Dialogue: The Mavenist - Design Bureau

A scene from the most recent Mavenist conversation between Frank Chimero and David Cole.

While there is a starting point to the conversation, the surprise is where it goes. In the first Mavenist post, Rob Giampietro wants to know about the Barber Paradox. “In a village, there is a male barber who shaves all and only those men who do not shave themselves. Who shaves the barber?”

Studio 8’s type and placement design for a cover of Wired UK.

The work of Justin Ouellette.

Goshka Macuga’s Broke From Within at the Walker Art Center

Dialogue: The Mavenist

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

by Sarah Handelman

Frank Chimero and Rob Giampietro are two fascinating designers and thinkers. They also happen to be pretty good at chatting. The masterful conversationalists are the minds behind The Mavenist, a recently launched blog “built on dialogue and back-and-forth.” For these two friends, good conversation is never one-sided. In fact, they see dialogue as a gift, and The Mavenist is a bit of a gift-giving game. Two people (like the most recent “game” with Chimero and designer David Cole) start with a topic. One person starts the dialogue, leaving the other to respond or react. Frank hopes that “by each player sharing and suggesting, the process of being available in response can result in what may be thought of as a gift, whether that is an idea or quote to the other player, or if it is a gift to the readers who get to read the conversation once it is completed.” Except with this, there’s no loser, and the only strategy is an open mind. Sounds like fun to us.

Below, in true Mavenist form, the two pals engaged in a dialogue with us. Does that mean we all win?

How can not only conversation, but design, be a gift?

F: Well, first, I’d say that conversation has to be a gift. It’s a collaborative act when the conversation is good, and the good stuff feels selfless. The truly sincere, hilarious, or meaningful stuff that people say to me in conversation feels like they’re not saying it for themselves, but rather like they’re saying it for me.

R: That’s a wonderful feeling, it’s true. In terms of design, gift-giving is a useful structure. For one thing, gift economies create a different kind of value than pure monetary value. So when designers are asked about “monetizing” design, it’s good to invoke a gift metaphor to counter this. When you put good things out there, good things come back, and they may take both monetary and non-monetary form. Much of design is given away, either physically (like a business card) or digitally (like a website) or even experientially (like a slide talk). All of these are design and many are free, but all have great usefulness and value. Their value comes partly from their aesthetics, but aesthetics, as we know, can be highly subjective. Gift-giving gives us a criterion other than aesthetics to evaluate design. It shifts the emphasis in design discussions away from the production of forms by practitioners and toward the production of actions by recipients.

F: I think that’s a great way to look at it. The form of things matters only in so far as they have a good intent. I’m not convinced that design can rise above its content, because it’s so subservient to the message it’s communicating and the effect it has on its audience. The thing that merges design so eloquently to the process of gift-giving is the fact that one person is hiring another person to make something for a third person. The designer and the client are working together to create something for someone else.

R: Good point. As Lewis Hyde says, “The gift must move.” It’s the back-and-forth exchange that constitutes gift-giving itself, and this movement shapes the meaning of designed objects as much as any maker can. A Cuban revolutionary poster becomes a collector’s item, and in the process, it’s converted from an object of Marxist protest to an object of capitalist fetishization.

Has technology made us more or less available?

R: “Technology” has been with us for a long time. “Fire” is a technology. “Wheels” are a technology. And every time we introduce significant technologies, things change. The crux of your question, then, isn’t really technology as I read it. It’s availability. This is something Frank and I have discussed a lot. “Being available” has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with judgment. Do I judge this to be worth my time or not? Will I be available for it? I think what’s so inspiring about what someone like Robert Irwin did is that Irwin shifted his availability from several minutes or hours a day (which is what a typical worker in the information economy might be able to afford) to a multi-year commitment of his time and focus. That’s a radical availability that really critiques the logic of how we choose to spend our time. And maybe for that reason we see him as a model — Irwin’s project “Being Available in Response,” kicked off our Mavenist exchange.

F: I think that’s huge. There are so many kinds of technology that we’ve developed, and it always changes how we behave. (That’s the point of it!) The thing, though, is that newest wave of inventions allows us to be available to many things at once. We’re temporal. That’s why Irwin committing to a project for years at a time seems so special to us. In regards to attention, the message that keeps being reinforced by the world seems to be “You don’t have to choose!” But, oh my god, do you have to choose! We’ve kind of devalued the word available with this technology. It’s now synonymous with being “reachable,” but I’d rather have the word revert to a deeper kind of availability, where I am fully present.

What does it mean to listen?

F: Listening is not selfish, it gives credence to the thoughts and intentions of someone else.

R: It’s true, we can’t be social without being listeners. Though there’s a difference between “social” (as in media) and being a truly social being.

F: There’s such a modern compulsion to make ourselves visible by projecting our identities. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but we’re granted that visibility when someone listens. Maybe listening is the anti-venom to the neurosis of visibility.

R: I like how you’ve tied it back to looking so that when I say I can see what you’re saying, I can mean it.

Rob, you’ve compared The Mavenist to trading fours, in which each musician listens to and builds from the other’s four-bar phrase. To take it a step further, trading fours is also about the beauty of tangents and bending time. This idea of time manipulation is quite similar to digressions in conversations. Online, there is a temptation to self-edit. Whether it’s 140 characters or in a text message — no one seems to have time for anything but the point. Is it possible to reclaim the art of these tangential moments in a technological context?

R: In some ways, technology hard-wires tangential thinking. A hyperlink takes a linear bit of language and forks it someplace else. Windows offer multiple views in a single desktop. I do think that our current trend is toward briefer exchanges, but maybe that’s because the time it takes to have an exchange has accelerated. I don’t need to write you a long letter when we can IM everyday. So, when the time between exchanges is variable, they tend to accelerate and happen more quickly. This happens in music too: think “Dueling Banjos” or “Shout.” But when the time is fixed, as in trading fours, that constraint becomes the key driver of the exchange itself. So a jazz player can have many notes or phrases in his four-bar statement, or very few, and as a result it can sound more empty or more full. He can come in late when it’s his turn, or push the boundary by playing over the mark. The fixed time creates this contextual frame. Constraint is important for any artistic exchange because the expression of the constraint in many senses is the art. It’s particularly so with time in the performing arts.

F: I think the other thing that the Internet has done really well is to provide specific places for tangential moments that don’t fit into the core performance, conversation, whatever you’re doing. Every bit of stuff online, whether chats, tweets, forum posts, images in a Tumblr blog, whatever, can be blasted apart and re-sorted. Every collection of content can be separated at its atomic level, teased apart, transferred, and re-sorted. It’s not immutable because of the linearity of time, like when musicians trade fours. If Rob and I were sitting down and having a conversation, I’ve got to jam my non-sequitur into the space when he’s taking a sip of his beer. Online, I may stumble upon a tangent, such as thinking of a joke while reading a tweet, so I go make an LOLCat. The cat picture doesn’t have to sit next to the tweet like it would in the string of a conversation, so we can’t as readily juxtapose the two. Maybe the cat goes on my Tumblr blog where I post animal photos, or in a forum that has a thread of funny stuff. There are still diversions in thought, it’s just that by having everything copyable and able to exist in multiple places at multiple times, it can seem that everything is pre-sorted and purposefully created in that order. I’d say it’s usually not. Our brains still work the same, we can just bucket sort better, because things can be in more than one bucket at the same time with digital.

Snapshot: The Mavenist


Anything lately that has made you look twice?

R: I was just at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and I saw a great show by London-based Polish artist Goshka Macuga called It Broke from Within. It’s a beautiful meditation on artistic institutions and the communities they serve with deep research into the history of the Walker, from its roots with lumber baron T.B. Walker to its expansion by Herzog and de Mueron in 2005.

F: I’ve had this weird experience the past week where everywhere I look, fractals are appearing. That probably sounds more awesome than it is. Regardless, in the past few days, I’ve seen fractal designs on the carpet in the hotel, fractal art on the walls in the Portland airport, and have had fractal mathematical theory pop up in a bit of reading I was doing about Infinite Jest on Jason Kottke’s site. It’s probably one of those cases where the lens of consciousness is primed and focused to notice a pattern, but it seems like I just can’t escape the things.

What designer or studio should we have started watching yesterday?

F: I’d say Studio8 Design. They just seem to be doing really great work right now. Oh, and of course, Project Projects, who, in my opinion, consistently make some of the smartest work.

R: We’re so flattered! My friend Mylinh Trieu Nguyen makes lovely work. I also love all of Justin Ouellette’s projects. And Alex Rich and Jürg Lehni’s projects together have a really smart perspective on language that I love.

Best conversation you’ve had lately:

F: Over breakfast with Dan Rubin and Simon Collison in Vancouver. Mostly talked about not necessarily slowing down, but rather just opting out of speed.

R: I had coffee this morning with David Cole, who did the second Mavenist with Frank, and we were talking animatedly about game design, prisoners’ dilemmas, behavioral metaphors, and many more of my favorite topics. David mentioned that the reason Scrabble was such a good candidate for adaptation into something like the iPhone’s Words with Friends is that there are just a few turns per game but that each turn you take is a meaningful contribution. Consider this against a game like Monopoly, where you make lots of little decisions and take dozens of turns. Anyway, we started laughing, because we realized we were basically describing what makes The Mavenist really good. Great minds!

Favorite person to follow on Twitter:

R: @umberto_eco says virtually nothing, but I am glad to follow him. @fchimero says exactly the right amount and permits my playful “pizza tweets” even when unsolicited.

F: Thanks, Rob. I love your pizza tweets. Every tweet from @samuelpepys clues me into the mutability of language. I always enjoy following @tcarmody, because Tim continually surfaces stuff I’d never come across on my own. Also, with each new tweet from @thewrens it gives me one more iota of hope that a new album is going to be released this year.

R: I wish one of my favorite writers, Lydia Davis, would tweet once a year. That would be awesome. She wrote a great piece in the New York Times Book Review about Arthur Rimbaud, who was just 16 when he started writing amazing poetry. He might be a great tweeter too. He certainly inspired Bob Dylan. Wonderfully enough, Rimbaud’s poems were edited posthumously in 1886 by Félix Fénéon, who’s now famous for his “Novels in Three Lines” which have a certain Twitteresque brevity and appeal.

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