Exploring Values and Narratives Within Design Practice
A Scratching the Surface Episode Review
Scratching the Surface is a design podcast about the intersection of criticism and practice hosted by Jarrett Fuller. Each week, Jarrett interviews designers, writers, critics, educators and those that operate between these fields about how writing, criticism, and theory informs individual practice and the graphic design profession at large. Previous guests have included Michael Beirut, Jessica Helfand, Michael Rock, Steven Heller, and Alexandra Lange.¹
In episode 18 of Scratching the Surface, Jarrett Fuller interviews Andy Chen and Waquas Jawaid, founders of Isometric Studio — a New York based design studio that ‘promotes inclusion, equality & progress.’ I wanted to review this episode first because I keep coming back to it, and each time I do there’s just so much I get out of it. It’s probably one of the best interviews I’ve listened to so far on the Scratching the Surface podcast. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I highly recommend that you do.
Both Andy and Waquas are impressively articulate and knowledgeable about a number of subjects. Their backgrounds say a lot, which comes across in the episode as they describe growing up, their educational journey, and how it all influences their practice. They’re not afraid to voice their differing theoretical views on how design criticism should be approached, with this interview setting the stage for some very interesting debate. They’re almost like Siskel & Ebert, except here they talk about design discourse and criticism.
Andy’s interests and educational background in sociology influence how he answers many of the questions. I found it very interesting listening to someone as smart as him talk about design process, education, and criticism using this particular lens. He makes it look easy, but you can tell every single answer and statement he makes is coming from a place of significant contemplation and lived experience.
Waquas, on the other hand, endorses the value of granular analysis typically geared towards an academic audience, and his strong background in architecture adds a nice slant to an interview that’s mainly structured around graphic design processes. Design is a fast and fleeting industry that can get wrapped up in its own fidgety meta discourse, but Waquas’ strong architectural background — and the carefully measured approach that accompanies it — grounds certain parts of the conversation in an elegant way. Both have well rounded arguments; after listening to the interview, you can’t help but reflect on where you stand between the two.
“Nobody wants to be accused of not promoting something positive socially.” ~Andy Chen
Addressing a blind spot in my conscious mind, this interview has encouraged me to pay closer attention to the social and cultural narratives that design both creates and reveals. Some narratives are pretty obvious, even purposefully so, but powerful social narratives are so interwoven into our culture by huge corporations that you have to stop and make an concerted effort to mentally separate yourself from the design object in front of you in order to unpack the narrative. An example helps shed light on this.
Recently, while browsing the pop aisle at my neighbourhood grocery store, I began reflecting on Coca-Cola’s latest marketing campaign. Since their highly successful “Share-a-Coke” campaign that involved swapping their iconic logo with people’s first names, they’ve launched a few spin offs including one campaign for the Canadian market called “Play a Coke.” Here Coke swaps their iconic logo with “a total of 189 shareable summer moments” like “Dock Life” and “Summer Sunshine.” The play part of the campaign comes in by downloading the Play a Coke app, pointing your phone at a bottle and pressing play, unlocking a Spotify playlist that you can listen to.² This is all standard fare one would expect from Coke, but what made me question this campaign the most was one particular bottle where they swapped their iconic logo with “Love is Love.”
Companies using culturally and politically loaded narratives as content—to elevate the aesthetic form of their campaign and their brand — to give it a certain ‘aboutness’ — isn’t anything new, but it still rubbed off on me as being naive, even flippant.³ The expression is empowering and inseparable from one of the the largest civil rights movements in 30 years — the LGBT movement. Now it’s being co-opted by a multi-national brand as a shareable summer moment.
“We are trying to move away from this way of talking about design as ‘nice’ or ‘not nice’ — like we’ve seen a lot — and try to go into the realm of ‘why’ or ‘why not.’” ~Waquas Jawaid
That’s only one example of how this interview encourages people to pay closer attention to the subtle social and cultural narratives that often get lost in typical design discourse. To give you a better picture of why this interview had me dialing into all of this, it would probably make sense that I share a couple interview highlights.
A big one involves Andy and Waquas’ description of Isometric’s design process. The following had me thinking even several days after I heard it:
“We try to find where we can create positive impact. Because, the people who may not consider those narratives — those are the ones most vulnerable to critique, they’re the ones that are perhaps most unintentionally profiligating narratives that are sexist or homophobic. And we can get them to look critically at their values because nobody wants to be accused of not promoting something positive socially.”
He later elaborates:
“We view design as an intellectual argument — and for it to be an argument, you need to know what’s come before, and you need to constantly be turning the argument on its head…”
Waquas then chimes in:
“You also have to be able to articulate why not to do it another way. So, in some sense we are trying to move away from this way of talking about design as ‘nice’ or ‘not nice’ — like we’ve seen a lot — and try to go into the realm of ‘why’ or ‘why not.’
Let that seep into your consciousness a little bit!
“I don’t believe that everybody has to all of a sudden do socially good work, no. Instead, you should have a stake in it.” ~ Andy Chen
Now going back to the Coke example; I could easily question the aesthetic artifacts of the campaign — the custom ‘You’ font by Ian Brignell is worth noting. Maybe I could write a post that scrutinizes this typeface and where it sits in the evolution of Coke typography? I could also go the other way. For instance, this Medium post dives into how ‘stupid’ the typeface is. Is either example really our end goal as critical designers, though? Sometimes it seems like it, which kind of scares me.
I’m not trying to diminish the importance of this kind of discourse. It’s needed to a certain extent. But how can we stir the pot at a deeper level? As educator, historian, and designer Teal Trigs points out on a later episode of Scratching the Surface: “…we’re no longer primarily defined by being a service, we’re now looking at an expanded practice of graphic design.” This leads me to the question: “What does it mean to have an ‘expanded practice?’”
I think Andy addresses this question when Jarrett asks him what’s lacking in design discourse, and what he thinks designers should be caring more about.
“We live in a Trump era where a lot of people feel really scared. You have major conflict around the world that seems irresolvable. Information is moving faster than ever before, so you see police shootings of black people on a regular basis. How do we confront these questions as graphic designers? And I don’t mean that everybody has to do the work we do by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t believe that everybody has to all of a sudden do socially good work, no. Instead, you should have a stake in it. You should care about it in some ways, and you should believe that you are a conduit to communicate at least your own values and not [just] the values of the people you represent.”
He later says:
“I think we should be open minded as a field. We should push towards bringing in as much theory from other fields because we are a generalists discipline: Feminist theory, literary theory, which has already been explored by The McCoys, and social theory, economic theory. I think we should be interested in everything because our clients are!”
All of this is so great.
In this context, I believe ‘expanded practice’ means getting in touch with our values—our core values—and the narratives that these values create through our design practice. One great way to do this — as I try to interpret the interview here — involves looking within ourselves and broadening our interests. This can include, as Andy suggests, incorporating a wider range of theory into your practice.
Approaching design this way can be daunting — it’s not an exercise of layout or typography, but an exercise of conscience and thought. Especially for those graduates that come out of programs that focus heavily on portfolio development — on material output. Coming straight out of college and university I would have thought: “How does any of this strengthen my portfolio? When I’m being interviewed by a busy design agency or tech company, they don’t want to see my writing, let alone get all philosophical! I have no time for this!” That’s a fair observation, but I think it’s a potentially short-sighted way of looking at it. Not only would it valuably impact the aesthetic appearance of everything in your work, it would add more sophistication and voice to each piece.
Consider when Mitch Goldstein—host of another podcast I love called Through Process—asks his guest, designer and educator Elliott Earls, what he’d like to see more of in undergraduate education. Part of Elliott’s answer goes into how values impact form:
“Even though a lot of undergraduate programs have theory components, I think that most undergraduate students miss the notion — the fundamental idea — that form is an articulation of value. So, form springs from value systems. Form and content are inextricably linked. These are relatively pedestrian ideas, but for some reason on the undergraduate level, the kids are not paying attention when these issue come up. But even when I have students coming into Cranbrook, who I think are pretty sophisticated students, they don’t — on a very real level — realize how form is connected to world view, and it’s connected to value.”
So much to consider.
What does Coke ~value~ anyway? Or more importantly: What do you value?
I’ve only addressed about a third of what makes this episode so interesting here, so I hope you take the opportunity to listen to the entire Scratching the Surface interview with Andy Chen and Waquas Jawaid whenever you get a chance. I enjoy coming back to this episode when I have difficulty sorting out my own questions about design discourse, design education, and criticism — especially on a sociological and cultural level. It also complements other streams of design discourse (for example the Through Process interview with Elliott Earls I used here).
I’d also like to thank Jarrett Fuller and the amazing lineup of guests he’s had on his Scratching the Surface podcast so far. Also, if you have any questions about this review, or would like to share some of your own thoughts, I’d love to hear them — so please comment!
¹ From scratchingthesurface.fm/about
² Details provided about the “Play a Coke” campaign came from here—good overview.
³ Some other examples of companies using culturally and politically loaded narratives include: The “Like a Girl” campaign by Always (Procter & Gamble), “A Guide To Growing Up” by Mercedes, and this little Twitter thing by Reebok.
Artwork: ‘Values and Narratives,’ 2017, 11"x8.5" mixed media, ©Stephan Rosger