Teacher’s College

Along with Daniel Eatock, Metahaven, Formafantasma, and others, I’ll be conducting a workshop and giving a lecture at the 2012 Unibz Design Festival in Bozen-Bolzano, Italy this September. This year, the festival’s topic is “learning.” My workshop abstract and suggested reading list follow below.

A syllabus is a document. Photocopied, staple-bound, and generally up to a dozen pages, it is often produced by an instructor and includes a course’s most basic information: time and location, schedule, learning objectives, grading, rules for conduct in class, introductory text, reference figures and imagery, and an overview of the course’s readings and assignments.

The goal of this workshop is to produce its own syllabus. Over two days, we will collaborate to assemble a document that outlines a future course about design education, drawing from examples both within design and beyond. On day one, each designer will arrive ready to present for 5-10 minutes on a topic of their choice. Of particular interest are educators like Socrates, Ivan Illich, Maria Montessori, and Norman Potter, educational institutions from the Bauhaus to TED, and prior syllabi like those from David Foster Wallace, Milton Glaser, and others. Following these presentations, designers will be put in teams of two, with each team contributing a single page to the course syllabus — from timelines, annotated reading lists, taxonomies, learning tools, reference aids, and more.

Following a favorite teacher of mine, the syllabus will begin with an image and end with a list, forming points A and B of the document. How these points connect, and how future designers might make use of them, will be our collective concern and ultimate project.

Suggested reading

  • Stuart Bailey, “(Only an attitude of orientation)”
  • Stuart Bailey, “Towards a critical faculty”
  • Thierry de Duve, “Putting transmission in its proper place in the art world”
  • Rob Giampietro, “School days”
  • Rob Roy Kelly, “The early years of graphic design at Yale University”
  • Mark McGurl, “The Program Era”
  • Gunnar Swanson, “Graphic design as a liberal art”
  • Anton Vidokle, “Exhibition as school in a divided city”
  • Lorraine Wild, “Castles made of sand”

The spectral mimicry of things said to the mind

A stunning bit of writing from William Gass, by way of his essay “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence” from his collection Life Sentences:

"The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman." The rhythm of the sentence not only propels the sentence forward, it helps to organize its significant units — its phrases and clauses. The reader is made, not merely to see the sentence, but to sound it, because it is now a small mouthful. These sounds are not those of ordinary speech, but the spectral mimicry of things said to the mind, heard only by the mind, in the arena of the mind — in the subvocal consciousness that exists during reading.

The saleman’s sentence seems quite sure of itself. It is direct; it is definite; it has no room for reservations. Yet without altering a word, its epistemological and ontological status can be radically altered. That is why I called these verbal instruments, transformative operators. For instances, we could lower the sentence’s degree of assurance. “[I thought that] the fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman.” “[I guessed that] the fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but Gertrude was of quite a different opinion].” Amphibolously: “[Harold said that if] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [he was a monkey’s uncle].” Or change tone and attitude: “[I certainly hoped] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [otherwise I’ve just now bought a cat’s brush to comb my beard].” “The shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman, [but what if he were also the exhibitionist who has been frightening the neighborhood?]” More radically, we can put it in another realm of Being. “[While seated before the fire in my dressing gown reading Descartes’s Meditations, I dreamed I heard a knocking. Then a cuckoo popped out of its clockhouse to announce that] the shabby-suited fellow at the front door was a Fuller Brush salesman. [I realized, when I was awakened by my desire to answer his knocking, that I had been dreaming inside a dream not altogether mine.]”

Layers of reality, degrees of uncertainty, ranges of attitude, levels of society, depth of contextual connection, modulations of tone, the ramifications and complexities of concept, and, above all, the vocabulary of the denoted world, must be taken into account, managed, and made the best of.

Time Warp

Above: Time Warp as published in Mousse #30.

Each issue, the editors at Mousse invite a contributor to select a text or a group of texts to be reprinted in the magazine as part of their section “Reprint.” The reprinted work may be an article, a short essay, a piece of narrative, or something else, but the original layout is always kept. The scans are accompanied by a text/introduction by the contributor. I was delighted when they asked me to contribute and enjoyed the selection process enormously. The simple act of choosing a set of things and then writing something that helps to connect them was a productive one for me. My thanks to them for the opportunity, and for making it look great. — RG

Lydia Davis’s compact story “20 Sculptures in One Hour" begins like a word problem from a long-lost math class: "The problem is to see 20 sculptures in one hour." We wait for more, but that is the entirety of the problem, which is a classic half-empty or half-full scenario — though this one comes with a twist, as it must account not only for perception but for the passage of time. Once the problem is stated, Davis’s prose quickly double-backs on itself, repeating the worry that although "An hour seems like a long time" it also seems like "20 sculptures are a lot of sculptures." If anxiety can be described as the reflexive condition of worrying about worrying, then you might know where the first part of Davis’s story is heading.

I love Davis’s story all on its own, but I had the desire to stretch it out, to make it last longer, to parse it more closely, to somehow freeze-frame each sentence in motion, like Muybridge’s famous photographic study of a galloping horse. Muybridge’s images were made at the behest of university founder Leland Stanford in order to prove a supposition by French naturalist and early photographer Étienne-Jules Marey that all four of a horse’s hooves left the ground while galloping. With the help of twelve special cameras, Muybridge captured “movements whose speed exceeded the perception of any painter’s eye,” writes Prof. Friedrich Kittler in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, and proved Marey correct.

By 1882 Marey had developed something better than Muybridge’s cameras for recording bodies in motion. Combining Gatling’s mechanized machine gun with a multi-chambered camera developed for capturing the night sky through a telescope, Marey introduced a “chronophotographic gun” that could fire twelve frames per second. “Shooting” film was born.

The chronophotographic gun was soon aimed at one of Marey’s assistants, Georges Demeny, who produced images of himself speaking common phrases in an attempt to understand the motor functions of the face and mouth in producing speech. He used his simulations to teach deaf and mute patients at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The 20 millisecond-long exposures shown here animate Demeny as he speaks a declaration of love, “Je vous aime.”

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Above: SPRAYPAINT as painted by Hektor installed at the Utrecht Manifest Biennal for Social Design, 2011.

It’s so fun when wishes come true. Thanks to Jürg Lehni and Hektor for making this one happen.

New essay for Graphic Design: Now in Production

Above: Cover of Graphic Design: Now in Production

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.

Above: Project Projects’ identity for SALT Istanbul installed at the Walker Art Center’s Graphic Design: Now in Production show.

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.

Above, top: Writer Paul Engle teaching a class at the Iowa Writers Workshop, ca. 1950s. Above, bottom: Albers assesses work from his Preliminary Course at the Bauhaus, 1928-1929.

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.

Identity and the arts: A talk at Artists Space

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.

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Discussing entrepreneurship

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.

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Introducing Otlet’s Shelf

Above: Lined & Unlined’s Library (top) returns, powered by a free Tumblr theme and bookmarklet called Otlet’s Shelf created by Andrew LeClair and I (bottom).

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.

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Trading fours

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.

A message from the Open Reading Group

Yesterday, I received this message from the Open Reading Group:

Fellow readers,

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.

Update: Funded!