||Interview with Gulizar Çepoglu for Grafist 13 Catalogue
October 13-1, 2009
Mimar Sinan University
Interview by Selen Başer Nejat
During our first meeting, you expressed your desire to see the designer embrace a role that reaches beyond that of the mediator responsible for the transmission of information, to become someone who generates and conveys meaning. What is the first step, in your opinion, that will transport the designer to this position and what are the ways and methods that would ensure the continuation of this process?
To say that a designer’s role goes beyond that of the mediator, immediately brings about the notion of “authorship” and related debate around it. And this entails a huge discussion, of course. I would say that the first step, in my opinion, is to make a study of the brief history of graphic design. (And this history is so brief that it won’t take too long.)
As for the second step, the designer should not develop or revolve around a rigid definition of graphic design, but should be able to establish his/her own definition. I’d say that with each new definition a designer will develop a further awareness of his/her own graphic language within the context of the history of graphic and contemporary design. Consequently, the designer will then be able to avoid the formulaic definitions and stereotyped formulations of graphic design while building a more conscious role in the construction of meaning through his/her visual language and through visual grammar.
I advise my students – from the first year onwards – to rid themselves of everything they have learnt and heard about graphic design, to jettison all the clichéd solutions and formulas that limit their role in the construction of meaning; I believe this open minded approach to visual language, to text and image inter-relationship, enables the designer to have a proactive role in the construction of meaning.
The point I want to emphasise is that the designer’s role in the construction of meaning lies in his/her ability to express the semantic content of an idea through the interelationship of text and image.
Graphic design, in its brief history, has generally been positioned as a “commercial art” that is based on the market economy and the consumption of goods and services. Due to this positioning, graphic design has developed a focus upon the transmission of information along with methods of persuasion and manipulation. However, when we study the history of graphic design in closer detail, we observe that it has a social aspect which has been very influential on cultures and on the construction of meanings and concepts produced by these cultures.
We have recently come to witness discussions based on graphic design in which this influential yet invisible role of the discipline is questioned and highlighted, for example, with the re-publication of the “First Things First Manifesto”, the discussions centre on the issues of “authorship” and the increasing number of research projects. Meanwhile, design magazines such as Eye, Emigre, and Dot Dot Dot have published articles pointing out the inadequacy of an approach which confines graphic design to mere commercialism.
In my opinion, this critical and reflective approach (which is an indispensible aspect of the design) is essential for the correct positioning and further development of this discipline, and for a more detailed and critical history to be written up.
A designer who is aware of all these issues will travel beyond the role of one who facilitates the transmission of information, and take over the role of receiver/transmitter, someone who generates meaning, fulfilling the dual roles of reader/viewer and an author/artist.
Bruce Mau is described in an article by Steven Heller in the eye magazine as “ a new breed of design auteur”, and he (Bruce Mau) sees “the author” as someone who ‘...has a contemplative sensibility and responsibility, and is meant to observe and engage in the world and derive from the world some useful substance.”
In addition, as designers, we are constantly striving to convey our messages through metaphors and cultural codes. However, we mustn’t forget that the impact of these messages relies heavily on the conception and knowledge of the audience.
A communication model of “exchange” based on cultural and literary theory was the subject of a collaborative project, “We interrupt the programme in Istanbul”, which I staged at the Marmara University in 2000, with a subsquent book.
So, I believe that graphic design plays an important part in the construction of cultures, reflecting and transforming social interaction, and that the designer should have his/her say within this process.
You’ve said that design cannot be considered independently from life, or separated from the complex structures of life, and therefore it cannot exist within a single interval of meaning and that it is possible for it to encompass polarities and different levels of meaning, and that these will combine to create the ultimate meaning. Can you elaborate on this and explain it by using an example from your design work?
Life experience is diverse, dispersed, discursive and multifaceted, and I think this should be reflected in graphic design. If language serves to approximate our life experiences, the same kind of approximation is also possible in the interaction of graphic design (with its visual language) and experience.
Even though graphic design is defined as “problem solving”, this should definitely not be interpreted as the expression of ideas and messages based on a simplistic and “one-size-fits-all” approach.
I view life as a process that is made up of all lived experiences. Likewise, I also see graphic design as a process in which we express messages, ideas and concepts that we want to convey. This process is more important for me then the outcome, because the design process is like a live-cycle, it grows, matures, assumes a form, acts and dies. Just like life, design is more than simply problem-solving; it is a cyclical and dynamic process and I usually enjoy this process.
Katherine and Michael McCoy expressed similar views in The New Cranbrook Design Discourse in 1990: “If design is about life, why shouldn’t it have all the complexity, variety, contradiction and sublimity of life?”
I developed propositions based on this understanding in a project entitled “Being (t)here: An exploration in the transference of an experience”, which I produced as part of my post-graduate studies in London, in 2000. I aimed to target the transference of experience, of being here and there, into the spatial dimensions of a book.
In this project, I decided to analyse a café in London, situated across the road from Putney Bridge Underground Station, which has a diverse customer profile, ranging from writers to bus drivers. I began to convey my experience at the café by constructing different levels of meaning by using means available to design such as language and sensation. In order to do this, I went to the café everyday and started communicating with the proprietors, an Italian family, and the café’s regular customers, by way of a series of booklets that I designed. This was like an attempt to stage a life experience. The language, structure, form and function, all served to reproduce the reality that was being lived. The project and the booklets was not “real”, but they resembled the reality of the place.
As Marshall McLuhan says: “...we use our rational powers to translate all our senses into one another...” This aspect reveals itself in my work by utilising opposite binaries, images and codes, and provides the basis on which meaning is constructed and expressed.
This project became integrated with my previous and subsequent work, in book design and finally my MA research project. I embraced this approach, and its multi-sensory means of expression became part of a cyclical process that continues today and will continue into the future.
Looking at the books that you designed for the Istanbul Biennial, one feels the sensation of facing a screen. If this is really the feeling you want to evoke, what was your objective? How do you view the reciprocal influence and the interaction between the book and the screen? What do you envisage this relationship developing into?
My work in the 1990s, and my book designs in particular, do convey a sense of facing a screen. However, I wouldn’t say this is a method that I consciously developed. As I thoroughly investigated in my research project, and as Marshall McLuhan argues, the idea that new technologies are affecting our way of thinking and changing our methods of constructing meaning, is evident in my work.
Later on, when I encountered the “remediation” theory of Richard Grusin and David Jay Bolter, I carried out a more conscious observation of the reciprocal influence between the book and the screen. According to Bolter and Grusin, the new visual media, through its recognition of old media, competes with it and reshapes the old, and thus attains cultural significance, as can be observed in the relationship between perspective painting, photography, cinema and television. The new media (digital technologies, world wide web, virtual reality, computer graphics) don’t have to completely detach themselves from former media (painting, photography, cinema, television) for the sake of brand new aesthetic and cultural principles. On the contrary, the book Remediation (1999) offers a mediation theory for the current digital age. According to this theory, former media are also shaped by subsequent new media. For example, photography reshaped the art of painting, as film remediated the stage production, and television remediated film, vaudeville and radio.
The “facing the screen effect”, which you mentioned in relation to my books for the Istanbul Biennial, and some of my other work, has emerged out of a connection with this remediation notion. Digital technologies, new “tools”, the web and virtual reality have spun their influence and when this interaction combined with the traditional make up of the book, the page turned into a screen and the screen turned into a page. For example, on the pages of the book for the 6th Istanbul Biennial, sometimes I used full-bleed images and sometimes I used the visual page within a page as a metaphor.
Ian Noble and Russell Bestley, in their book Experimental Layout, have said that the works on display were presented as if they were hanging on gallery walls, highlighting the pieces as physical, three-dimensional objects. Noble and Bestley have also stated that the reader is reminded that the object they are holding and reading is not transparent, that it has a surface with which he or she interacts. And this ascertainment, whilst giving an example of the mediation theory, also stresses the impact of digital technologies on page layout and the traditional book format.
While designing these layouts I wasn’t just aiming to narrate a lived experience (at the 6th Istanbul Biennial), but to present the reader with a virtual reality through the layouts; by using metaphors, codes and hints, I wanted the reader to virtually experience an actual life experience (the arts event), through the page/screen. For example, whilst “the-page-within-the-page” is used to convey the reality of a canvas hanging on a wall, the deep perspective of the exhibition space is dragging the reader into that virtual reality and into the position of the viewer, just like a screen does. Therefore, the pages of this book also take on the attributes of a screen.
In that sense, each one of the three books published for the Istanbul Biennial is a metaphor that transfers the event-as-an-experience from a three-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional, virtual reality.
As Marshall McLuhan states:
“... the principle of exchange and translation, or metaphor, is in our rational power to translate all our senses into one another. This we do every instant of our lives...”
Finally, I would like to add this: I believe that the focal point of the design process lies in “collaboration”. This collaboration consists of relationships between those people who participate in the construction and production of the meaning of designs and the hierarchical balancing act taking place within this realm of relationships. This resembles how we express our meaning on the page: hierarchical arrangements between the images and texts laid out inside the page frame are an essential part of what we do. The Biennial books have emerged out of the collaborative work of The Istanbul Culture and Arts Foundation who were the commissioning body, the director of the Biennial, the curator, the editor, a long-time collaborator, Aysun Pelvan, who was once my student and is now my colleague, photographers and participating artists, readers and viewers. And they find meaning within this collaborative context.
How does geography influence a designer’s creative process? What difference has the change in your coordinates made on you and your designs? What differences have emerged in the way you perceive design and the positioning of your works, in the projects that you realised in Turkey and those in the UK?
The geography in which I was born has naturally shaped me with the entirety of its ecological, socio-political, ethnic and historical input. I share a collective memory with the people inhabiting this geography and in order to share it, there is no need even for words.
The change of coordinates creates a position of alienation and spectatorship, and this position of the spectator opens up and enriches one’s perceptive powers. My attainment of this position helped me develop analytical thinking that participates in the nature of my own geography through this vision. It even brought out a new awareness towards my own geography. And so for me, a new verbal, written and visual perspective, which integrates the two coordinates, was formed. This is both enriching and wearisome; the back and forth action between different perspectives can be very beneficial, and it can sometimes be exhausting. I hope that this analytical vision, which I attained later in life, is adequately reflected in my work.
With regard to my own geography, I have always asked myself why I was so impressed by Istanbul’s Bosphorus and why it played an important role in my life. I first found an explanation in the words of Deleuze; “being in the middle of everything and in the centre of nothing” and also, in the notion of “in-between” as dealt with by Elizabeth Grosz.
The project entitled, “Maps of Meaning: The Bosphorus Channel of Istanbul – learning from the place in between”, which I developed as part of the event I organised with the London College of Communication and Bilgi University, dealt with the position of “in-between”. “It is such a place related to other places but has no place of its own”, because it is a place in-between.
And finally, I am going to do something I really don’t like and open up the subject of woman, and motherhood. Have you ever thought that being a woman and a mother has influenced your design philosophy, your view on life and the world? Do situations arise whereby you deny these influences or own up to them?
Being a woman and and a mother is surely a reality that reflects on my existence and naturally my work will also manifest its projections. It is similar to me being an Istanbulite living in London. This question you’ve reluctantly asked has multi-layered socio-economic implications, which I don’t want to delve into at the moment. If we were to tackle this issue as the main theme of another project, I couldn’t even anticipate how many questions that would entail. I know the real reason that lies beneath this question. Therefore I’d like to repeat what I said for a designer, also for a woman: a woman seemingly is not just a mediator, a facilitator who brings children into this world; the role that women have played in the construction of cultures and concepts throughout history is an indisputable fact. And based on my own experience, I can tell you that the significant role of the woman in the construction of meaning is made possible through her motherhood.
Finally, I would like to state here that I am very happy to be participating in an event realised by the designers and educators using their limited facilities to their full extent and capacity, maintaining a spirit of entrepreneurship and an exteremely professional approach.
I also would like to thank to Selen Bas¸er Nejat for her valuable “collaboration”; for conducting this congenial interview with the questions she prepared by studying my work in depth and for mediating the expression of my outlook on graphic design and on life.