Last week, marked the one year anniversary of Scratching the Surface, and happened to coincide with the fiftieth episode. I’ve had the extreme privilege of spending the last year asking people I admire about their thoughts and theories on a series of topics that mean a lot to me, often centering around ideas on design criticism, writing, practice. What started as an idea for a thesis project almost eighteen months ago about the relationship between design criticism and practice slowly grew into an ongoing project surveying contemporary design discourse. I’m more proud of this project than anything else I’ve ever made.
To celebrate these milestones, I wanted to do a different type of episode. I wanted to reflect on the podcast — what I’ve learned, how it’s changed, how I’ve changed. I wanted to articulate my own thoughts on the same questions that I’ve asked fifty over the last few months. I asked Michael Bierut — one of my first guests and a designer and writer I’ve admired since I was in high school — to come back on the show, but this time he’d interview me.
It was scary. I’ve spent hours getting to ask other people the questions and its a role I think I’ve grown comfortable with — and I think I’m pretty good at it. It’s hard for me to listen back — I honestly don’t being the one doing most of the talking — but it was fun talking about my own story in design and why I love it and talking about. It was nice to reflect on how its changed and how its changed me.
Over the last year, my own opinions on these subjects has evolved. As I talked to more people, I saw my views shift, my thinking expand. What started as a vague notion that graphic design needed a better critical discourse around it — like, say, architecture has — has solidified into stronger opinions on what I mean when I say the word “criticism” and the types of writing I’d love to see more of. I quickly realized that there are more people talking about design — and especially graphic design — today than ever before in history. Just look on Twitter after a company rebrands or Apple releases a new product. Some of that conversation is good — really good, in fact — and some is terribly ill-informed and gut reactions to change. The Atlantic and Slate and Wired and Fast Company frequently write about design. In one of my early interviews, Michael Rock quoted the architect Mark Wigley, in what’s become a recurring theme of the podcast: “the entire globe has been encrusted with a geological layer of design.”
What I was craving through, the type of design writing I wanted to see, was more than the hot-take or the snarky Tweet. I wanted to go deeper — below the surface — and see people talk about the role of design in the world and its consequences. Anne Quito, in another episode, said to me her goal as a design critic to answer the question “so what?” How does this shape the world? What kind of power does this reinforce or subvert? How does this enter into the public and what does it do after its there?
I wanted to move beyond the aesthetics. I felt tired of talking about kerning and colors and paper stocks. But I think I over indexed on the theory at the expense of the visual. We are talking about graphic design after all. Jack Self and I talked about ideology and how designed artifacts are ideologies made manifest, concrete. The style — all these colors and typefaces and icons and layouts — aren’t empty gestures but containers for theory. Containers for ideas and meaning.
This, of course, should not be the only type of design criticism, this is just what I’m after. We need — we always need — more people writing and talking about design at a high level on every part of the process and industry, from technology to craft to aesthetics to theory. The profession is better for it and I hope I can play a small part in introducing the voices who I think are doing great work.
One of my goals going into every interview is to get the guest to say something they haven’t said before — to articulate something in a new way or to talk about a different part of their career. I want the interview to be unique but I also want it to be intellectually engaging for them. Michael did the the same for me. I stumbled over answers. I thought of better answers as soon as I left and when I was editing the episode and yesterday afternoon. But it also helped me answer the questions I’ve been asking. In the middle of the episode, he asked if I felt like puzzle pieces were being filled in, if I was getting the answers to the questions I was look for, or if it these interviews were just raising new questions. I answered:
The puzzle is being filled in, but the puzzle is bigger than I thought it was. So when I feel like that last jigsaw piece is in, I realize there’s a whole other side I haven’t filled in yet. When I started, I didn’t think there’d be 50 of these. I thought maybe a dozen, two dozen, and then I’d have some sort of answer or theory around it. But each episode answers something but also asks new questions. And that sends me to a person I maybe didn’t know about it and then I talk to them. So as it fills in, it also expands.
I truly believe this is how and why the podcast has sustained itself. I’m not even sure its about finding answers as much as its about asking questions. Design is a form of inquiry, after all. It’s about the process just as much as the product.
I want to thank all of my guests — I truly couldn’t do this without them and its because of them that the podcast is of any interest. Thanks to Michael for returning to the show and being an insightful and probing interviewer. And thank you. Thank you for listening — whether you were here from the beginning or just jumped in last week. I hope its asking questions your asking and offering new modes of work. If I’ve learned anything from this project, it’s that design is so much bigger than I thought it was and I hope this podcast plays a small role in expanding that definition for you. Here’s to another year…