That New Design Smell

That New Design Smell is a critical design magazine, published in 2011 by Michèle Champagne. This interview aims to question the visual and editorial strategies used in the magazine, as well as discuss the context and decisions taken by its editor.

Francisco Laranjo (FL): What was the relation between the generation of content, the editorial process and the design of the magazine That New Design Smell? In other words, how did the (inseparable?) process of critical thinking and designing affect each other?

Michèle Champagne (MC): The relationship between wrangling content and editorial design is like that of a very old couple. They love each other very much. They finish each other’s sentences and scratch each other’s backs. But do they always get along? Sometimes they get on each others’ nerves and spend some time apart. In a practical sense, they share the same house, bedroom and studio but separate desks are a must. They share the same pot of coffee, but there always needs to be a place where they can chew their toast in peace.

FL: Why did you keep separate desks? Chewing toasts separately smells like that old design smell.

MC: The separate desks were meant as metaphor. If a loving couple lives together, plays together and works together, at some point, a healthy dose of private space can come in handy. For me, separate metaphoric desks are a must. But now that I think about it, I did end up literally placing two desks in the studio—side by side—while working on That New Design Smell. One for wrangling content and the other for designing.

I’m afraid there’s a false delusion about different skills flattening completely. Taking down all barriers! Eliminating all walls! Seems like a delusion no smarter than its opposite delusion: Putting up loads of barriers! Building tons of walls! It’s quite common to experience designers hopping onto bandwagons that sound progressive without thinking for themselves. At the What Design Can Do! conference in Amsterdam this summer (2011), I encountered this delusion when Li Edelkoort preached progress and the complete elimination of all barriers, whether professional, social or political. Not surprisingly, and as usual, the audience gave her a roaring applause.

Perhaps what you’re referring to, in terms of “that old design smell,” is this building loads of walls! delusion. In other words, departmental separation between editors and designers: working on different floors, or not working closely enough to understand each other. But that’s getting rather “old-old” now. Don’t you think? We’ve even seen large publishing institutions—from Bloomberg Businessweek to The Guardian—grouping editors and designers together. They work side-by-side; but don’t occupy the same desk. And besides, my preference for same-studio-different-desk is a personal and professional opinion, not an absolute. It’s important for editors and designers to think and decide for themselves what works best. That’s independent and critical thinking.

FL: I wasn’t talking about the generically prejudiced (and old but still present and pertinent) discussion of the designer’s editorial voice. With the focus on That New Design Smell, its general design and individual articles, I intended instead to question you about the problems that a division of being critical (theory) and being critical (making/ designing) can produce, normally resulting in under-considered, ill-informed, aestheticized illustrated theory.

MC: I guess it’s always worth figuring out which kind of “critical” one is talking about…

01. General critical thinking—Posing questions, inviting doubt, not taking things for granted. 02. Then, there’s design criticism—Similar, but more specifically judging the merits of arguments (whether arguments are made by designers themselves, or made by design critics). 03. And there is also “critical design”—as seen with some early 2000’s designs, their exhibitions and publications. In a way, the magazine is meddling in all three.

As for the critical (making/designing) of the magazine, I can say the magazine’s design is following a visual argument: design is a disgrace. That’s why Arial, justified titles and pixelated images were welcomed. It could be considered a piece of “critical design” in the way it questions “good design” rules, like using Helvetica, ensuring readability and using high-res professional photography.

But I’ll let the “judging of arguments” up to critics, they can decide whether the results are successful or not. Generally, there are doubts about the “slightly off-puting name” (Rick Poynor), flashing website (Cerentha Harris), and “not pretty” aesthetics of the printed mag (Studentenprijs jury). But the majority of criticisms so far recognize the clear concept of the magazine’s intentions, media model and clarity of editorial content, as well as appreciation for why the aesthetics are disgraceful: because they are meant to be (also Studentenprijs jury, as well as Rick Poynor and Rob Walker).

“the problems that a division of being critical (theory) and being critical (making/ designing) can produce, normally resulting in under-considered, ill-informed, aestheticized illustrated theory.”

I’m not sure what “aestheticized illustrated theory” means, but I’ll assume: some magazines look like tired-old status quo magazines, all the while publishing challenging texts. The magazine was trying to present a piece of 03. “critical design” (in terms of its visual argument) all the while engaging 01. “critical thinking” and publishing 02. “design criticism.”

FL: Following the politics of aesthetics (to which Rancière cannot be dissociated) interview with Metahaven, can you explain how your general (critical) intention informed the design decisions taken in the magazine?

MC: I’m not sure how any “general (critical) intention” followed my interview with Metahaven—its rather the opposite, with intentions coming first—but I’ll try to touch on two things you brought up. One being Jacques Rancière’s theory in “The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible” (originally published in French as “Le Partage du sensible: Esthétique et politique”).right 1Rancière, J. (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum The second being how critical intentions affected the design of That New Design Smell.

You know, not a single Rancière comment was made about the title “The Politics of Aesthetics”? It’s true the interview with Metahaven’s co-founder, Daniel van der Velden, didn’t touch on Rancière directly—we discussed the politics of aesthetics in a design field characterized by déja-vu moments. Nor did I directly cite Rancière when I chose the title. Maybe I should have. In short, Rancière argues that politics is the struggle of unrecognized parties for equal representation; and that aesthetics were bound up in this struggle because of their role in representation. At the time, I liked the idea of throwing the title out there to see what would happen; to see if designers would speak up or bite back. On this point, however, nothing much happened. Again, maybe I should have been more explicit.

As for how critical intentions affected the design of That New Design Smell, there were several ways. First-and-foremost, the intention was to encourage independent and critical thinking in design through dialogue. The vast majority of design discussions are trapped by lame professional monologues or an open likedy-like mafia—from professional publications to silly blogs. Following this, I tried to collect and generate smart design criticism. I threw it into the ring of smart online feedback, yet still created a printed product you could hold in your hands. So the magazine as a medium was designed with an on- and off-line media model. The editorial framework was designed in three sections to explore theory, practice and memes. And, the magazine was designed using Arial to address “beauty contest” issues head on. Going for what is generally perceived as “ugly” aesthetics, allowed the magazine to get down to business: dialogue-based design criticism.

And besides, one could even argue Arial is one of the most beautiful bastards Microsoft designers ever created. But that’s another story.

FL: I was not referring to that “old-old” discussion. When I wrote “that old design smell”, it should have perhaps been “that average smell”. In other words, what I meant is that many times it is possible to observe a division or dissonance between the designer’s intentions and their materialisation, with this having an important (normally bad) influence on the quality/ substance of the practical work.

MC: Do you mean whether or not designers can be authors or “have an editorial voice”? Or these types of things? Of course designers can be authors, edit content and self-publish. As do many others. Lawyers, accountants, doctors, architects and artists also author, edit and publish. There’s a malaise in talking about designers as mere service providers who passively voice client messages and cannot change content. But if we look at the real world around us, we immediately see how rich and mixed this phenomenon is across the board. For example, doctors engage in self-initiated research, they can freely experiment and publish reports. They also do client-driven research for public and private organizations. Doctors are even client-driven in the sense that they serve patients. Design practice can be equally mixed.

The problem emerges when designers compare themselves to the myth of the autonomous artist, with visionary-visions, full authorship over output, personal signatures, etcetera. It’s a myth I encountered a lot in the Netherlands, at both the Sandberg Institute Amsterdam and Design Academy Eindhoven. What’s meant there as “independent designer” is actually “autonomous artist.” Compared to the myth, designers typically have no editorial influence. So you can understand why art schools train designers in this way: as applied artists who should be more autonomous. Compared to reality however, designers have great editorial influence and they exercise it regularly. Designer’s self-reflections and educational institutions just need to get real.

FL: Could you elaborate more on the “myth of the autonomous artist” issue you mentioned, and on the Sandberg Institute’s education model, based on your experience?

MC: Sandberg Institute’s design department was the best place for me to do my masters. When I arrived at the Institute, I was coming from a global branding firm in Toronto. I’ll always value the people I worked with at the firm, but the design teams were just so big, the labor so divided, and junior talent so isolated, a sense of dependence and helplessness started to weight me down. So for me, the Sandberg Institute was perfect because it allowed me to work independently: to execute projects on my own and solicit collaborations of my choosing.

Sandberg’s education is an “open curriculum” model, where classrooms are like studios and you meet once a week with tutors who provide feedback. Generally speaking, there are no mandatory assignments or forced collaborations; you are by yourself. You either sink or swim. Also, I was a fan of Rob Schroder’s and Daniel van der Velden’s work. And since they were both tutors at the Sandberg Institute at the time, I decided to apply there.

That said, my experience there was one of a designer within an art department. Two reasons for this. First, there’s a clear art bias. In the design department, you find media art conferences, artists as guest tutors, exhibitions in art galleries, group discussions about radical art and projects about arts funding. Never in my life had I talked more about art than in this design department. Some argue it’s healthy to be “exposed” to differing practices. That’s true, but I’d also argue it’s not healthy to be “fully submerged” in another practice by surprise. It’s not to say the art bias is good or bad; it just is. But you can imagine how frustrating it is for students who weren’t expecting it. Before applying, I read their website: “Social engagement, artistic freedom and experimentation form the approach and the underlying principles of the department.” I spoke to graduates who confirmed the art bias. And I spoke to professional Dutch designers who confirmed it too. So I wasn’t surprised.

Second, at the Sandberg, “independent designer” is a common term used, but the meaning behind it relates to the myth of the “autonomous artist”. The myth is not set in stone and has various interpretations, but let’s just say I was faced with some interesting autonomous art dynamics. For example, the idea that success lies in having a single style or signature: a single manifesto and cohesive body of work, either in terms of thematics, methods or aesthetics. Tutors didn’t know how to group my projects into a cohesive whole and expressed their discontent. They just wanted me to succeed, but I realize now we weren’t following the same recipe cards.

Of course, this is a generalization to a certain extent. Tutors come and go, as do departmental directors. One Sandberg year can be very different than the next. Nevertheless, during my experience, and from what I learned from previous graduates, the art bias was clear and the myth of the autonomous artist always lurked. Looking back, I would probably do it all again. I’m still very happy with my experience there.

FL: Returning to the magazine, what is the goal of the child-like computer drawings over some images? There seems to be no apparent statement looking at all the design personalities you have drawn over and their respective drawings.

MC: The smelly designer portraits are by Cedric Flazinski, a designer himself. The designers he portrayed should be familiar to most, as they are some of the most celebrated and esteemed members of the Western design community—from Stefan Sagmeister to Philip Starck and Zac Posen. And, the Photoshop drawings clearly visualize the odor of these designers. I was surprised for example, how many questions were asked about the gentleman portrayed opposite the table of contents. His name is Dieter Rams and he is one of the grandfathers of European modernist design—some would even argue he’s the true designer behind Jonathan Ive’s Apple shenanigan, but that’s another story. Yet many designers did not know who Rams was. Shame!

And besides, there’s no need to look deep into the portraits to find a statement; there is no statement per se. They are simply famous designers who smell. And again, the magazine does not qualify “smelly” as morally “good” or “bad”; all designers have odor. The interest is in critiquing whether odors are fragrant or toxic, to greater or lesser degrees. Maybe that’s a statement, if you can even call it that.

FL: In a new magazine of critical design, what do you think is the impact of filling a magazine with pictures of riots and anti-capitalism demonstrations? This is used across the political spectrum by Adbusters, Bennetton, in Levi’s ads, by Time Magazine and The Sun. They all use them with different political and institutional agendas. How was your editorial/ design articulation different in That New Design Smell #0?

MC: I’m glad you bring this up. There is a communication tactic known as ‘the rebel sell’, which is used by capitalist marketing. And, yes, perhaps ironically, it’s the same tactic used by publications like Adbusters. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter wrote a fantastic book about this, titled The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed.right 2Heath, A; Potter, J. (2004) The Rebel Sell : Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed, HarperCollins Publishers They explore the impact of this phenomenon—it’s strengths and weaknesses—from various angles. I’ll let their book speak for itself, but it basically concludes the rebel sell is hypocritical, it succeeds in creating differentiated competition in capitalist markets, and fails as a counter-cultural tactic.

Yet, Jason Mortlock’s photography was not anti-capitalist whatsoever, nor was there a single mention of anti-capitalism in the article. If anything, the photography documented mainstream, liberal and social democratic politics in Canada. The Billion-Dollar Party explored how a global economic summit was designed: think of it as interaction design. Any UX designer would recognize its elements. There are user interfaces in the form of glamorous roundtables, branded press conferences and militarized urbanism. There’s a user scenario in the form of a re-occurring sequence of events: First, a highly publicized and publicly-funded event is announced, to which the public is not invited. Martial law is enacted, security budgets are beefed into billions, and the public takes to the streets in their typical theatrical fashion. Second, a small handful of individuals wreck havoc on storefronts and police cars. Then, security forces over-react and civil liberties are suspended. And third, world leaders walk away looking like authoritarian fools, who discrediting the very politics they claim to represent: democratic capitalism. The magazine sees this very specific interaction design again and again. We can no longer pretend its a circumstantial accident or happenstance. The interface and scenario of summits are completely designed; they are intentionally planned to be this way, creating the same results almost every single time: an embarrassment for everyone.

That said, That New Design Smell does not advocate democracy, nor does it advocate anti-capitalism. The magazine is open to engaging in documentary-style design criticism. And what we witnessed at protests were thousands of individuals representing civil society organizations, health institutions, labor organizations, student bodies and the general public. The vast majority of them were liberal and social democrats, and many are libertarians and pro-capitalists who advocate government and market reform. In the Toronto G20 case, media coverage was then highjacked by a small group known as the Black Block. We’re talking no more than 100 individuals (out of a 150,000 crowd), which instigated the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Of course, the Black Block is visibly anti-capitalist, dressed in black and engaged in violent action that justify security budgets and make for great headlines. They too are portrayed by Mortlock’s photography. But the Block is also infamous for being co-oped by the police, as seen during Security and Prosperity Partnership protests in Montebello, Québec. In this case, civil rights lawyers, peaceful protesters and YouTube videos exposed how security forces co-opted the Block; they identified police gear on “protesters” all dressed in black, wearing face masks, holding baseball bats and large stones. We’re not even talking big brother conspiracy; it’s a fact confirmed by the Sûreté du Québec themselves (the Québec provincial police) in a publicly-held press conference. They admit police officers infiltrated the Black Block, but deny agent-provocateur tactics. So if anything, Mortlock’s photos showing Block violence represent democratic policing gone awry.

Again, the magazine is open to exploring design dynamics from a documentary stand-point; it does not advocate for partisan politics. And if design dynamics empower, embarrass or diffuse varying political or economic positions, then so be it. Let’s talk about that. And again, the general “face” of Mortlock’s photography depicts liberal and social democratic positions, not anti-capitalistic ones.

FL: In the article Roundtable Harmony, for example, there are no footnotes, original sources that backup your statements or “facts”. How can you sustain criticality if your arguments (either visual or textual), humorous or ironic, are not based on referenced sources?

MC: It’s true I could have published references with the article. However, it was a piece of commentary (maybe this could have been clearer) and opinion pieces don’t typically cite references.

One fact I could have referenced: The billion-dollar price tag of the Toronto G20 security budget. Here’s one fact I could have mentioned in my answers to you: “Sûreté du Québec admit infiltrators”. One thing I wished I had done for The Billion-Dollar Party was present captions for the photographs, they lack context for non-Canadians.

FL: In the magazine you say you experiment with open-content production, engaging an on-line public. Afterwards, you write in the back-cover and on the website that “dialogue is then curated into a printed magazine you hold in your hands.” What do you mean by ‘curating’ (and all the historical baggage that comes attached to this word)? Aren’t you ‘editing’?

MC: That New Design Smell engages with open content production online, and edits content for print. There is no hypocrisy; there is a paradox. The magazine doesn’t engage open source publishing; it engages open content production. It produces part of its content by engaging an online feedback culture: the feedback loop enabled by internet technology, and people who have to comment excessively because they feel someone is wrong on the web.

In principle, I’m a big fan of open source. In practice, and especially in how it’s used by publishing. I have doubts about the free labor and shoddy quality that ensues. That’s why there’s gatekeeping too: curating in Latin means “to care.” And I care about the quality of criticism and the dialogue it generates. I’m working on an “editorial policy” that would clearly define the magazine’s idea of quality. For example, it would publish smart uses of the word “bullshit”, but remove short or crass comments like “fucking hipsters.” Unless of course, it was a line spoken by a fictional design character who played the role of antagonist (think of Eric Cartman’s role in South Park). Clearly, quality exists in context and I’m trying to sharpen what I mean by this as I go along.


   [ + ]

1. Rancière, J. (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum
2. Heath, A; Potter, J. (2004) The Rebel Sell : Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed, HarperCollins Publishers