Lots going on these days. We’ve settled into some semblance of normalcy around here, each day has a rhythm and a cadence. It’s no longer strange to be working right alongside my family each day. I love having them around but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The balancing act is tricky. We’re fortunate — I won’t deny that — in that we’re safe and healthy and like being around each other.
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I’ve found myself missing my commutes. I’ve always loved a commute but only recently seeing how important they were to my mental processes. They are a transition from one role to another. I go from writer or designer to teacher to father to partner. I get on the train with a book and headphones and that gives me a place to leave one role and prepare, often subconsciously, into the other. That transition is gone and I’ve found that a strange challenge. Everything happens in one space, the transitions are immediate. I go from writing a text to a meeting for classes to making lunch for my family. My body moves from one position to the next but my mind takes time to catch up. That’s what the commutes were for.
Yet, the new rhythms are in place and the work has begun to flow again. This issue will be different, a moment to poke my head up from the sand and share lot of updates on what I’ve been working on as well as some recent reads, viewings, and other things I’ve been enjoying.
The recent episodes of my podcast, Scratching the Surface, have been some of my favorite ever. I’ve been consciously trying to push it beyond the usual themes of graphic design and writing and into a more expansive view of design, perhaps, even, beyond design itself. What would a design podcast look like that doesn’t just talk to designers but activists, doctors, even politicians and asks them thoughtful questions about the build world, about how we move through cities, about storytelling, about media? These questions are, at their core, design questions but that doesn’t mean designers are the only ones to speak to them. That’s where I want the podcast to go.
I’ve started, ever so slowly, to attempt this. My conversation with Deanna Van Buren, for example, felt like a turning point. Deanna is an architect, but she’s also a criminal justice activist and we talked about how the built world solidifies racist policies and what a world without prisons (architecture!) might look like. It’s a powerful conversation I think and easily one of my favorites. I also talked with Bon Ku, who is an emergency room physician, about our healthcare system and COVID-19. Ku, though, is also the author of the new book Health Design Thinking, and has spent a lot of timing thinking about the relationship between design and healthcare. That doesn’t mean I won’t still talk to designers thought. My conversation with Eric Heiman was classic StS and really helped me articulate my position as a designer and an educator and how to reconcile the cynicism I feel as a practitioner and the optimism I feel as an educator.
If you like the work I do on the podcast and want to see more of it in the world, would you consider becoming a member? These membership have seriously helped me cover the costs of the show and given me some extra time and space to devote to it. Members get an exclusive monthly newsletter. This month’s issue has an interview with Anne Quito, design writer at Quartz, about working with Milton Glaser on his last book and the role of writing in his work. I’m hoping to do more of these exclusive interviews in upcoming issues.
At the beginning of the quarantine, my friend and collaborator Jessica Helfand began writing a daily series for Design Observer based on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay On Self Reliance. The essays were about cultivating a daily studio practice and creating in the midst of uncertainty. They proved to be both timely and timeless. Now, a handful of those essays, along with a complete reprinting of Emerson’s text is being published by Thames and Hudson, through their experimental imprint, Volume, in a slim but elegant book. Said book was designed by Jessica and yours truly.
Volume operates on a Kickstarter-like model and the book is currently being funded. How about buying one? I’m especially happy with how the collector’s edition turned out. This project, personally, was a nice distraction back in April as everything was just beginning to change. I’m excited to see it out in the world.
A few years ago, I built a quick site for my students that archived all the readings, texts, and books I found myself frequently recommending. I wanted a place to make them all available to them so I didn’t have to keep sending PDFs to individual students. I put it all on Github and shared it on Twitter and it, surprisingly, took off. I quickly bought a clever domain and have tried to keep it updated with seminal design texts. It’s been nice to see it included on syllabi and listed as a design resource in all sorts of places.
I was planning on redesigning it over my winter break last year but the time got away from me. Finally, over the last few weeks, each evening, I’ve toiled away at a cleaner design and updated it with some recent favorite readings. There’s more to add, as always, but I’m proud of how helpful the site has proven to be. Take a look!
In other work news, I’m excited to announce that I’ve joined Eye on Design, AIGA’s online design publication, as a contributing editor. I’ll be both writing a lot of original pieces and editing/commissioning a handful of essays from writers much smarter than me. It’s a nice change of pace from my usual work and allows me to focus on the writing/criticism/thinking side of all the stuff I’m interested in. My first story was on INQUE, the new magazine from Dan Crowe and Matt Willey and I have a big, reported story coming early month.
I have two new playlists up on Spotify for your enjoyment. The first is called Haze Valley and is a weird, eclectic mix of old and new songs I’ve been enjoying lately blending lo-fi electronica, hip-hop, pop, and post-punk. You can steam it on Spotify here. The second is called Acoustic Daydream and is exactly what it sounds like — a collection of modern-folk, acoustic, Americana tracks. That one you can stream here. Both, hopefully, capture the feelings of summer, whether that’s late nights drinking rose or long drives on country roads.
(The archive of my playlists, if you’re interested, can be found here.)
Ok, that’s enough work, let’s talk about some fun stuff. Like everyone else on the planet, because I’m basic, I started making sourdough at the beginning of the pandemic. I feed my starter and it get bubbly and I feel proud of myself. I mix in flour and water and salt and stretch and fold and stretch and fold and stretch and fold. I let it sit over night. I put it in the oven and when I take it out, I get a loaf of bread that looks…okay? They’re fine, really. They’ve been used for countless sandwiches and toasts but they certainly aren’t Instagram-ready. In visiting my parents a few weeks ago, my mom and I made some together and something began to click. We made this:
A perfect loaf! I squealed when I took it out of the oven and I’ve yet to replicate it again. Nevertheless, I persist. In fact, there’s a loaf in the oven as I type this.
My kombuchas on the other hand, are great. Scobys are multiplying. I’m taking little sips each morning until it tastes just right. Then into bottles with frozen fruits, lemons, limes, mint. We’re partial to a mint lime (a sort of mint mojito) flavor and have been enjoying a lemon basil I’ve made in the last two batches.
One side-effect of the pandemic has been a loss of all interest in podcasts. I’ve written before about how since starting my own, my own listening habits have dropped off but now it feel complete. I basically can’t listen to podcasts at all except when I’m running. So that’s what I do. Each morning, I put on a podcast and listen to that while I run. A frequent listen is the weird, thoughtful and eclectic At A Distance by the folks behind The Slowdown. They talked to fermentation expert (!!!) David Zilber, writers Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley on the architecture of quarantine, RISD President Rosanne Somerson, and design writer and Pennsylvania senate candidate (yeah!) Nikil Saval. Speaking of podcasts, do listen to this episode of Still Processing on Aunt Jemina, branding, and racism.
At the beginning of the summer I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and now we’re working our way through the Hulu series. I adored the book and am, so far, finding the series a stunning adaptation.
Here’s Orin Gat on what art critics can learn from sports writers (using John McPhee’s great Level of the Game as an example!) in Frieze. Also in Frieze, be sure to read this conversation between Moyra Davey and Kate Zambreno on writing, diaries, photography, and motherhood.
I liked this video essay on a single cut in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Last year I went through a big Ozu phase and watched a lot of his films in order and there are still images from many of them stuck in my mind.
I read every interview with George Saunders I can find — his thoughtfulness, openness, generosity, and big-heartedness makes me want to be a better person. Here’s a long new-ish interview from The Paris Review that you should spend time with.
Have you listened to the new Taylor Swift album? It’s produced by Jack Antonoff, co-written by The National’s Aaron Dessner, and features vocals by Bon Iver. I’ll follow Taylor wherever she goes this album was completely unexpected (both literally, it was a surprise drop, but also stylistically) and I am INTO IT.
Ok, time to put my head down and back to work, gonna pretend I’m on the train, commuting again. I should also check on my sourdough — maybe this will be one! Thank you for following along. I always love hearing from you — just hit reply and let me know who you are. I just realized we’re coming up on one year of this strange newsletter experiment. I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I’ve been.