process and altered the realms if memory, knowledge and sprit (Lupton & Miller, 1999). Derrida also argued that “silent graphic servants” such as spacing, uppercase/lowercase and punctuation are detached forms of the alphabet, and that their relationship is hollow.

The alphabet has come to rely on silent graphic servants such as spacing and punctuation, which, like the frame of a picture, seem safely “outside” the proper content and internal structure of a work and yet are necessary conditions for making and reading (Lupton & Miller, 1999, p.13).

This statement draws back to the structurlist opposite of inside/outside. Derrida believed that the traditional form in which these “silent graphic servants” were taking could not sufficiently serve as a foundation for the written word. Lupton and Miller (1999) argue that deconstruction, as a theory can act as a mode of questioning towards these formalities.

Arguably the most influential place where deconstruction as a theory was implemented in graphic design was at the Carnbook Academy of Art in America. The course which applied these thinking was run by Katherine and Michel McCoy from 1971 to 1995. The McCoy’s expressed their thoughts on the uses of deconstructive theory at the Academy.

New Experiments explored the relationship of text and image and processes of reading and seeing, with texts and images meant to be read in detail, there meaning decoded. Students began to deconstruct the dynamics of visual language and understand it as a filter that inescapably manipulates the audience’s response (Aldersey-Williams et al., 1990, p.16).

The application of these theories in typographic design was set in motion in 1978 when a handful of students at Cranbrook were supervised by Katherine McCoy and Daniel Libeskind who collectively produced Figure 1 (McCoy, 1978, p.123), “French currents of the letter”. These three examples are part of an eight page essay, and as the reader progresses thought the pages the manipulation of body text becomes more apparent. Space has been the main component of experimentation within the essay. The running text has been pulled apart leaving wide and lofty gaps inbetween word and line, sentences within back bars have been staggered from the main running text which act as contrasting typographic elements, and margins between the body text and the edge of the page are left uneven and constantly shifting. The way the text has been deconstructed not only intends to affect its visual appearance, but also the inner consciousness of the reader. The rhythm and pace of the reading process has been heavily altered questioning the rules and structures that govern the written form. This is intended to encourage the viewer to explore and deviate from the linear line that sentences are traditionally read.

The verbal structure of the essay is brought into focus, while the visual clarity is decreased. The running text becomes a texture where the regularized spaces between words imply multiple reading directions (Samara, 2005, p.123).

While Katherine McCoy had a significant effect on her students at the Academy in terms of theoretical thinking towards deconstruction, she was increasingly aware of how impressionable the students could be and did not want to lead them too far when confronting the boundaries of design and cultural norms. While McCoy did much too distal her students concerns and to act as their public face in conference appearances and writings, but it was not without a certain amount of resistance on her own part and a reluctance to succumb entirely to post-structuralisms assault on establish values (Poynor, 2003). Under the tenure of Katherine and Michael McCoy at Cranbrook Jeffry Keedy, a student at the time, showed clear intentions with his deconstructional approach towards typographic design. For Keedy, the pressing task was to challenge the ridged thinking, worn-out visual schemes and sterile corporate applications of modernist America (Poynor, 2003). Figure 2 (Keedy, 1988, p.57) is an example of an event programme designed for a series of contemporary exhibitions during the 1980s and is a prime example of the deconstructive work to come out of Cranbrook during this time period. The main typographic elements have been segregated into four sections on the page around the circular like crosshair in the middle, giving the design a 360º nature to it. The typographic elements range from large to small with verging amounts of manipulation, orientation and aesthetical styles, leaving the page with a number of different hierarchies and inconsistencies. Words have been sheered to create angular jabs into the page and lines of text follow circler paths. Running text and headlines sit upside-down to encourage the reader to change, rotate and further explore what they are present with. As the page is turned new aspects of the type reveal themselves, some becoming legible, and others becoming shapes and purely ornamental forms. The deconstruction of the typography has been juxtaposed by its own symmetrical layout on the page giving the visual chaos of shape and type, stability.  Keedy’s deconstructional approach questions the “visual schemes” of corporate design in western culture (Poynor, 2003) by reinscribing the order of text to challenge how the viewer digests information from design. Initially this visually awkward outcome of deconstruction can at times feel isolating, but this almost active form of deconstruction is more immersive than isolating. Keedy wants the viewer to be an active part of the design, rewarding the people who dare to explore the complex and multidimensional forms of communication.

Cranbrook viewed typography, not as a singular communicational device, but as a discourse (Aldersey-Williams et all., 1990). This proposed new and different ways of seeing the typographic form that completely revolutionized the medium forever.

Layers of form are now used to reveal successive layers of content. Often the most immediately readable layer carries the most stabilized objective message, while successively imbedded layers carry more open, critical, or personal content with subtexts, deferred meanings, hidden stories, and alternative interpretations. (Aldersey-Williams et all., 1990, p.16)

The growth and opened ended approach of deconstructions as theory and aesthetic within typography did not come without its resistance. Misinterpretations of the work and attacks directed towards the designers produced plenty of controversy. One of the most commonly known misinterpretations of deconstruction was by American graphic designer and historian, Philip Meggs. He saw deconstruction within typography at face value and failed to acknowledge the theoretics that underpinned it. Meggs believed that deconstruction was, “Taking the integrated whole apart, or destroying the underlying order that holds a graphic design together” (Aldrich-Ruenzel & Fennell, 1991, p.135).  However, Edward Fella’s catalogue for the Detroit artist market exhibition shows that this is not the case.  In Figure 3 (Fella, 1987, p.140) he has not destroyed the underling order of the typographic elements, just questioned and twisted what constitutes a structured layout, leaving the “underlying order” of the design not destroyed, but reassigned. The paragraphs on the spread have been unconventionally organised with varying orientations and spacing, and the accustomed rigid left/jagged right that running text generally takes in modernist design has been directed towards each other, creating even moreinconsistencies within the negative space of the page. And these inconsistencies that have formally sat “outside” the structure of running text acting like a “frame of a picture” (Lupton & Miller, 2004) are instead now directed “inside” in the design, reinscribing what could have been seen as an aesthetical imperfection, into a layer of interpretation. Also in a traditional scene the paragraphs still fully retain their communicational functions as legibility has been kept completely clear, keeping the design accessible for the viewers, especially compared to that of Figure 2 (Keedy, 1988, p.57) which has been treated more elastically in its typographical layout.

While Meggs’s misinterpretation of deconstruction within typographic design was not in a malicious scene, Steven Heller on the other hand sought to attack more than question the deconstructive methods at Cranbrook in his essay, Cult of the Ugly. Heller, an accomplished designer in his own right failed to see or misinterpreted Cranbrook’s goals within typographic design. Heller (1993) uses the words “confusing” and “ugly” on multiple occasions to describe Cranbrook’s deconstructive typography. “The lack of any explanatory précis leaves the reader confused as to its purpose or meaning” (Heller, 1993, para.2). Heller went as far to say that some of Jeffery Keedy’s work is no more than a novelty and he was surprised that Keedy’s designs had been taken seriously, believing they made a parody out of typographic standards that simply contribute to the perpetuation of bad design.

While the art and design community is driven by subjectivity and that opinion is law, the points Heller made about Keedy’s work do not hold much in the way of critical or insightful thoughts for the readers. It rather comes across as more of a rant about his own personal views with the aesthetic that he believes contributes towards “bad” and “ugly” typography.  While Heller did reference experimental typographic designs that coincided with his idea of good typography, he still showed a certain animosity towards the work produced at Cranbrook and displayed a reluctance to accept their work as a meaningful approach to communication. Keedy responded to Heller’s critique, saying,

Obviously, he illustrated the “Ugly” essay with stuff that just came across his desk. Had he bothered to do the research, as he does with his historical essays, he could have given a very good and insightful critique. But what he gave instead was very glib. You can no longer make these quick and easy calls. Simple ideas of good and bad, ugly and beautiful, are just not useful (Dooley, 1994, para.11).

Heller go’s onto say in his essay Cult of the Ugly that deconstruction uses as a communicational tool within typographic design is no more than a product of its environment. He argues that because there is an established set of rules within typography it does not mean that they have to be challenged, questioned or looked at from a different perspective. He believes that deconstruction is a form of defiance, a rebel without a cause, and its attempts of adding meaning and complexity to typography just end up obstructing comprehension (Heller, 1993).

“Ugliness as a tool, a weapon, even as a code is not a problem when it is a result of form following function. But ugliness as its own virtue – or as a knee-jerk reaction to the status quo – diminishes all design” (Heller, 1993, para.22). Even thought deconstruction was not embraced by all within the design community and its complex nature was viewed by some as “ugly”. Cranbrook Academy was not deterred by this resistance. Their willingness to question and challenge the firmly established rules of modernist typography opened up the medium, resulting in more visually engaging forms of typography. Further interpretations for audiences were uncovered and increased avenues of communicational devises could be utilised by designers.

Chapter 2: Commercialisations Effects on Deconstruction

The aesthetical style of deconstruction during the mid 1990s was embraced by an extremely wide audience and found its way into the world of popular culture and corporate advertising. The likes of Microsoft, Nike and Levies all integrated deconstructive tactics in their promotional designs.

One man who arguably had the biggest impact on the popularization of the aesthetic was David Carson. His approach towards typographic design, especially in Ray Gun magazine is believed to be one of the defining publications of typographic deconstruction during this time period.

While art director at Ray Gun magazine Carson employed much help from students and graduates of Cranbrook Academy and CalArts, including the likes of Edd Fella, “whose input was vital to its abrasive textures and reader appeal” (Poynor, 1998, p.222). Carson reiterated Cranbrooks and CalArts methodologies within typography, he echoed that the rationalism of grid systems and other kinds of typographic formatting were “horribly irrational” (Poynor, 2003). But even though Carson had this connection with Cranbrook Academy and even shared some of the same key design principles, the similarities in the way they worked failed to extend any further. Lewis Blackwell, a keen collaborator with Carson and editor of British design magazine, Creative Review wrote, “it is misleading to associate Carson with the graphics of Cranbrook” (Poynor, 1998, p.220). It seems that Carson was then trying to carve his own niche within deconstruction putting his own personality and interpretation on the aesthetic whilst further detaching himself from the typographic design of Cranbrook, which in the 1980’s was heavily stooped in theory. Carson was more intrigued with the tangibles of the deconstructional aesthetic in order for his work to appeal to a wider audience, further propelling the uses of deconstructonal devises in commercial design.

“I’m not anti-school, but when I became interested in design I really didn’t know what those rules were and so I just became fascinated by exploring the look and feel of the subject” (Poynor, 2003, p.62). While some of Carson’s peers were happy that their way of designing and experimenting with typography was finally getting some commercial publicity through Ray Gun, Barry Deck, a CalArts graduate who contributed towards the typographical content of the publication, had different thoughts on the matter. “I think he’s taken almost everything he does from the CalArts/Cranbrook community and sort of ripped out the heart – that is, de-ideologies it completely and delivered it to the masses” (Poynor, 1998, p.222).

Unlike Cranbrook who stood proudly by Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, Carson never referenced it within his typographic design, however there was still an overlap and a common unity between some of the ways they approached deconstruction. Although it may have come from two different starting points, the end result held key resemblances. While both used their own graphical approaches that separated them aesthetically, their uses of complex typographic forms were generally implemented for the same purposes, to make viewers think and question what they are being exposed to and to and open doors of interpretation that would have not been possible if conforming to conventional typographic means. These elements are very important in terms of deconstructions applications in the 21st century and will be discussed in depth within the final chapter.

Figure 4 (Carson, 1994, p.118) is a double spread from Ray Gun magazine, and the whole interview with Bryan Ferry has been replaced with dingbats making the entire interview illegible. The viewers who wanted to read the interview were made to work, they were challenged to find the interview within the publication without any direction of its whereabouts (it was put right on the back pages). This refers back to Cranbrooks view that typography has the potential to be complex and “layered”. In this case those layers applied by Carson quite literally carried “hidden stories” and “differed meaning” for the readers to decipher. “The reader would enter the process of disentangling, deciphering or dismissing the text” (Poynor, 2003, p.63). This is assuming the reader was fully engaged and actually wanted to be part of the deconstructional process.  But this assumption wasn’t made blindly. Carson was given encouraging feedback on the structure of the magazine by its reader’s as Ray Gun’s popularity grew. ‘The magazine had a readership of 150,00 and growing, and you only have to scan its letter pages – “Ray Gun is me” – to see how it thrills its young audience” (Poynor, 1998, p.223). Carson firmly backs up his creative decisions in making Ray Gun hard to crack and at times, completely illegible. “You can’t give an eighteen year old a page of solid grey type and expect them to read” (Poynor, 1998, p.225). These alternative reading strategies, visual complex typography, broken and fractured layouts and a general “rebellion against traditional publishing” (Poynor, 1998, p.224) were all implement by Carson to further challenge the reading process. If the process of abstracting information from text is demanding on the reader, and the act of deciphering content is met with rewards, then maybe more of it will be taken to heart.

What Carson did with Ray Gun greatly appealed to the “Generation X-ers” of the 1990s, and the magazine only helped the constant strive for individuality and exclusivity that youths have always craved.

It is certainly clear from Ray Gun’s letters that many of its readers do find it heavy going, or even impossible to read on occasion. That is what they say they like about it. As one of Ray Gun’s writers observed in a recent issue: “Just by opening this very magazine, you’ve gained admittance to an exclusive club” (Poynor, 2003, p.225).

“I firmly believe if you had done Ray Gun traditionally it wouldn’t have survived. It’s not that unique in the writing and it’s a pretty narrow scope” (Poynor, 1998, p.224). While Ray Gun cant be considered light reading material, its heavy going nature encourage the viewers to be an active part of the text and to also challenge the preconceptions of how typography was regarded, to see it as a device that bridges the gap between it and that of an image, “to explore the relationship of text and image and the processes of reading and seeing” (Aldersey-Williams et all., 1990, p.16). It is also suggested that Carson did not regard the editorial content of the magazine in the same light as he did the typographic design. Carson not only used deconstruction as a design tool to engage the reader, but to also put an appealing gloss over the editorial content to hide its lack of originality. This is further supported by his decision to replace Bryan Ferry’s interview with dingbats. This specific way of working with editorial content was soon realised by large advertisers as Carson began to work with the likes of Microsoft, Pepsi and Levis. “Advertising targets the emotions. It bypasses the logical centres of the brain. It has no critical relationship to its own content (thought as a strategy it sometimes pretends to)” (Poynor, 1998, p.224).

The typographic elements of Figure 5(Carson, 1994, p.152) have been waywardly set with no underling structure to them. The individual letters of the word “loose” are uneven in size and have been loosely kerned. The horizontal stroke of the letter “L” has been loosely placed inside the negative space of the Number “2”. And the kerning of the words “worker jean” has been loosely set giving each of the letters plenty of room. Also parts of the typographic grid have been referenced. While margins have been defined which traditionally set boundaries for typography, the typographic elements casually creep over it, some even reaching the edges of the format. All of these typographic aspects attempt to visually represent the product itself by inhabiting some of its casual and “loose” characteristics. While the deconstructive elements that Carson has employed do not hold the same complex narratives for the audience to explore compared to the work seen at Cranbrook Academy, which further supports Barry Deck’s beliefs that Carson “de-idolised” and diluted their deconstructional approach. But it is still apparent what he has done on Figure 5(Carson, 1994, p.152) to give the typographic elements a more meaningful relationship with its product. But Poynor (1998) suggests that adverting has no tangible connection with the product it is fronting for. Advertising then relies on impulse reactions from the viewer to become successful. Face value then takes precedence over the critical thinking behind the design implemented by its creator. The deconstructive elements that are intended to communicate a message become diluted in attempts to blindly connect with the audience.

Carson’s uses of deconstruction, especially in his work within the publication Ray Gun showcased some of his typographic approaches and interpretations of challenging traditionally structured layouts. But the deconstructive method can be interpreted endlessly. During the 1980’s Neville Brody who was the art director of British music and culture magazine The Face, put his own spin on the aesthetic. Brody states,

I wanted to use the three dimensional space of a magazine. Magazine are 3D items in space and time – there’s a connection between pages 5 and pages 56 and 57, a continuum, A magazine doesn’t have to divide up space like a newspaper, and the information it carries has more time to make connections between the different ideas that might be present (Wozencroft, 2001, p.96).

Brody used the typographic grid rigorously, especially in comparisons to David Carson and Cranbrook who at times completely dismissed it from their work. This is then a sound example of designers interpreting deconstructive devices differently.

“The grid was based on a simple system that could be adapted when necessary” (Wozencroft, 1996, p.96). This technique of using the typographic gird can be seen in Bordy’s magazine The Face, both Figure 6 (Brody, 1984, p.109) and Figure 6.1 (Brody, 1984, p.109) have a six column grid that has been kept exactly the same, but its usage does not dictate the typographic content too rigidly. In fact, it has given the pages a constant in the form the text, and a variable in the form the titles, leaving both the pages with an air of familiarity.

The main title in Figure 6 is very compact with the subtitle residing directly underneath it. The bracketing of the subtitle and the typeface it has been set in emphasises its secondary role on the page. In comparison to the hierarchies of Figure 6, Figure 6.1 holds very different properties. The main title has been segregated into two parts, while “DON’T” has been rotated vertically and loosely kerned. “Cry me a river” is set in the same typeface as the subtitle from Figure 6, which could suggest a secondary impotents to the text. However both of the words have been given almost equal rights on the page due to their size or positing, and therefore the differences between the two titles are entwined giving the title as a whole more complexity in its tone of voice.

Far from the stuff of mass communication, Brody’s visual codes were readily intelligible only to initiates. That, surely was the point. The Face in its heyday, from 1983 to 1985, was unashamedly elitist publication, offering privileged meanings to a narrow, self defined audience (Poynor, 1998, p.111).

Both The Face and Ray Gun, carved their own niches in deconstruction and knew specifically what kind of audience they were appealing to. The format of the publication gave the viewers that were willing the opportunity to fully absorb, decipher and uncover alternative ways of reading. But in the realms of advertising, where impulse reactions take precedence over critical thinking, deconstructive communicational devices ran the risk of not connecting with their indented audiences, rendering them to a point, useless.

…In 1997, deconstruction had ‘gone pop’. A database search revealed that the word or a variant had appeared in almost 7000 articles over the previous two years, form entertainment weekly to the New York Times, from Playboy to Sports illustrated (Poynor, 2003, p.65).

The commercialization of deconstruction opened up the aesthetic to new methodologies that didn’t specifically follow Derrida’s deconstructive theories, allowing the style to reach a much wider scope of people. Designers like Carson and Brody gave audiences new ways of interpreting the aesthetic. But this widespread adoption of deconstruction acted as a double edged sword and to some, it just became a style. Deconstruction as a term was so overused it became part of pop culture, a mere trend. “In everyday journalistic parlance, deconstruction had become a trendy synonym for “analysis” or “explanation” and sometimes for “taking things apart” or even “destruction”” (Poynor, 2003, p.65). The majority of people were then using the word without actually knowing its meaning, which only added to the confusion and misinterpretation of the term. If an experienced typographical communicator like Philip Meggs could misinterpret deconstructions meanings, then it left very little chance for the uninformed reader to fully comprehend its values.

Deconstruction as a communicational device within typography was at its best on a small, creative scale where everything could be controlled, but once it became commercialised a lot of things that made it successful had the potential of getting lost in translation.

Chapter 3: Deconstruction in 21st Century Typography

Just before the turn of the century at the end of the 1990s deconstruction was considered to have “gone pop” which contributed to its further departure from Derrida’s theory originally implemented by the likes of Cranbrook. Derridia was asked in an interview about the supposed death of deconstruction and he believed that parts of deconstruction belonged to the structure of history or eventsbut that it would also continue with other names (Lupton & Miller, 1999). In response to these comments, Lupton and Miller (1999) said that they were interested in de-periodizing the relevance of deconstruction, instead of viewing it as an “ism” of the late-80s and early-90s they see it as part of the on going development of design and typography as distinctive modes of representation.

Figure 7 (Research Studios, 2003, p.24) was produced by Neville Brody’s design practice, Research Studios. Theirvisual identity for the French fashion show, “Who’s Next” uses parts of the deconstructional aesthetic, but with a “contemporary punk-aesthetic twist” (Fawcett-Tang & Jury, 2007, p.45). Even though it does not state the specific designers who worked on this project, it is quite clear that Brody’s previous work has had influences. Just like The Face these designs use a dictating grid structure for all of the typographic elements, but in this case it is much more ridged as the headlines and the text are kept consistent throughout with no deviations whilst the fragmented headlines at the bottom of the pages are left to freely roam with little or no underling structure, leaving them with inconsistent illegibility. But as the fragmented headlines are made up of words from the rest of the page they become clearer as the reader navigates through the running text. The fragmented headlines become a developing and active form of language with continued communicational properties that unveil themselves long after the readily legible headline at the top of the page is digested, similar to that of a sentence. This juxtaposes the traditional one dimensional relationship between headline and body text. These designs allow a fairly linear path of interpretation without running the risk of isolating the readers. This is a great example of old meeting new. While these designs lack some of the complexities of their deconstructive counter parts from Cranbrook during the 20th century, Research Studios intentions are still apparent but in a much more subdued manner, similar to what Carson did with his typographic work for Levis.

Lupton & Miller (2004) argue that deconstruction is not a style or “attitude” but rather a mode of questioning through and about the technologies, formal devices, social institutions, and founding metaphors of representation. And throughout the 21st century these modes of questioning have developed at a staggering rate, take for instance the New AestheticThe New Aesthetic was coined in 2011 by James Bridle and is an act of questioning opposites within modern culture today, similar to deconstruction. The New Aesthetic is focused around how technology has become increasingly intrusive on society, and how our growing dependence on it has tipped over into the reality we live in. Bridle (2012) views the New Aesthetic as a blurring between “the real” and “the digital”, the “physical” and the “virtual”, the “human” and the “machine”. And it should also be clear that this “look” is a metaphor for understanding and communicating the experience of a world in which the New Aesthetic is increasingly pervasive. Just as Derrida’s deconstructive theory (1994) emphasis and challenges the connections between the likes of external/internal, image/reality and representation/presence. The New Aesthetic’s “look” does the same thing within opposites that have become an integral part of 21st century culture. Like a pair of glasses, it acts as a means of letting the wearer see the technological influences on society in a clearer and more honest fashion.

Sang Mun, former NSA (National Security Agency) employee now graphic designer released Figure 8 (2013) ZXX : a defiant typeface in reaction to the increasing number of incidences involving privacy invasion on the internet.

How can we conceal our fundamental thoughts from artificial intelligences and those who deploy them? I decided to create a typeface that would be unreadable by text scanning software… misdirecting information or sometimes not giving any at all. (Mun, 2013, para.2).

There are six different variations of the typeface in Figure 8 (Mun, 2013); they are SansBold, Camo, False, Noise and Xed. If you exclude the first two, Sans & Bold, which are both easily legible to the human eye and computer scanning software’s, the others are specifically designed to throw foreign scanning software’s with differing levels of coherence on the outcome. Mun has achieved this without altering any of the original letter forms of the typeface; the characteristics that make ZXX unique like shape, size and stroke width remain uniform across the entire font family. While Mun’s disruptive process does change the letter forms themselves, it does however act as a mask that hides, or in some cases distracts scanning software’s from fully recognising the letters. Mun’s masking process of ZXX’s variation Xed does more than obscure scanning software’s. The superimposed crosses over each of the letters also challenges Derrdia’s idea that “silent graphic servants” such as spacing and punctuation are relied upon for a word to become coherent. While these silent servants are still “safely outside” each of the letters, the crosses have made a continuous connection that act as a devise to direct the “silent graphic servants” inside of its structure, giving the still quite servants, a faint voice.

Mun (2013) argues that ZXX typeface counteracts the status quo–a fatigueless fight to retrieve our civil rights, liberties and freedom back from the autocrats. Even though Mun is driven by a heavy political agenda, which tends to overshadow what he has done with his typographic design. It is defiantly clear what his intentions are, and his uses of deconstructional devises to achieve ZXX are more than apparent. Mun is not trying to solve the problem, but to emphasise it, raise people’s awareness that there is an issue. Whether it will hit home or not is another question, but the real life applications of ZXX are clear as it has already been applied to a multitude of mediums. Mun said that he has seen the typeface circulate in publications, web environments, and banners, and it was prophetically featured on the cover of Chinese Design 360° Magazine.

Another similar form of typographic deconstruction to ZXX is CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart). It was originally developed at Carnegie Mellon University in 2000 and has been extensively used since for online security purposes (Google Inc, 2014). Like the name suggests CAPTCHA requires the identification of heavily distorted text which humans can recognise as words, but computer scanning software’s cannot. Just like Mun’s ZXX typeface CAPTCHA’s is designed to isolate humans from computers. While ZXX has been used on a fairly small scale, according to Google Inc (2014) CAPTCHA and has been adopted by over 200,000 web sites, including Wikipedia, Yahoo and 4chan.

When designers have implemented deconstructive thinking to typography it has generally been to question modernisms preconceptions of what constitutes good design, to add layers of meaning and interposition, or even to use as an advertising tool. CAPTCHA was not built by designers, it was built by scientists and technicians, math and algorithms, by machines for humans. It blurs the line between the physical and the virtual. CAPTCHA has a completely different set of agendas to even the most rudimentary communicational design. It does not want an emotional reaction from its viewers, there this no hidden meanings to decipherer, and it certainly isn’t trying to make a sale to validate its existence. It is just looking for a one word answer. Human. Or machine. But it’s cold construction, or should I say deconstruction, still engages its viewers with its distorted typographic forms. Even with its heavily computerized birth CAPTCHA shows an overwhelming humanness to it. Its success derives from almost every human’s ability to comprehend the fundamentals of the written language, an understanding that develops from an extremely young age and that continues to develop throughout life.

Some aspects of Mun’s ZXX typeface challenges Derrdia’s (1994) theory of how the alphabet had become reliant on “silent graphic servants” to become coherent as a readable word, but that the “servants” were  still “safely outside” the letters structure. CAPTCHA takes that challenge a step further. In Figure 9 (Google Inc, 2014) the words that have been heavily distorted, and whilst they are not always understandable, they always hold a vague structural resemblance of a word. Spaces in-between letters are virtually none existent, and on occasion end up more recognisable as shapes rather than letters or words. But despite the almost complete absence of even the most rudimentary “silent graphic servants” leading to at times, complete illegibility, over 90% of viewers are able to correctly identify CAPTCHA (Von Ahn., et al, 2008).

ZXX and CAPTCHA can be seen as part of the New Aesthetic’s vision, and just as Lupton & Miller didn’t want to view deconstruction as an “ism”, Bruce Sterling, a key contributor and writer towards the New Aesthetic, sees the New Aesthetic in the same light.

The New Aesthetic is inherently modish because it is ferociously attached to modish, passing objects and services that have short shelf-lives… There is no steampunk New Aesthetic and no remote-future New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic has no hyphen-post, hyphen-neo or hyphen-retro (Sterling, 2012, para.32).

Sterling’s (2012) essay on the New Aesthetic is at times quite contradictory. But it is understandable when you consider its very nature, the New Aesthetic is largely unknown and it is extremely hard to pin down and define what falls under its vision, It is “made of many small pieces loosely joined together” (Sterling, 2012, para.19). It will never be able to settle down and fully rout itself into modern culture. It’s a nomad aesthetic purpose built for the refresh rate of today’s society. “The New Aesthetic is a genuine aesthetic movement with a weak aesthetic metaphysics. It’s sticky with bogus lyricism” (Sterling, 2012, para.67). Even if this is true, the evidence that deconstruction as an aesthetic and as a theory can be part of something so uncertain and wayward is a testament to its versatility. It has been constantly adapted and moulded around the cultural and technological advances of the 21st century.

Poynor (2003) argues that “deconstruction has run its course as a style”, but this study has shown that this is not the case. The “style” of deconstruction has been an integral part of the contemporary typographic design medium. It may have taken many forms of visual styles and been applied modern theoretics, but deconstructions critical applications of adding interpretational layers and complexities to typography are still present. The work of Research Studios and the collective view of the New Aesthesis have both shown adaptations of deconstruction. And Just as Lupton & Miller thought (1999), deconstruction within typographic design has been part of the mediums continued development as “distinctive modes of representations”. But I am obliged to agree with Poynor’s thoughts on the theoretical side.

In the postmodern period, many designers have struggled critically and productively with the issues of engagement with resistance, without the need for direct references to deconstruction. It must be clear that, while some designers will continue to find uses for deconstruction’s difficult source texts, a wider application of these theories in design seems unlikely. (Poynor, 2003. p.67)

Derridia’s deconstructive theory within typographic design can still be used in the 21st century, the New Aesthetic’s critical thinking has shown this. However, because of the theory’s difficult accessibility, designers have shown that they can achieve similar levels of typographic depth and complexity without referring directly back to it. Jacques Derrida said that parts of deconstruction belong to the “structure of history or events” (Lupton & Miller, 1999, p.20.), and in terms of the typographic application of the deconstructive theory, it seems certain then that this part of deconstruction is bound to the pages of history. Even during the 20th century the deconstructive theory struggled to become a sustainable part of typographic designs development, and now with the increased turnover in the technological advances of the 21st century the uses of deconstructive theory’s longevity seems even more, as Poynor puts it, “unlikely”.


Cranbrook’s application of the deconstructive theory stripped away modernisms already established rules that governed typography, broadening the scope and capabilities of the medium. Typography was now seen as a way to communicate a whole plethora of concepts and beliefs that soon after became favoured over modernisms linear, one dimensional approach to communication. Typography now came with added personality, it became more than the sum of its parts. Even before modernism began to take hold in the early 20th century, typography was burdened by its stagnant past. I see deconstruction enabling the mediums resurgence. It gave typography a well needed boost of vitality

But this paradigm shift did not come without its adversity from within the design community. Cranbrook’s work was even labelled “ugly” buy some. But this opposition is only to be expected. It is a natural occurrence. Just as white blood cells react to infections, so did parts of the design industry towards deconstruction. Deconstruction was seen as an infection. But a resistance is always needed for progress to be made. Where would the design industry be if nothing was ever questioned or challenged? Just as deconstruction opposed structuralist beliefs, and its uses within typographic design opposed modernist belies, something is always going to be there to break the circuit. This vigorous opposition validated deconstructions authenticity and made it a legitimated part of typography’s ongoing development. Deconstruction needed the attention, it needed to rustle the feathers of the design industry to make an impact, and the work at Cranbrook under the McCoy’s was just the beginning of its widespread breakthrough into the design industry.

Deconstruction naturally progressed into the realms of more accessible and commercial design areas. David Carson and Neville Brody were two of the main instigators behind this increase in exposure that helped take the aesthetic to new heights never thought possible. Both Carson’s Ray Gun and Brody’s The Face employed different deconstructive methodologies that could be seen in the typographic work done at Cranbrook. But the essential difference was that neither Carson or Brody ever referenced Derrida’s deconstructive theory, and it can be argued that they produced typographic work just as immersive and thought provoking without the need to refer back to the deconstructive theory. Big corporate names like Nike, Microsoft and Levis all wanted a piece of the deconstructive cake and during the late 1990’s. Deconstruction became part of popular culture, it lost all of its ties with its theoretical origins, mass commercialization caused it to fragment.

This fragmentation and departure from the theory of deconstruction within the design industry only widened going into the 21st century. Research Studios visual identity for the French fashion show, “Who’s Next” is a prime example of this, and just like the decade before there was no mention of the deconstructive theory having a direct influence on the outcome of the designs. However as, the new aesthetic proves there are transferable parts of the deconstructive theory that are still being applied to 21st century critical thinking. The New Aesthetic and its way of viewing human/machine and virural/reality, not seeing them as opposites but metaphysics that hold an inherit connection with each other. This is extremely reminiscent of what the deconstructive theory proposes with ideals of western culture. And both CAPTCHA and Mun’s ZXX typeface challenge Derrida’s concept that “silent graphic servants” are necessities of being able to make reading a coherent process.

Yet I feel like I’m clutching at straws with the connections I have made between the New Aesthetic and the deconstructive theory. It be can argue that they have a brief cross over in methodologies, and they do, but Bruce Sterling found no need to directly reference any aspects of the deconstructive theory in his essay on the New Aesthetic. Outside of Cranbrook and CalArts direct references to Derrida’s theory of deconstruction in typographic design are either few or non existent. This further supports Carson’s disassociation with the theory of deconstruction, even though he worked closely with graduates of Cranbrook.

Designers and creators of typography who used deconstruction without referencing Derrida’s theory such as Carson, Brody and Mun, instead used it as an aesthetical shell to fill with their own methodologies, showing how diverse deconstructive application can be.

Being relevant (modern?) should not require that a designer blindly follow the requisite style. “Relevant” simply means being true to the time in which you live, true to the tools and the media with which you work, and the truthful to the people with whom you are communicating (Fawcett-Tang & Jury, 2007, p.11)

In  the spirit of this, I see the application of deconstruction, whether that involves the theory or just the aesthetic, as a more ethical way of approaching visual communication, not just in typographic design, but in the design industry as a whole. Deconstruction does not lump anything into categories, it obscures yes and no, right and wrong, keeping typography a truly subjective form. It rejects modernism sterile approach towards typographic design that often comes across as being candid, and “would lead us all to an imagined better world” (VanLanders, 1995, para.10). This impedes on modernisms ability to communicate the complexities, flaws and imperfections of the world we are a part of, pulling the wool over people’s eyes. But because of deconstructions ability to deviate from modernisms uniform deliveries, it gives typography the depth to communicate a more truthful portal of modern culture, allowing there to be an honest and transparent rapport with the audience.

Considering all of the aspects of deconstruction I have investigated, whether that would be its theoretical origins or opposition to its commercialization and modern interpretations, it all points to deconstructions relevance within 21st century typography, now more then ever before. Its complex nature can reflect that in the world which other design methodologies cannot. And as long as these complexities continue to be a developing part of our civilization, which has shown to be the case, I don’t just see deconstruction as being relevant now, but also in its future application within the typographic medium.


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