When meeting someone you often ask where they live or where they are from. It is a trait that plays a role in how others view us, but also how we define ourselves. These locations can be as specific as an address or road or small town, or as general as a large city, country or continent. When such a place has been instrumental in someone’s personal development, it becomes a formative location. For some, these formative locations are close together and similar, making it easy to identity as someone from that city or country. There is a feeling of belonging and a strong tie to the culture. It is a static trait of their personal identity.
But for immigrants, children of immigrants, and people who have lived in multiple countries long term it is much more complex. Defining where they are from, where they live, and where they belong both geographically and culturally is quite difficult and ever changing—often causing identity crises. As a first generation Czech American, I am hybrid of the two places, and feel that neither country fully represents me. This was a tension I found myself wanting to explore through graphic communication design—to find out how it could help me navigate my identity, and be an avenue for self investigation.
Situating self investigation with design was a bit tricky, as introspective work tends to be defined more as fine art and graphic communication design is inherently about communicating to others. Debates about the distinctions between art and design have been lengthy, and rather than detailing the nuances of it, I will lean on Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey’s (2014) definitions of design and art that encapsulate a generally accepted distinction between the two.
Introspective work that is speculative and has indefinite intentions and outcomes is seen as fine art. This art is subjective and associated with catharsis and poetry. Design on the other hand is typically a rearrangement of existing forms, with more definite outcomes and intentions. It is also typically produced for specific clients, audiences, spaces, and contexts and tied to commerce. It is seen as a socialized art in the sense that it is more geared towards reception than creation (Bertolotti-Bailey, 2014: 12).
Bertolotti-Bailey himself did not advocate for sticking to these definitions, but rather to have a practice that is within the grey area of art and design. Self investigative design work can be placed into that area, as it introspective, subjective, and not produced for audiences, clients, spaces and contexts. And in order to investigate, one must speculatively create new forms instead of only working with definitive intention and outcomes.
But for it to be considered design at all, it needs to ultimately communicate to an audience in some form or another. This was a question I grappled with throughout my process, and through making and reflecting, came to realize that my practice is not just about self investigation, but actually made up of three distinct realms that are simultaneously interconnected: Self Investigation, Collaboration, and Publication. Before diving deeper into what those three categories entail and how they differ, it is important to understand process and methodology, and how they played a role in shaping them.
Methodology: Iteration & Adhocism
In order to investigate and gain new knowledge via design, I needed a process that was open ended and left preconceived notions at the door. In my commercial work I was used to a method of iteration that focused on refining to get a singular output. Each instance of this method was a draft, sketch or prototype distinct from the final output (Chrislip, 2020). This type of iteration depends on knowing what the final desired result is, which does not have the openness necessary for knowledge generation—making it an inappropriate choice for investigation. However, when adding in elements of improvisation, it can work as a less intentional way towards a final, stable form.
Improvisation is a key element of adhocism, which is a term coined by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver (1972), as a method of creation. It relies particularly on readily available resources, as they argue that all things are made with existing systems and that it is impossible to create things out of nothing (Jencks and Silver, 1972: 9). Creating in this manner allows for new and compelling associations that would go unnoticed if the creation was planned (Jencks and Silver, 1972: 9). So iterating as a method of refining towards a final output only works to investigate and generate knowledge if adhoc principles and improvisation are applied.
Another way to utilize iteration is versioning to produce a set of interrelated final outputs. Each instance can be identified by a shared visual, methodological, or conceptual structure but is a singular final output distinct from the others in the set. This method is also common in design practice as having a certain style or set of constraints can bring a lot of different pieces into a body of work. Each one can be seen as an iteration of the whole body of work, but also as a final output, rather than a draft of the next. They are all related because of their shared structure (Chrislip, 2020).
The final definition of iteration is the one I have utilized with the most heavily, which is engaging in a process where the process is the output. Each instance is an individual component whose meaning is determined by the set, from which it is inseparable. This works particularly well for self investigation, as it heavily focuses on the process itself (Chrislip, 2020).
While that is the method of iteration I utilize the most, I do not limit myself to that definition. Often times a designer’s practice engages in iteration by more than one definition. They tend to engage in iteration in a blurry way, between or around the definitions. And this is how I work with iteration as well, not always using the same definition when utilizing it, choosing whichever is appropriate for the current investigation, project, and output.
Bouncing between Iteration, References, and Reflection
With these definitions and ways of making in mind, I began my exploration. I would iterate for a certain amount of time before getting feedback from others and actively reflecting on my own work, as well as engaging with new references that would challenge me in a specific way or bring up a new idea. Rather than continuing to speak so abstractly about my process, I will walk through my own specific journey bouncing between these three sections as a case study.
Initial Iterations: I took a single memory of an identity crisis and deconstructed and reconstructed it 100 times using only things from that day: the journal entry I wrote, the photos I took, the art I saw, the paths I took, and the objects I kept. In iterations 3-13 I broke down my journal entry examining where I used Czech words or English replacements, and which bits were thoughts, retelling of events, feelings, facts, gaps in knowledge, mistakes, lack of ability, a visualization or a realization. I then broke down the photos I took that day into what I shared or sent to others, what I documented for inspiration, and what I documented for reference. I began to mix those bits together with the objects I had kept that day, cutting out words from the museum collateral that matched the words in my journal entry. I wrote my journal entry on the path I took on my map of Prague art galleries. I wrote my entry on a photo, in the margins of the museum pamphlet, and in the form of the art that I saw.
As I rewrote the same words over and over, it reminded me of my childhood punishment to rewrite portions of Czech books over and over. I decided to write the journal entry out in that fashion, overlaying them to showcase the differences the repetition yielded. I decided to overlay the entries I had written in the previous iterations on top of each other, as well as with new photos or objects. I wove together a journal entry iteration with the gallery map. I ripped up a photo I shared on social media and had the entry peak through the rips. I began to push the overlaying method further, creating various combinations of the previous iterations. I continued to do so, pushing them further and further away from the original pieces I began with.
Reflection: From my investigation so far, I had found that each way of recording memory offered a differing reality, method of recalling it, and pathway to understanding the experience. Iterations 3-13 broke down my experience in ways I hadn’t before. Iterations 36-38 gave new visuals my own words through the form of someone else. The physical act of the iterating gave way to new memories in iterations 40-55. Isolating my entry from how I had rewritten it and recontextualizing it with new images, changed the way I perceived the words when I read them in iterations 56-65. Iterations 66-100 were new visual representations of the crisis that helped me come to terms with issues I was having that day.
Each iteration always left something missing, and gave its own slightly altered, skewed perspective. By combining the media and iterations in various ways, distinct insights and gaps were revealed. Using this iterative, investigative methodology allowed me to start uncovering and exploring the complexities and the nuances of being a first generation American, rather than trying to simplify and get one answer and meaning.
Reference: After reflecting on my work, I read Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities (1972), where hedescribes 55 imaginary cities to explore the complex nature of a metropolis. While every city is imaginary, each is meant to represent a different aspect of Venice. It was only through Calvino’s variety and compilation that he was able to capture all the elements of the city together as one, while simultaneously speaking to each individual component and theme.
While Calvino’s (1972) work is not visual, the ideas can easily be applied to graphic communication design, and his approach supported my position and methodology. If you visualize a complex thing, such as a place or memory, in one manner, you capture certain elements, and exclude others. By doing so multiple times in a variety of different ways, new insights can be revealed in their similarities and differences, as well as viewing them as a set. Because places and our attachments to them are so complex, there is no singular perspective that is close to complete, therefore a designer must utilize a multifaceted approach with multiple of their own perspectives for the fullest understanding and representation.
Reflection: Evaluating my initial iterations allowed me to notice that I was the most interested in utilizing maps, because there is an inherent connection between location and memory. Additionally, the iteration where I wrote my journal entry on the path I walked evoked the strongest emotional response from me. I wanted to see where my work would go if I continued to utilize maps as a medium or a method.
Iteration: After all the reflection and engaging with Invisible Cities (1972), I continued to create iterations of the same memory, using similar pieces as before, this time combining them with new maps. I wanted the maps to be a metaphor of myself, pieces of the second place and culture seeping through when looking at the first. The theme of these iterations was my duality, and using various methods of paper cutting and folding to conceal and reveal pieces of each map.
Reference: Because I was focusing on maps and telling a narrative through them, it was imperative to research narrative cartography to contextualize my choices. I learned that all maps contain narratives, whether they are subconsciously embedded within them, or explicitly used to convey them. While the study of critical cartography focused on the thesis that maps reflect and perpetuate relations of power, it also “envisioned maps as a compelling form of storytelling” (Caquard, 2011: 136). The potential of maps to tell stories was further explored by authors like Robert MacFarlane, who developed the concept of a 'story map' to "describe forms of spatial expressions that embody our personal experiences of the environment and contribute to creating a deep understanding of places" (Caquard, 2011: 136).
This relationship between maps and narratives has attracted contemporary artists and designers, who have utilized maps and mapping practices in a variety of ways to express their feelings and to understand places. Some examples include mapping journeys of migrants, mapping personal emotions and feelings, mapping fictional places in literature and film and GPS mapping.
Reflection: Learning about the larger framework I was designing in legitimized my work and the decisions I was making throughout my process. It supported my position to explore and tell my personal identity through narrative cartography, and introduced the idea that blending reality and fiction can be a powerful tool in trying express a whole picture.
Reference: Fiction was also utilized in my previous reference Invisible Cities (1972), and I decided to revisit it. Because Calvino’s cities were not bound to reality, he was able to exaggerate and emphasize certain aspects in each of his stories to strengthen his overall narrative. And while every city is imaginary, each one is meant to represent different aspects of Venice. Had Calvino not utilized fiction, his observations and explorations into aspects of Venice would not have been as strong and compelling.
Iteration: I loved the idea of not being tied to my own reality, as I found it to be a bit limiting in my memory explorations. I decided to create a new city out of formative locations, which better represented myself, then any depiction of an existing location. Visualizing this new, fictional location allowed me to put a visual to the strange limbo I feel I’m in.
Reflection: I received helpful feedback to think about what kind of maps I was using as a starting point. There were talks of interviewing other people, creating maps in tandem with my family members, and adding more representative elements, rather than strictly using grid maps. Theses images could create a more narrative feeling, make it more imaginative, and add dimension. I felt that I had a sense of how to approach the making: continue vigorous iteration, be more intentional about my map choices, add more representation, worry less about the final product, and find elements to keep consistent.
Iteration: I was working on a map about the Czech part of me, the designer part of me, and how there is a gap of knowledge where the two overlap. Its a fascinating concept to me and I was excited to explore it. I tried to bring in more representational images but I found myself incredibly caught up in the visual choices and hated any that I selected. What visually represents my ‘Czech-ness’? Family members? Photos I’ve taken of Prague? And on the other side, what represented me as a designer? My work? Recognizable or historical design work? It felt incredibly superficial and the more I tried to figure it out, the more discouraged I was with it.
Reflection: I realized I was trying to explain and visualize the things I already know about myself, rather than investigating the elements of my identity that are harder to uncover and access. This solidified to me that the iteration process of my work is for me—the self investigation. The compilation of that work at the end would then communicate those findings to an audience. While communicating to an audience is still an important part of the equation, it is not during the self investigation process.
Bouncing between Self Investigation, Collaboration, and Publication
Bouncing between iteration, reflection and reference not only allowed me to produce a number of works that continued to shift productively, it also allowed me to realize that being strictly self investigative in one area of my practice was crucial for generating insights and knowledge.
After weeks of self investigation, I needed to compile my work thus far into a visual essay. While it was still an extension of that work, it was distinct from the previous iterations because it was no longer about self investigation, but rather sharing that process and my findings from it. I was in a new realm: Publication. Within this realm my process was still iterative, there was just a different goal and a more concrete final output that I was working towards. I also was still engaging with references and reflecting on my work in the process.
Publication References: I watched various video essays to gain a better understanding of various methods of structuring a video essay. The map used to guide the viewer through the essay in Alan Warburton’s Goodbye Uncanny Valley (2017) stuck out to me, and I decided that mapping out my process visually could aid the viewers understanding of what I was narrating. The looping textures of Xiaoying Liang’s The Dictionary (2019) and Defining Graphic Communication Design (2020) influenced my decision to use a mock stop motion effect.
Publication Iteration: I brought in all of the work and insights from the self investigation realm, working out how it could all come together. In this case, the iterations of my visual essay were drafts prior to the final output, rather than an open ended process. However in the publication realm, it can be just as open ended of a process to create the final output. It is more dependent on the individual project and moment of time to dictate which type of iteration is appropriate.
Publication Reflection: I needed to pay closer attention to how the visuals and narration worked together. At this stage there was a lot of repetition rather than the visuals and narration strategically playing off each other. Often times I was saying what could have been only shown instead.
Publication Final Iteration: It all came together in a 3 minute visual essay, which communicated the methods and findings from my self investigation process.
Self Investigation Iteration: After I finishing the visual essay, I felt that I needed to return to self investigating to find new avenues to move forward with. I revisited the formative location collages I had created earlier, and decided it could be interesting create or hijack a simple digital tool or algorithm that can make my maps for me. I like the idea of adding an element of randomization to the collages to see how that would differ from the iterations where I placed the pieces next to each other. I wrote code in Processing that randomized where the locations would be placed. I continued to tweak the code until the locations nearly filled up the whole canvas, saving each iteration in the process.
Self Investigation Reflection: Once I generated these maps I examined them and annotated anything I found interesting. There were surprise connections, like a road connecting perfectly from Livingston, NJ to Kašperské Hory, CZ. Certain places had distinct edges, rivers led to nowhere, and roads were disconnected. I noticed the mix of the suburbs and cities, and how the density of these new cities shifted rapidly from one to the other. It was surprising to see my birth place (Forest Hills, NYC), my parent’s home (Livingston, NJ), my first apartment (Bushwick, NJ) and my grandmother’s house (Kašperské Hory, CZ) so close together physically for once, yet there were many paths that were disconnected between the two.
Self Investigation Reference: The Situationists were a group in 1960s that advocated for “derives” which they defined as an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and "let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Debord, 1956). I wanted to take one of those walks through my new city, which was more of a mental exercise because it is impossible to do such a walk in real life. I liked that I would be able to make my own paths and experience the places I know well in a completely different way.
Self Investigation Iteration: I drew a path on one of the maps and thought about what a day walking that path would look like. I wrote down this walk, intentionally noticing which memories were sparked and who I spent time with in each place. Some of it was fictionalized (the lunch with my uncle), while other events did happen in these places (thrifting shopping, catching up at the cocktail bar)
Walk 01: Surprising Connections
I start my walk along Smetanovo nábřeží, turning by the Národní divadlo and Kavárna Slavia. I think about the last photo Mom sent me of Svetla’s grand daughter, since I always associate that place with them meeting up together. The city streets turn to countryside, and I make my way over to Auto Oudes, where I stop for an early oběd. Strejda Mira is working there today, so he joins us. Afterwards, I pop into the thrift shop on Flushing Ave with Rachel, where, as usual, I find all the grey and black clothes, and she finds all of the colorful, patterned ones. Nothing fits right, so I decide to head to the Livingston Mall to try my luck there. I get bored of shopping, so I walk to the GHMP in Staré Město to check out their latest exhibit. It takes a bit longer than I expected, and I get there after closing time. I text Zach and tell him I’m on my way to meet him at Yours Sincerely, a bar he’s had on his list for a while. David, Hannah, and James join us there, and we catch up over cocktails from the tap.
In addition to writing the text separate from the map, I opted to write down the walk on the actual path, calling back to an earlier iteration where I wrote down my journal entry on the path I took that day. I then thought about how such a walk would look realistically, and wrote it across the actual geographical map.
Self Investigation Reflection: Because each randomized piece was one whole location, there was a slightly limiting combination of how certain streets and areas would be placed near each other. I decided that it would be best to change the pieces, cutting up each location into smaller pieces, and then randomly choosing which of those pieces to use per map.
Self Investigation Iteration: I cut up the cities, rescanned them and input them into the code. I changed how the pieces were placed a few times to generate slightly different outputs. In some versions the pieces were far apart with large gaps while in others they were all on larger shape. I really enjoyed the new shapes that were forming from the new pieces and I noticed that the background color changed how I viewed the city. The black spaces felt like gaps, while the white spaces wanted to be filled in. I drew in lines between the pieces like sutures, as well as nonsensically and whimsically connecting them.
Self Investigation References: While working on these iterations, I also spent time researching various visual references for collaging. While more visual representations tripped me up in earlier iterations, I felt that showing images of places I “walk” past could be more visually interesting, as well as possibly add new layers to delve in layer iterations. Some of the artists I looked at were Lola Dupre, Anastasia Savinova, Ben Giles, and Denis Kollasch.
Self Investigation Iteration: I took another “walk” through one of the newer map collages. Again I randomly drew a line through it and then after looked at which streets crossed, and what landmarks I passed by.
Walk 02: Faded Relationships
I start the day at the Ritz Dinner, reminded of the of brunches I used to grab with my high school friend group. I wonder about how they’re doing behind the facade of their Instagram profiles—my only glimpse into their lives anymore. I keep walking, passing through Gowanus, Brooklyn which leads into the outskirts of Kašperské Hory. I hike by Hrad Kašperk, the castle I visit every time I’m staying at Babička’s. I’ve been here so many times since I was child, but only can recall the details of the last few visits. For that alone, it’s worth continuing to come back. The path leads me to the IKEA in Red Hook, where I meet up with Renata, Míša, and Míši. We laugh a lot while we shop, picking up silly things that we have no intention of actually buying. It’s been some time since I’ve seen them, since we no longer celebrate holidays together. I head back home through the back roads of Livingston, passing by another old friend’s home. I realize this walk lead me through a montage of faded relationships, in both Czech Republic and the US. I’ve always been afraid of my Czech-ness fading, but the reality is that many other formative parts of my life have already started to fade away, making way for new relationships and memories at are important to me in this moment.
In these iterations I also wrote on the path, but also introduced some imagery into the collages.
Publication Iteration: At that point I took all of my iterations from this new direction and created a booklet. I chose to narrate the whole process, as the iterations needed the context of the process to fully understand. I was no longer thinking about what I could find out about myself through the process, but rather thinking about how to showcase the process and my findings to an audience. By shifting over to the publication realm, my decisions about what tools to use and how to showcase the information were no longer about myself, but other people and how it would affect their engagement.
Publication Reflection: From making the booklet, and also looking back at the visual essay, it was clear to me how beneficial it was to collate my iterations and showcase them to others. I was asked whether I would want to collaborate and facilitate the work of others, but I had viewed my practice as this point as only two parts: self investigation and sharing insights with others (publication). Other people were very deliberately left out of the initial design process and I was not sure if I wanted to keep it that way or find a role of them within in.
Collaboration Reference: To challenge this idea, I looked at Belgian designer Annelys de Vet’s (2015) publishing initiative Subjective Editions, which maps countries from the inside out, for a more encompassing, non-“neutral” perspective of a country. She invited artists, designers, photographers, and architects to workshops where they began to map their own country from their personal perspective. For the Subjective Atlas of Columbia, sixty different contributors “researched current notions around Colombia’s identity drawn from personal memories, impulses and dreams” (de Vet, 2015: 6). These varied visualizations were then curated and compiled into one book, which became a collective tool that challenged the social, political, cultural, and economic ideas and prejudices of Colombia. By compiling all of these various perspectives on a singular place, it opened up new methods of seeing and thinking about Colombia.
How this project came together is both personal and collective. The personal is the contributors making their individual work. They are exploring their own perspective and drawing from memories, experiences, and observations. The introspection and the visualization that follows is the heart of the project.
The collective aspect is gathering together these various perspectives and creating a larger, nuanced view that challenges the “objective” perspective of a country. This narrative would not be conveyed if a reader only viewed a single contribution; it is only apparent in the larger context of the project.
It becomes personal again at the hands of the reader. While the main aim of this project is to critique the over simplified media images of a country, it is also a catalog of new ideas for how the reader can view and visualize their own country and experiences there. This in turn can shape their personal relationship to their country, and how they identity with it.
Collaboration Reflection: After engaging with Annelys de Vet’s practice and the Subjective Atlases (2015), I understood the importance of bringing something personal past your own self exploration. I liked that she was able to tackle larger questions, while the individual work of the artists/designers was still quite personal. I had been unsure how to engage with others and an audience regarding my work, but I realized there can be elements that are strictly personal, while others are more collaborative. I liked that there can be an ebb and flow between the two, and I decided to explore that my next studio work.
Collaboration Iterations: I asked others who feel torn across multiple countries (immigrants or first generation children) to provide information about their formative locations and collected the results via survey. Next I generated their maps using the same methodology as my maps. These locations were cut into pieces and randomly collaged together via code to create 10 new, personalized fictional cities per person.
Participants were then asked to choose the map that resonated with them the most and draw a pathway through it. They imagined what it would be like to actually walk through this location, noticing what specific things they ‘walked’ past, what they were reminded of, and what occurred in those places. They wrote down these walks and annotated the map in any way they wished.
Collaboration Reflection: It was really important to know the specific locations, down to the exact neighborhoods/streets, because it was difficult for me to know what to include or not otherwise. I changed my questionnaire slightly to ask others to screenshot the most memorable places in their cities, which I believe helped a bit with this problem.
The maps were also incredibly tedious to make myself and have a lot of participation. I was only able to make maps for 5 people, despite gathering 11 responses. More of the work would need to be on the participant, in order to engage with more people. I think something like a workshop would work better, people selecting and cutting up their maps themselves and having other participants randomize it for them.
Another option would be to develop some sort of tool that would allow for others to help create the maps themselves, while still keeping the randomizing aspect. I’m not quite sure what that would look like, but it is an idea I’d like to explore.
I also had some participants include images and illustrations in their maps. Those made the maps feel more distinct and personal to them, and I believe made the work much stronger. In further iterations I would like to emphasis those representational images more, perhaps as a next step as I began to do in my self investigation.
My self investigation, the processes, and the outputs guided this collaborative project, but I soon came to realize that there need to be a lot of iterations within the collaborative section as well, not only in the self investigation section.
Publication Iteration: I compiled the maps and walks from the participants on a website. There viewers can visually compare each map, read where each person’s formative locations are, as well as easily read through their walks. I also started to add other components, such as one participant, Lucy, reading her walk.
Collaboration Reflection: The audience facing iteration, as well as the components from the collaborative iterations, still need to development and evolve, as I have just begun to scratch the surface about how they can best express these ideas and processes.
In the last several months during my design process, my position about the role of graphic communication design in navigating my personal identity shifted. At first I recognized the importance of focusing on self investigation, not self representation when creating iterations to generate knowledge about myself. This process needed to be driven by what evoked new discoveries rather than getting hung up on expressing elements of myself I already knew to others.
But through the compilation of my process and insights in the visual essay and booklet, I learned that those elements would get considered in a different category of my practicing, publication. These audience facing iterations needed to consider representation, narratives, and story telling. Additionally what tools and mediums would be most suited to compile, curate, and share what I had made and learned in the self investigation portion.
Lastly, I realized there is room for collaboration with others and facilitating their work in my practice. It can be just as insightful as the self investigation and publication, and adding in more perspectives on work that I began as my own exploration can strengthen the project.
Each of the three larger sections of my practice are interconnected, and I can easily shift from one to the next. The same goes for the three subjections (iteration, research and reflection) within each larger one. There is no set order between the sections, and there is no set scale. Scale can be adjusted as appropriate and feasible, as well as provide insights as to where to focus next. In my work thus far, I have spent most of my time self investigating with smaller scale publications. I have also barely scratched the surface of collaboration and will continue to work within that section moving forwards.
Ultimately I found that designing through an open ended process and flowing between the three larger sections (self investigation, collaboration, and publication) and subsections (iteration, research, and references) was a fantastic way to generate work and insights. It was a method to generate knowledge about myself, my general practice, as well as specific aspects of the relationship between location and identity, and I am looking forward to continuing to utilize it to further my practice.