Received Ideas

by Michael Rock and Enrique Walker
2012

Michael Rock
Since visiting your studio at Columbia I have been thinking a lot about the cliché and its relationship to graphic design. Interestingly, a cliché describes a typographic form. In printing, a cliché is a slug of lead type pre-cast to make up a word — Sale or Notice rather than a word composed of individual letters. These pre-cast words are also known as stereotypes. The common meaning of cliché, meaning something overused or stale, derived from this idea of the ready-made typographic phrase. (Some even suggest the French word “cliché” derives onomatopoetically from the sound of molten lead filling the type matrix, though I think that is a stretch.) I was curious about the extent that graphic devices, insofar as they are explicitly concerned with mass communication, must always skirt the edge of cliché. (More on that later.) First, tell me about your cliché project and how it came to be.

Enrique Walker
The Dictionary of Received Ideas (the name of the studio series I have taught at Columbia over the past six years on clichés) was actually the byproduct of an earlier studio series named Under Constraint, which examined the use of self-imposed constraints in architecture. Students would embrace voluntary, and therefore arbitrary, constraints at the outset of the design process for the purpose of opening possibilities for their projects.

MR
As a method for displacing responsibility?

EW
Quite the contrary. The studio series was deliberately formulated against the longstanding tradition in design studios of equating process with automatism. That is, design understood as a series of prescribed steps from starting point to outcome, which indeed, as you suggested, has gone hand in hand with obscuring decision-making, as well as with avoiding judgment. Under Constraint aimed actually at reasserting authorship. In fact, a constraint would not determine what to do, but rather what not to do. Studentshad to meet an agreement, but the way they did so was not prescribed. So they were condemned to make decisions. And in turn to exert judgment. One of the lessons of that studio series was that a self-imposed constraint, rather than offer an alternative starting point in design processes (to, say, the diagram, the concept, the parti), which was admittedly the ambition at the outset, would ultimately allow you to become aware of the way you do things.

MR
Self-awareness was the product?

EW
Exactly. But self-awareness was also the challenge. Students were generally very decisive about the definition of the rules of the game. But were then, in most cases, hesitant, or far too cautious, when moving ahead, as if they were expecting the rules of the game to dictate their decisions. Since the rules of the game were self-imposed, and were as such arbitrary, they would not guarantee an outcome. Which was, for many of them who were used to orthodox design methodologies, quite disturbing. Let’s say all of us were required to write a sonnet. Some of us might write an interesting one, whereas others might not. And still others might not even be able to write one. There is no one-to-one relationship between a constraint and a result. In fact, an adequate constraint is an obstacle to an adequate result (that is to say, a predictable result). So the main realization was that, precisely by pushing you to work in a different way, a constraint could bring your assumptions and received ideas to light.

MR
So that investigation of self-consciousness evolved into the work on the received idea?

EW
Yes, that triggered a new studio series on the identification and instrumentalization of clichés. If the first series was influenced by the work of Oulipo (who, incidentally, define themselves as rats who build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape), the new series was based on Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Flaubert inadvertently began this project at the age of nine, when he decided to write down the stupid remarks of a Parisian lady who would visit his parents in Rouen. Over the years, this gradually evolved into a book that would archive all the ready-made phrases and platitudes one needed to employ in order to succeed socially, what he described as an Encyclopedia of stupidity. Flaubert’s goal was to produce a book so exhaustive that it would silence the reader for fear of using one of the ready-made phrases listed in it. This was the starting point for the studio project: to record architectural clichés of the past ten years: recurrent design strategies that haunt contemporary architectural culture.

MR
Were these always material or visual aspects of practice? They weren’t clichés of theory…

EW
We focus on clichés that have implications in design. And, not unlike some of Flaubert’s entries, which tell us what to say, we formulate manuals for their use. In other words, instructions. For instance, Flaubert would instruct the reader, after a certain name to “despise” or “praise.” You just had to follow.

MR
Very useful …

EW
So the initial goal was to produce an archive of clichés exhaustive enough to block students. Which would in turn compel them to formulate other ways to operate. On the other hand, the studio offered a way out of that block: to use the cliché as a starting point. Once defined, a cliché becomes an objet trouvé of sorts, and can be displaced and used towards other results. And to one’s advantage. Therefore students do not mimic clichés, but follow the instructions in the manual. And thereby inevitably misuse the clichés.

MR
So there is investigation — to discover and catalogue the clichés — and then production — where they are employed to create something unexpected.

EW
In fact, the studio project implies both trajectories. First we detect clichés and write manuals for each of them. Second, we use these manuals to design, and in turn, potentially, open up alternative design strategies.

MR
How do you define cliché for the studio?

EW
I prefer the term received idea, which suggests uncritical reception. But the term cliché tends to stick, and usually takes over. We resort to two definitions. On the one hand, we accept the definition of clichés as ideas that were at some point vigorous, but became stale after recurrent use. On the other, we also define clichés as solutions that have outlived the problems they originally addressed. For example, the role of cats in early spy films: a villain caressed a cat on his lap, arguably because the director wanted to frame the villain without showing his face. The problem was how to frame the villain without showing his face — the solution was the cat. Later spy films portray villains who caress cats without de-framing the image. Admittedly, the second definition is strategic, since it allows for us to put the emphasis on the formulation of problems as critical to design. We go back to the issue of constraints as tools …

MR
So in your project you would redeploy the cat?

EW
We keep the cat, and look for ways the cat could acquire a new role. In other words, we gather design strategies that are no longer connected to the problems they originally addressed, and try to connect them to other problems, thereby redefining those design strategies. 

MR
Solutions in search of problems? I have been in large-scale branding studios in China where teams of designers produce logos and “identities” all day long in anticipation of clients who may need them in the future. They are shells waiting to be filled by new occupants. Is problem-solving in itself obsolete, one of those ideas that once was salient but has become stale?

EW
Architects usually take problems for granted and rely on archived solutions (a dictionary of received ideas of sorts). The assumption in the studio is that inventive design is driven by the insightful formulation of problems. Take architectural competitions. Compelling entries usually identify critical problems within a brief as opportunities for design. 

MR
And that is a form of authorship? I’m especially interested in this relationship between authorship and cliché. It seems like the received idea essentially contradicts originality. To speak in cliché is to assume a prefabricated vocabulary. However, the self-conscious manipulation of banal gestures, reinvesting them with new meaning, is a kind of authorship in itself. Isn’t that what Jencks called Double Coding? It seems like the film metaphor is apropos: a director manipulates the history of film over and over again to his/her own end and, in the way those clichés are manipulated, claims authorship. At some point the cat becomes a code that can be endlessly recycled in surprising new ways.

EW
The studios are not about originality, but about awareness. By the same token, being aware of the strategies you use, and the problems you use them for, may potentially trigger invention. In the earlier studio series, constraints were arbitrary problems that you imposed on yourself to uncover the ways in which you did things, and potentially, the ways in which you could do things. The cliché operates in a similar manner. Just as with constraints, you adopt an arbitrary problem to design. And you also know that this is innocuous unless driven by an agenda: the goal towards which you use it. In fact, a cliché is a constraint precisely because it is a design strategy you are obliged to work with, but which offers no promise, since you know it is stale. So you have to work against it.

MR
Then it seems like the goal of design is to reveal its own sources and to let the viewer know that the designer knows that they know … 

EW
The ultimate goal is, actually, to efface the sources. Once you have triggered a finding, it does not really matter what led you to it. Whether it is a self-imposed constraint or a cliché, they are scaffolding, following Raymond Queneau’s notion. That is, structures that would disappear without leaving traces once they have allowed for constructing a building. Once you detach the object from the system you used to produce it (which in architecture is usually equated with meaning), the question is how to assess the object. In fact, it would be pointless to assess a building by looking at the scaffolding with which it was built. You must assess the building itself. And therefore situate the building within the genealogy of strategies that have addressed a certain problem. In other words, you do not assess an architectural project by examining its relation to the process, but by examining its relevance within the field. Production and judgment rely on different frameworks. OMA’s Casa da Musica, for instance, is an interesting project not because it started out as a scaled-up model of a house, but because it ultimately redefined the type of the concert hall. And it would be sterile to ceaselessly (and blindly) follow the procedure of scaling up models to produce projects. The finding renders irrelevant the operation that triggered it.

MR
There is an essential difference between the way we talk about cliché in the architectural sense versus in the graphic sense. As I mentioned before, graphic design is about dealing with conventional languages and affects. I guess a modernist critic would say all affect is kitsch because it is intentionally trying to produce an emotion. In a certain light, cliché is the material device of graphic design. So every corporate-identity program, for instance, is something of a cliché even when it’s intentionally playing with the codes of corporate identity, such as consistency, minimalism, etc. A banal designer only reproduces. An informed designer uses the cultural codes in surprising ways.

EW
That is, you use the cliché as if it were an objet trouvé.

MR
Or embody the cliché wholeheartedly — doing it deadpan or investing all your energy into it. That energizes it. In which case, working a cliché becomes a critique in itself. That is what we were tying to do with the Prada Guilt Project — or even the Prada wallpapers in general. Guilt used the device of the branding manual coupled with this very real human emotion. The attachment of Guilt to banal phrases such as “Isn’t it time you tried …” or “Ask your doctor about …” reawakened them in a funny and fantastical way. 

EW
Could you describe some of the clichés here (gesturing to the images on the table)?

MR
In the book we literally label them in terms of what they are. So you can have a cliché of minimalism or severe reduction — take away all of the extraneous and it leaves something pure. Or you can have a cliché of flattening. A Prada skirt is flattened, and the flattening itself makes it graphic. Even in a computer program you flatten layers as a way to finalize something. Or you have the step and repeat. Here, a Panton image is repeated and rotated. It becomes this goofy flower. The pure rotation and repetition turns one thing into another: roughness, fractal, Baroque. Then there is the contemporary trope of the Photoshop® filter, the prefabricated effect. We would see all of this as the production of the studio, even though they’re so essentially different from or unrelated to each other. 

EW
I imagine you did not design them with the idea of this set in mind.

MR
No, they come from radically different times, for different clients and by many different designers working in the studio. We chose them with the idea of the set. The selection was driven purely by the constraint of the circular form. On the other hand, we’re self-conscious about the fact that something like a flower or a rotation is something that we do all the time. There’s some aspect of the graphic language that is always recognizable. And that seems to be the difference between the architectural and the graphic. For language to work, you have to recognize immediately — “Is that a word?” — for it even to operate in the field. Words need to follow conventions. New words can be coined but they must follow some basic rules.

EW
Interestingly, in architecture a design strategy usually becomes a cliché when it is recognizable, once its appearance weighs more than its performance. This has in fact been the criterion for us to identify clichés. We have started to bring together the entries we have recorded in the past few years, and we’ve already collected about a hundred. We provide a user’s manual for each cliché. And also a brief history of the cliché, which involves determining the moment when the design strategy was originally formulated and the moment when the original objective was lost.

MR
Innocence. Is it a loss of innocence?

EW
Or effectiveness …

MR
Even though it might be derivative, it can still be effective, but at a certain point it’s both derivative and ineffective. In graphic design typographic gestures are used to signify certain things. They’re used a million times but can still either be used well or in an unselfconscious and meaningless way. At times the cliché is extremely effective and smart and at times it’s completely un-self-aware and dumb. One of my favorite rants by the great Modernist designer Paul Rand was his list of the unacceptable tropes of postmodern design: (reading) “squiggles, pixels, doodles, dingbats, ziggurats; boudoir colors ….”

EW
My knowledge of graphic design clichés is limited. But I could identify a few amongst architects …

MR
We could definitely outline all the graphic-design clichés of architects … 

EW
Architects have a limited scope. I find interesting that the underscore, for instance, whose original function in the mid-1990s was arguably to separate first and last names when registering e-mail addresses, at a time when eliminating the space between them was extremely peculiar, is still prevalent to string words together in project titles. Architects have kept the affectation even though it has no function today.

MR
The parenthetical is another example, the (re)presentation —

EW
A late-1980s cliché … 

MR
— derived from Derrida, this idea of de-stabilizing language that carries on, project after project: there’s always the parenthetical, saying two contradictory ideas can be contained in one construction. It’s a linguistic and typographic cliché that has run its course but I’m sure it can be reinvested again in some new way we haven’t thought of yet.

EW
Today, there is a preference for square brackets, and far less loaded terms.

MR
Or it’s bold or italic but it’s always about typography de-stabilizing the word. Is there an unlimited font of clichés? 

EW
I think the question has to do with the cycle of revival of clichés. 

MR
Revivalism?

EW
Clichés have a cycle. They emerge as the depleted version of a formerly vigorous idea. Then they are forgotten. But then in turn they may be revived.

MR
Like sideburns in Brooklyn. But is it always laden with historicism? Even if you were the first person to go back to that reference, that still seems like finding, not making. There’s a whole graphic design movement based on discovering really obscure texts and republishing them. Is there a point where cliché is always revival? Is it never about the production of something new? Or are you saying that the overlapping of clichés and the dealing with them is the device that generates newness now? 

EW
We try to look at recent clichés, design strategies of the past decade, precisely those that have not yet been stabilized by history, and that therefore do not imply references. They haunt us without us being aware. When clichés become old, they weigh as references. When they become older, they cease being clichés. I mean, when you read Flaubert’s dictionary entries today, three-quarters of them make little sense.

MR
It would be an interesting experiment to see if, next to your 150 architectural clichés, we could generate 150 typographic equivalencies. One informs the other. At a certain point in the ’80s, graphic designers and architects were often looking at the same theory. Graphic designers were trying to find a way to incorporate theory in their work in the same way architects were. Often the misunderstanding of the theory generated the work. But for the professional designer, someone grappling with designing things, there is an insecurity or uncertainty. At some point you evaluate your own work and ask yourself, “Am I aware? Is this work banal? Or is it interesting?” You have to recognize your own clichés and understand if you’re actually manipulating them or being driven by them. Maybe that’s the point of a studio. 

EW
When you were at ANY, for instance, you often played with the rules of the game of the existing graphic project, as well as with the clichés derived from it, and in turn invented a number of techniques that would have probably been otherwise unimaginable.

MR
At ANY it was about simple things, twisting conventions. If the footnote is usually at the bottom, what if we move it to the middle? The right and left page are now swapped, and so on. The funny thing is that many of the ANY affections became real clichés in themselves. 

EW
You were basically adopting clichés but changing their role. You formulate a number of operations upon what exists, and then determine what may have led to an invention. Some operations are of interest, and some are not.

MR
You’re trying to evaluate what you’re doing, but also to create a narrative around it. Retroactively establish an oeuvre. In every designer’s book they’re attempting to create some narrative out of a system that is almost brutally resistant to narrative because, as you know, a designer’s career is such a haphazard set of —

EW
Accidents …

MR
— and yet somehow the story has to be told that all those things are building towards something. What story will be told in the end? 

EW
You work back and forth. You look back at the work you have done. And this allows you to articulate an argument for the work you will potentially do.

MR
So it requires a self-conscious negotiation between the field you work in, all the work you’ve done before, and the kind of work you want to do in the future.

EW
But the work in the future is equally accidental. In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera claims that life is a relentless process of acquiring experience which ultimately cannot be applied. The conditions you encounter are always different.

MR
That’s the perfect description of a design career.