When I launched Counterpractice in September, before I knew what it really was, I heard from people who said they were looking forward to seeing what would come out of it. I wondered, too. Even though I didn’t have any kind of plan, I knew that it was the right time to reboot and redefine my practice, after a few years of drifting from client work to residencies to teaching.
However vague, I had a few ideas. Counterpractice would need to embody a spirit of resistance, research and radical curiosity that I’d been building during the last few years. It would be home-grown, small and DIY. Less a service, client-based business and more “ideas laboratory.”
Tomorrow, the New Museum is hosting “demo day,” where 20 select members of NEW INC will present what they’ve been working on here. From what I can see, it’s a chance for the museum to showcase the program and the products that members are developing here.
I’m not presenting, and I have mixed feelings about this.
I’m focused on building my practice right now. Not by growing my client list or launching a product but by synthesizing what I do — what I previously thought of as side-projects or interests — into a single, articulated studio practice.
Much of this is “invisible” work. Defining how I work, balancing what I do and deciding which risks to take. This is a difficult agenda to quantify.
I don’t even see Printed Web as “product” but as an ongoing idea, with the magazine being just one way to articulate my thoughts around independent publishing, artistic practice and network culture. Teaching at RISD and events like Theorizing the Web and Interrupt (at Brown) are good venues for me to expose these ideas (I’m presenting at both)…but packaging them into a five-minute slide show to New Museum media and trustees feels “off.”
So I’m trying to shape (and sharpen) my overall practice and be selective about how and where to expose myself.
All of this has happened since I arrived at NEW INC just a few months ago, where the conditions have been ideal. A super-stimulating community and ample institutional support are excellent motivators; I had lacked both of these for a long while. Plus, a studio space like ours — open, shared and collaborative — means we’re constantly “working in public,” which can create a heightened sense of productivity.
Maybe these ingredients — community, institution and exposure — have given me a kind of permission, too. Sometime between September and now, it occurred to me that my studio is four connected parts. And for the first time, I’m giving equal weight to each:
4 Client work
Even though this looks like an obvious list, the first three components are totally new for me. They weren’t part of Soulellis Studio from 2001–10, or my career before. For twenty years, I had been solely focused on client work. So I look at this list and I see a new way of working.
What’s critical for me right now is being fully devoted to each of the four. And working hard to integrate them. My syllabus for Experimental Publishing Studio (a new graduate studies course I’m about to start teaching at RISD) contains readings and ideas that come straight out of my own research, which come out of (and fuel) my Printed Web projects. And I’m constantly looking for ways to bring this openness and these kinds of connections into the work I’m hired to do for clients.
So, this is Counterpractice right now.
I’m happy to announce that I’m moving my studio to the Bowery this summer. As of August 1, Counterpractice will be open for business within NEW Inc., the New Museum‘s art/design/tech incubator. This is the first of its kind: the museum is setting up a non-profit, collaborative work space at 231 Bowery, next door to the museum. They’ve hired SO-IL/Gensler to build it out with desk space, work shops, class rooms and a kitchen. We got a walk-through a few weeks ago and it’s beautiful; Rhizome and Studio X are our studiomates. The mission is impressive—develop a place where artists, designers and entrepreneurs can experiment, influence each other and benefit from in-person, cross-studio stimulation. A brave move by an arts institution to create a new kind of ecosystem.
After I gave the Resistance talk at Build I struggled with next steps. I kept making and teaching but none of it was sustainable and I didn’t know what to do. It took a good six months to understand that I should use that talk as the basis for a new kind of studio—one that’s wide enough to include projects like Printed Web and Portland Bill but selective enough to take on meaningful client work at the same time. So, Counterpractice was born. And it needs to live in a collaborative place.
I don’t have an elaborate description or a Counterpractice manifesto. Simply, Counterpractice questions the red-hot center, and looks for magic in the margins. The studio favors longevity over right now, thingness over ephemerality and agility over perfection. Above all, radical curiosity drives the work. That’s it. The rest will come as I do more work.
I didn’t mention stretching, but opening up to uncertainty is a big part of this (or rather, allowed this to happen). So, I built Counterpractice.com by hand. For anyone familiar with front-end web development, this is almost laughable—it’s a dumb one-pager of minimal text and images. For me, it was a big deal. During the last couple of weeks I used Codecademy to teach myself HTML and CSS and I made it work (Krate stepped in to clean up the code, thankfully). It was the first time that I didn’t hire someone else to build a site for me, and it’s my first Counterpractice project (similarly, an early version of Soulellis.com was the first project I did as Soulellis Studio, back in 2001—using Dreamweaver! it was also the last site that I ever built myself). Counterpractice.com is pretty bare bones: images are hosted in an Amazon S3 bucket and the site sits within my Dropbox account. Still, it’s a start.
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.
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.