Discussion, thoughts and obervations about Graphic Design, Information Architecture and Design History.

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Thoughts on the Design History discussions:

The theme for the day: Design History - was loosely held to, with the discussions touching criticism, the roll of the musem and musem curator as well as discussions of compiling histories and biographies.

The first speaker, Neal Gabler, was riveting. A terrific speaker, he has written several books, appeared on TV and is currently working on a critical history of Walt Disney - the man. Gabler used his work as an example to illustrate some key points about working on biography or critical history.

First there is the collection phase - the accumulating process:
Read everything about your subject
Read everything by your subject
Interview everyone who knew your subject
Review all the work by the subject
Review archives
Visit places they worked and lived

This is the easy part. It takes time but really doesn't require critical thinking or any analysis. The actual act of using this material and writing needs to answer some key questions:
What is the story? What is the point? Why should anyone care? What is the driving theme of this person's life work?
What is the critical perspective of all of this?

I found this talk enlightening and it offered some guidelines and a framework to think about as I embark on the next phase of the Dr. Leslie project.

The next speaker: Andrew Blauvelt, Walker Art Center- was sort of interesting, but he tended to get distracted in making his point and his lecture style was disjointed. It was hard to follow the thread of his thought. I am sure he is far easier to read than listen to. The other issue was that he READ his lecture and then interrupted himself with asides, not unlike annotations in the margins jumping out at you or like interruptive hypertext links that go to the next thing as you read across the word without you asking for them, or popup windows. His topic was more related to criticism and less about history.

Maud Levin talked about Gender in the Contemporary Design Practice. What this had to do with Design History was beyond me because all her examples were current living working women. In addition she didnt make a great case for this premise of gender affecting the design practice because all these women teach at Yale and work - not unlike many male faculty across the US. I was disappointed because I do believe gender affects work style in the design practice. I think it is more in terms of the style of collaboration and teamwork than an actual difference in the major practice choices.

The museum curator: Ellen Lupton from the Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design, spoke and then joined a panel of other curators. It was pretty interesting to hear about the types of choices they have to make when curating a show and the expectations of a broad audience they must deliver to. Another interesting factor discussed was not only the types of work they chose but how they chose to display the artifacts. I think the work they do goes a long way to spread the gospel of design to the greater public - albeit a self selected public.

After lunch: the most interesting speaker was Jeremy Aynsley from the Royal College of Art in London. He curated a special exhibition of German Graphic Design 1890 - 1945. He talked about and showed samples of work that illustrated the shift of German work from the very ornamental (Victorian to Jugenstijl) to the modernist (Bauhaus) and how that was supplanted by the rise of the Third Reich and Nazism. I was so disappointed that the show which is travelling on the East Coast will not be coming to the West Coast. This is another area of interest of mine and there is a cross over in the work I have been doing on the Dr. Leslie Project, as he was editor of Gebrauschgraphik before it folded and so many of the designers who worked with him fled the Nazi regime.

I chatted with Professor Aynsley afterwards and we exchanged cards. He thinks there may be a slim chance the exhibition may get to LA and there is the book.

Victor Margolin presented a snippet of his research on the African American Designers in Chicago. It was very enlightening. During most of the period he covered there were a handful of designers who succeeded despite the racism of the times. Of all those, only one was a woman. I also found it interesting that Mr. Margolin is white.

The last presentations were a little dry - perhaps it was because of the subject matter or maybe it was because I had been sitting through 16 hours of lectures.

Meredith David presented the design curriculum for the Masters and PHd programs at NC State. I want to be a Doctor of Design.

I was most interested in the last presentation about usage of copyright materials and the fair use rules. The presentation was very technical and legal and when probed for specific examples, most were in the context of using the work of fine artists. I thought the speakers could have been better prepared for the context of the Conference and could have touched on the use of work that is created by a designer, when it is possibly owned by a client, potentially containing work by other illustrators and photographers. The lecture left more questions than it answered, in my opinion.

Overall the two days were good and left me with a few thoughts as they relate to my current professional bias:

What is the design history of interactive media?
Who stands out of the crowd and why?
Do interaction/experience designers have a history yet and can it be chronicled before everything disappears?
What is worthy of recording?
How do museums save or collect work that is dynamically driven and highly interactive or relies on lots of complex backend stuff?
Do the artifacts that we as IAs and Interaction designers make need to be kept as well to provide a cohesive sense of the process and effectiveness of our work?

posted by erin malone 10:19 PM

Thoughts on the AIGA: Looking Closer Conference

I have spent the last two days immersed in discussions and discourse around Graphic Design Criticism and History. It has been extremely stimulating and encouraging.

The event: Looking Closer: AIGA Conference on Design Criticism and History
The place: New York City

The range of speakers included Elvis Mitchell (New York Times film critic), Rick Poyner (former editor of Eye Magazine), Ellen Lupton (curator of the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum), and a lawyer specializing in copyright and fair use law.

The first day was spent discussing Criticism and its role in Design and the practice of Design Criticism. It was a very interesting range of discussions - much of it centered around the role of the critic and the need to practice critical analysis and critical journalism surrounding our practice. Many of the issues around this role revolve around the fact that many of the practicing design critics are peers to the designers whose work they critique or analyze. Much was said about the need to separate the act of analysis of the work from the person. I believe that much of the problem is that many of the people writing critically are also friends with the designers whose work they analyze. Perhaps the next wave of critics need to have a layer of removal from the center of desing practice. Or designers really need to grow up and realize that the work is not them and that criticism and analysis of the work doesn't reflect on them as a person and speaks only of the work. If we don't have crititcal analysis of our work, how are we ever expected to grow and stretch as designers?

I also think that not enough was said about the role the client and the context of use of the work. The role of the client in the creation of the work often bends and moves the work away from the designer's orginal intent - sometimes for the better and often for the worse. The contextual use of the work also needs to be taken into account. The analysis of the work in a vacuum leaves us wondering if the work was successful in its intended use. I think that often, the work and anlysis - critique - that we see in the journals and books, leave out the contextual use of the work or the end results of the work. I believe that that use and the gauge of its success to the client should be a factor in the discussion of the value of the work. I would think that a piece that is super successful in its original mission is more successful than a piece that may be brilliant to other designers but failed in its original mission.

Naomi Klein spoke about the concept of Brand Boomerang - a phenomenon of activists and artists and protesters using branding and corporate brand to expose the issues behind the product the brand stands for. The idea is that the current state of the brand - clean and homogenized and safe - does little to expose the realities behind how a company makes the products that we all covet. I think many people were questioning some of what she presented in terms of its context to the subject at hand - Design Criticism, but I think that she was illustrating an alternative way that people disect design and react to it, albeit with a slightly different agenda than a traditional design critic. In some ways this approach is more approachable, because it is an example of design reaching the average person and these "average" people in turn use design for their own agenda.

Michael Beirut spoke about the style of critical writing and how the words can be compelling and interesting and tell a story at the same time dissecting and analyzing the work. He illustrated his point be referencing a passage from the book listed below about the songs, the song writer and the singer - Sinatra. He read the passage, then played the song and I was left wanting to read more. The author of the book used a compelling style to tell the story that sucked me into the narrative.

One of the most interesting presentations of the day was by Steven Johnson. Johnson, one of the creators of Plastic and SlashDot, presented the concepts of the technology behind Plastic. The software uses algorythms and filtering to enable postings to rise to the top for its readers. The idea that the site uses the software and a collective policing model to filter quality writing and allow it to bubble to the top is extremely intriguing. As a User Experience designer and a person specifically interested in Community, I found this presentation most interesting. The core philosphy of the site should be able to transferred to larger more commercial sites with similar success. The moderating of the postings is spread around and earned by posters so that the contributors share in reponsibilites of the quality with the original site creators. This was the only presentation that specifically dealt with the internet.

Some reference material to look up from this day:
Deadline at Dawn - Judith Williamson [out of print]
No Logo - Naomi Klien
Arts & Letters Daily
Revolution in the Head - Ian MacDonald
Twice, NEST - printed journals
One Market Under God - Tom Frank
Sinatra! : The Song Is You : A Singer's Art

Coming tomorrow - commentary of today's events on Design History
posted by erin malone 9:15 AM