The New Book is Out and Things Feel Different This Time

The first time I published a book— many a long year ago—it was a trade book, which means that it was a book for everybody, not just for a small group of people. I had asked an agent if she would be interested in representing a book about various iconic signs in our culture. She turned down the proposal, but then said, “This chapter on the meanings of blonde hair— I would represent this as a book, if you include your own experiences in it.” So I got a book contract and wrote a book about blonde hair. And since then I have been the person you email if you’re a Norwegian filmmaker doing a series on blondes, or a Canadian television producer tracing the roots of the Marilyn Monroe myth. Blonde was not an expertise I had ever imagined having. But one gets used to things.

When that book came out I suddenly became a writer-of-books, and my life became focused around talking about the ways we make meaning and the ways we tell each other how we should be and how we should design. After the publication date, I spent days in my very cool microphone headset doing drive-time spots on radio shows one after another, being driven in limos to all kinds of radio and TV stations, sitting on numerous television show couches trying to look vibrant as the host made jokes about my hair, and signing books at huge book signings at big bookstores. This attention turned my head instantly, and I became a total prima donna, expecting bottled water and snacks at every turn. However, the prima donna side of things deflated pretty quickly after those first halcyon days.

I wrote that book to prove that I could do something, having had a rather adventurous but unproductive life up until that point. And its coming out did a lot to banish the horrible insecurity, lack of self esteem and constant depression that, up until that success, I had thought were just normal parts of life.

After a few years, I got enough steam up to write a second book. Chasing the Perfect did not adopt as obvious a persona. It was a memoir of not fitting into the Modernist agenda, and I wrote it for a small publisher. It was written only for designers—a tiny audience compared to that of the first book. Because she liked my writing, the editor of Metropolis Magazine and the Metropolis book imprint had strong-armed this publisher into publishing the book. But the publisher didn’t like it from the get-go, and I sat in meetings in which whispering assistants talked about each other and rolled their eyes while we were supposed to be planning marketing strategy.

Luckily, Metropolis had my back, took up the slack, and threw me all kinds of huge book parties at very chic manufacturers of architectural fittings and such, all over the place. Chasing the Perfect did a lot for me. It gave me a voice in the design conversation.

I wrote that book to get back at people, to get back at the Modernist agenda to which I had been forced to comply as a designer and graduate student. I did not yet have a larger view of the context in which I had suffered those hurts. I did not realize how much of my pain was personal, how much projected, how much the result of Design’s history up until that point. But writing that book helped me process those hurts. And the parties and beauty of the finished product turned pain into profit.

Years have gone by, and I have just published a third book: Writing for the Design Mind. I wrote it for completely different reasons from the ones that powered the other two books. I was not sorting myself out of the various identities offered by our culture. I was not striking back at Design. An editor at Bloomsbury thought it might be a good idea for me to write a book about writing, a book aimed specifically at designers. I thought it might be a good moment to write down some things I tell my students, and to gather the bits and pieces of thoughts I’ve had along the way. The book is neither a trade book nor a “design book,” it’s a writing handbook, and it’s published by an academic press. The print run is tiny compared to a trade book. As my sister’s chemistry teacher once said to her, “We’re operating in the ballpark of infinitesimally small amounts.” My agent felt the book too small to represent, though she did give me some good advice along the way.

The book came out a few days ago to posts in social media and some lovely remarks from friends on those posts. We’ve got a few book signings and a couple of small parties planned, but they’re more about the victory of conclusion than about a big tah-dah. It’s strange that the roll-out is so completely satisfying.

Or maybe it’s not so strange. It’s the book I wish I’d had. It’s the book I wish I could have slipped to the students I’ve known who worried that what they had to say was not enough, that how they said it could never be right, that their voices might never be heard.

Teaching Design History: Time is Not a Line

Some years ago, when Matt Monk got us all together to start a Graphic Design MFA up at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I ended up with the Design History hat. (This hat is now being shared by a number of people at VCFA-- Silas Munro and Ian Lynam and many others.) But in those days, Silas was still mostly a practitioner and Ian hadn't clambered aboard yet, and it was a bizarre thing for me–a woman–to be assuming the Fedora of Design History's Father Culture. But of course, that's not why Matt asked me to do it. He realized that I was coming to consciousness, that I was no longer teaching out of Meggs, or adhering to strict timelines--that I was no longer seeing history in the way I had been taught to see it.

 I remember a strange lecture at VCFA in which I asked the members of the audience to grab a place on a string that symbolized a teacher they'd had. Once we'd all grabbed on, I asked them to mash themselves into a line. They shuffled around, stepping over and under taut strings and trying to hold on, but they finally managed a kind of line. This, we realized, was an approximation of the narrative that is any linear history.

I remember how Silas and I and everyone else in those first few classes kept feeling around for an apt metaphor for a new approach to the stories of the past–a new way to describe history. He championed the notion of the self-perpetuating "rhizome" that grows from axillary buds, whereas I kept bringing the conversation back to "nodes of relationship," to who knew whom and when. For years, we rhizomed and noded our way along like blindfolded people-- because almost all the design history we'd ever seen was top-down, Western European, white, male and US-focused. I can't believe this was such a short time ago-- only five years or so. Since then, all has changed. No longer is the history of design taught from one big book that details the impressive design achievements of white men. If design history is being taught that way to you, drop the class.

Design history educators are reexamining all their preconceived notions about what history is, about who gets to be the compiler of the narrative. Until now, few groups have had their say, few have been able to tell their stories of design, kept as it was as the purview of the west. But now we're experiencing a great effulgence-- tons of stories, crucial points of view never before regarded as important– it's a rich and confusing mix-up and such an important time to be a design historian.

Who is the expert? How do all the stories fit together? How do they recombine, how do they change depending on point of view? And a dawning realization-- after attempts at total historical democracy: crowd-editing has its own limitations, and who is to take the reins? It's great when everyone has a say, but everyone must have a say in a balanced way. Who decrees the balance? Where is the one in the many? 

In all my time teaching design history, all my feints and stabs at it-- only three ideas have remained constant in my mind.

The first is that time is not a line: It is our perception of time that is linear. So putting things on timelines is really not the best way to order them for our network-driven brain. 

The second is that facts are not truth. Teaching design as a line of facts is not actually a truthful representation of what has gone before. Facts can be deployed in so many ways that obfuscate and muddy. And yet we know truth when we see it, and we miss it when it's gone.

And third, the best way to model our "stories of making" is as a sort of "firework finale" of nodal relationship. This approach avoids getting stuck in a timeline. It mimics the ways we learn about relationship from infancy: that is mama, that is dada, that over there is my sister. Learning about designers in terms of whom they knew and whom they lived with and whom they hated helps students remember much more, much faster than does the endless timeline of unrelated, singular individual achievement.

Design history has traditionally played down relationship and played up the cult of the striving individual. He did it on his own, despite intense challenges, facing into the wind, a noble beast of design perfection. But with suicides on the rise, perhaps we can reexamine the idea that no one does anything alone; that all design is created in relationship (whether those relationships are heralded or not) and that promoting friendless striving is to promote the very old notion of the "artist as God, lording over his Creation"–a lording not quite in step with the pluralism of the Post-postmodern era. 

Much as I avoid a timeline, I do use them every now and then in the classroom, just for the students who learn more sequentially. Sadly, these timelines do end up looking like clumps of dog hair, what with the circles and arrows. 

Nodes and rhizomes arrange facts differently from timelines, and they allow us to peer in from the side, and look up and down at things, altering our point of view and our conclusions. I once had a grad student who set out to model the stories of nodal relationship he found in his study of historical African-American designers. We met for our monthly review. He told me he had failed: try as he might, arranging data in different constructs, he could not make "fireworks;" he could not make significant nodes of relationship between these designers, and he felt that his research was flawed.

But as we discussed his findings, we realized that far from failing, he had succeeded hugely. He'd found a truth that a timeline of facts would never have uncovered. He couldn't make nodes of relationship between these people, because there were none--or there were so very few as to make a nodal map impossible. These designers were working alone: Most did not know another African-American designer. They didn't have the support of peers. They bobbed in a vast sea of white designers. Yes, they had relationships with white designers, and yes, he tracked those down. But the overriding feeling of his research was something I'd never associated with design history: a portrait of enforced solitude, of drenching loneliness.

When we teach history, the stories we tell model ways of being in the world. We model who is dominant and who is passive; who is on top and who is kept down, who is bobbing about alone and who is considered the apex of design perfection. In modeling these things, we influence our students' desires for themselves--we influence what they believe success looks like. Teaching design history as superimposed networks of people and relationship, rather than as a linear sampling of individuals, provides context and value to a subject that can devolve into a headcount of the popular. Try nodes and rhizomes: Enough with the timelines.  




Seattle in the Time of Amazon

Martin Pedersen was my editor when I wrote for Metropolis. He's now the executive director of a group called the Common Edge Collaborative, which is dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the broader public that it's supposed to serve. He saw me fuming on FB about someone else's thinking how great Amazon might be for Philadelphia, and suggested I write my own essay. (Just click on the arrow after the title.)


Political Corrections: Why Policing discourages Learning

A long time ago, I started out working as a "counter-girl" at a printer, then as a paste-up production artist at a printer, and then as a printer at a printer. It was only in my mid-twenties that I started working as a graphic designer. Graphic designers and printers exist in two separate social strata. Printers generally consider graphic designers a necessary evil;  Designers generally consider printers part of the machinery that gets their vision made. Printers talk about deadlines and picking and viscosity and rollers and union issues and food and beer and medical insurance and wearing-the-right-orthotics-for-standing and timecards. Designers talk about deadlines and InDesign and clients and food and cocktails and medical insurance and chiropractors and time sheets. There is difference. But there is overlap.

 I have always valued those years working on a factory floor. Printing taught me how to work hard physically, it allowed me to experience the reality of the class system in America, and to know what it feels like to have some supposedly upper-class person treat you badly because they think you are less than they are. I would never have experienced these things if I had followed a normal, upper middle class, go-straight-to-college trajectory. I am lucky to have had both experiences.

Now I teach about critical thinking in a private college that has-- as all colleges have-- its share of "politically correct" self-policing. It's hard for me to watch students tell other students that they can't say things, that their actions are inappropriate, that they should do this and not do that. Hard-liners of any kind reduce the free exchange of ideas. The policing of ideas in college is particularly difficult for me to deal with, since it is opposite to what "critical thinking" is, and it's emotionally hard on the students, many of whom come from rural farming communities and are not politically liberal. These students remind me of some of the printers I used to know.

Whenever the media picks up a story about someone fighting "political correctness," it seems to always turn out that that person is a racist, a bigot, an anti-feminist, a Nazi, or some other disgusting form of low-life. Painting all people who would like to see an end to knee-jerk notions of "appropriate thinking" and "appropriate verbiage" as racists and bigots and anti-feminists does not help any cause: it only promotes a sense that all people are either fascists or Nazis. It does nothing to help us bring the stand-off back to conversation. Not every liberal is a fascist, not every student radical, not every conservative a Nazi, not every answer to complex questions black or white.

Both political policing on the radical Left and an inculcated devaluing of education on the radical Right are doing much to destroy the free exchange of ideas upon which our society is based. College can provide open discussion and a valuing of personal beliefs, a safe place for airing one's nascent ideas and an introduction to the thinking of people not like ourselves. But it can only do its educative job if we promote a reduction of "policing," insist on an increase in respect for varying opinions--all opinions, not just opinions branded "correct" or populist-- and recognize that every one of us is trying to make sense of a tremendously complex world that we didn't expect, terrified of being leveled by nuclear holocaust, coping with radical shifts in the weather, and dealing with all the old and difficult moral and ethical questions that have always hounded humanity. There is difference. But there is overlap.

I Am Not a Cruise Director

There's a fashionable attitude in education right now that assumes that making things more interactive and more entertaining and more experiential for students results in a better education for that student. I think we'll live along into a time in which we will look back on this strategy and see its shortcomings clearly.

Surprise and novelty has a place in the studio, but not as a central dynamic. When you're  a student, you put yourself in a difficult place and battle through to the other side, you do something really hard that tests the limits of who you think you are. It is this kind of challenge that builds the self-esteem and resilience you need to survive life.

Currently, the teaching technique that includes the challenge of the very difficult is slighted by the kind of administrator who tells us that we've "evolved past" tests and deadlines. That administrator actually wants students comfy so they'll stay enrolled. But it is only through surviving appropriate challenges that you become really confident: only through challenging yourself do you begin to pat around the walls of your identity and find the shape of your own abilities-- only through challenge that you build the courage you will need to fill that shape out.

Although entertainment has a value in the classroom, the work of teachers is not the work of keeping students enrolled. I am not a cruise director. Dreaming up new ways to deliver content so that tech-drenched students "don’t get bored" is not my primary value, and cannot take more hours of my time than does the preparation of lectures, studio projects and seminar material.

Most important, relief from boredom is not what my students want. Though they may start out—as many do-- telling me that they hate to read, that history or criticism is too dry a subject for them, that instructors don’t understand who they are or appreciate their special personal needs,  I find that all of this goes away pretty fast when that student experiences triumph over a hard challenge in a safe place.  

A student is a person who seeks out difficult spots in order to figure out how to get out of those spots. Tests are hard spots. Writing is a hard spot. Showing up to do something you are not thrilled with doing is a hard spot. You are an educated person when you make the negotiation of hard spots a part of your identity. In order to do this, you need a safe place to test yourself, blunder along, bear failures and revel in success. A safe place. Not a terror-laden place or a fun-filled place. Without testing yourself, "education" is entertainment, and does nothing to found personal and intellectual growth.

In the same way that a mended hairline fracture strengthens bone, small, negotiable threats to your world view--or to your view of your own abilities--builds your confidence and resilience. Intellectual resilience is the edge that an educated person has in the world. It is the only lasting thing that school can give you. 

Today I Forgot My Cell Phone

I was on the bus to the ferry when I realized it: no phone. A shiver. No text from my sister wishing me a good day. No instant update on my three different email streams. No language lesson while sitting in my usual spot on the boat. No checking my bank account while the ferry unloaded. No calming tunes while I tried not to feel the bigness of the sky on my walk to the next bus, and then again on my walk to the office.  No phone. I’d have to tough it out.

I boarded the ferry and sat down in my usual seat, the one facing the windows on the port side. The two big guys were there that are always there. They both sat looking down at their phones. I looked down at my morning hardboiled egg, and cracked it. No phone to look at, so I ate the egg while looking out the window at the water. The sun rose. The water sparkled. I drank my decaf. The light winked on the side of my blue mug as I took out my second egg.

One of the big guys with earphones suddenly erupted into talk:

“He is? He was? Ok, good. Now that the Ebola test proved negative, treat the malaria.”

Instantly back from water and sun, I wished for my headphones, for those soothing Russian voices, first male, then female.

“I understand."

"I don’t understand."

"Does he understand?"

"He doesn’t understand.”

"Do you understand?"

"You understand.” 

I wished again to be out of my skin, out of that boat, paddling or running or taking to the air, anything to be out of the routine of bus-ferry-bus that after seven years is so exactly the same day after day, so exactly the same that I know every step I’ll take before I take it and every stair I’ll climb and every wait for every "walk" light.

There I was looking down at an egg rather than at a cell phone, so the Ebola guy engaged me in a nice conversation about infectious diseases and about the fact that so much goes under the media’s radar. Ordinarily this would not have been calming. But he was a big man, a comforting man, the kind that can get between you and monsters, and he sort of reminded me of a former friend of mine who was cozy if not sincere, and so we had a nice chat about malaria cases we had known, and when he was signaled by the earbuds and went off into talking about steel belted radials, I turned to the other big man and said, “I forgot my phone this morning.”

Well, next thing you know, we were off to the races, talking about what the ferry had been like before cell phones, and about how people had talked in those days, and didn't just herd forward like cattle with their heads down, jostling. They had real breakfasts made-to-order rather than just grabbing warmed-over breakfast sandwiches then, and have you thought about retirement finances and the problem with institutional plans? And here's my estimate of how many years I have left to work and now I hope to move my office to Poulsbo and stop this darned commute.

After thirty years, his knees didn't like the walk up the hill to 6th Avenue anymore. Thirty years! Thirty years of this same trip. Day in, day out, back and forth, the ferry had sewn a long stitch through his life. What would it be like to have spent the last thirty years with a plan for what you'd do in your last twenty?

Thirty years ago I was living on a fold-out sofa in a sixth floor apartment in the blown-out, as yet undiscovered westside of Manhattan. Thirty years ago I was in love with a jazz pianist, the kindest man I ever knew. Thirty years ago I walked home from work at night from the music company on 53rd and the street was never the same, and the darkness was never that dark because of all the lights and the cars and the movement, and the jewelry in the street vendors' stalls on Columbus shined and twinkled and I bought a pair of big aqua rhinestone earrings and put them on and thought myself to be at the center of everything.

 Thirty years ago, I'd walk home from work and never feel defeated by sameness, I walked hopeful, with no idea of my own luck and happiness, no idea how good things were for me, preferring solitude, preferring words to Spanish love poems in my ears, preferring eros the bittersweet, thinking that better days were ahead, with no idea of losses to come, with no inkling that someday I would talk of ebola and retirement planning and be happy just to talk to someone, to not to have to be afraid that I did not have my cell phone and that I was not connected to the world. Thirty years ago I was a part of all that I met. It was all just eggs and blue mugs and sunrises and people. 


Apparel at Cornish?

Design at Cornish College of the Arts is launching its first apparel class this semester. We're starting to build toward an Apparel track, adding classes and studios semester by semester until we reach a concentration level in 2017. We'll need important approvals along the way, but here we are, taking our first toddling step toward designing a completely new kind of apparel education in the Northwest.

We'll be making things. But we'll also be looking closely at the wearable things people make to put on their bodies, and exploring why we put those things there. The classes will have a sociological, social change focus, exploring wearable design’s functions as protection, attraction, ornament and signifier of cultural status. Cornish Design is not about stoking the commodification machine, we are not interested in teaching people that a size 0 is better than a size 22, and we are not about newness for the sake of “selling schmatas.” Our goal is to fill the empty niche for an apparel education concentrated on the needs of the performance sportswear industry here in Seattle. We will stress designing for real bodies doing real things. 

Women and men performing Garba as part of Navaratri celebrations in Ahmedabad  photo: Hardik Jadeja

Apparel is not fashion, though fashion is apparel. What will be going on in room 411 will include aspects of the global history of what we wear as well as the craft of “soft architecture.” Students will learn to draw designs and to make samples, but ours is not a garment construction/sewing focus. We WELCOME cross-concentration/disciplinary projects— one planned pathway is tech interface apparel--so if you have ideas please bring them up!

This semester we’re starting off with one big practicum. That class will consist of three separate modules, and each five-week module will host an intensive workshop by an outside expert or hack-a-thon/wearable tech charette. We want to see where student interest lies, and work to satisfy those interests as well as push a few boundaries. If the people in the class want to make shoes instead of Arduino-activated apparel, we will make shoes. And vice-versa.

East African women wearing the traditional  kanga , a fabric wrap that often has thoughts or sentiments printed on the fabric. Wearing kangas with printed thoughts allows women to subvert cultural dicta preventing them from speaking frankly. Thank you, Ziddi Msangi, for your amazing work on the topic.

East African women wearing the traditional kanga, a fabric wrap that often has thoughts or sentiments printed on the fabric. Wearing kangas with printed thoughts allows women to subvert cultural dicta preventing them from speaking frankly. Thank you, Ziddi Msangi, for your amazing work on the topic.

Right now 411 is a classroom, not an open lab. It will be available to students (who have been checked-out on the equipment) during class periods. That’s because the equipment is expensive and delicate. I’m hoping we will be able to get a lab supervisor in coming months and will open the studio as a lab to all checked-out-on-equipment students. But right now it will be functioning as a classroom. 

If we can teach the basics of creating for the body in motion, if we can teach the societal effects of clothing, and if we can support students in their goals to make everything from t-shirts to tech interface, I’m betting apparel will add a great deal to the department, the college and the Seattle garment industry.


On Shooting Butterflies

Well, the final news is out, the fix is in, headlines tell us that three major universities agree: we’ve had it, the sixth great environmental catastrophe is upon us, species are going extinct in unprecedented numbers, and humankind may not last another hundred years. It’s a relief, I must say.

When they finally get a diagnosis proving there’s something really wrong with them, people often feel relieved, even if the diagnosis is terminal. It’s a relief to be believed. It’s a relief to know you didn’t make it up. It’s a relief to have a timeframe: you’ve got six months to live--you’d better get your taxes in. For me, it’s a relief to know the long race to save humanity is over. It’s a race I’ve been running all my life, and I’m ready to hang up my track shoes.

When I was 13, in 1970, I sat huddled on a picnic blanket on a cold day on Stinson Beach listening to my chemist sister monologue about the scientific facts that proved humankind would be dead from pollution by 1985. We all needed to do everything we could to avoid the end. She, for one, had been recycling her aluminum foil and had saved a roll in the last year. I remember thinking at the time that cutting down on aluminum foil usage might not turn the tide. But, looking back, that was also the day that I realized I shouldn’t have children, because it would be a terrible thing to come to consciousness in a world that was on its way out.

For the rest of my life, humanity’s slow demise ran in the background of my mind, ran silent and anxious and unconscious no matter where I was or what I was doing. The fear that I was not doing enough to “save humanity” was always there, thwarting plans and curtailing dreams. This painful drip, this knowledge of ecological disaster, kept me focused on the terror of life rather than on its beauty, and I avoided many of the deepest experiences of living.

In order to save the world, I became a designer. If everyone just listened to me, perhaps humanity had a chance. In this ego-strength I followed in the footsteps of Morris and Gropius and Jacobs, but unlike them I did not have a positive manifesto for change. I had a fear of the future, not a plan for it. I became vocal. I became passionate-- that much over-used word that couples desire with heartbreak.  And, in the course of things, I became overwhelmed.

I teach “Design for Social Change” at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. We’re tiny. We have 800 students. We teach art and design and dance and theater and champion independent thinking. The main campus building is a repurposed seven story printing building. In the last year, Amazon has been building five tall, steel-and-glass office buildings in a ring around our small campus, dwarfing our old building and battering our days with pneumatics. When I go to lunch, I see hundreds of thirty year-old white males with Amazon lanyards who have been let out of their cubicles for their well-deserved and timed lunch breaks. South Lake Union, right below us on the hill, has been totally redone in the last few years, designed to look like a bunch of independent restaurants and stores, but in reality a mall, a habitat for software engineers, planned by a company called Vulcan.

We teach about art and self-expression and independent thinking, but we are ringed by corporate control. One afternoon I was walking from the college past a huge building site and things started to jumble in my mind. I froze in a flood of fear. I couldn’t walk forward and I couldn’t walk back. I felt that I was disintegrating. It had been 15 years since my last panic attack and I didn’t see the old routine coming.

Was it the height of the new construction looming over me? Was it too much work and coffee and not enough food? Or was it the sudden fear that nothing I had done or could do could change the relentless march of the material-consuming culture and that everything I had tried to do to help save humankind had been a ridiculous waste of time. Tall and smart and ego-driven as I was, I was tiny, and no match for tons of steel and glass and the corporate machine that created them. 

Fear is the best way to make bad decisions. During the Russian Revolution, as dirty and cruel a revolution as anything going on right now, it became fairly common for surrounded villagers to shoot their children rather than risk their torture at the hands of partisans. Are we shooting our children? Are we filling our students with a constant diet of facts about the end of the world, assuming dystopia awaits, leaving them no room for their human needs and deep desires? Does our insisting that they shoulder the burdens bequeathed to them by two hundred years of stupid human mess-ups do anything to make their lives better?  Or does this burden freeze them in panic, force them to take refuge in dreams of rusticity or in incoherent aesthetics? When Design teaches responsibility for overwhelming crises, it doesn’t create agency, it creates anxiety, and anxiety is fear.

So here's the thing. I'm not hanging up my track shoes just yet. I plan to do what I can still do. But of the things I can still do, perhaps the most important is being a witness. Butterflies are going extinct, but that doesn't mean we need to shoot them to put them out of their misery. Just because humanity is up against it doesn’t mean we can't witness for art and design and music-- for the good things that human life can make and be. Have kids or get married or put down roots or fight for equality or do what the heck you want to do with your life and your ability. But don't exhaust yourself. The odds are overwhelming: the diagnosis is terminal. We’re all going to die. So live.






Clatter of the Snow Queen

On the day after the Senior critiques finished up last month, a student hobbled into my office for her post mortem, wearing sweats and a tendonitis boot. This student, along with making work for her first Senior Degree Project critique, had overworked her body, preparing to dance the Snow Queen in a local company’s annual Nutcracker ballet. And so, the boot.

 Some dancers are not highly intellectual, being creatures of movement, but the Snow Queen is not that kind of dancer. She is bright, verbal and as interested in philosophy as she is in design. Planning to end her career as a performer at the end of this season—20 is getting up there for a dancer-- she had over-trained in a quest for perfection, and her ligaments hurt.  When she came to my office, she was tired, battling pain, and, in her polite way, angry.

That first Senior Degree Project critique is never easy. The groups of critics don’t know each other. The time allotted is always too short. The critics are a good mix for one student and nonsensical for another. The student must explain the beginning stages of a year-long project to strangers who know only what she has written about her goals for the project. The critics feel as though they must give the school its money’s worth, and so tend to “throw fish”-- give top-of-the-head solutions—or point out seeming deficiencies in form, form that the student has not yet begun to think through. When I was a critic, I did all these things.

 It is ever thus, and has been at every institution at which I have ever taught. We work to make critique better each time, but each time responds to different curricular changes, different departmental emphases, different provostial dicta. And so the days after that first Senior crit are hard, because the students have been knocked around, even at the most student-centered, kindly institution. The rubber has met the road. Rough hands have searched the pudding for its proof.

But back to the Snow Queen. She clomped in and sat down gingerly. We talked about the crit. It had been wide of the mark. It hadn’t helped her. And then she said something that echoed comments I had been getting from other students, but had not yet really heard. She said, “Why isn’t beauty enough? Why can’t I just make beautiful things? Why is everything I make not “edgy” enough, not “socially aware” enough, not “corporate” enough?”

A saturated solution, liquid in the test tube, will crystallize suddenly if you give the side of the tube a good flick with your fingernail. The Snow Queen’s comment jarred me: and saturated thoughts crystalized. 

When we teach design, we take people who are talented at making things and put them through a process of inculcation in how to make work that will succeed in the marketplace. That marketplace might be an NGO, a zine commune, or a UX manufactory, but we teach our students how to make work that will make money for someone. We take people who like to doodle, and we teach them how to doodle in an edgy way, in a stylish way, in a way that will convince people of that doodle’s up-to-the-minute hipsterness, and that such hipsterness deserves the spending of their dollars so they can own a piece of it. Design is integrally associated with selling things, and to pretend it isn’t is to live in la-la land.

When we teach design, we take these makers and these doodlers, and involve them in complicated codes about art and design and their places in the world. (“But designers are not artists!” you say, bowing to the contemporary notion that all people belong in boxes.) Forgive me if I expect you to be both artist and designer. Art is representation. Design is representation. Art is bought and sold. Design is bought and sold. Perhaps the truest artist is the artist who does not compete in the marketplace, never sells her work. We call that person an Outside Artist, and mark up the price when she's dead. But every other artist, making work to sell, is really a designer, because—even when not fully conscious of it-- she responds to the whims of the society, of the buyer, of the marketplace.

The Snow Queen’s question comes down to the role of beauty in art and design. Is there room for beauty? Any discussion of “beauty” seems terribly out of step, so 19th Century. Our ears are accustomed to the rapid gunfire of shocks and upsets that is our current experience of techno-drenched culture. Anything else seems unreal, seems inaccurate--seems wrong. The Futurists believed that war was the ultimate artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology. They valued war instead of beauty. And we follow suit like good little children. Why have we decided that we must throw ourselves into living out Marinetti’s vision? Walter Benjamin once said that championing this Futurist “realization” was the ultimate expression of the notion of “Art for Art’s Sake.” And he thought it profoundly stupid.

 Why do we feel that we must use our minds and talent to magnify disruption, horror, and violence in the name of “realism?” We collude to create a phantasmagoric internet mash-up that is far larger, immediate and far-reaching than the actual horrors going on right now on Earth.

In my experience, some people—some students—come to school “trailing clouds of glory.” They have somehow, through living, perhaps, picked up the notion that it would be fulfilling to make beautiful things. Things that please the eye. Things that go together. Things that make wholeness, that make happiness, that are aesthetically enjoyable. We spend four years trying to pound this desire to make beauty out of them. Our own schooling—a schooling in the postmodern-- gets in the way of our allowing such a search to continue. We try to break it up. Make them see the light. Open their eyes. Break the pattern. Push the boundary. For beauty to us is not "true." Truth, we believe, is ugly. Truth is the fighting in Syria. Truth is the corporate reorg. We want our students to have their eyes wide open, nimbly encountering the incoming missiles of contemporary culture with alacrity and fortitude. That's what we think teaching design is about. We are wrong.

We are wrong when we teach people to abandon a search for beauty in favor of a trendy edginess, in favor of do-gooder trumpeting, in favor of the stale avant-garde bursting of the bourgeois balloon. Bursting balloons was all very well in its day. But today, all balloons have been burst. Our world is not in need of more breaking apart, but of more putting together. The challenge these days is not one of pushing against the hard and fast rules of a striated culture-- opening up and revealing-- but of of finding ways to create enclosure, resolution and unity.  Beauty depends on harmony, and harmony depends on relationship. Design, at its finest, makes relationship. Why are we still invested in to old model of trying to teach our students--as another student has said-- to break things instead of make things?

The Snow Queen hobbles in retreat, the clack of her boot echoes in the hall.  In our time, the value of beauty--perfect or imperfect-- has suffered grave injury. In trying to play by the rules and avoid anything smacking of sentiment, of emotion, (those hallmarks of Marinetti's much-detested "feminine,") we've allowed the modernist agenda, and its partner, postmodern irony, to wipe out much of what can be considered the best in humankind. We do not have to continue doing so. 

The avant-garde is tired. Postmodernism is long over. Students do not need to be schooled in the edgy, socially aware, or corporate. They are more edgy and socially aware than their teachers can ever be. Corporate whomps on the head come with experience, we don't need to approximate them. If students want to learn craft in order to make beautiful things according to their own lights, we must help them make beauty. We must nurture that instinct, rather than destroy it.


Design for Life


In CityArts Magazine


What’s good design? A plum-colored Max Mara coat on the cover of W? An all-steel kitchen advertised in House Beautiful? Anything in the Design Within Reach catalog?


For most of us, good design is a luxury, in the way that old cognac is a luxury or a vacation in a hut on a Bali beach is a luxury. We’ve learned to equate good design with having money—lots of money—and with the cool heft of expensive consumer products.

We think good design is the icing on the cake of life. It’s the stuff we can jettison in bad times, the stuff we’ll buy when everything is going right. That’s when we’ll get a contemporary architect to design us a sustainable, quadruple-platinum LEED dwelling. That’s when we’ll wear plain grey cashmere sweats around the house and dish up dinner from big white bowls with heavy salad servers.

It’s unfortunate that William Morris’s wallpaper and Marianne Brandt’s Bauhaus teakettle were such hits with the public back in the early 1900s because that’s where the big split happened. “Good-aesthetic” split from “good-ethical” and we began fetishizing designed objects—objects originally designed to function within a grander philosophical scheme.

The old Postmoderns claimed they were the first to pull down the construct of modernism, but the “good” in “good design” was altered long before they got their ironic paws on its dusty shell. The ideological “good” in the Modern died the first time a German dowager held a Brandt teapot to her ample bosom and declared, “Isn’t it divine! I must have three.”

When I ask you to consider the importance of good design, I sound as though I’m asking you to agree that your life would be better if you could afford expensively made and branded products. But I’m asking you to do the opposite: Consider the other good in good design. That other good, not necessarily shiny or handsome, is really the more important piece, though it may not shout your net worth. It’s a kind of design that’s invisible and asks what it can do to make life better for all people in a city, in a culture or (gasp) in the world.

Good design is not always aesthetically pleasing. Some brilliant shipwright realized that women commuters were crowding into the restroom to put on makeup, making a terrible morning jam, and so added a big, mirrored “putting-on-your-morning-make-up” space into the design of Washington’s current ferry, which gives me an extra half hour in the morning, lets me joke and laugh with other women and reduces my blood pressure. This isn’t a perfectly aesthetically pleasing space, but it’s good design because it’s design that makes people’s lives better.

When William Morris started the whole Modern design movement—he did, though his stuff doesn’t look modern—his biggest concern was for the welfare of men and women. After many years spent decrying the lousy things modernist ego and rigidity did to design, I find myself agreeing with Morris—and, to an extent, with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius— agreeing with the idea that good design makes life better. It’s not enough to make something look good.

After many years in design, I believe that if a room or app or jacket is created with an understanding of what materials can do, of what humans and flora and fauna and the ocean and the air need in order to function in their natural cycles—of what in some way makes existence better for someone or something, then that design is good design, no matter what it looks like. If it’s not hiding something from you, not convincing you to buy things you don’t need, if it goes with the grain and not against it, then it’s good design.

Some products are in the enviable position of mending the split between formally good and ethically good: they’re aesthetically pleasing and they make life better. They may be tiny (like Earth Rated’s Dispenser of Dog Waste Poop Bags, a cute little pod that makes one’s civic duty a designed experience) or they may be huge, like Capitol Hill’s Bullitt Center, which is fabulous-looking and green as heck.

A company doesn’t have to fly the flag of social consciousness in order to be a purveyor of good design. The Munro shoes I wear are the most durable, comfortable shoes I have ever worn. They were made in America by people paid a living wage. Because Munros wear so well, I don’t buy new shoes every year, which keeps a lot of cheap shoes out of the landfill. Did Munro set out to “do good” by making black shoes? I doubt it. They just make good shoes and treat their employees fairly. 

Good design—the kind that is aesthetically and ethically good— does not have to be marketed as such. Beware the greenwasher. A really excellent pig needs no lipstick.

- See more at:

The Pleasure of Semiotics

When he was young and worrying about the continued existence of humankind and his part in that continuation, my father had a hard time sleeping. His job did not allow for his being groggy in the morning, so sleeping pills weren’t an option, and he wasn’t the kind to take pills anyway. Somehow, he struck on a simple solution to insomnia, and for years after-- long after “the Sovs” had become history-- an old, beat up Latin grammar book always lay on his bedside table.

            During the hot part of the Cold War, and for years and years afterward, my father studied Latin in the middle of the night. As the rest of us slept, he declined nouns. As the night wore on, he conjugated verbs. He did not talk about Latin in the daytime,  nor did he regale us with details. Latin was his private comfort: He studied it for the studying’s sake. The highly regular nature of a dead language relaxed him because it was so completely different from the complexities of real human interaction with which he was involved.

            Years ago now, I read Charles Peirce’s “Theory of Signs,” for the first time, and though it does not lie upon my bedside table, it serves a similar purpose in my life. Semiotics is a branch of the study of logic. It’s a speculation on the ways the universe makes meaning. Peirce’s belief that meaning can be charted and graphed is a wonderfully calming belief. It’s an antidote to the fear that life is essentially meaninglessness-- a fear that living in our mechanized, human-centric world can induce.

There's no great book about semiotics for normal people. There are a number of interesting books that are difficult, and there are a number filled with arcane talk and difficult notions made harder by the free use of academic-speak. A few books about semiotics have been written for designers. These mold semiotics into a simple, streamlined way to deconstruct and reconstruct the making of communication design. But these books fall flat to me, because they bend semiotics into being a tool. They use it in a way it was never intended to be used. The study of semiotics was not conceived not a method for design production. The Euclidean beauty of Peirce's logic is lost in these texts, rather in the same way that the beauty of mathematics is obscured for me by the pounding headache that is algebra.  

Semiotics has informed my daytime thinking, made my ideas about communication clearer. It has taught me tricks, like being able to model systems of communication in my head. But I study it for the sheer pleasure of studying it, and not just so that I can tell people why the symbols and signs in their ads seem to be working or not. There's math for engineering and math for math's sake. Same with semiotics.


On Throwing Fish

When I first started teaching design history, it occurred to me that in order to reward students for finding me in factual error, I could give them a treat of some sort. I figured this would keep me from making incorrect statements and keep them paying attention, for I have noticed that all students are hungry and all people like treats.

I started with candy bars and packs of Oreos, but it turned out that many students weren't all that fond of chocolate. So we settled on little packs of Swedish fish, and we tooled through a number of semesters with this reward system in place before Nikki Juen-- a friend and fellow teacher-- heard me mention the Swedish Fish thing and burst into laughter at the notion of a professor throwing fish to students, as to seals at a zoo. Swedish or no, she thought this a real knee-slapper.

I worried. I asked my students. Did they feel seal-like? Did they feel put-upon, degraded or disrespected by my Swedish Fish throwing? They rolled their eyes. "Keep the fish coming," said a tough guy with tats and a piercing. So I did.

But last week the throwing of fish took on a bigger meaning, as I listened to Yoon Soo Lee talk about methods of critique at the Spring Residency of the VCFA MFA program.

"Teaching," she said, "is not art directing." "Telling students how to "make it better" does not teach them anything but how to please you."  It doesn't teach them how to please themselves, or how to convince a client that their ideas are right for the task at hand.

"Sometimes, if they're really stuck, I'll throw them a fish," she said, "I'll give them a solution. But generally I find it more valuable for them to think for themselves." 

I felt gratified by Yoon Soo's view, because for some time now I have been asking students not to "solve"-- not to give the person whose work is being critiqued an "answer," but to ask questions about the decisions that person has made, and allow that person to explain it.

I believe that students who learn to invent their own work and to convince others about the value of their solutions may have a messier time of it in class, may not create smoothly art-directed pieces that all look like the instructor made them, but will have the satisfaction of truly creating their own work, and will build the confidence they will need to explain their ideas to a client.

There's the throwing of fish and the throwing of fish. Feeling supported by Yoon Soo's lecture, I'll stick to tossing the Swedish kind.


The Garage of Last Resort

My identity recently got a jolt from one of those things nephews say when they aren't really talking to you and you aren't really listening. I didn't hear what Wes said until hours later, when collapsed in a chair with my feet up later in the evening. My sister had asked him to bring me some chairs she was giving me, so he'd driven them over. We'd met in my garage. He's tall, charming and laconic-- not a big chit-chat kind of guy. He'd grinned, brought the chairs in and stacked them in the back. Straightening up, he'd looked slowly left and then slowly right, paused, and said, "Lots here." A smile, the engine starting, gone. "Lots here." I hadn't really heard him, since when he said it I was edging my way between his chairs and a table stacked with a case of champagne, three white fake poinsettias, a rolled rug and a box of over-wintering potatoes, while sort of muttering to myself about whether I needed more Dry-Z-Aire. But I thought about what he said-- as I say-- later that night, when collapsed in the old wing chair. Truth is, up until that "Lots here," I had believed myself to be a minimalist. Minimalism is part of my identity. I know I say a lot of mean things about Modernists, particularly the Germanic sort, but they got their aesthetic hooks into me when I was young, and I must say I like things spare. A lot of craposis around the house drives me nuts. Not for me the Pottery Barn candlesticks. Not for me the faux-rustic painted signs that say "Beach -->" or "Just Another Day in Paradise." I don't like stuff for stuff's sake. A nice table, a couple of chairs, perhaps a few blossoms in a vase. That's all she wrote.

My love of the minimal dictated that I prefer beige. My living room is so beige that certain people have mentioned a Sahara-like quality, a sand-blindness that prompts them to crawl to the refrigerator for a beer. But beige or no beige, Wes's comment brought a truth to light. Something happened to my minimalism in the last twenty years, and it happened slowly, like the accretion of pounds around the waist or the silent, secret progress of spider veins. Sitting in my wing chair, I thought back to when the erosion must have begun.

Read More

Design Police Question Winslow Holiday Decor

I live on a small island in the Puget Sound. This island has a town called Winslow and a main street called Winslow Way. The main street is about two blocks long, from the clapboard church on one end to the false-fronted building that houses the pizza place on the other.

It's a little one-horse town, though the horse died years ago. And it resisted making a mockery of itself with the fake country duck cut-outs that plagued small towns in the Nineties and the Scandinavian blue and white checks that hit country decoration in the early 2000s. But changes are occurring.

A large new LEED- triple platinum-y museum is being built between the pizza place and the ferry. Across from it, the site of the old gas station is being reworked into a little park. I applaud the environmental notions of the museum structure, though it is scary to see that big wall coming at you as you trudge from the ferry after a long commute, and I'm for the appreciation of art and pocket parks and all that. But the clash of the neo-modern-museum-and-sustainable-park-aesthetic with the old two blocks of false-front stores is a bit rough on the old eyeballs. And nowhere is the clash of old and new more evident than in this year's mash-up of mercantile holiday decor.

Up until last year, around the end of November, you'd turn left from the ferry onto Winslow Way and be happily surprised to see that the Downtown Merchants Association had put up a few stars over the street and that the merchants themselves had strung up a bunch of plain old white lights. The Mexican place always put up those big, old Christmas tree lights but we were used to it and considered it a bow to the appreciation of other cultures. That was it. A few stars, a few lights. Nice.

This year I turned the corner and almost went blind. Evidently the Downtown Association decided to match the Museum's sparse, Modernist aesthetic, and bought a large number of objects which I believe are supposed to look like festively lit small trees. Twisted, black wire objects, about four feet tall, bristling with LED white nodules at the ends of the branches, they've been placed in front of each store along the two blocks of main street. It looks post-apocalyptic, twisted blackened trunks still glowing with radiation. And it's pretty clear that the joy of the Nativity, that the happiness of Hanukkah, was not coursing through the veins of the poor Chinese factory-working soul who was tasked with twisting these babies together.

LED white is WHITE. The white of a subway station at 1 am. In the right context, it can look pretty Modernisty- happy. But it makes normal strings of white lights look yellowed and dingy. People who drive around to look at lights are driving out of their way to avoid the clash of white lights on Winslow Way.

Evidently, the LED trees, which provoke a feeling of alienation and existential malaise in even the heartiest shopper, were not enough for the Downtown Association. This week, many large, bright-white, two-foot-across LED-lit snowflakes appeared in front of every store. 

Requiem for a Rosebush

The Lovely Lady Banks

The Lovely Lady Banks

For all the appropriate reasons, the condo board has informed me that my climbing rose will be cut down. Seems it's twining around the porch railings, which could cause bad things to happen to the structure someday. I am told that no plant shall touch the building, much less twine around it. Imagine the future damage. Imagine the incipient rot.

The rose bush probably would have escaped censure had it not bloomed its heart out this Spring, covering my whole balcony with little bouquets of miniature yellow roses held on upright stems, sending endless shoots cascading over the fence, like tracer bullets of a fine happiness.

I encouraged it. I wanted it to entwine those porch railings. I wanted it to festoon the fence. I loved that it showed signs of taking over that structure. I didn't see anything rotting or getting damaged. Actually, it sort of protected us. It made a barricade between my place and the rest of the island, between my world and the runners running up the street, the lycra'd bicyclists whizzing by talking loudly to each other about where to get lunch, the dawdling old ladies and their pugs.

Why am I reminded of Mao Zedong's famous double-cross? He once proclaimed that "a policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science." And then, of course, all that entwining of the intellectual porch railings in China looked like it might threaten the structure, so he made sure to cut down every vestige of the flowers that had dared to believe him and to bloom.

This rose believed me when I encouraged it, but I led it into harm's way. In a world so full of human suffering, it seems mad to shed tears for a rose bush, but I am. Life is always putting out tendrils. People go around cutting them off in the name of order and responsibility and good sense. I know that cutting encourages tendrils. Perhaps encouraging the tendrils encourages the cutting. The blooming and the cutting seem locked together somehow, like the two singers I knew who couldn't stand each other but toured together for years, because the audience found their harmonies so sweet.

And Contempt for Woman

I'm in the enviable position of being one of the last professors Graphic Design students see at Cornish College of the Arts. I get to spend time with them as they work to create their degree projects: the capstone design and book and film and motion and sound exhibition they make that proves that they have gotten their minds and skills into the sort of functioning order capable of pulling off something big.

I run this class as a series of individual meetings: sort of like sixteen independent studies. Of the sixteen students I have this semester, fifteen are women. This is not an anomaly. Far more women than men are now graphic designers.

Read More

VSD: The Designer's Impairment

Not long ago, a doctor furrowed his brow and told me that I had registered off the scale on a test of my "visual sensitivity." For some reason, this tickled my funny bone enormously and I went around telling others the news, laughing uproariously, and receiving only a blank stare in return. After a few blank stares, I forgot about visual sensitivity and went back to normal jokes about fleece and Northwest fashion. But lately I'm thinking that a honed and heightened, not to say morbid, visual sensitivity could be the reason that designers find life just a bit rough around the edges. I'm beginning to think that what we once believed was a valuable aesthetic sense might just be detrimental to long-term comfort.

Perhaps it's time we design people give up flaunting our talent and start defining ourselves in terms of maladaptation, just as psychiatry has done with other non-concentric groups since Freud took the stage. A shift like that could really change the game. Instead of prancing into meetings, trailing a light waft of hipness and edge, designers could shuffle in slowly, wearing huge dark medical glasses, accompanied by caring assistants. We could speak in slow and halting voices, garnering the respect of others with our obvious fortitude. For do we not rate big medical glasses? Do we not go through life as though we've just had our cataracts removed?

Read More

Apparel Designers, Repeat After Me: "Dolman, Raglan, Set-in, Cap"

If I had done this trick for the camera, my arms would still be moving.

If I had done this trick for the camera, my arms would still be moving.

Finding myself with a few relaxing days off, I broke out the bubble bath and climbed into the tub with a large pile of catalogs, planning on ordering a few choice pieces to perk up my closet's traditional suit population. Colors and patterns and weird mixes of prints abounded, jumping off the page with a quasi-Seventies fervor. OK, fine. But every time I was attracted to something, it had the Fatal Flaw, and I turned the page.

Dear designers of supremely non-hipster clothing like Talbots and Pendleton, I know you'd rather be at the Paris shows with your friends at Prada, but when you're working in front of that CAD monitor doing your day job--that is, designing clothes for me, the non-hipster-non-Prada wearer--put on some sleeves. SLEEVES.

What has to happen in the design process of a major brand in order for many pieces in the collection to not have sleeves? What has to happen in the mind of a designer to think for a split-second that any woman in his target market (age 40 and beyond) would EVER buy ANYTHING with no sleeves? Perhaps it is a blind spot.

Sure, you spent your time at FIT designing for your 19 year-old friends and hoping to be on Project Runway and since sleeves can be hard to put in you avoided it. So much easier to fling in a facing or just overlock the armhole and watch it walk. Student days are so gratifying.

But now that you actually have a job, it's time for you to wise up. Roll down the anatomical chart, please. Now for the big news about everyone in your target demo: One day her arms were fine, the next they looked like two blobs of pizza dough. Pumping her bis and tris did nothing. And she can't go back.

Your concessionary short-sleeved bolero and little cardis have had their day. Your target demo is sick of bright little cardis. And the short-sleeve bolero makes her look like an overweight matador. So just stop it. Learn to cut sleeves.

The only thing I can imagine that explains this wholesale stupidity in otherwise talented designers is that China must be charging a lot less for no-sleeve looks. Because why else would perfectly reasonable brands do such a dumb thing? In a recessionary economy, give the customer what she wants. Give her a safe haven for those softening arms. She begs you: Give her sleeves.

John Maeda at odds with RISD faculty

When John Maeda was voted in as president of RISD four years ago, I was elated. Here was a man who stood at the intersection of art and technology, bright, a graphic designer, originally from Seattle-- the whole thing sounded to be just the thing that I thought RISD needed.

But it hasn't been good. On March 2nd, the faculty of Rhode Island School of Design overwhelmingly voted no confidence in Maeda's ability to lead the school as president. In information sent out with the no confidence vote, the faculty states:

"Among the numerous specific events that gradually alienated the faculty who voted no confidence, the following stand out. The first was the removal of the then Provost Jay Coogan and the imposition of then Dean Jessie Shefrin in his place. Under prior presidents, provosts were selected after formal consultation with the faculty and sometimes after national searches.

In 2008 the President spurned established RISD practice and simply thrust his provost on the faculty. In the ensuing months and years an excessive number of long-term, highly experienced and competent administrators and staff were eliminated. Some turnover is inevitable with changes at the top, but the scale and manner of these forced removals were staggering.

Read More