I’ve been thinking a lot about value and values.
Design Humility and Counterpractice were first attempts to build a conversation around the value of design and our values as designers. They’re highly personal accounts where I try to articulate my own struggle with the dominant paradigm in design culture today, which I characterize as —
the relentlessness of branding
the spirit of the sell
the focus on product
the focus on perfection
and they include some techniques of resistance that I’ve explored in my recent work, like —
chance (nature, humility, serendipity)
giving away (generosity echo)
I’ve been calling them techniques, but they’re really more like values, available to any designer or artist. Work produced with these criteria runs cross-grain to the belief that we must produce instantly, broadcast widely and perform perfectly.
Hence, counterpractice. Cross-grain to common assumptions. Questioning.
And as I consider my options (what to do next), I’m seriously contemplating going back to this counterpractice talk as a place to reboot. Could these be seen as principles — as a platform for a new kind of design studio?
I’m not sure. Counterpractice probably need further translation. An idea like ”slowness” certainly won’t resonate for many, outside of an art context. And how does a love for print-on-demand and the web fit in here? Perhaps it’s more about “variable speed” and the “balanced interface” rather than slow vs fast. Slow and fast. Modulated experience. The beauty of a printed book is that it can be scanned quickly or savored forever. These aren’t accidental qualities; they’re built into the design.
I’m thinking about all of this right now as I re-launch Soulellis Studio as Counterpractice. But if there’s anything that most characterizes my reluctance to get back to client-based work, it’s DE$IGN.
John Maeda, who departed RISD in December, where I am currently teaching, recently delivered a 4-minute TED talk, where he made this statement:
He expands that statement with a visual wordmark that is itself designed. What does it mean? I haven’t seen the talk yet so I can only presume, out of context. These articles and Maeda’s blog post at Design and Venture begin to get at it.
Maeda’s three principles for using design in business as stated in the WSJ article are fine. But they don’t need a logo. Designing DE$IGN is a misleading gesture; it’s token branding to sell an idea (in four minutes—the fast read). So what’s the idea behind this visual equation? As a logo, it says so many things:
All caps: DE$IGN is BIG.
It’s not £ or ¥ or 元: DE$IGN is American.
Dollar sign: DE$IGN is money.
DE$IGN is Big American Money.
and in the context of a four-minute TED talk…
DE$IGN is speed (four minutes!)
DE$IGN is the spirit of selling (selling an idea on a stage to a TED audience)
DE$IGN is Helvetica Neue Ultra Light and a soft gradient (Apple)
DE$IGN is a neatly resolved and sellable word-idea. It’s a branded product (and it’s perfect).
In other words, DE$IGN is Silicon Valley. DE$IGN is the perfect embodiment of start-up culture and the ultimate tech dream. Of course it is — this is Maeda’s audience, and it’s his new position. It works within the closed-off reality of $2 billion acquisitions, IPOs, 600-person design teams and Next Big Thing thinking. It’s a crass, aggressive statement that resonates perfectly for its audience.
DE$IGN makes me uneasy. The post-OWS dollar sign is loaded with negative associations. It’s a quick trick that borrows from the speed-read language of texting (lol) to turn design into something unsustainable, inward-looking and out-of-touch. But what bothers me most is that it comes from one of our design leaders, someone I follow and respect. Am I missing something?
I can’t help but think of Milton Glaser’s 1977 I<3NY logo here.
Glaser uses a similar trick, but to different effect. By inserting a heart symbol into a plain typographic treatment, he too transformed something ordinary (referencing the typewriter) into a strong visual message. Glaser’s logo says that “heart is at the center of NYC” (and it suggests that love and soul and passion are there too). Or “my love for NYC is authentic” (it comes from the heart). It gives us permission to play with all kinds of associations and visual translations: my heart is in NYC, I am NYC, NYC is the heart of America, the heart of the world, etc. .
Glaser’s mark is old-school, east coast and expansive; it symbolizes ideas and feelings that can be characterized as full and overflowing. And human (the heart). It’s personal (“I”), but all about business: his client was a bankrupt city in crisis, eager to attract tourists against all odds.
Maeda’s mark is new money, west coast and exclusive. It was created for and presented to a small club of privileged innovators who are focused on creating new ways to generate wealth ($) by selling more product.
Clever design tricks aside, here’s my question, which I seem to have been asking for a few years now. Is design humility possible today? Can we build a relevant design practice that produces meaningful, rich work — in a business context — without playing to visions of excess?
I honestly don’t know. I’m grappling with this. I’m not naive and I don’t want to paint myself into a corner. I’d like to think that there’s room to resist DE$IGN. I do this as an artist making books and as an experimental publisher (even Library of the Printed Web is a kind of resistance). But what kind of design practice comes out of this? Certainly one that’s different from the kind of business I built with Soulellis Studio.
The Design Office graciously hosted a Providence, RI launch for Printed Web #1 on March 17. Lots of RISD students and faculty were there and we had an inspiring discussion about the work with Clement Valla and Benjamin Shaykin. These terrific photos are by Sarah Verity.
I just applied to the New Museum‘s NEW INC program, “a shared workspace and professional development program designed to support creative practitioners working in the areas of art, technology, and design.” I’m planning to reboot my design studio in the coming months, and while I think this would be an incredible platform for a new kind of “counterstudio,” if this doesn’t happen, something else will. Currently looking for new ideas, opportunities and scenarios.
NEW INC asked five questions as part of the application. Here are all of my responses, merged into one essay.
I’m experimenting with several themes that I’ve worked with before, like chance, web-to-print, found material and print-on-demand. This is the first time that these particular techniques come together in one piece (LaRossa Mix).
For the show, I decided to create a score for a chance-generated web-to-print publication. I started with a set of instructions that draws from eight types of web archive material (Google images, maps, earth and street view, wikipedia, twitter, Project Gutenberg and Getty Images). Using random.org, I determined that there should be ten content objects in a particular stepped order. The process is based (very loosely) on John Cage’s Williams Mix (1951–53).
Then I chance determined a single word using random.org (the number 14 yielded the letter N) and dictionary.com (“non-equalizing”). From there, a series of numbers, coordinates, words and other search terms worked in jumping chain reaction to generate all of the content. The whole series is embedded in the design of the piece.
For Step 8 I got to Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “Providence and the Guitar” (1878) in Project Gutenberg (after this tweet [Step 6] took me to “Foxy Lady” in Providence, RI in Google street view [Step 7]). The entire public domain text is set in default cut-and-paste text (9/10.8 Times New Roman), which also determined the size of the piece (broadsheet, 8 pages).
I will print 150 on newsprint and 100 will be placed in a pile in the gallery show, to be taken. The opening is April 12 at 7pm.
Printed Matter hosted a NYC launch event for Printed Web #1 last night. Artists Clement Valla, Am Schmidt, Sean Benjamin, Chris Alexander, Penelope Umbrico and Benjamin Shaykin joined me to talk about some of the themes brought up by the project: identity, memory, artist-as-archivist, the collective and web-to-print practice. The discussion and the audience questions were stimulating and I really wish I’d recorded it.
It was a joy for me to see so many familiar faces (as well as new friends) turn up in support and to participate in the conversation. Thank you to everyone who attended.
I was invited to give a few talks in Los Angeles earlier this week (at UCLA and Art Center), while I was there for Printed Matter’s L.A. Art Book Fair. Library of the Printed Web was the attractor, I think, especially at the Graduate Media Design Practice program at Pasadena. But I took the opportunity to present a more general overview of my work, including the larger trajectory from designer (and all of the brand/creative/director/strategist roles that go with it) to artist, teacher, curator and publisher.
While artist and teacher are fairly new roles for me, I feel like I’ve been wrestling with them for some time now, even if abstractly. But it’s the last two concepts—curator and publisher—that are entirely new. Creating Library of the Printed Web exactly one year ago (for the excellent Theorizing the Web conference) introduced me—somewhat unknowingly—to curatorial and publishing situations that I never imagined.
Publishing Printed Web #1 is an experiment. It’s provisional and experimental because I didn’t approach the project like a traditional publisher, or with any real business model (I didn’t “start a publishing company” or small press or anything like that). I formed the project as a way to present new work from artists who interest me (artists who enact a web-to-print practice in some way). I consider the publication to be, primarily, an exhibition in print. Printed Web #1 is “primary information” in the Seth Siegelaub sense (at least, he was the primary inspiration). The issue is not a catalogue—it is not “about” the work—it is the presentation of the art. “You don’t need a gallery to show ideas” (Siegelaub).
The reception at the fair was great. People get it. Visitors to the table were curious, and when I told them that each artist got six pages to do whatever they want, from web-to-print, they wanted to see all of the projects. Most people stood there and flipped through all 64 pages.
I was asked a few times about newsprint. Why use a light, ephemeral kind of printing when presenting ephemeral (web) work in a new context? It’s a good question and it could be argued that the desire for slowness, thingness and permanence would be better served by a more high-end presentation of the project. But I wanted to keep the publication accessible ($12) and stay far away from the “rare,” out-of-print photobook frenzy. For now, newsprint works.
I sold 135 issues of Printed Web #1 at the fair and 50 more are going to Motto in Berlin. And I’ve sold about 50 more in the online shop. If you’d like one and you’re in the NYC area, you can avoid the shipping charge by coming to Printed Matter on March 1 for a launch event. More details about that soon.
Printed Web is an experimental publishing project because my goal (for now, at least) is to be a part of the conversation. To spread the thing around in an interesting way and talk and chew on the issues embedded in this kind of work (circulationism, acceleration, materiality, copyright, a new web-to-print artist’s practice).
Untitled (This one was for outlaws.)
Offset prints on paper
530 stacked sheets
24 in x 36 in x 6 in
The stack of 530 sheets will be featured in Due North, a group show of Icelandic and American artists who have worked in Iceland, curated by Marianne Bernstein. January 9–25, 2014 at Icebox Project Space, Philadelphia, PA. Opening reception January 9, 6–9pm.
Earlier this year, when I started Library of the Printed Web, I had no idea what it would become or where I’d go with it. Since then, the collection grew, I presented it at Theorizing the Web at CUNY, I carried the entire collection in a suitcase to Italy and talked about it during the opening of the Venice Biennale, published a catalog, presented it to DCrit at SVA, was written about in Milan and Melbourne and was featured in The New Yorker—twice.
But best of all, I’ve been introduced to a ton of new work and I’ve met some incredible artists. And I’ve created a critical space—a kind of home, a platform—for work that interests me, as well as my own work. I thought about this a lot in Iceland, and decided that while LotPW continues to grow, it needed a physical venue to present new work.
Either a physical space, or a publishing space.
Seth Siegelaub passed away in June. I definitely had him and his work on my mind this fall when I decided to ask a dream team of web-to-print artists to contribute to an exhibition in publication form. I said they could each have six pages to do whatever they want, as long as the content came from the web. I was thrilled that each of them immediately said yes.
Printed Web #1 was born, featuring new work from Joachim Schmid, Christian Bök, David Horvitz, Penelope Umbrico, Clement Valla, Benjamin Shaykin, Chris Alexander, Mishka Henner and &. Kenneth Goldsmith interviewed me for his six pages, which turned into this piece, so he asked me to print it out and publish it. So that’s in there too.
And so I’ll launch this thing next month at Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair at MoCA. 64 pages, $12, edition of 1,000. I’ll make another announcement about it in early January and open it up for pre-purchase before the fair.
UPDATE: Purchase Printed Web #1.
Stemming from my love of found lettering, vernacular, street type and place-based typography, I decided to focus on some found letterforms: the word “QUEENS,” hand-painted onto the side of a truck, parked just in front of my studio in Long Island City.
I managed to get through the design of upper and lower-case sets, the numbers and some punctuation (and an asterisk that I’m particularly fond of). It’s called Queens and here’s the PDF of tonight’s presentation. It’s still a work in progress but the personality’s there, even if many of the details remain unresolved. Queens continues the idea of place-based typography that I tried to explore with Stetson.
I struggled with it for weeks but I think it’s starting to feel like it’s from NYC, that it was born in Queens and not Manhattan or Brooklyn, that it evokes something hand-painted and not machine-drawn, that it’s approachable and of the street. Still, Queens surprised me—I never would have guessed that I would draw a fat, curvy, friendly typeface.
Learning how to use Robofont was great but this class gave me a tremendous appreciation for the massive expertise (and effort) required to design type. I feel like I barely scratched the surface—and scarily, I see how little I knew (and how ten weeks is just the beginning). Still, the slowness of the process appealed to me. Type design requires systematic thinking, obsessive attention, focus and discipline. But there’s also so much freedom, and lots of room to investigate. It was only in the last week that I discovered how fine details can expand across a system and totally change the personality of the work, and even as the class was ending, it felt like ten more doors opened.
I really have to continue with this.
I’ll admit that I was nervous about presenting at Build in Belfast this week. I’ve attended many conferences and I’ve been presenting in front of audiences for years, but never anything quite like this. Build is popular, it’s filmed, and I know it’ll be out there forever. And I really respect the line-up of past speakers, so the pressure to contribute to the very last one was intense.
I worked on Resistance (scenes from a designer’s counter-practice) for a few months and it’s the only talk I felt I could give right now. I took an honest, personal approach but it was a struggle to write, and the nature of the cultural critique in the first half made me very anxious. I didn’t want to appear to be anti-digital, or mean-spirited, or that I was suggesting that we should all disconnect.
From what I can tell, this wasn’t a problem. Reactions were good. People got it. My message—that we have permission to perform small acts of resistance against the dominant narratives of design culture—seemed to resonate with a lot of people, and now it’s spreading online.
One person pushed back about my delivery, at the after-party—a Swedish man, visibly drunk, who told me that his experience of my talk was like listening to NPR: that it was beautifully done but too scripted, and he told me that if I wanted it to be brilliant I needed to be more like a jazz musician. Fuck that. I’m not a jazz musician.
I really enjoyed hearing the other speakers. Nicole Fenton gave a beautiful talk about beginner’s mind for writing, a philosophy that can be applied to any aspect of life.
I think Jeremy Keith’s observations are spot-on. He found a thread running through the day, and throughout the last five years of Build events, which seemed to be a kind of critique of the web’s power structures and our need to do better. Frank Chimero ended Build by opening it back up to us, asking us to ask what people want, and arguing that we need better maps to envision a different kind of future for the web. I honestly don’t think that future will have anything to do with screens or scripting or pages or movement. It might require a fundamental shift in the human spirit, and that’s something I can’t even imagine.