And away we go.

Begin anywhere. – John Cage

Hello, Internet users!  John Dalton here.  I’m a designer – mostly of museum exhibitions.  I’ve been designing things for 20 years solid.

Like many who pursue labors of love I’ve had to support myself while so doing, and in my early days compiled what one might describe as a stunning menagerie of jobs.  I’ve designed packaging to deliberately look cheap.  I’ve painted an 8′ x 8′ theatrical drop in a 6′ x 6′ room.  I once had an employer demand I print a slew of large-scale digital images out of a giant photographic printer that was not assembled yet. “We’ve got jobs due out of that thing,” he said, tight lipped and pointing at the printer and the team of German technicians congregated to assemble it.  “Get to work.”

I’ve hung EarthBall™ sized Christmas decorations from the ceiling of the Woodfield Mall with Bill Cusack. True story.

Slowly – over time, and amidst setbacks- this thundering herd of weird gained some shape.  Cool projects began to emerge from it; museum exhibitions, photo galleries, plays, movies, graphics, art installations, marketing campaigns, retail design.

This evolution continues. I’ve begun doing theatrical reviews, of all things. I’m developing an understanding of creative direction, and finding opportunities to step into that role.  Hopefully you get the idea. It’s been an eclectic, meandering evolution, catch-as-catch-can at times.

I’ve found it challenging to encapsulate all this in one website.  It’s a task I’ve long been dreading. Predictably, I’ve always wanted my website to be tremendously cool. As a longtime aficionado of teh internets, I have seen many a cool website. It’s daunting.  Call yourself a designer on the internet and immediately you’re in direct competition with Saatchi & Saatchi.  My last website was built in Dreamweaver, circa 2002; my internet manipulation skills were lackluster even then.

But I do consider myself to be a thoughtful designer, and over time I’ve developed a little toolkit of ideas to help me through thorny spots like this.  And I recalled something I read in Bruce Mau’s  Incomplete Manifesto For Growth; the quote from John Cage at the top of this missive: begin anywhere.

Cage’s continues (quote helpfully provided by Mr. Mau), saying that “…not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis.”  Most accurate.  I’ve not known how to begin this insurmountable task and it’s kept me paralyzed.

On the recommendation of John Cage and the urging of Bruce Mau, I’m starting now.  I will slowly build this thing.  Get my hands dirty and learn from the process, without really knowing what to expect.  I look forward to learning, and I’ll share my findings; optimally you’ll see the results here.  In addition, I’ll be posting portfolio pieces, observations, essays – whatever seems to be applicable to this labor of love, my career.

Serendipitously, Bruce Mau has chosen this maxim as his principal image for his manifesto page. It’s nice when things like that come together, ain’t it?  It seems an obvious sign.  Many thanks to Mr. Mau for his inspiration and example.

Begin Anywhere

Sometimes clues are in very obvious places.  I’ve learned a lot from his work, and I hope someday to meet him.

This is my website. There are many like it, but this one is mine.  Thanks for tuning in – or retuning, if you caught my last spate of blogging.  I hope to repost those here someday soon.  Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to where this leads. Please feel free to chime in, if you’d like. And welcome aboard.

Iterate, iterate, iterate.

The purpose of practice is not the mastery of the discipline but the route itself, which leads toward the achievement of self-perfection and increasing harmony with others and things.
– Louis Frederic, in A Dictionary of the Martial Arts

It is no great secret that our economy is results driven. Mistakes are not looked upon favorably. Going back to the drawing board is rarely seen as a good thing. There is a saying I’ve heard bandied about: “Done is better than good.” Usually this is brought up when something is very close to blowing through the gates of some do-or-die deadline; but sometimes it is invoked in order to simply relieve the speaker of taking apart whatever it is he or she has been working on and calling it done.

But it is in the doing, the creating, the making of mistakes that sometimes true genius is stumbled upon. In his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, Bruce Mau says “Make mistakes faster.” There is something to that.

Oftentimes when a project is stuck, or looking drab, or mired in some weird creative morass, I like to just start working on something in it – even if I know whatever I’m working sucks rocks. Frequently, just the process of working dislodges me from the mire; suddenly, I see the piece in a whole different light and ideas are flowing again.

This leads me to wonder, again, about the artistic process in design. Though it is the nature of business to complete things, I wonder if a piece can ever be considered truly done.Artists return to their eariler works frequently, revising, reinventing, allowing the work to evolve, building on their experiences and reacting to the changing environment.

Andy Goldsworthy, Japanese Maple

Andy Goldsworthy, Japanese Maple

Andy Goldsworthy, Knotweed Stalks

Andy Goldsworthy, Knotweed Stalks

Andy Goldsworthy, Rowan Leaves Around a Hole

Andy Goldsworthy, Rowan Leaves Around a Hole

Looking at Andy Goldsworthy’s work calls to mind this idea – not only in the way he will repeat a theme in a different location and medium but in the way that his work is impermanent. Many of the pieces he produces, including the three above, are meant to literally blow away, be dissolved back into the environment.

It strikes me that a perfect example of this kind of iteration, change, and constant work is clearly evident in the work of a web designer. Any given company’s URL is constantly changing; the “title” of the work, as it were, remains the same, but the look, feel, shape, size, and content of it is always changing, constantly being revised and revisited, never done – only done for now. To see this in action, visit this utterly fascinating site: The Internet Archive. 85 billion web pages, archived. Take a look at the Wayback Machine and choose any company; for the purposes of this exercise, I chose United Airlines. Many of the image links are broken, but the point of the exercise holds; the site is constantly changing, being worked on, evolving. So, when can one say that it is ever really done?

I feel that sometimes our work, being so “completion” driven, for lack of a better word, can remove us from the sense of ourselves as artistic entities. If one moves from job to job to job, constantly reacting to the next set of constraints without a sense of one’s own input into the process, it’s easy to lose any sense of evolution or continuity. I encourage myself and us all to find that thread of thought and cultivate it. Build a sense of your own evolution; carry it forward into each project, and add to what you’ve done before. Do it again, do it again, do it again. It will never be the same way twice.

Balance and Harmony Without Symmetry

Those of you who have visited the Art Institute of Chicago may still have missed two of my most favorite experiences there. They are not easy to find. One is a gallery designed by the master architect Tadao Ando; the other is the model of the Japanese home in the Thorne Rooms (a stunning collection of scale models of interiors and rooms through history that are a must-see).

Japanese Enso

Japanese Enso

There is something about Japanese art that has always fascinated me; arrested me, in fact. There was a balance, a rightness about the structure that I could never put my finger on. This hearkens back to my earlier post about not understanding what makes good design but responding to it nonetheless; Japanese art and design has always provoked a response in me, but I was unable to say what element, or combination of elements, it was that drew it out of me.
I think I stumbled on it. Much of the idea has to do with the Japanese view of symmetry. You won’t find a lot of it in any aspect of Japanese design or art – at least, not in the sense that we know it. The quote below is the most succinct explanation of part of this phenomenon that I can find.

The dynamic nature of their philosophy laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself. True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete. The virility of life and art lay in its possibilities for growth. In the tea-room it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself. Since Zen has become the prevailing mode of thought, the art of the extreme Orient has purposefully avoided the symmetrical as expressing not only completion, but repetition. Uniformity of design was considered fatal to the freshness of imagination.

– from The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, a reflection and presentation of Japanese culture to Western readers published in 1906. (emphasis mine)

Nature seems to abhor true symmetry. Very few things in nature can be folded upon themselves upon any axis and be said to be exactly the same – perhaps some snowflakes and other crystalline structures. But in general, left and right sides, up and down, back and front are not mirrors of one another at all. And, if they are, they do not look right. Consider the art of Mark Mothersbaugh – most famous as the founder and frontman of Devo.

Blox Bambina Daddys Rug, Mark Mothersbaugh 2007

Blox Bambina Daddy’s Rug, Mark Mothersbaugh 2007

I’ve read an article in the past where he talks about making these images. They are just photographs, split as evenly down the middle as possible and mirrored. These images completely skewer the idea that the human face is symmetrical – something the casual observer might assume to be true. One look is enough to relieve anyone of that notion.

Achieving true symmetry can be a great struggle. It is an easy way to achieve balance – but is it a cop-out? And can you ever really get there? There can, of course, be a Herculean effort to control all the variables in any design. But not everyone has the luxury of being able to create the Taj Mahal; and even then, do we really want to? Not to be reductive about it, but the bushes and trees that surround any structure, the page of a magazine, the existing room that an event is in … all sorts of things in the environment are going to foil true symmetry. Is it not then better to attain balance and harmony in some other way?

When tackling issues of balance, frequently I look to Japanese artists, architects, and designers for inspiration and solutions.

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), iKintaro Riding the Giant Carp/i, color woodcut, 1882

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), <i>Kintaro Riding the Giant Carp</i>, color woodcut, 1882

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcomed.