A conflation I would like to explore: we typically use “narrative” to mean a chronology, but we also use it to refer to representations of people or things at single moments in time. Maybe the meaning has expanded in this way because we pull from our pasts to generate unified representations of our present selves?
People often use the term “philosophy” to describe a set of rules or guiding principles for how to behave, but I like to think of it as almost the antithesis to this: philosophy is what you do when your rules cease to make sense or fail to account for your present circumstances. This is similar to the distinction that John Dewey marks between “customary” and “reflective” morality.
11/8/2023 some thoughts on designing collaboratively
One thing that it has taken me a while to wrap my head around is how designers work collaboratively; design seems to depend on the execution of a single coherent vision, and I wasn't sure how you could bring multiple people into that process as equal creative partners.
In my first forays into the professional world, I've gotten exposed to several approaches to this, and I’m tentatively forming an insight about what works well for me: it’s ideal to avoid situations where multiple people independently tackle the same asset. This forces a team to try to consolidate and litigate between different concepts that each author feels creatively invested in. In my experience it’s far easier to build on a single concept, driven by one primary author, through discussion and debate with backseat collaborators.
As a primary author, I’ve really appreciated this model because it allows me to address my collaborators’ feedback in a way that feels unified and coherent with my own ideas. And on the other side, I was surprised to find that as a backseat collaborator I don’t feel creatively disempowered (although this is partially to the credit of generous collaborators). On the contrary, I feel creatively empowered because I can spitball ideas and amendments to the design without putting the primary author under any pressure to accept them directly, and the end product feels like something which I share authorship in.
I should probably make clear that this is by no means a categorical rule: there are probably many cases, such as a preliminary ideation phase or a particularly large project with many components, where working simultaneously is useful or even necessary. It just hinges on being and working with collaborators that don’t invest too heavily in their own ideas, and possibly having a hierarchy where lead designers set the direction and adjudicate disagreements.
11/5/2023 Janna Levin & Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Kleptoplasty is a phenomenon so strange and alien that before its discovery it would have been considered physically and anatomically impossible. Certain sea slugs can steal an algae’s lifegiving material, sucking up DNA, proteins, and cells through a straw-like organ. The slugs are then able to photosynthesize, metabolizing light just like the planta they’ve pillaged, turning green with chlorophyll. The divide between fauna and flora, alive or not, dissolves under the pressure of this discovery. How can you not be moved? Where is the sense in insisting, “No, I am a slug. And you are a plant”? Or “I am the plant and you are the slug”?
In that dissolution is a demonstration of the cultural power of science. The seemingly obvious axioms of our humanity—who we are, what we are—are in an instant reconceived.
— editor’s introduction to Issue 1, Fall 2023 of Broadcast (print edition)
Contrary to Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, I’m now of the attitude that ideas do transcend language: you can believe something without being able to articulate it. But I think his basic point was that ideas don’t live in some untouchable mental realm; they manifest themselves in our everyday practices and dispositions.
I think there's something to the idea that we read not only to open our minds to new ideas, but also to find better articulations of the ideas that resonate with us, words that give form to our existing attitudes.
Foreword to The Most Beautiful Swiss Books 2023 exhibition at Pratt Institute: a conversation between Gaia Scagnetti Hwang, Chairperson of the Pratt Graduate Communications department, and Scott Vander Zee, Adjunct Assistant Professor
Gaia on bookmaking as an act of inquiry:
At the core of our MA in Communications Design at Pratt lies the foundational idea that the program serves as a space for students to learn not only to manipulate design as a mode of production but also as a mode of inquiry. This educational framework shifts away from traditional academic paradigms.
When bookmaking is approached as a mode of inquiry, rather than simply as a means of dissemination, the relationship with the production chain undergoes a significant shift. The goal of bookmaking isn’t just to produce, but to investigate, experiment, and explore. As such, each specialist involved in the design and production process becomes a collaborator in the research itself.
In light of this, a provocative question arises: If the act of bookmaking is itself a form of inquiry, how does that redefine the relationship between the graduate students and the specialists involved in the production chain? Given your expertise in the field of book design, I am keen to hear your insights on this question: Does the reframing of bookmaking as a practice of inquiry alter the stakes when graduate students engage with the entire production process?
Scott on production as R&D phases:
Bookmaking—as an art and /or craft—can only truly succeed through multiple forms of inquiry. They (books) are investigations into language and its formulation; systems, hierarchies, and dramaturgies; printing and binding techniques; and various aspects of materiality they are formal objects; sensory experiences; and capsules of physical presence, time, and thought. They are a technology, etymologically speaking. Within this framing, the best-case scenario is for students to become as much of a specialist as possible with the production processes of bookmaking and its impact on design.
The production process, despite typically being associated with mechanical finalization, actually begins (or should) at a book’s conception—inquiring into what’s relevant and appropriate, captivating, affordable, ecological, etc. From the beginning of any book project, designers undergo a series of R&D phases. The reason being, that production cannot be an afterthought in bookmaking. This is why students’ engagement with them plays such a crucial role in understanding the full spectrum of design and its processes and, within the context of a school, why it’s important to see them explore and experiment with all such possibilities.
Gaia on books without arguments:
You raise a compelling point. What intrigues me is the notion commonly held by students that research and production are separate phases, or at least distinct skill sets. This perspective seems to relegate research to an optional, purely intellectual process that operates in a vacuum and is needed mostly for innovation. On the other hand, production is often perceived as a vocational process—reliant on the dexterity of skills and developing from a concrete objective and outcome.
This false dichotomy lies at the heart of many of the failures in our discipline. It often prevents design projects from communicating through an argument or a point of view.
And to take a step forward in our conversation, I feel it’s worth exploring those failures in this context. Specifically, what types of books do we end up with when production is merely an afterthought. What do books look like when they are designed without an argument? Or, maybe even further, do books always communicate a point of view regardless of production choices? This reminds me of the 1972 edition of Learning From Las Vegas designed by Muriel Cooper versus the 1977 paperback edition. I feel that the two editions live in two parallel universes
Scott on designing with intentionality:
The types of books we end up with when the production is an afterthought and /or they are designed without an argument, is what we see 85-90% of the time. One thing I always try to get across—about design in general, but typography and typesetting specifically is that it should have an attitude. That’s not to imply it has to be an aggressive, brutal, or bold one; however, design decisions should feel intentional. Intentionality functions as the argument in design and the forethought of production.
Agreed. Most editions do live in parallel worlds-especially if redesigned. This is what makes editions interesting, regardless of which is perceived as having a higher value or better design. Kind of like re-issues of recordings in music, etc. Regardless, there’s an inherited conversation between them all. Similarly, this newspaper sets in dialog with the official catalog related to the exhibition of The Most Beautiful Swiss Books as well.
Gaia on “the magic”:
Building on our earlier discussion, it’s evident that the design process can yield unforeseen narratives identities that are sometimes unexpected even to the authors. Books are such good examples of the revealing power of design, the ability to show us more evidently what we might have intuitively perceived but now is presented in front of our eyes. This is the magic that happens at the intersection of intentionality, argument, production, and inquiry.
10/29/2023 Martin Scorsese on Letterboxd
I love the idea of putting different films together into one program. I grew up seeing double features, programs in repertory houses, evenings of avant-garde films in storefront theatres. You always learn something, see something in a new light, because every movie is in conversation with every other movie. The greater the difference between the pictures, the better.
Over the years, I’ve been asked to pair my own pictures with older films by other people that have inspired them. The request has come from film festivals, which present the pairings as a program. The terms “inspiration” and “influence” aren’t completely accurate. I think of them as companion films. Sometimes the relationship is based on inspiration. Sometimes it’s the relationships between the characters. Sometimes it’s the spirit of the picture. Sometimes it’s far more mysterious than that.
from a collection he made on letterboxd
10/25/2023 saying it aloud
“It’s a very personal kind of expressivity, a meditation on character where the music and the editing is meant to share the filmmakers’ — and they are filmmakers — readings,” said Francesca Coppa, a fandom scholar who teaches English and film studies at Muhlenberg College. “And then other people buy into those readings, like, Yes, I totally see that.”
Ms. McLaughlin says that editing helps her process what she’s consuming. “It’s kind of like when you have a thought and it isn’t fully realized until you say it out loud,” she said.
10/18/2023 the commitments we make
Following up on my takeaways from an interview of Masha Gessen:
I think what I find compelling about the idea of a “liberatory” framework for gender — as opposed to a “rights-based” or deterministic one — is that it moves us away from fraught metaphysical debates that never resolve, and towards conversations about the recognition we humbly ask of and depend on from one another. In other words, the rights-based framework forces our discussion of gender to be argumentative and combative, whereas the liberatory framework turns it into an open social dialogue.
And more broadly, that seems to me to be a good way of thinking about morality in general — it’s about the commitments we make to each other, not what we categorically owe each other.
10/5/2023 Lara Palmquist
In every way, the literary life involves collecting: words and ideas, libraries and anthologies, yes, even architectural dictionaries. One of the writer’s essential duties is to gather—to filter and weave fragments, to refract perspectives and form new points of contact. The reader, in turn, acts the Widsith’s listening audience, learning from the sojourner’s song how to speak of the textures of life. Such is the ongoing, collaborative nature of a language we are not born knowing; we cannot express ourselves without first encountering the words of others. As is often remarked, effective writing serves not as explanation, but invitation—a bowerbird’s nest of noticings, calling other minds to take roost.
10/5/2023 Lara Palmquist
I do not equate advanced vocabulary with intelligence, though I do suspect precision is another way of becoming more present. As Hempel suggests, I believe that hoarding or heeding words—whether slang, vernacular, or verbs-turned-nouns—is a means to improve our attention and, by extension, ourselves. We can read for plot, for story, or for information, but reading for words affords unique gains; every term amassed further liberates us from falling back on default language, thus granting as much fidelity as possible to whatever we wish to express or describe.
10/5/2023 Lara Palmquist
The dictionary is part of my own reading process; if I come across a word I do not know, I look it up and record (or hoard) the definition in a notebook. This can make for slow going, as when I recently read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, narrated by a woman with an outsize vocabulary. Yet the effort to define new words never felt tedious; rather, I felt a sense of intentional awareness similar to when a biology course taught me to identify species of birds by their songs. The noisy symbols on the page suddenly held meaning: oneiric, pertaining to dreams; verklempt, overjoyed. I’d found word-treasure, and Fowler had provided the map.
— Lara Palmquist, A Gathering of Particulars: On Building a Word-Hoard
10/3/2023 Charles Finch
At any moment on our planet there are at most a few dozen novelists working with great power, for a broad audience, with the material of consciousness, which is what the novel is so uniquely good at handling, how it feels to be inside us, what it means, the devastations and beauties it brings. Murakami is one of them. If his book about that experience is fitful and odd, perhaps it reveals, rather than diminishes, the undomesticated radiance of his gifts. “I am not an ornithologist,” Saul Bellow once said. “I am a bird.”
— Charles Finch, in his review of Haruki Murakami’s memoir, Novelist as Vocation
“Human beings are not short-term, selfish, hedonistic consumers, or at least that’s not our entirety, and we’re losing the depth of our own humanity by living inside a system that pretends we are those individuals, and that creates all the institutional arrangements to confine us in what I see as a kind if a cage. I see capitalism as a cage that confines us to an image of ourselves that I don’t personally believe in… The only people who do seem to believe in it are economists.”
— economist Tim Jackson on Today Explained
My dream is for consumers to move away from using many different subscription-based, web-hosted services, each with their own cloud storage feature, and shift to a model in which each person uses just one or two services like Dropbox to sync local files across multiple devices, editing them with software installed locally and purchased through one-time or update-based payments.
One wrinkle in this that I see is that online collaboration depends on a centralized server host, typically the company providing the service. So my further dream is that we find a way to decentralize server hosting and empower ordinary users to host their own servers.
Where does a fact live, if not in a true statement?
In “operational coherence” (to use Hasok Chang’s not-so-catchy term). That is, in the successful actions taken and predictions made based on knowledge of that fact.
There is a lovely parallel that I’m starting to see here between Chang and Wittgenstein: where does the meaning of a term live, per Wittgenstein? Not in a single brittle definition, but in its use.
Maybe, just as the diverse and infinite uses of a term mean you can never reach a conclusive definition, the diverse and infinite actions you can take to validate a fact mean you can never exclude it completely from doubt. This points back to Chang’s idea of truth in degrees rather than a binary.
9/22/2023 the pastry baker and the doctor
I’ve heard linguists say that for all its success, the lack of mechanistic interpretability in LLMs means they don’t really help us understand how language works, and to that extent it’s more of an engineering innovation than a scientific one.
But within a pragmatist conception of knowledge, where truth is grounded in applicability and direct contact with experience, how do we make sense of this? Would AI not be a model of good science? Here is maybe one way of making sense of this: AI technology can produce impressive results in the contexts that it was designed for, i.e. simulating coherent human behavior, but unlike a typical scientific model, it doesn’t provide concepts and methods that you can apply in other contexts, and connect to other domains of knowledge. The “knowledge” it provides is very brittle.
To use an old example from Socrates, it’s like comparing the pastry baker and the doctor: a good pastry baker knows how to produce things which bring people pleasure in the short-term, but they can’t relate that to things like the chemistry of the food and the functioning of the body, and they can’t predict the impact their goods will have on the health of a person in the long term. This is what doctors can do: bring knowledge from anatomy, medicine, chemistry, etcetera to bear on our everyday activities and diet, interrogating and explaining the behavior of the body.
9/22/2023 truth by comparison
An important distinction to make is, there’s truth by operational coherence, which works by direct confrontation with experience, and what I call truth by comparison: sometimes you say “yes, the truth of this statement consists in its agreement with other things we regard as true. So, yeah, global warming is true. Why? Because we already believe in the cogency of our temperature measurement methods, and here are the data produced by those methods.” We’re not directly checking global warming in the sense of truth by operational coherence, usually, but we’re checking it by comparison.
— Hasok Chang, in this lecture about Realism for Realistic People
But now, what is truth? It’s easy to talk about truth in terms of language, of course: statements are true when they accurately describe reality. But what about reality, truth itself? The best we seem to be capable of saying is this: reality is “the way the world is” (monistic), or “the way things are” (pluralistic). Reality is “what’s true” and truth consists of “what’s real”. But what is it for crying out loud? This is the noumenal question at the bottom of it all, and I have the inkling of an intuition that the reason I have trouble answering it is that the question doesn’t make sense. It’s somehow malformed.
Here is roughly how I make sense of the correspondence theory of truth: facts are built out of basic grammatical components, each referring to features of the world. You combine them like lego bricks to create complex representations of reality. It’s the idea of a kind of isometry between representation and reality, like making a map of a territory: different symbols represent different things and their spatial relation to one another, and we assess the map’s accuracy and fidelity by comparison with the real thing, using the key and the scale.
I’ve been feeling like at least part of the correspondence theory is built into the very idea of a “representation”: a representation is a representation of something. It is not the thing itself, but it refers to it in a very special way. It says “I resemble the thing that I’m referring to, if you interpret my features in a certain way”. A challenge for anyone wanting to do away with the correspondence theory, I think, is to reconcile with the inherent notions of correspondence in the idea of representation, and in our everyday language.
As I write this, what is at least clear to me is that the correspondence theory is a theory about the relationship between truth and language. Specifically, what constitutes a fact and determines statements as factual. So it likely involves either a silent assumption about what truth is, or a definite theory about it.
Dominant user interface conventions are functionally useful for website visitors, but also a source of homogeny across the web — maybe the right mindset for a designer (in a commercial context) is that breaking them is okay, even if they cause some initial confusion for a visitor, as long as you provide cues to guide people on how to navigate a page.
9/19/2023 tools both constrain and expand the field of possibility
There are ideas here I really agree with: we should strive to be independent of proprietary software, and at a basic level, I don’t think you should identify a designer’s ability with creative cloud proficiency. But I don’t think we ought to trivialize the significance of tools either.
As I’ve come to understand it, design is a field constituted by shared conventions, both internal to the designer community, in that we share common tooling and methodologies, and in public, in that we all share visual and cultural reference points. When technology and culture shift, we may pick up and discard various tools and skillsets — hot metal type exchanged for phototypesetting, etc. But this does not mean that our roles can be conceived entirely independently of our tools. Rather, the meaning of the role changes along with changes in tooling.
My perhaps divisive view is that the “embellishment, commercialization, and industrialization” of design is really all there is to design. There is no platonic design mindset or skillset outside of the contingent technologies and cultural practices which ground our work.
Some of the skills that I picked up from my own design education — e.g. the ability to articulate and justify my ideas, the ability to visually order information, the ability to research, etc — are indeed not dependent on any tool, but my role as a designer still hinges on tool proficiency and familiarity with the designed surfaces of this day and age. Typography, and the availability of typefaces, for example, are a technical skill and a tool, but also something integral to my sense of self as a graphic designer.
I can say the same of “engineering” from my background as a web developer — what I’m capable of, what I can even conceive, depends on the constraints of the html/css/js.
In design as well as engineering, I think tools both constrain and expand the field of possibility. None of what we do makes sense without including them in the picture.
I think there is something to the idea that, in order to persist in a long personal project with no outside pressure, you have to be as in love with your process as with the desired output.
In the past I’ve debated with people about the efficacy of bullets (as designers are oft prone to do in their free time), and as a “pro-bullets” person, something I’ve just realized is that my affection for them comes from their value not as reading aides, but as writing aides. The conventions around bulleted text are such that in using them, there’s less pressure to write complete and well-constructed sentences. That makes them ideal for getting your thoughts out on the page. One might even say, “I think in bullets”.
8/24/2023 update to goby.garden
Changing the facts can change which facts are intelligible. For example:
If Peggy is a person (fact), then it makes sense to ask “how many toes does Peggy have?” or “what is Peggy’s favorite color?”. But if Peggy is a plant (alternate fact), then these questions no longer make much sense, ordinarily speaking.
“I think we’ve ended up in a classic situation where people who are fans of tech end up pointing to a new tech thing and saying ‘this is gonna solve all our problems’ when it’s already a solved problem, when the solution is to design streets around people: fund transit instead of designing them around cars.”
— Mingwei Samuel of Safe Street Rebel, on Hard Fork discussing self-driving cars in SF
“I get asked a lot about learning to code. Sure, if you can. It's fun. But the real action, the crux of things, is there in the database. Grab a tiny, free database like SQLite. Import a few million rows of data. Make them searchable. It's one of the most soothing activities known to humankind, taking big piles of messy data and massaging them into the rigid structure required of a relational database. It's true power.”
— Paul Ford, in this column
“I've always loved that moment when someone shows you the thing they built for tracking books they've read or for their jewelry business. Amateur software is magical because you can see the seams and how people wrestled the computer. Like outsider art. So much of the tech industry today is about making things look professional, maybe convincing Apple to let you into the App Store to join the great undifferentiated mass of other apps. That's software. When people build their own Airtable to feed the neighborhood, that's culture.”
— Paul Ford, in this column
“Code isn't enough on its own. We throw code away when it runs out its clock; we migrate data to new databases, so as not to lose one precious bit. Code is a story we tell about data.”
— Paul Ford, in this column
In re-designing the goby database architecture to address earlier limitations, I’m learning new things about what my original idea entails logically (things which the old database architecture failed to capture adequately).
The idea that I should be “discovering” new things in trying to map a logical schema is really amusing to me — it’s logic, so in a sense it’s all there from the start, waiting to be deduced from fully available information. But of course there’s only so much I can hold in my head at a time, so things never occur to me or I assume they’ll work out at first. As a result, I have moments of ‘discovery’ when I realize implications of what I’m trying to do.
Commercially viable websites often seem to have the weight of the world on them: they’re a big investment and the public face of an organization, and to that end they have to be extremely robust, functional, refined, and cohesive.
Accordingly I’m finding it’s a joy to be able to work on small, one-off editorial web projects, where the room for play and experiment is much broader, although the design decisions still have to be well-considered.
7/16/2023 Stuart Bailey
The ICA has so far resisted the drive towards lowest-common-denominator programming that countless institutions adopt to attract the highest audience numbers. And likewise, we have aimed to avoid the bland, diluting effects of design-by-committee industry defaults that precipitate the easy slide into monoculture, instead championing the idiosyncratic and particular. In the ongoing drift from physical to digital means of channelling information, holding specific information in suspension with a generic template is not getting any easier, but it is a necessary job lest we are shortly made redundant ourselves...
— Stuart Bailey discussing the design of the ICA identity and the role of templates in the digital age in Revue Faire no45
continued on are.na...
This page caps at the ~40ish latest entries — partly because it would be laborious to implement a dynamic feed, and partly because I like the idea of this page being finite, like a journal ran out of pages — you can see earlier blocks in the full channel on are.na.