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Happy summer! Welcome to the June issue of the Scratching the Surface members-only newsletter. If you’re new here, welcome! You’ll get one of these the first Monday of each month. If you’ve been here before, welcome back.
I want to start by thanking you all for the kind notes following last month’s announcement about my new position as an assistant professor of graphic design at North Carolina State University. We’ll be visiting Raleigh this month to look for homes and moving sometime in July. I’m excited to get down there and get started (and don’t expect any interruption in our programming here.)
Another big project I’ve been working on launched in May: a new essay for Eye on Design on Dot Dot Dot, the underground design and visual culture magazine run by former StS guests Peter Bil’ak, Stuart Bertollotti-Bailey, and David Reinfurt from 2000 to 2010. I’ve been interested in DDD for years — discovering it my last year in college, just as they ending their run — but was also fascinated by how the ethos of that magazine has seeped into every aspect of contemporary design culture. In the piece, I talk to the editors about how it got started and how they think about it, but also look at magazines, publishers, and designers who seem to be picking up on this lineage. You can read the piece here. I hope you like it.
As always, feel free to respond to this email with thoughts, comments, questions, or just to chat. Time to get back to move preparation. See you next month.
Last summer, Rory King wrote a fascinating essay theorizing on a concept he called “Nomadic Design” that proposed a design practice that was disentangled from capitalism and served people who needed it most. This essay is being republished in a new book, c24: Collaborations. In celebration of the book launch, I asked Rory a few questions about what nomadic design is and how we can incorporate it into our own design practices.
Last summer you published this essay on a concept you call ‘nomadic design’. What’s nomadic design mean and where does it diverge from more traditional design practices?
The intersection of nomadism and design is something I’ve been thinking about for almost 6 years. I believe it started with the discovery of Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt proposal. Later, I was applying for graduate school and reminiscing on everything leading up to this new endeavor, particularly how design used to be defined as a creative, process oriented discipline and yet everything I was seeing was built around the idea to component-ize everything based on the domination of product design, Silicon Valley, and agency business models.
Furthermore, I’ve felt that socialist/marxist writing, while certainly inspiring and informative, has hit this point where it’s just regurgitating that capitalism is the root of all evil. “Capitalism is constantly evolving; post-this, post-that; new jargon here, new jargon there”—we get it! Now let’s move on to some action points. With all of that in mind, I felt a greater urgency to propose a model of uprooted (or nomadic) design labor and how it could provide for these initiatives toward justice and the dismantling of the status quo. In addition, I think aesthetics and image-making are something designers get caught up in when it comes to “taking action.” The visual is what we are most comfortable with, so it’s what we immediately turn to when trying to instigate change. My hope with the proposal of nomadic design is to view “experimentation” within design to be something more than just weird, unexpected, and uncomfortable aesthetics. Our actions, processes, methodologies, and labor can be experimental too.
Where are you seeing some real-world examples of nomadic design and/or ways designers could subvert the usual client-designer relationship? (As you write: “The things international design agencies attempt with large budgets still have a place within nomadic design—if anything, nomadic design is about reclaiming such large-scale initiatives in the name of societal necessity and collaboration.”
The art/design summer school boom that happened a few years ago is the closest example I can compare to nomadic design principles. As a ‘student,’ you weren’t committing to an institution and their prescribed curriculum, as many of those school were organized by individuals not associated with a bureaucratic agenda. It was simply a way of bringing disparate people together in various locations, treating those people less as students and more as collaborators, and putting inquiry, self-confidence, and just general fun back into design. But most of those summer schools are still within a design bubble, catering to mostly designers. While I think they are great in designer-residency terms, and I’ve participated in a few, I still believe we need to burst the design-for-designers bubble. As for client-designer examples, I don’t know that they exist quite yet. As I mention in the essay, finding a way to take part in mutual aid initiatives is probably the best way to go about it—to really remove the designer-knows-all mindset and instead place designers within a larger movement, participating in aspects that on the surface aren’t capital D “Design,” but process-wise very much can influence how a designer sees the world and subsequently works within it. In other words, reframing the “design process” as what it actually is (and what seems to have been forgotten): collective labor.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how design’s entanglement with capitalism has caused the profession to lose sight of its potential (I’ve come to realize many of my problems with ‘design’ are actually problems with ‘capitalism’). Design, too, can be a socialist enterprise. You write: “Nomadic strategies bring design to an egalitarian level by forcing the profession to be cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural, and community-centric.” I’d love to hear you talk more about these strategies?
As designers—from graphic, to industrial, to architectural, and everything in between—you must be feeling some sort of anger toward what you’re seeing in the world. You must be feeling some sort of depression about the work you’re doing and the little change it has on the state of the world. The homogeneity we see and feel, the behaviors we see and feel, the pain we see and feel has in many ways been crafted by us—designers within capitalist institutions. But we must understand that outside of our designer day jobs we are the “audience” that we are (supposedly) always designing for. We are the “laypeople.” You belong to a society. There is a quote by Chris Cutler, from the experimental rock band Henry Cow, that says, “So much art has been based on the romantic picture of the individual against the society. But to suggest that man is born free is a total lie; everything that man is rests on his social evolution—his language, his institutions. Creative activity is a collective thing, you’re drawing on the community even if you work alone.”
So how can designers, as insiders working within a capitalist industry or institution, subvert capitalist agendas? Think about communities and how they are small pockets of people. These communities can be 5 people playing Dungeons and Dragons in a basement, or volunteers at an animal shelter, or something larger like an audience that frequents a certain venue, or, in labor terms, a union at your place of employment. The intellect, inspiration, and solidarity within these communities is always significant, regardless of the size. The anti-capitalist change you attempt to initiate doesn’t have to be big and epic—it simply needs to bring awareness to a shared commonality.
This essay, I think, continues a lot of the thinking and work you began at Cranbrook around design as a tool for solidarity and community. Where’s your thinking now around these topics?
Somehow, amongst all the horrid and disgusting things currently happening across the globe, I feel more optimistic than ever. That’s not to say that I wake up everyday with a smile on my face—I never have (lol). But I think people are beginning to have some class consciousness, which is exciting to see. Which leads back to nomadism: designers, recognize why you’re drawn to bubbles like New York City or London or wherever. It’s not for the design practices—NYC might be the most conservative place for design considering it’s ruled by dozens, upon dozens of agencies. What attracts you to these metropolitan places are the people you pass by every day. It’s the oddities and the vernacular of everything we do—the disparate people/things/ideas constantly passing each other in an ever-changing side-by-side comparison—that makes us say, “I love this city.” Each of us are a different loose thread in these metropolitan entanglements, and picking up one thread toward the center of this entangled knot will have you coming out the other side enlightened in so many various ways. And it’s the things we are ashamed of—things that are nerdy, gross, queer, loud, quiet, whatever—that bring us together when shared within that knot. Crafting elements (both visual and methodological) from these things into our work—personal projects and commercial work—is what I’m trying to get at with the injection of community- and solidarity-driven principles. Recognize the people and artifacts around you, and the feelings instilled within you from that recognition. Recognize and accept that informality (again, in a visual and methodological sense) is allowed in the creation of a better world. But most importantly, recognize that these loose thread entanglements aren’t exclusive to just metropolitans or “blue states”—they’re everywhere, and you shouldn’t be against shared interests that dangle elsewhere.
Last question: What have you been reading/watching/listening to lately?
Various Warhammer 40,000 YouTube channels; the Trasher Magazine YouTube channel; “Dungeon Rap” from DJ Bishop and the label Natural Sciences; these three songs by Boris on repeat; all the interior design that the Y2K Aesthetic Institute posts; the critical theory (through the lens of video games) publication Bullet Points; and the occasional rom-com.
🏆 Two former StS guests, Alissa Walker and Johanna Drucker, were awarded the Steven Heller Prize for Design Criticism by AIGA. (Though I do work for AIGA, I had no involvement with this prize! It’s two great choices though!)
🖇 [Curbed ran a series of stories on the future of the office: here’s Justin Davidson on how the office made New York and Alexandra Lange on the sounds of offices.
🏢 For The Guardian, Oliver Wainwright wrote an obituary for architect Helmut Jahn, who died this month at 81 and a smart essay on why cities are built for six feet tall men.
🏫 Here’s some news I didn’t see coming: RISD President Rosanne Somerson is retiring.
🎪 Speaking of the biennale, Edwin Heathcote talked to Hashim Sarkis, curator of the exhibition, about what it’s like to finally stage this, over a year after it was postponed for coronavirus. (More with Hashim below!)
🛑 Eye on Design published an excerpt from Ellen Lupton’s new book, Extra Bold. (Disclaimer: I commissioned this excerpt!)
Victor Papanek’s Design for The Real World, published in 1971, is a classic example of design criticism and was central to kickstarting the movement we now think of ‘social design’. It’s taught in design schools all over the world, on countless designer bookshelves, and reprinted seemingly every few years. I can’t remember where I first came across it — it’s one of those texts that just feels like its always been there.
Alison J. Clarke, a design historian and the director of the Victor Papanek Foundation in Vienna, has written an incredible new book on Papanek, his book, and the design world he helped create. Designer for the Real World is far from a hagiography or unblinkingly glowing book about Papanek, however. His is a story I was unable to put down: consistently exaggerating his connection to famous designers (Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright), puffing up his resume and, at times, outright lying on it. Papanek was a young man so eager to make a name for himself that we went to great lengths — and moved across fields, philosophies, and ideas — to do that.
Clarke treats this as sort of an intellectual biography — connecting Papanek’s work to those of others at the same time while also putting his own thinking into a larger context. In a section immediately interesting to me (and likely StS listeners), she traces his move from designer to critic and the evolution of his writing practice. Especially exciting in this moment for me personally, was rediscovering that he had spent time at North Carolina State University (my new job!) as a chair of their industrial design department.
If you are interested in social design, design history, and the intersections of design, writing, and criticism, Alison Clarke’s new book is a must read. It’s easily one of the best designer biographies I’ve read in a while.
☀️ Speaking of Columbia, Amale Andraos is stepping down as Dean of Columbia University GSAPP. (She’s staying on at Columbia as special advisor to the president on climate initiatives.)
👎 IDEO, in what is honestly not that surprising, is not a good place to work for people of color. This essay is damning.
For the summer months, we’ll be dropping to an every-other-week schedule, which means we have two new episodes coming in June:
Episode 190: Michael Kimmelman | June 9
Michael Kimmelman is one of those guests I’ve been trying to get on the show basically since it started. As architecture critic for the New York Times, Kimmelman holds a rare and coveted spot in architecture and design discourse and has continually been a smart writer on how the built world influences our daily lives. But his appointment was originally controversial — he was previously the paper’s art critic and foreign correspondent and the comments raged about how it proved The New York Times no longer cared about architecture. We talk about that and how he’s proven himself since and expanded what gets called architecture criticism in the paper of record.
Episode 191: Glenn Adamson | June 23
Glenn Adamson is a scholar I’ve always had a bit of trouble placing. His writing, curating, and thinking spans design history, contemporary art, and craft and I was always curious how those three areas of study fit together. He has a new book out called Craft: An American History that explores both the history of craft in this country but also how craft influenced the history of the United States. In this wide-ranging conversation, we talk about craft in opposition to design, how craft can help us think about questions around progress, capitalism, and industry, and his short stint as director of the Museum of Art and Design in New York.
After reading Alison Clark’s Papanek biography, I’ve been spending a lot of time with his diagrams — this one is reminisent of the Eames’ famous diagram of design. (Also, Papanek’s handwriting was 👌)