I want to be out there, wherever ‘there’ might be. —RH
AN ACQUAINTANCE from Seattle was just passing through Phnom Penh, where I’ve been based for the last three years. It was surprising and fun to catch up. RH and I hadn’t known one another well, but had common friends in the publishing industry and a mutual respect for each other’s aesthetic sensibilities, design sense, and openness to trying new things. I remember that because you remember those kinds of things, not the piddly details but the overall impression: intelligence, behind the words. A tweet exchange and us saying, sure let’s get a coffee.
We met by the Russian Market at a place that does some nice ones, something that is surprising to so many coming to Cambodia from Europe and N. America, I think, because, what, they’re expecting things to be Third World-y, and sure, they are, but… there are also gems, here, beautiful architectures, for one, and the people actually smile at you, which has more life-giving qualities than anyone might ever imagine if they weren’t used to such things. Like us. Ex-Seattle and ex-US and ex-Japan and ex-UK… (and you see where this is going, yes?)
Anyway it was good to reconnect with someone who used to know you in a different light, altogether, on the other side of the world. He asked if DK was still doing branding and I kind of had to stifle a laugh. Doing ‘branding’ in 2017 seems ridiculous to me (my logo? That box? That’s just a free thing from a free software, something that was just lying around).
CHANGE IS THE ONLY. This is certainly new. This ultra casual approach to the way one represents himself through design, as opposed to when DK was insisting earnestly and fervently that design is super-duper important, in our 2004-2009 phase in Seattle. Some people are probably still there, insisting. But the times have moved on. I see people cutting and pasting logos all the time, where I live. It’s not even important what it looks like, anymore. It’s what it stands for. Authenticity. The very young ones know this, the ones that are younger than the tied-to-my-phone thirtysomethings because they can actually stop and look at you and talk to you and listen, they are good at this focusing thing, in a way that… I also really enjoy. I do. I was… jaded, I think. I had checked out, when I got into this box. I didn’t think anyone in the world was left to care about asking the philosophical, metaphysical, existential, transcendental kinds of questions and go into the play and do the jam with me. It seemed a bit too full-on, I think. I just withdrew. Got that from my dad, I fully admit it. We just don’t deal with things. We hide.
Underground and footloose in Asia, there wasn’t a whole lot to do then but write and so that’s what I’ve been doing, except also, I always get into the discussions that make people go, ‘Wait a minute. No one’s ever asked me that before. This is really helping me, this is helping me reflect.’ Someone in Palo Alto asked me to come over and do an experiential workshop on reflection, and I did. It was fascinating. Never had I thought that this sort of vein of conversation was anything less than ‘normal.’ But it isn’t. At all. The immediate question-asking is uncomfortable, of course it is, and it is totally not normal. To make people ask big questions about their ‘why’ and their purpose? Not simple. A woman in Sweden asked me in a sauna, ‘Why do you want to get people to open up?’ I told her that’s where the magic is. Waking Life calls it the ‘holy moment.’ Infinitude of other, infinitude in self.
In a less abstract way, I tried to share. The way I liked the feeling of learning with the others, through more and better dialogues, then how I learned by doing different things (lighting, music, space, furniture, food, drinks, prompts, magazines, folded things, light things, totems, comment cards, cut and paste, heart-shaped post-its, serious-colored post-its, workbooks, zines you could fill in the blanks on, et cetera) some of which worked poorly and others that made the magic happen, and that was how it went. Not teach-y, just learn-y. Together, we asked questions of one another, wrote together. That’s how I developed a new set of questions, sequenced them, made them into 20-minute modules and put them into a workbook. I showed this book to a few people. Some of them later went through the questions. Got feedback, tried it, revised it, redid it, rewrote, and reconnected. At least a little. Now here I am, making this page. I guess this means something. Sharing. How uncool right? But. Yes.
I hadn’t even realized that this was always the case, because I had underestimated the whole giant thing that goes into making a design in the first place: conversation. Good conversation. I don’t just mean rapport. I mean building towards something: progression, richness and complexity, play and freshness and surprise. (Ask me about my checklist, with the 7-point outline.)
All that stuff.
If it’s not artful, if it’s not a space that’s held well, then the art of it isn’t going to happen and if there’s no art, there’s no beauty in the design that will fall forth. Seriously. No art, no beauty. No conversation, no beautiful concept. This is how it is. And why would I ever get involved in something if there wasn’t a chance to pursue beauty? All this. Thinking. Since Seattle. Didn’t know, until someone shows up from there, an anachronism in my new life, pulling questions from the sky in vocabularies I haven’t heard for some time, abstract queries, learning and asking. I appreciate this kind of stepping out towards the unknown, in that open space that makes us all vulnerable. It’s been a while since I’ve experienced this, as I’ve been hiding behind my blog here.
In this box.
A disembodied white cube, as DM had put it. Ah, yes.
In the box is safe. My mother would like that. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. That guy, that one guy, who said that thing I put in the eZine, about laying low… This:
Out of the box? That is tougher. But… I’d missed it. I found out, there and then. Maybe it’s time to come out a bit, yes? Then I went to London. Made ’16N’ happen, somehow, there. NOTEWORTHINESS, we talked about that. Met some fascinating people from my internet encounterings. They didn’t know me from this white box, but wow, it sure did get cool. We had the jam, the jam that I love. In real life. Playing, together. This is what we used to do at DK with ou clients, wasn’t it? The branding thing was just an excuse.
Yeah, so yeah. It’s true. I used to think logos and identities were really, really important, and I think they were, kind of, insomuch as they helped us all make an excuse to talk to each other about what it was that really mattered to us. Branding? Of course big questions come up. Who are you, really, what do you want to say to the world, and how will your work offer that expression? Now, let’s pack that up into some kind of a nice design. Yes. There. Right? But wow. We sure did get philosophical there, didn’t we, and that was sure fun.
‘I want to be out there,’ R had said. I think he was wondering to himself as much as me, this question about where to go next to make an impact. ‘Wherever “there” might be.’ That was the start of the ‘big game,’ as the chess gamers say, where it started really getting interesting. Out of the box. Out of the zone, the familiar bounds. I nodded. I was quiet. I have learned in my three plus years in Asia, both on the road and here in Cambodia, to listen more than to speak. Things get said in the silences, more than you will ever realize, unless you’re awake to it, learning to let go of the thing you want to communicate next. I think. I believe. I feel. But it’s not about me, is it? I’m just here, reflecting. ‘Tell me more.’ ‘Okay. Well, I think… there have to be more people thinking this, right? That there’s more out there? Wherever there might be?’ ‘I think so. More people are exploring ways to do this, I think, given the obvious limitations that staying in silos will naturally create. Even in glittering Seattle.’
‘Kay, I don’t want to diss Seattle.
I love it.
Sometimes I let myself think back on the mountains.
BOX DESIGN. There is a feeling, as R had pointed out, that going way, way outside the boxes just isn’t comfortable for most in that part of the world, where we both used to live. I started reflecting and it made me think about the journeys for me, since leaving Seattle (hard) and taking to the road (less hard, but more struggle-y). The thing is, there was a massive tradeoff, I thought, but it was a perceived tradeoff. I thought I was giving something up by quitting the office, the apartment in Capitol Hill, the network that was budding, the beginning of something that felt like a being-known kind of a feeling, and so many other intangibles that one might tie up with the word ‘community.’ But what I gained was far, far more important than these things. Because only once I took the time to do the big work of really looking within could I see very clearly what was important for me wasn’t a house and stuff and status and gigs, but possibility. New people. New learning. That was why I needed the road, and the journey. Me, personally. Found this out through asking myself questions. Questions I now have ready to share with you, if you are curious, through the thing at the end of this page. THE MIRROR. More in a second. Certainly a move away from one’s roots or adopted home is not what everyone wants, or needs. But knowing what it is that moves you, that is huge work. I personally had that transition, you know, going from a murky gut-feel that Seattle wasn’t ‘it’ anymore to this place, a whole ‘nother life, a different kind of community, a strong sense of what it is I make here, why, and how I’m of value to the people I am connecting with now. Reflection. That work. Tested some things. With the California program, a while ago, in 2014, and online since.
In the early days when I talked about THE MIRROR I guess I felt people were looking for what I was looking for. The new input, the original thinking at the margins and beyond. I guess I felt like everyone had wanderlust and the poet-philosopher heart, but no. No, no. And that’s cool. That’s totally fine. I don’t even get along with those people who profess to be academically philosopher types. They kinda… well. No name-calling. I’m just going to keep going. Writing to you. Being really honest. The divergent thinking that we knew already was so important to the design process had to be something I actually lived, with my life. Like, actually go out of my box. Because of Seattle’s… bubble, yeah. I’ll be honest. And more than that. I just felt like there wasn’t enough of a jam session to enjoy the conversations that might pop into place, not enough of a mix in the way one might approach her life. Too much same-y. Where were the others? I wanted more.
We were there and engaged and talking and learning, together, and sometimes it was really good. The great conversation sessions, though, I remember were tied up with some sort of program, which meant that there was a very self-selecting group, and by nature, these groups were sort of insular. I mean, I don’t want to criticize. But they were one-dimensional, you know? People sort of looked the same, even, in a certain kind of group. Newcomers talked about the Freeze, just google Seattle freeze, and how it’s there and there is this thing where, someone from the East Coast said, ‘People in Seattle only play with one friend at a time. They don’t like to mix you up.’ I didn’t believe this person, not really, because I wasn’t like that, and people joined me at things where I could design and host the sorts of parties, meetups, networking things like Designers Korner and Flourish and other live events that brought very different kinds of people together, if only briefly and just once.
Why? The answer to why is simple. For my own personal curiosity. For learning. For sharing, together. I wasn’t quite ready in the early days to just pack up and leave Seattle, I still loved it very much. The fresh air, the water. The mountains, of course. Dan Savage wrote about them in a column, I remember reading, where he just kept repeating it. ‘The mountains are beautiful.’ And they are. But there is more out there, than just those mountains. Not many years ago, I saw them, in Nagarkot, from a whole other point of view, at moonrise. *poignant pause*. But the going only got started when I saw that what mattered to me was to keep on learning. Because I didn’t want to stagnate or get complacent. From lack of input. Lack of original thought. Lack of serendipitous encounters with new and different, a tendency towards ‘safety,’ whatever that means. Misoneism. Fear.
AND THIS. To the sensitive aesthete, there’s something else that’s going to happen. The things that are made are just not that innovative. They’re actually kind of boring. BORING is… well, it’s less-than, isn’t it? Less than our best? Going out of the box starts with pushing past that coefficient of static friction, starting, in other words, and though kinetic frictions will remain (doubts, fears, practicalities and the constant worrying about how to make things work), the important thing is that you are in motion. Momentum. Why we get along with architects, software developers, jazz musicians, theater performers, and the kinds of designers who love process as much as we do is the same. We care. About the journey. From here to ‘there,’ wherever ‘there’ might be. This is the work we call N+1.
A brief history of N+1 shifting
SEATTLE. DESIGN KOMPANY STARTED IN SEATTLE in 2004. At first, we weren’t sure what we were going to make, or for who, but we knew it was a pretty important time to ‘just try this.’ Unlike many in our industry, we found out later through the process and learning and making things up as we went, we were much more interested in the creative process—and discovering the concepts for particular designs came through inviting our clients to be part of that, with us. It was way less about ‘making something pretty.’ The one time we got a call from a prospect that asked us to ‘just make it sexy,’ I said it wasn’t a fit and thanks and it was a wake-up. I knew my time was going to end, soon. That we were different.
Upon reflection, I see now we were interested not in the outcome, which we knew had to be quality and would, eventually, but that this wasn’t the objective of taking on a new engagement. What was important was something else altogether. The journey. The most fun projects, and those that yielded the most unexpected, fresh designs were those in which our clients played with us in ‘the box,’ letting us closer and closer, so that we could, together, discover the ‘a-ha’ which all beautiful creative processes love to meander their way towards. Divergent ideas are all welcome, until that moment. When you have that moment, you have the ‘it’ that you need to build everything to come upon. The ‘it’ that isn’t just a thing, or a concept even, but the product of lots of exploring, together and openly, ready to accept whatever might fall to hand or ear or eye, and let it move you in a different direction. That is the whole thing: design exists to sketch a framework for this, just this, this journey.
Landing softly in Phnom Penh
PHNOM PENH. Our insistence on process over outcomes hasn’t changed. We are still making our way around to new adventures, making bits up as we go, playing with spaces and inviting others to join in them and explore the edges of their comfort zones with us. A long season of work in brand identity design for mostly the kinds of business owners who were, like us, interested in discovery through the time and work of really looking inward, got us to the portfolio that we had on this website for a long time. I don’t have that here now because it just isn’t what we do. You see a picture of something and you think, ‘I want that.’ But that’s… just not possible to show here, anymore. What we do for each of our clients is completely, one-thousand percent different. It’s not even like a bespoke tailor, or a museum, or a cafe, because in those instances you know you’re getting a suit, arts that you might like, or a gourmet pour. No. Here, it’s different. What we do at DK with others also collaborating with us, as clients or acquaintances or co-creators or even just friends, is what I like to call ‘N+1’ work. Making spaces for others to engage in the process. The process being that journey. The one from here to the next thing, wherever it is, whatever it might be.
To the journeys! —AS