“We try to discourage them from cutting out pink hearts—”
“No. No. No. Don’t discourage hearts, encourage them. Valentine’s Day is the celebration of pink and red hearts. Embrace the cliché.
“LET THEM CUT HEARTS.”
Hearts are ancient. Hearts are universal. Folk art hearts, woven hearts, hearts-and-hands — Haitian hearts etched in stone at the African burial ground.
Remember trying to draw a heart when you were little and it came out crooked? Then you learned to fold paper and cut one out — symmetry. Perfection. I loved those cheap die-cut valentines we’d buy when I was little to give to everyone in the class, making mailboxes from stapled construction paper to receive them.
And fancy, lacy Victorian valentines! The Metropolitan Museum collects valentines in their print study room.
Forget those diamonds “as seen on TV,” forced romantic dinners, pretentious champagne, boxes of chocolates with uncertain fillings. Cut out a paper heart, mount it on a doily, make a collage, and mail it to someone you like.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
In our post-industrial world, where “artisanal” refers to cheese and “heirloom” to tomatoes, design refers to the new, the innovative, the global. Even with all the talk of carbon footprints and environmental stewardship, design is too often about the transitive and the temporary.
Before the Industrial Revolution, artisans created heirlooms. Each object was imbued with personality and value; heirlooms were tools intended to last for generations.
Perhaps it’s a bit old-fashioned to stress the importance of the art and craft of design in today's connected world.
Change is the watchword of the day, driving business and politics and society. But, there's a new form of change on the horizon; we’re heading into a constrained environment where the designer's artistry and craft will have to encourage what lasts, what matters, what sustains.
As designers, we have the opportunity to use our art and craft to redefine wealth in the future. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to create a world where each object and experience is filled with value, where living with less but better is both joyful and meaningful.
Fifty years ago, little known designer and activist Gerald Holtom revealed his logo for the newly formed Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. CND never applied for copyright on the symbol, preferring it spread freely so the anti-nuclear message could reach a larger audience. It evolved along the way to take on the wider meaning of peace.
Some might say that by forgoing copyright, the peace symbol surpassed all of its early potential. But if designers want to make the most impact, should they forge on without restrictions or consider designing for free?
Lack of restriction gives designers license to use the symbol to great effect. But all too often, the meaning becomes confused. We see it on products with values far removed from CND’s. Still, the core pacifist meaning is universally understood, and its message has never been more relevant. The nuclear debate still rages, and the Iraq War sparked some of the largest anti-war protests in history with the peace symbol very much in attendance.
The symbol communicates beyond linguistic and cultural divisions, at its best a beautifully simple expression of disgust for weapons of war and a demand for peace.
So forget your preconceptions and admit it: the world still needs peace.
This week, we sprang forward. Whether we were dreaming, daydreaming, or problem-solving when that hour slipped away, we may be feeling a twinge at its disappearance. Although there’s never enough time, designers — being creatively minded — often start projects from scratch. But sometimes the surest way to inspiration is using a model devised by somebody else.
It may feel weird to wander into the realm of the “amateur,” where autodidacts scarf expert tips and techniques. Eric Meyer’s CSS Sculptor, for instance, simplifies tricky web layouts. Skipping the slow part can cause professional anxiety, though: Typographica commenters recently debated whether using Paula Scher's letterhead and business card templates for Adobe will yield unpolished results.
Still, it’s greater access to specialized tools — metal type, Xerox machines, GarageBand — that allows us to learn, improvise, and innovate in the first place. Students, small business owners, and nonprofits unable to hire top-notch designers often lean on available forms to get the job done. But meaning is still born. Perhaps modern creators can give themselves permission to appreciate the time and freedom gained by riffing on others’ experience. What they do with it may save some grief — and buy more joy.
Six(1) words(2) can(3) tell(4) a(5) story(6) (while five is too small). Constraints (write without the letter “e”; use only one-syllable words; make every sentence exactly N words [see Oulipo and Georges Perec]) can force me (and you!) out of windbaggery and make certain things possible. Not long ago, tasked to review 763 songs at a swoop, I cut the review length to six words and suffered not at all.
Now when I face a new writing project, I open a spreadsheet. I want a grid to keep track of sources and dates, or to make certain that the timeline of a story makes sense. The grid imposes brevity. Relationships between sentences are exposed. Editing becomes a more explicit act of sorting, shuffling, balancing paragraphs. In this spirit, I'm rewriting some blog software to read directly from Excel. We'll see how that goes.
Socialist writer and textile artist William Morris said, “You can't have art without resistance in the materials.” Blessed and burdened with the most malleable medium in human history, we are overwhelmed by a surfeit of dross, battered by chatter. There are benefits to gain by adding, in the form of constraints, some resistance to the materials.
We’re six years into the No Child Left Behind education program, which is to say about half of a generation has been taught rote-style in order to pass standardized tests. Children have memorized facts and multiplication tables and the like to the detriment of, well, real learning.
While certainly facts and basic grammar and math are important, so is the ability to put those pieces of information together into something that is more than the sum of its parts, which is exactly what designers do.
We take raw materials and shape them into something new. This is not what American children are learning, and they should be.
Otherwise, we’re going to be left with a generation of people who will be good at being analysts and scientists if they are lucky or low-level service workers if they aren’t.
There won’t be many designers, since the talent we use every day will have been suppressed when they are children. That is, when the ability to nurture and grow those talents is at its peak.
It’s not too late to stop this madness. A more balanced curriculum that returns deductive reasoning and qualitative subjects to American schools can turn this error around.
Let’s start by putting an end to all handjob double entendre (as in the book title Handjob: A Catalog of Type by Michael Perry). But if you must, Wikipedia has a long entry devoted to it.
The hand is back. As if it ever left. Drawing, contrary to certain pundits and some rumors, was never entirely usurped by the mouse, wand, or joy stick, and handcrafted type, typography, and illustration is more vigorous and vibrant today than in the days when it was, in fact, the only option.
But here is the rub.
Handwritten, expressively drawn lettering — particularly the drop-shadowed, quirkily rounded-edged, shakily-lined variety, as opposed to traditional calligraphy — is perilously close to the veritable precipice, and on the proverbial edge of becoming an overused graphic design cliché. While style invariably breeds redundancy, this hand-wrought style is so easily (and pleasurably) used in place of rigidly conventional form, and it is found in so many print and internet venues that it may become an old hand-me-down too soon.
Your most intuitive, meaningful, and devastatingly clever design is worthless — unless it’s shallow enough to appeal in the first five seconds.
Most of the time, that's all you’ll get before they walk, click, or turn away.
Every day, millions go window shopping. Flip through magazines or channels. Walk bookstore aisles, quickly judging each book… by its cover.
Ask us what we’re looking for, however, and most of us won’t know. Though we can’t articulate what we want, it’s clear that we all know it when we see it. Design helps us see it.
With more email, more channels, and more data, we’re left with less time. And more and more, we’re forced to make decisions in a split second, often based on less information than before.
Though we may think of design as a process that runs deep, often it works at very superficial levels.
It’s here that design plays an increasingly important role: communicating a concept, feeling, or attitude in a moment. It condenses the larger body of information that we’re no longer willing (or able) to attend to, and conveys it instantly. It’s what good design has always done, and it’s more important than ever.
Is design as important as dance or television? The New York Times doesn’t seem to think so.
While the aforementioned subjects each have their own section, design—on the rare occasion it is addressed directly—is squashed somewhere between gardening tips and the top seven flocked wallpapers in “Home & Garden.”
More often, the subject of design is approached obliquely: an appraisal of the A380 superjumbo jet in "Business," an evaluation of the new surface navigation system for subway riders in "NY/Region", or a piece on the influence of Herbert Muschamp in the “Obituaries.”
In some ways it’s fitting that criticism of something as ubiquitous as design is embedded throughout the newspaper, rather than confined to a section. The problem with this stealth approach, however, is that in the midst of a business-focused story it’s hard to convey more than a surface impression of design’s significance; the social, environmental, and political implications of the latest Facebook functionality or a new park bench that prevents homeless people from sleeping on it.
In-depth and sustained analysis takes space and time. Let’s dedicate a section—hell, even a page—to explain how and why the designed entities we interact with every day are made, distributed, and disposed of.
On Monday November 19th, Amazon released something called Kindle, the latest “e-book” reading device. I’ve been asked to comment on what effect I think this will have, if any, on book design as we know it. Here goes.
PS: What no one seems to get through their thick skulls, even after untold millions of dollars have been wasted on the concept: PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO READ BOOKS ON A SCREEN. Why is that so hard for someone as obviously smart as Jeff Bezos to accept? The reason the iPod took off is that music was never meant to be a “thing” in the first place. It was born as pure sound, and pure sound is what it has returned to. But books were always physical objects, and the printed book as a piece of technology has yet to be improved upon. And won’t. Certainly not by something that looks like a prop from Charlie’s Angels and has, are you ready, a whopping ONE typeface. For everything! Yay! For further explanation as to why this is doomed, go to Amazon’s own website and read Kindle’s Customer Reviews. Ouch. Caveat emptor!
New Yorkers are used to seeing great art on the subway; too bad the MetroCard is so uninspiring.
The transit card — designed by Siegel+Gale for its 1994 debut and made mandatory by 2003 — has changed color, but not much else. If you've got a pocket full of them — weekly, monthly, pay-as-you-go, Fun Pass, flat broke — it's anyone’s best guess which is which. (Only the Single Ride has its own look.) Plus, unless you're in the station, it's a mystery how much you've got left to spend on public-transit joyrides.
And all that wasted space! A few ideas to replace the current Helvetica from a galaxy far, far away: free-event listings; photos and drawings of famous New Yorkers; history games and challenges; comics, poems, and serial novels by local artists; health tips; contact info for city services.
Since the MTA and Port Authority are engineering a switch to “smart cards,” how about a citywide design competition?
New Yorkers have no shortage of ingenious subway-themed ideas, from Ben Rubin’s proposals for musical card-swipe and train-arrival sounds, to MetroCard sculptures by artists and employee-artists, to clever workplace distractions. Printing a handy map of each borough on each card — collect them all! — would be a perfect start.
It’s a weird time for designers.
At a time when we’re on the cover of Business Week and Jonny Ive is getting knighted by the Queen, we’re simultaneously being told by the people praising us to stop doing one of the things that defines our profession: namely, making stuff.
Our real value, we’re told, is in thinking (as in “design thinking”), and that the dirty work of, you know, making things is a commodity that will be outsourced somewhere offshore — presumably to some 12-year-old in Southeast Asia making a dollar an hour.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate being appreciated for our brains (which is a little like being told you have a great personality). But divorcing “thinking” from “making” reduces design to “concepting.” And while concepting is valuable, concepts are much easier to have than finished products. Almost anyone can have a concept.
It is in the detail work that design really happens — that the clever, delightful moments of a design occur. Those are as important, if not more so, than the concept itself. The details are where we earn our money and our respect, and the details can only be worked out through making stuff.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I moved to New York for Izzy Itzkowitz, who made feather pillows on Ludlow Street. For Ann, the tall waitress in her ’70s, a fixture at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop. And for Horace Weeks, a hat cleaner in the Garment District, an old-world craftsman.
There’s no point in getting sentimental for a waning New York; it’s always been an in-with-the-new kind of town.
Large retailers have indeed supplanted those old businesses, homogenizing the urban experience — but that’s a trend reflected in cities everywhere.
You can’t design a new Izzy Itzkowitz, but you can design public spaces for New York. You can design foot traffic and public spaces; new opportunities for the new Izzys, Anns, and Horaces to congregate.
That’s why I’m interested in campaigns for fewer cars on city streets; the redesign of the TKTS booth in the theater district, with its red amphitheater steps a beacon for gathering; a sloping public green planned for Lincoln Center; and an unusual mezzanine pedestrian boulevard on The High Line. These spaces can each be vital town squares, for meetings, relaxation, or just people-watching some of the most interesting people on earth.
Remember when white was good and pure, while black was bad and dirty? Then black was beautiful, and later, black matte was too cool for words.
Over the past decade, black became the new white.
Black is the dominant pigment and ultimately cliché. And if American Apparel is any measure, all varieties of colored hues have replaced white, which has been deemed “too white bread” (a synonym for boring). Hey, even white space — that simple gift of the Swiss Moderns — is not as valued as it once was (although this website proves there’s a shift).
Frankly, anti-white makes me see red!
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time in a work environment bathed in unadulterated white. And despite the occasional knee-jerk yearning for just a hint of color, I feel liberated not to be oversaturated with color. Contrary to notion that white is default, a no brainer, white is a statement, a nod to tranquility in a frenetic world.
Color has its place, but white makes right — at least in design.
If there were one language shibboleth I could suspend with a wave of my magic wand, it would be the senseless prohibition against creating new words. I’d take the neologizing habit out of the jokey confines of the Washington Post Style Invitational, wrest it away from Stephen Colbert, and put it into wider circulation. “But that’s not a real word!” would nevermore be heard.
Even those who trumpet the virtues of modern architecture and lumpy black avant-garde clothing will criticize any word their grandfathers didn’t know as “ugly” or “appalling,” refusing to recognize that in language as in art, the unappealing is often necessary to generate the appropriate effect.
People who don’t hesitate to create new things in other media — who happily design their own fonts and mix their own colors — shy away from coining new words, with an almost reverent attitude towards the existing language. But words are human, and were made by human creativity.
So don’t dismiss making new words as an a-priori Bad Idea. Give it a shot. Not all your new words will survive, but neither do all your new ideas! If we all try, coining new words could be, for lack of a better word, neologotastic.
According to legend, The Beatles fired Pete Best for his refusal to grow a moptop. Indeed, pictures of the band’s pre-Ringo lineup show the anomalous Best in his clean pompadour, surrounded by John, Paul, and George in shaggy bangs.
Currency worldwide has depicted musicians, scientists, literary characters, and whole habitats of gorgeous animals. Yet the new $5 bill remains stuck in the conservative aesthetics of the ’50s — the 1850s.
At least the bill’s new design breaks away from strict black and green hues. Yes, the front of the bill resembles a weak tie-dye job, but the back starts to hint at real psychedelic possibility. Here a refreshingly goofy purple 5 asserts itself beneath a playful swarm of yellow 05s. (Purple and yellow — where have I seen that combination before?)
As for the portrait itself, Lincoln, emancipated from his oval frame, looks better than ever. But if we’re going to honor gay white men on our money, why not retire the Republican politicians? Let’s put John Waters on the next $5 bill… or the $3.
Recent critiques of Olympic Games imagery have understated the difference between identity and symbol.
A game’s identity embodies a specific place and time, while its symbols are placeless and timeless. London 2012’s jagged neon constitutes those games’ identity, while the International Olympic Committee’s five rings are the institution’s enduring symbol of global unity. The IOC insists on this distinction, laying claim to its symbols explicitly, which triggered the recent rethink of Chicago’s Olympic bid.
Designers wax poetic about identities past like Mexico ’68 and Munich ’72. Their beautiful, Modernist aesthetics notwithstanding, these identities did not become widely beloved by designers or the public until after those games concluded.
Critics, in the excitement of newsmaking, have rushed to judgment. They’re writing history before it’s happened.
They’re forgetting that the games these identities signify haven’t happened yet. How the London 2012 and Chicago 2016 identities interact with their respective events and audiences will ultimately determine whether they are lasting, valuable marks or not.
Ugly or beautiful, these identities will ultimately belong to us. We will wear and trade them. We will merchandise and trash them. We will honor and deride them. They will belong to us the way celebrities do, the way monuments do, the way media spectacles do. Years from now, I suspect different opinions will prevail.
Hobbyist collectors used to be a quiet bunch – hoarding Beanie Babies and Star Wars action figures; meeting at obscure conferences; exchanging trade secrets in online forums. But collectors today are doing more than accumulating stuff – they're finding ways to curate their collections for a global audience.
They're no longer just collectors, they're experience designers.
One of the most common activities people perform online is, you guessed it: the pursuit of hobbies. No surprises there for this collector, as the primary source for my pin-up habit is eBay, the site William Gibson refers to as “some sort of vast unconscious curatorial movement.”
But the web has done more than facilitate unconscious curation. Flickrs and YouTubes, in the hands of a collector-turned-curator, become consciously designed – public exhibitions of treasured collectibles more about experience than collection.
Overcrowded shelves of action figures become a ten-part video tour. A stash of old magazines becomes a wildly popular humor site. One man's personal archive becomes the go-to reference for pin-up collectors around the world.
Sharing a collection has always been a personal joy for hobbyists; today, thoughtful design of that experience can affect entire communities.
Want to understand the state of contemporary sports uniform design? I have one word for you: superheroes.
The signs are everywhere: baseball players wearing reptilian-looking batting helmets and dot-matrix sleeve patterns; football players wearing matching jerseys and pants (instead of the traditional two-tone look) and helmets apparently borrowed from Optimus Prime; basketball players wearing tights. And that's not counting Oregon's football program, which appears to be straight out of DC Comics.
And the superhero trope isn't limited to team sports. When Serena Williams wore one of her outlandish getups in 2004, an AP story said she "looked like a costumed superhero." She later switched to another design and said, "This is my Wonder Woman outfit. I feel real powerful in this suit, like a superhero." And does this new wrestling uniform design remind you of anything?
Unfortunately, it puts sports on an unattainable fantasy plane, which puts a serious dent in the aspirational appeal that's always been one of the sports world's nicest, most romantic elements. As a kid, I thought (however misguidedly) I could grow up to be a ballplayer. But most kids are smart enough to know they’ll never grow up to be Superman.
Conspicuously absent from Sunday’s Emmy Awards were Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake, winners of this year’s award for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. Although the duo was rumored to appear, their song — an R&B; craft project that's now the sixth most-viewed video on YouTube — was ultimately deemed too hot for primetime.
Their Emmy represents more than a new age of obscenity for television awards — it represents an important moment for designers. DIY has officially trumped mass-produced, and nowhere is that more apparent than with the widespread embrace of heartfelt how-to “Dick in a Box.”
The song’s premise isn’t that different from that of ReadyMade or HGTV or what we might see elsewhere online. Last month, Chicago designer George Aye used 3D-modeling software, a laser cutter, and foam core to create an elaborate proposal to his girlfriend, viewed by more than 300,000 people. “Absolutely brilliant, the most amazing and unique way to propose!” exclaimed one of the hundreds of comments on Aye’s blog.
If a song about DIY can win an Emmy, designers should have no trouble winning hearts. Aye even offers some advice: “If your woman starts hinting, get sketching.”