Graphic designer Ines Cox talks about her approach to design and finding the right balance between digital and analog.
Often designed to distract, digital systems interfere with the natural way of observing our surroundings. This leads to information anxiety and massive visual pollution, and eventually impacts our psychological state.
Belgian graphic designer and researcher Ines Cox tackles this problem in her own way. In her work, she recycles the language of digital interfaces as artefacts with cultural significance, exposing symbols that are lost in our unconscious repetitive user experience patterns. This approach allows not only to create an insightful body of work, but to find freedom in the daily perception of life.
Cox has collaborated with a number of artists and produced work for cultural institutions and exhibitions such as the 53rd Venice Biennale, Het Nieuwe Instituut, and Chaumont Graphic Design Biennial. She has also taught at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp.
In June 2019, Ines Cox gave a lecture at Strelka Institute as part of the Strelka Summer public program. Digital designer Vladimir Shlygin spoke to Cox about design that she appropriates from dominant platforms and the importance of noticing imperfections.
What inspires you? Can one say that the way you use digital symbols in your work is a form of cultural appropriation?
While using a digital tool, I like to be conscious of what exactly is happening. At that moment, I am not only using it, it is also using me. Since I don’t have the ability to change its format or system, I prefer to study and imitate it. Over the past years, I have been exploring how the language and visual manifestations of on-screen interfaces can be saved and translated into printed matter. I was curious to see how the performative aspect of a digital (design) process could be teleported to something frozen—to present a user-moment specific user interaction with graphic design. When the work is done, the appearance of our digital toolkit is no longer visible and becomes nothing more but a memory, a ghost of the creative process. The book SAVE collects these screenshots as well as the various reproductions, imitations, and interpretations I created during the project. By collecting and reproducing these visual souvenirs of our digital behavior, they become material vehicles with which to communicate about our time and systems, to suggest narratives about the universe we inhabit.
In SAVE, the normally invisible grid comes to life and shows its contours. A Photoshop replication tool is jumping from page to page, complaining in Facebook lingo about an empty feeling. Images appear, reappear, and change the costume. Commands and other quotes, coming from our user interfaces, take on the role of a voiceover and keep the story moving. In this book, I use a fictional narrative to play with graphic design, just like how children play: to learn about the world, our times and its structures.
Not only are our digital actions and surroundings inspiring to me and my work, but other visual systems and symbols coming from daily life can be the starting point for a design. I’m often drawn to vernacular design—it is a term used to define a design that is not made by a designer. The way a store manager designs the shop window, or the janitor writes a warning sign can be really beautiful and honest.
While working on the identity for a graphic design festival in Antwerp, Us By Night, I came across a truck that had diagonal red lines on the back. This pattern is commonly used to draw attention to possible dangers. At that moment, it felt like an ideal visual element to appropriate. The poster becomes a warning signal by showing a similar diagonal structure.
In communication design there is also a sense of memory you can play with. Many people think that to receive attention you need something mind-blowingly new. I think there is another way to catch the viewer's attention and activate their mind. You can show something that will provoke a feeling of recognition.
You had said that you are drawn to Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropofago, the idea to empower society with the assimilation (devourment) of a foreign culture. Is that why in a way you are interpreting digital systems? By absorbing them, you can reflect on the implicit dangers they bear?
In Our Times, a dance performance by Michiel Vandevelde, I learned about the possibilities of “contemporary cannibalism.” Vandevelde talks about Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto and the idea to not reject certain aspects of our Western culture we consider problematic, but rather make them our own. Instead of turning our heads we could also eat it, feel how it tastes, and then digest it.
The computer is always there when I am working. Even while I use it, it is using me. Together we create these digitally generated works. Instead of opposing this dominant factor in my design process, I was interested in surrendering myself even more and learning about its structures from up close. This strategy was the starting point of my research project: imitating and sampling my computer's visual expressions. The process was all about getting involved and grasping that specific moment in time.
A design is always artificial in its nature because it is made. Presenting hints of the creation process is my way of talking about this. I decided that this playfulness around the subject would be an ideal tool to learn about the digital creation process of a design, all the while finding access to the language of my screen. Playing in itself is an artificial performance as well: you imitate and you pretend. By documenting, printing, and “scanning” my screen I was also becoming friends with my computer.
Tell me about your workflow. What working principles do you follow?
I like to see my designs as souvenirs of a thinking process. Sometimes this process is very rational, fast, practical, and satisfying. But often it can also be confusing and slow. Some designs are the result of a more intuitive process, full of doubt. I guess it is important to find a balance between those two workflows and embrace their positive characteristics. For example, an insecure process with a vague starting point can also generate exciting surprises.
When making graphic designs for others, I think it is important to not only solve their problems, but also create problems for yourself. I have certain interests that always seem to infiltrate into my work. Over the past years, these interests were mostly related to the digital tools controlling our lives. It is not necessarily the digital aspect of the topic that triggers me, but more its impact. If a manual tool, such as a brush, would suddenly influence the way we talk, write, and think, I would be interested in investigating it as well.
Graphic design can be a very efficient tool of communication. Thinking about it in these terms, how do you think it relates to other creative fields such as fine arts?
Maybe it is good to use the publication SAVE as an example here. It was an important step to present reproductions of my research objects (unique prints, drawings, designs) in a book. I wanted to explore the possibilities of a printed multitude where graphic design is used to make a story unfold page by page. Also in other projects, it is my intention to show the work in the form of reproduced and constructed stories, not as singular and magical pieces. Pieces of graphic design are man-made constructions existing in, and communicating about, a constructed world. The designs come from the individual and travel towards the collective, from solitude to multitude. Which, in essence, is graphic design: a multiplication of an idea.
How did you come up with the approach of using images of errors and glitches as aesthetic elements in your work?
The aesthetics I like to use might come across as errors and glitches, while in fact, they are not. They are the result of the computer expressing its systems. In some situations, the computer makes automatic decisions and this generates a totally different visual than when a human is involved in the decision-making. I like to find beauty in, for example, an automatically created path of an organic shape.
As you make a vector drawing editable in a software program like Adobe Illustrator, the computer itself generates certain lines, adding unexpected qualities. Also when the weight of a stroke is set too high, the computer transforms the line into a shape that grows every time the weight increases. Another example could be the pink signals that appear when a typeface cannot be found.
As a designer working with the digital and the physical medium, what differences do you notice between these two?
I think that I am curious about the fact that a lot of aspects related to the digital language still hold a connection to the “old” world — the world we are born into. On our screen we see a designed space, full of metaphors of a physical environment. There are windows, buttons, rulers, folders, etc. We use these tools more or less for the same kind of mental labor, but then the act of cutting, for example, became a performed action of simply operating a menu and clicking the mouse.
When looking at interface designs in particular, we can see that the computer is starting to talk more and more like us. At first, it talked to us about stand by and suspend modes, now you put your computer to sleep, as if you were putting a child to bed.