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For 20 of 21 days in June it rained on an island off the coast
of Maine. Those days coincided with my vacation on that island—with
a 4-year-old. On day one, we stared out the window. On day two, we
played Twister, Go Fish and Hide and Seek. Repeatedly. On day
three, the endless storm fried the router and we lost internet
access. A new router would arrive “quickly,” which in Maine means
one week; so, we painted the bathroom. On day four, we bought
waders and went outside, determined to “vacation.” On day five, we
all moaned in unison, “why? Why? WHY??” And on day six,
anger turned to acceptance, and I settled down in the dreary light
and began reading from the stack of books that had been designated
for the beach. And things got better.
Cover of the book Design Your Life, by Ellen and Julia
I'd chosen several design books featuring short essays (which
remain central to contemporary design writing, with pithy and
insightful missives seemingly outnumbering lengthy commentaries and
analyses). Up first, Ellen and Julia Lupton's Design
Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things
Griffin), a compendium of quick ruminations that ponder the
design of the objects around us by two key figures—Ellen Lupton is
the curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National
Design Museum and director of the graphic design MFA program at
Maryland Institute College of Art; while Julia Lupton teaches
English at the University of California, Irvine, and directs the
university's humanities core course.
The book includes many surprising pleasures: I didn't know who
was responsible for 20th-century curtain design, and was pleased to
read, albeit briefly, of Lilly Reich's role in crafting luminous
room dividers in the 1920s. A survey of toasters includes a
question that has irked me for years: “Why is it so hard to make
toast?” Ellen Lupton ultimately relinquished a sleek Rowenta TL90
because it couldn't meet the toasting needs of a family of four,
and while she doesn't answer her own query, just posing the
question, with its hint of incredulity, offers a pleasant sense of
connection and validation. If Ellen Lupton hasn't figured out toast
yet, how can I expect to have resolved this vexing
Sample spreads from Design Your Life, by Ellen and Julia
Design Your Lifeemerged from a blog that the
authors launched in 2005. Perhaps as a result, the voice of the
book is cheerfully quirky, opinionated, personal and light. What's
great about the voice, though, points to the book's only weakness:
the presumption that readers will share in its particular outlook
in terms of class or economic status.
That said, however, the authors insist from the start that
design is a form of critical thinking. “It is a way of looking at
the world and wondering why things work, and why they don't,” they
write in the book's opening. They add a few pages later, “Design is
thinking, materialized in objects and environments,
inscribed in patterns of use, and addressed by analysis and
planning.” The ensuing essays, then, similarly embody a process of
thinking and attentiveness to the ways in which design becomes an
often invisible infrastructure.
Cover of There's Nothing Funny About Design, by David
David Barringer is also interested in design understood as a
pervasive presence in his book There's
Nothing Funny About Design (Princeton
Architectural Press), which collects a series of short, offbeat
essays marked by a distinctly personal voice. Barringer's book,
with four increasingly unusual sections, is decidedly more
eccentric than Design Your Life, with commentary on
everything from designer snakes and the names of drugs to
passionate assessments of other designers, including Kenya Hara and
Barringer, who is a stay-at-home-dad, graphic designer and
freelance writer, among other things, unites vivid metaphors and
exhaustive research, as well as a good dose of humor, to impart
unusual facts. In “Here Comes the Rooster,” for example, readers
learn that cocks do not, in fact, have penises, and they swallow
stones to help digest their meals. They have also served dozens of
needs for dozens of cultures for hundreds of years. And they're
frequently deployed by graphic designers. “If you consider
incorporating a rooster into a design,” warns Barringer (in all
caps!), “you might want to dig into the facts, history and legends
of the rooster.” Well, there's no need to look further than this
essay. More than gleaning factual histories, however, readers learn
from Barringer a particular stance, one that acknowledges the flux
of cultural context, and that design invariably entails the often
neglected or acknowledged practice of ideological and cultural
Frisbee, grabbing an icon and flipping it back, with a good twist.
Barringer's real achievement, then, is laying bare some of the
rules of this game in essays that never, ever use words like
Barringer devotes Part I to these often-quirky essays and
articles, while Part II offers a wry self-help guide, namely the
Live Well Now! Brainbook, designed to enhance “identity
science,” which Barringer notes is at once “grammatically awkward
but scary effective.” The spoof includes charts, graphics and a
self-acceptance certificate, as well as a section on design of the
self, all of it pointing to Barringer's rich imagination. The third
section is yet another spoof, sort of, in this case rekindling the
form of the rulebooks from the past, including Ben Franklin's
Poor Richard's Almanac; the guide ostensibly directs young
designers through sections on temperament, penmanship,
collaboration, clients and so on, but again achieves something else
indirectly, in this case performing a curious form of commentary
Two spreads from Mike Mills: Graphics Films.
Cover of Mike Mills: Graphics Films.
My third treat was Mike
Mills: Graphics Films (Damiani), edited
by Aaron Rose. Given its weight and size, the book should
not have been carted across the country in a suitcase, but
it was, and I was delighted to have it. The handsome tome surveys
Mills' work over the last 15 years, with short comments by Mills
throughout regarding various projects and how they came about. Like
many designer overviews, this is a picture book, not a critical
biography, and readers glean a sense of history, cultural context,
personality and trends by absorbing the images, which are arranged
more thematically than chronologically. Two essays at the end of
the book by Stéphanie Moisdon highlight Mills' role within a group
of like-minded artists and designers who share a historical moment
and a disregard for the boundary between art and commerce. Mills is
often considered within this loose category, but what actually
emerges by the end of the book is an ethereal portrait of the
designer with a sense of the increasing delicacy of his interests
as he grows ever more aware of the power of simple gestures,
repetition and eclectic juxtaposition.
And the sun? It arrived on the penultimate day of the vacation,
and I hear it's still sunny off the coast of Maine right now….
What makes a graphic designer successful? Lupton gives currency to design’s social impact as the true measure, not just the icing on the cake.
What do you do when graphic design gets too graphic? Barringer covers his kids' eyes and riffs on the perils of picking out movies at Blockbuster.
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, graphic design, packaging
What connects the work of two seemingly incongruous designers, a generation apart? Willis visits the REDCAT gallery to explore the continuum.
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, exhibition design, graphic design
What happens after school? A lot of work and little sleep, say designers and authors Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert.
Section: Inspiration -
interview, Voice, professional development, advice, students
Why did the editor/art director of the most innovative magazine of the past decade pull the plug? Heller turns the pages of Nest to find the answer.
Section: Inspiration -
Design feedback shouldn't be a painful process. In fact, if it's a painful process, I'd say someone's not doing it right. The most successful projects are usually ones with a collaborative workflow between a well-balanced team of designers, developers, project management, and of course — clients! It's essential to have a healthy feedback process, in which the client knows exactly what feedback is most helpful for the next round of revisions, and the designers and developers know how to translate and solve those problems.
I know, I know, both web teams and people who have hired web teams are out there groaning right now (we get it, and this isn't a soapbox). Everyone has had their fair share of difficult projects and poor communication, but it doesn't have to be that way. In efforts to improve the feedback process for web clients and design teams alike, I'm writing this two-part article about How to Give Good Web Design Feedback, and Turning Client Feedback Into Your Best Work.
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