Reflection One

25 September 2011
My investigations to date have been a search for my thesis argument. They are not about the deliverable or the value of the final output, they are about the process of discovery. The hope is that they will illuminate and clarify my ideas into a cogent, understandable conversation about my thesis. It turns out that this process is much more recursive that I originally thought it would be: my investigations feed the questions, which in turn feed more investigations, which make more, new questions, ad infinitum. Unlike most quests for treasure, I do not know what I am looking for, where it is, what it looks like, or what value it has upon discovery. I do know that searching for it is exciting and incredibly interesting.

The thesis project itself is a fortuitous process where each day can bring a new idea, a new word, a new methodology. This makes writing about my thesis quite difficult, since I will not actually know what I am talking about until it is over and can be looked at as a body of work and a group of ideas. With that in mind—and taking a cue from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Remarks on Color—my writing in these early stages will be non-linear thoughts on where I am to date. My hope is that these unordered but related ideas will help me and my committee see my thesis more clearly.

At the moment, the word gesture is the closet I have come to an encompassing term to describe my work. Gesture includes a number of ideas that all hold significant value to me as I describe my process. I usually think about gesture drawings from Freshman year's foundation classes as a clarification of the term. Gesture drawings are a way of re-seeing what is in front of you and reacting to it quickly and decisively. There is an intensity to a gesture drawing that comes partially from speed, and partially from the lack of forethought and pre-rationalization about what you are doing—you have to just do it, right now. There is an intent in a gesture drawing, there is a general direction of purpose, but there is little planning.

But, gesture is not random since there are many decisions that are made up front: the content (the nude model? a plant? a pile of bottles?), the medium (charcoal or pencil? sumi ink or graphite stick?), the support (craft paper? newsprint? sketchbook?), and the tools (hand? long stick? brush?). By allowing a level of constraint, you are free to let the rest of your process just happen without thinking too hard. You see and react to what is in front of you, and everyone reacts differently.

I think of my design process as a gesture drawing, only in my case it may not be a drawing, but it carries the attitude of gesture with it. Working gesturally helps me with one of my biggest problems as a designer: starting. There is nothing more scary to me than the innocence of a blank page. Instead of harping on what is not there, and over-thinking and pre-rationalizing what typeface to start with, what my color palette should be, how thick those lines are, how big my document is, etc. I think quickly and act quickly. For me, this happens most often with a camera, but the attitude holds regardless of the tool.

Constraint & Editing
I find that over-designing work is another problem. I have spoken previously about the threshold between interesting and uninteresting. I now think that maybe the threshold is really between under-designed and over-designed. Too much design, too much control can kill a piece of work just as surely as ignorance and un-refinement can. Overdoneness is just as bad as underdoneness. I constantly try to strike a balance between too much thinking, too much intention, too much constraint and the complete lack thereof. I think "screwing around" is relatively easy as a designer; I know the tools, I know the techniques, I understand form; so just making things is not really a problem. However, I want to go beyond just screwing around, I want to intentionally screw around. I want to constrain myself just enough to screw around in ways that will result in interesting things. This is always a moving target and that is part of what makes design so interesting.

The catch with my gestural process is that it makes a lot of stuff, and a lot of that stuff is not useful or interesting. The editing process helps me look through the stuff to find the places that are worth paying attention to. Lately I have been questioning this editing; what is a critical part of creating work I treated as almost a pragmatic afterthought: "time to sort through all this stuff and see what I got." I now wonder how my editing process relates to the rest: I make the work gesturally, do I also edit the work gesturally? Can I make the editing process more gestural? Is the editing where much of the constraint really happens?

Emergence & Fortuity
Emergence is the idea that out of a seemingly random, chaotic entity patterns will emerge. While I am not looking specifically for patterns, I am looking for what I call moments: moments that somehow gel into something useful or engaging in the design. I do not make with a deliverable in mind, I do not think of the outcome when I start: instead I rely on emergence because I know that eventually moments will happen. Such is the fortuitous nature of how I am working. In many ways I do not so much make design as I exploit the process and just let things happen.

At first glance I think my work reflects some of John Cage's ideas of chance operations, of setting up uncontrollable methodologies of making. What I have discovered is that I am trying to do something more specific than chance operations. There is a level of constraint and editing to my process that moves away from Cage. I am making a number of decisions that will affect the outcome; Cage does this as well; it is impossible for someone to create something without affecting it in some way. Cage is more interested in the places where the work becomes completely uncontrolled, where what happens is totally based in chance. I am more interested in the places where my limited control affects what happens. Constraining the variables and editing the outcomes becomes important.

Dictation & Reaction
I see the value in the details of design and in directing where your work is going, and especially in design school a lot of the initial years of education are about learning the tools of design and how to go about using them effectively. However, as students mature and their work gets more sophisticated, I believe that how we teach must become less about a designer dictates the ideas, and more about a designer reacts to what is happening in their process. As a mature design student, I think this applies especially to my work.

The Education of a Designer
While it appears as though most of what I am talking about is completely internalized to me, I think much of it has bearing on how I teach. I am fortunate enough to have what is essentially a laboratory for my thesis this year: the classes I teach (Typo-Photo in the Fall and Poster in Motion: The Art of Music Video in the Spring). Since so much of my interest in design relates to how design is taught and how specifically I teach it, it is inevitable that my classes will be a places to examine my ideas. I am most interested in how I can take my ideas of gesture and relay them to my students in a way that helps them move forward as a designers. For the most part, this is working quite well. My students are learning to act with more intuition, with less pre-rationalization in their design. It is critically important that students do not merely imitate what I do—they need to find their own voice as designers and my class hopefully provides a framework for exactly that. We talk constantly about pushing away from the obvious ideas in creating a piece into more connotative, evocative ways of using type and image.

I Am My Own Best and Worst Student
My favorite part of teaching has always been what I learn as I teach, and even more so in a class I have designed myself. Having to explain these ideas to my students forces me to try and understand what I am talking about even more than the monumental task having to create a thesis project. In many ways my MFA experience is about teaching myself what it is I am doing, and learning to explain it to others. This makes me to come to terms with the fact that I am my own best and worst student. Critiquing others is far easier than critiquing myself. Pushing my students into places they have not been before feels exciting, liberating! Pushing myself there feels contrived and difficult. I am starting to literally attempt to become two people: Mitch as MFA student, and Mitch as MFA teacher. Even though both Mitches are trying to move each other forward, it is a struggle.