Interview with Barbara Cadorna
What Kirby Can Teach Us About Flexible Visual Systems

When I read this article by Barbara Cadorna I had to interview her. To avoid confusion, all the captions, except this one, are written by Barbara. Here is a link to her article:

Martin: Hi Barbara, I was blown away when I read your article on Medium. It always takes me a while to explain what flexible visual systems are, but you found a perfect metaphor for an audience I might not have addressed yet, which is an incredibly useful tool for everyone out there who wants to teach FVS. Before we explain the metaphor you used, let us talk first a bit about you and how you ended up being interested in FVS. 

Barbara: Hi Martin! Thanks for having me. 5 years ago, I would say I had a naive energy towards my work. Before design school, I had no previous knowledge of anything but superficial fine arts, and I was ready to dive into trial and error. Looking back, when I was painting and doing my self-reflection art series, I could pull off a consistent thread of style while still trying to experiment with different compositions. It was only until I got to sophomore year in the School of Visual Arts (SVA) that I first understood a greater depth of flexible visual systems.

At the time my instructor, Anthony Zukofsky, orchestrated highly intellectual assignments, leading us outside of our comfort zone.

I believe one of the first projects was called “A Visual Language.” It required the class to explore different mediums (e.g., painting, photography, and/or motion graphics) and to physically go outside in search of interesting visual cues that we could borrow for the next step, which was a transformative experimentation. We had to use our collection and transform it into something completely new, using as many methods as possible. One of my classmates had the genius idea to incorporate tomato sauce and a series of Photoshop edits to achieve consistent results. This part was pretty challenging for me since there was so much that one could do. I decided to learn After Effects for this project, and it definitely made it more hectic than it should. At the time, my hoarder mentality didn’t allow me to systematize the chaos from all the inspiration I gathered through the weeks. I ended up animating 40 different compositions that had no consistent values. Though this mistake made me animate around 80 compositions after the feedback, I did learn a new tool and finally understood what makes a visual language. 

Deep from the archives is A Visual Language Project by Barbara Cadorna, 2019. Looking at works from 5 years ago makes me cringe, but they carry many precious lessons. Nowadays, I wouldn’t use Bebas Kai as my font option, but I played with the cards I dealt as a rookie. ☮︎

I also worked on a project that included designing a poster series for a fictional lecture featuring well-known architects. Mine was Denise Scott Brown, and during my research, I encountered her husband’s book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” by Robert Venturi. In the book, Venturi goes deep on the term “inflection,” which in architecture means experimenting with the nature of the individual elements in a greater unity and utilizing other aspects of gestalt psychology that influence a perceptual whole (e.g., position or number). Considering the previous chaotic project I dealt with, the idea of a system of consistent inconsistencies was pretty appealing to me. 

I implicitly worked on many branding assignments during my college years using FVS theory/practice without acknowledging it. It was only until my senior year, that my former teacher Natasha Jen introduced your book to our class, and I could finally name what I was doing this whole time.

Denise Scott Brown’s theory on Duck vs. Decorated Shed inspired me to pursue the concept of maximizing flexibility within a system. I was fascinated to see the systemic possibilities within highly ornate architecture. Image: Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi

I love how art and architecture led you to design. There are so many overlaps. All disciplines deal with human perception and life. While architecture influences how we perceive and move through the physical world, art and design act on a more abstract level. The idea of design as “A Visual Language”, as taught by your teacher Anthony Zukofsky, is in my opinion central to design and especially to flexible system design. Creating a language is creating a communication tool without which we could not exist as communities or societies. We designers sometimes underestimate the power we have. The positive and negative effects of our work are often invisible to us. What taught Natasha Jen and at which point did she introduce FVS?

Essentially, Natasha’s class is rooted in creating systems for communication; although we focused on branding, she allowed us to go above and beyond our standard knowledge of designing brands. I remember two of my peers designing a deconstructed zine into a box with individual treasure materials and a set of different booklets. Looking back, we were always required to convey an overall message tied to our concepts using a set of consistent branded elements. In our second year with Natasha, my senior year, she introduced your book so we could more easily understand the dynamics of each assignment. 

Kirby Dissection — Because all his parts are circle-derived, all his visual system components fluctuate between constant and variable, so it smoothly adapts to any enemy identity. However, Kirby uses hats or wigs for a chunk of these instances, meaning there’s no original component excluded, and only new ones are added.

You found yourself a beautiful and surprising way to teach the FVS model. Can you tell us a little about Kirby?

Kirby’s inevitable evolution, powered by tech advancements, became unique when his “Inhale” powers were boosted with his new “Copy Abilities.” Resembling a vacuum cleaner, he inhales and swallows the enemy, then absorbs and mimics the enemy’s power after spitting them out, even borrowing the enemy’s look.

Kirby’s remarkable adaptability enables creative exploration without compromising his core identity. This is made possible because of Kirby’s inherently simple body components.

Every time he’s copying an enemy’s abilities and appearance, there’s a strategic visual balance between his variable and constant components that enable the viewer to understand the fusion of two different “brands,” understanding that Kirby is still the dominant form.

Kirby’s flexibility may be suitable for every brand, especially institutional brands with many facets, like a museum, which can significantly benefit from a visual system that expands and adapts to changing times and cultural shifts. Flexibility within the visual system can be reached through countless approaches.

Some of Kirby’s copy ability power-ups. Image: Nintendo

How did you come up with this metaphor? I think it is perfect and opens up the very abstract ideas to a whole new audience. 

I have to give the kudos to my partner since he’s pretty nerdy on video games. I already knew some surface-level gaming, and over late-night snacks, I told him my favorite game character was the pink ball one. He immediately guesses it right—Kirby! Then, I was told about his amazing powers of copying enemies’ powers and their looks, and we looked through the new additions from the latest Nintendo release, Super Smash Bros., which completely blew my mind.

What caught me the most was how Kirby reacted when swallowing Steve, the Minecraft main character. Kirby turns fully square-shaped, including eyes, mouth, and blushed cheeks. I realized the great capabilities of visual identifiers, considering Minecraft’s ownership of the 3D square fused with Kirby’s somewhat modified components. I could see both in one. This a-ha moment made me question how far Kirby components could play out differently. I immediately thought, how flexible is Kirby’s visual system?

Thank you Barbara!

Barbara Cadorna, graphic designer at Coalesce NYC, occasionally writes about the intertwines of design and culture. 

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