Julia Schubert: A labyrinth for a rat. Playing rules for designers


”And an oulipotic AUTOR, what is that? He is „a rat who constructs itself a labyrinth from which it would like to find the way out.“ A labyrinth of what? Of words, sounds, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books, libraries, prose, poetry and everything in this way … How can you learn more? By reading.“✽ 

In the search for an idea, the designer repeatedly encounters the problem of setting limits on the thematic and creative possibilities, defining rules that give direction to his approach. But what has the image of the rat looking for the exit in the labyrinth to do with strategies in the design process? The comparison with the rat in the labyrinth, as we will see, raises another question: which search strategies open up unseen possibilities of thought, imagination and action in design?

Julia Schubert, Labyrinth for a rat, 2017.

My interest for Georges Perec and the group Oulipo initially started with a subjective feeling or notion that there is a connection to the activity of a designer. It seemed worthwhile to learn more about this author and the literary group Oulipo. This promised inspiration in conceptual and creative terms. A shift in perspective can help to understand our own activity, or aspects of designing activity. At the same time, such a transdisciplinary reflection of a method can also expand one’s own repertoire.

Oulipo is the acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, translated as: Workshop for Potential Literature. It was founded in 1960 by the French author Raymond Queneau and the engineer, writer and publisher Francois Le Lionnais. As a chemistry engineer, Le Lionnais wrote books about chess in the 1930s. Being interested in mathematics, he wrote several books that corresponded with the ideas and goals of the Oulipo group, in which mathematical, precise and combinatorial techniques determined the process of text production. He was particularly close to the dadaists with his experimental and playful techniques. Raymond Queneau also had great mathematical knowledge and used it for his literary work. Both, Queneau the writer and Le Lionnais the scientist, were interested in science as well as in literature and the connection of both. Currently Oulipo contains 40 members; this not only includes the present, but also those who have already died, since membership remains beyond death, and their failures are excused every time at meetings because of death.

The interest of the Oulipian is the production of literature in an unlimited quantity, through the use of so-called ”contraintes“: restrictions, rules, constraints, obstacles. The texts thus arise on the basis of self-imposed writing rules. The Oulipo author describes himself as a rat, which tries to get out of its self-made labyrinth. What is exactly meant with the construction of a labyrinth?

The basic idea is a language extension and a text-producing process through formal constraints. For this purpose the Oulipian invents new restrictions before the writing process starts. These can be quite diverse, for example, they may refer to mathematical formulas or be determined by rhetorical rules such as replacement, repetition, lipograms, or palindromes. An example for the consistent application of the principle of restriction is Georges Perec’s novel ”La Disposition“, which does not once use the letter e.

Not only in literary production rules determine the interaction with the aesthetic material and shape the framework of production. Many works in music and fine arts show similar processes. And everyone involved in design processes knows that self-imposed limitations such as the choice of a font, the format, the printing technique, the medium, play an important role as framework. They define the ”playing field“ and the designer has to deal with them or question them deliberately. There are, however, also restrictions, which are often not considered at all and taken as a matter of course; including, for example, internalized traditions or conventions, habits on which he insists unconsciously. Such as the available technology, mental attitudes, tested design methods, social or political attitudes, and even the confidence in one’s own personality. However, in the Oulipian sense the conscious invention of ”contraintes“ shifts the attention towards a creative act before the creative process of producing art or design starts.

What do these limitations mean with regard to the aim of finding innovative solutions at the end of the design process? It can imply that it’s not just about ”thinking outside the box,“ but innovative thinking and imaginary frames. In other words: how to think inside a new box?

”Contraintes“ in the sense of restrictions are usually connected to the idea that they undermine creativity as obstacles. But if one transfers the idea of ​​oulipotic writing to this problem, it means that the field of potential designs, or even the own imagination of possible designs, can be expanded by the setting of certain boundaries, rules or a deliberate delimitation. Habits and patterns of thought are laid down in the confronation with new rules.

The meaning of the ”contraintes“ is seen by the Oulipian as liberating and as an opportunity to activate associative powers – instead of waiting for the vague moment of inspiration which might never come. Thus the invented rules are not ends in themselves, but can be seen as starting point for a process of liberation. It’s a process which doesn’t run straight towards a fixed goal, but is a process of de-automation – away from established images or strategies. The ”contraintes“ of the Oulipian lead to the unlearing of habitual rules. The oulipotic strategy of restriction – ”not-seeing“ – can cause something that emerges as new and surprising.

To create something new can thus mean to find a suitable scope. At the same time, strategies based on self-imposed obstacles can also be used to create potential solutions. Behind this kind of controlled perception can also lie something like a distance to oneself which creates the experience of the ”new“– just as the oulipotic ”contraintes“ can open up opportunities for the writer or the designer, which ultimately lead further as it seemed to be possible.


Julia Schubert
currently lives in Berlin and earned her Master Degree at the Universität der Künste in Visual Communication in February 2016. Curious about various themes she focusses on experimenting with methods of image-based exploration and research. She mainly works in the field of editorial design, infographics and illustration.



✽ http://oulipo.net/fr/oulipiens/o; („Et un AUTEUR oulipien, c’est quoi? C’est «un rat qui construit lui-même le labyrinthe dont il se propose de sortir». Un labyrinthe de quoi? De mots, de sons, de phrases, de paragraphes, de chapitres, de livres, de bibliothèques, de prose, de poésie, et tout ça … Comment en savoir plus? En lisant.“)