Digital Stewardship: An Interview with Amy Papaelias

Knowledge, education and community need intentional effort to thrive online. Typethursday spoke with SUNY New Paltz professor and founding member of Alphabettes, Amy Papaelias.


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TypeThursday: Amy, thanks for being here for TypeThursday.

Amy Papaelias: Thanks for having me.

TT: Well, great. I know you teach at New Paltz in Upstate New York. Can you tell us more about that?

AP: Sure. I teach at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, a cute college town in the Hudson Valley, about 75 miles north of New York City. It’s a public university with about 100 students in the BFA graphic design program. I’ve taught and developed curriculum for courses in basic design, web, interaction, typography, design theory, and the senior thesis project. This semester I’m actually on a pre-tenure research leave, so I have been fortunate for the time to focus on my scholarship and creative work.

Teaching at SUNY New Paltz

TT: How long have you been teaching at New Paltz?

AP: I started here full-time in fall 2010, I’m approaching the end of my six year.

TT: In those six years, what do you feel has been the biggest challenge teaching for you?

I like to say that “I don’t teach software”, but in actuality, I have to be able to teach with it. I have to be fluent enough to understand its affordances, ask questions and craft projects that challenge and excite my students.

AP: One of the more obvious teaching challenges has been keeping up with the constant shifting of software and tools, especially in the areas of web and interaction design. Like most design educators, I like to say that “I don’t teach software”, but in actuality, I have to be able to teach with it. I have to be fluent enough to understand its affordances, ask questions and craft projects that challenge and excite my students. I’m not lamenting the technical flux, but I think that as educators where technology is an integral part of what we do, it’s crucial to stay flexible. Another great challenge is the ability to create a sense of enthusiasm about type and design in general. If I can help my students become passionate and excited, then they can run with it. It’s a really big challenge, but that’s the part I probably enjoy the most.

A huge part of my pedagogical approach is encouraging them to take advantage of all the design events, exhibitions, talks and conferences happening in their backyard.

TT: I was just going to say that it sounds like it’s the part that you love the most about teaching, is to spark that enthusiasm in your students, correct?

AP: Absolutely. There are so many overlapping communities that students are fearful of getting involved in. Or they think, “I’m just a student, I can’t do that yet.” Getting them involved in design communities helps students understand that what we’re doing in the classroom is just a small fraction of their learning process. So yes, a huge part of my pedagogical approach is encouraging them to take advantage of all the design events, exhibitions, talks and conferences happening in their backyard.

TT: How do you feel teaching is informing your practice? I know you have a big focus on experimental typography. Do you think your teaching informs that? Or has helped spark that interest in that direction in your practice?

AP: In addition to forcing me to constantly learn new tools, methods and techniques, I think the rhythm of the academic year has definitely influenced me to focus on more self-authored / experimental projects. I’m really interested in critical making around issues of typography, technology and culture. As I near my tenure application, I spend a lot of time trying to contextualize my research agenda, especially for a wider audience. What is design scholarship? That’s a really big, important question for me right now. Design scholarship could certainly be professional practice, it could be a form of design authorship or a combination of writing and making, among other things. Discourse surrounding critical practice is well-explored in some design disciplines, but I’d argue that typography and especially typography on screens, is a field where there’s room for more speculative work.

TT: Would your project SonoType be an example of that?

SonoType

AP: Sure. The project started at the very end of grad school with a fellow student, artist Jaanika Peerna. Although working from very different disciplines, we were both interested in exploring connections between verbal and visual ways of communicating, through voice and mark-making. We created a set of fonts based on the sonogram interpretations of people reciting the latin alphabet (in English). There’s a ‘normal’, ‘happy’ and ‘angry’ weight, but the fonts are unreadable and resemble weird hieroglyphic sonograms. I built an interactive demonstration in Flash which allowed you to hear the person’s voice as the letters are typed. It is essentially broken in most browsers now and is one of a few projects that desperately needs an update. So, it’s on the to-do list.

TT: Oh, to update it for HTML5?

Digital stewardship, the act of preserving and archiving digital content, is a major concern for libraries and cultural institutions.

Digital Stewardship

AP: Yeah. It’s on my long line of projects that need my attention. In web design, graceful degradation is a strategy for ensuring that your site functions well, even in very outdated browsers, for example. In the digital humanities, the term has been used to talk about the lifespan of digital projects: does every digital project need to be constantly optimized or do we let them die a kind of quiet and peaceful death? Do we let them float around for people to discover and wonder, “Why doesn’t this thing work anymore? Is it an abandoned shipwreck?”

TT: That’s a very interesting point, because I think we get the illusion that print is supposed to last forever. There’s a sense of permanence in print that web inherently kind of built in its nature doesn’t really have. It seems to just have this fading out effect.

AP: And, there is always the constant need for a steward, for somebody to continue maintaining it. Digital stewardship, the act of preserving and archiving digital content, is a major concern for libraries and cultural institutions (check out the National Digital Stewardship Alliance). But as designers making critical work on the web, we might think things like, “How is this going to look in this browser versus this browser, and this screen size?” But not: “How is this going to work in ten years?” We don’t think about that right away, and that’s something that I’m dealing with now in my work. These projects that were made a while ago. Do I let them die gracefully or do I try to update them? What makes sense for the project and for people’s response to them? People still seem to find value and interest in them.

TT: Yeah, but they won’t be able to access it. That’s kind of the whole point now, isn’t it? So it’s not even like a visual question per se. In and of itself, it’s literally just access to it.

AP: Absolutely. And it takes time, energy and collaborators. I need an army of Mechanical Turkers to help me finish all of these projects.

TT: It relates to that term you said before, stewardship, to our world of type design; we had Typophile, right? And then that kind of just went into the ether. Just gone.

AP: Yeah. The black hole. Some of it you can get to on the archive.org’s Way Back Machine. If you have the actual link to the conversation that you saved somewhere, you probably could access it. But if you don’t have that, it’s completely lost [since this interview, Simon Cozen’s released a functional Typophile Archive].

Alphabettes and Online Community

TT: I know you were a founder of Alphabettes. It’s an online community in the way Typophile was. I’d love to hear more about what was your motivation and how that came to be?

AP: It started as a casual email chain conversion. There was discussion about creating our own blog where we could just post our ideas and thoughts and things. And it really kind of blossomed from there. We have this very lazy consensus, loose structure about things. We don’t have any sponsors, so we’re not beholden to any organizational bylaws or corporate affiliations. In a community, you need to feel that the work brings a sense of personal accomplishment while benefiting the community as a whole. There are a lot of amazing people obsessively volunteering their time and energy into contributing articles and headers, maintaining the site and mentoring new folks in the field.

This type community only progresses if people continue being interested in it and feel invested in it.

Why is Community is Important

TT: Why do you think the idea of community is important?

AP: Maybe it’s just a human thing? I feel like what makes the idea of community important is actually very personal. It can mean a lot of different things for everyone. Involvement can be a very public endeavor, but it can be quite private, too. It’s not always the loudest voices that are making the most meaningful contributions. A healthy community is one where you can enter when you feel comfortable doing so and you can exit when you need to. Does that make sense?

TT: No it does. The circle of who should be part of the conversation should be more than just the loudest speakers, per se. Would that be fair to say?

AP: We definitely want to be an outlet that encourages participation from a variety of voices and perspectives. For some, there’s a very real fear around putting yourself out there and doing things such as submitting a proposal for a conference or writing an article for a blog. I think once you take that first step, with encouragement along the way, you realize, “Okay, it wasn’t so bad.” And I think that’s what the type community really needs to grow. Of course, we can learn so much from those with long careers and amazing accomplishments. That’s a given. But how we treat these new voices is also critical. This type community only progresses if people continue being interested in it and feel invested in it.

TT: Very much a stewardship.

AP: Yeah. Absolutely.

TT: I think it’s a great way to put it. Amy, thank you so much for your time.

AP: Thank you for having me.