Dialogue: Maria Popova - Design Bureau

Maria Popova

Antique films by Georges Méliès, the father of special effects

A page from Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss. “Meta in the most thoughtful way,” says Popova.

Bibliographic: The 100 Best Design Books of the Past 100 Years

The work of Hyperakt

The work of Studio on Fire

Dialogue: Maria Popova

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Anyone who’s heard of Maria Popova has probably wondered when she sleeps. The Brooklyn-based founder and editor of Brain Pickings aims to inspire creative thinking by presenting a daily trove of cross-disciplinary finds. She equates creativity to LEGO. “If all our bricks are of one size, shape, and color, it greatly limits what we can create, but the more diverse and colorful our bricks are, the more interesting our LEGO castles will become.” We couldn't have said it better.

What do all of our filters, feeds, and lists say about our curiosity? Is there a collective brain to pick?

I think it's a double-edged sword. Eli Pariser talks a lot about what he calls "the filter bubble" — the uncanny accuracy with which algorithms and recommendation engines are now able to predict our tastes, our interests, our scope of curiosity. And the problem with this is that it exposes us to more of what we already enjoy, silo-ing out our interests. That's also the danger with curating our own content — we'll inevitably pick more of what we already like, because we aren't even aware of what we might like but don't know of.  The collective brain is particularly prone to this liability. The more others gravitate to certain types of content, the more it floats to the top of our collective awareness — a dangerous Digg-ification of culture that homogenizes our tastes and buries some of the most interesting nuggets deep below that superficial layer of popular taste.

The best content curators, I think, are able to see beyond the popular content and the wisdom-of-the-crowd heuristic, and bring to their audiences content that is compelling and interesting and culturally significant and, yes, sometimes uncomfortable — because the death of curiosity is the confinement to comfort zones — and engage people with it.

"Design" is a popular tag on the Brain Pickings posts, but it is applied to a variety of design objects and ideas. What does design mean to you?

I think design used to refer to the small world of those who were practitioners of the various design disciplines. Today, I believe design applies to those who are curious about the products, practices, and processes of design. The definition of design continues to evolve, moving more and more from artifacts or things to post-artifact systems. Cultural critics and curators have done a remarkable job, especially over the past decade or so, of helping people understand the layered and faceted world of design — what it means and what it does and how it touches everyday life in myriad ways.

So, for me, that tag of "design" applies to anything that shapes our understanding of design as a discipline, a creative medium, and a cultural force, whether it's in the form of a book about design books that captures 100 years of design criticismSaul Bass talking about why man creates in 1968, Christoph Niemann talking about happiness and creativity in 2011, or a reminder that everything is a remix.

Designers are among the most cross-disciplinarily curious people I know, because I think they intuit this awareness that design lives in so many things, which makes them great tastemakers. Take my studiomate Tina, who is a designer, but her wildly popular Swiss Miss blog is so much more than a narrow manifestation of pretty designerly things – it spans everything from, sure, objects to documentaries to TED talks to books and more.

You write that "Brain Pickings is about...innovation and authenticity and all those other things that have become fluff phrases but don't have to be." In what ways have words such as 'innovation' become fluff phrases? Have they lost their meaning?

I'm very uncomfortable with the word "curation" as it relates to content because it's been applied to so much that it's quickly becoming vacant of meaning. But at the same time, we need to invent new language for these new information systems and, until we do, it's still the best placeholder.

Terms like "innovation" have suffered the same fate, but with the added atrocity of the HuffPost-ification of headlines that sensationalistically toss in those buzzwords grubbing for click-throughs, often in a way that's misaligned with the actual substance of the article. Add to that various PR-driven corporate social responsibility campaigns that piggyback on those trends, and we've got a lot of exploitation of attention with very little authentic intention.

I'd much rather watch some fascinating vintage footage encapsulating how Georges Méliès truly revolutionized cinema and storytelling in the early 1900s than read about the latest flat-screen "innovation." That would tell me so much more about creative legacy and the fabric of culture than a regurgitated Sony press release.

I like the idea of showing the same thing in new ways. It's part of a curatorial toolkit, and it also becomes an exercise at re-contextualizing the Internet. Can the creative process be thought of in the same way? Can we become more creative with practice? When, after all, did we have to look at a screen to feel creative?

I think creativity, especially in the combinatorial view, is the product of two forces: curiosity and choice. Curiosity is how we fill that mental pool of resources with LEGO bricks to create with, but curiosity without direction can be distracting and detrimental to productivity. Choice is how we tame and channel our curiosity. Harvard's Clay Christensen once wrote, "Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy."

Creativity is a life strategy, and we have so much more agency in it than sitting around waiting for that mythical muse.

Snapshot: Maria Popova

Anything lately that has made you look twice?

I spend my days looking twice!

This recent book called Radioactive really made me fall head-over-heels in love. There are so many layers to it. Artist Lauren Redniss tells the fascinating story of Marie Curie's life, both science and romance, in beautiful artwork made with an early-20th-Century image printing process called cyanotype, which was critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity. The whole project is just such a beautiful cross-pollination of art, science, history and, yes, "innovation" that it just took my breath away.

What designer or studio should we have started watching yesterday?

I love Hyperakt,out of Brooklyn. They operate under the slogan of "Meaningful Design for the Common Good," and really live up to it through a commitment to only work with companies whose products and services create positive change in the world.

I love Studio on Fire for all things letterpress, which my studiomate Erica Heinz turned me on to. I'm forever grateful, though my wallet most certainly is not.

Best place to get things done:

The gym. I do most of my long-form reading on the elliptical. I find that when my body is so occupied with an intense workout, my brain has a much easier time focusing on a single task.

Best place to get nothing done:

Six feet under. I hardly ever find myself unable to do anything. I write articles on the subway, conduct interviews from my bike (don't tell the NYPD), review books on the plane, and listen to the Science Times podcast while shopping. Sad, I know. I might need to go to something like a silent retreat. Is there an app for that?

Best exhibition you’ve been to lately:

The Biorhythm show on music and the body at Eyebeam is excellent. And I can't wait for Talk To Me, Paola Antonelli’s latest MoMA show, which opens on July 24, just in time for my birthday on the 28th.

Favorite person to follow on Twitter:

Ooh, the pressure! I'd have to say @openculture. It's Dan Colman, who also edits Open Culture – one of the very few sites without which I absolutely couldn't live, a real treasure trove of cultural gems unearthed from obscure archives and the Web's most esoteric corners.

On the purely curatorial side, Kirstin Butler@kirstinbutler is also fantastic.

by Sarah Handelman

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