Revolution Lullabye

January 1, 2009

Samara, Making and Breaking the Grid

Samara, Timothy. Making and Breaking the Grid. Gloucester, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2002.

The typographic grid – “an orthogonal planning system that parcels information into managable chunks,” creating meaningful relationships through the placement and scale of its informational elements – is considered by some graphic designers the foundation of good graphic design, and by others, a “stifling cage” that must be deconstructed or thrown away (9). Samara’s text is divided into two sections, “Making the Grid,” which contains a historical essay about the evolution of the modern design grid in the 19th-century industrial revolution, and “Breaking the Grid,” which begins with another historical essay that documents the movement against grids and rationalist design starting with Dada and other post-WWI reactive movements. Each section also has an exhibit section, where Samara displays examples of the different kinds of grid and non-grid layouts. Samara does not argue one school of thought – making or breaking – over another (though his deconstructed grid design of an MPH admissions flyer is in the “Breaking” exhibit section); rather, his balanced explanation and description of each camp calls upon graphic designers to make a conciencious choice whether to use grids in their design, not to rely on them as a default organizational tool.

 In “Making the Grid,” Samara dissects the fundamental elements of a grid and uses these elements to describe how grids in both the Making exhibit and the Breaking exhibit function. The elements include columns, modules (individual spaces), margins, flowlines (horizontal lines that form rows and guide the eye across the page), markers (consistent placement of running text, like headers or page numbers), and spatial zones (groups of modules serving a distinct purpose as a field.) He highlights four grid-based designs- manuscript (used in book publishing), column, modular, and hierarchal (used in Web design) – and five non-grid-based designs – grid deconstruction, linguistic deconstruction (altering type to echo spoken rhythm), spontaneous optical composition (form-based placement), conceptual/pictorial illusion (a concept forms the governing structure), and chance operation (controlled random placement.)

Quotable Quotes

“All design work involves problem solving on both visula and organizational levels” (22).

The benefits of grids include “clarity, efficiency, economy, and continuity” (22).

“Sometimes that content has its own internal structure that a grid won’t necessarily clarify; sometimes the content needs to ignore structure altogether to create specific kinds of emotional reactions in the intended audience; sometimes a designer simply envisions a more complex intellectual involvement on teh part of the audience as part of their experience of the piece” (120).

Notable Notes

Interesting historical context for Making the Grid – ancient belief of the grid as an organizing structure following the axis of the intersection of sky and earth, Arts and Crafts movement in 19th century Britain favored design that had form follow function (continued by Frank Lloyd Wright in the US), the industrial revolution drove a need to order the world, International Style, 20th century modernism favored simplicity, corporations liked grids because they introduced continuity of design in which many workers could collaborate on the content of a project, redesign of the National Parks Services brochures in the 1970s with consistent bars and grids.

Interesting historical context of Breaking the Grid – Dadaism, Cubism, collage and montage, using Saussure and Pierce semiotics to see text as signs (semiotics), WWI reaction, WWII reaction, opposition to the status quo, rationalism, order, reaction to the horrors of the wars, Civil Rights movement, hippie movement, underground culture, 1984 Apple computer gave amateurs the tools to be designers (without having the formal grid-design training graphic designers had, so these new designers relied on intiution and felt-sense), look-at typography  (not look-through)

Hodge and Kress, Social Semiotics

Hodge, Robert and Gunther Kress. Social Semiotics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1988.

The authors, who developed a theory of usable (or critical) linguistics in their 1979 book Language as Ideology, wrote Social Semiotics to address two limitations in their linguistic theory: the lack of focus on “the primacy of the social dimension in understanding language structures and processes” and the inattention to the meanings inherent in non-verbal messages (such as in aural, behavioral, and visual codes.) Their study, which begins with an overview of twentieth-century linguistic theory, explaining the structuralist foundations of Saussure and Peirce, highlights the importance of social context in the meaning-making process. That context includes ideology, the current logonomic system, history, and social relationships. Drawing from Durkheim (and Marx), Hodge and Kress point out that there are two parts of every social message – power and solidarity – and show, through examples ranging from sub-population accents and antilanguages to the Biblical debate over the pronounciation of “shibboleth” and from classic Davy Crockett and Two-Gun Lil cartoons to the traditional Greek familial relationships showcased in Sophocles’ plays, that every meaning-making act is a social strategy to position one person or group in power and authority over another, who confirms their power through by going along and acting in solidarity with the rest of society. For both social control and an understanding of truth and reality, there is an interdependence between those in power and those being controlled.

There is a good appendix with definitions of Hodge and Kress’s key terms and concepts from pages 261-268.

Quotable Quotes

“Meaning is produced and reproduced under specific social conditions, through specific material forms and agencies. It exists in relationship to concrete subjects and objects, and is inexplicable except in terms of this set of relationships” (viii).

“Genres only exist in so far as a social group declares and enforces the rules that constitute them” (7). What is captured in genres is the relationship between the participants.

“Meaning is always negotiated in the semiotic process, never simply imposed inexorably from above by an omnipotent author through an absolute code” (12). Social semiotics is interested in what happens (expected and not) in the action between participants.

“Every semiotic act has an ideological content” (40).

“Every semiotic structure inevitably exists in space and time” (163). You cannot ignore the temporal dimension, for with history, you can understand large-scale structures that inform the meaning of small, individual semiotic acts.

Notable Notes

Jokes are a reversal of the logonomic code – they are broken rules, subversive, oppoistional discourse, drawing from Halliday’s antilanguage (78)

Logonomic code – a set of rules about meaning-making and communication, based on an entire system of thought, which orders society by explaining who may make and receive messages and knowledge under what circumstances and with what behaviors (4)

Key words: formality, informality, constraint, energy, open, close, accents, T form/V form, truth, reality, modality, genre, logonomic, ideology, message, semiotic, act, participants, power, solidarity, social construction, system, history, context, control, style, grammar, metasign, group, cohesion

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