Dissertation Proposal Nihilis

Dissertation Proposal
Nihilism and its influence on graphic design: “what’s the point?”

Research issues and ideas

Nihilism: A psychotic delusion of one’s non-existence or of the non-existence of the world. 1.

I propose to explore the far reaching and deep influence which nihilism has had on modern life; my personal psyche and work; and the graphic design industry as a whole. Having never fully read up on or for that matter understood nihilism (outside of the general assumption that it is the belief in nothing(ness) and close to atheism in some form) I look forward to become highly enlightened in this subject area. On top of this, I want to explore its appearance as a theme/issue in as wide a range of mediums as possible, from literature to films to art. I have a vague feeling that many of these will be of interest to me, both intellectually and aesthetically. As a long-standing fan and advocate of the Swiss school of design and as a general exponent of minimalism, I hope to find a lot of the material fascinating. I have long felt somewhat deprived educationally, having never been able to study the Russian Revolution in detail, nor for that matter Marxism. On top of this, the work of Friedrich Nietzsche has long been an enigma to me; much like Freud one hears his name thrown around conversationally, but I’ve never truly been able to grasp his concepts fully. Søren Kierkegaard is another philosopher who has long intrigued me (if nothing else than for that fantastic name!) so discovering that he was perhaps the earliest scholar to propose the concept of nihilism was a pleasant surprise.

The central issue with nihilism is (or seems to be) that fact that, like atheism, it rails against conventional (religious) “logic” that we, humanity, are somehow special, created and watched over by a divine deity of some form or another. By declaring “God is dead”2., Nietzsche metaphorically pulled the rug out and people have been struggling with the consequences ever since. My own personal philosophical outlook has long been a confusing paradox that even I don’t fully understand, or have never attempted to formally rationalize. This another thing that I hope to achieve through this study. Raised in a mildly Christian, extended family atmosphere, but without it ever forced upon me, yet having attended Church of England, secular and also extremely Christian educational institutions has left me with what could perhaps be described as a rather scattershot religious outlook. Coupled with some peculiar superstitions; and you have quite a heady mixture. So it’s possible (and I’m somewhat hopeful) that nihilism might join a lot of the dots in my credo.

I’m interested to find out if nihilism has had a profound impact on graphic design and those that practice it. In this modern, multicultural world, design is increasingly areligious in order to not to offend the various faiths people have. However, whether or not nihilism has permeated its way into the subconscious of the average designer is unknown to me. I will be interviewing (through various processes and approaches) several key members of the design industry, as well as fellow graphics students and tutors. My hope is that I will gain a deep understanding of the attitudes and outlooks of practicing designers, as well as the odd unusual response! I have never consciously felt the impact of personal ideology on my own work, although it’s possible I was simply unaware. I would not really note religious iconography as one of1 my influences, although I am in many ways interested in the typography employed by illuminated manuscripts and stone carved letterforms used on tombs, statues and the like. It will be interesting to see if a deep-rooted religious belief is somehow counteracting or is even at odds with with a more newly-developed nihilism that I have either gained from modern life or the mediums I have absorbed over the years.

By carefully analyzing the books, films, music, art and other influential media that relate to or are rooted in nihilism or nihilistic tendencies, I hope to be able to identify exactly where nihilism is still prevalent and how (if it really is effective) it’s impacting contemporary graphic designers. We are often taught – and successful designers reiterate this in books and interviews – that as good designers we should constantly be absorbing information and influences from as wide a spectrum as possible. We are taught to document; be it through photography, notes, sketches, blogs* or mere appropriation anything that catches our eye. The archiving of this material then allows for a effective stockpiling of future ideas for possible projects. On top of this, the more information (even minutiae) we absorb; the more knowledge we have to draw on when taking on a brief (though it could be argued that this breeds prejudice and therefore a narrower scope of investigation.

Personal statement

I first became aware of nihilism when I saw the Coen brothers’ film “The Big Lebowski”, in which a gang of antagonistic Germans declare:
“We’re Nihilists. We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing.” 4.

An inspired introduction to the (albeit somewhat more complex) philosophical doctrine introduced to the world by scholars such as Nietzsche. The same one who claimed “God is dead”2 and generally revolutionized philosophy; particularly in the areas of postmodernism and existentialism. So why do I want to write a dissertation on this subject, and in particular the way it relates to graphic design – the industry I hope to move into? Well, because it is something that I have realised has permeated almost all aspects of my cultural life. From music (Bright Eyes, The Sex Pistols and ‘gangsta’ rap [sic]) to movies (Trainspotting, Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange) to television (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire), its influence is truly widespread. But has it really reached me in a profound, identifiable way?

On top of this, I am of the firm belief that ‘where we come from’ informs how we work as designers and what we output. By gaining a deeper understanding of how my influences have shaped my outlook as a person and more precisely as a designer, I hope to be able to pinpoint areas where I am being affected by nihilism. Am I attracted to minimal, clean, clear design because I grew up in Switzerland (and am half-Swiss) or is it because it is the sort of aesthetic that is prevalent at art school and in graphic design books and on website and blogs? Is it nihilism or merely common sense to design things in a way that reduce visual clutter and ease the eyes’ journey across it? Would a pious upbringing and God-fearing society result in completely different graphic design being produced? These are just some of the questions I hope to answer.

Research Methodology

My research will be structured by a system of investigation, identification, analyzation, assimilation and criticism (IIASC). First I will investigate an area of nihilism or affected by nihilism; such as it’s influence on art movements. Next I will identify key areas therein where it has (or has not as the case may be) impacted and how. From here I will analyze the exact effects of this factor and to what extent it should be considered. A vital part of my research will be assimilation of sources; such as the reading of nihilistic-themed books or the watching of nihilist movies. This will allow me to not only make up my own mind about whether or not the nihilism is overt, but also if I feel it would impact my own or another designer’s work. This final stage of critical judgement of the source’s relevance and importance is tantamount to conclusion.

As far as libraries go, I have not only my own personal collection of literature, but also the likes of the London Library and the National Library, and online e-libraries. Add to this the numerous London universities with well-known philosophy departments, and I’m sure I’ll have no shortage of texts to work my way through. Archives-wise, I have the BFI at my disposal, as well as the bountiful catalogues of online film and television sources. The LCC, Central St. Martin’s and other notable art institutions will be a good source for archived design, as well as more famous international museums such as The Design Museum, Zürich’s Museum of Art & Design, The Bauhaus and so forth. Online, I have no end of great information resources, including the ISO50 blog run by Scott Hansen, the Creative Review website, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and countless dedicated online reference sites. London has some of the widest and most impressive collections of galleries, with everything from the National Gallery to the Hayward, the White Cube to the Serpentine. Provided I plan my research carefully and sufficiently in advance, I should have absolutely no problems finding bounteous exhibition material of significant relevance to my investigation. Part of my research will obviously involved speaking to established designers and their companies, as well as advertising agencies and any other company that I feel may be pertinent. I will be doing an internship at Jonathan Barnbrook’s design studio during the summer, so should be able to gain some truly privileged insight from one of the most renowned and respected figures in the design industry. Museums covering everything from religious artifacts to architecture inspired by nihilism in some way will be visited, and as with all of my sources I will apply my IIASC system to anything that seems germane.

Primary sources will be wide-ranging; from advertising paraphernalia; to paintings and other exhibition material; to products and architecture. Oh and a lot of graphic design of course. I will be interviewing Jonathan Barnbrook, his colleagues Dan Streat and Jon Abbott, as well as contacting other key figures in the industry to garner their views and hopefully further interviews or at least a dialogue. My other internship arranged for the summer is with Skylark Creative, a relatively young and small studio based in Brick Lane, yet with a very strong production and a growing list of satisfied customers. The Managing Director, Arthur Irving is both profound and profane (in other words a perfect source!) As mentioned earlier, I will also be talking to my contemporaries; designers still in education and at a point where most are yet to develop a graphic ‘voice’ of their own. Added to this, input from tutors and students at other points in their education and I should be able to display a broad and balanced cross-section of the attitudes and approaches of those learning and teaching the discipline of graphic design. My approach to interviewing will involve extensive preparation, especially if the interviewee is an esteemed figure in the design industry; partly to improve the quality of the material but equally so my investigation does not come across as feeble. If it was relevant and advantageous, I might choose a specific piece (or range) of work by the designer to focus on, further bolstering the integrity of the interview. The advantage of being at university is that I will have easy access to a huge array of students, all of varying opinions and experience; as well as competence. Visiting tutors are also a bonus, as they are often combining teaching with either freelance work or part-time studio-based employment.
Visual images with commentary & analysis
Building Design – Antonio Sant’Elia (date unknown)

One of the artistic movements I will be investigating is the Futurist movement, which was (supposedly) nihilist in some contexts. This is one thing I will be analyzing in-depth; if the movement was striving to anticipate what the future might (or should) hold; was it thereby renouncing divinity as an act of belief in itself or a show of solidarity? Most of Sant’Elia’s designs were never put into practice (the ultimate aim being for the creation of a futurist ‘New City’ – Città Nuova), yet they have inspired countless architects since, and many relatively modern structures in London pay homage to his work and the architectural ideals of the movement.
6. & 7.
Covers for first editions of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883 & 1882)
and The Gay Science – Publisher Ernst Schmeitzner

Nietzsche’s influence on my dissertation is assured; without him I’d probably still be trying to decide on a subject. However, these original covers for his studies offer a rather fascinating insight into not only into the graphic design of the period (though the term did not exist at the time; even if the discipline did in some form) but also the simple aesthetics which were sufficient at the time. Nowadays a book with this sort of radical ideas might have a more sensationalist facade; lurid typography and a shocking illustration/photograph; probably of an explosion. One of the books in my bibliography has just such a cover (though the typography isn’t too obscene).

Still from American Psycho – Directed by Mary Harron (2000)
-Based on the novel by Brett Easton Ellis-

In my opinion one of the most successful movie adaptations of a well-know (in this case infamous) novel. This bold statement is not merely based on the fact that the film is highly entertaining and remarkably close to the novel; but also on the fact that the source material is of such a shocking nature that some had considered it an impossible adaptation without forfeiting the novel’s integrity. At points capturing the exquisitely black humour of Easton Ellis’ masterpiece and at others the shocking brutality (while rarely showing actual gore) the film’s female director and screenwriters succeeded were many males might have proved heavy-handed.

Album artwork for Sex Pistols
Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols (1997)

“Dada was against Art; Punk was against deign” – Richard Hollis10.

Hollis perfectly encapsulates exactly why Punk (and Dada) will both be integral to my research. Nihilism is a base form of anarchy, and Dada and later Punk were both interpretations of this. The time period in which Dada appeared was not as generally conservative as the epoch when Punk made it’s presence felt. Rebelling against just about anything it could get it’s (metaphorical) hands on, the movement was characterized by punk rock as well as -fashion; though the extent of the rebellion meant even fashion per se was in it’s crosshairs. I will be exploring the repercussions on graphic design that Punk had.
Whaam! – Roy Lichtenstein, 1963

“His real work was that of a saboteur, toppling the esoteric things that art had become.” Janis Hendrickson 12.

The work of Lichtenstein is almost universally known; even if not by name. The ubiquity of the large, comic-book artwork makes it instantly recognizable and undeniably a work of Pop Art. Describing this piece as nihilistic might seem contrived, but if Hendrickson is to be believed, he was a sufficient commentator and vitally denigrator of the direction art was heading in the early 1960s to be considered a nihilist in kind. Disrespect for the status quo is perhaps the simplest distillation of the doctrine. Like the man that stands up in church and recites Nietzsche at the vicar (and vitally the congregation) the nihilist can interfere with the society that he might have given up on, in the hope of liberating even one more person from the ignorant stupor of their existence.

Action Plan

My research will begin with the gathering of sources, and the reading of books. Collecting relevant films, I will space their consumption out so as to reduce the risk of them ‘bleeding’ into one another. It is more than likely that repeated viewings will be necessary. I will try to gather enough sources over to summer to allow me to begin an early draft before that start of term near the end of september. Ideally this would be a draft nearing the full word count of the final dissertation, to allow me to gain more thorough feedback regarding structure and style. The psychological satisfaction of being at this stage by that point in the calendar will also be crucial; as I don’t want my dissertation to be hanging over my head, impacting on my other studies. The interviews will begin over the summer, with letters and emails being sent out to allow sufficient time for response. As some of my interviews will be carried out on placements, I will be able to discuss my subject with the interviewees, and not be restricted to a single meeting. The constant commuting to London will be a useful opportunity to digest literature, as well as offering time to reflect on what I have consumed.

2. Nietzsche, Friedrich – The Gay Science, [translated by Walter Kaufmann] Schmeitzner, 1882

12. Hendrickson, Janis – Roy Lichtenstein, Taschen, 2006

Diken, Bülent – Nihilism, Routledge, 2009

Salinger, J.D. – Catcher in the Rye, Penguin Books, 1951

Easton Ellis, Brett – Less Than Zero, Penguin Books, 1985
– American Psycho, Vintage Books / Random House, 1991
– Glamorama, Knopf, 1998

Michaud, Stephen G.
Aynesworth, Hugh – The Only Living Witness: The true story of serial sex killer Ted Bundy, Authorlink Press, 1999

Warren, Frank – PostSecret, Orion Books, 2006

Delillo, Don – White Noise, Viking Adult, 1985
– Underworld, Scribner, 1997
– Point Omega, Picador, 2010

Shaughnessy, Adrian – How to be a graphic designer, without losing your soul, Laurence King Publishing, 2005

Freydis – Nihilism, Freydis, 1998

Williams, Peter S. – I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning, Damaris Publishing, 2004

Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World, Chatto and Windus, 1932

Brooker, Charlie – Dawn of the Dumb, Faber and Faber, 2007
– The Hell of it All, Faber and Faber 2009


1. http://www.credoreference.com/entry/collinsmed/nihilism
4. http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Big-Lebowski,-The.html

10. http://www.counterorder.com/art.html

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118715/ http://www.anus.com/zine/articles/prozak/nihilism/ Reality is Nihilism

http://www.nihilists.net/faqs.html Nihilist FAQs

http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/ Alan Pratt – Nihilism

http://www.nihil.org/nihilist/issue1/nihilism/ Vijay Prozac – The Face of Nihilism – 02/20/2005


http://www.mclemee.com/id98.html Scott McLemee – Slaughtering Satire: American Psycho

3. http://ktismatics.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/lebow-nihilists.png

5. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/17/Santelia01.jpg

6. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/Also_sprach_Zarathustra.GIF

7. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a3/FW82.jpg

8. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_klLmY3qqAfk/S-XxiUeYM-I/AAAAAAAAALA/7sp2vpHYr0k/s1600/american-psycho-2000-16-g.jpg
9. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/17/Santelia01.jpg
11. http://lh3.ggpht.com/_KeDlV8DO3Tw/Sami4J0hQxI/AAAAAAAAACI/_bIOJg-uxec/Whaam.jpg
* a.k.a. web logs




Boris Müller k0830903

Boris Müller k0830903