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Project M — Vol. 1

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:

1. Is it significant enough to warrant this effort?
2. Or a self-serving one joke gimmick?

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:
1. Maine
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.

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PUBLISHED ON Feb.08.2004 BY Armin
Bonnie Berry’s comment is:

It is interesting, as a participant in Project M, to read an 'outsider's' viewpoint of our artifact. Six months after leaving Maine, I am still trying to sort out what it all meant. Somehow, reading someone else's take on it helps clarify it for me. Ultimately, there are no answers to the questions we posed. The key for me is in the realization that I don't have the answers, but continue asking the questions nonetheless.

On Feb.09.2004 at 01:15 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Isn't the cover actually one question:

Is it significant enough to warrant this effort or [is it] a self-serving one joke gimmick?

And I think it would've been better as Think wrongly. "Think wrong" sounds just like "think different" (lovely as that debate was, I'm not going to link it).

Is this book the entirety of what the students (or whatever) produce at Prj. M? Do they leave with work of their own? If it's just this self-referential document, however Sagmeisteristcally clever, it's not much near the shadow of Samuel Mockbee, whose concerns were a lot more external to the world. From what I read a while back in the "course description" I had the impression that Prj. M was meant to heighten designer's engagement with the world at large (or maybe the woods at large), not by giving them hot-button issues to make posters about but by making them find the issues in the first place, then developing a form of expression. Was that what ending up happening, or am I remembering the purpose wrong (pardon the pun)? It sounds like a great undertaking and is certainly a brave one, but also just so perilously on the verge of self-indulgence of the most abstract kind.

It was sort of the same problem with Virtual Telemetrix--it was hilarious and great and a lot of effort but really who got it but designers? Who remembers it but designers? Not that there's anything wrong with that, except that there is.

On Feb.09.2004 at 04:33 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> it's not much near the shadow of Samuel Mockbee, whose concerns were a lot more external to the world.

I'm probably not the best person to answer this concern, but it seems like the next one will be more in tune with the way Mockbee ran his Rural Studio. [See last Question].

As far as this first one, my guess is, well, it was the first one. It must be hard getting it right on the first try. I also think that the process (i.e. whatever happened during those 4 weeks) is as important — and perhaps where the heightening of designers took place — if not more, than the end result.

> Who remembers it but designers? Not that there's anything wrong with that, except that there is.

Sam, there is nothing wrong with that — designers need educating too.

On Feb.09.2004 at 04:50 PM
JonSel’s comment is:

I'd love to see the book and get a better idea of its contents. Is it for sale? Or is it produced in such a small run that only John's closest associates get a copy? Obviously, if the message is socially valuable, then it ought to get wider distribution. Then again, publishing it adds a level of importance that it may not really deserve. Nobody is going to buy or read a project I completed at an AIGA workshop.

Without much to go on, I'll make a few comments that may or may not be on target. Based on Armin's description and John's own answers, it doesn't seem to have much relevance beyond offering a variation on "think outside the box." And while that is always a good thing to remember, it would be put to better use serving an even greater cause. Mockbee used his talent and skills to directly influence a local community through architecture. I guess I just can't help feeling that this particular effort of Project M doesn't really help anyone beyond the actual participants. It's like a really good paper promo without the 10 different weights and embossing tips. I hope and assume the next project for Costa Rica will make a stronger contribution.

I think what would have given this book deeper meaning would have been more context and content beyond mundane vacation photos. The interactivity is indeed pretty cool. It's a nice variation on the soon-to-be-trite printing on the cut ends of the page (see Scher, Sagmeister, Maeda, Boom, et. al.). But wouldn't it have been great to have been led up to that via great visual storytelling?

I agree that it is just the first shot, so we can cut them a little slack. But this is what crits are for, right?

On Feb.09.2004 at 08:48 PM
bryony’s comment is:

When the book first arrived, I was rather skeptical about the hole thing. Contrary to the way Armin goes around things, I looked at the book, and directly after went for the instructions and understood the steps to take without knowing much else. I went on preparing dinner only to go back to the book later that night (I had kept it in the back of my mind), read the cover(s) and looked at some of the pictures.

My first thought was, this are not really great photos… I take photography very seriously and this was a bit of a disappointment at first, but as I continued flipping the pages, I began to see a story, to read into the characters and the process required to get to what I was getting a glimpse of. Mmmm.

This is a really great book in my opinion, if you get a chance to hear, read or be told about the process behind it, about the experience and all they went through individually and as group. Without that, the book on its own does seem to lack a strong presence or message other than “think different” or “think outside the box”.

Needless to say, I like the courage it took to come up with it and produce it, and I do believe it is questioning many of us in an individual manner as to how we approach our work day to day. That to me is a pretty darn good thing.

On Feb.10.2004 at 09:49 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

I remember talking to someone who was involved with Project M periodically about what went on there...it was interesting, it sounds like what you'd get when you put a bunch of creative people together. But nothing terribly profound or earth-shattering.

On Feb.21.2004 at 05:27 PM
RachL’s comment is:

The way some people feel about our book is interesting. While I was in Maine, we actually did accomplish several personal projects, and mine related to the topics of laziness and perception. Just because it isn't spelled out for you, just because there is no tangible PROOF of all of our work doesn't mean it wasn't going on, even internally. I argued this alot, the whole Orbiting the Giant Hairball, productivity, cows chewing cud thing. (read the book) I can see how, by judging the project soley on our book and soley on content, someone would think we had a fun "vacation." It wasn't restful and relaxing in the least. The mental anguish experienced by all can hardly be measured in one printed piece, which was part of the point of our book, to frustrate the reader until they figured out the pattern and learned to just fold everything on their own. Perhaps giving away the answer killed this concept, of having the book be an interactive way for readers to participate, to get frustrated in trying to figure out the meaning behind it, just as we had to figure out the meaning behind project M as a whole.

more to come. later

On Apr.16.2004 at 07:59 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Rachel, what were some of your findings on laziness? It'd be interesting to see what else went on.

On Apr.18.2004 at 02:36 PM