"Dignified by psychologists with the name of “transitional comfort objects,” these are soft things, ranging from gauze diapers through old crib blankets to more conventional soft toys, which many children adopt with passion at about this time and use either with, or instead of, sucking. A baby’s cuddly takes on a very real emotional importance for him. It is his familiar; the thing that spells safety and security, wards off evil and promises your return." {2}

Penelope Leach
Your Baby and Child

1. Grieve

Once there was
Once there was not...

So goes the paradoxical beginning to many a fairy tale. This phrase warns us that we are entering an intermediary space. This place between places is filled with possibility and paradox. It is the potential space between reality and phantasy. As an intermediary discipline, graphic design operates in the place between commerce and art, between convention and innovation. The designer functions as the ultimate interdisciplinarian, a communication trickster who creates links between diverse populations, their needs and their desires. The medial role of the designer is enhanced by an openness to the complexity of human life and its varied stories. Storytelling is one way that the designer mediates at the crossroads of culture.

One of the central figures in the story of Vasalisa and the Baba Yaga is the little doll used by the girl to guide her way in the world following the death of her mother. Not only does the doll provide Vasalisa with enhanced intuitive powers, but it also whispers words of comfort to her at moments of great anxiety. Its voice soothes her to sleep. Its voice helps her to navigate and face a range of formidable challenges. The doll evoked for me the term “transitional object” which I had encountered as the parent of a young child.

Peter L. Rudnysky edited a collection of essays, Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces / Literary uses of D.W. Winnicott. (1993). The book expands on the work of Winnicott, a British pediatrician and child psychiatrist who died in 1971. Though less well known in the academic humanities than French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Winnicott’s humanist thoughts on object relations and psychoanalytic aesthetics present an alternative tool for scholars of literature, art and design. Rudnysky makes the claim that independent object relations theory offers “the first satisfactory psychoanalytic account of aesthetics.” {3}

In his introduction to the book, Rudnysky identifies three pivotal terms articulated in Winnicott’s theories of object relations.

These are:

transitional objects,
potential space,
and the use of an object.

Transitional Objects, his best-known concept (put forward in a paper published in 1953) are the ubiquitous first possessions of infants and young children - a blanket, teddy bear, or doll - that belong at once to them and to the outside world. The intermediate quality of transitional objects between fantasy and reality foreshadows that of works of art, which likewise partake simultaneously of reality and illusion. ...Winnicott named this third area between complete subjectivity and complete objectivity, in which play and aesthetic experience can occur, potential space. This space originally both joins and separates a mother and baby. ...The last of these concepts (not advanced until 1969) is the use of an object. By “use” Winnicott means the venting of destructive impulses, and an object (or person) must be able to survive an individual’s destructive attacks if it is to be placed in the sphere of external reality. {3}

Peter L. Rudnysky
Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces / Literary uses of D.W. Winnicott

Each of these concepts is applied by literary theorists to the analysis of authors and their texts. The varied essays discuss plays, novels and poetry by Shakespeare, Beckett, Lawrence, Wordsworth and Frost among others.

Of particular interest is an essay by Ellen Handler Spitz, In Picturing the Child’s Inner World of Fantasy: On the Dialectic between Image and Word. The author discusses Winnicott’s idea of the Use of the object by looking closely at Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Spitz claims that as children’s first artifacts, picturebooks are intended to facilitate “ those unheralded but cataclysmic moments in childhood when gaps between the world of image and verbal language are being negotiated.” {4} According to Spitz, Sendak’s picturebook allows the child his destructive fantasies, playing out “wild thing” urges within the safe container of the book’s design and the cozy lap of the parental holding environment. These concepts have rich application to the study of graphic design objects. Graphic design gives form to both word and image. Operating as medial communication, one of its tasks is to negotiate the space between these two. A picturebook is one example of a graphic design artifact that may also serve as transitional object for a child.

"As we know from the work of child psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott, all sustained make-believe experiences, from children’s play to Shakespeare’s theater evoke the same magical feelings as a baby’s first teddy bear because they are “transitional objects”. The teddy bear provides comfort because the child projects upon it both his memories of the soothing mother and his sense of himself as a small being who can be cuddled and hugged. But though it embodies these strong subjective elements, the teddy bear is also a real object with a physical presence outside of anything the child imagines about it. To the baby it has a richly ambiguous psychological location, shimmering with emotion but definitely not a hallucination. A good story serves the same purpose for adults, giving us something safely outside ourselves (because it is made up by someone else) upon which we can project our feelings." {5}

Janet H. Murray
Hamlet on the Holodeck

Graphic designers craft transitional objects, from navigational icons to digital stories. These designed objects in turn provide humans with solace and comfort. They help to create the potential space in which both the individual and culture thrive. My thesis project has been to craft a new version of the fairy tale, Vasalisa and the Baba Yaga. The reshaping of its text, imagery and format is an attempt to build an intermediary experience between traditional and emerging media. Stories are just one example of the transitional objects crafted to ease anxieties during this incunabula of digital media.

In a postmodern tale, the soothing voice of the narrator is no longer dependable, no longer there to lull one to sleep. The text may circle back upon itself in a self-referential game or spin off on some indeterminant course, breaking boundaries and subverting the conventions of the form. Technological innovation provides new formats for literature to play out these experimentations with narrative form.

Subject: Checking in
Date: Wed, 02 May 2001 12:09:02 -0500
From: Kenneth FitzGerald

As a multiform narrative, the story may fork off in fragments, providing multiple versions of the same plot. The reader may be asked to take an openly active role in the construction of the text. The reader may work to build the story, or at least to navigate a path through it. To face this task, sometimes harrowing and sometimes fun, the reader may also need a transitional object, some comfort tool that will ground and guide their journey.

Design can create a support device when readers are not held by hand and narratives are not spoon fed. The reader cast adrift, may cling to the concrete design of a navigational tool “doll” or a talking joystick. Readers in previous eras bonded emotionally to the physical properties of the book object. Digital designers devise new transitional objects that make concrete the bodiless experience of navigating an electronic text. These devices may go some distance toward soothing bibliophiles who fear “the death of the book”.

"With today’s interactive products comes a new definition of audience: no longer passive, theirs is a new kind of authority, offering enhanced choice as well as enhanced participation. This emphasis on participation may be the most compelling aspect of interactive technology, yet it jeopardizes our classic notions of the linear presentation of narrative form." {6}

Jessica Helfand
Six Essays on Design and New Media

It may be
that the demise of the authoritarian narrator makes way for a different kind of authorship. The parent, as storyteller, crafts her tales for the needs of this particular child, at this particular bedtime. The grandmother, the nanny, the crone spins by the fire tales for a family of listeners who interject their own memories and desires into the narrative which is then shaped by their interaction. It is possible that digital texts may provide us with a closer approximation to this spirit of oral storytelling. The agency of the reader plays a crucial role in shaping an interactive electronic text, just as the listener at the storyteller’s lap might interrupt with questions and concerns as the story unfolded. Certainly, readers of any text assert their own agency. They read at their own speed, jumping, skipping, reading backwards... and interpreting the tale as they wish. But some digital narratives provide new opportunities for participants to work hard / play hard at the recreation of fiction.

"We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrasical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth; the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author." {7}

Roland Barthes
Image - Music - Text

Much critical writing in the field of graphic design strives to define the elusive identity of the designer. Essays by Michael Rock, Ellen Lupton and Andrew Blauvelt dialog on the redefinition of designer as author, as producer, and as auteur. Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author is central to these theoretical exercises. Michael Rock rightly contextualizes Barthes’ statement in its historical location. It was written in 1968, in the midst of student protests in Paris,a fashionable moment for making bold proclamations. The world has seemed much messier ever since.

It is not surprising to find that Barthes’ Death of the Author was written in Paris in 1968, the year students joined workers on the barricades in the general strikes and the year the Western world flirted with real social revolution. To call for the overthrow of authority in the form of the author in favor of the reader - read that “masses” - had real resonance in 1968. But to lose power, you must have already worn the mantel. Thus designers had a bit of a dilemma overthrowing a power they may have never possessed." {8}

Michael Rock
Graphic Authorship

Yet, in this short lived field, graphic design writers strive to change the status of the designer. Altered hierarchy and displaced authority may make way for new collaborative relationships. Viewed through Winnicott’s lens of object relations theory, we may even consider the attack on the author as the playful venting of a destructive impulse, similar to that of the child upon his transitional object. Afterall, the black and white of this revolutionary call took place on the playground of the printed page, not at the guillotine poised on the street. Indeed, Barthes' words did much to strengthen the critic’s authority, proving that the object could survive this attack. Winnicott’s first mention of the destructive “use of the object” dates from this same rebellious era.

It is the death...
of someone...
that often starts a tale.
This loss shakes the structure of the family, the hierarchy of an institution, the conventions of an artform.... And the result is a story. The story is a way of processing, of organizing the memories, of sorting through the thoughts and the feelings. It is the death that sets the story in motion and jostles the characters from their previously prescribed roles. The death marks a change, this change begets more change.

If there is no mother to protect the child...
if there is no author to claim the text...who then is in charge?