Scratching the Surface began with a single question: what is the role of design criticism? But like all good questions, the journey often becomes more important than the answer and the answers, inevitably, lead to more questions. Two years later and nearly one hundred interviews later, I still have more questions.
I started Scratching the Surface in October 2016 — two years ago this week — as part of my MFA thesis at Maryland Institute College of Art. I was there because, like many other designers in their late twenties, I felt disillusioned with the profession I had chosen. I’d been working as a designer but couldn’t remember what I loved about. Graduate school felt like a way to reset my career and rediscover why I kept coming back to graphic design. I’ve always been interested in criticism — my earliest design education was through reading Design Observer, Speak Up, Subtraction — and I had remembered an offhanded comment from an undergraduate professor who told me I was going to be a teacher. Writing and teaching felt like roads back to graphic design and I went to MICA so I could study under Ellen Lupton, thinking I’d come out a writer, a theorist, a critic, a teacher. I did a lot of writing and thinking and teaching while I was there. But a funny thing happened when I was in Baltimore. I started *designing* again. And I liked it. The questions started to change, before I even realized it. It wasn’t just about the role of the critic but how can one successfully build a practice that isn’t just designing, but also writing, criticism, teaching, researching…
This podcast, I’ve now come to see, is about what I call the ‘expanded practice’. It’s still about design criticism, it’s still about the intersection of design and writing, and it’s still about how we talk about design. But these are sub-questions, helping us/me get to the bigger question. I don’t simply want to be a designer, or a critic, or a writer, or a teacher — I want to do all of those things. When I began, I struggled with how much of myself to include. It’s a funny debacle in retrospect: my voice begins every episode, my name is on the cover. But I was not a journalist, I’d never really interviewed anyone before and I was worried if my questions got too specific, came too much out of my own work, people would stop listening. But as I got more comfortable behind the microphone, more confident in conversation, more of myself started to creep in. As I started asking my guests the questions that I was asking in my own work, the conversations started to go into more interesting places. The more personal the podcast got, the more universal its themes felt.
Over the course of these two years, I’ve talked to graphic designers, architects, writers, editors, teachers, curators, philosophers, novelists, poets, and public officials. With my guests, I’ve talked about the history of design discourse, the role of design history, how to teach design in the twenty-first century, how the design public space shapes our lives, design fiction, sustainability, and more.
Scratching the Surface started, in part, as a way to build out my career as a critic, as a writer. And so it’s slightly comedic that the project that was meant to help me incorporate writing into my work is the project that caused my writing output to decrease. I’m still writing regularly but the energies I used to put into writing essays are now put into creating Scratching the Surface.
The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne is credited with the invention of what we today call the “essay.” His massive autobiographical work, *Essai*, was a collection of short thoughts on a variety of topics, most with simple titles like “Of Friendship” or “Of Solitude.” Sarah Bakewell, in her biography on Montaigne, *How To Live* writes “Essayer, in French, means simply to try. To essay something, is to test or taste it, or give it a whirl.”
To essay means to attempt and the essay is a place — a structure, a form — to try out new ideas. We write, in part, to figure out what we think. I’ve started to think of this podcast as a long, episodic, dialectical essay. Where I’d once use the written word to help sort out my own thoughts on something, I now do it in conversation with people much smarter than me, with microphones between us. I’ve come to see conversation as a central part of my practice. The podcast is a perpetual work in progress.
When I began, I didn’t know how long it’d run, how many guests I’d be able to get, or even how long I’d want to continue it. And there have certainly been moments in the last two years where I thought the end was near, the time to hang up the headphones. But, at the risk of hyperbole, I need these conversations. I think I’m a mediocre designer and writer and critic but Scratching the Surface has continually been the thing I’ve worked on that I’m the most proud of and has taught me the most. In so many ways, I feel like I’m just getting started.
For the first year and half of the podcast I’d close each interview asking the guest what subjects or topics they felt the design profession should be talking about more. But I quietly changed that question a few months ago. I’m less interested in making grand claims or dictating what the design discourse should look like. It’s far more interesting, I’ve found, to simply ask what the guest is thinking about right now, what are the areas they are interested in in this moment. Many times, these answers have set off a new avenue for me, a new set of guests to reach out to.
Scratching the Surface would not exist without the generosity of the nearly one-hundred people I’ve interviewed. I feel like I’m still learning more from each of them and I can’t thank them enough. I’ve met so many listeners over the last two years who are wrestling with and thinking about similar things. I’m humbled my interests and this platform that I’ve been given has become a place to ask these questions together.
As I look towards the future, I’m excited to have more conversations, expanding the podcast out further, ever following my interests. Thank you, as always, for following along.