Design Policy and CCBHS final presentations
Treatment is King Part II

Treatment is King

Yesterday, Michael Rock of 2 x 4 design gave a lecture at UIC for the architecture lecture series. Bob Sobal, director of the school of architecture, made a statement that he asked Michael to come because he was a designer content with just designing and had not given into the call for research. That ruffled my feathers, but as I listened to what Michael was saying I realized that this was not true. What Michael was describing was the essence of graphic designing, which is about the mastery in which you treat the content that you are provided by the client. 

Michael made a very astute statement about how as a designer you cannot control the content, all you control is the treatment of the content. Beyond cries for designer as author, I believe in most cases that is true. I know this to be true because on almost every project that I've worked on with a designer, I had to come up with the content. My disappointments with working with designers is the inability to generate content as well as form. I think the call for designer as author is tied to the perception that somehow this focus on treatment is being superficial. The calls for design thinking is about proving that the thought process behind the selection of treatment is deep. Which is true, but it is true because good designers are gifted in discerning the best technique to get the essence of the content.

Michael described the evolution of two treatment motifs that 2 X 4 has explored for mostly Prada, but also Brooklyn Museum, the Muhammed Ali Museum, and Chanel. The first was the motif of fauna, where through pixelized patterns 2 x 4 treats mostly walls as interactive surfaces of perspective play. Figures only become clear from the distance of an airplane as in the facade of the Muhammed Ali museum. Microscopic pollen patterns close up becomes rich but indistinct decorative wall paper at a distance. The idea that there are teaming lifeforms that exist if you are close enough or far enough from them becomes both a visual treatment, but also social commentary in the world of high luxury goods.

The second motif was flora, which describes their use of organic flower shapes to comment upon mostly cold modernist structures.  He described the work they did for Vitra furniture where they turned modern chairs into flowers, see case study at 2 X 4 site. The flower logo for the Brooklyn museum, and the really cool flower-inspired Waist Down exhibit of skirts.

What I appreciated is the fact that Michael was confident in his identity as a designer, who uses the language of form to give appropriate meaning to whatever content comes his way.  That is the value-add of design.  So while it is not the kind of design I would engage with because I am more on the information design side of things, it was great to get an appreciation for the kinds of work that 2 x 4 does. And reminds me of the diversity of perspectives in design.


Dori Tunstall

Hi Leilah,

You seem to miss an essence of my point, which is that to apply a treatment to content is not decoration but rather the act of aligning the content to its proper form, which is not the same as generating the content itself like in a word document.

In the projects I work on, I write the words and often do the information architecture. The designers with whom I collaborate seek to understand and interpret that content, then align it to its appropriate form from an inappropriate form (ie. the word document). To align content with form is not the same as generating the content nor is it mere decoration. It is just a different phase in the designing process, which in most cases is not the task required of the professional designer because the client provides the content (it's products, it's history, it's brand essence). They just don't know what form best expresses it, which is the work of the graphic designer.

I am clear about the fact that I work on highly complex information-rich projects that require in depth research to understand what the content is. In my experience, when I have offered designers the opportunity to create the content (what should be the words said here), they have been unable to do so because they lacked the contextual expertise to know what mattered in that experience and how to describe it in words.

Again, there are designers as authors who seek to provide the content as well as the form. Stefan Sagmeister is a good example. But he also doesn't do the type of design I would be engaged to work on. I work with other types of designers, who perhaps are (1) students and thus struggle with the generation of content, (2) can product content, but are really only interested in the aligning the form part of the process, or (3)can neither write or produce images, but can arrange them in ways that reveal the essence of the content.

Sometimes it is frustrating for me because I don't have time to generate the content, so it would be great to have a designer who can do it. But the truth of the matter is, I do content extremely well and the best designers with whom I can work are second group. I need people who understand how to generate content so that they respect the craft of doing so, but to make it an effective collaboration, they want to do the form work (which I cannot do).

I know graphic design in all its many forms and embrace its potentialities. I train students to advance its potentialities. But as I stated to others, the value add of any designer is their ability to give meaningful form to content. The meaninfulness refers to understanding the context over time, and thus allowing the form to resonate. But the designer has no control over context or time, but they can master form.

Leilah Rampa

Hi Dori,
Your blog has captured my attention.
Michael Rock argued in his writings that 'design itself is content.' It surprises me to read the statement about designers' "inability to generate content as well as form." I feel like such statement doesn't recognize the potential of graphic design but describes the profession as mere decoration rather than the architectural structure giving information a body to function and live in. Are architects ever described as incapable of producing content?

Just a thought.


Jennifer Williams

Hi Dori

Thanks for this interesting post. Though you have been unlucky to date in collaborative content-building, it is the ideal work scenario for a growing number of designers/researchers. All too often the graphic designer is preceived as merely a pair of hands driving a machineā€¦

Given that university design courses are actively building a discipline - rather than limiting education to digital proficiency - the professional aspirations of their graduates will become greater.

I recently came across an excellent lecture given by Johanna Drucker, where she traces post-WWII graphic design from 'presentation' through to where she sees it heading: 'designing the conditions of use'. She also poses some fascinating potential research and practice issues concerning information design.

The lecture can be found at:


The comments to this entry are closed.