From the (a) trivial to the (b) deadly serious, lists dominate visual culture

Lists in design and the design of lists

Eye No. 47, Vol. 12


Every now and then, I find a topic that combines my dual interest in literature and design. The role of the list in visual culture was a particularly fruitful topic that led me from The Iliad to Walker Evans and from Georges Perec to neomodernist ironicism in graphic design. I’ve published regularly over the years in Eye magazine, which under the imaginative editorship of John Walters, provides a hospitable environment for such explorations. This essay was also republished in 2006 by Allworth Press in Looking Closer Five: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, edited by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Steven Heller.




In recent times, the editors of slick style and popular culture magazines have taken it upon themselves to reduce the world and its riches into bite-size chunks. As a result, lists—and specifically hierarchical ones—have evolved into a new super-species of lazy article. The economics of the epidemic are simple. The supply of the world’s most exclusive spas, badly dressed men and the best rock anthems of all time, just waiting to be corralled and enumerated, is endless. And, in a consumer society obsessed as much with the meta-language of consumerism as it is with actually buying things, the demand is certain. According to Folio, a U.S. magazine industry journal, “best of” list issues of magazines are guaranteed bestsellers. It recently ran a how-to article offering some dos and don’ts for creating such issues including, under the “dos” heading, such sage advice as: “Be counter-intuitive. Instead of the best hamburger, name the best blue cheese burger.” Though they are seductively easy to read and apparently provide a way of getting to the essence of a subject, do we lose something by reducing valuable (or even not so valuable) information into a series of bullet points?

The proliferation of lists in magazines results from a collision of conditions: dwindling editorial budgets, (when you are paying by the word, conjunctions seem superfluous); the popularity of search engines, such as Google, that allow editors to generate lists in infinite combinations and mean that readers are familiar with viewing information through a listing lens; and the aesthetic appeal of a neat vertical story that provides the illusion of order and completion.

A list—especially one that ranks or categorizes—can be a salve for the anxiety of living in era of information overload: an authoritative knife with which to slice through the morass of extraneous data. But the relief is short lived; soon the accumulated lists begin to add to the overload themselves. Listing the options may easier than selecting one of them to stand by, but, as lists multiply, all they add to the reader’s life is another item on their to-do list: take out newspapers and magazines for recycling.


Hard, unadorned facts

The ultimate corollary to the publishing industry’s current tendency must surely be List magazine. First published in June 2000, and with more issues in the pipeline, the magazine compiles image-based and typographic lists that range from the trivial and humorous such as “Top Ghetto Drinks” and the Talk magazine launch party guest list, arranged in a telephone directory format, to the chokingly poignant: in a catalog of last meals requested by Death Row inmates, John Rock, who died at 2:11 a.m. on September 19, 1986 in Raleigh, North Carolina, asked for: “12 hot dogs. (Ate only three).” List’s conceiver and creative director, the nightclub owner and designer Serge Becker, explains the magazine’s impetus: “It seemed very pure. Very much of the moment. We have less time right now. What about a magazine that condenses everything down to lists? They’re really easy to kind of glance at. You pick it up, you check out one or two, you put it down. It dispenses with the articles concept.”

While List does makes an ironic statement on the reductive nature of our contemporary concerns, more obviously it revels in the richness of the listing device from an art director’s perspective. Its creators, Becker and Lisa Ano, were inspired by two of the godfathers of lists: Colors magazine and the “Harper’s Index”—both highly evolved vehicles for presenting hard, unadorned facts, the former visually and the latter textually. Both examples work so well because of the clarity of their underlying vision and the consistency of their respective voices. Colors deals with political and social issues by amassing images in multiple that prompt viewers to analyze, compare, differentiate and decide. Harper’s exploits the dissonance between carefully paired statistics and thus taps directly into the mainline of the reader’s conscience. An example from the December 2002 index reads: “Hours after Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld learned Bin Laden was a suspect that he sought reasons to ‘hit’ Iraq: 2.5. Percentage by which the Pentagon’s September order for sun block exceeded its last largest such order: 70.”


The magic bullet

Listspeak is not solely a media phenomenon. Far more pernicious in its all-pervasiveness is the kind of bullet-point-list thinking (or lack of thinking) rife in corporate culture that, back in the early 1980s, the inventors of PowerPoint exploited so effectively with software features such as the AutoContent Wizard. As Ian Parker observed in an article in the New Yorker, “PowerPoint also has a private, interior influence. It edits ideas. It is, almost surreptitiously a business manual as well as a business suit, with an opinion—an oddly pedantic, prescriptive opinion—about the way we should think.” PowerPoint templates that insist on a heading followed by bullet points—the InFocus “Presenters University” website, for example, pushes the “666 Rule” for visual presentations: “No more than 6 words per bullet, 6 bullets per image and 6 word slides in a row”—lead to a truncated, discontinuous kind of thinking that has seeped out of the corporate boardrooms and into culture at large. Many conference lectures and even church sermons are now delivered in PowerPoint.

While the bullet point’s existence certainly predates the PowerPoint, its popularity is a curious byproduct of the computer program. Until recently it was merely a typographical mark, a solid dot, used in a particular kind of list, usually in an advertising context, to distinguish items of equal weighting. Typesetters would have created bullets by filling lowercase “o”s or by using various dingbats. Now, a plethora of websites exists to advise upon its usage: according to one, by adding emphasis to a list with bullets or icons (in PowerPoint you can select animated or sound ones) your list takes on new importance and invites readership. It has become an increasingly noisy sign that requests, with more urgency than a new paragraph can muster, the renewed and exaggerated attention of a reader: “Read This Now!” it seems to demand. Despite the bullet’s mysterious past—in typographic histories its origins are either guessed at or omitted completely—and the fact that there is no bullet point button on the computer keyboard (it’s Option 8 on Macs and Alt-0149 on Windows); it has somehow finagled its way into popular usage to the extent that it is now the punctuation mark of our era.

Apart from the bullet point, the other visual elements that make a list recognizable include the following: white space; linear arrangement (vertical or horizontal); the use of a colon; a deliberate system of organization (an order indicated by numbers or letters) or non-organization (to expand its free associative potential); and a choice of arrangement on the page (centered, or ranged left, for example.) All these play their part in signaling list-ness.


From daily chores to rolls of honor

The content of a list has an interior logic of its own; a mini universe of principles that make it a purposeful and curated collection of found things or concepts. It can be ordered by rank—as in alphabetical indexes and the “Fortune 500”—by category—as in the case of axes, halbards and doas in the ethnographic Pitt Rivers Museum—or it can be an unordered assemblage of things.

In the latter category more often than not the common factor is the personal experience—either real or hypothetical—of the author. Most of us attempt to give our working days some semblance of purpose or control by listing them out—often resulting in laughable abutments of prosaic detail and poetic ambition as in: “call printer, pick up dry-cleaning, quit smoking, get bike fixed, buy deodorant, write memoirs.” Our personal notes to self provide a unique space in which both the facts and the possibilities of our lives can coexist.

Other personal lists are compiled to signal inclusion within a particular social group. It is assumed that other cool people such as ourselves know and understand the selection. This is the “the-top-five-Elvis-Costello-songs” type of list through which Nick Hornby’s hero Rob Fleming views the world in High Fidelity: the type of list where recognition is its own reward. Most of us relish opportunities such as these to debate nuances in taste, to be “knowing” and the list provides a basis for discussion.

List culture does not only embrace the trivial. Some lists reflect life or death situations: Schindler’s list or the anxiously awaited list of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Then there are memorials such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC with more than 58,000 names engraved in its marble, or the incantatory recital of the names of the victims at the anniversary memorial service for the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Nearly every town and village in the UK lists its dead from two world wars in a cut stone monument. All such quiet memorials and roll calls make a virtue of the respectful, unsentimental quality of an unadorned list.


Ships and warriors

The making and manipulating of lists was one of the earliest forms of literacy. About two-thirds of the tablets excavated from the ancient port of Ugarit in Syria, and dating from 1400 BC, are lists of taxes, rations, supplies, pay, inventories, receipts, census records and so on. Once information could be stored in a written list, complex forms of analysis, such as categorization and classification—analysis that an oral memory-based culture had precluded—were possible. The list, then, enabled whole new modes of thought.

Listing is an essential literary and linguistic strategy. It can be used as a self-conscious rhetorical device to build the drama of an argument or to create an accumulation of sensation. In The Iliad, for example, Homer compiled a catalog of ships and lists of the warriors at Troy to accentuate the drama and the scope of his literary undertaking. And the 19th century Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau embraced the systematic language of natural history exemplified by Linnaeus’ classification of species in their list writing. Later, writers such as Walt Whitman and James Joyce exploited the prosaic/poetic tensions that also characterize the everyday shopping list. For Whitman, the list summoned the subjects into being, calling forth the democratic masses. For Joyce, the list was the definitive modernist device for refuting the descriptive excesses of the Victorian age.


Minutiae of life

Visual practitioners have also made their mark on the evolution of the list. While the kind of lists found in notebooks are frequently mined by critics for the clues they may disclose about the creative process of a maker, lists that may be considered as finished products, as ends in themselves, are discussed much less often.

When the novelist and literary critic William Gass wrote in his beautiful essay, “I’ve Got a Little List,” that “a camera is a list maker, the film nothing but a series of shots in the order of their snapping,” he may well have had the photographer Walker Evans in mind.

Here is the quintessential visual list-maker, documenting the unsung aspects of everyday life through his serial portraits of things, places and people in “portfolios” such as “Labor Anonymous” and “Beauties of the Common Tool.” In addition to these photographic lists, Evans also made type and hand-written lists of concepts, objects and experiences which art critic Sarah Boxer describes as “powerful bits of vertical writing.” They tend to make jarring juxtaposition of ordinary and the emotional details. A two-column list of Evans’s 1926–27 European travels, for example, records his physical progress by means of the names and addresses of the places he visits. This humdrum catalog is threaded through with enigmatic hints of the photographer’s personal feelings at the various stages of his journey: “Solitude” appears six times (although in one instance it is crossed out).

Among Evan’s other lists is one he compiled in 1937 under the heading “Contempt for.” In it he itemized: “men who try to fascinate women with their minds, gourmets, liberals, cultivated women, writers, successful artists who use the left to buttress their standing, the sex life of America, limited editions, ‘atmosphere,’ Bennington College, politics, men of my generation who became photographers during the Depression, journalists, new dealers, readers of the New Yorker, the corner of Madison Avenue and 56th St……”

French author Georges Perec, in 1981, elevated the New Year’s resolution list genre to an art form in his log of “Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die,” which includes “Take a trip on a bateau mouche” as well as “Arrange my bookshelves once and for all” and “Find the solution to the Rubik cube.” More recently, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, a self-admitted list-lover, made a similar record of his preoccupations and unfulfilled desires, handwritten and replete with checkboxes, that concludes with: “Touch somebody’s heart with graphic design.”


Relentless detachment

Many artists have used lists in their work. Some make collections of items, presented, like Gass suggests, as juxtapositions that “exhibit many of the qualities of collage.” Ed Ruscha, in a photographic document of every building on LA’s Sunset Strip for example, observes his environment through a dispassionate listing lens. And Gerhard Richter conveys detachment through relentless amassing in his “48 Portraits,” a visual catalog of philosophers, composers, writers and scientists depicted in a style reminiscent of encyclopedia illustrations.

A more recent example of this apparently objective cultural portraiture is “Wordsearch,” (published on four pages of the business section of the October 4 edition of The New York Times.) Artist Karin Sander collected from 250 New Yorkers, each speaking a different language, a word in their mother tongue, then translated it into the other 249 languages, and compiled the resulting 62,500 words in a work of art analogous to the newspaper’s stock market listing.

In a similarly taxonomical spirit, French installation artist Christian Boltanski assembled in the South London Gallery 3,000 telephone directories and Yellow Pages from all the countries of the world. He also inserted in the gallery’s newspaper a supplement that listed all registered voters living within ten minutes’ walk of the gallery.

At the other end of the spectrum, artists such as Tracey Emin have imported lists based on intensely personal experience (“Everyone I have ever slept with 1963–95”) from the private to the public sphere and exploited their incongruence in the new context.


Beauty, mystery and utility

In a crop of recent design work, too, lists have attained a new prominence. Indexes, directories, checklists—the organizational principles of many graphic design artifacts, especially books, catalogs and websites—are retrieved from ignominious locations in their structures and celebrated front and center. Indexes spill onto book covers, checklists of artists’ work become the primary content of promotional posters, and the normally hidden programming language of websites is prioritized.

For the catalog of the “Best Book Designs of 1999,” exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum, designer Stuart Bailey featured the index of materials, typefaces, designers and publishers of the winning books on the front and back covers. In such annuals and catalogs, the index is the first place people look, so why not cut to the chase? The Walker Art Center’s Andrew Blauvelt and Santiago Piedrafita employed a similarly pragmatic system in their design for the catalog of the American Center for Design’s 21st annual design competition. Subtitled “The Indexical Archive,” the catalog’s cover becomes the checklist of the works in the show, color-coded according to their selection by each juror. The rest of the piece, which Blauvelt describes as, “a series of appendices that visualize the competition winners in different ways,” continues the listing theme.

When Daniel Eatock and Sam Solhaug of Foundation 33 designed an exhibition about information and architecture at Artists’ Space in New York in the Summer of 2002, they created a system in which all the text needed for the exhibition was printed in a continuous list on A1 posters. The same poster was used as a caption for each piece in the show, with the irrelevant information in each case crossed out. And, as a corollary to Bits, his ever-expanding typeface made up of fragments of detritus, such as such as door hinges or bent paper clips, Paul Elliman has compiled a list of materials intended to suggest what he calls “a fluid overlap between language and the built environment.” The list, that runs to the hundreds, includes such poetically named metals as “black annealed wire, hot-dipped bright-spangled galv, sheared-edge zintec, friction-welded bright bar,” as well as seemingly comprehensive inventories of plastics and processed timbers.

This contemporary fascination with the formal characteristics of lists and indexes echoes, to some extent, the sentiment that surrounded them at their first invention. Walter Ong, in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), notes that, “Indexes seem to have been valued at times for their beauty and mystery rather than for their utility. In 1286 a Genoese compiler could marvel at the alphabetical catalog he had devised as due not to his own prowess but ‘the grace of God working in me.’” While the aforementioned designers may not make such divinely inspired claims for their work, their relish for this often-neglected apparatus of order is undeniable.

And it’s not just print designers who are bringing the mechanisms of organization to the fore. Some websites too, reveal their listing backbones, x-ray fashion. The “McSweeney’s Internet Tendency” uses a centered list that resembles a visual poem like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings.” Lee Epstein, the site’s editor, says of his choice of organizational device: “There is a cleanliness to the list structure, aesthetically, which goes hand-in-hand with the layout of the content of the website.” And, another of Elliman’s lists, the so-called grrrr.list, provides a live and constantly changing cross section through the various dimensions of anger on the web. It takes the form of a threaded discussion, one of the mainstays of web culture, with a message board that collects any postings on the web that use the term “grrrr” (or “grrr” or “grrrrr”) as a prefix.


The unchecked potential of the anti-list

Amidst the binary mentality of the A-list—where you can be “on” or “off,” “in” or “out,” but nothing much in between—and the bullet-point thinking engendered by PowerPoint, a new strain of anti-list arrives like a breath of fresh air. “We need cultural guides that regularly and inevitably explode the notion of their own completeness, consistency, adequacy,” challenges cultural critic Mark Sinker. The lists of mundane found data assembled each week on the McSweeney’s website come some way toward answering Sinker’s desire to debunk the omnipresent list, even while continuing to revel in it. “It is extremely difficult to know when a list does or does not work,” says McSweeney’s Epstein. “The lists are the hardest pieces to edit, and even harder to explain.” Lists such as: “T-Shirt Slogans Worn Recently by Contestants on The Price Is Right;” “Names of Squash That Also Make Good Terms of Endearment;” and “Actual Comments Written in the Customer Comments Book in Somerfield’s, a Supermarket in Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders;” are obsessive to the point of absurdity. But they are also valid and inevitable reactions to our over-reliance on the list construct.

Another piece of contemporary satire that deflates its own list format is “The Top Ten,” a regular feature of David Letterman’s “The Late Show,” broadcast weekly on CBS; Lists such as “Top Ten Surprises In The 12,000-Page Iraqi Declaration” take the list to its logical and sometimes comic extreme. The archetypal anti-list must surely be Jorge Luis Borges’ “certain Chinese encyclopedia”—a literary list that challenges its own boundaries, a mess of conflicting criteria for inclusion in the list that exposes and violates the principles of classification. Borges writes: “animals are divided into (a) those that belong the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush; (l) et cetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

Anthropologist Jack Goody’s study of the list form in its early history concludes that the list relies on discontinuity rather than continuity. It depends, he says, on physical placement, on location; it has a clear-cut beginning and a precise end, that is, a boundary. Yet on the Web, the list has the potential to become infinite. And, because links allow for multi-contextual positioning, the classificatory and hierarchical ordering of elements of the list is inefficient, and perhaps ultimately will become obsolete. Such concepts don’t sit well with graphic design’s traditional role as organizer of information and, yet, investigation at the edges of lists, in opposition to lists, and of exploding lists, seems to hold the most promise for the designer interested in building and evolving the genre. Contemporary graphic design’s engagement with the list to date is primarily archaeological; the humble list is being retrieved from obscurity, thrust center-stage, and enjoyed as an end in itself. Listing as a device, fits well with the popular systems-based approach, and affords designers ironic distance from their subject matter. But compilers, writers, artists and designers—or anyone seduced by the simplicity of the list’s form—all risk taking a merely passive stance, and ignoring the need to make critical choices. In terms of its investigation in design practice, the list still has many possibilities left unchecked.

"Every Building on the Sunset Strip," by Ed Ruscha, 1966