Well, hello. Again.

I’m caught up in some strange cycle of breathing life back into this blog every couple of years after letting it lie dormant for awhile. Right now, however, I’m visiting New York to participate in the design research and writing residency at School of Visual Arts, so It only seems logical to post and share the writing, the feedback, the revisited dorm life experience, and, of course, precious NYC moments.

In the meantime, here’s a diptych of the views from my two (yes, TWO!) different windows in the dorms. Stay tuned. Hopefully there will be more. 




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Shepard Fairey: a fair fight for fair use?

Mannie Garcia/Shepard Fairey

Mannie Garcia/Shepard Fairey

NPR has done a great job of covering the intellectual property/fair use dispute between artist Shepard Fairey, who designed the iconic Obama “HOPE” poster for his 2008 presidential campaign, and the Associated Press, who claims that not only should photographer Mannie Garcia be credited for his work, but are also asking for a share of the profits, as well as damages. While AP was attempting to settle with Fairey’s attorney, Fairey decided to file suit against the AP, realizing that more was at stake, and that this situation represented a larger issue of how lesser-known artists, designers, grass-roots message-makers and other creative amateurs appropriate, reference, and/or attribute source images.

In principle, I think Fairey and the AP actually agree: both seem to want to give Garcia attribution for his original source photograph, which Fairey chose because of “the direction of the gaze, which I felt looked presidential […] had some vision and leadership” and “the way the light was falling,” he told Terry Gross in January. “The Mannie Garcia photo was a great point of departure for the illustration,” Fairey said. But the poster is a different image, to which Fairey has applied his artistic license and unique aesthetic treatment. “It’s a hand-illustrated image that I had to do some digital tweaks to before I started illustrating it.” For this reason, Fairey feels that he can legally claim “fair use” of the image, because the original image was graphically transformed. Its intention was transformed as well, he explains. Apparently, Garcia’s original photo was shot to document a Darfur panel back in 2006, before Obama was even an official candidate; Fairey’s image is (obviously) to promote a presidential candidate—two completely different intentions.

Perhaps some of this legal wrangling could have been spared if Fairey had done his homework. He knew the photo was an AP image, but he didn’t know the actual photographer’s name until the dispute began. “I’ve attributed it to the AP all along […] I just wasn’t diligent about figuring out who it was. I didn’t do the research and I didn’t think I needed to. I’m perfectly willing to give Mannie Garcia the credit, and I think he deserves the credit.”

So crediting the image is not the issue here, but Fairey’s legal fight is based around grass roots artists’ right to use source images without having to pay for them. He thinks they should have access to the source images they need in order to express themselves and reinterpret the images in their own way, even if they can’t afford to pay for their use. This is an issue not only for grass roots artists, but for graphic designers as well.

When I started working as a graphic designer in 2001, I never would have used a copyrighted photo or image to create a new image or illustration without obtaining the rights for it first. But since then—and as I have been back in an academic environment for the past two and a half years—the line of “rights” and “use” has become very blurry, as we swim in an ever-deepening sea of user-created content. Designers are definitely not the only ones appropriating images anymore. And the students who are in undergrad right now have probably been appropriating images for much longer than they’ve been in design school; they probably don’t even think twice when they do it. It’s part of their natural workflow.

But I do think attribution is important. We must do our homework and make sure that the other creative people who knowingly or unknowingly contributed to our work receive the credit they deserve. As a graduate student, crediting resources—any kind of resources—is an important part of my work. It legitimizes my research process, and helps explain the logic and thinking in my own projects. I would not want someone to use something I had written, created, or designed without attributing it to me, so I feel a moral obligation to give others the same service. I don’t think it’s necessarily always about fame, glory or money, as in the Shepard Fairey case, but there is also academic and social value in being able to trace a lineage of ideas. For our thesis projects, we are asked to consider our successors as we compile our annotated bibliographies—with the understanding that our work may be a useful resource for another student someday. Visual work/property should be treated with the same respect and rigor.

Here’s an interesting closing thought from Fairey, from his January interview with NPR, in which he discusses another issue under the umbrella of design ethics: “…people need to consume with more discretion. I do commerical work for people I respect and that I don’t have an ethical conflict with  […] I’ll do work for people who I think are raising the bar aesthetically through commercial means, because I think that there are no patrons for the arts now, it’s only corporations, and if advertising is out there, why not make it good?”

Here are the NPR interviews, if you’re interested:

Feb. 26: Shepard Fairey: Inspiration or Infringement?

Feb. 5: Fair Use or Infringement? Obama Image In Spat

Jan. 20: Spreading The Hope: Street Artist Shepard Fairey

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The inauguration…from space!

from GeoEye

from GeoEye

Ok, as far as digital imaging is concerned, this is pretty awesome: Goog’s got a new, high-res satellite up there, and it captured the above image of today’s inauguration gathering from over 400 miles above the District. The above image links to the original article from Cnet.

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Dimension + Typography: A Survey of Letterforms in Space and Time

Coincidentally…more dimensional type today! Two of my professors from NC State, Denise Gonzales Crisp and Will Temple, have work in this show at I Space Gallery in Chicago. Super-cool!

Thanks to bighugemess’ flickr photo set, I almost feel like I was able to attend in person.

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ABC3D: dimensional type goes (charmingly) elementary

Late nights in studio are totally worthwhile when my classmates share links like this smart, pop-up alphabet book! It’s an easy sell with me; I’m kind of a sucker for dimensional typography in general.

It reminded me of my impromptu trip to Denton, Texas last summer, when I had a chance to see some 3D type installed in the building where my friend Michèle now teaches graphic design at the University of North Texas:

Michèle Wong Kung Fong demonstrates dimensional type

Michèle Wong Kung Fong demonstrates dimensional type

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My toothbrush was your yogurt cup: designing environmentally friendly oral hygiene

preserve® toothbrush I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown weary of toothbrushes that look like rocket ships or sex toys and come nowhere close to fitting into any kind of holder. But its sleek, minimal design and ability to fit perfectly into my bathroom’s built-in ceramic caddy are only two somewhat superficial reasons I love the Preserve toothbrush by Recycline.

I’ve used a lot of toothbrushes over the years, and have undertaken a fair amount of experimentation in this realm. But this is the first cradle-to-cradle toothbrush I’ve ever owned, which makes it my favorite. Not only is the toothbrush itself made from recycled plastic, but Recycline (and the stores that sell its products) actually provides consumers with a postage-paid return envelope to return one’s spent brush and its case in order to recycle it again. This system probably seems novel to most American consumers, who may wonder why on earth a company would pay to take back its used products (and packaging). But this is not a new concept: Germany started a national waste-reduction program in 1991 (Green Dot, or Grüne Punkt) that shifts the responsibility of disposal from the consumer to the manufacturer. This changes the way German companies produce and package their goods, how individuals dispose of waste, and the ways cities collect and process waste. It has also led to a drastic national increase in recycling rates.

Social agenda aside, the Preserve toothbrush has other noteworthy design features to add to those I mentioned earlier. The head of the toothbrush is angled 45º, which is aesthetically pleasing and provides lovely leverage while brushing (good for the gums because you don’t have to apply as much pressure). The packaging is also quite smart: a clear, rectangular tube, with end-caps and breathing holes, which doubles as the perfect traveling case (and, as I mentioned, can be recycled along with the brush). I bought mine at Trader Joe’s (and I bet Whole Foods and similar places carry them, too), but you can also order one online directly from Recycline.

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Mumbai: How can design respond to terrorism?

I feel fortunate that I was able to visit Mumbai back in 2005, before all of this devastating chaos. However, my travels in India marked my first palpable encounter with a daily, immanent threat of terrorism. A couple days before I landed in New Delhi, two cinemas screening a controversial Hindi film were bombed. Though these attacks were not nearly as aggressive as the recent events in Mumbai, leaving far fewer dead or injured, Delhi responded by visibly tightening security. The cinemas swiftly implemented metal detectors and hand-searches (frisking) of each individual. (Similar screening processes could be found at many other venues for large public assembly.) Men and women would queue up in separate lines, file through the detectors, and then proceed to the pat-down from a police officer of one’s same sex (this is a regular feature of India’s domestic airports). My friend Arun had his camera with us when we got in line to buy tickets for Bunty aur Babli. We had to buy tickets for a later showing so we’d have time to figure out what to do with his camera (because they wouldn’t let him take it—or any other ‘foreign objects’ into the theatre with us).

But the point of all of this is that, in spite of the bombings, people were still going to the movies. People were still out and about in the streets of Delhi. Life kept moving in its vibrant, tumultuous, very Indian way.

“The killers who struck this week are brutal and violent, but terror will not have the final word,” President Bush said in his statement this morning. “People of India are resilient. People of India are strong. They have built a vibrant, multi-ethnic democracy that can withstand this trial. Their financial capital of Mumbai will continue to be the center of commerce and prosperity.” While this is one of the few statements Bush has ever made with which I actually agree, I also think his comment on Indian resilience provides an excellent opportunity to reexamine the way he has responded to terrorism in our own country, and how design dictates our attitudes towards terrorism.

Six months after 9/11, Bush issued a presidential directive to create the Homeland Security Advisory System, which was presented to the public in March 2002 by Tom Ridge. You know this system; you’ve seen signs for it in the airport, heard about it on the evening news. The language in the presidential directive describes the scale:

Low = Green;
Guarded = Blue;
Elevated = Yellow;
High = Orange;
Severe = Red.

Since its inception, this system has been highly criticized—and rightfully so. Because there are no public criteria for the threat levels, they seem fairly arbitrary. The lowest levels (green and blue) have never been invoked; according to the Bush administration, America has been teetering somewhere between “Yellow” and “Red” for the past six and a half years.

In terms of the way the design of this system influences American thinking, the color-coding system has two major outcomes:

1. “The color-coding system is completely pointless.” Those who realize the arbitrary nature of the system consider it to be ridiculous (not to mention that the ‘strategic’ development invested in its creation was a total waste of tax dollars). The invention of the system compromises our opinion of Bush’s judgment, further decreasing peoples’ faith in the leadership of this country.

2. “The color-coding system makes me feel afraid and worry about terrorists.” Never mind that it comes without instructions (because how can you instruct someone to avoid terror?); those who see the flash of orange on the evening news—and take it seriously—contribute to the culture of fear that has developed in America over the past seven years. In terms of rhetorical modes of appeal (which are as applicable to images and design as they are to language), the color-coding system employs pathos to elicit an emotional response (fear) from the audience (Americans). To return to Bush’s statement about Mumbai, the advisory system he established in his own country actually lets terror have the final word.

Never mind that India does not have a parallel infrastructure (nor a comparable percentage of televisions in the homes of its massive population)—they definitely do not have a similar color-coding ‘advisory’ system. Permeability of mass media aside, I doubt they ever will employ such a problematic communication device. India has been fraught with terror attacks; current events in Mumbai are only part of an unfortunate history of violent acts throughout the country. But India benefits in the long run by coping with hope instead of perpetuating fear. The Indian people deal with these horrific situations in a hands-on way (i.e. visibly ramping up security), then gradually do their best to return to normal, daily life. In this way, the world’s oldest democracy could learn from the world’s largest democracy.

As a designer, I believe America would be better off without the Homeland Security Advisory System. If you agree, stop stocking up on duct tape and please let President-Elect Obama know that we’d like to retire this arbitrary system which only serves to reinforce fear, and replace it with a renewed American tradition of hope.

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