Ilyanna Kerr: “My battlefield is the subconscious”

Have you had a look at the podcasting library of Goldsmiths College on iTunes yet? The service features some great illustrations, and we’re not saying that just because they were made by 3rd Year BA Design student Ilyanna Kerr.

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I went to see Ilyanna in the studios to find out how she ended up contributing to this project and I found her hard at work for her final thesis. Ben Pester, who manages podcasting for Goldsmiths, had nothing but words of praise for Ilyanna: “she has made an immense difference to the project with her understanding of the brief, her professionalism and talent”, he says. Ilyanna is no stranger to working for a demanding client: between year 2 and year 3 of her degree, she took time off to acquire some work experience and ended up at the famous design studio Pentagram, with 50 years of tradition, where she worked mainly as an illustrator: “I illustrated a children’s book called Who makes the Snow, it was released by Harper Collins in New York.”

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I asked Ilyanna what was the brief for the Goldsmiths podcasts, exactly, and how did she come up with the concepts for representing the different departments at Goldsmiths. She explained that she tried to do something evocative, capturing the feel of the department instead of a cliché we could have all thought of. She looked at pictures provided by the different departments and used them as inspiration, then made the pen and ink drawings, scanned them and vectorized them. Ilyanna prefers to draw on paper rather than on a tablet: the lines are more sensitive and easier to control. Much to my disappointment (I was eager to know how she interpreted it), the Design department illustration was not ready yet, but others were just as interesting- for example, Psychology is represented through the somewhat cyberpunk-evoking image of a child with a head covered in electrodes.

This is not a exactly a coincidence, as Ilyanna takes a keen interest in the connections between new technologies and the human psyche. Her graduation project, which is nearing its last run towards completion, focuses on how the subconscious defines images and the meanings we assign to them as opposed to the meanings assigned by the media. “Everybody thinks advertising and the media have no influence on them”, explains Ilyanna, “but in fact you can’t control what you receive at a subconscious level”.

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With support and guidance from Computing tutor Pete Rogers, Ilyanna designed a software that matches spoken words to images. The possible uses of this application are many. The popular photo-sharing service Instagram allows users to upload and tag their pictures; what if you could draw from that to build a new form of communication? Let’s say you have tagged with “love” images that evoke love to you: Ilyanna’s program allows you to effectively show to other people your understanding of the word “love”, communicating in a visual language. The purpose of the project is encouraging people to strengthen their own visual experience. If you had the application on your smartphone and talked to somebody with the phone strapped to your head (as hilarious as that mental image may sound), you could have a verbal and visual dialogue going on at the same time. Speaking of mental images, and taking the concept even further: Ilyanna imagines a world in which the program reads the word form as you say it in your mind, then projects an image on a screen that you wear on your forehead, based on the visual language you built through tagging. “The subconscious and the brain are the last private area, but they are soon going to be accessed”, says Ilyanna.

How would a first date between people equipped with such devices go? It’s also interesting to consider how people would censor themselves if such a means of communication became widespread: what would you do if more embarrassing images were brought to the surface by the program? Would you be honest when building your visual language or would you try to construct it in a way that would be most appealing to others?

It turns out that if you feed something really heavy and serious into the application, such as US President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, it’s an effective tool for deconstructing the polished political message and bringing it down to Earth: when Google Images translates “thank you” into a silly, colorful greeting card, the words are less convincing and impressive- an useful way of separating their actual meaning from the skills of the speaker. I’m sure by now you can’t wait to see this project in action at the Undergraduate design show a mere few months from now- I surely do. The show will be called “This is war”, and in Ilyanna’s particular case, it’s about design fighting back against the media and the ways it tries to shape us. “My battlefield is the subconscious”, she says.

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“What will you do after you graduate?” I ask. Well, says Ilyanna, since she already spent so much time working hard, perhaps the first thing she’ll do is go on a holiday.

Photos courtesy of Ilyanna Kerr

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