Rob Blair My name is Robert Blair. I’m currently a visiting instructor at Pratt Institute. Me and Kurt graduated in 2014 from Pratt. In addition to that, we are both practicing freelance designers and art directors. We run a publishing project called TXTBooks (1) that started immediately after we graduated. A lot of my personal practice is photo-based and image-based as well as TXTbooks being an output for my own personal non-commercial practice.
Kurt Woerpel It’s kind of the main filtering agent, the publishing project. It’s interesting because when we graduated, we started our publishing project as a way to intentionally keep some kind of school energy—some kind of selfish or self-interested or at least self-motivated energy—going forward. All three of us who were in the design program had various internship experiences the year before that, in some ways, put a bad taste into our mouths going into senior year—an awareness that you can get subsumed into a standard day-to-day working practice that can pull you away from the reasons you started something in the first place. The dumb example everyone gives all the time is, “I’ve liked to draw since I was a little kid!” It’s really cliche, but it is pretty nice to draw! Or to do things for no reason, whether it’s decorating a cool shoe you have or making, I don’t know, a great label for your refrigerator that says “Mr. Refrigerator, I think that was our awareness and interest from school into our practices, and it’s been interesting to see that born out in different ways.
RB I think initially, for sure, it was, “How do we keep some sort of structure in place that allows us to keep doing the things we want?” With publishing, “Oh, this could be a zine,” is reason enough to explore an idea, which in some ways mimicked how we would do work in a course we really liked. It was also born out of the fear of understanding that post-grad everyone gets burnt out really quick and stops doing the things they want to do. Seeing that happen with people a year or two above us, we thought, “Okay, this is maybe just one reaction to this.”
KW There’s a factor of co-motivation or of seeing what someone else is doing and getting really stoked on it and wanting to encourage them—having a shared goal. It gets a lot easier to do things when it’s not just yourself. Which, I think, in some ways should be seen as the underlying goal or tangential point to the idea of independent publishing. I think it was also a way to work with friends and hang out.
Logan Heffernan It makes so much sense to turn to publishing for that. It really provides a foil to so much of the commercial work. It responds to the questions of, “How do we keep growing? How can we continue being critical? How can we operate with as little corporate complicity as possible?” I don’t think corporate work can ever be totally avoided, but there are alternative spaces to lean into.
KW I think there’s so much difficulty in being a designer and working now—working in America, specifically, and even New York more specifically to America. It all feeds into so many things: high cost of living, low government funding. (2) These are considerations you have to make. In some ways, it’s hard to blame people that want to take corporate jobs who have student loan debt or a medical condition or any other on-going factor. Honestly, a bunch of corporate jobs are super easy. You work maybe 15-20% of the day and then wait on emails the rest of the day while getting some cushy money. Most people who work at corporate jobs just do other work all day. I mean, it does feel bad—to a certain degree.
RB This is something I’ve tried to consider for people who do take stuff like that; I try to think about it from a labor perspective. It’s oftentimes a bit unfair to blame the actual working class. Coming right out of school, you’re not going to be making a ton of money. You’re at the lower level of a rung of some sort of structure. You are the cog that keeps the machine going. To me, to ask, “Oh, how could you do this?” Well, I’m making 40 grand per year, and I’ve got 80 grand worth of student loan debt, and my rent is this high. Because you have the least amount of capital within that role, you have the least amount of flexibility. In my opinion, that’s the most forgivable thing. Maybe you shouldn’t be doing pharmaceutical work, but you’re going to have to make some sort of compromise. I don’t think the blame should be placed on the people that need to do the work. However, I do think that as you progress through your career path and receive more and more freedom in what your rate becomes and your title becomes and how flexible you are in the workforce, it is fair to apply more of these critiques because you have more decisions to make. It’s different if you want to have a family, but I think you can still come under a bit more scrutiny. I try not to judge too hard on people who are just thrown into the system and need to make something work quite quickly.
KW Also, one of those things is seeing what people do within their role as they get promoted. I think a good example is art directors who will or will not advocate for their illustrators to be paid more for a spot or internally pushing on things like that. I think there is so much grey area; in the last couple weeks, one of the things a bunch of us were all talking about is the morality of working for Bloomberg Businessweek versus working for the Bloomberg presidential campaign. (3) I think the presidential campaign is clearly worse than working for Bloomberg Businessweek. You could get into the politics of that publication and the things they stand for; their hands are not certainly entirely clean but neither is Interview. (4) Nothing is.
RB Maybe—I don’t know—the Parks Department or something? Even then, they’re probably killing squirrels, dude.
KW Who’s got the corndog contract with the Parks Department?
LH How do you understand ethics as they relate to and operate within graphic design? I’m curious where these personal definitions both converge and diverge.
RB I think one way to approach the question of ethics would be to take the doctor’s approach with the hippocratic oath and do no harm. Sometimes this is clear. Probably best not to do any work for say – the military, tobacco companies, gun manufacturers, etc. I think the problem is that the more savvy you become to the world around you, the harder it is to draw the line. As the underbelly of consumer capitalism is exposed you come to realize ethics are scant. Sure I can make an interesting piece of video work for an upscale fashion brand, but what are the conditions of the workers actually making the product? Does my role as a designer promoting a product only perpetuate this labor exploitation? Does this apply to literally everything?
The tough realization is that essentially any design work under capitalism is ethically murky if you think long enough about it. Even those prestigious cultural institution projects can fall under the same scrutiny (who stands to gain the most from cultural prestige? Which capital powerhouse is underwriting an exhibition? Is this all a pet project for JP Morgan? Does this top-tier artist pay their assistants fairly?)
Truthfully, the only moral choice is to pivot hard and become a train conductor for the MTA.
But knowing this is something we want to do, and something we spent four years or more studying and training for, there has to be some third option. I think the best way to think of this is the “carbon offset” model of the airline industry. Karma – if you will. You know that there is some sort of necessity to the work you do, and you know that there is only so much one individual can do to change systems while still making sure they have their own needs and livelihoods met. So i think it’s important to take on “carbon offset” projects – projects for friends, projects pro bono, projects which operate outside of capital, art projects which are just fun and nothing else. I think this is the best way to try and reach a closer ethical equilibrium without completely losing your mind.
Purity tests are a trap. No one can pass them, so what’s the point in implementing one on yourself? Do what you can, when you can, and be sure to cut yourself some slack.
LH It’s really easy as a student to think, “Oh, I hold these beliefs, and I won’t compromise.” Maybe we do have to compromise, maybe there are moments where we’re in spaces we aren’t super jazzed about—but there’s hope in trying to locate where we are and how we relate to what’s around us.
KW I think being aware of it is the first thing, being aware of the playing field. There are a bunch different perspectives that deal with people not fully understanding the conditions that they’re being forced into. It’s really easy on one hand to just look at design that people do in Europe, for example, where the cost of living is way cheaper, they have socialized medicine—
RB Institutional funding is a lot more prominent.
KW You can just get thousands of dollars to do your esoteric poster project or get funding from RISO France—they’ll give you 30 thousand dollars worth of materials to print your comics. It’s hard if you’re a publisher here to be like, “I just can’t do that. I have to maybe work in one or two colors; I can’t just work in 20 colors per sheet.”
People in America can fail to realize other ways of making and unconsciously go into the corporate world or agency world with a really un-critical lens of it, and I think that’s really bad.
RB You just touched on something really quite nice. Through the proliferation of social media and the internet as a whole, there’s been a globalization of design. Everything feels like, “I saw that JPEG online.” Most of the context is removed; it’s just, “Oh, this is sick. Look at this typeface this guy made,” but he’s living in Basel and the Ministry of Arts and Sciences is backing him up. A lot of people can see this and filter it like, “This is what I want to do but I don’t have enough time. Why aren’t I doing this? I should hustle harder, I should use more of my freetime—which is already quite scant—.” You’re going to burn out. Instead, a healthy way to consume imagery as a designer is to say, “This is cool. This exists, this is rad. I like the swatch; maybe I’ll consider that in a project later down the road.” The problem that happens on social media is the concept that everybody is working against each other or that there’s a scarcity in the market and everyone needs to have a unique selling point. Everyone needs a hook!
Hit that invert, hit that grain. It’s not a dig! But those people know how to do something well, they know what they’re doing, they’re good designers—but you would go to them for a specific thing.
KW They have a really clear vision of what they’re trying to achieve. It pushes things in a different way.
RB I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding of the scarcity within this market. It’s not that scarce! As everything becomes more image-based, there’s more need for us now than ever. From a market perspective, it’s pretty fruitful; you can usually find something. There might be compromises that have to be made, but for the most part—
KW There’s maybe not scarcity in the sense of actual work, but there’s a scarcity in work that fulfills this 100% satisfying to your idea of yourself and the aesthetic goals that you’ve set out that feed into some perfect concept of designer as auteur. Something we talk about a lot is painting a painting vs. painting a fence. Sometimes you just gotta go be like, “Okay, what color you got?” and they’re like, “We got taupe!” and you’re like, “Hell yeah, where’s the brush?” But if you’re painting a painting for yourself, you can obviously do a lot more. One of the things I’m trying to consider is not giving agencies my best work, honestly. You give them maybe your C+ or B level work because they won’t know the difference and you’ll feel a little bit better about it. Maybe that’s a weird way of thinking about it.
RB This is something I’ve been thinking about, too. There is a way to save yourself creatively when you’re doing a project that you aren’t super excited about. The truth is that when you go to an agency they’re hiring you because they’re too afraid to do it themselves. You’ll do something, and they’ll be like, “Oh this is cool, how’d you do it?” What do you mean, “How did I do it?” It’s a couple of squares and some type. If it is something that you feel is a compromise, it’s okay to coast—you’re saving yourself and you’re saving your ideas for something you can own. I really do believe that if you’re working in a corporate structure, the best way to do it is to be a path of least resistance. There’s this weird trope of certain art directors where people are like, “Oh, they’re so hard to work with, they’re so picky!” A lot of that doesn’t really matter; work with the people you’re working with, get it done, make nobody’s life worse—why would you want to do that in the first place? You can see it as more of a checklist or painting a fence. Nobody is going to get mad about that. It’s also important for the wellness of other people in the creative industry. If you start doing art director jobs and have designers working under you, don’t be a fucking dick.
KW People are becoming more aware of this, but when I was in school, there was a tendency for people to always be like, “Yeah, stayed up ‘til four working on this pitch for a client.” We had a ton of instructors who were like that, and then we had two other instructors who were like, “If you’re working past seven consistently, that just reflects poorly on you as a designer. You probably just suck!” I thought, “That’s cool, I like thinking about it like that!” I think people still pull this heroic feat of strength; “I’m an edgy designer for caring so much about this one thing.” Really?
RB Come on! You need sleep, you’re going to die sooner now. Is it worth it?
KW It’s like, “Dog, you look like shit!” Holding the mirror up to myself on that one. That’s another important thing for instructors to talk about—good practice, good sustainable behaviours. Working in school and moving forward, it’s good and necessary to put in a little bit extra effort, but you shouldn’t always be in sixth gear. Sometimes you put that shit in neutral; drive down the hill, give them what they want.
LH Do you find your practice to be influenced by your politics? I like to think that the separation of work and ideology is fading as more humans—thus more designers—find themselves engaged by the urgency of our global political climate.
RB I think our work is certainly influenced by our politics, although it may not be entirely visible I believe it comes out in our sensibilities and curatorial choices. Some TXTbooks titles have a political tinge, but few if any are overtly political calls to arms. Instead we find the act of publishing itself to be political. When putting out a title you ask yourself who’s voice and art do you want to amplify? Who do we feel has not seen a large amount of mainstream acclaim but deserves it? Who is just a genuinely good person who we would like to make a book with? The trick with publishing and curating in general is only work with good people. Who cares if their work is cool if they are complete tools? Let someone else publish them. That’s not what interests us. I think a lot of problems in art and design would be solved with this thinking honestly.
LH Publishing provides such a contrast to this industry where everyone is in competition with everyone all the time. Obviously I have much less of an understanding of that realm than you two do, but the friends I have in that space are big advocates of how wonderful the community is. That’s why, with independent publishing, it’s such an interesting study in creating work that creates community and suggests alternative ways of making and operating in relation to capital.
RB That’s partially what drew us to it. I remember the first time going to the New York Art Book Fair (5) and seeing people really going for it, making things that were really genuinely exciting. At that point in my education, I was like, “This rules!” I thought it would be so far beyond that I could sell or produce those books, that I could be behind that table. The trick to be involved in the community is just to put yourself in it. It’s really great, it’s really collaborative. People help each other out.
KW People give each other inks, masters. “Come use my perfect binder.”
RB It’s a communal, co-op based thing. For the most part, I don’t think there’s a competition for market share like there would be in a corporate job—
KW Or in fine art, even. It’s way less petty than fine art, I think, and a lot less contrived because there’s less money floating around. It’s less high-stakes; no one's getting $10,000 for a printed zine.
RB It hasn’t really been co-opted by capital in any way, really.
KW People try—there’s a lot of corporate zine-making. Most of the time they’ll ask a press to print it for them, and—if that press is smart—they’ll jack the price up by ten times.
RB It’s good to take some print jobs like that to keep the machine going, but as far as actually exhibiting, it’s still incredibly independent because the price is so low—opposed to fine art, where you can inflate a price so high as a way to launder capital. No one’s going to pay $10,000,000 for a zine—unless it were an art object, but that’s different.
A lot of stuff getting produced doesn't last that long. Things aren’t very archival, so that rules.
KW Also, RISO ink is very not archival. If you pick up a RISO-printed book from ten years ago, all the paper will have gotten all oily and yellow and weird. There’s something nice about that, a book that eats itself over time.
LH I was reading about the Detroit Printing Co-op recently. (6) Their whole operation revolved around one Harris offset press; everything had to be made through a single tool. On the TXTBooks site, you talk about resolving publications through Riso.
RB We definitely try to denuclearize the arms race a little bit as far as perfect riso printing.
KW We definitely have different modes of thought throughout our publications. We are much less fussy than other presses; a bunch of places that work in Europe, or even the US, really get obsessive about registration. We are most interested in the approximate—Riso as a messenger. It doesn’t have to be an articulate messenger, it just has to be there.
LH There’s an urgency that contributes to the potential for more circulation, for getting your ideas out. It isn’t so precious. If you spend four years making a book perfect, your ideas will change in that time.
RB I never want to have a project that I’ve started and spent so much time on but don’t like by the time it’s ready to print and produce. That’s one of the nice things about working quickly.
KW Strike while it’s hot.
RB You gotta keep having fun with it. I’m in the process of making something that I started loosely two weeks ago. I’m finalizing some of the designs now, and I’ll print it next week. That’s a really nice timeline for a mid-range project. For certain things, time is important—if you want to create a collection of 1,000 things or something. The longer you wait on something, the more you wonder if it’s still good.
KW We used to do a bunch of projects that were week or weekend projects. We’d print them in one color. I thought that was really nice, I want to start doing more of that. I agree that wanting to do something quickly and not planning it out entirely is quite a nice way to work. Especially in other jobs where people are telling you what to do, it’s fun to have a chance to be looser.
Over time, we’ve started printing more copies of books that we’re making. We generally print 200 copies for people now because that’s a happy medium. When we publish with people, we usually pay them in copies—we can give people a lot of copies if we print more, and then they can sell them and make more from it than we can pay. It’s not so much that it’s impossible to get rid of them, but we’ve had some projects that we recycle if they’ve been sitting for years.
LH It’s really exciting to have instructors who are still fairly close to their school days. When you consider what you’re here to do, are there specific gaps from your undergraduate experiences that you’re looking to fill? Knowing your pain-points in moving from your studies to professional life, does that inform how you teach?
KW My automatic thinking is that it was really important to me when I was in school to have instructors who were closer to my age; I always felt like I got clear-headed advice from them. In one way, it’s nice to feel like that. Because of a familiarity with the program, I feel confident when I hear people talk about the program and how it’s changed in certain ways. Some people have these mythologized ideas, like, “People used to be so good at type! I can’t believe they did X, Y, and Z.” Dude, people sucked at type when I was here—and they took four semesters of it. That’s a deeper conversation to have.
One thing that’s nice is that we have a bunch of friends who teach at other institutions or have other backgrounds that we can compare to. Personally, one of my goals is to try to make the learning experience feel both fun and serious. Investigating why people are doing something rather than telling them what to do. A lot of instructors will art direct the students instead of interacting with their point of view or evaluating their own biases.
RB Ditto to everything that Kurt said. I think we have similar guiding compasses for a lot of this stuff. To add to that: I want to encourage people to think more with their art side of the brain. A lot of students try to ascribe purpose to something a little too quickly, and I always want to push them to think of their work as exploration; maybe it can stay an exploration and you can figure out what it means after the fact. This product-oriented or brief-oriented design philosophy makes people think that something needs to have a certain function before they’ve even explored it. I like the idea of molding a clay or doing something really out there that doesn’t feel like design and feels more in the realm of fine art.
KW Maybe there’s an exploratory or self-interested aspect. One thing that always bums me out is when I come in and see someone who’s a really good designer but is clearly executing stuff that they found on the internet without engaging in source material. One of the things I see a lot is people engaging with dystopian tech aesthetics without seemingly reading books about it. A lot of that feels like maybe if they were coming at it from another angle it would feel more… I don’t know.
RB Doom’s boring, dude. Fuck that. That’s my take.
LH I agree. There’s a lot of work being made that is tapping into signifiers without considering what they’re signifying.
KW That’s a big thing. The same goes for people’s typography. That’s part of being a student, though. People should experiment in that way, be engaging in that. I think it’s also good for instructors to push that a bit more. Sometimes instructors don’t have as much familiarity with deconstructing some of those tropes—which is hard because we can’t necessarily be experts in everything.
LH As educators, do you believe that there is space in the classroom to push for a more critical process? For the students engaging with said dystopian tech aesthetics, how do you encourage them to explore the implications of technocracy rather than only celebrating its aesthetics? This example reflects on your earlier comment, but I’m interested in how institutions can encourage a deeper mode of criticism; I think that’s the most direct path to an ethically-engaged practice.
RB It’s a hard task to initiate that type of thinking for a few reasons. One of the toughest things is that for the first eighteen years of someone’s life they have had a specific mode of learning instilled in them. Study, work, get a grade. To establish a learning institution as a space for exploration of the utopic you have to let students know that they’ve entered a new phase of their education. There’s no real quick solution to this and is probably better left to those who have really delved into education theory. Would a removal of grading be helpful? Maybe. Would a more self-directed approach like the pedagogy at Cranbrook (7) be an interesting way of learning? Maybe for some who are already self-motivated, but it could leave behind a swath of others who benefit from direction. Would more communal spaces be nice? Sure, but how much have the spaces already available been put to use when studying in a city where space is at a premium.
I think the best thing at the moment for instructors to do would be to encourage students to explore a personal voice. To avoid being too literal with what is right and what is wrong in design. Lay out the tools, but encourage students to incorporate their own non-design into their work. In turn you will avoid a move toward certain trends that feel ”right” at the time. Back to my previous point, I think a lot of people gravitate towards certain tropes because they see it as a quick means to a solution. In some way they still have that old mode of learning in their head, and they see it as a quick way to an A, which is understandable. I just know that personally the people I studied with who were given space to really explore their own world – however strange and offbeat – are the same people still pushing new ideas six years later.
LH Are there any current publishing projects or practices that you think pertains to ethics or is just good material for students concerned with criticality?
KW Two books come to mind. One is called “Extra-curricular,” (8) it was published by Platform. (9) That book is really great, it talks a bunch about different non-institutional graphic design learning models—people who are working now as well as historical studies. Another great book is “Training for Exploitation” by the Precarious Workers Brigade (10) which is affiliated with this graphic design and arts organizing project in the UK called “Evening Class.” (11) That book is really cool, it talks about the conditions of the contemporary workplace.
RB There’s a resurgence of alternative teaching spaces which is really exciting. SSHH runs a really wide range of classes. (12) My friend Olivia works at this space XXXI (13) which does a similar thing with introduction to coding and photo clubs. You don’t necessarily need to have an admission and commit to four years to learn something. The interest in workshops is really interesting and short run classes of continued learning—it makes me happy!