This class took place in January 2012 during RISD’s Wintersession period. A website documenting the students’ coursework is available here. The results of the class are also described in my talk Unbuilding.

Dear Wintersessioneers,

To have big, we need small. To taste sweet, we need sour. To see a letter, we need the space around it. Identity is a study in contrasts; our character is made as much by the things we’ve chosen not to do as by the things we’ve done.

More than seven years ago, I taught the fall semester of senior thesis at Parsons School of Design in New York. It was the first of two thesis semesters for my students — I would help them to frame their ideas and initiate a few key projects in the fall, and they would complete their work and install their show in the spring.

I taught in the spring as well. Unlike thesis, my course that semester was an elective studio for seniors. Many of the students I had in the fall also signed up for my elective in the spring. Enrollment in the two classes was nearly identical.

But the class had changed. Fatigue and frustration had started to set in among the group. Students described feeling uninspired and unsure of what they were doing. As a gesture of understanding and solidarity, I retitled our studio “Antithesis,” which, if nothing else, might help to lighten the mood.

This is my third Wintersession course, and I’ve noticed that the dark days of January can produce a similar effect at RISD. Year after year, I join you at a piviotal point: not starting out anymore, but far from finished. In spite of its joking tone, Antithesis 1 was a great success; this year, I thought I’d give it another try.

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RISD Wintersession Workshop

Above, from top: Vendors for Ooga Booga, Sister, and The Holster, at the 2009 NY Art Book Fair, PS1, Queens NY. Photos taken by Martine Syms, Golden Age, Chicago IL.

In 2004 the New York Times Magazine’s annual Year in Ideas issue included an entry for the “Anti-Concept Concept Store,” which detailed a series of “guerilla stores” Comme des Garçons had opened in “hip, yet-to-be-gentrified areas in cities around the world, including Berlin, Barcelona, Helsinki, Singapore, Stockholm, Ljubljana, and Warsaw.” The article continues to describe the shops, “which are installed in raw urban spaces,” and their inventory: “‘seasonless’ merchandise drawn from current and past collections.” Comme des Garçons would keep the shops open for a single year, and then close up and move on. The new format enabled “companies to tap into new markets at low cost” and “to reduce inventory by recycling old merchandise. The pop-up shop, at least in contemporary retailing circles, was born.

But pop-up shops, by another name, are as old as human society itself. As long as we’ve been gathering in urban spaces we have built markets to trade, and those markets have sustained nomadic, made-to-order commerce, a mentality of sink-or-swim success, the retrading or recycling of used goods, and the aspirational promise of buying one’s way into a better life. The bazaar seller, the flea marketeer, and the street hawker all run pop-up shops, as do the pushcart vendor, the stadium winger, the traveling salesman, the Avon girl, and the Good Humor man. Tupperware Parties are pop-up shops. So are book signings and lemonade stands.

Shops are public spaces. For each of its objects available for sale, a value is assigned. Together, a shop’s setting and prices help its objects to become socialized. We collectively answer questions like: Which objects do we value and why? What can we do with these objects once they’ve entered our community? How do the objects gathered here represent us? The shop is a natural habitat for design.

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Graphic Design & Critical Thinking 2007 (with Luke Bulman)

After I finished the first verison of Graphic Design & Critical Thinking up in December 2006, I remember thinking: “That was so intense, so fun, and I learned so much: but how am I ever going find the energy to do it again?”

Fortunately the answer came by way of my fabulous co-teacher Luke Bulman, principal of Thumb Projects in Brooklyn, NY. Luke took all the great things about the first class and not only kept them but made them better. Rather than sticking to a format where we were leading discussions during every class, Luke suggested that we let students conduct their own discussions in the form of interviews, or Q & As. These interviews would be recorded and form the basis of the journal project, a centerpiece of the class.

What’s so important about the class journal is that in most other forms of graduate education one of the imperatives is to publish, yet very often MFA Graphic Designers, who are perhaps the closest of anyone to the tools of publishing, do not take full advantage of their abilities. At RISD, we’re hoping to build up the tradition of a class journal during the first year, a classwide discussion that forms the basis for students’ thesis work in the second year. Luke’s training as an architect brought essential depth to the students from that area of theory, with which he is much more familiar than myself having trained at Rice as an architect. The result is was a richer journal in every way, and by building the more visual “Projects” into the syllabus as a compliment to the readings, we were able to spend as much of our classtime showing as telling.

Finally, as I was wrapping up the 2006 class and getting feedback from students, I asked them to pardon a particularly inelegant piece of writing because it was simply the best articulation of that idea by a graphic designer. “Why does it have to be by a graphic designer?” one student rightly asked. “This class should be about reading the most useful ideas by the best writers, whoever they are.” I couldn’t have agreed more. In the second time around, with Luke’s invaluable help, I think we finally got it right.

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Graphic Design & Critical Thinking

How do ideas become visual? How do emotions take shape? What do we assume about the things we see? What do we take for granted? What are our expectations for communicating with others? How do they communicate with us? How should information be organized? In what form does it pass from one person to the next? What are the boundaries between the precious and the everyday? How do we evaluate beauty? When do visual things become ideological? Which kinds of communication are information and which are propaganda? Which kinds of communication are ethical and which are unethical? Who decides? What should learning about design require? How should we do it? What does criticism have to teach us? Who can make design? What kind of rights and authority can those people lay claim to?

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