Culture, Crowding and the pleasure of Complexity; A schizophrenic presentation

Lecture by Gerard Hadders on the pleasure of seeing complexity in urban space

Lecture by Gerard Hadders on the pleasure of seeing complexity in urban space


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<strong>Culture</strong>, <strong>Crowding</strong> & <strong>the</strong><br />

<strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> <strong>Complexity</strong>.<br />

Some remarks about ‘urban<br />

graphic design’.<br />

A <strong>schizophrenic</strong> <strong>presentation</strong>.

“...Urban space is, in contrast with television or <strong>the</strong> internet<br />

where navigation takes place through ‘exclusion’,<br />

<strong>the</strong> space where we encounter <strong>the</strong> maximum <strong>of</strong> ‘static’<br />

<strong>and</strong> through which we move by ‘inclusion’; Inclusion<br />

meaning <strong>the</strong> appropriation <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> visual culture <strong>of</strong> an urban<br />

space we do not necessarily underst<strong>and</strong>, probably<br />

don’t even want to underst<strong>and</strong>. Never<strong>the</strong>less this appropriation<br />

is needed dearly to be able to navigate through<br />

urban space...”

#1:<br />

Problem #1: <strong>Culture</strong>

Problem#1: <strong>Culture</strong><br />

We all have <strong>the</strong> following experience: you are waiting<br />

for a traffic light to turn green <strong>and</strong> suddenly you spot<br />

a building that you have never seen although you have<br />

passed this point at least a hundred times this year<br />

alone.<br />

And worse... <strong>the</strong> building was obviously already st<strong>and</strong>ing<br />

<strong>the</strong>re before you were even born.

Problem#1: <strong>Culture</strong><br />

This difference between seeing <strong>and</strong> looking has been<br />

described many times in science <strong>and</strong> is a thankful topic<br />

in literature <strong>and</strong> art but is generally neglected by <strong>the</strong> design<br />

community since design is very rarely concerned<br />

with looking at <strong>the</strong> ‘whole’ <strong>of</strong> a given environment as<br />

this environment is technically split up between planners,<br />

engineers, architects, industrial designers, media<br />

placement specialists, graffiti painters, greenery l<strong>and</strong>scapers,<br />

house painters, graphic designers <strong>and</strong> so forth<br />

<strong>and</strong> so forth with zoning committees as a kind <strong>of</strong> general<br />


Problem#1: <strong>Culture</strong><br />

This difference between looking <strong>and</strong> seeing becomes<br />

spectacular if you come to think <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> myriad <strong>of</strong><br />

different categories you can put potential users <strong>of</strong><br />

urban space in:<br />

running from goth teenagers all <strong>the</strong> way to immigrant<br />

pensioners.<br />

They all have a different speed <strong>and</strong> need <strong>and</strong> speech...

Problem#1: <strong>Culture</strong><br />

The psycholinguist Dan Slobin did an interesting experiment<br />

about <strong>the</strong> preconception <strong>of</strong> perception based on<br />

<strong>the</strong> linguistic structures <strong>of</strong> mo<strong>the</strong>r tongues <strong>and</strong> I quote:<br />

“...We asked English <strong>and</strong> French native speakers to<br />

write down within one minute as many way-<strong>of</strong>-motionverbs<br />

as possible. The French speakers though it a difficult<br />

task. After just a couple <strong>of</strong> verbs like ‘courir’ <strong>the</strong>y<br />

were finished writing, while <strong>the</strong> English speakers just<br />

kept on writing <strong>and</strong> writing...”

Problem#1: <strong>Culture</strong><br />

The same happens, he writes:<br />

“...in French novels where protagonists seem to materialize<br />

from place to place in a mysterious manner.<br />

French novel characters move into a field, where German<br />

characters walked, strolled, or rolled into a field...”

Problem#1: <strong>Culture</strong><br />

In short:<br />

urban space <strong>and</strong> thus its visual culture is perceived on an<br />

individualist level that is determined by age, gender,<br />

culture <strong>and</strong> speech.

Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong>

Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

A definition:<br />

“...In crowding, a target is harder to identify in <strong>the</strong> presence<br />

<strong>of</strong> nearby flankers (...) The critical spacing defines<br />

an isolation field around <strong>the</strong> target. Some objects can be<br />

recognized only when each part is isolated from <strong>the</strong> rest<br />

<strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> object by <strong>the</strong> critical spacing. In that case, recognition<br />

is by parts. Recognition is holistic if <strong>the</strong> observer<br />

can recognize <strong>the</strong> object even when <strong>the</strong> whole object fits<br />

within a critical spacing...”

Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

This is a definition from a paper called “Are faces processed<br />

like words?” published in Journal <strong>of</strong> Vision in<br />

2005 which begins its introduction with <strong>the</strong> following:<br />

“Psychophysical proposals for how people recognize<br />

objects have largely been bottom-up building on what is<br />

known about feature detection.<br />

Cognitive proposals have been top-down, reasoning<br />

from what is known about object categorization...”

Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

In my view, this definition describes perfectly <strong>the</strong> battlefield<br />

on which designers are to perform <strong>the</strong>ir tasks. Ever<br />

since modernism raised its polished head, functionalist<br />

designers have willingly mistaken es<strong>the</strong>tics for science.<br />

So ‘fashion’... turned ‘fact’.

Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

The problem with this fact is that it sits on a form <strong>of</strong><br />

visual hygiene. And since hygiene is only achieved<br />

through scrubbing <strong>and</strong> cleaning I could say that<br />

‘exclusion’ is <strong>of</strong> vital importance for modernist –<br />

functionalist – graphic design.

Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

I can hear you think: “why still go on about modernism?<br />

Isn’t it since decades buried under layers <strong>and</strong> layers <strong>of</strong><br />

post-modern bacteria?” Well at least for two reasons,<br />

firstly; what hasn’t changed since postmodern thinking<br />

is <strong>the</strong> economic <strong>and</strong> strategic instrumentality <strong>of</strong> marketing<br />

<strong>and</strong> communication design - this has a dynamic <strong>of</strong><br />

its own, <strong>and</strong> it’s own ‘science’,

Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

<strong>and</strong> secondly: however postmodern architecture might<br />

be in its design, <strong>the</strong> engineering most certainly is not<br />

<strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> same goes for <strong>the</strong> economic structural thinking<br />

that lies under any kind <strong>of</strong> property development.<br />

In short: necessary modernist thinking is turning into<br />

an unnecessary paradigm when developing new visual<br />


Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

I think that ‘crowding’ – or ‘static’ as it used to be called<br />

in advertising – namely <strong>the</strong> loss <strong>of</strong> exclusivity when it<br />

comes to perception <strong>and</strong> reception <strong>of</strong> a sign or message<br />

is turning from a nuisance into a given. We seriously<br />

have to start thinking about an ‘inclusive’ way in approaching<br />

visual urban culture.

Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

The effects <strong>of</strong> <strong>Crowding</strong> through graphic design is maybe<br />

best known to you in countries like China <strong>and</strong> India<br />

where <strong>the</strong> density <strong>of</strong> activities behind a commercial facade<br />

can be seen by <strong>the</strong> amount <strong>of</strong> commercial signs on<br />

<strong>the</strong> outside, highly es<strong>the</strong>tic like on Shanghai’s Nanjing<br />

Road or more muddled <strong>and</strong> chaotic like in Delhi’s Old<br />

City District.

Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

It is my strong conviction that by looking at <strong>the</strong>se<br />

cities we are looking to <strong>the</strong> future <strong>of</strong> European<br />

commercial area’s when increased small scale<br />

commercialism will converge with our un-sustainable<br />

visual zoning laws <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> facades <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> streets will<br />

start to look like <strong>the</strong> shelves <strong>of</strong> well assorted<br />


Problem#2: <strong>Crowding</strong><br />

Mind you, though; this is inherently different from <strong>the</strong><br />

dazzling visual mono culture <strong>of</strong> Las Vegas or <strong>the</strong> intended<br />

complicated facade designs from The Jerde Partnership<br />

or Tibor Kalman’s 42nd street development - where<br />

what looks complex, actually is well parceled visual information.

Conception:<br />

The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

A quotation:<br />

“...Visual complexity <strong>and</strong> urban identity are intimately<br />

interwoven. If we see <strong>the</strong> era <strong>of</strong> modernist design as one<br />

where <strong>the</strong> surface <strong>of</strong> things was cut loose completely<br />

from <strong>the</strong> identity <strong>of</strong> its users, <strong>and</strong> related one hundred<br />

percent to <strong>the</strong> logic <strong>of</strong> its production, we can now recognize<br />

a hyper concentration on a multiplicity <strong>of</strong> consumer-identities,<br />

that makes <strong>the</strong> surface <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> facade<br />

<strong>the</strong> a-priori <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> design, <strong>and</strong> no longer its ‘cover-up’ or<br />


Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

Was Adolf Loos a criminal? According to <strong>the</strong> art-historian<br />

Gombrich he was merely preaching an new Anglo-<br />

Saxon style idiom to <strong>the</strong> ornament-obsessed natives <strong>of</strong><br />

Austria. And as Robert Venturi remarks in his ‘Learning<br />

from Las vegas’:<br />

“...Less may have been more, but <strong>the</strong> I-section on <strong>the</strong><br />

Mies van de Rohe’s fire resistant columns, is as complexly<br />

ornamental as <strong>the</strong> applied pilaster on <strong>the</strong> renaissance<br />

pier (...) modern ornament has seldom been symbolic<br />

<strong>of</strong> anything non-architectural since <strong>the</strong> Bauhaus<br />

vanquished Art Deco <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> decorative arts...”

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

Venturi already showed in <strong>the</strong> sixties that <strong>the</strong> visual exclusiveness<br />

<strong>of</strong> modernist architecture stood in <strong>the</strong> way<br />

<strong>of</strong> a comprehensive – underst<strong>and</strong>able – architecture(•). I<br />

am not an expert on <strong>the</strong> matter – I am not a <strong>the</strong>oretician<br />

– so I will subside to personal observation <strong>and</strong> experience.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

In 1991 I was asked by <strong>the</strong> Dutch PTT to create a neon<br />

fries on <strong>the</strong> basis <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong>ir <strong>the</strong>n newly developed corporate<br />

design. This resulted in a work called ‘The Rise<br />

And Fall Of The House-style Of The PTT’. It was a large<br />

scale graphic comic that tells <strong>the</strong> story <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> death <strong>of</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> typeface ‘univers 45’ as <strong>the</strong> sole signifier to carry <strong>the</strong><br />

identity <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> former postal en telephone company as<br />

it had been since <strong>the</strong> mid-sixties. In <strong>the</strong> last ‘frame’ it is<br />

swallowed up by <strong>the</strong> neo suprematist figurations that<br />

largely made up <strong>the</strong> 2nd <strong>and</strong> 3rd level <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> house-style.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

It was not my first light work so <strong>the</strong> general confusion<br />

about <strong>the</strong> work – was it a corporate house-style neon, or<br />

was it monumental art? – got me interested as it did my<br />

client at <strong>the</strong> time because it wasn’t for long before I got<br />

<strong>the</strong> next question. And it was this question that got me<br />


Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

The brief in short was to develop: ‘a series <strong>of</strong> identical<br />

signs - for a series <strong>of</strong> identical PTT buildings - that<br />

should carry elements <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> house-style but should not<br />

represent it integral’. I started with making a visual essay<br />

about architecture as sign in which I gratefully started<br />

with Venturi’s analysis from Las Vegas. This I mixed<br />

with rhetoric elements <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> company <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> architecture<br />

<strong>and</strong> created this proposal: a single boxletter filled<br />

with chaotic ‘carnival style’ lightbulbs. But, <strong>the</strong> way<br />

how it is in <strong>the</strong> corporate world: strategies change, <strong>and</strong><br />

so do projects.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

In <strong>the</strong> late nineties <strong>the</strong>re were two retail concepts born:<br />

<strong>the</strong> house-in-house concept <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> combination megastore.<br />

They were to be taken as an example to develop<br />

a chain <strong>of</strong> business supply stores that centered around<br />

mail <strong>and</strong> logistic services supplied by what was <strong>the</strong>n<br />

called TPG-Post. These stores were to be developed market-conform:<br />

generic buildings - owned by a third party<br />

– that could also be rented to o<strong>the</strong>r clients than <strong>the</strong> PTT<br />

without significant changes in layout <strong>and</strong> finish.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

A problem with <strong>the</strong> mega-store concept was that <strong>the</strong>y<br />

forced various br<strong>and</strong>s ‘toge<strong>the</strong>r’ in one place <strong>and</strong> on one<br />

facade. And – fur<strong>the</strong>rmore – <strong>the</strong> partnership between<br />

br<strong>and</strong>s seemed to be prone to constant change.<br />

I developed a concept that was deceivably simple. The<br />

logo’s had to be represented in equal ‘weight’. Retroreflective<br />

prismatic foil applied in dots would represent<br />

<strong>the</strong> different br<strong>and</strong>s, it was cheap, easy to apply <strong>and</strong> easy<br />

to remove.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

TPG found an architect to develop <strong>the</strong> perfect ‘box’ to go<br />

with <strong>the</strong> solution <strong>and</strong> a new form <strong>of</strong> architecture-integrated<br />

signalization was born.<br />

When <strong>the</strong> matrix for <strong>the</strong> dots was developed interesting<br />

things happened: it became clear that a matrix typeface<br />

‘behaves’ differently from type-elements in a logo-type,<br />

in o<strong>the</strong>r words a logo-type is more image than text; fur<strong>the</strong>rmore<br />

a logotype could be reduced to a minimum<br />

amount <strong>of</strong> dots or <strong>the</strong> logo could be deformed severely<br />

before it lost its cognitive value. What you see, is what<br />

you remember.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

Apart from this last interesting lesson ano<strong>the</strong>r notion popped<br />

up in <strong>the</strong> following project for an affiliated client: TNT express<br />

mail. I designed a large sign for <strong>the</strong>m next to a freeway at <strong>the</strong>ir<br />

main <strong>of</strong>fice. Many people were to pass <strong>the</strong>re daily, <strong>and</strong> most<br />

likely driving very slowly. To merely enlarge a logotype to huge<br />

proportions is not interesting. It will tend to look like a print<br />

media version <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> logo so o<strong>the</strong>r strategies need to be developed.<br />

To make people stay interested <strong>the</strong> design is deliberately complex.<br />

With six neon filaments that slowly switch in patterns<br />

<strong>and</strong> a prominent grid carrying <strong>the</strong> logo in plastic dots, it looks<br />

like a slow-motion version <strong>of</strong> a Las Vegas casino sign.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

The last project I will present is <strong>the</strong> light-wall that I developed<br />

for <strong>the</strong> Dexia Tower near <strong>the</strong> Amsterdam Passenger<br />

Terminal.<br />

With developing related projects, like <strong>the</strong> WiMBY! Binnenstebuiten<br />

exhibition I had found <strong>the</strong> s.t.i.p.-matrix to<br />

be generally working for images as well. I was astounded<br />

about <strong>the</strong> small amount <strong>of</strong> actual visual information<br />

you need to piece a re<strong>presentation</strong> toge<strong>the</strong>r.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

When developing <strong>the</strong> concept for Dexia, I was first<br />

asked to merely design a kinetic light-wall, as a kind<br />

<strong>of</strong> ambient lighting. After some experiments I decided<br />

that it could be an iconographic wall. Through a mix <strong>of</strong><br />

desired possibilities <strong>and</strong> budget space we settled on a<br />

resolution <strong>of</strong> 77 x 120 pixels, each pixel divided 40 smtp<br />

led’s. (10 red, 10 blue <strong>and</strong> 20 green). The engine is <strong>the</strong><br />

– ancient – VLC format in 256 colors. The refresh rate is<br />

16 frames per second so animation is possible.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

I made some 2 hours <strong>of</strong> test movies – called A-versions.<br />

To test possibilities <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong> wall in conveying iconography<br />

<strong>and</strong> this is where unfortunately <strong>the</strong> story ends. The bank<br />

got into trouble through a sc<strong>and</strong>al around stock-market<br />

speculation products <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> fur<strong>the</strong>r development <strong>of</strong><br />

possibilities has been halted up to now.

Conception: The <strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> complexity<br />

The wall is actually <strong>the</strong> television reinvented. Because <strong>of</strong><br />

<strong>the</strong> rough resolution – <strong>and</strong> <strong>the</strong> fact that <strong>the</strong> led’s were<br />

spread out in stead <strong>of</strong> clustered toge<strong>the</strong>r like in traditional<br />

video-walls a interesting mix <strong>of</strong> kinetic activity<br />

from close-by with <strong>the</strong> memory driven perception <strong>of</strong> <strong>the</strong><br />

films made it for me <strong>the</strong> new stepping stone towards <strong>the</strong><br />

realization <strong>of</strong> an old Robert Venturi dream: ‘Towards<br />

Electronic Imagery On Generic Building’.<br />

I am waiting for <strong>the</strong> next economic boom to take place...

<strong>Culture</strong>, <strong>Crowding</strong> & <strong>the</strong><br />

<strong>pleasure</strong> <strong>of</strong> <strong>Complexity</strong>.<br />

Some remarks about ‘urban<br />

graphic design’.<br />

A <strong>schizophrenic</strong> <strong>presentation</strong>.

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