March 5, 2020

Embraced, Deployed and Discarded — Do Murals Risk Becoming the Next Graffiti?

As more cities embrace mural art to beautify themselves and jumpstart economies, where does graffiti come into play? We unpack the complicated dynamics that include shifting perceptions of quality and the interplay between public art and community.

The Spectrum and the Perpetual Argument

We have to look at the different visuals and terminology in play and some (loose) definitions:

  • Hate Speech and Slander: Symbols and script, damages the surface, more overtly targets a vulnerable person or group of people.
  • Vandalism: Hastily and amateurishly scrawled words, graphics or even a fill. Meant to deface the surface and the act can be meant to target a group, person or idea.
  • Graffiti: In the popular understanding, refers to popular and historical styles associated with tagging, especially through spray paint, though the manner used to create graffiti differs. Most often done without approval.
  • Street art: Like everything above, street art is often created in public without the requisite permission, but includes any manner of styles or mediums including three-dimensional work not confined to a wall.
  • Murals: Often refers to the size of the art, which is often two-dimensional and covers most if not all of a wall. Increasingly commissioned.
  • Public Art: Like street art, not confined to a specific style or medium, but created by an artist commissioned by an authority and executed on a space that has the relevant approval.

It’s because of the fluidity of definitions that allows different publicly executed visual art to be packaged differently. Understandably, there’s a lot of endless debate and confusion between what constitutes vandalism, graffiti and street art and every other point around them.

Malleable Perceptions of Quality

Graffiti predates murals as a historical counter-cultural means of expression commonly associated with urban and underprivileged youth, and its perceived “edginess” has been appropriated and discarded as needed by commercial interests.

The case of 5Pointz , a former complex of run-down factory buildings turned exhibition space in Long Island City, Queens, New York City. That conversion happened in 2002, when building owner Jerry Wolkoff commissioned spray-paint artist Meres One (Jonathan Cohen), who helped 5Pointz become a renowned place where street artists could paint legally. But in 2013, Wolkoff had workers whitewashed the over 10,000 paintings there to make way for demolition and the construction of condos.

While the landmark USD $6.75 million lawsuit against Wolkoff was recently upheld, that doesn’t replace what street artists need aside from money: space. As Claire del Sorbo reports in in a Fresno Collective story: “Many of them found work for property owners looking to beautify their buildings, but only under the condition that they would paint aesthetically pleasing murals instead of their trademark graffiti.”

Granted, graffiti was largely seen in a negative light by wider society since its beginnings, and even today, criticism of the art form either writes it off as straight-up vandalism that costs a community or takes specific aim at its trademark style, which is deemed ugly or threatening. But the new commercially and civically-fueled favor given to muralists and their styles — along with the resulting economic displacement of graffiti writers — means there’s going to be hierarchy of styles guised as “quality assurance.”

“It is quite clear that murals are being treated as the solution to graffiti,” says del Sorbo. “In doing so, they are not only helping to gentrify neighborhoods, but murals themselves are a gentrified form of graffiti.”

That comparison is an apt one, especially when we consider the possibility that murals could become what they were meant to replace. In some cases such as the global mural festival POW! WOW!, their influence has been largely a welcome addition to the community as it celebrates its 10-year anniversary. For others, the murals aren’t so clearcut. Columnist Marc Holberg thinks that even in Philadelphia, where its civic embrace of murals means thousands across the city, there needs to be some direction when dishing out that freedom to create on public walls:

“Too many of the newer, trendy ones don’t seem very warm or inviting. I’m not feeling much heart or warmth from this cool (if not cold) blend of graffiti, tattoo art and sci-fi, absolutely beautifully rendered for sure, but oh-so deliberately quirky and edgy and ambiguous. And sometimes, as we see above, deliberately unsettling. Art should move you. But public art shouldn’t move you away. It should enhance our municipal feng shui, not diminish it.”

Ensuing Standoffs

When public art moves into a community, it’s sometimes at odds with the celebrated event we’d imagine. And as our valuations of graffiti and murals as well as of permissible and illegal art become rigid, there’s going to be all sorts of potential in-fighting across different dynamics:

  • Developers vs. residents: Buying out or tearing down homes and businesses for new projects. Alternatively, this could involve commissioning street art to beautify or revitalize an area.

  • Client vs artists: Nothing new, but even when artwork is commissioned, a lower perception of value means there are brands that will try to get the street cred of graffiti for free somehow.
  • Residents vs. artists: Some long-time residents of a community (who might have their own collective art projects) can be concerned when demand for more public art means a draw for more creative types, which impacts the character or economics of that area.
  • Local vs. non-local artists: These long-time residents of a neighborhood can include artists themselves who might not take favorably to the influx of non-local artists who don’t understand the area’s history and dynamics.
  • Graffiti writers vs muralists: When muralists are chosen (or not) to create work in areas frequented by local graffiti taggers or bombers, there’s another layer to the “local vs outsider” dynamic. Most graffiti writers are self-taught while a lot of commissioned muralists might be formally trained. This means there’s not only a dynamic of institutional versus grassroots artists, but also a conflict between words and images.

Graffiti writers, muralists and street artists who’ve been in the game for a while know the unwritten rules of how to respect each other and share the playing field such as by not marking over their peers’ work (for the most part).

The point is that artists that use public surfaces to create — either out of preference or necessity — are categorized based on decisions from largely non-artistic entities. These decisions inevitably connect back to the threat and fear of gentrification displacing long-time and disadvantaged residents or not (another hotly debated topic). 

The Takeaway

One of our previous Analyses on the importance of diverse graphic icons highlighted the importance of space — when something is given a share of limited space, it’s given a platform. As Erika Kim puts it in her original Noun Project article, “Quality representation and visibility in these spaces — especially public or highly visible space — implies legitimacy and value, which translates to influence.”

By no means should everyone be forced to go digital (where space is also restricted, according to Kim) to ensure a continued place to create, but there’s also a limit to what physical space can handle in the eyes of the public in terms of quality and content. 

As more cities hop on the mural art trend as means of economic development (such as in Detroit), it’s going to take a desire for consensus between creatives, communities and cities to ensure there’s always room to paint, the space looks great — and that the mural art of yesterday doesn’t become the graffiti of tomorrow.

February 27, 2020

Hype and Shame — What our aversion to poetry means

It’s a pretty widely accepted idea that most people don’t like poetry, but why is that? More importantly, what does its evolution mean for that medium and for our aversion to art forms that we couldn’t access before?

Why people typically don’t like poetry

Most people who don’t like poetry can list a few reasons such it being snobby, meaningless, difficult or unremarkable. So, how did it earn such an ignoble reputation? Poet Rebecca Roach contextualizes this modern aversion to poetry in six factors:

  1. Dubious cultural value: beyond simply being “culturally important,” schools don’t instill students with the importance of poetry.
  2. The classics are over-taught: despite the value in their universal timeless themes, the same classics and lines are taught so much that their novelty and their importance wanes.
  3. Self-aggrandizing: Roach refers to the tendency of commenters on poetry to inflate their language in a way that deliberately makes poetry seem harder and creates barriers to discussion.
  4. Dogma: students there is only one correct way to interpret a given line, metaphor or message (likely again, because classics and the like have already been extensively researched to form crystallized conclusions on meaning).
  5. High Expectations: poetry’s historical reputation means people those writing it as a personal outlet have high expectations for it to accomplish something.
  6. Shame: whether someone’s trying to teach, understand or produce poetry, Roach says in the American context, the high standards wrapped around poetry plays into a general culture of shame and being “not good enough.”

In short, the intersection of tradition, education and shame leads to only two possible and very limited takes on poetry: “the problem is with poetry” (it’s too pretentious) or “the problem is with me” (I’m not smart or cultured enough).

How it’s evolving

Despite the inherited baggage behind poetry, like many other arts, it’s evolved with the times and with technology in a way that’s changed its reputation and made it more approachable:

  • Length: instead of almost 7 stanzas of 4-6 lines, some poets now employ only 8-10 lines (or less) for a single poem, making them shorter and sweeter.
  • Structure: modern poetry sets aside a lot of the form and structure conventions of the classics including rhythm, rhyme schemes.
  • Subject Matter: the subject matter has expanded beyond the popular nature and epic themes of the classics to include happenings in modern life that also emphasize social issues.
  • Platforms: poetry now has greater reach thanks to social media as shown by Rudy Franscico, who gained a following through Instagram.

As you’d might expect, these changes in the art form is also bound to trigger claims that it’s also “dying” with particular criticism directed at the rise and current popularity of unstructured free verse and the focus on seemingly mundane personal experiences. Not surprisingly, it’s a familiar new school vs. old school clash we’d find in any search for “the decline of (insert art form here).”

What is “poetry” to you?

At the end of the day, poetry is just another means of thoughtful expression through words, much like its much more popular sibling prose. Unfortunately, our pre-existing notions of what it is and who it’s for — possibly combined with some negative experiences — have closed off entire branches of the art to most of society.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a poet or style of poetry for you, just that you’d have to dig for it and nothing, least of all poetry’s existing “image,” should stop you. Sure, it helps to eventually lean into the history, accumulated wisdom and yes, even some of the existing baggage, but there’s nothing wrong with starting to enjoy a medium on your own terms — something we can thank our highly personalized online experience for.

The same applies outside of poetry: each of us has that creative medium that resembles “poetry” to us, something we love but everyone hates and vice versa. For one, we’ve talked about how Eugene, an admitted non-appreciator of music, had a very unexpectedly strong reaction to a moving live performance.

He might not be taking up piano anytime soon, but it’s at least one positive if random experience on the board. At the small cost of withholding our expectations (and unlearning what we think we know), we’re bound to find genuine appreciation and then some.

February 17, 2020

The art of storytelling through data

Data visualization helps us to make sense of complex and difficult topics, but in the process, they can also produce some aesthetically pleasing images. How do we approach its use as a form of storytelling as it becomes more popular?

What is data visualization

In his comprehensive guide “The Art and Science of Data Visualization,” analyst Michael Mahoney defines it simply as “the graphical display of data.” It’s how you take different data points and find ways to differentiate them according to certain variables (such as size, color and shape), and arrange them in a way that can be understood. In his words, “Visualizations are often the main way complicated problems are explained to decision makers.”

In his guide, he provides mantras that underscore four key factors in creating good data visualizations:

  • Effective: “A good graphic tells a story.” Because of the size and breadth of modern data sets, the visualization needs to include only the elements that make identifying patterns and trends easier to comprehend.
  • Simple: “Everything should be made as simple as possible — but no simpler.” Practices like using only 2D or cutting down on extraneous visual elements keep it lightweight.
  • Efficient: “Use the right tool for the job.” Using the right methods to depict the data correctly.
  • Digital: “Ink is cheap. Electrons are even cheaper.” Make more than one graph to split data to show difference between different categories and groupings.

And if not to these decision makers, Mahoney says visualizations are used to help identify patterns in a data set or explain those patterns to wider audiences. To this end, they have to be both truthful and easier to decode.

There is no “one chart fits all”

However, Dear Data’s hand drawn approach also challenges the expectation of how a data story should be told. The project is the brainchild of Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec who began it as a form of visual correspondence between the two, who would use hand-made postcards to share information about their lives over the course of their year. Their first week of their exchange tracked the number of times they checked the time, while subsequent ones tracked everything from smartphone addiction to number of times they saw their reflections..

Looking at them, it’s not always apparent that the drawing is in fact a representation of data points (perhaps more-so to the untrained eye), much less a picture of someone’s life. Still, “data is a way to filter reality in a way that words cannot,” Lupi says. This consideration adds a layer of nuance and complexity to data visualization that is at odds with the transparent science aspect of it.

Does data visualization need to be easy to understand for everyone? After all, the deep perspectives we can gain from examining our own very personal data might, like many codified narratives, be better reserved for the select interpretation of just us or very specific people. Put another way, some stories are told for specific audiences. Could data stories be told in a similar way that is deemed ‘art’ to the initiated but comparatively opaque to others?

Our reaction to data visualization

Not unlike how editorial illustrations contextualize a much longer and larger story, data visualizations offer us the perception-altering perspectives that accompany drawings. However, our treatment of them might differ because they lie at the intersection of our current preoccupation with:

  • Metrics: Facts that emanate from the scientific or academic community give us a grounding in reality that helps us pierce through conflicting opinions and misinformation, as well as use that knowledge to help us get ahead in life. For better or worse, metrics and figures give us standards we can use to measure our lives against and improve.
  • Visuals: The shift in audience preference for video means visual representations of a topic will rank higher than a few thousand words of even well-written text (and likely even more than charts full of raw data points).
  • Digestibility: Like infographics, data visualizations give people with significantly less experience with a subject the ability to digest a much larger, more complex story.

But beyond just using data visualization as a way of understanding topics we want to know more about, they also could pique our curiosity in others that we otherwise wouldn’t. A look at some of the visualizations from Nathan Yau’s Flowingdata likewise could put us onto important topics like saving for retirement (or decidedly less urgent matters like burger rankings).

The point is that the role of data visualizations in the diverse media landscape will become more pronounced so long as audiences recognize their potential to broaden understanding and fight misinformation..

The Takeaway

Data visualizations provide a way to contextualize phenomena and make sense of complex and difficult topics. However, they are only as honest as the people who design them. Like all stories, it’s important that we also think critically about the larger themes of the topics themselves and especially simplifications of them. When data sets become condensed into comparatively small but pleasing gold “nuggets” of information, those nuggets become as easy to misconstrue and abuse as they are to share.

In short, the facts might be embedded into the image and one story told through their arrangement, but any truths are still unfortunately up to us to figure out.

February 10, 2020

The uncanny resemblance in editorial and product illustrations

Thanks to the ubiquity of tech products, we’re all familiar with the flat colorful illustration style that accompanies them and now, many other situations that call for illustrations. How did this style get popular and how did it spill over into editorial drawings too?

What the style is

In his blog Subtraction, graphic designer and former Design Director for the New York Times Khoi Vinh calls the style “safety minimalism” and tracks this trend on a Pinterest board aptly titled “monoculture illustrations.” This style is defined by its particular approach to:

  • Colors: range from primary to bright pastels
  • Figures: clean drawing, and frequently rendered with vectors
  • Details: highly abstracted
  • Shading: geometric if used at all
  • Composition: minimal with occasional limited elements in the background

Khoi summarizes the style as having a sense of infantile simplicity despite the fact it’s used to “depict grown adults doing ostensibly grown-up things.”

How we got here

It’s not necessarily clear when or how this trend started, but Jared Long of The Startup for one, thinks it could go back to a renewed interest in screen printing along with a departure from vector-based 3D skeuomorphic (meaning to look more photorealistic) designs back in the early 2010s. At this period, the move towards a flatter aesthetic was to stand out, as most things do before they become popular.

Since then, however, the style has become widespread and has a particularly strong association with tech products, particularly due to efficiency. This makes sense given that doing illustrations this way ticks off the following:

  • Approachable: the “safeness” of safety minimalism means the illustrations are easy to understand and approachable, which is important for tech products that are more complex. It’s also worth mentioning that simple graphics are much easier to animate as well, which also play into the accessibility factor.
  • Adaptable: the simplicity of the style means it could be executed in-house, where designers could theoretically learn to imitate the aesthetic if not adapt it from readily available stock assets. Designing it digitally also removes the unpredictability of analog mediums, allowing for precision and creative control.
  • Economical: saving on the time of researching and hiring an illustrator with a particular style as well as the cost of producing large amounts of the illustrations needed.

Vinh suggests that the illustrations could, in fact, be handled by the same designers that also designed the app they were promoting versus a professional illustrator. All that’s required is the same tools available to every designer: a vector drawing and an image editing app. “Everything in these illustrations is very carefully controlled and moderated, with nothing left to chance,” Vinh says. “That, whether intentional or not, says a lot about these products.”

The jump to publications

In a Quartz article by Anne Quito, she echoes the aforementioned factors that have made the “flatter, sharper, and arguably more generic” illustrations ubiquitous, but also adds others that explain how the style also increasingly appears in publications:

  • Versatility: simpler graphics not only scale better on all types of displays, they tend to load faster as well.
  • Deadlines: digital illustrations are (assuming they’re layered and organized) easier to make modifications to, allowing illustrators to address client requests faster.
  • Taste: flat illustrations have always appeared in publications. Qito cites the influence of graphic designer Ikko Tanaka’s clean shapes in the 1980s, considered “a pleasing counterpoint to the scrapbook punk aesthetic of the decade.”
  • Social Media: in the article, illustrator Xiao Hua Yang points out illustrations that are well received on social media will inevitably spark curiosity into how they were made.

However, Qito concludes that it is in the end, all about economics, citing a 2018 global survey of over 1,400 illustrators by Ben O’Brien where 70% of them believed they couldn’t survive on drawing alone. Further, she found that New York magazine, when adjusted for inflation, paid 30% more in the ’70s for smaller spot illustrations than what they offer today.

The Takeaway

Despite the fact we see this flattened visual style everywhere, this is by no means an indictment of the style itself and especially not the people who produce it, whether it’s their personal style or they create in it out of necessity. After all, if it ensures a regular stream of income, why not?

Unfortunately, what we see as current trends are often the four-way collision of economics, audience and client tastes, increasingly sophisticated digital tools and the needs of creatives. There’s no shortage of homogeneity around us whether it’s Instagram, cafes, or just general bits of design.

We recognize illustrators and other artists creating with the stroke of a pen, brush, stylus or mouse have the unique power to create very appealing and specific visual images by themselves and often without having to leave their workspace. Through their work, they have the ability to bring us deeper into text stories that would otherwise be passed up by today’s shorter attention spans that are compounded by declining literacy.

For that reason, despite our emphasis on photos, we’ve made efforts to employ and fairly compensate illustrators to create work in a style that values their abilities as much as their time. This has ultimately helped us to tell better stories that might otherwise not have been possible with any other medium. As such, we’ll close by inviting you to check out some of our stories that have been visually brought to life by Charis Poon, Jeremy Leung, Joan Wong, Naomi Otsu and Jonathan Jay Lee.


January 30, 2020

Venns and Pyramids — Living according to "success" templates

Diagrams and systems can often serve as helpful guides when we get lost on the path to success. But with new one emerging every few years, there’s the danger of making sweeping changes to our lives to match these templates as they become widespread.

Venns and Pyramids

At regular if inopportune “intermissions” between life chapters such as leaving school, a job or a life stage behind, we might find ourselves wondering where our lives and careers are heading. While all of this is happening, trendy “new” and exotic systems emerge as the cure-all to our career and existential ills (KonMari for companies, anyone?). But while that method is undoubtedly rooted in organization, particularly of material things, the buzz behind ikigai (“value in life”) that preceded it is focused on the source of value or meaning in our lives — our “reason to get up in the morning.”

Our most often frequent experience of the concept is in a four-circle Venn diagram with ikigai lying at the intersection of all four sections:

  1. What you can be paid for
  2. What you’re good at
  3. What you love
  4. What the world needs

This “ikigai chart” has some parallels with the commonly seen peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, which held that as different types of needs were met (from bottom to top), a person would eventually be able to meet the last series of needs, that surrounding the achievement of their potential:

  1. Physiological: such as food, water, warmth and rest.
  2. Safety: shelter and security.
  3. Belonging and love: intimacy, friends, and community.
  4. Esteem: prestige and sense of accomplishment.
  5. Self-actualization: achieving one’s full potential.
  6. Transcendence: goals and needs beyond the individual.

Of course, these theoretical frameworks aren’t the only ones that have tried to capture and arrange life in order to discover or maximize one’s potential, but they are among the most frequently referenced with ikigai being more recent.

Why context is still king

The understanding of ikigai through that chart is often attributed to Japanese culture as a whole, but it’s important to note that the culture did not produce the chart. Rather, as writer and neuroscientist Ken Mogi points out, it’s as simple as our daily coffee ritual or something as grand as becoming a world leader: “in a nutshell, Ikigai is a spectrum. And the complexity of Ikigai actually reflects the complexity of life itself.”

But like ikigai, age-old philosophies become popular again and the understanding about them shaped around specific contexts:

  • Business: Before the four-circle ikigai diagram made the rounds, the three-circle Hedgehog Concept intersected “what you are deeply passionate about,” “what you can be the best in the world at,” and “what best drives your economic or resource engine.” or essentially circles #1-3 of the ikigai diagram. Regardless, the Hedgehog Concept originally began as a means of achieving for businesses, companies, and individuals working in them.
  • Longevity: Ikigai is frequently brought up when referencing the residents of Okinawa, the Japanese island noted for its high number of people over the age of 100. This, in turn, is tied to Dan Buettner’s research into Blue Zones, select regions of the world with the longest-lived people, for National Geographic. Even for non-centenarians, ikigai is applied to situations where people are concerned with “what comes next” after retirement from company life or comparatively short athletic careers.
  • Connection: When it comes to longevity in the Okinawan context, what’s also often left out is the accompanying lifestyle commitments such as hara hachi bu (eating slowly and only to 80% fullness), exercise as part of daily life versus training for a purpose, and most importantly, moai. Moai are groups of lifelong friends that pool money and meet regularly for leisure and support. These emerged from social support groups on the island, which happens to have the lowest income in Japan and has an identity that’s culturally distinct from the rest of the country.

But outside of these contexts, the different frameworks risk being seized upon, diluted, commodified and promoted for the average lifestyle. Make no mistake, the entirety of the Japanese population does not live every day according to their ikigai any more than every Scandinavian optimizes their waking hours to maximize hygge (a feeling of wellness and contentment that accompanies a cozy mood).

Connection is missing

We cannot ignore the fact that the chart and others like it don’t account for another key human need. Even in the ikigai chart, what even comes close is the intersection of the “do what you love” and “do what the world needs” sections, which produces your “mission.” But of course, fulfilling something because the world needs it isn’t the same as regular, meaningful interactions with people that are intrinsically good for you and the other people, even if they aren’t necessarily “useful.”

And even if we were to assume the pyramid of needs has to be fulfilled in order, we might find that the increasing absence of intimacy, belonging and friendship has essentially cut off the path to the top of the pyramid where we would find our esteem and our self-actualization.

Or more importantly, we might actually consider as media psychologist Pamela B. Rutledge puts it, that “needs are not hierarchical. Life is messier than that. Needs are, like most other things in nature, an interactive, dynamic system, but they are anchored in our ability to make social connections.”

The Takeaway

Templates save us the time in figuring things out for ourselves, which can make finding answers that much more a reality where we might otherwise have given up out of frustration. But arranging your entire life or career according to a template is a pretty drastic decision to make, especially when life takes place in ways that directly contradict the neat layouts of these diagrams and systems. For one, many creatives are doing what they love or are “actualizing their potential” without having the requisite rigid layers around career and financial stability fulfilled first and vice versa.

The point is that we need to have the freedom of choice: to know and feel when it’s best for us to stick to the plan with laser focus, when to change our perspective (as even ikigai can change over time) and when to go “off-template” so that our mind or maybe even some of our life runs unguided; when to choose productivity and when to choose presence.

December 9, 2019

Alternative Platforms: Could Public Social Media Be a Solution?

With all of the issues currently plaguing the largest, most popular social media networks, a public alternative could be the solution to a for-profit one.

The problem with “free”

Part of the reason why today’s most popular social platforms got to how big they are right now is that they are free to use. But because these platforms are more accountable to stakeholders and not necessarily users, it means the platforms are predominantly focused on:

  • Attention: The constant battle for our attention through algorithmically-driven content that favors our history and interests over our betterment means the potential to be served content that’s misleading or downright false.
  • Data-collection: Keeping us on a platform helps to build a profile of our behaviors with each interaction, valuable data that can be sold later.
  • Good/Bad Press: All engagement is good engagement, even if that engagement is toxic and influential at the same time.

Because there are specific dynamics for-profit platforms encourage with how they structure, moderate and monetize the experience, free to use doesn’t necessarily mean free of cost.

A public alternative

In an article for The New York Times, Mark Coatney, a former director of Tumblr, believes the solution to the ills of social media isn’t trying to wrestle those for-profit platforms into shape, but to instead provide public alternatives that serve the public good as media has in the past: “Public media came out of a recognition that the broadcasting spectrum is a finite resource. TV broadcasters given licenses to use the spectrum were expected to provide programming like news and educational shows in return,” Coatney explains.

But with the limited resource now being our attention, he says this context that’s optimized for the aforementioned engagement makes it easiest for “the loudest, scariest voices” to win. Coatney identifies two halves to a public social media solution:

  • The easy part: the experience would be better structured around sharing things of interest or that we love instead of trying to gain attention and rack up numbers. He personally would have such an alternative resemble Tumblr or Instagram.
  • The hard part: public social media platforms would be grounded in its local community, overseen by an entity similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This would, in turn, be funded by a blend of government and foundation grants as well as member donations. The board would be held accountable over service to the public. 

The Takeaway

From radio to television and then to podcasts and streaming, public broadcasting has adapted to the introduction of different media throughout history (such as PBS expanding from TV to YouTube content and NPR, from radio to podcasts), but has curiously stopped short at social media. Is it the nature of the medium, or do we just need to find the right approach?

Enrique Dans, for one, believes a public model just might not be a good fit for social: where public TV and Radio are controlled, limited in scope and strictly unidirectional (audiences only consume), social is the opposite where the platform thrives on users producing content of their own unhindered. Achieving this balancing act while keeping commercial interests disguised as user content at bay means a public solution isn’t so straightforward.

That said, just because Facebook, Instagram and YouTube still command significant attention doesn’t mean that there isn’t demand for new social platforms, as the rise of TikTok would demonstrate. We previously talked about the IndieWeb, which includes independently-created social platforms that similarly provide an alternative more-regulated social media experience on a smaller scale.

Users including ourselves want a more positive experience of the Internet again — and not just for ourselves, but for the greater majority of users too. Whether independent or publically-funded platforms answer that call, options are always welcome.

November 14, 2019

The Fungal Future — How mycelium helps us rethink design


The recent Dutch Design Week saw the debut of “The Growing Pavilion,” constructed out of a variety of natural materials including fungal mycelium. We take a look at what the sustainable material means for the environment and the future of design.

The Growing Pavilion

Dezeen’s Augusta Pownall gives the run-down of The Growing Pavilion, a pop-up performance space that debuted at Dutch Design Week 2019 in Eindhoven. The drum-shaped building was also created to demonstrate the potential for bio-materials.

  • Creators: Set designer and artist Pascal Leboucq and Erik Klarenbeek’s Known Design studio. The two met three years ago when Klarenbeek and Leboucq began working with bio-based materials.
  • Construction: mushroom mycelium panels, timber frame, floors made of compressed cattail. Panels can be disassembled and repurposed later.
  • Features: Benches made from trees felled by a storm earlier in the year, furniture made from manure and clothes made from bio-materials.
  • Waterproof Coating: comes from a bio-based product originally developed by the Inca people of Mexico and imported from there, which Leboucq argues is a situation where an imported natural product can be better than a locally-made polluting product.
  • Safe for Consumption: Company New Heroes, a storytelling platform of which Lebouq is a member, helped schedule events including the daily harvesting of mushrooms growing on the panels. These were cooked and sold at a nearby food truck.
  • Carbon offset: The CO2-absorbing properties of mycelium offset the building’s carbon footprint by capturing twice its weight back in carbon dioxide.

What is mycelium

Mycelium is the massive branching network of thread-like hyphae that colonies of fungi use to breakdown organic material and absorb nutrients. In fact, that’s one of the most important aspects of their role in the ecosystem. Mycelium breaks down dead matter and puts the nutrients back into the environment.

Here are some of the properties that make it useful as a material:

  • Shapeable: mycelium is easy to grow into the shape of whatever mold it’s put in.
  • Strong: Relative to its weight, mycelium is stronger than concrete, giving it some potential for use in construction. It also kills and repels termites too.
  • Resistant: because has fire retardant properties that make it safer and more cost-effective than other materials that use synthetic polymers.
  • Easy to grow: it grows fast and on just about any waste product we feed it.
  • Insulator: it forms a foam-like material that can work as an insulator such as Greensulate.
  • Detoxifying: A lot of petroleum products and some pesticides are carbon-based molecules that fungi can potentially remove from the environment.

Taking More than We Give

In the past, we looked at how Econyl, a completely recyclable nylon fiber, has become one of fashion’s favorite synthetic fibers. Made from recovered ocean plastic, it represents a case where we’re making something “new” out of materials formed out of a problem humans have created, similar to bioplastic Bloom, which draws from the algae population that’s exploded with warmer climates.

It’s a scenario one where we try to take more harm out of the environment than we put back in. While that dynamic might not be perfectly efficient just yet, it shows we can always either create by using a product that’s no longer of use (waste products) or putting to use something that already occurs naturally, meaning it needs fewer resources to produce.

The Takeaway

We acknowledge we’re probably late to the party in recognizing the potential of mycelium, but it’s gotten us thinking about a future where the cities around us won’t necessarily be this idea of “perfected” space-age design. These buildings often come across as sterile with buildings of glass, porcelain-white panels, and metal. Instead, we could very well go in a radically opposite direction, one where the buildings around us are organic (or even living) because of our need to “use what we have” and create with materials that have always co-existed with our environment.

November 7, 2019

Where are we now with on-demand apps for creatives?

While the growth of the gig economy has produced many platforms that connect clients with creatives, we’ve curiously only come so far for on-demand apps for creative industries. We take a look at what’s available currently and some possible reasons for why we’re just getting started.

The Rundown

Ian Burrell writes for The Drum how Stringr, the Uber-style news footage sourcing app, opened a UK office in May and has since recruited 7,000 new videographers to the platform.

Stringr is named for stringers, freelance journalists, photographers or videographers that contribute reporting, images or footage to news organizations and are paid individually by the piece that gets published. Here are some key points about Stringr from Burrell’s article:

  • How it works: Videographers get alerts to assignments through the app, should they accept, they get to the location, shoot the footage and upload it. Videographers get paid if and every time a client downloads the footage.
  • Feedback: Like with Uber drivers, Stringr videographers get ratings that factor into how assignments get distributed based on their skill (as judged by Stringr’s Curation Team composed of experienced journalists), proximity and current traffic conditions.
  • Reuters Connect: Stringr is integrated with Reuters Connect, which helps clients to source text, photo and video content from other media organizations including Reuters. It also provides bespoke video production for clients in partnership with video editing tool InVideo and Amper Music, which leverages AI to generate soundtracks (making them rights-free).
  • Reach: Stringr is currently in Los Angeles, New York and now the UK with the opening of its Notting Hill office in London. It has further plans to expand to France and Germany.

Hasn’t this been done before?

Not as much as we’d think. Searching for “The Uber of (insert creative skill or job here)” nets no small number of platforms in website form that promise to connect clients with a vast network of creative talent not unlike Fiverr. But in terms of the truly “on-demand” nature of smartphone apps, it seems fewer platforms have tried to bring the convenience and efficiency of Uber to the creative industry as opposed to other personal services like home maintenance, delivery, pet-sitting.

Unsurprisingly, going the extra step of developing an app on top of the back-end booking and order management system requires a great deal of resources, meaning there naturally needs to be a fair amount of demand to justify it. This list isn’t exhaustive but gives a cross-section of the type of on-demand platforms apps other than Stringr covering the creative industry:

  • Snappr: Australian startup that sources photographers (and another app jumping on the dropped ‘e’ naming trend) by the hour. Co-founders Ed Kearney and Matt Schiller expanded into the platform after working together on GownTown, their previous venture that acted as a ‘one-stop graduation shop’ selling gowns to graduating students.
  • GigTown: Founded by former president and vice chairman of Qualcomm Steve Altman and his son, GigTown connects musicians, event planners and venues. The app was started after the founders went through the troublesome process of sourcing a live band for a diabetes fundraiser.
  • Sofar Sounds: London-based Sofar Sounds differs in that it books and sells tickets to secret concerts around the world in hosted venues that include everything from retail stores to living rooms. The founding intention was to cut the bloat of most live-music events and increase intimacy between audiences and musicians. The typical format of a concert (branded as a “Sofar”) includes three diverse curated and no headliner.
  • JinzZy: This app, which serves India specifically, books live entertainers (specializing in characters like superheroes) within a window of anywhere from four hours to months in advance. Bookings range from the usual corporate and family events to campaigns and hospital visits.

The Pros and Cons

Looking at this very small cross section of on-demand apps covering creatives, we’ve come to a few broad conclusions about this diverse segment of the growing “gig” economy for the time being.

  • Connecting People: While every app is ostensibly founded with the goal of “connecting people” the smooth connection between client and service provider through Uber-like searching, quoting and booking systems makes that aspect especially smooth. But as Sofar would show, it’s not like Uber where you’ll hire and forget your driver (or delivery person if you got EATS). You have the potential to create longer-lasting and richer connections depending on the nature of the platform.  We’re also interested to see how future apps can have the potential for bringing people more in touch with their communities and surroundings.
  • Work for Free: Platforms like Fiverr get a particularly bad rap not just because of the race-to-the-bottom dynamic the bidding war encourages, but because it means a lot of spec work for free. Stringr has this dynamic too in the sense that you may work for that hour but not be paid for it (and the time geting to the location) if the client doesn’t want your footage.
  • Testing the Waters: With rates as low as $45 USD (with a quota of 60 shots) per hour, established photographers are unlikely to use Snappr. But for talented fresh-starters wanting to get their feet wet and earn something for their trouble, it can be a new avenue to explore.
  • Terms: Of the figures we could find, GigTown takes 13 percent per booking while Snappr takes 20 percent per booking, but it’s not just about the take-home pay but the entire workflow experience. Stringr pays the next day via PayPal, Snappr handles insuring photographers which can be harder for the individual and of course, some of the apps handle a part of the sourcing and negotiating phases. It all depends on if the exact package a platform offers is a good fit for the creative.
  • Drop Everything: the “drop everything and work for potential peanuts” scenarios that could have creatives tripping over themselves to compete for jobs and even produce work that might not be compensated with even a kill fee is a worst case scenario and we might decry the potential for devaluing creative services. But the reality is there will always be clients wanting to pay less and someone willing to work for that much.

The Takeaway

We’re still in largely uncharted territory with creative services in an on-demand format because the nature of that work is so specific with countless variables (and additional work to accomplish the finished product.

By comparison: if we’re ride-sharing, it involves the closest Uber of 3-4 service types getting you from point A to point B (or point C if you change your mind) within a reasonable amount of time. Even for all the bells, whistles and good conversation, those are all attempts to win your approval for that time you’re in the vehicle, which the driver is paid for. There will be idle time between passengers, to be sure, but we think it’s safe to assume it’s going to be less than the time between gigs for say, a photographer or live band.

It’s all about the packaged relationship between expectations, the work done and the compensation. The original goal for Fiverr founders Micha Kaufman and friend Shai Wininger was to give freelancers a way to slice their skills thin and sell them. Stringr might be the closest to on-demand we might get for now (because videographers go, shoot and upload, but the client does the editing) but the comprehensive nature of a lot of creative work makes it hard to carve a skillset so cleanly that it can be done on location. This is likely why most creative fields don’t do “on-demand” apps and are more represented on freelancing platforms instead.

Still, there is some veracity to the argument that the prices for creative work is in a race downhill, but there’s also a difference between a highly commoditized service provider and a creator who provides not only the requisite skill set and professionalism, but also a strong point-of-view and style.

October 28, 2019

The Need for Slow Journalism in an Age of Fast (Media) Consumption

What’s New in Publishing looks at the rising importance of slow journalism in an age of decreased attention spans, information overload and news avoidance. We weigh in on the value and importance of slowing down.

The Movement

The slow journalism movement is one aspect of the greater “Slow movement” that includes sub-movements including everything from food, cities and travel to cinema and fashion. It’s a direct response to the decreasing quality of journalism that eschews original reporting in favor of clickbait or the repackaging of other source material (known as churnalism, the irony of which we are keenly aware).

One of the most prominent drivers in the slow journalism movement is UK-based quarterly magazine Delayed Gratification, which launched in 2011, which prides itself on being “the last newsroom to break the news.” Since its founding, there have been multiple slow journalism projects that have popped up in Europe and North America.

The Issues for Audiences

  • Information Overload: The amount of general noise from multiple sources in terms of both news and non-news media.
  • Decreased Attention Spans: The new normal.
  • News Fatigue: a Pew survey found seven in 10 Americans felt overwhelmed and “worn out” by the news.
  • News Avoidance: The Reuters Institute 2019 Digital News Report found that news avoidance shot up 11 percentage points from its report two years ago and that 58% of British respondents that avoided the news did so because of the negative impact on their mood.

The Issues with Current News

  • “Being First:” Media is adept at breaking developments (what just happened) but falls short of explaining their significance and context.
  • Text Avoidance: The 500-word count problem for the 280-character Twitter age and another by-product of the decreased attention spans as news outlets trim article lengths so readers do less reading.
  • Content-to-Length Balance: News content is emphasizing shorter digestible pieces with significantly less space to include detail, color — and facts.

Is Acceptance of Slow Journalism Simply a Creative Problem?

For Slow Journalism to gain wider acceptance, there will need to be a few major factors accounted for:

  • Long-form Repackaged: We’d say that there may be little hope for attention spans reversing course and agree that hope for long-form journalism lies in digital (as opposed to the still-worshipped print). That said, to make long-form palatable for text-avoidant audiences, it needs a lot of supporting media like illustrations, animations and strong layouts.
  • Monetization: Paying for all the illustrations, web development, writing and editing to help make that longform content more palatable, not to mention the journalism that sources and vets that very information, requires money. This money in-turn comes from investors or advertisers as well as audiences willing to either pay directly or accept ads in their viewing experience.
  • Content Over Form: The preference for consumption on mobile devices and the need to reach audiences through those platforms withstanding, the focus on good ideas, stories and people will always take precedent over the exact form it takes. Quality curated content will always be valued over quantity, even if the latter is made accessible via paid access.
  • Cultural Shift: Greater awareness of a problem was enough to make us use consume with fewer plastic straws and cups, but unfortunately, building awareness for the need to reduce overconsumption of fast media will take significantly more effort — simply because very few mainstream media platforms would encourage more moderate use of their platform.


We are not a news organization, but we do recognize the importance of media literacy in a world that’s both digitally and globally connected to the point it will eventually implicate us — if not us as creative workers then us as regular albeit curious people.

That said, it’s important that we’re seeing the bigger picture and comprehending the full story instead of just being the first to know and react. Doing this takes the patience to resist our the human urge to know things, which savvy media and news outlets capitalize on when they inundate us with day-to-day updates on hot topics, for instance.

By switching to slower news, you could call it the “whole foods” approach to media dieting. Snacks are small, sweet and easily digestible, but we’ll be hungry again soon if we eat a few or feel sick when we get full on them. Regardless of what media types you prefer to consume, be it text, sound or images, we encourage you to snack less and seek out and support higher quality information sources — even if that means making more time for only a few comprehensive stories. Once you’re done that long-form news story or two, get out and get on with your day.

Because the only thing worse than adopting a news-avoidant life out of disillusionment with a constant information churn is veering towards a completely news-free one.

October 18, 2019

Food is the Next Frontier for Multisensory Art

These days when we think about multisensory experiences, our first thoughts might start to gravitate towards the audio-visual interactivity of AR and VR, but what about food? As a medium, it remains a rich but comparatively underexplored frontier if we think outside the box of cuisine and restaurant contexts, even if they’re innovative. What makes food so special and why should we use it as a mode of expression?

Why Food Might Be Getting Left Out

A New York Times article written by William Deresiewicz in 2012 argued that despite the emergence of a new dearth of literature, awards and media surrounding food and food culture that mirrors that surrounding art, our efforts to elevate our appreciation for food have only hit a cultural ceiling composed of varying layers of foodie-ism.

“But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion,” he wrote. “An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one.”

While he is correct to point out that in many ways, our obsession with food has not led to art but replaced it as a “vehicle of aspiration and competition,” we’d say there is still strong potential for it as a medium, as has been explored throughout history.

Food as Visual Medium

Let’s start with how we might come to perceive food (still discernible as food) as a visual medium:

  • Food as the subject, where it’s stylized and presented in its raw or prepared-dish form as the primary focus of the work.
  • Whole foods or images of food that are used to complete larger works.
  • Ingredients as the medium such as sculpted sugar or chocolate, and other instances where the ingredients are valued for their physical properties as a working material.
  • Consumable “almost too good looking to eat” items such as cakes incorporating strong influences from other fields such as fine art, architecture and hard sciences.

The point is that however they’re used, so long as we can discern it looks like food, food evokes an immediate understanding and intimacy whether we consume them physically or just visually. For those that understand the context behind certain foods, their visual forms become just as codified and capable of carrying nuanced messages as other mediums.

Experience and “Performance” Revolving Around Food

In the mainstream, we might be put off attempts to “say something through food” with the likes of Dining in the Dark or Ichiran’s ramen-booths-for-one some might write off as gimmicky hedonism. But if art is meant to express and change perspectives, the ability for that to happen through food can’t be ignored when we can directly participate.

We’ve written about Virgilio Martinez’ Central, which takes diners through the layered ecosystems of the Peruvian Andes as well as “Hawai’i” Mike Salman’s Chef for Higher cannabis dinner parties meant to heighten the senses while decreasing inhibitions. These and other unique concepts that are coming out of culture look to reimagine how we approach food from the dining perspective. As with any multi-sensory installation, we pay for admission to restaurant concepts that increasingly resemble galleries, where everything from the serviceware to music is curated from other artists. Here, we’re simply paying to experience the chef’s “set” that encodes history, culture, and vision through their take on genres, their trademark mix of flavor, texture and scent notes.

Even outside of the restaurant context, however, there are plenty of ways artists are exploring themes in ways that are uniquely designed around food as the medium, even if we might not label it as art right away. Take LA-based art collective Fallen Fruit Collective as an example: its Public Fruit Jam encourages strangers to negotiate and collaborate on making a fruit jam using each participant’s respective ingredients. Similarly, their Endless Orchard project allows citizens to plant, map and share fruit trees, making it both public art and social initiative.

Distilling and reassembling flavors and scents

Lastly, we see culture, constantly in search for new experiences, immersed in a phase of experimentation. Whether they’re rooted in the culinary or scientific tradition or both, globally-minded artists and audiences alike are taking to different combinations of flavors, smells, and textures, whether they’re old or new history.

It’s this deconstructed approach to the sensory properties of food — and necessarily, smell — that remains a vast playground for exploration at the individual level. They divorce our existing preconceptions around food and use their elemental flavors, textures, and aromas as emotional notes with which to assemble sensory experiences for different purposes:

  • Isolation: From trending flavors like yuzu-flavored everything to beanless coffee made by the same people behind Impossible Meat, both instances involve isolating the flavors we recognize and like while removing those we don’t.
  • Sense memory: Copenhagen-based “flavor company” Empirical Spirits seek to bottle scenes and memories through its science-influenced approach to taste and aromas.
  • Translation: Oki Sato of Tokyo and Milan-based design studio Nendo created chocolates that embodied Japanese onomatopoeic words to describe texture, effectively using food to translate meaning between formats.
  • Augmentation: Sometimes, these elemental properties are used to add an extra dimension to other art, such as Art of Bloom’s use of scent to support its recent AR exhibition in Long Beach.

The Takeaway

As we can see, food is difficult to frame artistically once it leaves the context of the farm, kitchen, dinner table and restaurant, but we’d argue that yes, it absolutely exists as art we’ve only begun to explore. Whether we get to taste it or not, food can be used as a medium of great depth and complexity as with any art.

If we were to compare it to sound, the next most powerful emotional medium we have, we have the ability to manipulate emotion through food with flavor and aroma notes, textures as timbre, the whole spectrum of color, the Scoville scale, among other factors. Combined in thoughtful ways, they record memories, encode messages, drive narratives and shape culture all the same.

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