Blurred Lines

January 29, 2019

2019—The Greatest Bastards

All lights go down and in the pitch dark, Mr. Rice walks into The Town Hall. A room designed without a bad seat, commanding an intimacy that the Big Apple doesn’t deserve. In spite of being surrounded by the worst kind of stimulus, Midtown was the destination to find intimacy that night. And thus, we armed ourselves with winter jackets and maneuvered through subway cars and hot dog stands to find the box office.

After calming the deafening applause, like an auditory Moses parting the Red Sea, Mr. Rice is suddenly in relationship not just with his audience of hey-I-am-walking-heres, but to his dual microphone setup. He spares us a greeting and proceeds to reveal himself through faint strokes of his guitar, and through him we all find ourselves.

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There’s an audacity to his simplicity. The stage is empty with nothing but a guitar, two mics, and a table with a bottle of wine (more on that later). Nevertheless, the entire Town Hall is captivated and everything is now in service of his performance. He owns the room like Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette taught us: expertly creating and releasing tension with constrained creativity.

Now the entire theater sings with him in silence. There are countless disruptions: phones powering on in the distance, incompetent flash photography capturing nothing, and emergency exit signs blinding the darkness that Mr. Rice protected. The experience isn’t his songs, but their residence in the space along with too many (more than zero) whooers shouting song names into the void.

You see, Damien Rice uses a Martin 00–18 acoustic guitar. The German-born American luthier never imagined this moment when he founded C.F. Martin & Company in 1830. Neither did the architecture firm McKim, Mead & White when they designed the floors of the Town Hall’s stage, which Mr. Rice stomps on while singing I Remember.

Yet here we are: a large group of likely supporters of AOC’s 70% tax on the rich, an Irish singer-songwriter, a dusty acoustic guitar, a nearly-two-century old stage, a pack of blinding-flashlight-wielding ushers, and Damien’s heart reverberating through all of us.

Damien invites a lady from the audience to share the bottle of wine during Cheers Darlin’. The song isn’t the song; it’s her swiftly loosening up as the wine in the bottle disappears. It’s her lingering gaze as Damien teases intimacy on a public stage. It’s the audience gasping as the lady’s partner watches this unfold in front of all of us.

The heartbreak-anthem writer who entered my life in 2004 by accompanying the love affair of Natalie Portman and Jude Law wanted to tell a story, and that story could only be told in Manhattan on a winter night in a rusty, misplaced National Historic Landmark, three blocks from an ejaculating Elmo in costume.

Marshall McLuhan would be proud; the tools did shape the message and, as a result, every single one of us.

2008—Art & Design

I refer to my bass as a limb — a true extension of myself. I use it to express tone, character, and to impart in others a transformative experience. I split my time between jam sessions with my bass and the X-acto knife. College feels inevitable and behind its doors, Graphic Design invites me in. And so, I walk through them every day—the jam sessions need flyers after all.

The push and pull begins. What is Art? What is Design? It’s certainly not the same, that we know for sure.

I’m approaching graduation and I need to check the internship checkbox. So I ask for two days off a week at the small print shop I’m working for, where I routinely argue with a Cold Fusion Developer about politics. I scramble a resume together and apply at the usual suspects: the agencies that somehow retain promise in a small town.

After the rejection letters, I find myself in front of an iMac G3 at the Clear Channel Outdoor office designing billboards for clients who couldn’t afford a graphics department. “I can design something and it will be printed onto a huge billboard on the highway!?” I thought. “After all, I live in Tampa where driving is like breathing, so tapping into the highway is as important as performing open heart surgery,” I said to myself confidently.

There is another graphic designer in the office. His name is Homer. He’s got a long beard, and we talk about Exit Through The Gift Shop. We measure each other’s taste as we take turns playing music while we work. Homer plays Damien Rice’s Amie and he comments how much he likes the line, “Amie, come sit on my wall,” as if Mr. Rice is singing to a painting. Later that day, I listen to the entire album on my drive home and cry the whole way.

2010—From Rice to Rams

I throw my cap into the air one last time and step outside for what feels like the first time. Design is more than flyers for a jam session. Content is interactive and design is functional.

I find myself looking at the heroes on my shelf and methodically replacing Damien Rice with Dieter Rams. In addition to their styles, Rice and Rams differ in a few ways. Most notably, Mr. Rice creates music, while Mr. Rams creates tools to listen to music.

Rams’ work is iconically guided by a principle: good design is as little design as possible. He argues that designers should get out of the way and let people experience content.

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This is based on the premise that ‘design’ is a layer in between a person and the content they experience. This works well for static forms of creating and consuming content. You need a TV to watch a film, so you design a TV interface. You need a newspaper to read the news, so you design a print layout.

But what happens when the line between content and interfaces becomes increasingly blurry? The Internet, which skyrocketed into our pockets shortly after its inception, brings a new type of content: interactive, personalized, and ever-present. The people behind it, who took cues from the existing content at the time, continue to push what it means to exist online. As a result we are at the precipice of disruption—a statement that is seared into reality as we roll our eyes at the mere mention of the word disruption.

As the way in which we experience content continues to become more interactive, the Ramsian theory that design must stay out of the way in order to be effective should be revisited.

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Interactivity breeds a conscious dismantling of boundaries, both virtual and physical. Content, which is typically constrained within a rectangle, demands more malleability. So, our screens change sizes; they become bigger and smaller all at once. Meanwhile, the dream of Virtual Reality is readying up its encore performance but this time it promises to remove screens altogether and place content all around us, indistinguishable from the rest of the world.

As the containers for how we present content start to fade away in our virtual spaces, the line between design and content fades away with them. Design informs the content and through design we experience, interact with, and create content itself.

1967—The Medium is the Message

More than ten thousand people organize to march in protest of the Vietnam war. Among them, a Canadian professor predicts the World Wide Web and writes a book that serves as the cornerstone of the study of media theory.

In his book, The Medium is the Message, Marshall McLuhan argued that the form of a medium embeds itself in any message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. In fact, when he first sent out the book to print, the designer misspelled it to read “The Medium is the Massage” and he thought it was so appropriate that he decided to keep it in.

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McLuhan believed that we shape our tools and, eventually, our tools shape us. The way we design a system changes how we consume and create content within that system. This idea will carry through many different mediums, far beyond the professor’s lifetime.

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Thirty years later and more than five thousand miles away, a latchkey kid named Hideo Kojima will reference this concept in his video game Metal Gear Solid. Psycho Mantis, one of the final bosses in the game, is a psychic with telekinetic powers that guesses the player’s every move and automatically dodges all attacks. The way to beat this boss is to physically unplug the console’s game controller from the Player 1 slot, and plug it into the Player 2 slot. The way to interact with the physical console becomes how to progress within the game.

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Thirteen years later, British theater will continue to carry the mantle with Sleep No More, which will make its audience choose their own narrative path as they run around an entire building wearing eerie masks. The characters interact with the audience and anybody can do anything to experience the content. The play is designed in a way that considers the space and the audience as an integral part of the storytelling. The medium is the message.

2013—Online Etiquette

It’s now commonly understood that digital spaces influence our social behavior within them.

Snapchat invites casual exploration and creativity but leaves little room for in-depth conversations. I would be hard-pressed to discuss the death of a family member in a Snapchat story. Twitter focuses on short text and media. This influences what type of content belongs on the platform and strips away all nuance from the conversation. Even the designers for this very platform, Medium, are not that different from its writers as they create tools that invite only a certain type of content.

The advent of digital tools creates the necessity to revisit Rams’ definition of design. It can be broader than just creating great artifacts—whether digital or physical—that stay out of the way to deliver content.

Jared M. Spool defines design as the rendering of intent. Similar to the jobs-to-be-done framework, a client comes to you with an intent and your job is to render it as real. Create a website, an app, or an experience of any kind that renders that intent.

This grants Design the license to expand beyond the creation of frameworks by which to consume content. Designers all over the world consider their output as a way to manifest intent, not unlike Mr. Rice’s consideration of music. Perhaps Rams and Rice weren’t that different after all.

2020—An Alternative Definition of Design

The tools with which we consume content are indistinguishable from the content itself. They inform each other like McKim, Mead & White’s design of The Town Hall inspired Damien Rice to turn the lights off and stomp on the floor.

Even though it may be considered sacrilegious to consider designers — tool makers and problem solvers — as artists, the distinction between the two is becoming irrelevant. We must consider the stakes as we decide to step onto a stage and influence the world, like countless artists have done before us.

Design is no longer limited to rendering intent. We’re held to a higher standard and play a role in defining the intent.

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That means questioning everything and playing a role in deciding not just how we design something but, what we should design in order to deliver value. Self-appointed design critics should do more than evaluate artifacts and push people to simplistic positions like ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We should all align ourselves with the problems we want to solve, not the stuff we want to make. Is our work aligned with the future we’d like to live in or is it simply a way to make a buck?

This is more important now than ever as the lines that stand between content and the way we interact with it are becoming harder to discern. We are living in McLuhan’s world. Digital spaces (and thus, the people who design them) play an essential role in defining behavior. This influence will only strengthen over time as immersive computing enters the mainstream and redefines the way in which we interface with technology.

Rams has an unwavering view of the world, which he promotes through his work, even when it isn’t popular or profitable. One hundred years before him, McKim, Mead & White had a view of the world when they architected The Town Hall, which still stands today. Both provide an experience as vital as Rice’s syncopated lullabies. How are you promoting your view of the world?

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