Remarks from The New School, 28 June 2012

This talk was given at the Tishman Auditorium, The New School as part of the event “Project Projects Project Projector,” sponsored by AIGA/NY. As a prompt, Adam, Prem and I were asked to speak about how our passions informed our practice. My comments about “computational poetics” (for lack of a better phrase!) follow below.

I want to start with this familiar image of Google auto-complete. It’s interesting how the web is a kind of machine for generating and organizing text — you put text in, you get more text out. And there are algorithms that structure the text output, so when you make a search, you expect something specific to happen as a result.

Here’s a website we made last year for an exhibition at Harvard that takes its name from Dante’s famous epic poem — it has a different kind of search bar.

You input text, but the field doesn’t behave as you’d expect — rather than searching the site, it searches the entire web. And rather than behaving consistently, its behavior changes, cycling through a series of searches from Google Images…

…to Wikipedia…

…to an Italian translation of your search phrase.

This isn’t anything new — machines have always changed the behavior of text, and the creation of a new tool often alters the usage of an existing one.

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I am a handle

This text was commissioned by Dexter Sinister for The Serving Library. It was originally delivered as an iChat “lecture,” from a studio in Manhattan to a library in Banff, Alberta, on 11 August 2011 at 12:32 PM Mountain Time.

Good afternoon.

I am a handle, writing you with the same software that is writing me.

When I carry one idea over to meet another, it’s a metaphor I’m making.

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On Design, Distribution, and Circulation

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Last October I was invited to give a lecture at SVA’s D-Crit program about the distribution and circulation of design objects and the role of these processes—as opposed to aesthetics or production—in giving meaning to those objects. Here’s a little more from the talk description:

> When design writing is practiced by design producers, often an emphasis is placed on the way things look and how they get made. This talk will begin after that. How do designed objects enter the world? How does the way something’s distributed effect our understanding of it? When these objects are circulated, who sees them, how do those audiences respond, and how are those responses accounted for?

The talk was structured by a list of questions that themselves arose from a question: “How does a design object enter the world?”:

  1. Is its audience local or global?
  2. Is its audience knowledgeable or uninformed about it?
  3. Is it made quickly or slowly?
  4. Is it made cheaply or expensively?
  5. Is it produced as needed or in anticipation of need?
  6. Is it wasteful or thrifty?
  7. Is profit expected from it?
  8. Is value received from it?
  9. Is wealth created from it?
  10. Is it given or paid for?
  11. Is it original or repurposed?
  12. Is it rare or common?

I described question 01 as a “Geographic Gap,” question 02 as a “Knowledge Gap,” questions 03–09 as a “Production Gap,” and questions 10-12 as a “Usage Gap.” After moving through examples that built on each of these questions, the Coda was going to take the initial question—”How does a design object enter the world?”—and frame in terms of distance, the distance from the maker to the user or consumer. The corollary to the distance question is a question about time or duration—”How long does a design object last?”—and, taken together, these questions give us a sense of distance over time, or the velocity at which design is moving. The questions from the Coda, which asked how long a design object lasts, were:

  1. Is it stored in an archive or library?
  2. Is it ever displayed once it’s been cataloged?
  3. Is it written about or analyzed?
  4. Is it used to make new work?

Update

Download MP3 / Time 1:12:06

Allan Chochinov kindly asked me to give this talk again to his grad students at Pratt on 05 November 2009. My slides were almost identical to the ones posted above, so it’s possible to follow along or use the slide references below if you get lost.

Below you’ll find references for all the visual slides above along with some helpful links for further reading. Enjoy.

Slide References

02: Give and Take Business Card Holder (available here, discussed here)
03: If No One Sees It, Is It an Invention? (NYT)
04: Cuban posters (left and right, discussed here)
05: The Gift (available here, discussed here)
15: Arecibo Message (Wikipedia, more here)
17: The New Yorker (discussed here)
18: Mel Bochner, “Working Drawings And Other Visible Things On Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art,” (1966, discussed here)
19: Donald Judd (left), Dan Flavin (right), from “Working Drawings…”
20: Receipt for unpaid fabrication costs for Donald Judd’s primary structures show at the Jewish Museum, from “Working Drawings…”
21: 2006 Yale Graphic Design MFA Show (discussion and more photos here)
22: Microsoft Word Icon
23: ‘Sup Magazine 18 (available here)
25, 27: The Whole Earth Catalog (Wikipedia, longer article here)
28: Sniffin’ Glue (Wikipedia)
29: Stealing Beauty by Graphic Thought Facility (archived here)
30, 31: A Wikipedia Reader by ASDF— (archived here)
33: Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk (available here)
34: Mechanical Turk (Wikipedia)
35: The Sheep Market by Aaron Koblin (archived here)
37: 1941 Ford (left) and Toyota (right) models (Wikipedia)
38: 1975 Ford (left) and Toyota (right) models
41: Just in Time! catalog by Will Holder (archived here)
42: Dear Lulu by Hochschule Darmstadt with James Goggin (available here, discussed here)
44: Philip by Mark Aerial Waller, Heman Chong, Cosmin Costinas, Rosemary Heather, Francis McKee, David Reinfurt, Steve Rushton and Leif Magne Tangen (availble here, discussed here [PDF])
46: The $26 Book by M&Co (discussed here)
47: UPS Logo by Paul Rand (discussed here)
48, 49: The First Report of the (Unofficial) Graphic Design Landmarks Preservation Comission by Scott Stowell for Metropolis Magazine (discussed here)
51: No. 7 Ladderback Shaker Chair (left), Danish J39 Chair (right) (discussed here)
52: Shaker Workshops Furniture Kit (available here)
53: Shaker Gift Drawings (discussed here)
54, 55: Artek 2nd Cycle Stools (discussed here)
57: I heart NY, I heart NJ (discussed here, more here)
58: Bottle Rack by Marcel Duchamp (discussed here)
59: Boîte-en-valise by Marcel Duchamp (archived here)
60: Collected Words by Richard Hamilton (dicussed here)
62: The Beatles “White Album” by Richard Hamilton (Wikipedia)
63: The world’s largest signed and numbered limited edition artwork by Daniel Eatock (archived here)
64: My favourite cup by Daniel Eatock (archived here)
72: Moveable Type by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin (archived here, more here)
73: Kiosk by Christoph Keller (discussed here)

Remarks from the New Museum, 13 June 2009

Above: 1970s TDK cassette tray packaging. Cited as influential by Graphic Thought Facility’s Andy Stevens in an interview with the Design Museum, London.

This Saturday I took part in a panel discussion at the New Museum along with Marco Roth, Astra Taylor, and the panel’s organizer, Brian Sholis. We were asked to give a short lecture at the start of the discussion to outline some of our views on “generational coherence, generational self-consciousness, peer networks,” and other themes related to the museum’s Generational show. While I don’t usually script my talks, preferring instead to discuss images casually as I display them, I decided that this panel was a good opportunity to set images aside for a moment and get my thoughts together on this subject. My remarks follow below, and I hope they’ll be of interest. —RG

Most graphic design is easy to make, quick to produce, and not expected to last that long. If it lasts awhile, great, but it makes no claim to permanence. About the most permanent thing a designer can make is a book, and those often get reeditioned or go out of print. So graphic design’s relationship to duration is different than that of a painting or a building. I’m working on several projects right now that involve redesigning things that were just designed or redesigned in the last five years. Magazines come out and are thrown away, posters are put up and torn down, websites are built to change everyday. A new CEO takes over and wants to put a new stamp on something, so the logo’s changed once again.

In fact, the duration of most graphic design is closer to that of a song. I’ve heard that for awhile Stevie Wonder wrote a song every day. He’s a lot like a designer in that regard. It’s practiced creativity. And, after a few months, he selected a dozen songs or so to release as an album. That’s his portfolio, an edit of songs for the world to share.

There has been a lot of thinking done about design and art. Today, I’d like to do a bit of thinking about contemporary graphic design and music. In terms of our conversation here, music is a useful tool for talking about generations because it’s so defining for generations. I think design is defining, too. We identify ourselves with the songs we listen to but also the brands we buy, the organizations we support, the websites we contribute to, and the media we collect.

Like music, design relies on patterns to be accepted and understood. Some patterns inform the construction of a song itself. I’m thinking of Verse Chorus Verse structures or a I-IV-V chord progression. Compare these patterns to those that govern proper typesetting, the layout of a book, or the design of a letterhead.

Some songs employ cycles of sampling and reuse; they are built on top or with pieces of other songs. Design acts the same way. We see a typeface in use somewhere, or a color scheme, or an organizational strategy, and we use it like our own. Patterns, as the architect Christopher Alexander will tell you, help to orient us within an experience. We expect to see a logo on a business card. We expect to see a couch in a living room. We expect to hear a chorus after a verse.

Other patterns in music describe not the construction of a song but an audience’s relationship to it. The song a band chooses to release as a single, for example, tells us the band takes particular pride in that song, or they feel it will become popular, or both. Again, compare these to design. A paperback carries a different meaning than a hardcover of the same book. The version of Flickr we see on our mobile phone is not the one we see in our web browser. Our relationship to the site’s content is governed by our access device.

These patterns in design and music are not secrets, nor are they organic to individual musicians or designers; they are widely taught, easily available, and highly recognizable to audiences.

When music is performed, it creates the conditions for a shared social experience. When it’s recorded, it’s dematerialized and can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere. A song’s length and its ephemerality are just two of its attractors; come now and take part before it’s gone.

Design plays a similar role. Design invites. Design asks for your participation. Design calls you to action. Design attempts to persuade you of its point of view. Design structures your experience with the object it’s applied to. For all of this, design is a present art more than it’s a lasting art. The ability of design to create mass experiences is contingent on its adaptability and ubiquity. We find corporate identity systems on trucks, on mobile phones, and on the credit cards in our wallets. Songs trigger memories; so do logos, posters, coffee mugs, and tshirts.

Music is often written and performed by many people, in collaboration with each other, in loose groups. Increasingly, design is created and performed that way too. Music is not organized by manifestos or movements but by scenes. Scenes almost operate with a tagging structure. Flattened out, they allow for a variety of overlapping, independent classifications. Nirvana, as we all know, was emblematic for the emerging “Grunge Rock” movement in the ’90s, but they also belonged to a distinct scene of bands from the Pacific Northwest, and to another scene defined by their record label, Sub Pop. The affiliated scenes of music are not normative, they’re networked. Some are more dominant than others. Most are subcultural variants. Subcultures, because of their size, are nimble, generative, and impassioned. These are good things.

The production of music today is highly dispersed. It can be made in a state-of-the-art studio or on an airline tray table. Its distribution methods are similarly destabilized. Bands needn’t seek the approval of labels to be released anymore, they just need bandwidth. Bootlegs, B Sides, Remixes, and Mashups are as official as the real thing. They’re all MP3s now. Even value has been upended; we don’t know what music costs anymore, or how (or even whether) people will ultimately pay for it. And yet the same technology that’s enabled the dispersion, destabilization, and devaluation of music has fostered of new songs, different songs, songs to define a generation.

On the same laptops that we use to write our songs we can make the graphics that package them. We’re all culture workers now. This isn’t something to glorify nor is it something to mourn, it’s just something to be aware of. The upside to the computer’s limitless uses are well-known. The downside is more subtle, but it will need to be reckoned with. From a New York Times review on the new book “Shop Class as Soulcaft,” Francis Fukuyama writes, “Unlike the electrician who knows his work is good when you flip a switch and the lights go on, the average knowledge worker is caught in a morass of evaluations, budget projections and planning meetings. None of this bears the worker’s personal stamp; none of it can be definitively evaluated; and the kind of mastery or excellence available to the forklift driver or mechanic are elusive.”

The computer that designers and musicians now use in their work is most comfortable as an emulative tool. It is not a guitar but it can emulate one. It is not a pen or an airbrush or an eraser or a paste up board or a type tray or an editing suite but all of these and a great deal more. Its actions are scriptable. Its plugins and system extensions are limitless. The computer turns real into virtual through the metaphor of use.

Our objects are becoming virtual as well. We order books not in runs of one thousand but in runs of one, made for us when we ask for it, or, more accurately, demand it. Or we can read them on a Kindle, with buttons that emulate turning the pages of an actual book. There was a time when no designer I knew would show work that hadn’t been produced. Today, it doesn’t matter if a work’s been produced, it matters if it’s been seen. Not printing, but page views. The issue is not legitimacy through production but attention through exposure. Students in design programs make posters for the purpose of photographing themselves holding them up for all to see on their portfolio site. In the rush of work that speeds through my RSS reader everyday, the community has become the other client. Our new canon might be crowdsourced.

Of course, canons have always been the products of selection, judgement, and exposure through reproduction. Flipping back through some design textbooks, the official history of design’s past generations emerges. Modernism, especially the Swiss International Style that arose in the 1950s, found its home servicing commerce or the state. Its practitioners organized themselves into hierarchical firms or bureaus. They wore suits and acted professionally. Their tools, like stat cameras and waxers, were rarefied to most. Their roles in culture were focused. Their objective was a totalizing legibility, clarity, and formal truth through structure. “Good design is good business” was a maxim and spurred many clients to invest in the design effort in hopes of building the bottom line. In the wake of WWII, a ravaged Europe and a rapidly growing America would restyle themselves afresh.

Design’s next generation of Deconstruction grew prevalent in the late ’80s and early ’90s in response to Modernism. Instead of commerce or the state, it was located primarily in the academy and the design press. Its practitioners were largely individuals, often making no claim to professionalism. Instead they envisioned the bohemian autonomy of the author or the artist. The self-initiated project was glorified. Their motivations, far from totalizing, were in the service of expressing their own identities. Texts, they inferred from writers like Derrida and Barthes, weren’t always meant to be legible. Forms, they inferred from architects like Gehry and Eisenman, weren’t always meant to be gridded. They didn’t want to be accepted, they wanted to be critical. They stood apart. They saw new tools like Mac as an opportunity to make design gestures that were impossible before. In the Photoshop layer they glimpsed a metaphor for the way meaning was encoded.

The designers I know now are Pragmatists. Their preferred site is not commerce, the state, the academy, or the design press, but the internet and the nonprofit organization. Neither hierarchical nor individualistic, the Pragmatists’ chief structure is the collective, the band, or the project working group. Their products are not forms but actions. Their world is not idealized but observed. Their solutions come not from truth but from effort and available materials. Their mode is not one of mass but of localized production. Their interest in the design object extends beyond its construction to encompass the circumstances of its distribution and circulation.

These designers accept the variability of display that is enmeshed in the browser window. Online, form and function are different filetypes. They see the computer’s system defaults as starting-points. There’s an increasing glorification of data for data’s sake: analytics and A/B testing contribute as much to formgiving as anything else. Just ask Google.

While Deconstruction feels like a generation that is all-too-recent and a little tuckered out, Modernism feels like lost world, or maybe, more accurately, like a bargain bin CD by a band that’s no longer performing. It’s been cast off for no reason and might hold the key to something its previous owner was intent on leaving behind. Discovery makes the old new again. Maybe we can save the past by playing it.

And it’s playing the past, those golden oldies, the hits, that seems to reassure this generation of designers. Call it a “performative Modernism,” or even a “visual karaoke.” Vitra editions a folk art blackbird from the Eames house as a mass produced object so we can all play Charles and Ray. Milton Glaser’s 1977 I heart NY becomes today’s I heart NJ or I heart Command Z or I shamrock ND or I lonestar TX. We’re riffing. We cover it in our own way. We do it to feel connected. We do it to get each other’s attention, form bonds, and share with a peer group. When designers I know reference the Modernist generation in their work, the gesture is less one of appropriation and more like that a hyperlink, or, more aptly, a song added to a playlist of favorites or shared with a friend.

I started a design studio when I was 23 with another designer and a pair of laptops in a spare bedroom. We designed our website quickly and sent it out to everyone we knew. It wasn’t all that different from starting a band in a someone’s garage. The website was our demo tape. Our first client was a nonprofit called Peer Health Exchange that taught college students to be health teachers in inner-city schools because schools were cutting health programs exactly when teenagers needed them most. The executive directors were our age. The whole experience felt a bit like “let’s pretend,” but we made them some books and a website, and they raised some money, and two years later they invited us to a snazzy gala at Chelsea Piers to celebrate the opening of their newest branch. In order to humanize the statistics they used in their materials, the logo we made depicted a silhouetted group of teenagers.

Thinking of this, and preparing for today, I was reminded of a graphic my friend showed me once, from the punk rock zine Sideburns. It showed three guitar tab illustrations, crudely drawn, and read: “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.”

UT Austin Lecture


I was thrilled when Prof David Shields of University of Texas at Austin invited me to come down to the Lone Star State to give a lecture about my work as a design writer and critic. In addition to a great studio called Viewers Like You, Shields and his students preside over the Rob Roy Kelly Wood Type Collection, and I was lucky enough to be given a grand tour shortly before this lecture was given.

All of the faculty at UT Austin were exceedingly generous and bright; I must thank them here for their hospitality. In addition to the lecture I was lucky enough to spend a day with the undergraduate seniors in the gallery where they were about to have their show, and they were curious and passionate about design in the most infectious of ways. (They were so passionate about design that one rejected theme for their show was “Designgasm,” which became a bit of a running joke throughout the weekend.)

For anyone visiting Austin, I’ve compiled a few great restaurants and shops on this Google Map. It’s a fantastic city.

The embedded slidecast above was created with Slideshare, which does not allow for absolute precision in terms of transitions but is excellent (and free) nonetheless. I showed two videos during the presentation: this one of Milton Glaser, and this one of Stewart Brand. Enjoy.

Fish Eye: Part 5

As soon as we’ve realized this, we turn around and see a trail of fish behind us. Fish in John Baldessari’s work,

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fish in Mark Dion’s work,

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piling up,

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and, on page 101 of Supermarket, the name of a fish that’s the name of a town that I’d heard of before.

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Fish Eye: Part 4

Returning to the introduction of Joshua Tree—VanderLans writes, “It is an archetypically American experience to drive through the desert…. Like many artists who helped define and shape the cultural image of California, Gram Parsons was not originally from there.” The question that hovers above these statements, all the time, is deceptively simple: where was he from? The search for origins—a human drive as ancient as Altamira—informs not only VanderLans’s quest to know his rock heroes, but also, as all art does, the quest to know himself. Specifically, to know himself as a designer and photographer and as an émigré to California, and it is this quest, I think, that motivates his fourth and largest book, Supermarket.

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Fish Eye: Part 3

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Artist Doug Aitken tips the swimming pool on its side, throwing our equilibrium off like we’ve got water in our ears. Seen this way, the pool evokes the form of the numeral zero. Across from it, in this book, are a grid of billboards, and all of these billboards are blank. Let’s use Aitken’s structure—signs on the left, pools on the right—as we continue.

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Fish Eye: Part 2

That moment is in the early spring of 1997, when Emigre magazine published its 42nd issue. Emigre was initially launched in Sacramento, CA, by Rudy VanderLans (who was born in Holland) as a magazine to showcase the cultural contributions of émigrés like himself. But by issue 3, in late 1985, VanderLans had begun to experiment with his wife Zuzana Licko’s coarse-resolution typefaces, like this one.

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Fish Eye: Part 1

This article was originally presented as a lecture at the Type Director’s Club, New York City, as part of the “Type Salon” program on 21 April 2005.

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I want to begin, tonight, with where we are, a darkened room with a screen, and with the context of where we are, a slide lecture. This kind of gathering is not without a history, a set of expectations, and the first slide I’ve brought to share with you deals with that.

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This is a photograph of the staging of a play called The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein. It depicts an actor playing the woman we know as Heidi Holland, who is employed by Columbia University as an art historian. The prologue of the play finds Heidi in the midst of one of her slide lectures concerning three women artists that, while well respected in their time and by their societies, are virtually unknown today.

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