Charlie Gaillard is an American researcher, editor, and strategist based in Somerville, MA. He currently works at the Office for Urbanization (OFU) at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His research focuses on spaces of negativity and contradiction within the built environment. Gaillard completed his B.A. in English and Art History at Williams College. Prior to joining OFU, he worked as a strategist at the New York design consultancy 2x4.
Fondazione Prada’s billboards (Fig. 1), created by New York design consultancy 2x4, appear to us as a conflict between form and content. The design is so simple as to be nearly schematic. It takes as its form two adjacent billboards, each containing black sans-serif letters set against a white background. The billboards’ content consists primarily of the “Fondazione Prada” wordmark. This message is made discontinuous by the presence of a gap between the billboards. In other words, the billboards, in their particular shape, size, and orientation, appear at odds with the message they contain, which is rendered incomplete. The result may be approximated as “Fondazi[_]e Prada”(although in actuality portions of the missing “o” and “n” are visible). How might we account for this discontinuity?
(The presence of a gap becomes especially provocative in relation to the specific form of the billboard. Even within advertising, a field that brooks little subtlety, the billboard requires legibility and clarity above all else. Its audience is the passer-by, and its success depends on reaching a moving viewer very quickly: on highways, within seconds of exposure. But here the content of the billboard appears broken and incomplete. This is, seemingly, a grave failing.) There are two formal details that point us in the right direction. The first is the presence of informational text (a web URL and physical address) at the bottom corner of both billboards. This doubled element, which contrasts with the single “Fondazi[_]ne Prada” wordmark above, makes it clear that the billboards were conceived as a set of two. The second aspect is its treatment of the central gap. The design’s most remarkable feature is that the “broken” logomark appears to span the gap between billboards. Rather than simply pulling apart two halves of the logomark (e.g., “Fondazio” on one board and “ne Prada” on the other),
it relies on the viewer to imaginatively fill in the implied but absent “o” and “n”. It is this aspect of the design that makes the central gap intelligible as a gap. Were the wordmark merely split in two, it would still be present in its entirety, albeit disaggregated. Here, however, we perceive that part of the word “Fondazione” is truly missing. This minor but necessary observation has the effect of denaturing our viewing experience. To draw on Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian reading of Hitchcock: we experience the gap as an unexpected detail, an “out of place” element, that causes an other-wise familiar situation (i.e., viewing a billboard) to acquire an “air of strangeness.”1 What had initially been taken for granted at once “seems to contain some hidden meaning that is to be interpreted.”2 In this case, we begin to perceive the billboards as designed objects. By traversing the gap, we are made aware that the “graphic” or or designed space subsumes the “real” (physical) space between billboards. Far from being a careless mistake or an afterthought, the gap becomes central to our apprehension. Per Žižek: “[it] is precisely because object a is removed from the field of reality that it frames it” (Fig. 2).3 The apparent conflict between form and content thereby resolves into a unified understanding of the work as wholly intentional, i.e., as designed.
In their schematic simplicity, the Fondazione Prada billboards reveal themselves to be a paradigmatic example of 2x4 co-founder Michael Rock’s provocative injunction “Fuck Content.”4 In his 2013 essay, Rock argues against the conventional design wisdom that “form-follows-content.”5 Instead, he writes, design may be considered a text in itself, one that speaks “through [the] assignment, literally between the lines.”6 Like Žižek, Rock here invokes Hitchcock:
What makes a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock film is not the story but a consistency of style, which winds intact through different technologies, plots, actors, and time periods like a substance of its own. Every film is about filmmaking. [...] The meaning of his work is not in the story but in the storytelling.7
Rock concludes that the content of design “is, perpetually, Design itself.”8 This holds true for the case study at hand: by disrupting our syntactic understanding of the content, the billboards re-focus our attention on themselves as designed objects. The effect may be understood as akin to that of Psycho’s shower scene, which accomplishes a feat of radical subjectification in its audience through an act of symbolic violence towards conventional narrative (as embodied in the character of Marion Crane). Thus from a first- to second-order understanding, one which perceives the billboards not as unmediated content but, properly, as designed form. (By this point our mobile viewer may be well on their way down Via Giovanni Lorenzini.) Yet content persists, weighing like a nightmare on the brain of the designer. To illustrate this, we may imagine the billboards placed further apart and the gap being widened, occluding still more of the wordmark. Rather than “Fondazi[_]ne Prada”, we could end up with “Fonda[___]rada” or even “Fo[_______]da”. It quickly becomes clear that the imperative of legibility makes these possibilities unfeasible. Content surfaces as a limiting condition. It aims to to efface negativity, to patch over the gap, while design seeks to assert itself contra content by way of formal exploration. The illustration further demonstrates, however, that the limiting condition of content is itself constitutive for design. The hypothetical “Fo[_______]da” billboards cease to be legible and are, therefore, no longer intelligible even as design objects.
This nagging persistence of content leads us to recognize, in the billboards’ play of contradictions, a model of what Fredric Jameson (responding to Žižek) calls “the tripartite movement of the Hegelian dialectic.”9 First is the immediate appearance or “stereotype” (the billboards as ‘broken’ or ‘incomplete’); second is the underlying appearance or “correction” (the billboards as a unified and self-conscious design object); and third is a “return to the reality of appearance” in which the gap reasserts itself as contested and irreducible.10 Form and content here emerge as dialectically entwined: both at odds and mutually constitutive, or, more precisely, mutually constitutive in and through their contestation.
We are left to conclude that design qua design, the language of form, is intelligible only in its negative indexicality to content. The “split” or gap between form and content, following Horkheimer and Adorno, “is itself the truth: it expresses at least the negativity of the culture which is the sum of both spheres.” Content is the bad conscience of serious design. Only the life and afterlife of content provide the horizon of understanding by which we may begin to assess matters of form. Even if we manage to dispose of content, as Psycho demonstrates (Fig. 3), we will eventually have to dredge it back up again.