​David Rudnick: The ultra-reality of graphic design

The graphic designer behind Nicolas Jaar’s album art shares his views on the future of his profession and explains why it is time to shift responsibility to the audience, not the clients.

Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute

David Rudnick is a British-born, American-raised, and self-taught graphic designer whose work encompasses editorial, identity, and typographic design. Following an experimental approach, he mainly works with electronic musicians, and makes album and vinyl covers for them. The music magazine Volume, the record label Turbo, and the clothing brand Wil Fry are among his clients. Rudnick gave a lecture at Strelka and presented his own particular view of technological changes and graphic design and its future. Strelka Magazine presents the main points of his lecture.

THE NEW ENVIRONMENT FOR VISUAL COMMUNICATION

When I started my studies in art history, my attitude towards design was the following: it does not have to be a job that simply makes the world beautiful. It is possible not only to make the world beautiful, but to blow it up at the same time. While studying, I observed the arrival of social media. It was clear to me what the Internet was becoming. It was turning into the same thing that printing was in the sixteenth century: the Internet turned around the usual order of things, and information acquired a new format.

Today we do not know what technological development will bring about, but we can see the potential for the radical restructuring of visual communication, graphic design, and even our vision of national identity, politics, and society. Everything is developing too fast: technology creates new institutions of control, but it is not enough to keep the genie in the bottle.

"We [designers, architects, artists and musicians] are partly responsible for the social and political content of the world"

I am 31 years old. People of my age working in the industry are the ones whose first acquaintance with design happened with physical objects. We started working when there was no Internet. The new generation first faced the visual form in an online environment. Most likely, design will not need tangible objects in the future.

THE AUDIENCE, NOT THE CLIENT

The people working in creative industries are not the ones who make the world go ‘round, but all of us shape the reality we live in through our work. Designers, architects, artists, and musicians create the objects, fonts, and voices that become everything that surrounds us. This is why we are partly responsible for the social and political content of the world. We should clearly understand what we produce. If we see design as a service aimed at solving clients’ problems, we ignore what design actually is: namely, the environment for the audience. We should remember that we are not working for the client, but for the audience. Otherwise, we create systems of manipulation: using your design, people can lie, change the appearance of their brand, and earn money on it. The main idea of modernism, that design is a practice which implies responsibility and offers real changes for people, is being destroyed that way.

"Art is a pure form of expression; graphic design requires responsibility"

Design creates a narrative. For example, if I say “chair”, everyone can imagine a chair. The image of this chair will be unique for each person, because it is based on their personal experience. It is the image that designers create each time they work. We show our works to people and consciously intervene in the individual narrative of every person.

Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute

In this way, a graphic designer differs from a visual artist. If I call myself a visual artist, I throw off my responsibility. A visual artist creates works of art, and it does not matter if someone likes it or not. Their art exists out of touch with the audience. As a graphic designer, I want the audience to get something from my work. This is the main difference: art is a pure form of expression; graphic design requires responsibility.

HOW A FONT BECOMES A STORY

Many people underestimate the significance of typography. Every font that I use is designed by myself, even the most boring ones that look like Helvetica. It is important for me to create fonts from the ground up. Why do I do that? First of all, it means that my work will be different from everything else; it will be something special. Moreover, a font allows us to represent a unique experience, cultural or historical specificities, and even memories. For example, if I’m talking about a chair and I want to emphasize the Baroque heritage in my poster, I can do it through the font.

"The designer is at the origins of narratives about the most famous musicians and writers, because they create the unique visual embodiment of their names"

Typography, for me, is a category of language. Every person, city, and even pet has their own proper noun. When we think about the world in terms of narratives, proper nouns become a very special thing. Through typography, a designer creates the image of the person whose name they are designing: they create the narrative. I cannot construct the image of a chair in your head, but I can form the way people imagine Joy Division; I can give certain meaning to this proper noun. Thanks to typography, the designer is at the origin of narratives about the most famous musicians and writers, because they create the unique visual embodiment of their names.

THE SET OF ULTRA-REALITY

Most designers today are taught to be just implementers, artisans, or workers in a factory. But we do not need five thousand people working on brands. The future can be changed only if design studios are flexible, independent, and if they support each other. Imagine if we approached our work with the following goal: every project that we do should be a revelation: something that creates a world that we could not imagine before.

Source: davidrudnick.org
Source: davidrudnick.org
Source: davidrudnick.org
Source: davidrudnick.org
Source: davidrudnick.org
Source: davidrudnick.org
Source: davidrudnick.org

There is one field outside of graphic design that, in my mind, illustrates its possible progress. Cinema is an incredibly powerful visual medium. It has the potential to create a reflection of the world that design cannot yet make. The visual form of cinema represents the way that our reality works.

I want to draw attention to the phenomenon called “ultra-reality”. Ultra-reality is a set of five of the major tools of modern cinematography. The first is the gradual disappearance of the linear understanding of time: slow-motion shooting stops time in films and gives the audience an opportunity to get a look at a character who is frozen in one frame from different sides. We can see this kind of moving in time in social media nowadays. The news media, Facebook groups – everything is structured according to our interests and not in chronological order. Time can now go back and forward for you depending on what you need right now.

The second principle of ultra-reality is the effect of one continuous frame. When shooting starts and ends in the same place and does not require cutting, it creates the impression of an endlessly scrolling picture. The same thing happens on the Internet: we see an infinite space of information that will never be interrupted. Why can’t the visual world work in the same way?

"We are no longer interested in the original form of objects"

The next principle is freedom of movement. Cinema makes it possible to fly through time and space and experience it on your own. The audience is no longer one static or moving point based on one person’s perspective. The same happens in virtual space: people move in the online space of the Internet they put on VR-glasses. They themselves become a camera that is not contained within the physical laws of space any more.

The fourth principle is 360-degree movement. There is no longer any foundation on which we build our world. Before, we would see scenes where the architecture, the grid of blocks, determined the space. Now the characters simply run, jump, and fly through a space that is no longer parallel, horizontal, or vertical. Now our viewpoint is that of angels in perspectives that are constantly changing. There are no longer any grids: we are moving from grids to layer levels.

Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute
Photo: Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute

The last thing I want to say about ultra-reality as a medium is “the fifth element”. There is no world, no plane, no horizon, no architecture, no grid. Where are we now? We seem to be in an emptiness. No, actually we are in a world that is filled with something that I call the interpad camera. This is a reference to the camera obscura – the first image technology. We are no longer interested in the original form of objects. We are interested in how deep we can get inside the things we see. This can be experienced in VR games, whose creators are guided precisely by ultra-reality principles.

So, the crisis of graphic design lies in the fact that today we are moving away from a reality in the modernity framework, where the audience is just an observer. Now we ourselves have become the protagonists: we are turning into the main characters of what is happening around us. People themselves create the content that they want to see. They form the architecture of the world and break it into pieces if this architecture loses its actuality.

As designers, we should find ways to engage the audience in our work so that they see themselves as the main characters, so that they have an opportunity to relive their own dreams and get inspired by them.

Text: Alexandra Dorfman