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Call for Applicants: Walker Art Center Mildred Friedman Design Fellowship 2014–2015

Above: 75 years of design at the Walker Art Center APPLICATION DEADLINE: May 14, 2014 The Walker is pleased to announce that its 2014–15 Mildred Friedman Design Fellowship is now open for application. Since 1980, the Walker’s Design department has maintained a graphic design fellowship program that provides recent graduates the opportunity to work in a professional […]

Above: 75 years of design at the Walker Art Center

APPLICATION DEADLINE: May 14, 2014

The Walker is pleased to announce that its 2014–15 Mildred Friedman Design Fellowship is now open for application.

Since 1980, the Walker’s Design department has maintained a graphic design fellowship program that provides recent graduates the opportunity to work in a professional design studio environment. Selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants, fellows come from graphic design programs throughout the United States and abroad representing a diverse range of design programs, such as Art Center College of Design, California Institute of the Arts, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Eastern Michigan University, Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, NC State University, Rhode Island School of Design, Royal College of Art, Werkplaats Typografie, and Yale University, among many others.

Ideal candidates will be firmly grounded in visual design principles and the print design process with some experience in interaction design. In addition to print-based projects such as exhibition identities, wayfinding, and collateral materials, this year’s fellow will also work on select online publishing initiatives. The fellow will join an accomplished team of professionals known for creating industry-leading work. Immersed in the Design, Editorial, and New Media departments, fellows gain a deeper understanding of design, work on projects with rich, interesting content, and are expected to produce work to the highest standards of design excellence. See here and the above video for examples of the studio’s design output. The fellows will also be key contributors to the Design department’s blog, The Gradient—so an interest in the discourse of graphic design and contemporary culture is highly desirable. Fellows are salaried, full-time employees and are involved in all aspects of the design process, including client meetings and presentations through production and development. DURATION OF FELLOWSHIP: August 1, 2014 – July 31, 2015

How to apply
For consideration, submit the following materials by PDF attachments only: a letter of interest, a resume, names and contact information of 3 references, and a PDF portfolio containing 8–10 examples of graphic design work (no larger than 19 MB, otherwise your file will be rejected). Email application packets to design.fellowship@walkerart.org. No phone calls please.

For more information, visit our fellowship page.  Also check out the Walker’s job listing.

We look forward to meeting you!

 

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Listen: Muriel Cooper on “Art and Technology in the Information Age” (1987)

A designer and educator, Muriel Cooper (1925–1994) is best known for the modernist sensibility she brought to designs for MIT Press’ publications and, later, for her pioneering work at MIT’s Visible Language Workshop, where she expanded thinking on design and typography in the digital realm. The subject of the exhibition Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper […]

A designer and educator, Muriel Cooper (1925–1994) is best known for the modernist sensibility she brought to designs for MIT Press’ publications and, later, for her pioneering work at MIT’s Visible Language Workshop, where she expanded thinking on design and typography in the digital realm. The subject of the exhibition Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT, on view now at Columbia University, Cooper visited Minneapolis in 1987 to speak on “Art and Technology in the Information Age” during the Walker’s Insights Design Lecture Series. Click on the image below to listen to this previously unpublished audio, just digitized by the Walker Archives:

 

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For more, read Dante Carlos’ interview with Messages and Means co-curators David Reinfurt and Robert Wiesenberger.

Muriel Cooper: Turning Time into Space

We hope to make the tools and to use them. “She often wandered around barefoot… and climbed up on tables when she was excited about a project… Muriel was clearly in her element, making trouble,” recounted MIT Press editors Larry Cohen and Roger Conover. Muriel Cooper, who was best known for articulating the graphic language […]

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We hope to make the tools and to use them.

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“She often wandered around barefoot… and climbed up on tables when she was excited about a project… Muriel was clearly in her element, making trouble,” recounted MIT Press editors Larry Cohen and Roger Conover. Muriel Cooper, who was best known for articulating the graphic language of MIT for more than 40 years, also challenged the limitations of contemporary communication. As a troublemaker, she conceptually (and literally) transformed conventional principles of design into new strategies for visualizing information. And her enthusiasm for shaking things up was matched by her eagerness for working with emerging technologies, a precursor to our increasingly seamless relationship with information and tech. All while barefoot.

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Installation view of Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT; Photo: James Ewing Photography

Captured through memories, ephemera, video clips, publications, and other works, Cooper is the focus of the exhibition Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT, currently on view at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia in New York City. I recently had a chance to catch up with co-curators David Reinfurt and Robert Wiesenberger to talk about this project.

Hello David and Rob. Can you tell us a little about yourselves?

Robert Wiesenberger: Hi Dante. I’m a PhD candidate in art history at Columbia. Officially, I study 20th-century architecture, though I also tend to focus a lot on design, variously defined. This fall I began teaching a seminar on graphic design history in the MFA program at the Yale School of Art.

David Reinfurt: I am a graphic designer in a fairly expanded sense. I am often working on projects which aren’t strictly graphic design, or not in the way it is conventionally understood, and these can be set in art contexts as often as not. Much of my work is together with Stuart Bailey under the name Dexter Sinister. I also work with Stuart and Angie Keefer on The Serving Library, an online and printed publishing project. I also teach at Princeton University and this feeds my practice. Finally, I also do projects on my own or with other people, such as this one with Rob.

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Muriel Cooper in conversation with unidentified males at MIT, 1970s

Who was Muriel Cooper?

RW: Muriel Cooper (1925–1994) was a graphic designer who spent the bulk of her career working at MIT. In the mid-50s, she started as a designer in the Office of Publications. By the mid-60s she was the first Design Director at the MIT Press, where she rationalized their production system and designed classic books like The Bauhaus (1969) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), along with about 500 others. In the mid-70s she founded the Visible Language Workshop in MIT’s Department of Architecture, where she taught experimental printing and hands-on production. And by the mid-80s, she was a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, designing early computer interfaces.

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Muriel Cooper, Poster to promote The Bauhaus, 1969

Why were you interested in collaborating on an exhibition about her work?

DR: I first bumped into Muriel’s work shortly after she delivered a talk at the fifth TED Conference in Monterey, California in 1994. She presented radical new work in computer interface design, showing a constellation of three-dimensional typographic interfaces developed with her students and colleagues at the Visible Language Workshop in the MIT Media Lab. I had just started a job in the brand-new area of “interaction design” at IDEO in San Francisco, working for a former student of Muriel’s. At this point, her work was everywhere — the cover of ID Magazine for example. And it was the model for what we were trying to do there. She passed away unexpectedly soon after the TED talk and I had often been surprised (dismayed) that the provocations she offered were not taken up more fully in the following years.

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Muriel Cooper with David Small, Suguru Ishizaki and Lisa Strauseld, still from Information Landscapes, 1994

RW: My first exposure to Muriel was on my bookshelf, looking at her designs for classics of art and architectural history in the ’60s and ’70s, and her seven-bar colophon that still appears on the spine of every MIT Press Book. The story only got better when I learned about her work with interfaces.

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Could you walk us through the exhibition? What can we expect to see?

RW: This show brings together Muriel’s photos, sketches, prints, mechanicals, books, and videos. In many ways, preparing it was a media archaeology of the very recent past: We salvaged some incredible materials, from a variety of sources, and in an amazing range of formats (slides, digital and audio cassettes, laser discs, etc.).

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“Graphics and New Technology.” Slide talk by Muriel Cooper at MIT’s Visible Language Workshop, 1981. Download this podcast via iTunes or iTunes for iPhone/iPad, or view in the iTunes store.

The GSAPP exhibitions team did a smart job creating a custom steel structure that suspends three long walls in the gallery, two of them angled. The works are sandwiched between sheets of clear plexi, and appear to float. We tried to mix media, as Muriel would, and treat all media in the same way. We also wanted to mix visual and verbal material, reveal process and show some of Cooper’s teaching materials. Work by students and colleagues runs through the show — traditional notions of authorship weren’t terribly important, and it was an extremely collaborative environment. In many cases, Muriel is the author of the process or system, or created the environment in which it was produced, whether or not she designed the graphic you’re looking at.

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Muriel Cooper, Sketch for the MIT Press colophon, 1963–1964

RW: The three panels broadly — over-simplistically — reflect the three overlapping phases of her career: As a designer (for the Office of Publications and MIT Press), as a teacher (for the Visible Language Workshop), and as a researcher. The chronology is loose, but generally follows these three successive phases. Still, we don’t want to suggest a lockstep teleology toward new media, that all Muriel’s work culminated in the digital. We think her concerns with production and rapid feedback were quite consistent throughout, that the tools (many of which she made or modified) finally caught up with her.

DR: Central to our approach is Muriel’s idea of responsive graphic systems and design processes that embed an explicit feedback loop. Describing Messages and Means, the course she taught at MIT and which gives our exhibition its name, she said:

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Messages and Means was design and communication for print that integrated the reproduction tools as part of the thinking process and reduced the gap between process and product.”

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Muriel Cooper and Ron MacNeil, Messages and Means course poster, designed and printed at the Visible Language Workshop, MIT, c. 1974

RW: We included a handful of Muriel’s key books on art, design, and architecture in the show. She also produced beautiful books on chemistry and geophysics, but she was really involved with the debates on architecture, design, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and so on; this environment at MIT and in Cambridge more broadly, full of Bauhäusler and remarkable researchers, both shaped her, and was shaped by her. These few, full books in the show (we show many other book covers) form a kind of spine for an intellectual history that runs through it. They’re overdetermined, in terms of both form and content.

Muriel Cooper for Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

Muriel Cooper for Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

For example, Nicholas Negroponte’s The Architecture Machine (1970) is interesting both as a design object and as an insight into the AI (artificial intelligence systems) being developed at MIT at the time — for him about architecture, for her about graphic design. Muriel worked with Negroponte and his Architecture Machine Group, which evolved into the MIT Media Lab, where Cooper taught. The idea with these books is that, given the premium on “visual communication,” you really can pick them up in the gallery and get a good sense of what they’re about. 

What was the exhibition process like?

DR: We spent a ton of time in archives, making some kind of order, and trying to understand various artefacts — what were they, who made them, how were they intended? Talking to Muriel’s many, still-active colleagues and students was crucial to figuring out what was what. The selection process was frankly quite tricky: Selecting a small group of outstanding objects was difficult as her interests remained consistent, but neither the media nor the situations stayed still. So it was challenging to pick what to show. Plus it was the first time a show like this has been organized since Muriel died in ’94. (Though there was a small exhibition convened in that year, at MIT, by Cooper’s friend, Tom Wong, who also consolidated her papers at MassArt.)

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Muriel Cooper and MIT Press Design Department for Donis A. Dondis, A Primer of Visual Literacy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1973).

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Muriel Cooper, mechanical artwork for the MIT Press colophon, 1963–4

What was the MIT’s relationship to design at the time she began working there?

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Gyorgy Kepes

RW: MIT was doing serviceable design work when Muriel began there. Gyorgy Kepes, a former colleague of Moholy-Nagy’s, and since 1947 a teacher at MIT, thought MIT’s design presence could be much stronger and suggested that they hire a dedicated designer for their Office of Publications. Both there and at the MIT Press Muriel created systems to standardize formats and production and give a consistent look to publications. And her earliest work at MIT — which we debated whether or not to include — is in fact quite “pretty” in a mid-century way that Paul Rand would be proud of (and indeed was proud of; Cooper met Rand during a brief stint at ad agencies in New York, and he later recommended her to work for the MIT Press). It’s not really representative of her later work, which is rougher, and more about process and dynamism, but does suggest her formation, and a point of departure.

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It is not hard to imagine Moholy using a computer.

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Muriel Cooper, self-portrait with Polaroid SX-70, video imaged and printed at the Visible Language Workshop, MIT, c. 1982

Cooper claims that the Office of Publications — renamed “Design Services” under her tenure — was the first dedicated design program at an American university. We couldn’t confirm that, but it certainly was one of the first. Likewise, no academic publisher had the kind of dedicated design department that she established at the MIT Press, and nobody else’s typography was as modern. Clearly Cambridge was an exciting place for design. When Cooper started at MIT, Gyorgy Kepes was teaching there, and Walter Gropius was the head of the Harvard GSD.

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… make more intelligible the highly complex language of science… and articulate in symbolic, graphic form the order and beauty inherent in the scientist’s abstract vision.

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Letter from Muriel Cooper to Jeffery Cruikshank on the Visible Language Workshop letterhead. Excerpt from the exhibition booklet, with extended captions keyed by panel number. Download the PDF here.

Were there other designers at the time who were exploring themes Cooper was also interested in?

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Jaqueline Casey

RW: Definitely. Muriel hired her college classmate Jacqueline Casey to work at Design Services. She would soon head the office until her retirement in 1989. Casey, Ralph Coburn and Dietmar Winkler were the core of that office, and they also had guest designers, one of whom, from Basel, pretty much got them on their Helvetica kick.

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They recall that people like Gerstner and Müller-Brockmann also came through the office. So Muriel imbibed a lot of this “International Style” typography from her colleagues, and no doubt from what she was reading. It’s not something she, or anyone else at the time, would’ve gotten from an American design program. It’s a visual language she used, but also reworked significantly.

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Experiment and play as a part of professional discipline is difficult at best. This is not only true of an offset press but of all activities where machines are between the concept and the product.

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Design Quarterly 142, Walker Art Center Archives

Design Quarterly 142, Walker Art Center Archives

What do you think was her interest in transitioning between spaces, from print to digital, or from flat to dimensional?

DR: Muriel was frustrated with the limitations of the printed page, and always interested in quicker feedback, non-linear experiences and the layering of information. She used an offset printing press, as she said, as “an interactive medium.” So when she first encountered computers, it was clear that these would present even greater possibilities.

RW: Integrating word and image on screen (“Typographics”), in a way that filtered and communicated information based on the reader/user’s interest, was her goal. The computer screen offered more depth, and information environments — real or simulated — offered more possibilities for orientation within this space. It was crucial to her that information be usable. She saw the designer’s job as creating dynamic environments through which information would stream, rather than designing unique and static objects.

Do you think she was aware of how deep our contemporary relationship would be with technology and interfaces?

RW: Muriel seems to have always had the newest gizmo, whether it was a special digital watch or the highest-resolution computer displays available outside NASA —  and whether or not she always knew exactly how to use them (she was a bit of a klutz). It also seems that she predicted so much of our connection to interfaces and the need for them to be intuitive and anticipatory. Yet even she may have been surprised at the extent of it. And very likely frustrated. Not so much at their usability — so many products are pretty and intuitive — but at their inflexibility, their resistance to being hacked, or to using them to make new things. I think she would also be deeply troubled by their intrusiveness, and current questions of privacy and mass surveillance. As she noted in an essay for the Walker’s Design Quarterly in 1989 (one of the few that she would publish), artificial intelligence in computers presents important ethical questions for the designer of these systems. Coupled with her awareness of the corporate and defense sponsorship model for the MIT Media Lab, which was indispensable for her research, the question of the ends to which her research might be put was not far from her mind. In addition to being a technologist, she was, I think, always also a humanist.

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Some people believe that the computer will eventually think for itself. If so, it is crucial that designers and others with humane intentions involved in the way it develops.

Does the exhibition addresses any contemporary issues in design around communication and information?

DR: We don’t make the connections explicit, but we think they’re absolutely present at every turn. Muriel’s words, in some of the documents we show, are incredibly prophetic, and her process is no less relevant today than it was then.

As curators of the exhibition, has this project influenced your own thoughts about your relationship with design?

DR: We had an idea that this exhibition would document her work, her persistent concerns, and her generous spirit while also serving as a charge or challenge to those thinking about these things today to pick up these ideas and develop them.

RW: There’s so much work to do in studying and presenting graphic design to a broader public. We hope this show generates  interest in Cooper, and in the field — but as the kind of inter- or anti-disciplinary one she envisioned. At one point, in our earlier descriptions, we called the exhibition both an archival project and a manifesto for future production.

Messages-and-Means

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This stands as a sketch for the future. Best wishes, Muriel

Messages and Means: Muriel Cooper at MIT runs from February 25 to April 17, with galleries open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 12 to 6 pm at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery in Columbia University. Afterwards, the exhibition tours to the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And as a bonus, here is Muriel presenting an Insights lecture at the Walker in 1987, pulled from our archives and unpublished until now.

Martine Syms: “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition”

This year, we asked Martine Syms to annotate her Insights lecture after she spoke, and she obliged us with a wealth of contextual information. Below is Martine’s lecture, entitled “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” which uses Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album as a framework to discuss her practice in the context of the […]

This year, we asked Martine Syms to annotate her Insights lecture after she spoke, and she obliged us with a wealth of contextual information. Below is Martine’s lecture, entitled “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” which uses Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album as a framework to discuss her practice in the context of the black radical tradition. Martine provides tons of links and commentary for her lecture, which will lead to hours of surfing if you so choose (note: the Youtube annotations only work on flash-enabled devices, from what I can tell). The other 2014 Insights lectures are also available for viewing on the Walker Channel and they’re great so when you’re done with Martine’s talk, check out Lance Wyman, Sara De Bondt, and Henrik Nygren.

YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT FONT THE WESTBORO BAPTISTS USE

It’s Boulder. And Boulder is just some free ripoff of Kabel Black. But whatever. Weird things happen late at night, when we are sleep deprived and surfing the web. Sometimes I end up buying stuff on eBay, and sometimes I end up interviewing the Westboro Baptists. About three years ago, I was preparing a lecture […]

WBCsignsIt’s Boulder.

And Boulder is just some free ripoff of Kabel Black. But whatever. Weird things happen late at night, when we are sleep deprived and surfing the web. Sometimes I end up buying stuff on eBay, and sometimes I end up interviewing the Westboro Baptists. About three years ago, I was preparing a lecture on unexpected forms of self-publishing and stumbled upon an article about how the Westboro Baptist Church has its own graphic design/media/sign production studio embedded within its walls (Sister Corita Kent now appears before me as the spiritual antithesis of this operation). I contacted Steve Drain, the church’s media director, through the comment box of the group’s Sign Movies website. Now, with the news that Westboro founder Fred Phelps has died, I dug it out of my junk-ridden Yahoo inbox and re-read the exchange. I confess a perverse curiosity about the subject, not to mention the irony of a homo talking to a bigot about the medium and not the message. Is there anything to be learned about design from someone whose values are so radically different than my own? “Sometimes sparking a dialogue can be a good thing,” Drain says, “as long as the end of it is obedience to God. :)”

 

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Emmet Byrne: When you were designing your signs, how did you choose the typeface, and was the graphic style (color, layout) referencing past historical models, such as old political campaign signs? Or did they just develop as you went along? How did you decide what typeface the word of God should be rendered in?

Steve Drain: We use Boulder (ttf). It’s what our pastor just settled on years ago — and since it is very readable, yet not commonly used, I always thought it gave us a distinctive look. Every once in a while, if it is topically warranted, we vary from Boulder, but not often.

EB: How do you understand the relationship between a church and its communication stream? Is your print shop, and by extension your sign campaign, a more fragmented/media-savvy alternative to an “evangelist”? Would you consider your sign campaign to represent a manifesto of sorts?

SD: Wow. That’s a long and convoluted questions [sic]. Here’s what I think you’re looking for: Our job is to preach this word to every creature. So we hold brightly colored signs at events that lots of people go to. And sometimes these signs end up in photos on TV, in newspapers, and online. Our signs have timely, topical Bible sentiments on them. Our “manifesto” is the Bible — the word of God.

EB: You write/design your signs to be concise so that they transmit easily through various media streams, but many of them are also slightly cryptic. For example, “Pray For More Dead Soldiers” probably confuses many people the first time they read it. It requires a level of decryption, almost like a puzzle, to understand the logic (of course, once you understand the message, the sign reveals itself to actually be incredibly straightforward). How did you come to this strategy of provoking people with outrageous but perplexing statements and forcing them to make an effort to understand you?

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Steve Drain. Photo: Ashi Fachler, Flickr

SD: Our signs have short, pithy messages on them for two main reasons: 1.) so we can make the words big so that you can see them from far away, and 2.) because we live in the “sound bite” generation, so you have to get after it quickly. We aren’t about being “cryptic.” We are about being plain and clear (the pastors of this world are the ones who confuse). Every once in a while a sign needs a bit of “fleshing out,” and if someone is interested in asking us the sign’s meaning or our motive for holding it, we are always good to answer. Sometimes sparking a dialogue can be a good thing, as long as the end of it is obedience to God. :)

EB: How do you come up with the messages for your signs? Is one person responsible for the messages, or do they get generated in a more organic way among the church? Is creating the signs a bonding/conversational moment for members of the church?

SD: All members have ideas for signs. Some of our people design the signs, others assemble them, still others manage them, and all of us hold them.

EB: Of course, the signs would not be as effective if you weren’t using them at controversial places such as funerals. Was there a moment when you had the revelation that protesting funerals would amplify your message? Are the signs really only byproducts of your protest strategy?

SD: The Holy Spirit of God shows us where to go. Our pastor, who has been led by God all of his days, came to realize that these soldier funerals were more patriotic pep rallies than they were serious, mournful exercises in humbling oneself to God — celebrating a nation that is awash in sin at every level — so we started going, telling those present (among other things) that their sons’ and daughters’ deaths are not blessings from God, but curses — and that they died ignoble deaths fighting for a nation awash in sin.

EB: This is kind of a random question, but as people who believe in spreading truth to the masses, do you approve of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks operation? The Westboro Baptists and Wikileaks have both challenged our understandings of what “free speech” entails. Having now won your case in the Supreme Court, do you empathize with the predicament that Wikileaks is in?

SD: God put the First Amendment into play so that we could preach on this day. God caused the Supreme Court decision. We don’t really care much about Wikileaks’ woes. Much of the rest of the world would jail us just for stepping foot on their nation’s soil — because of what we believe and because of our open testimony against this world. It is an evil world. If they don’t like what you say or how you say it, they will try to shut you down. But there is no shutting down God. No man can stay His hand or say “what doest thou?.”

Radiant Discord: Lance Wyman on the ’68 Olympic Design and the Tlatelolco Massacre

It’s fascinating the way a piece of design can accrete meaning over time, as new contexts are revealed, personal stories come to light, and history slowly reifies our perceptions of an era. There are designs that, for one reason or another, transition from being simply of their time to defining their time. Lance Wyman’s identity […]

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It’s fascinating the way a piece of design can accrete meaning over time, as new contexts are revealed, personal stories come to light, and history slowly reifies our perceptions of an era. There are designs that, for one reason or another, transition from being simply of their time to defining their time. Lance Wyman’s identity for the 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics has been hailed as a pinnacle of branding and wayfinding, creating an unparalleled sense of space in lieu of the extravagant architecture typical of the Olympics. But it is the context it was created in and its significance as a cultural artifact that makes it a perfect case study in the accretion of meaning—and warrants a deeper analysis.

Olympic design can be complex to decode, acting as both a globalizing spectacle of peace and the epitome of nationalist propaganda. The Mexico City Olympics identity exemplifies this duality, bridging the conflicting ideologies of a nation at war with its own modernity, and for a time, its own people. 1968 was a notoriously turbulent year around the world, and Mexico was experiencing deep social unrest as students flooded the streets in protest, demanding a more transparent dialogue with the government, freedom for political prisoners, an end to corruption, and an accountability for the government’s widespread and violent repression. The thrust of this movement culminated 10 days before the opening of the Olympic Games, when 10,000 people descended upon the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco neighborhood for a peaceful rally. In an attempt to quell the protests, the Mexican police and soldiers surrounded the plaza, and in response to a bogus provocation organized by the government’s own Olympic Brigade, opened fire on the crowds, killing anywhere from dozens to hundreds of people, according to differing estimates. Incredibly, the Mexican government successfully concealed the magnitude of the massacre from the international community and proceeded to hold their “Games of Peace.” Even today, the Tlatelolco massacre is little known outside of Mexico.

 

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Protestors at Tlatelolco

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The Olympic peace dove symbol adorning banners around Mexico City

Into this somewhat intimidating context walked a 29-year-old designer with a one-way ticket to Mexico City (literally), unknowingly stepping into the center of a revolution. As the lead graphic designer for the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, Wyman would work with an international team of designers to create the event—signage expert Peter Murdoch, architect Eduardo Terrazas, publication designer Beatrice Trueblood, sculptor Mathias Goeritz, and president of the organizing committee Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, just to name a few. To supplement his talk for this year’s Insights Design Lecture Series (which you can now watch—it’s fantastic), Wyman agreed to discuss the Olympics identity: how it came to be, the cultural signifiers it contains, the ways political events surrounding the Games impacted its reading, and his feelings about the identity system nearly five decades later.

 

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Lance Wyman, his wife Neila, and Peter Murdoch (1966)

Emmet Byrne: I’d love to hear a little bit of the backstory. What exactly did the Olympic Committee task you with?

Lance Wyman: The International Olympic Committee presented us with a simple brief: create an identity that incorporated the five-ring Olympic logo and used the host country language, Spanish, as well as French and English for all publications and signs. The brief from the Mexican Olympic Committee was equally simple, coming directly from Chairman Pedro Ramírez Vázquez: “Create an image showing that the games are in Mexico that isn’t an image of a Mexican wearing a sombrero sleeping under a cactus.”

It was a daunting challenge, and in some sense, a very open-ended assignment. I traveled to Mexico with Peter Murdoch and my wife of two months, Neila, to participate in a competitive arrangement—we had two weeks to come up with something, and if we didn’t, we would go home. It didn’t help, in terms of stress, that all we could afford were one-way tickets to get down there. Peter and I worked 12 or more hours every day and stayed up all night discussing the possibilities at the Hotel Montejo in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa. Every night poor Neila had to listen to our panic as time started to run out and we hadn’t hit on anything. This was in November 1966, less than two years prior to the Games.

 

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Original compass sketch

It was a great relief to finally come up with the beginning of the solution—maybe two days before the deadline—which really was based on simple geometry. The logotype happened in a very logical and intuitive way. It started when I realized the single lineal geometry of the five-ring Olympic logo could be central to constructing the number 68, the year of the event. The resulting three-line structure of the 68 numbers became the typography for the word “Mexico,” and the logo was born. It was a logo that identified the event, the place, and the year, and it probably broke every corporate rule of what not to do to the original logo (Olympic), but it actually made the five rings central and genesis to everything that followed. I don’t know what came first, recognizing the logical relationships in the geometry or intuitively following my nose and exploring the obvious and just letting it happen.

Wyman_Olympic_typeface Terrazas,PRV,GoerizMurdoch,Wyman'66Eduardo Terrazas, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Mathias Goeritz, Peter Murdoch, and Lance Wyman (1967)

Working directly for Ramírez Vázquez, the organizing committee chair, was ideal because I could go directly to him with an idea. He was an architect and sensitive to making design decisions and a brilliant organizer. When our work began in earnest, we were able to make decisions very quickly, and everything was built to spec. I liked to consider him a “good dictator.” If it wasn’t for him, we couldn’t have achieved what we did in the short time of less than two years. I remember Otl Aicher, the designer of the 1972 Munich Games, visiting our studio and saying they were further ahead in Munich than we were. We had 18 months to go at that point, while Aicher had 18 months plus four years to go. That was frightening to hear, to say the least.

 

Wyman_Mexico_68_Olympics_radiating   Wyman_Mex'68-CulturalProgramCover   Wyman_Cultural-Program-Catalog
Olympic publications (click to enlarge)

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Hand painted wall mural (in progress)

StadiumPlaza(2) StadiumPlaza(1)
Olympic stadium design

I worked on the Olympic program from November 1966 to October 1968. It was hard work with many late nights. I remember one of the Olympic Committee executives saying that our partners at home had become Olympic widows and widowers. The work was challenging and always exciting. As time went on Neila and I made friends and explored Mexico and it was a very rich life experience. As the Olympics drew near there were Embassy parties and all kinds of social happenings, and we met people we would probably never have had a chance to meet. We completely fell in love with Mexico, and came away with some great stories.

Wyman_1968OlympicIssue(A)Wyman_Balloons

EB: When I encountered your identity in college, my first read was purely formal, based on an understanding of 1960s Op art, Bridget Riley, etc.—basically I read it as a stylistic gesture that was being actively explored at the time. The visual vibration spoke of movement, communications, ideas, with Mexico at the center and everything radiating from there. The aspirations of universal legibility in the wayfinding, symbols, and signage pointed back to the precedent of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the modernist agenda. It was only later that I realized that there were explicitly Mexican motifs being exploited at the same time…

 

Wyman_Screened-on-WoodWyman_HuicholSnakes&682Wyman_HuicholblueBirds&68
Left: plywood template; right: two nierika-style yarn paintings by Huichol artists (click to enlarge)

LW: That makes sense, since the genesis of the radiating lines was the geometry first. But as soon as the similarity with Huichol yarn painting became apparent, it made us realize that we really wanted to pursue graphic imagery that resonated as Mexican. We did very little research prior to going to Mexico, so the first week was spent in the Museum of Anthropology researching indigenous folk art and ancient imagery, in Mexican markets understanding their local design, and in the street taking photos of the work of local sign painters. As we proceeded, we had the opportunity to work with Huichol artists, brought in from the state of Jalisco, and learn from their unique sense of color. In one case, we made plywood square tablets (emulating traditional nierika), silkscreened the ’68 logo on them, and then gave them to the Huichol artists (see above). The artists covered these templates with wax, into which they pushed strands of colored wool, creating beautiful color illustrations of birds and other traditional imagery. We used these tablets as an aid in developing our color programing. We also referenced ancient Aztec carvings, which have a really beautiful graphic quality. I was amazed by the visual power, wit, and humor in the design I found in early Mexican cultures. It influenced my Olympic work, my Mexico City Metro work, and most of everything I’ve done since. Their examples of vibrating color, the prevalent Op art of that period, and the bold expressive geometry found in many of the early Mexican cultures all contributed to the look of the overall design program.

 

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Wyman_SumbolAztecSundialWyman_GoldCoin'68
From top to bottom: Aztec carving, Aztec sundial created from Olympic symbols, Olympic coin (click to enlarge)

 

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Exhibition stand towers, inspired by Toltec warrior statues (above)

EB: I find it fascinating the way three different ideologies seem to be colliding in this one system, some of which is intentional on your part and some of which is only revealed in hindsight, through the accretion of meaning; and the way that form, in this case the abstract form of the radiating lines, can accommodate all this. On one hand you have the modernist, international style, the quest for universal legibility and the base geometry that embraces mechanized production. In this context, the radiating lines speak to mass communication in the industrialized age, the idea of Mexico transmitting itself to the world. From here, you upend that universality with culturally specific signifiers, utilizing traditional Mexican motifs, ancient and spiritual ideas—simulating a coherent sense of national pride, even as it reflects the mashup of cultures that is modern Mexico—the indigenous, the colonial, and the modern mestizo independent state—the three groups celebrated by the fateful Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Incorporating local vernacular into design work can often feel like an exercise in perpetuating clichés, but the radiating lines resist that again through abstraction, refusing to be hackneyed stereotypes. And when we explore the origins of the particular motifs—the Huichol nierika, for example—the spiritual context almost seems subversive. Within these prayer mandalas, which are seen as portals to the spiritual world, the radiating lines are said to represent a living thing’s communication with the deities, panpsychic emanations from a shaman’s peyote-induced visions.

LW: (Laughs) Well, I’ve often been accused of being on peyote, but it was something I never did.

 

STAMP_mexicoSTAMP_flameSTAMP_buildingSTAMP_olympicsSTAMP_peaceSTAMP_stadiumSTAMP_discus

EB: Yes, I can’t imagine the IOC responding well to a peyote-inspired identity, but honestly the druggy reference doesn’t feel incongruous to me. It feeds into my next read of your identity—the meaning that has accreted through time—which is how your identity serves as a visualization of the pure agitation of 1968. It’s simply hard to untangle your identity from the background of that year. The psychedelic op-art embodies that frenetic time, bringing to mind the exploration of perception through art and chemistry, the counterculture, and for me (as someone who didn’t live through the period and can only comprehend it as history), the politics: the global disruption of the student movements in France, the US, Poland, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Germany, and of course, Mexico. But that’s me, looking back and projecting on to your work. What was it like for you, being in Mexico City during the protests and the massacre of 1968? How did you feel about working for the Mexican government at that time?

LW: It was very tense. I wasn’t much older than the students at that time, and I related to them deeply. The Tlatelolco Massacre was a tragedy, and I remember very well that week before the games began. I felt torn between wanting the Games to not be cancelled by the violence and wanting to support the students. I was working for the Olympic Committee, which mostly downplayed the significance of the violence. And even though it felt like the massacre was being swept under the rug internationally, it was impossible to avoid in Mexico City, with stories coming in from friends and, of course, from my wife Neila, who saw tanks in the streets. One prevailing feeling I remember was the horror that students were being killed but we didn’t have a sense of what the scale of the uprising was at that time. It was a scary day-to-day experience. We didn’t know if the Games would be stopped, there were grenadaros in the streets, and I was concerned for my wife’s safety. I remember the celebration at the Olympic Committee when we realized that the Games would proceed, and a deep sadness for the students.

I would have to say that I felt dirty.

Mex68-Window

EB: The student protests and the government’s disproportionate response provides another read of your identity, based on an understanding of the Olympics as an unstoppable behemoth of peace that descends upon a nation every two years and demands perfection. In her essay “Unstable Ground: The 1968 Mexico City Student Protests,” Mary Shi writes, “When the International Olympic Committee granted the Mexican delegation the Olympic bid in 1963, it was not simply granting Mexico the honor of hosting an international sporting event; it was also affirming Mexico’s place on the international stage as a ‘modern country.’ Granting Mexico its bid for the 1968 Olympics was a performative act on a grand scale.” Your graphic identity can be understood as an extension of this performance, blanketing the city with a bold image of a modern Mexico, while many of its citizens fought to dismantle this very image. Shi continues, “The international community had hailed Mexico as the paragon of ‘from revolution to stability.’ … After the developed Euro-American world formally acknowledged Mexico’s progress in affirming its Olympic bid, the Mexican elite would spare no expense to confirm their nation’s modernity. As the Olympic organizers self-consciously acknowledged in one of their many mottos, they were ‘before the eyes of the world.’”

Where Japan had succeeded four years earlier in projecting an image of a nation shedding its imperial past for a modern future, Mexico was performing an equally aspirational exercise of reinvention but in a much more hybrid way. Mexico’s performance was envisioned as less a clean break with the past, and more the harmonious culmination of the modern mestizaje identity. Within this self-fulfilling prophecy, your Olympic identity is firmly aligned with the dominant voice of the Mexican government (which Shi also points out in turn was trying to live up to an equally dominating international system). It’s no surprise then, that one of the protest strategies the students used was the appropriation of your identity, acts of graphic detournement that sought to expose the hypocrisy of the Olympic slogan, “Everything is possible with peace.” What was your response to seeing your identity used for this purpose?

student_stab student_dove_stabbed student_police student_police_professor
Student protest graphics

LW: It was intense to witness. The students subverted our identity in such powerful ways. They used the ’68 logo freely and attached it to revolutionary images, such as an image of a policeman as a gorilla. They riffed off of our silhouette system, specifically my postage-stamp designs, switching images of athletes for images of protestors being beaten by the police. And they even replaced our sporting event symbols with images of grenades, gas masks, bayonets, boots, and bombs. But the most powerful subversion I saw was a response to the dove symbol that we created to represent the World Peace cultural program. Shop owners throughout the city were given decals of the dove symbol (Wyman_Mexico_Olympics_Peace-Symbol) to put on their storefront windows. The students would walk by and spray a red spot on the white dove and let the red paint drip down the decal. It was an effective image of the violence of the uprising.

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Left: Original Lance Wyman designed stamps; right: student protest response

 

Wyman_Mexico_Olympics_Peace-Symbol     Wyman_SprayedDove
Left: original Olympic peace logo; right: student protest response

I was lucky enough to have a bit of closure to the whole experience, when years later in 1986 I was invited back to give a design lecture at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. After my talk, the rector of the design school formally presented me with a book called La Grafica Del ’68, featuring the anti-government graphics designed by the students for the uprising. He publicly thanked me for creating a graphic language for the Olympics that they transformed into protest posters and other public images. He himself was one of the student protestors in ’68. Even now when I remember this moment I feel flooded with emotion—it was a surprisingly strong reaction. It felt like a cleansing when he gave me that book. Again, “dirty” was a real feeling—and it felt lifted.

 

student_helmet_batMexico_Olympics_Student_Protest_posterstudent_tank
Student protest graphics

EB: That’s a really beautiful moment, and it seems to revolve around a revealing contradiction. As a former student protestor, why was the rector thanking you for creating the same identity that he worked so hard to subvert decades ago?

LW: That’s a good question, and I don’t have a simple answer. At the Olympic Committee we were all working very hard to make the Olympics successful, which felt very important for the future of Mexico, regardless of politics. I believe in the Olympics, and I think the purpose of the ancient games was to come together in peace, to put down arms and have a friendly sports competition. Whether that was ever really accomplished I don’t know, but I still like the thought. As the stories of students being killed became a horrible reality, working for the Olympic Committee became a very bittersweet experience. I could have walked away from the program when we started to realize the reality of the violence. It was a complicated place to be caught between. When the rector presented me with the book, I realized that I was incredibly proud of my work for the Olympic Committee, and also proud that the graphics were seen as giving the students a visual vocabulary to speak through, or speak against.

EB: In a speech to students a year after the massacre, Javier Barros Sierra, the dean of UNAM, would proclaim  “Long live discrepancy!”—calling for a renewal of what he saw as an autonomous university’s purpose: to foster disagreement within culture and society. He called for students and artists to embrace the conversations that seemed irreconcilable, to demand democratic protest, and to act as a foil to the government’s suppression of resistance. In their exhibition, The Age of Discrepancies, curators Olivier Debroise and Cuauhtémoc Medina would frame the trajectory of Mexican art of the late 20th century in the context of Sierra’s proclamation, articulating an age defined by deliberate creative dissent in the wake of 1968. Their idea might serve as my final interpretation of your identity as well: discrepancy. Or, searching for peace while embracing the vibration of discord.

 

Lance&OlympicWall1967     MISC.97

This could be a conversation debating the idea of a designer’s complicity, but that suggests a passive relationship between the designer and the forces that shape our surroundings—a simplistic choice between the binary of engaging or not engaging. The idea of discrepancy seems more desirable, and would designate the designer as the interpreter of meaning, existing between conflicting ideologies, tasked with understanding and arranging these ideas into dialogue, and even dismantling them, if necessary. The Olympics are a salient example of something nations, as imagined communities, are constantly doing: reinventing themselves through both aspirational invention and duplicitous fabrication. You were working in a moment that was defined by discrepancies, between contradictory ideas that refused to resolve themselves neatly, and I think you found an honest way to celebrate just that very thought.

 

'68Triennale_Interior(b&w)      '68Triennale_Model(b&w)
Immersive room installation designed by Lance Wyman and Eduardo Terrazas for the 1968 Milan Triennial

LW: As designers we are often asked to shape our surroundings. Looking back on my Olympic experience, I was tasked with visually presenting Mexico and the Games in an appropriate and positive way. The student uprising was unexpected and grave. Even now, an accurate history is still being sorted out. And I still have my strong feelings. After the Olympics I went on to design many visual systems, quite a few of which were in Mexico. At the moment, I’m very excited to say that we are preparing material for a retrospective exhibition of my work at MUAC, the museum of contemporary art at UNAM in Mexico City. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to return to Mexico to show the work and tell my stories. Wyman_Mexico_Olympics_Peace-Symbol

 

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Above and below: some unauthorized uses of the 1968 Olympic identity around Mexico City, collected by Lance Wyman

Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_7Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_1Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_2Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_4Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_5Mexico_Olympics_interpretations_6

Further reading:
• A behind-the-scenes article on the massive publication program of the 1968 Olympics
• A paper dissecting the Mexico City student protests
• A large collection of 1968 Olympics identity imagery
• A group interview with Alfonso Soto Sorio, Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, Eduardo Terrazas about the identity and the Huichol influence (extract)
• Contested Games: Mexico City’s Olympic Design Revolution, an exhibition exploring the 1968 Olympics identity and student protest imagery
• A text supporting Contested Games that includes a a detailed description of the student protest graphics (requires free login)
• The declassified NSA papers on the massacre
• A collaboration between the Museum Tamayo and the New Museum exploring issues surrounding Tlatelolco as a cultural site
• A paper exploring the architecture and design of the Olympics, and their relationship with the massacre (requires free login)
• An article explaining the framework of The Age of Discrepancies, an exhibition about Mexican contemporary art between 1968 and 1997
• The blog post “Fragmented”: Mexico ’68 Designer Lance Wyman on Sochi and Olympic Branding Today

Martine Syms and Kevin Young: A Few Questions About the Grey Album

In preparation for her Insights design lecture on Tuesday, March 18, Martine Syms sent poet Kevin Young five questions, one for each lesson in his book, The Grey Album, published by Greywolf Press. From the description of his book: “… [The Grey Album] combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American […]

sureshot

In preparation for her Insights design lecture on Tuesday, March 18, Martine Syms sent poet Kevin Young five questions, one for each lesson in his book, The Grey Album, published by Greywolf Press. From the description of his book: “… [The Grey Album] combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American tradition of lying-storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, ‘jazzing.’” In her new talk “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” Syms will describe her connection with the black radical tradition, using Young’s influential ideas as a framework to understand her own design practice and strategies of code-switching. Please enjoy.

 

(Lesson 1)
What we claim, we are.

Martine Syms: Super curator Hans Ulrich Obrist always asks “what are your unrealized projects?” I prefer your formulation because it acknowledges the presence of absence. Tell me about your shadow books—the unwritten, the removed, and the lost.

Kevin Young: Regarding my unwritten books: given the seventeen books I’ve published, including the edited ones, there aren’t so many. Whenever I do do a selected poems, there will be some outtakes, but there’s more like unfinished projects or sequences (smaller than a book), willfully abandoned or adapted. There are always poems I pull from a book, and these may or may not live again one day–but to make the cutting easier, you tell yourself you could always resuurect them if you wanted.

That said, most of the actual unfinished projects are prose. These I still have hopes of picking up and finishing when time permits, so I don’t think of them as shadow books yet!

(Lesson 2)
Accepting even the stranded, strange, and seemingly illegitimate is the black elder’s aim.

Martine Syms: In The Grey Album you write, “Elsewhere is central to the African American tradition.” However, from Ralph Ellison’s 1948 essay Harlem is Nowhere to the “nowhere shit” of the Black Arts Movement to Afrofuturism’s dislocations, Nowhere also haunts the black imagination. What is the relationship between Elsewhere and Nowhere?

Kevin Young: Great question; I once had an idea of Nowhere in The Grey Album, based on Langston Hughes, but it fell out. It should probably stay out, for now.

(Lesson 3)
Struggle.

Martine Syms: June Jordan says that “Language is the naming of experience and, thereby, the possession of experience.” I’m interested in the way that the black vernacular creates ambiguity. Throwing your own question back at you, does the dialectic between dialect and standard language ever resolve itself?

Kevin Young: I hope it’s clear (especially from the Dunbar chapter) that in the end I don’t believe there’s an actual dialectic between the vernacular and the standard–just as I don’t believe that there’s such thing as a “standard language.” Besides, if they were to box, the vernacular would win.

(Lesson 4)
Not only does the tradition ennoble those who come after, but by following in it, one honors those who went before.

Martine Syms: The loop is a fundamental idea in modern thought. As my friend Andy Pressman once wrote, “See: cinema, Varese’s siren, okay and then jump ahead to animated gifs.” If the mash-up is the defining innovation of our generation, how does memory affect time?

Kevin Young: (See illustration at top of the post.)

(Lesson 5)
Tradition is what we take, but also what we make of it.

Martine Syms: Mass media allows for narratives—and subsequently, ideologies—to be industrialized. Postmodernity enables an incredible circulation of images and narratives about the past. Can you talk about where this intersects with blackness and “how each makes the other possible?”

Kevin Young: I understand the conception of “mass media,” but am far more interested in popular culture, that thing made by both individual and collective producers with an audience (as in jazz). I think it clear from the book that I think bebop, for instance, a fruitful postmodernity, which quotes and reconstitutes, but on its own terms (indeed, on terms meant to be exactly counter to the industrialization you mention). Whether it achieves that counternarrative or not remains to be seen, but I don’t think is settled.

To put it another way, whose postmodernity do you mean? In Charlie Parker’s, or Adrian Piper’s, or Public Enemy’s, I think there’s a self-consciousness that can be strange (and for some strained) but also quite freeing. I love such a pomo’s noise, and its aspiration toward what I call in the book, yearning. This, blackness makes possible. Though there is of course a way in which blackness for certain postmodernists becomes merely a symbol of such yearning (rather than black music being a vehicle to express it). John Berryman, whom I admire (and who’s from Minnesota), comes to mind in this way, but that’s another story–one which I tell in some of in my past work on him, but that I expect to return to soon.

All Possible Futures: Experimental Jetset on Speculative Graphic Design

This interview is fresh from my new book All Possible Futures, published by Bedford Press. The book accompanies the exhibition of the same name, which was on view at SOMArts Cultural Center from January 14 through Feb 13, 2014, and features texts by Rachel Berger, Max Bruinsma, Emmet Byrne and Metahaven, Catherine de Smet, and Emily […]

allpossiblefuturescover_5aWhiteBGThis interview is fresh from my new book All Possible Futures, published by Bedford Press. The book accompanies the exhibition of the same name, which was on view at SOMArts Cultural Center from January 14 through Feb 13, 2014, and features texts by Rachel Berger, Max Bruinsma, Emmet Byrne and Metahaven, Catherine de Smet, and Emily McVarish. In addition to these texts, I conducted interviews with a variety of practicing designers in an attempt to get a deeper understanding of “speculative” graphic design practices and the various positions and orientations designers are taking today. Below is my interview with Experimental Jetset.

 

Experimental Jetset   The Society of the Speculative   2014   button   Commissioned as part of All Possible Futures

Experimental Jetset, The Society of the Speculative button, 2014. Commissioned as part of All Possible Futures

Jon Sueda: What does the term “speculative” mean to you and your practice?

Experimental Jetset: We realize that some designers and artists are doing really interesting (and brilliant) stuff under the umbrella of “speculative design” (Metahaven comes to mind, obviously), and we do confess we always feel a slight tingle of excitement when concepts such as “design fiction” and “speculative realism” are brought up. But, other than that, we have to admit we’ve always very much disliked that word, “speculative.” It just has too many negative connotations to us: spec work, financial speculation, et cetera.

Politically, we have always been highly influenced by the Amsterdam squat scene of the 1970s and 1980s—and, within that particular idiom, the figure of the spekulant (in English, the “speculator” was the absolute devil. It represent­ed the real estate broker, the person who somehow made a profit from the vacancy of houses. Within the narrative of the squat scene, there was a strong dichotomy between the symbolic, speculative value of the building (as channeled by the real estate broker), and the actual, material use of the building (as practiced by the squatters). And although we have never been squatters ourselves, that scene certainly has been an inspiration to us, and we still strongly sympathize with it. So it’s no wonder that we feel a certain suspicion when we are confronted with the word “speculation.” To us, it represents something we have always opposed.

You could also argue that it is exactly the practice of speculation that got us all into the current economic crisis. “Wild West capitalism,” financial gambling, stock brokerages, banking for profit, and so on. To us, the notion of speculation is intrinsically linked to the whole concept of neoliberalism.

We realize that your use of the term is completely differ­ent. But, still, we might just be a bit too materialist (in the Marxist sense of the word) to get excited about it. We like our environment to be clearly grounded in some sort of material base, and the moment things start to “float” is the moment we get suspicious. Our whole practice is based on this idea of going against the illusory power of the image by revealing the material proportions of the object. So it is only logical that this notion of the “speculative,” as something that only exists as an illusion, doesn’t fit well with our way of working and thinking.

Maybe we simply don’t believe in the speculative, in gen­eral. In our view, something is either real or it isn’t. A sketch, a proposal, a plan, a scale model—we see these things as real, not speculative at all. Between the sketch and the fin­ished drawing, we see no gradients of realness. A sketch is a real sketch in the same way that a finished drawing is a real finished drawing.

Which reminds us of proposition 5.61 of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Logic pervades the world: The limits of the world are also its limits. So, we cannot say, in logic, ‘The world has this in it, and this, but not that.’ For that would appear to presuppose that we were excluding certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way could it view those limits from the other side as well. We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say, either. 1

In other words, for Wittgenstein, something either exists in the world or it doesn’t exist at all, and in the latter case we can’t even speak about it. Or, at least, that’s how we interpret his quote: as an argument against the speculative. “We cannot think what we cannot think”—so there’s no such thing as “pure” speculation. Speculation will always result in something real: a real thought, a real sketch, a real model. It will always stay within the borders of reality, of language, of the world.

But, apart from these more philosophical considerations, when it comes down to it, we simply don’t believe that this notion of the speculative automatically has some sort of sub­versive or redeeming dimension. True, in some circles, “the speculative” is used almost synonymously with “the critical’ (which happens to be another word we’re quite wary of). But, in our view, the speculative exists on the same level as the spectacular: this whole floating sphere of illusions, false im­ages, inflated signs, projections. Which is exactly the sphere we’ve tried to oppose all throughout our practice.

Guy Debord’s critique of the spectacular was famously titled The Society of the Spectacle. Come to think of it, we now find ourselves in something very similar: the society of the speculative. Having said that, we know we shouldn’t be too judgmental about this whole notion of the speculative. Nowadays, it might indeed be speculative projects that can give designers some sort of breathing space in an economic and political environment that is becoming increasingly tight and hostile.

Issues of PHK (selection) / series of fanzines produced between 1994 and 1996. Designed by Experimental Jetset and Cindy Hoetmer.

Selected issues of PHK, a fanzine produced between 1994 and 1996 by Experimental Jetset and Cindy Hoetmer

Jon Sueda: One could say that the work in this exhibition represents a parallel universe, designers who practice on the margins of the profession, making work which might only exist because they were proactive about initiating it. Does this parallel universe exist?

Experimental Jetset: It’s interesting. Reading your question, we suddenly remembered our own situation after graduation. We actually come from a zine background. When we were studying at the Rietveld Academy, we were publishing our own fanzines, posters, T-shirts, et cetera. And even before we went to art school, we were involved in creating mini-comics, mix tapes, and mail art. So you could say that we are products of exactly the sort of parallel universe you talk about.

Right after graduation, something happened that changed our way of thinking about this whole notion of the parallel universe. We came across an interview in Emigre in which a graphic design group said something to the extent of, “It’s great that we produce our own little zines, so that we don’t have to bother our ‘real’ clients with our creativity.” (Now, we are paraphrasing this from memory, so we might have completely misquoted it. But, as we remember, this was more or less the way it was said.)

This sentence was quite an eye-opener. A shock. We sud­denly realized the danger of a certain kind of self-publishing—the kind that functions as some sort of external outlet for creativity, as a way to redirect creativity to where it can do the least “harm,” so to speak. And from the moment we came across that quote, we abruptly ceased our practice as self-publishers and decided to fully focus on assignments.

In other words, we tried to stay away from the model of the “schizophrenic” designer, the designer carrying two port­folios: a portfolio with “free” projects (“for fun”), and a portfolio with “corporate” projects (“for money”). To us, this model was, and still is, an absolute nightmare. We want to drive our crea­tivity exactly to the place where it can do the most harm, so to speak. In all our projects, we absolutely “bother our clients with our creativity,” as often and as relentlessly as possible.

During those years after graduation, we were often think­ing about a sort of Hitchcockian model. Hitchcock didn’t distinguish between films “for fun” and “for money.” Rather, he managed to inject his subversive creativity directly into the heart of the Hollywood movie industry, and exercise his au­thorship right there. This model has always been an example to us, especially at the beginning of our practice.

Sixteen years down the line, we have softened up a bit, and think about it in a less dogmatic way. We now realize that every designer has to find their own way to organize their practice, even if that means artificially compartmentalizing one’s practice into “self-initiated” and “client-driven” work. The current situation (economically, politically, et cetera) is so bad, we totally understand that some designers feel the need to create some sort of parallel universe, just to stay sane.

As for our own way to stay sane, we would describe our current position as follows:

It may sound absurd, but we really regard all our projects as self-initiated, whether they involve clients or not. The way we see it, the moment we consciously make a choice to involve ourselves in a project (for example, by saying yes to an assignment), we are, in fact, initiating it. That makes everything that we do self-initiated (or maybe “self-inflicted” is a better word).

We see none of our work as “free,” in the sense that we really don’t believe that there is such a thing as a project that’s completely free of restrictions, free of limitations, free of specifications. After all, there is always a given context to respond to, a series of parameters to work within, a set of circumstances to react to. This set of circumstances might include a client or not, but in the bigger picture, that’s not even important, in the sense that it doesn’t make the project less or more “free.”

So, while we see none of our projects as “free,” we do see our own role within these assignments as “free” in the sense that, even within the most limited circumstances, we always have a certain freedom of choice. We always have the free­dom to quit an assignment (which is one of the most reas­suring securities that one has as a designer). Sure, quitting an assignment automatically means a loss of income. But, ultimately, we do have that choice, however hard it might be.

In short: the assignment is never free, the designer is always free. (We know, it’s an almost existential position, to be condemned to freedom and all that jazz.)

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Jon Sueda: Design can be a way to solve a problem, to visualize complex information. A critical tool to provoke debate, and promote aesthetic and social values. These responsibili­ties seem to be ever expanding. In your opinion, what should the primary role of a designer be today? And in the future?

Experimental Jetset: We find it hard to define what the role of the designer should be. We have always disliked this tradition of designers dictating to other designers how to work and how to think. In all our interviews, we have always tried to emphasize that our views are strictly personal. We never want to force our beliefs onto other designers. So we only can talk about what we see as our own role, today as well as in the future.

The role we try to fulfill—or, better said, the obligation we feel—is to design in such a way that the reader (or viewer, or spectator) is constantly aware of the fact that he or she is looking at something human-made: an object that is made by humans, and thus can also be changed by humans. We want to contribute to the constructed, material environment around us, but not without also creating some sort of awareness that this environment is just that: material and constructed.

At a very concrete level, in our day-to-day practice (if there is such a thing), this basically means that we want to break the spell of the image and continuously reveal the fact that a printed object is “just” ink on paper—nothing more, but certainly nothing less. The graphic identity we recently designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art is a good example of that. It basically consists of a zigzag line occupying the available space within any given format. The zigzag is effectively emphasizing the material proportions of the designed object. The zigzag breaks the spell of the im­age, emphasizing the thing-ness of the design. Or, at least, that was our intention.

In our view, this role, this obligation, will become more and more relevant in the coming years. As we enter a future that seems more and more detached from the notion of a mate­rial base (a good example of this detachment would be the phenomenon of the Cloud), we think it’s good that at least a couple of people will try to keep things grounded. Just a hand­ful of village idiots (we are talking about ourselves here) who, instead of pointing to the sky, are pointing at the ground.

Jon Sueda: In many cases, speculative projects are self-initiated efforts (sometimes with little visibility), proposals within academic contexts, provocations, or sometimes unrealized enquiries. How do you define the “realization” of a design idea or concept?

Experimental Jetset: As we already argued in our answer to your first ques­tion: theoretically speaking, ideas, and concepts are already real, in and of themselves. A sketch is a real sketch, in the same way that a finished drawing is a real drawing. In theory, they both possess the same degree of realness.

On a more practical level, however, and in our day-to-day practice (whatever that may be), we would say that some­thing is realized the moment it is multiplied—when it is printed, or published online, or made public in some way. In a short text we recently wrote (“Socialism as a Graphic Language,” which appeared in volume 1 of EP, published last year by Sternberg Press), we described the act of multiplica­tion as “the movement from one to many, from solitude to multitude, and from the individual to the collective.” So, that sounds pretty real to us. Or, at least, real enough.

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C K Ogden (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1922).

About the author:
Originally from Hawaii, Jon Sueda has practiced design everywhere from Honolulu to Holland. After earning his MFA in Graphic Design from CalArts in 2002, he was invited to North Carolina State University to serve as a designer in residence, followed by an internship in the Netherlands with Studio Dumbar. In 2004, Sueda co-founded the design studio Stripe, which specializes in printed material for art and culture. He is also the co-editor of Task Newsletter, and the co-organizer of AtRandom events. Sueda has lectured, taught workshops and has been visiting critic many universities. In 2007, Sueda relocated to the San Francisco area, where he is an Assistant Professor in the Graphic Design Program at California College of the Arts (CCA).

“Fragmented”: Mexico ’68 Designer Lance Wyman on Sochi and Olympic Branding Today

“At first I had a hard time identifying what the official logo of Sochi is,” says designer Lance Wyman of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics identity, which consists only of the Olympic rings and the website of the games, sochi.ru. Wyman is well positioned to comment on graphic design around the Sochi Games as well […]

Olympic

“At first I had a hard time identifying what the official logo of Sochi is,” says designer Lance Wyman of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics identity, which consists only of the Olympic rings and the website of the games, sochi.ru. Wyman is well positioned to comment on graphic design around the Sochi Games as well as changes in the field: he’s the creator of one of the most celebrated design systems in history, the identity for the 1968 Mexico Olympics. “It still isn’t clear in my mind, so I guess the branding is going to rely on it along with other images.” In anticipation of his appearance at the 2014 Insights Design Lecture series, Wyman shares his thoughts on Sochi and the challenges that Olympics branding faces today:

At first I had a hard time identifying what the official logo of Sochi is. It still isn’t clear in my mind, so I guess the branding is going to rely on it along with other images. I have been impressed by the use of quilt-like textures made from indigenous Russian patterns that have been applied to uniforms and souvenir objects, though the sports icons, which are heavily stylized, don’t give me a sense of relating to Sochi.

I think the Olympic identities of the last few years express a need for new branding strategies. There are so many interests vying for attention and so much exposure that a more integrated approach is required. The identity of the Olympics themselves has to compete with the commercial exposure needs: the overblown opening and closing ceremonies, security requirements, restrictions to prevent knock-offs, etc. The resulting Olympic branding image is fragmented.

I think it is very difficult to have a strong identity that works for all. The five-ring Olympic logo has been kept intact since the inception of the modern Olympics. That’s been a boon, a consistent branding image that has done its job well. The problem starts with the attempt to identify the host country in a way that is compatible with the rings. The common attitude in corporate branding is to stay away from the basic logo, don’t get too near it with other elements, other colors, etc. There are elaborate corporate manuals spelling out all of these rules. The result in the case of the Olympics is often two logos that vie for attention. Even at its best, this is a difficult strategy when it comes to applying a branding image to the Games. Using a strong style for event symbols that suggests the culture of the host nation has been successfully used as a method of creating a sense of place without interfering or fighting with the image of the five-ring Olympic logo.

I think the purpose of the ancient games was to get together in peace, to put down the arms and have a friendly sports competition. Whether that was ever really accomplished I don’t know, but I still like the thought. As technology enables the Olympics to really become the focus of a global audience maybe that’s a good thought to make real.

Read my conversation with Wyman on the aesthetic and cultural back-story of his designs for the 1968 games.

Insights 2014 Design Lecture Series

  Insights 2014 Tuesdays in March Insights is right around the corner and we have an amazing line up of designers coming to share the thinking, processes, and methods behind their work. We’ve got design legend Lance Wyman (New York), cultural designer Sara De Bondt (London), “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms (Los Angeles), and Sweden’s premier […]

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Insights 2014
Tuesdays in March

Insights is right around the corner and we have an amazing line up of designers coming to share the thinking, processes, and methods behind their work. We’ve got design legend Lance Wyman (New York), cultural designer Sara De Bondt (London), “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms (Los Angeles), and Sweden’s premier graphic designer, Henrik Nygren (Stockholm). After each lecture feel free to stick around and chat with the speaker and fellow designers, have a drink, and browse our new ARTBOOK@Walker design book shop. Insights is a partnership between the Walker Art Center and AIGA Minnesota.

If you can’t make it in person, please tune in to our live webcast on the Walker Channel and participate through Twitter. (#Insights2014)  Here’s a kit for educators, AIGA chapters, and anyone else who might want to throw their own viewing party.

 

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Lance Wyman (NY)
March 4, 7 pm (tickets)

When combined, the art of branding and the science of wayfinding design can profoundly transform a space. Lance Wyman is the humble master of this, designing massive graphic systems for cities, airports, expos, transit systems, zoos, and museums over his more than 40-plus-year career. In the process, Wyman helped to define the field of environmental graphics. His iconic identity for the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics—“’60s op-art kinetic typography,” as Wyman calls it—exists as a pinnacle of environmental and branding design and was credited with reintroducing Mexican visual culture back into the nation’s design vocabulary. Other projects include the identity for the 1970 FIFA World Cup, the Washington DC Metro map, the 1980 Minnesota Zoo identity (which was selected as one of the 10 best designs of the year by Time magazine), and projects for the Library of Congress, Jeddah International Airport, Chrysler World’s Fair, and the Aspen Design Conference. His work has been exhibited in museums around the world and is also in the collection of MoMA (New York). Wyman has taught corporate and wayfinding design at Parsons since 1973. Don’t miss your chance to hear from this legendary designer.

 

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Sara De Bondt (London)
March 11, 7 pm (tickets)

Sara De Bondt is the epitome of a cultural designer, combining a love of contemporary typography with a deep investigation into the history of graphic design. Through her design practice, which consists of client-based work, designing and editing books, and curating conferences, she is consistently contributing to the critical discourse. Her playful aesthetic is idea-based, typographically driven, and always fresh. Her clients include the Nottingham Contemporary and Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art in Brussels as well as projects for the V&A, the Barbican, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Camden Arts Center, and MIT Press. Most recently, she took over the art direction of Tate Etc. magazine. In 2008, De Bondt cofounded Occasional Papers, a nonprofit publishing house investigating the histories of architecture, art, design, film, and literature. In 2009, she curated the conference The Form of the Book, which explored the past, present, and future of book design. She received her MFA from Sint-Lukas, Brussels, and completed postgraduate research at the Jan van Eyck Academie. Prior to opening her own studio in 2004, De Bondt worked for Daniel Eatock’s Foundation 33 in London. She has taught design at the Royal College of Art, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and KASK School of Art.

 

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Martine Syms
March 18, 7 pm (tickets)

LA-based Martine Syms is many things—a graphic designer, a “conceptual entrepreneur,” a net artist—but most importantly, a thinker who examines the assumptions of contemporary America and ways that identity and memory are transformed by the shifting boundaries of business and culture. Her work explores themes as varied as Afrofuturism, queer theory, the power of language, and the spiritual nature of the color purple. The topic of her recent SXSW presentation, “Black Vernacular: Reading New Media Art,” asked the questions: “What does it mean for a black woman to make minimal,  masculine net art? What about this piece is ‘not black’? Can my identity be expressed as an aesthetic quality?” From 2007 to 2011, Syms was codirector of the influential Golden Age project space in Chicago, where she organized dozens of cultural projects and initiated a publishing program of young, emerging artists. She has collaborated with artists Paul Chan and Theaster Gates, and created web design for fashion retailer Nasty Gal, among many other projects. Her work has been exhibited at venues such as the New Museum (New York), MCA Chicago, Capricious Space (Brooklyn), and the Soap Factory (Minneapolis). In her new Insights talk “Black Vernacular: Lessons of the Tradition,” Syms will describe her connection with the black radical tradition, using poet Kevin Young’s ideas as a framework to understand her own design practice and strategies of code-switching.

 

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Henrik Nygren (Stockholm)
March 25, 7 PM (tickets)

There is an effortless simplicity to Henrik Nygren’s work, a Scandinavian modernism that stands in counterpoint to the excess of most visual communication today. His art direction of Stockholm New magazine in the 1990s presaged a global return to restrained typographic palettes and bold photo editorial direction in publications. As Sweden’s premier graphic designer, Nygren has helmed his own studio for more than 20 years, working in the fields of book design, exhibition design, identity and branding, packaging, and communications. His practice caters to cultural organizations such as the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, Moderna Museet Malmö, the Hasselblad Center, and Phaidon books. Among many other awards, he was the recipient of the 2007 Platinum Egg and  Berling Awards, and his work has been exhibited in Tokyo and Sweden. As an educator, he has had a profound impact on the Swedish design scene, teaching at Beckmans College of Design (Stockholm), Berghs School of 
Communication (Stockholm), the Swedish School of Arts, Crafts and Design (Gothenburg) and Forsbergs School of Design (Stockholm) since 1992. An 896-page monograph surveying the past 25 years of his award-winning work will be published in 2014 by Orosdi-Back. This lecture is copresented with the American Swedish Institute.

 

 

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Insights poster design by Dante Carlos

Printing courtesy the Avery Group at Shapco Printing, Minneapolis

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