This is a reading response to Andrew Blauvelt’s article “Towards Relational Design” that was posted to Design Observer in 2008. Our class had some trouble wrapping our heads around it. This response is a bit fragmented and super expository but works through my developing understanding of the concept of relational design.

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“We are in the midst of a much larger paradigm shift across all design disciplines, one that is…potentially more transformative than previous isms, or micro-historic trends, would indicate.”

Andrew Blauvelt posits that we are currently undergoing a slow, massive shift in all fields of design toward solutions that are relational and contextually based. He claims that this is modern design’s third major phase, following phases of formal innovation (the first) and the creative development of meaning (the second). I appreciate his ability to see patterns so large in fields so often disparate.

How might graphic design play a role here?

I have thought a lot about the connections between Graphic Design and relation or engagement since I began taking classes in Art and Social Practice with Harrell Fletcher. Taken on a whim, my first term in the class proved so transformative that I repeated the class twice after that. I was unfamiliar with the concept of Social Practice as defined by Fletcher, and even with the framework of contemporary art. To me, art was paintings. In a museum. Maybe art could be photography. In a gallery. But the insights, theories and approaches I learned through Social Practice began to permeate my thinking and encroach into my evolving concept of Graphic Design.

Social Practice is essentially about engagement.

It brings relational and contextual aspects into its formulation and execution. A Social Practice art piece could be a performance, a repeated action, an interaction, an exchange, an investigation or an immersive experience. Social Practice art requires people, and it requires experience. Social Practice artists may adapt or mimic practices or structures found in everyday life, and it is in this seemingly non-art context that interesting truths, stories and experiences emerge.

Graphic Design is essentially about communication. And communication is engagement. Graphic Design relies on an audience. It relies on people and everyday life, though Graphic Design need not attempt to mimic “real life” because it simply is real life.

I early on began to sense the connections between Graphic Design and Social Practice, but could never seem to articulate them. One relied heavily on objects, physical formats, and end-products. The other shunned the art object and instead advocated intangible ends–or perhaps no ends at all, and instead just the process.

But both hold the capacity for–and in fact require–engagement.

Why this round-about comparison of Social Practice Art and Relational Design? Because the development of a new wave of Design is supported and mirrored by a shift in experimental art practice. They reinforce one another.

That Blauvelt uses Daniel Eatock’s work as an example of relational (in this case, participatory) design thrills me. I find Daniel Eatock to an apt example of an effective marriage of form, meaning and engagement. Call me a fan if you will, but I consistently appreciate the work that Eatock makes: whether he requests user input for “Picture of the Week,” creates form layouts that beg for participation, or develops a web template that encourages the indexing of projects and the sharing of process, Daniel Eatock considers the experience and engagement of his audience and empowers would-be designers through an open-ended process.

I see Blauvelt’s example of the shift of architecture toward the relational to be equally applicable to graphic design:

“In architecture, the discourse has shifted from the purity and organizational control of space to the inhabitation of real places–the messy realities of actual lives, living patterns over time…and social, not simply physical, sites.”

This statement, when paired with Blauvelt’s discussion of new contexts for user-input within design, offers a glimpse into the state of graphic design today. Web 2.0 and the social networks fueled by developments in technology facilitate user-input and interactive design on a whole new level.

Models like Threadless or the print-on-demand realm that Blauvelt mentions offer graphic design new contexts. These formats require participation. They include non-designers in design practice, therefore democratizing design and forming it into a populace process. (I could write forever about Threadless.) These formats reflect a type of “social logic” that is indicative of the new wave of design and far different from formal logic or the logic of meaning we see in design history.

I recently read an article called “Better than Free.” The author, Kevin Kelly, proposes that modern consumers, in a world of frequent reproduction, want things that cannot be copied. Consumers will open their wallets for: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment, Patronage and Findability. It isn’t a perfect article, and some of these things need to be explained, but what I took away from this is: consumerism is changing, and by default graphic design must change. The Threadless model is so distinctly a “21st-century brand” because it offers immediacy, personalization, accessibility, (etc., etc.) and ENGAGEMENT.

I saw Jelly Helm speak in September on the topic of “What’s next?” He blew my mind with the concept of “21st-century brands,” also known as “people-powered brands” or “emergent brands.” He must have read Blauvelt’s article as research for that lecture. Emergent brands enable the user to create content and meaning by using that brand. They allow themselves to be adopted into the identity of their users. Apple. Wikipedia. Google. These are emergent brands. They’re not rigid. They allow for individuality within the brand, for consumers to participate and tout the brand as their own. These brands become adopted by users and integrated into personal identities. “I’m an Apple person.” “I googled it.” Graphic design is by some accounts the business of branding, and this idea of emergent brands offers a glimpse of what graphic design might look like in the next century as we continue down our path of relational design.

Back to Blauvelt. He nabbed my undying attention with his opening question and kept me fascinated until the end of the article. He is simultaneously objective and optimistic. How does he do it? My favorite tidbit is in the second-to-last paragraph:

“…the third phase presents a multitude of contingent or conditional solutions: open-ended rather than closed systems; real world constraints and contexts over idealized utopias…in lieu of the forlorn designer, the possibility of many designers…the ascendency of enabling or generative systems; the end of discrete objects, hermetic meanings, and the beginning of connected ecologies.”

This is exciting.


Readings 15 + 16

December 8, 2009

How do you handle a frustrating creative process? How do you handle potentially negative press about your work? How do you keep working as hard as you can and as good as you can? Ask Will Bryant. I think he’s on to something.

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How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul by Adrian Shaughnessy
Chapters 8 + 9
Self-Promotion + The Creative Process

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Christy and I decided to googlechat instead of writing a reading response because we had both waited until the last minute to finish them all and we were sick of writing reading responses. Well, that’s at least my outlook on the whole thing. Below are some excerpts of our conversation, interspersed with my own thoughts and some found images that are supposedly relevant to our conversation.

Self-promotional piece from Cari Vanderyacht, PSU alum. Whoops! I guess it worked! She works at W+K now!

Christy: ‘I don’t want to be famous, I just want my peers to like what I do.’ lol

me: oh hey

one second

Christy: cool 🙂

me: but that’s what I define “famous” as!

Christy: I know, that’s sort what was funny about that because that’s what we all strive for.

the acceptance from our peers

me: Agreed. I want people to want to put my work up on their walls as inspiration!

Christy: me too, I’m not there yet but hopefully soon …

Admiration + respect, not fame

me: yessss

Promotional design by Kyle Van Horn. Pretty smart.

me: There was an interesting note about fame in terms of getting press.

Want to hear a quote I typed?

Christy: yes

me: Oops, no quote. Just a paraphrase: One piece of design press (one article, one blog post) doesn’t equal instant fame, it’s accumulative. People have to read about you + see your work a few times in order to recognize that you’re capable of greatness.

Christy: lol

me: That one made me humble =)

Christy: Self promotion is the ability to make it in people’s minds, mouths and walls … in addition to our doings when we give people our cards and promo pieces. Blogs help get others to see what we can do.

me: Yeah, blogs are really interesting in that regard. They are real enough to make us feel like attaining acceptance onto them is the ULTIMATE, but they’re super ephemeral.

There were no blogs around when Charles and Ray were making things together. I have a sneaking suspicion that they didn’t give a shit about being famous. They just wanted to make good stuff. Let’s all learn from the Eamses!

Christy: the reputation such fame brings or the reputation one strives for

as you make the press will come to you

me: I want my reputation to be that I’m a forest creature that lives in a tree house! (=totally false)

Christy: I want my reputation to begin, but at the same time I don’t even care. I just love working with other people and getting out there in any way I can. If I go throughout my whole life never being mentioned in a magazine or blog, I’ll be ok. Just as long as I am working with great people like Nicole, Precious and many others 🙂

me: Oh, you! If you have your mind set on making making making and challenging yourself and putting your work out there, you’ll totally make it happen.

People will notice, whether you are trying to get them to or not!

Some advice on how to approach the idea of getting written about on blogs or not getting written about on blogs. I wish I could say, “Jeez, they’re just BLOGS, get over it!” But ask any one of my roommates how much I freak out when I get a google alert with my name in it…

Christy: I agree with that. lol, I’m trying to go through this chapter

me: Did you read the part about self-initiated briefs? “Graphic authorship?”

Christy: Oh, constraint, that’s interesting.

no both chapters is good

I haven’t read them fully

me: Yeah, constraint!

I really liked the concept of giving myself a brief to work with.

Like, defining my goals, touchpoints, themes for a project, making a proposal to myself, and then striving to accomplish it.

It makes me think that all artists wish they knew about design briefs!

Christy: “designers need briefs like cars need fuel”

me: oooh did you make that up?

Creative Process in Action: Jesse Brown and Chad Kouri of the Post Family camped out at Renegade Handmade in Chicago for a week and worked in the window.

Christy: Oh man, the creative process … it’s a long one sometimes

me: Whoops, sorry, was taking screen shots of my brand book.


That is what I need.

I think that is what a brief will help with.

Christy: I sort of just want to find a design job or something in the field that pays me well enough that I can go to Holland for a holiday and come back inspired and well rounded.

me: YES.

That sounds perfect.

Sorry. I can’t stop thinking about bloggers. This lovely little thing was made by David Fullarton. SWEET.

Christy: see you tomorrow at 2!

me: yeah! nice chatting with you

Christy: you too . bye

Reading Response #13 + #14

December 7, 2009

How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul by Adrian Shaughnessy
Chapters 6 + 7
Winning new work + Clients

In lieu of serious or introspective thoughts about clients, I’m going to re-post a number of links to funny scenarious where clients ask or do things that make your jaw drop (in horror? In appreciation of humor?)

A Funny letter showing the mindset of some customers

A HILARIOUS collection of the Funny and Bizarre world of Client requests

Real (?) Email exchange: “It’s like Twitter, except we charge people to use it.”

But no, really. I work with clients three days a week  and for the most part people are genuinely kind and respectful of your specialized knowledge of your chosen field. I think the biggest and best thing I’ve learned while at my current job is that trouble arises when expectations of client and designer (or client and printshop) are not the same expectations. Taking steps to clearly communicate what you’re doing, what it’s costing the client, and what they’re going to get in return can qualm hiccups that might appear along the way.

Communicate, be honest, and don’t be afraid to say no to clients who you think you might not work well with.

Reading Response #12

December 7, 2009

Bruce Mau knows a thing or two about running a studio.

How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul
Chapter 5
Running a studio

Dear Mr. Shaughnessy,

Again, THANK YOU for wading through all the boring details. I appreciate it. I won’t waste time restating the good tips you gave about project managers, receptionists, and hiring people. I will instead talk about developing a design philosophy.

You state that a design firm must establish and work according to an ethical and creative philosophy. I’m interested in this assertion in light of how much we design students worry we’ll be working for soulless firms doing jobs for heartless clients. You give me faith that no one really WANTS to do these things. Sometimes it just happens.

Your studio’s philosophy is to do high-quality work for all clients, regardless of the budget.

Your logic is that low-budget work often offers more freedom. Doing good work with a small budget leads to bigger, better jobs.

You employ creative individuals to whom you then grant freedom to work towards their own creative visions.

You claim that people work harder and produce better work when allowed to experiment and create independently.

I’ll buy that!

Nice philosophy.

I’ll let you know when I develop one. Here’s what I have for starters:

Enjoy going to work everyday.
Make things that you want to show your friends.
Don’t work with assholes.
Don’t promote products that kill people.
Don’t cause more harm than good on this here good planet.

I’ll have to narrow it down at some point, but that’s what I’m thinking so far.

Thanks for making me think.

Sincerely yours,

Nicole Lavelle

The philosophy of Bruce Mau Design: “We create massive change. We invent cultural possibility. We design positive innovation, we ignite audacious action.” You should probably read this book:

Picture 4Right on, Adrian Shaughnessy. Thank you for taking it upon yourself to write this book. That’s the premise of the introduction.


I appreciated Stefan Sagmeister’s break down of the different types of designers working today, and in particular I was glad to hear someone acknowldge the fresh young ones working with “one foot in the art world and the other in the design world.” That is what I hope to accomplish: a working balance between traditional design and contemporary art.

Picture 3

Geoff McFetridge, one of those guys working with one foot in each world. This is work for the Pepsi One campaign. Maybe the animal hand is the art hand and the little pink human is the designer hand, and they’re joining forces to become one? (I’m projecting.)

Hearing Sagmeister’s insights into how he successfully started and maintains his own design firm led me to garner a singular valuable truth: learn. Keep learning. Listen, watch and read. Remember.

The attributes needed by the modern designer are creative, philosophical and practical attributes. Cultural awareness, communication and integrity, according to Shaughnessy. I might add intuition, curiosity, and dedication.


Barry McGee, an artist making graphic work. Sometimes he makes work for clients and sometimes he makes work for galleries.

This book is a startling newsflash (and one that I need to be served with) that graphic design is largely about client work. I kept looking for insights into making great personal work and getting paid lots of money to do that. I didn’t find them. It’s about time I reconcile my perception of graphic design with the reality of the design world. I don’t necessarily have to abandon my inclinations or impulses to make the things I want to make, I just have to scoot over and let in some of that client world I’ve been ignoring for so long.


Daniel Eatock is an artist with roots in design. He says he devotes 5% of his time to client work and the rest to personal work.

In Art 321, Branding and Identity, we were given the opportunity to design a visual identity for an entity of our choosing. Did I choose a real client? Nope. I chose a hypothetical one. The State of Jefferson. A secessionist movement from Northern California and Southern Oregon that contains an eclectic rural population of radical farmers, pot-smoking hippies, gun-wielding libertarians, etc. They were my client but I was really my own client. I was more interested in contemplating the solution to brand a whole people than I was creating branding for a product or business.


The Beautiful Losers artists that Sagmeister mentions. People who are making art that is also commercially viable, either as art or design or film or advertising.

I suppose until the realms I wish to work in start to value design as worthy of their funds, I’m out of luck. I’ll have to listen and watch and learn to work with clients and reconcile that sometimes I make craft, sometimes I make art, and sometimes I make design.


October 29, 2009

3101856879_249e7d9a06_bUser research. Flickr.

This is a reading response to Personas: Practice and Theory by John Pruitt and Jonathan Grudin from the book Design Studies.

“Personas are a medium for communication; a conduit for information about users and work settings derived from ethnographies, market research, usability studies, interviews, observations and so on.”

Call it what you will: user archetypes, market segmentation, user role definition, user profiling, fictional charaters: this article hails the importance of all designers and developers having a detailed understanding of human behavior. Designers often have a vague or contradictory sense of intended users, and may base scenarios on themselves. I do this all the time. I often find myself making work that I’d use and like, but this only goes so far. Developing personas can “amplify the effectiveness of other research methods.” As designers, the act of creating personas can help us make our assumptions about our target audience more explicit.

550438755_29c4e3d16aLittle stand-up personas. Flickr.

Though there’s nothing more boring than reading about the development of MSN Explorer, this article was valuable to me. It encouraged me to think more critically about my audience. I must be more willing to take myself out of the picture from time to time and realize that not all consumers of my design are white, 20-something middle-class hipsters from Portland, Oregon.


October 29, 2009

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Picture 71Art Grandeur Nature, 2004, Stefan Sagmeister

This is a reading response to Stefan Sagmeister’s essay on emotion in graphic design.

I really liked this reading. I feel that designers, or at least design students, are always after Sagmeister’s secret–how does he make the amazing work he makes? It must be his sabbaticals. It must be his apt sculptural typography skills. It must be that he’s European. Wrong. This article smashes all of that. Like any other artist or designer, he is a living, breathing human being, and his strength comes in embracing that.

The secret to success? Make yourself feel your design. Really, really feel it. Inside, not with your fingers. If you don’t feel anything, maybe rethink the project.

This of course is only a certain kind of success, but a kind that I’m hoping to find.

I tried to choose a favorite part of this essay to focus on, but I couldn’t. Each section offered something new and refreshing. I appreciated the whole thing. The best part for me was that even though he listed a number of graphic design projects that touched him, a lot of them weren’t simply design. They were hybrid projects: art, graffiti, comics. I hold fast that what makes an interesting designer is a well-rounded interest in many things. As designers, we’re the mirrors of the world, in some sense. If we’re not actively watching, listening, feeling, our work will lack meaningful content.

“So ever since I got that black canvas bag at that conference in New Orleans, this touching thing has been on my mind, and  I’ve looked for design pieces that cut through to my heart.”

Picture 68I feel more when I look at this than when I look at most other things. Matokie Slaughter.

2852318316_4a0103619e_oThis moves me. More.

3017710596_569104d1d5_bSo does this. A global warming rug.

3023493753_5fef5e4d80And this: a homemade state seal for a rural secessionist movement. Two x’s=double crossed.

4029928066_23a21a1ab9_bAnd this. Elizabeth Jaeger took this in Berlin. Two bicycles at the same angle, two shopping carts at the same angle, two people wearing the exact same thing, two posters, there’s probably more.

“I suspect that in ten years time this touching kind of design is going to be the only kind of design that’s going to be done by actual designers.”

3926398482_9f822265fb_oThen there’s this kind of stuff. Hyper-meaningful graphic design. I try to love every piece of this I see, and for a long time I did. But it almost raises the bar on itself; now when I see this hyper-positivity I look at it way more critically, trying to decide if it does anything new, anything different, anything that elicits an emotional response.3671381510_2f5c913b21_o

4031333215_2d9f69edfa_oOlimpia Zagnoli

Picture 69Espo does it right. This makes me feel.  A Love Letter For You.

“I think it was Katherine McCoy who said that graphic design can never rise above its content. If I have nothing to say, the best design won’t help me.”


October 18, 2009

Reading response to Audience as Co-designer: Participatory Design of HIV/AIDS Awareness and Prevention Posters in Kenya by Audrey Bennett, Ron Eglash, Mukkai Krishnamoorthy and Marie Rarieya. From Design Studies.

2948738677_322f9f58aeAn AIDS prevention billboard in Lesotho, a landlocked country surrounded entirely by South Africa. Does the Lesotho culture relate to this AIDS prevention propaganda?

Cross-cultural design requires sensitivity, research and respect. Designing cross-culturally for a topic so massive as AIDS prevention in Africa requires even more.

A participatory workshop with Kenyan laypeople encouraged the audience to act as designer and pull from their “indigenous iconography” to successfully communicate messages of AIDS awareness and prevention to their fellow Kenyans.

I’m very interested in this idea of the designer as facilitator or consultant, and the audience as holding the reins of the whole operation.

20080000_NokiaOpenStudio_BW1-thumbAn image from Nokia’s Open studio initiative in which inhabitants of global slums were invited to draw their dream phones with materials provided by Nokia.

Some highlights of this article:

I appreciate this design team’s embrace of the “historically untapped potential to empower the audience to actively bring about change.” More design should strive to accomplish this. We do not need more design for people to passively consume, we need the opposite.

posterWhat audience is this poster for? Does it resonate with anyone?

“Since culture is an evolving phenomenon, the aesthetics used to represent it also need to evolve.”

“Clear transmittance of information occurs when the encoder shares the same culture as the decoder.”

The Kenyan co-designers in this experiment already knew “cultural codes, symbolism, narrative strategies and other effective means of visual rhetoric” that enabled them to design for their peers.

This process allowed the audience to function as designer instead of consultant, empowering them to take control over the design propaganda that affect their community, lives, and work.

germanaidsaddA German AIDS awareness campaign: would this be effective to an American audience? Or would it just freak everyone out?


October 18, 2009

Reading response to Cultural Probes by Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne and Elena Pacenti

culturalpA cultural probe created by Robert James Djaelani,

Getting to know an unfamiliar audience is a challenge all designers face. Perhaps market research is the answer. Perhaps a survey, an interview, a census. Perhaps something entirely different that will yield intangible, quality information that one can work with in a different way than crunching numbers or weighing measurable trends.

Read the rest of this entry »


October 15, 2009

06dad2A contemporary exhibition poster made in the style of Dada.

Dada is described as an international cultural movement that began in Switzerland during World War 1 and spread throughout the western world. Proponents of Dada did not call themselves artists, but instead referred to what they were doing as anti-art. Those involved in Dada never wished to be an “ism,” as what they were revolting against with their gatherings, performances, manifestos and visual experiments were the prevailing, institutionalized bourgeois interests that both dictated traditional art aesthetics and led directly to World War 1. (This is what Dada believed.)

uk_wwiA graphic design example of the “order” of a war-driven, capitalist society that Dada revolted against.

I find it interesting that we now refer to Dada as an art movement. It’s ironic that the movement is now considered a part of what it revolted against, which is the history of 20th century art. I suppose they chose the avenue of the art world to wreak the most haovc, so it makes sense.

fountainbymarcelduchampFountain by Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1917.

One of the more recognizable contributions to American library of Dada is Marcel Duchamp‘s Fountain, part of his Readymades series. The Readymades were found objects (in this case, a porcelin urinal) that Duchamp selected and displayed in an art context, thus, by his logic, elevating the mundane to the status of fine art. This didn’t go over very well, but that was precisely the intention of Dada: to subvert the traditional conception of what was “art” and what was not.

The piece was rejected from the gallery by the Society of Independent Artists, causing an uproar in the Dada community.

hoch5Cut With The Kitchen Knife, Hannah Höch, 1919

The collage Cut With The Kitchen Knife by Hanna Höch, is likely the visual aesthetic we most often associate with Dada. It was a far cry from the measured art being made at the time. Höch used found objects and a chaotic arrangement of elements to subvert the accepted understanding of visual appropriateness.

man ray 1920 obstruction fb_82_tMan Ray, Obstruction, New York, 1920.

Man Ray’s Obstruction is a sculpture that directly references the tragedy of the Great War. (WW1) By using a simple object of American consumerism, Man Ray mimicked the senseless piling up of bodies in Europe.

Dada was a direct reaction to World War 1. It was a direct reaction to the society that drove entire continents to war. It was a direct reaction to the traditional art standards determined by that same society. It was a movement that turned art on its head, and subverted the ideas of concept, aesthetics and context.

Picture 3A Dada publication, including collage and typography indicative of the time.

How can I relate this to design thinking or social practice? I’m not sure. I see the relationship that social practice has with Dada, in its desire to subvert the gallery experience and offer something new to the established art world. I see Social Practice advocating a change from the singular-voice gallery experience, much as Dada did with their vast offering of publications and gatherings. Certainly graphic design has pulled visually from the Dada library of ephemera and publicity, and we see the typographic experimentation pioneered by Dada appearing again and again.

lecoeurabarbe_no1_cover_6400More Dada typography.

Perhaps I am most compelled to connect Dada and Graphic Design as vehicles of cultural creation. Designers contribute cultural content to our world on a daily basis, and Dada as a cultural movement certainly contributed to our collective history. I see the brazen experimentation of Dada as giving permission to cultural, art and design movements that followed it.