Righting design through writing. The multiplication property of zero. Number 105.
Plus a new artist's book by me called The End of Winter.
Welcome back (or to) Gornisht, where I try to cover the state of design, the nature of mind, and their occasional and occasioned intersection. This newsletter is a labor of love. If you like it, please consider sharing it with others. If you don’t like, please also consider sharing it with others. If you really like it, please consider becoming a paid subscriber and bask in my eternal gratitude. Truly, that must count for something.
Righting design will take writing about design
What makes me anxious these days about graphic design? Many different things: formulaic approaches to the work (UX), the capture of designers by tools designed by others (Meta Instagram), and the templatization of visual and technical frameworks (Squarespace, Shopify).
But one thing that has me more than a little on edge is this: the field of design itself appears to be accelerating from that of a profession to a trade.
Don’t get me wrong. Trade schools are critical to the health of our economy. We need trades to fix our faulty infrastructure, to fix the increasingly computerized appliances that decorate our houses, to electrify our homes and to keep our plumbing stacks stink free.
The issue is that, as design schools increasingly treat design as a trade only, we are losing the capacity to utilize design to create dialogue, to spur critical thinking, to energize and question our relationships to power and to equity, and to ask questions about ourselves and our built environment. If design is treated as a trade, students are asked to merely replicate or repurpose existing tools and frameworks (Adobe) and not create their own.
Some design schools are teaching critical thinking. In fact, I’m teaching design theory and criticism at the university right now, with a focus on some of the ideas above. But, having looked at many course offerings of design schools around Canada and the United States, there are very few opportunities for students to learn how to write critically, think critically, or build an appreciation for the long and illustrious history of design theory and cultural critique.
Meanwhile, established designers are not writing about design. Graphic design periodicals like How, or Print, or Emigre have either folded or are no longer in print. In some cases, websites that feature design writing look like blogs from the 1990s. Some of the best design blogs have gone away while others, like Brand New, are behind paywalls. (For the record, I strongly support paid content; it must be part of our digital futures. But online publications about design for designers remain stubbornly few and far between.)
Email newsletters like this one are on the rise but very few are about graphic design and its theory or practice. Books about contemporary design also emerge now and again but are rarely acknowledged (because so few designers are writing about design in the first place).
Yes, there are many academics who research, analyze and write about design in journals and there are few online forums about research practices related to design. But very little of that work, like most academic material, makes it into either practicable or inspirational formats. Like most academic material, university-funded design research goes the way of the dust bin (which itself has gone the way of the dust bin).
(Cory Doctorow recently posted on Twitter a scathing critique of academic publishing, which greedily hoovers up research funded by public dollars and manages to sell it back at huge profits to a select few via fantastically expensive paywalls. See below.)
What can we do about this? We teach design students to write. We designers start new magazines, zines, newsletters, blogs and books. We subscribe to (and pay for) magazines, zines, newsletters, blogs and books. We write letters to the editor. We read books during the day, in the studio and at work. We pay designers and design teams to read and to collaboratively write. We join design associations or start new groups. Mostly, we treat the occupation of graphic design as a profession and not a hobby of the tech industry.
Gornisht x Everything = (yep) Gornisht
A few people have asked me why gornisht — why did I use that name for this newsletter? And maybe better yet, why not a real word like “nothing” or just plain old “zero”?
I’m drawn to the history of language and I am especially drawn to the particular linguistic history of my own ethnic tribe. Jews have been speaking Yiddish since at least the 12th century. It’s a language of the mischling, adapting and adopting the multitude of languages of the majority in Europe, including German, Polish, French, Greek, Italian and, of course, Hebrew, which emerged in the 10th century BCE (about 3,000 years ago).
Gornisht is the Yiddish word for nothing, or nothingness. I have always loved the idea of trying to imagine, design, draw or paint the reality of nullity. And one of the interesting oddities about zero (and there are many) is the multiplication property, wherein anything times zero is, well, zero. So, 0 x 2 = 0 and 0 x 300 = 0 and 0 x 1 trillion = 0. You can throw the largest number ever calculated (perhaps Graham’s number, which is so large that it may approach infinity, which itself is neither calculable nor knowable) against zero and multiplied out, we still get, yes, zero.
The diagram above helps illuminate the beauty of this multiplication property of zero. Even when we multiply everything in the known universe (or alts, in Yiddish) against zero, we get zero.
Where does this leave us? The universe, at least that which is known as the composition of our reality, contains everything. We are part of a universal construction that both makes us and makes us as knowing. But we can also recognize that that everything (even zero itself) is fundamentally erased when it is multiplied by zero. In other words, we can think of everything, known and unknown, knowable and unknowable, universe and other-verse, as existing — and not existing at all at the same time.
Gornisht is zero. But it is also totality. This creates an epistemic breakdown that is both harrowing and sublime.
Again, the Heart Sutra starts out like this:
Form is no other than emptiness, Emptiness no other than form. Form is only emptiness, Emptiness only form.
Feeling, thought, and choice, Consciousness itself,
Are the same as this.
All things are by nature void They are not born or destroyed Nor are they stained or pure Nor do they wax or wane
A new little artist’s book by me
I was going to write about the Meta / Facebook manifestation: the redesign of a corporation around a falsified concept of transcendence through technological utopianism. But more about that next week.
In the meantime, I just finished a new little artist's book. It’s called The Last Day of Winter and it’s a photographic memorial to the many thousands of people that died due to Covid-19 in Canada over the past 20 months. The booklet is printed on sand-coloured French archival paper with black ink using a Riso machine I recently acquired. In fact, it’s my first real piece to come off this gorgeous machine.
Right now, there are only 20 copies and I’m planning on selling them for CA$10 each. I’ll write more about this next time, but if you’re interested in owning a copy please let me know. I’d be happy to send you one in the mail (not through the metaverse).
Reading: I just re-started Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. It’s a romp through what the world might look like as technology turns humanity into gods. If you have not read his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, I highly encourage you to read that first.
Thank you for reading Gornisht. Wishing you a good and peaceful week ahead.