Visual Systems – Week 1

Year 2 – Semester 1 – Week 1

Finally, summer 2022 is over and we are back to university. To kick off year 2 on this Monday morning, Noemi has introduced us to visual systems.

During her presentation, I was reminded of the module from 1 year ago where we explored mapping. In that module I produced a map of my journey through the town. I represented this data with a series of photographs, arrows and a list of sounds, sights and smells I came across in written form. However, the two pieces didn’t work well together. Instead of being 2 halves of one map, they came across as 2 separate maps of the same data. I will be bearing this in mind when producing work for this module.

In this module, the deliverables will be a process book documenting the workshops and a set of A3 posters which explain a visual system.

In this blog, as with last year, I will be going into more depth as well as reflecting on my experience. Let’s do year 2!

An Introduction to visual systems

Today we began to think about data-capture methods. As a group we discussed visual systems as being:

  • Standardised
  • (an example being the alphabet)
  • sign system- part of a language that everyone can understand and find the meaning
  • a set of rules to guide people – this avoids wrong interpretations
  • Systems are a big part of graphic design, they communicate a set of information. They need to be comprehensive so people can understand them.
  • Efficiency. A set of rules makes the work more efficient. Using a common style makes sense because different people will be working with the grid system/ information.

An example of this is cattle branding. Cowboys would mark their livestock (cows or horses usually) with a brand. Each owner would have his own unique marking to indicate that the animal belonged to him. An unmarked animal would appear to belong to nobody. (Fun fact: Mavericks were people who refused to brand their animals).

“As with consumer brands, cattle brands must be simple enough to be recognized, but complex enough not to be changed – a P into a B for example, which was very common. Counterfeiting and theft are still happening and farmers need to increase their efforts to brand their cattle.” “Drawing a parallel today, wearing brands on our clothes or on everyday objects, we may wonder if we have not become the herd of modern cowboys
Typographic grid

A typographic grid is something I have explored in Project #4 of the summer project. This is a system because each different letter is created using the same grid. (see below example)

Nigel Cottier- Letterform Variations

A system helps you manage a collection of information and unifies the different components. This makes it easier when needing to communicate information to an audience.

2000 en France

For the millenial celebrations, a programme of events titled ‘2000 en France’ was organised. A visual identity was designed for the programme by Integral Ruedi Baur et associes.

This visual system is based around a swirling shape surrounding a circular image at the centre. The designers were able to keep this structure and font the same, whilst changing details such as colour, image and the words themselves. This allows flexibility. Flexibility means lots of layouts can be created from the same elements.

There needs to be common elements across the system to keep consistency.

Visual identity for 2000 en France, the design allows flexibility by keeping some elements the same.

Isotype system

I have spoken about the Isotype system in my previous post here.(insert left to right post)

This system functions like a language/ an alphabet that everyone can understand. Just by looking at an Isotype image, they can see the data through the pictograms. This is what makes it effective, as it can function across language barriers and levels of cognitive ability.

Visual systems require people to share them and they need to be able to be accessible so everyone can understand them, otherwise misunderstandings happen.

Transport systems

Visual systems help to navigate complicated or chaotic information, for example transport systems, which can be hard to understand because of the number of routes and destinations in a sometimes small area. The London Underground map as we know it today was designed in 1931 by Henry Beck. Geographically it is less precise than previous versions, but it is more effective as a visual system because it is laid out like an electrical system, with right-angles. The stations are not the correct distance apart, they are spaced further in order to be easier to read. This design solves a problem.

1933 pocket map of the London Underground

The new map was colour coded and used verticle and horizontal lines. The use of spacing made the map clearer.

As a designer, your job when applying a system is to decide whether to be selective with the information and possibly simplify things. We need to consider our responsibility– the system is to be used by many different people to help them get to where they need to be, for example.

A visual system can allow durability– it can last many years- optimising a few elements, for example the New York subway system hasn’t changed much from 1960’s – now. Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda took inspiration from the London Underground system when they designed the New York subway map.

Before it had been chaotic to navigate the subway. When setting up the graphic language, Vignelli and Noorda spent time analysing the underground system. This analysis informed the design.

From A Century of Graphic Design by Jeremy Aynsley

The UK transport sign system was designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert in the 1960’s.(Some examples of which are displayed at the Design Museum in London.)

Before this system, there was no standardised style, it was messy and confusing for road users. Many colours and proportions were used but now the sign system is still in use because of its effectiveness.

When Kinneir and Calvert were coming up with this system, they devised a new font specifically for use on road signs. They tested this font extensively to ensure it could be read from afar.

From A Century of Graphic Design by Jeremy Aynsley

Lester Beall Rural Electrification Administration poster

Paul Rand film poster

Human Rights Week by Saul Bass (UNESCO, 1965). Poster

The Modernist style came about after the 2nd world war. Visual work such as poster designs from this era optimised the grid. They were easy to digest because the eye is directed around the page to the important information. The posters contained simplified graphic elements which are visually appealing and fun, in my opinion. The designers used minimal colours.


When entering the Postmodern age, designers felt that the grid was constraining and they rejected the ordered layout of Modernism. Instead, their work expressed freedom and joy. One example is David Carson-

David Carson’s work is its own system because it’s in his own style of graphic design. You can see it is his work because the same elements are featured, for example layering, rough edges, repetition and the rejection of the grid.

Designers then began to move away from Postmodern approach, around 1995. They felt the style was too chaotic and lacked control.

We can see a kind of circular movement in graphic design, where designers went backwards to take some inspiration from the designs that started graphic design in the first place- the Modernists.

Andrew Blavelt is a designer, educator and writer. In this time period, he began to ask the question, is there a way forward? It became apparent that systems are applied to give control and that there was a necessity to apply rules. Modernist posters are similar to sign systems this way, since they follow certain rules.

To summarise, we came up with a list of variables that are important to consider when designing a visual system:

Workshop: Data Visual vocabulary

The group took part in a workshop focused on 8 emotions. The purpose of this workshop was to get used to the idea of visually representing something that doesn’t exist physically. We used pencils/pen on paper. This was the perfect exercise to kick off the new semester and get us thinking creatively.

For the 1st sheet, the focus was on shape. I needed to think about how I could optimise the same shape in 8 different ways to express the emotions. In some ways, the restrictions made this exercise easier. I found it more challenging to consider colour as well as texture and shape all at the same time.

Using a square, I aimed to express the 8 emotions.

Anger – repeated squares expressing the way your thoughts race when you feel anger. Many thoughts layering up.

Fear – A small square that has sunk to the bottom of the page in an attempt to hide.

Happiness – Bigger and bolder, taking up space, drawn with a confident line.

Sadness – The sad square has also sunk to the bottom, but unlike fear, it is heavy and therefore has a thicker line.

Love – Love is a feeling of connection to other people, in my opinion. Therefore I drew 3 square in a row, they’re on the same level and they’re connected.

Confusion – Confusion is several floating squares that have no direction. They’re moving and lost.

Calm – Calm is an openness and also light which is why I used a lighter line.

Embarrassed – I repeated 3 squares to represent the shifting and stumbling around of a person who is embarrassed and doesn’t know where to look or what to say.

The 2nd exercise focused on texture and how different textures could express different emotions. I used line to express the emotions and varied how the line was used. A thicker and zig zagged line expresses anger because of the boldness anger brings you. The curved and soft line represents a calm breeze perhaps.
  • I chose to use the triangle as the basic shape to work with, manipulating it so that it fits each emotion.
  • I used grey for ’embarrassed’ and ‘sadness’ because both of these emotions resemble emptiness or a hopelessness, in my opinion. I rotated the triangle for ‘sadness’ because when I’m sad I feel as though ‘something isn’t right’ or is ‘off centre’. When I feel embarrassed, I want to make myself as small as possible, so I drew a very small triangle for this emotion. I accidentally drew ‘sadness’ twice, for the other version of ‘sadness’, I used blue to represent ‘feeling blue’ as the common phrase goes, and warped the triangles so that they are softened and represent tear drops. I think I should have also drew them pointing inwards to express the way we feel like hiding away when we are sad.
  • ‘Anger’ and ‘fear’ are both panicky emotions in my view. Therefore I used the colour red to represent the quality they have in common. I used the triangles to be small and spikey for ‘fear’ to represent how the heart rate quickly rises and falls. The triangles point outwards for ‘anger’ because of the sense you are ready to ‘attack’.
  • I repeated the triangles for ‘confusion’ and had them pointing randomly. This is to express your thoughts when you are confused and don’t know what direction to focus on. I coloured them black because of when you are ‘in the dark’ about something, it means you are lacking information. This could make someone confused.
  • I widened the triangle for ‘calm’ to express that melting feeling you have when you are relaxing. Green has been proven to be one of the most relaxing colours which is why some waiting rooms are painted green. I repeated the triangles moving outwards to create an effect like rays of sunshine or calming beta rays.
  • ‘Happiness’ is a straight-forward yellow triangle that shines brightly. It’s warm and bold with an open-ness at the centre, since people who are happy are usually generous and open to expressing themselves as well as having empathy to others.
Looking at the class’ work all together allowed me to see other ways of interpreting the same emotions visually.

Un-creative writing

There is text that is seen and text that is read. I will be exploring what text does, rather than what is says.

Dada artists:

The optophonetic of poet Raoul Hausmann, presented by Cecile Bargues (Visual representation of sound poetry).

“I pasted words and sentences together into poems in such a way that their rhythmic composition created a kind of drawing. The other way around, I pasted together pictures and drawings containing sentences that demand to be read.” — Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters’ also wrote sound poems. This is where phonemes are separated and recombined so they are no longer words.

‘Twelve’ poem by Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters also produced drawings using letters. These cannot be read, but instead were to be viewed for their visual quality.

I really like the shapes he creates on the page, in the above poems. The ‘Cigarren’ poem has been designed to be displayed as a long thin line, imitating the cigarette shape.

Concrete poetry is poetry in which the poet’s intent is conveyed by graphic patterns of letters, words, or symbols rather than by the meaning of words in conventional arrangement.

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith explores ‘Uncreative writing’ in his book with the same name. In this video, he is reading a newspaper article as a ‘contemporary poem’.


Being a reader myself, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of words. The mundane becomes interesting when frame it or combine it in new or random ways.

I particularly like a list. This is one kind of list, my housemate’s shopping receipt from the supermarket:

Sam Winston

In this poster, Winston has cut the words of a story up, and arranged them in lists of alphabetical order.

Winston creates incredibly detailed and intricate artworks using words. In the piece Stolen Dictionary, he cut the words from the dictionary and pasted them in a formation that reflected his own narrative. I like this idea of re-purposing words that have been printed for another purpose.

My Experiments with un-creative writing

My first approach was to collect together random leaflets, flyers, catalogues and an unwanted novel. I then cut out words, but in a loose way. For example, I didn’t want to control the process too much. I wanted the sentences to be a bit random and not make sense completely.

I glued the sentences onto paper and scanned the page:

My second method came as an accident. I had earlier cut words from the green paper. This left rectangular gaps in the paper. When I laid it onto another page of text, certain words showed through. I then continued to cut into the paper, mostly at random, but I had to look at the page underneath to check the gap would show a line of text and not half a line.

I like this formation, because it is not a predictably (left-aligned) arranged text. It can be read in more than one day, decided by the viewer.

Words from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

My third method was to use the random word generator.

I used it to generate singular words, writing them on paper as I went. I then re-arranged the text to an order that made sense to me/ had a better flow:

Blank arrangement

at the revolutionary bridge.

A perfectly palm-sized match.

How to place the text?

How the designer chooses to arrange the text will have an impact on the overall message.

Alignment refers to the way individual elements of a design are arranged. This is commonly seen in text placement- for example, most lines of text in a Microsoft Word document are left-aligned by default, where the text forms a uniform line on the left-hand side.’ (quote found here)

I looked at Modernist design to see how text could be placed within a design.

Kazimir Malevich, An Englishman in Moscow, 1913-14. Painted in what was known in Russia as a Cubo-Futurist style.’

The painting reflect the principles of Cubism. It has an underlying symmetry. The almost random placement of text in this piece, creates a feeling of freedom and playfulness. A more abstract alignment can add a dynamic quality.


A poster for Josef Albers’ Dismountable chair, 1929

The playful curving of text around the corner of the material echoes the curve of the furniture. The edge alignment of text at the top and bottom of the page act as a frame and focus the viewer’s attention to the central image.

A. M. Cassandre, Harper’s Bazaar magazine cover, 1939. ‘This cover playfully exploits Cubism, Purism and Surrealism to create a memorable image of chic modernity.’

Here, the cover lines are aligned around the shape of the mask.

Cover Lines: These are lines of text on the front cover which allows the audience to see what sort of content is within the magazine.’ (

The way the text is tiered makes it ‘step up’ across the cover. This is more fun than if Cassandre chose a right alignment for example.

‘Cassandre’s imagery was so strange that his work looks psychedelic today (the chemical Surrealism of a later time). For an American magazine of this era, his work must have stood out like a big strange thumb.’ (quoted from here)

“During his brief tenure as cover artist for this high-end fashion publication, Cassandre both brought Surrealism into American editorial illustration and depicted the emotional and mental collapse of an entire world as it rapidly disappeared forever.” — Art Chantry

Jan Tschichold

‘In 1927, he joined a group formed by Kurt Schwitters, The Circle of New Advertising Designers. It was this group that formulated the principles of what was proclaimed The New Typography. Although the group had some dialogue with the Bauhaus they kept a distance, possibly for fear that either side might subsume the other’s identity. The New Typography was organised around these principles:

  • asymmetrical balance of elements
  • content designed by hierarchy
  • intentional white space utilisation
  • sans serif typography

(above) The cover of Typographic Mitteilungen: Elementare Typographie, 1925, a trade magazine in which Tschichold introduced the ideas of the Russian Constructivism and The New Typography to Germany’s printers. The content was met with great controversy but was widely adopted.’

(info sourced from)

Russian Constructivism

(right) Gustav Klutsis, ‘Workers, Everyone Must Vote in the Election of Soviets’ poster, 1930. For this memorable image Klutsis used his own hand, repeated many times.

The elements in this poster create diagonal movement. This gives the image a sense of instability and something in motion.

“Constructivism is early Soviet youth movement created by Vladimir Tatlin that was inspired by Cubism, Suprematism and Futurism. It flourished following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and sought to abolish the traditional artistic composition, and replace it with “construction.” Concerned with the use of “real materials in real space”, the movement sought to use art as a tool for the common good, much in line with the Communist principles of the new Russian regime.

The foundation of Constructivism was to express the experience of modern life and to develop a new form of art more appropriate to the democratic and modernizing goals of the Russian Revolution and build a new society.” (info sourced here)

Herbert Matter, Travel poster, 1936

This poster is promoting the Swiss travel industry. Arranging the text at an angle reflects the slope of the mountains and action of the skier in the background. This text arrangement hints at the fun and adventure of the holiday.

Working with scans

scan of the collage
To create this effect, I opened the scan in photoshop and played with the levels. These colours are disturbing. They distort the words and affect the readability of the text.
scan of the collage

When working from the scan, I can achieve many effects. The image is restricted in that the placement will remain the same as when I manually stuck the pieces on the paper. However, I have the option of moving each piece individually by turning the image into a vector on adobe illustrator.

I can then select ‘line art’ ‘technical drawing’ and other options to change the appearance of the line.

I opened the scan in adobe illustrator. I transformed the scan into a vector image, by clicking ‘Object’ > ‘Expand’. This was the result.
I then selected ‘pathfinder’ > ‘outline’ > stroke 2 pt.
Because the image is now a vector, I was able to ungroup it, take the letters apart, or distort each letter, as above. I stretched the ‘u’ and ‘a’.

I experimented with bitmapping the image. After opening the image in photoshop, I then converted it to greyscale >bitmap > diffusion dither. This was the result:

‘Diffusion dither’
Diffusion dither, then ‘invert’ flips the image to the negative version.

Some effects affect the readability of the text. I opened this scan in adobe illustrator and turned it into a vector.

image trace > technical drawing> stroke increase> outline>
reversed the fill:

I liked the look of the word ‘substitutions’, but the other words are mostly unreadable.

The word ‘substitutions’ reminded me of this modernist style by the design duo Sawdust:

Legibility and readability are not the same thing. The degree to which a typeface is legible is entirely dependent on the designer of the typeface, whereas readability is largely the province of the typographer. Legibility is the degree to which individual letters can be distinguished from each other. Generally, the most legible typefaces are those with larger, open or closed inner spaces.’

Readability refers to the ease of reading text. ‘the reader should not normally be aware of the activity of reading at all.’

‘The ability to read quickly and to be able to select in order to use time efficiently depends very much on the order and arrangement of type being normal. Surprises are disruptive to the mechanics of reading.’

Language & Type (part 1)

History of Typography

In the 19th century there was a reduction in price of printing material. This enabled people to read, which allowed a democracy. (You can’t have a modern democracy if people can’t read). This reduction in price, lead to several things:

A rise in advertising- they saw posters competing in public. A visual noise shown in the painting by John Orlando Pary of a London street scene:

Both artists and writers saw this and were inspired. They turned to each other’s craft to enhance their work. Artists used words within their work, such as the collages by Picasso and Braque. Symbolist poetry came from writers reading the newspaper and seeing a contrast in the words about a variety of subjects.

Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar, and Newspaper – collage by Picasso
Modernsim & Post-Modernism

“From the end of the 19th century, modernism was shaped by the industrialisation and urbanisation of western society. It marked a departure from the rural and provincial towards cosmopolitan, rejecting or overthrowing traditional values and styles as functionality and progress became key concerns as part of an attempt to move beyond the external physical representation of reality as depicted by cubism and the bauhaus.”

Around the 1st World War, the western world was politically heated. Dadaism and the Constructivists came out of this time. Dadaists opposed the traditional beliefs of a pro-war society.

The optophonetic of Dadaist poet Raoul Hausmann, presented by Cecile Bargues
Cover of Merz, Kurt Schwitters, 1925

During the communist revolution, the art movements within this were the Futurists in Italy and the Vorticists in Britain. Their work represented the breaking up of the old world.

“Constructivism began as a Soviet youth movement. The Russian Revolution of 1917 involved many Russian artists, who combined political propaganda and commercial advertising in support of the new communist revolution.”


“Bless all English eyes” BLAST manifesto by the Vorticists. The harsh typography states a list of things the Vorticists were against (‘Blast’) and what they supported (‘Blessed’).

In the 1920’s, rules were written by Modernists and new typefaces were invented. This occurred at the rise of Fascism. Herbert Bayer was a designer who came up with the ‘Universal’ typeface, that he planned to be used by everyone, in a way of re-writing tradition. By changing what the world looks like, people are introduced to the new as it surrounds them in everyday life. This typeface at the time was extremely new and surprising.

Universal, 1925, Herbert Bayer

“Bayer’s Universal typeface was developed at the Bauhaus and is a reduction of Roman forms to simple geometric shapes. The circular form features heavily, and you can see how each character is closely based on the others.”The Fundamentals of Creative Design by Gavin Ambrose and Paul Harris

Radio design by Dieter Rams. His work was described as ‘quiet simplicity’. He was a pioneer of the Modernist movement and worked for Braun.

Jan Tschichold

Poster, Buster Keaton in “Der General”, 1927
Internal spread from brochure Merken Sie sich bitte: Die Reklamemesse, 1927

“New Typography uses white space to create visual intervals in an asymmetrical layout. An underlying grid unifies the page. Personal expression is rejected in favor of order and clarity. The predominant graphic design style in the world by the 1970s, the Swiss style is recognizable by its strong reliance on typography, usually sans serif type in flush left alignment.”

Late Modernism occurred in the economic boom in the 1950’s. Wim Crouwel’s posters from 1960’s-1980’s have a similar appearance to design now:

1967s New Alphabet Typeface.
Wim Crouwel Leger Poster, 1957.

Matt Willey- contemporary designer

The New York Times magazine
NYT Olympics

“Post-Modernism developed following the Second World War and questions the very notion that there is a reliable reality through deconstructing authority and the established order of things by engaging the idea of fragmentation, incoherence and the plain ridiculous.

Post-Modernism returned to earlier ideas of adornment and decoration, celebrating expression and personal intuition in favour of formula and structure.”

Fuse magazine, founded by Neville Brody and John Wozencroft

An example of Post-Modernism, the designers expressed their imagination across the pages. Sometimes readability was compromised, as form reigned over function. The magazine was produced at the time when computer technology allowed designers to experiment with new tools.

Fuse 2, Runes: Edition Poster design by Neville Brody, 1991

Automation is a phrase that is used to describe the transition from the old skilled job (for example, of typography) to the present digital age where the digital design tools are available to anyone.

Gilbert, Type with Pride

“On 31 March, 2017, Gilbert Baker the creator of the iconic Rainbow Flag sadly passed away. Mr. Baker was both an LGBTQ activist and artist, and was known for helping friends create banners for protests and marches. To honor the memory of Gilbert Baker, NewFest and NYC Pride partnered with Fontself to create a free font inspired by the design language of the iconic Rainbow Flag, the font was named ‘Gilbert’ after Mr. Baker.” This is one of the world’s first coloured fonts.

“The colour combinations are blended on letters to represent the ‘open and fluid communities’ that make up LGBTQ.” (from The Fundamentals of Typography 3rd edition)

Postmodern design:

Eye Magazine, Issue 102