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Abbott Miller, Ellen Lupton, Andrew Blauvelt, and Others on Mickey Friedman

So much of what makes the Walker a great place for design is because of Mickey Friedman and her tenure as design director, design curator, and editor of Design Quarterly. Since Mickey passed away earlier this week, a number of design voices have been offering personal reflections on Mickey’s influence on them, as well as fascinating […]

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So much of what makes the Walker a great place for design is because of Mickey Friedman and her tenure as design director, design curator, and editor of Design Quarterly. Since Mickey passed away earlier this week, a number of design voices have been offering personal reflections on Mickey’s influence on them, as well as fascinating glimpses into the Walker’s design culture during her time here. I highly recommend you read Andrew Blauvelt‘s personal and compelling article covering a wide range of Mickey’s contributions to the design field, from groundbreaking exhibitions such as De Stijl, 1917–1931: Visions of Utopia, Tokyo: Form and Spirit, and Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, to her generous and forward-thinking editorial approach with Design Quarterly, and her creation of Walker mainstays such as the Insights Design Lecture Series and the design department’s fellowship program. The Walker is also collecting short contributions from a variety of Mickey’s peers—the entirety of which you can read here—and I wanted to pull out a few below.

 

Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Abbott Miller and I had the amazing pleasure of working with Mickey in the late 1980s on her groundbreaking exhibition Graphic Design in America. She was the first real curator I had ever met, and she had so much to teach a young aspirant like myself. Her grace, intelligence, and kindness—and her patience with two green young writers—will always stay with me. Mickey Friedman thought with her eyes. She had a way to spinning stories, ideas, and insight out of objects and rooms. She had both extraordinary taste and the desire to illuminate the whole world with better design.

 

Exhibition view of Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, 1989

Exhibition view of Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, 1989

 

Abbott Miller, designer, writer, and partner at Pentagram

Mickey had an amazing sense of adventure, independence, and generosity in her thoughts and actions. That combination led her to champion, explicate, and consider design from truly diverse vantage points. From the “spoon to the city” meant that Julia Child, Tokyo, and Frank Gehry were all expressions of design. There was a modernist current to her interests, but not as a stylistic vocabulary. She was interested in the public life of design, the formal experimentation of contemporary designers, but also the “commercial vernacular” that was evident in her Graphic Design in America exhibition.

I co-authored an extended timeline-essay for her Graphic Design in America catalogue: I remember that Mickey came to New York to discuss the show with Ellen Lupton, who was curating great exhibitions on graphic design at Cooper Union. We saw her outline for the catalogue she was planning, and after she left we wrote her a letter nominating ourselves as the authors. Her response was along the lines of “I was thinking the exact same thing.” It was a leap of faith that she had probably made many times in her career, trusting her instincts and having confidence in her choices.

I’ve been fortunate to have had multiple occasions and experiences touched by Mickey, Martin, and their daughter, Lise Friedman, who was the editor of the first magazine I designed. I know multiple projects can be traced back to Mickey, directly or indirectly, and that I am one of many designers whose lives have been deeply influenced by her intelligence, charm, and vision.

 

Phil Freshman, former editor, Walker Art Center

Mickey Friedman hired me to be the Walker Art Center’s first-ever staff editor in the spring of 1988, and I moved here from Los Angeles with my wife and five-month-old daughter that June. I soon settled into the routine 70-hour-per-week Walker norm and made common cause with the cast of dedicated maniacs who made up the then 60-person staff. One reason I’d been hired was to edit Mickey’s magnum opus, the book accompanying her long-planned exhibition, Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History. She rightly wanted to keep close tabs on the writing (by a large and far-flung set of contributors) and the editing. But before that engine even got started, there was Adam Weinberg’s Vanishing Presence photography catalogue to edit, plus a Frank Stella book for Liz Armstrong. And because I was the only editor in the joint, I was handed just about every printed piece the Walker cranked out, from the members’ calendar to booklets, brochures, program flyers, and broadsides for the film/video, performing arts, and education departments, annual reports, and assorted whatnot. There was also the little business, in the summer of 1988, of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which opened that September—requiring its own thick set of “ephemera.” After five or six such breakneck months, I asked Martin and Mickey if I could hire a part-time assistant. They shook their heads and shut their eyes. “Edit faster,” Martin intoned.

Editing faster, and editing for precision and clarity, was something at which Mickey excelled. She hated fluff, flatulence, posturing, and imprecision in writing as much as I did. But the wonder of it, to me, was that she could drain waste out of a piece and rewrite lead and concluding paragraphs at warp speed and with seemingly little exertion. I would hand her my first pass at a tortured essay from the graphic design book at, say, 10 am, and within a couple of hours it would be back on my desk, its major problems fixed and the path forward made clear. I learned much about achieving clarity by looking at her edits, and I learned how to struggle less doing my own editing. Although Mickey and I got crosswise many a time, she never told me how to edit nor failed to support me if I was at an impasse with a writer. Although she thought, like Martin, that there was no limit to the amount of time and energy I (and the rest of the staff) should devote to the Walker—that was the way the two of them lived, after all—I saw that in everything she did the aim was excellence and quality. It was remarkable, indeed admirable, how often and squarely she hit those targets.

I was at the Walker until the Friedmans left, at the end of 1990, and stayed the first four years of Kathy Halbreich’s tenure. As tough a customer as Mickey could be, there were definitely days during that post-Friedman time when I missed her no-nonsense and her sharp eye.

 

Exhibition shot of Tokyo: Form and Spirit

Exhibition shot of Tokyo: Form and Spirit

Glenn Suokko, independent graphic designer, former senior graphic designer (1998–1990), Walker Art Center

Working with Mickey Friedman remains one of the most stimulating and important experiences of my career in design. We worked together on the major exhibition, Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, and it was while working on his particular—enormous—project, that as a graphic designer fresh out of graduate school, I learned from Mickey about the integration of design, art, culture, history, and experience—and so much more. She was unrelenting in making everything exceptional and had amazing taste. I thought she was the most insightful, brilliant person I had ever met. We often had lunch together in Gallery 8 and while enjoying a salad and the special of the day, carried on our work in planning and creating the exhibition, book, and programming. We always worked on Saturdays, because this was the day when we could really dig in and get a lot done without distraction. Every so often on a Saturday, Mickey or Martin would suggest we take a break and have lunch at their house. Mickey always made the most delicious lunches with simplicity and ease. She was so gracious and these are treasured moments in my memory. After lunch we’d head back to the office and work more, and often wind up having dinner and seeing a performance in the theater that night. With Mickey—as with Martin—work and friendship, experience and wisdom, good food and wonderful projects, all seemed to just continually flow into one another in the nicest way.

 

Peter Seitz, former design curator (1964–1968), Walker Art Center

I worked in the mid-Sixties for nearly five years at the Walker Art Center as design curator, editor of Design Quarterly, and graphic designer, writing, lecturing, publishing, and producing all visual communications and curating design exhibitions, even designing graphics for the early Guthrie Theater. I practiced an inclusive approach to design, something Mickey not only carried on but excelled in it. Her focus on urban design, her involvement in getting good national and international designers and architects in designing in and for Minneapolis, resulted in this area to become known as a center for good design.

After leaving the Walker I was not dismayed when I learned that Mickey took over the design curator position and right away hired two more designers to assist her. We all miss her; the design community lost a great professional and a friend.

 

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Mickey Friedman with Walker designers at the opening of Graphic Design in America, 1989. Left to right: Jeff Cohen, graphic designer; Glenn Suokko, senior graphic designer; Robert Jensen, design director; Mickey Friedman; James Johnson, chief graphic designer; Lorraine Ferguson, chief graphic designer; Peter Seitz, design curator; and John Calvelli, graphic designer. Photo: ©Walker Art Center

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.

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

Hand-painted Cinematheque Tangier mural

Seen above is sign painter Dan Madsen hard at work on a mural for the exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, A Project by Yto Barrada. Check out more photos and read an interview with him at Crosscuts, the Walker’s film/video blog.

Insights 2013: Job Wouters’ Home

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.

Insights 2013: Hort vs. Walker

  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 […]

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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.

 

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Insights 2013: Geoff McFetridge’s mural installation / Insights video

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 […]

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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 available for viewing on the Walker Channel and on the Walker Youtube page. You can check out more pics of Geoff’s Walker adventures here.

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A broad answer would be—everywhere. Ridiculous, but true: A ROLU Reader

So Matt Olson of ROLU (the Minneapolis-based landscape and furniture design studio) approached me a few weeks ago to talk about a potential project for their big display at this year’s Art Basel Miami/Design Miami. He came to me with the idea of coming up with a cheap zine that would talk about ROLU, include […]

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So Matt Olson of ROLU (the Minneapolis-based landscape and furniture design studio) approached me a few weeks ago to talk about a potential project for their big display at this year’s Art Basel Miami/Design Miami. He came to me with the idea of coming up with a cheap zine that would talk about ROLU, include a couple of interviews and a CV. Kind of like a press kit in a way, but less straight-forward. We decided to meet for breakfast to catch up and talk more about what it could be.

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Our conversation went all over the place: from talking about sailboats designed by Daniel Buren, Guy de Cointet’s sets for plays, a shared love of En Japanese Brasserie in New York, to our yet-to-be-realized trip to the anechoic chamber at Orfield Labratories (billed as the world’s quietest room right in town in Seward). It quickly became clear that however tangential or fleeting these interests and ideas and people were, they all have affected and informed their work in one way or another. The problem is if this is someone’s first introduction to their practice, would that glut of information presented be able to communicate—on the most basic level—what they do and where they work? We eventually agreed at some point that there was no use coming up with an elevator pitch to encapsulate it all, it’s just too intellectually sprawling. I was also afraid that you’d lose some of the soul and the quirkiness of the studio by trying to pare it down to its essence. I guess one way I tried to think about it is that the there is no essence, or it’s all essence, or as Matt put it, it’s “everywhere”.

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So instead of condensing, we decided to go the maximalist route and show as much as possible. In the way that their blog brings together this huge range of information, the publication collages all these different content types (images, texts, hyperlinks, quotes, interview fragments, etc.) onto a page, or a series of pages. We created a simple structure on the page where it was divided into four quadrants, and that different things would be housed into these compartments. Whenever possible, I like to use food analogies, and I kind of liken this to an appetizer sampler where all these distinct little treats allows for multiple ways for the reader to engage with their work and enter the piece. It’s not a full meal, but a series of light bites to pique interest!

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The final publication also collaged different materials and printing processes. The section I call “Matt’s Brain” was printed with a Riso (by our former fellow, Brian Walbergh) on this great flecked paper, while the nested essays and image sections were printed on the Walker design studio’s Ricoh laser printer on this slick glossy paper, which was honestly kind of a nightmare to use, but had an unexpected tactile effect when you printed big type. The CV was also laser printed, but on an uncoated, flourescent lime green paper. (I made Matt choose the paper, I just told him to think “Miami”). Key Lime Pie anyone?

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The reader was hand-assembled by Mike Brady and Sammie Warren of ROLU and myself. These guys were champs for spending their Sunday in the Art Lab, folding constantly and getting Riso ink all over their hands, and then buying me a patty melt and a stout at Eli’s (notice how I keep mentioning food?). In all, it took about 10 hours to produce 300 special color versions of the publication. A second black and white version was produced at our local FedEx Office in Uptown.

Two weeks after that initial meeting, all of them miraculously made it to sunny Miami, and just in time too. I think they were pretty happy with it.

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And a final note for those in the New York area, ROLU is currently part of the group exhibition Under $500 at Mondo Cane which runs from December 13th–January 3rd. The opening reception is literally right now (December 13th 6-9 pm). All works are under $500 and includes artists and designers such as Andy Beach, Eric Timothy Carlson, Matt Connors, Ditte Gantriis, Gemma Holt, Doug Johnson, Clemens Kois, Max Lamb, Mary Manning, Ian McDonald, Jonathan Nesci, Jim Oliveira, Study O Portable, and Omar Sosa & Nathalie du Pasquier.

Julian Bleecker: The Future Never Gets Old

“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 […]

Above: Three of a series of graphical representations of the future by Julian Bleecker

“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 . . .

Julian Bleecker doing something techy

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 Way Beyond Art: Wide White Space catalogue

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

 

 

 

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