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.
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.
“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?
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.
- 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”
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.
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.
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
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.
Purchase a pack of 36p x 24p (6 x 4 in.) notecards, unlined.
Part 1: On one side of the notecards, draw (in pencil first, then black ink) each of the entries in “Appendix A” (pp. 271–286) of The Elements of Typographic Style as they appear. Make the drawings as large as possible. Then, synthesize Bringhurst’s notes about each of the entries on the other side of the notecards.
Part 2: Select a letter of the alphabet, excluding Ii, Jj, or Ll. Select a typeface and draw (in pencil first, then black ink) the upper- and lower-case letter you’ve selected on one side of one of the notecards. Be creative: type is everywhere. There’s inspiration in class readings, discussions, or simply your visual environment. On the back of the card, write some details about the typeface: who designed it, the year it was designed, other typefaces related to it, outstanding features of the typeface, some aspects of its history, etc. Over the course of the semester, try to add about five cards per week to your deck. At the end of the course, you should have a total of 50. Students who extend their research beyond Bringhurst’s basic catalog will be rewarded.
This assignment is from the class Typography I.
This week, find a piece of typography you enjoy, then bring it in to share with the class. Come prepared to discuss this piece of typography, and, if you can, provide some insight into how it was made, what typefaces were used, why you like it, etc. Use your imagination: posters, shopping bags, receipts, books, magazines, or even clothes are all fertile places for typography.
This assignment is from the class Typography I.
This course celebrates the rewards of using type to effectively communicate. Typographic principles combined with general history, both aesthetic and technical, will be presented. This class covers every aspect of Western Typography, from the single letter to layout on the page. The terminology of type use combined with all the essential principles of using type correctly will be explored through the study and application of historical examples and modern practice. This class provides a comprehensive foundation to what is at the core of all communication design: type.
- “This Typeface is Changing Your Life” by Leslie Savan [Looking Closer 3].
- “The History of Punctuation” by Nicholson Baker [The Size of Thoughts].
- “On Classifying Type” by Jonathan Hoefler [Emigre 42].
- “Laws of the Letter” by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller [Design Writing Research].
- “Typefaces are Rich with the Gesture and Spirit of Their Own Era” by Michael Rock [Looking Closer 3].
- “The Trouble with Type” by Rudy VanderLans [Emigre 43].
- “Development of Form through Writing and Printing Techniques” by Adrian Frutiger [Signs and Symbols]
- “Cult of the Ugly” by Steven Heller [Eye #9, article]
- Introduction to Compendium for Literates by Karl Gerstner.
- “My Typographies” by Paul Elliman [Eye 27].
- Chapters 1–4, and 8 of The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.
- “Typography and the Traditional Title Page” by Jan Tschichold [The Form of the Book].
- “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should be Invisible” by Beatrice Warde [Looking Closer 3].
- “towards a universal type.” by Herbert Bayer [Looking Closer 3].
- “The Author’s and Book Enjoyer’s Bill of Rights, at Least insofar as the Book Jacket is Concerned” by Dave Eggers [McSweeney’s #4].
- Class 1: Introductions. General Overview, Projects, etc. Intro: A Deck of Types, pt. 1. Intro: Type Comparisons. Policies & Grading.
- Class 2: Discussion: Savan. In-class: Type Comparison 1. Intro: A Set.
- Class 3: Discussion: Baker. In-class: A Set, pt. 1. Due: A Deck of Types, pt. 1. Intro: A Deck of Types, pt. 2.
- Class 4: Discussion: Hoefler, Lupton & Miller. Lecture: Typographic Classification. In-class: Type Comparison 2.
- Class 5: Discussion: Rock, VanderLans. Lecture: Period Styles. In-class: A Set, pt. 2.
- Class 6: Discussion: Frutiger, Heller. Lecture: Aesthetics & Typography, Legibility. In-class: Begin Type Comparison 3.
- Class 7: In-class: A Set, pt. 3.
- Class 8: Discussion: Elliman, Gerstner. In-class: Kerning Project. Due: Type Comparisons
- Class 9: Quiz: Bringhurst. Lecture: Space, Type, & Measurement (Bringhurst). Presentation: Books & Chapbooks. Intro: A Chapbook.
- Class 10: Discussion: Tschichold. Lecture: Readability. Critique: A Chapbook.
- Class 11: In-class: A Set, pt. 4.
- Class 12: Critique: A Chapbook. Discussion: Warde, Bayer.
- Class 13: Critique: A Set, pt. 5. Discussion: Eggers.
- Class 14: Critique: A Chapbook.
- Class 15: Due: A Set. Due: A Chapbook. Good-byes & Final Words
This class was first given in spring 2003 at Parsons School of Design in New York.