October 2, 2012
An amazing group… with nary a designer among them

The 2012 class of MacArthur Fellows is suitably impressive, filled with amazing people doing incredible things in their chosen fields. From neurosurgery to journalism to geochemistry to astronomy to music, it’s all here… apart from design, that is.

I surely can’t be alone in noticing the distinct absence of any designers, really of any type. Sure, Olivier Guyon is designing telescopes and astronomical hardware. Benoît Rolland is creating violin bows. Photographers and film makers are here, too. These are amazing, amazing people, but they’re not “designers” in the traditional sense. Does this matter? Well, to me at least, the absence of a graphic artist, a typographer or a digital designer (say) speaks volumes about the state of the industry itself. The design industry pleads with itself to get the respect it is quite sure it deserves, while the rest of the world merely shrugs, if it pays any attention at all.

Perhaps most promising for the design industry as a whole is the acknowledgement of the work of Maurice Lim Miller, an innovator in the social space who, as his bio puts it, designs “

programs of mutual support and self-sufficiency that break the cycle of economic dependency for low-income families and build more resilient communities from the ground up.” From OpenIDEO to the Acumen Fund, attention is being paid to design in this space, and it presents a promising path to the future. But design educators, design professionals and, indeed, design writers, all have a lot of work to do to make a case more convincingly that this stuff actually matters.

May 22, 2012
Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad on the Messy Process of Design and Innovation

Jad Abumrad also spoke at the 99% Conference. The founder of the experimental radio show, Radiolab, and winner of a Macarthur Foundation “Genius” award last year, Abumrad was simultaneously self-effacing and steely. In particular, he had a refreshing take on how he answers the difficult question of how exactly he made Radiolab into a success story: “In those moments I find myself bullshitting,” he confessed. “There’s a gravitational pull to talk about things in ways that are really not true.”

The desire to retroactively neaten up the messy process of design and innovation is understandable and pervasive. Yet Abumrad’s clear point was that there had been no clear plan in the early days of the show. How they would pay for the program, what the business plan was… all unclear. Instead, they were left with what he called “gut churn” and the existential angst that accompanies the question, “will I survive?”

Abumrad wasn’t advocating not considering the deeper facets of a problem, but instead was describing the “radical uncertainty you feel when you work without a template.” And, he added, “we don’t talk enough about how crummy it can feel to make something new.”

[Photo: Julian Mackler]

May 26, 2011

The National Design Awards were announced by the Cooper-Hewitt today, and some great names are honored. Type designer Matthew Carter walks off with the lifetime achievement gong. The creator of ubiquitous fonts such as Verdana and Georgia, Carter has worked for clients from The New York Times to Yale University. Last year, he was given a prestigious, $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, for which he was interviewed for this video. I love his description of the struggle with the “straitjacket” of type design. He describes a battle, “conforming to the conventions of the alphabet and not allowing yourself to get too depressed, if you like, by these constraints and learning to express some small part of yourself within them.” It’s a lyrical idea that applies to so many aspects of design writ large. Love it.