The Garage of Last Resort

August 7, 2013

Tags: design life

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.

I was living in Providence. Living as I did in a student apartment, I didn't own much. One afternoon I received a large, unexpected crate. It turned out to be Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa, a Victorian try at Louis XVI that had graced my parents' home for twenty years. Evidently, in a rare a mood of renewal, my father had crated and shipped it 3500 miles to get it out of the living room.

Mrs. Malurevsky died years before, after escaping from the Russian Revolution, getting stuck in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion, and finally settling in San Francisco with a lot of other Russian refugees. And after a long life, when I was a teenager, she began dying piecemeal of diabetes in the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in Terra Linda. Talk about a let-down type of death, after all that surviving. That's the way things happen. Before she died, she gave my sister her old car and my mother her old sofa.

So I now had her sofa. Hearing that I now had Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa, her old friend, George Corwin-- a Russian who had changed his name to better suit Americans-- began to make a habit of calling me up to tell me his and Mrs. Malurevsky's exploits in Shanghai in the Thirties and about the Japanese prison camp he'd been sent to when the Japenese took Shanghai, because he was Russian, and about how he had learned his mathematics and statics and dynamics from other prisoners while they were all slowly starving to death. "That prison camp was my university!" he'd say, and then he'd put down the phone and play something long and romantic on the piano while I did the dishes or told him I was getting off the phone.

An 85 year-old Russian calling me up in Providence and playing the piano at odd hours really didn't phase me, because I had grown up with George calling my mother and insisting that she listen to him play something romantic on the piano. He'd been calling her since he first fell for her in Palo Alto in the Fifties, when my father was sweating through Wallace Stegner's writing classes and she was home, taking care of my infant oldest sister. So it was sort of a usual thing for us growing up, every now and then, hearing her on the phone protesting, in her soft, Southern way, "Gow-age, Gow-age! That's lovely, but I'm goin' to put the receiva' down now-- I've got things to do!"

By the time it got to Providence, Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa was about all that was left of Mrs. Malurevsky, and what was I going to do-- fling it out on the street? So I kept it, and it did look nice, I must admit. I thought of it as a deft stroke of eclecticism. True, Gropius wouldn't have approved. But I figured he'd been love-lorn over Alma at about the same time that Mrs. Malurevsky scrambled out of Russia, and while she dealt with Shanghai and the Japanese, he'd been hiding all his passion and heartbreak and grief by telling everybody to make very straight lines. I figured she had lived the more authentic life, even if her sofa was a Victorian copy of a Louis XVI. And then, of course, she was not a German. "Starting from zero" is pretty much impossible if you're Russian. Too many sticky, entangling family ties. Too much blood and guts and emotion. Lots here.

Because I welcomed in Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa, I started attracting sofas. It was like the time I bought a cookie jar that was in the shape of a chicken. Soon, every relative I had thought, "Aha! She likes chickens!" When, in fact, chickens and country life really hadn't been part of the cookie jar's appeal-- it had been something in the glint of the eye and the questioning tilt of the head-- but people thought they had me pegged, and gave me chicken-related stuff from Target from then on, for years-- chicken head hooks for towels and chicken napkin rings-- until I finally made a stand and called a halt to the poultry.

Anyway, people knew I had Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa, so they started thinking I would like other sofas. After my mother died, a handmade 1850's settee appeared, this one from her mother, who got it from her mother, who got it after her father died on it from an unexpected heart attack. Captain Richardson, a captain in the Confederate Army, who "fought the War over again every Sunday afternoon on the back porch." Who had broken his hip in his sixties, climbing up to get mistletoe for the delight of his grandchildren at Christmas, and who had had that hip set on the kitchen table, his daughter assisting, holding the morphine drip in one hand and a lamp in the other, while the settee looked on.

The hip wasn't set right. One day, out of the blue, the doctor who had set it returned to ask Captain Richardson's forgiveness for setting it so badly. Seems he had been addicted to opium, under the influence of opium at the time he set the hip-- and so he vowed to my great-great-grandfather that he would not practice medicine again, and promptly pulled up stakes and disappeared. Years later, during the flu epidemic of 1918, they saw an article in the paper about a town out West that had survived the epidemic with very few deaths. A stranger had come out of the rough country and set up a makeshift hospital-- had doctored the sick and kept the infection from spreading. Afterward, he wouldn't talk to the reporter, went back into the hills, but the picture proved it to be the doctor who had set Captain Richardson's hip.

So you can see why I'm keeping the Richardson settee. Unfortunately, the two sofas don't get along. The Mrs. Malurevsky sofa thinks it is far more elegant than the Richardson settee. The Richardson settee feels it has honest craftsmanship on its side, and accuses the Mrs. Malurevsky sofa of pretense. They can't be in the same room with each other.

But that's true about other furniture I've been willed. The spool bed and the trunk and the hassock can all be the same room, but I can't put the poudreuse in there or a fight will break out. The wing chair and Mrs. Malurevsky's sofa shoulder along all right together, but only if the blue Empire chair is with them to smooth things over. Instead of a nice, clean minimalism, my house has become a Rubik's Cube of furniture and relationship.

As the upholstered pieces mounted in my garage, my sisters began to get ideas. When it's time to rethink the old family furniture, they now have a place it can go: my place. Consequently, they have spare, minimalist houses, and I have enough furniture in my garage to make a squatter comfortable. If only there were a bathroom down there.

I am not a hoarder. I do not keep thirteen used purses in the garage in case of a rainy day. I am not one to stock up on box upon box of cocoa puffs. I do not keep the shoddy or the flimsy. I fix the broken and reupholster the exhausted. My garage is populated with stories I never expected to be keeping: it is the garage of last resort. Since Wes's comment, no longer do I call myself minimalist. My view has changed. Like taut skin and a flat stomach, I now believe that minimalism is the province of the young.

Design History Society Essay Prize 2013 Call for Entries

May 20, 2013

Tags: design writing, design criticism

The Design History society is a quiet little organization in Britain that publishes real scholarship year-in and year-out, somehow avoiding the various waves of academic hipness that have been known to blow other journals around. Do enter! It could result in a nice little chunk of change. And what scholar does not need a new pair of shoes and a fresh case of ramen?

The deadline is 14 June 2013.

Here are the details:

Submissions are invited for the Design History Society Essay Prize, established in 1997 in order to maintain high standards in design history in higher education. Two prizes are awarded annually; one to an undergraduate student and the other to a postgraduate (MA or PhD).

Competition requirements:

1. The (more…)

Natalia's Writing Tips and Errors of Death

December 10, 2012

Tags: writing tips for students: reprise

'Tis the season to remind all students about their responsibilities concerning their prose. Contrary to popular thought, being a designer does not give you license to be illiterate. It does not make lifting paragraphs from Wikipedia and then adding a few of your own mushed-in sentences an acceptable writing technique.

Writing is not random assemblage. When you study writing, you don't study making something sound nice. You study the rules of a system. You study patterns-- patterns of argument. Even a poem is an argument: it is an argument for the way you see the world. Writing well depends on your ability to apprehend many patterns of argument. Once you are conscious of them, you can play with them. Your goal is to make your ideas appealing to someone else. When readers get pleasure from the process of understanding your idea, you are a good writer.

Writing is rewriting. It feels unpleasant. Unlike designing a building or a magazine, the entire armature of the project and all its components only exist in your mind until they are on the page. This can be a very heavy feeling.

However, you need to be able to write well so that you can get your ideas out into the world. Once you have a number of patterns at your command, the process of building an argument will feel better, and after a while you'll forget about remembering how the patterns work and concentrate on the ideas. It's like yoga. The first time you did a downward dog, all the blood rushed to your head and your achilles tendons almost snapped. But now a downward dog is just something you do after the last pose and before the next. Your goal is to move through the writing without thinking too much about its actual mechanics.

You need to write complete drafts. When I ask you for a draft, I do not mean a first draft. I mean a third draft. You may not know what that means. It means that you put the ideas together. That's your first draft. Then you read them over again. Yes, you read them over again and find all the misspellings, the double words, the errors in grammar, the sentences that make no sense and the words that you picked up from somewhere but do not actually understand, and you remove them. That is your second draft. Then you read the whole thing over yet again, and add in all the examples you forgot. That is your third draft: That is the draft you send me. Simple, really. But that's what writing is, and I expect you to do it.

In order that you do not get graded down for an embarrassing blunder, please memorize this list of writing tips.

Natalia's Writing Tips:

1. Spellcheck and then re-read for inappropriate words that Spellcheck may have substituted in eros.

2. Even if you think you are way past this, make sure your sentences all have a subject and a verb. Not texting.

3. If you use more than five words in succession that someone put on Wikipedia or that you overheard in a cafe, credit that person, book or site. Credit everything. This makes you look intelligent and thorough and willing to play in the writing playpen. Stealing is an end to your career as a writer. We have to trust you. (Unless you're an old Postmodernist but nobody remembers the "untrustworthy narrator" at this point, so forget I said it.)

4. Read your writing aloud to your partner or to the dog. Don't let either critique your work--particularly the dog--but listen to yourself. Where there are pauses, there should be commas. Where you get bored with the drone of your own voice, take out those words. Where you are tempted to say "yadda, yadda," eliminate that idea. Real writing flows like spoken language. So turn on the tap.

5. Trash your thesaurus and promise to never use it again. Thesaurus-writing is obvious to a real reader, often featuring words in places where their exact meaning is a shade off and doesn't fit. Trust yourself and use the words that come to your mind.

6. Avoid cliches, stuffers, boring extra words, acronyms, text-lingo and dumb pseudo-words that mean nothing in a sentence. Oscar Wilde said, "If you've ever heard a word, don't use it."

7. Don't pretend you and your reader are just lying around in robes watching TV and eating caramel corn. Sit up straight and act like your intelligent Aunt Josephine is visiting. Too sloppy, too familiar writing is unappealing: It is a pose.

8. Avoid using the verb "to be:" He was, I am, she is, they were. Instead, substitute an active verb: she saw, he ate, we sniffled.

9. Chances are you are not a Doctor of Philosophy. Chances are you are not a big-time liberal arts academic. So do not feel that you must puff up and prance around with big words and phrases. The smartest things are said in the fewest words. It takes guts to write short words and sentences.

10. Every time you make an assertion back it up with a fact. "The landscapers in my neighborhood are tri-lingual. Florence Dosono, my gardener, speaks Japanese, English and Spanish every day." Back up assertions with facts every time, don't just float on and on asserting yourself into the clouds. That's what my Russian grandfather called "heavenly biscuits." Including examples gives the reader a toe on the ground.

11. Don't try to figure out what you are trying to say while you are trying to say it. Don't have a couple beers and suddenly decide you are Dylan Thomas and let it all out on the page. You are not Dylan Thomas or any other Dylan so stick with sobriety. No one wants to read along as you chase around with a butterfly net hoping you'll find an idea. Find the idea. Write the idea. Go on to the next idea. Build them all up to a nice little idea-pile in which they all relate, and then let the reader go home for lunch. It is juvenile to expect your readers to keep reading to sort out your nonexistent thinking for you. They'll just stop reading.

My students know that certain things bother me enough for me to just stop reading their work. I call this a "dead draft," and they get it back for rewriting.

Natalia's Errors of Draft Death:

1. Being boring. Difficult ideas need to be presented in short, clear ways that do not sound like the drone of a didgeridoo. No one has the time. Watch your pacing.

2. Being too clever. You are not a leprechaun. You are not a clown. A good funny moment is valuable, but pace them. Use them to open up your reader's heart, and make him want to keep reading. Don't act like you're auditioning to be a late-night stand-up comic. Being too funny will undercut your thinking with a design audience, which is basically a sober, steeped-in-the-Bauhaus bunch of INFPs. Ask how I know.

3. It's and its. It's a real problem. Because every word uses an apostrophe in its possessive EXCEPT "ITS." It's= it is. Its= "something belonging to IT."
Never forget this. Write it on your head.

4. Everyone does not have "their" baseball. Everyone has his baseball or everyone has her baseball. "Their" still catches in many throats, so avoid it if you're trying to win an award. If you get yourself into an "everyone" tangle, either make everything plural, (we all have our) or go back and forth between his and hers in your piece for the next ten years or until this grammatical problem ceases to be one.

5. Lay and lie. These are two separate, completely different verbs, but they look alike in some declensions and so there's a lot of confusion about them. The quickest way to show you cannot write is to use lay or lie incorrectly. This is the deal:

I lie down, I lay down, I have lain down.
I lay the book on the table, I laid the book on the table, I have laid the book on the table.
When do you use "lay" and when "lie?" You lay an object down. (That's where "getting laid" comes from, it's about objects, not lovers.) But a person lies down--anything that has control over its own body lies down. When you are in control of something, you lay it down.

The words, "Now I lay me down to sleep" seem confusing. But in them, the person speaking is treating himself as an object, and for this reason he uses "lay" instead of saying, "Now I'm lying down to sleep." Using "lay me" is archaic usage, so don't use it.

Again: You lay an object down. A person lies down. So does a dog.
When you command your dog, teach him to "lie down." (Lay down is grammatically incorrect and lord knows we can't have dogs responding to ungrammatical commands.)

6. Joe gave the baseball to him and me. Sounds terrible, doesn't it? But it's right. Somehow, otherwise intelligent people get the idea that "me" is not as elegant a word as "I," and they try to use "I" everywhere. If I catch you giving the baseball to "he and I" I will fall onto the floor in a fit. Use him, her or me. The only time this is not true is when the verb of the sentence is the verb "to be." When your friend asks who's at the door, say "It is I." You'll dazzle with your grasp of the irregular. But generally: He gave it to me; he gave it to him; he gave it to her and me. Get used to the sound of it.

7. Avoid cant. Using cliches tells the reader that you are willing to repeat words you have heard without evaluating what they actually mean. This leads us to believe that you do not make a habit of examining thoughts or ideas before you adopt and repeat them. Nobody wants to hire a parrot. Before you use words, examine them as though they are a glass from which you plan to drink.

Never say you are passionate about anything or I will kill you in a sudden fit of rage.
Never "unpack a notion."
Do not "gift anything." Nobody "gifted" you with anything. Gift is not a verb.
Do not "onboard" anything. Onboard is not a verb, either.
Do not "Otherize" anything or anyone, or claim to have been "Otherized."
Do not "leverage" anything ( it's also not a verb.)
Do not "utilize" anything. Just use it.
A book is not a "good read." ("Read" is not a noun.)
In general, do not make nouns into verbs. Business-speak is an argot best avoided.

Do not "reach out" to people when you mean you are emailing to ask them a question. (This one makes me nauseated. )
Which reminds me, you feel nauseated, not "nauseous." A color is nauseous. You feel nauseated. Unless you have the effect of making people nauseated when they see you. Then you are nauseous.
Which in turn reminds me: "effect" and "affect." Two different meanings. Affect is a verb. (He affected change.) Effect is a noun. (It had a strange effect.)

Don't say you are "looking to transition into the social impact design space," when what you really want to do is change jobs and make design that helps people.
Deflate your prose. Stick a knife in the tire. Readers will love you for it.

Design Police Question Winslow Holiday Decor

December 5, 2012

Tags: island Life

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. 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.
It's time for the Design Police to start ticketing.

Requiem for a Rosebush

June 19, 2012

Tags: Island Life

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.

Dear Nemo

June 13, 2012

Tags: graphic design writing, graphic design criticism, branding

Dear Nemo:

For some reason having to do with higher mathematics, LinkedIn keeps telling me that you are looking for “a multidisciplinary Brand Design Director with experience in the active lifestyle /outdoor category,” and that I should be very interested in this opportunity. I’m sure you will agree that I am perfect for it.

First, let me laud your use of the term, “multidisciplinary,” which means that the subject at hand crosses the boundaries of large bodies of knowledge, or disciplines. Clearly, Linked-In understands my quest for a multidisciplinary brand design position in which I can use my grounding in theoretical physics, my PhD in Medieval Art, my Certificate in Cockatoo Rearing, and my hard-won cookie decorating skills. So few appreciate these skills the way you obviously will. However, I must warn you that I have absolutely no experience in the "active lifestyle/outdoor category," could give a hoot about today's engineered techno fabrics, detest the thought of hiking or backpacking and think that "roughing it" is staying in any hotel that is less attractive than my house.

You hope that my “proficiency extends to brand foundation and strategy.” In my years on the Western plains, I extended much iron and sizzled many cow flanks, and was always able to convince those cows to go down the chute, using my strategic cow-prompting skills. My proficiency in these skills is recognized. Microsoft hired me on this proficiency alone.

You ask that the successful candidate be able to “engage” clients. I have engaged clients in the past. Few realize that I lettered in Fencing until it is too late.

Funny you should mention it--I do get clients excited about how design adds value and solves problems! By the end of my enthralling presentations, they’re usually jumping up and down and bellowing, “Give me great value-adding problem-solving design now!” or some such similar vocalization. Currently, I am heightening their excitement by showing them Sagmeister’s latest value-adding, problem-solving postcard, in which he appears nude along with a Photoshopped woman who may be his new business partner or who may just have been a convenient naked woman standing on some magazines nearby. Problem solving? Yes. Value-adding? Not so much. The poor man is exhibiting signs of scoliosis.

But back to me. You hope I’m “versed in translating insights and strategy across all media”, by which I think you’re asking, “Can you say the same stuff in different ways?” As luck would have it, I am expert at aligning social networks, UX, interactive, print, smoke signals, town-to-town drum networks, church prayer-chains and mobile platforms. When it comes to “creating identity systems and crafting guidelines to implement the creative vision,” I craft with the best of them. However, my implements for crafting creative vision guidelines cost a fortune, materials having gone up so much with the price of oil, so I have been cutting back on creating and crafting guidelines and now just tell people what to do.

In short, I do live in the zone you mention, “the zone where brand insights, business strategy, and visual storytelling meet.” Entre-nous, it’s a heck of a pile-up. Especially when people use a lot of words that don't mean anything.

Yes, as you ask, I do play well with others, as long as they don’t pollute my cubicle with microwave popcorn smell. Yes, I can mentor a team, though “to mentor” is not actually a verb and I am about as fond of it as “to Otherize.” Yes, I have “interaction design chops.” My favorite chop being the employment of various young “interaction designers” with whom I play well, and whom I mentor.

You say I need to understand that yours is a hands-on design position, and that I should be prepared to work. To this admonishment I respond: I am prepared to work if you are prepared to abandon every worn-out design-talk cliché you use in your advertisement, and to communicate with a clarity that will rocket your client out of the haze and into the ether. I'll be waiting by the mailbox for a contract from you.

Best wishes,

Natalia Ilyin

Where's My Vote: Russia

April 11, 2012

Tags: design for social change

If you haven't made the time, now is the perfect moment for you to make a nice big (27.5" x 40") poster promoting positive social change in Russia. But do it fast, because the (somewhat negotiable) deadline is April 15. A quick turn-around did not deter my fabulous Design for Social Change students at Cornish College, however, and you can see some of their work up on the Where is My Vote page. If you teach design, or just happen to like to design big posters your own self, I challenge you to get some smart thing to Misha Beletsky ASAP. You or your students have a chance of inclusion in an exhibition at School of Visual Arts in NYC this September and in Moscow in October. Come on. Do it. Fit it in. I dare you.

Words from the Design Wise

March 14, 2012

Tags: design criticism

As I get older, I get less and less interested in stuff for stuff's sake, and more interested in the cycles of natural systems. It just seems good sense to me to make things that go along with these systems, ways of doing things that have been revolving since the Earth began cooling. I know we are all bored to death with the "S" word, and I have pledged never to use it or the word "green" when lecturing. But still a spade is a spade, and I think Susan said it best when she said:

“Good design is not a frill, not an expensive luxury, but is basic to how
things work, from cities to buildings, from consumer products to energy grids.
Faced with great environmental challenges, we must all assure that the
buildings and devices in our world are not only functional, but beautiful, and
that they contribute to a sustainable way of life in the future.”

--Susan Szenasy, Executive Editor, Metropolis Magazine

And Contempt for Woman

February 17, 2012

Tags: design history

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.

So I was sitting there the other day, talking with one of my students, and we ended up chuckling together over one of the lines of the Futurist Manifesto. (The sign of a real design talent, as far as I am concerned, is this tendency to make humorous and arcane design history references and then chuckle about them.) The line that got us chuckling was Futurist point number 9, a blatant young-Italian-guy statement in a series of young-Italian-guy statements that set the agenda for much of the bang/zoom modernist design we've seen in the last 85 or so years:

"We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman."

These days, no one would argue that Marinetti was a great genius as far as understanding anything about reality, and no design professor worth much would spend a lot of time on the actual ideas contained in Marinetti's puerile Rocky Rocketship rant.

Futurist type injects a lot of excitement into what formerly was a pretty staid affair, but after moralizing on that, we don't give Marinetti and his love of war and of being young and sexualizing machines and locomotives and this sort of thing all that much time in the time-crunch that is graphic design history education.

No one thinks of his manifesto's principles as true. "That was then!" we all say, flipping to the next image. That was then, and not to be taken seriously, not to be confused with our time-- our time of gender-unbiasedness, challenge-blindness, after-you-my-dear-Alphonse appreciation of everyone and everything. And on we go to fly through Constructivism, without a backward glance at the Futurists.

But perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to blow off Marinetti. Because his brand of modernism, his brand of bang-zoom is one of the great molds from which our own sensibilities have been released, like quivering aspics upon the platter of history.

Marinetti is refreshing because he is so very clear about his distaste for anything female. He is not hiding anything in the shadows. Femaleness to him is weakness, tears, sensitivity, the maudlin, the questioning, the ripe. A fairly narrow definition. Since he was so outspoken, we tend to laugh him off. But weren't his brethren in the Modern as equally opposed to anything not masculine? Pre, post or neo, Modernism has contempt for all that is psychically female. The women who are most successful in design today are successful because they have been able to absorb these anti-female beliefs and live with them as with a sort of second personality. For women in design, psychic splitting isn't a sign of mental illness, it's a career move.

My senior students, the fifteen women and one man, recently sat around the conference table. And when I looked at them, I thought how strange it was that these women were just finishing up a degree the very bones of which detest them, the very sages of which discount them. I thought about how strange it was that it was I who was teaching them the very notions that would divide them from themselves.

What kind of designers might they have been had they not been schooled in the straight line?
What would design be if my students didn't study Ruskin and Marinetti and Corbu and Wright? If they studied Jane Jacobs instead of Gropius? Christopher Alexander instead of Mies van der Rohe? I am not talking about the need for a feminist critique of design history-- I'm sure there are a few of those in the works. I am talking about the creation of a different history all together. Not a feminist review of Anni Albers and Gunta Stoltz and the many other famous women who have made their marks within the Modernist agenda. But a history of people--men and women-- who made things outside that agenda--a history of ideas that do not play by those rules.

What would the women I teach make if-- as game designers, for instance-- they didn't emulate the only games they have ever seen: games designed by men for 14 year-old boys, games that embrace Marinetti's world-view? What buildings would they build had they not memorized the lines of Falling Water? What type would they draw if they had not been steeped in Helvetica and Akzidenz Grotesk? Tell me, what would the values of design be, if it were not founded in or reacting to the anti-female modernist agenda? What would design be, if design were centered on the feminine?

The Messy Art of Saving the World

January 16, 2012

Tags: design for social change

Panthea Lee hit three nails on the head with this post on Core77.

"International development and governance projects have a notorious track record. Every day, it seems, we hear another report of foreign aid siphoned off by corrupt officials and projects losing money to bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Take this story, published last year in The New York Times: The Egyptian government, hoping to increase internet access, had established over 2,000 telecenters across the country. But an independent researcher found that almost none of the centers were functioning; in one city, just four out of 23 were active. The telecenters weren't being used in large part because they weren't even necessary—the rise of internet cafes in Egypt had made them redundant.

"The failure, in other words, was in not understanding the ecosystem in which the telecenters would be operating," said the Times.

Too often, projects like these are born and developed by corporations, foundations, governments, and other institutions without a day-to-day understanding of the lives of the people they're meant to help. There's no shortage of good intentions, hard work, and committed individuals. Where the field of development falls short, however, is in process.

This is where the discipline of design can help; its tools and principles can help address the flaws in strategy and process that plague the field, and help develop programs that impact people's lives in concrete ways.

Right now, many disparate voices—both from development and governance and from the field of design—are working to articulate how design can improve societies all over the world. It's thrilling to see so many talented designers excited about the possibilities. But this movement is still new, and while a lot of people are talking, too few are putting the practice into action.

One challenge lies in the gap between the discipline of design and the fields of development and governance. The latter two, like any other field, are fraught with history, political complexity, and operational challenges that a newcomer cannot fully grasp. Colleagues in the development sector and from other public institutions have complained that they are being bombarded by enthusiastic designers who have little understanding of the fields they're so set on revolutionizing.

Just as the Egyptian government needed to look closely at a city before throwing in a telecenter, designers need to build an understanding of these fields before jumping in to innovate.
I wanted to share three patterns of failure that plague development—and that design is well-suited to address:

1. There are empathy gaps between program administrators and beneficiaries.

Many decision-makers in development are located in global capitals, such as Washington, DC, Geneva or Rome. In many projects, program managers' only local contact comes from a week-long trip to "the field" (read: the country in question), where most of their time is spent in meeting with government or NGOs in the capital city, with a single, obligatory trip to the actual community. Emphasis on community is common in rhetoric but limited in practice. When efforts are made to understand beneficiaries, the approaches used can be laughably misguided and often fail to create an accurate portrait of day-to-day life: I've seen poor, rural farmers bussed in to hotels in the major cities for "participatory research" exercises. This fly-over approach creates major gaps in empathy and prevents effective program design.

2. Program design is often determined by quantitative metrics and best practices which lack context and nuance.

Program design—and resource allocation—is usually based on national data, such as large-scale surveys, and on conventional wisdom ("best practices") from existing literature or expert consultants. Armed with these checklist items—"Column A lists the indicators that need to be addressed, and Column B lists the approaches that have been known to work for these same challenges"—the setup and development of a program can be very formulaic, a little plug-n-play, if you will. Data and rigour are important, as is learning from what's already been done; but in emphasizing quantitative tools and past experiences, many programs fail to accurately capture and successfully design for the context in question.

3. Politics is always complicated.

I think people outside of the field forget that development is as political as any other sector. Internal politics between organizations' staff, funders, and other stakeholders have a complicating effect—and that's not to mention the influence of national and international pressures. I've been on projects where the priorities of the funder and those of the community are widely divergent. Sometimes, an area is over-saturated with organizations working on similar issues; in other areas, money "needs to be spent" for political reasons, even though the chances of success are low. (We generally decline those engagements; life is too short to waste on projects that will have no impact.) Navigating these myriad pressures and guiding a project to success often means keeping all stakeholders focused on the priorities of the program beneficiaries. In these instances, design—with its evidence-backed, outcome-oriented perspective—can help push back against the distortion field of politics.

Today, we face serious challenges in the fields of governance and development; but there's a dynamic community committed to translating and evolving the design discipline to help solve these challenges. Here in New York, educators such as the School of Visual Arts, through its Impact! and Design for Social Innovation programs, are educating a new generation of designers to use their talents towards social progress. At the United Nations, we applaud groups like UNICEF's Innovation Unit (full disclosure: a past employer) and UN Global Pulse, who are using technology to revolutionize how one of the world's largest institutions serves marginalized populations globally."

Panthea Lee is co-founder and principal of Reboot, a service design firm working in the fields of governance and international development.

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