Hello hello. Is this thing on? Is this thing on me? Yes, it is. Honest, reader, it is. On me like the fear of high places. Writing about Design. Design about writing. The stench! I said to my friend the other day, "you know, I really can't stand the designers that ONLY write." That's rough though. It's a pretty awful observation on my part. I knew it had to be coming from somewhere. Yes, a fear. A fear of writing something wrongheaded, uncritical, uneducated, of not finding an audience, being above all a bad communicator. My problem with writing is a design problem.
I had to think of a way that I could write about design without feeling the pressure of graduate students looming over my shoulder with MLA books and every essay ever published by a small press just a memory away. I'm not oriented like that. My memory is horrible. Ask anyone that knows me how many times during a conversation I can't recall the name of the band that did that one song…yeah. That's why this is an OP. Not an opinion. An OPeration. Things could go right or left. Up or down. The space is incomplete and all mine to define. You might find a footnote. You might read the wrong date or an absolutely absurd or even possibly trivial argument. Exciting, right?
That being said, I want to discuss the nature of being a designer that is intimidated by those who do a lot of writing. Some of it is envy I must admit. You people are not just taking part in a very important conversation, you are leading it. Histories are being written. Progress is being made through debate. That's everything I truly believe in my bones to be the way to move design forward. So why am I so intimidated?
Without getting into too much psychoanalysis, it's got something to do with how I was raised. Risk taking is not something the hard-working, disciplined midwesterners do well. Hence why so many of them never stray far from where they grow up. To face a room of designers and speak can only be done by ignoring this sense of extreme guilt amongst other personal social phobias. And to seal my thoughts in ink, in volumes, to publish something to be read by designers and non-designers alike, is the same way. Now it would be simple to say this is totally curable with a writing class or maybe a few therapy sessions.
Except it isn't. This is the other part that makes it hard to jump in. There actually are a lot of people that do use their knowledge to keep others an arm length away, often against the same community that is trying to support endeavors such as criticality and deconstruction. There are also people that write to publish rather than write to be read. If designing books is a passion, a true deep obsession, then one should care quite a lot about the content going into those objects just as much as one would care for the selection of materials and organization of such content. Both form obstacles of the personal in addition to other obstacles like the economic. Coolness is sometimes on the line and all the surface, self-commodifying, attention-grabbing bullshit we are taught to care about just gets in the way. Of course with the currency of likes and reblogs, what do we expect?
Which is precisely why the posturing and pretension that comes with it are happening. Those who cherish authenticity are having to hide deeper and deeper in order to hold onto it like secret societies meeting in the middle of the night, under the stairs and in other private, closed off spaces. The recent mining of the 'net art' aesthetic by Rihanna on SNL is an example of a small community worrying about surface over content, style over substance. The publishing of signs and signifiers, of a conversation without context, is always going to be easy prey for the whims of fashion and style. The result is a tension produced between people that would otherwise not be opposing forces. I want to address this problem and find ways of communicating that allow for a more honest discussion. I want to help designers (especially young designers) elevate the substantial, curate the content even if it entails a little self-editing. I want to explore the meaning of tradition, of rebelling against that tradition, and of ultimately forming a unique practice. Those are just a few goals for these operations but they are pertinent to just about everything I do.
We are failing each other if we don't talk about this. The attention machine that social media is desperately trying to wall us into online is turning what we do, what we think, (and it follows) everything we make into a quest for attention. This, as I said, is a false surface value ruling over content. Even if the powers that be in the United States of Advertising want to make us believe it and buy it, attention is not a metric of any real value. Attention is a distracting barrier to real, open dialogue.
There's another reason for writing (whether good or bad). Writing is a way to re-align oneself with the structure, rhythm ,and sound of text and therefore typography. Tomato calls it typoetics. HeiQuiti Harata calls it Eternergy for Communication. Even what Emil Ruder accomplished with Univers in 1961 brought a certain "weightlessness" to the then prevailing Zurich and Ulm schools of Swiss design. I've noticed this relationship seems to be missing in a lot of contemporary work that surrenders typographic expression to a template and a kind of universality that feels very cold and inhuman like the machinery of academia without the students. Or like very formulaic writing, without a voice, only in monotone.
In the following weeks I'm going to get mixed up in a variety of topics. It's very much an experiment. If it goes well, I'll keep going with (hopefully) an increasing amount of courage, discipline, knowledge, and passion.
Next up: What is honestypography and how can it be done? I'll revisit an essay published in Octavo (87.4) by Wolfgang Weingart and try to apply some of those principles to typography today.