by Robert Henderson

AustraliaQueensland College of Art, Griffith University
Published online
March 20, 2014

This assignment asks students to choose one or more texts of a total of no more than 100 words, and without altering the text, create a convincing typographic argument in any medium, guided by the principles of classical rhetoric. Tutor: Jason Grant.

Robert writes: “Certainty is a booklet arguing that science and religion are related in their misguided claim over absolute truth. It aims to question the often ignored (or denied) filters through which we view the world. The booklet overlays two creeds that are often believed to be in direct conflict – science and religion – and allows them to be viewed independently of each other by the use of a red or cyan acetate filter.

“Both creeds imply the naturalness and inevitability of their world-view, but by viewing them individually and simultaneously, the reader can judge for themselves their similarities and dissimilarities. By bringing attention to the historical and cultural embeddedness of these views while avoiding judgment on their validity, this piece opens up a space for reflection and dialogue on our most closely held assumptions.

“The typeface has been designed specifically for this booklet to combine the religious connotations of a Gutenberg blackletter with the rationalist philosophy of a modern didone.”

In science’s corner is a 1889 text by Robert Ingersoll, and religion is represented by an early statement of Christian faith called The Apostle’s Creed.

The booklet can be read as double page spreads or folded out as a concertina. The ‘little red book’ format references Mao and the Giddeon’s bible.

Images reinforce the text. So there are conflicting texts and opposing images (eg. the final page contrasts the Christian Crusades and a submachine gun).

  1. Guest comment
    by Rick Poynor

    At the visual level this project is strikingly well resolved. The two planes of text and imagery are delivered with an effortless flow, a reliable sign of careful selection and editing. The two narratives work well as separate layers and they combine satisfyingly into a composite image. The kneeling skeleton with grafted on wings and the anatomical engraving meshed with a crucified figure are particularly effective conceits. The specially drawn typeface, fusing medieval emotion with contemporary rationalism, is carefully judged in tone of voice and graphic delivery to work with the sequences of images. The initial impact is so persuasive that I wished the exercise had more component parts and could be sustained over longer texts and an extended sequence of images to produce a more nuanced and challenging set of associations and implications.

    Whether the project succeeds in its aim to open up a space for dialogue about our most closely held assumptions is less certain. The two short quotations are required to do a great deal of work. Can two matching phrases this brief adequately summarise a complex system of religious belief and a scientific method, and indicate their possible shortcomings? Of the two quotations, the Christian statement is the more straightforward: one either has faith that these claims about the almighty are true or one doesn’t. But the quotation embodying a scientific worldview, far from seeming to be a narrow or “misguided claim over absolute truth”, comes across as an ambition for humanity of the utmost reasonableness. How else could we achieve sustenance, freedom and well-being for all without the use of our intellectual faculties? It may be that scientific thinking has shortcomings as the basis for a philosophy of life, but this idealistic statement does not provide any evidence of how science can be abused. Here, the choice of final image, the exploded view of an automatic rifle, is less well considered and rather forced since it appears to suggest that the application of scientific principles to technology will, exactly like an excess of dogmatic religious conviction, lead to violent conflict. That outcome, where it occurs, is a failure of human sympathy and imagination, not a failure implicit in the use of science to solve our problems.

    Judged purely in terms of its visual design this is an engaging project, but the chosen subject is probably too complex to be convincingly encompassed in only 100 words of text.

  1. Comment
    by Robert Henderson
    April 1, 2014

    Thank you for your thoughtful critique of my work. It is something that I have reworked repeatedly in my head over the past few years as I have read far more widely and considered more deeply. I agree with your comments as to the limits of the short passages, but I see it as a first step and have been hoping to explore it in more depth (especially in a form/forum that isn't just designers being clever at other designers).

    It is an important project to me because it feeds into my wider concerns about hubris in design and politics. My informal design manifesto, in fact, asks for more humility in design: "No Heroics, No Silver Bullets, No Grand Gestures".

    At any rate, I appreciate your time and your consideration.

  2. Comment
    by Robert Henderson
    April 2, 2014

    Actually, now thinking about it, the last spread may not be communicating what I had intended. As a culmination of a piece about certainty (rather than religion and science per se) it was intended to imply that certainty itself—divorced from a critical and historical mindset—is what leads to conflict. Certainty is the act of inscribing indelible borders around "us" and then defending that territory against the "thems" that threaten our sense of self.

    I believe religion and science do not inevitably lead to violent conflict, though they may provide a reason and a means. As Desmond Tutu said: "Religion [see science] is like a knife: you can either use it to cut bread, or stick in someone's back.”

    My oh my, this certainly can't be communicated in 100 words :)

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