“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?
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.
This year, much of the talk about the New York Art Book Fair seems to be centered on the Fair itself. Fueling some of this talk, whether expressly stated or not, is a simple question: how, in the midst of one of the most historic economic recessions on record, as the media outlets decry the final hour of the book, was last year’s Fair the biggest yet? And why does it seem that this year’s Fair may be even bigger still?
Against the backdrop of the recession and the destabilization of the book there are three additional factors that have a bearing on the Fair’s ever-increasing reach: the graphic design postgraduate program that defines a thesis book as its culminating project; the design social scene that functions a bit more like a rock scene, celebrating the making and distribution of new work over the more professionalized goals of acquiring and servicing clients; and the temporary or “pop-up” store that transforms the sometimes solitary act of buying into a networked, participatory, and collective event.