Chat With Holly Willis of Blur + Sharpen

Saturday March 28, 11.52.40

Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Design. Closing day for the Future Imaginary exhibition. Where on earth is this? It’s here.

My USC chum Holly Willis did a fun email interview with me for her Blur + Sharpen blog. Below is our fun exchange, which is a discussion of process which is something i am curious about. (More than products of processes for the time being.)

Sometimes I have the best job! This week I’ve been interviewing people about their presentations – the talks they do at conferences and other events – and it’s fascinating hearing how people “write” in the hybrid form that is the visual/verbal presentation. I traded emails yesterday with Julian Bleecker about his presentations, which are stellar. Julian is a designer, technologist and researcher at the Design Strategic Projects Studio at Nokia Design in Los Angeles; he’s also the co-founder with Nicolas Nova of the Near Future Laboratory, their design-to-think studio.
I think of Julian also as a public intellectual in the sense that he actively cultivates a world of shared ideas and experimentation. One of the things about Julian’s presentations is that they’re visually rich – it’s not just that his images are beautiful and provocative, often working at the level of metaphor. And it’s not just that he plays with scale, repetition and pattern. It’s that the visuals and the words and the “performance” of the presentation all meld in very pleasurable ways. Plus, he “works” the material for a while, until the ideas take shape in some new form…

For example, a few days ago, he posted an essay called “Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction.” It grew out of work he’s been mulling over for a few years, partly in conversation with pervasive computing scholars Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell. He’s presented the ideas publicly but then produced a printable version for distribution; the design of this version highlights Julian’s skills, but more than that, it suggests the power of design as a mode that productively unites thinking and making. Julian describes the designed essay as “a written kind of design provocation,” adding that for the last few months, he’s been doing more writing than soldering. “The two practices,” he explains, “contribute to the same set of objectives, which is to make and remake the world around us, provide new perspectives and evolve a set of principles that help make the making more imaginative, more aspirational.” I think this is a pretty decent mandate for one’s work. Anyway, here’s our exchange:

Where do you get your visuals? Do you create them or find them or both?

They’re either photographs I’ve taken for one reason or another, or photographs I take for the purpose of illustrating an idea, or other people’s photographs I’ve asked to use, or just straight frame grabs from films or scans from other material. I take lots and lots of photographs that are often visual thoughts or observations about some usually peculiar social practice or something like this. Something that might spark a short idea…

When you start to craft the visual part of a presentation, where are you in terms of the presentation? In other words, do you start with visuals and then think about what you’ll say? Or do you script the whole thing, and then go and find the visual complements?

Depends on the material. For this design fiction thing, I basically wrote it all, much of it in long hand that I then transcribed into text on the computer. There was very little in the way of styling or juxtapositioning of words with images, but there were some images that defined the canonical bits of ideas. That all mostly came together in the three presentations at Design Engaged 08, SHiFT 08, and this Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam presentation for their Moving Movie Industry conference. I pretty much knew what i wanted to say, at least in my head, but i was searching for the right language and structure. The images helped in the stand-up presentations to anchor some of the ideas. Some things got tossed away because they couldn’t make them make sense even if the intuition was there. So, i guess i started with a vague sort of architecture, then stubbed in images to help tell the story whilst standing up in front of people who probably aren’t interested in watching me read something. Then, i started writing something out with a marker in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, with lots of repetition, trying to get the beats right. Then i transposed that into digital form as a simple text document, working and honing that and then eventually put that text into InDesign and started laying it out alongside of and between images, while also continuing to wordsmith and that sort of thing. The “sidebars” – the sort of parenthetical examples and notes and stuff – were mostly written in InDesign as good examples occurred to me or were suggested.

How would you characterize the relationship between what you say and what you show?

The showing has to be as impactful as the telling wants to be. Maybe this is partly a response to these new kinds of media literacies, or maybe its just my own tendency. Even as I look back at my Masters thesis which I struggled to make visual (PageMaker on an friend’s Mac II), the images were at the heart of things. They told the story as much as the words, and filled in the gaps where the language needed joists and supports or protection from the inevitable (and sometimes productive) misreadings. That sort of thing.

What is the culture of the presentation in your field?

I’m not sure I have a field, but last year and this year and perhaps into the 2010 I cordoned myself mostly into only doing things that have the word “design” somewhere in the description of the activity/workshop or event. In that plot of land, I hope the culture of the presentation is primarily communicative – circulating ideas and provoking. I think this is what this culture is most of the time. You get the odd “sell” presentation here and there, but most of the settings in which this sort of thing gets shared I would say are in between “here are some ideas I have that I want to share” and “this is a section of a book I’ve written/would like to write/will never write, but it helps to think I might.” Sometimes they are school work or in that category that have leeched out into different cultures….

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