Orientation and selective logic

Our global consumption culture is the biggest over-design example
B. Mau


Today graphic design is everywhere. It answers to individual and public needs, produces culture and money, communicates and constructs identities. It is somehow involved in any activity. Graphic design is, to make use of Tibor Kalman’s words, the medium. And it can be traced in everything we do, see and buy.

Graphic design’s omnipresence within late capitalistic society amplifies the catachresis between mediated and unmediated, making it more difficult, for the individual, to distinguish the world from its representation. A distinction that is becoming literally impossible to reconstruct, since we are increasingly finding ourselves in front of nested, or fractal, communicative situations: we are thus faced with images, or sign systems, that are nested inside other images or other sign systems, and so on. Today it is frequent to find oneself in contexts where the subject has to indifferently deal with physical objects, representations, and representations of representations: an amount of information that the contemporary individual isn’t able to decipher, nor metabolize. The amount of information we receive each day exceeds the average quantity that a Renaissance man encountered during the whole course of his life. Among such a jungle of symbols, icons and messages, the subject finds itself in a psychological condition of constant disorientation.


The term “disorientation” commonly means the impossibility to “orient oneself in relation to time, space and people” (Wiki). Such meaning designates an individual reality, an atypical state of consciousness of the subject in front of the world surrounding him. But the disorientation we are now dealing with, that of the subject bombarded from information society’s uninterrupted spectacle, seems to be of a radically different nature. The experience of permanent crisis is a collective experience, before being an individual one.

The aim of social organizations (from corporations to nation-states, from nonprofit organizations to political institutions) thus becomes that of building a series of references, of identification systems and simplified languages—frames—that allow the individual to build an orientation starting from some fixed points. “In light of this, the reality lived as precarious and unstable by the individual is no more some almost-natural—some previously given—thing, but becomes the outcome of a social construction”.

The importance of graphic design emerges exactly in light of this necessity for orientation, of this need for shared points of view. Most part of contemporary graphic design moves itself, in fact, toward the construction of trustable and sharable points of view, allowing to restore a “normal” situation within which confidently move oneself. The entire contemporary society’s production system is indeed based on a complex system of structures, of reciprocal expectations and dispositions that construct the perception of a state of normality, allowing the individual to take its own place within social life without the constant need for critical problematizations and reflections. Yet these “plausibility structures” are essentially getting more and more frail, vulnerable and subjected to crises: the political instrument’s crisis, the vacillation of national institutions and the other factors essential to the definition of permanent crisis, make it more difficult to construct shared identities. Once again, is the corporate design paradigm to provide the most direct and apparently efficient instruments to the identity construction—not only of brand, but also of individuals, organizations, territories.

The orientation of selective logic

Yet what ensues from such attempt doesn’t seem to be the simple definition of a system of reference points within which individuals can develop their own orientation: what delineates itself is instead what Foster calls the “shift from ‘explorative life’ to ‘planned life”.

Corporate identity constantly provides behavioral models and, by means of the brand, suggests pre-packaged life styles. The user finds itself confined within what can be defined as “selective logic” (Manovich). Such logic allows the individual to move and make choices within a given system of menus, palettes, predefined possibilities. Even though Manovich conceived the theorization of selective logic with reference to the production of digital media, it seems nonetheless able to describe exhaustively the way in which decisions are taken inside the society oriented by the media themselves. It points out, in fact, how the subject chooses between a range of values and lifestyles “…more or less as someone who has to furnish his house chooses the furniture on an IKEA catalog…”

The recent corporate attempts to build brands that ignore the traded product, transforming themselves in pure image, must be seen exactly within this “consumer programming” perspective: a life style condensed in a logotype, proposed to a subject that seems to possess “only the choices defined by the frames and cultural narrations” that are suggested to him by the cultural industry. “The question of lifestyle, of choosing how to live, meets the regime of the logo and its images” (Mau). The design produced by the orientation industry seems to identify a space of semi-autonomy, but is constantly folded on itself. Opening the road to the choice of an information—of a lifestyle—instead of others, it doesn’t contemplate the possibility to avoid this choice, and “brings us back to the almost total system of contemporary consumerism. Design is entirely addressed to desire, but strangely today this desire seems to lack its subject, (…) a subject’s apotheosis that is its potential disappearance” (Foster).

It doesn’t seem possible, today, to conceive the action of the graphic design practices moving within a similar logic outside of a standardization of the subject’s activities—and of a reduction (of a framing) of individual freedom. “Everywhere they are planned inside objects, or explained with additional information, the functionalist prescriptions—and the usage models developed by them—narrow the user’s freedoms, imposing a predefined order.” (Gauthier/Prouix)