2021 was not the year we emerged from a pandemic like many of us thought it might be. A lot of the world — my family included — is still largely working from home, days filled with Zoom meetings and asynchronous work. The omicron variant once again triggering new mandates and precautions. It was another year filled with deaths and grief, confusion and exhaustion. Despite this, I’m privileged enough to have made it through. Not only that, I’ve also had a largely fulfilling and energizing year, both personally and professionally.
For me, 2021 is split in two, between Brooklyn and Raleigh. My family and I moved from our small apartment in Sunset Park Brooklyn to Raleigh, North Carolina in July so I could take a new tenure-track position at North Carolina State University as an Assistant Professor in Graphic Design. It was a hard move and a big change but went as smoothly as it could have. We found a home quickly. Our movers were great and efficient. We bought a car (our first!) and outdoor furniture and settled into the rhythms of a new life here quickly.
The same goes for the new job. I’ve enjoyed being in a new institution. Even though classes were in-person, it took a little longer than usual to find my groove with the pandemic still disrupting so much of daily life. I’m excited for the future here and look forward to finding my place within this department/institution/city.
To commemorate the move, and our five years in Sunset Park, I produced a photobook with 100 photographs I made while we lived in the neighborhood. It became a book that means a lot to me and was a moving experience to work on and then hold in my hands.
The beginning of the year came with a flurry of writing: for Eye on Design, where I continue to serve as contributing editor, I wrote a profile of the Brooklyn-based designers Isometric Studio; a revisionist-history of the relationship between graphic design and minimalism; a look back on the influence of the design publication Dot Dot Dot; and a history of the design department at Cranbrook.
In addition to writing, I also got to commission and edit some great pieces for EoD. Some of my favorites were: Theo Inglis’s piece about how the CIA used graphic design; Meg Miller’s beautiful meditation on artists who work with typography; Leo Shaw’s profile of New York-based studio Sanctuary Computer; Chris Westscott’s review of CAPS LOCK; Lisa Willard’s look at Herbert Bayer’s Geo-Graphic Atlas; Marcus Civin’s review of the Adam Pendleton show at MoMA; Angela Riechers on gender-neutral typography; George Kafka on mockup designers; and Rick Poynor on the First Things First manifestos. My work with Eye on Design continues to be a fulfilling, energizing, and inspiring work. Working with my co-editors and our writers makes me a better writer and thinker.
I also edited a new book, 1, 10, 100 Years of Form, Typography, and Interaction at Parsons, a 400 page book, published by Oro Editions, on the history of the Communication Design program at Parsons. The book mixes, interviews, oral histories, original essays, and student work to look at the oldest graphic design program in the country. The book will be available early next month and was designed by Andrew LeClair and Roon Kang. Thanks to Caspar Lam for organizing, project managing, and asking me to join the project.
On my sometimes-dormant blog, I tried to write more about the cultural experiences I had this year, trying to recapture the intellectual stimulation I got from blogging a decade ago: I wrote about Barack Obama’s memoir, the problem with The Mandalorian, why Breeders is the best television show about parenting, the new album from Big Red Machine, and the Netflix film tick, tick…BOOM!. Also on the blog, I sketched out some thoughts on design school critiques and the relationship between design education and industry.
I worked on one, big design project this year: a large-scale typographic mural in Dubai in collaboration with the American University of Sharjah and the US Mission to the UAE. The mural, which features a lenticular design reading “You and I seek to forge a limited universe” written by Eman Al Yousuf, can be read in both English and Arabic. I designed the English side and UA designer Nada AlYafei designed the Arabaic side. The mural opened on October 14 and will be on view until March 2022. I was fun to work in a collaborative environment again and work at a scale I’ve never worked in before.
I released the 200th episode of Scratching the Surface, which also turned five in October. I released 33 episodes this year, talking with designers, architects, museum administrators, college presidents, curators, writers, historians, and more. This show continues to energize my own practice bring a strange joy to my life.
I gave three talks this year: I spoke about Scratching the Surface and notions of non-traditional publishing to students at both RISD and Parsons School of Design. I also spoke, moderated a panel, and co-organized a workshop on design writing at the AIGA Conference.
It was bittersweet to teach in the graduate program at Pratt and the undergraduate program at Parsons for the last time, before moving. These programs mean a lot to me and I am a better teacher because of them.
Every book I read in 2021
I read 50 books in 2021 and here’s a list of all of them (I didn’t include poetry collections or comics here). The list is heavily weighted towards fiction but you’ll find a good mix here. Some standouts include Justin Beal’s Sandfuture, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads.
Every movie I watched in 2021
I watched 138 movies this year and here’s my list of all of them. I spent a lot of time going through director filmographies this year, beginning with David Fincher, before moving through David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson and Bong Joon Ho. I loved Questlove’s Summer of Soul and Errol Morris’s My Psychedelic Love Story. Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog was a nice end of year treat and Bo Burnham’s Inside was a masterpiece.
My favorite essays of 2021
Heavily weighted towards profiles this year but there’s also some smart writing on work and parenting, and the work of W.G. Sebald and David Graeber.
The Best Design Books of 2021
For Eye on Design, I wrote about my favorite design books of the year. A good mix of visual monographs, literary memoirs, and writing on history and theory.
I’m looking forward to settling into my new job at NCSU and embedding myself in this community. I’m hopeful pandemic shutdowns begin to open up so that we can explore more of our new city. We’ve already fallen in love with the parks and trails.
I’m working on writing and publishing more and in more places. I’d like to publish in some peer-review journals next year and expand the design writing I’ve been doing the last few years. I also have a big design history research project kicking off in January that I’m very excited about, even though I’m not totally sure where it will lead just yet. I’m hoping to complete a book proposal.
I’d love to pick up a few more design projects in 2022. I miss designing books, especially, but would love to do some small websites or branding work again too. If you are looking for a designer or have potential collaboration ideas, we should talk.
I’m also very interested in doing more speaking events. If you’d like me to speak to your class, visit your school or workplace, or join in a critique session, send me a note and we can try to make something work!
I ended the year reading Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake, a historic novel based on the life of Andrew Green, the lawyer to helped plan Central Park, organized for New York’s five borough’s to merge, and helped develop The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Natural History in New York. It has everything I love, both in thinking about architecture and cities,ph and in a work of fiction. I’m now about halfway through Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Ghost which is making me laugh much more than I expected.
We’re working through HBO Max’s Station Eleven and completely loving it. It’s written by Patrick Somerville, who was the showrunner for Netflix’s Maniac (which I loved) and wrote for The Leftovers (which might be my favorite show?) and directed by Hiro Murai (who directed another favorite, Atlanta) so I knew I was going to like it (plus I loved the book it was based on) but it very much feels like a spiritual successor to The Leftovers and fits the feeling of this moment perfectly.
The second season of How to with John Wilson continues to charm and delight me. I’m assigning an episode of it in one of my classes this semester! I was excited to see a nice profile of Wilson in The New York Times Magazine recently.
I ended the year watching Wim Wender’s road trilogy. Alice in the Cities felt like a masterpiece to me and easily my favorite from the group.
SSENSE had a great profile of Amy Auscherman, the archivist at Herman Miller, that I really enjoyed. This piece from Javier Syquia on rejecting the term ‘vernacular’ in graphic design is really smart. I was pleased to see New York architects are trying to form a labor union.
Wish you a happy and safe new year! I begin every year listening to this song, so I’m passing the tradition on to you.