Contemporary Cultural Production for Type Design

An Interview with Ian Lynam

Just as important as the “how” is the “why” in working. We all work in a context that we have to respond to. Taking a moment to consider why creative production is where it is today can prepare you to make better design decisions. TypeThursday sat down with Ian to discuss his recent exhibition, “That’s Entertainment.”


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TypeThursday: Ian, thanks for being here for TypeThursday.

Ian Lynam: [Slow robotic voice.] Hi. Thank you for having me, Thomas.

TT: You’re lucky it’s transcribed so no one’s going to catch that! That’s cool. How about we start by sharing with TypeThursday some information about yourself.

IL: Okay. I am originally from Upstate New York, but then I bounced around a lot. I lived in Portland and Oakland, California and L.A. And then I moved to Tokyo 11 years ago. I am a design educator and designer and design critic and writer and husband and food enthusiast.

I’m saying genuine, not authentic. Because whenever anybody uses the word “authentic”, they’re usually full of shit.

I run a very small design studio in Tokyo — basically the core of our work is centered around identity and that takes on a bunch of different forms. That’s kind of how I look at design, through the lens of identity and trying to keep things genuine to our audiences, collaborators, readers, students, and clients.

And I’m saying genuine, not authentic. Because whenever anybody uses the word “authentic”, they’re usually full of shit.

We’ve Entered a New Era of Design History

TT: You host this very large project you’re working on called That’s Entertainment (http://entertain.ianlynam.com). I think you have a lot of thoughts on the topics of media and culture, especially within type. Could you share with us what is That’s Entertainment?

IL: Sure, though it’s difficult to sum up briefly. It is an essay of thoughts on what happens if we dispose of Modernist thinking in terms of design being oriented toward problem-solving. And also what do aesthetics today mean. This is the first of about three essays that will be coming out and essentially, to boil it down, I make the argument that we’ve entered a new era of design history.

TT: How do you think it’s a new era design history?

IL: I started working as a designer circa 2000 and the whole time I have never had a salaried design job. I was a contractor, then an intern, then a freelancer, then a contractor again, then an adjunct faculty member, and now I own my own business. But it’s just this cycle that’s very much part of a Neoliberal economy where essentially technology corporations have more power than governments and they can kind of do whatever they want. And labor, in terms of humans, we’re basically all mobilized and instrumentalized. Basically we are prey to the Neoliberal economy where companies can do whatever they want. They have a ton of power. And our own lives are shaken up quite a bit.

TT: To unpack that for a second. When you say Neoliberal economics, do you mean the shift in traditional structured economic relationships? Is that what you mean in terms of a shift?

IL: Yeah. Basically in the 80s we shifted, in the late 80s especially, toward the end of the Reagan era. First-world nations shifted from what were called Fordist economies, based on top-down structured corporations more or less. I mean there were always tons of different types of businesses, but there were a lot of people who could expect lifetime employment, retirement, benefits, etc. In the 80s, developed nations shifted to post-Fordist economic structures, or the information economy, where labor becomes more decentralized. Over the past 26/27 years, there’s been a more profound shift to a Neoliberal economy where things are just way more mobile, open-ended, and labor has become compartmentalized. The world has changed. And I think the aesthetic of design reflects that currently.

TT: How so?

The writer Bruce Sterling said that internet is basically this glossy veneer that’s put on top of late capitalism.

The Aesthetic of Design Produced Today

IL: There’s an essay called “The Global Style” by Jeffrey Keedy that I mention in That’s Entertainment where he talks about the looseness of contemporary design aesthetics — the screens with which you and I are looking at each other are so granular that we no longer see underlying grid structures because they’re so fine. Keedy looks at it from a stylistic perspective, but I take that idea and try to extrapolate what it means in terms of viewing it through a perspective of political economy. That the aesthetic is reflective of the Internet of Things.

TT: What do you mean by that?

IL: So, if you look at design work — All right, I’ll pull out a random contemporary studio, say many projects by Project Projects or 2x4, they’ll use sans-serif typography and it will be centered and it will look like there’s a grid in use but often there is no grid. The aspect ratios of images used will be all over the place. Let’s say this is design for print in this case. In terms of physical objects, a book design will have what looks like JPEGs floating all over the cover. So this looseness with which design is being executed, it is with this same looseness that labor is being mobilized. The contemporary aesthetic reflects the structure of labor, basically.

TT: Do you feel like something, like for example, let’s apply that to material design. A UX application, do you feel this lines up to what you’re talking about?

IL: I think that the ideas behind Google’s Material Design, which I’m only fleetingly familiar with, they’re about intimating physicality in the digital world, so yeah. I mean, that’s definitely part of it. It’s kind of like the writer Bruce Sterling said that internet is basically this glossy veneer that’s put on top of late capitalism. He called it “landlord paint.” And it’s just like a shiny surface on barbarism and shitting on the rest of humanity.

Bye, honey. Love you! Have a great day! That was my wife, Yuki, who’s amazing.

TT: Hi, Yuki!

IL: Ha — she’s out the door already. She hates video chats with strangers. She’s headed to work — sorry, that was funny…

As far as these projects go, I see the ceiling of my own intellect and I’m just trying to figure it all out through the writing. And there are so few designers that write.

I’ve got another piece coming out in Slanted magazine. I just talk about myself as an ‘unreliable narrator’ in figuring this stuff out. Especially in the continuum of design theory — Adolf Loos wrote the first call to arms for modernism in print in 1908. He was a pedophile. William Morrison employed child labor. Eric Gill thought he was Jesus reincarnated and humped his own daughter and dog.

There’s this very dodgy lineage of what it is to be a designer who writes. So why not try?

In terms of monopolization, Monotype and Adobe are going out and buying type companies, type distribution companies, and technologies and foundries. That’s pretty scary.

Monopolization of Creativity

TT: I know that it’s a very big deal for you to connect your theory and practice together. My interest in That’s Entertainment was your observation of the decentralization of labor, yet this concentration of the tools of labor and creativity. You only know that because you’re thinking as a designer and practicing as one.

IL: Beyond concentration, I would say monopolization. I mean we see Adobe has a stranglehold on software that are industry standards. And interestingly, the government let them acquire Macromedia.

In the exhibition that accompanied the essay I made a poster that says that we all have “cloud-based leaky wallets”. With the subscriber model, we’re forced to pay for software regularly and incrementally. Quite frankly, for a number of years as an emerging designer, I did not pay for software. And I made a living off of using it. But finally now my career is pretty stable, so I actually feel good about paying for software. The cost of entry was just so expensive when I was starting out.

In terms of monopolization, Monotype is going out, and Adobe as well, and they’re buying type companies and type distribution companies and technologies and foundries and that’s pretty scary.

TT: Why is that scary for you? Why do you feel concerned about that?

IL: It’s about corralling cultural production, controlling means of production, and it’s about wealth acquisition.

And that’s another big thing also: I own stock in Adobe and I own stock in Monotype, and that’s ultimately a way I see out of the situation as an individual participant with a certain amount of cultural agency. I’m critical of this system, but I’m not afforded the position of being a ‘pure’ critic in terms of being able to step outside. I’m still a participant. The way to ‘solve the problem’ of the cloud-based leaky wallet was to invest a bunch of money in Adobe stock so that my stock dividends pay for my Creative Cloud subscription.

TT: It’s a weird circular interrelation, right?

IL: Yeah. And the thing is, the traditional role of the critic as we thought about it in the past is a person who practices criticism (written/spoken activism) in opposition to aspects of culture, but it is extraordinarily hard to situate yourself in that position culturally at present. I am criticizing these models, but Adobe is one of my clients and Monotype’s assorted ventures distribute my typefaces.

Have you ever heard of the book The End of Humanity by Francis Fukuyama?

TT: No I haven’t.

You can protest it and that’s great, but it’s more helpful to figure out ways to work within the systems of capital. To empower yourself and give yourself a bit more agency within culture.

Possible Solutions

IL: Basically Fukuyama says that with the fall of the Soviet Republic, basically we as a people have one way forward and that is late capitalism. And now we see that even more with Cuba opening up more and more. North Korea’s just fucking weird, but as a global culture, we only have one way forward currently and that’s capitalism. So you can protest it and that’s great, but it’s more helpful to figure out ways to work within the systems of capital to empower yourself and give yourself a bit more agency within culture.

TT: Do you feel like that’s one of the main conclusions of this piece, of That’s Entertainment!? To be more proactive in the cultural and economic world? Because my impression of that title is it’s very much a critique of the conversation about spectacle, being just a passive consumer of things versus a more proactive attitude about it.

IL: People are being entertained to death right now through technology — we have our iPhones in our hands 24/7. We’re being slowly and methodically deskilled. We’re so busy being immersed in the technological experience that we’re not allowing ourselves time to think about other ways of operating in the world.

You were trained as a type designer and graphic designer and you have a very specific skill set. That’s quite rare. That’s Entertainment! is about being in the thrall of technology. I’m interested in being aware of how technology is part of our lives — as designers, citizens, and just humans — and how it affects us on a both global and granular scale.

For example, riding my bike yesterday, I literally almost hit three people that were just totally entranced by their handheld screens and just walked into the road in front of me riding my bike pretty quickly. And that happens to me every day in Tokyo, but it’s a pretty packed place. And it doesn’t matter what you say to them. They’re just like, “Oh well, whatever.” And then back to it. So, this particular moment is interesting in terms of quite literal ambulatory narcissism.

TT: That kind of experience is what this critique’s about.

IL: Yeah, definitely — and I’ve been putting it all together in parts: there are two lecture components, an exhibition and an online essay. And all three work together. To articulate all the ideas in different forms.

TT: I really hope that the show is a great place to start a conversation about thinking about that and the consequences of it. Ian, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

IL: Thank, Thomas — this is a lot to unpack, you know?

TT: It is. But that’s why it’s worth having a conversation about it. As hard as it is, it’s worth the conversation.

IL: Yeah, totally.

TT: Thanks, Ian.