Design history happened yesterday. I went to Steve Heller and Louise Fili’s book sale at SVA, and purchased two early copies of Tibor Kalman’s COLORS magazine — numbers 2 and 3. Back at home, I started unfolding #2, which is an oversized series of nested folios, and this letter fell out onto the floor. It had probably been sitting in there for 22 years.
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.
On Monday Didier and I went aboard the Hafrún fishing boat for an all-day trip. Captain Jóhann Sigurjónsson and his three-person crew generously let us get in the way while they trawled from 6am until 3pm. They brought back six tons of fish, which was considered a light catch. It was extreme and harrowing and beautiful and I came away knowing that any deeper understanding of Skagaströnd had to account for this kind of work, the grueling routine of the fishermen who sustain the town. I’d suspected this but my appreciation for the tedious process of hunting, netting, trawling, capturing, killing, gutting and then unloading the fish back at the dock became physical and real and graphic.
530—Skagaströnd’s population, according to Wikipedia—was one of the only concepts I brought with me, and I’d decided early on that this would be the page count for the work. Both arbitrary and specific, having something to do with reality, but certainly no longer accurate. The mayor told me the actual population is more like 506.
In July I’d photographed this old boat sitting in the harbor—made in the Netherlands in 1955 from the steel of melted German U-boats, and one of the oldest trawlers in Iceland—and later realized, while looking at the photos, that it carried this same number, 530. And on Monday, in the middle of the trip in the Greenland Sea, as I was violently ill for hours off the side of that same boat, the physicality of the experience brought on some kind of clarity (or cloudy haze?), enough for me to understand that 530 had to be the title of the work. A random, specific number that embodies the town and connects its identity to this charged vessel that sits in the harbor—to me and my experiences here and the book itself.
The weight of the work.
So 530 it is. The full title is 530 (Sá veldur sem á heldur). It’s A5 size, 530 pages, color, with an inside cover and separate cover wrap with front and back folds. The edition of 50 prints at Svansprent in Reykjavík during the next week and I’ll pick them up on 30 August, and bring them back to Skagaströnd for book encounters.
The book encounters will happen 4–7 September at the country-western bar, the gas station, the café and the library (more details to come).
I’m at the backpacker’s café in Akureyri and I’m thinking about the book, taking shape. It’s just a matter of days until I send it to the printer in Reykjavík.
I worry about how it’ll be received. That it might be seen as a superficial view of the place. That my outsider’s coated view could offend people who live here. This tiny town is hard. Guarded, deliberate, private, protective, proud. Even in such a closed place, I’ve been welcomed by some and I’ve discovered beautiful characters, and they appear in the work.
I guess another way to say it is this way: that I feel vulnerable, creating a work in public like this. On-site, on-demand, in full view. Maybe it makes the work stronger. It certainly makes it much more of an event for me. The book as performative output.
Then again, my goal has never been to paint a portrait of this place. I would never dare to call this a representation of Skagaströnd. The work stands on its own and draws from my encounters. It’s a private, subjective take (how could it not be).
Could I call it a non-fiction fantasy?
The process that developed here builds on Weymouths, but this project is threaded with chance operations in a bigger way. My 39 chapters (I’ve been calling them movements) were mixed by chance to create a score that I’m using to design the book. Every step of the design of the book has been with this score at my side.
Chance feels important here. I described it to Emy like this: chance is my intern. I’m using it in the background like a loaded character. It’s a way to pair, juxtapose, determine. My hope is that it opens up the surface, that the images and texts can go beyond the smallness of fixed appearance.
Take three, three cards.
You have to choose wisely
A lot of people around you
Good card, very good
I start here
Is it about navigation?
Last night someone walked over to my desk and I showed her the 530-page blank dummy and we were talking about the differences between a bound book and a loose deck of cards, like tarot. And I explained that the pages of this book will be minimal in appearance and open to interpretation, and that the sections are ordered by chance, and that I leave it to the reader to experience the book as he/she desires (front-to-back, back-to-front, flipping through, random encounters). “The one who holds it is the one responsible (sá veldur sem á heldur).”
And she said “oh, you mean bibliomancy?”
The use of books in divination. “Divination can be seen as a systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facets of existence such that they provide insight into a problem at hand.” The I Ching, famously.
I’m not sure I could better describe my practice here in Skagaströnd. A systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facts of existence. The problem at hand is unstated; the problem at hand is what the reader brings to the work. A specific question or a feeling or none at all.
It could be a question of identity.
How can we read the daily route of a fishing trawler at sea. The boat follows the whale. The whale follows the fish, who respond to the currents, the temperature, the light and salinity. The route marks itself, an automatic trace, the Orvar’s (arrow) pattern as it searches for the creatures. A drawn dance, a choreography of the town’s survival.
The ship draws its pattern each day and forms its historical archive of itineraries, but only fourteen days of data are saved. As the ship moves through sea time, the archive regenerates itself and disappears.
The remainder of the Weymouths proofs arrived today, so I spent most of the day photographing the complete set of 12 volumes for my talk next week. I’ll be speaking on Saturday at the Book Live symposium (full program PDF) at London South Bank University. I’ll post the entire talk here, including all of the slides, in the next few days.
I finished the last book in the series of 12 today, so the design of Weymouths is complete. Or rather, the design of the books is complete—I still need to create the reading room experience for the installation in Weymouth, England 27 July – 12 August. The total work is starting to come into focus. After the next six proofs arrive I’ll photograph the entire set.
Weymouths Volume 8 is an attempt to repair. Stitching up the story while opening it to new depths. Preservation of the found ruins.
- An entire Native American dugout canoe was discovered in 1965, buried in the mud of Great Pond in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The canoe was treated with polyethylene glycol and permanently housed in an exhibit room in the basement of Tufts Library (main branch of the Weymouth Public Libraries). Chester Kevitt details the preservation process for the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, published in their Bulletin, October 1968.
- Murals painted by high school students surround the glass case.
- During my visit to the Canoe Room at Tufts Library I was given access to a file containing all of the news clippings and articles that had been collected about the “Indian Canoe” during the last 45 years.
- 350 years earlier, Samuel de Champlain describes his encounters with the Native American population on his exploratory voyages in and around present-day New York, Vermont and Canada. The word “canoe” occurs 26 times in his memoir of 1603, “The Savages.” Each of the occurrences within Champlain’s text is extracted onto individual spreads that slowly zooms into the canoe, Carbon-14 dated to A.D. 1450.
Weymouths Volume 7 is a journey, a zoom, a reaching back. A dig, a reveal.
This is where I encounter the visible remains of another society. Below the surface, here’s the evidence of worship, ritual, architecture — structures that pre-date our sense of real (embedded within the identity of the place, but “beyond the map”). Volume 7 is about the “Roman works and fortifications with which the neighbourhood abounds,” upon Jordan Hill, just outside Weymouth, England. In 1844 the Ashmolean Society detailed the discovery of the remains, and published the notes at Oxford in 1854.
“The most remarkable discoveries made by Mr. Medhurst in 1843, and visited in October last by Dr. Buckland and Mr. Conybeare, were the foundations of a temple on the summit of Jordan Hill, and of a villa, a quarter of a mile distant, between this hill and the village of Preston.
“Dr. Buckland conjectures that this building may have been a temple of Esculapius, which received the votive offerings of the Roman families and invalids who visited Weymouth for sea-bathing and for health.”
As the 19th-century text travels into the foundations (details of bird skeletons, human bones, seeds, coins and ashes), I zoom into my photograph of the temple foundation taken at Jordan Hill on 6 March 2012. I go deeper into the surface and the photograph reveals a single color, like a flatlining of historical narrative. Perhaps this is a way to escape the figurative. By the end of the 112-page book, my documentation of Roman remains floats around a single pixel of color, like some suggestion of another reality. I can’t think of a more authentic way to look.
In Volume 10 I discovered that I can slow down the read by devoting an entire page to a single word. A single paragraph spread over 59 pages. Reading at a different scale, to expose other structures over time, like erosion.
Here is slow reading, again — this time, a single sentence on each spread. This is how reading can be like zooming. This is how reading can be more like digging. Slow reading leads to open reading.
My first experience with the Espresso Book Machine.
There’s a kind of renaissance going on with the printed page right now, perhaps to counter our relatively new fascination with digital publishing. Last month’s NY Art Book Fair was evidence enough that there’s never been a better time for the self- or small independent publisher of paper-based works. A remarkably low barrier-to-entry and easy access to print-on-demand services like Blurb and BookMobile and Create Space are satisfying a growing artists’ book movement and fueling entirely new ventures, like print-on-demand publishing and artists’ book coops and self-publishing book fairs.
In the middle of this space has emerged something altogether different. It’s got one foot in the Google/Gutenberg epub swamp and another in the bookstore. It’s an inelegant, one-ton pile of plexiglas and hardware with a footprint a bit larger than a bathtub. The Espresso Book Machine doesn’t make coffee — it eats PDFs and spits out professional-grade paperback books. In a few minutes. For a few dollars.
As remarkable as it is, it’s additive technology cobbled together from component parts. It’s a mash-up machine, really not much more than a few Xerox printers, a glue-gun and some X-acto blades connected to the internet. The Frankenstein of printers. Which means that the EBM is not breakthrough technology, but more like an iterative step in the 600-year development of the printer, with the potential to support other, more innovative ideas (a print-on-demand library, for example).
That said, it’s a fantastic thing.
As soon as I heard that NYC had its first (and so far only) EBM at the McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street, I started thinking about a test project. It’s got some interesting restrictions — printing is 1-color black-only for the text pages, full-color cover, any size from 4″ x 4″ up to 8.5″ x 11″, and a minimum of 40 pages (max of 800).
So I decided to use it as the basis for a proposal I was writing for an arts festival in the UK — 12 volumes that would be “Espresso’d” and installed at different locations during the 2-week event, to coincide with the 2012 Summer Olympics. Since it was so easy, why not design and print Volume #1 and photograph it for the proposal? And that’s exactly what I did — it’s a 224-page, 1-color information graphic. I’ll post more about the project later, after I hear back from the festival producers.
The EBM at McNally Jackson is somewhere between “print-on-demand” and “see-you-next-week.” There’s a long queue for the service and it was suggested I check back in a few days to see when the book would be ready. Later, I was told there were no guarantees and I could pay a $25 fee to move to the front of the line (on top of an already-confusing set-up fee structure that includes a free proof; the printed book itself was about $12). I did, and got it the next day. I guess it’s a good thing that there’s great enough demand to keep it in business, but I’m willing to bet NYC could use a few more of these machines.
The bottom line — the printing is awesome. Super rich blacks and good tonal range on the photos (which were taken from Google Street View and already washed out). The text stock is a generic 60 lb. white or cream (I chose white), and a choice of dull uncoated or satin coated bright white 100 lb. cover.
The perfect binding is eerily perfect.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that all of the world’s 50 Espresso Book Machines are networked, so the PDF I feed it on Prince Street can be printed again, on-demand, in London or anywhere else. My latest dream — to lease one of these things, stick it in an empty storefront, and open an instant bookstore with an entirely digital inventory.