School Days

Above: “School Days,” from Graphic Design: Now In Production. (Larger)

“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” — David Byrne

A few years ago, after being invited to serve as a critic for final reviews at an MFA graphic design program, I found myself riding home with two designers and an architecture critic. Each designer had an MFA from a different program, and the architecture critic was working on a PhD. I have a BA. All of us teach at the graduate level while working actively in the profession. After catching up a bit with one another, our discussion returned to the critique. “Why do the students talk about their personal lives so much in explaining their work?” the architecture critic asked. “What do their biographies have to do with it?” While it is certainly valid to question the place of personal histories in a professional context, to talk about ourselves and our stories, it nevertheless seems a persistent inclination among designers to so. We hardly know weʼre doing it — look, I’ve opened here with an anecdote drawn from my own life story.

Perhaps part of this is that there is no one else to write these stories for us. Whether overtly biographical or simply self-referential, design remains even today in the peculiar position of having its history and criticism written largely by and for its own practitioners. Since most of us are involved in making things, we write quite naturally of the hows and whys of making them in a collective effort to evaluate a design’s production. But what’s gone into our own production? How are designers produced?

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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.

Text/Messages at the Walker

Text/Messages: Books by Artists, a show at the Walker Art Center, is up now through 19 April and looks pretty fantastic to me—I hope I can find my way home to Minneapolis before it closes. In the meantime, those of us who are stuck out-of-town can enjoy this panel discussion on the museum’s excellent Walker Channel, which includes my friend David Platzker of the NYC-based Specific Object, artists Buzz Spector and Harriet Bart, Sally Alatalo of Sara Ranchouse Publishing, and the aforementioned James Hoff of Primary Information.

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I’ve recently become enamored with Ryan Nelson’s Film Still Archive series on his personal blog, Making Known. Ryan’s a Design Fellow at the Walker Art Center who’s also written some great posts about typewriter type, Pistilli Roman, and my favorite used book find Color By Overprinting, not to mention this spot-on post on balloons, spilt liquids, and paper constructions.

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Also at the Walker Art Center, I saw the show Statements: Beuys, Flavin, Judd. The exhibition certainly delivered on its promise of offering three different “statements” about post-WWII sculpture, but I found myself most drawn, as I often am, to the work of Joseph Beuys. In particular to this postcard, from the Walker’s permanent collection, which includes Beuys’s famous stamp for Deutsche Studentenpartei. As F.E. Rakuschan explains, “In 1967 he founded the German Student Party (Deutsche Studentenpartei), followed in 1971 by the Organisation for Direct Democracy (Organisation für Direkte Demokratie) and in 1972 by the Free International University (Freie internationale Universität). No doubt, Joseph Beuys in his roles as teacher and artist, who also showed great talent in making use of the mass media, substantially contributed to furthering critical thinking and action by many of his fellow human beings. At the same time, Beuys also reached the highest rankings on the art charts during his lifetime. His objects, sometimes just parts preserved from some Action, were soon traded like relics and ended up in exhibitions and museum collections all over the world.” Part of this body of organizational and conversational work is Beuys’s “We don’t do it without the rose,” also included in the Walkers show. A beautiful piece. More of Beuys’s ephemera is collected here.

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While I was at the Walker Art Center a few weeks ago I managed to catch the wonderful Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes exhibit before it closed. It includes great work from artists as diverse as Dan Graham, Larry Sultan, INABA, and Interboro Partners, but one of my favorite projects was Paho Mann’s positively Becheresque series "Re-inhabited Circle Ks." Film lovers might also want to peruse Robert Bueka’s fine catalog essay. Book lovers will certainly want to peruse Chad Kloepfer’s beautiful catalog.

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Jayme Yen at the Walker Art Center Design Blog pointed me to yet another indespensible wing of Kenneth Goldsmith’s vast cultural archive at Ubu.com, the “Ethnopoetics” section. Its curator Jerome Rothenberg writes, “In the present Ubuweb collection of ethnopoetic openings, it’s our intention to build a sampler of what we take to be the second great breakthrough of the modernist poetry project. The search here is for a range of poetries outside the domain of customarily accepted literature. In particular we’re interested, in the spirit of other segments of Ubuweb, in soundings and visionings that are the traditional and often culturally acceptable counterparts to what in our own surroundings have been seen and heard as radical, even disturbing departures from conventional practice.” All of Rothenberg’s selections are compelling, but I was particularly glad to see his inclusion of Shaker gift drawings and visual poetry in the project. More of my thoughts on the Shakers’ gift drawings here.

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A great talk by architect David Adjaye from last November at the Walker Art Center. I am in love with Adjaye’s houses, and he did a great one for his friend, photographer Ed Reeve. Reeve in turn has photographed many of Adjaye’s projects, and they are thankfully available online at his website, along with photos from the construction of his own Adjaye house, Ed’s Shed.

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An ever-growing and wonderful archive of artist and designer interviews at the Walker Channel.

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When it opened at the Walker Art Center in 1989, "Graphic Design in America" was one of the first serious surveys of its kind. It’s tempting to say it was ahead of its time, but I think it was probably more like a little bit late. The relationship of design to art has always been a difficult one, and displaying design in a contemporary art museum didn’t simplify things much. Here’s what NYT thought back then, which makes for interesting reading now (via Unbeige).