#1reasonwhy

By the time you read this, it’ll probably be over. The hashtag #1reasonwhy was an outlet for female game devs to talk about their struggles. There’s a decent archive here that covers at least the solid beginning, before people like me devolved the voices.

Now, I am a white male – the demographic of antagonism in this case. But as a kid designer who forcibly broke into the field and ended up with relative success leading to a happy career, I wanted to write this encouragement: we are riding the wave of indie awesomeness. There has been no better time to do it yourself than right now.

A few notes: it seems like a lot of the complaints naturally leaned into sexism and I wanted to clarify that there are two types going on here. The first, sexism in the games themselves. We all know the Lara Croft types that are preposterously sexualized because the target market is nerdy white boys. Then, there’s the sexism in the market itself where the devs (being female) are outcasted by the older white nerdy boys. Neither of them cool, but they bannerhead my two points.

1. The market is literally begging for story based games. We’ve accomplished graphics to a level where, while they can always get better, it’s not really a limiting factor anymore. We’ve moved beyond the pixel-cum-story limitations of Space Invaders and find ourselves in deeply interactive, visually immersive and musically rich gameplay. A perfect canvas for stories. I tweeted a few, but off the top of my head: Portal, Portal 2, Half Life, Limbo, Gravity Bone, Thirty Flights of Loving, Mirror’s Edge, Bastion, Braid, Cave Story, World of Goo, Mark of the Ninja, The Stanley Parable, Every Day the Same Dream, and so forth. Games with stories and little to no sexuality. Then there’s games with mediocre to no story and fantastic gameplay: Jamestown, Greed Corp. Dustforce, Super Meat Boy, N+, Team Fortress 2, Faster Than Light and so on. After that there’s games that don’t feature humans at all: Geometry Wars, most racing games and simulators, etc. Ladies: you can make these games and entirely avoid all mention of sexuality. Tell good stories. We yearn for good stories and while this past year has actually been really good for them, it’s a rare thing from AAA titles. That’s why we’re loving all over the indie titles (how many AAA titles are above?). I mean, Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights were both made entirely by one guy. It could easily have been one lady, which brings me to my next point:

2. Don’t break in. Build up. I don’t want to accuse anyone of whining, but it seems like the hashtag series pointed to ladies wanting to be part of the club and being rejected. I’m not saying that’s fair or right, but I am saying that talents can be taken elsewhere. You don’t need their silly club anyway. You have Kickstarter. You have a better measure of success. You have stories and passion and you’re being handed this worldwide megaphone called the internet. Make your games with strong females leads. Honestly, had Bastion starred a female, it would have made no difference to the game, but it would have been a notable win for you. Same with Limbo. Same with most of the games there. World of Goo doesn’t even have human characters. Mirror’s Edge and Portal already feature non-sexualized female protagonists. GLADoS is a disembodied female voice and one of the best characters probably ever. Be the developer, be the studio. Make what you want to see and forget the boy’s club even exists.

2.5. Work together. No man – or woman, as it were – is an island. Find people with your aspirations and help each other. Not just in a direct way, not just in a “I’m dev, she’s art and she’s music” role division way, but help each other as members of your group. One thing I love Twitter for, and this is an observation of guys, is that we’re constantly back and forth on “is this good?” – asking strangers who follow you – and offering to buy each other drinks. We are an estranged family, held together by the common thread of being designers or being coders or being whatever. Find your community and love each other. Competition can hurt or help you; shape it.

I don’t see any reason why, in the day and age of successful self publishing, you matter. Tall, short, thin, fat, male, female, young, old. So what? You’re a name on the computer screen and a talent. If your talent is good, you will rise. The internet is a meritocracy assuming all news spread equally. My main advice to anyone is get over yourself. You’re not a martyr for a demographic. You are a singular human and you’re allowed to do whatever the heck you want to do.

Do it well.

Smiles Per Hour

This idea has been developing in the back of my mind for a few months now and I’ve briefly alluded to it before. Nonetheless, it seems to warrant further exploration.

What if we measured design’s goodness in smiles brought to users – a concept I called “delight” in previous columns – instead of, say, profit or ownership. Ultimately, this is one side to the overarching question of “What should we design?” and it’s basis “What deserves to be in existence?”

Throughout school and my early career I was a very utilitarian designer, very minimal and very essential. There wasn’t much room for whimsy or self-possession in the design, it should be quiet and unobtrusive. In a perfect world there wouldn’t be anything but we would be able to complete any task we wanted. Since this was impossible, it was design’s job to get as close as possible. It was a Rams world moreso than an Eames one, and I say this in the philosophical sense more than the aesthetic one. The Eames couple made toys and had colourful windmills and fun, whereas Dieter was German and stark. It was a Japanese zen approach: the space should not be filled with things but people, and those people will mold the neutral space to their own preference. I still believe these things and will continue to fill my own world with these things, but my argument here is on behalf of the rest of the world.

Unlike physical sales where something is either sold or isn’t we have to extend the metaphor for smiles as a currency. We can think of debt as the opposite of money but anti-smiles are a more complex absence. There are three states: delight, neutral and frustration. The best designed things we marvel at, we delight in, the rest either elicits no response or actively gets in our way. Ideally, of course, we should be designing for the first, but a large majority of objects are the second: they exist and they serve – often well – our needs but we probably don’t really notice them in the positive sense either.

The reason I love this abstraction is it’s broad moral questions that relate humans to design. Questions that bring up, for only one example, things like guns. Not inherently bad and in fact smile granting when used in a range but when used against other people definitely rack up the anti-smile cost pretty quickly. Should they, then, exist as objects? There’d have to be a net balance of smiles gained v. smiles destroyed in every object that either justifies or damns it’s being. Granted, for most things it’d be obviously skewed: the existence of ice cream cones is something that – I’m assuming, at least – would be far closer to the delight end of the spectrum. A water bottle might not be an actively exciting thing, but nor are they actively destroying delight either. So then, there must be other, external factors to finally decide.

Usefulness has always been weighted heavily for me, as mentioned above, I’m an inherently practical person and an inherently practical designer. Water bottles, we can easily agree, are useful. The reductio ad absurdum being holding water in your cupped hands until you need a drink. This would be annoying at best and tragically difficult in reality. Driving and typing become impossible, as would basically everything else we do throughout the day. How many smiles do water bottles destroy? We could point to the life cycle analysis – the energy used to make them, the shipping costs, the stores that sell them, the re-usability, the recycling efficiency / landfill cost and so forth, but in the end we need a metric that correlates those things with humans’ actual lives and their delight level.

Now, this is all good in hypothetical thought. It’s good for imaginative philosophy in both design and humanist circles but in practice becomes impossibly complex to work out. Who’s to say there aren’t families living in landfills who’d delight in finding a good thrown out water bottle? What about the people in the town next to the landfill who anti-delight in seeing it grow closer to their house? Where do those things stack up and cancel out?

But maybe, just maybe, it’s another thing to think about when designing something. Not just cost analysis or profit margins, marketability or sustainability, something so simple as “Will this thing make more smiles than it breaks?”

Redesigning the School System PT 1: Math

There was an essay that came out last year (which I won’t mention directly) about how the modern school system is entirely wrong in it’s current form and should drop basically everything that it is now and start again. I was, when I read it, furious at it’s apparent blasphemy but since then internalizing and digesting it and have come full circle though perhaps not to quite the same extent as it’s brash denouncements. There are still these kinds of people who are, frankly, crazy but there are also studies like these that provide at least interesting alternatives.

The design of math

Today I went to the bank to deposit a paycheque and witnessed an event that stuck me as odd. Now, I’m somewhat unusual in how early I’ve achieved what I have but please take this anecdote as example of the public, not of me personally being a braggart. He was a well dressed kid and I noticed him initially because he actually seemed very similar to me, standing in line a few people up. Because of the way the queue snakes around I happened to be standing next to him facing the other direction but couldn’t help but overhear who I assumed was his mother standing beside him outside of the line: “You’re 18 now, you’re going to have to do this on your own” – he seemed nervous. He had his wallet, a cheque and his bank card at the ready, a sign of non-practice and underconfidence. As the line moved we shifted and I ended up farther away, effectively ending this story.

What hits me, here, is that I’ve been there. I’ve been that guy who nervously prepares all essential items before the kind lady motions ‘next, please’ and you prepare your speech as to what you want done. In fact (and I’ve done this out of experimentation) you can actually get through the entire process of depositing a cheque without talking at all. The nervousness is entirely internal. But I was that guy when I was ~13. I’m 19 now and have been living on my own for over two years in the big city to go to school. It strikes me as odd that he seemingly hadn’t done this before. “Where was he when they taught that in schools?” I thought “Oh. Wait. They don’t, do they? I learnt that from my parents too, just earlier”

So it occurs to me, as much as I disagree with anti-intellectualism, why are we teaching kids how to factor variables and not how to budget? This statement is a nervous one for me because it looks like a slippery slope. I really like math. Honestly, it’s a love language. It’s beautiful and flowing and works and can be used to do all sorts of things that English can’t. I wouldn’t be far to say “Well, we don’t factor variables anymore, maybe we should just drop variables altogether” which is alarming. Algebra, as much as people hate it, is actually one of the most useful things ever. A fictional subtraction statement: I make $20 a week and spend $15 on living expenses – how much do I have left? Third graders could figure that out. But let’s rewrite it: I make $20 a week and want to keep $5 for free money after living expenses – what’s the maximum I can spend on living? The interesting thing is it’s the exact same but uses a variable. For some reason we take until grade 8 to get the “you can move it across the equals sign and just solve normally” thing. We can make it more complicated. Maybe ‘living expenses’ is actually five different things adding up. Suddenly we’ve got brackets for organization. BEDMAS. We can learn to balance expenses and incomes. Real world things. We can see how banks work and instead of doing boom-bust cycle global economics, we can focus on the economics of how the root levels actually work. What’s interest? How do banks make money? It’s amazing how many people don’t know these things.

Conclusion: I’m not sure it’s about more or less math as much as reworking math and taking it from a beautiful abstraction (which, let’s face it, is only beautiful to a handful of us) and making it into a comfortable, practical thing.

The psychology of math

People brag about being bad at math. This blows my mind. There’s an XKCD for everything, and it doesn’t disappoint:

I’m terrible at playing guitar. It’s hard and doesn’t come naturally to me. Fortunately, I also don’t need it to live a functional life. It’s certainly not a bragging point to bring up.

There was, when I was in school, a sort of popularity complex in response to that fact. If you were good at math you must have been a nerd and therefore uncool, so it sort of was in your best interest to be bad at math. This is a shame.

Like science (which will be addressed in another part), the goal here is to foster genuine interest. The famous Antoine de Saint-Exupery quote:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

It’s really not about rote memorization of multiplication tables. It’s really not about the discipline of not using calculators (this comes back to why that link in the first paragraph is insane) because we have computers now to do the heavy lifting. Wolfram Alpha is a gorgeous machine. Anyone can begrudgingly do 100 problems out of a textbook. The joy, the usefulness of math is seeing what you want to accomplish and then making up a method for getting there. It’s about problem solving by using a language that English can’t help you with, about distilling things down into known and unknown values and then massaging them until they spit out what you’d like. Teach them to long for the endless immensity of math itself.

Steam Greenlight

I’ve agreed with Campster before – his other videos and observations are spot on – but the above strikes me as a little black and white.

The problem with the completely open argument is, and using the mobile app stores as an example (both Apple and Android), they don’t really push good content in the happy “cream floats to the top” way described. There’s the top ten list, which is feedback loop of increased sales and… everyone else. I agree, sure, that Angry Birds was a phenomenon of games going viral, but that wasn’t really the app store’s doing, it was the fact that the game was addicting and charming and delightful and word spread “You’ve got to download this game!”

It would be a hard argument to suggest that Angry Birds wouldn’t exist if there were a $100 entry fee to get in the store. If this is even remotely accurate, they spent $140 000 on development. So $100 would be 0.07% of the total cost. A fraction of the drop in the bucket. Like any business, that’s part of development cost that (hopefully) gets regained when you start making the kind of money Angry Birds did. It’s a gamble.

Now, the immediate counterargument is correct: “It doesn’t cost $100 for Steam to provide this service, it’s an infinite shelf space.” But that actually isn’t the point. You’re not paying $100 to get shelf space, you’re paying $100 as a token of “I believe in this idea enough that I’m willing to invest in it” because anyone who’s put any sort of effort into something should be willing to say exactly that. I don’t want to sound callous but $100 is working a saturday at a cafe down the street; it’s not exactly an impossible sum to come up with. If you think your idea is good enough to pursue and develop it into a working game, you probably already believe in it enough to put some money down. If it is truly good, you’ll make it back in sales. On the other hand, if you’re some kid in his mom’s basement making games (and I was this kid, years ago) you probably shouldn’t be clogging up the shelves even if they are infinite. Back then we had the Gamemaker forums and you’d post your amateur games to that. It was awesome. The community made up of people using the same language and playing with the same ideas would give you feedback and there was no barrier between me making absolute rubbish (and I did!) and posting it. With that said, Steam should not pursue that as the goal. There’s a big difference between indie games and basement games. Call it a walled garden, but I see it more as a “wash your hands before you come inside from the sandbox” sort of measure.

The expansion of that is the ultimate open marketplace: distributing your product without Steam at all. A perfect example is Blendo Games who made the brilliant Gravity Bone and distributed it via their site for free. It was an .exe and picked up it’s own fantastic reviews for being awesome, passed on by word of mouth and eventually the bigger game news sites. There was no bar to fill up via likes but there was an entry fee: hosting his Blendo site. I’m just guessing based on my own hosting, but it’s probably around $100. Per year. Fast forward a bit and we see other crtically acclaimed success in the 3rd Humble Indie Bundle and eventually 30 Flights of Loving, the soul sequel to Gravity Bone (and, I should say, also fantastic) on Steam for $5. Outside the garden entirely was where Brendon Chung (the one-man studio) proved himself / his ability to make good games and demonstrate that they were worth paying money for.

Youtube is a wonderful thing, as is Vimeo and Society6 and Etsy and Ebay. These are places where you can do things for free because some way or other, they’re making money out of your dealings. That’s fine, we agree, because we get something out of that exchange as well. It’s symbiotic, but it’s not a direct comparison for the ecosystem of paid games. Even 99ยข apps create a sort of hesitation and weight that simply clicking on a Youtube link doesn’t have. Again we see the cream doesn’t float to the top; Errant Signal itself (who, despite this rebuttal, I do love and would describe as quality content) has just over half million combined views and yet the most inane, brain numbing crap on the frontpage gets millions per video. In a just ecosystem this wouldn’t be the case and I genuinely wish channels like Errant Signal got the respect deserved. But, that’s a side note as example of how Youtube shouldn’t be the gold standard model.

TL;DR Should there be an arbitrary like bar? No. If you pay the entrance fee, you’re in. Should there be an entrance fee? Yes, I think it’s a good way to keep the market honest with ideas truly believed in. If you want to make dumb little games there are more than enough channels already available for distribution.

The Creative Economy

They don’t allow permalinks to comments, but allow me to quote “disqusplaya” via The Atlantic:

…who cares if you can “only” bring in a couple hundred K a year. It keeps you and your 4 friends out of a “real job”, thrills 10s of millions of customers… not a bad gig.

The scale doesn’t really matter – it doesn’t have to be 10s of millions of people. I’m thrilled just to write to you readers, my mere 10s of thousands. It’s a non-money payment: delight. I get paid in the cool comments I get to read of yours and the conversations we have.

I’ve had the thought myself: why not start companies with the express goal of simply breaking even and just doing it because your idea is awesome or because you want to make cool stuff for others? Of course, there’s time and effort involved but if you truly love your product you’d probably already be working on it anyway and entirely willing and happy to share it. I would, anyway. I do, in a sense. It’s a bizarre thing I never would have guessed or planned to happen, but somehow there are people directly and indirectly giving me money for things I made one evening just for fun. You could look at it as loss if you assign a numeric value for my time spent as dollars per hour but if I did it for myself anyway, it’s sort of literally free money.

So we stand way back and think larger: what’s the point of existence? How do we live? Is this whole bitter 9-5 job economy actually the only way?

And we see people who argue for the collection of things. Massive tangible riches via long hours and hard work. That’s “success” – the American Dream.

Maybe I’m just more of the altruist artist than I’d like to admit, but I look at that and wonder why? As long as I have enough to live, why wouldn’t I start collecting in the currency of delight?

But it works in both directions (and this is more of a change in me personally) – paying for delight. I’m famously frugal because I measure things in purely time terms. $50 concert? That’s way too much. I could see a $14 movie for those same two hours. Or, I could get a $5 game and play it for 50 hours. I’ve written about this before. Something that needs to be learned is that $50 for a 30 second bungee jump can be worth it based on the experience itself, not the time taken to experience it. The delight currency, coming full circle.

Let’s face it, hard work =/= money. If that were true there’s a lot of single mothers working two jobs who want their cheques, please. But even without money we can make their lives better. It’s not about the rich or poor, though, if I started a t-shirt line I don’t really care who buys or wears them; I just want to know that whoever does enjoys what I’ve created. It’s a selfish act with a selfless result, I suppose, but I’m still not sure how I feel about Ayn Rand.

Thoughts on the Loner Stigma

If I had any word of advice for introverts it’s this: never admit you’re an introvert. People look at you weird.

Never admit, in any form, that you enjoy being alone more than you enjoy being with other people. This makes others uneasy. There’s something obviously wrong with you. Maladjusted.

It’s a rough stigma and a ridiculous one. I could easily go into how introversion =/= shyness at all (as counterpoint: myself, with a self confidence bordering on narcissism) or how we aren’t all psychopaths (and, for that matter, how there are a lot more psychopaths than you realize and they’re rarely murderous freaks). I could, but today I won’t. Today, I have a few ideas on why this whole thing started, anyway.

Mob mentality is a strong phenomenon and it’s a safety net: the outliers and free thinkers will be reigned in because they feel more comfortable in the crowd. This, from the point of view of the mob, is good. Normal behaviour is king, regardless of what “normal” actually is. But the safety net only works if said outliers want to be in the herd. So when we hear of people who prefer to be alone, prefer to be who they are, it does make us naturally uneasy. This person can do whatever they want! That could include things we see as abnormal or worse: “bad”! How dreadful, that person.

As “that person” I would like to say it’s a tremendous freedom you might be missing out on. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but the ability to simply disregard all of that arbitrary social convention stuff is wonderful. It doesn’t, however, put me / us above the law nor morals. It doesn’t mean we just shrug everything aside and stab old ladies as we please. Not stabbing seniors is social convention, yes, but it’s also one of legal and moral consequences. It’s a big venn diagram. Introverts just downsize one of the rings. Psychopaths another. When people start to pull down all three after including, say, having a haunted childhood, then they tend to have issues.

Now, it should also be mentioned that introverts aren’t “that person” by definition – the favouring of solitude v. suffocation doesn’t imply social convention ignorance. This is important to note. With that said, from what I’ve seen, we tend to inherent these characteristics after years of being outside of social norm anyway. The innocent first steps into aloneness (never to be confused with loneliness) are a personal thing (introversion) that just happen to work out and start “what other social thing can I cast off?” type questions. From mere observation and anecdotal evidence, I’d say this is normal for us.

There are books in favour of every type of lifestyle by pointing to famous people who also believed in it. This, of course, is stupid. I won’t say “Well, so-and-so was an introvert and they did this-and-this awesome thing” because that implies mob mentality itself; justification via association. We would consider it ridiculous to justify genocide merely because we could point to many well known people who have tried it. There are also books trying to “cure” introversion. This too is stupid. It’s not a disease, nor do I want to change myself. In fact, it’s sort of ironic that beside said books on the shelf there are self help books trying to teach you to lead a life of listening instead of talking and peaceful solitude instead of stressful bustle. They don’t call these things “curing” extroversion, they call this medicine for the soul. As it turns out, I am chalk full of this soul medicine all the time.

We make up roughly 1/4 – 1/3 of the population and it’s not something we’re trying to stop or fix. The world needs all types and we often do the things extroverts can’t. Does this make us inherently good or bad? Nope. We’re still just people; the spectrums are independent.

If I had a second word of advice for introverts it would be to remain strong in who you are. People will look at you funny and offer to “help you” but smile, they just don’t know any better yet. It’s animal nature to be afraid of what they don’t know and humans are just animals with clothes.

Soulcraft

You could watch the above with a rational heart and announce “what a load of crap”; I couldn’t argue with you in any logical sense. Still, I’m willing to admit I have cried watching Speed Racer in the past. There’s a scene in the end – and unfortunately not on Youtube – where the car dies and he needs to restart it, ignoring the Grand Prix around him and just listening. Feeling. There is something to these vehicles that transcends the mere logic of metal bits moving about and propelling us forward.

I never understood, having a younger sister, why girls liked horses so much. They are, to my mind, ugly plodding things that emit noxious fumes and are generally impossible to control. They are uncomfortable to be on or around and grossly underpowered compared to the vehicles in the stable’s parking lot. But there is something – and I haven’t experienced it myself – that I assume happens: you become one with the horse and it stops being two free-willed animals attached to each other and starts being one machine, one connection of control. I look at my car, at my seat that fits my back and the steering wheels that bears my thumb prints and I can’t help but think that sometimes it is an animal of it’s own. Somehow, these parts come together and create something better than a mere metal sculpture.

My car (above, photo taken by my father before I was born) is not impressive to most, boasting a whole 70 horse’s power when new (and surely many have run away in the meantime) coming from the ’88 E16s 1.6L engine. It was my parent’s car when they were first married and will be an antique next year. It was a car that I rode in the back seat of as a small child and the one I learned to drive standard in, eventually just buying it outright. I love her.

I’ve mentioned numerous times in the past my love for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I just started Shop Class as Soulcraft yesterday – two books that compliment each other really well both in terms of message and application. I don’t yet own a motorcycle, although the lessons transfer to not only other vehicles but life itself. That’s why they’re in the philosophy section of the bookstore, I suppose. The medium of machinery is a very good metaphor for the machines that are us, the being of human. I appreciate that in both cases the underlying text is that we as people have sort of detached, like a rider and horse, into separate beasts. Mind and body and white collar and blue collar and emotional states and our very perceptions of things are all in these broad divides. I think the case they’re trying to make is that we need to mount the horse or get in the driver’s seat and become one with ourselves again. That we almost look at the things around us with that same cold calculation that we look at cars as just hunks of metal when really, they are a thing to experience and identify with.

The scene at the end of Speed Racer is the perfect metaphor for our internal, personal divide. The protagonist asks of the car, “What do you need?” and although getting no explicit response, proceeds to listen and to know. To be intuitive about the smallest things. I think we ask ourselves this every day and find ourselves frustrated when we aren’t in tune enough to find the answers. We don’t trust the gut enough to act on those little, unspoken ideas and feelings that pour forth.

Is it silly that I treat my search for a new car much like I’d treat the search for a new stallion or a good German Shepard? Maybe. Is it silly that my eyes get a little watery over the course of a kid’s movie? Yeah. Will I sob violently when I have to say goodbye to my darling Pulsar? Definitely.

But I do think, and I say this as an extremely logical, meticulously practical person, that we need to simply feel and listen more and act on those gut instincts. That we can look at ourselves and know things are wrong much like a mechanic on a motorcycle can feel when the gas mixture is too lean or when a spark plug has build up. The sounds and smells and vibrations are all there, but we have to not only learn to identify with them but to act accordingly and fearlessly.

On the Design of Weapons and Artisanship v. Industrial Design

It should be noted that I don’t condone violence or weapons, but I do really appreciate the design of them.

I watch the two videos and love both of them in their own right. Projectile weapons, as terrible as they are to the health of living things, tend to have a really cool design outcome. It’s raw functionality. I can’t really say they’re precision things, because there are many examples like the AK-47 whose famous reliability is based entirely on working with sloppy tolerances, but there is something inherently precise about the design of weaponry. It’s rarely arbitrary; the outcome design is based on examples and data. The aesthetic is the realm of the neo-classical mind and is appreciated for it’s reasons and purpose, not it’s overlaying being. It’s gorgeous. Like the tiny gears and ticks inside a watch.

Part two is the difference between them: one is made in a factory or machine shop and each will come out 99.999% identical to the others. The other is made from a plant that is found and chosen by a man and then crafted into something by him, by hand (or foot, as it may be) and will be very different from the one beside it in form, but ideally identical in function. This, I feel, is an important distinction.

You can tell, for those who have already read the book, that I’ve been looking at the world though these lenses (or divisions of Phaedrus’ knife, as his metaphor would suggest) lately. It’s not a new concept to me, certainly, but it’s nice to look through someone else’s eyes for a while; see the world anew.

I’ve learned something about myself recently: I’m much more artisan than I thought. Originally – and realize this is untrue – I equated artisans solely with hand spun clay pots and woven wicker baskets. The people who sell laptop bags on Etsy made of sewn together scraps of old mens’ tweed jackets. The essays with reference to Yanagi Soetsu in Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams (towards the back half, pages ~716 if I remember correctly – forgive me as I don’t want to look it up) feature his philosophy as a counter-point to Rams’ (representative here as all of industrial design) way of design for not only specific objects, but how those objects relate in context to the mass production and usage in culture. His point, from the perspective of craftsmanship, looks at objects in an uncannily similar way to the mass produced method: a means to achieving a goal. If the industrialist and the artisan both make a thing it should look to first achieve it’s intended task. Makes sense. This is where my misguided preconceptions come in again; I thought they inherently had to differ after they agreed on that. The industrialists to the neo-classical function and the artisans to the romanticist to the aesthetic. But! As I’ve recently discovered, not true. Not quite.

Aesthetics, of course, are a tricky thing to nail down. They’re different for everyone. I equated function with minimalism and practicality and ruggedness and the things that I personally appreciate and like. I was an industrialist, then. That’s what they do. The things that are frilly and useless and mass produced are just misguided. The artisans who made minimal things were rare and the minimalism was probably a result of skill lacking rather than intentional functionalism. They’re supposed to make what I deem gaudy. The ornamented and decorated. The bright and flashy and visually loud. They’re artisans, which I say (and, I apologize, still do) with a certain pretentious derision.

So aesthetics aren’t a function of romanticism but rather outside of those classifications, like a heading under the two forming a four box chart.

You’ll laugh, but these past few months have led to a lot of personal discoveries that are so obvious. I’ve shared a few others previously. How did I miss them? I’m not sure. But I guess that’s the point of being young and curious. I’ve come out of it with an even more apathetic spirit, though. Before there was a conviction for “right” and “wrong” where my personal standings were concerned, and while I still vehemently defend things, they are broader ideas instead of specific (and often meaningless) examples. Namely the ‘problem’ or ornamentation. I hate it and that’s okay, but I might design something that’s ornamental because I know you like it. I wonder though where the line is drawn between selfless and spineless, but that’s a question for another article.

If aesthetics are independent that implies I can be a minimalist artisan. I still dislike that word. Sorry. But I like the design philosophy of wabi-sabi so much. I’m not saying it can’t be incorporated into mass manufactured things because the design definitely can use elements of it, but there’s something inherently at odds when having objects being made identically imperfect. The idea of the imperfection is the beauty of it’s uniqueness.

Uniqueness. Each of those Yumi bows is unique, but they all provide the same function – accelerate an arrow using a string and the materials’ natural properties. Each of those crossbows has the exact same function and as a result of mass manufacture has the exact same form. There’s something beautiful in both, though, don’t you think? Something romantic in buying a hand-made bow (or a hand machined gun) but also that there’s a machine somewhere in the world that makes the same piece over and over again at a speed that would stagger the mind and that piece gets assembled perfectly into that spot on every single product. It’s just, beautiful to think about for me. That’s my fear though; I think hand made things resonate with people better in general. It takes a very functional mind like mine to appreciate a factory.

Now, am I giving up my industrialist tendencies for a life behind a potter’s wheel? Certainly not. But I do wonder where that broad, overarching line is. I have such a passion for the method and craft itself that the outcome seems almost secondary – whereas a true blood would set up a factory without a second thought and have the focus be entirely on the output product.

I’ll be coming back to this topic; I have other examples and explorations.

TL;DR Aesthetics are independent of design philosophy divisions and form and function are independent yet again of both each other and the previous classifications, creating unique possibilities I hadn’t considered before.

Wealth, Happiness and Culture Shifts

Warning: contains math, graphs and statistical figures.

So. Are the wealthy actually happier than the bohemians? I could point to any number of studies but the long and the short of it is no, not really.

But I have another theory that goes back to the cause and effect of things.

In the past, let’s say the last 100 or so years, we’ve had a lot happen; we’ve had markets crash and boom, wars fought and depressions hit. We’ve gotten to here, the internet age, and things are different now than they used to be. Entertainment is different. We still have wealth gaps which although shifted haven’t really changed in the grand sense – there are still poor and there are still wealthy. “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” and so on. But wealth meant something different then, and this makes up my theory.

Using ultra basic variables I’m going to assert that wealth, for the most part, in the past, would allow for more entertainment. Not only did you have more time on your hands, but you could also afford to buy lavish dresses and fancy cars. Remember, this was an age where the average, boring car could cost 8x (v. yearly salary) what they do today. We’ve got it pretty good now, relatively speaking.

Entertainment too has shifted. I can buy games for $5 and get 50+ hours of enjoyment from them. I’m making a bold and completely unfounded guess here when I say that’s probably the most amount of entertainment per dollar you could get, ever. A bit of math proves that if these numbers are to be trusted you could get roughly two movie tickets for the price of our $5s (relative to average wage again, which I’ll be using for buying power). Now, that isn’t terrible – nearly 4x cheaper than 2 movie tickets’ worth today – but still, the evolution of these things has shifted such that it’s much, much cheaper now to be entertained. Does that make you happier? Debatable. But I’m willing to bet it’s not hurting.

Piracy. I won’t go into the moral, ethical or legal issues but suffice to say, if you really wanted to, you could be infinitely entertained for the price of your internet service which is a) something you’re probably paying for anyway, even if you bought all your movies, music, books and games and b) decently cheap. It’s worth about 46 couple’s movie tickets, if we’re holding on to those numbers. Now, this seems expensive, but that means they’re getting 2 people x seven reels (~70 minutes) per week for 46 weeks. That’s 26.8 hours per person for the same buying power. Back to us: a firehose. Like, you’re literally limited by sleep deprivation when doing these calculations. There are enough movies, enough music, enough books and enough games out there to fill that entire year’s worth of time. It is, for intents and purposes, unlimited entertainment. Even if you ignore piracy and go legit, Netflix is $8 a month. Plus your internet connection, plus your computer or whatever you’re playing it on, plus the biggest screen money can buy you’re still laughing. There’s just no comparison.

The big difference is that no matter who you are, if you can afford that internet and have something to watch it on, you’re the exact same as the wealthy people. There’s no gap there. They would pirate the exact same things you would pirate. Their entertainment – at least, in this digital facet of life – is exactly the same as yours. Back in the day the poor looked at the wealthy enviously because (in part) they could afford more entertainment, but if it truly is as infinite as I make it out to be, that’s rubbish now. It’s the same.

So what does this all mean? Surely I have a point.

Well. Not really.

TL;DR I had a theory that entertainment is much cheaper now than it used to be (and so it is) and how wealth as a measurement of happiness via entertainment is therefor much less of a thing now. The internet breaks down at least one part of the disparity gap.

Algebraic!

Oh, and I regrettably don’t have sources for the above car photos because Tumblr is remarkably bad at keep track of those sorts of things. My bad.

An Invocation for Beginnings

I find myself at two points simultaneously and as much as I don’t want to bring personal life into this column I feel like it’s an important topic for the inspiration of all: beginnings.

The two points are at odds with each other. The first, a cliff soaring over the sea, with salt and spray and rocks at the bottom. I stand at the top, looking down. The second quite opposite: sitting securely in a rollercoaster cart at the base of a hill, ready to be pulled up by the chain lift. These things both are my upcoming graduation. I’m excited, to say the least.

And so I watch the above and I try to absorb the wisdom of those who have gone before me and I try to keep an even mix of those who succeed and those who fail, which often become the same person over time. Ze Frank, as I’m sure we’re all familiar, is a fantastic example of both of these; perhaps one of the first viral sensations.

There’s a subtext in that video that I really like, and it reminds me of Ira Glass’ writings on the similar subject: a call to make mass, mass bodies of work. Whatever you want. Who cares? And this is where obscurity actually works in your favor because you can put crap out there and learn from it and not fail in front of (too) many people (something that I, though minor in my celebrity as I am, fear personally). And I think we as designers get pigeonholed into genres that we feel trapped in. I think Ira and Ze (and, for that matter, Jobs and Rams and Eames etc.) were successful simply because they did whatever they felt like. Typography here, toy design there, maybe some bottles for a craft brewhouse, radio plays, interviews, dancing videos. I mean, the diversity of Ze’s work by itself is bizarre and remarkable. Having never met him, obviously, I can’t really testify, but he seems like the kind of guy who a) often finds something around him that trips his fancy and b) actually does it. I am, at the moment, trapped in the first part. I’m constantly amazed and inspired and in love with the world itself but I get distracted and forget to ship, which is the key part to the whole learning-by-doing/failing – you actually have to do things. I know. Shocker.

So. An invocation for beginnings. “Fuck, let’s do this.” as he says, to be blunt. Throwing caution to the wind (which, let’s be honest, is anything you design actually going to be that dangerous to make?) and just getting things done. Seeing all those inspiring things and actually doing them. Walking Dead isn’t that good anymore anyway, you don’t need to sit around and waste your time on that.

As for me: I don’t even mind the cliff I’m looking over. I think I know deep down inside that I can swim and the fall in between, well, is an Olympic dive really any different from a fool’s flailing? Nah. It’s a good show either way.


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