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An Interview with David Shields

By Michael Dooley

This interview was first published in 1994 in Emigre #30.

Michael Dooley: How was Output #2 put together?

David Shields: Three other designers, Richard Bates, Brian Smith, Susanna Stieff and I, were in a room and worked on it at the same time and reacted to each other. We had spent a couple of weeks discussing what it would be and what we were trying to get at. During that time, we collected all the make-ready the issue would be printed on. We collected stacks and stacks of different printed ephemera. While we were putting it together, we had a television turned on, so if we were chopping text out of a printed piece, we were also listening and looking to the TV. Running through Output were photographs documenting our process of putting the piece together, interspersed with random images from the television screen: from the Home Shopping Network to a video on the Japanese surrender of World War II. We were really trying to bring these things together and use them.

The production was as much a part of the piece as the concept. We didn’t know what was going to end up happening when we started it. When we read through what we had when it was finished, it was interesting to see what was printed on top of each other, what messages we were able to get out of it.

MD: How did you see it being read?

DS: It certainly wasn’t meant to be read in the traditional sense, as conveying a strict linear message. It was meant to be read as an emotional gestalt; three layers of information happening at once. It was built to give you an essential feeling - more than a rational understanding - of what was happening with technology. It was a representation of different speeds of technology all colliding at the same time, of what happens when television and printed media hit all at once, when video and books begin to bounce off each other, of things falling apart and being put back together.

MD: Yet there was verbiage that could be clearly read, such as the repeated phrase “probability patterns.”

DS: One of us was reading a book on quantum physics, about how light looks when measured with different machines. It’s either a particle or it’s a wave, depending on how you measure it. And so we decided that that notion fit in very well with how we were working and how we were thinking of this piece. By putting these things together, we changed them. We changed what was going on by actually examining it. What we came up with after we’d done it was that how we measured all these technologies, the representation of these different technologies, was all pretty much a probability pattern. So that’s the verbiage of probability patterns, and that’s what holds it all together. Possibly.

MD: Do you see Output as political, as a critique of technology?

DS: People could get that out of it. What the reader put into it is what the reader would get out of it, which leads back to the probability patterns; the answer is contingent upon how you measure it. It’s tough to say that a lot of that was conscious decisions.

We had observed the way the computer has affected graphic design as a profession. There was a time when you saw type in a circle all over the place because of Freehand. So designers were following what engineers were allowing them to do.

None of Output was done on the Macintosh. There were bits and pieces that were taken from Mac output, but none of it was composed on the Macintosh. It was all done traditionally. But the idea of Output was that you have access to all this technology - fax machines, cellular phones, cable television, printed material - and that all these things are bombarding you at once. And you can either continue to be bombarded and allow that to force you into working in a certain way, or you can try to step back, get perspective and digest what’s useful. We certainly weren’t trying to say “Don’t use technology"; we were trying to say “Don’t let it use you.”

We also worked with the idea of mass production, using the printing press, which traditionally makes everything the same. We took from the same piles of make-readies to print this thing, but in the end each copy was unique, each copy was different from all the other copies. That was also a way of using the technology. You can use technology to make everything look the same, but you can also use that same technology to give each person a unique object, depending on how you manipulate the production.

MD: Is this concept related to another sentence fragment in Output, which says: “building a lost cause portfolio"?

DS: [laughs] Possibly. The funny thing about this piece is that we were all very pumped up when we produced it, because this was, for the three of us, our first big printed piece at Cranbrook. Then we sent it out and heard nothing from anyone. We didn’t hear anything for such a long time, we figured it missed the mark, it didn’t spark communication. So we all pretty much gave it up, thinking “Nobody liked it, nobody bought into it.” If you could use the term “commercial failure,” I guess it was that.

MD: How would you place this piece in an historical context?

DS: If people have a need to place this piece historically, they would have to go with what we were trying to get at, more than what it looks like. There are connections to Futurism or Dada because those were periods when various technologies were coming into wide use and just beginning to be perceived as oppressive, and people used machine language to talk about machines.

Mr. Heller even brings up the point about Futurism and Dada. When we were doing Output, we weren’t consciously trying to make it look like the work of early twentieth century movements; it just happened. For us, that was why it was all the more powerful, because we didn’t intend that to happen. But when you get done and the dust settles, you say, “Oh, look, there are similarities with Italian Futurism.”

MD: So the historical precedents were in retrospect?

DS: Exactly. There again, if you measure it historically, that’s what you come up with; it changes in that way. So the historical references get applied to the piece afterwards.

MD: In “Cult of the Ugly,” Steve suggests asking the students who created Output to define beauty, so . . .

DS: [laughs] Mr. Heller is calling it “Frankenstein’s little monster” and “a toad’s warts,” as if that’s what we thought was beauty. We really didn’t go into Output trying to make something beautiful or ugly. We weren’t trying to slap Paul Rand in the face. We weren’t trying to show that Modernism had failed. We weren’t trying to say; “This is how everybody should design.” I wouldn’t want to see stuff like Output all the time. I wouldn’t want to read an annual report or an ad campaign that looked like that. We weren’t designing for style. We weren’t reacting to style or trying to make a style. We were really trying to deal with how we react to media, the mass media.

MD: So do you feel the question of beauty and ugliness is irrelevant?

DS: To this particular piece, yeah, I really do. Beauty and ugliness tend to be superficial issues. You can look at something and think “It’s ugly; I’ll throw it away” or “Oh, this is beautiful; I’ll look at it or keep it” or “It’s beautiful, I don’t trust it; I’ll throw it away.”

I would hate to make assumptions, but Mr. Heller probably read it as how he’s equipped to read design. He’s being true to how he defines design. He’s got to use his baggage to judge Output. So by his probability pattern, we came out looking pretty ugly. And that’s okay. I just think he was a little off.

MD: Did you feel Steve and, by extension, the AIGA had enough knowledge to be able to get into it?

DS: That was a question we all had. We really weren’t sure. One of our reasons for sending it out to professional and academic designers was to see what kind of reaction we would get. We weren’t sure if it would be positive or negative, if people would be able to read it, if they would care about reading it, if it would just be something they’d get and chuckle at and throw in the trash, or if they’d say “More shit from Cranbrook; why do they do this to me?” or if it was something people would spend time with and try to get something from.

We knew there would be a certain percentage of failure. We all knew there were a certain amount of people out there who would just automatically write it off. But we were hoping that others would get something out of it.

Maybe we could have been more visually clear about the background of Output: that it had been started at Herron, that it was going to come from two other schools next, that it didn’t just come from out of the blue, that there was some type of reasoning behind it. But we all really learned so much from producing it. So how the experiment turned out, how it was perceived by the public, was secondary. Personally, it allowed me to loosen up, to see the value in not adhering to a rigid structure. It was very helpful as a beginning step in showing me what would happen when I started dealing with larger issues of media. Those issues spurred on most of my work in graduate school.

MD: To the extent that you weren’t concerned with how Output would be received, does that leave it open to criticism from designers that it’s self-indulgent?

DS: Um, that’s interesting. Self-indulgent? I don’t know. I could see that people would put a self-indulgent definition on it, simply because we are graduate students. Most people who are in graduate school, and certainly at Cranbrook, have been in the work force for anything from a year to five or more years, and most are fairly proficient at a certain level of design, but they’re looking beyond that. All the technologies that are so prevalent now have begun to open design up. It’s become an expanding field and there’s a need to fill that expansion.

Output would fall through the cracks by a lot of people’s definition of design. Design doesn’t necessarily have to be confined to what people want or what people need. Possibly it’s just this thing you get in the mail that you can begin to think about. We weren’t doing this piece to sell. It didn’t necessarily have any reason for being, any rational, utilitarian purpose. We weren’t working with a marketplace economy, we weren’t working with supply and demand.

MD: But, by sending it to the AIGA, you were putting it into the marketplace of ideas.

DS: Marketplace of ideas - I like that.

MD: It’s Steve’s expression.

DS: You may not believe this from looking at the piece - we all really believe design is about communication. Design is not art because designers design for the community; for everybody, for the public, for whomever - for an audience. It’s about creating dialogues. We really wanted to work within that mode, and that’s why we sent it out. It took awhile, but now with Mr. Heller’s article and with your article, it’s been brought back into that mode. Maybe, in fact, it does have something to say, maybe it can speak to someone or someone can use it to begin to speak.