Design for its time

I’m loving this effort by the New York Public Library in providing bite-sized novels through the Stories feature on their Instagram account which are now already read by over 300,000 (!) people — somehow proving that it’s not that today’s generation reads less (we’ll get to this bit later too), it’s just that their reading habits are shaped by the medium they consume, and in the case of smartphones, one they have problems putting down. Although the idea isn’t entirely new, it’s still groundbreaking in its practice:

There have been many attempts to update books for the digital age: Beyond e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, designers have tried to take advantage of the visual, context-aware nature of the internet to make reading more interactive. A project called Ambient Literature publishes stories that pull in details about your location, the time of day, and the weather for a story you can read only on a smartphone. Others have redesigned the digital reading experience for the browser, making it more pleasant to read a book on your computer.

I have been trying to get my nephews and nieces to read more, instead of being perpetually glued to their phones browsing through Facebook and video games, to no avail. I do understand this partly stems from their own upbringing and surroundings (I was brought up by parents who read at every chance they have, and I was forced imposed to read at least a book every few months when I was young) — their own parents hardly read, there is nary a trace of books in their own houses — so I have been trying to get them to read lighter reading materials e.g. comic books or graphic novels. But it wasn’t true also about the idea that today’s generation doesn’t read, in fact I felt they are exposed to more text than we do: their social media timeline, of which they spend mostly their time on these days. It was more of deep reading vs simply scrolling through. And if we did get them to read classic works by way of scrolling through, then the NYPL project nailed it.

It reminds me also of this blog post by design educator Jarrett Fuller, who like me in 2000s, as a design student was exposed to the works of celebrity designers — although largely white men (Paul Rand, Stefan Sagmeister, Milton Glaser, etc.) — and got so excited by the prospect of researching and dissecting works by these designers, but now initially dumbfounded by how little the younger designers know about these individuals, rather they knew more about styles or what’s trending based on what they see on social media platforms.

At their age, we read blogs to find out who was doing the most interesting work, but those don’t exist anymore. My students aren’t reading It’s Nice That or Eye on Design. They are on Instagram, on Behance, on Pinterest. Their design awareness, sensibilities, and taste is constructed through likes, pins, and retweets. They might not know the name Michael Bierut or have heard of Wolff Olins but they’ve seen the work. And they’ve also seen work from countless other designers flying below the mainstream design press radar.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as a work of design should not particularly be attached to individuals — let’s discard the myth of the whole solo genius thing — so Fuller redesigned his course so that his students are able to learn these styles and why they like (or dread) them, and further reflect the whole impact of these design and styles.

In every class I teach, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, I’ve started requiring students to keep a visual journal — a dedicated place to keep images, PDFs, videos, photos — a simple attempt to encourage them to be more thoughtful about what they are consuming and saving. I try to build time into class for students to reflect on the work they are finding, and at the same time, I’m sharing the things I’m looking at and thinking about. (And I make it clear that what I share isn’t always an endorsement.) Together we try to figure out why we are drawn to these things. Or repulsed by them. Or why they are trending. Or where they come from. We talk as a group about art movements and trends and gaps in history. We lean into the aesthetics, the contexts, the politics, and the ideologies that may or may not be embedded in the work. We dissect the visual moves the designer did and why she may have made those decisions. We find out more about the designer, of course, but we let the work speak for itself. Just because it came from a particular designer or a particular studio doesn’t mean it’s automatically great. Some of the best moments I’ve had in the classroom are when the students start debating these ideas — amongst themselves, without any guidance from me — trying to formulate their own point of view.

And I quite like these two approaches today, a lesson to design things for its time.

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