“The danger for the leader comes if you cannot truly love yourself. If you are at war with yourself then you will be unable to lead others with empathy & compassion. You may pretend—but you will always be found out.” — Alan Moore DO/ DESIGN
As I was flipping through Alan Moore’s very pleasant book “Do/ Design: Why Beauty is Key to Everything” last night, I settled on this passage, and found it to contain a brief observation that perhaps defines my last couple of years more aptly than most. The last year especially has been an exercise in coming to glaring terms with my inadequacies, both personally and professionally, and it is only recently that I have been able to begin to more objectively recognize the often self-imposed dissonances, conflicts of self-identity or labeling or striving, that have made it difficult not only to seek “Happiness,” but to even recognize that “Loving One’s Self” (i.e. Happiness) is a thing that is particularly valuable. Or, perhaps, a thing that even really exists (in contrast to Achievement, or Virtue, or Legacy, or Impact). It’s easy to forget that your strengths (especially when it comes to leadership) are solely defined by your relationships to people, especially in an inherently human discipline like design. Empathy, compassion, kindness, and helpfulness are all purely relational concepts, and the cultural core of not only a good “design practice” (as if that caveat is necessary), but of everything.
This is easy to forget, though. Your insufficiencies, in contrast, are easy enough to identify even in a void, especially if it’s one of your own making.
I hope I’m getting better at remembering the right things.
In design, or any discipline of making, there is a distinct difference between “breaking the rules” and simply being naive of the rules. A reactionary rejection of formally “trained” approaches, the result of conceiving of the these approaches merely as the manifestation of a thoughtless, common vernacular, as nothing but the historically-dictated precedent for popularly “purposeful” design, is not within itself something to be admired. This attitude breeds its own form of anti-intellectualism, and aligns itself with a type of uncritical abandon that these same practitioners would defy in other quarters. Even “breaking the rules” should be a purposeful exercise, which necessitates a fluency in the language that is ultimately being rejected. Willful ignorance isn’t admirable in any venue, even in design or (gasp) art.
I had the pleasure of speaking at HackDFW’s EARTHACK 2017 event this year, and below is a transcript of my presentation. I’ve been thinking a lot about integrated technological experience, and not just in a speculative sense of “what will we build” that integrates with human biology in a cyborgian sense of the word, but also as it relates to building less obtrusive products and interfaces for the devices we have now.
Download my full slide deck here.
(Most of these photos were sourced from The Wonderful World Wide Web, so just assume that I don’t own them.)
This is an exciting time to be in design and tech, and this particular event is a manifestation of some of the best impulses of our field. Here at EarthHACK you all have come together to critically consider how we can approach both design and responsibility, how we can collaborate on tools and products and services that not only are innovative, but also helpful.
However, as we surf this bleeding edge of the future, I wonder; how is what we’re building, the software and the hardware and the physical environments, fundamentally affecting the human psyche? On some level, humans are biological hardware and software, our cultures and built environments are systems, and the question becomes, “are the products that we are creating compatible with the social systems that already exist?” Are we adequately considering the psychological and social contexts of our work?
As professor Peter Hancock notes, “Either technology works for you or you work for technology. It shapes the human race just as much as we shape it.”
Its important to keep reminding ourselves how easy it is to become so micro-focused on the miraculous, that we forget to zoom out from time to time to evaluate the complicated social ecosystems in which these tiny miracles are taking place.
Speaking of tiny miracles, for example, here we have a chameleon:
The other day I was watching the new Planet Earth series with my kids, and if you ever want to be re-invigorated by the impossibility of the natural world, just watch Planet Earth with a bunch of 6-year-olds. This creature is capable of things we can barely understand; it’s skin seems to be a sentient being within itself, able to adapt to its environment seemingly effortlessly, functional for both camouflage and communication. If humans were able to recreate this ability technologically, perhaps as a fabric, or even by messing around with our own DNA, it would be considered a peak achievement. Yet, it already exists right here. This chameleon has some amazing functionality at its disposal.
However, let’s zoom out a little bit from this little fella.
This is what I call “contextual dissonance”. What good is the chameleon’s ability now? It isn’t any less cool, but in this context it enters the realm of novelty.
That’s what I want to talk about today. It’s easy to focus on the miracle and the future of specific technologies, without pulling out a bit to focus on its intent, and how it integrating into these biologically-based contexts into which we thrust it.
As Arthur Schlesinger put it, “Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.” We are inherently biological, our sense of self is linear, and we are fundamentally human-centered in our thinking.
The problem with talking about futurism on some level is that it’s hard to come up with a roadmap, or pull examples, because, well, its in the future. Therefore, when it comes to these speculations, our task is to define problems. Technological progress is often initiated via negativa, it is a process of filling the void.
However, it can be useful on some level to look to the past to anticipate the future, and to analyze the present. Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about something called Psychogeography, which was a concept created by Guy Dubord in the late 50’s. He described psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”
A less academic definition describes psychogeography as “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities… just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.”
What provoked this particular social movement? What drew these evangelists of this wandering method of urban exploration to it? Even in the 50s there were rumblings of concern about the lack of attention or connection that people were having with their environment, as the advent of radio and mass media starting drawing people’s attention inward instead of outward, and so the erratic, experimental mapping methods of psychogeography were born.
From Wikipedia, the primary concert of Debord and his crew was “the progressively increasing tendency towards the expression and mediation of social relations through objects.”
The technology and methods change, but the challenge remains the same; how do we facilitate people’s cognitive presence in their environment instead of alienating them from it?
So, today I want to present you with a problem, a challenge, and a series of questions that I hope will encourage you to constantly reframe your own process as you seek to create technologies that more naturally integrate with existing human contexts.
I’ll be speaking specifically about smartphones and other mobile devices, since that’s my particular purview, but I think the principles, in general, are more widely applicable.
THE PROBLEM: Our devices are barriers.
We’ll talk about this from two perspectives, one of which leads into the other; the first is from the more popular media perspective, which I’m sure you’re all quite familiar with.
People are becoming addicted to their devices.
The number of smartphone users in the US is staggering, considering that they’ve only really been around for a decade. 77% of Americans own one today, up from 46% in 2012, and an incredible 92% of Americans 18-29 own a smartphone. Half of Americans own a tablet computer, which not too long ago was a true novelty.
Almost 70% of Americans of all ages use social media.
However, according to a recent study, 67% of smartphone owners admitted to checking their phone for calls or messages when their phone didn’t vibrate or ring.
(I’m going to go out on a limb there and say that I bet approximately 33% of smartphone users who simply did not want to admit that they too participate in this awkwardly phantom behavior.)
A recent survey also notes that 90% of the people surveyed said that 90% of the people they see walking around are glued to their phones, with 64% of those walkers being totally disconnected from life, but only 38% of those surveyed admitted to ever being zoned out themselves while walking.
A more objective survey estimates that around 60% of pedestrians are occupied by their smartphones at any given time. That means that only 40% of walkers are fully engaged with their environment.
The fact is, the mechanism that drives a lot of this is well-known.
These are not the same as Fruit Loops, though I guess they both have to do with the pleasure centers of your brain. Who here is familiar with dopamine loops?
Dopamine is the chemical in our brains that gives us a little buzz when something exciting happens.
In the context of smartphones, a dopamine loop is initiated when a user sends something into the void that could potentially provoke a response. This could be a text message, a Twitter post, a Facebook update, an Instagram image, whatever. All the normal stuff that the youths do. However, dopamine loops are tied to anticipation, as in “gee whiz, I sure hope people like-fav-star-heart my thing,” and anticipation in turn is inherently tied to distraction. When you’re hungry, you want pizza, and therefore can’t concentrate on your code. Right?
Desire and anticipation provoke disengagement.
As Tom Kite put it, “you can always find a distraction if you’re looking for one.”
So, this is the first aspect of our devices as barriers, in that we’ve created a digital ecosystem that is foundationally built on seeking these “micro-pleasures”. This is why something like “gamification” works so well, and is therefore becoming pretty ubiquitous.
Is this in itself a problem? I’m unprepared to answer that definitely. I don’t think that pleasure is inherently bad. I’m not a Luddite who thinks we should abandon our technologies altogether. However, once again, it’s all about context, so let’s zoom out of the phone screen for a moment to the wider environment.
Here we have a situation in which individuals have a magical power, the power to access information at all times, to do all kinds of magic tricks and discover all kinds of things, and its all tied to this object that is in his or her pocket.
This leads us to the second way that our devices our barriers, which comes down to this:
Many times the way in which a software tool is built (I’m going to just call them apps for clarity) necessitates direct visual and physical interaction with hardware for use. The device is a barrier in that it literally, physically stands between the user and the environment. The device lives outside of the environment, and yet is supposed to facilitate interaction with the environment. This tends to cause problems.
Neville Brody, an iconic graphic designer, said this “I want to make people more aware, not less aware.”
This is the crux of my interest in this issue. As designers, how do we approach our work both progressively and ethically? How do we balance innovation and awareness? What are our responsibilities as the architects of not only the future world, but the present one?
Every day we make active decisions about what we make and how it works, and all too often we can get so enamored with the details and possibilities of the techno-landscape that we forget about how what we make has to interact with the rest of a user’s rather complicated life in the present.
And as Abraham Maslow put it, “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”
This context-aware, present-priority should be one of our major focuses as product designers, because it influences our users on a very intimate, cognitive level.
We are all quite familiar with the danger of texting and driving, right? Over 2.5 million Americans are involved in traffic accidents every year, and at this point at least 1 in 4 accidents is related to texting and driving.
Texting and driving is approximately 6 times more likely to result in an accident than drunk driving.
It only takes about 3 seconds of distracted driving for an accident to occur. Most text messages take a minimum of 5 seconds to read and absorb.
So yeah, texting and driving is bad, can we all agree? Texting was not meant to be done while driving, and when you break the contextual rules, it can be bad.
However, the problem is not with the micro-issue of texting itself, the problem is related to the macro-issue of distracted driving. So why is texting bad, but this is ok?
They both require interaction. They both necessitate some amount of visual attention. They are both primarily graphic modes of information presentation. Google or Apple Maps can both include verbal directions, but those can be turned off, whereas the GUI cannot be.
Then there’s Waze
I use this example a lot when I talk about dissonance of context, because Waze is an app that literally enables distracted driving. The context it is designed for is inherently incompatible with how human brains function. We cannot focus on more than one thing at once, and yet this app would not exist if humans were not expected to try.
In fact, Waze is coming under criticism right now for this issue, especially related to the fact that they have partnered with Spotify to enable cross-functionality between the two apps
This is conceivably to simplify the process of both keeping track of traffic and listening to music in your car, but what is effectively happening is not a simplification, but a secondary complication. The attention becomes further fragmented, and the user is drawn further out of the primary environment (the car) into the secondary environment (the device) and then into 2 sub-environments, which are the individual apps themselves.
I repeat: context. Environment. In this case, the designer probably needed to start with “should I” before “can I.”
Paola Antonelli put it as such: “In an ideal world, social responsibility would be a prerequisite for design, and designers would vow to produce beautiful, useful, positive, responsible, functional, and economic things and concepts that are meaningful additions to—or sometimes subtractions from—the world we live in. Indeed, design deserves such thoughtful consideration.”
This kind of considered thinking carries not only the more ethical burdens that we just nodded to, but is also relevant in light of smaller user experience decisions.
When do you all listen to podcasts?
Personally I listen to them when I’m wandering around my neighborhood pretending to exercise, or walking to lunch or something. Generally some time when I’m moving through space, trying not to bump into other people or get hit by a car. And yet, check out this tiny tiny button:
Just try hitting that the first time while jogging.
Even something as simple as a button needs to anticipate context. That is, essentially, the core responsibility of User Experience designers.
So, these are just a couple of examples of how we, as designers and technologists, are still struggling to create adaptive interfaces that enhance a user’s engagement with their environment.
instead pulling them out of it.
I’m not the first to recognize this problem by any means, obviously, and there are endless nuances to the ways that people are trying to address this very issue (whether it be through larger hardware such as self-driving cars, through voice-activated technology, through prosthesis such as Google Glass, etc.) This field is young and evolving, and new things are happening every day.
However, here is my challenge to you, in the form of a question: How do we think beyond the paradigms of interactive interfaces that have already been created without feeling like we need to invent new hardware? How are we under-utilizing our existing platforms by falling back on “traditional” interaction design patterns? Patterns often based on overly-optimistic, potentially outmoded, maybe dangerous usage scenarios instead of contextual research?
For the sake of time I want to move from these isolated examples to some questions that I encourage you to consider as you work on your own projects. Just like design approaches are often considered via negativa, processes are often defined through frameworks built of questions instead of statements.
In my own practice I use what I call “frameworks of responsibility” to help inform my inquiry. These are the questions that help keep me user-focused instead of functionality-focused as I work through my product design process. This is an extremely fluid framework, and not all of these questions are relevant 100% of the time, but my goal here is really just to give you something to consider moving forward.
1. How often do people have to look at the device for the app to function properly? (i.e. how often are they pulled out of their environment?)
Think back to the wayfinding apps we discussed earlier. What research and testing are you doing to understand the affect that your product has on people’s attention? The more direct attention an app requires, the more cognitive competition it creates within a user’s overall environment.
2. Is the platform adaptive across multiple context-appropriate devices?
We haven’t even talked about this yet, but for a brief moment there “the device” almost universally meant “the smartphone,” but with the advent of other items like smartwatches, tablets, etc. you are able to consider the same piece of software across multiple pieces of hardware, all of which have their own physical contexts. Are you considering what functionalities flow across which devices? How are you making these decisions?
3. Does the device/ app create unnecessary dependency?
My wife talked to me the other day about how she sometimes feel like her devices are allowing her to “outsource her memory.” The question of what qualifies as “necessary dependency” is of course a gray one, but I think it’s important to critically consider this within the product design process. To what extent is your app outsourcing awareness and memory? Is it complimenting or replacing a person’s ability to adapt to their situation, whatever that may be? That’s obviously a huge question.
4. In the primary usage scenario, what should the user be paying attention to?
If your app is a wayfinding app, like the ones we’ve been discussing, should they be paying attention to their phone or to their surroundings? How can your app’s functionality and interface reinforce and support this priority?
5. What safeguards need to be in place to protect a user?
If you’re building a messaging app, should it have motion tracking functionality that locks it when a user is going over a certain speed? How do you balance flexibility and safety? How are you securing and anonymizing the data? Remember, the app you build not only affects the user, but it affects the people around the user (whether they want it to or not).
6. We have 5 senses: how are they all being used?
How are you using sound? How are you using haptics? Is a visual interface always necessary?
7. Future thinking: how could they all be used?
Perhaps ambient audio cues are underutilized in way finding. Perhaps we should look to Morse Code for our haptic indicators. Two buzzes for “take the next left,” one buzz for “take the next right.” When are we getting smell-o-vision for our phones? Don’t get hung up on how people have done things in the past, keep pushing, responsibly, towards the future.
8. And lastly, this is not a question, but an optimistic reminder: Remember, the platform should serve the user, the users are not in service to the platform.
Also remember that our responsibility as designers and builders is to create products that are appropriate for not only our users,
but appropriate for their contexts.
We must research, validate, and take a critical approach to our ideas.
And so, in conclusion, I believe that we can invent new devices, new platforms, new software & hardware, but we cannot expect the future to continuously solve the problems of now. To quote Peter Hancock one more time, “Whatever we are to become is bound up not only in our biology but critically in our technology also.”
— El Lissitzky, 1923
It never ceases to amaze me how dependent cultural movement is on the Forcefully Declared Techno-futurist Opinion. My inability to claim objective truth in overtly subjective realms (in this case, the realms of medium and execution) cements my temporality as a designer, I’m afraid. History doesn’t smile on the flexible.
Borders are not the razor-thin divisions between who we are and who we are not, but are instead the broad, frenetic, fertile territories in which we are forced to confront the cultural fictions on which we have been raised.
Periodically I wonder if I overanalyze the cultural role of what I do, of graphic design, or branding, or whatever we’re calling it today, as it seems to me like I can see it everywhere (not merely in object but in intent), in everything, in everyone, a universal force that is somehow culturally critical, socially critical, commercially critical, and individually critical. I see it, but do not know if what I see is what exists, or if it is merely a shadow cast by the rest of my life (life-as-practice), a manifestation of self-perception, of priorities and opinions. I see it, on good days, as a conduit that connects the past (both globally and individually) with the present, with a clear eye to the future. Being uniquely an art but with the aura of objectivity (of measurability, of “success” and “failure”) it allows for a perhaps unholy union between money and image, particularly money as the validating measure of self-image, particularly money as the dowery for this, an eternal perception that can help not only formulate goals, but parse psyche, and then translate into this, the “supposedly universal language” (that of symbols), and because of this it seems as though design (graphic design) is much more a question of psychoanalysis than it is of art. Design is interpretation, design is translation, and then again, it is both of these things balanced in that awkward borderland between monetary value and self-value that makes the discipline so unique, and so human, and so ripe for either abuse or under-valuation. Once a designer leans too much into the commercial (“marketing”) or the analytical (“academic”) the goal of their discipline invariably shifts, shifts either into economy or into “criticism”, both of which have their place on a spectrum, but neither of which engage with the true potential of the practice. This is the everlasting tension.
“That will be $2.17.”
The man with the baby flipped the iPad around, allowing me to scribble something akin to my signature with my finger. The baby was tiny, and wide-eyed, and could barely hold his head up. He was wearing tiny overalls and seemed engaged in his work, the work of being a baby, a baby that was being held by his father behind the counter of a cafe, a father who was balancing the joys and inconveniences of both fatherhood and employment, both literally and figuratively, here in this very moment. The father passed the child to someone else behind the counter so he could pull an espresso shot. The tiny human maintained his vocational focus, a single-minded dedication to Being a Baby. He sucked his fist in concentration. His task was clear.
“in order to understand the esthetic in its ultimate and approved forms, one must begin with in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man, arousing his interest and affording him enjoyment as he looks and listens: the sights that hold the crowd—the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders, throwing and catching red-hot bolts. The sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd; who notes the delight of the housewife in tending her plants, and the intent interest of her goodman in tending the patch of green in front of the house; the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals.”
John Dewey begins Art and Experience by reflecting on the aesthetic value of art, and very quickly latches onto the fact that you cannot understand an aesthetic object without understanding its intent. You can enjoy a piece of art without a creation narrative, but you cannot understand it. I would posit that this is the same with design, as much as we like to point out the differences between art and design, because art, in the public sphere, becomes part of an aesthetic environment with purpose (i.e., it has become “designed.”) Where this reality, the fuzzy dissipation of objectivity, becomes problematic is in the context of critique. What is the role of critique outside of a critique of process? What is the role of critique outside of a critique of effectiveness? Perhaps this is where design diverges so drastically from art, as critique not longer becomes a question of object but a question of intent. The only avenue for productive criticism is “does this do what you intended it to do?”
This is why every critique ends up being, at its core, a critique of human intent.
“There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
— Richard Shaull, drawing on Paulo Freire
“The ‘personal’ is crucial now not because it stands in contra-distinction to globalization, because it doesn’t really. Globalization is everywhere—within and outside our skin. No, personal perspective is important because it brings the designer into design—the human being into the problem.”
— Michael Shmidt, “Hello Ms. Hernandez’
Question: is it really desirable for design to be “timeless?” Can a designed object exist outside of time? Could it not, instead, be more valuable for Design (n.) to exist as a reflection of the cultural climate in which it is made? This comes back to the question of whether Design (v.) is primarily object-oriented or process-oriented, whether a project can ever really be perceived as “complete” or whether we merely dictate punctuated release points along an iterative infinity.
A continuation of a prior theme: ever so often I ponder a unique brand of imposter’s syndrome that many designers seem to experience, a particularly mirror-bound attitude in which we are consistently disappointed with what we make because it all looks like stuff that we could have made. We exist in a state of being unsurprised by ourselves. Designers as a whole are not know for a (public) lack of egotism, but I sense that this nagging feeling that exists at the junction of “this solves the problem” and “not exactly in the way that I wanted it to” is a pretty standard sentiment. It’s much harder to accommodate the unexpected when we define the expectations ourselves. At least personally, the fact that I am too intimately familiar with my own processes can be a deterrent to satisfaction with the work that I do (but then, perhaps, it is also what continually prods me to tweak my own methods and practice.) Is this something to be fixed, or something to embrace as part of the emotional arc of a project?
(In other news, I am going to start sending out extremely periodic internet mailings, and you can sign up for them here.)
I woke up to an empty Wednesday.
From Politics and Method, by Ahmed Ansari:
“Design tools and methods are thus never, as most toolkits and models claim, value neutral, but always arrive laden with political and cultural baggage. The claim that packages delivering design methods to social designers and workers in the developing world are ‘neutral’, in the sense that they are just methods, and that politics lies in the domain of their human users, is false. […] This is the most frightening thing about the uncritical adoption of design toolkits: that in becoming the de-facto way of practicing social design in the hands of powerful actors like government organizations and foreign-funded NGOs, they crowd out alternative voices that would caution models of development based on unconstrained growth.”
This is a paradoxical weakness of some human-centered design methodologies, in that so many of them end up becoming prescriptive, and therefore divorced from the tenets that originally defined them. It is not uncommon, in my experience, for these practices to push forward what are deemed “universal values,” such as efficiency or quick iteration, when in fact these practices can at times be in direct conflict with the cultural norms of a given place. In the end, truly “efficient” methodologies are those that integrate the most seamlessly with specific cultural norms and practices. Sometimes slow iteration just works better, sometimes very very slow iteration works the best. But regardless: design is a critical exploration, not a universal truth.
In this upside down world, perhaps the “dreams,” or the inelegant proxies for dreams, are “ideals” or “principles”, absolutes (or perceived absolutes) that are so lofty that they will never be met. It is almost guaranteed that they will never be met, because so often we idolize the measures that we perceive as beyond that which we, ourselves, have the capacity to achieve. The dark side of dreams. Especially unsatisfying because while dreams carry with them the subtle promise of ecstasy, or at the very least of gratification, “principles” merely carry with them the concept of a somber baseline. The minimum. And when we find that our own self-imposed minimums are seemingly beyond our capacity to achieve, and continually achieve at that, then life seems dark and sad and a failure.
Perhaps, though, principles are the things that we feel like we can control.
I find myself these days vacillating between the guilt of inactivity and the frenetic mindspace of having a lot of ideas that seem to be in conflict with my daily tasks, and the knowledge that I need to extend myself the grace to take it easy from time to time. This conflicts with my “principles.” This conflicts with my desire to control. This is not easy.
Tonight was the first Clinton/ Trump presidential debate. Instead of watching it I chose to take a night walk in the neighborhood. I felt no need to witness what I could so vividly imagine. As I strolled under the streetlights, the glow of giant televisions behind seemingly every curtain caught my eye, the distinct blue and red hues of the evening’s Universal Programming finding their way subtly into the darkness. I thought to myself that, this time, perhaps we are all paying attention?
This bit of something-or-other was originally composed as a series of tweets, but as the length of it grew I decided that I would spare my followers the pain of a 20-odd tweet storm. I think that this format ultimately makes more sense, though the intended staccato rhythm has been maintained. It is conceptually related to this post from last week.
Ok, I’m about to get unsatisfyingly pragmatic about something, and you know how much I hate being pragmatic.
I have a very general observation about (some) of the fresh(er)-out-of-school designers whose portfolios I have perused recently:
Lots of cool thinking, lots of brave attempts at critical theory,
…lots of bad typography and lack of demonstrated understanding re: basic principles of form.
Lots of talk of “pushing the field.”
I love seeing a dedication to “pushing the field,” but you can’t plant that flag if normal person clients don’t want to pay for your work.
I have been reading a lot of essays lately, many of them decrying the “old guard” of graphic design,
many of them expressing how we need more “critical practice” in design.
Yes, of course we do. 100% believe that. Super big no brainer. BUT
…it’s well and good to decry the old guard, but you’re unqualified to do that if your understanding of popular cultural aesthetics is garbage.
I declare that it is not allowed. Once again, don’t mistake personal frustration at the taste of others for critical analysis.
A unique “process of inquiry” is not an excuse for ignoring your technical development as a designer. You can’t reject formalism until you understand how form works.
We can’t all design to our taste. My personal taste in graphic design is decidedly inaccessible, and weirdly, clients won’t pay me to make that stuff ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Too bad, so sad.
Or as my daughter likes to say, “so sorry, congratulations!”
That doesn’t mean I don’t explore that stuff on my own, but it diverges from my client work. That’s fine and healthy.
Critical practice can (and should) happen, but it’s a personal/ insular pursuit that provokes growth.
It’s a conversation you have with your peers, (probably, unless your situation is very unusual) not your clients.
I can say this as a (technically) professional academic who reads critical theory on his lunch break (oh god he’s so annoying):
All that stuff coming out of Yale, CCA, et. al? Love it. Right up my alley. I devour it. I wanna make it. However, it’s designed into a mirror.
As designers we must be willing to understand that we must ride that middle line between our subculture and the Everyman,
…and if we drift too far into either, we’re doing no one a service.
Explore? Yes, do it! Be progressive! Don’t be boring! But a huge part of our job is understanding how to use the common vernacular.
If you can’t speak to the Everyman, if you can’t operate in the present, then you’re unequipped to communicate where you live,
…and if you can’t communicate where you live, then what’s the point? You’re in danger of becoming a speculative expressionist.
(Which sounds cool and is fine, but doesn’t really give you room to complain about the state of commercial graphic design. It becomes an academic question.)
Don’t design down, design across, and don’t mistake your critical inquiry into your discipline for what clients inerrantly need. Most people don’t live in the mirror.
And keep practicing your typography, please and thank you. Experiment within your expertise. That’s secretly what I’ve been getting at this whole time.
I’ve been reading a fair number of critical essays on the current state of (graphic) design this week, and yesterday I found myself slowly descending into a manic mental hole where, completely overstimulated, I couldn’t get a grip on what I agreed and disagreed with. I couldn’t quiet my mind. Not great for sound sleep.
Almost universally, the essays called for an increase in critical practice, a lambasting of the “old guard” (think: Pentagram, et. al) for thinking too archaically in this modern era, and a disregard for formalism of any kind. However, this morning I woke up with a clearer recognition of the large hole in this critical theory that had been bumping around in the back of my mind; I had seen no acknowledgment of the graphic designer (particularly, the brand designer) as the translator of a client’s own self-perception. While we like to think of communication design as a two-party process (client -> designer -> audience, or simply designer -> audience), in fact the process can more often than not be client -> designer -> client. A huge part of our particular responsibility is clarifying who clients are to themselves. Sometimes designers are mirrors, not bullhorns. More comprehensive thoughts on this to come.
“Once something has become habitual and familiar, it effectively becomes an acceptable component of our perceived reality. Shklovsky’s warning however, is that we are liable to apply this tactic to situations which should never be considered normal or acceptable: things which should be known not as normal but as wonderful, or terrible. If we degrade things which are truly extraordinary by accepting them as merely ordinary, we are either denying ourselves the pleasure of appreciating the abnormally good, or willfully subjecting ourselves to the horrors of the abnormally bad. In order to fully experience life it is necessary to recognize, appreciate and respond to the truly extraordinary things.”
This is a cogent observation and absolutely true. I wonder, however, if perhaps it should be extended a bit; in order to fully experience life it is necessary to recognize, appreciate and respond to even the truly ordinary things.
“I think one of the disappointing moments of my life was when I walked into the Louvre and there was a Starbucks there. I mean, go Starbucks, I guess.”
What is the difference between desire and craving? Is this merely a question of etymological variance, or is there a fundamental discrepancy between these two profound motivators? I heard an observation yesterday that a craving is something that is something temporal enough that, if you can appropriately externalize your perspective, will pass you by without digging its way into you. Is this the same with desire, or is desire more intimately tied to need, to that-which-sustains-you? I don’t know. Sometimes they just feel different to me.
In this new post-MFA life, I find that it is once again up to me to define the limits of my exploration of the discipline of graphic design. Without the construct of school, I’ve had to dip my toes back into the muddled eddies of the “personal project,” and once again the tension between The Professional and The Personal expressions of a design perspective becomes clear. The unrest that lies between the role of interpreter (the expression of the external) and the role of translator (the expression of the internal). So far I have seen scant evidence that this sustained dissonance ever truly resolves, but is that any reason to resign yourself to it? I still don’t really know.
No matter how many years I design professionally, I never quite get over the perennial dissatisfaction of making things that look like things I would make. I wonder at times if this is a universal burden borne by all actively creative people; we seem to find ourselves in the infinite loop of being disappointed with the things that we personally have the capacity to create. “If I can make this, it can’t be that good.” We are only enamored by the things that we seem unable to conceive of creating ourselves. The process is hidden, which makes it alluring. We bask in the glorification of the unknowing.
This morning I was reading my friend Jennifer’s essay on the limits of critique, and it brought me back to a topic I’ve been personally negotiating for a while. Specifically, the vast divide between graphic design criticism and graphic design as criticism. The question is not whether these are two specific disciplines (they obviously are, there is no question), but whether the same person can negotiate each of the disciplines separately. Can a designer also critique in any objective sense, or does true critique require the distance of the non-practitioner? Similarly, can design function with social critique as its primary object, and how does this specific function of graphic design affect its place as a subsequent object of critique?
Now that I’m done with grad school, I can FINALLY relax
…by making this list of eight unfathomably large personal projects.
“Just want this Topo Chico today man?”
Yes, thanks. I’m just going to be here for a minute.
“I just pulled a shot and need to practice my latte art. Want a cappuccino on the house?”
Uh, sure dude.
“Don’t judge me, I’m just learning how to do it.”
This town is filled with caffeinated enablers.
I gave this talk on May 20, 2016 at a meeting of the Dallas chapter of Creative Mornings. I’m glad I was given this opportunity, as it allowed me to synthesize several disparate ideas that I’ve explored in my grad school and personal writing into a more cohesive format. You can download the slides here, and a complete transcript is below.
You can view a video of the talk here.
Today I’ll be considering how we, as designers, work with technology as humans. How we keep our processes human-focused, both in concept and execution.
I want to consider the inherent advantage that we have over machines, that is, the uniquely human potential to care strongly about the things we make, and to constantly strive to view the world in new ways.
In a sense I will be addressing a topic that is popular these days, “human-centered design.” However, while this phrase usually refers to considering the individual impulses of users, I’ll be approaching it today as a consideration of the individual impulses of creators.
It’s worth acknowledging that I am personally approaching this topic from the perspective of a graphic designer, specifically an interactive designer, and so a fair amount of my verbiage and references will probably relate most literally to that field.
But when I say “designer” or refer to “design”, I want you to understand that I am talking about design as the discipline of creating things with purpose, on purpose. The deliberate building of things that did not exist before.
This definition, from my perspective, extends to everyone here today.
As they say, “design is a behavior, not a department”
First, let us briefly consider The Machine.
I’d like to read a brief excerpt from E. M. Forster’s short story, The Machine Stops:
“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
“Oh, hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.”
“You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other.
E. M. Forster
The Machine Stops
In Forster’s chilling narrative we grapple with what it means to live a life that is largely facilitated by technology. In this 1909 tale, the characters are largely limited to communicating through impassive technological conduits, rarely seeing other people, content to be served by the technology that they created.
What is the purpose of striving if you can be served?
What is the inherent value of pushing beyond contentment? These are the questions that Forster presents to us, and even now we struggle every day with looking into the mirror of technology and evaluating if we like what we see.
In interactive design, for example, these struggles are no less apparent than they are in other areas of life. What exactly do we do that could not be done by a machine?
Are we not, in the end, merely engineers of natural law?
Experts at both creating problems and automating their solutions?
For example, in the context of web design, our naturalistic design abilities are challenged by web services such as The Grid and Squarespace, tools that largely automate the web design process for modern users.
While The Grid has in recent months failed to realize the automative potential that its creators originally proclaimed, when the product was first launched its creators declared,
“The Grid harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to take everything you throw at it – videos, images, text, URLs and more – and automatically shape them into a custom website unique to you.”
The examples are impressive: face recognition, layout automation, and “mood” elements (is this website serious? Is it fun?) do seem, in unison, to create a relatively functional iteration of a modern website.
And that’s just it; the websites created by The Grid’s AI engine seem to be eerily good,
…at least in the context of the popular web vernacular of today.
However, on some level this speaks not necessarily to the quality of the AI’s work, but instead to the stagnation of our own imagination as it relates to the web as a design medium.
As happens with all areas of design eventually, we find ourselves in a period of “standardized unoriginality” online, a web of ubiquity that can be reproduced ad-hoc by a bunch of code in a computer.
We like to have arguments about “flat” things. “Bootstraps.” Video backgrounds of people typing on MacBooks. This is our own stagnation of modernism, and the entire designed web is our Helvetica.
So, what are we going to do about it? What value do we as designers have, now that the modern encapsulation of popular aesthetic can be reproduced by an iPad?
If design is actually human-centered, it’s time for us to be shaken from our reverie and start to think again about what we, as humans, are capable of.
But how do we even begin to do this?
We can start, as I referenced before, by recognizing that we, as designers, are capable of caring deeply about the things we create. We are capable of obsession, frustration, and conversation. Of iteration. Of exploration.
Design can be a universal language, but it can also be a trap if a designer falls into the same patterns and solutions over and over again.
The iconic graphic designer Neville Brody once stated, “I want to make people more aware, not less aware.”
This is our task.
While I personally tend to thrive in the questions and abstractions, since you all came to Uptown and parked and are perhaps being bitten by a mosquito or two I thought I should come up with a few action items, maybe some ideas to consider as you move through your creative processes in the near future. I know what you’re thinking: It’s great to remember from time to time that we are human, that we can care, but then what?
And so, what I’d like to present to you is my brief list of the callings that we have as designers. I specifically chose the term callings instead of responsibilities, because no one is going to hold you accountable to these things. These are all about you, your process, and your perspective.
These are the impulses I desire from my design staff, my interns, students, etc.,, the things I love talking about with anyone, really whoever is willing to listen to me blather on for any amount of time. The attributes that I personally value in other creators, the things that I think make those people particularly inspiring and effective.
In simple terms, these callings can be broken down into four categories: Head, Hands, Heart, and Voice.
First, let us consider the Head.
Calling #1: A designer should seek out new perspectives. While design is inherently a communication discipline, or in some instances simply a functional one, it does no one any good to continually communicate the same messages in familiar ways. Designers must constantly bend their minds, along with the minds of their audience, in new directions.
In simpler terms: A designer should be curious. You should be curious. I believe that there is so much value in being driven by the things you don’t know instead of by the things you do.
Michael Beirut, the legendary graphic designer, stated that “Every designer I know has a real curiosity about what they’re doing. With that, it doesn’t feel like work.”
In fact, I’ve gone so far as to describe designers as being the “professionally curious.” Our job, essentially, is to connect unexpected ideas to each other in a brand new way.
Once we can transcend the algorithms, the patterns, the status quo, the expected, then that’s when we can stop being limited by reality and start creating reality. That’s how we keep riding the bleeding edge of culture.
In short, always walk with your eyes looking upwards. Pay attention to your world.
Second, let us consider the Hands.
Calling #2: Designers should be “anti-disciplinary.” This term “anti-disciplinary” was originally coined at the MIT media lab, and is defined as going against the accepted wisdom of a discipline. To me, being anti-disciplinary is going one step beyond being multi-disciplinary.
In essence, I believe in striving to avoid specialization in the interest of always learning. This is counter-cultural in a field that has gradually become more and more specialized.
There are user experience designers, user interface designers, interaction designers, publication designers, developers, designer/developers, and typographers (not to mention photographers, architects, playwrights, and poets.)
However, I personally, believe that cross-disciplinary exploration is the best way to truly grow as a designer.
As Walter Gropius, founder of the iconic Bauhaus design school once put it, “Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual or material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilized society.”
The stuff of life. Life is multi-disciplinary.
Specialization can breed stagnation. But how can you strive to avoid this stagnation? This once again goes back to being curious, but this is an applied curiosity. This is a question of process, and then of practice, and then of being open to new conversations and opportunities.
How can we guarantee that our unique perspectives, our human perspectives, remain sharp and continuing developing?
My admonition to you would be to focus on refining your own creative process. Develop a way of working that cannot be replicated. Find exploratory niches where you can continue to hone your craft. Create a way of exploring your work that is uniquely your own.
Continually refining your craft through practice, repetition, love and mistakes.
We can learn from our mistakes: this is a uniquely human attribute in some sense, or at least strictly biological attribute. Machines cannot intuitively learn from their mistakes. You can.
As Oscar Wilde put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
Refine your skill set. Learn design history. Learn to recognize the details and nuances in the tactile aspects of what you are doing.
Try to treasure the unpredictability.
Third, let us consider the Heart.
Calling #3: Designers should “seek the good.” The good causes. The good clients. The good messages. The good technique. The good typefaces. The good materials. The good people.
This is one I get kickback on regularly. What does “good” even mean? Why can’t you be more specific?
My reason is this: our calling is not necessarily to align ourselves to one objective definition of good, but instead to recognize that as designers we have the responsibility to have an opinion.
So often we emphasize the service aspect of our business, the client perspective (which of course is important, and a key part of our disciplines), but it’s also important to remember that as designers we are not a neutral force.
We are the purveyors of ideas, the professional propagandists.
Even those designers who condemn the expressive tendencies of other designers can have some pretty strong opinions.
“When you center Helvetica you have a massacre.”
– Massimo Vignelli
So, while what is considered “good” might vary from designer to designer, the important thing is for each professional to be true to his or her perspective. Taking this into account will result in honest, engaging, relevant work.
This leads us to our last point.
Finally, let us consider the Voice.
Calling 3b: A designer must be Human (and not just in the biological sense.)
I think this as 3b because of how intimately it’s tied to the heart. The voice is merely the expression of the heart. This is where we tie everything back to where we started, back to the Machine, back to flipping the lever.
As we have discussed, modern technology in many instances has reached the point where mindless algorithms can accomplish much of what was originally in the realm of human designers, or at least graphic and interactive designers. Grids, layouts, and typography can all be systemized and standardized to the point that a computer is able to “design” things that are quite appealing.
However, as designers, we have that “passion advantage.” The power to care. The ability to constantly strive for unpredictable, individual, human-centered solutions.
The ability to find the connections and commonalities that we have with our fellow humans on this Earth. The freedom to use our head, our hands, and our heart to design the built world.
As the famous educator Rudolf Steiner noted, we have the freedom to not only focus on what we do, but on who we are.
That’s our reality.
So, in conclusion, I’ll leave you with this question:
What drives humankind to create? What is this instinct we have to live in a built world? What propels our need to design the things we use?
These are the big questions that drive my passion for the craft. Design isn’t simply a vocation or a question of composition and visual aesthetic, but is instead a lens through which we can view life and human interaction.
The ability to conceive of design is intrinsically related to being human. Since it is so intimately entwined with the human pursuit, our pursuit of good design is a noble one.
This is what I believe design to be, after all: to design is to be human. It is the optimistically obstinate belief that we can build our own world, and through that, understand our own place in it just a little bit more than we did yesterday.
This, in short, is my reality.
Some unused scribblings from my recent Creative Mornings talk on Reality:
What are you talking about? This can either be a simple answer, or a complex one. So often in graphic design, the commercial realm of creativity, what we say is dictated to us by those outside of ourselves, whether those people are bosses, clients, or collaborators. We don’t always get to choose what we say. However, we should always remain awake to what we are saying. We should remain aware. The fact is that words have the power to create reality on some level, and as participants in that creation, we need to remain active. Reality is what we encounter when we are awake. It is our responsibility, as the creators, to verify that what we are saying coordinates with who we are. Once these two realities diverge into dissonance, that is when we start to enter the realm of fantasy.
I think if I was given the opportunity to immediately eliminate one personal tendency, I think it would be my ability to pay close attention to myself.
I just stumbled across this quotation in one of my notebooks, dated three years ago today:
“According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.”
— Annie Dillard
“Your children are beautiful. When you get a gift like children, you don’t even have to ask if you made the right choices.”
With that, our long-haired, bespeckled Uber driver turned off his meter and drove us the rest of the way for free.
Come with rain, O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
Make the settled snowbank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate’er you do tonight,
Bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit’s crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o’er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out of door.
Eight days until my last final, and then I can get back to this. So go the good intentions.
This evening I sat in a coffee shop finishing up a school project. A pounding dance remix of some sort was plugged into my eardrums, effectively drowning out the peripheral thoughts. This is my usual custom when a deadline is looming.There was no separation between my mind and the rhythm. A girl across the room stood up and started to dance. The dichotomy of her movements with my music created a surreally slow-motion collision between what was internal and what was external. She danced on, then noticed people watching her and stopped in embarrassment.
I love the winter and I love the rain. It makes me feel a little sad, but that seems natural. I mistrust the heat of summer.
I rolled into my mechanic’s garage this morning. “That time of year again,” I said, handing over my keys for an inspection. He honked the horn once, and declared “Well, that was easy. Seven bucks.”
When your car is 33 years old, it’s good to keep on good terms with your mechanic.
“People need dreams, there’s as much nourishment in ‘em as food.”
— Dorothy Gilman
I think it’s probably healthiest for most of life to remain a dream of one kind or another.
This week we are re-decorating the office a bit, which necessitates moving furniture here and there in order to appropriately situate desks, chairs, new rugs, etc. While some people find these movements stimulating and exciting, I find the process disturbing. Everyone is moving at the peripheral of my vision. I draw deeper into my office, finding comfort in the perceived permanence of everything in its place.
This afternoon as I sat in a coffee shop I witnessed a young student perusing an ancient-looking book. The streaks in her blonde hair still spoke of our prolonged Texas summer, and she sipped on an espresso with a distracted air that promised a cold end to the experience. The text on the page was in Greek. Totally engrossed, the girl took a brief note in the margin and flipped to the next page.
This evening I found myself in a dark second-story bar. A reunion of some sort was in progress, the hum of out-of-towners a gentle overlay to clink of glasses and background prattle of a football game on the TV. A man begins to strum on the guitar, his mic check a low rumble. He starts to sing James Taylor in the voice of Tom Waits. I am not displeased.
As I stare into the mirror, pondering the latest in a series of skin blemishes that are the handiwork of the dermatologist who is gradually turning me into a human golf ball, I think that perhaps the Gnostics were onto something after all.
A couple of days ago I put down some brief thoughts on sports, and how their affect on our psyche seems unique in the modern age. Paul Hayward verbalizes this intimately in his Telegraph article, in which he relates how sport (one Lionel Messi performance, in particular) sustained him through intensive cancer treatments. His musings on the power of sport to sustain hope are personal and profound.
I thought about the time when I had triplet infants, all requiring bottle feeding every three hours around the clock, and the weeks spent watching game after game, match after match all night long as I rotated through the bottles, each round taking an hour-and-a-half. The situation was very different, but the need for endurance was present nonetheless, as was the need for company. The struggle of others on the field served as a proxy for my own. Their wins were my wins.
Bill Shankly, legendary Liverpool manager, put it aptly when he said “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
A note hastily scrawled in my sketchbook:
“Why do we so often look at, when we need to look into?”
It’s fascinating how profoundly sports can affect your mood and sense of well-being. Such an intimate tie to the human spirit in some ways, really the only example of this exact social phenomenon that I can identify. Why do we invest ourselves so thoroughly in the outcomes of these contests, in the performances of these people we don’t even know? Tonight my team lost a key playoff match. I came away from it feeling like the whole weekend was ruined, like the whole week ahead of me was aimless and futile. This is silly, but the feeling remains.
Today is the day when children can dress up like adults and adults can dress up like children. A day for yo-yo fantasy.
Imposter Syndrome, that fickle but universal companion. I’m not sure what provokes (or maintains) these bouts of insecurity in my case, especially as I grow older, more experienced, and presumably more secure. A flawed presumption, obviously. I wonder at times if perhaps these shallows creep up when I am more isolated (many times only subconsciously), which can even happen at times when I am highly productive, often because I am being highly productive. This is the paradox of productivity vs. validation. I find it impossible to validate my own work.
“The good thing about saying ‘it’s beautiful’ of a work of art is that when you say that you aren’t saying anything.”
— Susan Sontag
Then again, we probably say too much as it is.
Some days my daily scribblings don’t have a place here. This has been the case recently, as I have been pouring myself (slightly against my will) into finalizing my thesis proposal for the University. Daily words, yes, but isolated to a single unassailable document. Works cited and bibliographies. Literature reviews and proofs. Moving beyond these strictures into something less monotonous is difficult, and an exercise not worth pursuing at this point. I must make peace with the boundaries.
The stack of books, the one right beside my bed, just keeps growing and growing. Almost nightly a new title makes its way to the top of the stack, usurping the spot of whatever poor novel or obtuse political science tome had previously topped the pile. The briefest ascent, the shortest rein. Somehow I barely even touch the books themselves, as I am almost inevitably too tired to dive into anything of substance by the time I climb under the sheets. Still, the books remain. I’m not really sure what purpose they serve, some kind of subconscious security blanket. A proxy for ambition? Perhaps they remind me of the inertia of life, that “someday” I will get to those books, and perhaps as I’m falling asleep the reminder that tomorrow exists is what I need the most.
“Have you ever gone to confession before? Oh man, it’s going to rock your world. It is the worst. The greatest and the worst.”
Tonight I accidentally walked into a book store poetry performance. The man on stage, perhaps 45 with a slicked-back haircut, propelled himself through his material with the velocity of a speedboat through the choppy surf. There was a machine gun elegance to it, the melody being sacrificed to the rhythm. When he was done, he sheepishly nodded through the applause, and sat down without comment.
Today I was asked to give a public talk on realism, specifically on remaining professionally realistic. Perhaps I am uniquely qualified for this topic due to my distaste for it. I maintain an intense, lingering desire to remain apart. Realism is not my strength. However, it is an edge on which I must balance, hovering awkwardly in the realm of what I think of as a living expressionism, a strange type of organic diorama that is constantly vacillating between impressionism and representationalism. This is the sweet spot. However, the path is narrow, and it would be easy to misstep to either side. I’ve peered over the edge, and the drop is long.
On trying to make beautiful things: my thoughts on this are clouded and untouchable. While there are those who believe that beauty can be created on purpose, I question that. Of course it is quite possible to attempt the creation of a beautiful thing, but its ultimate form is outside the extended hand of human control. We can attempt and we should attempt, but we we should never expect or be disappointed. This is the basic tension that frames the space between waking and sleeping.
Let us consider for a moment the phrase “it makes no sense that…” as a statement of belief, of conviction, and not of fact. Let us consider it in the context of an economic statement (i.e., it “makes no sense that” interest on a student loan is higher than interest on a car loan). It is possible (and necessary) to take ethical stances on things like economics, and a declaration of ethical conviction is functions as a declaration of “sense” (or a belief in sense). It is a sort of of confession of faith. However, in the case of economics and forces of the “free” market, it is often expressed that these highly technical arenas are beyond the subjective flows of conviction and live in the realm of cold logic and patterns. This is only the case if we let this be the case.
Tonight we made our way to Aurora, the whole family in tow, prepared for the spectacle of public art. Public, that is, except for the parking, which was geographically inaccessible and $25. Public, with a caveat. The art was inventive and surreal, though the enjoyment was tempered by the inherently frightening collision of darkness and noise (from the perspective of the children) along with the crushing waves of humanity that filled the streets. However, the overpopulation of an art installation is not something I am willing to complain about. My kids, however, might think differently.
The background is not the border.
Pablo Picasso once wrote, “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.”
The brain is usually a water pump. It is rarely a stream or an ocean. The labor keeps you fit, but drowning is still a possibility.
“Daddy, you are pretty.”
“Yeah. Do you know what that means?”
“What does it mean?”
“It means that you say very nice things.”
This morning I walked through a spider web. I just opened my door and took a step, and with that step I destroyed the work of hours, of days (from the perspective of the spider), maybe years, maybe a lifetime (if there were eggs or baby spiders hidden in the weave) and I just walked through it.
As I stood in line to check into my flight back to Texas, I listened to a group of retired ladies behind me discuss the younger generations. With one voice they bemoaned how young people are always in their phone, how our society is moving backwards, how kids aren’t even taught cursive in school anymore. What a shame, they say, what a real shame. Not in our day, they said. This is an endless and exhausting refrain.
A species in evolution cannot perceive their changes while still in the midst.
“Feel free to experiment. If you’re afraid, you’ll never improve.”
— From Florian Heinzen-Ziob film Original Copy
This weekend at Point Oh was time well spent. Kind people, genuine speakers, an ideal mix of restful reservation (uncommon at conference such as this) and candid communication. The event was topped off with a full day of films at the Design Film Festival. The audience was intimate and the films were beautiful.
Unedited sketchbook note from yesterday:
“Degrees of separation. Design as degrees of separation. Talk of design ‘changing the world.’ Perhaps it can, but only with a reduced degree of separation. Not in abstraction. Abstraction can influence, but if an object/idea influences in abstraction, it becomes art perhaps? Unsure if this is the case. Design as an agent of change is already at least one contextual point removed from a direct agent, in that it filters through the perception and experiences of each independent individual.”
This is why I rarely get anywhere.
Tonight I made my way over to Washington Square Park. This is a NYC tradition for me (as it is with millions of other periodic pilgrims), as I enjoy the spontaneity and energy of the NYU crowd mixed with the generational locals who can always be found there. As I walked past the chess tables I noted a disheveled senior playing chess with an elementary-aged boy. The boy’s dad sat beside him on the bench, staying out of the game, but keeping a watchful eye on the boys tactics. The older man was teaching the youngster how to force a mate with two bishops. I wonder if he’ll remember.
Today I flew into Brooklyn for my yearly conference jaunt, this time to the newly-minted Point Oh gathering. My AirBNB host left the keys under a mat in the entry way. I find that my perspective on New York is different now that I actually live in a neighborhood I truly love, which hasn’t been the case during some of my past visits. It’s as if I can enjoy NY for what it is without experiencing that mournful longing that seems to be such a universal impression for the young and hopeful. I no longer need to devour the city like a last meal. This makes it slower, smaller, and easier to gently inhale.
Today I read a series of essays written between Ernst Bloch and György Lukács in 1938. In these texts they debate the merits of German expressionism in a “modern” age. Bloch, an idealist, views expressionism as an enlightened presentation of the spirit. Lukács, a realist, believes that art can only be genuine if it reflects an objective, representational reality. Their arguments are passionate and eloquent. At the end though, my original question still remained; how could they possibly care that much? How does art become aesthetic theology?”
As I turned the key in my ignition, only to be greeted by a resounding silence, I took a moment to ponder the subtle surrealness of my situation. I was on a nearly abandoned downtown block in a section of the city that would, in only a few hours, be completely inaccessible due to a James Franco movie shoot. It was midnight. All cars had to be off the street by 6am or they would be towed. My phone was dead and my wife was at home.
I went ahead and turned the key one more time, just to check.
Today, for the 4th time in my life, the Texas Rangers won their division. 162 games, and it all came down to the last inning (as it really always should). Moments like these make me reflect again on the power of pro sports teams, and particularly the Rangers in my case, to remain a constant throughout life almost akin to an uncle or an older cousin. Someone you can root for from a distance without truly knowing. However, after couple of traumatic near-championships, I find the prospect of facing another postseason not unlike preparing for that same favorite uncle to go under the knife for major surgery. I can sit and hope, but the role of a passive observer is excruciating.
And yet, this is what we do to ourselves “for fun.”
“Daddy, does R2-D2 like sandwiches?”
Well kid, I have literally never considered the possibility.
Leave your stick in the dirt. Stick it up to its shoulder in the dirt.
“You can’t better the world by simply talking to it. Philosophy to be effective must be mechanically applied.”
— R. Buckminster Fuller
See: the modern American political climate.
As I return home and resume my more traditional routines, I enter an in-breath. A subtle pause before the exhale. At this point in my life, I’m always ready for the exhale and resent the immobility of the stabilizing diaphragm.
Spent all of today wandering the city, trying to get lost (mostly unsuccessfully). By the end of it I had trodden 12.5 miles altogether. The highlights were the bookstores, especially William Stout, which is my version of heaven. By the end of it, though, I had realized that traveling along has lost much of its appeal. It’s easy to become lonely, especially in the crowds.
Last night I stayed on my friend’s fishing boat, which he keeps at a residential dock in Sausalito. My stay corresponded with the blood moon/lunar eclipse, and so I found myself sitting on a folding chair with the population of the dock who were in the midst of a astronomic potluck. We ate baked potatoes and beans and brownies. The moon slowly faded until only a sliver remained, and we retired to the boat’s deck where we smoked pipes and sipped mulled wine. The boat kept slowly rocking until it became to chilly to sit outside. The moon stayed the same.
Subjective observation: in San Francisco the people look like “normal” people, even though the cost of living is so high. Not like the comparable parts of New York, where so many exude money and class (or, at least trendiness). How can people live in this area and still maintain a certain level of mainstream taste? Maybe that points to a more transient lifestyle, one in which the population of a city ebbs and flows with greater rapidity. A temporary population. Of course, perhaps the citizenry is just influenced by the more inherently casual culture of the west coast. Then again, maybe I am totally wrong about this whole thing.
I arose early this morning to head to the airport. The sun was still a few from awakening. I poked around in the darkness of my room, trying to quietly pack the remaining items I would need in San Francisco this weekend. The cat had found his way into my bag again and I almost removed his tail with the zipper. My driver was prompt, swift, and silent. I opened up Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as we sat silently on the terminal. The sun rose as I lifted into the sky.
Somehow, though the elements are the same, the truth of each is slightly different.
Alan Watts once stated that “Buddha’s doctrine was that man suffers because of his craving to possess and keep forever things which are impermanent.”
In the end though, I don’t know if we fear the loss quite as much as we fear the losing. The fading things are more terrifying than those that have already disappeared. If there was a way that the things we value could vanish without our cognizance or our memory, I don’t think that we would long for them again. What we crave is a convenient amnesia.
From the internet comments:
“Most conservatives in the U.S. claim to value community and tradition, but really are liberals who promote a crass capitalism that undermines cultural and social solidarity. Real conservatives should find more in common with the radical critics from the Left than the free market liberalism that passes for conservatism in the U.S.”
Always remember that the spectrum is a circle.
This week at work has been a little bit slow. This means that there is no real rush to do anything, no immediate deadlines, no real juggling. My thoughts remind me of a bunch of balloons that, without the restraint of an external force, start to fly up into the air in a whirling fury, soon detaching from each other and flying in a hundred different directions. Somehow, I need to pressure to maintain cohesion. I’m not sure if this is good or bad.
Hit a wall with a 1000 pound sledgehammer. Hit a wall with a ton of bricks. Hit a wall with my inalienable rights. Hit a wall with the baggage of countless generations of prior cynics. Hit a wall with my fist of tyrannical hope.
Today I snuck off by myself to see the new Bobby Fischer biopic, Pawn Sacrifice. The theater was sparsely attended. Everyone was there alone.
Apparently chess movies aren’t really hotbeds of dating activity.
“Daddy, it is hard being a grown-up. And it is hard being a kid.”
This morning I stepped into my barber shop for a haircut. My barber greeted me heartily and said he hadn’t seen me in forever, what have I been up to? Apparently not getting haircuts, I said. I settled in. He asked me how short I wanted to go this time, I said last time I think you did a #1, but let’s go shorter. Sounds like you want to go full bald, he said. I said ok. A minute later a woman walked into the shop. She was deaf, but started writing quickly on a pad. She needed money to pay her last hospital bill. My barber pulled a wad of cash from his drawer with his fully tattooed hands, handing it to the woman. Her face radiated surprise and something near ecstasy, and she backed out slowly gesturing her appreciation. My barber started back to his task, snipping away at the top of my head. To the least of these, you know? He said it quietly, as if to himself.
This evening my brain hit a wall, maybe due to some low-grade virus or allergy that is barraging my system. This day has meant little. My focus has been corrupted by the forces of nature. Still, I find it hard to attempt sleep. I just sit here in bed, puttering on my phone, puttering with my books, waiting for the day to feel fully spent. An absurd tug-of-war.
This morning I read an article about the Crawick Multiverse, a land art project by the famous postmodernist architect Charles Jencks. Like many of his other works, the Multiverse brings to life Jencks’ interpretations of complex scientific thought, the shapes of galaxies spiraling and snaking their way through an expansive landscape created from dirt and grass and stones. Jencke sees the potential of these raw, empty spaces to mirror what he believes to be a reality beyond that which we can touch with our senses. Beyond that which we can even inhabit at all. This is a universe whose waves carry with them a deep vibration that we will never experience. It exists and expands without our help, a continual out breath. The Crawick Multiverse however, if left to its own devices, would soon descend into chaos. It would decay back into the dirt. This is the price of a pale reflection.
I was flipping through an old journal today and stopped randomly on this passage, written on 4/26/2013:
“There are not actual fragments of our consciousness (referring specifically to the idea of “feeling fragmented”). It seems like we’re constantly being pulled to and fro, into the future from the past, but that’s an illusion. That’s why we grow anxious about the future, because our present-consciousness is unable to understand it. Because it will never be there.
“For some reason, it seems to me like the fact that our present-consciousness is so temporal removes most of the value from it, and that’s why I so easily lose energy and motivation for present (temporal) action. When it comes down to it though, this present mind that is so wrapped up in the future is really the only part of us that is uniquely equipped to engage and interact in this current, physical existence. While it seems like those actions are fleeting and minor, they are the monuments to our moments and to our physical life and world.”
Some things don’t really change.
Tonight I had a lengthy conversation with one of my fellow grad students about an art teacher’s intuition, and whether or not a contextual aesthetic perspective can be taught. If a person doesn’t innately respond to color, motion and the artist’s visual intent, are these elements that can be identified with practice? At the very least, we decided, the task of any art education program should be to inform teachers how to teach these critical topics, even if they remain largely hidden to the instructors themselves.
This weekend we finally experienced a brief hint of autumn. The kids spent two days tearing up and down our sidewalk on scooters, periodically crashing into the softer yards of neighbors who have bothered to water their lawns from time to time. At more than one point I hear my daughter shouting “WHOOOOOA I’M ALMOST FALLING I’M ALMOST FALLING!” as her hair streams out of her bright yellow helmet in a receding wave. Her joy is palpable, and it reminds me of the rare times I experience the same unbridled emotion. It’s usually when I’m almost falling as well (though in a different way).
Eigengrau (German: “intrinsic gray” / literally: “own gray”) is the uniform gray that we see behind our eyelids when we close them. It is perhaps the most universal color, the background noise of our own individual selves. Own gray. Self-contained, composed of nothing but a reference to itself.
This month a Whole Foods opened a block from my office. While I am a bit chagrined by the idea that I would regularly hang out at an overpriced grocery store, it’s hard to argue with the convenience of a coffee bar and wi-fi and the outdoor balcony seating. I did, however, apparently miss the day where they handed out the yoga pants and muscles.
This evening I am spending some time researching graphic design curriculum while sitting at a bar. I assume that this is just one of the rules.
“An unpopular opinion concerning politics or religion lies concealed in the breast of every man; in many cases not only one sample, but several. The more intelligent the man, the larger the freightage of this kind of opinions he carries, and keeps to himself.
Twain is optimistic in his belief that most people restrain from vocalizing their true sentiments for the sake of conformity. I’d posit that most, in fact, do the opposite.
Every time my wife goes out of town, something important implodes. Last time it was our plumbing, this time it’s the radiator on our family car. It’s as if our objects fall into a particularly self-destructive kind of mourning.
Encountered in Tobias’ email newsletter today:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
—Viktor E. Frankl
I sure hope that space is stretchy.
I spent this morning lounging at Espumoso. My family was out of town, and so I chose to mark the rare occasion by drinking espresso and reading a bad detective novel. This place somehow remains unfrequented by anyone else I know. It’s a satisfyingly public type of anonymity. As the morning wore on, the neighborhood awakened and the tourist crowds started to emerge from their dens. Most strolled along the sidewalk in groups of three of four. The primary demographic was adult child with parent or parents. I live in the capitol of generational brunch.
This evening I attended a performance of Dracula by the Texas Ballet Theater. I slipped into one of the cheap seats at the last minute, one of those that is tucked into the corner of the balcony in such a way that half the stage is obscured. I was close enough to hear the brush of fabric and constant squeak of shoes that belied the effortless movements. I had a perfect view of the timpani player down in the pit and spent the next two hours caught in his flow.
Tonight, as I closed my eyes to sleep, the field of vision behind my eyelids was filled with a stuttering, frenetic vision as if a thousand black and white birds were pouring out of the sky. Flitting from one edge of the frame to the other, their exact shapes obscured, they cascaded before me like static on a TV. These, perhaps, are my anxieties. I take a deep breath and gently blow the birds away.
Today I read an article which posited that perhaps our search for a “true self” is flawed, in that there is no true self to be found. Only a series of echoes and reflections of our experiences and the stimuli we encounter during the course of our life. The image of a beam of light sprang to my mind, as if we are the white beam that is then broken into various spectrums by a prism. These luminous fragments that appear as individual pieces still only exist within the original light.
The separations, the true “selves”, are only the broken frame of an intangible form.
Re-tie yourself swiftly to the dock.
The importance of making time to daydream doesn’t diminish as we grow older, and I’ve realized in my own life that if I don’t actively seek the times where my mind can wander, then my mental wellness suffers. I think there’s an idea that daydreaming is a child’s activity, since as I (for example) age my wanderings become less about building functional space ships out of tin cans or winning the Tour de France on a BMX bike and more about traveling to Nepal or getting really good at tennis some day. The dreams become more graspable, but are equally as important. Our perspective must roam beyond our experience.
Today brings with it the first class of my last year of MFA study, which has come upon me both more quickly than I expected and more slowly than I would have liked. The methodical ponderousness of grade school or even college doesn’t prepare you for the frenetic pace of being in graduate school as an adult with a job and a family. The rotations get shorter as the funnel grows smaller.
“If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.”
Today we say goodbye to Oliver Sacks, a man who was awake.
This morning at breakfast my daughter declared that she wanted “one thousand pancakes.” I told her that a pile of one thousand pancakes would probably be taller than our house. She considered that for a moment.
“I want two thousand pancakes.”
In Dallas, the local news outlets are all abuzz with a recent proposal to change the city’s official logo (the renowned Triple D, which was designed in 1972) to a logo currently being used by the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. Naturally, there are passionate champions on both sides of the issue. In the current logo’s corner we find preservationists, traditionalists, and rationalists who either remain emotionally attached to the current logo for personal reasons or who simply believe that the inevitable aftermath of adopting a new logo is a waste of public funds. However, those who support the idea of a “new” logo decry the supposedly dated look of the current mark, and declare that the city needs an “identifiable brand”.
This conversation raises some interesting questions. First of all, can a city have a designed “brand?” If so, what is the city of Dallas’ brand? Who is the city’s brand targeting? Finally, how does the city’s logo fit into that?
It must be noted first of all that branding and logo design aren’t the same thing. Logo design is a part of the branding process, and in most cases should be one of the last elements that is developed. It is the culmination of an idea. The cherry on the top of the sundae. An iconic stamp of approval at the end of a thorough exploration of an organization’s character.
Branding, however ubiquitous and watered-down that term has become in the public forum, is at its core the exploration of that character. “Branding” is an active verb. It is a process. A “brand” is not something you create from nothing, it is something that already exists in one state or another that designers can help define for a wider audience. It can be poked and prodded and molded into something specific to meet certain goals, of course, but in order for a pot to be fired and glazed it first has be be crafted from raw materials. Most often in my own design practice, those raw materials come in the form of a person or a few people who have values, strengths and goals that can be made into something tangible. That’s a brand.
The question then becomes, is it possible to truly “brand” a city? The population of Dallas is around 1,200,000. While the city might have an inherent brand, it’s so complex and constantly roiling that untangling this eternal knot would be a pretty herculean task. Perhaps the brand exists, but is it attainable?
Now, let’s talk about this thing for a minute:
Admittedly, from a critique standpoint, the logo (perhaps unfairly extracted from the context of its original campaign, though that does fit with the proposal) is low-hanging fruit. Toss a Reunion Tower silhouette in there and you have an all-star lineup of overused and ultimately shallow visual tropes. The logo says nothing about the character of the city, and is merely an echo of the patterns we’ve been seeing since a certain pro football team came onto the scene a few decades ago.
Like I said, low hanging fruit. But that’s not the point.
In other news, I already have an outline written of my thoughts on the Dallas logo question and the branding of cities. Words coming soon.
— Justin Childress (@justinc) August 20, 2015
Spoiler: Syed is probably asking the right questions, but so far she’s looking for answers in the wrong places…specifically the DCVB. — Justin Childress (@justinc) August 20, 2015
Spoiler 2: The city DOES have an identifiable brand, the question is if it is “marketable” or “cool”. pic.twitter.com/lIrtH4W50A
— Justin Childress (@justinc) August 20, 2015
The point (as I tweeted in reply to Wilonsky’s joke-y and yet oh-so-painful “design contest” suggestion) is that the Big Things Happen Here campaign is not the city’s brand. It is too broad and undefined. It is focused outward, not inward toward the population as a city’s brand probably should be. Because of this fact it isn’t even an appropriate replacement for our current municipal branding, as noted by my good friend Robbie.
The only brand @1500Marilla has is their services. An official seal/stamp is all they really need (& the triple D serves them well)
— Robbie Good (@robbiegood) August 21, 2015
As Ellen Lupton (via Mark Lamster) reinforced herself later that week, Big Things Happen Here is an advertising campaign. It was created to promote a very specific entity, the DCVB. It is aspirational. It is inherently promotional. That’s fine, as long as you understand that its fundamental purpose is to attract corporate entities looking for a place to hold a conference. When viewed in that context, the “big things” that happen here could literally be “big conferences,” so all of a sudden the campaign starts to make more sense.
But if the question is “how do we brand the city,” we need to start with “who is the city?” Who is the brand representing? Who are we? What are our values, strengths and goals? How do we communicate those honestly? The process of exploring that question should be daunting. It should be hard. It should take time and energy and involve a lot of people. If the city wants to engage in that process, they should engage in it fully instead of co-opting an advertising slogan from a tourism entity. If we want to create another advertising campaign for the city then that’s fine, but it’s a different conversation altogether.
This brings me back to our old friend the Triple D. While the technical issues are obvious (poor balance, weird counterform spacing, etc. etc.) the fact that it has simply been there during a complicated time in the city’s history might be worth something. Maybe the fact that every citizen of the city since 1972 has encountered the symbol has allowed it to absorb some of the individual character of those people who make up the hopes, dreams and even failures of Dallas itself.
Maybe that’s enough.
I don’t know, perhaps that’s too romantic. I know it’s just a logo, a bunch of lines put together to make a rough little picture. But the fact that so many people feel like that little picture is embedded in their own stories mean that if we want to consider replacing it, we need approach the issue with the gravity it deserves.
(I also couldn’t resist taking some time to give our Triple D a little TLC*. Consider this freebie a token of my enduring and sometimes confusing affection for you, Dallas.)
I read an article today that served as a good follow-up to my thoughts from yesterday. The author, and older gentlemen, theorizes that adults simply lose the emotional resilience to continually be outraged. It takes too long to recover, the aftermath stretches beyond the moment and beyond the issue. This is probably why I find the internet exhausting most days.
As I was driving to work today I spent some time thinking about whether the “mellowing out” of adulthood is inevitable, and how older (i.e. no longer in the throes of youth) people portray a counter-cultural perspective as they age. It seems, at least in my case, that while I still feel the same levels of unrest as I did when younger, I am less likely to purposefully revel in its as I once did. It’s too tiring. In the end, though, I supposed that it’s the maintaining of principle that is the most important thing (obviously) while the emotional trappings can wax and wane. Tidal movements.
Roger Caillois, from his book A little Guide to the 15th Arrondissement for the Use of Phantoms, referencing Parisian advertising murals in the early decades of the 20th century:
“I felt a sudden affection for the person at Ivry Storage who had commissioned the mural. I reproached myself for having looked down on the man [as a youth]. Thanks to him, the universe in which I had lived out the first and decisive years of that second life that accompanies our conscious reveries, was restored to me: a collection of unexplained affinities that guide us without our realizing it, a spell whose origin escapes us and takes us prisoner.”
That second life that accompanies our conscious reveries. The advent of adulthood. This corresponds to my own idea that, while periodically I worry that I didn’t express myself adequately in my 20s, I also didn’t have anything useful to say in my 20s. The cement was freshly poured and still free-flowing. Credibility comes as the cement hardens.
Position desired: fulcrum.
Sarah Manguso, from her memoir Ongoingness:
“Why, then, should I continue writing the diary?
In it I digest the time that passes, file it away so I no longer need to think about it, and if I spend all my time thinking about the past I’d stop moving into the future. I begin to write, but no—I’d keep moving. How foolish to believe myself powerful enough to stop time just by thinking.”
How foolish, but how alluring.
I wonder if memories exist outside of the self that created them. Can experiences bring something into the world that did not exist before? Can memories outlive the physical body? If memories and experiences are, in essence, “created objects,” then life itself can be a creative exercise. Otherwise it’s probably just maintenance.
Today I took my son to Adventure Landing. The characteristic patina of the mini golf course awoke nostalgia, even as the moldy plastic zoo animals that surrounded the “lagoon” made me question whether the place had been cleaned since it was constructed in the mid-90s. My son was oblivious to these impressions. His big-picture brain could only take in the whole and not the parts. As we walked back to the car after a long afternoon draped in the sirens and yells of the chaotic arcade, he declared that it had been a “very special day.” I agreed.
As I drifted into the deeper spaces in my morning contemplation, as the usual static of to-dos and emails and preemptive social anxieties started to recede bit by bit, my mind started casually creating images in quiet spaces between the thoughts. In this case, the images were translucent green blocks. The blocks contained my face. They multiplied infinitely and spun in space one by one, quickly snapping together to create a solid wall composed of infinite selves staring back at me. A rubik’s cube of ego.
I was pulled out of it by a door bursting open. The happy yells of a four-year-old who wanted Cheerios.
A house down the street from mine is in the midst of an overhaul, the property overrun with workers from morning until night. As long as I’ve known the house the screened-in porch has been home to a series of porcelain figures, each of them carefully situated on outward-facing shelves to stare at the passers-by. Now the little anthropomorphic creatures are gone, the screen is gone, and I can tell by a sneaky peek through the front window that the sheetrock is gone. Everything is being washed clean. I imagine the small, dusty figures being buried in the backyard or under the house, allowed to rest in peace after keeping the house safe for who knows how long.
This evening it was cooler than usual, almost Autumn-like for Texas, and so after the sun set I stepped out of my house for a long evening walk. After 30 minutes or so I encountered some old stairs laid into the side of a short incline. The concrete edifice was lit by a lonely street lamp, the rest of the street stretching darkly in either direction. I climbed the steps and found myself on another street I was surrounded by the same kind of houses that I had left below. I couldn’t tell any difference.
In the New Yorker this week, we read of Joan Didion:
She…wrote obsessively about herself—not only in her memoirs, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the death of her husband, and “Blue Nights,” about the death of her daughter, but in reported pieces and in personal essays, which she started producing almost as soon as she started publishing. (She eventually got bored with the genre and gave it up. “I didn’t want to become Miss Lonelyhearts,” she said.) She once delivered a lecture called “Why I Write.” She began by pointing out that the sound you hear in those three words is “I, I, I.”
I often wonder what the unedited journals of the truly great memoirists look like. Are they as cyclical as mine seem to be? Are they just bands of sameness, wound tighter and tighter into one another as the years go on? An everlasting ping pong of self-analysis. This is both unsatisfying and also necessary. Our present is built on a mountain of discarded selves.
Consider August 7-16 a symbolic void. Consider it an exercise in humility and futility, and at the same time, an opportunity for self-grace and the next step forward. The burden of “catching up” weighs down the present in preference to the past. These days are small details etched in the shadows of today and tomorrow.
I’ve always loved Jenny Holzer’s work, specifically her mediums and contexts. That’s why I find her Dallas Cowboys commission weirdly jarring. I feel like we have lost her thread.
I returned from a meeting this afternoon to find a link to an open letter from a design professional to a student who had requested honest feedback. The tone of the letter rubbed me the wrong way, and I composed some brief commentary. Primarily, I was struck by the inappropriateness of using the public conversation for feedback in this way, especially in a format without conversation, context or background. True feedback requires true curiosity, not just self-satisfaction.
“It has been said, quite accurately, that a psychotic person is drowning in the very same thing that a mystic swims in.”
This week the temperature will be over 105 every day, which means that we are deep into Texas hibernation. I spend 9 hours a day alone in my office. The gentle hum of the fan pushing around warm air keeps me company.
My son dug out our “chess game board” yesterday and asked me to teach him to play. We spent an hour learning all the pieces and the positions. Then he invented a few of his own moves and checkmated me with ease.
This piece was originally written as the first draft of any essay for one of my MFA classes, in which I was supposed to write my “Philosophy of Design.” Apparently this version was too observational and impersonal. Whoops.
What drives man to create? What is this instinct we have to live in a built world?
What drew us out of the caves and forests into gatherings of our own kind, living in structures we built with our own hands, eating from vessels we meticulously crafted, sleeping in beds of our own construction? What is this insatiable voice that leads us to believe that we have the power to make something from nothing?
What drives our need to design the things we use?
I believe that Design is our key to understanding the world
Cave paintings. Clay pots. Smoke signals. Adobe dwellings. Hieroglyphs. Aqueducts. Morse code. The automobile. The iPhone. Everything in history that we’ve ever used to push the human race forward was the result of a careful plan that was executed to solve a particular problem. Whether we were trying to construct a better smoke dissipation system for our cave or are trying to conceive of a car that runs on hydrogen gas, our basic motivation is the same; we are not satisfied with the status quo. We believe that we can, and should, solve problems. Design, in the end, creates a context for understanding our world. I believe that we can’t understand our place in it until we understand how we can make our own place in it.
I believe that Design is a universal language
In the simplest terms, design is the making of things by humans for humans. It is the exchange of knowledge and experience through created objects. While graphic design as a specific discipline is often tied directly to written language, other design disciplines transverse these cultural barriers. A beautiful home is comfortable whether you speak English or French. A lawnmower works just as well in Cambridge or Sydney. In a lot of ways, our designed objects are what bridge these cultural divides and bind us together as the human race. From my perspective, design is a language of love; we believe that we have something to offer to our fellow men that will improve their lives.
I believe that Designers are the professionally curious
Designers reside in the awkward realm of being expected to justify themselves as experts in a field that in the end cannot be objectively quantified. As the field is by necessity fraught with risk and huge amounts of experimentation, the financial prospects of the design frontier are rarely substantial. So, there must be another motivation. One that is more powerful than financial need alone. For some designers this could be the search for beauty, for some it might be a quest for truly elegant function. In the end, we are all driven by our insatiable need to explore, to tweak, to know. Personally, I am driven by the daunting, unshakable belief that I need to learn something about everything. There is nothing that I do not want to know. Design is the path to that interaction with the human mind-scape that I desire.
I believe that Design is a noble pursuit
The ability to recognize a problem and create tools to solve that problem is a uniquely human attribute. While some primates are able to utilize rocks and sticks to break coconuts and gather food, they can’t construct a vision for these objects beyond their original form. They can’t conceive of evolution. Only humans can look at the clouds and say “I want to make a building that touches those. I know I can figure out how to build it.” The ability to conceive of design is intrinsically related to being human. Since design is so intimately entwined with the human pursuit, our belief in design is a noble one.
This does not mean that every object we design needs to be noble in itself. It’s undeniably useful to have clearly-designed bathroom signage or a toothpaste tube that dispenses its product properly. What it does mean, however, is that when we design, we need to always remember the gravity of our capacity for design. We need to make sure that our intent and motivation as practitioners of design live up to this singularity of the human spirit.
While it’s easy to argue points of style and taste when it comes to made objects (Dieter Rams vs. Neville Brody, early Frank Lloyd Wright vs. late Frank Lloyd Wright) these arguments miss the point entirely; what we need to be concerned with when it comes to design is why was it designed, not how was it designed. I believe that the key to a successful piece is to create something with the honest intention to advance the human race in some way, whether that be from a micro perspective (a small-business website) or a macro perspective (Biodomes to regrow the rain forests). Design that is crafted with the appropriate gravity, depth, and passion has a great chance to resonate within the human consciousness and be effective, regardless of stylistic tropes.
This is what I believe design to be, after all: to design is to be human. It is the optimistically obstinate belief that we can build our own world, and through that, understand our own place in it just a little bit more than we did yesterday.
Historically I don’t like swimming pools, but the joy with which my kids approach the whole affair is infectious, and this morning I found myself enjoying the splashes and shouts of a community pool filled with neighborhood children. A father was in the deep end with his daughter. She struggled to swim from the wall to him, gurgling and gulping accompanying panicked strokes. As she tired, he scooped her up and deposited her back to the wall. The whole thing repeated indefinitely.
This morning at 3:00am I awoke with a ice pick migraine. This use to happen to me weekly before I started nightly treatment for sleep apnea. Now they are rare enough that any time it happens I experience a moment of panic, wondering if I’m finally having a stroke. Slowly, however, the pain faded away, and I was able to drift back into sleep.
In the morning I remembered that the migraine had awakened me from a sad dream.
“Life’s work is to wake up, to let the things that enter into the circle wake you up rather than put you to sleep. The only way to do this is to open, be curious, and develop some sense of sympathy for everything that comes along, to get to know its nature and let it teach you what it will. It’s going to stick around until you learn your lesson, at any rate.”
Pema Chödrön, from her book The Wisdom of No Escape. While she was no doubt referring to the agony and ecstasy of everyday life, I circled this quote to remind me to approach my clients the same way. As work, so is life.
If time is an illusion, is my jet lag an illusion?
Today I sat for two or three hours in the New York Cafe, watching the rain splatter against the window while the houseboats in the harbor swayed gently in the swells. I nursed a cappuccino until it was too cold to drink. In the corner, an older man in a Sleepless in Seattle t-shirt worked steadily on the daily crossword. This morning was the second time that I’ve seen him there. He was wearing the Sleepless in Seattle t-shirt yesterday too.
In the 1920s, prostitution was Ketchikan’s number one industry. Today I hiked down the aptly-named Married Man’s Trail to the former red light district known as Creek Street. The path over and past a rushing waterfall. The salmon doggedly crept against the current, looking for a place to spawn.
This morning we awoke at 4am to go fishing. We each paid $40 for a license and headed out on a 30-year-old motor boat. We saw a bald eagle flying overhead with a fish in its claws. Our captain told us that this was some of the deepest water in the world and that he had rescued 16 different people in a single summer. Most of them had run out of gas, though a few had been swamped by waves.
The water was mostly quiet, but about an hour in a pink salmon took my bait. As I was reaching for the net, the line went slack and the fish disappeared.
I spent my first morning in Ketchikan reading on a bench by the ocean. As the hours passed a few cruise liners pulled into port, disgorging hundreds of mouse-eared tourists into the commercial downtown to buy jewelry and Alaska sweatshirts and canned salmon. Several tourists walked past me, their faces exhibiting confusion as to why I was sitting instead of shopping. Apparently people go to Alaska to shop.
Texas, Airplane, Salt Lake City, Airplane, Seattle, Airplane, Ketchikan. Transitional places, both physical and mental. The disassociation of self.
I will awaken at 3am tomorrow to head to Alaska, which means that I will toss and turn until then. I love experiencing new places, but I do not enjoy airports or packing or any of the secondary aspects of getting from one place to another. I do not do well in transition.
Anne Garréta, from her 1986 novel Sphinx:
“How often did I imagine myself gripped with terror, collapsing, tumbling from the height of the relative safety of whatever promontory I had been occupying? A fall brought about by the purely internal and continually foreseen rending, imminently suspended on a final thread that never broke but which, taut and twisted unbearably, never ceased to tremble. The agonizing tension of always being about to crack without ever feeling the relief of chaos—for I denied myself even the obscene plenitude of annihilation.”
The universality of this sentiment to anyone who has struggled with the “mental dismal” is striking, but aside from this fact I took two things away: first, don’t be afraid of long sentences. Second, look up plenitude and use it regularly.
In the past few weeks the kids have been more obviously transitioning from being young, visceral children to a more refined version of themselves. Fewer tantrums about the amount of milk in a cup, more interest in tracing letters, adding numbers and what species a bird is. This point of transition is both refreshing and fluid.
That said, this morning our house almost sonically imploded because we were out of “round cereal.”
This afternoon I went to a Bernie Sanders town hall meeting in downtown Dallas. When he got up to speak the first thing he noted was that his advisors had asked him “if you’re running for President of the United States, why are you going to Texas?” As I walked through the teeming crowds to enter the standing-room-only ballroom, I was curious to see what type of people would show up to a Bernie Sanders rally. The answer ended up being “every type of person”. I suppose that’s his whole point.
At the Fort Worth Scottish Festival this afternoon, I was greeted by the flushed faces of people whose blood was never supposed to weather a Texas July. The wool kilts represented both dedication and misery. I wonder; why do all these Americans love bagpipes so much? Can that affinity be passed down like a bad chromosome?
Susan Sontag wrote:
“Art is the grand condition of the past in the present. To become “past” is to become “art”.
Works of art have a certain pathos.
Their historicity? Their decay? Their veiled, mysterious, partly inaccessible aspect?
The fact that no one would (could) ever do that again?
Perhaps, then, works only become art—they are not art.
They become art when they are a part of the past.”
This concept fits nicely with my own that a person cannot self-identify as an artist. Art comes into existence when an object is viewed as art by another. All we can hope to be are art-attempters.
As I ran past Steven’s Park Golf Course in the early morning, a group of young children were chipping balls on the practice green and presumably getting ready to begin a day of golf camp. Their shirts, without exception, were the brightest fluorescents that I could imagine, and my lens-less eyes were dazzled by these fuzzy, frenetic spots of ultra-color that hacked away at golf balls with clubs half their height. And I had to wonder; were they just afraid of getting lost?
I walked through the Bishop Arts District this morning, the streets finally quiet after a night of Bastille Day reverie. French flags still droop slackly on their poles while a paper cup skates across the street like a weed. A woman in jogging clothes steps out of a cafe. Her Americano is steaming, even in the early morning mugginess of the Texas summer. If the street is remains barricaded the barriers are now invisible.
I’m sitting in my second favorite neighborhood coffee shop. A man in a full wool suit walks in the door and sits at the bar. I’ve seen him here before, he’s a regular here. His battered suede shoes belie his young face. Even in the early morning glare his face still carries the creases of a late night. His pocket square is a handkerchief. It looks like he’s reading Balzac, though it’s hard to tell from this distance.