Five Years and 200 Episodes of Scratching the Surface


Jarrett Fuller


Oct 29, 2021

When I launched Scratching the Surface — in what now feels like a lifetime ago, all the way back in the Fall of 2016 as part of my MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art — all I wanted was to keep it going so I could graduate. Then I graduated and felt like there were more questions and more people to talk to so I wanted to get to fifty episodes. Then I got to fifty and wanted to get to one hundred. After one hundred episodes, I wondered if I’d make it even farther, to 200. It didn’t seem likely. I’ve written and rewritten this post countless times over the last few days, unsure of what I want to say or how I want to commemorate this milestone: Scratching the Surface just turned five years old and I just released its 200th episode.

I’m as shocked as anyone that we got here. If you told me five years ago that a podcast about graphic design criticism would have this kind of longevity, I’d have said “I wish”. But it turns out that these questions I’ve been asking the last few years are questions other people also have; and that each question only brings up even more questions.

The original tagline for the show was “the intersection of criticism and practice” but it quickly expanded beyond that tight focus. The show, at its core, I believe is still very much about design criticism if we accept that criticism means figuring out what we do and why we do it—and then, of course, how we talk about that. Over the years, Scratching the Surface has become a forum for me to ask people much smarter than me about how they think about their work. Every single episode is a conversation with someone who is doing something that I want to be doing but am not sure how.

In that sense, Scratching the Surface is a fundamentally selfish endeavor. If you were to listen back over every episode, listening only to my questions, you’d see the trajectory of my own career, my own interests. You’d see, very clearly I think, the issues animating my work at any given moment: how to write about the craft you practice, how to teach design in the twenty-first century, balancing criticism and practice and scholarship and making, the intersections of creativity and administration, moving from writing to curation. Everything I’ve been interested in, professionally, over the last five years is in this show. I’ve thought of the show as a type of journalism, but maybe it’s actually a type of journaling.

My work has expanded and grown and blossomed in ways over the last five years in ways I’d never imagined. I began the show as a recovering graphic designer in graduate school trying to figure out a new career. Five years in, I’m a tenure-track professor and am lucky to be an editor of a design publication. I’ve gotten to teach in schools I’ve long admired and edited books with designers I looked up. When I think about it, I’ve gotten to do almost everything I’ve wanted and I owe it all to Scratching the Surface; I owe it all to you. Because you listened. You came back week after week, following along on this journey of self discovery, sending me your notes, your ideas, your questions. Scratching the Surface exists because of you and your confidence in me and my work. How did we get to 200 episodes? Because you kept asking for more. And for that, I am forever grateful. Thank you.

To celebrate these anniversaries, I wanted to turn inward, to give back. There’s no guest for our 200th episode. It’s just me. Answering the questions listeners sent in. There are questions about the show — how I make it and how it’s evolved — questions about my work, about what I’ve learned, and, of course, what I’m reading. I hope it’s interesting. You can listen to that here.