Project Projects was in attendance a few weekends ago at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for the opening of Graphic Design: Now in Production, Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton’s rich and engaging survey of graphic design since 2000. But the show is much more than just a survey, as they write in the catalog description:
Graphic design has broadened its reach dramatically over the past decade, expanding from a specialized profession to a widely deployed skill. The rise of user-generated content, new methods of publishing and systems of distribution, and the wide dissemination of creative software have opened up new opportunities for design. More designers are becoming producers—authors, publishers, instigators and entrepreneurs—actively employing their creative skills as makers of content and shapers of experiences.
Project Projects has several pieces in the show, including our identity for SALT Istanbul, our book series for Art in General’s New Commissions Program, our imprint and book series Inventory Books (edited by Adam Michaels), and more.
In addition, Project Projects will be designing the exhibition when it arrives in New York next summer at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Since the Cooper-Hewitt will be closed for renovations at that time, the show will be presented on Governor’s Island at Building 110, formerly a historic Army warehouse on the island’s northern shore.
Finally, I was pleased to contribute an original essay to the show’s catalog, which is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com. I’ll archive my full essay here sometime later next year, but if you’re keen to read it before then I hope you’ll go out and grab a copy of the book. Quoting again from Andrew and Ellen’s catalog description:
[The book was] conceived as a visual compendium in the spirit of the Whole Earth Catalogue. It features posters, info graphics, fonts, books, magazines, film titles, logos and more, interspersed with a variety of small texts delving into specific project details, excerpted artists’ statements, interviews and published manifestos, technical details, and new and old technologies and tools.
For the curious, my essay is called “School Days” and is a close reading of The Program Era, UCLA English Professor Mark McGurl’s Capote Award-winning study of the rise of MFA Creative Writing programs in the postwar period. What’s so useful about McGurl’s study is that he sets aside the typical value judgments that accompany the discussion of these programs and instead examines how, as more writers go to school, the culture, setting, and experience of the classroom increasingly finds its way into the creative work of the period. He also looks at the social and cultural conditions that fueled the growth of the MFA Creative Writing degree and the reflexivity it fosters in the life of a writer. I was interested in adapting McGurl’s ideas to look at the last 15 years of MFA Graphic Design programs to understand their impact, along with offering some general context around their history and founding.
Here’s a bit more on my approach from the essay itself:
What McGurl’s book offers to a designer reading it closely is not a set of examples to follow in explaining design education but rather a methodology to adapt for investigating it. What if we play the old “designer as author” metaphor in reverse, describing authorship not as an input or mode of creation, but as an output or model of practice: the designer as cultural influencer, identifiable persona, and creator of a distinctly voiced body of work. This, perhaps, is how an author’s training and a designer’s training are linked. […] Once dedicated to mastering basic skills of the craft, the school has become, in design’s Program Era, tied instead to the production of a professional, the creation of a designer as a whole self, an individual with a self-actualized practice in which student work, not client work, often forms the basis for an introduction and ongoing access to the design sphere.
And here’s a bit of the parallelism I’m describing in application:
“For the modernist artist,” McGurl writes, “the reflexive production of the ‘modernist artist’—i.e., the job description itself, is a large part of the job.” These reflexive professional efforts, he suggests, are not all that “radical” or even “deconstructive” but instead “perfectly routine,” part of a system of self-reference that extends past the making of literature and to the making and organizing of all things. McGurl describes this self-constitution of systems using a concept drawn from systems theory called “autopoesis.” Designers know these efforts, under slightly different circumstances, as so-called “self-initiated work,” which comprises a good portion of what’s done as an MFA student. And just as McGurl prepares a list of “signature genres of the Program Era”—which includes the campus novel, the portrait of the artist, the workshop story collection, the ethnic family saga, meta-genre fiction, and meta-slave narratives—we might attempt a designer’s list along the same lines, including the thesis book, the process poster, the experimental typeface, the urban map, the data visualization exercise, the group portrait photograph, the image archive, the slide talk, the meta-exhibition, and the project-as-class performance.
I’ll have to leave it there for now, but there’s much more great writing in the catalog from Åbäke, Peter Bil’ak, James Goggin, Peter Hall, Steven Heller, Jeremy Leslie, Michael Rock, Dmitri Siegel, Daniel van der Velden, and Lorraine Wild, just to name a few. To say that it would be a welcome addition to any designer’s bookshelf would be an understatement. Go out and get it.
Later this month, Dexter Sinister will present “Identity,” an exhibition that, in the words of its description, “charts the emergence and proliferation of graphic identity since the turn of the twentieth century, with particular reference to contemporary art institutions — museums, galleries, and so called alternative spaces.”
Initiated by Artists Space, the project has been run by Dexter Sinister in cooperation with a variety of colleagues for over two years. In the fall of 2009, I was asked by Dexter Sinister and Stefan Kalmár of Artists Space to give a talk to an invited group of 20 or so guests. Part of a series of informally titled “How do we look?”, this initial lecture carried an aim that was deeply reflexive, examining the history of the organization’s own visual identity in the context of both arts-related identities and the somewhat woolier world of branding and visual culture. To facilitate the talk, I was given special access to Artists Space’s archive of printed ephemera — my thanks to Amy Owen and Jessica Wilcox at Artists Space for their help and guidance.
The tone was informal, with people asking me to expand upon one point or another, as we sipped some whiskey with conversation. Rather than adhere to a strict chronology of Artists Space’s identity development, I chose to group its marks around a loose taxonomy that included IMPRINTS, SYMBOLS, MONOGRAMS, LANDMARKS, and LOCKUPS so that perhaps a new story could emerge.
The talk was, for me, foundational to many projects and assignments that followed and informed both the structure of my SVA course and our recent identity work for SALT Istanbul at Project Projects.
The writing below is loose and rough, assembled from my notes and fuzzy memory of the evening — but, truth be told, it’s a story better told through visuals, anyway. Even if the below serves as nothing more than a prompt to visit David and Stuart’s smart and inventive show, then I’m glad to have shared it here. — RG
I thought I’d start out tonight with one of Artists Space’s most important early shows, the Pictures exhibition from 1977. And if you look at the booklet of the show here, you’ll see that at the bottom the name Artists Space has been typeset to match the look of the overall booklet. No standalone mark, nothing too systematic — in the early days things changed a lot from one exhibition to another. Reading this, the analogy seems to be that the gallery thought of itself as a kind of publisher. It’s presenting these things, but it’s not imposing its own external identity on anything. It’s initiating creative projects and then allowing its own identity to be mutable, to change with those projects.
And so with that idea in mind the first group of marks I’d like to look at is IMPRINTS. Imprimatur means “to sanction” or “to give formal and explicit approval,” and this is what I was describing before. Rather than a visual identity the emphasis is on the provenance: on where an exhibition came from and who initiated it.
Publishers have long relied on this mutability. Most famously and illustratively, Knopf has a whole broad set of Borzoi dogs that change to compliment a book’s cover design, tone, and setting. There is no single Borzoi. Instead, there are many simultaneous possibilities. It’s almost Platonic: it’s not a specific book with a specific dog but the idea of a book with a dog on it that assigns the book as a Knopf book. It’s more descriptive, really, than symbolic.
This website for White Columns, designed by Project Projects, works in much the same way. When you reload a page the style sheets refresh, and the site goes from serif to sans and back again. So it’s like the Borzoi dog, in that it opens up the possibility that White Columns can take on a variety of formal details but still remain, essentially, itself. The formal “idea” of the site doesn’t change, just its visual expression.
The more you rummage around the archives, the more you see a range of materials in which the Artists Space identity acts in this way. Here is a a flyer for some film programming from the mid-’80s, looking very theatrical indeed. And this strategy wasn’t continuous, either — between the Pictures show and the design of this flyer different, more formalized marks emerged and were then discarded.
Sometimes there was even variance within a given piece. Here’s a great example from 1988 for a show called Telling Tales. There’s literally one “super” logo, which is set in one typeface, and then there’s a smaller “logo-sized” logo in another typeface.
By the late ’80s the impact of design’s postmodern tastes were readily apparent, and the hybridity of a given graphic system set to the max. Even within the artists’ own first and last names there is variance and expressivity. This piece is from 1989.
At other points around this time, zine culture and DIY publishing became more apparent, as in the booklet design for this Robert Gero show from 1990. Here Artists Space acts as the publisher once again, with the form of its name subordinate to the larger aesthetic system of the booklet.
Here, too, in this small photocopied pamphlet from the ’90s, this vibe is apparent. What’s important to understand here is that imprints don’t need to be large or institutional in tone — they can be homemade, grassroots, inventive, and unmonolithic. Quite casual, really.
And in this casualness I’m reminded of Ed Fella’s wonderful posters for the Detroit Focus Gallery, made over a number of years with great inventiveness. Each poster treats the logo differently, and yet the set is coherent and identifiable, offering a kind of aesthetic consistency that supports the range of activities housed at the gallery. Willi Kunz’s ongoing posters for Columbia’s GSAPP program are another example of this kind of identification strategy. Rather than impose a system that can be executed by anyone, they create a highly particular set of responses that can be recognized without being formulaic.
Justin Kropp — who writes a blog called One Skinnyj — recently got in touch to ask if I’d be game for an interview and I was happy to oblige. His questions were thoughtful and wide-ranging, but one topic I enjoyed discussing in particular was entrepreneurship, so I thought I’d pull out two pieces of our conversation to share in that vein.
I’ve been meaning to write this housekeeping post on changes, upgrades, and new sections of the site for awhile, but I’m very excited that it’s also the announcement of a new tool called Otlet’s Shelf, a bookmarklet and Tumblr theme for Amazon.com created by Andrew LeClair and I.
My friend Frank Chimero has started a new “occasional back-and-forth blog” called The Mavenist, and I am so pleased to be part of the first post, “Permutations & Loops.” The format of The Mavenist is simple, but also a welcome departure from the standard blog format. Rather than regular posts, The Mavenist will post occasionally. (This blog was founded with a similar attitude.) And rather than a single editor’s point of view, or even an interviewer/interviewee dynamic, The Mavenist will allow two people to take part in an equal exchange—or, rather, five equal exchanges, for a total of 10 parts.
Frank has done a lovely job introducing the project on his blog through the lens of gift exchange, which readers of this blog will know is a favorite topic of mine as well. There were so many parts of his introductory post that I liked that it was hard to choose just one, but I’m a sucker for a good West Wing reference:
There’s a scene in an episode of The West Wing where President Bartlet has his personal aide Charlie go on the hunt to purchase a new carving knife for the holidays. With each knife Charlie brings to the Oval Office, Bartlet shoots down his selection, citing the details he finds important. This happens several times, and finally Charlie brings the best possible knife he can find in Washington. President Bartlet inspects the knife closely while Charlie describes the finer details of what makes this knife the finest knife available. And with that, President Bartlet refuses the knife, much to Charlie’s exasperation. But then, Bartlet produces an heirloom knife of his own, apparently made by Paul Revere and in his family for generations, and gives it to Charlie as his Christmas gift.
This is what good gifts feel like.
Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Michael Bierut’s reaction to Tibor Kalman’s incredible $26 book project, one of M&Co’s annual holiday gifts. Bierut writes of receiving the book,
It was transcendent: not just a gift but an experience, combining surprise, humor, pathos, and guilt in an astonishingly controlled sequence. Everyone who received it was invited to feel not just the joy of getting but the joy of giving.
What Bierut’s observation suggests is that it is not just the exchange that makes the gift meaningful—it is also the structure surrounding and framing the exchange, as well as the careful control and use of time to allow emtions to unfold. This is why we wrap gifts, and why we unwrap them. It’s why we offer them on special occasions, and hide them at the end of treasure hunts. In shaping time with tradition in this way, the process is reminiscent of a poetic form, which both structures the verse and frees the poet to improvise within it. In this way, a poet’s creativity plays both with and against the constraints of the formal tradition. When composing a poem, the poet is in dialogue with the form itself—and the process of exchanging posts with Frank for The Mavenist didn’t feel all that different from the process of composing a poem in that sense.
Or, better still, it was a bit like the old jazz technique of “trading fours,” in which two musicians build on a melody with short four-bar improvised passages, listening and responding to one another instead of taking their solos individually. You can see Dr. Charles Limb discuss the process from a medical perspective on this TED Talk, or you can see Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette go at it at around the 8:00 minute mark on this version of Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo.”
However I try to explain it, it sure was fun, and quite a gift to boot. Here’s hoping the occasion arises again soon.
Yesterday, I received this message from the Open Reading Group:
This spring, Dexter Sinister is busy morphing from a “just-in-time workshop and occasional bookstore” into an non-profit institution-of-sorts called The Serving Library. This involves incorporating (The Serving Library Company, Inc.), describing (A Statement of Intent) and fundraising (here):
The idea is to build on the haphazard, contingent clutter of activities assembled during the five-year lease of our basement space on Ludlow Street in New York (which expires just before the summer) towards a more explicit, coherent set of intentions that can be condensed into the following equation:
“The Serving Library is a cooperatively-built archive that assembles itself by publishing. It will consist of 1. an ambitious public website; 2. a small physical library space; 3. a publishing program which runs through #1 and #2.”
The longer story involves two collections of books and artifacts, an online and printed successor to Dot Dot Dot called Bulletins of The Serving Library, a speculative Foundation Course modeled on the Photoshop Toolbox, a rotating Guest Librarianship, and a 12-year Black Whisky. Further elaboration is offered in A Statement of Intent, available from our existing library:
“I don’t complain about institutions! I complain about institutions that I don’t like.” (Michelangelo Pistoletto)
Please circulate this announcement freely.
Regards, David Reinfurt, Stuart Bailey, Angie Keefer
Please give what you can — one Ben Franklin will go a long way toward supporting The Serving Library and will ensure your copy of the first issue of the library Bulletin.
Philosophy Bites interviews philosopher Helen Beebee on The Laws of Nature and Beebee continually revisits the metaphor of a fragile glass throughout the interview as she builds this poetic line of thought:
When you say a glass is fragile, you’re saying something about how it’s going to behave in certain kinds of situations. If I say, “Oh be careful that glass is fragile,” you know that I’m telling you not to drop it on the floor, or to dry it very carefully, or whatever it is, because to be fragile is to be disposed to break in certain kinds of situations.
Almost two years ago, I was asked by SVA MPS Branding Chair Debbie Millman and Co-Founder Steven Heller to teach a course for the new program, which kicked off its inaugural year this September. Over the months leading up to the program’s launch, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in research and to seek out the opinions of fellow faculty as I prepared this class. I am grateful for their contributions, and for the smart and hardworking students that enrolled in the course. I couldn’t have asked for a better group, and their contributions deepened and amplified the themes I’ve laid out here at every turn. I found few resources online for assembling a class of this kind, yet its topics seem to infuse our contemporary discussions of design and identity. I offer the syllabus here as an evolving document and will be adding to it myself over time. I welcome suggestions for additions as well. —RG
Course description: Beginning with the history and underlying ideas of branding and identity design, this course will examine the development of classic identities as well as seminal identity designers and design studios. We will also review contemporary cases that highlight the challenges of brand and identity creation in specific sectors including fast-moving consumer goods, durable goods, services, organizations, places, and ideas. At the same time, we will examine both critical viewpoints around the practice of identity design and speculate on the future of brands and branded environments.
Above all, this course will:
- Educate and train your eyes
- Ask you to observe, evaluate, and critique basic claims and assumptions
- Provide you with a platform for research
This year, much of the talk about the New York Art Book Fair seems to be centered on the Fair itself. Fueling some of this talk, whether expressly stated or not, is a simple question: how, in the midst of one of the most historic economic recessions on record, as the media outlets decry the final hour of the book, was last year’s Fair the biggest yet? And why does it seem that this year’s Fair may be even bigger still?
Against the backdrop of the recession and the destabilization of the book there are three additional factors that have a bearing on the Fair’s ever-increasing reach: the graphic design postgraduate program that defines a thesis book as its culminating project; the design social scene that functions a bit more like a rock scene, celebrating the making and distribution of new work over the more professionalized goals of acquiring and servicing clients; and the temporary or “pop-up” store that transforms the sometimes solitary act of buying into a networked, participatory, and collective event.