table coffee talk

Writing and design.

"table coffee talk." Emigre 36, Fall 1995.


My friends and I sit in the coffee house. We are only sometimes aware that our coffee is a seething mass of brownian motion, sometimes aware that the coffee cups are chaotic, yet still hold together and contain the coffee. We meet at a table, we talk, we pull out our ideas and examine them while not immersed, embroiled in the act of making design, art, music, writing, whatever.

Coffee, we all need more coffee. People walk by and say hello. Sit down and join us. Time is different for each of us relative to the speed of light, according to the theory of relativity. The difference is so slight that we decide to act as if time is constant. And so we agree to meet at 10am on Friday.

Our day doesn't officially begin until we read our horoscopes. This is my own concept of time, ritual, constructed reality. Am I really in a leaky boat and will not make it to where I am going? Newtonian physics explains only one small framework of reality, but that does not keep us from using it in our lives. In the same manner, graphic designers break down form into scale, type style, contrast and color to communicate to an observer that John Smith is speaking at 5pm at Memorial Auditorium.

The words we use to talk about our work do not adequately describe the process or product of graphic design. This does not keep us from using this particular language in our making and critiquing of graphic design. Terms do not define graphic design any more than the theory of Newtonian physics or the daily horoscope define our world.

Double latte, espresso, cinnamon and vanilla coffee wafts around our table. Words such as form, content, type, image, size, shape, style, substance, contrast, color, hue, intensity, hierarchy, space, modern, post-modern set the terms and define a working model. Conversation about graphic design using only this tool set of terms is often insular, limiting the imagining in the process of creating.

Coffee is water filtered through ground up beans. An artist/writer friend, returning with another refill, reminds us that "a novel is often ...nothing but a long quest for some elusive definitions." Are these discussions a continuous search for some essential something? Words swirl around me, and I think that my coffee does not taste its definition.

The limitations of language concerned physicist Neils Bohr: "It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature IS. Physics concerns what we can say about Nature." Speaking theoretically about graphic design concerns what we can say about graphic design. We need more coffee. We hear snatches of dialogue from a few tables down. We talk about design. In the process, we create a language for talking about design. Bronowski says, "To use the phrase, 'the statement is' at once puts you into a universe of discourse in which you are no longer using this language to describe things but statements about things."

With language we are creating a conversation in the same way we create design itself. When talking about anything, choices are made, limits are set, specific words are spoken and meaning is constructed. Definition is a word house that cannot house all meaning.

Visiting the ladies room I want to rejoin the conversation. I have to "please hold down handle until toilet flushes thanks." So, what is the conversation I am rejoining really about anyway? Philosopher Jacques Derrida talks about the undefinable in a 1994 lecture at Duke University: "If it exists, it corresponds to name. If it is essence, this thing defies semantics, psychology, philosophy. It is invisible, cannot be seen when one speaks of it, but it has been seen."

So essences, ideas are difficult to hold in the container of language. What about this table? Surely we can define "table." We sit at this table and yet do not see the "table" the same. This thing, this structure, is it an arena for discussion or a grandmother kitchen yellow Formica table? Our cups sit on its surface, gravity is all around us. Those coffee spillers among us experiment with gravity quite frequently.

Conversation about process becomes insular and circular when relying on a formal design vocabulary. We appropriate languages, such as literary criticism or physics, in much the same way that graphic designers borrow images and form. This discussion is the place to make new connections between formerly disparate ideas and languages.

Our conversation jumpsp around, and I wish I could hold it all in my head at once. There's this quote from T. S. Eliot. My poet friend brought up one night when we were having a trauma about how and why we do our work. "I enjoy and 'understand' a piece of music better for knowing it well simply because I have at any moment during its performance a memory of the part that has preceded and a memory of the part that is still to come. Ideally I should like to be able to hold the whole of a great symphony in my mind at once."

Eliot is talking about music that he is very familiar with, that he likes to listen to over and over. Our conversations repeat, return to our work and splinter in many directions. What do we take for granted as given in our theoretical discussions? What conventional vocabulary forms what we can say or imagine about graphic design? What is the purpose of this conversation anyway?

Our dialogue is a constructed environment of words. Terms alone exist as a structure without an audience, without even ourselves. We play with words, creating meaning. Bronowski says: "In the act of creation, a man brings together two facets of reality and by discovering a likeness between them, suddenly makes them one. This act is the same in Leonardo, in Keats and in Einstein. And the spectator who is moved by the finished work of art or the scientific theory re-lives the same discovery; his appreciation also is a re-creation."

The act of applying varied languages to graphic design generates different ways of seeing, and an awareness of how we deal with information as we move between theoretical and applied work. When I apply ideas from physics in a conversation about graphic design, I am making connections between two different subjects, but the ideas do not feel different to me.

There is a rhythm to these smatterings of conversation, to the imagining of ideas. The discussion connects our work to real time. Sometimes we get so involved in the process that we forget to bring our lives into our work. We enjoy this expressive discourse, this traffic of ideas, and its caffeine gives our designing selves energy.

We drink more coffee. Someone has a catalogue from the Joseph Bueys exhibit. Bueys talks about people being too intellectual and too logical. He wants to "break up all the redisua" (not a typo, Bueys makes up words). He wants "to place the resulting fragments in a state of turbulence by a process that produces chaos, for everything new has always emerged from a state of chaos." I notice that my napkin contains more coffee than the cup that is holding it down.

Where are we? What do we take from this smoke-filled room, sounds of other conversations intermittently filling our rare silences, traffic outside the window. More coffee, with cinnamon this time. This is my last cup. Cinnamon flavored conversation, our lives and work are one long attempt at definition. And the coffee, this conversation, held in the cup of our language. A language that somehow holds together and contains the imagining.

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986. p127. / Pagels, Heinz R. "Uncertainty and Complementarity." The World Treasury of Physics, astronomy. and mathematics. Ed. Timothy Ferris. Boston: Little, Brown and company, 1991. p.103. / Bronowski, Jacob. The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978. p.83. / Cup A Joe. Raleigh, NC. On the wall of the restroom in the coffee house. 1995. / Derrida, Jaques. Lecture at Duke University. Durham, NC. 1994. / Elliot, T. S. "Introduction." The Art of Poetry by Paul Valery. New York: Pantheon Books, 1958. xiv. / Bronowski, Jacob. Science and Human Values. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers: 1956. p. 51. / Beuys, Joseph. catalogue. "Joseph Beuys: Drawings, Objects and Prints" Institute for Foreign Cultural Affairs. Grey Art Center, ECSU, 1995. p. 9. / Koonts, Lisa. table coffee talk.