Through materials to find those for which we have the closest affinity.

Michael Bierut’s remembrance for Massimo Vignelli begins:

I learned how to design at design school. But I learned how to be a designer from Massimo Vignelli.

How to be a designer: what a massive assignation.

As Vignelli tributes (and links to his New York City subway map) clustered in my inbox this week, I’ve thought a lot about how I learned how to be a designer. I sometimes think I know how to be a designer because, like Bierut, I developed a taste for raw meat.

And as I reflect, I’m pretty sure I arrived at my present professional modus operandi through a non-repeatable formula of haphazardly undertaken coursework, a scarce bit of mentorship, and quite a lot of luck in choosing the things I’ve done repeatedly. Among the activities I’d consider directly responsible for my success, I’d include coding, Photoshop, and a lot of time articulating my (often un)solicited opinions about design and typography. Indirectly, I’m pretty sure my hobbies of cooking, looking at urban spaces, and finding dress shirts that fit led me to some of the same conclusions as Bierut about taste and the recognition of my own blind spots.

However much I consciously did not count Vignelli as a design influence (or a personal mentor), I have to acknowledge his stature in the field and credit him for forcing me as a young designer to respond and re-respond to his six-typeface standard. While I still disagree with such an arbitrary limit, my response has evolved over the last 10 years: whereas I was once appalled by its restrictiveness, I am now more appreciative of what it represents as a manifestation of a set of principles.

My hobbies are not unique among professionals in my field. I’d like to think they’ve helped me thrive in my field because of my approach to them, one informed by the six-typeface standard: I’ve learned to prioritize competence over novelty.

Vignelli's six typefaces.

As for Vignelli’s principles: I’d recommend The Vignelli Canon to young designers, outsiders, and humans at-large. It’s written and designed with lots of heart (it’s also a quick read, available as a free PDF).

Its conclusion is also a fitting piece of text to quote this week. Printed on the last page of the book and set in Century Expanded, it feels like a poem:

Throughout our creative lives we have sifted
through everything to select what we thought best.
We sifted through materials to find those for which
we have the closest affinity. We sifted through
colors, textures, typefaces, images, and gradually
we built a vocabulary of materials and experiences
that enable us to express our solutions to given
problems – our interpretations of reality.
It is imperative to develop your own vocabulary of
your own language – a language that attempts to
be as objective as possible, knowing very well that
even objectivity is subjective.
I love systems and despise happenstance.
I love ambiguity because, for me, ambiguity means
plurality of meanings. I love contradiction
because it keeps things moving, preventing them
from assuming a frozen meaning, or becoming a
monument to immobility.
As much as I love things in flux, I love them
within a frame of reference – a consistent
reassurance that at least and at last I am the one
responsible for every detail.

And that is why I love Design.

Verdicts.

In the wake of Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban from the NBA, I’m half-surprised no one in my social media feeds mentioned the L.A. riots. While today’s news certainly doesn’t carry the same import – and have the same effect on people’s lives – as the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King, it still carries enough airtime (and my mindshare, as a long-time L.A.-based basketball fan) to have a symbolic and emotional impact.

Today’s verdict is hardly a salve on a long and bitter history in the sports and entertainment industries, but it’s at least heartening to hear the NBA commissioner speak about the league’s stance on bigotry in a way that a jury could not issue a verdict about police brutality 22 years ago today. As I watched the Q&A that followed the commissioner’s announcement of his verdict, I appreciated his directness and apparent sincerity. It was clear from his tone that this verdict was not merely about maintaining good PR, but that he was personally offended. And that matters for something.

However, while this verdict comes from the NBA, the L.A. Clippers are just one of many of Sterling’s business interests. There are people who pay Sterling for the roofs over their heads, and their present condition is probably that they are possessive of the ability to vote with their feet while bereft of an alternative. I wish that weren’t the case.

Given the serpentine configuration of Sterling’s business, it may take at least a million little cuts to deflate it, and each of those cuts (unfortunately) has to come from a different person who has to live with the consequences of holding a blade. Regardless of how much they agree in principle about not writing checks to a bigot, some people will not choose to cease paying their rent, and it’s more difficult to judge those people for that choice.

While Sterling’s tenants don’t (yet) have a broadsword-wielding champion, Adam Silver – in his position as NBA commissioner – wielded one and decisively cut off one of Sterling’s arms. Today’s verdict may only prevent Sterling from participating in one of his hobbies rather than causing real change in Southern California’s real estate market, but the opportunity to dismember a scourge of institutional racism rarely presents itself, so I find it satisfying when those empowered to deliver such strokes do so without equivocation.

So while it’s a relatively small victory, it’s a noteworthy one. (And it’s actually far from won.) While I long for more opportunities and broadswords and people to wield them, it gives me hope that – at least in the last 22 years – there are now visibly more of the latter.

(Also, apropos nothing: the situation that had to be resolved with this verdict is by far the ugliest storyline in the past two weeks that have otherwise been a great time to be a fan of NBA basketball – the entire Western Conference first round is just unreal this year.)

To let our city die by degrees.

After visiting the Rizzoli Bookstore on its last day of operation to end a week where I’ve read Dustin Curtis on Facebook’s design and Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem, I’m seeing a thread through these three stories about how people in a laissez-faire market make decisions that prioritize profit over aestheics and thinking about what that means in the context of an urban or technological ecosystem.

Though it is the retail presence of an Italian art book publisher, Rizzoli in Midtown arguably qualifies as a neighborhood gem (I suppose its closest analog would be Taschen’s Beverly Hills outpost), but it is a representative of a business that is dying in New York – bookstores – in favor of something that I perceive to be a blight – weak-modernist condominium towers for the ultra-rich.

Facebook’s new News Feed design is certainly something that can’t count me as an admirer. Between the current view and the screenshot Curtis used to illustrate his essay, I would choose the latter in a heartbeat. In the same thread of people exercising their will and aesthetics, I found myself seeing the play between Curtis’ essay and Julie Zhou’s “user-focused” response analogous to Jon Wiley’s exegesis on the Google redesign of 2011 and Doug Bowman’s 2009 farewell to the same company.

And Wild Ones is a fantastic read: Mooallem (so far) hasn’t presented a particular opinion as far as which kind of conservation strategy is best (or even declared explicitly that conservation of endangered species is right), but he has – with a gracious wit – provided a platform for arguments about conservation and human intervention in ecosystems that I find somewhat salient as I’m thinking about how Facebook and Google design websites and how real estate developers like Vornado and LeFrak choose to exercise their will in urban environments.

Is it right that Rizzoli in midtown is closing – not because it’s an insolvent business but because Vornado and LeFrak wish to destroy the older (and, to my eyes, lovelier) edifice and replace it with crash pads for ultra-rich jetsetters? I personally find glass towers in the ilk of One57 gauche, and while I’m not its target audience by any stretch, I am a stakeholder in its success or failure insofar as I am a resident of the same ecosystem.

A theme that runs through Wild Ones is that conservation of one species is never really just about that species but the balance between where it lives, what it eats and what eats it and how people just get mixed up in all of that. In much the same way, my feelings about Rizzoli aren’t really about the bookstore or even about bookstores in general. They’re about the aesthetics of economic predators and shifting baselines for future generations, who I fear we will raise in a cornice-free future without bookstores and the people who care about them.

And that’s a future that will come into being because I believe that when a person prioritizes profit over aesthetics, they subtly shift the baseline of aesthetics for future generations. What degree of visual noise do we accept now in the things we use everyday, whether they’re websites or city streets? How about the generations that follow? Will our grandchildren aspire to design arched-tile ceilings like Guastavino or endow everyday brick with ornaments of brass and terra cotta like Sullivan if they never knew that these places, these features, these possibilities existed?

(Above: one of my favorite short films/presentations on the subject, Lost Buildings – this time in Chicago, with Ira Glass narrating and Chris Ware illustrating.)

I don’t want to know the answers to those questions, nor do I actually want to define the specific boundaries of my aesthetic pluralism or articulate my thoughts on revenue-driven real estate development and A/B-tested software design. But I do want to expand a bit on what Rizzoli’s closure in Midtown actually means to me.

Rizzoli is not a living organism or an altruistic organization, and it’s not even closing up for good (a cashier told me they’re considering reopening near the Flatiron later this year). But it exists in the urban ecosystem of Midtown, and that ecosystem is one that feels more and more hostile to species of people who value literature and art and being in buildings with nice Beaux-Arts architectural features (in short, people like me). It’s one less neighborhood where these species can thrive, in a city that has been getting more obviously inhospitable toward that industry – and by extension, that kind of person – in the past few years.

And just as disappearing plant species and food resources and the introduction of highways and airports can be cataclysmic events for animals in the wild, I believe that prioritizing one land use over another (ahem, parking) can be detrimental to the overall value of an urban setting. For instance, while I’m not a hardcore library user or bookstore patron, I value those people as my colleagues and weak ties. And seeing Rizzoli close – and more pointedly, for the reason it closed – means that the pain of losing that species is not just edging closer into being but that it’s being willfully accelerated for selfish reasons.

Obviously, software, architecture, real estate, booksellers, and animals are very different beasts. But the ways people treat them and interpret their own relationship to them have a clear parallel to me. They are all such pervasive aspects of a person’s experience of life that when one aspect of it is altered, it arguably alters the whole experience.

And I’d advise: if you can help it, don’t prey on what you can’t resurrect. There are greater consequences to this than you’ve anticipated.

All made-up constructions.

Just as we look with curiosity at the hep lingo of the Beats (and selectively adopt their patois), I predict generations hence will both mock and adopt the Google-optimized syntax and gleefully vulgar diction of the contemporary listicle. And in that future, linguists and grammarians reverse-engineering our decade’s contribution to language will probably extract something not unlike this: the BuzzFeed style guide.

And it’s a nonclusterfuck. While it may seem to the casual observer that BuzzFeed plays fast and loose, this style guide is evidence that the enterprise employs a flavor of editorial rigor seemingly bygone, more conservative era. This is a good thing.

The word list is a time capsule in waiting. Editors openly acknowledge the role the site plays in a broader conversation, advocating hat-tips in their corrections policy. The LGBT section is thorough and humane. Just as On Writing is my favorite Stephen King book, this is probably my favorite thing BuzzFeed has published.

A few of my favorite bon mots:

  • On combining forms: “-esque (closed up/hyphens depend on readability: yolo-esque, Kafkaesque)”
  • On headlines: “For lists, always use a numeral. ‘9 Adorable Photos Of Monkeys Riding Cats,’ ’54 Amazing GIFs Of Naked Presidents'”
  • On music: “Hyphenate all made-up constructions.”
  • On periods: “Use one space between a period and the next sentence. Never two.” (Yes please.)
  • Miscellaneous numerals: “8mm film, 8-track tape, Hot 97, 55 mph, $150K”

Related, both in the Atlantic: Because Internet and TL;DR: Srsly, this is the future of language. Squee.

NRT.

Ten years ago, as I left Narita Airport on an express train for Tokyo, I loaded A Love Supreme into my Discman. What I understood then to be the outskirts of Tokyo unfolded as a diorama just beyond my window as “Acknowledgement” churned into its motif.

I didn’t know that album very well at the time; I was just an aspiring 20-year-old aesthete who wanted to incorporate it into my cultural arsenal. And it lodged itself firmly there as it became the theme song for the things that I don’t yet understand but desperately want to.

That trip to Japan in the summer 2003 (as the guest of a former client and beneficiary of a moment of largesse I’ve yet to pay forward) was the first time that I had been fully disarmed of my ability to communicate. It scared me immensely to be at once surrounded by people and in a void.

I was overwhelmed at the time, not very well-off, somewhat primitive in many respects. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever return.

Looking back, it was essential to my development as a person, immersed in that situation in early adulthood where my only recourse was to observe and communicate using only the most rudimentary of terms. But it’s a situation I’ve learned to recognize and relish, and even sought again.

After that trip, I continued to Manila for an 8-week stay. That summer happened to be the same time Lost in Translation came out, and when I watched it upon my return, it too (however literally) occupied that thematic space with John Coltrane’s modernist jazz.

I return to that space with some frequency now, populating it with new songs to remember other thrilling encounters with my language’s permeable membrane, itself an advancing and evolving boundary. Elitism starts where the limits of your understanding begin, I’d believed long before that and held fast since.

And today, I’m going back.

Turtles all the way down.

Last Saturday, Christina and I watched a reading of “Manahatta” by Mary Kathryn Nagle at the Public as part of their New Work Now! 2013 series. It’s a delightfully arch production, structured as a series of scenes between two time periods (17th-century Manahatta and late-2000s Wall Street, with dramatic overlaps) like Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” worth watching if you’re a New Yorker, care about Native American issues, or the peculiar interplay of indigenous people and ambitious conquerors and its long-term consequences. Its structure lends itself to juxtapositions, and even if they sometimes overreach in this play, they’re intriguing enough to merit proper staging. A scene depicting the infamous $24 real-estate deal successfully elicited a knowing, sympathetic cringe. History repeats throbs just under the surface like a subwoofer through drywall.

From all the clever chronological cross-referencing, among the more incisive and memorable fulcra was Nagle’s use of the word speak. In “Manahatta,” it means more than merely uttering words: it means a presence in the consequential moments of one’s own history. To lose the ability to speak, to have it beaten out of you, or to arrive at a consequential moment with neither the necessary language nor immediate skill to translate is pretty much terminal for one’s culture and way of life.

In both time periods, characters tell the Lenape story of the origins of life on earth: a turtle rose from the water, a tree grew from its back and sprouted a man, the tree bent over to touch the ground again and sprouted a woman. I like this story because it’s the foundation of one of my favorite cosmological epigrams.

And “Manahatta” is a rich story well-told, but a staging with sets and costumes will undoubtedly change the effect of the words (to say nothing of the stresses of syllables from show-to-show). Unlike so much of what I consume, this is explicitly a work in progress, something put forth as something that will potentially be quite different in the future (and I feel invested enough to return).

Related: I watched “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” in its premiere run at Woolly Mamoth last year and would recommend it to interested friends in New York who’ve ever compulsively quoted the Simpsons. I am interested to find out how too this has changed since it made its way up the 95.

Since last time: I wrapped a project in Pennsylvania with a design presentation and delivery of a pair of PDFs for functional specifications. Took a day off to take delivery of a new dresser, a vintage stainless-steel number not unrelated to tanker desks and barrister bookcases I have loved.

This weekend in theater, literature, and music: “Matilda” tonight, back to the Public on Saturday for “All The Faces of the Moon”, and the Brooklyn Book Festival and Chvrches in concert on Sunday.

Next week: a new project in Michigan opens with two days of interviews bookended by late-night flights with layovers. And before that, drinking about wireframes at the Brooklyn UX happy hour in Gowanus.

Finally: these are some awesome pictures of goats.

The dialogue between desire and possibility.

I added War From the Ground Up to my to-read list, largely based on this crystalline, headstone-worthy epigram:

As Simpson puts it, strategy is always “the dialogue between desire and possibility”. Politicians may desire an outcome but their strategy has to be tempered by the operational realities on the ground.
—Emile Simpson, as quoted in the Financial Times

Seriously, I can’t believe the concept of strategy had not been defined so damn neatly until that point in time, over steak tartare and Dorset crabs. The closest I’ve gotten to such a sweet summation is my definition of wireframes (but as anybody who works in web design well knows, nobody cares about wireframes).

The last time I consumed a book based on an such a sentence was Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, which ended with its protagonist (Luca Turin) defining metaphor as the currency of knowledge. As a half-bored 21-year-old in the backseat of my parents’ Camry on the way home from Sunday mass, I remember hearing Burr read the book’s last two paragraphs on a Studio 360 interview, and the words froze me. I knew I had to read this book, and the next day, I borrowed it from the Downey Public Library, read it in two days, and have counted it among my favorite books since. (It’s also the deepest root of my present love of perfumery.)

Speaking of favorite books, while it does not have any singular narrative thrust, Lunch with the FT is a tremendous tome for high-brow travellers in a mood for non-fiction: short articles that fit neatly into train platforms and airport lounges, public figures both familiar and obscure rendered somewhat at-ease (and occasionally in watercolor illustrations), and proceedings described with details of some of the world’s better restaurants (including receipts) – I’ll vouch for its place on your to-read list and your carry-on.

At its center is the squirrel, combusting.

From the apocalyptic imagery of its opening lines to one of the most evocative descriptions of bureaucratic residue I’ve read, very few articles about our electrical grid have captured my imagination quite like “Squirrel Power!” It’s a story about power outages caused by squirrels, and it’s a strong contender to be one of my favorite pieces of journalism of this year.

While it doesn’t have the same import as last weekend’s also-brilliant (and definitely more grave-feeling and timely) “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask,” it’s worth pointing out that it is much, much better than its frivolously punctuated title might lead you to believe. Jon Mooallem’s use of imagery is about eight levels better than it needs to be, and his use of acronyms recalls their humorous deployment in The Princess Bride. On the journey between the Thus spake Zarathustra by-way-of Mel Brooks opening and the perspective-shifting final paragraphs, cheek and statistics abound. Spokespeople from utility companies and townfolk chime in from South Carolina, Montana, and Michigan. And squirrels pop.

Some of my favorite passages (with added emphasis):

I wind up hearing a lot of the same snarky jokes. People say the squirrels are staging an uprising. People say the squirrels are calculating, nut-cheeked saboteurs trying to overthrow humanity. Like the apes in “Planet of the Apes,” or the Skynet computer network in “The Terminator,” the squirrels represent a kind of neglected intelligence that’s suddenly, sinisterly switching on.

And while gruesome, the phrase “lingering, second wave of obstruction” that necessarily describes the nature of the problem just sticks in the mind, a fully-formed beauty. (Everything after and including the words “dead weight” also recalls Monty Python.)

But if the squirrel doesn’t fall off the equipment — if its charred carcass is lodged there — the squirrel can trigger a so-called continuous fault, interrupting the restarted flow of electricity all over again. It’s a zombie attack: a lingering, second wave of obstruction. The lights go out when our electrical grid can find no way around this stuck hunk of dead weight that used to be a squirrel.

This passage about navigating public records to study this issue is unexpectedly rich:

What exists, instead, are only flecks of information, the partial outline of a very annoying apparition.

And this is the first of those aforementioned final paragraphs. “Natural order” is a pretty loaded term, but since he’s writing about nature (and the way squirrels’ teeth grow), I’ll withhold my usual cringe:

A power outage caused by a squirrel feels so surprising only because we’ve come to see our electrical grid — all these wires with which, little by little, we’ve battened down the continent — as a constant. Electricity everywhere, at the flick of a switch, seems like the natural order, while the actual natural order — the squirrel programmed by evolution to gnaw and eat acorns and bask and leap and scamper — winds up feeling like a preposterous, alien glitch in that system. It’s a pretty stunning reversal, if you can clear the right kind of space to reflect on it, and fortunately power outages caused by squirrels do that for you by shutting off your TV and Internet.

Another paragraph begins: “There have been very few squirrel specialists throughout history.” And while this bald assertion seems meant to prompt a guffaw, I’d like to think it also alludes to the melancholy (and rather meta) revelation that there are very few outlets today where 2,200 words could be published about the effects of small synanthropes (love this word) on the delivery of basic services. Or really, in an age when this article is barely satire, where journalism about any factors that affect the delivery of basic services could be published.

And while I wish for a natural order of vaguely emo short-form infrastructure writing, that would not guarantee a similarly satisfying blend of introspection, statistics, and cheek that Mooallem has produced here. Still, I am grateful for this alien glitch and the space to reflect on it.

(Via Christina)