For more from Curt Cloninger, visit his website at http://lab404.com.
As Clement Mok observed in 2003, designers are the only professionals who describe their work in media-specific terms. A surgeon says, “I heal people;” he doesn’t say, “I make cuts.” A lawyer says, “I prosecute people;” he doesn’t say, “I make legal documents.” And yet, designers say, “I make websites. I do print work. I’m in video.” We are so focused on the medium that we often lose sight of the conceptual goals that inform our overall design practice.
There was a time when graduate art programs defined themselves in terms of media. Painters attended a painting program, ceramicists a ceramics program, and so on. With the rise of integrated, multimedia art, that time is passing. A contemporary artist may now work in video, sculpture, drawing, and performance simultaneously. The focus is not the media but rather the artist's conceptual goals.
As designers, we should be willing and able to move fluidly from medium to medium. In order to do this, however, we must first identify the overarching conceptual goals of our design practice. Every artist has a “practice”: a career-spanning continuum of visionary making that drives the creation of each individual piece of work. An artist’s career isn't simply a series of unrelated pieces that have no conceptual cohesion. Instead, her goals inform her practice which, in turn, informs the creation of her artwork over time.
Should a design practice be any different? Master designers (from William Morris to Stefan Sagmeister) have always pursued something more meaningful than the next job. A singular, evolving vision informs their choices with regards to clients and projects. Although their work varies depending on the particular needs of each job, it nevertheless follows a conceptual trajectory consistent with the goals of their practice.
Case Study: Vito Acconci
Vito Acconci is a poet, artist, and architect. His career has been defined by his conceptual goals rather than the media he uses to achieve those goals. Throughout his practice, Acconci has been interested in the difference between inside and outside.
In 1969, Acconci did a series of street “performances” in New York City, which he collectively referred to as “Following Piece.” He would walk out of his apartment and follow the first person who passed by until that person went into an area that Acconci could not legally or practically enter. In 1970, he performed a piece called “Trademarks” where he bit all the skin on his body that his mouth could reach.
Both of these pieces explored the inside and outside of the human body in urban and personal space.
After years as a prominent and influential artist, Acconci decided the best way to continue exploring the boundaries of bodily space was to jettison his art practice altogether and take up architecture. In 2003, he designed a “bridge” over the Mur River in Graz, Austria, that turns itself inside out, creating a semi-enclosed “island” in the middle of the river.
From poetry to architecture, Acconci employed many means. He was free to evolve professionally because he sought only to achieve his personal aims and so was not limited by the formal strictures of a single medium.
Veteran designer Milton Glaser offers this advice to young designers: “Stay loose for the first five, ten years of your work life until you have enough skill and understanding to make a choice that you can stay with for the rest of your life. After all, … you may be doing this for 50 years. The worst thing you can do is find yourself in a job that you’re not particularly interested in for 40 of those years.”
To that I would add the advice of Joe Jackson, who famously sang, “You can’t get what you want / ‘Till you know what you want.” Have you considered the purposeful development of a lifelong design practice? What are your particular conceptual goals and interests? How willing are you to learn new skills and software? How willing are you to take on an entirely new job title?
My own adventure began with audio recordings and led to hacking, web design, writing, teaching, and art. God knows what's next. Media deliverables are merely the results of a designer's efforts. The forces that actually guide a design practice are personal conceptual goals.