design humility


Showing up, being present.

Librairie Yvon Lambert

ABC member Tanja Lažetić‘s spontaneous performance of Whore with rubber stamp, ink and book.

My work at the ABC table: Weymouths, Earliest Land Marks, 273 Relics for John Cage, Stripped and The Spectral Lens, which launched in Paris.

Erik van der Weijde preparing his installation at Florence Loewy.

Offprint Paris in the glass court at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts

Jonathan Lewis, Wil van Iersel, Andreas Schmidt and Elisabeth Tonnard of ABC.

I’m back from Paris. A week to meet with my artists’ cooperative, present new work at Offprint Paris and remember how much I love this city.

My second art book fair, and I certainly felt anxious. It’s a set-up for vulnerability: bring your work and display it on a table in a grand space for some of the photobook world’s most prominent personalities to take a look. Curators, critics, photographers, artists, editors—as well as my own peers—are there to judge, buy, make deals and get a sense of what’s happening right now. It can be a supportive environment, too—there were encouraging words and beautiful chance encounters (with Richard Kostelanetz, particularly). It’s a humbling experience. I’m not used to this kind of public display. And as a way of measuring success, selling “stuff” makes me tremendously uncomfortable.

I found myself asking the same questions each day, and they linger with me here in NYC. Why am I here? Is this the right audience for my work? Am I any good at this?

Uncertainty and doubt. Unfamiliar territory. I’m playing out many of the ideas that I wrote about in Design Humility, for The Manual.

I love the work that I’ve generated during the last 18 months. I’m more proud of these books than anything I’ve ever produced for a paying client. That audience question is central to my anxiety, though: who appreciates this work? If Weymouths was a performative work and the audience brought it to life—on-site, in real time—then how do I keep the spirit of that project alive now that the performance is over?

With all of the freedom that comes along with self-publishing, there is also the burden (I would say pleasure, too) of building one’s own audience. And I’ve discovered after two events like this one that the art book fair is the wrong venue for a work like Weymouths. Publishers aren’t interested and no one has the patience to do it justice. It simply doesn’t translate.

Rob Giampietro recently wrote about unbuilding (or incompleteness) as a strategy in art and design. In a way, since I began building my own artist’s practice, I feel like I’ve been unlearning my design career. Many things that I used to measure success in design are less valid now, or have shifted into another direction, like the idea of gaining bigger budgets and better clients, which has been replaced by self-publishing’s economy of means and the value of small, meaningful encounters.

All I can come up with now is my own sense that showing up and participating in the culture of the book is a good tactic for moving forward. A year ago at the NY Art Book Fair I carried around my John Cage book, overwhelmed, showing it to anyone who would take a look. I thought—I could belong to this community, and I vowed to myself that I would somehow participate in next year’s fair. I’m very lucky to have found the tremendous support of new friends who’ve enabled that to happen.

I need to do more of this, and learn.



The Manual, Issue #3

The Manual, Issue #3 is finally on sale—go order a copy! It’s a hardbound journal of provocative design thinking, edited, designed and produced with extraordinary care. And it’s print only (how about that).

Writing for The Manual was one of the most challenging (and rewarding) projects I’ve ever had the pleasure to participate in. I write a lot here on, mostly personal stuff, and I write for clients (corporate stuff), but this was unfamiliar territory. Six authors are invited to shape an idea, but without the usual boundaries (no theme, very few limits). It felt orchestral and I tried to contribute with my heart. Others did too, I know, and the result is a rich production.

This would have been impossible without the extraordinary talents of editor Carolyn Wood, a person who puts enormous love and dedication into her work. In this case, her work was finding us, having faith in us and making our work better. Thank you, Carolyn.

Issue #3 (the yellow one) includes my essay “Design Humility,” in tremendously good company—authors Duane King, Tiffani Jones Brown, Nina Stössinger, Jeremy Keith and Ethan Marcotte. Jez Burrows designed it and Eleni Kalorkoti illustrated my piece. Can’t wait to see this remarkable piece of work.


Is design humility possible?

I’m looking back at this rich thread and thankful so many people took the time to participate. The conversation touched upon exposure, tension, awareness and surface, among many other ideas, and we conjured up Bruno Latour, Kahn, Eisenman and Kengo Kuma. The two-week duration was luxurious — enough time for ideas to simmer, develop and branch, and ample space to focus. Much of my own engagement online is confined to short bursts of 140 characters or less, so the longer format has been especially refreshing.

Several commenters mentioned something about “removing the ego,” or a lack of ego or dissociation of the self from the creative process. I went back to the opening statement to see if I had suggested this in my choice of words, and unfortunately there is a hint of that in “Cage’s removal of judgement from his decision-making…” Just to clarify: the ego cannot be removed from any process, creative or otherwise. It’s central to the self and mediates between all aspects of the psyche and the external world. In fact, my own interest lies in what’s possible when the ego is very much present — strong, resilient and healthy — and flexible enough to allow decision-making to flow in from the external world (nature, chance operations, etc.). Instead of imposing judgement or personal taste from within, creativity might open up to something new — wider, larger views of beauty.

Thanks to the Philip Johnson Glass House folks for celebrating John Cage’s 100th with this provocative discussion, and for allowing me to host. I remain fascinated by Cage’s way of working. We’re still learning. I tried to explore this and my own definition of “design humility” in a forthcoming article, to be published this spring in the third issue of The Manual. Please look for it and let’s continue the discussion here!


In search of design humility.

I read Khoi Vinh’s declaration of “the end of client services” with great interest. The need to create a product that can be nurtured and grown without compromise — to be the company, instead of working for it, as Khoi puts it — is something I think about a lot. I’ve also spent the last year gradually moving away from client services, and his post resonates for me.

And then I re-read it, thinking about the voice. It’s outward-looking. There’s obviously personal risk involved in any decision to create a start-up but this particular post (unlike his previous one) is positioned primarily as industry pronouncement (the big picture), supported by personal anecdote (what I’m doing supports/reflects the big picture).

  • “There were lots of reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that I think the design industry has undergone a significant and meaningful change, one that opens up opportunities that are not to be missed.”

This is appropriate for an audience interested in new industry perspectives, myself included. But I find myself wondering about the other “lots of reasons.” How could the story be reversed? What if this had been a personal declaration, rather than a professional one? As an inward-looking post, it might have been titled “the end of client services for me.Why is this right for me, right now? How am I shifting personally, as a designer today? A humbler voice. Less powerful? More accurate? Less traffic?

I don’t want to re-write Khoi’s inspiring post. I’m just genuinely curious about how others deal with personal growth and identity as entire industries shift around us. I’m questioning the celebratory stance and pronouncements (others have too), as I try to articulate my own journey as a designer. A journey filled with equal measures of excitement and doubt.

I know that we often dial down risk when constructing ourselves online. We externalize creative anxiety and spread it out over other forces (trends, the profession, the economy, other designers). We sense that something is changing in ourselves and search for external patterns to explain the new sensation. Maybe it’s a community-building technique we learn early on, to help us feel less alone when taking a risk. And it usually makes for a very good story (“it’s not just me, it’s everyone; jump aboard!”). Sometimes, there’s good reason to do this — it can create momentum.

But as designers we tend to shy away from vulnerability. Of course we do — it’s easy to detach from our own internal landscapes and cast a wide view. It’s safe, we’re good at it and our clients pay us to be “the outsider.” I just wish I could find more evidence of fear and uncertainty in the online design community. We all face decisions, every day, about who we are, what stance to take, how to define and re-define our work. I believe the rewards might be richer (the conversations more interesting, at least) if we expose ourselves in real-time to our peers as human beings who don’t always have the answers. Less “design industry,” more “design humility.”

I’ll try to do this as I widen my own investigation inward. Not at all easy for me.