Karen Keung | Essays

Slow, Don’t Stop

For the past two years, I have taught a writing course titled Building a Discipline. I developed the course as a small way to foster the production of discourse about graphic design: We need more writers. Alongside great literary essayists (Orwell, Didion, Foster Wallace, Orlean, et al.), students read works from authors in design fields (Wigley, Kipnis, Wild, Earls, Blauvelt, et al.). Themes covered include describing, seeing, keywords, craft, and voice, which is followed by more concrete explorations of criticism and catalog essays. Following six 500–550 word “warm-up” essays, the students are given their final assignment, a 1200–1500 word essay that uses Design Observer’s archive as a launching point for their own essay. The assignment accomplishes a number of goals. By scouring the archive, students are introduced to many individuals that have contributed to our canon; students read excellent examples from a diverse group of authors; students familiarize themselves with both current and historic discourse; and students have to come to terms with their own outlook on the field of graphic design. —David Cabianca, York University, Toronto

There are few things more disappointing than forgetting a pair of earphones on a long commute—now I have to be alone with my own thoughts. I’ve attempted to self-medicate my restlessness a number of ways, but to little avail. Guided meditation? Nope. Yoga? Forget about it.

I know I’m not alone in the struggle. I’ve seen fellow commuters compulsively unlock their phone’s home screens, only to do nothing in particular. I once sat behind a student in a lecture hall who alt-tabbed through computer windows at an illegible rate for majority of the ninety-minute lecture. Conditioned by constant stimulation, we’ve lost sight of what to do with ourselves without holding a piece of technology in our hands.

As a designer, this is disconcerting. Translating the old adage “you are what you eat,” designers are the product of what we see and do. By subjecting ourselves to a constant stream of visual and verbal information, are we leaving enough time for ourselves to take it all in?

Seasoned designers are no stranger to this concern, as made evident by a common thread woven through two essays published on Design Observer. In their respective essays “In Praise of Slow Design” and “In Praise of Boredom,” Michael Bierut and Adrian Shaughnessy each allude to the necessity of slowing down as a remedy for the hyper-stimulation designers face today.

Slow design, according to Bierut’s account of The New Yorker, embodies “thoughtfulness, deliberation, and—how else to put it?—tender loving care.” Reviewing the archive The Complete New Yorker released in 2005, Bierut relays how the enduring design of The New Yorker makes a strong case for design that is “unbelievably, wonderfully, perfectly, exquisitely boring.” First published in 1925, The New Yorker has long been an esteemed venue for reportage and serious literature. Since then, its design has evolved slowly and subtly. When it does change, it does so grudgingly and with surgical precision—which Bierut notes is remarkably nonconformist for a field addicted to ceaseless reinvention.” Today, when change is not just anticipated, but expected, the unchanging is the most refreshing.

The New Yorker’s evolution is not its only slow attribute. The content itself demands attention and time; a New Yorker reader approaches the magazine differently than the blog browser. The New Yorker reader is intentional about the reading experience. The bumpy subway commute won’t do justice for stories that span two to ten thousand words in length, nor will ten minutes of time between meetings.

Bierut’s praise of slow design is a natural, if not inevitable, reaction to the fast track design seems to be on today. Given our conditioned compulsions for stimulation compounded with a rapid evolution of the design landscape—new tools, projects, emerging trends—there is a palpable pressure among designers to simply keep up with the sheer volume of visual information produced on a daily basis.

However, Shaughnessy worries the round-the-clock availability of “sugar hits” delivered via the internet is bringing about the end of introspection: “Without spells of boredom, how is the individual ever likely to develop a reflective nature? Without dead time, when does mental ecology become conducive to creative thought?” The generation of designers growing up today do so through compressed time: We’d rather watch GIFs than sit through an entire video; “listicle” is an entry in the Oxford Dictionary; and the fourth most popular mobile app of 2016 is one that merely simulates the nostalgia of Polaroids.

It is possible to be a designer today—that is, get the job, do the job—without much deeper thought to why or even how. Original thought is endangered in an era when three seconds is all it takes for a query to load millions of images to reference or even replicate.

If many of the finer things in life are aged— wine, cheese, slow raised and braised meat— maybe the design process is no different. The deliberate precision of The New Yorker’s design approach is rare today, yet has made for an exemplary artifact in both publication and design. When did we stop letting things simmer?

Slow design is a branch of the greater Slow movement. The Slow movement originated in the late 80s in Italy, sparked out of defense against the presence of the first Italian McDonald’s in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. Since then, it has developed into a full-fledged cultural movement. The Slow movement and its subcultures such as slow food, slow living, slow design—prioritize authenticity, wholesomeness, and by extension, a turn away from the crutches of technology.

The recent resurgence of artisanal, craft-based furniture to the retail market is one manifestation of slow design in mainstream culture. Local shop and gallery Mjölk recently exhibited re-interpreted Shaker furniture as part of the Toronto Design Offsite festival. Despite being two centuries old, the principles of the Shaker movement are remarkably similar to those of the Slow lifestyle. The Shakers grew their own food and made their own furniture, guided by principles of “honesty, utility, and simplicity”—three values not out of place in a designer’s mission statement in 2017.

However, increasingly so, the well-meaning premise of time-honoured design is being co- opted rather than assimilated into mainstream culture, illustrated none better than through the explosive success of Kinfolk magazine. Founded 2011 in Portland, Kinfolk is an independent slow lifestyle publication targeted to the “global community of creative professionals.” Given its translations into Russian, Japanese and Korean, the magazine enjoys international success and has gained a particularly strong foothold—ironically—in the virtual world. Most notably, Kinfolk’s use of analog-style imagery and minimalist design breeds a particularly fascinating strain of images flooding social feeds in the last few years.

On the blog The Kinspiracy, curator Summer Allen posts eerily similar photo quartets from different Instagram accounts—a shrewd commentary on what is, in her own words, “A WHOLE LOTTA THE SAME SHIT.The Kinspiracy visualizes the rampant conformism among the creative community that Kinfolk is designed for. One look at hashtags like #liveauthentic (tagged, at the time of writing, over 17 million times on Instagram) reveal that somehow, the Slow movement has become synonymous with marble-topped tables and latte art.

While Kinfolk is well-intentioned in its editorial premise, the phenomenon it spawns is sanitized—almost engineered—to the extent that it feels like a parody of itself, and of slow design as a principle. Entrepreneur Jason Goldberg describes the frivolity as the Kinfolk look: “People will seek out an object, and put it on their table, spend like an hour just getting ready for an Instagram photo ... and they’ve got it, that’s the Kinfolk look. It’s fascinating that people do that.”

It is difficult to underestimate the power of social capital today; Portland Monthly argues that “the Kinfolk look has become pervasive in the design world,” and the team wields “influence far beyond its size.” Indeed, its ubiquity scares Kinfolk founder himself, Wall Street defector Nathan Williams, who admits the phenomenon has “grown as its own thing that is actually completely out of our control. ... A lot of [images] that float around the internet can feel quite contrived. ... meticulously styled for the purpose of sharing that moment, when the core values of the magazine are about enjoying that moment.”

Whether intentional or not, Kinfolk engenders the idea that patience can be simulated and mindfulness arranged on a table. While I appreciate, and even seek out beauty, I am wary of how the “Kinfolk look” convolutes slow culture and contradicts its own ideals. This is particularly troublesome considering how much time designers spend consuming content that will inevitably inform their own practice. Conformity stifles creativity, and is the hairline difference that distinguishes slowing down from stopping altogether.

By associating itself with ideals of authenticity and mindfulness but more often publishing content that deals with thousand-dollar brass lamps, does Kinfolk take its own philosophy seriously? The Kinfolk phenomenon makes Slow feel exclusive, and ultimately obscures the merits of slow design as a serious mode of operation.

The 2016 four-part documentary series Cooked by Michael Pollan raises parallel concerns as another artifact introducing Slow ideas to mainstream culture. Each segment features Pollan exploring primitive cooking methods and cultures themed around the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. New York Times television critic Neil Genzlinger writes that Pollan’s message in Cooked is important to hear, however:
There’s a disconnect that’s never addressed. It would be great if all 7.4 billion of us could hunt our own lizards and cook them over an open fire, spend hours baking our own bread from grain milled on stone, and so on. But there’s a gentrification to Mr. Pollan’s brand of culinary advocacy. ... [A]pplying his ideas across the whole range of human circumstances is a trickier subject than this pretty series wants to tackle.
Despite both being beautiful and well-made products, Kinfolk flattens any semblance of hard- hitting ideas, just as Cooked does in its gentrification of some of the world’s poorest cultures. Albeit inadvertently, both artifacts make Slow feel privileged and inaccessible—the opposite of what the philosophy sets out to be.

Shaughnessy and Bierut’s concerns are topical, especially given the current technological climate that gives no indication of cooling down. There is merit to slowing down the design process: Jessica Helfand reminds us too, that “patience is a dying art, [and] so too is the time it takes to consider, form, and deliver an opinion, an activity that favors the reflective moment over the reflexive one.” Introspection cultivates intention, and intention is key to generating and justifying mature design work. Designers working today need to be reminded of the value of patience and the virtues of boredom—and no, handmade furniture and organic wool sweaters are not prerequisites.

More so than any other object or aesthetic, time is the ultimate luxury commodity: we always seem to be running out of it. What we do have, in abundance, is choice; so why not choose to deliberate a little longer, a little harder? Let’s choose to stay vigilant about conflating process with aesthetics. Let’s choose, in the midst of our saturated lives, to let our work—not our walnut tables—be proof of our mindfulness. And tomorrow, I’ll choose to leave my earphones at home.

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