Thesis Eassay: Dis/

Often in our lives we encounter difference—a conflict between what we like and what we don’t like, between what we expect and what we don’t expect, between what we have to do and what we wish we could do, between what we think and what we express, and so on. When we cannot negotiate the differences, they give rise to disconnection. I am interested in these disconnections both in our everyday experience and in graphic design. In our everyday experiences, disconnections may emerge via physical dislocations or emotional breaks, for example. In design, disconnections appear in multiple ways, sometimes startling us, unsettling us, or causing us to question and then see things in a new light. My graphic design thesis work concerns disconnections in visuals in various ways: duality, inside vs. outside, signifier vs. signified, and structure.

inside vs. outside
A more sophisticated version of disconnection emerges in the discrepancy between appearance and reality—what is on the surface vs. what lies underneath, what something says vs. what it actually means, or what lies on the inside vs. what is outside.

signifier vs. signified
The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure asserts the arbitrariness of the sign — that is, the essentially circumstantial, conventional, historical nature of the bond between the signifier(e.g., a word) and the signified (the object or concept represented). Both Foucault and Magritte deal with the disconnection between the signifier and the signified in their work.

Likewise, blackletter typeface has different connotations in different historical contexts. The identity of this typeface has shifted its away from religious faith and attachment to the soil of the Lutheran period and toward a psychoticized expression in the 20th century.

Blind Date
The T.V. Show 'Blind Date' (the most popular "dating game" on TV) illustrates a similar idea. Here a boy and a girl go on a date to see if they are right for each other. Throughout the date the designers of the show put up wise crack comments about the people on the screen. These pop-up graphics show what the characters are really thinking as opposed to what they are saying and doing, thus revealing the contrast between inside and outside.

The imagery and language of politics and advertising are rife with examples of disconnection. What is projected, what we see, is at odds with what lies beneath the surface. Newsweek’s cover story for March 10, 2003 features a head shot of President George W. Bush with his hands folded in a position of prayer. This image projects what the current Administration would like us to think about the president: a devout man, a representative of the good. It’s an image that the Administration uses to counter the negative effects of a war against Iraq.

Cy Twombly
The print works of artist Cy Twombly with its indiscernible writings reflect the distances between signifier and signified.

In one of his graphic pieces, Twombly fills a sheet of paper will scribblings that look, from a distance, like handwriting, but handwriting that is reversed. On closer inspection, we see that it is meaningless scribblings. In his “8 Odi di Orazio” Twombly creates a series of sixteen screenprints, all of which mimic handwriting. Only one of these, the first, is legible. In the others, we sometimes glimpse a word or Roman numerals, but human hand as it gestures towards writings. The last pieces in the series contain the symbols used in scanning poetry, as through the meaning has been reduced is rhythm and emphasis; but because these are no words, there exists no meaning. All these piece underline the disconnection between signifies and signified.
“We represent reality in terms of a meaningful system of signs; or, in other words, our perception of the outside world takes place by means of a coherent system of image references to which we attribute a general functional significance. In Twombly’s work, something quite different happens. The indiscernible writing allows an approach whose essence is just as abstract as, in itself, it represents an abstraction stripped from language.” (from Cy Twombly: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Printed Graphic Work 1953-1984)

Another project that reveals a discrepancy between inside and outside is my Diary project. The structure that I chose for the book, French binding, helps illustrate the contrast between hidden emotions and revealed thoughts. Here is a disconnection in form: on the one hand, a diary, a format for revealing one's thoughts, and on the other, the folds of the paper, which indicate that something is hidden. The discrepancy between the words in the diary and the hidden emotions also manifests the idea of disconnection.

The concept of duality emerges in the story of ‘Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde’. This tale reveals two completely different sides of one human character: one good and one evil. The title character cannot negotiate and integrate the differences and so leads a disconnected life. This same concept of split personality, duality, appears visually in the familiar T.V. cartoon’s simultaneous appearance of an angel and a devil upon the shoulder of someone who is making a decision. The cartoon is the most simple visual representation of the notion of duality–here in the two sides of the individual.

Flow Series; Emotional Duality
Graphic design offers a number of ways of illustrating duality and disconnection. On the simplest level would be a project like my flow project. This piece attempts to visualize emotional duality: happiness and sadness. In this project, the contrast of colors and typefaces illustrates the disconnection between two different emotional states. For happiness, bright, pure colors are combined with playful type; whereas, the mood of sadness is created by mixing black with the colors.

Exchange Project;Emotional Interpretation Series
In a thesis exchange project, I worked with Jun Lee’s thesis idea, the effect of the designer’s interpretation. I overlapped my own interpretations of Jun’s presentation talk onto his presentation text. With my favorite color, pink, I write over his typed text in my own handwriting, creating a visual contrast between his idea and my interpretation. I hoped through this treatment to present an emotional interpretation of Jun’s text.

In light of the purpose of the exchange project, to merge one student’s idea with another’s, my two approaches do not quite succeed. The first one focuses only on my earlier thesis idea about emotion, while the second approach focuses only on Jun’s idea. But these unsuccessful approaches do demonstrate the distance between the intention of an idea and its expression in the design process. In the design process, the initial ideas are not always fully realized in the final expression. This, then, is another example of a gap, a disconnection in our lives.

Facial Expressions of Emotion
A 1975 study by Paul Ekman “Unmaking the face—a guide to recognizing emotions from facial expressions” codifies facial expressions of emotion. The researchers suggest that muscular feedback from a facial expression characteristic of a certain emotion results in the experience of that emotion. The study also explains how the observer can correctly identify basic emotions and tell when people try to mask, simulate, or neutralize them. The research reveals the gap between the inside and outside, between emotion and expression.

Fight Club
The film ‘Fight Club’ exemplifies another duality, showing the idea of split personality. Because of his insomnia, one character experiences two completely different lives. By day, he works in an office and leads a bland existence. By night, his psychic separation manifests itself as a completely different personality, one who is a charismatic, winnable nihilist and borderline psychotic. The film is about freeing oneself from the constraints of a conformist world.

The kind of disconnection that we find in ‘Fight Club’ exemplifies the disconnections we find in our postmodern world.

REM’s album cover entitled ‘Green’ nowhere contains the color green; thus it reveals a visual distance between the word ‘green’ and the idea ‘green.’ This visual distance supports this album’s traits. Michael Azerrad comments that the album was intended originally to be upbeat but contains some negative tracks: “Songs such as 'World leader pretend' and 'Orange Crush' present an imagery which is almost like the nightmare vision of '1984', and are obviously seen as a threat to the ecological feel that the rest of the album has. Titles such as 'I remember California' are deceptive as this is not a Beach Boys type song but a minor key track with quite a vague lyric which is about the shallowness of California or perhaps remembering the world after some sort of disaster.” (

The designer’s choice not to show the green color reflects the threats to the environment that we face in today is world. Just as some songs on the album are at odds with the ecological message, so the orange color of the lettering conflicts with the album’s ideas.

In ‘Les Mots et les choses’, Foucault underlines the disjuncture in language via the concept of heterotopia: “Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they secretly undermine language, because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy syntax in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to but also opposite one another) to “hang together.”…”( from ‘This is not a pipe’ by Michel Foucault)

The concept of heterotopia illustrates the disconnection between what we have been thinking and what we are seeing. This same idea is illuminated by‘This is Not a Pipe’ by Magritte.

Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard presented the idea of disconnection through the structure, techniques, and content of his films. Godard’s experiments (the advocacy of auteurism, the citation and the destruction of genre, the invention of film as essay, the refusal of traditional montage, the usage of collage technique and jump-cut technique, the studies of camera and sound, and so on) all had a huge impact on modern films. Likewise, the content of his films, based on exisistential philosophy, underlined disconnections in human experience: in lack of communication or in irrational social systems, for example.

In advertising, Malboro ads project the image of a rugged individual, the strong masculinity associated with the freedom found on the range. “Buy this,” says the image, and you can have this lifestyle. But the image masks what is actually being sold: death.

The function of a mask supports the idea of the personality’s disconnection between what we want to show and what we actually feel. Clare Gibson has commented on people’s masking their true selves: “We may seek to hide our true personalities in difficult situations by donning the mask of the persona, thus allowing us to represent ourselves in different ways. This may be a necessary survival ploy, but real peace of mind can only come when we recognize and reconcile all the different and conflicting strands of our psychological makeup. Only then can a healthy balance, or individuation, of the self be achieved. In order for us to so, it is necessary to heed our intuitive feelings, to attempt to interpret the messages sent to our conscious mind from our unconscious in our dreams and to be aware of our responses to the symbolism that surrounds us, either in our interaction with other people or in our reactions to our environment and personal circumstances.” (from ‘Signs and Symbols’ by Clare Gibson)

Modern Gothic II
In my typeface project, I combined Gothic blackletter with roman. The resulting type, Modern Gothic, makes blackletter more legible. The type’s hybrid nature recalls the past and, at the same time, points to something futurisitic.

Monologues About...
In an interactive project, “monologues about...,” I endeavor to combine the structure of the postmodern novel with high tech methods of the computer. The postmodernist novel has many connections with internet structures. One of the main characteristics of both is to break the classic linear narrative structure. In my project, the viewer moves the cursor across the screen the way an individual rubs a pencil across paper covering a coin. The user sees emerging images and text. In time, three different characters emerge and each one speaks a monologue. After reading all the monologues, the viewer is able to piece together a coherent story and to see the relationships among the characters.

Beat Müller and Wendelin Hess created a series of posters and leaflets to publicize an exhibition of Swiss designer Richard Paul Lohse’s work. The series involved recirculating three of Lohse’s graphic images, reducing each image to a single color –red, blue, green- blocking out the original text and interrupting the image with information about the exhibition. The intention was two-fold: first, by blocking out text, to draw the viewer in, and second, by focusing on the form, to comment on the importance of form. The compositions comment on the tension between what the viewer expects and what he actually sees. Müller + Hess extended their irreverent treatment of the iconic works by overprinting them, one on top of another, in all possible combinations. As a result, designs that were intended to be emblems of clear, unequivocal graphic communication became part of a dense and accidentally elegant graphic composition.

New Haven Project; Too Bad, I missed you
A graphic presentation of the disjuncture between inside and out side is my New Haven project. This piece searches for the social / emotional voices within public spaces. I collected scribblings from walls in Yale Sterling Memorial Library, and I reset the text using Hevetica. Both the Neo-Gothic architecture of Sterling Memorial Library, an architectural style once used for churches, and the library's intended purpose, for reading and research, form a great contrast with the scribblings I found on the library desks. Here are contrasts between reading and writing, and between the holy, elevated feelings of the exterior and the everyday, profane voices of the interior.Another project that reveals a discrepancy between inside and outside is my Diary project. The structure that I chose for the book, French binding, helps illustrate the contrast between hidden emotions and revealed thoughts. Here is a disconnection in form: on the one hand, a diary, a format for revealing one's thoughts, and on the other, the folds of the paper, which indicate that something is hidden. The discrepancy between the words in the diary and the hidden emotions also manifests the idea of disconnection.

Cultural theorist Fredric Jameson discusses another kind of disconnection, one that resides in language and that results in dislocations in time:

“He uses the term, Schizophrenia in the sense developed by Lacan to signify a language disorder, a failure of the temporal relationship between signifiers. The schizophrenic experiences time not as a continuum (past/present/future), but as a perpetual present, which is only occasionally marked by the intrusion of the past or the possibility of a future. To call postmodernist culture schizophrenic is to claim that it has lost its sense of history (and its sense of a future different from the present). It is a culture suffering from ‘historical amnesia’, locked into the discontinuous flow of perpetual presents.”(from ‘An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular culture’ by John Storey)

This theory explains not only the idea behind postmodernism but also the breaks in lineal structures in postmodern films and literature.

Sergei Eisenstein
The collage technique is often employed by filmmakers, as for example Sergei Eisenstein, one of the pioneers of the collage technique montage in film. Through the movie “Battleship Potemkin”, Eisenstein combined various shot lengths to create powerful montage sequences. As Helen Grace comments: “The Odessa steps massacre in the film condenses the suppression, which actually occurred in the city into one dramatised incident, and this remains one of the most powerful images of political violence ever realised. This power is achieved by the principle of conflict in montage: the juxtaposition of images of innocence against images of violence (the child trampled, the mother’s appeal to the soldiers, the mother with the pram against the mass of the soldiers, rendered not as separate bodies but as graphic patterns of lines and shadows), the contrasts between long, depersonalising shots of soldiers and close-ups of citizens, contrasts between shots from below (the perspective of the citizens – that of panic) and above (the perspective of the soldiers – control and overview).” (from

Contemporary artists often use structure to underline dislocations in our existence. Such is the case with Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘SlaughterHouse-Five’; Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of the novel has become “unstuck in time.” He travels between periods of his life, unable to control which period he lands in. As a result, the narrative is not chronological or linear. Instead, it jumps back and forth in time and space. The novel is structured in small sections, each several paragraphs long, that describe various moments in Billy’s life. The writer Vonnegut presents many intermittent episodes as involving himself directly into his novel in conversations with the characters. By presenting fragmented stories, jokes, songs, pictures, and statistical data through intermittence, ranking, repetition, and other treatments, the author creates a collage that mimics the fragmented existence we experience in a postmodern world. Only through reading all these fragment can the reader assemble a coherent narrative.

Todd Haynes’ film ‘Superstar’ cast Barbie dolls instead of actors in all of the roles to illustrate different kinds of disconnections. The use of the Barbie dolls, which have only one facial expression, illuminates the rupture between emotional reaction and the tragic story of Karen Carpenter. When Carpenter sings a song that evokes a strong emotion, her face, which does not move, is unconnected to her voice. The affect of the doll is completely expressionless, even though the director tried to lend a bit of emotion to the dolls through the camera movements. Again, in the contrast between Carpenter's private life and public life, there emerges a distance and a disconnection. In her private life, Karen suffered from an obsession with the perfection of her body; whereas, in her public life she seemed to be a happy successful young woman. ‘Superstar’s visual impact of disconnection using Barbie dolls underlines the duality between Carpenter’s public celebrity persona and her disastrous private life. As cultural critic Jeremy Heilman has commented: “media critics commonly cite the Barbie doll as a prime example of the sort of implicit messages American culture sends its children about unattainable body image." And he refers to "The inherent irony in using them to act out a story about a disease that harmfully distorts one’s physical self-perception…” (from

A different kind of duality can be invested in a single image, viewed in different contexts. An image may take on entirely different meanings depending on its historical context. Today the swastika is always linked with twentieth-century Nazism, but the symbol has ancient and overwhelmingly positive associations.