Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Modern Design Theory

“Writing Lessons: Modern Design Theory,” unpublished essay by Ellen Lupton, written for graduate seminar taught by Rosemary Bletter, City University of New York Graduate Center, 1988.

A powerful metaphor has informed post-war education in graphic design: the concept of a “language of vision.” This abstract “language” of line, shape, and color has been theorized as a system of visual communication analogous to but separate from verbal language, a distinct code grounded not in cultural convention but in universal faculties of perception.

A chief laboratory in which this language was analyzed was the “Vorkurs” or “Basic Course” at the Bauhaus, which has served as a model for foundation programs at art schools around the globe since World War II. The theorists of “visual language” aimed to locate a universal code that communicates through the mechanics of the eye and brain, bypassing the contingencies of verbal language and cultural context. The modernist theory of “visual language” compares verbal and visual expression in order to keep the two systems apart from one another.

Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925) and Wassily Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane (1926), published by the Bauhaus, tried to identify an abstract and universal grammar of visual expression. Two later books, Gyorgy Kepes’s Language of Vision (1944) and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion (1947), further elaborated the theory of “visual language” and gave it a scientific rationale; both were written while Kepes and Moholy were teaching at the School of Design in Chicago, founded as the “New Bauhaus” in 1937. This essay excavates some of the origins of contemporary design theory with the goal of finding a place within those assumptions for a more expansive “language of vision,” one that rather intersects with verbal language rather than standing as its opposite.

1. The “language of vision”

The “Basic” course, conceived to prepare students for diverse practical disciplines by teaching them general formal concepts, was not part of Walter Gropius’s original program for the Bauhaus, but was established in 1920 in response to the inexperience and lack of discipline of students admitted to the school. Johannes Itten was the first teacher of the Basic Course; his writings outline some of the “principles” of design which also occur in the writings of Kandinsky, Klee, Kepes, and Moholy-Nagy. According to Itten’s theory of “polar contrasts,” for example, a picture is organized by such formal oppositions as big/small, long/short, straight/curved, pointed/blunt, much/little, light/heavy, and hard/soft (Itten, Foundation Course, 105).

When conflicts with Gropius led Itten to resign in 1922, Kandinsky was assigned to teach classes on color and the “Basic Elements of Form,” part of the Vorkurs (Naylor 83, 87); Klee began teaching sections of the basic form class after 1924 (Wingler, 79). In 1923 former student Joseph Albers became a master, responsible for the materials component of the Basic Course. Moholy-Nagy was put in charge of the program as a whole later in 1923 (Naylor 100).

Kandinsky’s basic form class resembled the program he had taught at the Russian Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture) starting in 1920, where he stressed the continuity between music and painting and freely merged scientific and spiritual analyses of form (Naylor 86). In Kandinsky’s 1919 essay “Little Articles on Big Questions,” he used the metaphor of verbal “language” to discuss the laws of visual form, calling simple geometric shapes “‘forms belonging to the first sphere of graphic language,’” constituting a “‘sphere of draftsmanship with its limited means of expression, akin to a language without declensions, conjugations, prepositions, or prefixes’” (Naylor 87). Kandinsky would develop the metaphor more fully in his later Bauhaus textbook.

The metaphor of visual language emerges in Kandinsky’s genesis of the “point” in Point and Line to Plane. The point first appears in Kandisky’s story as a punctuation mark. In its life as a “period,” the point must remain in silence, because it marks a stop in the flow of reading. When the point is wrenched from the context of writing, however, it gains a “voice”: “Naturally, the new science of art can only develop when the signs become symbols and the receptive eye and ear open the way from silence to speech. Let him who is unable to accomplish this, leave both the ‘theoretic’ and the ‘practical’ in art alone… It is these very people who are today intent in placing a period after the word ‘art’” (26). In Kandinsky’s story of the liberated “point,” the linguistically bound mark gains direct access to perception, and thus begins to participate in the musicality Kandinsky attributed to art that had been freed from the bonds of the literary.

The writings of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy during the 1920s were more overtly hostile towards verbal writing. In Painting Photography Film, published by the Bauhaus in 1925 and 1927, Moholy described the new medium of “typophoto,” or design which combines typography and photography: “Photography is highly effective when used as typographical material. It may appear as an illustration beside the words, or in the form of “phototext” in place of words, as a precise form of representation so objective as to permit of no individual interpretation. The form, the rendering, is constructed out of the optical and associative relationships: into a visual, associative, conceptual, synthetic continuity: into the typophoto as an unambiguous rendering in an optically valid form.” Moholy put faith in photography as an objective extension of the human eye—even in its distortions, photography would tell the truth. The photograph would rescue words from their inherent ambiguity and abstraction, cleansing them with the “hygiene of the optical.”

Moholy continued to promote this attitude as director of the “New Bauhaus” in Chicago. The school was founded in 1937 by the Association of Arts and Industries, a group of businessmen and concerned citizens who wished to open a design school that would “‘meet the needs of industry and reintegrate the artist into the life of the nation’” (Stahle, in Wingler 193). This project seemed to correspond with goals publicized by the German Bauhaus, and the association asked Moholy-Nagy to participate. The school quickly lost the support of the association, however, and Moholy reopened it under the name “School of Design” in 1939. It became the “Institute of Design” in 1944, and since then has weathered numerous changes in administration and academic affiliations. It is now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

In 1937 Moholy invited Gyorgy Kepes, another Hungarian artist and designer, to teach photography and “commercial art” in Chicago. Moholy and Kepes worked together to formulate the school’s curriculum, modeled closely on that of the original Bauhaus (Wingler, 199). They retained the concept of the “Basic Course,” a first-year program which taught formal principles believed to underly and unite all the specialized disciplines of art and design. An essay which Kepes wrote in 1938 summarizes his goals for the Basic Course: “As the eye is the agent of conveying all impressions to the mind, the achieving of visual communication requires a fundamental knowledge of the means of visual expression. Development of this knowledge will generate a genuine ‘language of the eye,’ whose ‘sentences’ are created images and whose elements are the basic signs, line, plane, halftone gradation, color, etc.” (Wingler 197)

The Basic Course aimed to isolate this “language” of form from the context of linguistic, culturally acquired knowledge. Kepes’s metaphor of “visual language,” which had its precedent in the textbooks of Kandinsky and Klee, became the basis of his own textbook, Language of Vision, written between 1939 and 1942, published in 1944.

Moholy’s Vision in Motion was issued posthumously in 1947. As suggested by the title of his book, Moholy’s central concern was representing motion, which he discussed in terms of graphic, photographic, sculptural, mechanical, and natural “manuscripts.” He restated in this text his bias against verbal language by comparing visual abstraction with verbal “semantics”: “Like the semanticist, who strives for logical cleanliness, a clearing away of loosely trailing connotative associations in the verbal sphere, the abstract artist seeks to disengage the visual fundamentals from the welter of traditional symbolism and inherited illusionistic expectations” (150).

The “semanticist” referred to in this passage was perhaps Charles Morris, a philosopher of language who taught a course in “Intellectual Integration” at the Institute of Design (Vision in Motion 70). Morris was a member of the Unified Science movement, which aimed to devise a single technical vocabulary capable of communicating among the diverse branches of science. Morris contributed a statement to the 1937-38 prospectus of the New Bauhaus that called for a “simplified and purified language in which to talk about art (and indeed about all values) in the same simple and direct way in which we talk about the world in scientific terms” (Wingler 195). Morris’s effort to identify a simplified verbal language complemented the artists’ and designers’ search for a universal “language” of vision.

Charles Morris’s writing developed the theory of “semiotics,” or the classification of signs, following the work of the American philospher Charles Sanders Peirce. In the terms of Morris’s semiotics, an icon resembles its object, a symbol has a conventional or arbitrary association with its object, and an index stands in a relation of spatial or causal contiguity to its object—it either points to it (an arrow), or preserves its physical trace (a footprint or a photograph). The branch of sign that would have been of greatest interest to Moholy-Nagy and Kepes, and also to Kandinsky and Klee, was the index.

Information “graphics” are largely indexical signs (although they may also have symbolic and iconic components). When used in a strictly didactic or expository context, an information “graphic” is a neutral record of given data. One set of facts could be expressed in numerous ways, and a particular format might picture the same information more clearly, or stress a different aspect of it. Jacques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics presents “A Hundred Different Graphics for the Same Information.” In Bertin’s terms, a graphic is a pure “transcription” of fact, an unambiguous sign whose meaning is beyond interpretation: “graphics and mathematics are similar and construct the ‘rational moment’” (Bertin, 3). The lines in a graph or the locations on a map directly correspond to the data for which they stand. A population curve, for example, is a shape produced by the information it describes, not a symbolic or illusionistic image: it is an index of the data it represents.

The diagram, particularly valued by the designers and artists discussed in this paper, is more closely allied with conventional artistic representation than other types of graphic. Charts and graphs, for example, divide space according to an abstract, geometric grid—columns and rows, or an x/y axis. A diagram relates the page to physical rather than geometrical space—either literally, as in a map or a drawing of an experimental apparatus, or by analogy, as in a logorithm or a coroporate management hierarchy. Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook and Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane use diagrams to picture relationships between the “elements” of design; Klee’s figures in particular exploit the ability of the diagram to express spatial and temporal relations simultaneously. Moholy-Nagy identified “diagrams” produced by natural and technological processes; Gyorgy Kepes used figures from psychological theory as normative models. In addition to using diagrams as explanatory tools, Klee, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, and Kepes used the concept of the diagram to characterize the drawing process itself: the drawn line is a record of motion. The diagram constituted the basis of a new “language” of vision, suggesting the possibility of a script which would render its object transparent, a mode of “writing” spontaneously generated by the world it would represent.

2. Kandinsky and Klee: Line as diagram

Both Kandinsky and Klee produced a theory of “elements” radically different from that offered by geometry. Whereas Euclid’s line is an infinite accumulation of static points, the line of Klee and Kandinsky is conceived as a single point dragged across a page—it is the recorded motion of the point, a graphic trace of the designer’s action. In Kandinsky’s words, the line is the “track made by the moving point; that is, its product. It is created by movement—specifically through the destruction of intense, self-contained repose of the point” (Kandinsky, 57). Similarly, the plane is the product of a moving line which closes in on itself (Kandinsky, 81). The title of Kandinsky’s book, Point and Line to Plane, reiterates the narrative sequence contained within.

Klee’s text also sets forth a temporal relationship between the elements: line is defined as a “point progression” and plane is defined as a “line progression” (Klee, 21). Klee’s grammar of elements involves a metaphor between visual and verbal form: the relationship between point, line, and plane is compared to active and passive “voice” is language. The point which moves to become a line is “active”; the line which moves to enclose a shape is “medial,” acting as both a figure in itself and as the edge of another figure; the line which thickens to fill in the shape becomes “passive,” functioning merely as the secondary border of the plane.

Klee represents this narrative with a pair of “graphics.” The first is a pictorial and verbal chart listing the three “cases” of line/plane relations in parallel layers, like a table of verb forms in a grammar book. [Fig. 1] The second, titled “Three Conjugations,” is a diagram of the same information, representing the three cases in a spatial scheme. A “Semantic explanation” appended to the diagram compares the three “cases” of line to written sentences. [Fig. 2] In keeping with the spirit of the linguistic “primer,” the circle, square, and triangle serve as exemplary planes.

Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane refers to the “basic elements” as a graphic system: point, line, and plane are fundamental to any act of painting; they also “constitute the exclusive material for an independent kind of painting—graphic.” (20) Kandinsky used the term “graphic” in reference to drawing and print-making; he also used it in the sense of an information “graphic,” or a diagram: see, for example, Fig. 3. According to Kandinsky, any physical or spiritual complex can be represented graphically: “every phenomena of the external and of the inner world can be given linear expression—a kind of translation.” (Kandinsky, 68) Graphic “translation” is the basis of one of Kandinsky’s classroom excercises, in which objects are “completely translated into energy tensions… the over-all scheme made visible by dashed lines” (Wingler, 146). [Fig. 4] This assignment was perhaps influenced by an earlier exercise from Itten’s Basic Course, in which a linear network is superposed over reproductions of “Old Masters” paintings. Experiments like these imply an objective correspondence between the diagrammatic “translation” and a real pattern of energy present in the original image.

Kandinsky’s text as a whole is a graphic “translation” of a complex system: it reduces a vast spectrum of sensations to black and white typography, photography, and graphics. Technological limitations, to some extent, prevented this book from drawing directly on two of the sensory realms it explores: color and sound. Yet the material silence and monochromatics of Kandinsky’s text is not completely gratuitous. Kandinsky was interested in how sound and color can be evoked internally in the viewer through the mediation of a graphic system, rather than by literal external means. According to Kandinsky, the exact theoretical study of visual art depends on identifying the objective, “natural” correspondence between the graphic “elements” and the more variegated realm of painting: “The natural connection between the ‘graphic’ and the ‘pictorial’ elements, which we can to some extent recognize today, are of immeasurable importance to the future theory of composition. Only in this direction, can planned exact experiments in construction be made in our laboratory work, and the mischeivious fog in which we are today condemned to wander, will certainly become more transparent and less suffocating.” (Point… 62)

Thus the linear script the diagram would dissolve the currently opaque understanding of visual form by exposing its interior structure. Moholy-Nagy’s program at the New Bauhaus would include a version of Kandinsky’s exercise: to “translate” a Picasso painting into an “essential line structure… showing the tightness and clarity of the composition” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 38). These schematic, linear “translations” constitute a kind of writing which renders its referent transparent.

The theories of graphic communication presented by Kandinsky and Klee are further elaborated by the typographic design of their texts. Like the other Bauhaus Books, these were designed by Moholy-Nagy, and the material arrangement of the texts is presumably the result of collaboration between author and designer. Each page of the Pedagogical Sketchbook is headed with a diagram indicating the chapter of the book and the subsections contained within that page [see Figs. 1 and 2]. The roman numeral “four” is represented with four vertical strokes rather than the conventional “IV,” a move which complements the interest in a non-abstract sign system by concretely representing the concept of “four.” [Fig. 5] On one page in the Pedagogical Sketchbook, the copy flows between two opposing columns: the meaning of the linear text is reinforced by its spatial position. [Fig. 6] In Point and Line to Plane the subheads run along the margin of the main text, breaking it up into numerous small “entries,” suggesting that the book be read like a “dictionary.” The subheads sometimes occur at the middle of a paragraph, where no break is otherwise indicated; they are a secondary system which analyses the main text. [Fig. 7]

Kandinsky and Klee defined drawing as a “trace” or diagram of its own making; Kandinsky’s “translation” exercise used these lines to cast a network over the variegated forms of experience. Many paintings by both Klee and Kandinsky superpose a system of graphic marks over a luminious ground, suggesting the revelation of nature through a universal script. Moholy-Nagy would identify numerious additional “visual manuscripts,” produced not just by the hand but by natural and technological forces.
3. Moholy-Nagy: Drawing with light and other substances

Moholy-Nagy saw photography as a new kind of writing: “The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 208) Moholy valued photography as an expansion of natural sight—a technique for penetrating opaque bodies, recording the passage of time, or layering multiple images onto a single, unified surface. For Moholy the “realism” of photography lay not in its ability to produce traditional perspectival images, but rather in its status as a neutral, mechanical record of phenomena.

Moholy’s “photogram” emphasized the non-retinal core of the photographic process; like Kandinsky’s and Klee’s theory of line, the “photogram” engaged the logic of the indexical “track,” the mark left as the direct record of an action. According to Moholy, the the essence of photography is not the camera, but the chemical sensitivity of film and paper, which documents the print of light (Moholy, Painting, Photography, Film, 32). Moholy wrote that he and Man Ray simultaneously re-invented the cameraless photograph “around 1920”—Moholy called it a photogram, a condensation of “photograph” and “diagram” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 178) He wrote: “The photogram understood as a diagrammatic record of the motion of light translated into black and white and gray values can lead to a grasp of new types of spatial relationships and spatial rendering. The receding and advancing values of the gradations, which are projections of ‘light tracks,’ can be used for space—that is space-time‹articulation” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 189-90).

As a “diagram,” the photogram is a spatial record of a temporal event, a non-illusionistic yet non-arbitrary image of the real. Moholy noted numerous other artistic, technological, and natural “diagrams” throughout Vision in Motion, including photographs of fireworks, industrial time and motion studies, tire tracks in the snow, the pattern made by peeling paint, the ridges inscribed by waves on a beach, and the text left by a skywriting plane (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 36, 121 and passim). Another member of this class is the simple line drawing, which “can be understood as a motion study since it is a path of motion recorded by graphic means”—Moholy’s aesthetic of the diagram returns thus to the autographic theory of Kandinsky and Klee (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 36). These modes of diagramming space and time were for Moholy “but the beginning in the perfection of visual ‘manuscripts’ which will be read more quickly and precisely than verbal ones.” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 121) Moholy connected the “tracks” of the diagram with the drawn line of writing, but he saw such tracks as fundamentally different from script because of the objective, necessary relationship between the sign and its referent in the natural world.

Vision in Motion is illustrated with images of three-dimensional as well as graphic works, mostly student projects from the Foundation Course and the industrial design workshops of the Chicago school. The “tactile chart,” an exercise which probably originated from Itten’s Basic Course, is an assemblage of physical objects having different textures. These “charts” were not intended as aestheticized objects, and most of those pictured are organized in neutral, arbitary columns, like entries in a diary or a dictionary. One of them is labelled:
Tactile chart
A dictionary of the different qualities of touch sensations, such as pain, pricking, temperature, vibration, etc. (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 69)
A similar “Dictionary of the photogram” appears later in the book—these “dictionaries” suggest the eventual compilation of an infinite reference book of visual signs, a complete swatchbook of reality.

Another Basic Course excercise is the “hand sculpture”: a piece of rounded, amorphic, carved wood designed to be pleasing to the hand. The hand sculpture can also “be understood as a space-time diagram; the result of the resistance of the wood to the forces applied—the carving tools combined with the intention of the maker” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 73-4). These apparently “artsy-crafty” objects were preparations for designing the molded plastic handles of useful objects—they were exercises for learning the contemporary industrial vocabulary of “streamlining.” Like other good modernists in America in the 1940s, Moholy criticized thoughtless, stylistic “streamlining,” but he was nonetheless interested in the range of production processes it represented: “welding, molding, shaping, and stamping,” which had supplanted the bolts, rivets, and screws of the nineteenth century. He proposed the manufacture of stamped objects from continuous pieces of material: for example, “furniture, molded without joints” and “clothing, cast, pressed or molded in one piece…” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 51-54).

The relationship between a stamped object and its mold is analoguous to the graphic “trace” and the light or process it has recorded. Whereas a traditional industrial product is bolted together out of pieces, a stamped form takes its shape from a “negative.” As in a photograph, a potential infinity of “prints” can be cast from a single negative, and the uniform surface of the object is unbroken by “syntactical” connectors. Moholy assigned social as well as aesthetic value to the molded object, seeing it as an agent for eliminating the division of labor and bringing cheap goods to a mass public.

The student design projects reproduced in Vision in Motion include drawings of molded plastic products, such as a tumbler with a built-in straw, and the shell of a motor car. The finished student projects do not include any full-fledged streamlining, probably because of technical limitations. The closest is a chair constructed out of a single sheet of plywood, “bent without waste, using only two lap joints” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 90, 93, 95). Moholy called one of his own sculptures in Vision and Motion a “space modulator,” an object molded out of smooth plastic which in turn molds its environment: “air” is listed as one of its materials (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 167, 235).

Moholy’s interest in molding three-dimensional space was shared by other Constructivist artists, including Oscar Schlemmer. Like Kandinsky and Klee, Schlemmer wanted to identify the “elements” of dance—the “‘one, two, three’ and the ABC” (Wingler, 118). He wrote in 1926: “imagine a space filled with a soft, pliable substance in which the figures of the sequences of the dancer’s movements were to harden as a negative form… Aids such as poles (the horizontal balancing pole) or stilts (vertical elements) are… capable of vivifying space in a framelike, linear fashion” (Wingler, 118).

Schlemmer pictured this dance as a three-dimensional diagram, a permanent track cut into a jelly-like ground. The poles and stilts, painted white against a darkened stage and costume, automatically record the dancer’s movements, substituting his body with a graphic system. The space of the stage functions like the neutral background of a picture, a black field inscribed with the white lines of a diagram.
Rosalind Krauss has written that this “diagrammatic” shaping of space characterizes Constructivist sculpture in general: These sculptures are often made of a transparent material—glass, celluloid, open networks of string—and this material transparency is the signal for a kind of transparency or lucidity of the explanatory model that lays bear the essence of things, exposing their real structures to view.
Similarly the graphic “translations” of Kandinsky imply the objective dissection of the natural image, rendering opaque relationships “transparent.” Such works of art use the diagram as the “grammar” of a universal script whose meaning would be insured by the shape of the physical world rather than cultural convention.

4. Gyorgy Kepes: Gestalt psychology and the language of vision

The structure of Gyorgy Kepes’s book Language of Vision reflects the curriculum of the New Bauhaus: it first studies visual “laws” in isolation and then applies them to art and advertising design. Kepes’s “grammar” is an extended, more analytical version of the earlier books by Kandinsky and Klee. His main innovation is to use principles from “Gestalt psychology” to expand on and verify the notion of an autonomous faculty of visual communication.

Gestalt psychology was initiated by Max Wertheimer (1880-1843) at the University of Frankfurt in 1912; he and his students Wolfgang Kohler (1887-1967) and Kurt Koffka (1887-1941) became its central theorists. Gestalt psychology challenged the traditional notion that the ability to make sense out of visual data is culturally learned; according to Gestalt theory, the brain spontaneously orders and simplifies sense data into structured, wholistic patterns. Wertheimer and Kohler worked in Berlin after 1914 and 1921 respectively; all three scientists immigrated to the United States in the 1930s, where they became a prominent intellectual force (Sahakian).

Some of the tenets of Gestalt psychology parallel ideas developed in Klee’s and Kandinsky’s textbooks of design—the similarities are, presumably, coincidental, as it was not until 1928 that a representative of Gestalt psychology lectured at the Bauhaus. According to Wingler, the psychology lectures were well received because they offered “scientific affirmation” for the theories of Kandinsky and Klee. The student notes reproduced by Wingler suggest that the speaker explained a few general Gestalt principles as well as unrelated issues in child psychology and psychoanalyis—his presentation appears to have been casual and unsystematic (Wingler, 159-60).

In Gestalt psychology the term “figure” refers to a positive, dominant form revealed against a neutral “ground”; the figure/ground relationship is the precondition for perceiving “objects,” for articulating the complex, infinitely variegated image cast upon the retina into distinct relationships. Gestalt psychology’s central claim is that the “percept” (or the image that the brain produces from the physical data it receives) is not an accumulation of individual parts, but is a whole: the value of each part depends on its relation to every other part, and any local change will affect the whole. The percept is not a geometric copy of the stimuli cast upon the retina, but a set of ordered relationships, or gestalten (Wertheimer, 1922; in Ellis) As Wolfgang Kohler wrote: “A homogeneous field in visual space is practically uniform… When Gestalten appear we see firm, closed structures “standing out” in “lively” and “impressive” manner from the remaining field… In the accompanying diagram the narrower spaces are “strips” while the area between them is “mere ground.”“ (Kohler, 1920; in Ellis, 36) [Fig. 8]

The figure/ground relationship in Fig. 8 is not an “objective” condition of the image; in geometric terms, the lines are simply equivalent marks located on a homogeneous plane. The figure/ground relation, which describes the qualitative differences contained in the percept, is a phenomenal rather than a geometric fact, an aspect of the image as it is experienced. The act of perception produces values.
Fig. 8 is one of numerous drawings used in Gestalt psychology to demonstrate the “factors of organization,” or the the formal conditions which lead to the articulation of “figure” against “ground.” Simple line drawings were the staple test material used for studying the laws of organization—these figures offered an experimental setting from which extraneous elements had been largely eliminated. The Gestalt psychologists, like Kandinsky and Klee, used linear, graphic drawings as a “laboratory” for discovering universal laws of vision. They aimed to construct, as Koffka wrote, “‘as naive and full a description of direct experience as possible’” (Pastore, 271-2). Some Gestalt experiments employ words or letterforms in order to prove that innate formal structure is able to obliterate the cultural conventions or “content” which has been added to it. [Fig. 9] A similar goal lies at the foundations of the Bauhaus curriculum: to temporarily isolate visual form from the context of its cultural use. Like the “grammar” of design, Gestalt psychology characterizes vision insofar as it can be quarantined from the context of everyday experience. (Gestalt theory would not be particularly useful, on the other hand, for studying the function of signs in society.)

The parallels between Gestalt psychology and the theories of Kandinsky and Klee are, as far as I know, an historical coincidence. Gyorgy Kepes, however, recognized the usefulness of the new psychology, and he directly incorporated it in his Language of Vision. Fig. 10 shows some basic principles he employed and the figures with which he illustrated them; I have included analogous figures from texts by Gestalt psychologists. The reduced, linear style of these experimental drawings would have appealed to Kepes as an aesthetic in itself. Kepes’s demonstration of “continuance” juxtaposes a schematic line drawing against an abstract painting: Kepes used the diagram as a normative model for art, a move which is in fact inherent to Gestalt theory. Wertheimer described the same principle of “continuance”: “On the whole the reader should find no difficulty in seeing what is meant here. In designing a pattern, for example, one knows what a ‘good’ continuation is, how ‘inner coherence’ is to be acheived, etc.; one recognizes a resultant ‘good Gestalt’ simply by its own ‘inner necessity’… Additions to an incomplete object (e.g. the segment of a curve) may proceed in a direction opposed to that of the original, or they may carry on the principle ‘logically demanded’ by the original.” (Werth, Laws, 83)

For Wertheimer, the processes of seeing and design are closely related: designing is merely a more active form of perception. In Kepes’s demonstration of the principle of “similarity,” a Mondrian composition is graphically treated as the final term in a series of scientific drawings: the painting is reproduced the same size as the diagrams, as a high-contrast image rather than a half-tone. Kepes does not specify any further relationship between the Gestalt graphics and the Mondrian composition—the formal similarity alone seems to have inspired the juxtaposition. In addition to the Gestalt examples, Kepes’s text incorporates figures demonstrating such principles as “dynamism” (28, 290), “balance” (36), proportion (54), rhythm (53), and depth representation (72, 76, 86). The book also contains figures which are neither overtly didactic nor aesthetic—small, high-contrast compositions, often grouped in series, with no explicit “message.” [Fig. 11] Numerous reproductions of finished works of art and graphic design appear in the midst of these didactic and quasi-didactic figures, often reproduced as high-contrast images. In a few instances “linear diagrams” stand in place of the finished works of art (60, 102) [Fig. 12].

The concept of “figure” operates in two ways in Kepes’s text. On the one hand, “figure” is a term from Gestalt psychology, refering to the articulation of a mark against a background. On the other hand, a “figure” is a genre of graphic communication: a visual image inserted into a scientific or didactic text. Understood in this second sense, a “figure” is not a particular form of graphic—it could be a chart, graph, table, drawing, photograph, etc.—but is rather a particular function of graphic. Scientific figures offered Kepes attractive stylistic qualities—abstraction, simplicity, linearity. He also valued their function aesthetically. For Kepes, the explanatory, instrumental, unambiguous status of the didactic figure was an appealing attribute for art and design—even though “message” of the aesthetic object would tend to be associative rather than explicit. As Kandinsky and Oscar Schlemmer made the diagram into an expressive tool, a model for an elucidating, explanatory art, Kepes used the explanatory “figure” as a model for design.

The first part of Kepes’s book is a basic “grammar” of vision, and Part II is an historical typology of “idioms” for representing time and space, a catalogue of conventional techniques which must be integrated with “the genuine language of the picture surface” (Kepes, Language of Vision, 68). Part III concludes that all the abstract “laws” and representational “idioms” unlocked by modern painting can be synthesized in the new, unfettered institution of advertising: “All these findings came to focus in the practical tasks of contemporary advertising art. Advertising could utilize them because it was not handicapped by traditional forms… it belonged to its very nature to be contemporary and forceful… the most heterogeneous elements—verbal message, drawing, photography, and abstract shapes—were employed… Posters on the streets, picture magazines, picture books, container labels, window displays… could disseminate socially useful messages, and they could train the eye, and thus the mind, with the necessary discipline of seeing beyond the surface of visible things, to recognize values necessary for an integrated life…” (Kepes, Language of Vision, 221)

For Kepes, advertising would be able to bring modernist aesthetics to a mass audience because it was unbounded by historical, academic, or economic traditions. Advertising could freely absorb techniques of visual representation from every pocket of culture and disseminate its messages through contemporary technology. Kepes’s book thus begins with the isolation of visual form from its linguistic and cultural contexts, and culminates with a hopeful reintegration. Despite this final synthesis, however, abstraction remains the guiding force of Kepes’s theory, occupying the first and most rigorous chapter of his book—similarly, the isolated study of abstract form occupies the full first year of most college-level art school training today.

Kepes’s book is a designed object which uses didactic images for a rhetorical effect; similarly but more overtly, some of the examples of graphic design reproduced in his book use the visual code of the diagram for its rhetorical and formal expressiveness, rather than as a neutral carrier of information. Fig. 13, an advertisement by Ladislav Sutnar, has an explicit message—waste will be saved by coordinating the distribution of products—but the actual shapes and “data” in the chart do not stand for real products, and the “diagrammatic” lines are formal rather than utilitarian. The big “X” which divides the page, for example, is evocative and dramatic rather than unambiguously functional. An advertising image by Will Burtin [Fig. 14] recalls Hannes Meyer’s “diagram of functions”: the plan of a house is superposed with photographs of family life, and the images are connected with lines suggestive of machinery belts. The architectural drawing and the diagrammatic lines produce a symbol of a technologically enhanced suburban lifestyle, rather than serving as neutral, unambiguous mappings of real space or processes (75).

Language of Vision, like the other textbooks of design discussed in this paper, asserts abstract visual form as the basis of a new “writing” that would wash verbal expression of its ambiguities. In Moholy’s notion of the “typophoto,” for example, the image could clarify a verbal text or replace it completely. Walter Benjamin offered an alternative image/text relationship in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer”: “What we require of the photographer is the ability to give his picture the caption that wrenches it from modish commerce… But we shall make this demand most forcefully when we—the writers—take up photography.” According to Benjamin, the image would not render the text transparent, exposing it to view, but instead the caption would transform the meaning and function of the image.

This paper has been an attempt to revalue—in a positive rather than a destructive way—some of the fundamental theory of modern graphic design. Benjamin called writers to take up the camera; the intention behind my own study of design history and theory is to eventually influence designers to take up writing. Benjamin’s “author-as-producer” would have been able to juxtapose image and text; the skills of a graphic designer/writer would allow her not only to juxtapose but also to penetrate: to analyse images with the “language” of both words and graphics, and to determine the format in which a message might be framed. Despite the hostility expressed towards writing in these brilliant and influential textbooks of design, the notational “vocabulary” of form that develops out of them is rich in associative, culturally communicative meaning. The visual “language” of the diagram, as demonstrated by the some of the examples of graphic design published in Kepes’s text, is not a transparent filter for self-evident meaning, but rather a transforming, metaphoric code.