For every “form” (an idea, concept, method, or object) we introduce, inevitably, its complement, the “counterform” appears. “To produce one is to produce the other.”¹

Consider the capital letter “A.” In simple terms, its visual appearance could be described as two slanting lines, the disconnected sides of a triangle, with a horizontal bar in the middle, acting as a bridge. A light version would consist of three thin strokes, a heavier version three thick strokes. Consider what these lines demarcate: A triangle, a trapezoid, and the space that surrounds the letter. These three components are larger in a light version compared to a heavier version.

Form and counterform are perceived as two zones. The counterform has less perceptual saliency and appears as a “mere” background. Both parts do not appear juxtaposed, but rather stratified: there is a tendency to see the form as positioned in front, and the counterform behind, as if occluded by the former. The border separating the two is perceived as belonging to the form rather than the counterform, which delineate the contour.²

Even though the counterformal supervenes on the formal, and the two together determine the complete picture, the focus is on the form. An “A” is an “A” is an “A;” reading this letter, we do not perceive triangles and trapezoids. In short, we examine what we have been trained to consider and disregard what appears trivial.

What makes the counterform relevant?
How might the counterform inform deform warp alter modify question break from expand superimpose transform morph conflate swap with deconstruct reconstruct react to reveal become the form?

“We do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things,” suggests philosopher Michel Foucault.³ In the same way should the work that emerges in my present and future practice not live on its own, isolated from its surrounding. Work that lives in spaces with the quality of being in relation to all the other spaces, but in a way to question the relations they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.⁴ Counter-Formation places emphasis on the region where counterform reasserts itself and allows it to encounter form through counterform with a set of responsive structures.

Responsive Structures

To structure is to establish an ensemble of relations between elements that makes them appear as juxtaposed, set off from one another, or implicated by each other, operating in a sort of configuration. Elements inside a structure may be randomly distributed or arranged according to single or to multiple classifications.⁵

Structures commonly evoke the idea of fixed arrangements, awaiting to be adopted by more or less flexible components (one instance might be buildings—the structures, and furniture—their components). Le Corbusier referred to these components as “equipment” and described them as “flexible elements with a capacity for adaptation and change.”⁶ This “equipment,” however, remains separated from the structure. It does not interfere with or influence it.

Combining the adjustable qualities of the equipment with the anatomy of a structure that contains them, leads us to responsive structures: structures that change from within specific parameters.

An example of such responsive structures is a building by the architecture firm Orambra (“Prairie House” in Northfield, Illinois). Also referred to as an example of “parametric architecture,” the building is driven by an interest in using alternative forms of architectural media to transpose new modes of operation onto standardized building assemblies. Through the use of photo-chromatic inks, the color of the interior membrane becomes lighter on warmer days and darker on colder days.⁷ It reacts to, and lives with, the environment.

The unconsidered structure—in other words, the structure whose form appears too obvious to be actively reconsidered on every encounter—transforms from being supportive to a central component. It creates a relationship between more or less unpredictable influences, design, and the very moment of one’s encounter. It illustrates how an established solution transforms to a responsive suggestion. The conceptual orientation shifts and categorizational contours blur. It is no longer a question of defining the contours, but what escapes them—“the secret movement, the breaking, the torment, the unexpected.”⁸

Blurred Contours

As contours blur, elements exceed their boundaries, rearrange, and establish new contexts. They initiate a moment of counterbalance that allows one to grasp the unexposed zone between existent and eventual structure—an unconstructed, liminal area, liberated from a delimiting formula.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane, for instance, are situated within this zone. A Jazz band finds its basis in a tune or chord sequence of some kind of basic structure.⁹ The execution, however, is subject to each artists’ individual interpretation and improvisation. They follow, but blur the original structure. One band member takes a solo and makes a musical statement, another responds to it. It becomes a conversation. “The given is only the beginning” and the eventual “arrangement [is] subject to change—rearrangement.”¹⁰

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In Conversation
with Nate Brown




Nate Brown is a creative director based in New York. He established Studio Institute in 2013 after working for some of the most influential individuals in the music, fashion, and entertainment industry, including Kanye West, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Alexander Wang, Jerry Lorenzo, and Louis Vuitton.

You certainly had a unique career path, beginning with work for American Apparel at a young age, followed by Barneys and Donda—all while establishing a studio. The thrust of the entrepreneur seems hard-wired. Can you speak to those early experiences, as well as the impact of particular influences from the fashion, music, and entertainment industry upon your work and philosophy?

First of all, I appreciate that you did all the research. That’s great. Sometimes the Internet has a way of telling you one thing. But so far, everything you mentioned actually happened. So that’s great.

I think each different experience had its input and impacted various points of my philosophy. Since I began working at such a young age, my ability to need to think quickly was shaped early on. I started to think swiftly. I wouldn’t say with haste—I am not thinking inconsiderately, but I was trained to be able to react to things quite fast—one can become agile at a young age. At 16 I moved to New York due to a life situation that forced me to make critical decisions. And you have to become confident in those decisions. I didn’t have any formal creative or business schooling—everything that I was doing from a decision perspective was a guesstimate. I was guessing folks. I would guess and I would try and fail until I did it right or until the outcome was what I wanted it to be. So my confidence in decision making was shaped early on and my ability to know what I am looking for and how to react and comment on it.

It seems that you were put in unfamiliar situations regularly. Instead of relying on what you were taught, you were forced to establish your own set of “do’s and don’ts.” Might this be a powerful engine of exploration though?

Being exploratory in my creativity was something that I learned through the process of not learning. I was not taught by a formal education system on how to think creatively. I had to teach myself through the wonderful people that I was fortunate to be around, who were not knowingly teaching. They were doing their craft, so I had to proactively learn as opposed to passively learn.

Lina Kutsovskaya was the one who brought me into that world. She was the advertising director at Barneys and is now responsible for Fenty and Off-White via a studio called Be Good Studios—which she runs with her husband Nick Haymes (who also runs Little Big Man Gallery) in Los Angeles. She put a lot of trust in me to do various things that I had no idea how to do. I would learn through her and she wouldn’t know that she was teaching me. She was just doing her job. And I thought: If she is the advertising director at Barneys, she obviously is the best at her craft.

That still is part of my philosophy. I learned from your work by seeing your Instagram feed. I am being taught by people who don’t know they are teaching me, but they are. They always are. That shaped my philosophy of learning. No matter where you are in your career. It allows you to constantly come up with new ideas and that is what makes it fun. Getting too comfortable in your ideas can get quite boring because you start to regurgitate them all the time. Something new can become kind of scary.

What the career teaches you is that it is going to be OK. It takes a long time to learn because when you try something new at an early stage in your career, you are very much afraid of failing and worried that you are going to be washed up against it. This is pretty far from the truth. When you are young in your career, you can do whatever you want. I keep that same mentality now. You don’t have to have a style that you are known for. You can constantly shift your craft.

Refreshing your perspective and not sticking to one thing that you already “mastered,” but rather experiencing the whole spectrum, or at least the next facet of it?

Correct. I think the people who were “teaching” me were purveyors of that philosophy as well. The way I work now is the opposite of a perfectionist. Nothing is perfect, right? Many creatives like to sit behind this armor of perfection. You have to move on to the next thing. Sometimes I look at something and think: “That was cool.” But then it is done. Instead of making it perfect, do something else or you make something that you could enjoy in your everyday life.

I learned a lot from Virgil [Abloh] and Kanye [West]. They would always encourage me to just try things. If they work, people quickly respond to them. If you are creating commercial work, the goal is for someone to have a response to it. It needs to speak to a wider audience of people. If people don’t have a response to it, you’re not doing your work. You are creating art for yourself. Which is—by the way—also fucking awesome. But not if your goal is to create commercial work in the sense of Kanye. He is a pop star. He would hate that I said that, like murder me. Or maybe not because he is a fan of McDonald’s and Costco and these things at a really wide-reaching level. And to do that, you have to be in the graces of the people you are speaking to. You have to create things that are enjoyable for them. You are the vessel in which those things are being created.

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In Conversation
with Joe Perez




Joe Perez is a creative director with a background in graphic design and filmmaking. Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, he worked as an art director in Los Angeles before establishing a multidisciplinary design and animation studio that works within the industries of music, fashion, and advertising for clients such as Kanye West, Beyoncé, Nike, Louis Vuitton, and Versace.

Hey Joe, how are you doing?

I’m good. How are you?

Hanging in there. Are you in Providence?

I am. I feel like I have been training for this moment for a while. I worked from the same setup five years ago when I worked for Kanye [West].

It seems that you are prepared for this.

Well, he had me working around the clock and when I worked from home. It was pretty isolated in general. I always tried to get out as much as possible to be amongst people. But now I feel I am back.

I mean, just by seeing the enormous output, I believe your time as an art director at Donda was a very intense experience.

Working in a team environment where everybody had their own perspectives and shared ideas was unique. Virgil would draw ideas on napkins on a private jet and then text them to me. Literally a photo of an idea on a napkin. And that was our creative brief. It was really neat to be a part of this team and to bring those thought processes to my own creative output.

It gave me a perspective that I might not have had if I wasn’t a part of that group. Kanye and Virgil [Abloh] demanded excellence at all times. Nobody slept and everybody worked around the clock. I had never been pushed by anybody that hard. I really found out what my boundaries were—not just as a creative but as a human being. I worked 12 to 18 hours a day for stretches of months on end. After a while your body starts to give out physically, your mind starts to melt. But you just keep creating because the well feels like it is going dry. In that time period, you really find what motivates you. You might be looking externally for what may be inspiring. Those experiences were very positive. On the negative side though, working for so many hours does not leave room for personal or creative growth. It also affects your personal life.

The harmony is trying to find the balance between the two. That was never the case while working at Donda because everything was about Kanye. It was about creating the best possible product, which took precedence over pretty much everything in my life. But at the same time, I grew as an artist and I could not trade that experience for anything in the world.

Look at Virgil, Jerry, Nate, and Heron—all of them are at the top of their industries. It was an experience that led to a better life and a networking channel that constantly keeps growing—friends are helping friends at this point. And now I have a thriving studio because of that experience.

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Work Index


PR01Positive, Negative, In-Between

On a sunny fall afternoon, artist Will Chouinard and I made our way to the Tillinghast Farm Beach in Rhode Island, equipped with two shovels and a bucket. Except for a quick sketch, nothing was planned. We decided to realize an experimental project around sixty yards from the main beach entrance, so most beach walkers would pass us.

We marked a rectangular square of roughly eight by eight feet on the sand, parallel to the waterfront. This area would become a cube of sand, with the only purpose of interrupting the beautiful beach landscape. We imagined it as “the sand version” of the famous monolith, known from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but rotated by ninety degrees—an unfamiliar object in a familiar environment.

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Circa is an itinerant pop-up gallery and social space, periodically showcasing the work of designers and artists in small, temporary exhibitions.

Unlike traditional museums or galleries, Circa does not have a permanent location, collection, or identity. Instead, the approach is to work outside the boundaries of typical museum and gallery environments dedicated to and driven by the art market and often located in gentrified areas, not regularly available to less privileged groups.

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PR03Unspaced Spaces

Spaces between letters are conventionally adjusted to create harmonious legibility. By visualizing the void—the invisible and supportive spaces between the letterforms—this interactive typeface invites viewers to influence the appearance by becoming a component of it.

While typing, the typeface constantly changes. Letters react to their context—their visual appearances are dependent on the word they appear in. The “N” in New York is different from the “N” in Norway.

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PR04Deconstruction, Reconstruction

Woven cotton blankets—originally produced to present uppercase and lowercase “A” of a typeface on the front, with the inverted equivalent on the back—became part of an exploration into deconstructionism.

The blankets were utilized as source material for a sweater and several scarves. The sweater’s front and one sleeve used to be the back of a blanket, the back of the sweater and the second sleeve used to be the front. The appearance of the scarves are random.

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PR05+1 (320) 313-1312

+1 (320) 313-1312 is an interactive smartphone installation—an array of visualizations of ourselves, and how we are eternally entrapped in them. Everything we are curious about, places we go to, and people we communicate with, are fossilized in these highly personalized devices—miniature catalogues of ourselves.

Our lives are defined, even led by interacting with them. It’s difficult to distance ourselves, or control when and how often they enter our lives.

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Atlas showcases a collection of typographic and illustrative artworks and photo­graphs, inspired by store signs and commer­cial advertisements found in the neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island. Both type and illustrations are informed by the handcrafted visual aesthetics the artworks originate from.

PR07 A–HVarious Artworks, Posters & Objects

PR07A Depending on the viewer’s distance, a giant poster—measuring eight by five feet—changes its visual appearance. From far away, words seem to be formed from shiny, metal bars. Viewed up close, the metal effect disappears. Instead, delicate grain textures appear.

PR07B Abstract, three-dimensional objects and shapes were translated into two-dimensional drawings during formal exploration. The artworks are abstract and to be interpreted by the viewer and their individual impressions and associations. In other words, there is no pre-defined story that directs the viewer to think and experience the pieces.

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PR08 A–FVarious Typefaces

PR08A Principal is a high-contrast sans serif typeface with roots in the nineteenth-century grotesques. Short descenders and long ascenders shift its baseline uncommonly low, suggesting a sense of strong (digital) gravity that particularly informs the heavier weights. The repetitive use of minor angles and slightly disproportionate terminals complement the otherwise rigid typeface.

PR08B Inspired by the unintended effects of metal type­setting, the inversion of ink traps characterize this typeface. Instead of creating spaces in order to generate optical harmony of stroke widths—or, at the beginning of the 20th century, to prevent ink from spreading—every inner corner is over-proportionally rounded—“spread with ink.”

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PR03Unspaced Spaces
PR04Deconstruction, Reconstruction
PR05+1 (320) 313-1312
PR07 A–HVarious Artworks, Posters & Objects
PR08 A–FVarious Typefaces

Written and Designed by
Fabian Fohrer© 2020

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Edited by
Anne West, Everett Epstein, Kelsey Elder, Minkyoung Kim, Bethany Johns

Kelsey Elder, Minkyoung Kim, Bethany Johns, Timothy Maly

Rhode Island School
of Design

Master of Fine Arts,
Graphic Design

This thesis is created for academic purposes only. Image use is for educational purposes only. Unless otherwise noted, all images were reproduced without permission. If there are objections to the use of any images, I will be happy to remove them. Presented in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Design in the Department of Graphic Design of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island.