You might be used to judging books by their covers, but have you ever encountered a cover that judges its book? Literally?
The first tangible result of John Bielenberg’s debuting Project M, a four-week workshop focused on Thinking Wrong, is a rather hefty book that, in its cover, asks in regards to its production and existence:
The responses to these two questions, from Project M’s seven participating designers, are printed in the cover, back cover and their respective insides in a bright, cornea-chafing red. The package I received from John even included instructions (Instructions for what? Was my first reaction). So right from the start you know this is different. The book is around 200-250 pages (can’t tell, since there are no page numbers) all consisting of black and white photography taken by the participants. The images are not what I would deem neither captivating nor riveting, rather, they show sterile, mundane activities that took place during the four-week stay at The Bielenberg Institute at the Edge of the Earth in picturesque Searsport, Maine.
The first flip-through of the book does beg to ask question number one on the cover or in my case What the hell…? I have to admit that I skipped the instructions — as I do with most things requiring instructions — so this first interaction with the book reveals nothing but images of the participants coming from and going to the airport, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, scribbling on note pads, zipping their hoodies, leaning on walls, resting on porches, walking through unpaved roads and a few shots of John drinking water. As well as close-ups of coffee mugs, dogs, Art Chantry, rolls of film and what I think and hope is a snail. All the pages also have some strange, very defined white markings in the middle of the page at a 45 degree angle — each page has a different one, and finally I realize that I better read the instructions.
Fold over all the photo pages […] to reveal the hidden Project M theme. I’m supposed to take this pretty book, fold each page and ruin it? How am I going to put it in my bookshelf after that? I dog-ear books every now and then, but I still feel kind of guilty after doing it and now I’m expected to do it to this whole book? Permanently? Not to mention the laziness that overcomes me of the thought of having to fold over 200 pages. At last I decide to go for it, I start folding the pages, one by one, a couple of paper cuts here and there, thirty minutes and I’m still folding while watching TV, I wonder if others are taking as much time folding the pages or if I am just a slow-folder? Eventually I’m done…Think gnorw.
And that is the beauty of this book, it’s an experience, an interaction that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Sure, in the end you have no idea what to do with it, but the process of doubt, tediousness and the aha! ending all account for an upbeat, unexpected experience with an everyday object like a book. The book might have little useful purpose, perhaps it’s not the groundbreaking idea that Graphic Design is waiting for (although I think it’s pretty nifty) and, pessimistically, people not attached to this project might think Four weeks and $2000 for that? Maybe that’s the irony of Thinking Wrong: Was it worth doing this book? Did it serve any purpose? Is it wrong? Possibly, but the only way to find out is to allow oneself the opportunity to Think Wrong and make mistakes in order to get to the right answer eventually. The Project M book is in essence a self-serving one-joke gimmick… and I laughed my head off.
Q & A with John Bielenberg
Q: The first question that comes to mind and one that perhaps is intended to go unanswered is what does the M stand for in Project M?
A: The M stands for 3 things:
2. Mockbee (as in Samuel, and the Rural Studio, one of my inspirations for this program)
3. Messages (as in graphic design as communication, not just a visual language)
Q: In the cover of your book you ask two questions about its production: a)Is it significant? Or b)Is it a self-serving one joke gimmick? It seems that the thought of it being a one-joke gimmick crossed your mind, but in the end you produced it, what is this book to you?
A: This is a funny book. Actually, it helps to think of it as either an exercise or metaphor for “thinking wrong.” The photographs are a backdrop for the process. As the “reader” folds the pages, they are participating in the act by violating the normal conventions and rules of books. I’m pretty happy with it. At least I haven’t seen anything quite like it.
Q: Project M, and more specifically this first book, is based on the premise of “Thinking Wrong,” could you elaborate on this?
A: Simply, humans usually think along pre-existing, learned, pathways. It’s how we function. Creative endeavors, like design, benefit greatly from breaking those patterns and generating multiple alternative solutions. Thinking guru Edward DeBono calls it “lateral thinking.” Thinking Wrong is a technique that gives you permission to question everything before focusing on the appropriate solution.
Q: While students seem the obvious choice as participants for Project M, do you think this experience would be equally valuable (or as successful) with seasoned, practicing designers?
A: Absolutely! This first year was designed for newly graduated graphic designers, just before they hit the streets looking for jobs. I wanted to infect then with the idea that they can use design to have a meaningful effect on something they feel is significant.
I think that a rejuvenating retreat for seasoned designers would be great. Although it would probably have to be shortened to a week or so.
Q: What is the dynamic during the month, is there a strict schedule or are participants free to roam and work as they feel? Are there critique sessions, working sessions, how have you structured the project?
A: Good question. I left it intentionally unstructured last summer hoping that the designers would figure it out for themselves, thinking that this was a valuable lesson to learn. What I learned was that people in groups work more productively with some structure. In the future, I’ll schedule regular reviews and working “think wrong” sessions.
Q: What role do the visiting advisors play? And how do you choose who to invite?
A: The advisors played different roles last summer. Laurie Rosenwald ran a 3-day workshop called “Making Mistakes,” Art Chantry gave marathon slide lectures, others gave critiques and a couple, unfortunately, just partied. I chose them from my Project M Advisory Group or if someone I respected showed special interest in the program.
Q: Will Project M evolve into anything more than a one month intensive program?
A: I plan on it. Project M is actually the summer design program run by the Bielenberg Institute at the Edge of the Earth. My goal is to eventually have different programs running all year. I’m taking it one step at a time.
In 2004, Project M will be located in Costa Rica for 2 weeks and Maine for 2 weeks. I hope to have a multi-disciplinary team of 2 designers, a writer, a photographer and a filmmaker working on a project to help the efforts of ecologist Prof. Dan Janzen save the rainforest at the Guanacaste Conservation Area.