Brian Kall

Engineer turned designer.

About

I believe in a research-led design approach that respects both content and the voice of the designer. I try to make work that is as thoughtful-provoking as it is entertaining.

What is the most useful piece of design advice that you have received?

Start right away.

What is your favourite typeface?

Comic Sans (seriously, we can talk about it).

Other than design, what creative fields interest you most?

Movies and TV.

How would you describe the colour yellow to someone who has never seen it?

The colour yellow looks like the taste of honey.

Design Interests

Editorial and Book Design
Typography
Design Studies and Theory
Motion Design

Graphic Design and Nihilism

Planes flying over houses at sunset

In Design Workshop, our year-long thesis course, I came to Nihilism after researching my way out of a number of more tangible ideas. Discussions with my professor, David Cabianca, led me to make a compilation of images of graphic design work that I found interesting; from this collection a visual theme emerged, which I realized was the light-hearted point of view that life is meaningless and we are all fundamentally alone. As David says, graphic design is therapy.

Nihilism is the philosophical point of view that everything (the universe and all things in it) is based on nothing (or on something arbitrary) and is therefore meaningless. My research into the subject involved a survey of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, all of whom contributed important texts to the ideas of Nihilism and its related school of thought, Existentialism. I began to consider ways in which the themes of Nihilism, which include existential dread, anguish, and loss of meaning, might be communicated through graphic design.


Our Workshop course included a few weeks of “research through making.” During this period, we were to generate as many prototypes of design projects as we could that fit our theme. Two of the projects I made were of interest: a book of blurry photos of planes flying over my house at sunset, and a 12-hour time-lapse video of the park in front. Rather than presenting explanatory information, these pieces embodied Nihilistic themes in less apparent ways.


I chose to develop the book of photos for my first semester project. One book turned into a small series, and I experimented with imagery that attempted to give the reader a sense of meaninglessness (yes, this project was a little melancholy). The first book uses images of ceilings seen through reflective windows, and the second contains photos of the planes at sunset. Both sets of images intend to present things that happen or exist that people don’t usually pay attention to, yet are there nonetheless; when forced to consider something that often goes unnoticed, one might begin to reflect on the meaning of one’s own existence. A portion of a Nietzsche essay about Nihilism starts each book to prompt the reader before seeing the photos.

Being versus representation

The largest project in Workshop came in the second semester. I wanted to create a motion/time-based piece, expanding on the video from the previous semester. I struggled with the type of content that I wanted to present and initially considered material that spoke directly about Nihilism, such as philosophy podcasts. At David’s suggestion, I again considered “being” as compared with “representation”—”being” meaning that a piece of design work can embody ideas without mentioning them specifically, and while still fulfilling the goals of its client and content. Rather than doing a project that educated a viewer about Nihilism, I chose a project that I wanted to do (main title design) and worked to build Nihilistic themes into it.


I chose to do an opening for Breaking Bad for a number of reasons. I consider Breaking Bad to be one of the greatest shows ever put on television, and I also believe that it exhibits some of the Nihilistic themes that I was working with. Breaking Bad is about a chemistry teacher that finds out he has cancer, starts producing the drug methamphetamine to pay his bills and leave money for his family after he dies, and ultimately discovers that he enjoys working with chemistry outside of the law. One can make the case that, at its core, the show is about loss of faith in, and rejection of, societal systems; fear that one’s life will lack meaning and fulfillment; and building one’s life to suit one’s own definitions of meaning. This reading of the show fit perfectly with the themes that I was exploring.


The Nihilistic embodiment for the credits works in a way that is similar to the books I had made in the previous semester. By calling attention to commonplace suburban objects and processes that are not often scrutinized, the viewer considers the dread that these things can evoke. The idea of the sinister hiding within the banal works well for Breaking Bad; the objects symbolize the malice that is hidden within seemingly unthreatening characters.

Working through it

The final portion of my thesis project is a Risograph-printed booklet that ties together my work from both semesters. The booklet contains the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Camus and the images shown are of the camera setups required to create the Breaking Bad opening.


The essay compares our daily lives to the labours of Sisyphus, the man who was condemned to repeatedly push a stone up a mountainside and watch it roll back down for eternity. Camus makes the case that while Sisyphus cannot change his situation, it is within his power to acknowledge his reality and find joy in his decision to participate.


In a way, the cameras in my photos can be seen as Sisyphus’ rock, and highlighting them in bright pink suggests the joy that can be found in the day-to-day. This, therefore, is a way to work through Nihilism, as suggested by both Camus and Nietzsche: after one rejects all systems of meaning, one is free to determine meaning for oneself.

See more of my work at the graduate showcase