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Screen — First Session

“We remain slaves to the round-the-clock media, addicted to the images they project, the idealized, the romanticized, dramatized renditions of ourselves, our heroes and our enemies, crystallizations of our seemingly endless stream of material fetishes.”

“The line between fiction and non-fiction gets murkier, making it fundamentally impossible to distinguish reality from illusion.”

“Somewhere along the way, we all drank from the same spiked Kool Aid.”

Click here (Pop-up Window) to read the full set of questions and dissecting by Kiran. Otherwise, we have selected a few of the top questions and highlighted them here. Preferably, read the whole thing. It will be good for you.

1. One, Two, Three, Faux: The Myth of Real Time

a) If life is “real time” today, do we or are we burned out? Is that why some designers have suggested or said we are in a slump? Perhaps we aren’t burned out; perhaps technological advancements have nothing to do with the state of design?

2. Television Did It First: Ten Myths about “New” Media

a) Why does Helfand feel so threatened by the “information jungle?” It’s a choice! No?

b) Speak Up — Thinking about the previous essay, is this blog “Real Time?” Are we “chatland” or “flatland”?

3. Teasing the Nerves The Art of Technological Persuasion

a) Screens provide information faster and with current information that print just cannot do. If the information matters to me, why should I wait to read the Times tomorrow when I can get the information now?

b) Can screen based design move a person? Besides Speak Up, I don’t think I have been moved by something I have seen or experienced on screen, at least in a visual sense. Have you?

4. Modern Life and the Univernacular

a) Helfand goes in to say that is the “status-quo.” (Another conspiracy theory?) I call it good design. I call it business. Sorry, mass websites are here to deliver information fast and easy with minimum confusion. What’s wrong with that? So what that MapQuest may look like MapBlast — I just want directions.

b) Is Helfand expecting more than new media can deliver? What was promised by the new media fairy and not delivered? It’s a thought that began to solidify the more I read. Is design as banal as she purports? What do you think she would like to see? What do you want to see on the screen?

5. De Stijl, New Media, and the Lessons of Geometry

a) Any examples of de Stijl new media design? Can you create those emotional experiences that the author seems to call for, with such a cold and calculated period of design as your model, your visual inspiration?

6. Bigger, Better, Weirder: Age of the Behemoth

a) Why should technology dictate what a designer creates? I pick the technology after I create. It’s just delivery and execution, not a creative tool. Let creativity drive technology, not the other way around.

7. Spin and the (Pseudo) Screen Event

a) When you design, do you think of the ethical or moral consequences of your actions?

8. Extra Questions

a) What’s with the author’s choice vocabulary? Am I dumb?

b) How about the design of the book? I heard issues rose about it briefly in the thread about the second book club discussion. Information on the front? The justified type? The filled text boxes? The colors?

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PUBLISHED ON Sep.22.2003 BY Armin
eric’s comment is:

To begin with, The essays labor from their period. There is a critique envy from the mid-90s that desires the overly conscious semiotics-esque /post-structuralist tone that dominated fine art review, cultural anthropology, and academia.

It was a time when French schooled theory was a more valuable pursuit than creating work and popular metaphors slipped from how well designed something was to how its architecture worked (ergonomics/mapping/architectonic(shudder)/ etc.)

That language has been found ultimately at failure in art writing and at a terminal standstill in relative cultural discourse. However, her voice in Rant (her voice? Written by her and Drenttel) seems significantly evolved from the essays nearly a decade earlier. Where in Rant I take issue with some of the guarded pretense, the actual writing is much easier.

The “frightened of technology” tone might be too easily dismissed by ´┐Żlanguage’. Considering the time that these essays were written and the crowd that they were broadcast to, I find her skepticism a laudable endeavor and genuinely investigative of a period when the digital future held only promises.

On a side note, and I’m not entirely certain why, there is something in her voice that seems illuminated from Donna Haraway. I would love to know the answer to that question.

Kiran, thanks for the hard work. Hope you’re feeling better. And, “release the hounds.”

On Sep.22.2003 at 09:28 PM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

>>I find her skepticism a laudable endeavor and genuinely investigative of a period when the digital future held only promises.

I don't mind investigation Eric, I applaud her and anyone for digging deeper. But this was written in 2001. To me it sounds as if she wrote it in '95. The promises already collapsed by the time Screen was published, no? It doesn't come across as honest skepticism, but true fear.

On Sep.22.2003 at 10:09 PM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

Crap. '94-'01. Gotcha Eric.

On Sep.22.2003 at 10:14 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Re: Language.

I was very amused with the overall language. I didn't exactly like it, but it was entertaining in a new-word-a-day-toilet-paper kind of way. She used the term "wax" a lot, and that disturbed me. I think the language kind of fits the whole mood of the "internet is the devil" that some of the essays tend to take on. One thing is for damn sure, Jessica can write and there is no two ways about that.

Some overall thoughts on what I have read so far:

- I find it "interesting" that a print designer can talk so eloquently about web and TV. On the other hand I find it a bit "talking from the sidelines," since a lot of the skepticism of the web goes away once you know how to handle it, tame it and make it work to your advantage.

- I found Maeda's introduction pretty irrelevant, this sounds kind of mean, but I felt like he was trying too hard to sound intellectual.

- I really enjoy how she uses certain topics to "ground" some of the ideas that are evolving on the screen. I am sure that nine years ago this helped in digesting the internet a bit more.

I'm enjoying the book so far, it's some interesting comparison, some very far-fetched like "TV did it first" that is just completely over the top and over-justified.

On Sep.22.2003 at 11:19 PM
Armin’s comment is:

6.a. Why should technology dictate what a designer creates? I pick the technology after I create.

I think this whole technology dictating design is another indication that this was written a long time ago. It would be nice to know which essays were written when. Nowadays, I don't think technology dictates our design, on the contrary we are finally at a point where we can control the technology to work our way. And are able to shape it into sensible ideas that work well on screen.

On Sep.22.2003 at 11:22 PM
eric’s comment is:

“Nowadays, I don't think technology dictates our design, on the contrary we are finally at a point where we can control the technology to work our way.”

Sam and I got into this a bit in his
Zero G thread in July

at the time I offered the following…

So far as in the design process you are limited to somebody else’s technology and programming choices then you become significantly at a loss for independent choice and activity. In art making you would likely run out and buy whatever paint was on the shelf, however you had the choice mixing your own paint from various media and pigment… Once this technology levels off to some semblance of compatibility and consistency there is an opportunity to make a lasting and significant cultural inpact.

…Historically, when something made an evolutionary leap it took some time to adopt, then people got on board and in that adaptation a new dialogue was developed that carried the practice forward. This example is clearly evident in the first few decades now of the personal computer. My concern is that different from before is the way that networking cross-platforming technology is a key that belongs to a very discrete group of people while at the same time the population continues to rise. Less and less people in control of the means of production and distribution of your message.

I bring this up only to illustrate that the disconnect between designer and tool in a web-world is perhaps more violent than the anything since the printing press. Helfand’s phobia was if not prescient at least topical.

On Sep.22.2003 at 11:49 PM
Andrew Shurtz’s comment is:

Language What's wrong with a few big words? Don't we all have dictionaries? Don't we read books like this to learn new things/ideas, not just confirm what we already know? These are theoretical essays, right? Why is the mention of capital-T Theory bad?

Phobia I didn't get the impression that Helfland's essays were specifically internet-phobic, I think it was more an attempt to debunk the whole 'the internet will save humanity wired-magazine-circa-1996' mentality of the times. She's looking at the internet in terms of a cultural shift, and like Eric said, it's a violent one. It's like being confronted with a huge change in your reality that you have no real control over. Mcluhan's Gutenberg Galaxy treated the invention of the printing press in this way, Jessica's just looking into the future instead of the past. Some of her specific references do seem pretty dated, but I think her basic points are mostly true.

And I didn't really get much out of Maeda's introduction either, but it's probably just in there to help sell the book more than anything else.

On Sep.23.2003 at 03:13 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> I bring this up only to illustrate that the disconnect between designer and tool in a web-world is perhaps more violent than the anything since the printing press. Helfand’s phobia was if not prescient at least topical.

I see your point. And it makes sense. To me, though, the internet doesn't feel that disconnected from my creative "choices," but that's just me.

2. Television Did It First: Ten Myths about "New" Media

Like I mentioned before, this essay was kind of a stretch. I think it was Myth 6, something about hyperlinks and how TV did it first with soap operas? Please! There is nothing on TV like hyperlinks, channel-surfing is so far removed from that concept they should have not been mixed. That point was completely far-fetched.

Also, in regards to this same essay, there is something the web is doing first — immediacy. TV (not WebTV, that's just bogus) will never ever have the immediacy that the web offers. One click away from the information you need is unparallaled in any other medium.

On Sep.23.2003 at 04:07 PM
eric’s comment is:

armin, re the tv vs. web argument do you mean interactivity rather than immediacy? tv can offer immediate flashes (or real time QVC shopping hell) only it only offers the programming it desires.

re Andrew's point on Theory. I'm not sure that these weren't offered only as essays. They do have the tone of theory and are greatly informed by theory but it doesn't count as a theory to me. Unless of course you bind it all together under her Title of Screens. I found that metaphor, though an obvious one, somewhat of a stretch. Not sure why really-- only that the larger idea of "screens" seemed a bit forced. Anyone else feel that way?

On Sep.23.2003 at 05:06 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> do you mean interactivity rather than immediacy?

I mean immediacy first and foremost, which is very much triggered by interactivity if you will. Here is what I'm thinking about immediacy on the web:

- I order my groceries online (thank you peapod!) My list for every week is right there on the internet; so I'm having breakfast and I run out of cereal — add it to my list.

- I order my public transportation pass online, 3 days before it expires I log on and buy them, no need to go to the train station and deal with incompetent, indifferent employees.

- I want to read about the latest news, go to cnn.com, and it's right there, I don't have to wait for the 10 o'clock news.

Whatever I want, I can have with one simple click — and I choose where to click, as opposed to QVC — whether it's information, milk, new shirt, whatever. At mys disposal 24/7. But this might be veering off the overall discussion, so I'll stop.

On Sep.23.2003 at 05:50 PM
Armin’s comment is:

An essay that is missing from Kiran's dissection is the one about the Manifestoes. I thought that one was hilarious — especially her own manifesto — and vert well balanced in irony and content. I'll pull some quotes later.

On Sep.23.2003 at 05:53 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Ok, I'm sure somebody besides me, Eric and Kiran actually read the book. Don't make me get all upset and stuff. Back to the discussion then:

> What's wrong with a few big words?

I agree with you Andrew, there is nothing wrong with it, and I truly enjoy it, because it helps expand the vocabulatory. But, I am very wary of "Academic speak," it is very easy to hide a poorly developed theory behind big words. Not that this is the case with Screen, since the vocabulary justifiably enhances the mood of the theme. Still, one should be careful not to confuse "big words" with "knowing what the fuck you are talking about." Again, not the case in Screen.

Me, the undersigned

So I was going through this essay again, and came upon this, which I highlighted:

"What we design, as novel and revolutionary as it might seem at the time of our designing it, is still just design. Simply stated: Graphic Design is probably not going to kill you if it falls on your head."

Now that just bothers me, why go knocking on the profession like that? Pesimism is not a form of criticism, nor of discourse. Defeatism? Maybe.

b) How about the design of the book?

I like it! As pissed as Mr. Keedy is right about now with the infauxmation graphics I think it's a beatifully crafted little book. The cover scratches like hell though. I like the use of Thesis throughout. I don't like the essay introductions with the all-off little squares as a background, I know it's a metaphor for screen... looks droopy. I really like the way the titles for each essay are set. It looks as if a designer designed it... I bet if I throw it really hard at somebody I could kill him (or her)... at least give him (or her) a black eye.

4. Modern Life and the Univernacular

"And we are cowards, because we are doing to little to change it, to question its lack of innovation, to challenge the ludicrous banality that characterizes its essential mass appeal." (pg 43)

Cowardry (if that's even a word) has nothing to do with this. It is exactly the same case in print, identity work or packaging. We have clients, they request stuff, we meet it. The solutions 85% of the time are not innovative, but I don't hear Hillman Curtis calling print designers cowards.

...to challenge the ludicrous banality that characterizes its essential mass appeal? Huh? Two words for that, and in the spirit of a previous essay, print did it first: focus groups.

5. De Stijl, New Media, and the Lessons of Geometry

Here is one paragraph I really enjoyed from this essay:

"Think about design as a number of limitations, and to consider the role of the designer as one who aticulates that system. Establishing a grid, understanding the permutations of a template as a flexible armature within which information can be delivered, is a good example of the graphical application of such a system, in print as well as on the screen."

I don't know... I just like it.

My eyes are itchy, so I'll end this post with one of my favorite (from her manifesto):

" Personalization is not the same as personality."

On Sep.24.2003 at 04:40 AM
surts’s comment is:

And we are cowards, because we are doing to little to change it, to question its lack of innovation, to challenge the ludicrous banality that characterizes its essential mass appeal. (pg 43)

Maybe I'm taking this out of context, it's been awhile since I read the book and I don't have it in front of me as I type - but this type of generalization of the "we" as in graphic designers aren't doing anything new/challenging/etc. is a bit short sighted. There are people that are evolving their processes, but you might not be reading about them because they're too busy actually working and not spending their time self promoting how great they are to other designers. I would never look to an awards annual or design book of greatest hits for the next big thing. Those designers that are moving to a multi-disciplinary act are taking things further. However I think for them it's more of shifting action and behavior of their audience, rather than the aesthetics of the form. It's not always the prettiest, but gets the job done right. I felt the same way while reading Emigre's Rant, that the people acting as critics need to look outside of their learned design.

On Sep.24.2003 at 11:03 PM
marian’s comment is:

I am very sad not to be able to properly take part in this discussion--I'm not really here, I'm on holiday, trying to get a few words in via my dad's ancient PC on dialup.

I did read the book (OK--half of it) and I had a lot to say, pretty much none of it good, so if you want to read a dissenting opinion, it is here and here. I am really sorry to do that because it will give you my opinion in monologue without my actual discussion/response. I'm just severly technologically crippled right now.

On Sep.25.2003 at 02:15 AM
eric’s comment is:

brilliant and funny commentary marian. i highly recommend her links.

On Sep.25.2003 at 04:06 PM
Sarah B.’s comment is:

I did - just want to sit down and collect my thoughts - from work to foliage drives to central park concerts (oh, Dave so rocked last night) - havent had the chance...I will...I promise by the end of the weekend.!!

Bust basically - I liked it a lot - thought provoking...cant say I agreed with everything, but points taken!

On Sep.25.2003 at 04:22 PM
Patrick’s comment is:

Okay, I finally have a sec to comment. I read the first half of the book while travelling a few weeks back, and wasn't as impressed as I thought I'd be. Maybe it was my expectations. Maybe it's just the first half of the book - looking at the contents I am anticipating a more interesting second half.

First off, it does seem a bit out-of date already. I guess as a way of documenting the way the internet made many designers scared a few years' back it may have have some relevance, but I'm not sure this is how everyone felt.

The vocabulary, to me, made it feel like it was too self-important. What I got out of the essays so far is more like observances. I often thought "Hmm, that's an interesting way of looking at that." But that's all. Just an interesting perspective. A more congenial tone would fit that. I think the big words, etc. made me think it was supposed to be more of a thesis or manifesto or something else high-falutin'. (!) Which is why I was a little let down. Maybe it's just me, I'm not a writer.

I also think she is a little prone to overstatement and stretching things to make a statement. Like: "Reality itself is on shaky ground, a chaotic sampling of splintered messages and fleeting images, juxtaposed by their multiple appearances in various media, blurring the distinction between taped and live, physical and phony." I agree with the second half: often you're not sure of the integrity of an image or where a quote really came from. But I hardly feel that my reality itself is in peril.

My takeaway, a couple weeks after reading it, is that it has a couple nice ideas, but nothing that has really stuck with me. I don't mean this to come off as a rant. There were things I liked, I'll just have to go back through it to find specific ones. If I get a little more time, I'll try to come up with some comments specific to stories.

ps, I like the design. Thesis worked for me, and I like how the orange dots on the break pages get bigger on each successive story. Obviously trying to say that as you read further, you are getting a little deeper in your understanding - a closer look at the screen. Nice subtle touch.

On Oct.01.2003 at 09:13 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

De Stijl, New Media, and the Lessons of Geometry

But the opportunity to define---even celebrate---precision lies at the heart of what we can and should do. This elevates and objectifies our role, and redefines our mission as architects of a new visual order. (pg 49)

What is possible, however, is to think about design as a system of limitations, and to consider the role of the designer as one who articulates that system. (pg 49)

Our host Kiran Max Weber inquires: Are we monkeys? Do we just execute and not create? Are we limited—perhaps by technology, money, and clients? Why should we be limited?

Let me open up by saying that I am not comfortable being a monkey, nor do I look forward to a design project that involves mere articulation. Computers articulate form; I am a human being capable of thought and emotion. Show me a designer who thinks otherwise.

De Stijl, New Media, and the Lessons of Geometry was for me the most interesting---and most upsetting---on a number of levels. For one, Helfand challenges designers to become directors and architects in this ever-growing sphere of opportunity granted by technology. Great. Technology is still posing new work for designers. In this post-traumatic landscape of bleak business opportunity, there are plenty of starving designers who would drool at this statement. But, first let’s tackle this issue of formula because (to paraphrase Helfand, pg 51) a reductive visual vocabulary suggests new systems, work, audiences, and design.

For purposes of this argument, I will focus on the De Stijl artist Mondrian. His work is accessible to most people, and Helfand cites him often in her article. Furthermore, he is appropriated day in and day out by designers and desktop publishers alike.

In Philip Meggs’ article Mondrian as Marketing Tool, the author defines visual style as "not just an attractive surface decoration: it is often an expression of a philosophy, an ideology, and the spirit of its times." If we consider the compositions from Mondrian’s classic period between 1923-37, we would identify his Neo-Plastic visual style as one based on horizontal and vertical black lines with planes of red, yellow, and blue. This is very akin to the reductive visual vocabulary Helfand champions. I am using vocabulary and style interchangeably.

Further in Meggs’ article, the author cites examples where Mondrian’s visual style is used as decoration in advertising, fashion, and product packaging. In addition to Studio Line Hair gel bottles, the author recalls work by Paula Scher, who appropriated the shapes and color scheme from Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie in her logo and packaging for Manhattan Records. In her autobiography Paula Scher: Make it Bigger, Scher revisits the Manhattan Records work and states that the "strongest attribute" of Broadway Boogie-Woogie "was that the painting’s color blocks could easily be reconfigured for a multitude of uses." Currently, there are countless websites loaded with color blocks in the Neo-Plastic red, yellow, blue, and black. Apparantly web designers have taken Scher’s observation from the print to digital realm. The geometric reconfiguration is at hand. Only now, I get the feeling that it’s more parody than fashion.

While Scher has received her fair share of criticism, her work in question follows very closely to Helfand’s suggestion that we must rethink ways of articulating space. Articulating space is considered here as working from the outside in. Scher took a visual style she could manipulate, and applied it to her communication system for Manhattan Records. In contrast, Mondrian worked holistically. His manifesto, writings, discourse, and theories led to the development of painting, design, and architecture. Ideologies were married to work, and vice versa, as critical practice.

Yes, Mondrian reached a state of formal reduction in this practice. But utilizing such form language as a means of problem solving seems shortsighted at best. While I don’t suggest that Helfand is directing designers to beg, borrow, and steal, instances like Scher’s Manhattan Records tell me otherwise. And don’t even get me started on the ma & pa flower shop using horizontal and vertical black lines with red, yellow, and blue planes to configure their website.

Beautiful design cannot be merely characterized by its form. Reading the dialog that occurs---content, historical relevance, and perhaps critical agenda---is more exciting.

Here I define critical agenda as the personal motivations poured into the design by its creator. These are nuances that only they are aware of---personal artifacts. This is where I disagree with Helfand’s suggestion that designers be directors. Architect is a very loaded term that I cannot begin to address in this short space.

In considering the designer as director, perhaps a better word would be auteur. A director assembles cast, crew, story, production, scenery, and sound to tell a narrative. An auteur exercises a greater deal of creative control. Whereby personal style is married with personal issues and agendas that they are passionate about. Why be monkeys? Why execute and not pursue something greater than content manipulation and precise control over blocks of text in a grid system? Why be J. Schmoe the b-movie director, who is out for beauty, fame, and fortune? To design beautifully means to challenge limitations and create an outcome that is many things at once. Applying geometric principles with reductive form is shallow.

On Oct.02.2003 at 07:02 AM