’03 til infinity

The MVA Studio weblog—thoughts on design, creativity, business, marketing, teaching, writing and culture by J. Namdev Hardisty and Kimberlee Whaley.

I should be so lucky

I was driving home tonight listening to the 2002 album Two Guns Twin Arrows by Abilene. I have no idea how many people have even heard of the long-defunct Abilene but I’m guessing its 5,000 at the absolute max. There’s probably about 3,000 of these CD’s in circulation and because the label that issued it went out of business I have a feeling there’s boxes of these in a warehouse or, more likely, a closet somewhere.* But that doesn’t really matter because I own this record and it means a great deal to me whether there’s 10 or 10 million of them. Two Guns Twin Arrows is the kind of record that just dredges shit up in me. Its this raw mixture of guitar-driven screaming post-hardcore (in that guitarist Alex Dunham used to be in hardcore bands not that its weird or goofy) with some kind of jazz element due to the trumpet and quasi-dub underpinnings. All of which sounds horrid when put down to paper but its sounds like no other record I have heard. And it gets to me. I start thinking of big F situations—failure, frustration, my dead father. It just dredges shit up in me. I can’t point to what exactly does it (as if you ever can with a great record) but its not content-based as the lyrics are so cryptic as to border on meaningless (but just bordering). It has to be the emotional space of the music. It basically goes from raw, noisy and angry to melodic and melancholic. Its definitely not a record with “a little something for everybody.” I can’t listen to Abilene all the time. They produced 2 records, neither of which I will ever part with but I take them out in measured doses (and always this time of year incidentally). I think they’re some kind of therapy and so, for the next week or so, I’ll listen to them until I can’t handle it any longer and they’ll go back on the CD shelf for another 8 months or a year or whatever.

Abilene toured a little bit, they played shows and they sold CDs. And they probably never made a legitimate dime of profit off their efforts. Hopefully they made enough off of selling CDs and at the doors of clubs to get to the next city. They took time off of work to do the work of touring in a band but it was likely more of an expensive vacation. I doubt that they came home with more than a couple hundred dollars in each members pockets, if that. And while money is never the be all end all of creative endeavors it certainly helps to make things worth it. Abilene broke up sometime after Two Guns Twin Arrows and its no shocker. The members were in their 30’s, had been touring in different bands for 10 years plus and probably had to due the kind of “shit sorting out” that one needs to do in order to say, have kids or build a sustainable career. And while that’s sad, my point has nothing to do with the conundrum of aging work-horse punk musicians but with the value of their art. I have gotten something major emotionally out of Abilene’s music for 11 years. What are we really talking about? Two pieces of plastic that cost me a grand total of $25. How can something that bring so much value to my existence have cost me so little? What’s the real value of those discs? How much is it really worth to own something (or access it as the case may be) that can transport you to a wholly different emotional place; that can make you miss your father and cry in traffic? How did it come to be that the catalyst for that experience—a CD—cost me the price of lunch pro-rated 100 times across a decade?

Music industry 1.0—the making and selling of plastic objects—set the expectation that music was a commodity with no real differentiation between artists, hence every CD had (and has) to cost the same. The punk scene set the expectation that paying someone for their art was bullshit and hence CDs had to priced in such a way as to recoup the production costs and not much else (if the entire print-run sold out). Music Industry 2.0—the making and selling of bits—has continued this folly to its extreme. Music is now either free or $.99 a song. We’ve officially decided that a Snickers bar is worth more than a piece of music. What the fuck is wrong with us?

I don’t know how or if I can ever repay Abilene for what they’ve given me but I know its worth way more than the $12 I paid for a copy of Two Guns Twin Arrows and its definitely worth more than $2.28 that you can buy a new copy of it on Amazon.** On the one hand, its offensive to musicians that we find it reasonable that they’re creative output is worth less than a pizza but on the other hand, what is it that we’re constantly complaining about? The most compelling and affective art that we engage with in our daily lives is music. And we get it for nothing. We complained that CDs were pushing $20 a piece. Our complaint wasn’t that it was $20 and musicians were still getting screwed on royalties, no, we complained because we knew that it only cost $.95 to manufacture a CD (as if we really had a clue as to what it cost to manufacture anything) so therefore we were paying $19.05 too much.

I don’t have an answer as to what a download of a song should cost but I know this, we should feel royally fucking blessed that right now it only costs $.99. There would be a gaping void in my life if Two Guns Twin Arrows, Life.Love.Regret., It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Paul’s Boutique, and every other transformative record were to be erased from existence. What if every $15 I ever spent managed to bring me so much repeated enjoyment for years to come? I should be so lucky.

*Hopefully, I’m wrong about this and there’s 10,000 copies all of which have found a happy and loving home. **But, I see that you can buy a new copy for as little as $2.28 on Amazon so I think my instincts are correct on this one.

Related Links:

Kieler Woche posters

If you visit the website of the largest sailing event in the world Kieler Woche, you are not going to be struck by the quality of design. But the festival does have a legacy of commissioning great modernist design by the likes of Wim Crouwel, Anton Stankowski, Otto Treumann, Jean Widmer, Ruedi Baur, Ben Bos, Siegfried Odermatt, Rosemarie Tissi, and Bernd Kuchenbeiser.

Some personal favorites:

1954, designed by Achim Bargatzki

1962, designed by Anton Stankowski

1964, designed by Hans Hillman

1972, designed by Rolf Müller

1995, designed by Barbara and Gerd Baumann

You can check out whole series from 1948–2011 here. In addition, if you poke around the design section of the site and click on “Übersicht der eingerichten Entwürfe,” you can view the all of the final submissions (multiple designers are asked to submit sketches each year) for each year going back to 2005 and stumble onto some gems like this rejected poster by Jörg Zintzmeyer.

…“What needs to be obvious?” is a better question to ask than “What’s high priority?” Further, priority doesn’t tell you anything about cost. And the first thing to internalize is that everything has a cost.
Making something obvious has a cost. You can’t make everything obvious because you have limited resources. I’m not talking money—although that may be part of it too. I’m primarily talking screen real estate, attention span, comprehension, etc.
Making something obvious is expensive because it often means you have to make a whole bunch of other things less obvious. Obvious dominates and only one thing can truly dominate at a time. It may be worth it to make that one thing completely obvious, but it’s still expensive.

— Jason Fried on software development (though the correlation to design proper is fairly clear), from “The Obvious, the Easy, and the Possible” at Signal vs. Noise

20 observations, questions and hopes in response to the Girl/Chocolate video trailer

Girl & Chocolate Trailer from Crailtap on Vimeo.

  1. Is it really called Girl Skateboards Chocolate Skateboards Video? Or, from Girl Films & Chocolate Cinema? I really hope so. Untitled Video from Girl Films & Chocolate Cinema would also be pretty great.
  2. It’s cool that a lot of the makes are from ads—Alex Olson’s picnic table ollie and Gino’s kickflip-pivot-to-fakie stand out.
  3. Is there going to be legit Pops footage? He actually flips his board in here.
  4. I’m psyched on a new Devine Calloway part.
  5. Finally there’s video of Mike Mo’s late-pressure flips (even if its on flat)! I’ve been dying to see this since one of the mags ran a Chocolate southern U.S. tour feature and Mo was doing a late-pressure flip over a double-set.
  6. There’s 2 540° ollies in here. I think that’s significant.
  7. Cory Kennedy has been blowing minds for awhile but his 2 clips in the trailer are amazing. A full-part with Ty Evans at the helm seems like it has the potential to go curtains.
  8. Unless, of course, MJ continues his Fully Flared tear. Which seems extremely likely.
  9. Where’s Carroll? Did I miss him in there or has he been sticking exclusively to to filming in parking lots (of which I would gladly watch 3 minutes of)?
  10. Guy Mariano. 2 parts in a 5-year period. Yes.
  11. I will be really down with a full part of just doubles.
  12. Am I correct that the Elijah Berle banked wall clip is on the waterfront in Chicago?
  13. Is this going to be really, really long video?
  14. I can’t even imagine how you edit this trailer, there’s so many names in line-up. 26 of ’em to be exact.
  15. 20 of these is going to be hard.
  16. This might not be a popular opinion but I was kind of happy about the over-all lack of skits in the last Girl/Crailtap production Fully Flared and I would be just fine if this video is basically wall-to-wall skating.
  17. But, then again, all the skits in Yeah Right were pretty great.
  18. Are we going to see a lot of transition? Its weird that Chocolate would be the team to bring it back.*
  19. Ty Evans, Corey Weincheque, and Spike Jonze are the dream team. Seriously, how do you make a trailer for a skate video seem so epic with such a low ratio of people-doing-tricks to people-falling-in-a-not-particulary-gnarly-way-and-dudes-faces-looking-emotional?
  20. Best video since Fully Flared? All signs point to yes.**

Bonus: Number 16 has been redacted in light of re-viewing the items linked to in Number 17.

*With respect to Creature and Grant Taylor, of course.
**With all due respect to Stay Gold.

Neat Vol. 1

Some interesting UI stuff—Namdev

5by5.tv has a button you can turn on so that links open in a new window. (I love this because I open everything in a new tab with the goal of making it take about 30 minutes for Firefox to start up.)

Top: The search field at apple.com when you load the page.
Bottom: The search field once you insert the cursor.

Top: The footer on the already excellently designed Daring Fireball.
Bottom: The Appearance settings on Daring Fireball where you can only change the font-size. I like that this sends the message that changing color or typeface is bullshit and the font-size is most likely the biggest culprit in terms of reading difficulty.

Introducing Boring Typography

It was in 2006 when I first noticed that I was going to used bookstores and purposefully looking for books with black sentence-case (only the first letter of the first work is capitalized) sans serif type on a white spine. This method of selecting books to browse through actually turned out to be fairly productive in that I ended up with a couple of books that I absolutely love. Later as I was teaching at MCAD I blew many lunch breaks just browsing the stacks randomly picking up books and judging them by their spines. It was a long-running joke that I was going to make a book called Boring Typography and it would just be a thousand pages of architecture and engineering books from the 1960s with left-justified Helvetica on the cover.

Well, I finally did it. Except its a blog. We set up a copy stand in the studio. I’ve been checking out books by the dozens from the MCAD Library. I’ve spent hours driving around the Twin Cities tracking down every last remaining International Style sign. And I’ve been posting images daily for the last few weeks.

So, to celebrate the launch of Boring Typography, here’s the MVA crew with their favorite covers.

Namdev with Ad Reinhardt (1966)

Kim with Signs in Action (1965)

Our daughter Patience with Creative Playgrounds and Recreation Centers (1969)

Zoey with The Nature of Recreation (1972)

Often the best way to find out what I think about something is to write about it. There’s this assumption that you must know about something to write about it, but often the process of writing about something mirrors the process of learning about it. Certain pieces I write I know will be key pieces, but other shorter writing is almost like a gym workout — it keeps my mind sharp and my eyes open.

Project Projects principal, design educator and writer Rob Giampietro interviewed by Justin Kropp. A fantastic and short read on work of all kinds.

I don’t know that enough people understand that writing is a process of discovery moreso than a process of dictation.

The work was not idea-based in the sense of cute metaphors or rhetorical tactics more familiar in advertising campaigns. It was not what I refer to as ‘one-move’ design, where an initial idea is then swiftly completed in one gesture without subsequent refinement. Our work involved multiple moves, a step-by-step compositional progression, and in that sense had a large element of craft to it.

Simon Johnston, founding partner of 8vo on the modus operandi of that studio. From his essay “Dust” for the 8vo monograph 8vo: On the Outside (2005, Lars Müller Publishers). I love the bit about “cute metaphors.”

In an undergraduate environment, you want to give students good basics — good education starts with the imaginative teaching of basic things. The following is completely speculative. Were I to redesign an undergraduate course, I would form three islands of basic practice that people could subscribe to, which would start to connect and link as the study progresses. Students cannot just leave the island they’re on and hop to another along the way. For them to change they have to expand their island and make it bigger, so they get nearer to or farther away from other islands. They have to stay faithful to their initial choice even if it was not the best choice. If they start out in “corporate identity” but find they really want to be in “social media,” they have to make their corporate identity be more like social media. At least in the Netherlands, some of the reforms of art schools have resulted in students hopping their way through the curriculum in a completely haphazard way without learning anything. What I argue for is the idea of staying faithful to an initial choice that teaches basics — then expanding as your interests develop. The curriculum could never pre-design the encounters. Students find out that what had seemed to be their choice for a single direction actually does not warrant their autonomy but brings them in contact with others who chose differently. I also don’t like design cliques. People who sit together and all agree that they’ve got it right (and consequently others got it wrong). You have to have difference, and sensitivity to difference as an idea, in order to make an exceptional school. But the same goes for having a studio.

Daniel van der Velden of MetaHaven on how he would design an undergraduate design program. I’m especially interested in the part about students “hopping their way through the curriculum in a completely haphazard way without learning anything.” I think much of the obsession with students needing to generate their own content is contributing to this same problem. On the other hand, we don’t need any more student-designed soap packaging and wine bottles either.

Its also always interesting to see that no matter how visually aggressive or conceptual a designers work might seem (i.e., Elliott Earls, Ed Fella, van der Velden) a respect for “chops” is a common thread. Considering how much of the design education debate is centered around “social design” or “authorial design” I appreciate that van der Velden, whose practice certainly overlaps these areas, advocates for the plurality of design practice and education. (Source: A Conversation with Daniel van der Velden at Design Observer).

Sidenote: Daniel van der Velden and Maureen Mooren as MM&DVDD gave one of the best design talks I’ve ever seen at the Walker Art Center in 2005.

I like things that play with reference points in such a way as to throw you off balance. Rather than pastiche, where everything is on the surface, there’s a way of triggering ones memory of things that confuses rather than makes apparent.

British designer Julian House (Intro Partners/Ghost Box records) on the way he integrates visual references into his work.

This idea of references rather than pastiche is something that really resonates with us. We like to play with this idea of a piece containing a web of references that we actually don’t care if the reader consciously understands. Each project should have multiple layers. Layer 1 is readability, composition, aesthetics; basically communication. Layer 2 is the game we play that informs the aesthetics. Sometimes you can put it together, other times we’d have to be standing there to explain a poster’s relationship to NWA and the Los Angeles Raiders.