“My formal studies of graphic design span over five years and took place at four different institutions,” says Colombia-born designer Elena Etter. After realising early on in high school that she wanted to study graphic design, she enrolled on a pre-college course at Rhode Island School of Design. Following which, she went on to Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, where she’s from; Glasgow School of Art which was “extremely rewarding but also a shock as the ways of teaching there are completely different to what I was used to in Colombia.” She finally landed at Central Saint Martins in London, from which she graduated last July.
It’s this “academic nomadism” that allowed Elena to gather tools, experiences and feelings that have defined her position as a designer today. Her work explores forms of writing through and around design, expressing a fascination with language and communication which has found its focus in the written word and typographic studies. Her most recent projects range from publications to photography but all explore the materiality of language, looking at how notational systems manifest visually but also syntactically.
Elena explains how “I still remember my first class ever, it was a typography course. Five years later it is still what I enjoy the most in design,” which is extremely clear across her body of work. There is a distinct lack of imagery, instead featuring typography for its stand-alone visual qualities. Type as image is treated extremely carefully in her work, allowing an audience to appreciate it in a context they may not have seen it before. This is particularly prevalent in her project Letter Jumps & Mixed Faces: “I enjoy letters in all their forms and think written language is a very powerful device in the communication of ideas. Typography is difficult to get right, and I’m still learning how to do it.”
In her project visual&syntactic Materialities Elena explores how we make sense of things and how the system of communication we use determines “what we say and how we say it.” It breaks down the construction of language from the inside and how it manifests visually highlighting it as not just a vehicle for speech but a complex communication device.
The book is bound at a five degree angle as “a nod to the measurement system of distances between celestial objects (on an angle made with regards to an observational point on Earth, measured in degrees, arc minutes, and arc seconds),” she told us. This was a decision made to incite engagement and curiosity in a reader, mirror the five concepts of the essay but also to reflect Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan’s metaphorical device for analysis: “constellation”. This notion of constellation is furthered by the addition of large punctuation that mimics stars and other celestial bodies found in the night sky.
As a designer she believes her role is to translate, a manifesto that was born out of Translating Design: an investigative project inspired by Kenya Hara, who says that “there are an unlimited number of ways of thinking and perceiving. In my understanding, to design is to intentionally apply to ordinary objects, phenomena and communication the essence of these innumerable ways of thinking and perceiving.” Elena herself explained to us how she believes “graphic design is not only about making beautiful things but building strong visual concepts and making a statement.” This belief manifests itself in a number of considered and research driven projects that place importance on content and design through process.
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