Design, art, and the gradient between, featuring the creative output of our in-house design studio.
The Walker has a history of hiring great illustrators—such as J. Otto and Sara Varon—to create entire worlds for our Education department’s family programs initiatives like Free First Saturdays and Arty Pants. This year we invited British design collective Nous Vous to work with us, and they produced the sprawling scene that you see above. […]
The Walker has a history of hiring great illustrators—such as J. Otto and Sara Varon—to create entire worlds for our Education department’s family programs initiatives like Free First Saturdays and Arty Pants. This year we invited British design collective Nous Vous to work with us, and they produced the sprawling scene that you see above. Nous Vous is Jay Cover, William Edmonds, and Nicolas Burrows. We asked them for six illustrations—one for each issue of our bimonthly magazine for a year—that we could also repurpose for postcards and other marketing materials. They decided to create one massive illustration that breaks down into six sections, which we love. Read about how they made it below:
Can you describe the concept behind the piece? Emmet and Dante at the Walker picked out a few of our existing pieces that they liked, and also threw in a few ideas that they had about possibly creating characters or ‘monsters’ looking at/interacting with things. They also wanted it to be ‘weird and whimsical’ and for it not to appeal to too young an audience. The three of us have not ‘drawn’ on the same page for a long time and recently we have all been having fun drawing guys. It’s pretty fun to smash some people together. The piece was fun to make so hopefully it has a good vibe about it. It’s unlikely we would be able to create something like this individually so this kind of sums up the point of working together, to do something more complex and fun and also we may not have made something like this if the Walker hadn’t asked us. We wanted to depict an abstract suggestion of a really active workshop, gallery or art school and fill it full of people doing things relating to the process of making art (in any context—non-professional/professional), aspects of the family programme and the architecture of the places where art ‘happens’ or is presented, whether that’s the artist’s studio or a small gallery, an institution like the Walker, on the walls of a cafe or a sculpture garden etc. We were trying to make something that has a lot of dynamic aspects to it, that draws your eye around, to reflect the excitement that the Family Programme offers participants. The interaction between the guys is what makes it dynamic or interesting, and it’s an unexpected and awkward interaction due to the way the image was made.
How did you go about creating it? It was fairly free and loose to begin with. We all created guys and then we put them together with one of us going through and then tightening up all the illustrations. Most of the crossover happened quite serendipitously. It’s fun making characters that you know will have to interact with others but you are not sure how. There’s an element of wanting to make ourselves and each other laugh by making stupid guys and then it turns into a bit of a puzzle locking them altogether. We’ve tried and failed to make images in a similar way before. We made a list of six rough areas for which we thought about what characters could be doing, and what objects there might be there. So we have a workshop, an outdoor forest/garden, a cafe, a gallery, a sculpture garden and a theatre. Then one of us would compose the images in panels. We ended up making the first two panels as we went along, and then we made the other four all at once.
In your illustration, several tables, or at least flat surfaces (floors, pools, walls) appear, always covered with a variety of objects. It’s a motif that shows up elsewhere in your work—what significance does a cluttered surface have to you? We like things. We like to draw things, make things and live with things. So it’s very much a manifestation of our personal physical worlds, or perhaps our fantasy world. Surrounded by things we’ve made or would love to have made, hanging out with some fun guys and plants and pools. It’s just something we ended up drawing or representing because these surfaces with objects are our immediate environment for most of the time, so they end up getting put into the work. I suppose we started to notice the sculptural or rhythmic qualities of the detritus, the tools and materials present whilst making work. It’s also a way to symbolise certain things, or to suggest something about the characters or the world they’re in.
Do any of the characters have interesting stories behind them? The characters really only come out of the way they are drawn. Really we’ve tried to represent a really odd bunch of people so that anyone could see themselves as part of it. There are certain guys that we all pick out and smile, because they have a silly face or are doing something weird. They don’t have specific stories. We all like to make drawings that have just enough in them for people to grab hold of but still have some work to do in terms of forming a specific character. It’s nice when people can bring their own imagination to this world. There are a few friends and references in there that are maybe a bit more personal but it’s more mysterious for them to stay that way…
Can you point out some of the artists that you reference in the piece? Maybe it’s more fun for people to find them. They’re not very obscure, but here’s a list.
❑ Fischli and Weiss
❑ Joseph Beuys
❑ Yves Klein
❑ David Nash
❑ Katharina Fritsch
❑ Robert Wyatt
❑ Florentijn Hofman
❑ The Lely Venus
We also threw in some cheeky references to our own work in the ‘gallery’ panel at bottom right. The framed work on the wall and the ceramics are all ours! Some others got a bit buried in the drawing process, but there are figurative references to Frances Alys pushing the block of ice and Jackson Pollock painting. They weren’t chosen necessarily because we’re hugely into these people, more that they had something interesting visually to contribute and anchored the illustration in the art world a bit more.
Are there illustrators out there that inspire you? Some yes, of course! Although we are more inspired by things that are not illustration, design or art. But lots of people: Laura Carlin, Sara Vanbelle, the mighty Marcus Oakley, Matthew Hodson. Too many to mention really. Most are friends which is an added inspiration. Most illustrators we like are people who do other things as well as illustrating. It doesn’t have to be a thing in it’s own right. It’s exciting when people make work and then sometimes illustrate or apply their work to different things. This always feels more interesting and is more about getting an idea or an energy across rather than a focus on pure illustrative style.
From the way you talk about this, this project served as a way to bring the three of you together, primarily through the act of making. What does “making” mean to Nous Vous? The reason we like to work together is to vibe off each other, so when we get a chance it’s nice to take it. Making, for all of us, is a an act that can be a bit transcendental, it’s when we make sense of things and let go. It’s social in the way we work, as we make together, it can be awkward making in a public way but you soon let go of your pretence and when you do it becomes quite freeing. Making is also communal in that we like to make things for people. Sure the main pleasure is for us, in the act, but we like to make with the knowledge that other people will find some enjoyment in it. We each have our own individual practices too that are personal and solitairy. It’s good to have both, otherwise we’d probably get bored of one approach or the other. We individually make ceramics, drawings and music as well as other stuff, but together we mostly work on design projects or curatorial stuff, and some illustration work like this brief. Some things work better approached individually and some things work better together, and it’s good to recognise that. Making and thinking is often the same. It’s hard to think without making but then I guess making can be most ‘zen’ when you are in the moment and not thinking specifically. But I guess you become a channel for all the stuff you have thought about and filled up on, and it kind of pours out subconsciously. So in that way it’s important to fill up, stock up on stuff so have some splurge to purge. The making process itself is the space in which you can think and work the thing out as you go along. So for example, we had a rough idea what this image would look like, but we didn’t plan the details, we just started to do it and then worked around problems that came up, ironed things out. You can’t do that without starting something and nothing ever turns out exactly the way you plan it. And why should it? That’s the fun of making things. Things happen along the way and you end up with something you never imagined you would. That’s especially true when you’re collaborating…
We are happy to announce that the Walker design fellowship position will now be named the Mildred Friedman Design Fellow. Known to many as Mickey, Mildred Friedman served as the editor of Design Quarterly and was the Walker Art Center design curator for much of the ’70s and ’80s. She organized a series of groundbreaking […]
We are happy to announce that the Walker design fellowship position will now be named the Mildred Friedman Design Fellow. Known to many as Mickey, Mildred Friedman served as the editor of Design Quarterly and was the Walker Art Center design curator for much of the ’70s and ’80s. She organized a series of groundbreaking exhibitions, sometimes in collaboration with Martin Friedman, such as Sottsass/Superstudio: Mindscapes (1973); New Learning Spaces and Places (1974); Nelson/Eames/Girard/Propst: The Design Process at Herman Miller (1975); De Stijl, 1917–1931: Visions of Utopia (1982); The Architecture of Frank Gehry (1986), the architect’s first major museum exhibition; Tokyo: Form and Spirit (1986), featuring the work of Japanese designers such as Arata Isozaki, Tadanori Yokoo, Toyo Ito, Tadao Ando, and Eiko Ishioka; Architecture Tomorrow (1988–1991), a series of installations undertaken by Frank Israel, Morphosis, Todd Williams/Billie Tsien, Stanley Saitowitz, Diller+Scofidio, and Steven Holl; and Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History (1989), the first large-scale museum survey of the field in the United States.
Above: issues of Design Quarterly edited by Mildred Friedman
The Walker’s Design Department began its internship program for graphic designers in 1980 under Mickey’s watch and ever since, it has uniquely provided recent graduates an opportunity to practice design as part of the Walker’s award-winning studio team. Unlike typical internships, fellows engage in all aspects of the design process, from initial client meetings through press checks. It is this holistic exposure that differentiates the Walker fellowship from more fragmented internships. Fellows work extensively with internal clients as well as external vendors, present and advocate for their solutions, participate in studio discourse—from critiques to blog writing—and, of course, shape the design of their work. Each fellow works independently as well as collaboratively with other studio members, whether the design director, senior designers, studio manager, pre-press specialist, or editors. Thus, fellows contribute wholly to the Walker’s design team as full-time graphic designers for an entire year. They come to the Walker from across the globe and have left the Walker to pursue a variety of opportunities, from working for companies such as Apple, Dwell, Nike, and Chronicle to founding their own design studios to inevitably working for a variety of museums and cultural institutions, and of course teaching design at universities around the world. (Apply.)
A selection of posters promoting the Design Fellowship throughout the years:
Below is a conversation about design at the Walker between Mildred Friedman and curator Joan Rothfuss, New York City, August 6, 2004:
Joan Rothfuss: When you began working at the Walker in the early 1970s, how did you define your role?
Mildred S. Friedman: I began by designing all of the office furnishings for the new building, working very closely with Ed [architect Edward Larrabee Barnes]. In the 1960s, I had worked as a designer for the architect Robert Cerny, so the Walker interiors were a natural project for me.
When the design of the building interiors was finished, it was necessary to develop other areas that were the Design Department’s responsibility. The journal Design Quarterly already existed, so that was an essential part of my job. I did change it. We recruited a number of incredible writers from outside the immediate area, people like Richard Saul Wurman, Rem Koolhaas, and Bill Stumpf, who had written on ergonomics, urban planning, and various important topics. In the 1970s and 1980s, Design Quarterly became a catalogue for a number of Walker exhibitions such as New Learning Spaces and Places; The Design Process at Herman Miller; The River: Images of the Mississippi; and many others.
JR: These were groundbreaking exhibitions in many ways, but your curatorial activities took a dramatic leap with the Frank Gehry show.
MSF: In the early 1980s, I wanted to undertake a large-scale architecture exhibition. I didn’t know Frank Gehry, but I had been reading about his work for a long time and I thought it was significant. His office is in Los Angeles, so one day I just called him and asked, “How would you like to do an exhibition at the Walker Art Center?” And he said, “Where?” We told him it was near Canada, because, you know, he was born in Toronto.
JR: I had no idea—I thought you must have been the best of buddies before you started working together.
MSF: No, but he and his great wife, Berta, did become our friends as the exhibition developed. When I went to Los Angeles, I stayed in their guest house, and spent time visiting his projects and talking with members of his then-small staff. I asked him to create five full-scale objects for the show in which we would then put drawings, models, and photographs of built works. He created a lead-coated wood fish, a cardboard enclosure for his cardboard furniture, a copper enclosure, a Finnish plywood snake house, and a series of wood trees.
It’s hard to believe now, but at that point Frank had a reputation mostly among architects, few others had heard of him. The exhibition traveled to New York, Toronto, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Houston. It was the first opportunity for a wide audience to see his work.
JR: Could you talk about the origins of the 1986 Tokyo: Form and Spirit exhibition?
MSF: Martin [Friedman] and I went to Tokyo because we were given a joint travel grant by the Japan Society. We went with Rand Castile, who was then head of the Japan House gallery, and Lily Auchincloss, who was his patroness. For almost a month, we traveled all over. Rand is an expert on Japan, as he had lived there for many years. We loved it. When we came back we said, “What are we going to do with all this information?” So we began thinking about an exhibition, but we didn’t know what it would be. We had met Arata Isozaki—one of Japan’s most prominent architects. He sat down with us and was incredibly helpful. To make a very long story a little shorter, he helped us arrive at the idea of talking about the Edo period and today’s Japan by comparing the two—in terms of the art that was produced, what it looked like, how it worked, and so forth. The concept was that we would look at major aspects of life, such as walking through the city, spirituality, working, playing—all the things that everybody does everyday. We would have objects to represent what each aspect looked like in the Edo period—for example, a tea house. Then we would ask a young architect (in that case Tadao Ando, of whom at that point almost no one in the United States was familiar) to design it. So throughout the show we would pair historical Edo objects with contemporary updates.
We borrowed most of the Edo-period material from American museums because it was difficult to get loans from Japan. Then we invited Fumihiko Maki, Tadao Ando, Shiro Kuramata, Eiko Ishioka, Hiroshi Hara, Toyo Ito, Tadanori Yokoo, and Shigeo Fukuda to participate. We were lucky—when we went there in 1982, they were all happy to participate because they wanted to make reputations in the United States. Isozaki helped by introducing us to the others. It wasn’t that difficult. We had great fun with it.
JR: The exhibition had a sort of dry run in Tokyo, didn’t it?
MSF: Yes. We wanted to see the work before we brought it to the United States. There was really no other way to see it. A good deal of it looked pretty terrible. The materials were wrong in many instances—not what you would expect from Japan. Martin and I brought one of the Walker’s crew members over, and we did critiques. The projects needed some real materials and proper workmanship. It was a big success; parts of the show were shown in a Sapporo beer warehouse, an auditorium, the top floor of a fashion house, and so on. They sold tickets and had events at these various places. We finally got it all together and brought the whole thing back to the United States. We also had to bring over some Japanese craftsmen to work with us. Our crew was so magnificent because they took many incomplete installations and finished them. At the Walker, the show picked up a real edge.
Organizing Tokyo: Form and Spirit was a real adventure. One of the funniest stories concerns a video we were using to raise money for the project. Not speaking Japanese, we took the video around with us. During one visit with the Kyocera Company, which produces cell phones, we couldn’t make the video player work, so we asked for a technician to help. Two elderly gentlemen in snap-on bow ties came down. They looked like Maytag repairmen. We asked, “Could you please have this video played, so we could present it to the powers that be?” When they had it working, Martin said, “Now we are waiting for Mr. Nakamura and Mr. so-and-so…” And they said, “We are Mr. Nakamura and Mr.…” So, we sat there with red faces while this video played, and when it was all over Mr. Nakamura turned to Martin and said, “Now Friedman-san, would you be kind enough to tell me once again the name of your exhibition? Such interesting material you’re showing us. So persuasive, so beautifully documented.” So we told him, “We’re calling it Tokyo: Form and Spirit.” And he looked at his colleague and sort of smiled, and then he said, “But Friedman-san, this is Kyoto.” Martin said, “Oh, couldn’t we think of it as a working title?”
Needless to say, that story happened in many versions, but in the end we did get support from many generous people. •
Check out this time-lapse video of Job Wouters at work and hear him talk about his new piece Home. See more photos of the piece here. Job Wouters Home 2013 At the Walker Art Center in conjunction with Insights 2013.
Check out this time-lapse video of Job Wouters at work and hear him talk about his new piece Home.
See more photos of the piece here.
At the Walker Art Center in conjunction with Insights 2013.
Job Wouters Home 2013 As part of Insights 2013, we asked Job Wouters to create a mural inside the museum, which you see above. Here’s a time-lapse video of the mural installation, as well as video of his Insights lecture and some more pictures of Job’s adventures in Minneapolis.
As part of Insights 2013, we asked Job Wouters to create a mural inside the museum, which you see above. Here’s a time-lapse video of the mural installation, as well as video of his Insights lecture and some more pictures of Job’s adventures in Minneapolis.
Zzzine night was started by J Patrick Walsh 3. ZINE-TRADE-MEET-UP was started by Ryan Foerster. This is their first collaboration on a night to trade ‘zines’. Their zine Sump Pump will be available for trades. All welcome! Bring things to trade. NO $$$$$. Thursday, March 21, 5–8 pm, at the Walker. Read more here. “Also, we […]
Zzzine night was started by J Patrick Walsh 3. ZINE-TRADE-MEET-UP was started by Ryan Foerster. This is their first collaboration on a night to trade ‘zines’. Their zine Sump Pump will be available for trades. All welcome! Bring things to trade. NO $$$$$. Thursday, March 21, 5–8 pm, at the Walker.
Read more here.
“Also, we will have ALL NEW ARTIST BOOKS IN THE PRINTED MATTER SHELF in the Walker Shop starting that night by Sam Falls, JSBJ, Howard Johnson, David Horvitz, Ryan Foerster, Seth Price, and John Dogg! Which is totally awesome all by itself.” —Michele Tobin
As part of Insights 2013, we invited each designer to address a different surface of the Walker, from the outside to the inside, the social to the virtual. Eike König was asked to create something for our website, so he and his studio Hort decided to take on the Walker masthead. They created five […]
As part of Insights 2013, we invited each designer to address a different surface of the Walker, from the outside to the inside, the social to the virtual. Eike König was asked to create something for our website, so he and his studio Hort decided to take on the Walker masthead. They created five of their signature hand-drawn animations that will randomly load on the Walker homepage during the week of Eike’s lecture.
Here’s a peek at Geoff McFetridge’s fence design for the Walker Art Center. It’s only half installed right now, and as soon as we get the rest of it up (hopefully within a week or so), we will be presenting an in-depth interview with the artist about the project. Also Geoff’s recent Insights talk is […]
Here’s a peek at Geoff McFetridge’s fence design for the Walker Art Center. It’s only half installed right now, and as soon as we get the rest of it up (hopefully within a week or so), we will be presenting an in-depth interview with the artist about the project.
“If surface is a kind of place, or site, the designer is its geographer. Surface is folded out in order to produce value, while it is folded in to secure it.” —Metahaven Poster design by Andrea Hyde For the 28th edition of the Insights Design Lecture Series, we’ve invited leading designers […]
“If surface is a kind of place, or site, the designer is its geographer. Surface is folded out in order to produce value, while it is folded in to secure it.” —Metahaven
For the 28th edition of the Insights Design Lecture Series, we’ve invited leading designers from around the world to bring their talents to the Twin Cities and leave something behind when they go. The Walker is currently in the process of reskinning itself, so we asked each designer to inhabit a different surface of the Walker, from the outside to the inside, the social to the digital. Geoff McFetridge, for example, is creating a large outdoor mural that will wrap the building site fence while we are under construction. Job Wouters will create a hand-lettered mural inside the building (and will perform a live hand-lettering demonstration during his lecture). Hort invades our virtual surface with an online intervention. And Luna Maurer of Moniker will investigate our social fabric with some experimental audience participation during her lecture. Look for documentation of these four projects soon, and in the meantime you can buy tickets here. And if you can’t make it to the Walker, you can watch the live webcast on the Walker Channel. Also, this year we are encouraging groups to host Insights viewing parties. See below for links to more information about the speakers.
LA-based designer Geoff McFetridge is a leading figure in the contemporary world of graphic culture, working fluidly between the realms of art and design and the printed page and the moving image. Featured in the film and exhibition Beautiful Losers, McFetridge’s clever and engaging art has graced nearly every kind of surface imaginable—from limited-edition Nike sneakers and his own line of silkscreened wallpapers to laser-etched illustrations on toast for a music video by OK Go. His work has been shown around the world in cities such as London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam and he was featured in the Walker exhibition Graphic Design: Now in Production. His Insights lecture also celebrates the installation of a temporary site-specific mural he created for the Walker.
As one of Europe’s most fearless design studios, Berlin’s Hort has consistently bridged the gap between aggressively contemporary aesthetics and big name clients. From glitchy animated GIFs to elegant hand-drawn illustrations, Hort’s aesthetics run the gamut, displaying an unflinching dedication to formal and conceptual play. In fact, Hort translates as “after-school care club” in German, and this spirit inhabits the multidisciplinary studio which founder Eike König refers to as a “playground for creative people.” With an early focus on record sleeve design and illustration, Hort’s output has come to span all genres and includes work for clients such as Nike, Universal Music, the New York Times, Wallpaper, Volkswagon, IBM, and Playboy magazine. Hort was named Germany’s Visual Leader of 2011 by the Lead Academy. Recently, the studio was presented the unenviable task of rebranding the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, including the original signage on Gropius’ famous building. In addition to running Hort, König teaches graphic design and illustration at the HfG University of Arts, Offenbach, and travels the world conducting workshops and lectures. In conjunction with Insights, Hort will create a work specifically designed for the Walker website.
Job Wouters—better known as Letman—is a practitioner of the lost art of psychedelic and delirious penmanship, a letterer who’s precisely honed technique hides behind a world of unbridled alphabetic experimentation. Creating wildly unique work that nods to the past but transcends vernacular nostalgia, Wouters operates between illustration, graffiti, painting, and graphic design. The Amsterdam-based designer has worked for clients such as the New York Times Magazine, Audi, Tommy Hilfiger, Heineken, and Duvel, creating editorial illustrations, fabric prints, posters, typefaces, site-specific murals, and even body-paint designs. He is the recipient of numerous design awards and his first monograph was released by Gestalten publishing in 2012. He was recently commissioned by the Walker to create a mural. Wouters will perform his hand-lettering technique live during the Insights lecture.
According to the “Conditional Design” manifesto, Luna Maurer is interested in logic-based design as a tool to understand the ungraspable. Her work with interactive media bridges the divide between digital and analogue systems, often relying on deceptively simple rules to create complex organic artworks. Maurer is especially known for her participatory experiments in which she designs a process that requires the participants to implement—often in humble materials such as tape, markers, and sticky notes—algorithmic explorations of group thought that expose the process of making. Her work explores the relationship between people and technology, and she has created a breadth of projects—from an exhibition of 400,000 photos of the Amsterdam sky to a website designed in Microsoft Excel. Based in Amsterdam, her three-person studio Moniker balances applied commercial projects with self-initiated experiments. She is a visiting critic at Yale University School of Art and teaches interaction design at the Gerrit Reitveld Academy in Amsterdam. Maurer will present a “social experiment” with the lecture audience, unique to Insights 2013.
And you can always watch previous Insights lectures from designers such as James Goggin, Irma Boom, Project Projects, Experimental Jetset and more here.
“Interdisciplinary activity, valued today as an important aspect of research, cannot be accomplished by simple confrontations between various specialized branches of knowledge. Interdisciplinary work is not a peaceful operation: it begins effectively when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down—a process made more violent, perhaps, by the jolts of fashion—to the benefit of a new object and […]
“Interdisciplinary activity, valued today as an important aspect of research, cannot be accomplished by simple confrontations between various specialized branches of knowledge. Interdisciplinary work is not a peaceful operation: it begins effectively when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down—a process made more violent, perhaps, by the jolts of fashion—to the benefit of a new object and a new language, neither of which is in the domain of those branches of knowledge that one calmly sought to confront.” —Roland Barthes
As part of the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Work Group (IWG)—a think tank exploring the “violent” process of clashing disciplines within our institution (maybe not violent enough, really)—I was asked to invite someone who inspired me and whose practice might embody a mixture of disciplines. It was the perfect excuse to bring out Julian Bleecker—a designer/technologist/futurist who creates “new objects” on a daily basis—though he might call them diagetic prototypes and suggest that their existence was not only plausible, but completely inevitable. When he’s not working in Nokia’s Design Strategic Projects studio, he is one of the founding partners of the Near Future Laboratory, a collective dedicated to “thinking, making, design, development, and research practice speculating on the near future possibilities for digital worlds.”
Over the past few years he has been developing the idea of Design Fiction—a practice exploring the symbiotic relationship between science fiction and science fact. As an attitude it has a lot in common with Critical Design as put forward by Dunne & Raby (in fact Wikipedia redirects a search for Design Fiction straight to the entry on Critical Design). Though where Critical Design offers tangible thought experiments critical of our personal relationships with products—often inhabiting the space of the gallery or academia—Design Fiction appears to be oriented toward the popular imaginary, more comfortable in the realm of Hollywood films, best-selling novels, Skymall catalogs, and Internet memes, more explicitly tackling the relationship between storytelling, media, and technological progress. And it might be more concerned with the fog of the feedback loop and the design process itself, in all its compromised and messy glory—the implications of business models, service design, copyright laws, product obsolescence, hacker spaces, Amazon Mechanical Turk and Alibaba.com, access to tools, etc.—instead of the clarity of the pure artifact on its pedestal (or kitchen counter). Julian even discusses the negative effects of design storytelling—Jurassic Park, for example, is held up as an example of incredible Design Fiction but potentially dubious science fact—a minority theory put forward into the public consciousness, bypassing the typical systems of scientific peer review, and dramatically altering the entire debate.
I’ve come to understand Design Fiction a bit like the inverse of Mundane Science Fiction (the Dogme 95 of sci-fi)—instead of science fiction authors dialing down the fantasy to tell stories of the near future, these are designers amping up the speculation to “tell worlds instead of stories.” Both theories feel a bit scrappy but highly prize a conceptual rigor: the refusal of Mundane Science Fiction to resort to impossible (and easy) ideas, and the dedication of Design Fiction to the process of making something real. “Less yammering and more hammering,” indeed. Both ideas also readily admit to having existed long before they were formally named, which seems appropriate.
I have personally been interested in the overlap of design and speculation for a while, but inviting Julian out in the context of the IWG posed a new set of questions: how can an organization like the Walker embed speculative practices into its workflow, how is interdisciplinary experimentation already inherently speculative, and when should our institution embrace a process that is not necessarily results-oriented—or at least, not in the typical sense? Speaking of mundane . . .
For our meeting, Julian spoke on his ideas of Design Fiction and led us through a series of workshop exercises designed to generate ideas for near future products. The IWG invited writer Susannah Schouweiler to sit in and write up her account of the proceedings. Here is her report on Julian’s presentation:
For the second in a series of eight planned discussions between now and December 2012, in early June members of the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Work Group (IWG) gathered for a conversation with Julian Bleecker, co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory and a researcher at the Design Strategic Projects studio at Nokia Design in Los Angeles. Specifically, IWG member and design director Emmet Byrne invited Bleecker to talk with our assembled group of Walker curators, programmers, and educators about his ongoing, hybrid creative work in the field of Design Fiction.
Unlike the more informal, intimate question-and-answer session a month prior with dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay, Bleecker’s multimedia presentation to the IWG was practiced, narrowly targeted, and information-rich—like a sprawling, workshopped TED-talk on his work at the intersection of imaginative play, storytelling, technology, art, and near-future design. Or, as Bleecker puts it more succinctly, “finding new ways of thinking about what’s possible.”
To begin, Bleecker describes Design Fiction for us, as “the fertile muddle where fact and fiction reflect and influence each other.” He says both design and science fiction work to open new lines of conversation, allowing people who are not inclined to think out of the ordinary, to begin to do so. “You can introduce a conversation about something quite speculative; when you’re talking about science fiction, no one says, ‘that’s impossible.’ We all understand the normal rules don’t apply.”
Design Fiction, in particular, he says, “involves thinking of the impossible as not just possible, but imminent, even likely.” But the work of Design Fiction goes much further than thinking and talking about what might be, to building on the ideas that emerge from such speculations: expanding the conversation by making something real, thereby taking it from the gossamer realms of conjecture to the work-a-day spheres of tangible, concrete probability.
He explains: “This work involves a symbiotic relationship between design fact and design fiction—things can happen because these conversations are in the world, percolating.” For example, we can see amazing, fictional technology in Hollywood films [like Minority Report, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc]—indeed, that imagined tech is itself a big draw for audiences.
(Above: examples of Design Fiction in film)
And in a very concrete sense those technologies are real:
Someone designed a product, and designed it with an excruciating level of refinement, not just so it looks good on camera, but in such a way that the whole production team can understand how that tech fits in the story, why it’s there…. Using the lexicon established by the film to explain something real, some actual technology, it then becomes legible for a wide audience, because you have a conceptual anchor which introduces that technology (in the case of Minority Report, for example, gesture-based interfaces) into the popular imaginary.
He goes on: “The fact that the device you want to make doesn’t quite work yet doesn’t negate its reality—the conversation, the continuity of relationship between the idea rendered in the film and real technology is real…. A designer working on that film did enough to get things started to where an industrialist was ready to write a check to develop it for actual use. That’s real.”
Bleecker says such work involves “extrapolating from known to unknown… You can introduce a conversation about something quite speculative, but then expand that into an even more fulfilling conversation if you actually make the thing you’re talking about.” He goes on, “It’s usually a linear trajectory—from idea to prototype to materialization in some new future. You accrete more meaning in your explanation for what the future might look like as you build, get funding, and create something. You need to get it out of your head; once it’s made, you can describe it, show it and involve people in a discussion about its specifics.”
(Above: Apple’s iPad makes its first appearance as a diegetic prototype in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1969)
The Design Fiction process of actually creating something—going from conception to execution—facilitates a kind of thoroughness that distinguishes this work from mere speculation. In fact, Bleecker’s current interests are anything but remote: he tells us, right now he’s most interested in questions about the distribution of innovation. He offers a quote from novelist William Gibson by way of explanation: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed … yet.”
Bleecker then offers this thought experiment. “I try to imagine what the end of the long tail for these innovations will look like; what does it look like at that point where future technology does become evenly distributed? Where it’s affordable, ubiquitous, mass-produced, almost junk? Like the PDA is now, or the record player, for example.”
He describes how thinking on such a question plays out in practice:
I think there’s something Design Fiction-y about that question. [How does our relationship to material stuff change with time and saturation, and what are the causes of those shifting desires?] To imagine these exciting new things, these innovations, as tomorrow’s crap—to put yourself in a time when you can pick up an iPad at the dollar store for $1.99, or two for $3. It’s a very powerful way of describing what these things might look like in the future, how they might work in the culture. Designing these things in reality, describing them in this way, does a sort of Jedi mind trick: This process makes people really believe, because in our daily lives we already understand how that exciting-to-banal process works—we see it all around us.”
He argues that you can disrupt conventional futures with Design Fiction: “If you really want to tweak habits or desires, you can start design conversations with these techniques, take them beyond ‘what are the new colors/price points going to be for 2013?’” Design Fiction, he says, plays in the fringes, outside the borders of the “conventional products’ sweet spot,” where the spheres of what’s “buildable, desirable, and profitable” overlap. Design Fiction adherents are drawn beyond safe “mods and tweaks” of existing products to the fast-shifting terrain where fantasies and speculations reside, to the quicksilver trajectories of the “magical, mythical, miraculous” in our many possible futures.
(Above: Death Star Over San Francisco by Mike Horn)
In Design Fiction, he says, “stories matter more than features, specs, wireframes, and engineering… Special effects dinosaurs are more effective when used in an exciting film like Jurassic Park, than they are in a plain old documentary talking about the science of dinosaurs, because you’re enrolling viewers into a well-drawn world, and the design within that world is all the more compelling for it. … [What’s more] a persuasive big-budget film rendering of [even hotly contested] science can so capture the imagination that it changes the real-world conversation irrevocably — and can therefore change the science itself.”
He says, “It comes down to the way in which we’re able to hold people’s attention, to engage them.” It’s about finding ways—through film, design, novels—to help us all look at the world a little differently. “We’re trying to find people who look at the world a little bit sideways, for that head-slap moment when you know you’ve hit on meaningful innovation—whether that’s a little tweak that makes a huge difference (e.g. wheels on luggage) or some big new idea put in practice.”
Design director Emmet Byrne follows up, asking Bleecker whether “there’s something inherently ethical about showing people how the future might be different than what we accept as the consensus future? That seems to be an element of critical design practice as well,” he says. “Is simply generating a meaningful conversation about what is and might be, in itself, a useful aspect of the work? Or is that not enough?”
Bleecker responds: “It’s fun to look at the world this way, to seek the head-slap moment and play with ideas; but I do think it’s also important to consider these things with a code of ethics. You’re never just doing it to do it, but to make the world a little bit better. Sometimes that’s been a very First-World thing I’ve made better because of a new design—like calling your mother gets a little easier, a little better, more enjoyable. But always embedded in the design work is the idea that we’re in the business of making things a little more playful, happier, and less unnerving for people.”
“And simply bringing an appreciation of the fact that the future isn’t determined,” he says, “that the future, on an individual scale, is still open to one person’s vision of what that can be”—that’s valuable in its own right, too.
The Walker design studio was featured in an exhibition called The Way Beyond Art: Wide White Space at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. You can read an interview about the exhibition here. A catalog/reader based on the exhibition , edited and designed by Jon Sueda, is now published and available here. The exhibition investigates […]
The Walker design studio was featured in an exhibition called The Way Beyond Art: Wide White Space at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. You can read an interview about the exhibition here.
A catalog/reader based on the exhibition , edited and designed by Jon Sueda, is now published and available here. The exhibition investigates graphic design’s evolving relationship with the practice of exhibition making as it intersects with the visual arts and the work of both artists and curators. The exhibition, also curated by Jon Sueda of the San Francisco design practice Stripe SF, was originally on view at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in 2011. The publication includes texts by Claire Fitzsimmons, Project Projects, Tim Belonax, and myself, and transcriptions of lectures presented in the Wide White Space lecture series by Emily McVarish, Rachel Berger, MacFadden & Thorpe, and Eric Heiman. The book also includes an overview of the course Wider White Space, organized by Jon Sueda and the Wattis Institute, where students at the California College of the Arts (CCA) curated four satellite exhibitions about APFEL, Project Projects, the Walker Art Center, and Experimental Jetset.
Featured Designers in the Exhibition: APFEL, Irma Boom, Laurenz Brunner and Julia Born, Sara De Bondt, Mevis and Van Deursen, Dexter Sinister, Experimental Jetset, Will Holder, Indexhibit, Zak Kyes, James Langdon, LUST, Niessen & de Vries, Practise, Project Projects, Yann Sérandour and Jérôme Saint-Loubert Bié, Stedelijk Museum, Sulki and Min, Mylinh Trieu Nguyen, Hansje van Halem, and the Walker Art Center