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Members get a bonus newsletter every month that features short essays, links, and episode previews and recaps. For me, this newsletters has become the primary place where I’m writing and sharing links. They offer a direct line of communication to listeners and often prompt more conversation and dialogue. Below is the September newsletter so you can get a sense of the tone and content.
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05 | September 2018 Scratching the Surface Member Newsletter
I think this is my favorite time of year. We’re a week into the new semester and I love being back in the classroom. I’m teaching four classes this semester at three different schools in both undergraduate and graduate programs. (Help!) I’d like to write more about teaching in an upcoming newsletter as it’s increasingly a bigger and bigger part of my practice and ultimately where I see my career headed but I’ll save that for another time. For now, I’m excited for the new season and to be teaching again.
You’re getting this email, in case you’ve forgotten, because you signed up to become a member of Scratching the Surface. Thank you again for supporting the ongoing production of this podcast. And for those who are new, welcome! I’m so glad to have you here. This newsletter is shaping up to be a long one, so let’s get right into it…
Towards the end of my interview with the architect and writer Emmett Zeifman, I asked him about teaching and what he tries to impart on his students. He responded:
I feel like I can look at a building and draw out of it a set of arguments or a set of associations between it and other projects and that is still very much the way I look at literature. That’s something I’d love for my students to do. It would be very beneficial to the discipline because if more people were looking at the buildings they were interacting with in the world, we could talk about what it is doing and why it is the way it is: How does it operate? What is it like or not like relative to other buildings? Why these materials?
These few sentences sort of sum up our entire conversation — it’s about the relationship between architecture and literature, it’s about teaching and pedagogy, it’s about looking at the designed world and figuring out how to talk about it. I keep coming back to this answer — it’s the clip I pulled out for Instagram and Twitter — because it also sums up so much of what Scratching the Surface is about. As I wrote in last month’s newsletter, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the podcast has changed — and how I’vechanged — as we approach the two year anniversary in October. Last month I wrote a lot about how my thinking around practice has changed, so this month I want to spend some time talking about criticism.
I started the podcast because I thought there wasn’t enough design criticism. The 1990s were my favorite era of design history, both for the technical innovation and the vibrancy around design criticism and theory. I felt like I had just missed perhaps the most exciting decade to be a designer. But what came out of those first few episodes was that there wasn’t a lack of people talking about design. In fact, there are probably more people talking about design than ever before in history! If you listen back to those early episodes, you can begin to hear me try to figure out why the way many people were talking about design today wasn’t resonating with me and so many of the people I was talking to.
I had recorded a half-dozen episodes or so when the 2016 election happened. I was beginning my second year of graduate school and I suddenly wondered whether a thesis on design criticism was a worthy topic. (It felt like all of my classmates were in the same predicament, but we powered through.) It seemed talking about something that felt so superficial could be wasted energy.
Two weeks after the election, I interviewed Sara M. Watson, a technology critic who had just written an excellent piece on what we need from technology criticism. I was struck by how you could literally do a find-and-replace on her piece, replacing ‘technology’ with ‘design’, and the whole thing still worked. That conversation galvanized and re-energized my thesis project and the podcast. I realized I was frustrated with so much of the design discourse because I felt there might be another way to talk about visual culture — one that went deeper than aesthetics and trends and started to look at how design operates in the world: the cultural, political, economic forces that influence design. I love design and I love talking about design. I can talk about aesthetics and beauty and the curve of a letterform as much as the next designer but I had this nagging sense there was more to it than that. Talking to Sara, I realized that so much of what was happening in the news — from fake news to border walls — could be examined through the lens of design.
I still believe that. I still want more of that. That’s the kind of writing I want to do. A critic, I think, is always a product of their time. I’ve heard Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand talk about the shadow of September 11 hanging over the beginning of Design Observer or how the financial crisis shaped the critical perspective of Jack Self’s Real Review. Even much of the writing happening in the nineties was shaped by an economic boom and the birth of the desktop computer. The 2016 election happened as I was deep into thinking about design criticism and it’s shaped what I want from criticism and what kind of critic I wanted to be. In fact, I talked about this a bit with Mimi Zeiger, in my interview with her from last week.
What’s changed for me, however, is that I think I’m less angry at that other type of writing. After talking to nearly 100 people, I’m much more open to alltypes of design writing. When you’re young and excited about an idea, you want everyone to jump on board and agree with you and do everything the way you want. I think I was (am?) guilty of some of that. But to discount certain types of writing — and declare certain types of design unworthy of a critical look — is to cut off a large part of this industry. Kate Wagner, aka McMansion Hell, wrote about this at the beginning of the year in an essay that was recently resurfaced on Twitter via Michael Bierut and Paul Goldberger, called All Buildings are Interesting. She writes:
Botanists bemoan what is called “Tree Blindness”: a phenomenon where, for most people, trees are only a green background for literally whatever else is going on. Tree Blindness keeps people from understanding the world they live in on another level, from having a personal connection to the environment. Knowing the names of the trees on my street makes each of them special and memorable. If one of them were to be lost — like the hemlock, which is being tragically eviscerated by the wooly hemlock adelgid — it would be like losing a friend, something that was a part of my world rather than an another alarming headline, lost in an endless sea of other alarming headlines.
I would say that we also suffer from building blindness, which is ostensibly not as serious as Tree Blindness, as the consequences of building blindness are much less dire. Still, being blind to buildings robs us of a deeper level of understanding and interaction with the world around us.
She goes on to brilliantly deconstruct the traditional ranch-style home (a type of house I coincidentally spent part of my childhood growing up in!) — looking at how this seemingly banal, seemingly forgettable building is packed with interesting things we can take away from it. This piece hit so close to home (get it? ha!) for me because I realized how easy it is to suffer from graphic design blindness. When you’re immersed in this field — and if you’re like me, immersed in talking about it — it can feel like everything is starting to look the same; that so much of what we see doesn’t need — or doesn’t deserve — a closer look. Few pieces of design rise to the level of canon, the rest gets forgotten in the dustbin of history.
But this is a false dichotomy Wagner reminds us! Like Sara’s piece on technology criticism, you can replace every use of ‘architecture’ and ‘building’ in Wagner’s essay with ‘graphic design’ and it still still works. Every building is interesting. Every piece of graphic design is interesting. The website redesign, the vernacular signage, the corporate rebrand. There are things we can learn from all of these. The mistake I made before was that I pushed those away in search of something deeper, failing to do the digging with what was right in front of me. Wagner continues:
Lower-case buildings are fascinating cultural bookmarks. Imbued in them is our collective memory: both of a vast landscape and the individual human experience. They clue us into how people live (or want to live), and how society, aesthetics, infrastructure, and economies change, or are changing. We can read a great deal about the sociopolitical and socioeconomic history of the United States through its suburban houses and its dead malls; its dilapidated factories and sparkling new distribution centers.
This, I think, brings us back to Emmett’s quote. Every piece of design — like every building — no matter how banal or simple, is embedded with arguments and connections to other work. My view of design criticism narrowed on November 9th but it’s starting to open up again. Perhaps Scratching the Surface isn’t as much about creating a new design discourse The goal is to get more people looking; more people talking.
So many of these ideas came out of my interview with Emmett and Mimi — you can hear all three of us expand and work through the role of writing, criticism, and looking in design discourse. The other three interviews in August — though drastically different people — focused more on practice, with a surprising interest in speculative design and design fictions. With Anab Jain, I talked about speculative design and client work; with Dan Hill I talked about rethinking what it means to be a designer and the scales between interaction designservice design, and with Robin Sloan, I talked about design fiction, the relationship between writing and design, and how design is a type of media invention.
My interview with Robin was an experiment — I was curious to talk to someone who wasn’t a designer but feels very close to the design world. What I’ve loved about Robin and his work is how he moves between mediums and modes — whether its writing or programming or machine learning. This, much like everyone I talked to this month, is the expanded practice that I’m after and it was great to talk through how he thinks about all of these things.
I’m taking next Wednesday off, but new episodes will resume September 12, beginning with a fun conversation with Brian LaRossa. Brian is a friend and has been doing some great writing on Design Observer over the last year. I loved this conversation because Brian’s excitement is contagious and I left really excited to get back to writing regularly.
On September 19th, I’ll share my recent conversation with Marcin Wichary. Marcin is a former designer at Medium who is now writing a book about the cultural history of computer keyboards. Marcin and I met years ago when I was living in San Francisco and I’ve loved watching his career evolve. In this conversation, we talk about design and writing, the role of writing in his design process, and the challenges of going from writing short essays to what is shaping up to be a Robert Caro-sized book on typewriters and keyboards!
At the end of the month, I’ll share a conversation I had with the designer and artist Daniel Eatock. I vividly remember discovering Daniel’s book Imprint ten years ago and being simultaneous confused and fascinated by it. He called himself a designer but his work looked like no other design I had seen before. I’ve been a fan ever since. Daniel and I talk about his relationship to graphic design and his move towards conceptual art, the role of teaching in his work, and the integration of his art into his everyday life. It’s a fun one!
And a few days ago, I recorded episode 99 (!!!!), so I have a bit of a backlog to release over the next few months. I’m going to take a break from interviewing through September to release these episodes before doing something fun for the 100th episode. I have some ideas.
Some exciting personal news:
If you’ve listened to more than one episode — and since you’re paying members, I assume you have — you know how central Design Observer is to my story and my interest in design writing and criticism. Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand, two of the original co-founders alongside Rick Poynor and the late great William Drenttel, were two of the first people I reached out to when I started interviewing people for Scratching the Surface. I’ve been fortunate to get to know them since their interviews and have been thankful for their continued support, guidance, and friendship.
For the last few months, I’ve had the honor to work with them on a new book celebrating Design Observer’s fifteenth anniversary. I’m excited to announce that next month, MIT Press will be publishing Culture is Not Always Popular: Fifteen Years of Design Observer! Designed by me and co-edited by Michael, Jessica, and myself, the book features over 60 essays from the archives ranging from the timeless to ephemeral and capturing the spirit, diversity, and interests of the site and its numerous contributors. Many the guests on Scratching the Surface make appearances from Kenneth FitzGerald to Steven Heller to Alissa Walker to Alexandra Lange. The book’s introduction is a brand new interview I conducted with Michael Jessica where we talk about the history of the site and how it’s evolved.
I’ve been reading Design Observer for almost all of those fifteen years. To say that it was central to my earliest design education would be an understatement; so much of my interest in design came out of the writing on that site. I am honored to help celebrate it — I’m proud of the book and hope you pick it up and enjoy it!
And now on to a few links:
- The New York Times has a glowing review of the V&A’s new exhibition, The Future Starts Here, co-curated by previous guest Rory Hyde.
- It looks like Penguin Random House now has a description of Peter Mendelsund’s forthcoming novel, Same, Same. Here’s a small sample: “Imagining a world in which simulacra have as much value as the real–so much so that any distinction between the two vanishes, and even language seeks to reproduce meaning through ever more degraded copies of itself — Peter Mendelsund has crafted a deeply unsettling novel about what it means to exist, and to create…and a future that may not be far off.” He and I talked quite a bit about the process of writing it when I interviewed him earlier this year. I’m excited.
- Former guest Mitch Goldstein put together a great little site on critique in the classroom. It’s a nice compliment to our conversation and it’s nice to have this down in writing — I’ll be sharing this with all my classes this year.
- For Quartz, Anne Quito writes about the great auction of many of Paul Rand’s ephemera.
- I enjoyed this essay on using design fiction as part of pedagogic practice from the designer and educator Matthew Ward. I was unfamiliar with Ward and his work but so much of what he’s writing about feels like a StS conversation — I’d love to get him on an upcoming episode.
Thanks, as always, for listening! See you next month,
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