Why did you enter the field of graphic design?
I’ve been saying that I arrived at graphic design through architecture—a field I never took a course in, but has always captured my interest. There’s something about making space nested in space. How I majored in graphic design is something I’ll keep post-rationalizing over; there were a number of factors. Besides the aspiration for architecture, there were the parts played by the art and design foundation program during my undergrad years, curiosity about graphic design as well as computers, and compliance with a paper trail toward declaring a major. My current role happens to be that of information architect. I ultimately reunited with a version of architecture.
What is your biggest challenge and why?
There’s a lot of challenges that I’ll keep facing. Discovering as much as possible is a big one. There are so many fascinating people, places and things. A trite triad but loaded with connections that beget connections. Design is only one source, but it’s a rich world to encounter and connect: ideas and perspectives, the natural and the artificial, ways of seeing and ways of talking. There’s a term in musical notation called legato, Italian for “tied together,” which aims to achieve a smooth-and-connected effect. Being a legato interloper is very challenging, as every deposit of discovery coincides in a deficit of discovery.
What has been your most meaningful project and why?
This reminds me of a panel discussion at a Living Surfaces Conference, formerly held by the defunct American Center for Design. When asked for professional advice, one of the panel participants, an interactive designer whose name I forgot, responded, “Work on cool projects.” This was quickly argued by Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, who emphasized, “Whaddaya mean by ‘cool’? Designers must deem all projects as cool.” Something like this. What Norman stressed was designing without prejudice.
When industrial designer Matali Crasset was asked, “Is there one thing you would love to design?” Her answer was “No, I never work or think like that. Because what people propose to me is much more interesting than what I might have thought about designing at any time. I’m happy to just float from one proposal to another. It’s nice, I really like that. It’s not that I don't have a dream but I really am more interested in meeting people, finding new partners to go further with, to stretch the possibilities that are out there.”
If a project—from a stamp to a building, whatever the industry—is approached like a mystery box, who knows what can be discovered, what information can be gained, what meaning can be achieved, what stimulation can captivate an audience. That’s the cool factor. Designing is helping. All my projects are meaningful.
What is the most difficult part of communicating with people through design?
Describing how an idea was conceived, how a project originated, how the result was made—anything—demands clarity. This was a moving target in a recent lecture I did. Telling a story in a legato manner is another big challenge. Communicating about/with design is game for waxing philosophical, as long as the pontificating is grounded, complemented, by what’s practical. In an interview about topics related to design management, educator Ralph Beuker thinks that designers should explain more and justify less. Doing both “with feeling,” and effectively, is the daily challenge.
How has the field changed in the past five years?
The inputs have multiplied a lot. The notebook remains a steadfast companion to capture and contain as many whims and whiffs as much as possible of who or what has made one look, and even smile. Design researchers Steve Portigal and Dan Soltzberg practice and encourage “noticing power.” This power has intensified to cope with a relentless information landscape.
What people, places and ideas inspire your process?
Designer and author Paul Rand summarized that “Design is everything. Everything.” A friend of mine disagrees, which made me wonder if design is truly everything. Graphic designer Milton Glaser who just reached his 80th birthday, said that design “is going from an existing position to a preferred one. It’s everything.” I’ve been going back and forth and will continue toggling about design’s importance. But it’s a healthy pondering, a cyclical one. Everything inspires me, at the moment.
Who has been the most influential graphic designer in your life? Why?
Life, family and loved ones constitute the most impact on me. The urbanist Jane Jacobs said, “Design is people.” Those in my circle are major in how I work. Designing is taking care of the roots. I’m blessed to have been taught by designers like John Massey, Paul Rand and Armin Hofmann. I keep learning from them. But the people with closest proximity to me exercise the highest influence on my thinking and practice as a designer. They’re my teachers wherever I am.
What do you think the relationship between art and graphic design is? In general, and also in your work?
I like how designer Andy Rutledge put it, “While design uses the very same fundamentals as artistry, these are two separate endeavors. The difference between them would seem to be slight or negligible, but again, what seems is not often what is.
In art, the artist has the freedom to define the message, the content, and the context. The artist may not choose to exert influence over all of these elements, but the choice is there nonetheless.
In design, one or more of these elements (message, content, and context) is defined for us. These are known as constraints. Artistry in the context of constraint is design, plain and simple.”
Rutledge marks the inheritance—message, content, and context—that designers engage. And it’s not an inheritance to lather on one’s self-serving intentions. Charles Eames said that “Design mostly depends on constraints.” Handling constraints breeds restraint. Finding that appropriate fidelity of restraint is key, yet never easy to me.
What about the relationship between objects and graphic design?
A timely question because I discovered Atelier Carvalho Bernau, an independent studio in The Hague. From their website, “As graphic designers, we develop objects: We are concerned with every aspect of, for example, a book: from the choice of format to the paper and inks used for the printing, or even the glue used for the binding—because they all influence each other. We see our practise as holistic because we are not solely concerned with the ordering of, and navigation within, materials: we also direct an orchestra of skilled professionals, which include paper manufacturers, photographers, lithographers, printers and binders. Together, we work on creating an object, a perfect vessel for its content.” They go on to proclaim, “We are always intrigued by objects, that while perfectly serving their purpose, also tell a story about the object itself: We try to make each book, poster or typeface also an enquiry into the nature of books, posters and typefaces, an exploration of the basic concepts of these objects, and a reflection of the present state of our ever-ongoing quest for that essence.”
Objects are frozen moments that melt and reshape as their stories are told; they mark the pursuit of something in agitation. And each object entails a unique story of making. The act of making is a story that must be re-earned over and over again. Practice makes perfect, “a perfect vessel for its content” as Atelier Carvalho Bernau put it. Growing a portfolio of work is more than adding another badge of completion. Graphic artist Richard Sarson, who creates complex visual work with simple means like his Circle Project, was asked, “What motivates you to create; to keep pushing forward?” His answer was eloquent, “The fact that I don’t really know what I am doing or why I am doing it. Keeping going means working towards an answer to those questions.”
I reflect on the array of pots, with plants, that my father gave me. They remind me to keep going, and hopefully grow a satisfying passage of time. Another thing that my father gave me was this quote:
“It’s not the object. It’s the emptiness.”
My father discovered it as part of an interior design ad. It speaks to the constant interplay of foreground, background, middle ground and surround-ground. It’s close to what architect Eero Saarinen advised:
“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
Objects compel zooming in and out, where the former is the object itself, and its stage is the “larger context.” Both exploit the emptiness. It’s the Buddhist belief, which I recently discovered, that “The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.” Objects are curated but also curative.
What do you think the field will look like in another 10 years? Why?
I don’t know. At an All Things Digital conference, Steve Jobs was asked what the information technology industry would look like in five years, what would be the next big thing. His projection was, “I don’t know. And the reason I don’t know is because I wouldn’t have thought that there would have been maps on it [phone] five years ago… .”
All I know is what’s going on as I write, and I’ve been noticing that writing is becoming more formalized as a method to design and designing. There’s the MA Design Writing Criticism course in London and MFA in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts, New York. Group All Day Buffet, an “incubator for social innovation,” is seeking writers for its new venture. Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism has a scholarship program that reaches out to programmers/developers. Alissa Walker teaches a course called “Breaking into Design Journalism.” Whoever described words as the best natural resource was right. It’s terrific to see the momentum of the design prosateur.
What do you think some of the biggest misconceptions about your field?
What the audience experiences is an interface, which comes in all shapes and sizes. The interface may appear seamless and effortless, but there’s a lot of work and decisions—effort—behind it.
Tell us why you decided to start Design Feast—such a massive and important project?
Design Feast started in 1999 as a way to collect and share pointers to interesting online—hopefully leading to offline—content, not only about one design discipline but the whole family of disciplines. Not group, not cluster—Family of design disciplines. The role of curator has sharpened and the web can be viewed like an installation. One premise for growing Design Feast is to help designers, of course, but especially the “design-curious” become more aware and receptive to what design is, as well as its diversity of thought and practice. “Liberal Arts 2.0” blogger Jason Kottke described his site as a kind of “Wunderkammer,” a German word roughly meaning “cabinet of wonders” or “cabinet of curiosities.” My intent is for Design Feast to be that to everyone.
You collect rare books on design—can you talk about book design in general, what you think some of the most books are and why? What are your favorite volumes and why?
Designing a book requires a totally coordinated effort, literally from end-to-end. Lots of decisions go into thinking in spreads. Herbert Bayer’s World Geo-Graphic Atlas (1953) is an example I frequently reference. Within the 368-page Atlas reside “one hundred twenty full-page maps of the world supported by one thousand two hundred diagrams, graphs, charts, symbols about the planet earth.” All were done before the birth of digital page layout. This book particularly speaks to the creative weave of data and curiosity to visualize, contrast and discern patterns—an ultimate discovery. I mentioned the notebook as a major source of iteration with web-based versions, such as Evernote. Then there are Nicholas Felton’s printed annual reports of personal data, which influenced the creation of Daytum, a web-based method to collect and communicate daily data.
I’m also fond of the first editions of books written and designed by Paul Rand, who lived the roles of design writer and critic before such monikers became popular. It’s one thing to craft the front and back cover, and spread after spread. It’s quite another to craft an attractive table of contents and populate each chapter. Mining subject matter, including one’s experience, and synthesizing a Wunderkammer between two covers is a struggle.
What has been the best graphic design exhibition that you’ve seen? Why did you think it was compelling?
The only design exhibitions I see are virtual, with the bevy of portfolios and case studies shared by designers, studios and agencies. Site aggregators like FFFFOUND and Manystuff further compound exhibition streaming online. Aside from student design shows, I haven’t noticed a lot of design (particularly graphic design) exhibitions in museums, except for the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. It held National Design Week in 2008. The Newberry Library offers an interesting line-up of exhibits in its main-floor galleries, which are small but pack a historical and cultural punch. Libraries naturally showcase the typographic matter of their collections and are a nimble alternative to museums.
How important is community when it comes to thinking about innovation and graphic design?
One most recent innovative example that I discovered, with origins in graphic design, was HealthSimple. It’s a system to help make life a littler easier for those living with diabetes. It was founded by a couple, Lisa and Doug Powell, who are graphic designers, and whose daughter was diagnosed with diabetes. Their family circumstances compelled them to “better serve a community of good people who happen to have the D word in common.” The direct connection to healthcare is impressive here, and more so, the discovery of a need.
A shared interest sparks a community of interest and participation. Starting it, seeing it through, sticking with it at an organic pace, especially when it comes to “building community” is what floors me. “Build it and they will come” can easily be a false positive.
What projects can we expect to see from you in the future?
Keep working on Design Feast, feeding it and its e-newsletter, along with the kindred blogs Design Feaster and Design Thought Leader. I’m trying to keep up with writing blog pieces. I also want to continue contributing to other design-oriented blogs. I have the cool opportunity to write for BBDK’s Thinking for a Living, GraphicHug. I want to realize more participation in both the Designer’s Quest(ionnaire) and Blogger’s Quest(ionnaire). I’m planning to make a more elaborate book version of the first 25 releases of the Designer’s Quest(ionnaire). Also, Design Engage, a job board for design internships, freelance design and junior design jobs was recently made. Furthermore, I’d love to virtually share my rare design book collection.