Reconsidering the designer as one among
many in a creative and collaborative network
of active participants full of agency and potential.
In these most depressing of times, these are some of the issues I want to press, not to depress the reader but to press ahead, to redirect our meager capacities as fast as possible.
AbstractMy MFA work explores the creative networks between a graphic designer and their collaborators, both human and non-human (other designers, but also software, papers, inks, presses, cameras, the internet, design history, cultural knowledge, language, etc). My thesis project examines how the interplay of control and trust in a designer’s relationship with their network of tools (creative, cultural, technological) can be attended to, challenged, and reimagined. The black boxes which envelop our tools obscure the complexity and scale of the collaborative and relational space we work in. My work reconsiders the designer as one among many in a creative and collaborative network of active participants full of agency and potential.
INTRODUCTION TO CONTROLThis thesis is about control, trust, and care in the creative process of graphic design, and about how trusting and caring for the network of collaborators, human and non-human that we work with can make a space for new kinds of work, exciting, unique collaborations that interact with the world in new ways. Through this reexamination of the role of the designer in the networks of actors that our industry exists inside of, we might find ways to accept change, to see failure in new ways, to find new energy of purpose.
We seek control when we are more afraid of possible outcomes than we are excited by them. This fear of the unknown, fear of possible failures, fear of not having all the answers, this fear comes when we do not trust our team, our collaborators, our networks involved in our creative endeavors. But if we can show care (love?) for the actors in our networks (human and non-human), if we can trust that we are doing something worthwhile together, we can accept them and trust them. When we can do that, we can let go of the need for control, and we can leap with creativity, we can be the lightning of possible storms, we can light fires and be generative.
This thesis is structured around a series of essays that explore a set of design projects executed over the past two years for this MFA program. They chronologically trace the path of my personal relationship with graphic design (from feeling disillusioned and burnt out to finding a source of excitement and energy and care), my need for control, my fear of failure, my understanding of my role as a designer, and my gradual acceptance of a careful trust and trusting care of my collaborators (human and non-human).
The first essay, Camera Obscura, is about an ongoing photography project I set up in a converted attic bathroom during lockdown. The project’s key learning outcome for me was around a realization that this process was happening without me. The time spent sitting in the dark while my eyes adjusted to the relations between bent and reflecting photons and the substrates of the bathroom was a revelation in creative relationships that don’t center around me. A slow reveal that took time to grasp, but happened because I had the time to spend within this creative network of things that aren’t me, my role limited to setting up and documenting what they were up to. This was a first step in decentering my role, a step that was about seeing a nonhierarchical network of making and signification; seeing my place in it in a new light.
Chapter 2 — Hybrid Posters is about my early explorations with tool agency. In my previous work with letterpress printing, I had come to a belief that I could never truly master my working relationship with the press. I could learn its nuances and work with them, as long as I could give up on perfection and accept that I would need to collaborate but not really control the entire process or the outcomes. I could try to make exact copies, but variation was built into the work. It did not see it as a flaw but as a feature, worth attending to. I wanted to achieve something like that with my current, primarily digital tools. I wanted to give agency to my tools. I was looking to work with them, not to control them completely. I made headway into this by learning to code in a couple of languages that could help me tease open the software of the profession and bring in something like agented action. I found delight in some of the things I helped to create with these tools and these collaborative creative networks. I created new tools, modified old ones, and collaborated in a way with the network at play in these creations.
Chapter 3 — A Careful Trust / Zine Collaborations is about the process of collecting all of the prose, code, and images that I had been creating and making something new with it. Something that could highlight the year of work, and hopefully begin to make sense of what I was doing. I looked to find ways to alter my role in the process of making, spaces that could be played with in new ways, rules that could be bent, rules that could be broken. The essay considers ways that I might be able to let go and trust that we (myself and my nonhuman collaborators) are doing something interesting, together.
Chapter 4 — Dragons and Princesses is about my first encounters with machine learning and artificial intelligence. In previous projects, I had introduced a kind of agency through randomness that the programs I had written could act on. While they produced new and often delightful outputs, they were still only able to develop along lines that I had determined. They could only act as freely as I let them. Machine learning let me explore another avenue towards the collaboration I was seeking. This would be an exponential jump in scale and complexity in the network of collaborators. This would be truly new. And these projects all failed. I did not trust these tools. I did not understand them, and they made me nervous and uncomfortable. I withdrew my care. I pulled back from what I thought might be monsters.
Chapter 5 — Floating on Oceans. This essay documents my early explorations of generative machine learning models. The previous AI and ML projects I had worked on were based on the “detection” side of the models. They had been trained on huge datasets of images and could determine the content of new images with remarkable accuracy. They are often brutally flawed. I had abandoned them and their fraught ethics. The models I wanted to explore now could make amazing things. The StyleGAN model from NVidia was producing remarkable outputs depicting people’s faces, but people that did not exist; newly generated faces that looked so real that it was hard to comprehend what you were looking at at first glimpse. I hoped to find similar success making new graphic design pieces with similar ML models. This essay explores three attempts at working with GANs, each a fantastic failure and success. These projects were the first glimpses I had at the scope and complexity of what these models were producing. These projects all produced incredible things, but I could not understand their aesthetic value at the time. What seemed like failures at the time were, in fact, only failures in my ability to see or understand what I was looking at, at what I was experiencing.
Chapter 6 — Infinite Art Bot is about the creation of a nearly autonomous art making bot that posts to social media platforms. This project was about an exploration of the massive networks that these projects interact with and collaborate with and about a real attempt at letting go of control, trusting, and caring—trusting the collaborators, and caring for (carefully attending to) both the process and the result. The bot was a months-long programming project that was the most complex arrangement I had worked on to that point. It brought into play all of the things I had been working on and with for the past year. It just needed a little nudge from me to get started, and then the network of agents pushed and pulled on each other, added and multiplied what each had to offer. We did and made the most amazing things.
Chapter 8 — Speculative Anthropology. This is the concluding chapter and project for this thesis document. This essay is about strange explorations of the latent spaces of machine learning. What can we find when we explore this sort of hidden and near infinite space that these networks allow us access to? This essay imagines a sort of exploration of possibilities never realized, a look at the objects we might find, a speculative anthropology of alternative histories that we might explore and learn from. And while maybe there are more significant concerns and uses of this sort of speculative research, they are not my interests. When I met HAL, I did not want to talk about questions of phenomenology. I wanted to make cool posters and start a cover band.
This thesis is not and was never about machine learning or artificial intelligence. I am not going to have a big reveal at the end where I explain that this was all written by a robot and you have been tricked in some manner. These are my human words, but I got to them in relationship with a decidedly nonhuman team of collaborators and makers. It has been important and valuable for me to examine my role in the creative process more deeply, to question what I have taken for granted in my two decades of work in graphic design, to think about these things we designers do and make in strange new ways. Not to confuse the issues with jargon and obtuse readings of ideas but to imagine what might be the results of thinking about our roles in strange ways through odd and unexpected new lenses. What if we are all part of a network and not at the center/top of it? What would that mean to how we work and what we value, to the stories we tell ourselves and each other about the work we do and why we do it? I think that these questions can help us prepare for the changes that machine learning will bring (is already bringing) to our world and our work. The impact of this technology is going to be massive, but it does not need to be devastating or displacing. We don’t have to be gatekeepers; we can be collaborators, with a say in what happens next.
Graphic designers might be in a better position than many others who will be and are being affected by this massive change, because we may have enough imagination to see what this new way of making meaning can bring. We can ask important questions about what parts of work and making, even of creativity, might, in fact, be better handled by machines; we can rethink our curriculums to focus on what we can learn to better collaborate with these networks of making instead of trying to compete with them or keep them out of our precious creative spaces. We can loosen our grip on control, accept new forms of making from new collaborators, understand ourselves as one among many, celebrate and multiply in that multitude, delight in what happens next, trust we can make something amazing together, and care for each other—with beauty and courage.
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Chapter 1 — Camera Obscura.