This is my current statement of intent for my thesis. While some details might change a little, this is probably very similar to the end result.

See the PDF: Statement of Intent – April 9


Dynamic Visual Systems: Exploring The Relationship Between Content and Form in the Design of Digital Systems


The relationship between content and form is intrinsic to the practice of graphic design. “Good” graphic design is evaluated with respect to the successful and innovative connection between content and form. Yet, digital technology has dramatically increased the distance that tradition- ally existed between these two. Today, because of the advent of the web, graphic design is mainly consumed through templates of design, in which content has a much more tenuous relation to form.

I wish to study what new possibilities exist in the relationship between content and form in the digital realm. I am particularly interested in the notion of systems and rules in the practice of graphic design. Design systems and templates, for the most part, promote visual complacency because of their closeness and repetitiveness. I am interested in investi- gating new ideas of what visual rules mean and finding innovative ways of utilizing them in order to defy the monotony of visual systems.

I propose that the next step in the exploration of the design systems lies in the notion of open rules and in systems that reflect a deeply personal expression of the designer that created them. Overcoming templates lies in the idea that the system should not be invisible. Systems should be alive, opinionated and original.

Statement of Intent

It was clear to me from the beginning that I was a little different. I wasn’t the typical student that came through this MFA program. Yet, from early on, I decided that rather than trying to pretend to be someone else, I would embrace this difference. Coming from a background in the social sciences and with extensive experience in working with the web, I noticed that my view of graphic design was slightly different from my classmates and professors. I have learned so much from my colleagues. Their meth- odologies, their visual languages, and their views about design have all shaped me in ways I will never forget. But, while I know I still have a lot to learn, I keep finding myself drawn to many of the questions that initially led me to VCU. Mainly, What is the role of design in relation to technology and what will be the future, broader implications of these changes on society. My thesis is a humble attempt to propose a way forward.

My thesis is an exploration of visual systems. The further diffusion of technology has had the effect of an exponentially increasing amount of information. Most of this information that ends up having no relation to form. A ‘tweet’ for example, is merely another addition to a database. Its form will be the same as every other row in this database. The solution to this information overload has been the use of ‘templates’ and other one- size-fits-all solutions that banalize and trivialize the practice of design while promoting visual complacency. I propose that there are more inter- esting horizons for designers. I propose that designers should have a say in all of this. But, for this to happen we need to understand the tools and capabilities of technology. Until now, most technological tools have been used merely as a means of visual reproduction, where what was formerly done with the pencil is now done with the mouse. I believe there is very little understanding about the particularities of the digital realm as a categorically different set of tools, concepts and methodologies. Concepts such as databases, algorithms and loops are now essential to culture, yet unaddressed by graphic design. Incorporating this concepts more broadly into design is an essential part of this thesis.


There has been a lot of work that takes on some of the concepts men- tioned earlier as a conceptual basis. Most of this work has been done outside graphic design. What my work wishes to address is, first of all, how do these changes affect the practice of graphic design and, second, what is the relationship between content and form in these new meth- odologies. This second question is of particular importance to graphic design. In my opinion, it is the biggest challenge design has to face with the advent of technology in order to remain relevant. It seems to me that the problem with most of the work that is done with technology is either purely formal or a one-size-fits-all solution.

Most of what I have mentioned up till now probably seems very abstract. So, the question seems to be, what will the outcomes of these explora- tions be? Imagine, for example, a book that is re-designed every time it is printed; A book in which every copy is, in its own way, unique. The book would actually be a piece of software in which algorithms would determine the visual behavior of the different elements. This is a visual and dynamic design system. Image an interactive project in which they design could somehow respond to the content provided at that moment. It might not be possible to consider the semantic meaning of content, but to find other types of relevant relationships. All these are possibilities in which the system created by the designer takes on a primary role on the experience of the reader, user, or consumer.

In order to undertake this thesis, it will be very important to make an extensive assessment of how these ideas have been dealt with in the fields of design and art. Fields such as new media, generative design and art, data visualization, interaction design and even print all share some conceptual and visual precedents that will become very important in my work. The success of my undertaking will come from the effective assessment, understanding, and application of these ideas, as well as my original contributions. Finding the consequences, limitations and possi- bilities of these ideas in concrete visual explorations will be, perhaps, the most important part of my work. Through my thesis, I wish to emphasize the creation of visual solutions to these ideas, rather than just conceptual possibilities.

I certainly see this line of work continuing after my graduate studies. The explorations realized certainly have a lot of relevance outside the scope of my thesis. These ideas have many different pragmatic applications outside the academic realm that I would like to see realized. For ex- ample, these dynamic visual systems could be integrated into interactive projects where every user has a different visual experience, given certain dynamic variables. Also, print projects in which ‘every book is unique’ are also possible with the design of effective visual systems that posses certain dynamic rules that determine their outcome. These ideas not only have a pragmatic(even commercial) value, but also enriches the practice of design. It makes graphic design fundamental in the creation of culture, rather than merely supplemental.



My references are divided in two. The first group of references will undoubtedly be very important to my research. These references have already shaped my thought process and will continue to do so. The sec- ond group of references are rather tangential and, at the end, might not necessarily form part of my research. For some of them, I only take a few sentences or ideas to guide my thinking and formulate new ideas.

Ishizaki, Suguru. Improvisational design : Continuous, Responsive Digital Communication. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2003. Print.

Ishizaki proposes that there is too much information to be designed and that, because of this, designers should focus on creating systems of design. His ideas on improvisational design serve as a framework for the design of visual systems.

Maeda, John. Design by numbers. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1999. Print.

In “Design by Numbers”, Maeda sets out to create a programming language to be used by designers and artists, rather than computer sci- entists. His ideas on the relationship between graphic design and digital tools have been very influential to my work.

Maeda, John. [email protected] New York: New York : Rizzoli, 2000. Print.

This book showcases the work of John Maeda through out a large part of his career. This reference is very important because of the importance of Maeda’s work as a pioneer in the marriage of graphic design with the digital realm.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Cambridge, Mass. ; London : MIT Press, 2001.

This book is, perhaps, the most influential one on this list. Manovich pro- vides a strong, innovative and interesting framework for the development of new media. His thoughts on the opposition between the database and the narratives are particularly insightful.

McCullough, Malcolm. Abstracting Craft : The Practiced Digital Hand. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Cambridge, Mass. ; London : MIT Press, 1996.

This book explores the issue of how the notion of “craft” translates into digital work. It argues that digital craft is much more conceptual than it’s analog counterpart. The computer becomes, not a tool for automation, but for abstraction.

Reas, Casey, and Ben Fry. Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists. Vol. 54. The MIT Press, 2007.

This book serves, not only as a reference for the technical aspects of “designing through programming”, but as a guide into the ideas that guide this methodology. A very good list of references is included in the book, which will certainly be useful for my research.


Adams, Janet. “Flashback: Muriel Cooper’s Visible Wisdom”. I.D. Maga- zine (1994): n. pag. Print.

Adams’ article explains why Cooper’s work was so important and innova- tive to graphic design. Her views on the relationship between the rise of digital computers and graphic design serves as a testament of the many horizons that still exist for designers.

Blauvelt, Andrew. “Towards Critical Autonomy or Can Graphic Design Save Itself?” Emigre #64 (2003): n. pag. Print.

In this article Blauvelt questions the lack of historical continuity in design and the current stylistic pluralism. While not central to my thesis, the idea of style as opposed to a deeper, more critical examination of the field is a problematic that I find myself constantly questioning.

Fry, Benjamin Jotham. Computational Information Design. 2004 : 170.

In this doctoral dissertation, Fry outlines the relationship between com- puter science, mathematics, design and human computer interaction in the field of data visualization. What he proposes serves as an interesting and useful reference for understanding the relationships, advantages and disadvantages between these different areas.

Giampietro, Rob and VanderLans, Rudy. “Default Systems in Graphic Design”. Lined & Unlined. 2003. Web. 9 Apr. 2012. ‹http://blog.linedandun-›

VanderLans criticism of “default systems” is very similar to some of my criticism on “templates”. In this article he asses the idea of default systems. Here he also establishes the relationship between Conceptual Art, computer science and design.

Gilles, Deleuze. Difference and Repetition. New York: New York : Colum- bia University Press, 1994. Print.

Through my thesis explorations, I wish to question the idea of unique- ness in its more metaphysical sense. Deleuze questions our concept of difference and repetition, through examining their inherent dependency on each other. This reference is rather tangential to my thesis, but forms part of my desire for a deeper line of questioning.

Iversen, Margaret, ed. Chance. London : Cambridge, Mass.: London : Whitechapel Gallery ; Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2010. Print.

While I do not know how the idea chance fits into my thesis, I do rec- ognized that there are some relationships (in this thesis project and in my whole work). This book might serve as a way to explore this concept theoretically.

Labarre, Suzanne. “Book Filled With Data Art Renews Itself With Each New Printing”. 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2012. ‹http://www.fastcodesign. com/1662981/book-filled-with-data-art-renews-itself-with-each-new- printing-video›

This project served as an example of some of my conceptual ideas for my work. It makes a different, unique book every time a book is printed.

Lupton, Ellen. “The Birth of the User”. Looking Closer 5: Critical Writings on Graphic Design. Ed. and Steven Heller Michael Bierut, William Drent- tel. New York: Allworth, 2007. 23-26. Print.

In this article, Lupton talks about how content and form are being pulled back apart because of the rise of these technologies.

Maeda, John. Creative Code: Aesthetics + Computation. Thames & Hudson, 2004. Print.

This book showcases some of the work done in the Aesthetics + Com- putation workshop at the MIT Media Lab. They are good examples of the possibilities of creating interesting projects through computer program- ing and digital tools.

Manovich, Lev. “Inside Photoshop.” Computational Culture (2011) ‹http://›.

In this article Manovich explains how filters in Photoshop are, for the most part, referential to things that existed before digital computers. Hence, in Photoshop, the computer is used as tool for simulation. In my opinion, this has been the philosophy that has hampered the horizons for digital creation.

Shaughnessy, Adrian. “When Less Really Does Mean Less”. Design Observer. 2012. Web. 9 Apr. 2012. ‹ entry.html?entry=32738›

In the article Shaughnessy questions the role of design( mostly com- mercially) in a world where technology can replace the pragmatic role of design. My thesis indirectly deals with the role of design in the age of technology where its reliance on advertising can no longer be sustained.

Tufte, Edward. “PowerPoint Is Evil”. Wired 11.9 (2003): 10-11. ‹http://www.›

Tufte explains how “PowerPoint presentations elevates format over con- tent”. This is an interesting example of the relationship between content and form in the context of graphic design. I would argue that the specific- ity and limitations of such tools hinder the horizons of digital creation.


These are some of the “themes” or line of thought I have considered and pondered through out my process. The are also directions (visual and conceptual) that I wish to take during my explorations and research. They might serve the reader as a guide to understand the implications of my abstract and statement of intent.

Content and Form · Form always communicates. The specific shape, color and size of a word add a layer of meaning to the semantic denota- tion of that word. Yet, in the digital realm, semantic meaning is given im- portance over form. The relationship between content and form becomes a lot more tenuous with something like a database, in which all aesthetic value and form are extracted from the input turning everything into mere data. How does design fit into this process?

Designing for Infinity · In today’s information landscape, we find that there is too much information to be ‘designed’. If this is the case, then why not make systems that can have any content/information/data as input? That way, we can create designs that are forever invigorated. User, designer and software become all equally important.

Designing Through Rules · Graphic Design is usually the process of cre- ating something that is pristine and unique, even do these object might be designed for mass production and distribution. If re-production is essential to the praxis of graphic design, why not explore design through the creation of rules. This mode of thinking introduces the designer as someone who creates systems with certain behaviors that might change over time.

Designing Through Software · Many digital tools used by designers today are a continuation of many pre-digital processes in which the computer becomes merely a tool for visual representation. What happens when the computer, along with the designer, becomes a cogent of creation? De- signing through software implies that some of the actions and processes that were previously executed by the designer are now shared with the computer in order to make use of many abilities that are better executed by these computational machines. This way, the designer might introduce concepts such as Randomness, Math, Numerical Relationships, Repeti- tion, Variability, etc.

Multi-Medium Design · The existence of different mediums are one of the main reasons for the differentiation of disciplines in design and art. These boundaries don’t stand ground in the import/export culture of digital creation, where all digital tools perform very similar tasks. What are the consequences of these implosions on graphic design? I propose that we should start thinking about multi-medium design, in which we overcome medium specificity.

Digital Uniqueness · Digital technology has the capability of instantly creating and recreating almost anything it can process. What if we har- nessed the processing power of the computer to create design systems in which every instance of a design created is, in its own way, unique. Uniqueness can be programmed into design through randomness, trans- lation, encryption, and many other means.

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