Designing Thoughtforms

Justine Braisted
Nov 1, 2018 · 7 min read

Thoughtforms is a publication designed and produced by Micah Walter Studio. For this first issue, Micah invited his colleagues, established museum and technology professionals, to write essays on how the field of technology might impact, for better or for worse, the welfare of museums.

The publication brings together museum practices of the past with technological advancements of the future, and, through each essay, discusses how the two can live together in harmony, or not. This is a behind-the-scenes look at how it all came together in the end.

The what, and why.
Designing is a sensorial and rational experience. Sometimes we know what before why and how. Sometimes we know how, before why and what. This time, we had the what and the why at about the same time and the how came in the form of several iterative steps. Now, let’s rewind to about 3 months ago, when the idea of a newspaper was “something that would be cool to do.” Micah had heard about the Newspaper Club, a printing company based in London. They print and ship newspapers using recycled newsprint to keep the cost affordable for just about anyone. I even used them for print projects when I was a college student, if that tells you anything about the price point. Around the same time Micah heard about the Newspaper Club, he had been thinking about interviewing his friends and colleagues for their thoughts on museums and technology. Our studio revolves around setting up museums and cultural organizations for the future with new technology, so we thought it would be a good idea to hear from people in these seemingly opposite fields. So, there was this idea to prompt people for their thoughts, and this amazing newspaper printing company. What can we do with that? Make a newspaper using their words. Done.

The how.
At this point we needed two things. A series of essays. And a newspaper design. Micah was in charge of corralling the content, and together we worked on the design. The first thing we did was some real world design research. We went down to the newsstand below the studio, and bought a stack of newspapers. We analyzed both the formal and conceptual qualities.

Image for post
Image for post

Formally, we knew we had to think about the physical size, the page count, the word count, whether there was going to be imagery, color ink versus black and white, and various other organizational elements. Conceptually, we had to think about how we were going to frame the thing. What are we even making? Newspapers are used for, well, reporting news, but they are essentially just a collection of loose-leaf pages. Micah’s essay prompts were asking about museums and technology, a pretty specific theme. Excited about the potential, we entered into an aspirational mindset. We thought that if all went well this time around, we could produce another one, with a different theme. And another, and another. Okay, so you could argue we were making a magazine more than a newspaper. And unlike newspapers that cover many topics, magazines have a focus. What was our focus? Thoughts and ideas. And from there, a title was born.

What is a thoughtform anyway?
After going through this conceptual exercise, Micah had recalled a book he read entitled Thought–forms, which describes what thoughts and emotions look like and why. Thoughts are things — have tenacity, coherence, and life, — that they are real entities. Below are some images from the book.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

The word “thoughtform” suggests ideation and invention, and its innate ambiguity gives us flexibility to change themes for future issues. It was perfect.

The final design
The final design came together in the final moments, as most design projects do. With many ideas floating around, we tried to remember the intention of the issue. To illustrate ideas about how museums can look to technology to improve its future, without neglecting its appreciation for the past. Here are some of the decisions we made along the way:

— The entire publication is typeset in the bold weight of Px Grotesk, a typeface created by Optimo Type Foundry, that was designed with the pixel in mind, embracing the technological limitations of the screen.

— The Thoughtforms logo used on the cover, is a modified version of the same typeface, using inherent formal qualities in the letterforms, to create a bridge between the two phonetically separate words.

— Rather than emphasizing the title of each essay, we created a system for pull quotes, drawing the reader’s attention instead, to contemplative moments within the authors’ thought stream.

— Prior to designing the layout, we had decided to use black and white as a unifying element, and as an homage to traditional newspaper printing. Each author was given a full spread, and we alternated using black and white backgrounds as a visual divider.

— And finally, the imagery is a curated set of abstract black and white photography inspired by the depictions in the original Thought-forms book. They depict indecipherable objects or scenes, much like the uncertain future for museums and technology. Each essay was assigned a single image, which was then used as a visual index on the final spread. All of the images were obtained through the open access collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Rijksmuseum, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The challenges
Every time I begin a project, I think, this time I am going to be more efficient; my process is going to be more streamlined; I am going to take what I learned last time and use it to make a foolproof plan to move ahead. Every time I am wrong. Designing is full of unforeseen challenges and forced adaptations, and this project was no different. The Newspaper Club prints at lightning speed and requires only a week for turnaround time. Even so, we were scrambling at the last minute to get the final file complete and transferred. We weren’t sure how many essays we’d have in the end, or exactly how long they would be so, rather than designing an airtight layout ahead of time, we created moodboards for the general look and feel; we compiled the imagery; we built a grid for the pages using placeholder copy; we tried to design every element that was a sure-thing.

Image for post
Image for post
Moodboards for layout and imagery of Thoughtforms

Ultimately, the number of essays we received was less than the amount we anticipated. There were modifications to the essays in the final hours before our deadline. All of the images we chose almost had to be completely thrown out. And of course, upon uploading the file, I received an error message. We had several pages that had artwork bleeding off the edge and the error message informed me that nothing in the margins could be printed. So, in the last moments, I had to shrink the layout, change the type size, modify the compositions and move images around to account for this limitation. All the type-setting was thrown off and Meghan and I had to comb through the content for widows and orphans for the 10th time while the clock was running out.

Eventually we successfully uploaded the file, and aside from a quick fix to the black backgrounds I had to make the next morning, there were no critical injuries. I have to attribute that to the Newspaper Club for being so clear and concerned for quality. They were the ones who suggested I alter the black values in the morning, for greater consistency throughout.

The final product
The final product is truly an emblem of the thoughtful, collaborative, rigorous process that preceded it. While a newspaper is arguably an object of the past, we wanted to embrace its form to communicate new ideas. The black ink rubs off on facing pages (and your hands); it has a wonderful newsprint smell; it is foldable and portable; it is fragile and unpretentious; it is exciting and nostalgic all at the same time.

Image for post
Image for post

Want to receive your own copy of Thoughtforms? Check out our website and place your order today!

Want to stay up to date with our posts? Sign up for our mailing list below.

Micah Walter Studio

Digital Things for Cultural Orgs

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store