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Theseus’ Paradox: A Visual Investigation of Image Differentiation

July 3, 2011

halftone experimentation

The Ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’ paradox is a paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object.

“According to Greek legend as reported by Plutarch, The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Plutarch, Theseus

Plutarch thus questions whether the ship would remain the same if it were entirely replaced, piece by piece. Centuries later, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes introduced a further puzzle, wondering: what would happen if the original planks were gathered up after they were replaced, and used to build a second ship. Which ship, if either, is the original Ship of Theseus?

Theseus’ paradox is the starting point for a body of research into the material, iconic, and trace components of an image. By exploring two distinct images, my investigation seeks to discover what constitutes one image’s differentiation as well as potential methods for blending two images into a new representation that retains the identity of both originals.

Through doing so, the differentiating elements of each image are assessed and applied toward new symbolic representations of each. This process of abstraction moves from the photographic, through the visually symbolic, and arrives at the doorstep of language—without ever employing the use of letter forms.

For this investigation, I have employed two photographs of distinct places: Chicago, my home, and Basel, the place where these studies are taking place. My purpose in this selection is to further explore what constitutes the identity of a city through those visual elements of differentiation.

What this research reveals is to be considered in relationship to the differentiational aspect of language—specifically, the written word. The visual qualities inherent an images appear to have great durability in retaining signification, even as the elements are reduced, simplified, and manipulated. As the end results of this study should testify, this durability of the image’s signification—despite shifting connotations—can even go so far as to suggest language (each city’s name), so long as both image and word are familiar.

Theseus’ Paradox and Image Differentiation from matt wizinsky on Vimeo.

This video compiles a series of experiments into the material makeup of each image and their transferability. Different geometric assemblies allow varying levels of abstraction while still retaining enough information to differentiate the image. What becomes most evident from the extreme end of these simplifications is the distinguishing effects of color.

View the full presentation of this investigation on

trace manipulation

segmentation merging

trace merging

trace, icon, and material merging

iconic / at the doorstep of language

poster, 1280 x 905 mm, 2011

Finally, I combined the newly discovered and dissected differentiating elements from each image to design a new poster reflecting the distinctions and similarities between each. This poster was only possible through the rigorous image research phase, which uncovered the material and quality elements that comprise these two distinct cities.

This image research and experimentation was undertaken during the Inquiry by Design course taught by Michael Renner at the FHNW Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst during the 2011 Basel Summer Design Workshops.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Marcia Boynton permalink
    July 7, 2011 10:20 am

    Who knew there was an intersection between design and philosophy? What is the impact and meaning of transformation?


  1. Graphic Design Talk
  2. Theseus’ Paradox: A Visual Investigation of Image Differentiation « Graphic Design Talk
  3. HGK Basel 2011 Summer Design Workshop: Inquiry by Design « Visual Thinking by Studio Junglecat

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