Two dozen businessmen of the climate-threatening professions waddled about the East River encased in SurvivaBalls. These inflatable life-support shelters are personal, expensive protection capsules—convenient Swiss Army body barriers against environmental disaster. The bubble suits float, crawl, recycle liquids, and naturally migrate into colonies for strength in numbers. If it weren’t for the fact that you need a permit to SurvivaSwim in the East River, surviving would be totally legal.
In other news, the free July 4, 2009, Special Edition of The New York Times (handed out on November 12, 2008) greeted the city’s denizens via volunteer town criers, who distributed 80,000 copies of near-future wishful news: George W. Bush indicting himself for war crimes, national healthcare’s arrival, and the end of the war in Iraq. Working with the Anti-Advertising Agency and other volunteers, The Yes Men executed a “build it and they will come” approach to how the world could work.
Labeling themselves “identity correctors,” The Yes Men take on giant corporate abuses using fake websites and cheap suits. They are the unemployed designers that parents worry about when arguing against art school enrollment. The Yes Men draw attention to human desperation and lax environmental policy while humiliating ludicrous politicians: design for the greater good on a “meta” scale.
Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are culture-jamming Cowboys.
Collaboration within design and the fine arts is not new, but there is a trend of small collaboratives that have a highly integrated process. Design has historically considered collaboration as assembly line production, to each his own task. The new collaboratives, a diverse and interdisciplinary group with several historical precedents, often maintain their outsider status while developing work in and for a community.
Ray Johnson + The New York Correspondence School
Ray Johnson swan-dived off a bridge. It was a brisk swim, as most winter dips around Long Island tend to be. Only a couple local residents witnessed him casually back-stroke permanently out to sea. Police found the body the next day, on January 14, 1995, washed up on shore in Sag Harbor. They promptly entered and combed through his home studio in Locust Valley, unknowingly uncovering Ray’s final elaborately planned performance piece: a carefully curated network of mindfully experienced artwork, organized as a conceptually guided tour for the intruders. The work was linked through personal narrative, launched via suicide, and cultivated within a Lonerist Mad Genius myth. King me, Chris Burden.
“New York’s most famous unknown Artist,” so labeled in the Ray Johnson documentary How to Draw a Bunny, regularly sprinted ahead of the looming trends of Pop Art, Mail Art (Interactive), Performance Art, and Intermedia. Ray was a prominent contributor to New York’s art communities, with his Fluxus companions building upon his Happenings/Nothings. His repurposed collages, which he called “moticos,” prophesied Pop Art, alongside two books he collaboratively self-published with Andy Warhol before Warhol became a rockstar. How Ray thought about systems, interactive art, and graphic design is exemplified by a portrait series detailed in How to Draw a Bunny. After drawing a line silhouette of the sitter/patron, a collection of collages were shown to the subject for potential purchase. A series of written correspondences negotiating the price quickly escalated into an overhauled “mathematical” system of additions and subtractions. Ray often priced work collaboratively. Photocopies of the evolved works were mailed to the patron in response to various offers and changes. Once the patron received all the photocopies, Ray’s portrait was finally complete. The final output treated the initial collages as a mere launchpad. Ray’s Correspondence Art completely subverted expectations and historical conceptions of portraiture. Clearly more interested in the process of constructing an elaborate system for rhetorical communication, the negotiations created a photocopied portraiture set that became the true series.
So, is Ray a Loner?
To revisit our earlier “Lonerist” allegation deeply and accurately, we must unpack and thoroughly excavate the wrought layers of the “Ray Johnson” collage. Ray’s relevance to the collaborative design discussion extends beyond his work as a graphic designer and systems thinker. Whether it was the influence from his student days under Josef Albers at Black Mountain, or working in New York, he made various art communities the subject and focus of his communications. Ray was a leading revolutionary of western Cowboy Artists. Ray was an Outsider, but not a Loner. He was the prototypical Artist as Cowboy Hero who cared deeply about the community, though he was not of it. Ergo, Ray possessed perspective and created with altruism. His later work from Long Island paralleled his withdrawal from the public New York scene, while fostering an enlargement of the Mad Genius myth as a mechanism to subvert. Furthermore, Ray’s work overtly addressed the dichotomy of detached physical correspondence, foreshadowing a looming and all-encompassing technological presence. Leaving his friends in NYC and corresponding from Long Island was a tee for his blossoming interactive work, reinforced by a large increase of mail contacts. Although suicide can read like a Lonerist act of an isolated Mad Genius, Ray saw it as the opposite: a specific, controlled farewell dedicated to an increasingly disconnected telecommunity.
Mail bombs away!
Outsider Cowboy Heroes vs. Mad Genius Loners
Cowboy Hero Trope slid off his horse, driving his boot-heels into the swirling street dust, and immediately marched forward. Confidently, he banged aside the saloon doors, dark eyes darting as his right hand softly twitched over the heel of his gun grip. Sixty pairs of light-adjusted eyes tracked his intrusion, noting his inelegant leathers and sun-battered cheeks. The pistoled outsider shrugged off the townie gazes and leaned across the counter, signaling for the bartender’s attention. An unattractive gravel voice queried the drink slinger: “D’ya know who asked for a sculptor?”
Enter Michelangelo. Low-class tradesman, amateur Dante enthusiast, God’s sculptor and painter: the prototype for Artist as Mad Genius.
Although Michelangelo tamed the whims of nine popes on the strength of his artwork alone, he was later excommunicated from the Church, forced to burn his possessions, and flee his home. Two biographers wrote his story during his lifetime. Michelangelo’s laser focus on work came at the expense of any semblance of hygiene and, in his later years, he was known to deploy a combative personality. It’s incomplete to call him an acerbic Loner, but he unintentionally initiated a template for the public’s perception of Artists as tortured, isolated, Mad Geniuses. Michelangelo and many other Artists of similar dedication have been retroactively diagnosed with various mental illnesses, especially Asperger’s. While Michelangelo wasn’t as consistently isolated or crazed as was popularly believed, many familiar perceptions of Artists originated with him. Says Michelangelo biographer William Wallace, “He did more than any other Artist to raise the stature of the artistic profession. It was a craft before him, and it becomes a profession of geniuses after him. Now, Artists have a certain dignity in society even if they are still considered marginal weirdos.”
Enter Da Vinci. A contemporary frenemy of Michelangelo, he established a comet parallel to Michelangelo’s brilliance. Da Vinci as an Artist is associated primarily with two paintings, Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but most notably for his massive trove of inventions and sketches. While Da Vinci was the prototypical Renaissance Man, it was Michelangelo as Artist who was labeled Il Divino (The Divine One).
1. Designers as Artists
As Artists “won” their status as brilliant Loners, beginning with Michelangelo, they nurtured the public perception that art was both elevated and separate from the trades. Meanwhile, the Graphic Designers looked up at the Artists with envy and lust. Adopting the strategy, the design profession began claiming the distinction of Artist, believing it would raise their ideas and craft to Michelangelo’s status of the magical and sacred. Design’s evolution from Craft paralleled the shift in the fine arts. The Designer as Fine Artist push from within the industry had a dual purpose: to gain a larger seat at the Table of Content, and to achieve independent fame as individual Makers. Typically, this manifested through more control over content, discussed by Michael Rock in the article, “Designer as Author.” A similar thing happened in film, says Rock. Coined Auteur Theory, a group of ’80s filmmakers sought personal influence and creative authorship over the vision of the movie, seeking to move past pure entertainment (e.g. Davids Cronenberg and Lynch).
The more the myth grew, the more involvement designers had in all facets of campaigns, production, and promotion. Extending beyond Arbiter of Taste, Designer as Author involved both design and content generation, but
most importantly, it implied the divine. Paul Rand was/still is a rockstar: his moves, the name, and Hero-worship. His work is sex on the beach, and his contribution to design history is impervious to time. David Carson also grabbed the mantle and took to the stage, oozing attitude and proselytizing, while New Wave followers
celebrated his backwards-reading neon matinée signage. These heavy-handed quintessential figures attracted clients and the Mad Genius myth grew.
Designers as Artists are assumed to know things and have contagious, profitable personalities tied to their stardom. They claim seats at the table because they advertise a distinct, inherent voice (ignoring Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet advice), transcend trendy design influences, and answer directly to angels: Il Designo. But theatrical stages have an isolating factor, making these practitioners immune to criticism, but also to collaboration.
2. Designers as Not Artists
Later, it became fashionable for Mad Genius Designers to reject the Designer as Artist model, eventually considering the two fields equal but different, which Michael Rock recognized and clarified in a follow-up article, “Fuck Content.” Designers should not need to be anything but Designers. Separate but equal. This perspective somewhat cracked the Designer as Mad Genius perspective, leaving design without the clout of Architects or the exploratory interdisciplinary nature of contemporary Fine Artists. Design no longer needed anyone’s approval, or influence.
3. Designers as Collaborative Cowboys
In the meantime, Fine Artists were outright ditching the isolationist Mad Genius myth, climbing off Lonerism Tower and engaging each other as remixers, commenters, and generative Interactive Artists. The collaborative nature of contemporary Community Art, the heroic democracy of Street Art, and a mounting acceptance of practicing collectives as Makers themselves were enabled by communications technologies and supported by a global culture shift.
Before telecommunications media, Fine Artists usually came together for two main reasons: (1) geographical proximity, and (2) like-minded stylistic pursuit. The reason behind these gatherings wasn’t necessarily for collaboration (such as Cubists Picasso and Braque), but for purposes of Show and Tell or apprenticeship. Consider Realism, a movement originating in France directly following the 1848 Revolution as an open rejection of Romanticism’s open emotion. Courbet, Daumier, Millet, and Manet aimed to present ordinary life as a transcribed reality based on truth. Branches of Realism formed in Russia, America, and elsewhere; however, these chapters formed under very different circumstances, and the context of the paintings directly related to specific environments. Many movements in art began as loose collectives, attractive simply as a platform for reciprocating critique and dialogue. Salons and night cafés supported rising local Artist Collectives within a community through physical working and meeting spaces. Many guests interacted as well, enabled by the public format of the gathering.
Starting in the ’50s, telecommunications media undermined the requisite of geographical proximity in qualifying Avant Garde art movements and gatherings. Along with Ray Johnson, artists like Nam June Paik and, more recently, Brian Wood (Channel Zero), posed commentary on the effects of television on American culture. Isolationist mythology began to erode. Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Lullaby that “people used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were too scared of being alone.” Communications technologies enabled a more broadly based collaborative capability, though working in proximity declined.
As usual, design mirrored art’s shift. While some rockstar Designosaurs perpetuated the Mad Genius Lonerist activism through posters donated from on high, many contemporary teams responded as small, informal, interdisciplinary, and socially-aware groups on the ground, possessing more encompassing altruistic agendas. These design collectives rejected mythology and discipline boundaries while retaining outsider status, hence the Design Collaborative as Cowboy. Not that all outsiders are altruistic cowboys, but they often are. Designers exist in many roles, but “hired guns” covers many of them. They can take aesthetic risks, make hard ethical decisions, and collaborate with an aggressive voice—all without elitism—through the privileged lens afforded by being outside of the client’s world.
Re-enter Outsider Cowboy Hero Trope. R. Phillip Loy’s Westerns and American Culture, 1930–1955 describes one of the primary ways in which the Cowboy Hero relates to a community: “He was not part of the town, but an outsider who rode away when his job was finished.” Cowboys are called upon when the town gets itself in trouble, usually the result of no exterior perspective. Cowboys are day-saver outlaws. Loy stresses that while a Cowboy Hero is an outsider with unique perspectives and skill-sets due to the nature of his job, he is not a Loner. Maybe lady folk don’t like their pies getting shot to death on the windowsill during target practice, but Cowboys are appreciated, respected, and make friends despite any messy outsiderness. Cowboys cannot belong to a group; if they did, they would no longer be outsiders, their eyes seeing only the same things all other eyes see. What makes a Cowboy useful comes out of an altruistic set of beliefs, lifestyle, habits, and abilities that don’t fit into the community. For example, Adbusters’ Kalle Lasn and illustrator Mirko Ilic place their work and ideas into service, refusing the Lonerist crown of the Mad Genius while nurturing an outsider perspective.
All Together Now
Historically, designers sought respect and clout from clients by separating themselves from other practitioners and tradesmen. The argument sounds something like: design has always been collaborative; or, designers have to at least tolerate interaction with proofreaders, art directors, editors, photographers, and, sometimes, peers. But this is merely assembly line interaction. A inserted into B, then B inserted into C, and the result is a model plane. Or, a poster advertisement for a model plane.
When design is production-oriented, solitude can aid focus and efficiency. The newer collaborative model embraces process, overlapping skills, and experimentation over production. It is also less managerial and a more discursive relationship than in large ad agencies. Combined results of this design democracy foster a need for concept-driven, idea-first joint authorship to rise above the allure of Lonerist Geniuses. The idea of a Cowboy Collaborative is to form a gestalt, where the sum is greater and more unique than the individual parts: A x B = RED. The result arises from the unexpected collision of its component designers.
An average German couple is on a vacation in an average Italian coastal village. The parents let their 8-year-old bathe naked while they wash the child’s swimsuit, and the nearby locals are not impressed. Airing out their conservative nationalism all the way to the police station, the townsfolk press the issue until the family is fined and sent back to their hotel full of disquiet.
Cipolla, Thomas Mann’s titular sorcerer in the 1929 novella Mario and the Magician, is a Ghost Rider–level antihero, a badass bad person, a cripple with superpowers. He descends on the average Italian coastal village with a whip and small tricks. The magician stages a show and the whole town shows up to see the touring “artist,” including the visiting German family. After a slow beginning, the magician settles into a noticeable groove, an excellently crafted performance; his starts, stops, and his reading of the audience is impeccable. The ante pulses and grows, matching the magician’s increasingly aggressive and sardonic tricks and hypnotisms. Cipolla gimps and snarls and whip-cracks the viewers in time to his debilitating internal power struggle, while silver-tonguing the sore spots left by his controlled demeaning of the audience participants. A true master, the artist organically and subtly raises the stakes of each manipulation until the meek waiter Mario is called to the stage. The sorcerer flays open Mario’s deepest longings by assuming the identity of a local girl that Mario secretly adores; and under hypnosis, Cipolla coerces Mario into a kiss.
The magician’s carefully built emotional wave, the slowly woven hypnosis of the room, all shatters in sudden gunfire. Wakening from his trance and realizing his absolute humiliation, Mario instinctively reacts, draws a gun, and Cipolla drops dead on stage.
Competition vs. Collaboration: My Cause Is Prettier Than Your Cause
Art school frequently references Artistic Responsibility. Design school, semantics aside, not as much.
When designers do talk about responsibility, it tends to do with materials (going digital or those brown envelopes), re-illustrating Ronald McDonald with a flaming beard in between real projects, but for free (Jonathan Barnbrook’s Rosama McLaden), or through design’s equivalent of the local Episcopal youth group on a two-week trip to fix a city someplace adventurously exotic (poster donation for relief efforts). In short, charity. These historically relevant themes of design responsibility have much to do with links to significant cultural trends, and they acknowledge the warnings presented by Mann regarding art as a double-edged implement of cultural change (or Google’s mantra, “Don’t Be Evil”). Before developing responsibility in relation to collaboration, it is important to identify opportunity for design’s increased contribution to the greater good.
The Materials thing is ongoing. Sure, we all love French Paper. It’s loud, it’s eco, it’s small, there’s Charles Anderson; French is one of us. Nobody talks about the print industry in the same spittle-filled sentences as the automotive industry, but, not long ago, graphic design had a relationship crisis. The crisis is more ambiguous, the moral responsibilities less overt. Even in academia, legacies of Save Paper footnote syllabi, even in courses like GRA4305 Yay The Type Is Moving! Anymore, graphic designers are not first in line at the foot of the environmental apocalypse guillotine. We all want to be responsible with materials, and we are one emissions edict away from rationed materials. But there is a trap for designers, an assumption that technology will create perfect, wasteless tools. Post-print, Mass Market conflicts less with Beautiful Object from an Earth perspective—although we probably have enough first generation Kindles and iPads to shingle leaky roofs in third-world countries. And yet, not being evil does not equate to contributing positively. Next in Classical Design Responsibility: pro bono work. Many designers have thought of this in terms of content decisions: specializing in environmentally sound design, donating a percentage of time to important projects and causes that lack budgets, or refusing to design way-finding systems for an authoritarian government. Like practicing kinetic typography in After Effects for the Girl Effect, like donating show posters for Indie Baltimore theaters, and like North Korea. Respectively—for example.
The pro bono side of responsible design practice is trickier to comment on since each designer and each agency often exists in radically different spheres. While some agencies institutionalize pro bono work, or require designers to allocate time and talent toward need-based causes, many practitioners lack the financial or structural footing for the same commitment. One payoff for loftily idealistic design work: awards.
A Michael Bierut essay criticizing the rockstar-laden First Things First 2000 Manifesto argues that anything and everything should be well designed, and that creating an Industry Standard Ideal dependent on the Luxury of Time, Luxury of Client, and Luxury of Content belittles the very nature of Design: The Profession. A significant tenet of many design projects involves partnering with others to effectively communicate messages that transcend the designers’ personal backgrounds. From a collaborative stance, building a link between specific elements of the design community and The Greater Good creates inequality in our Farm by bringing heaven closer to some than others, rendering team concepts moot when the members are strewn across different tiers of the victory podium. Regarding Bierut’s argument and awards, the concern seems somewhat more applicable to graphic design than, say, product design, where highlighting toilet brushes is disturbingly common, vs. poster design awards that involve Charmin as a client. Rather, graphic design for museums cleans up at awards. This raises a question of whether product design, like architecture, trends toward a more content-agnostic industry compared to graphic design; but Bierut argues that everything deserves quality design and equality in acknowledgment. In other words, responsibility demands more than just flashy client selection. Responsible design needs to include dirty-boots, community collaboration, and a holistic view of what design does. This makes the Pro Bono Poster so tricky. In short, it’s a legacy of non-collaboration—antithetical to its purpose of promoting humanity. Also, it’s a trinket for assuaging narcissistic guilt, like the capitalist argument that CEO’s deserve to be carried on the backs of workers and government as long as they give away money through scholarships. Nevertheless, as a tool of populist rage, it’s hard to beat a broadside featuring a world leader with a curse word.
The more complex issue here is that demonstrating design responsibility should, and often does, transcend “awareness.” This is likely the difference between Design For Cause vs. Design For Good, but speaking to the specifics of motivation inevitably ends in Oscar Wilde’s observation: “All art is quite useless.” Weird things happen when designers refuse to reconcile this. The need to create is intense; the need to create something beautiful in the face of pain is even more so, yet only by letting go of the misguided belief that our response is useful can it become meaningful. An effective summary of this tension appears on a widely circulated Frank Chimero poster: “Design won’t save the world; go volunteer in a soup kitchen, you pretentious fuck.”
Design for Cause can degenerate into “my cause is better than your cause,” driven (finally) by freedom from clients, co-workers, and everyone else; there’s an individualistic formal design task that excuses designers to flaunt unhindered design skills in the name of Insert Cause Here. Ribbons symbolize drunk-driving and AIDS, and AIGA praises (awards to follow) saving two birds with one screenprinted poster.
For example, on the About page of the Haiti Poster Project’s website, information about the organizers includes credentials like, “Many of the posters won major design awards, and the effort was profiled in numerous publications. Exhibitions of the show appeared around the country and in Europe. Additionally, many of the posters are now in permanent collections of several major museums, including the Library of Congress and the Louvre.…Several of the projects posters have won design awards from Communication Arts, HOW, Print, and Step Magazine. The Project was also featured on NBC, FOX, Metropolis Magazine, Communication Arts and California Home and Style.” Not that there is anything inherently wrong with a little pride, but when the Louvre gains a permanent poster collection from a natural disaster, something feels weird. The list of achievements are irrelevant to what should be the main achievement, which is how people in Haiti benefited from the poster campaign. Posters are more an ephemeral end to a practical means than vice versa. The project tagline: “A collaboration of artists and designers from around the world benefiting victims of the earthquake in Haiti.” At most, design’s involvement is a cooperative movement, where people pool their resources toward a single goal, but very little design collaboration actually happens. Design for Good’s reboot in the wake of the failed One Laptop Per Child campaign shifted toward true collaboration, empathy, and partnerships; labeling the donation of posters to a relief effort as “collaborative” is somewhat of a regression.
This discussion seems cranky, though inspecting motivations and results is important. Critiquing overly critical critics of literature, Kurt Vonnegut described them as, “a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.” The Haiti Poster Project is a good thing. We, the authors, participated in it and support it. But self-awareness of what design can’t do is part of Artistic Responsibility as much as owning what it does do, and Makers must not limit their involvement to the easy investment of favorite skills.
It is not a question of medium, but time or investment. Pro bono design work is often done by a single designer without the interaction, input, and resources of their studio. Because there is no money involved, clients often get what they get, absent the typical benefit of research and dialogue with the creator. This is possibly tied directly to a lack of funds. Big projects have mystical forces (like funds) that mobilize around their birth, or rather the scale of big projects inevitably requires and involves big money. Perhaps the typical pro bono design project is not conceived of in large-scale terms because the clients understand the importance of modest objectives, frequently working with volunteers and shoestrings themselves—ergo designers are rarely asked to DREAM BIG for free. Put together, design responsibility, in a project sense, is not set on the table very often, and, therefore, it does not traditionally involve collaboration. And unlike U2 + iTunes + (RED) + Bank of America, design has struggled to build partnerships that allowed Makers to contribute to causes, partly because cause-based design involves less and less large-scale thinking and making.
As for design tourism in a short-term Mission Trip sense, there is no pure negative. Design, learning from its mistakes in this arena—such as the initial failure of the One Laptop Per Child campaign—has sought to be more community-respondent, but that’s just good research and process. Not even the combined backdrop of Pentagram, fuseproject, the MIT Media Lab, and Continuum were enough. Good ideas and financial investment were not enough. And a worthy cause was not enough. Everything else about One Laptop was excellent. There is no outright negative takeaway, but how much good is really accomplished without longer-term investment, and without compassionate boots staying on the ground? Not to keep harping on posters, but give a child a poster, he protests for a day. Give a movement an identity and he protests for eternity. The 2011 Occupy movement was the only recent campaign in the States where a dependence on collaborative donation determined survival, and it’s interesting to note that the movement ignored consistent graphic identity and message development in favor of promoting communal leadership and principles of faceless solidarity. In other words, Occupy Boston didn’t have to Obey Shepard Fairey. Good identities are more than a rubber stamp—without partnership and reflection of the client, they are only formally cool. Pretty and lifeless, like glitter. While many rockstars are proud to highlight their activist work, it rarely approaches the complexity and investment behind their client work, even in fundamental decisions like medium.
In David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the Narrator accuses Marla Singer of visiting support groups without investing, calling her a tourist (and a liar). Design has long championed building relationships with their clients, such as Michael Bierut’s running gig with Yale. But what kind of relationship can really get built when a designer is a tourist, visiting a cause without research, without developing relationships? They kissed the ring, now move the litter to the Basilica, please. Materials considerations, pro bono as activism, and moral client decisions are all a continuing part of design responsibility, but there are other duties that designers must recognize. Modern design collaboration grounds itself in an imperative: we collaborate because we, the people of Earth, face epic challenges, and so we must work together. The Now Puzzles are plastic-coated, sunburnt, and massive. The multi-tendriled Lovecraftian monsters from the deep need fresh water, diversity of ideas, mediums, and creators to uproot them.
Compared to the Pacific Garbage Patch, human-controlled flight was an inevitable cinch: we call Bernoulli and da Vinci to the stand. The Wright Brothers’ most important traits were curiosity, each other, and steel-ness—not innate genius. Similarly, The Big Problems require something from designers, namely that we give up our isolationist tendencies toward moments of personally gratifying genius and instead focus on team-based monster slaying, much like how it takes hoards of scientists and engineers working for Boeing to conquer modern flight. We argue that this is the new line of design responsibility.
While doing good things is good, design responsibility has a direct relationship to the need for interdisciplinary collaboration. As Godzilla has steadily supersized throughout all incarnations, so have the planet’s real monsters. American design has eagerly placed blame on everything and everyone else before owning up to our country’s problems and aiding neglected citizens. For whatever reason, collaboration and design responsibility in the States is like dinner with harping in-laws.
The days of being able to solve controlled human flight through all-in investment and a general background in mechanics courtesy of a bicycle shop seem to be past. Our current design challenges involve pissy Kaiju the size of the Mariana Trench, with toxic manufactured secretion-bits having entered the food chain, and even slaying them would not return any of it to the soil. Our current design monsters will require designers to transcend assembly line work—client, photographer, editor, copywriter, proofreader, committee, model, printer, art director, illustrator, designer all in a row—and do more than produce a really nice toilet brush worthy of the white shadow-box treatment; today’s monster slaying requires design collaboration that transcends “now pass me my lance.” Collaboration now means working with others at the same table, a Sandbox with other designers and weirdoidealists from other disciplines, thinking and making and trying. Design is only a tool, and it wears no cape. Design responsibility means doing more than cheap tricks and hypnotisms at the audience’s expense.
In 2011, a group of MIT students working from the preceding ideas of Alfredo Moser and MyShelter Foundation developed a sustainable lighting system called the Solar Bottle Bulb using inexpensive, lo-fi “appropriate technology” for poor people and underdeveloped countries. The process involves filling a plastic bottle with water (and a little bit of chlorine to prevent algae), then cutting a form-fitting hole through metal roofs, and installing and sealing the water bottle with silicon glue. The bottle provides up to 55 watts of light inside homes via refraction. Starting with Manila, 28,000 homes adopted the technology, and it’s spreading. The remaining challenge is disseminating the knowledge. The information is available online, but the site is mainly for collecting donations. Volunteers are actively traveling to remote parts of the world to promote and educate. In other words, not all design challenges are about making something look pretty, and not all Kaiju are put down with software. Instead, collaboration is needed.
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with self-designing and screen-printing a newsprint ode to democracy, Earth needs something more conclusive. Design owes the planet investment and team spirit. Football players on the offensive and defensive lines talk about doing their job and battling for the guy next to them, but designers not so much. That’s changing with the new breed of collaboratives. We need fresh blood. We need other disciplines. We need collaboratives that operate at a more integrated level, working for mutual benefit. We are responsible for playing well with others. Go team.
Joe-Bob Neanderthal, an early interdisciplinary collaboration pioneer, felt responsibility for his new family. He felt responsibility for his neighboring cave-buds. It was Cave Kevin who suggested ensuring an increased food supply for the following year after noticing the pregnancy before anyone else, and it was Cave Kevin who taught JB how to achieve it.
Resident plant guru Green Thumb had been experimenting with weed seeds during the winter in an effort to discover if their heartiness could be brought to bear on the planting of grain and okra and things. While goofing around with Cave Kevin, Green Thumb engaged him in a seed-flinging contest, which Kevin won after switching to the conveniently textured and aerodynamically superior weed seeds. Cave Kevin evolved his technique and was soon able to accurately flip the seeds into small, shallow holes in a ten-yard radius. His young wife, Dance Dance, developed the technique further, prancing from wheat row to wheat row with a minimum of steps, tossing the seeds in perfect rhythm with her small leaps. But they were only sowing weeds. Kevin needed to design good seeds to possess the innately effective texture of the weeds, so he turned to local knife aficionado The Edge, famous for designing the throwing star that took down Woolly-of-Mammoth, and the wheat seeds were deftly textured with a blade.
Cave Kevin sold these seeds to his new client Joe-Bob Neanderthal, teaching him the sowing technique developed by Dance Dance, and the meathead reaped the much-needed yield increase, to the benefit of his wife and child. In fact, the increased harvest, of wheat and children alike, was celebrated throughout the tribe around a massive bonfire. Joe-Bob Neanderthal had been moonlighting as the resident pyro, but his conscience got the best of him, so the tribe ditched the large carbon footprint of individual campfires in favor of a communal experience where all families could cook and warm themselves.
Holding the Line
Aldous Huxley denoted time in Brave New World by using Henry Ford–like Jesus: AF 68 is sixty-eight years After Ford. The dulling efficiency of the assembly line ranks as a major step along technology’s march into our hearts and brains, paired in impact with the mechanized clock, certainly. But Ford is America, and Ford is raw production. Other technological inventions impacting culture through efficiency are fairly open-ended in their application, but the assembly line was always about building more things the same way with more speed. Monotonous efficiency. Assembly lines AF 100, the core element in contemporary auto production, not to mention other goods, remain surprisingly identical in their process and purpose and results to assembly lines AF 1.
Robots have replaced humans—our role in production has changed; we are changed. But the tech innovation itself and its culture of efficiency are unchanged. Most gratifying of all is that this is distinctly American.
The interrelated technologies of this process—such as interchangeable parts, conveyor belts, and division of labor—all share a role in the assembly line’s cultural footprint in which efficiency, however it is defined, is considered inherently Good. Designers and architects of all stripes consider means and materials when creating. But design itself has been designed for efficiency. Education has evolved similarly. Efficiency may be a worthy positive in the design process, though unlikely the most important variable, and yet it is chased with laser-guided focus by Creatives and Clients. Likewise, students increasingly reject any process elements that come without Efficiency Guarantees—iterations are rarely fully developed, and computers are the universal go-to upon the first drop of assignmentneedles. Students rarely adopt the essentialist philosophy: “You don’t know until you try.” Huxley, to be precise, foresaw young designers’ weaknesses. Nobody argues against his prescience, but Huxley’s acknowledgement that we are designing After Ford may be his most prophetic comment.
Assembly lines are a remarkable metaphor when comparing traditional design production to the contemporary interdisciplinary collaboratives spreading through the market. Questioning the large agency model is like attacking efficiency as a value. We will give that cultural deconstruction a shot, but dissecting Shortest Distance in relation to design work specifically is worthwhile as well.
So, what is efficiency for Creatives?
The Labor Division
For all the hustling of students into and through digital art programs, there is sometimes a staggering schism between perception and reality of the post-school work. Some programs emphasize creative output, like concept art and guerrilla projection. But much of students’ interest in becoming animators is due to a cultural spike in gaming as a worthwhile pastime, the diversity and high profile of computer animated films, and an epic broadcasting of legitimized fan art. The countless hours of sitting alone before a flickering screen coupled with the promise of instant online fame has produced a large block of people pre-invested in some sort of art, some sort of creative work, dependent largely on easily found and memorized guides to digital tools. Stereotypes aside, it is now possible to “really like video games,” look some things up online from the comfort of your home desk, and gain a career crafting animations within the adored field. Some schools insist on a more creative application of the technology, but in many cases, students are trained to channel their love of dropping digital paint over found images into a career of manipulating hair on 3D models of quippy cartoon cats.
What many students are finding is that this career is exactly the stable, non-invasive, non-confrontational job of their dreams. What many other more inventive students are finding is that these industries rely on large numbers of digital artists to essentially mass produce repetitive renderings. Only those further up the chain of command do any sort of large-scale inventing. In fact, certain schools have developed mutually lucrative relationships with businesses that prize those schools’ students and their willingness to embrace this non-creative and repetitive division of labor. These worker bees have no expectations that they will invent alternative uses of honey, and they do not get frustrated when told to hold a spot on the assembly line. A closer design kin lies in the comics industry. The landmark comic book, Understanding Comics, by author Scott McCloud uses the same “assembly line” metaphor we introduced earlier to describe the layers of production involved in major projects from large studios, i.e., Marvel and DC. On long-running titles, an author and main artist pair to install a vision, with an additional army to help execute and maintain the monthly releases. Even on event one-shots, such as Joker (a major influence on Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies), the title page credits Brian Azzarello (writer), Lee Bermejo (pencils, covers, inks on some pages), Mick Gray (inks), Patricia Mulvihill (colors), and Robert Clark (letters). Contrast this with the singular vision of Craig Thompson’s Habibi. Note: this is why Charles Burns produces so few books, but when he does, they are immaculate and peerless. In the cases of Burns and Thompson, even the graphic design of the book jackets are created by them, and the result is conceptually appropriate and aggressive with good typography and engaging layouts; they are precise extensions of the book’s contents and voice. McCloud links the segmented production of comics to the core construction present in all creative work: Idea/Purpose, Form, Idiom, Structure, Craft, and Surface. His juxtaposition argues that only those willing to push hardest for control of Idea and Form are able to truly innovate, which for designers means involvement with the content itself. Speaking in favor of collaboration, that means a deep relationship with the subject’s originator, or joining the process early as a co-creator. Taken further, the assembly-line nature of large ad agencies is antithetical to creating the most meaningful and inventive work.
In contrast to the comics and animation industries, graphic design has historically been interdisciplinary and collaborative but still divided along labor lines. The proofreader, photographer, illustrator, designer, art director, and copywriter all had specific duties based on specific experience and specific skill sets. Any tenuous links between these skills within a single individual usually only emerged through a good deal of work experience, and accumulated exposure to the various facets. While design teams often bragged of collaboration within their own spheres, or claimed the client relationship as collaborative, duties and contract-enforced responsibilities made it overtly clear who was doing what. The field may have been interdisciplinary and collaborative, but designers themselves tended to be less so, at least not to the seamless standards of contemporary practice. This model was great at producing cars: creating and managing the interlocking crafted work between broadcast, print, and identity. Layers of management and divided labor tiers separated clients and designers and photographers—a Mad Men world where the guy schmoozing the client did very little designing and a good deal of talking, while any knowledge of photography or illustration was absorbed sans tactile or in-depth experience.
This machined approach was effective. And when Pepsi needed a CGI pop-bottle to pirouette in an Olympics promo, paired with an international armament of event-specific ads developed across a range of media, the combined forces of thousand-people firms could make it happen. Many people gathered around those designed fires—or maybe a suckling metaphor would be more accurate.
Luminaries always rose up—consider the self-aware Albrecht Dürer—but the CarsonKeedy auteurs were the standard-bearers for developing mass appeal through the benefit of starkness and clarity via singular voice. Design remained an assembly line with a clear division of labor, but voice became relevant…worshiped. Internet technologies solved the rest. Unable to find work in a faltering economy, recent design grads launched their own small studios in which the auteur’s vision proliferated by nature of the number of voices present. The division-of-labor method collapsed as these studios realized they already had the tools, technology, practitioners, and knowledge either in-house or available nearby to make anything. Designers hired their photographer classmates who hired the videographer in their studio-share. Wacom tablets and SLRs arrived in a range of flavors with online tutorials, so designers were able to actually create across disciplines without going beyond a small team. We were still huddling for warmth, but the nature of interdisciplinary collaboration was happening at a smaller, more intense, voice-heavy level. The nature of design efficiency has changed.
Efficiency and Production
Design was historically tied directly to production. Students learned to perform press checks, hunting for hickeys while avoiding unpro chuckles. Understanding what presses could do meant that design options exploded. But in a post-print world where fewer designers are being taken for fewer lunches by fewer paper companies, production feels radically different. Technical concerns are still constantly evolving and visual literacy reacts instantaneously to cultural pulses; the mechanics of modern dissemination are wildly different but the overarching concerns and impacts are similar. Perhaps these production issues are simply added onto the knowledge requirements. But understanding how type behaves on screen, how motion impacts it, and how knock-outs work in offset printing are merely production questions that the designer needs to acknowledge.
With print production, that was as far as many designers involved themselves, and it was considered a wholly separate endeavor. The new collaborative interdisciplinary approach requires a more integrated design process where interaction and installation exist as intrinsic variables from the beginning, not as someone else’s domain crosses another’s, and near the project’s end. Logos can be interactive or respond to live data feeds. Modern type design requires international language and screen-based concerns. The intense production of building a large type family with contemporary tech resolution often necessitates the Lone Wolves to hire freelance production help. One common solution is to move the production work in-house, with designers exercising skills on the front and back end, while changing up project leaders to keep everyone fresh. Anything with video has similar demands in the small studio as photography, motion, and sound are added concerns. Production is part of design, even if designers are required to know less and less code as such needs increase and diversify, necessitating separate hands. Expansive interdisciplinary projects have pushed code to The Production Wing, although programmers and designers are now usually working together in-house, are involved in meetings, and regularly cross into each others’ territory. Anymore, studios are perpetually in “all hands on deck” mode with shared knowledge bases, input, and tools tacitly absorbing design and production into the same space.
The warmth that sends many Creatives looking to huddle is often financial in nature—How many young, NYC designers have their own apartment?—but shared spaces have unintended and surprisingly effective benefits regarding interdisciplinary collaboration. In fact, much of the collaboration discussed in this book arose out of Makers solving the post-college employment vacuum. Collegiate design programs have been cranking out an abundance of Creatives, but the economic slowdown led to fewer client opportunities and fewer agency openings. These newly minted designers either freelanced at night until they could invest solely in their design career or they banded together, essentially hiring themselves. Hanging a shingle was actively discouraged in the down economy, but for those who evolved their relationships and freelance work into a studio format, the opportunity to perform the type of design work they enjoyed and valued resulted in an idealized blend of autonomy and collaboration, ownership and community, that was nowhere to be found at larger agencies.
Co-working, space shares, makerspaces, alternative schooling: designers have initiated or worked within all these frameworks, creating work out of environments dedicated to open systems and pooled resources. For example, under a co-working model, a design studio can operate out of an industrial/hipster/vibey part of a reclaimed fish-packing building that was chopped into low-rent studios—financially feasible courtesy of the city’s designation of the street as an arts district. Small design teams, artists, a programmer, and an innovative kite-surfing group can share overhead costs and a nicer boardroom setup for client meetings as various tenants have need. Makerspaces and hackerspaces provide valuable gear and space resources for participants to share, typically at the cost of a gym membership. Professionals acquire new skills, students explore ideas, and community group meetings operate out of makerspaces, congealing to work on multi-person projects or to trade skills involving ever-popular 3D printers. Independent, non-accredited education formats often emerge from these facilities, but also are deliberately built from scratch—Brooklyn is popular for such ventures. These provide the community with affordable opportunities to learn by doing, as classes are run by skilled practitioners thrilled for the chance to make some extra cash by sharing something they love, which in turn empowers the teachers to actively build the making community they are already part of.
These huddles enable flat, open collaborations. Young studios often come pre-packaged with a network of neighbors and their skill sets. Their ability to launch is often predicated on the huddling mechanism of group-shouldered costs.
Sharing may be efficient, but it requires a certain valuing of the collective benefit over the personal benefit. When self-interest manifests culturally, the damage can be far-ranging, requiring later design conniptions to solve. Baltimore’s public transit system includes a meager subway line and light rail line, which do not even intersect. Initial plans for the city involved a more webbed set of lines to link the already fragmented neighborhoods, but race/economic prejudices induced a stripped-down system that is only now being rethought at expansive effort and cost. Similarly, New York’s efforts to cut down on vehicular traffic involved a bike-share program that was an overnight success by every metric. But wealthy conservative citizens fought back after a year, complaining that the bike racks were uglifying their neighborhoods and that taxes should not subsidize transit. Every successful public transit program in the world operates at a loss, but the obstinacy of New Yorkers proved that design can only solve issues to the degree that doorknobs make doors open only when turned.
Perhaps it is a generational influence wrought via Internet communication technologies, and maybe the economic downturn impacted Millennials’ interest in sharing resources, but small studios collaborate and communicate and share resources regardless of discipline or authorship concerns, riding to their studio-share on Citi Bikes.
The contemporary fascination with collaboration manifests in jammed digital shelves of digital books featuring the hallowed word on their digital covers. Strategies are a common topic, as if a set of blog-ready, check-boxable terms and concepts can distill energetic production from previously dormant and uninventive systems, processes, and practitioners. Other times, these strategies are vague and self-obvious, demanding nothing from the audience. Plotting design offices according to the open/closed/hierarchical/flat chart does little to suggest effective design or collaboration or interdisciplinary practices, which are typically fluid and organic parts of daily life that practitioners recognize as vitally important without any mental dissection of their specifics. The correct/popular model is always openish-flatish in any case. But studying effective groups shows a startling lack of awareness regarding dialogue or hierarchy as process components. “Everyone does everything” is a popular refrain, followed by “but we all have our talents”—not particularly helpful if you’re researching organizational techniques for distribution of labor. Still, this consensus is a valuable indicator of the overwhelming support for horizontal leadership structures. Young collaboratives seem to care less about personal authorship, honing their craft in a remix-heavy universe of shared libraries, leading to design processes where everyone feeds back and touches the work.
Lines Around the World
As assembly lines moved overseas during the Trinket and Screen phase of Western consumerism, designers responded by utilizing these suddenly available low-cost printers and product photographers. Then, print-on-demand opened up small-batch production without the traditionally disproportionate costs. Even as print became less driven by mass-market distribution, costs came down, enabling small collaboratives to find competitive production outlets, taking on resource-rich agencies.
Assembly-line approaches morphed internally, from within firms, then spread and segmented, but the current incarnation seems to have the starkest pros and cons. Through the changes, designers stayed anchored in Western countries even if Chinese facilities did the bookbinding. But the Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away, and prosumer tools made their way into the hands of young Makers all over the world. Sites like CollabFinder, and even 99designs, allowed businesses of all stripes and sizes to find Creatives of all ages and specializations distributed across the physical globe. New assembly lines look a lot like old assembly lines, but instead of client, design, direction, and production being contained within a single city, tasks segmented and appeared throughout the world; the same cheap-racing that shifted printing overseas is happening on the creative end, snipping the relationships between all parties. Design has been outsourced.
AIGA is not amused; they categorize the new assembly lines as Spec Work, tacitly blackmarking young designers in the U.S. who seize the chance to get their work into the world despite a lack of access to traditional clients or job positions. There has always been plenty of junk-mail design work, projects driven by clients with a narrow approach to message and cost, paired with Creatives believing in inherent Client Correctness and bidding to the lowest common denominator. Meaningful client research and interaction may lead to deeply resolved work, but this contemporary iteration of assembly-line outsourced spec design work may replace lower-level opportunities, including a plethora of Junior Designer spots that have been subbed by interns anyway. Eye-tested early returns indicate the results are, at worst, a wash. Elite studios working on elite projects are likely not impacted, though the industry’s usage of interns may shift eventually.
The new small, interdisciplinary collaborative model has potential to keep the assembly line from rolling panzer-like through the creative landscape by encouraging Makers to band together, sharing overhead, pooling tools and skills, while maintaining client relationships. Voice heavy, findable, hungry, and distributed globally, they provide an alternative to new models of Spec Work. Hopefully, a cultural interest and emphasis on design helps to shift CollabFinder’s members into relevant collaboratives.
I made a thing.
This is a true story, probably.
During summer break, I made a thing with some friends. I wanted my thing to launch my design career, you know, preferably the kind of stratospheric career arc where my name will be carefully typeset by student-workers on a dozen art school visiting lecturer posters each year. That will be how I give back: by letting these mid-level programs buy me plane tickets and meals while I assure them that “Yes, the hotel is just fine.” Because I will vow to never forget where I come from, I will acquiesce to the local faculty’s request to run a workshop for the students, all without upping my modest $2,000 honorarium.
I made a thing in my garage, or rather my parents’ garage, out of stuff just laying around. This is Slang Americana for, “It’s a prototype because I’m in school and barely have Incessant Drunk money, much less Netflix Money, much less Lab Fee money, which I’m supposed to pay because I’m in college, which coincidentally is why I’m working in my parents’ garage. But this prototype concept will totally work if someone invests in me, which all the design blogs promise will happen. Not that I read them, but sometimes I accidentally see the captions when I try and look at the pictures.” I made a thing, well, a demo-thing, but it will totally work.
I made an app-thing that deserves an A but I didn’t get an A because my typography was supposedly bad. The game is fun and based on old Nintendo games, and nobody complains about that typography, so I think my faculty are just old and stupid and don’t appreciate gamer culture. Anyhow, this app-thing took me all summer, and online tutorials taught me how to do all this cool stuff. Now that I have it, I want it to be popular because I want my own studio so I can be more of a game-concept person.
This other app-thing I made, called Poopbrain, helps designers be creative by giving them a prompt for ideation that can be processed within the time it takes for an average bowel movement. Anyhow, I guess I’ll go to college. Poopbrain might be perfect for college applications.
I made this chair-thing that will look awesome nestled amongst Herman Millers. The chair is office appropriate, with some give in the back of the seat so users do not accidentally crush their phone if they forget it in a rear pocket while sitting.
I made a thing and it’s awesome; well designed and beautiful, the prototype works like a charm, and the production is worked out, so it’s commercially viable, hopefully. They tell me, depending on the context of the designer and the designed, there are a few open avenues for the-piece-as-launchpad.
Behind all the jocular criticism of collegiate design programs—or more accurately, criticism of student perceptions of collegiate design courses; or more specifically yet, the willingness of young and potentially entrepreneurial designers to invest in the process and knowledge of a broad-based design education—there are explicit ramifications to the Internet’s slaughter of the gatekeepers.
Eliminating the traditional design industry gatekeepers has a dual effect, however, reflected in the rise of journalism programs. Netflix’s breakout original programming winner, House of Cards, from David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, seems to fit with the ongoing trends in quality “TV” gaining eyeballs and quality previously exclusive to film, thus expanding beyond the confines of broadcast networks. Online distribution deals initially negotiated by Netflix with various content owners were at rates that allowed for a quantity of offerings and growth, a curated and designed experience balancing and competing with the “anything goes” world of the pirates. Paired with efficient disc distribution, Netflix did everything Blockbuster could but faster, cheaper, and more conveniently. Blockbuster’s monopoly was eagerly torn down by supporters of the innovative Redbox and Netflix. A parallel shift in viewing support for the character-driven, non-FCC-enslaved HBO, and other cable channels, opened the doors for more content diversity. These two factors made House of Cards possible, even inevitable. As Netflix’s initial contracts expired, the old world business models intervened, prices soared, and the online company was forced to evolve: costs for users increased, popular movies and shows were dropped, and many annoyed customers left. By then, Netflix had permanently changed viewing preferences, helped along by related distributors like Hulu and Amazon, and the most obvious solution was simply more quality content. Viewers clearly supported the storytelling afforded by television as a medium, embraced the shorter seasons and aggressive content of cable shows, and enjoyed the instant access of online distribution. High-level film industry icons, both behind and in front of the camera, were interested as well. The perfect collision eventually led House of Cards to the Oscars. It was a complete life cycle; the old guard refused to innovate, were usurped by the masses’ support of a few pioneers, and, eventually, some highly engaged members of the previous establishment adapted, creating a broader range of work than had existed before. The old gatekeepers of content, studios and distributors, were still employed and still making money, but they were no longer all-powerful. Hanging over every project was the threat of viewers turning toward pirated means if the offerings did not measure up, not to mention the user-generated content potential of YouTube and Vevo, the opportunity for crowdsourced funding via Kickstarter, as well as the new studio/distributors of Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. If the old gatekeepers were not dead, they were at least sharing the podium with brash, progressive, risk-taking competitors. There are major intertwined cultural forces at work here, but since they have the same root—the Internet, duh!—we can pause the metaphor. TV Execs exist in roles similar to their counterparts in design, and their clout is shifting for similar reasons. Design gatekeepers are mostly practicing designers, writers, teachers, critics, or a combination, which is not something you can say about their broadcast-based parallels. This diversity and grounding enables nimbleness and a broader perspective, supporting evolution as opposed to defensive protectionism. Each arena of design has its own threads with requisite gatekeepers. Aspects of the design industry overlap, though some genres have specific avenues to the top: furniture and products often gain more weight from in-person displays, and furniture especially needs a physical space to be shown in, meaning that finding non-online shows can be vital. Education, studio employment, shows and events, design blogs, and magazines all present opportunities for exposure, and all have hierarchies and gatekeepers. Their clout, regardless of genre, has been impacted by contemporary technologies. Part of this has to do with content and message, but mediums and tools are also evolving. Sometimes, the universal desire to be in front of the wave actually leads to curated monotony or fosters work that seems more inevitable than innovative. But giving credit where it’s due, many gatekeepers have been more than willing to push for diversity in mediums and processes, as opposed to ostracizing new means and Makers. This is partly why collegiate programs, historically called Graphic Design, have outright gobbled everything tangentially related, or at least built overt bridges to printmaking, 4D, interactive, and installation. Design is an umbrella medium, and Cooper-Hewitt is aware.
If design education is theoretically supportive of students’ need to work across mediums on their own and with others, then a similarly enlightened gatekeeper seems ideal. Historically, design programs pushed theory, history, and craft; but it all flipped toward industry-spec process and form during the expansionist ’90s, as the plethora of newly born programs fought over the same scraps. All these programs were patronized by a flood of students as College became What You Did, but the students were ensconced in specialty dorms paid by astronomic loans, and they viewed the whole exchange as a vending machine. For $100,000, opportunity just isn’t enough unless it’s catered. The more related programs, courses, and faculty, the greater the need to differentiate and parse the details. Entitled students and bloated programs: a blimp competition attended by princesses.
Soon after, the economy bottomed out on a maliciously placed speed bump; arts were cut from high schools, and design programs had to compete for fewer students, many ill-prepared, and all with less money. If the students were entitled before, now the princesses demanded jobs in addition to their suites. As Neil Postman argues in Technopoly, reducing education to job training is a culture’s dying gasp. The millennial design programs are at least breathing heavily. Dealing with this Lemony Snicket–level of misfortune leaves faculty scrambling to focus more on tech demands and job training expectations, with the recent needs of interdisciplinary and collaborative work; meanwhile, bureaucrats push for an increasingly nonsensical interpretation of accountability. Launching a non-degree-granting, open-access makerspace is hard when the arts are getting cut. A holistic approach is unrealistic when funding is tied to cranking students through in four years, even if they should be aggregating more courses outside their discipline. Faculty are coerced into pushing a four-year plan, even when students decide they are studying in the wrong area, because education is viewed as mere job training and government funding is tied to assembly line implementation. Not surprisingly, administrators treat their schools like a business and refuse to see the benefit of anything that doesn’t pair degree acronyms to specific price tags. Interdisciplinary and collaborative design make sense culturally, in education, and in practice, but not through a business lens. So while Education Gatekeepers may wish to implement a less top-down approach to art, they fall back on the traditionally defendable.
Structural cracks are partly due to the tenure system. Even though the same system can prevent culturally in-tune turnover by bringing in young blood, it can simultaneously protect faculty who choose to evolve content away from Moneytheism. Design faculty have long prioritized networking, active practice, and importing visiting designers for presentations and workshops. Financial straits make the latter difficult, but Skype provides at least some alternative. In these scenarios, the active rockstar Makers are not functioning as gatekeepers at all, and faculty are primarily table-setters, preparing ingredients and utensils for students to explore through dialoguing. Since art programs have limited faculty and funds in general, the few professors of all ranks do possess some gatekeeper authority.
The overlap of Deity of Education and Studio Overlord is debatable. A high-ranking, well-known, or influential academic is generally considered an authority in their field, but for most disciplines, that translates primarily as publishing credits, either based on research/study or sometimes on the meta-education side of the subject. Because terminal degrees are generally doctorates, intrinsically a research degree, this subverts the potential for crossover academic rockstar success as MFA-Makers. Design programs must develop interschool relationships by educating educators about how design fits into academia, rewriting research policies and definitions, authoring interdisciplinary courses, and sometimes even separating design schools from their art school parents. This can satiate an immediate student body uninterested in diversity of practice, allow design faculty equivalent gatekeeping authority, and craft paths for students and teachers that specifically reflect their views of the industry; however, it flies in the face of the contemporary CO LAB culture.
All of this raises an impertinent question, one of those What If hand-raisers: “Should education have gatekeepers?” Pink Floyd took it further—“We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control”—co-opting a burnbabyburn approach to faculty, readily apparent in modern conservative edu-politics, and it’s out of step with today’s irreverent interdisciplinary collaboration. ras+e have encountered their share of isolationist intellectuals, but the majority of design faculty seem more focused on promoting connection, and their battles center more on fighting upper administration over the right to do so. Activist faculty are phasing out, and the incomers are more interested in facilitating than leading with upraised sabers. The anti-college movement takes issue with claims that higher education is relevant life preparation, arguing that contemporary access allows people to find their way without jumping through hoops of irrelevance put in place by a machine that soaks up students’ financial futures (i.e. “unschoolers”). Even when the instruction is formalized through a MOOC or any source of digiknow, the role of gatekeepers runs closer to an informal conversation than obscure knowledge as a rite of passage. Anti-college seems more of a reaction to the ’90s inflation in which Everyone Goes To College, than a response to the current universe with its searchable pedestals to Code Kings seated in LCD halls of Graffiti Art. If the system does shrink, and some programs or schools dissipate through outsourcing or neglect, the innovative programs will nominate new gatekeepers for their new structures: evolve and survive.
For all the Openness celebrated by Everyone, academia will always have its gatekeepers; otherwise, Harvard would be just another NCAA hoops program. Usually it is tenured faculty at the helm, deciding who gets into the school, into the program, what recommendation letters get written for whom, which rockstars are invited to speak on campus and which students interact with them, what classes are offered with what content, who gets advised to do what or turned onto what opportunity, what connections get made between ____ + ____.
These aforementioned rockstars are gatekeepers in their own right. In an overt, transparent sense, it is their ability to hire designers; but as design becomes increasingly stratified, their status as a Destination for interns is equally relevant. Some of these designers man the parapets of Education and Industry, but that seems to be in decline. Ellen Lupton and Steven Heller are some notable exceptions, but despite an actively large footprint in the cultural design discussions, their publishing records, MFA directorships, and their deliberate willingness to seek means for creating opportunities for others cement their status within Gatekeeper Club. Despite the protestations of the anti-college mob, these aspects of academic/design gatekeeperdom are all positives. Such gatekeeper perspectives as these remain key voices in the collaborative, interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial trends.
Design is becoming increasingly stratified; and school, with its requisite rockstars, is a major component in that hierarchical chain. The math breaks down as lower barriers to entry for gear (design used to be a tech degree) and knowledge uniformly raise the floor for everyone, which in turn increases the number of designers. Competition goes up, as does collaboration, but the amount of available work can only support so many practitioners. Demand increases for higher-level education to push the ceilings on the crowded field, a demand echoed by the industry and gatekeepers. Lowering entry points eliminates some need for validation, but the ensuing glut just brings the demand right back. In this somewhat decentralized design-hive, the leaders’ voices are often amplified partly by education, with its parallel growing block of academics and critics. The need to stand out, to rise on glitter wings rather than the hivemates, facilitates the current escalation in design degrees, further validating the existence of Gatekeeper Lupton and Gatekeeper Heller. Everything gets bigger simultaneously, or else it would collapse under its non-distributed weight like the Street Art Market, though self-taught/made designers and technologists also factor in.
Design Industry and Design Education have always been fairly symbiotic for all the obvious reasons. Standing as a contrasting example, Law School feeds a field noted for the increasing disparity between what is taught and what is needed, creating significant disagreements over the roles of industry and education. Design education gatekeepers are not going anywhere. They possess vital contemporary influence, often coming from the industry with relatively short detours for a two-year MFA. Still, they are not omnipotent or intrinsically necessary as gatekeepers, merely beneficial. Their voice within schools belies the disdain commonly shown toward the arts within institutions, due in part to the increased profile of design within culture and the rising number of student applications. Any potential clout gained manifests less as a Hall Monitor, and more as leverage to build the program: acquiring gear, launching interdisciplinary and collaborative spaces, graduate funding, need-based scholarships, tools for community engagement, and leverage for makerspaces. This would all further facilitate the push for high-floored and high-ceilinged interdisciplinary collaboration, and the launching of small studios, collectives, and start-ups.
Originally these comments were conceived as “Industry Gatekeepers,” but the very democracy of tools and information that has broken down the strict hierarchy of the design industry has been complicit in the eliminationblur of Design vs. Art, and part of the overall breakdown of mediums. The small, interdisciplinary collaborative can certainly be discussed as a studio or entity, but it does not intrinsically fit within the semantics of Industry. Even the Fine Arts lens holds here, considering the factory of Takashi Murakami and the prescient pop of Warhol’s Factory; a singular vision at the top facilitates the growth of other Makers while deliberately crafting a market for accessible work through a blend of High and Low, Firm or Studio, Invention or Production.
Design’s stratification has an overt impact at the industry entry point. The Junior Designer was last seen beneath an asteroid, wingtipped feet protruding from the crater. In a larger firm, especially the full-service dinosaurs, production is an assembly line in constant need of fresh meat, but the democracy of access and quantity of applicants has reduced patience for learning tech on the job, and these lower-level positions are filled by well-educated, experienced designers. In a smaller studio there are few, if any tech-specific jobs. Everyone does everything. The entry bar is high because it can be. Studios now have shifting entry points.
First jobs have become second or third jobs when factoring in the internships that replaced the Junior Designer positions. The cumulative impact is that Pentagram’s interns are MFA candidates at top-ten programs. For little or no pay, students become essential designcogs in major studios, working for “experience,” saving the firms money, and all to just step onto the ladder—climbing competitively not included. All young designers pursue the same few positions at large firms, as smaller studios are unable to support any form of hiring. These internships are not a step up, they are not additional experience; they are the new normal, and they are essentially mandatory. Stranded on the ladder, chained by 100 grand worth of debt, are the students—as indentured servants to an industry as a whole. Even when the work is engaging and the recommendations stellar, these unpaid jobs are now built into studios’ structure and will not become actual positions, especially when the studios are smaller. Internship gatekeepers seem all-powerful and permanent.
But the gatekeepers are dying, fortunately, as practitioners bypass the ladder/industry altogether. Few jobs and much debt prompt many recent grads to grab some friends and start a small studio outside of their day jobs.
All those rockstars who Visit Designer at the dojos of their academic rockstar peers preach a gospel of Portfolio, convincingly using personal narrative to explain that degrees are not necessary to enter the field as an officer, and that the work is all that matters. Law has bar exams, and architects must be licensed, but anyone can call themselves a designer. Many rockstars did gain entry and fame based purely on the work, but with so many potentials to hire, degrees and internships do matter, performing a License role in a field gaining cultural appreciation and clout. So the rockstars are gatekeepers within their individual studios, but hanging a shingle in a part-time capacity has never been easier, and the opportunity to be found a retweet away.
In the classic Silicon Start App sense, college is a perfect incubator for designers to join forces with peers around a singular product or concept, launching it with little to no capital concerns. Designers absorb some of the interdisciplinary bleed through the small-group process and can gain in-house experience while sidestepping the job hunt or internship processes altogether.
Making-based collectives provide similar opportunities, and for those who take the process further to the level of a true collaborative, the voice becomes even more singular. With the collective at their back, designers have the ability to explore a medium with feedback from peers—or build a body of work—leading to a showable, salable output that can grow legs and obtain a following. In this approach, social media often becomes the resume, the point of contact for gatekeepers and others looking for collaborators or employees. In a startup, the ladder can be joined partway up and on the terms of the designer’s choosing. Even without working in a collective or collaborative, any precocious 16-year-old with a smartphone, or screenprinting music fan, has an equal opportunity to have their work stolen by Target.
Validation of work and promotion of a studio was, supposedly, somewhat tied to publications and awards. A designer seeking to raise their profile could pay Graphis or Print to consider a piece for an award or contest or publication or whatever, and then if the magazine deigned to print the piece or give the award, then the designer and their client received a Colbert Bump. This is as gatekeepery as it gets, with the possible exception of Art Directors Club, where membership is fairly literal.
Everyone likes recognition, but it seems fairly outdated even without counting all the magazine foreclosures. Type Directors Club was always a fairly nerdy cadre, the Guardians of the Gorgeous, for whom a pretty and expensive object as output makes sense. But when it’s fairly easy to submit writing to The New York Times and The Whitney’s curators can scour the globe for talent from a couch, the old world status symbols seem less omnipotently hierarchical. Fans of democracy rejoice.
When everything is on the table, the curation of learned experts provides a relevant service, even if these folks are no longer perceived to be clad in scarlet caps and seated on high-backs. The gatekeepers still matter because they possess useful perspective, not because they have cultural king-making powers. This becomes immediately apparent when any design student tries to Young Gun their way into a job without interning. Within academia, publishing is still a Gold Standard—which encourages some high-profile examples of scamming by wobbly essay writing and sketchy acceptances—but academics can still translate that seamlessly to post-print. For Makers, the global village seems like an odd place for empirical canonizations of an immense outpouring of subjective, interdisciplinary, collaborative design/artwork. The rapid rebroadcasting of blogs/posts and other online publishing/distribution opportunities provide boosts to designers’ Twitter feeds, raising their profile and number of followers, often without the burden of submission fees. Sure, maybe the awards and events were more selective, but that does not make them more accurate. The desire to push further up the ladder—to publish a gorgeous monograph, or write a culturally meaningful essay—ensures that the events, awards, and glossy books will continue. But the publicity gatekeepers are closer to an interactive DJ than a deity.
Collaborative street artist JR summarized the criticisms of the traditional gallery structure during his presentation upon receiving the TED Prize: “The city’s the best gallery I could imagine. I would never have to make a book and then present it to a gallery and let them decide if my work was nice enough to show it to people. I would control it directly with the public in the streets.” JR’s insistence on giving his work to the community without official validation, support, or financing gave him the freedom to evolve his installations to a massive scale that marks his current projects. The politically insistent photography paste-ups are conceptually linked to their locations: the Israeli-Palestinian wall, a favela in Rio, and waterproof roof-coverings. Attempts have been made to bring street art into galleries, but for someone like JR, such moves would be conceptual lunacy.
Many forces intersect, align, and mate to create an international environment that enables JR’s success. The DIY movement includes elements of networking, marketplace, and access to ideas and materials of everything from Web 2.0 on, such as ebay, Fab, and Etsy. This same designwave of interest can be seen in the suddenly high profile of professional NBA and NFL athletes at assorted Fashion Week events, as well as in everything involving David Beckham as David Beckham.
Access in art is cyclical. Exposure to alternative photography, installation, street art, and collaborative work enables a group of young Parisian graffitists to birth JR. The catalyst was a lost, cheap camera he found during an excursion. This access made it possible for him to acquire grants, pipedream money for him when he first started pasting portraits of his friends. It also provided the link to global concerns that previously had been locked behind a TV screen. His work rebroadcasts online, where his photography skills viscerally play a vital role in reinforcing the velocity, becoming an influence on the next wave of disaffected youth exploring their iPhone’s camera. Meanwhile, TED hands the artist a prize and pushes his story and project pitch into classrooms and bedrooms.
The gatekeeper role evolves. TED becomes a sort of textbook editor/author/professor/publisher canonizing JR, his ideologies, and his portfolio. It is no Council of Trent, but Luther himself would agree that choosing certain knowledge as IN, not to mention breaking it into blurt-sized bits, can be as powerful as a God-shaped rubber stamp.
A TED invite goes on the CV. A TED vid can be held as Officially Sanctioned Knowledge by the California-style Department of Education. Viewers now know “a something.” This easy digestibility of a subject, paired with the respected curation of a globally endorsed brand, rapidly creates squads of mini-experts. The danger has less to do with any TED-specific flaw, and more to do with encouraging the belief in bite-sized mastery. A counterargument is the related DIY philosophy that these Info Nuggets grow in significance and depth when the audience layers the new information with their own investigations.
DIY Learning enables modern design collaboration beyond the strictures of gatekeepers. The rise in alternative spaces for showing work stems from a rejection of gallery authority, commiserate with democratic means of creation and learning, but it equally has to do with an increased appetite and appreciation for work that does not fit in a white box. As claimed by the many graffiti artists with art school training: “I paint on walls.” But paradox, that most truthful mechanism of perceiving reality, rises again in the cycle; this newness is canonized and reinforced by bringing work into the controlled environment of galleries and biennials. This broadening of the post-gatekeeper sphere encourages interdisciplinary collaboration. Groups show work in areas that can be designed conceptually in relation to the piece as a whole, freed from considerations of the “borrowed” room. Work is free to absorb the qualities of the group’s manipulated spaces. And the gallery director’s concerns of monetized authorship dissipate in the face of collaboration.
We acknowledge the ongoing, if evolved, nature of gatekeepers in design and art, and this variety is an intrinsic positive. Some absolutes do remain. Galleries extend the idea of authorship by publishing artist interviews in their blogs, though the same mechanism can give collaboratives an equal, but joint, voice. HOW is no longer the only path to fame. Killing a system that caters to a limited design view will benefit the innovators and collaborators who believe that their voice is strongest under a collective umbrella. Simultaneously, HOW’s online presence can grow and adapt to this diversity without needing to rely exclusively on the limited viewership of traditional industry vets. In the latter example, the gatekeeper stays, but the curation evolves.
The post-gatekeeper world is faster. More diverse. More collaborative.
The Thing Is…
The accessibility of distribution and authorship now allow flexibility of production, and a bypassing of particular gatekeeper structures—and skipping gatekeeper structures eliminates their much-mocked rubber-stamping. Thus, designers can bypass the vindicating recommendations from faculty. In the flood of DIY design proliferation expanding at the speed of blog, however, the humanization of a body of work via faculty and peers can help provide necessary context within the design industry, as it tends to be an incestuous and self-congratulatory field. Fortunately for those working without the safety net of a degree, design is extremely accepting of new talent, tools, and perspectives, even under the purview of seasoned eyes. Very often, the welcome wagons are driven by gatekeepers excited by the prospect of promoting alternative backgrounds and interdisciplinary experimenters.
James Newell Osterberg was raised in a trailer park somewhere in Indian Name, Michigan, making his decision to become a drummer somewhat preordained. But intervention came one vibrant Jim Morrison performance later + Mick Jagger + James Brown + Osterberg’s invention of The Stage Dive = Iggy Pop. Music’s great Indie Interdisciplinary Collaborator wove a mantle and then wore it permanently.
Iggy is most commonly associated with The Stooges—canonized by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. But even a cursory bio read will give your inner collaborator a bad stage dive’s worth of whiplash. Sure, it helps a musician’s collab-cred when David Bowie adopts you as an ongoing personal Maker-buddy, superseding even the moral boundaries of rehab facilities. Both legends transcended genres, drugs, and time, embracing their status as statesmen, and moving seamlessly between multiple teams of Creatives. Even so, Iggy stands alone as a Collaborator of Note due to the breadth of his interdisciplinary work, seemingly bringing out the very best of each inventor he works with.
He sang on “Punkrocker,” the Swedish electronic group Teddybears’ best song, which feels like custom Iggy. Bowie’s “China Girl” was actually an Iggy Pop song. In fact, Bowie’s recordings of Iggy songs helped the latter out financially with royalties during some particularly tight times. The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones worked with Iggy on the cult film Repo Man. Iggy sang with Lou Reed in the animated film Rock & Rule. “Candy,” from Iggy’s album Brick by Brick, was a duet with Kate Pierson of the B-52’s and his most commercially successful song to that point. Green Day, The Trolls, Peaches, and Sum 41 all collaborated with a reunited Stooges on Skull Ring. Madonna requested The Stooges to perform her songs in her place for her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction concert. Iggy sang on the Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse track, “Pain.” Slash’s solo effort featured Iggy on “We’re All Gonna Die,” and Ke$ha tapped Iggy for “Dirty Love,” proving the icon’s penchant for making everyone around him better, regardless of genre. Some additional collaborations include several early Johnny Depp film projects, voice work including Lil’ Rummy on Comedy Central’s Lil’ Bush, and a give-and-take role with Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis).
Iggy Pop initially gained attention through unexpected musical innovations, no doubt helped along by performances that included rolling around in broken glass, but his ongoing footprint has much more to do with finding conceptually companionable projects with colleagues who extend beyond his prototypical dominion within American Punk. In cases of projects with Satrapi and Bowie, all parties take turns initiating work and inviting the other as a contributor, as opposed to a hierarchical or medium-specific organization of Creative and Labor. Given that so many of Iggy’s projects, musical and otherwise, occurred outside of a major label or mainline pop trend solidifies his status as an Indie outsider, but his ability to make everything he touches his collaborators’ best work makes him an exemplar collaborative Indie link.
Goodbye Gatekeepers: Genres Are Gone
The truth is, music hasn’t had a real use for the term “Indie” recently. Whether it’s a technical definition, the lack of a “mainstream” (major) label, or a broader understanding of an inherently outsider genre, the Internet has brought in new business models that have smoothed out the idea of High and Low art by any traditional music definition. The outsiderness of something based on perceptions of intrinsic medium quality—battles long waged in other disciplines, including comic book illustrators like Daniel Clowes, Dave McKean, and Scott McCloud, as well as fine/commercial artist Takashi Murakami—has moved to the background as everything is now laid out on the remixer’s table. Availability and access cut down walls of the taboo, allowing Irony Culture to pillage the distinctiveness of everything. For music, and especially for naturally hybrid genres like rock, the mainstream label benefit has diminished while production and dissemination gear proliferated, but the overall pool of money has vanished. Bands survive primarily by touring, not recording. All of these threads have opened the doors to widespread innovation since labels no longer exert control brought on by Protecting the Investment. In short, invention has been pushed by Indie music, but now many bands flit between genres, have equal access to the Great Popularity Pageant, and create without financial decisions impinging on creative ones. This entire arc of Indie music has parallels to Indie graphic design.
The contemporary music landscape features many highlightable sea changes and innovations, but what was once the Indie domain of pushing envelopes everywhere now has little to do with labels or even music genres. OK Go achieved a success-bump when a lo-fi video of the prepped-out band performing a choreographed treadmill routine set to their song went viral, launching them as video artists as much as musicians and leading eventually to a gig at the Guggenheim. For perspective, Baltimore’s Animal Collective also performed at the Guggenheim, and they epitomize the Elder Statesmen of Indie Darlings. OK Go does represent that the new Indie music innovations are often interdisciplinary and that their outsiderness transcends genre titles. Hip-hop group Death Grips’ great accomplishment, according to Spin, is actually deleting themselves from the Internet. Jack White set up a self-serve recording booth in a local Tennessee mall. EDM-pioneering Daft Punk ditched their now mainstreamed digital sampling for live performances with both Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder at the 56th Grammy Awards, promoting an album that garnered attention primarily for stunning inter-genre technical recording prowess. Girl Talk’s hyper-sampled compositions, notwithstanding access to all media and cheap tools, have made remixing, both literally and figuratively, the new normal.
Innovative design collaborators also push design by working outside of traditional medium and genre definitions, making the concept of specialization less relevant than exploring interdisciplinary systems, considering 4D and interactive as layers instead of ends, and a general affinity for sacred-less remixing. The explosion of graphic design’s popularity, like journalism, is partly due to the availability of digital tools and the interest in exploring how to communicate with those tools. Designers have dropped the need for extreme legibility, uniformity, and printability in relation to expressiveness, branding, voice, and usability; in short, craft vs. experimentation. This influential outsider-voice mirrors Indie and Punk music as a grassroots creation. Meaning, smaller studios and collaboratives are now exerting as much influence on the design industry as mainstream big boys like Pentagram and JWT. Just as Lorde can blow up in a month, so too can Infantree. Without gatekeepers, impacts beyond the Indie’s modest financial footprints gain traction even within the mainstream: Andrew Blauvelt’s taping mechanics for the Walker’s type-able kit of parts identity shares design-DNA with 2X4’s Brooklyn Museum of Art blue bubble B system and Experimental Jetset’s Responsive W for the Whitney. These anti-classical monolith approaches to identity development bring this Indie vibe to large, mainstream cultural institutions.
Design, like music, may be led from the fringes, as the lines between Insider and Outsider vanish in light of medium accessibility. And because everyone in the design industry has access to the same equipment: the kinds of experimentation, mutual savvy, and informal conversations that are happening in smaller studio collaboratives with curious, angryoungandpoor designers is proving unique, trendsetting, and searchable.
The issue with the Indie label is that the lines between Outsider and Insider are thin and perhaps irrelevant. In music, inter-genre work is happening in an environment where the impact of major labels has dissipated post-Napster. In design, the trends toward interdisciplinary and accessibility trends have had a similar impact: Post Typography can compete from a Baltimore studio with a collaborative that is half design and half illustration by training.
They say I’m just a stupid kid
Another crazy radical
Rock ’n’ roll is dead
I probably should have stayed in school
sang Cage the Elephant on “In One Ear,” a cheerful “screw you” to anyone who felt that Industry and Numbers drive Content or Innovation in the contemporary music scene. This is the Post Typography attitude regarding the Death of Print as they drop Vimeo process videos of their letterpress posters.
Furthermore, collaborative Indie design takes full advantage of the low post-print startup costs. Without the availability of money and rules in a collapsed label-scape, Radiohead continued to find unusual ways to put their music in the hands of fans through the first sanctioned Pay What You Want release model of In Rainbows and by uploading raw bits of footage for fans to make their own Radiohead music videos. Beck found similarly Indie methods of musical reach, with album artwork for The Information that was a big, folded sheet of grid paper and a raft of stickers, as well as an album released only as sheet music with a site for fans to upload their own performances that became the Official Recording. The Gorillaz launched a satirical “mind-numbing, mission driven” interactive game-site to sync with their album Plastic Beach.
Innovation has not been tied exclusively, or even primarily, to distribution costs and means, but also to remixing, sampling, and repurposing. The openness, and lack of money to drive decisions, has meant that rock ’n’ roll is permanently alive, both for throwback practitioners like Cage the Elephant and remixers like Girl Talk. Rock is more diverse and more vibrantly progressive than any other contemporary music genre, though the form is so loose that this allegation is cheating. The malleability of rock, its history of collaborative interaction with the audience, and its huge range of performance practices and historical musical influences all contribute to its diversity. This creates a wide-open landscape for experimentation and play, so long as the goal for the Makers is not “Be Rich.” Much of modern music, and design, can be described as Indie, both in spirit and actuality. It’s just poor. The Indie designers reflect this. The Heads of State gains traction as contemporary printmakers, though the financial advantage to such a career is zilch. Go Welsh promotes community interaction by installing donated pianos, painted hot pink, on Lancaster, Pennsylvania street corners. And printmaking is the hottest field in art schools, as frustrated designers finally give-in to their repressed inner Makers. What the Internet does not provide in interdisciplinary collaborative opportunities, makerspaces and hackerspaces provide; hungry designers gain the room and tools they need to share an Indie collaborative community outside of corporate support.
But style, influence, and accessibility pale in the Indie design quiver compared to the Gold Standard of design stars, the bazooka of cred: Bigass Clients. As Mad Men makes abundantly clear, the success of designers is defined more by the financial success of their clients, not necessarily the work. Success is judged by the outright Scale of the company. In the AMC show, the ad firm, Sterling Cooper & Partners, breaks every moral boundary imaginable in pursuit of the big boys: car and airline clients. The logic is that having Coke on the resume is more important than the actual design work for Coke. Historically, the (design) public only associated specific work with specific creators once the creators were famous enough to warrant a tome with THEIR name embossed on the cover, so piggybacking off the reputation of a client was the indicator of success for the non-names. Paul Sahre’s posters in Baltimore, an attempt to innovate and stay sane while working on mundane client work, catapulted him to New York and the School of Visual Arts (SVA), becoming an Indie Darling in the process. These are rare occurrences; big studios usually gobbled up the young Creatives like Google and the NSA does today.
Goodbye Groupie: Popstars vs. Indie Darlings
The genre-bending and genre-iterating performances of Iggy Pop made him a weirdo Outsider Icon, whereas David Bowie’s similarly bendy innovations pedestalled him as pop’s Fearless Leader, so much so that his music was used as a touchstone symbol in A Knight’s Tale, parallel to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Design has its own innovative Indie rockstars, whose footprints sometimes become pedestals as they ascend thrones as Popstars. David Carson’s influence was massive, sure, but it’s now distinctly dated, pinning the artist as a New Wave genre figurehead, more than a continuing contemporary innovator. The same goes for Popstar James Victore and his signed posters, snowed under by the enormous quantity, diversity, and experimentation of the hybrid illustrator/printmaker/designer-as-artist-types producing voice-heavy band posters with no hope of much financial or career-boosting windfall. Music’s Indie Darlings got swallowed by iTunes and New York, whereas design’s Indie Darlings have usurped the thrones of their elders. These small interdisciplinary collaboratives are devoid of fame-seeking Single Shtickness and are instead empowered by an internal push-pull dialogue, consistently articulating new post-box horizons. Sagmeister & Walsh is a great example of a constantly innovating and evolving Indie collaborative. In fact, Stefan Sagmeister takes sabbaticals from his studio work to further his research, like all good Indie rockers writing new work. Meanwhile, many of the early pioneers perch grumpily, stencil-branding their own soapboxes. The name-branded ’90s typographers Mr. Keedy, Ed Fella, Zuzana Licko, P. Scott Makela, and pop-activists Shepard Fairey and Jonathan Barnbrook, rockstars who became Popstars, are now accompanied by nimble-fingered collaboratives known less for pure genre mastery and more for genre collision brought on by a collaborative view of authorship. Rob Giampietro is a Literature and Graphic Design alum of Yale University whose collaborators at Project Projects do things like create and tag typefaces for glow-in-the-dark exhibition signage at a vacant meat packaging warehouse.
If graphic design has its rockstars, surely it has Indie Darlings: Iggie Pop rolling through broken glass is Stefan Sagmeister’s X-acto-lettered torso. The fact that Sagmeister, Martin Venezky, Marian Bantjes, and Candy Chang have established successful design careers despite work that bucks the GetMeACommercialJobAsIDefinedInMyInternetBrainLust-addled thoughtprocesstrends of many modern design students is somewhat astounding, and it does reinforce the idea that producing quality innovation has no intrinsic tie to financial compensation or clientele. The explosion of interest in design has many threads, but part of the rising numbers of graduate students, small studios, and non-commercial projects, is driven by a belief that unexpected and self-guided Indie work is valuable, even if there is nary a CEO in sight. That designers of all vibes are able to get their personal projects into the public mind through How and other curated blogs is obvious. But the plaque of Designer as Popstar With the Book Deal has given ground to any good hook getting a voice via self-publishing. Even Amazon has become a legitimate opportunity for innovating authors who have been rejected by traditional and established publishing companies. The Work is now the primary standard of Indie cred, thanks partly to tweets and posts, as opposed to an inflexible and trademarked Standard of Arrival.
Yet as modern communication democracy raised the design floor and lowered the design ceiling, design’s accessibility manifested as demo tape havens, like DeviantArt, building a sense of community, collaboration, and Copyleft perspective among designers at an early stage. By the time they hit design school, where the winnowing begins, many ideals are already in play. Since everyone has the ability to make, promote, distribute, and access projects, the Indie alternative to major studios has led to a wealth of small collaborative studios and startups. This Indie-cred proliferation helps combat stratification manifested by the sheer number of newly minted MFA designers interning at JWT, desperately hoping to climb a traditional ladder. While the mainstream Majors will continue to find success, the Indie designers, photographers, and writers are banding together in basements, reaching clients and building highly tailored relationships, all without shipping up to NYC or LA. As an Indie, these small collaboratives eschew the pursuit of shiny clients in favor of particular jobs that allow them to do the kind of work they’re interested in. Businesses seek out these highly specific alternative voices. In this landscape, Coke is only a gold standard if they want the ads typeset in a font made from dehydrated syrup, custom built and installed by Chuck Taylored Indiedolls in an abandoned warehouse via flashlight. Traditional agencies cannot afford to touch such projects, but for an Indie with boots planted amongst the masses, it’s a dream job.
Because of the McMEGA Client as Design Standard, BFA programs have been slow to reflect the Indie Design of Now, but some are shifting. Schools still advertise their faculty based on a list of clients, as if that indicates anything at all about the program, courses, professor, or their work. It’s the equivalent of listing the number of papers an art history professor has written without mentioning what they are about. Listing clients does not even convey medium information about a designer, whereas art history faculty usually have their lines of inquiry advertised. But as schools launch open-ended spaces—for collaboration between designers, for launching startups, for interdisciplinary work that often extends beyond assignments—the value of Indie design may be starting to shift within academia. Perhaps the still unconquered bastion of industry control is the prevalent internship model, which downplays the role of Indie collaboration and voice-heavy, open-ended production in favor of slaving as a support posse for Pop Stars. Incidentally, the resulting inequality of job descriptions creates poor soil for growing as collaborators. Sans investment, agencies are often uninterested in the interns as full-on members, acting as if the internship is a favor for the youngsters. Realizing this trend, many smaller studios have made an overt point to adopt interns as team members. By treating school as an opportunity for fostering startups and student-run studios, faculty are attempting to more accurately and holistically reflect real world collaborative experiences.
Anything You Can Do, We Can Do Without You
Director Spike Jonze asked Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to do the soundtrack for the 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are. He also asked Dave Eggers to do the writing. Maurice Sendak, the original writer and illustrator of the kids’ book, served as a producer on the film. Beyond the fantastically engineered costumes, custom-crafted music, and handwritten credits, what makes this Indie film unlike any other blockbuster arose out of Spike’s commitment to the piece above studio pressure and commercial endorsement. Disagreements with Universal prompted Spike to take his film to Warner Brothers to finish. The result was one of the most important and poignant children’s films in history.
Jack White apprenticed with an upholsterer for three years, writing poetry on the inside of fabric and practicing guitar in his first band, The Upholsterers. He slept on the floor of his Detroit apartment without a bed to make room for his drum kit. With his first major break, The White Stripes’ self-titled album, Jack forced the small Detroit-based label, Italy Records, to alter their green sticker, claiming that if they didn’t understand the band’s peppermint color scheme, then they had no business working together. Jack White now manages Third Man Records, collaborating with many musicians on solo projects, The Dead Weather, and The Raconteurs.
The point is, sustainable collaboratives are not at the mercy of anything or anyone anymore. When rock ’n’ roll terminated in its logical extreme with KISS, musicians were able to regroup and reinvent the industry. This is exactly where graphic design is at thirty years later, and in the fringes we’re beginning to see frustrated, burnt designers coming together, armed with cardboard and assorted caps, tweeting their hearts on their wrists. Collaborating with one voice may mean not collaborating with another. Indie musicians established the benefits to money-less priorities as a way to carve out a distinct platform, and design collaboratives are following them onto the stage.
We will be forcibly removed from the big container (1) of infinite fun and loaded into Mom’s pressure cooker of a Caravan one hour from now. A sloshing clump of sand at the bottom of our sneakers will be our only souvenir, and to our dismay, Mom will make us bang the canvas urns upside-down against the spare tire before departure. Our socks will be used to dislodge all remaining granules stuck ’twixt toes. Eventually, we acquiesce, quickly force-quitting the burning macadam that turned our pink flesh to yellow callus in a matter of seconds. Worse than wrecked skin, in a few hours, the mountain will be gone.
Our mountains are truly impressive, and I’m not just saying that because I helped make them. They grow from nothingness (4) to dominate the bare terrain (10). The other schoolchildren build wussy mountains—their speed bumps a reflection of low level culture. Overly ornate speed bumps. To clarify, there are two schools of thought on this: sandcastles should either be lavishly detailed and oozing Gothic icing, or they should be sensationally imposing, “like a giant dildo crushing the sun” to borrow from Beck’s “Pay No Mind.” We make the latter: huge, loose piles that give the astronauts something to photograph. Other kids’ sandcastles are an embarrassment to childhood. In their defense, there are no earth-moving apps yet, so dirty hands are an imperative, which they find confusing (9). Plus, finishlineless projects perplex the linear-thinking kids.
Danny and I (2) mix in clay and water from the fountain (8) to make a wet slurry, the clay being our secret ingredient. The sticky wetness prevents the mountain’s weight from collapsing in on itself when we plow a tunnel straight through its guts. Adding mud is technically against the rules (there’s even a sign that says so) but those external forces aren’t part of our world (3). Playground rules are either internal or irrelevant, indicated by the middle school skaters lurking nearby. Running back and forth to the water fountain is probably the hardest chore, but I usually volunteer because the heat raises it to the stature of a water park (6).
The work goes well and we work effectively, though for some reasonless reason Danny perpetually stabs some kind of wimpy, useless twig into the top of Sandy Olympus. Danny’s sense of aesthetics has yet to resolve, but he’s a cool kid, so I deal (5) and develop the mountain’s ceremonial backstory involving an anemic race called the Twigger Folk (7). Danny and I build the mountain, then Reuben and his gang take over after we leave, turning the sand patch into a model of the Marianas Trench. This usually means we have to start from scratch when we return, and we grumble out of principle, but secretly we’re glad for the excuse to make something even bigger and louder the next day.
(1) Forced encounters between disciplines and practitioners; (2) Physical proximity of colleagues; (3) Open-ended production outcomes and deadlines; (4) Environmental liberties through spacial and structural malleability; (5) Intellectual diversity; (6) Play element; (7) Distraction or excuse element; (8) Accessibility of gear, tools, supplies; (9) Safety zone and freedom to fail; (10) Inspiration and motivation
It’s tempting to consider Play as a concept in relation to design environments as purely the search for the collaborative cure-all, Fun. As if, dissecting the environments of design collaboratives will help us understand how the walls influence the people, leading to discovery of a mythical kernel where the Playground produces Smiles, elegant Interactions, thus birthing immaculate Works. Sometimes games are employed: rockstar David Carson flaunted his lack of a formal design education by refusing to recycle formal design jabs and hooks from piece to piece. But Play isn’t intrinsically about having fun, even though play often is fun. Play is about designing environments that foster collaborative interactions and idea-sparks, enabling fringe thinking.
It’s easy to forget how to play. Designers who feel like production cogs may forget the rush of a highly collaborative environment, enjoying company and the process of invention. Playing is how designers work to find new ideas through trial and error. Throwing things at walls to test stickiness carries the illicit thrill of getting to throw things at walls.
On My Design Wish List of life-simplifiers: <working></together>. Unfortunately, there is no magic list of advice-bullets for increasing collaboration via environment: put tables on 45° angles, install large ceiling fans in a modular grid, install sprinklers to water designers biweekly; but looking for commonalities of effective facilities can distill some overlapping traits. While building an argument for the role of environments in promoting interdisciplinary collaboration, Sandboxing parses example groupings and lists the threads after each section.
Bell Labs + Infinite Loop + Yahoo! + Eyebeam
Whiz kid Mervin Kelly, from the mining town of Gallatin, Missouri, missed the technological buzz of the Industrial Revolution, not to mention the hyper-accessible, hyper-connected, hyper-collaborative Information Age away in the future. Over time, Kelly absorbed new ideas regarding the tech magic of radioactivity and X-rays, worshiping the innovation cultures of Henry Ford and Nikola Tesla. Culture was evolving, highlighted by the World Fairs, which began shifting emphasis away from novel technologies to a showcase of socially conscious ideas.
Fast Company’s editor, Jon Gertner, writes in The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation that, while his peers invested in mechanical skill, Kelly gravitated towards the intellectual, a person who was able to explain how and why the machine worked. Both influenced and influencer of technological advances, Kelly became a master at fostering innovation through collaboration during his chairmanship of Bell Labs from 1925 to 1959. Under Kelly, patents were received for the first transistor (the building block of digital communication), silicon solar cell, laser light, communications satellite, cellular telephone, fiber optic cable, and computer programming languages Unix and C. Keystone of his deft orchestration of many large-scale and diverse projects was encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration through the work environment and atmosphere.
Kelly believed in an “institute of creative technology,” and this informed every decision from the architecture of the facilities to the type of people he hired and the location of their offices. The layout of the buildings at Bell Labs’ headquarters, the Black Box designed by Eero Saarinen, allowed Kelly to introduce and enforce the policy of physical contact through forced proximity: a never-ending hallway with a literal open-door policy. Gertner describes the interdisciplinary interactions that occurred as “a physicist on his way to lunch…was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.”
Another iteration of the Forced Encounters approach is Apple’s under construction Infinite Loop headquarters: a Philip K. Dick-ian saucer-doughnut landed in the middle of Cupertino, California. The architecture is inspired by the infinite loop programming principle, which lists a sequence of instructions for the computer that continues endlessly. The floor plan of this ideologically eponymous building is similar to that employed by Bell Labs’ vanishing point hallways, encouraging forced encounters between people.Letter Together is an Indie typography workshop run by designers Jessica Hische and Erik Marinovich at their San Francisco studio, Title Case. During the events, designers draw letterforms, blending their own input within the intent of the whole: forced encounters on a personal scale. Hische invites twelve random participants across a one-day or two-day intensive period to collaborate on generating a refined, vectored alphabet by the end of the weekend. Dynamo doughnuts, coffee, fancy sandwiches, and beer appease new acquaintances and keep typographic spirits lively.
A second facet of Bell Labs’ success was Kelly’s orchestration of a diverse group of researchers in opposition to the prevailing trend of assembling homogeneous, yessir think-tankers. Groupthink, even under the IDEO form of Alex Osborn’s Brainstorming, can eliminate aggressive outlier concepts by the peer pressure of critical mass, or worse, diminish personal responsibility within innovation. At Bell Labs, discussions were intentionally less top-down, favoring dialogue over consultation. A positive result of this interdisciplinary collaborative dynamic was smarter decisions supported by joint authorship.
A third factor was Mr. Kelly’s belief in intellectual freedom as crucial to innovation, and he successfully managed to keep creativity separate from business, even if it meant spending lots of money on ideas that did not produce results for two years, if ever. By way of comparison, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg outlines one of Facebook’s mottos as, “Move fast and break things.” Bell Labs, on the other hand, followed a methodically collaborative code of deliberate open-endedness.
Taking cues from her former job at Google, Marissa Mayer began resuscitation of the flailing Yahoo! immediately after becoming Chief Executive in July 2012. Yahoo! had formerly been operating under the “Work From Home” 2.0 policy, but it determined isolation was not, in fact, working. Yahoo! struggled to maintain a relevant and consistent Internet presence. So in May of 2013, under Mayer’s direction, Yahoo! switched things up and began renting four floors in the old New York Times building near Times Square. Now, 500 Yahoo! employees physically work amongst colleagues from Tumblr, in addition to independent tech firms 10gen and Citysearch. John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University and the overseer of a human resources advisory firm, endorsed Mayer’s push for collaboration as a means toward innovation. In The New York Times article, “Yahoo Orders Home Workers Back to the Office” by Claire Cain Miller and Catherine Rampell, Sullivan claims, “Studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative. If you want innovation, then you need interaction. If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.” For graphic designers, production is important, but innovation is imperative.
One innovative environment example is Eyebeam, a smaller, non-profit, Indie warehouse that invites broad and diverse inventors, artists, designers, technologists, historians, writers, and anyone in between to conceive new media and advance culture through forced encounters, physical proximity, and open-ended production outcomes. Since opening in 1997, Eyebeam has conducted hundreds of fellowships, residencies, educational programs, workshops, marathons, performances, exhibitions, and lectures. Self-describing their mission, they say, “Eyebeam challenges convention, celebrates the hack, educates the next generation, encourages collaboration, freely offers its contributions to the community, and invites the public to share in a spirit of openness: open source, open content, and open distribution.” For example, Data Visualization marathons hijack a couple hundred students nationally for a 24-hour collaboratively competitive workshop to best visualize contemporaneously significant data. For Eyebeam residents, innovation is directly tied to collaboration. Taken together, these examples indicate several helpful traits in constructing collaborative environments and atmospheres:
(1) Forced encounters between disciplines and practitioners
(2) Physical proximity of colleagues
(3) Open-ended production outcomes and deadlines
Building 20 + Company
The building: one concrete slab supported five wings of three floors constructed from a hodgepodge of large wooden posts, Masonite, gypsum wallboard, and tar paper as the cherry on top. Microwave radar was invented here. The building was the most inventive facility in America. Architects, shudder.
Building 20, the MIT eyesore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was hastily constructed in 1943 as a makeshift Rad Lab, staging hundreds of scientists specifically solicited to develop a radar device that could identify distant German bombers during WWII. Given the harried circumstances at the time, people were considerably unconcerned about sporting a fashionable workspace. The result was a shoddy structure that, to everyone’s surprise, stood fifty-five years longer than intended, and by the time of its demise, Building 20 had earned a reputation as a magical incubator. About a quarter of all the physicists in America had worked there at some point and nine of them won a Nobel Prize. How could a big ramshackle shed loom so large?
Mainly, because nobody cared about Building 20. It was cheap, expendable, under-designed, and temporary. The resident intellectuals felt at liberty to openly abuse the space and adapt it towards their own research needs. Students and educators re-routed electrical wiring, suspended heavy machinery, and even installed anechoic chambers for testing sound quality. Jerrold Zacharias removed two floors in his lab to make room for a three-story atomic clock. The results were unpredictable, incessantly evolving. Building 20 provided the perfect collision of space and lawlessness to facilitate experimentation.
Intellectual diversity was the dominant feature. Physicists, linguists, model railroad club enthusiasts, hackers, sound engineers, electronics technicians, video game developers, anthropologists, philosophers, and the ROTC populated the grab bag. Urban theorist Jane Jacobs refers to this as knowledge spillovers: an exchange of ideas among individuals placed together. Jacobs says, “The proximity of firms from different industries affect how well knowledge travels among firms to facilitate innovation and growth.” In other words, reducing the physical constraints of an environment staging an interdisciplinary group encourages cross-pollination of ideas, resulting in invention.
Amar Bose, incidentally, built the country’s first hi-fi speakers while distracted by the Acoustics Lab down the hall. Morris Halle, in conjunction with Noam and Carol Chomsky, innovated syntax and phonology in two dingy offices. Even a homeless botanist squatting in a storeroom didn’t feel out of place.
This type of interaction was partly spurred by the horizontal configuration of the space and a very poor labeling system. Rooms were not organized by subject or purpose, and chance encounters were normal. Unmovable equipment accumulated, and residents constantly adapted and repurposed space. This kind of unintentional remixing impacted by the environment is unlikely to occur in the hyper-specific designs, hierarchies, and organization of modern schools.
For contrast, Max Barry satirizes common corporate environments in his novel Company. Unlike the beautiful mosh-pit of intellects at Building 20, Barry’s corporate building is overtly hierarchical. The floors of the high-rise office are ranked by importance, so employees can literally work their way up to the top. Level 1, which is the top-most floor, is for CEOs; Level 2: Senior Management; Level 3: Human Resources; all the way down to Level 19: The Call Center; and Level 20: The Lobby. The intentional result of the rules and division of labor is that none of the employees can explain what the Company does at all.
(4) Environmental liberties through spatial and structural malleability
(5) Intellectual diversity
Googleplex + Silver Factory + Appetite Engineers
What worked for Bell Labs and Building 20 also works for Danny and Sally in the Sandbox circa second grade. Collaboration functions best when the participants are free to try the unusual and the imaginative, playing with concepts to create a world. Grounding the narrative in the design community, compare the large-format brainstorming canonized at IDEO with the intrinsic differences of a small collaborative. Instead of outlier concepts getting swarmed under or held back altogether, all concepts are accepted outliers. Extreme concepts fit in, though they may be reigned in eventually; but it’s hard to go the other way, taking the mundane and making it more interesting. Thus, the Play Element, not only in the early stages where the Sandbox is a blank canvas of latent exploration but continuing even after a direction is chosen, allows designers to freely evolve formal and conceptual schemes. The goals and confluence of circumstances with playing in a Sandbox are so utterly straightforward to kids: obviously the mountain needs to have a tunnel so that Micro Machines can roll through…
Googleplex has a big, red, multi-person (collaborative) slide. Google’s Workplace as Playground concept provides spaces for interactions, planned and unplanned, as well as distractions for thinkspace. Hundreds of niche environments populate the 2,000,000-square foot complex. Everything from graffiti-ridden subway cars to Stanley Kubric space pods, row boats equipped with a comforter, and hammocks surrounded by palm trees create a collaborative atmosphere in which employees want to work and spend their free time on campus. Pixar employs a similar environment, including Razor scooters for transit, creating easy, fast, fun physical proximity in a large facility.
For a contrasting example, tin-foil wallpaper, silver paint, and silver balloons drifting along the ceiling were all it took to create a collaborative play atmosphere on a smaller scale and budget for New York’s most famous Pop artist. Salvaged from the street, a red couch became a popular crash spot for guests. Billy Name “designed” The Silver Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio and the hippest hangout spot in New York. Everyone from Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí to Truman Capote and Allen Ginsberg congregated there. “Warhol Superstars” labored day and night preparing screens, running prints, photographing the assembly line, and producing films. The non-stop glam party—frenetic interdisciplinary interactions and collaborations, mixed with focused production—defined The Silver Era (1962–1984) as Warhol’s most productive period.
Excuses and Distractions are also an integral part of design collaboration, and both The Factory and Googleplex provide fertile space for interaction and minds to idle through such prompts as game tables at bars, cappuccinos from Internet cafés, libraries, restaurants, and studio space. A relaxed, distracted state is less self-censoring, allowing for more extreme ideation, whether alone or in dialogue. Many designers entertain several collaborative projects simultaneously, allowing the works to incubate and provide mental relief from each other. This enables cross-pollination and alleviates Designer’s Block. Research from the University of Chicago regarding ambient noise levels indicates that the hum of a coffee shop boosts creativity; there is a brainbalance sweet spot of noise prompts versus focused quiet in which the mind is able to wander without losing focus. Inspired by multiple examples of successful groups of designers and other Creatives launching from coffee shops, the data-fed site Coffitivity pipes in coffee shop noises through an Internet radio stream and promotes the science of distracted creativity.
Somewhat similar to Warhol, graphic designer Martin Venezky has a factory, only it’s more like a warehouse, and it contains lots of kipple. Coined by Philip K. Dick, kipple is the result of entropy on stuff. Venezky’s studio, Appetite Engineers, is highly production-oriented, and much of Venezky’s work relies on a quantity of available elements to physically play with, often physically building up designs through collage. By having a wealth of materials, influences, and gear on hand, his studio minions can engage in collaborative Sandboxing, where minds on break or at play have room to build on the fringes, often in direct response to environmental variables. Outside of the visual world, play is an important element of making. Writers’ rooms within the TV and film industries are often known for using in-house banter and live conversation as production-oriented play, with the dialoguers building trust via laughter-ridden friendships.
(6) Play element
(7) Distraction or excuse element
(8) Accessibility of gear, tools, supplies
The Bauhaus + Cranbrook Academy of Art
Schools are a microcosm. As collaborative Sandboxes, many design programs seek to prioritize the accessibility of gear and tools too. Schools are in a unique position to provide the Freedom to Fail as a component of learning through risk-taking, exploring limits, and collaboration.
The Bauhaus was one of the first modern design schools, and it remains the graphic design industry’s prototypical model for education. It existed in the time between the World Wars, from 1919 to 1933, and moved from Weimar to Dessau and finally ended up in a Nazi-ridden Berlin, where the school was forced to close. Founded by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus was originally inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement in Belgium. The school resulted from a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts & Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. As a result, the Bauhaus supported the idea of creating a gestalt, a total work of art. Arts and Craftsman William Morris (unsuccessfully) advocated this idea of combining art and life fifty years before the Bauhaus in an attempt to break arrogant barriers between fine artists and craftsmen and to bring high-quality design to all socioeconomic classes. The only hiccup was that his well-designed, everyday goods were too expensive for everyday life. Gropius stated that the goal of the Bauhaus was to unify art, craft, and technology on an affordable budget, and that the students would be trained as applied fine artists working in the industry. The Bauhaus offered everything that a contemporary art school does: architecture, graphic design, photography, printmaking, industrial design, textile art, painting, pottery, sculpture, and theater. This interdisciplinary program, and the accessibility of the diverse practitioners, gear, and ideas, is at the heart of the Bauhaus model.
Packaged with interdisciplinary experimentation was the Freedom to Fail. Exploring relationships and trying a range of mediums carries a guarantee of some busted stuff, but it also leads to new inquiries.
There are three main reasons why the Bauhaus was a successful Sandbox. (1) The school had copious facilities fraught with professors actively conducting their own research amongst their students. (2) Barriers between disciplines were down-played. (3) An interdisciplinary curriculum + curious and enthusiastic wandering bodies = peer-to-peer education. The Bauhaus was Building 20 as an academic model. When German intellectuals fled to the States during WW2, Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina inherited Bauhaus faculty, leading to scenes of Josef Albers on one side of the desk and Ray Johnson on the other.Another oft-copied design school platform is Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a graduate art school influenced by interdisciplinary Bauhaus formats. Designers, architects, ceramicists, fabric designers, metalsmiths, painters, photographers, printmakers, and sculptors cross-pollinate on pretty much everything. At Cranbrook, students primarily evolve their work through crit as opposed to coursework—there are no classes. The informal structure also encourages open-ended experimentation, accepting that not everything will work. From 1971 through 1995, Katherine and Michael McCoy co-chaired the 2D and 3D MFA Design programs respectively, and revamped the Cranbrook agenda with more theory, experimentation, collaboration, and a de-emphasis on deadlines, papers, and finals. Faculty function as Artists in Residence, working alongside the students. It’s true that the design work generated at Cranbrook tends to downplay the interests of the profession and align more with design as fine art, but this environment equips work that then defines the profession. Cranbrook has cemented its experimental status through contemporary rockstars, including Andrew Blauvelt, Ed Fella, Meredith Davis, and Martin Venezky.
A suite of gorgeous architecture creates a protected hive of making-based research set amongst a bombed-out Detroit. With ample studio space, beautiful grounds, a renowned museum, practicing faculty, and access to diverse mediums, gear, and perspectives, Cranbrook’s inspiring setting encourages collaborative investigation and communication as both a means and ends.
(9) Safety zone and freedom to fail
(10) Inspiration and motivation
Calvin & Hobbes + The Silmarillion
Calvin and Hobbes are relevant Sandbox bookends because imagination is Calvin’s collaborative playground. Likewise, design is all about inventing worlds, with brand books being an overt example. Prior to writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien started by developing a fully realized map of Middle Earth and even invented entire Elvish languages replete with dialects (The Silmarillion). When it came time to write his fantastical stories, the narrative felt real because the world was real. A similar logic applies to creating a collaborative work environment that enables the group to assume its own identity, resolved and separate from its parts.
Aggressive content presented aggressively pinned the poplove ambassador with a flood of inquiries.…
Tagged as emerging artists, ras+e presented work during a gallery event with another local, but more established, Maker. The audience included a few fans, a few gallery execs from the region, and some vaguely curious folks drawn by the promise of free beer and hummus. Talks were short, with an emphasis on dialogue between the specifically paired/themed artists, the critics, and the community members. With an eye toward mentorship and interaction over “Look at what I made!” the street-designers avoided the standard Art Talk posturing, but the work was still the work.
The first presenter was known for spreading mural Love around the city. Whereas, ras+e showed a house-sized tech-for-eyes comic, which was a lot more dystopic than Love. The first artist’s presentation featured repetitive imagery and sporadically superfluous detail, with long silences for the images to speak for themselves: “…and here’s me and a stranger hugging at the grand opening of the Mulberry Street installation.” In turn, the feedback the first presenter received was agreeable, uncritical, mushy, disengaged, and flat. The small group formed a numb posse at best, enablers at worst.
Presenter Two launched with background inspiration: a photograph of an Adult Video sign adjacent to a billboard reading, “Jesus is watching you.” The aggression in the presentation along with the questioning posed through the lens of socially poignant work made the following Q&A engaging, informative, and investable for everyone. Some of this was design fundamentals: subverting expectations, interesting hooks, and curating language, all aimed toward an overt objective: meaningful dialogue.
For all the projects designers claim start conversations or promote awareness, the idea of designing language as a means to communicate effectively gets shrugged off as “content.” But words matter, language matters, and effective communication is really just Design as Design. The core concept of image and text can be revised to include spoken language. Writing as process, at the level of collaboration, becomes conversation as process.
All the things that good design is and does can be found in engaged conversation.
Dialogue as Process: Design and Discourse
Ideally, language connects people. Language allows a culture to communicate complex ideas, exchange higher-level thinking, and express the subtleties of human emotion. It is also the most exercised aspect of any culture. Technically speaking, a language is comprised of a system of signs or symbols that have been ascribed to meanings, often arbitrarily. This enables the sharing of knowledge in the form of transactive memory, or collective consciousness. Thus, language has the inherent ability to appease autonomy, placate loneliness, and promote relationships, community, and social networks. Users give a language its value by agreeing on meanings, but it is its evolution and adaptations that make language powerfully active. Language is a web, highly specific in its parameters and elements, linking, holding, defining—the umbrella communication form. This is why the systems-thinking of precisely articulated visual language is an important design buzz term. Graphic designers are defined as visual and verbal communicators, and while this definition applies to all of the arts, no painters were overheard talking about being communicators during research for this book.
Designers regularly come up with smart slogans and rhetorical puns, obsess over their hierarchy and presentation, and even author essays and lectures, but seldom do we parse the everyday language used behind the scenes: how do designers communicate during critiques and project development, or charettes and conferences, or via email and messaging? Despite fetishizing formal process, the writing end of it can get overlooked. But all good writing is poetic, coming to the designer embedded with siphon-able rhythm and contrast. The fine arts have a highly formalized, long-standing tradition of language, criticism, and written theory with no equal parallel in design. Perhaps some of the design doctorate programs will help build this discourse, but for now a PhD almost ensures the writing and writer will be locked up in academia, separated from the Makers and making of the discipline. Designers tend to shy away from addressing our verbal and written process, including the methods in which we converse, critique, and communicate about work. Design discourse matters because the way designers talk affects the kinds of things designers are prone to think about and the level at which we’re engaged to think about them. Speaking hard truths, developing inventive and specific language to move collaborators through process and ideas, crafting “spark plug” moments through visual and verbal language, and exploring multiple approaches to the critique and conceptualizing stages are all important. Design school pushes for all these elements by emphasizing Process as Learning, and hiring faculty specifically to innovate and push students within Dialogue as Process.
Take _____ for instance. _____ says, “I like Sally’s poster,” and repeats this single idea over the course of 43 seconds, struggling with searchable synonyms for “like” (thanks, Facebook). Blushing like a roman candle, _____ concludes with, “You know what I mean.” _____ is why critique faculty employ Exile as a teaching tool. While the class is thoroughly annoyed with _____, it’s not entirely her fault. Sure, some intellectual curiosity about Tolkien might help; but her professor spec’d a mind-numbing design vocabulary book, her roommate watches too much of The View and listens too little to Eminem, her Twitter profile is HottiePants451, and her girlfriend uses emoticons “for clarity.” The problem has less to do with a working knowledge of the words “symmetry” and “scale,” than that a narrowing cultural language allows for narrow human expression. _____’s language sets her up for failure. She knows how to be “nice” and articulate “nice” because “nice” has the least amount of resistance and commitment. The umbrella-descriptors dilute communication so that _____ avoids scuffles; “nice” and “like” are the language of complacency, vagueness, and neutrality. Some _____s even promote themselves as Dumb, or a Blonde, or a Dude, or a Peon—a veiled, blanket OK to be boring or stupid. Instead of requiring a book of vague art terms, _____ needs Slaughterhouse Five. Oscar Wilde is an imperative before _____ gets to Stop Stealing Sheep. For _____ to meaningfully contribute to a conversation, a crit, writing a headline, or a process dialogue of any sort, _____ needs to understand and value nuanced language!!!!! The ensuing breakdown of well-crafted language ties directly to design collaboration, placing ideas in cultural contexts. Dialogue is the most influential factor in smart interaction; designers can shapeshift, design, and control their vocabulary. Smarter language leads to smarter collaboration. William Isaacs, founder of the Dialogue Project at MIT, writes in Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together: “[To] change the way we talk is to change the way we think. We can influence and regenerate the inner ecology of human beings by transforming the quality of our conversations.” Designing effective collaboration requires designing effective dialogue, and the payoff is a well defined and highly specific means of production, as well as the ability to deliberately shift culture forward.
Unfortunately, economics and a declining valuation of design education and exploration are cutting into innovation, by knocking the legs out from under Process in favor of Speed and Money. Renowned interdisciplinary studio innovator Stefan Sagmeister noted as much in a designboom interview: “We have a group called ‘Second Tuesday’ and we meet every second month. There are about 15 people who run design firms. We always meet at someone’s home or studio. That person has to organize dinner and a subject. Sometimes these subjects are quite practical such as finances. Lately the topics have been focused more towards administration and business rather than cultural aspects.”
Dialogue as Process: Monotone Monolanguage
Society evolves language (sociolinguistics); conversely language directly impacts society (sociology of language). The cyclical result is that any cultural problems regarding language and design are exasperated. For collaborators and creators, context is everything.
In America, semiotics have been increasingly hammered by modern mediums. The need for smart messaging rapidly declined in the ’80s when a glut of cable TV meant sudden reams of unparse-able content. Form and concept development were downplayed, as flashing phosphor-dot fixes hypnotized society and proliferated communication, but of poorer quality. The situation got worse in the ’90s with the rise in interactive media and the allure of perceived productivity and connectivity. It devolved further in the new millennium with the rise of cheap and accessible tech advertising in parallel to personal megaphonesocialsites, an “All-Speak” at the roller rink. Because Americans indiscriminately accept new technology, language and culture become piñata afterthoughts, valued in retrospect after they break. Artists, Makers, and Thinkers across a broad range of disciplines noted the results: Ted Kaczynski (theorist), Aldous Huxley (author), Neil Postman (culture critic), Corey Doctorow (tech writer), Kalle Lasn (activist), Brian Wood (comic writer), Pink Floyd (musician), and Nam June Paik (video artist). Oddly, designers, arguably the Makers most impacted by and responsible for the shifts, lack the same dedicated commenters of other disciplines. Postman labeled America the world’s only technopoly, a critique of its unquestioning absorption of technology-impacted culture, and Huxley feared that our love of uncritiqued tech would shift our society into irrelevance. Our gadget-lust, our data-worship, and our aimless digitized relationships are the American culture, mindlessly replacing real meaning, language, and interaction with a technological simulacrum. Guy Debord called it a Society of the Spectacle: “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” Even Neo from The Matrix couldn’t keep his Makers conversationally engaged.
Knowledge and conversation of any depth are ignored in favor of TED as education, priority given to the sleek and immediate bite-sized. We agreed on new meanings and crafted a sleek, quickfire language that flattened out dialogue, which led to a nuanced conveyance of human emotion and ideas. If “you only live once” was a hollow cliche, “#yolo” is Jello in a shallow babytalk pool. “Lol” has made lying conveniently automatic, while “hearts on sleeves” now feels more like the stuff of horror-schlock.
In short, language broke. Dialogue degenerated. An argument is that this is simply adaptation, that the shift is neutral. But the lack of specificity and humanity in design classroom discussion is stark and counterproductive. Many elements created the problem. Social media networks contributed to a pandemic of cleaned up, politically correct mono-language as companies took ownership of user data and personal communications were crafted via checkboxes. In the ’90s, hoards of people contributed to sensationalist social media driven by quick-views, first via television then Internet, creating the viral mass hysteria of Americans’ Culture War on language. Political correctness was introduced to our lexicon in the ’50s, dulling language, but the rise of prosumer tech, accessibility of personal commentary, and instant publication of thought created a new atmosphere of non-speak. There are two major, relevant results: everyone saw precisely how rough unfiltered internal language could be as masks were peeled back by the meanness of blunt language stripped for speed, murdering nuance and friends. Whether conditioned by fear wrought by a sensationalist mainstream media, or because the uncontrolled flood of new, poorly constructed content and language absorbed room for thought, the Politically Corrected became thought/language police, while their polar opposite Trolls reduced all discourse to yelling. The “intellectually disabled” America still celebrates “Winter Holiday” with a monstrously garish tree in Rockefeller Center. Political correctness makes language timid and unspecific, the opposite of increasing diversity. The veneer of additional syllables doesn’t fool anyone. Auto-corrected language sounds as bad as auto-tuned singing, and anyone with something meaningful to say, or sing, zippers shut in fear. Our flattened culture no longer wants to speak, a problem for anyone interested in collaboration or making: nobody wants to produce neutral, toothless work.
At the same time, like taking speed to offset the drowsiness of alcohol, digital social networks have encouraged a blanket informality. Humor + language reduces to the briefest, select from the options, memes. Learning abilities atrophy to 140-character bursts or 18-minute lectures, while lengthier investigation of thought sends the brain, twitching, into stasis. Texting abbreviations have infiltrated everything from letters, emails, and even everyday speech. Retweets have replaced journalism. Emoticons have become so accepted that professionals are using them in the workplace. Judith Newman’s on-point New York Times article, “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Must I Know, Too?” details how the crutch of universal communi-bits—like emoticons, text abbreviations, slang, and digi-dialect—have raided academia and other professional settings, undermining accreditation and pointing to an inability to construct clear messages with precisely crafted language. Acceptance of casual language might create an open environment, but it also contributes to lazy thinking and a lack of intellectual accountability, significant roadblocks for a team of designers executing expansive and detailed identity redesigns across many platforms.
In an interview with Miggs Burroughs for Miggs B. on TV, Paul Rand remarked, “Writing is a matter of having ideas. Most people write well, but there’s no substance to what they write, so it’s pretty boring stuff, even if the adjectives and nouns and pronouns fit. But that’s not the point. The point is that the ideas have to fit. And you know, writing has something to do with music. It has to sound right. And we think in words. We think, ‘Today I’m going out, tomorrow I’m not going out, and now I’m gonna sleep and next week I’m gonna do this.’ And if you think thoughts that make sense, you can write them down. And you can be a good writer.” Expanding this, quality thinking produces good design, good communication, and meaningful collaboration.
The flattening of language is a global flattening. Comics legend Warren Ellis writes in a ‘90s rant in the Introduction for Brian Wood’s Channel Zero: “And it spreads. Rupert Murdoch beams his shit into Asia, English children are taught that Z is pronounced Zee by goddamn Barney, and all of a sudden, world cultures become the Monoculture, the same conversation, the same clothes, the same show. All tuned to Channel Zero.”
In both pragmatics and semiotics, the new “American Language” is the biggest influence on our societal, and global, inability to think and speak critically. This severely undermines the desire to collaborate and the process of doing so.
Dialogue as Process: Thinking Together
Fruitful collaborative conversation seems esoteric, but it’s an acquirable skill—designers must be spry—and it demands practice. Dialogue is a shared experience that expands and combines individual memories, allowing original ideas and new perspectives to build from a blended space. Dialogue is group-sketching. It demands recognition of your own voice and process, while acknowledging how it works within a group. An individual may fill different rolls, or their vision may have a different impact, from group to group. Dialogue is experimentation, testing reactions out loud; it’s live, immediate, and if the ball drops, the game is over. Just like design is completed by the viewer or user, Collaborative Designers need to account for intended and unintended responses to their verbal actions, and they must learn how to close the gaps between misperception and personal motive.
In William Isaacs’ Dialogue: And the Art of Thinking Together, he notes four elements of dialogue: listening, respect, suspension (taking turns), and voice. When all of these are controlled, the chances for productive conversation increase. Exercising individual cognition obviously improves collaborative conversation. Reading extensively, having an informed and holistic background across the arts, staying abreast of contemporary culture and events, and general self-awareness are requisites of any graphic designer. In addition, there are some social tenets that designers should consider for improving their conversational game. Our cues come from social psychologists, linguists, anthropologists, and businessmen, but also from authors, comedians, political leaders, directors, musicians, performance artists, UX/UI designers, and philosophers: all Thinkers and Makers contribute to constructing idea-worlds.
Organizing Genius authors Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman build a case for the creation of internal language as an indicator of successful creative group work. Inventing a world reinforces and defines the group members and their work but, more importantly, it allows Creatives to precisely define objectives, while encouraging further creative thought not beholden to strictures outside of the world.
How to Design Your Dialogue ( DYD ):
1. Free Speech
+ Do not censor or inhibit your ideas or reactions.
+ Disregard expected social mannerisms.
+ Do not be ashamed.
+ Do not confuse people for their ideas.
+ Lose track of time.
These elements center around a core collaborative design concept iterated throughout the CO LAB ideology: the objective is a synthesis of the inventors who transcend themselves as parts; addition—A+B≠C—is not enough; rather, synthesis demands a result that is entirely new beyond its components. A unique entity—A+B=Curious George—is unexpectedly created from a collision transcending an assembly line’s distribution of labor approach. A + B + C + D + E + F + G + H + I + J + K + L = Magazine + N + O + P + Q + R + Spread. The Free Speech concepts demand a blend of uncritical thought mixed with critical dialogue to spur open-ended group-process evolution. Old school Brainstorming is an ineffective generation principle because The Mass inevitably, though unintentionally, pushes outlying—highly inventive—ideas to the margins, either because tacit consensus forms around a nucleus of ideas as discussion runs on a thread or contributors self-consciously avoid speaking about oddities.
All this amiability must give ground to human emotion, interaction, prolonged play, and idea-faucets left wastefully open for prolonged periods. No ideas should be attacked or ignored; competition in a collaborative should always be from a desire to explore deeper, and contributors should not defend beyond a general Socratic sense. Encouraging an internal world reinforces “We’re all in this together.” Acknowledging “Us Against the World” allows designers to feel like anything can be tried because there’s nothing to lose. All craziness will be considered for potential; then, atmosphere and interactions are designed to provoke and encourage.
These interactions necessitate engagement. Designers are sometimes too willing to emotionally detach from the content, process, or product, draining energy and inertia from Deep Process. The reality of open-ended exploration is that it may require an open-ended time frame. Reality often means deadlines, and the design process thrives on speed, but young ideas sometimes need time to grow up: design dialogue to nurture all rough concepts without forcing early maturation and while watching out for the bully of easily coalesced critical mass.
Example: “Life is more than money / Time was never money / Time was never cash”— Switchfoot in “Gone”
Example: “People in each section of the ballroom tended to stare at the nearest voice-box, instead of watching the distant figure of whoever was actually talking far up front, on the podium. This 1935 style of speaker placement totally depersonalized the room. There was something ominous and authoritarian about it. Whoever set up that sound system was probably some kind of Sheriff’s auxiliary technician on leave from a drive-in theater in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where the management couldn’t afford individual car speakers and relied on ten huge horns, mounted on telephone poles in the parking area.…Their sound system looked like something Ulysses S. Grant might have triggered up to address his troops during the Siege of Vicksburg.”—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson
2. Substance: No Bullshit
+ Eliminate jargon that alienates outsiders.
+ Eliminate academic speak that obfuscates meaning.
+ Push past expected, scripted, cookie-cutter responses.
+ Push past euphemistic (“soft”) language.
+ Push past politically correct language.
Example: “Am I a genius? I don’t think so. Not yet anyway. As Burt would put it, mocking the euphemisms of educational jargon, I’m exceptional—a democratic term used to avoid the damning labels of gifted and deprived (which used to mean bright and retarded) and as soon as exceptional begins to mean anything to anyone they’ll change it. The idea seems to be: use an expression only as long as it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. Exceptional refers to both ends of the spectrum, so all my life I’ve been exceptional.”—Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Example: “You with your big words, and your, your small, difficult words.”—Peter Griffin, Family Guy
Education has not had a great recent track record with bullshit-less dialogue: consumerist reasons at the college level and pro-testing/anti-teacher climate in grade schools. In either environment, dialogue suffers because language suffers because content suffers. Colleges have seen a spate of Spring 2014 graduation speakers—former UC Berkeley boss Robert Birgeneau, Condoleeza Rice, IMF head Christine Lagarde—forced out by student protesters who found their contrarian views inappropriate for a celebration of academic progress.
In his article “The Wilds of Education,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni pointedly asks, “When it comes to bullying, to sexual assault, to gun violence, we want and need our schools to be as safe as possible. But when it comes to learning, shouldn’t they be dangerous?” Several Koch-backed takeovers of school boards banning books indicates that the best way to learn about essential life experiences is by not discussing them, or at least not discussing them critically.
Designers chafe when clients shy away from aggressive and impactful work; eliminating these traits in education ensures the lack of such work in the future professional landscape, while preventing young practitioners from developing self-confidence in self-aware processes.
Good design needs imps. This means education needs precise vocabulary, rampant curiosity, and dangerous dialogue in a safely collaborative environment.
Design faces the distinct challenge of creating punchy and meaningful work, as corporate BLAH can drive invention toward the safest common denominator. Comics writer Warren Ellis prizes the punch in his foreword to Brian Wood’s Channel Zero: “[Comics] don’t have huge corporations trembling at our every movement, because we make no money compared to the other visual narrative media. That vast commercial pressure isn’t brought to bear on comics. Which means, often, that we can say what we want without rich men’s scissors attacking our work until it’s safe for little Tommy in Dogshit, Nebraska. I hate little Tommy in Dogshit, Nebraska. I want to kill little Tommy in Dogshit, Nebraska.” The Koch brothers exactly do “leverage commercial pressure” to attack language and literature and discussion in schools because they tremble at young collaboratives—and schoolchildren—discussing accurate and interesting means of representing their empire.
3. Salience: No Fragmentation
+ Be direct and accessible.
+ Be accurate and precise.
+ Be concise, not verbose.
+ Do not oversimplify.
+ Use engaging vocabulary and references.
These all sound more like writing tips than design tips, but dialogue and design and all other forms of communication follow similar principles. Our cultural critics—like Stephen Fry, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Cory Doctorow, Neil Postman, Patton Oswalt—are essentially writers. Their status in comedy, acting, activism, and comics all reduce down to their interest, training, and capabilities in wordcraft. Translation: for designers to truly impact culture positively and collaborate effectively, they need to understand, care for, and master language in all its forms.
Examples: “The Angry Mob” by Kaiser Chiefs vs. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” by Georg Simmel
“We are the angry mob
We read the papers every day
We like who we like
We hate who we hate
But we’re also easily swayed”
“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. The fight with nature which primitive man has to wage for his bodily existence attains in this modern form its latest transformation. The eighteenth century called upon man to free himself of all the historical bonds in the state and in religion, in morals and in economics. Man’s nature, originally good and common to all, should develop unhampered. In addition to more liberty, the nineteenth century demanded the functional specialization of man and his work; this specialization makes one individual incomparable to another, and each of them indispensable to the highest possible extent. However, this specialization makes each man the more directly dependent upon the supplementary activities of all others. Nietzsche sees the full development of the individual conditioned by the most ruthless struggle of individuals; socialism believes in the suppression of all competition for the same reason. Be that as it may, in all these positions the same basic motive is at work: the person resists being leveled down and worn out by a social-technological mechanism. An inquiry into the inner meaning of specifically modern life and its products, into the soul of the cultural body, so to speak, must seek to solve the equation which structures like the metropolis set up between the individual and the super-individual contents of life. Such an inquiry must answer the question of how the personality accommodates itself in the adjustments to external forces.”
4. Active Voice
+ Stagnant and stale language leads to stereotypical design.
+ Craft sentences deliberately.
+ Do not be boring. (“All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.”—Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk)
+ Use words that have energy.
+ Use active (not passive) verbs: DO vs. tell.
+ Phonetic language (speech sounds), rhythm, and pacing matter.
Example: “Good evening, London. Allow me first to apologise for this interruption. I do, like many of you, appreciate the comforts of everyday routine—the security of the familiar, the tranquility of repetition. I enjoy them as much as any bloke. But in the spirit of commemoration, thereby those important events of the past usually associated with someone’s death or the end of some awful bloody struggle are celebrated with a nice holiday, I thought we could mark this November the 5th, a day that is sadly no longer remembered, by taking some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat. There are, of course, those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country.…”—V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue, based on the book by Alan Moore
5. Socialect (Social Class Dialects)
Restricted code is a speech pattern that facilitates strong bonds, solidarity, and pride amongst lower-class group members. Conversely, elaborated code is used by middle and upper classes to gain access to higher education and professional advancement. Bonding is not as strong and speech tends to be fake and unemotional. More emphasis is placed on “I” than “we.”
Use regional speech patterns (dialect, accent, slang, acronyms) to your advantage. That is why verbalizing text messaging abbreviations in oral conversation sounds idiotic, because the context has shifted. However, irony culture enables out-of-context speech, as it doeseverything else.
Example: Jules: Fuck, nigga, what the fuck did you do to his towel?
Vincent: I was dryin’ my hands.
Jules: You’re supposed to wash ’em first!
Vincent: You watched me wash ’em.
Jules: I watched you get ’em wet.
Vincent: I was washing ’em. But this shit’s hard to get off. Maybe if I had Lava or something, I coulda done a better job.
Jules: I used the same fuckin’ soap you did and when I got finished, the towel didn’t look like no goddamn Maxi-Pad!
—Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino
Example: “I mean, I am a writer, I deal in words. No, there is no word that should stay in word jail, every word is completely free. There is no word that is worse than another word. It’s all language, it’s all communication. And if I was doing what you’re saying, I’d be lying. I’d be throwing in a word to get an effect. And well, you do that all the time, you throw in a word to get a laugh, and you throw in this word to get an effect too, that happens, but it’s all organic. It’s never a situation where that’s not what they would say, but I’m going to have them say it because it’s gonna be shocking. You used the example of “nigger.” In Pulp Fiction, nigger is said a bunch of different times by a bunch of different people and it’s meant differently each time. It’s all about the context in which it’s used. George Carlin does a whole routine about that, you know. When Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy do their stand-up acts, and say nigger, you’re never offended because they’re niggers. You know what they’re fucking talking about. You know the context in which it’s coming from. The way Samuel Jackson says nigger in Pulp Fiction is not the way Eric Stoltz says it, is not the way Ving Rhames says it. They’re all coming from different places. That word means something different depending on who’s saying it.”—Quentin Tarantino in an interview with Erik Bauer for Creative Screenwriting Magazine
6. Speech Stripped of Status
+ Remove language that inflects professional qualifications/insecurities.
+ Balance formal and informal, professional and friendly tendencies.
+ Learn delegation without becoming a despot.
+ Respect one another on equal terms.
There is a balance that all good conversationalists strike between distinguishing themselves without pushing others to feeling like outsiders. Personalities never displace others. They are instantly relatable but never chameleons, who are almost always outsiders. Targeting language toward an audience without giving up personal traits is a skill. J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield commented on when that skill becomes phony.
Example: “I am always saying ‘Glad to’ve met you’ to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.”—Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
7. Forced Connections
+ Connect and jump between disparate ideas.
+ Anything and everything can be used as a reference for ideas.
+ Allow logic trains to develop by pursuing tangents.
+ Allow the unexpected to shock and surprise.
+ Avoid dialogue/logic loops.
Example: “He got on stage in front of hundreds of fellow economists and sang an a cappella version of what he and his friends call ‘The Social Capitalist Theme Song.’ Without warning, he starts to sing: ‘The more we get together, the happier we’ll be. Because your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends. The more…’ He stops mid-sentence and focuses on me from behind his metal-rimmed glasses. ‘If the audience just sits there like you are, grinning, then I stop. And I say, ‘You don’t get it.’ The whole point is not about me singing to you. It’s not about being amused. It’s not about being entertained. It’s about us singing the song together. It’s doing things together that makes us happy.’ Back on the #4 Powell, I realize that talking to the gangster knitter didn’t just make me happier, it probably made her happier as well.”—Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics by Kalle Lasn
Example: “Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”—Elmore Leonard
8. Suspend vs. Defend
+ Be inquisitive and skeptical. Blind faith is lazy.
+ Debate is healthy. Defensiveness is annoying.
+ Advocacy is a positive alternative to defensiveness.
+ Speak with as opposed to at.
+ Be open-minded and flexible to change.
+ Be goal-oriented.
Those last two seem like a paradox: keeping a goal in focus provides motivation, prevents burnout, and can motivate investment in the crazy tangents that lead to immaculate solutions. Because if it was easy and obvious then nobody would need designers. Chuck Klosterman is a good interviewer because he comes with write-able concepts in mind that he allows to bounce off his subjects without getting in their way.
Example: “To get a more specific example, I ask him [Kilmer] about the ‘toll’ that he felt while making the 1993 Western Tombstone. He begins telling me about things that tangibly happened to Doc. Holliday. I say, ‘No, no, you must have misunderstood me—I want to know about the toll it took on you.’ He says ‘I know, I’m talking about those feelings.’ And this is the conversation as follows:
CK: You mean you think you literally had the same experience as Doc Holliday?
Kilmer: Oh, sure. It’s not like I believed that I actually shot somebody, but I absolutely know what it feels like to pull the trigger and take someone’s life.
CK: So you’re saying you understand how it feels to shoot someone as much as a person who has actually committed a murder?
Kilmer: I understand it more. It’s an actor’s job.…” —“Crazy Things Seem Normal, Normal Things Seem Crazy,” IV by Chuck Klosterman
Example: “Psychologically and socially, Great Groups are very different from mundane ones. Intrinsically motivated, for the most part, the people in them are buoyed by the joy of problem solving. Focused on a fascinating project, they are oblivious to the nettles of working together in ordinary circumstances.”—“The End of the Great Man,” Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman
9. Gauge Temperature and Emotional Control
+ Learn to empathize and forgive.
+ Keep personal investment in check.
+ Anger and frustration are detrimental.
+ Passion is more effective than credentials or talent.
+ Invest in other people.
+ Keep group morale high with periodic encouragement.
Example: “I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”—The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Example: “…anybody’s life is valid, you know. But to really get to know people and discover humanity, which is what I truly think writers and actors do, you’ve got to be interested in other human beings, you have to be interested in humanity in general, and you have to do some discovering of humanity and different people. In real life there are no bad guys. Everybody just has their own perspective. I do have sympathy for the devil. To keep pursuing that you need to break out of your environment, whether that is Hollywood or you’re a novelist living in Rhode Island. You gotta go have a conversation with and get to know somebody that makes $10,000 a year. You know, they have a different fucking perspective. So that’s the only danger, you’ve gotta work at it, you gotta work at going out and keeping your hand into other people’s lives and not just your own.”—Quentin Tarantino in an interview with Erik Bauer for Screenwriting Magazine
+ Hearing tone, inflection, and emphasis clarifies meaning.
+ Grammatical gymnastics make conversations more lively.
+ Adopt personas that facilitate dialogue.
Donelson Forsyth describes paralanguage in Our Social World as the auditory equivalent of body language. Watching someone’s eyes as a lie detector test has equivalents in vocal twitches. More subtly, we can hear the things people don’t say, the adjustments of breath, stammers and mumbles, and strengthening projection. These cues have no dictionary meaning, but we intuitively read into what we hear. Example: “A philosophical question: from which angle to start looking at life, god, ideas, or anything else. Everything we look at is false. I don’t think the relative result is any more important than the choice of patisserie or cherries for dessert. The way people have of looking hurriedly at things from the opposite point of view, so as to impose their opinions indirectly, is called dialectic, in other words, heads I win and tails you lose, dressed up to look scholarly.- If I shout:
Ideal, Ideal, Ideal
Knowledge, Knowledge, Knowledge
Boomboom, Boomboom, Boomboom
I have recorded fairly accurately Progress, Law, Morals, and all the other magnificent qualities that various very intelligent people have discussed in so many books in order, finally, to say that even so everyone has danced according to his own personal boomboom, and that he’s right about his boomboom: the satisfaction of unhealthy curiosity; private bell-ringing for inexplicable needs; bath; pecuniary difficulties; a stomach with repercussions on to life; the authority of the mystical baton formulated as the grand finale of a phantom orchestra with mute bows, lubricated by philtres with a basis of animal ammonia.”— Dada Manifesto 1918 by Tristian Tzara
11. Descriptive Language
+ Deploy words as if it were any other artistic medium.
+ Adopt a vibrant vocabulary informed by aggressive and diverse reading habits.
+ Ensure that adjectives and adverbs are not boring or obtuse.
+ Use examples, metaphors, and anecdotes.
+ Avoid details that do not give the piece something important.
Example: “The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious. Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets. The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip…The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies. The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.”—Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
12. Graphic Design Vocabulary
The official ras+e list of words to kill:
cool, sick (so, not “good?”)
Carson (as a basis for every comparison)
pretty (unless it’s an insult)
human-centered (because, no shit)
optimization (wait, we want to see the tangents)
whatevs (should probably be after “dunno”)
troll (nix assholes, then we’ll move it up to the next rung)
snapshot, pic, pix (anything that encourages people to treat photography irreverently)
for s(h)ure, fo sho, and totally (inflection included)
Example: “A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grow together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.”—Thinking as a Science by Henry Hazlitt
Dialogue is simultaneously collaborative designers’ greatest superpower and their potential Achilles’ heel. A team cannot accurately process or add onto poorly communicated ideas. As industry barriers dissipate, and crossover among professions increases, the need for a smarter language to promote smarter thinking and enable smarter collaboration becomes necessary. This language must uphold design democracy and provoke discussions that foster dialectic understanding over consultation. This language will be held accountable for creativity, comprehension, responsive thinking, and reputation. Noam Chomsky argues, “The use of language is a very important means by which this species, because of its biological nature, creates a kind of social space, to place itself in interactions with other people.”
Our profession will no longer tolerate false vocal cords and flaccid conversation.
After three hours of open studio time, my senior thesis students slowly trickled out of the classroom. I had spoken to a handful of them, reviewing research and project endeavors. The majority of the students were happy to have the time to work without interruption. Earbuds went in, and a fence of black-rimmed eyeglasses reflected a neutral backlit glare. Some students scattered into the lounge to work more comfortably with laptops in laps.
“Can I email you about my project later?” She asks this on her way out.
“Well, can we just talk now? What’s up?” Said me.
She explained that she wanted to share some things she had been working on in class and when I asked her why it would be better to have this discussion via email rather than in person, she said that she didn’t know, but that it was just easier for her to email it to me. I told her that she could, but if that was the case, then she probably should have been taking online courses instead, since physical edification wasn’t helpful to her. She then told me that online classes were a joke and left, waving happily with errant flip-top mittens, and resumed a half-complete text message on her iPhone. Another student yelled after her, “Text me laters!”
A few factors could be at play here: (1) The act of writing an email helps this student practice composing her thoughts with an audience in mind; (2) She actually doesn’t have anything new to share and is buying time; (3) Emailing is a more comfortable form of communication that removes the sense of immediate responsibility and the time constraints of physical interaction; (4) She prefers her online identity to her physical one; (5) Discussions via email are more real or normal, and I’m being abnormal by talking to her directly; or (6) She’s lazy and just wants to leave now.
I would like to believe she is not lazy and likes writing, but based on her in-class proclivities and vocabulary, she simply prefers interacting remotely and sees in-person class and communication as inconveniences. This scenario, where people sign off with plans to continue a conversation online, regardless of actual follow-through, has become our culture’s version of goodbye. But it’s not goodbye. It’s I’m away but “you’re all still gonna be there when I need you, right?” A continuous conversation is known as a perma-sation and we’re immune to noting it anymore. The idea of co-presence applies to physical separation but with omnipresent connection via technology. As a new generation of designers grows up with constant connectivity, and heavily relies on technology to mediate their interactions, what impact does this have on how humans relate to each other overall? Furthermore, how can we make technology better facilitate design collaboration? The truth is, our tools connect and our tools isolate. For designers crafting messages, and reliant on technology to do so, as well as aiming to collaborate with each other, parsing these mediums for the line of diminishing returns is an ethical and qualitative essential.
In a single day, we talk, text, chat, post, link, review, comment, email, fav, play, jam, upload, download, bid, crowdfund, listen, watch, edit, compete, hijack, remix, send, and apply. We respond to an onslaught of bombardments that tell us to HEY! PARTICIPATE! DONATE! CHOOSE! VOTE! SHARE! JOIN!!! BUY!!!! LIKE!!!!! Anymore, the majority of our socializing is mediated through contemporary communications mediums.
Interactive apparatuses are two-way communications devices that enable human-to-human (vs. human-to-computer) correspondence. Despite the friendliest of interfacial PHP, a machine can only humor humanity—judging, processing, and following an action script based upon input with third-party insensitivity. Interactive apparatuses can be anything from what we might expect, like cell phones and the Internet, but also include board games, sex toys, calling cards, laser pointers, dining and conference room tables, intercoms, walkie talkies, beepers, emergency help stations, the postal service, and mail. Connectivity refers to the proverbial wires that moderate our interactions with one another. More than ever, we have devices and systems (and excuses) that help us interact with each other in every imaginable relationship and scenario.
Part of the reason for this increase in connectivity has resulted from prosumer technology—the cross of professional and consumer markets resulting in affordable, semiprofessional gear. More people have more access to more quality equipment. Digital cameras, laptops, cloud storage, hosting and domain services, printers, projectors, and smart phones are affordable for the masses. As a result, the diverse boom in publishing options creates a range of rockstar authorship avenues. Lo-fi, democratic design equipment, in addition to a DIY perspective and open-source tools, has unfettered the field of graphic design. An elite toolkit and training defined graphic designers in the past; now we are sharing ideas and promoting work within a much larger and more diverse population. The design world has rapidly shifted from hierarchial, closed, compartmentalized states and individual endeavors to an open and global community.
Invitation + Access + Acceptance —> Participation
Furthermore, technology has enabled us to come together more quickly, easily, and specifically, based on special topics or interests instead of settling on who is available at the local bar. Collaborative membership is no longer tethered to money or geography. Technology has given us the opportunity to choose what we do and do not want to be a part of. Anymore, we are not predestined, captive users. We are voluntary, selective, vocal participants.
Technological socialism is a theory of social organization based on all of these components—the horizontal structures offered by technology. The Internet, case in point, is a decentralized network that lacks sovereign leadership. It promises equal accessibility and dissemination of information, and participants are peers with responsibility for decision-making, production, distribution, and exchange. Despite regular attempts by national governments and large corporations to exert control, the Internet is largely owned and regulated by the global community as a whole; voices, tools, and groups arise in response to opportunity or threat with immediacy. Anyone with an online presence is a citizen of this technological socialist society.
Historically, geographically based socialist organizations exploited and monetized the labor of collectivism. However, digital socialism can be thought of as “a cultural OS that elevates both the individual and the group at once,” as defined by Kevin Kelly in the Wired article “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online.” “In the late ’90s, activist, provocateur, and aging hippy John Barlow began calling this drift, somewhat tongue in cheek, ‘dot-communism.’ He defined it as a ‘workforce composed entirely of free agents,’ a decentralized gift or barter economy where there is no property and where technological architecture defines the political space.” Kelly elaborates on the concept, arguing that these technologies amalgamate as a form of socialism despite lacking a formal document stating such: “When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.” A similar perspective is echoed by Clay Shirky, a Professor of New Media at New York University studying the topology of social networks and how Internet technologies shape our culture and vice-versa. In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky maps the progression of participant involvement within groups. Putting the argument in the context of collaborative design culture: origins of technological socialism grow slowly as Makers learn and adapt.
1. Sharing. There has been an incredible willingness of people eager to present their lives for others, to the point where Web 2.0 sites (and beyond) are utilized primarily as diaries. The underlying phenomenon is not limited to these technologies—also functioning in physical manifestations of interactive design thinking—such as Candy Chang’s Before I Die or Ji Lee’s The Bubble Project. Such real-world sharing seems to circumvent concerns finally gaining traction in the U.S. regarding certain forms of unfiltered online diaries, namely that there is little payoff for all the self-opening.
2. Cooperation. Individuals come together to achieve a larger goal, such as Kickstarter, Wikipedia, or The Million Dollar Homepage. Sharing and promoting group knowledge, and creating a public library, has little of the diary’s drawbacks—a point vociferously decried by corporate interests in cases like Napster, or anything involving Disney.
3. Collaboration. A step beyond cooperation, technological collaboration involves interaction, work, and groups based upon shared goals. There is usually no monetary reward. Says Shirky, “[T]he work-reward ratio is so out of kilter from a free-market perspective, workers do immense amounts of high-market value work without getting paid that it often makes no sense within capitalism.…Of course there’s nothing particularly socialistic about collaboration per se. But the tools of online collaboration support a communal style of production that shuns capitalistic investors and keeps ownership in the hands of the workers, and to some extent those of the consuming masses.” Collaboration happens when the ends—when the group identity—become more important vehicles for change than the individual perspectives or contributions.
4. Collectivism. As group coordination, activity, and passion increases, collaborations can become cult-like. Shirky argues that this online collectivism functions as “stateless socialism,” putting an emphasis on developing and defining a group beyond temporarily coming together for a specific project. Parsing what constitutes a collective vs. a collaborative sometimes reduces to investigating semantics, but at least in terms of historical examples of art collectives/collaboratives, the real difference comes between a group of individuals pursuing individual work under an agreed message, vs. a whole with a point of view specific to the group that extends beyond the contributions of individuals. In a collective, the parts maintain self-identity and purpose, making the results more of a loose assemblage of multiple threads, much like Shirky’s political metaphor.
Graphic designers have always been on the forefront of the latest technology to both share and publish projects. We participate in the same, grand technologically socialist society as everyone, though we are historically keen on profiting from our participation in a way other participants are not. For many of us, social-hipness and tech savvy pay the bills and sustain roofs. On the spectrum of involvement, this places designers more cooperative than collaborative, or even collective.
Our ongoing argument: small design studios in a diverse range of physical locations are more searchable, socially spry, and able to compete with large ad agencies thanks to accessible, democratic communications technologies and an arsenal of linked-in, interdisciplinary designers. The resulting organization has less to do with pure efficiency—money—than designing an environment angled toward beliefs in collaboration, its process and specific results. Pure efficiency does not necessitate starvation; smaller studios are readily available to large businesses, and many projects come from local clients with a community-oriented mindset that values artistic responsibility and group interplay, all of which enables voice-heavy, decentralized studios. The combined result is a design democracy in need of concept-driven, idea-first authorship to rise above the competitive corporate masses of designers with singular interests or skills. These studios, with their shifted emphasis, encourage graphic designers to willingly explore technology in altruistic, collaborative ways. Technological socialism shrinks the footprint of specialized savants and eminent design sovereignty. Discussions tend to be less top-down and foster dialectic understanding over consultation. This socially humble, anti-profiteering agenda manifests in Linus Torvalds, founder of Linux; Peter Buchanan-Smith, founder of Best Made; and Tim Hoover with Ryans Smoker and Martin, founders of the Infantree—all of whom launch projects from a collaborative perspective built outside the demands of ruthless efficiency.
These efficiency demands are well documented in every industry but design, where innovation is as often about beauty, and creating a space where beauty can occur, rather than about quantity. Howard Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States details with numbing repetition how Winners have always made their fortune and clout off the backs of the Losers. This includes hijacking indigenous people groups for local labor, abusing children as industrial cogs, and importing Chinese workers to form rail beds. Much of China’s recent industry combines all these variables as rural children move into specialized zones for factory labor supporting American and European corporations. From that vantage, replacing even more human jobs with robots makes sense, though we seem to be doing so without considering how to support a populace whose labor is no longer needed. “Work” and “Jobs” will need to be rethought. Technological socialism will take on increased relevance in creating an all-winners structure. Culture critics and artists have investigated the possibilities, including author Corey Doctorow’s hypothetical adhocracy based on bio-tech and social popularity scores in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.
Successful technologically social collaboratives, those in the here and now and those proposed, have a few key identifying traits:
1. Active Participation. A merger of invitation, access, and acceptance enables participation, but active involvement requires that collaboratives keep up and move forward with the initiative.
2. Investment. As a tech collaboration builds speed, members become addicted to their endeavor. This outputs as passion, pride, and red-eyed dedication. Invested participants are constantly connected and interacting.
3. Decentralized. Technological socialism is a horizontal hierarchy, with little or no governmental authority, and it is not tied to any geographic nationality. If there are minor leaders, they have little practical power and function more as symbols. This also means individual compensation and fame are not primary goals.
4. Informed. Self-education opportunities abound, marked by Choose Your Own Adventure curation independent of prefab containers of nation or religion. The thirst for disseminated knowledge in a technologically social age is akin to the Renaissance explosion post-Gutenberg.
5. Invisibility. Participants can away themselves or disappear at any point. Although it can be over-ingested, social media offers an accessible voice for the otherwise shy, potentially facilitating precise and holistic critique leading to reformations that more pressurized environments may have precluded.
6. Personas. A big perk of creative collaboratives is their ability to design and project a unified face, controlling identity, appearance, allegiance, voice, interests, et al. Dictating peer perception boosts self-esteem, allowing members to ensure that their contributions are represented.
7. Watchmen. Technology comes equipped with a posse. People are keen to keep abreast of the social components of their own work and the involvement of their peers, jumping on the opportunity to fix mistakes when representations are inaccurate. When given the self-governing responsibility of checks and balances, collaborators are nosy kindred with a mission.
8. Copyleft. Tech collaborators have a commitment to uphold Creative Commons licensing and other tools for building shared knowledge, allowing culture to build upon its past, as documented through works like Brett Gaylor’s RIP: A Remix Manifesto. They understand business models are changing and advocate digital development and open-source technology.
“[A]nyone with an Internet connection can make their creations available to the public, unmediated by the old gatekeepers of mass media. The result has been an unprecedented outpouring of creative works.…As the best of those works are now making their way into the broader cultural landscape, they’re breaking mass media’s stranglehold on the ownership of meaningful content.…The dirty secret of mass media, though, was—and still is—that a great deal of it belongs to the companies that distribute it, rather than to the people who make it. That’s begun to change as the Internet rewrites the rules about who can put creative work into the public sphere as well as who can take it out.”—“The Future of Open Source: Collaborative Culture” by Douglas Wolk of Wired
9. Organization and Mediation. Tech-acknowledging collaboratives have an inherent benefit due to structural traits that reduce overhead costs and increase interaction; pre-formatted social springboards kick-start collaboration, layer and catalogue communication, promote efficiency, and require low maintenance.
10. Customizable. Group members can personalize their social settings and make their collaborative environment as comfortable and productive as possible. Modifying the user interface, requesting hazelnut coffee, acquiring standing desks or Eames chairs for the workspace—collaborative cultures provide the tools and atmosphere to encourage members to move in and own their work world.
11. Responsibility. Neil Postman’s warning that “technology giveth and technology taketh” emphasizes the need to maintain perspective on each facet of technological socialism. Power, as Spiderman repeatedly learns, must be tied to responsibility. Tech collaborators must insist that technology remain a tool to promote meaningful human interaction. Accepting any technology must be weighed, not assumed; and when tech is utilized, it is for group benefit, not individual benefit. Beyond the prevalence of winners and losers, with each tech adaptation, aspects of culture are promoted or diminished.
Interactivity vs. Connectivity
Fact: If you die in Facebook, you die for real.
While technological socialism has spurred the accessibility of information, ease of collaboration, and horizontal structures, it has also convinced Generations Y–Z that connectivity is the same as interactivity. Growing up on mediated human interaction has its consequences, and the fallout manifests in everything from communications in the workplace to downtime spent with friends. Without chat bubbles, faux 3D buttons to tap, punctuation stand-ins for emotions, Sims-synth soap operas, and popularity scorecards, people are forgetting what physical proximity entails. In The New York Times article “Out on the Town, Always Online,” John Leland records typical, casual conversational patterns as interrupted by tech’s intrusions. Leland’s stories are the mundane lunacies of modern interaction: friends sit at tables and speak in fragments as phones beep and draw attention to exterior conversational fragments, all with requisite pretend bite-sized laughterlies. In person, conversations resume, scattershot and contentless. Digital information intrudes in spurts, also mostly contentless. Attention—of all parties—wanders. The point of Leland’s sampled profiles of New Yorkers is that there is no point; seamless living in the physical and digital worlds simultaneously spreads experiences out to the level of absolute dilution.
Ideally, technology amplifies the reach of physical interaction, looking to simulate, improve, monetize, and replace it when convenient—this is nothing new. Tech tools and companies are dictating culture and aggressively modifying interactions. Not to say that socially acceptable elevator conversations about the weather are particularly meaningful; but the constant sharestream has little human benefit, while greatly benefiting corporate interests, and that is worse. The very technology that enables interdisciplinary work by making information and tools available to young designers, that enables those designers to work with other Makers around the world, also flattens out the value of interaction for anyone not holding the wires.A similar flattening happens in other aspects of culture, including humor reduced to quickly collected memes. Remixing becomes less and less collaged, fewer original works rise to prominence, and the interest in anything nuanced that requires dwell-time with the work is shoved to the margins. Instead of prizing the depth of accessible information, online habits prioritize speed and mass. Trends rise and fall instantly without developing depth or growing over time. New Yorkers claim FOMO as a local disease, but it is a global need—anything hugely popular must be accessed, and instantly—the only explanation for phenomenons like Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” According to Adbusters magazine frontman Kalle Lasn, in his book Culture Jam, “All of us somehow felt that the next battleground was going to be culture. We all felt somehow that our culture had been stolen from us—by commercial forces, by advertising agencies, by TV broadcasters. It felt like we were no longer singing our songs and telling stories, and generating our culture from the bottom up, but now we were somehow being spoon-fed this commercial culture top down.…I see a lot of frenetic activity in cyberspace, but a lot of it is like the postmodern hall of mirrors. It’s just people sending email messages to each other, hand on the mouse, and you think that you’ve done something great if you get some big idea here and send an email to your friend, and pass it on, and you think you have made some sort of a big thing for the day. I don’t actually see too many really new ideas coming out of cyberspace yet. I see a lot of new ideas still coming out of philosophers, musicians, thinkers, sociologists, a few economists. I think that the big ideas are still coming out in the traditional way, and then they start to reverberate within cyberspace.”
The increasing belief that UX/UI programming specialists are more important than design or vision reflects America’s relationship with tech. Paul Graham in Revenge of the Nerds sums up the trend well: “The pointy-haired boss miraculously combines two qualities that are common by themselves, but rarely seen together: (a) he knows nothing whatsoever about technology, and (b) he has very strong opinions about it. Suppose, for example, you need to write a piece of software. The pointy-haired boss has no idea how this software has to work, and can’t tell one programming language from another, and yet he knows what language you should write it in. Exactly. He thinks you should write it in Java.” Even within design, this techflash manifests in the over-reliance of poorly constructed type moving frenetically in title sequences. Legibility is not making way for communication in a Carson-sense. Even Style, which can carry elements of Message, is not at fault—rather, formal and conceptual factors are made subservient to a belief that anything not MOVING or 3D is cheap, or worse, boring. Connectivity is a business, and users need to be reminded that they are consumers. Connectivity propagates voracious carnivores of conversation. With sinewy bits of undigestible texting-tissue stuck in between our teeth, can we ever separate the medium from our message? There has been an increasingly inverse relationship between the rise in commercial technological connectivity between any two people groups and the depreciating merit of those interactions, making it a double-edged tool of collaboration.
Call to Action: Socratic Media
As deliberate participants in constructing culture, we personally believe in the potential of social media, but the social part seems broken. Social, as it exists now, is actually a dependency on corporate companionship through a superficially built community, and participants need to self-question if their involvement counts as creation. Social, as it exists now, is a pseudonym for Mass Appeal. In the Wired article, “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet, ” Chris Anderson notes, “As much as we love the open, unfettered Web, we’re abandoning it for simpler, sleeker services that just work.” Instead of settling for corporate curation, we suggest Socratic media, where all tech tools and toys are investigated before integrating. Unique dialectic inquiry will achieve the greatest prominence, tools will provide users with more control, while users and financiers will encourage designers to execute specific visions. Imagine if popular interactive technology was designed to make us think and to prompt meaningful debate beyond rants regarding chain-produced superhero casting decisions. What if society prized high intellectual standards, informed curation, truly live discussion, and content-driven interaction? Is there a happy balance of smarts and speed? We believe that it is entirely possible to work toward Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-loneliness society while maintaining critical thinking and guided collaborative conversations via custom interactive technology.
Collaborative Design Technology
Design professors facilitating concept critiques on Facebook, branding designers letting clients in on process work through shared Dropbox folders and Twitter feeds, photographers sharing additional giveaway images on Flikr, animators providing source videos for remixers on Vimeo and YouTube, programmers sharing code bits through Google Docs…
Artists and designers have been hijacking and blending available social technologies for collaboration from the beginning, but collaborative digital design tools are still lacking. For example, in “How to Build Your Own Google Docs (Without Google)” by Cade Metz for Wired, the author details how open-source elements can be repurposed for collaborative editing; essentially, tools must be hacked if privacy or control are desired. Makers often resort to abusing a plethora of apps designed for businessmen. These can be lumped into eight categories that facilitate: 1. mind-mapping, 2. feedback, 3. project management, 4. chatting, 5. live text and code editing, 6. live sketching, 7. video and screen-sharing, and 8. application and file sharing. While some of these can be helpful to the collaborative design process, very few address the reality of Creatives’ daily needs. A couple examples do seem to have potential, including Firepad and Scoot & Doodle. Firepad is a real-time code editor, and Scoot & Doodle is for live collaborative drawing. Ideally, more inclusive collaborative design tools will arrive soon, especially if they evolve within the preexisting industry standard design programs. Hi, Adobe!
LiveCycle Collaboration Service (LCCS), by Adobe and its partner Influxis, allows businesses to “easily add real-time collaboration and social capabilities to their applications.” It sounds fantastic, except it’s not. The program does many interactive things; however, none apply to creative outlets and the software mechanics have a rocky history. For example, LiveCycle can help make PDFs into interactive forms, which is not a new thing for designers, nor does it facilitate the creative part of the job. Due to the large programming investment needed to set up LiveCycle, a developer is better off building real-time collaboration into existing applications, such as multi-user whiteboards. But apps like the aforementioned Firepad and Scoot & Doodle, as well as Apple’s OS and iOS, which linked chat and sharing tools, can achieve much of this, and the interfaces are intuitive for new users. LiveCycle is developer-focused software. It is not conceived of as a user-friendly collaborative feature integrated into other Adobe design programs.
Another Adobe misnomer is Creative Cloud for Teams. Launched in April 2012, it allows businesses to purchase employee subscriptions to a shared database of applications and company files. Again, the software does not have real-time creative collaboration capabilities. It is like a company locker room. Instead of Adobe Creative Cloud, artists and designers need an Adobe Creative Collaboration.
Collaboratives Deploying Diverse Interactive Technologies
For its first issue in 1998, writer/editor/publisher/activist Dave Eggers sent out a mass email to solicit material rejected by other magazines. Although the curation metric was soon abandoned, it kick-started a submission and subscriber base that included some of the best writers and artists in the States. The response to McSweeney’s was so high that the endeavor expanded to become a San Francisco publishing house, producing books, magazines, and experimental ephemera with a storefront, t-shirt shop, and eclectic garage sale.
RIP: A Remix Manifesto
Posted in 2008, this open-source documentary film explores in combination: Creative Commons licensing, the Copyleft ideology, and profiles of remix artists, while arguing that the culture of the Information Age must be allowed to build upon the past. The video is downloadable via a “name your price” checkout, and the website encourages users to remix the video and resubmit it to ripremix.com for incorporation within the evolving mash-up documentary.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt launched this online collaborative production company with his brother Dan in 2005. Writers, musicians, illustrators, video editors, curators, photographers, singers, graphic designers, dancers, performance artists, remixers, and fine artists of all kinds are invited to submit projects. Contributors have access to the whole database of submitted work to remix for their own pieces. Gordon-Levitt highlights the company’s objective: “We use the Internet to collaborate with artists from all over the world and we form a community around all of the work that we make together.” HitRecord has screened at Sundance Film Festivals, published books, released records, sold t-shirts, printed posters, played live shows, and hosts a half-hour variety TV show on Pivot. HitRecord pays collaborators for their creative contributions.
In 1991, Linus Torvalds launched a beta version of this open-source operating system that would eventually be used by millions of people worldwide. In the Wired article “How Linus Torvalds Became Benevolent Dictator of Planet Linux, the Biggest Collaborative Project in History,” Gary Rivlin writes, “His is a world that works only if the best idea wins; he has no giant marketing budget to compensate for poor technical decisions, no clout in the marketplace to compensate for mediocrity.” Torvalds wrote the OS’ kernel at 21, released it online for anyone to develop, and Rivlin notes, “Since then, tens of thousands of them have, making Linux perhaps the single largest collaborative project in the planet’s history.” A huge range of products and projects utilize the tech, and Torvalds delicately manages the loose community that makes it all possible. His “leadership” is an evolving ad hoc collaborative coding committee that communicates primarily via email and annual conferences.
Inside Out Project
Photographer JR started this global photo project in 2011, inviting communities to submit their portraits to insideoutproject.net to be printed—either by live printers on the streets with “inside out photobooths” or by mail—and then installed as massive-format, black-and-white street pastings. The installations are documented, archived, and exhibited online. More than 100,000 posters have been created in more than 108 countries.
This free and open-source blogging and website-building tool was first released in 2003; today it ranks as one of the best-loved and most user-friendly code/design tools, deployed across the broadest spectrum of sites. Users of WordPress connect via WordCamp Central (conferences), WordCamp TV (video blog), WordPress Core (blog), IRC (Internet Relay Chat), and email to work together to streamline code, share ideas, fix bugs, and hang out. WordPress is licensed under the General Public License (GPLv2 or later) which provides four core freedoms. Consider this as the WordPress “Bill of Rights:”
+ The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
+ The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
+ The freedom to redistribute.
+ The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.
TAXI: The Global Creative Network (designtaxi.com)
A cutting-edge global arts network, the site launched in 2003, its mission statement to establish a “meeting grounds for creative professionals around the world to connect with each other, stay updated, and showcase their works towards prospects and opportunities. It is a daily-updated international creative media that bridges diverse creative and design disciplines and promotes collaborative interaction to propel unlimited innovations and infinite breakthroughs.” TAXI solicits editorial, creative, and inventive material from design businesses and schools via email submissions. The results are highly interdisciplinary, as all perspectives on illustration, product design, photography, and graphic design take turns in the spotlight, while various portfolios and Makers are called to the fore; well-known Creatives and big-budget projects are gridded next to inventive student concept work.
They come in a bus and set up their recording booth in a city near you and listen. Since 2003, this non-profit endeavor has been collecting America’s stories for safekeeping at the Library of Congress’ Folklife Center, while broadcasting weekly on NPR’s Morning Edition. Their mission is to give anyone “the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” Believing that people are intrinsically interesting and natural storytellers, StoryCorps reminds us of the value of listening to one another in a culture that is often too busy and distracted to do so.
If we’ve learned anything over the past 20 years since Geocities, the first social media site, it’s that the Internet is still a very young collaborative technology. As such, interactive tools for design have yet to be fully realized. Our culture is wired and waiting; the hacker community and adventurous entrepreneurs are working hard to combine and improve tech capabilities that maintain the democracy of interactive outlets. In the meantime, it is important to promote a Copyleft mentality and encourage frustrated designers to come together to invent collaborative technology that responsibly equips for intuitive creative interactivion.
Kids, let me see your hands. Jill, is that toner under your nails? I don’t even want to know. Go scrub with the Gojo, then let’s eat.
Did you set the table, Jesse? There’s a grid right on the tablecloth, but these bowls are all over the place.
Honey, you should see the run of invitations we got back from the letterpressers today. They’re immaculate. Look, that impression, the paper, the coloring, it’s perfect for this new set of wood type they just acquired.
That’s lovely, but how did you get away with running your type backwards and no title on the front?
Well, it’s this little museum.…How was your day? And pass the carrots, please, Spencer.
I had to be in early to meet up with our visiting designer over hummus and bagels, but we were late because someone managed to pick the one pair of red sneakers in the universe that did not weigh enough to pair with their toile-patterned skirt, ahem, Jill. I swear that hell is having a closet full of black and none of it matches.
Dad, can I go play with the laser cutter after dinner? I want to make a nameplate for my bookbag.
Fine, but don’t let your sister trim the dog’s nails with it this time, Spencer. Hey babe, where are we at with the numerals?
I did a bunch of studies with the paint color of the doors and everything I could find in the hardware stores downtown. We’re going to have to have numbers made. Nothing matches the forms of the trim out front. Sketches and shots are pinned in the studio downstairs; let me know what you think.
OK—on my way…
Oh, and Sweetie, leave the furniture alone tonight, would you? It’s fine where it is, and you scraped the floor last week when you were moving it.
I love our design family, even you, Jesse. It’s just so damn convenient.
Collaboration is an attractive ideal. But more specifically, colleagues in various scenarios—office peers, classmates, bar regulars—are often attracted to each other. Usually it starts due to propinquity, as a result of a shared social situation. When grade school teachers assign seats according to alphabetical order, chances are Voynovich and Zimmerman will talk to each other over the course of the year, suddenly creating the possibility of friendship. People respond to the demands of their environment, and that shared space, objectives, and revealed overlap can appease tensions that normally block the development of interpersonal relationships.
Says Graphic Designer Rudy VanderLans, “Zuzana and I met at the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. Zuzana was studying architecture as an undergraduate, and I was in the graduate program studying photography. Both of these departments were within the School of Environmental Design, and all were housed in the same building. So we often ran into each other in the hallways, and it didn’t take long before we realized that we were two odd ducks, because our real interest was graphic design.”
In Our Social World, Donelson Forsyth, social psychologist and the Endowed Chair at the University of Richmond, discusses how people placed into social situations are constantly bombarded by jolts of self-awareness, reminders of their presence amongst company. Specifically, the presentness of people functions as an alert. A social situation is one of uncertainty in which people are primed to be responsive and ready. Once aroused, senses are heightened and people tend to improve their performance. This involuntary arousal reaction tends to push people to work longer and better as alertness becomes cyclical.
As shared projects gain momentum, social awkwardness dissolves in the frenzy of production. Collaboratives contextualize work as a game instead of a chore, helped along no doubt by any attraction motivators. Collaborators become inspired by each other, by their ideas and effort, and the work becomes as important as earning respect. Attraction is most effective in this approval process.
The argument goes that if Tom tells Anna her work is fantastic, but Dan tells Anna she can improve her composition, Anna will instinctively feel motivated by Dan, ignoring the already vanquished Tom in favor of the more interesting pursuit, rising to the perceived challenge. After four revisions, Dan tells Anna her work is fantastic, and Anna feels more inclined to like Dan than Tom even though both Dan and Tom like Anna’s composition. Dan will also feel closer to Anna for having found an open and honest working relationship. Aw.
Donelson Forsyth writes, “Attraction obeys the reciprocity principle: we like people who like us.” He defines the similarity-attraction effect as, “We like people who endorse values and attitudes that are similar to our own.…Similarity even promotes romantic attraction…when other people agree with us, they confirm the accuracy of our beliefs.” Collaboration often reinforces the participants’ charged energy and even physical attraction toward other group members. Working with a colleague who’s equally invested on a project, contributes to emotional bonding. Design relationships often follow this path: shared challenges lead to affiliation to empathy to compassion to affection. Creative inspiration grounded by mutual love leads to more compassionate, productive work. Sociologists define ultimate relationships as a combination of friendship, passion, and committed work.
Opposites do not attract, argues John von Neumann in a 1928 study conducted by multiple social psychologists regarding various social games and values. Attraction that leads to love is based on similarity, not dissimilarity. Decisions are based on minimizing loss or maximizing gain. The minimax principle implies that people are attracted to those who offer the most reward with the least costs. This accounts for the number of design couples. Combining professional savvy, interests, and support in a context that recognizes the demands of a design career creates a strong relationship.
In their collaboratively written book, Organizing Genius, Leadership Studies pioneers Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman identify trends and key qualities of some of America’s most innovative collaboratives, such as Disney, Apple and PARC, Clinton’s campaign war room, The Skunk Works, Black Mountain, and The Manhattan Project. They found that the groups were marked by an overt sense of “fun.” Stress relief meant everything from conference room ping-pong to slugging colleagues with raw eggs to chair racing to late night pub crawls to erotic orgies. Grueling work makes offline commiseration and the comfort of company a source of strength. Oftentimes, this becomes essential. Josef and Anni Albers met while Josef was a professor at the Bauhaus during the turmoil of WWI, and he married Anni, a student, in 1925.
The blend of silly and serious, precise and juvenile, allow groups to function through intense projects. Sexual release and romantic distraction provide tools for brains to bond and expand outside of the narrowness of the group’s focus. Bennis and Biederman recount the infamous Snow White Orgy at Disney: “On at least one now-notorious occasion, the high spirits got embarrassingly out of hand. To thank the staff for their heroic effort in finishing Snow White on time, Disney invited everyone to an all-expense-paid weekend at a hotel near Palm Springs. The champagne flowed freely, someone jumped naked into the swimming pool, and soon the men who had drawn the Seven Dwarfs were cavorting with the nubile young women who had inked and painted them.” Walt and his wife were horrified. But, as Bennis and Biederman point out, the party is an air release, an escape valve, for all the energy and interests pushed to the side for so long during the project’s run, and it has a parallel in the famous pranks, fun environments, and game-playing in today’s tech industry.
All this pressure-cooking can fracture relationships outside the artificial bubble of a project. Girl/boy-friends, spouses, and children are often neglected, replaced by internal interactions. At Black Mountain, John Andrew Rice and Charles Olson, two of the three leaders at the school, had affairs with students. Olson left his wife and daughter for student Betty Kaiser, and they lived together on campus with their infant son. Says Bennis, “People trying to change the world need to be isolated from it, free from its distractions, but still able to tap its resources.…Great Groups create a culture of their own.” Highly invested collaborators often pay a price for their membership. Collaborative bonds are like potent drugs. After a project is over and the group dissolves, postpartum depression can make everyone and everything else seem utterly boring. Thus many collaborators try to keep that addictive energy alive through new projects, online relationships, and courtship.
Internal Worlds of Art Couples
Because art and design careers are often very time- and labor-intensive—requiring experimentation and unexpected solutions, in many cases without requisite compensation—a colleague with a similar background brings an innate understanding of priorities and values that can seem foreign to outsiders. Even artistic spouses and family can fade from view as Makers create internal worlds, while the line between Work and Personal dissipates. If art history is any indication, this contributes to affairs, ill-advised romances, and divorce.
Photographer Edward Weston is a telling example. A romantic and a womanizer, his charm-laced letters and flattering photographs captured the hearts of many women who served as models, studio technicians, muses, and lovers. In 1908, Edward married Flora May Chandler, his sister’s best friend. Flora had inherited some money from her father when he died, and she gave Edward an allowance that financed his photography as a full-time pursuit. Flora raised their four sons together over the course of a 29-year marriage, while Edward lived everywhere except home, hard at work away from his family, moving throughout the southwestern United States for 16 years. While his wife invested in his family, Edward moved between at least five notable colleague-lovers. He fell particularly hard for Margrethe Mather, a more experimental image-maker than Edward, influencing his shift from soft-focus pictorialism to sharp-focus modern work. Their relationship became a partnership, and they began co-signing prints. Tina Modotti, a muse and model, became an accomplished documentary photographer working with Weston in Mexico during the ‘20s revolution. As their creative paths split, Edward’s new model/muse Sonya Noskowiak also engaged in a reciprocal art/lover relationship. At 40 years old, he left her for Charis Wilson, age 19, another of his models. They fell in love, and Wilson became a documentarian of his work and travels. In his book Edward Weston: A Photographer’s Love of Life, Alexander Lee Nyerges documents the exceptionally inspirational role these women played in Weston’s work, indicating that the photographer recognized their importance as well. Weston’s infatuations with women and photography and are intrinsically bound together. That romantic inspiration can influence the work to feel less like work, as opposed to feeling like a Job, is an inescapable infringement that follows designers home. Like other forms of collaboration, couples often possess an unconscious desire to impress each other. Reflecting Weston, English painter Ben Nicholson married three influential female artists over the course of his career: Winifred Roberts (1920–1938), Barbara Hepworth (1938–1951), and Felicitas Vogler (1957–1977), distilling specific inspiration and motivation from each relationship. For such Makers, there is no toggle switch between personal and professional. Nicholson’s career was a seamless transition-merger of a love for working with his models and a love of his camera.
Design brought career-driven superstars Aline Bernstein and Eero Saarinen together. From 1948 to 1953, Bernstein was the associate art editor and a popular art and architecture critic for The New York Times. On a business trip in January 1953, she traveled to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to interview Eero Saarinen about designing the General Motors Technical Center, which was awarded the most outstanding architectural project of its era by the American Institute of Architects in 1986. According to the Aline and Eero Saarinen Papers in the Archives of American Art (AAA) at the Smithsonian, on their first day together, Aline and Eero had dinner, then hurriedly made love in a dark coat room on the Cranbrook campus. Their shared passion of architecture was an aphrodisiac and perhaps a prerequisite of love at first sight. Each were married with two children. Eero’s spouse was a wealthy sculptor, but Eero wanted a partner in life and work; Aline’s husband was also an outsider to the shared world promised by Eero. They each divorced their spouses in 1951, married, moved to Detroit, and became high-profile collaborators while also maintaining separate pursuits.
A similar situation happened with Eero’s closest friend, architect Charles Eames. After twelve years of marriage, Charles left his wife, Catherine Woermann, and daughter, Lucia Jenkins, to marry his Cranbrook colleague Ray Kaiser in 1941. They moved to Los Angeles, where they lived and worked together closely until Charles died in 1978. Their domestic and work lifestyles were so completely integrated that they regularly wore matching or complementary clothes. In the “Lifelong Collaboration” section of Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century, author Pat Kirkham writes that: “The sense of coupling, bonding, ‘togetherness’—call it what you will—between Charles and Ray was extremely strong and frequently remarked upon. They were often photographed with Charles’ arm around Ray, smiling at each other with hands touching or both touching the same object.”
Charles and Ray’s relationship possessed a charisma that inspired their colleagues at the Eames Office, a direct offshoot of their mutual enthusiasm for design and architecture. Their relationship has many contemporary parallels, including architecture couples Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, Mike Simonian and Maaike Evers, and J. Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler.
The Georgia O’Keeffe/Alfred Stieglitz collaboration is a unique love story. Like Weston, Stieglitz married for financial security in order to pursue his interests in photography. But since childhood, Alfred was jealous of his twin brothers, Julius and Leopold, who had a very close relationship, and wished for a partner of his own. Alfred resented his wife, who was nothing like him, leaving him missing a sense of collaboration. He abandoned his wife and daughter without regret to work full time at the Camera Club pursuing photography.
In 1916, Alfred exhibited drawings by Georgia O’Keeffe at his 291 Gallery. This kick-started a collaborative affair, in which the two artists corresponded long distance for two years. In 1918, Georgia accepted Alfred’s invitation to move from Texas to New York, and they took an apartment together. Four years later, Alfred divorced his wife and married his lover. O’Keeffe inspired Stieglitz’s work: he photographed her hands and full nude portraits regularly. Meanwhile, O’Keeffe’s paintings shifted from abstract organic form to the geometry of New York skyscrapers. In 1929, Georgia’s need to find new inspiration beyond New York landed her on a trip to New Mexico with her friend Rebecca Strand. Together, they started studios and backpacked the countryside. Georgia spent a good portion of every year until 1946 traveling the Southwest, and in 1949, a few years after Alfred’s death, she moved to Abiquiú, New Mexico.
What made their collaboration unique was that the majority of their time was spent away from one another. Most of their collaborative inspiration happened via mail. In O’Keeffe and Stieglitz: Intimacy at a Distance, Deborah Solomon writes how “O’Keeffe’s affectionate stream of letters revived [Stieglitz]. What did he see in her? A gifted artist, a daring exponent of abstract painting, but also a fantasy of innocence that aroused in him a sense of excited paternalism.” The long distance relationship made the pent-up desire of their collaborative courtship and correspondence all the more emphatic, but it also provided space for creative energies to explore and explode. Mail, as a medium, forced them to design the content of their interactions, itself a creative act.
Likewise, the relationship between Fluxus artist Yoko Ono and musician John Lennon began at a preview of her 1966 London exhibition, continuing for three years via telephone correspondence and strategically planned meetings, while the distance channeled the desire into creative output. John left his wife, Cynthia, in 1969 and married Yoko. The impact the couple had on each other’s artistic career can be seen in John’s writing for The Beatles and the performance art demonstrations the couple orchestrated together, including the memorable Bed-In for Peace, staged on their honeymoon in protest of the Vietnam War.
While some Creatives draw support and inspiration from a diverse personal life separate from their jobs, many designer couples comment on the benefits of a streamlined work/life blend. For art/design couples, finding ways to prevent a sense of competition is key, especially in domestic arenas that could translate as a design issue: cooking, furniture, decorating, home improvement, whether the kids should read ugly textbooks.
Some potential tensions come from outside the family. Employers can be skittish of investing in couples, concerned that home issues will trickle into work life. Conversely, an enterprising couple might exert more unanimous influence on the direction of a company.
Design couples often sidestep these issues by being self-employed, either by starting their own studio or freelancing; few Creatives are employed together as Makers or have the same day-job employer. When they do work for someone else, couples often create rhythms where they are not both present at the same time, collaborating through other outlets. Collaborative couples also are all-in, running their career investment without a backup drive. Depending upon the studio/home arrangement, they risk the tendency of introducing variables from their creative outlets that negatively impact the relationship, or vice versa.
Wolf/Perry address this issue: Anna Wolf, “It’s easy to get comfortable.…I have a tendency to be anti-social at times, since so much of what I do is meeting and working with new people constantly. So when it comes time for my personal life, sometimes I just want to check out and hide.” Her husband and graphic designer, Mike Perry, follows up, “There are moments when we hang out all day, we get home, we’re not excited to see each other the way I think some couples feel when they don’t see each other all day. That said, unless we are working on a project together, we do our separate thing. We then usually have a day’s recap over dinner.” Designer couples find inventive means to take advantage of collaborating at home without losing their edge. Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio, authors of Graphic Design, Referenced, both work and live together at UnderConsideration, their 2,000-square-foot home and studio headquarters located in Austin, Texas. The master bedroom was converted into the studio, and their two daughters share the third bedroom. The convenience of their combined relationship plays a big role. Being able to do a load of laundry while working with family in the studio, to being half-time parents, and deducting expenses when it’s time for filing taxes are all inherent facets of their setup. This lifestyle allows them to enjoy the process of efficient accomplishment. Say Vit and Gomez-Palacio in an interview on “Design Couples” by Caitlin Dover for Print Magazine, “Since we are both graphic designers it simply allowed us to focus on this profession with more determination and ambition, especially when we decided in 2007 to quit our respective jobs and devote our time and energy to our clients and ventures.” Says Gomez-Palacio, “[W]e can be completely honest with each other while voicing our opinions on each other’s work, a partnership that allows us to push and challenge each other in ways that traditional colleagues can rarely accomplish.”
Master Printer Erika Greenberg-Schneider and Sculptor Dominique Labauvie share a similar mentality. Located in Tampa, Florida, their headquarters, Bleu Acier, functions as a printshop, metal shop, gallery, and home. Their lifestyle seamlessly supports multiple endeavors and collaborative capabilities while welcoming friends, family, and clients for dinners and long discussions in their kitchen/library.
Emigre partner Rudy VanderLans on his collaboration with his wife, Zuzana Licko, says, “Our working and home lives are fully integrated. There’s no time clock to punch after we climb the two flights of stairs in the morning to the top floor of our house where our offices are.…The work we create, our photos and ceramics, are all over our house.” For the Emigre couple, work happens over meals, while watching TV, and during domestic chores; there is no attempt to get away from it for home time.
Women in Collaborative Couples
Historically, men have received proportionally more credit for work that has been accomplished as a couple. However, there have been a few notable instances when men have spoken to the public’s misunderstanding of a couple’s collaboration, or even promoted their wife’s contributions above their own. Such is the case with Charles and Ray Eames. Because of her extraordinary sense of color and form, Ray’s contribution to the Eames partnership was marginalized by the public as “decoration,” “prettiness,” and “beautifying.” Furthermore Ray battled entrenched public preconceptions; less important domestic concerns were expected roles best left to women. This upset Charles, who constantly pushed the Eames’ work as collaborative. According to Pat Kirkham in Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century: “It was [Charles] who claimed ‘anything I can do, she can do better,’ opened a major presentation on design with ‘Ray can really do it,’ and insisted ‘she is equally responsible with me for everything.’”
There is often no clear division of labor in a collaborative, making it difficult to fight established notions of gender roles by pointing to concrete examples. Billie Tsien, architect and wife of Tod Williams, had a rough start too. In Couples Who Build More Than Relationships, Robin Pobrebin explores how Tsien was assumed to function more in support of Williams and a parallel assumption that the latter was unqualified to develop patterns and work with textiles despite an obvious capability. Denise Scott Brown, the acclaimed partner of Robert Venturi, said in an interview by Vladimir Paperny, “When you are the wife as well as the partner, people typecast you. You are the handmaiden. Your husband is the design genius, and you’re allowed to be the preservationist or the planner—something less—and the notion that creativity can reside in two minds is impossible.” These perceptions regarding intelligence, invention, and aesthetics seem particularly out of place in architecture, a field dominated by expensive and complex long-term projects. With so many female partners within architecture collaboratives, gender-based assumptions are not only clearly false but buck the essential values and benefits of working collectively. Finally, regarding aesthetics, American architecture’s favorite son, Frank Lloyd Wright, was well known as a designer of patterns in addition to Fallingwater.
Film’s great example of overshadowed female collaborators is Alma Reville, wife to Alfred Hitchcock, whose film-editing career preceded her husband’s takeover of the industry. In fact, Alfred held off on coring Alma until he climbed to a higher-ranking position as Assistant Director for Woman to Woman in 1923. According to their daughter, Patricia, he interviewed Alma for an editor position on the film. After Alfred finished talking, Alma told Alfred that the salary offer was inadequate and politely left the room. He ran out after her and rapidly renegotiated. This was the first instance of the rising legend’s respect for the shrewd editing skills of his soon-to-be wife. She promptly became the only person whose opinion mattered to him, and her attention to detail revealed details invisible to others. For example, amidst the crowd’s cheers during a screening of Psycho, Alma observed that Janet Leigh’s throat moved slightly after her fatal stabbing, and she held up distribution until the scene was fixed. According to Stephen Rebello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, “She really had a major impact on the film, by just persuading Hitch to back off from his own ego and listen to the idea of somebody else.”
Aino and Alvar Aalto were a husband-wife team who collaborated on furniture and product designs. They met when she started working for his architecture firm in 1924. The two fell in love, married, and began their lifelong partnership. The Aaltos are famous for their gorgeous glass designs showcased at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, utilized by the Finnish company Iittala, and were later copied by IKEA. But it was Aino who truly launched them to fame, beating her husband in a 1932 design competition. Their series Aino Aalto became the first set of designer glass products designed for modern mass production. Many women maintain collaborative production while also practicing independently. Aline Bernstein, before marrying Eero Saarinen, was the Associate Art Editor and Critic for The New York Times. When she moved to Bloomfield Hills to collaborate with her husband in 1954, she continued her journalism career. While maintaining Head of Information Service at Eero Saarinen & Associates, pitching Eero’s projects to the publications she had previously worked with, she also published The Proud Possessors in 1958, a best selling book on art collectors that was funded by a Guggenheim fellowship she had won. After Eero’s death in 1961, she became the first female NBC News correspondent and the network Bureau Chief to Paris. With three children, she still furthered her career without reducing her sphere of activity.
Alternatively, some women feel that partnering with their husband is a way to progress in a field historically dominated by men. Says Elizabeth Diller, from Diller Scofidio + Renfro, “There were so few of us [women] and it somehow fortified us, established a more acceptable context for us to practice. If I had been on my own, it probably would have been tougher.” Similarly, Amale Andraos confesses that it took time for her to build confidence as a female architect, and that working with Dan Wood and Rem Koolhaas helped her to develop professionally. Amale married Dan, and today the couple are so intellectually in sync, that colleagues nicknamed them “Danamale.”
Choosing to collaborate with a partner in ways that are not tied to compensation or co-owning a business allows women to become independently accomplished, without deliberately taking on gender stereotypes when collaborating with their husbands on exterior projects. When Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller first started working together outside of Cooper Union, they began a collective called Design Writing Research, a collaborative outlet for fun freelance projects and critical design writing, while they both kept steady design jobs. Ellen is the Director of the MFA Graphic Design Program at MICA in Baltimore and Curator for Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, while Abbott is a partner at Pentagram in New York. A converted bowling alley in their home is now a shared office and library. Says Abbott and Ellen, “Our home office is Ellen’s primary base, but Abbott is able to work here when he is not in New York. We are thus able to see what’s going on, but we’re not on top of each other.”
Graphic Designer Jessica Hische co-manages her studio Title Case and conducts typography workshops all over the globe, while her husband, Interactive and Product Designer Russ Maschmeyer, works for Facebook. In their downtime together, they work collaboratively on personal passion projects, such as their websites Don’t Fear the Internet and CSS for Typophiles.
Gael Towey worked as the Chief Executive Officer and Editorial Director at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia for 20 years. Her husband, Stephen Doyle, heads Doyle Partners, a New York–based studio. Says Stephen: “Dear reader: compare and contrast. That’s what we offer each other, and that dynamic has infiltrated our 23 years together.…Gael’s empire and my miniscule studio offer us both such insights into design, innovation, energy, and enthusiasm. We are both exposed to very different worlds of creativity when we look through the other’s lens.…And now Gael’s inevitable star has risen. Does that threaten me? Absolutely not—I believe I helped her shine.”
For contrast, Graphic Designer and Pentagram partner Paula Scher openly admits that collaborating with her husband, Seymour Chwast, Owner and Designer at Pushpin, does not work. In an interview with Caitlin Dover of Print Magazine, Paula remembers the few instances when they tried to collaborate: “When I was an art director at CBS Records I hired Seymour to illustrate some covers and it was OK. He asked me to write for the Pushpin graphic, but that was always terrible.” When asked how they approach design-related decisions as a couple, Paula responds, “Seymour does whatever I tell him to do.” And Seymour echoes, “I just do everything Paula tells me to do.” Some design couples simply do not collaborate, though their work bleeds home in more informal ways.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion lets the reader in on the secret of how she worked with her husband, John Dunne, and developed a mutual respect. Her book is a portrait of a successful, although very unusual, marriage in which the relationship is seen as a project constantly under revision. Didion describes one snowy evening by the fireplace on her birthday, a month before John died, where he reads a passage aloud from her book A Book of Common Prayer. He closes the book and says, “‘Goddamn. Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.’”
After living and working together, many couples achieve a latent design sensibility that extends beyond complementary contribution and compromise. This seamless authorship is a sort of collision more than simple math. Says Denise Scott Brown, “It’s very-very complex. We don’t find it easy to tease our ideas apart. Creativity in this office comes from two minds and then from a lot of other minds as well.…But the ideas are shared.” The voice of a collaboration is a unique, birthed entity—an entity unto itself, its own mode of making and thinking, its own message, its own outlook and agenda.
Massimo Vignelli had always claimed that his passion was for 2D graphic design, while his wife, Lella, had a background in 3D, architecture, and form. Massimo is the idealist—inclined towards intuition, possibilities, and what design could be. Lella is the realist—focused on feasibility, logic, and what design is. They have worked together since 1957. While skills and styles become easier to integrate through experience, the meshing of ideology—such as the Vignellis allegiance to Modernism—can be a lengthy vetting process, regardless of the collaborators’ alignment with things like cultural upbringing and personal beliefs. This is because the collaborative “spirit” is a designed—authored—entity. More than a mission, it’s a persona, a designitude developed from what the collaborators need in order to carry out a mission. Say the Vignellis, “When we were young and naïve, we thought we could transform society by providing a better, more designed environment. Naturally, we found that this was not possible. Now, we think more realistically: we see a choice between good design and poor or non-design. Every society gets the design it deserves. It is our duty to develop a professional attitude in raising the standard of design.” Seamless authorship and a distillation of ideology or objectives typically evolves over time within collaborators, as agendas are impacted by shared experience.In an interview with LX.TV host Shira Lazar, Christo and Jeanne-Claude discuss their collaborative authorship process: “Christo: Of course, this project is very complex, very long. It is not only one person’s work, it’s really a partnership and collaboration during all these years.…We can be very critical of each other. Actually we’re big screamers. All of our filmmakers hear that we’re very much arguing all the time. But it has nothing to do with being sick of each other. This is discussing the project. Jeanne-Claude: It’s a creative screaming. Which is very important for us. For instance, if I shout at him, ‘Can’t you see that the ropes are too long?’ and he answers, ‘No, they’re too short.’ I start thinking on my own, maybe he’s right. He’s on his side is thinking, ‘What if she’s right?’ And that way, and only that way, can we reach the perfect length.”
Like living in shared mind overtime, collaborative couples often develop the ability to communicate intuitively. Pat Kirkham writes in Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century, “When discussing her own close working relationship with her husband, the architect and designer Alison Smithson used the word ‘telepathic’ to describe the understanding that develops between two individuals who live and work together. The cumulative effect of interaction between partners is also important. What might have appeared a decision of Charles’ could well have been based on ideas exchanged with Ray a day, a week, a month, a year, or several years earlier.” Couples that are able to achieve this level of collaborative understanding either have similar personal and educational backgrounds, a great deal of empathy, or have worked together on numerous projects over a prolonged period of time. Or all of these. Because of their ability to anticipate their partner’s thoughts and reactions, work can happen more productively, even with minimal interaction.
In Silicon Valley, Singularity University is experimenting with robot faculty. Isaac Asimov gave us the laws of robotics; Stanley Kubrick eliminated them, and Roger Waters repurposed robot students as ground bologna. Beyond online classes, Silicon Valley predicts the future of schools and professorship as a cyborg hybrid.
This broadcast is live: Cylons are teaching college students. Responding to the demands of overworked instructors who waste time on university service work and clerical duties, neglecting research, Singularity’s CEO Rob Nail makes his case in the article ‘Robot Professors Come With Singularity University’s Massive Upgrade” by Ryan Tate: “We really need to have as one of our track chairs an AI [artificial intelligence] faculty member.”
Perhaps a hybrid would be better: the subjects of Joss Whedon’s show Dollhouse upload skills to their brains, providing instant mastery. In his book The Future of the Mind, Theoretical Physicist Michio Kaku discusses how “downloading” human consciousness as information onto an interactive disc is a real possibility. For example, a student in need of infotainment can dial in a cranky Paul Rand mid-rant to query his thoughts on the updated UPS logo. Kaku states that memory could be “uploaded” into live brains. Psyche will be able to adopt multiple (collaborative?) personas, making the current educational and media industries irrelevant. If the Makers of designer-babies had ambition, they could eliminate the need to learn altogether. Until then…
In the States, educational models are as cyclically fashionable as the Apple logo and as futile as yo-yo diets. Design teachers historically have embraced tech tools, ideally while upholding humanistic inquiry above wired glam. While traditional universities were fudging test scores to boost national ranking, democratic weekend conferences teaching Python, PHP, and digital painting, bypassed state legislatures to reach frustrated artists/students directly. Likewise, free online courses and DIY tutorials became cornerstones in the growing community of open-source Makers. Established schools initially ignored, then absorbed these upstarts.
An historical reliance on reputation, program diversity, and accreditation has proven inadequate, or too expensive, for the lower income Thirsty Intellectuals. The undergraduate Design School is an established tradition, and graduate programs are pushing the standard credentials higher still, as explored by Project Projects’ Rob Giampietro in School Days. But the inevitability of academia as a necessary industry stepping stone is unwinding, the first reversal of degree escalation since the trade first became an Associate. Schools no longer monopolize Tools Training, so educators have been able to shift from technical craftsmanship to formal and conceptual experimentation. Industry has always prized trendy code wizardry, but as small studios emerge with an emphasis on content, voice, and interdisciplinary collaboration, design education must scramble to adjust the narrow portfolio models currently taught.
1. Tech-ing Effectively
“In the future, social systems will not be adjusted to suit the needs of human beings. Instead, human beings will be adjusted to suit the needs of the system.”—The Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and Its Future by Ted Kaczynski
USA TODAY should have died in the ’90s. With anchor-adorbs like Tom Brokaw, Barbara Walters, and David Letterman to personally narrate the news at Americans at 30fps faster than a still image, ink offsetting onto breakfast-laden hands seems unjustifiable. In a spot of crisis management, USA TODAY responded obviously with color imagery. Then, as a present to itself for its 30th anniversary in 2012, the paper had a color-circle mid-life-crisis makeover, acceptance leading to confidence in its newly curvy self. FOX News Network had a similar freak-out over the speed of news online, and responded with epic iPads and Jumbotrons for their “News Deck,” despite the fact that viewers’ screens retain their own size. For contrast, The New York Times underwent a 2014 redesign after 150 years, but they sided with white space, Cheltenham (an Old Style serif font designed in 1896 and inspired by Will Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement), and immaculate proportions with multiplatform considerations.
Print media is not television. Culture critic Chuck Klosterman in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs makes the case that newspapers contributed to their own demise by trying to imitate TV. Editors demanded bite-sized everything: tiny paragraphs, no articles that spanned multiple pages, color whenever possible, menus for easily finding what you already know to make it easier to skip what you don’t. Treating readers as self-loathers who hated reading kept print from capitalizing on what made it different from TV. We are now beyond newspapers but we keep making the same mistake.
Print and TV are not interactive/customizable/searchable experiences. They (ideally) are passive, but controlled, storytelling. USA TODAY competed with the web. The New York Times maintains a stable of research writers; pushes design and photography specific to its magazine, site, and newspaper; hires hybrid artist-hackers like Jer Thorp as Data Artists in Residence; and commissions rockstar illustrators like Nicholas Blechman, Post Typography, and Al Hirschfeld. Each Times venture has a reason for being, with content and aesthetic decisions that play to medium strengths—it is what it is. Academia, intent on proving its ability to learn the wrong lesson, pimped campus alternatives: online classes, TED lectures, webinars, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Campuses are expensive. The national average of the faculty/administration breakdown per school is 1:1 despite the money squeeze, as administrators rarely cut themselves and boards rarely talk to faculty. Blame the ’90s arms race when programs and departments could have stood some Roundup, but contemporary economics have not played out as a “be kind, rewind.” For example, while faculty share an intrinsic comprehension of the value of multiplicity of perspectives, Diversity Programs and their requisite management persist untrimmed. Costs are cut by automating tasks, outsourcing everything, and replacing tenured faculty with adjuncts and instructors who have little personal investment in the school. (One un/popular saving technique is locking administrative and athletic salaries to the faculty pay structure.) Students don’t seem to mind the business model, content to chill at home in their jammies studying. This is all very inevitable; certainly some quality ideas and techniques exist in online academic tools, and no faculty seem to argue otherwise.
The root conflict then is when schools succumb to consumerist approaches toward education. But School is not Business—the mission of education has nothing to do with money.
American colleges have a particular ability to reduce all academic decisions to “job training,” egged on by out-of-work parents, government officials who do not believe in government, and comfy-couched kids. Television, then the Internet, seemed to eliminate the necessity of physically present teachers, conveniently, as schools faced a money crunch. But it is a fair question: “What do schools have left to justify their price tag?”
Schools must answer, though they often settle for treating education more like a business/entertainment/luxury/vending machine. Raised in a culture of instantaneous gratification, students expect the convenience of online courses from their physical meetings. Design education can be more than bare-bones workforce preparation in a self-serving manner—education is not deer hunting in a “managed forest” with pre-stocked neon-glow animals, or choosing a Whopper over a Double Stacker at a Burger King drive-through, getting in and out with the most bang for your buck. Education should not be run as a business—there is no relevant culture critic, design writer, or study that disagrees—but in designing design education, the particular advantages of classroom interaction and online tools must be maximized.
In “Can New Technologies Revitalize Old Teaching Methods?” by Pamela Mendels, Lehigh University President Gregory C. Farrington argues that teachers can be slow to add tools: “We’ve become a bit monopolistic, a bit complacent. We’ve put too little of our energy into focusing on the challenge of how we create the most effective learning environment at the undergraduate level. We know how we want to teach. We too seldom discuss how do students best learn.” Farrington makes the parallel point that certain types of learning primarily occur with in-person interaction. Schools are a natural home for exploring interdisciplinary collaboration, but only if faculty engage with the students, the students engage with each other, and contemporary media are deployed precisely—all of which require time and investment, meaning money, meaning education as education and not education as business.
In his article, “Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls,” Tamar Lewin writes, “The current, more technically focused MOOCs are highly automated, with computer-graded assignments and exams.…The Stanford MOOCs, for example, included virtual office hours and online discussion forums where students could ask and answer questions—and vote on which were important enough to filter up to the professor.” Post-curiosity-launch-craze MOOCs are failing, especially if considered through the lens of the marketplace. In “Beyond the Buzz, Where Are MOOCs Really Going,” Michael Horn and Clayton Christensen say, “In the current university system, for example, most faculty are rewarded for the quality of their research—not for the quality of their teaching. But MOOCs don’t have quality teaching either. Students are one in a million.” Online Design University may boost technical and entrepreneurial skills, but personal investment and interaction activate it in context, transforming Learning Skills into Making Work.
Onward: The truth is, medieval lecture halls are not empirically effective. College can evolve; a new system, designed from the ground up, can radically position Thinkers and Makers through an iron-sharpening-iron din of interdisciplinary collaboration. Education’s objective is to educate, to abort the workforce cog molds. As the Education Business model exhausts itself, there will be room again for true discussion and interaction—a physical Sandbox in a physical playground with very present peers and live, engaging faculty, all reflective of contemporary design culture.
Issues in the consumerist education model tie to problems descended from technological dependence. Students choose classes online exactly the way they order pizza from Domino’s app. Specific advice based on professional and educational experiences can help flesh out the nuances of curriculum decisions, something not needed when deciding on cheese layers, so inserting faculty interaction and involvement is helpful. Harmful expectations of convenience stem from Tech and Money, and they manifest in similar means. In the case of Tech, the influence is somewhat indirect, as habits are set in a broader lifestyle sense before trickling into the student experience.
Much of this influence is detailed in Neil Postman’s Technopoly, a dissection of America’s particular embrace of any and all tech innovations. Postman’s world argues that students are consumed—addicted—within a highly individualistic world of noise, distraction, self-sufficiency, and self-interest. Schools enable this behavior by sellingpointsofemphasis of tech vs. faculty, wires vs. people. This can manifest in headphoned design students surrounded by non-interacting peers. Under the guise of “interactivity,” technology lets students draw deeper within themselves. This seems to be a non-controversial argument, yet it rarely inspires direct action because “technopoly, efficiency, and interest need no justification,” writes Postman.
When not killing interaction, these tech-driven habits promote distraction. In multiple classroom crits, ras+e have told distracted phone users that “Facebook will wait until we finish,” only to be answered, “You don’t know my friends.” This issue is profiled in the New York Times article, “Technology is Changing How Students Learn.”Says Matt Richtel, “In interviews, teachers described what might be called a ‘Wikipedia problem,’ in which students have grown so accustomed to getting quick answers with a few keystrokes that they are more likely to give up when an easy answer eludes them. The Pew research found that 76 percent of teachers believed students had been conditioned by the Internet to find quick answers.”
Capturing students’ prolonged attention is hard, and it is not necessarily indicative of good teaching but rather a feature of entertainment. Hence, an easy overreliance on teaching through video games and TED. Pedagogy should acknowledge technology but should not cater to it.
Copious use of technology doesn’t have to become an inevitable distraction. According to Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf, we are not only what we read but how we read. Wolf explains how reading online is more like power browsing, and we tend to become efficient gleaners and decoders of information. Unlike deep reading without distraction, we remain disengaged and do not form rich mental connections. In design school, this translates into student difficulty in researching concepts and applying the information in an integrally linked way.
Students enter school, college especially, with unhelpful habits and traits already entrenched as a result of broader forces. Ludwig von Bertalanffy describes the biological and social impact of technology on mankind in his book Robot, Men, and Minds: “Precisely in affluent society, with gratification of biological needs, reduction of tensions, education and conditioning with scientific techniques, there was an unprecedented increase in mental illness, juvenile delinquency, crime not for want but for fun, the serious problem of leisure in an automated society, and the appearance of new forms of mental disorder diagnosed as existential disease, malignant boredom, suicidal retirement neurosis and the like—in fact, all symptoms of a sick society.”
If that all sounds like ADHD, there may be a link. Americans have turned to tech like a drug, a form of stress-reducing escapism. A need for constant entertainment in a hyper-connected world is an addiction. It has become standard for parents to ask doctors to prescribe Ritalin and Adderall for their children so that they can ignore the constant technological chatter and focus on work—this instead of the unspeakable alternative of monitoring usage. At least Hunter S. Thompson was able to channel his using toward production of work and away from isolation. Hopefully, designers can teach some other instructive methods.
Creating interdisciplinary spaces, situations, tools, events, and coursework enables students to practice essential skills and create a broader range of work. Design created in physical proximity to peers is often collaborative by osmosis, and the pieces are measurably stronger than when students work alone, a potential missed in online interactions. This alone justifies the expense and investment in campuses and studios. Physical proximity creates new interactions—new tools—which beget invention. The physical structure of the building (or wireframe of the site), accessibility of materials, and layout of studios and buildings play major roles in shaping the atmosphere and voice of schools and programs that lead to productive interdisciplinary collaboration.
Facilities’ structure and setup can impact workflow, communication, and vibe. Unsurprisingly, most computer labs feature sacred individual workspaces at the expense of interactive considerations. Monitors block sightlines to the projector, the professor, and other students. Lounge spaces are scrapped to increase class size. Locations of all gear and destinations impact how people move and what they come into contact with: printers, presses, darkroom, wood shop, library, cutting station, coffee, snack machine, music, bathrooms. Spacial convenience can increase the likelihood of students moving around and interacting; but deliberately forcing contact, even encouraging the likelihood that designers see what others are making, can build up mental databases of ideas and stimulants. Faculty should be accessed easily without blocking peer-to-peer contact. Studio computers can encourage users to drop in, but considerations for imported laptops are also needed. Furniture should not hurt bodies. The space itself should inspire pride in the work without conveying a hands-off museum quality. Spaces that students want to be in facilitate the “stickiness” of classrooms, programs, and entire schools. Any studio located within a design/art school can be a Quad: students studying animation mingle with those pursuing information design, as ideas and skills jump from Maker to Maker. Tricks are conveyed and tech is absorbed. A senior working on kinetic typography for their thesis ends up collaborating with a musician.
Pedagogical reformers like Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Jean Piaget, and Maria Montessori stress the importance of play, curiosity, and physical environments in student learning. In “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses,” Joshua Davis notes, “Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.” Even collaborative teaching is an effective, passive encouragement toward openness and experimentation, fostering a sense of live play. Referencing Black Mountain College as a creative hub, Bennis and Biederman note in Organizing Genius that “Great Groups often have a decidedly adolescent side.”
Makerspaces/Hackerspaces are proven effective incubators, and schools are adding them into the studio environment: accessibility of equipment and space (digital and physical) expand production, process, and interaction opportunities. Opening the spaces to teams and individuals outside the department—including business, community, and other programs—is essential. Suddenly, graphic designers can incorporate theory and production from industrial designers, engineers, hackers, philosophers, anthropologists, and other artists. Workshops, lectures, and various group meetings all find a home. Such areas often deliberately eliminate boundaries between institutional spaces and the community. Baltimore Print Studios is a public-access letterpress and screenprinting printshop started by MICA husband-wife faculty team Kyle Van Horn and Kim Bently. Prompted by a demand for expanding the reach and facilities of MICA’s printmaking building, Dolphin Press, while also developing the crossover of Kyle’s printmaking and Kim’s graphic design backgrounds, Baltimore Print Studios brings affordable self-serve studio access to Baltimoreans. Graduated alums and designers looking to expand their work also gain access to community and gear not afforded by their class schedule.
Hackerspaces can include physical and virtual environments, the latter being a network of users in virtual rooms who share resources, ideas, and projects. Corey Doctorow’s Little Brother profiles four young students thrust into hacktivist roles when Homeland Security begins ruling San Francisco. The hackers distribute information by utilizing virtual meet-ups, digital pranks, and unregulated networks linked to gaming. In short, a digital educational institution.
Post-print, libraries repurposed themselves as medium-agnostic but, more relevantly, shifted their community roles to take advantage of their physical space and status as knowledge centers (e.g. Chicago Public Library Maker Lab). Various groups, events, and speakers shifted their activities into libraries, not unlike what NYC makerspace Eyebeam does. Similarly, 19-year-old Shawn Fanning’s Napster became one of the largest and most important libraries in world history. The digital community and resource was born out of Fanning’s time at Northeastern University, when he became frustrated with the limitations of his faculty and coursework, eventually dropping out.
Hackerspace.org provides a global directory of community-operated workshops where people can work together, fueling the argument that colleges are not essential for fostering productive interaction. When it comes to school+makerspace+online, students reasonably question the essential qualities of studios. Napster was successful because students wanted free music, but the library aspect was the important cultural artifact. Mac Rumors attracts people who need answers to questions and hackers who are happy to give them. Reddit and Twitter provide an even more personalized RSS but with the ability for subscribers to contribute and comment. YouTube and Vimeo function as video libraries of expansive diversity. But virtual classroom hackerspaces are incomplete as spaces by not providing for physical interactions and osmosis. They also tend toward being stiff, difficult to modify and control, and are often redundant to the more casual pre-existing student worlds of Facebook and texting.
In David Kushner’s RollingStone article “The Flight of the Birdman: Flappy Bird Creator Dong Nguyen Speaks Out,” Nguyen explains how he removed his massively successful game from the Internet due to concerns about addiction. But it is exactly that world and trait that education game developers are pursuing. For example, INKids’s Futaba Classroom Games offers educators the ability to plug in curricula-specific content into a game infrastructure that connects peers as competitive opponents. Schools are exploring the possibilities of interactive technology for play-based learning and collaborative socialization. Determining how much these tools teach or harm will likely come through future research, but regardless, physical studio classrooms retain important traits.
Physical contact in school matters. The telephone allows us to hear voices and email instantaneously transmits ideas, but in-person communication is fortunately not just about the clear, efficient delivery of information. Meeting with peers and professors promotes familial solidarity. Professors learn more about their students and are able to invest specifically, while students learn from one another’s process. Group interaction, and coffee, keep everyone pushing through tiredness and setbacks.
Students who complete a MOOC are shown to have joined study groups that meet in person. In such all-skates, signing up is easy but completing the material can be demanding. The fun chatter and hum of a pub can be a more engaging and provoking space than a bedroom desk, according to Laura Pappano’s New York Times article “The Year of the MOOC.”
In the Wired article “Virtual Reality and Learning: The Newest Landscape for Higher Education,” Brian Shuster concurs, “At some point in their learning, every student needs personal help that interactive workbooks and textbooks alone cannot provide. Relying solely on asynchronous communication with a faceless professor stifles the kind of momentum that a classroom setting promotes.…The highest quality education must be social and interactive, and although online learning provides a degree of that via a website, the practicality of the real world instant feedback and social dynamics are missing.”
Future design education models will ideally involve blends of digital and physical realms, anchoring online tools in a dedication to presentness. Parsing what works and what is trend will be crucial to maintaining deeply worked pieces and intensive collaboration.
Administrative policies on diversity are often criticized for zeroing in on superficial definitions. But intellectual and cultural diversity based on life experiences, even deliberately incorporating non-design perspectives, are gaining traction. A group of students who do not know the boundaries of a discipline assume they have to work harder to catch up and are willing to experiment. The interdisciplinary sides of art and design practice demand cross-medium backgrounds and unexpected collisions.
Red Burns, Godmother of Silicon Alley, founded the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The ITP ideology emphasizes diversity at the expense of technological expertise, selecting applicants based on student dynamics, which can vary from class to class. In the Wired article, “Let’s Stop Focusing on Shiny Gadgets and Start Using Tech to Empower People,” former ITP student Margaret Stewart writes, “Red wasn’t that interested in technology per se; she saw it as something you needed to get to the real work: improving people’s lives, making them feel more connected, bringing delight in big and small ways, and empowering them to affect change.…It wasn’t a coincidence that Red created ITP inside NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts rather than the computer science department; she wanted the program to be filled with dreamers, inventors, artists, and change-makers.… I sometimes describe ITP to those not familiar with it as ‘Kindergarten for grownups,’ but also love another description I once heard: ‘Engineering for poets.’…We may not know exactly what background or hard skills each [student] brings to the table, but we know we are likely dealing with an open, curious spirit; a great collaborator; and someone who is human-centered in the way he or she approaches problem solving.”
Collaboration often derives energy from competition, a wholly relevant part of industry life. In the classroom, peers are simultaneously allies and competitors. Assignments are designed to provide high ceilings and open-ended challenges with room for students to experiment and produce portfolios that stand out. Collaborating supplies peer pressure and drives students to carry their weight and impress one another. Designers like Rodrigo Corral, Paul Sahre, and Project Projects create book covers within a narrowing print arena, inventively competing for eyeballs. In that world, formal mastery is assumed; idea is everything.
In The New York Times article “Do You Perform Better When You’re Competing or When You’re Collaborating?” Michael Gonchar details competition between children. American siblings are particularly competitive, even in mundane tasks like tooth-brushing. Competition is normal, innate, and healthy, providing an iron-on-iron problem-solving framework to expand. This occurs overtly in sports, both team and individual, a mirror to studio interactions.
2. Free Range Design Curriculum
The American educational system prides itself on a Can-Do, individually customizable, Choose Your Own Adventure pedagogy. Human-Centered (What else would design be?), Student-Centered (What else would a class be?), guided only when necessary (Tutorials!). Yet, a general pall hangs over many schools that flattens out potential: a consumer-driven approach to education that reduces all perspectives to a job-training lens.
Not every college graduate prioritizes jobs for Thinkers: due to loan pressure, family concerns, or a greater interest in lifestyles detached from work, schools are pushed to prepare cogs. Americans fell victim to technological gluttony and a disposable culture, which trickled into program development. Overlooking the terms and conditions, schools went belly up, then compensated by recruiting rich Chinese families. Some schools are still criticized for deliberate, predatory programs that leave students with little portfolio POP but lots of tech know-how, large debts but little experience diversity. In the new studio world, that will not be enough.
Graphic Design students typically work on projects alone; they chafe at collaborative work requiring creative flexibility. Neil Postman argued that technology encourages individuality; we see this in the resistance from students toward collaborative projects. Formal skills require personal practice, but collaborative skills receive significantly less attention. If job prep is so important, then why haven’t design programs better prepared students for working collaboratively in a studio environment?
Despite the potential for unique combinations of talent and perspective afforded by college courses, the consumerist approach to education trickles into expectations that students have bought the right to avoid anyone’s interests but their own. Design in a vacuum is not an accurate reflection of design reality. We agree that the Type I level is probably not the best time to implement large-scale collaborative work, but neither is introducing it for the first time at an internship. Employers do not teach collaboration; in an internship, students learn to work with colleagues through baptism by fire. In fact, design educators often hear complaints from design studios that there are a lot of talented applicants and hard-working designers graduating from top-notch design schools; however, getting these new designers to work in teams to execute projects is a struggle. Contemporary culture is driven by creative commons: sharing files, building upon ideas, and remixing images. Students, in our experience, often gravitate toward exploring ideas with others as a reflection of the online communities they take for granted. Courses and projects can be built to utilize these perspectives already at play. Many programs include New Media and Interactive Design in their Foundation program, and these skills and perspectives are essential. Students enter school with tacit experience in these mediums, so building context around cultural fundamentals from the beginning is hugely beneficial. Besides a taste of code, educators need to help students understand the dimensions of Interactivity and contemporary communication, its theory and history, exchanging and merging perspectives; this can push design and students’ universes into a collaborative context from the beginning.
The freedom to fail is widely considered a design process imperative, and school is a perfect environment to do so, or it should be. Going back to the Middle Ages, a master craftsman would adopt a young protégé. Imitating technical skills on the level of a specific technique is a lot like learning with training wheels. Today, many design educators still teach by this model. There is some merit in learning a unique way of working, which is why design programs run workshops with visiting artists. However, art direction at a curriculum level does not develop the ability to self-generate process and content, which demands freedom to pursue tangents and the freedom for those tangents to fail. Art and design students especially need to hear that it’s okay to fail—that in our discipline, experimentation, the unexpected, and originality are way more valuable than competency or imitation. The most common answer to questions should be, “Try it and see.” Interdisciplinary work demands curiosity. Curious George has a highly regarded place in collegiate studio practice as an impish role model.
As schools receive government pressure to graduate students in four years—for the economy, of course—faculty are less likely to encourage students to switch majors or add diverse classes that might increase student stay. In some cases, especially state schools, any additional classes students take outside of standard requirements are taxed with extra fees. This narrow approach to education actually deters curiosity, limiting the likelihood of inventive design solutions.Most learning/remembering happens via unexpected, unguided, peer-to-peer interaction. Knowledge acquisition is a result of the collision between free people, free time, open space, and curiosity-fuel: “Hey, how’d you make that?”
Joshua Davis talks about free range intellectual curiosity in the Wired article “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.” His argument: young students are naturally curious, and education replaces that openness by training them to master very narrow approaches, limiting their potential for future discoveries. Davis details the work of a New Delhi scientist who let children explore a computer set up on the edge of a slum and discovered that they quickly taught themselves and each other without any adult guidance. In future work, Mitra is building schools with tech access but no formal teaching, letting the students organize themselves. For contrast, Davis discusses a 2009 study of children and toys, where conclusive test results demonstrated that children actually invent more uses for toys when nobody teaches them their use. The Case for Make Believe, by children’s therapist and puppetry enthusiast Susan Linn, argues similarly that non-branded toys produce more vibrant, personal, and inventive storytelling when used by kids.
Design instructors need to separate ego from teaching practice, giving up tightly controlled art directing or idea-generation. It can be challenging to not “design” a course for a narrow set of skill-building outcomes, but not doing so allows students to learn more aspects of more topics, the cornerstone of teaching interdisciplinary collaboration.
One notable attribute of design is that over the course of working with multiple clients on a variety of projects, practitioners learn something about many arenas, either through the content and subject or by constantly engaging new tools. Naturally, faculty are inclined to bring this perspective into their courses, breaking historical discipline silos as a reflection of their own projects.
The Graduate Communications Design MS/MFA program at Pratt Institute conducts a class called Transformaction Design. Changing every year, designated design faculty pair with faculty from another field, such as architecture or philosophy, to develop a unique hybrid class with crossover curriculum. Graphic Design MFA students at MICA explore writing as a design process with authors Elizabeth Evitts-Dickenson, David Barringer, and Ellen Lupton. At Parsons New School for Design, the academic division is labeled The School of Art, Media, and Technology, and their objective is for students to “explore areas of study and to learn how programs actively relate and converse with one another within Parsons’ unique multiple-school structure—and with the wider New School network.” The school prepares students by emphasizing the overlap between “art and design disciplines, expanding these fields beyond their traditional boundaries through interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange.” RIT’s School of Photographic and Imaging Arts also encourages innovation in artistic uses of technology.
Increasingly, liberal arts and fine arts schools are encouraging faculty to explore interdepartmental projects and courses. The fine arts have always crossed art and writing with new media and graphic design tools, going as far back as the illuminated book of hours, to more recent iconics like Barbara Kruger. However, design studios and schools are fading the barriers between art, design, and technology as a reflection of cultural trends and the need for physical campuses to innovate, compete, and justify their price tags. Mediums rarely define careers, except when the mediums cross-pollinate in a distinctive way. Thesis students in American liberal arts schools are positioned to take advantage, putting together tools and techniques. Design students should encounter curricular crossover sooner than later. In his article “Interdisciplinary Courses and Team Teaching,” James R. Davis writes, “In interdisciplinary courses, the faculty team members take on the chore of integrating their various perspectives and resolving their differences. In the ideal team-taught course, the faculty have successfully met the challenges of ‘connecting learning’ and the students have a chance to see the relationships that they don’t get to see in other courses. This is one of the great pay-offs for inventing a new subject.”
Collegiate faculty largely sidestep the waves of education trends, but the flipped classroom parallels the pre-existing studio ideal. Class time is used for exercises, discussion, and collaboration; while home time is dedicated to readings and lectures, made possible through online video distribution and communication tools. The most valuable educational resource—people—is maximized through student questions, dialogue, and complex problem-solving while allowing students to study at their own pace.
Accredited BFA studio programs run around five hours per week, most of that time being dedicated to practicing techniques and tools, discussion, and some group work. In-class open work time is required for collaboration with faculty feedback: skill and research–sharing, problem-solving, and informal critiquing.
Student-run design studios offer “real world” projects, clients, a team context, and teach autonomy in making decisions while keeping faculty nearby to mediate professional problems, place student work into their community, and mitigate flaws in the internship model. If conducted as part of a course, the importance of grading or mandating equality of effort becomes subservient to the values and scale of collaborative projects.
Assigning a single, semester-long, intensive project forces students to manage a quantity of chefs while still protected by the safety-net of school. Students experiment with managerial processes and division of labor out of necessity. Leaders emerge. Often, students who rarely vocalize in traditional class meetings take on overt leadership roles, art directing and managing interactions with an Observer’s experience. As professors dissolve their own authority, students maximize all available resources; peer pressure steps in. A rough semester breakdown:
Week 1: Collaborative Curiosity = Excitement + Planning
Week 2: Clash of Visions = Reality Check + Synthesis
Week 3: Trial and Error = Re-evaluation
Week 4–10: Coerced Collaboration = Groove Found + Production
Week 11–13: New Collaboratives = Mild Panic + Finalizing
Week 14–15: Moment of Truth = Dedicated students morph into feral leprechauns and roam the art building desperately in search of hot coffee and a pot of PVA glue.
A stand-alone course on collaboration offers students a range of relevant processes: new critique structures, swapping work, activist installations, forced connections, charrettes, sprints, and pecha kuchas. Some programs have loose structural definitions, allowing these perspectives to knit into multiple syllabi without adding courses.
3. Transactive Teaching
“There was possibly a time when show biz was a bigger business than education. Today, education is not only by far the biggest business in the world, it is also becoming show biz.”—War and Peace in the Global Village, by Marshall McLuhan
Rockstars leading art and design schools have raised few eyebrows in the industry and education communities—in fact, big programs are expected to be led by big names. Learning from the masters is a long-standing tradition in the arts, and The Indebted certainly pray that supplementing studio time with elbow rubbing increases results, although those “results” vary widely for obvious reasons: Steven Heller leads mass at SVA in New York; Elliot Earls replaced the McCoys at Cranbrook; Ed Fella finally retired from CalArts; Kate Bingaman-Burt jump-started Portland State; Kimberly Elam stalks the rooms of Ringling; Yale is the podium for Mr. Rock. All invested parties—administration, faculty, students, parents—recognize at some level that many factors impact the many definitions of success, but that slot-machine lever has never looked so shiny as today, with graduate programs a booming business.
(Any criticisms of the system are in the context of the authors attending the Graphic Design MFA program at MICA under Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips, a context ras+e value immensely at every level. And speaking broadly, it is virtually impossible for any well-intentioned program to not benefit students.)
With students driving their own work in upper-level settings, faculty and peer input is always helpfully secondary to any self-determined results. The critique is with imitation; seeing aesthetic success and imitating aesthetic success amount to learning the wrong lesson. In attempts to please professors, many students often unknowingly emulate styles, adopt similar-minded design interests, and in some instances intentionally repeat the ideals and work of faculty. These issues worsen when the professor is a rockstar, well-connected, or otherwise seen as a gatekeeper. Developing originality and problem-solving is more important for a student than successfully resolving any one piece. Some instructors have responded by hiding personal work or intentionally giving disparate feedback in order to not “rub off” on students. Having more teachers and more diverse backgrounds in a department is a common solution, accounting for programs avoiding alums in the hiring process.
Recruiting rockstar faculty has an obvious advantage for a school, but the drag of the Outdated and Tenured Curmudgeon, grandfathered into (typically) small design programs out of formal respect for their old-pro work, makes responding to cultural and technical shifts difficult. They may be angry at the world because they feel that the design industry owes them something for their time and experience. With their value in experience, designosaurs’ contributions mean much less in a world of rapid technology and culture shifts, where self-teaching and collaboration abound, a world of more Wicked Problems than vacant billboards. A school with a well-respected designosaur professor is kind of like owning a collectible car: its driveability is not really the point. Or, like how the Queen of England serves as a trophy on tour to rally support. As schools are squeezed for cash, a few faculty end up shouldering disproportionate loads regarding tech expertise. In a larger studio environment, ’saurs hire fresh blood to handle what they don’t want to learn, but schools are rarely hiring faculty, and those they do hire are at low rank/commitment.
All an exaggeration, perhaps, but it is surprising that the consumer education model hasn’t pushed the ’saurs out. The whole truth is that their experience is valuable—which quickly manifests in crits—even if they struggle in teaching the collaborative and interdisciplinary side.
Universities Love Collaboration, Have No Idea What That Means
Schools are leery of faculty collaboration. Even if they realize the potential and anticipated future reality of a discipline, co-teaching and co-making within an institution rarely have appropriate structures and viewpoints in place to assign credit, assess results, and supply resources. Mostly, schools are hesitant to pay two faculty for one class. Considering the individual nature of American education, this issue is unsurprising.Common university grievances include: committees evaluating similar research packages, co-teachers grading assignments and providing feedback from multiple perspectives, and overlapping allocation of time and energy. For these reasons and others, collaborating faculty may be perceived as slackers. Some of these issues stem from the insistence of the Education Business model, and some come from narrow viewpoints. The arguments for co-teaching are precise: if design and culture reflect trends toward collaboration, then education should reflect this also, and the second argument simply values diversity of input. Certain topics are best experienced through alignments of particular backgrounds and skills.
Penn State Anthropology Professor Dr. John L. Jackson Jr. attacks the misconceptions of faculty collaboration in the aptly named Chronicle article “Co-Teaching is More Work, Not Less.” Collaborating requires immense investment of faculty. Synthesis is usually hard and typically messy. Creating courses, assignments, and lectures and determining what is relevant and to what degree—effective co-teaching requires all this to be done as a reflection of two points of view, and maintaining a tight hybridization throughout a course requires constant inter-faculty communication. Every decision is made individually and resolved at Round Two. Teachers do it because they want to, because they’re curious, and because the deeply layered results favor students.
Fill the Bubbles vs. Connect the Dots
Students have access to all the information they could ever choke down. That’s before they attend college.
At a visiting artist lecture by Information Designer Jer Thorpe, a student critiqued the design curriculum: “We are taught how to make information pretty, but we’re not taught how to understand it.” Without context, representing information is just Style. A non-critical judgment of large amounts of stuff is U-Haul/PODS storage facilities, American obesity, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. With quality control, eight different social media subscriptions wouldn’t all chirp at once. The greatest service a professor can offer is context and perspective on the info/media onslaught.
To collaborate, students must first connect to one another.
Scene: A professor stands in front of a vinyl screen with a projected image of William Morris. A student faces a lab computer and logs onto Facebook. For those who weren’t listening, the Arts and Crafts movement aimed to bring Art into Life. Click. The Bauhaus appears. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Constructivist and Instructor, pushed humanism within the framework of an industrial society. A phone vibrates and another pair of eyes diverts. The layered walls of screens in the classroom provide info, or not, based on the whims of shrinking attention spans. The fact that students would rather be on social media and drift in and out of a lecture is not surprising; it used to be comic books hidden in textbooks, but the result is roughly alike. Presentness is important, curation is important, the ability to focus deeply on pushing solutions past surface is vitally important. These are design skills, industry skills, and student skills. Faculty bear some responsibility on proving the imperative of parsing relative importance. Students need to know what Will Morris does for their reality.
Education as entertainment can disguise learning, conflating the value of something with how fun it is. This matters in life, but it matters in design because the best solutions are often buried beneath the obvious. It’s not enough to solve the problem, the result must be interesting, inventive—and it’s a competition.
While the goal is not engagement through entertainment, collaboration requires students to be present. It’s an uphill battle. Contemporary high school is anti-art, regimented bubble-filling, and students have to juggle the openness of college studios in addition to the trial and error of invention. Students need faculty help to connect the dots, to assemble something new from the pieces they’re given.
Transactive teaching means collective instructing, and it naturally engages students in material through constant context and juxtaposition, replacing monologue with dialogue. Sometimes there’s even collision. Perspectiveclash provides accuracy, like how paradox is the best truth. Students watch things being hashed out; they see multiple angles lead to multiple solutions. Co-teaching in two-person teams is most common, although workshop courses, in which a single voice for a condensed period of time rotates out with other faculty later on, can be effective. Quality investment in communication is an imperative, as live response needs to reflect an agreed-upon duality. If students sense conflict, their trust in the experiment is over.
While co-teaching typically involves more work than teaching solo, there are advantages in the quantity and depth of the material that can be covered, since two bodies of experience are available. Physical classroom feedback is also quicker with two sets of feet roaming the aisles. In a culture plagued with automated responses, increasing personal/custom contact time is something to be embraced. When the faculty are confident in their ability to represent a shared vision, when parity is achieved, answering emails and grading can all be split between two sets of hands. The roles and division of labor within a design studio course can vary greatly, with faculty able to break classes into smaller chunks, play to lecturing/critiquing/demo-ing strengths, divide content by area of expertise, trade duties, or simply roam the room.
When courses are structured to be overtly interdisciplinary, usually with a Foundation or Special Topic curriculum, the faculty bring their shared disciplines together. In a Foundation framework, the diversity helps to build a broad base. Special Topic courses allow two different programs to collide, such as typography students working on visualizations with poetry students. Almost all Wicked Problems or Social Design coursework rely on a range of student disciplines, and bring in either guests or co-teaching faculty, since the topics cross between many arenas.
Fears and Cheers
Concerns from students about team-taught design courses usually stem from a combination of assumptions and lack of dialogue with the faculty. Instructors need to make sure expectations are clear and consistent, first and foremost. Students need to adjust to the unconventionality, and teachers should be aware what they are doing is experimental. As is true with any collaborative work, a willingness to buy in and a determination to contribute with humility are absolutely essential.
The greatest concern is that students might receive conflicting critiques of work or, more likely, differing advice on moving forward. However, multiple viewpoints effectively counter one-sided thinking and stylistic imitation. Students learn to assimilate all wide-ranging advice into work that reflects synthesis with their own perspective. Having multiple inputs reinforces the openness of possible solutions, allowing room for the student to decide and innovate.