Research Reading #4: Wonders Revealed: Design and Faux Science

28 Feb

Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel from Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, and Steven Helle

Real science

  • science is revolutionizing the world, as a cultural influence, its reach is pervasive
  • affects what we eat and breathe, and where and why and how we behave the way we do
  • it’s the connecting tissue linking past, to present to future, its relationship to visual communication is critical
  • it’s through graphic design and complexities and wonders of science are revealed
  • why are so few designers participating in the articulation, expression and dissemination of these new ideas? Why isn’t there a more central, intellectually relevant and creatively meaningful role for designers – one that revolves less around aestheticizing preexisting content and is based instead on inventing new ways to visualize these new ideas?
  • small response from design profession except superficial appropriations in design annuals, school critique
  • is new style of idiom, designers using its visual accuracies, language/vocab – but only a cosmetic enhancement, but lack knowledge of discipline itself
  • design lacks instant validation and seriousness of purpose
  • new seeking after scientific style – faux science – antithesis of modernism: it’s a form awaiting content or worse, serious form retrofitted with interchangeable content

Faux Science

  • science is all about clarity and specificity and rationalism, about charting DNA strands and analyzing chemical compounds, about physical density and gravitational pull and a reality that is anything but virtual
  • in today’s anything-goes world of relentless self-expression, science has become the designers’ safe haven. It’s the new look and feel
  • It’s easy one to imitate

False Authority

  • appeal of info design is it offers instant credibility
  • its rational and authoritative, classified and controlled
  • looks serious and scientific
  • but its false authority because we buy into form so unquestioningly
  • most look alike, swiss modernism that remove that chance for a more expressive content driven form
  • ignores earlier sources and ignorant of alternative models that produce more original point of view
  • form masquerading as content


  • morphology refers to basic form and structure of organisms without consideration of function, in biology
  • in graphical realm, organisms are not only function-free, they are little more than ornamental, they are graphic panaceas, a visual cure-all
  • also a mathematical morphology that concentrates on stochastic geometry, random set theory and image algebra and even in linguistics, form and structure of words


  • in documenting, designers dutifully observe the minutiae of their efforts, recording with a detail-conscious bordering on the absurd
  • designer is so busy organizing that is unlikely she/he will have time, distance, or objectivity to transcend the work through insight, observation, scrutiny, or point of view, any of which might celebrate the power an original idea


  • full-bleed image saturation abounds: it is an attempt to create an immersive context which, upon closer inspection, is little more than a theoretically staged set of aggressively cropped images meant to create an indelible impression
  • not science, but artifice

The New Vernacular

  • designers have long been drawn to the vernacular, appropriating found artifacts and celebrate the texture of street
  • overtime, become a way to create instant nostalgia, surface style that looked authentic but was anything but
  • because it belonged to everyone, resonated as real, familiar, and accessible
  • art of the everyday, beautiful in its ugliness
  • faux science is new vernacular, a methodology, highly disciplined in a formal sense but still about appropriation
  • at core of this critique lie serious questions about role of education, ex. why don’t they study science?

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