Chapter One [Draft]
It seems the ideal place to start is to find out whether or not rhythm is present in design, and this means looking for it. So what exactly are we looking for? What is rhythm? As mentioned previously I understand rhythm from a musical perspective, and so to shift it into a defined abstract idea, I’ll take the characteristics of rhythm into account. What I already understand rhythm to be (in a musical sense), is repetition, sequence, pattern and structure. Surely by looking at the characteristics of musical rhythm, I will be able to find correlation between that of musical and abstract rhythm?
For us to truly understand this correlation, I’ll briefly explain time signatures. A [musical] rhythm, comprises of a pattern. There is a point where the pattern starts, and another where it ends before being repeated any amount of times. If this pattern is not repeated it is not a rhythm, but merely a pattern. The length of this pattern is set to a tempo, which is an indefinite number of beats at a certain speed. The time signature is how many beats of that tempo are taken up in one repeat of the pattern in the rhythm, and how many times the pattern is repeated in that rhythm. This is shown if Fig 1.
A time signature is written as two numbers, divided by a slash (4/4, for example.) In Fig 1. you can see that the pattern is comprised of four beats. This makes up the first number in the signature, This pattern is repeated four times. This gives us the second number and completes the rhythm that is 4/4. This diagram shows us the difference between pattern and rhythm. I have also recorded an audio sample supporting Fig 1. which can be found on my blog [Address Here]
It would be unwise to deduce a definition of abstract rhythm on my judgement alone, and so I looked at the most obvious where definitions are to be found – a dictionary. The Pocket Oxford Dictionary (2011, Pg. ) expands my list of rhythmic characteristics from four adjectives to nine. It describes rhythm to be repetitive, consistent, sequential, structured, organised, predictable, patterned, flowing and harmonious. Comparing this back to my understanding of musical rhythm, all these adjectives seem fitting, and so I will use this list of nine characteristics as my definition of rhythm from which I can refer back to and compare other things against.
Modernism (Reduction & Simplicity)
Now that I have established (what I believe to be) a sufficient list of adjectives defining abstract rhythm, I need to look for these characteristics in design, where can I find them? The first thing that jumps to mind is the Modernist design movement. Modernism began in DATE HERE and was spearheaded by figures such as Josef Muller Brockmann, Karl Gerstner and Armin Hoffman. (REF) Modernist design is known for it’s clean cut, grid aligned, no-nonsense form. Or more specifically, their ‘function over form’ attitude. (REF) So why were the modernists so clean in their execution?
“Less is more” is a famous quote, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (brainyquote, 2011) suggests that the simpler things are, the more effective and practical they become. Of course being a key figure in the Modernist design movement, you could argue that his opinion is somewhat biased. However his view is supported by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who says that “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” (2000) I think that as a general rule, and I say this with only a student’s worth of experience, that these statements are accurate. When things are presented in a clean and tidy manner, they become organised, and therefore appear to be presented in a clearer fashion. (REF) Thinking back to our definition of rhythm, this occurrence of organisation suggests that rhythm is present in modernist design.
All this thinking appears to stem from the structuralist ethos, which influenced the development of the modernist attitude – the idea is that through a set of rules and guidelines, a very specific and exact message can be communicated to a reader. (Baines, P & Haslam, A., 2005. Pg. 35) This idea suggests that a degree of control can be asserted over the reader, subliminally forcing them to digest the given information in a certain order. The reader is sequentially ‘drip-fed’ parts of information in the desired order of importance, as to allow the communication of the message specifically how the communicator intended. But how is this done? What is this mystical ‘code of conduct’ the modernist follows to achieve this? The modernist designer completes this job throughout the use of a number of different methods. These include the use of information hierarchies, the typographic grid, and other graphic devices. (REF) Before we discuss these, however, there is something crucial that we should look at – The concept of Nothing.
What is Nothing? What does it mean? Nothing as a concept seems to me, to be a contradiction. This is evident when we deconstruct it. If you are trying to define a lack of objects/things that are in question, then that task automatically becomes impossible, because to exclude things from something (be it an attribute, characteristic or whatever) then you have to label that thing to identify it as the thing you are excluding. This is where Nothing as a concept seems to fail. For example, if we have one hundred different objects painted red in an otherwise empty room, then you could state ‘nothing is blue’. This would be true from the perspective of the contents of the room, however, if you shift this into an equation, and say: ‘____ is blue’, you need to fill in the gap, and ask, what is blue? The answer, is nothing. So what is nothing?
To answer that, you would need to take each of the one hundred objects individually, and list them, excluding them from the possible ‘blue basket’ (of course the use of the word ‘nothing’ does this job quickly). It seems to work in a similar way to mathematics, where two separate negatives cancel each other out and form a positive. So in this instance therefore, to define ‘nothing’ is to define everything, or more specifically everything that isn’t blue.
If one of the objects in the room was a book, and this was painted blue, then the same can be said: ‘Nothing else in this room is blue’. What is nothing else? Nothing else is everything else.
And so again, the concept of Nothing fails, because you can’t define it by itself. Nothing is nothing. Nothing is everything. To define Nothing you need something.
There are my thoughts, but I’ve discovered that this has been discussed before in an extract from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (marxistphilosophy, 2011.) It states that “nothingness is pure non-being and impossible abstract emptiness”. This was written by C. Khoruzhii, and I think that here he is stating the same as my thought process described above – he is saying that the concept of Nothing is impossible, that the idea of Nothing can’t be conceived.
Visual Nothingness (Absence & White Space)
However, in contrast to these thoughts, you could say that Nothing works as a concept of absence. You could substitute the word ‘Nothing’ for the word ‘absent’ in the previous equation, so let’s revisit the equation:
‘nothing is blue’ = ‘absent is blue’.
This puts Nothing into a synonymous context with ‘absent’, and makes more sense, simplifying (and almost eliminating) the complex concept of Nothing, as Nothing no longer needs to be defined.
Absence, I believe, can be a powerful thing, and so does Anna Barisani. In her text, ‘Thought-Art’ (2010.) She describes the blank canvas to show nothing and yet everything at the same time, so again, we have nothing and everything together. It is this contrast – the juxtaposition, the twisted marriage between nothing and everything that we can see emerging seems all important, but why?
The answer points to something called white space. White space is the designer’s friend. It is the canvas, the creative space, the sandbox, the workbench, or the playground in which the designer plays. (REF) White space is freedom. It is a place where Nothing exists – a place that is in a continuous state of absence, until the designer creates onto it. But while it is in this state, it holds a certain dynamism. How can whitespace be dynamic if there is nothing there? Whitespace is a spatial area that contains Nothing on or in it, and if Nothing is everything, then whitespace must contain everything. Or more specifically the potential for everything. Modernist design exhibits a generous amount of white space, (REF) and with this therefore must come a generous amount of potential. Maybe it is this potential that the Modernist feeds off and is inspired by. The potential to fulfil their ethos, the potential for perfect communication.
Something and Nothing need each other to work. You can’t have a single graphic component, because it would be undefinable. Without white space behind it, it is invisible. As soon as any component is added to white space, then a division is made. A clear contrast is established between emptiness and something. Something is now there. The potential of the white space has been successfully accessed and utilised by the designer. It seems that it is impossible for Modernism (and potentially all graphic design) to operate outside of space. White space provides the backdrop on which all other graphic devices work.
Moving back to the idea of the the Modernist ethos, let’s take a look at one of the key methods through which this is executed – the information hierarchy. An information hierarchy, in design terms, is the order of visual components in a composition. (Krause, 2004. Pg. 61) The hierarchy is an important tool in design, as it ‘sets the ball rolling’ if you like, for the layout design. It establishes what is the most important piece of information/part of the design, and then orders all of the design components through from the component with the highest status all the way down to the lower status components.
Once the most important part is established and shown, the viewer’s eye is drawn to this first, and then it finds a path through the other information. By using a hierarchy, the designer can create visual flow, (Krause, 2004, Pg. ?) and ensure that the viewer takes a path which delivers the correct information in the intended order. If a hierarchy creates visual flow, and if flow is a characteristic of abstract rhythm, then we know the hierarchy is a tool which can be used to create a visual rhythm for the viewer to fall into.
The Typographic Grid (Rhythm & Harmony)
But components cannot be placed just anywhere on a layout, can they? Well they could, but this might result in a very confused layout, and a confused reader. The typographic grid is another tool the modernist designers used to provide a design with rhythm. The grid is what allows graphic components, such as type and images to be aligned, and alignment brings consistency, structure and organisation to a composition. (Baines, P & Haslam, A., 2005. Pg. 145) These things are all characteristics of our defined rhythm. I have demonstrated the difference in layout design with and without grid use in the examples below. Figure 2.1 is a simple layout without the use of a grid.
This example shows how if components are thrown randomly onto a page, viewers may feel intimidated. The block of text in the middle of the layout appears heavy, with no breaks. This makes it become a chore to read. The components are also disjointed. This is the result of un-alignment amongst them, which can cause an aesthetic that could be considered random or chaotic. Below, Fig 2.2 contains the same information, but the type is aligned to a grid structure:
Here in Fig 2.2 you can see how the same three components containing the same information are aligned to a 6-column grid. Even though only four of the columns are used to position the main text, this breaks up the information, and makes it appear easily digestible instead of threatening. The information is broken via the use of negative space. This is what differentiates [on a canvas] ‘Nothing’ from ‘something’, creating the columns of information. Both columns are the same size, and this column structure is repeated only twice. It is this repetition that creates rhythm for the reader. Repetition is a technique that creates harmony in design. It can be used to emphasise the importance of something, to create visual links and to draw the reader’s attention to something specific. (Krause, 2004. Pg. 52) The text in the second, grid-aligned example is set into columns, but not all text will use columns. Novels, for example, will usually have pages of single, page-wide columned text, however this will still be broken into smaller sections i.e. paragraphs, for ease of reader digestion.
These are just two examples showing how rhythm can be manifested visually in layout design, and they both need white space to succeed. This white space seems pretty important, but why? Because it defines things. All the graphic devices and design components in a layout (text, image, colour etc.) – exhibiting rhythm or not, can only be seen when contrasted against something else. We will delve further into this when examining Gestalt principals in chapter three.