Design and the non-conceptual mind

Recently Sheraton Green told me I needed to check out George Saunders. I’ve never really been a fiction reader, most of the books I choose to read fall into that “lifting the curtain on historic or cultural paradigms” genre of publication. I’m reading his recent collection of short stories, “The Tenth of December, but beyond his own actual writing he has quickly become just as much of a creative inspiration for his views on writing and process. Here’s an older quote from him via the Missouri Review:

“In terms of fiction writing, I think that if you set out to write a political story, then that is what you will get: merely a political story. Your story will be confined by your ability to conceptualize it. Our conceptual mind is much less subtle and perceptive and joyful than our non-conceptual mind.”

More recently, here’s another Saunders quote from his appearance on Charlie Rose:

“There’s this intentional fallacy that says a writer, an artist, has a set of ideas, and the story’s just a vehicle for delivering those preconceived ideas. And in fact, on the production end of it, my experience has been totally the opposite. You go in trying not to have any ideas of what you’re going to accomplish, praying that you’ll accomplish something, and then respecting the energy of the piece, and following it very, very closely. So, that’s kind of exhilarating but also kind of a very scary place. Because you think, ‘Well, I’m 54 years old, I teach writing, I should know what I’m doing.’ But, so much of the job is to kind of show up every day and say, ‘I really don’t know.”

From a graphic design point of view, I love this. Although he is discussing the role of conceptual and non-conceptual thinking in the art of writing, I think Saunders’ ideas can be applied to design as well. Designers are so wrapped up in the reasoned and the rationalized, we often forget how essential it can be to allow our non-conceptual mind to play a role in the design process.

Graphic design always associates itself with what we categorize as “design thinking”; problem solving, analyzing, predicting, objectively balancing form and function, etc. As graphic designers, it seems like we must absolutely never, EVER allow ourselves to admit that an idea just came to us or, even worse, that we just made something up. That would be a telltale sign of an amateur designer who possesses none of the characteristic analytical abilities that make design so essential. But I think design, like painting, photography, and writing (as exemplified by Saunders’ quotes above) needs to embrace and identify with the chaos, the unconscious, and the non-conceptual much more often than it currently does.

Designers have powerful organizational skills, but we are generally piss-poor when it comes to admitting that something indescribable sometimes happens in the design process. For example, consider the time-honored act of sketching. Sketching, to me, seems like nothing more than an attempt at resigning the conceptual mind momentarily to let the non-conceptual mind have a piece of the action for a bit.

Admittedly, once we find ourselves in the presence of a brilliant idea we must tame it, corral it, organize it, and see if it can still live in a conceptual design context. Editing is an essential part of the process for writers as well, and Saunders consistently speaks of his ‘rinse, lather, repeat’ process of editing a story over and over again. For example, one story included in The Tenth of December took him 12 years to get write. That said, the initial inspiration for that story also came to him in a dream. Can we start trusting in not-thinking for some stages in the design process? Maybe we can relax our anal-retentive, analytical designer brains for a bit and let our pencils drift across the sketch pad like it’s some kind of creative Ouija board, channeling the ghost of Alvin Lustig. Destroy something, stop thinking, create obstructions, make irrational decisions. We designers just need to try to be open and present and let our unconscious mind surprise us, because it will.

In truth, the real artistic process as I’ve understood it is 95 percent intuitive, seat-of-the-pants, at-the-moment decisions that you can’t even explain. – George Saunders



We have always loved the pedestrian, commercial history of screenprinting. Before it was the respectable artistic media we know it as today, it was a down and dirty, quick and easy way to produce temporary color promotional signage. A mainstay of the local commercial market, screenprinting was familiar for its contribution to thousands of local storefront window signs throughout the United States.

As opposed to the emulsion-based photo stencils that many screenprinters employ now, these historic ‘grocery signs’ were typically produced with hand-cut paper or film stencils, and exhibited evidence of that human hand. Some contemporary printmakers still employ a similar method of hand-cut rubylith to produce color blocks for photo stencils. This rubylith is the ancestor of the ordinary paper stencil.

We’ve long been obsessed with the paper stencil method for screenprinting, and may actually employ this method in near-future client projects. But recently, we were commissioned through our UK-based rep Dutch Uncle to produce an installation at Fallon London’s front lobby. We jumped at the chance to install an experimental series inspired by these archaic grocery posters. Along with a collection of other Aesthetic Apparatus poster test prints, the entire installation is below. The content of the prints plays off the implied commerce of this poster vernacular, toying with ideas of consumption, fallibility, and our general commodification of living.







We here at Aesthetic Apparatus are always proponents of printmaking’s little surprises, but rarely does trimming paper yield any “happy” accidents. But look here! A perfect trim right down the center of a bunch of drifting registration rules revealed this amazing blended pattern of colors. It’s a printmakers rainbow!





Starting at noon on Saturday, April 21st, we’ll be having our annual $5 Scratch & Dent Sale where we make our just a little less than perfect (usually people have trouble finding what’s wrong with them) concert posters and art prints that usually cost $20 or more available for only $5. FIVE DOLLARS! Later on that evening, starting around 7pm the AESTHETIC APPARATUS SUPER PARTY will kick off with food, refreshments and live music by THE EVENING RIG. This is a free event but please fill your pockets with cash before stopping by.






Our friend Kate Nordstrom is organizing another season of Minneapolis’ favorite chamber music ensemble at the architecturally significant Christ Church Lutheran in the Longfellow neighborhood, and we did a poster to help promote it. This little number will be available for purchase at the show. CULTURE! More info here!


Posted in POSTERS

Kings Wine Bar Identity

Identity for Kings Wine Bar in Minneapolis.

Posted in IDENTITY

Cake Box Set

Here’s a nice little video that displays the box set we did for Cake awhile back.



What does this say about us when we think this is beautiful?
Maybe we should get outside more.

Posted in NOT US


We just got back from Design Ranch 2011 in Hunt, Texas where we were invited to come down and coordinate a screen printing workshop. Thing is, we had no idea how to predict the outcome of the workshop we had concocted. Basically, over the course of three days we ran three workshops where we tried to jury-rig every material in the screen printing process as much as possible. We’d previously done some ultra-ghetto printing with window screen and paper stencils on various occassions in the past so, equally inspired by the genius of this gigposters thread, we attempted to see just how far we could take it.


– Window screen mesh
– Used wood picture frames
– Bond paper stencils
– 18″ Floor squeegee
– Door hinges
– BBQ Sauce

And you know what? It “worked!” Worked as well as printing gallons of ink through a window screen with a floor squeegee can. The paper stencils fell apart on a few occasions, the door hinges kind of wiggled a lot, and the BBQ sauce printed somewhat glossy and transparent so we printed that last and mostly stuck with our standard Speedball inks (had to keep SOMETHING within our comfort zone.) The irony is that we proposed a workshop that would supposedly illustrate how easy it is to screen print but what we had actually done is conceived of an insanely hard screen printing workshop. But I don’t think anything noticed.

We were pretty preoccupied by trying to actually pull this trick off, so we didn’t get a lot of photos, but on the last day we were able to pop off a few, and there are a few more of us seeming to have everything under control on the Design Ranch flickr pool.

One of the poor, poor “picture window screen frames” from our last day.
It was auctioned off in a silent auction later that evening.

An ill-composed shot of all three prints. The skull on day one printed beautifully, but there were also no counter-forms to worry about. The house on fire on day two (a re-attempt at our original window screen print that inspired this idea) printed pretty well except for the counter-form in the eye. We had to re-cut that on the fly out of duct tape. The black on the house is part BBQ sauce, part ink. The middle “Sloppy Supply Co.” print was day three. Although the type was stencil-cut some fussy parts like “M”s and “A”s got pretty destroyed. Check out that mess by the “M” in ‘Mistake.’ It was kind of beautiful! This print wouldn’t have made any sense if it had worked perfectly. But that “tiny” type in the center held up fine through the whole run. Unbelievable.

Then the big surprise ending: we had talked a lot about Anthony Velonis and posters of the WPA throughout the workshop so we revealed to the workshop a copy of Velonis’ original screen printing instructional manual from 1939, “SILK SCREEN TECHNIQUE: Technical Problems of the Artist Series.”

Oh my, look. There are the door hinges!

And instructions on how to cut out your stencil!

Oh, and a one-handed squeegee!

Here’s a link to a PDF copy of the Velonis book for your own edification.

(Note: please let us know if you believe it to be a violation of copyright to distribute this document. It’s from the collection of the Library of Congress, so we’re under the assumption that it is acceptable.)



Just try to keep up.

Posted in POSTERS