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.
“All my books until now have been about love, land and memory, but now I wanted to write a book about the opposite, about people for whom love wasn’t sufficient and money was enough; who were lost and who had no connection to history or place; yet for whom tomorrow wasn’t a promise but a growing threat.” Author Richard Flanagan talking about his book The Unknown Terrorist on Ramona Koval’s The Book Show. More on Bookworm.
The amusingly geeky Michael Silverblatt interviews the author of my newest favorite book, Lydia Davis, on her fantastic story collection Varieties of Disturbance.
“This approach does not try to parcel the world into sections. Rather, it is a quest for understanding everything as interconnected. The cabinet of curiosity, the precursor to the specialized museum of today, is obviously a reference point for us in all this and the source of our name. This quest is an impossible one, but the desire for it needs to be encouraged because it implies an ethics, namely to care for what the world is, to care to find out how it became this way, and to care to find out how we can change it.” Cabinet Magazine’s thoughtful and articulate editor Sina Najafi is interviewed at Artkrush.
The wonderful photographs of Tomoko Yoneda, including this series of photographs where texts and manuscripts are seen through eyeglasses of notable figures from history. I found my way to these through the great site VVork, who just gave this interview that happily tells us a little more about their work on the site.
“Watch List” is a series of interviews with interesting and engaging young designers I know. Jason Ramirez is the second of these interviews, but many of his concerns as a designer are similar to those I discussed with Hilary Greenbaum in the first interview, particularly when it comes to making design that is personal, narrative, or both. Jason’s interdisciplinary projects often find him wearing many hats, from form-giver to fact-checker, activist to archivist. Three of these projects are visible here. More of Jason’s work will be online soon.
Rob Giampietro: Do you think there’s a strong social aspect to design, that goes from the most corporate things, like ad campaigns, to the most handmade things, like yearbooks?
Jason Ramirez: I do. Though with my initial activities with design, I was not aware of that to the extent I am today. After high school, I entered university with plans to study the biological sciences with an emphasis on a pre-med course of study.
RG: Is there a scientific aspect of design for you now? Do you find your interest in science and design are somehow two halves of a whole?
JR: Actually a certain aspect of formal thinking has been an Achilles Heel in my exploration of design. Thinking that design is rooted in rules and logic. One of the biggest challenges for me as a designer has been to acknowledge that these “rules” may not always apply in design. I have often found myself questioning the way something “should” be made.
RG: The ethical instead of the logical way to make design.
JR: Yes. And the personal.
RG: And is that what you were seeking to understand better when you came to Parsons?
JR: Looking back on my experience with design to-date, there was a significant gap in time between when I entered Parsons and when these ethical and personal feelings toward design started to arise.
RG: The personal side of making design definitely comes up in your thesis project from Parsons, “No Me Olvides.”
JR: I remember the summer before my senior year thinking, “I need to have some strong thesis ideas before I get back to school.” But with that, also understanding that whatever I devoted my time to for two semesters should be personally fulfilling. Engaging my curiosity and enhancing my knowledge of a topic were important. I just wanted whatever I chose to pursue to be personally rewarding. So I came up with a list of topics that were of interest to me at that point in my life, many of which had strong ethical underpinnings, but the one subject that fascinated me the most was that of my paternal grandmother’s life. It is her narrative that provides the framework for “No Me Olvides.”
RG: Because it was quite personal, did you have some apprehension as to how best to present your grandmother’s life story?
JR: Yes. The project was constructed from interviews with her, and it was important that the tone of the format reflect the fact that she is such an important and influential person in my life. But it did concern me at times. When it did, I tried to remind myself that another reason for perusing this project was to understand her story—that of a Mexican-American woman living on both sides of the U.S. and Mexico border at different points in her life—in the context of my own life. I hoped it would help me to better understand my own identity as a Mexican-American.
RG: Talk about the actual format of the book a bit, can you explain how it works on a basic level?
JR: It’s actually a set of two books. One book represents my grandmother’s experiences in the U.S., while the other represents her experiences in Mexico. The books are concordant, and meant to be read simultaneously. Her narrative follows the format of the books, navigating each book as dictated by her story. In addition to the interviews, her narrative was also based on autobiographical writings, or reflections of her life. Each of those two elements are essentially memories, so even though the narrative follows a chronological structure, her memories relate to time in a non-linear way. For example, an experience she may have had in Mexico might make her compare her life then with what her life had been like in the U.S. In effect, parts of her story span both books simultaneously. My grandmother gave me full license to explore near every nook and cranny of her home for materials!
RG: I think it’s interesting to use the concordance format for the story of a crossing, both a physical crossing of the Rio Grande, and the crossing of cultures. I also think it’s interesting because the concordance is such an “official” form, used by bibliographers and museum directors, and here it’s being used for something that is very far away from that context.
JR: With this project there was the concern of how to appeal to a larger audience, as we discussed before. To address that issue, I literally framed her experience with events that happened within both countries and the world during the time period covered. The intention was to add a broader context to her story, an understanding of how her life was influenced by the wider world around her. So while her story is extremely personal in nature, the project assumes a collective significance; it becomes a represention of the struggles with acculturation experienced by many Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans during this period on both sides of the border. This means one could easily view this concordance as being not too different from the ones you mentioned before-a type of “official” history told through a personal narrative.
RG: What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?
JR: Since the project was produced and exhibited, the feedback has been quite positive.
RG: And how does your grandmother feel about it? Has she seen it?
JR: Yes, she has seen it. She is quite proud of the project. My entire family has been proud. One family member went as far as to suggest that a set of the books should be donated to the Topeka Historical Society. She has been fairly involved with the organization to promote the Mexican American experience in Topeka and Kansas. She’s a close cousin, and I consider her a contributor to the project. She was responsible for interviewing my grandmother in the mid-nineties. She also wrote an paper presenting portions of our grandmother’s narrative in three different formats. I have borrowed heavily from her research, and my role with her work has been to extrude more from the interviews, enhance them with additional materials, and present it all in a single, coherent format. There is still more work to be done.
RG: I think it’s important to see any project, especially a thesis project, as an avenue to a wider (and hopefully ongoing) discussion. Very little design exists for itself. It exists more generally as a trigger to action. I want to talk now about another of your projects, the booklet you made about historic assassinations.
JR: Well, I was browsing magazines one day at the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York and came across what I thought was a beautiful magazine from Italy, lots of bold and classy typography and photography, largely black-and-white, and all in Italian. I didn’t understand one word in the magazine. But I came across a spread with a beautiful, old black-and-white photograph of an Italian figure that had just been shot to death. I was staring at this photograph in complete awe-the crop of the image, the contrast, and the “vulgarity” of the subject matter. It made me think about why people are killed, or at least why some noteworthy people are killed, or assassinated. I started thinking about noteworthy people in twentieth-century American society that have been assassinated and why.
RG: I found while I was looking at your book I was thinking back to when I first saw Warhol’s silk-screened paintings of car wrecks and disasters, which are also both kind of beautiful and horrifying.
JR: Exactly! Those are images-Warhol’s-that I’ve become familiar with the past two years and have been fascinated by them. When conceiving of the project, I immediately thought of what might be deemed as the most noteworthy assassinations of the twentieth century: JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X. Each was involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. So I set out to find photography and text that held meaning to who they were and what it was they were fighting for, and why those struggles might have contributed to their deaths. The booklet was ultimately put together using images and excerpts of text that were found in the New York Public Library image collection. One of the constraints I placed upon myself at the onset of the project was that I wanted to introduce a minimum of computer-generated typography, so much of the typography in the book is scanned from pieces of text culled from the collection.
RG: It seems like storytelling is such a major interest for you.
JR: It’s funny because I don’t bill myself as a storyteller in the literal sit-around-a-campfire sense, but it is nonetheless an important aspect of my work.
RG: I think you’ve used the alphabet as a storytelling medium, too, in your urban decay typeface project.
JR: Perhaps. How do you see it?
RG: Well, the cracks and decaying, there’s a time element to that. Wear and tear, you know. I think the material, pavement, is very narrative. It’s quite humble, but it’s also sad and emotive, sort of lost or overlooked.
JR: I was trying to say a lot with this typeface. I’m not convinced that the “final” format says enough, but ideas of time and humankind, and their effects on the urban environment were at the heart of it. At the time I was taking quite a few photographs of weathered urban surfaces: chipped paint, rust, graffiti. So all of this was at the forefront of my mind at the time.
RG: One of the great tests of a conceptual typeface like this is putting it to use. You’ve got an ABC specimen here to show, but is there something more specific you’d like to write with your typeface?
JR: I’d like to find someone else’s perspective on the same ideas and typeset that. Just a short passage, not a long diatribe. Maybe something from Jane Jacobs…
RG: What really makes a project like this work is absolute dedication to finding exactly the right set of things. It must have taken you forever to do that in this case.
JR: It seemed like forever, but it only took about two weeks. Two weeks of staring straight down at the ground. It’s funny, some people do not initially believe each glyph to be authentic. A graphic designer who recently reviewed my portfolio suggested that I even include a caption that the images are in no way Photoshopped!
RG: I think it’s important that you didn’t Photoshop them, but I also think, if you really look at the typeface, that shows.
JR: I agree and I hope so.
RG: What’s next, Jason?
JR: That’s a big question! Since I left Parsons in May, I have focused my energies on scouting about for opportunities in publishing, specifically book cover design. I have spent much of my time making introductions to book cover designers and art directors whose work I admire. It’s been quite exciting. I feel quite lucky to have had this experience at all.
RG: Well, given this interest in book jackets, it looks like one way or another there’ll be more storytelling in your future.
JR: I sure hope so.
“Watch List” is a series of interviews with interesting and engaging young designers I know. Hilary Greenbaum is the first of these interviews, and I can’t think of a better person to kick off the series. Her work is consistently challenging and conceptual, but always human. The three projects we’ve chosen to discuss are visible here. To see more of Hilary’s work, visit greenary.net.
Rob Giampietro: When do you first remember being interested in design?
Hilary Greenbaum: A long time ago, actually. A friend and I designed a magazine together in fourth grade. Just a single edition. It was just for ourselves I guess. At the time I did everything. I drew, I painted, I think I wanted to explore everything that was visual.
RG: Fair enough. What was an early piece of design that was formative for you?
HG: Some of the earliest pieces of design that were formative I think would have to be some of the most basic type exercises I started doing in college. Very simple, very Bauhaus, very stripped-down. I can’t think of any one piece, but Carnegie Mellon, where I was going to school at the time, had a large collection of Swiss posters. I found them very inspirational. I’m not sure which era their collection spans, but I remember it being fairly comprehensive. At the same time, I was also looking at a lot of artwork and painting which was much more raw.
RG: It sounds like that was influential, too. Your graduate thesis project at CalArts was called Wilshire x 8. I was very impressed with it when I first saw it. Certainly this is a mapping project, but I also see it as an acting project. Do you have any thoughts on this?
HG: Well, there’s certainly different roles we play as designers, but I think the ‘role-playing’ aspect of the project wasn’t necessarily about acting, but more about trying to understand how other people use and understand design. Wilshire is the constant, so that you, as a reader of the maps, can understand not just the street itself, but how different people could approach mapping it. It is a study of both people and place.
RG: Sometimes I think fonts are involved in this understanding as well in your project. How did you arrive at the type you chose?
HG: There’s a main typeface for all of the general content of the book, which I chose partly because of its boldness, its ability to break up the book, as well as its deco-inspired flavor, something I feel Wilshire has a lot of. Then there’s each individual map, which took on its own character. Those typefaces were chosen only with that map in mind, so when compiled, the shifts in the book become more obvious. There were some type choices where I was interested in making the text feel more automatic, as if it had been generated by the street, while there were other choices that focused more on nostalgia, for example, embodying a more personal sentiment. But it’s tricky with typefaces, because it can get really heavy-handed. Usually finding a typeface is a really intuitive process for me. I have to look at a lot of things. Finding a typeface that feels “nostalgic”, for example, without feeling insincere means digging through a whole lot of crap, and then possibly having to modify it anyway.
RG: I know the Myers-Briggs test was important to your development of this project. How did it come up, and why did you decide to follow the lead?
HG: Well, the project itself originated from an interest in showing how no piece of design is completely objective, even information design. More specifically, I was looking at how maps are merely representations of space, and how depending on who’s doing the looking, the space is inherently different. So, I thought of how different people could interpret the same space in various ways, and how people are inherently different; enter Myers-Briggs. I’ve always been inspired by people/sociology/psychology in my work, but I think this framework was used both to explore others as well as find common denominators in myself, like “What are the things that keep coming back? What are the themes that I keep focusing on? Is there a way that I’m most comfortable doing something? How can doing it the opposite way help me push out of that comfort zone?”
RG: One or two more questions about your thesis: Several rolls of tape appear on the cover of the book; obviously there’s a simple metaphor there with the idea of drawing the map of a road and variations on a theme. What makes it a compelling object for you?
HG: Well, it’s about the tape, but also the location of the tape. The background of the cover, the weird illuminated grid pattern, is the refracting film I put up on the window behind my studio desk for privacy. The tape is stuck to the outside of that window, and you’re looking through the window at me and my workspace, but refracted. I liked the tape because it felt dynamic, like they were bodies in motion, on a track, traveling. The length of each roll of tape correlates to how many pages in the atlas that map assumed, so it’s kind of a table of contents.
RG: What did you take away from doing an MFA thesis, beyond the work itself?
HG: Part of the reason I wanted to go back to grad school was to be able to teach design as well as practice it, so the process of creating your own project was great. On top of being able to assess something about design, and then use design to talk about it.
RG: Do you have an assignment you’d really like to give someday?
HG: I don’t have one in mind right now, but I think an ideal project would allow the room for different outcomes, like my thesis project did. So that each student could interpret and excel in their own right.
RG: Ok, let’s talk about Patterns of Preservation. One of the major things you were dealing with in this project is the presentation of books. Do you have thoughts on this?
HG: Books are objects, and for this project, I was interested in how the appearance of the cover interacts with its contents, if the object itself felt like a cohesive whole or not. I think the presentation of the book goes far beyond the image of its cover.
RG: So you were looking at the covers, and the surprise is that even without them, the insides of the books still manage to communicate something about the content, even if it’s less directly communicated than on the cover?
HG: Yes, I think both should relate to each other, as well as the sentiment of the writing.
RG: The relationship of parts to the whole is also visible in your project “Elsa Brooks.” How did you feel about generating a history for a woman who is herself a kind of design historian? What drew you to her, specifically, as a character idea?
HG: She was someone who I would be interested in hearing speak at a design conference, which was the basis for the assignment. I was drawn to her as a character because she was trying to counteract the insular nature of graphic design. To bring more voices to the table.
RG: Again in this project, as in your thesis project, you are creating kind of a character and almost functioning like an actor here. I see this in your project in the way you let each of the participants use a grid to design their own lettering for Elsa.
HG: I set up a framework which allowed for multiple voices to coexist in the same setting to be sympathetic to the character that I had created.
RG: The design reminds me of the refracted image of yourself you put on Wilshire x 8: one self, many ways.
HG: It’s funny, during the process of doing the Wilshire x 8 project, I of course had to take the Myers Briggs test myself. In one of the descriptions of my own personality type it said my type are “systems builders, but based on human beings and human values, rather than information and technology.” I felt like that summed it up pretty well.
RG: The idea of authorship becomes a very sticky thing when you’re dealing with a piece as collaborative and participatory as this one. Do you view yourself as the “author” of this piece, or merely as the “author” of the system used for making it?
HG: I view myself as the designer of this piece. I initialized the concept and then facilitated it’s production. I don’t think most pieces of design today can have strict authorship. We don’t even write our own software. Much of it depends on the origination of the content, whether the idea for the project was initiated by the designer or by someone else. Mostly, it’s by someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a collaboration. Different types of designers just operate in different ways, and some do more self-initiated work, while some do less. I think there’s a difference between self-initiated work and client-initiated work, but of course the starting points for both can have a lot of crossover. Obviously there are many shades of grey, but I don’t think “Self-initiated” has to strictly mean “for me.”
RG: The final project you’ve chosen to share is a type design project called “Times DB.” What draws you to Times New Roman?
HG: I think until recently, it was largely ignored by many designers as being too much of a default, and then caught the attention of certain designers just for that reason. I thought it would be amusing to make a display version of it for the same reason. It just seems a little ridiculous.
RG: Sure, “default decadence.”
RG: How very ironic of you, Hilary.
HG: I do my best…
RG: Do you see yourself doing more typefaces in the future?
HG: I think I’d like to continue creating typefaces. I really enjoyed starting these projects this year, but I think it would take me a long time to get to the point where I could actually release a face. I like the idea of designers creating their own tools, though: it’s customization at a higher level.
RG: What’s next?
HG: Well, I just got to New York a week ago, so I’m seeing what’s going on here. It’s a very inspiring place. My favorite season is autumn, and I’ve been on the west coast for a while now, and missed out…I wanted to come back to catch this year’s show. I’m coming from LA, so just riding the subway is fun for me. Being in the throng is really thrilling.
A discussion between Rob Giampietro and Rudy VanderLans about guilt and loss in graphic design.
Rudy VanderLans, editor, Emigre: When writer/designer Rob Giampietro approached me a few months back with the idea to write an article about graphic design in the ’90s, he brought up an unrelated topic during our conversation that I found intriguing; he mentioned the term “Default Systems Design.” He said it was the topic for another article he had been working on for the past few months. It’s curious how certain ideas reach critical mass. In Emigre #64 a number of contributors, independently from each other, each made note of the emergence of a new kind of graphic design that seems to rely heavily on the use of systems and defaults. Just when you think graphic design is in a coma, something’s taking root. Reprinted here is how we arrived at the topic, as well as edited segments of the rest of the dialogue.