Joseph Bisat MarshallDe Profundis & Design Authorship2014

The following text is an accompaniment to a project completed during my time at Central Saint Martins. It is a design rationale, compiled from notes written to myself at the time. Much of it formed the basis of later work.

De Profundis is the title of an epistle written by Oscar Wilde during his time serving a two year sentence in Reading Gaol for gross indecency.

This is a book design project in which I have ‘re-appropriated’ Wilde’s text (written in 1897), to its existing audience. This audience, in my opinion, have not been given the opportunity to experience De Profundis to its fullest capacity due to the manner in which it has been presented by such publishers as Henry Holt and Co., Oxford University Press, and Penguin.

In its wider context, this project attempts to explore the challenging questions that such an act – of designing an existing text – evokes. Concerned with notions of design and literary authorship, this work raises questions of hierarchy in terms of design and writing and considers where you might attribute a ‘voice’ to the piece. In addition, this project addresses design authorship in continuation of the discussion initiated and developed in my previous projects. Here, I have continued the exploration of my theories of differentiation between ‘a’ design and the subject of design, through practice, with a view to situating authorship in both product and process.

The development of De Profundis from a previous project on the subject of authorship

In a previous iteration of the project I had collated five essays on the subject of authorship – Roland Bartes’ ‘Death of the Author’, Michael Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’, Michael Rock’s ‘Designer as Author’, Ellen Lupton’s ‘Designer as Producer’, and finally Michael Rock’s ‘Fuck Content’. The essays were presented in chronological order in the publication that I designed, where each essay occupied a column on a spread that was read continuously down every page for up to 40 pages. The essays started at different points throughout the book so that they would all end at the same point, thus providing a suitably rich introduction to the discussion – or at least that was the intention. The project did not seem to come to any kind of meaningful conclusion.

However, there was something interesting about the curatorial nature of the designer acting as designer and as editor. It felt like I was curating an exhibition, which in itself raised questions regarding the various ways that a designer might be attributed ‘authorship’. But editorially, the work made little sense. A huge amount has been written on the subject, much of which presents valid and conflicting arguments to the texts that I had collated. I realised that the critical discussion of authorship that I had imagined, could not be initiated by the work unless it included a much wider selection of texts. Furthermore, I felt that the writing did not function appropriately without visual examples of work that illustrated the points being made.

What I was now imagining was a research and editorial job of mammoth proportions. Around the time of this realisation, I found the publication, Graphic Design: Now in Production, that catalogues an exhibition of the same name, directed by Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton. Now in Production chronicles 250 artists and 1400 images alongside a number of essays on the nature of contemporary design practice, interweaving discussions of both literary and design authorship. The book is an excellent, existing end-point to the project that I had started.

It would probably not be entirely correct to suggest that I would have designed a ‘bad version’ of the same book; there are design elements that I would change. The design of the book should have contributed more to the discussions explored by its content, which would be an interesting exercise to rectify, but not very satisfying given the success of the existing publication. Editorially, I could not have expanded upon what Now in Production brings together.

The research that I had done up to that point seemed to require physical application in order to expand on the subject of authorship. I had reached a point where I wanted to explore further through the act of making. This desire brought me to De Profundis.

The choice of De Profundis as the text to work with

I was luxuriating in the opportunity to work with a text that I know both very well and am utterly inspired by; Oscar Wilde is a hero of mine. This project was to have expression as an integral theme so it was appropriate to choose something which, a: had a richness of emotion inherent in the narrative of the text and b: was something that I myself could form some sort of connection to.

Given its history, De Profundis is also a text that has been undervalued. It is unlike Wilde’s other works, representing some major changes in character and deviations in literary approach. Yet it has never benefited from a design that takes this into account.

The content of De Profundis

The content of the text makes it incredibly intense, but contextual understanding also gives it a much greater depth. De Profundis is a remarkable account of the pain experienced by Wilde in his persecuted twilight years. It was written in 1897, from a cold and dark prison cell in Reading Gaol. It is powerfully direct, existing as a letter, an epistle addressed to his sometime lover Lord Alfred Douglas, though it actually reads as continued prose. On the 18th of February 1895, the Marquess of Queensbury, Douglas’ father, left his calling card at the Albemarle, the club frequented by Wilde. It was simply inscribed with the words ‘for Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite’. The resulting libel case initiated by Wilde was to be his personal and professional ruin, leading ultimately to his death. On the 25th of May, Wilde was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour – effectively a death sentence. In the first part of De Profundis, Wilde speaks directly to Douglas of the pain and misfortune that their tempestuous relationship brought. The text goes on to explore the development of Wilde’s spiritual character, theorising Christ as the ultimate ‘romantic artist’ and leading to perhaps Wilde’s last, great conjecture that ‘the secret to life is suffering’.

The content is intensely emotive by itself, but for me the text is particularly interesting given its history. Upon his release, Wilde gave the manuscript to his friend and literary executor, Robert Ross, and instructed him to make two copies of the letter, one to be sent directly to Douglas and one to be kept for publication. Ross did publish it in 1905, but with large parts abridged, particularly those referencing Queensbury’s family. Ross gave the manuscript to the British Library with an understanding that it would not be viewed until 1960. Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland, released a version in 1949, but again it was incomplete and full of mistakes – he had used an old and hard to decipher manuscript bequeathed to him by Ross. When 1960 arrived, Rupert Hart-Davis studied the manuscript at the British Library and published the Letters of Oscar Wilde in 1962. It wasn’t until 2000 that the British Library published a facsimile. Since it was written, De Profundis has been shrouded in secrecy, existing a as a hidden text.

Existing management of the text

There have been various publishers. The Penguin Classics versions are the ones that I am most familiar with, however I am not aware of a publisher who has ever managed the text in a particularly ‘different’ way. It has been designed to fit the template of whatever that publisher happens to work with and has never benefited from a bespoke design that is sensitive to its content. Having said that, because of the way that templated text tends to be continuously run throughout, there is sometimes something quite nice about the way it flows as a huge bulk of consciousness.

The enhancement of narrative through significant design decisions

There are two dominant features to the design: the partly blacked-out pages and the story hidden within a story. The context in which De Profundis was written contributes hugely to the narrative of the piece. I was as interested in describing Wilde’s situation of writing as I was about the content of the piece. I wanted to have the text breaking at odd moments on each page to reflect the breaks in his writing sessions that were dictated by the limitations of his imprisoned writing schedule. Wilde wrote De Profundis as a continuous stream of thought, yet his writing time will have been limited to specific periods of the day. The life of the imprisoned man was a wretched and sorrowful existence, worse than many of us could imagine – Wilde wrote that ‘a day in prison on which one does not weep is a day on which one’s heart is hard’. I am sure that in the time spent away from pen and paper he will have attempted to let his mind be consumed with ideas for his writing; the manuscript of De Profundis is like a frantic regurgitation of collected thoughts. It reads and looks like a man writing to survive. The end of his allotted writing time could have arrived in the middle of a sentence, on the brink of a phrase or idea – I wanted the reader to experience that abruptness and frustration. I did a few designs where a single, horizontal line broke the text and the remaining page was left empty. It created this wonderful continuous line that moved across the pages and threaded everything together as collective prose, but the empty space felt free and gentle. As soon as that space plunged into darkness there was a sense of oppression and grief; it is harsh, unyielding and suffocating. ‘De Profundis’ means ‘from the depths’, derived from Psalm 130, ‘from the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord’. The text is also set in single columns so even in the space allowed by the darkness; it does not flourish across the page. It should feel like constant restraint.

There was the challenge of creating visual, physical restraints whilst allowing the text itself to flow in a way that feels continuous. The width of the columns helped with that, the eyes quickly move to a new line and the reader gathers momentum until they are cut short with black ink. There are no paragraph breaks, indents or drop caps, just ‘Dear Bosie’ and the torrent that follows.

In my initial designs, the text of De Profundis was not hidden inside the text of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Given the text’s publishing history, it was a fairly straightforward decision to hide it in some way. Folded fore-edge binding seemed perfect because it forces the reader to physically break the page to get to the text (and it also creates a fan shape that means the book never quite sits comfortably next to another on a shelf). The performance of this tearing action became a really important part of the work and the blank outside pages that this format creates allowed the project further conceptual development. I was left, not intentionally, with a blank book. This was interesting to me in terms of Wilde’s character; it seemed to say something about the incompleteness of the man with the true story of his life untold, or at least something about the incompleteness of his work without De Profundis suitably considered. However, in the end it became more interesting to situate the text within another of Wilde’s works. The blank pages would have become a metaphor for all his writing; but on balance it worked to be explicit, and so I decided to introduce another text.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I was conscious of who this book is for. This project was about the re-appropriation of text, and in this case, a text that is best understood within the context of Wilde’s other works. For me, De Profundis changed and embellished much of what I know about Wilde’s life and writing and so I wanted to design something that spoke to readers who have perhaps not yet experienced that connection.

An alternative to Dorian Gray would have meant setting a play, a series of poems, a short story, or an essay, a lot of which had to be ruled out because of practical considerations of length and format. The decision to use Dorian Gray (Wilde’s only novel) was based on the various themes Wilde explored in the text and again on its historical context. The Victorian sensibilities that fed the moral climate of 19th century society deemed the text as highly improper. It was immoral and debauched given Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism that declared the purpose of art to be little but to be beautiful and to inspire pleasure. Victorians believed in art as a tool for moral or social enlightenment and Dorian Gray passionately fights against this notion, framing it as a means to escape the cruelties of the world. It is so closely linked to De Profundis because this philosophy would ultimately lead to his imprisonment. Despicably, the novel was used in court as evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality, it was roughly torn apart to find misery and pain – my design provokes the reader to do the same.

Inside the book, Dorian Gray needed to contrast considerably with De Profundis and I needed it to demand less attention, which is partly why it is set in a typical novel format. I also did not want to distance it from how it was received by its original Victorian readership – De Profundis is most powerfully understood in the context of its time. The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890 in a science and literature magazine called Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, which was a standard publication of its time in terms of design.

Choices of type

Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and the first publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray as a single volume, by Ward, Lock & co. in 1891, used relatively conservative type for the body text and allowed title pages and other headers to flourish with more Arts & Crafts style lettering. I did the same; my chapter headings and title pages are set in a typeface called Great Victorian, which is based on a 19th century typeface called Koster (later renamed Euclid). It has exaggerated swash caps that flow across the tops of the following letters. It is fantastically elegant and just slightly risqué… a seamless frame for Wilde’s eloquence. I set the body text of Dorian Gray in Caslon. Again, it is a typeface that was in use around the time that the novel was first published and continues to be a standard in book design of various forms. But to a modern audience, it has a slightly more flourished aesthetic than it would have done in the 19th century. I wanted Dorian Gray to have a sense of beauty and flamboyance, resonating with Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism. Caslon is quite rounded and flowing and allows slight quirks, like discretionary ligatures, that were useful in communicating this intention.

The type for De Profundis was harder to decide on. It needed to be slightly quieter than Dorian Gray, appearing more straightforward upon first glance. There is a momentum and relentlessness to the writing that I didn’t want to interrupt. Eventually I settled on Bembo. It is another Old Style typeface, revived in the 19th century, very readable and quite lovely to work with. Bembo is very similar to Caslon; it’s not really any less flourishing, but for some reason I think of it being less ostentatious. When you look at it closely, it’s beautiful and complex, just like the text. I set it in a smaller point size than the Caslon, partly to further separate the two visually, but also, in some small way, to pay homage to Wilde’s handwriting, which was small and condensed.

Wilde’s manuscripts and De Profundis facsimile

I find manuscripts fascinating. The distance between author and reader appears to shrink because there is always a voice in the flick of a pen or the splatter of ink. It is an extra layer of expression. As a designer, it is important to understand as much about the subject as is necessary to communicate it to others, and that is always more than what the audience needs to know. Manuscripts are full of important information. There is a gentleness and sensual nature to Wilde’s handwriting, which curves and loops in a very aesthetically pleasing way. Interestingly, Wilde’s mother, Lady Wilde, wrote extremely differently; her handwriting was sharp, tall and condensed with harsh angles.

The manuscripts are also extremely expressive in their formatting. Dorian Gray (an example of Wilde’s typical writing habits) was written with multiple crossing-outs and re-workings – the writing is given generous space with large gaps expectantly left for further scribbles. When this is compared to the manuscript of De Profundis, the conditions in which Wilde writes are noticeable. It is continuous, filling the pages as if space has become extremely valuable, an effect of the harsh confinement of prison life and limited materials at his disposal.

There was a decision to be made about whether or not the text of De Profundis should be set at all and whether the pages shoul exist as scans of Wilde’s manuscript. But I made the decision quickly given what I know of the text and its history. When Wilde left Reading Gaol, he instructed Ross to make copies of the text, to type it ready for publication. I wasn’t designing a facsimile.

Softcover vs. hardcover

A hardback would have given the book more weight and perhaps a greater sense of the momentousness in terms of its importance and value, but I had a very specific reason for wanting this book to be a paperback. Ross’ highly abridged versions of the text published in 1905 and later again in 1908, were severely sanitised. They led to the interpretation of De Profundis as the apology of a broken man; when in fact the complete text, along with a number of different works published with it, shed light on Wilde’s intentions for his prison writings. Wilde wanted the work published, visible and widely available in the public domain. A paperback seems most appropriate for that, as hardbacks are expensive. It is also possible that a hardback would have given the book a preciousness that potentially would have driven readers to not break open the pages and expose De Profundis.

Irma Boom’s Colour Based on Nature has solid colours on visible pages and stripes hidden inside folds. She regularly laments in interviews that collectors are so concerned with maintaining a perfect copy that they do not enjoy or use her books as she intended. Boom sees her books as sculptural objects. She has designed three white books, Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor, No. 5 Culture Chanel and SHV Think Book: 1996-1896. In 2014, at an AIGA hosted event held in New York, Boom: A Conversation with Irma Boom and Debbie Millman, Boom was quoted as saying that, ‘publishers hate white books because they get dirty.’ She values the dirt that a well-used book accumulates because to her, a book’s intended function is to be ‘used, loved and read’.

The cover design

The cover is made up of hundreds of layered blocks that are in the same position as the ones found on each page of De Profundis. The further down the cover, the denser the blocks get, and there are so many that it becomes a deep black very quickly. Towards the top there is this graduated fall into darkness. The colour white is a prominent theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde uses it to symbolise the purity of art, beauty and youth. As in all design, I am interested in the greys, the in-between. This book journeys through the light and the darkness of story and character, through the rise and fall – the cover is, I hope, a visual representation of this.

Design and performance

I draw no distinction between design and performance, in the same way that I draw no distinction between designing two-dimensional and three-dimensional work – it is all three-dimensional. A book is theatrical. It has multiple elements that need choreographing holistically. Things must dance through pages and scenes and ultimately exist upon a single stage that is the book. We’re not really designing objects. Performance is more explicitly relevant in this book because it calls upon the reader to do more than read and turn pages, it asks them to physically alter the original form of the book, to expose De Profundis as they progress.

De Profundis in relation to discussions on authorship

The wide design authorship discussion is particularly concerned with the relationship that the designer has with content. Initially, authorship was explored in a literary sense by Roland Barthes, who announced ‘the death of the author’ in his 1968 essay of the same name. The death of the author allowed the ‘rise of the reader’, who became their own individual interpreter of the text – the author was removed from his own content, his sensibilities and life story in no way providing any influence. In his essay, What is an author?, written the following year in response to Barthes, Michael Foucault explained that historically, the term authorship was required once a text became transgressive.

In the 80s, the phrase ‘designer as author’ was used as practitioners began to explore new notions of agency generated by a shift in the graphic design profession from something that was more strictly service-led to something that allowed potentially self-initiated and process orientated work. As the industry matured, that kind of work entered into a previously, purely commercial realm and began to stand alone and be recognised. As Lupton puts it, the designer’s discourse on the subject of authorship ‘hinges on our Oedipal battle with clients and content-makers, fought from our gravy-stained seats at the kids’ table’.

The conversation exists between blurred lines that have been created between subjects. In an attempt to situate ourselves in this growing miasma, we are forced to draw distinctions between the various parts that come together to make a piece of work. Even if authorship is taken to mean content generation (like Michael Rock’s Designer as Author has been misconstrued as suggesting), all work is collaborative. It is made up of multiple facets that have come together to make a whole – and what the designer contributes to the cooking pot is just part of it. The confusion arises because there is no one answer to what that role can or should be, and I daresay it is strikingly different for every designer.

My opinion, until I change it, is that an understanding of design authorship is most usefully achieved by separating a design (where the indefinite article is significant) from the subject of design. In other projects, I have explored a notion of design as being relatively unconcerned with content, as Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium in the message’ similarly suggests. It has led me to a personal conjecture, that: design authorship is achieved through contributing to critical dialogue. By that I mean the critical dialogue of design, not content. It is the conversation that is important. How that is accessed is limitless, the designer may use any means to get there.

It is relatively easy to theorise a notion of design authorship that separates itself from content, and it is not so far a stretch to accept the necessity of content without accepting its influence (there is no design without content, or vice versa). But this way of thinking would tend to position design over content, which is uncomfortable. Design, as something that can alter meaning, dictate thought, understanding and interaction, raises hard questions about the relationship between the various collaborative parts that make a piece of work – what are the moral responsibilities of the designer? How much credit or worth can be assigned to each part? It is uncomfortable to me to suppose that I could interfere with the words of Oscar Wilde for example, to think that I could alter them in any way; but in truth, I can, and I have. It is a great sense of responsibility that is bestowed on the designer when this realisation occurs and it is humbling. I could, if I wanted, rewrite Wilde, Shakespeare, Dickens or Keats through design. In reality, there is no hierarchy between design and literature and forming one is problematic.

Why now?

The content of this project will continue to be relevant for as long as the life and work of Oscar Wilde is an important part of our cultural and societal history. As well as his continuing contribution to literature and the arts, Wilde’s persecution as a gay man is absolutely redolent. How despicable that it has taken over 100 since Wilde’s death for a government legislation to be passed that allows same sex marriage. The issues that clouded Wilde’s life are far from abolished from the world. This project is also relevant as a comment on the current state of book publishing. Francis Atterbury in a piece for Eye magazine, suggests that books typically include good content and poor design, or good design and poor content. He draws attention to the problems inherent in the mass market of publishing, evidenced by the current, booming success of small-scale, independent publishing companies. Work must continue to be carried out in exploration of a solution to rectify this problem.


De Profundis, 150 x 230mm, 2015

De Profundis installation, 2015