A Meditation on Michael Jackson

July 8, 2009 § 1 Comment

In any work of fiction, it’s imperative that the audience keep what is termed a “suspension of disbelief”. That is to say, an audience knows that what’s happening isn’t real, but the plot and elements of the story seem plausible within the context of the story. It doesn’t matter the genre—Fantasy, Science Fiction, general Fiction, Comic Books, etc.—what matters is we don’t get pulled out of the story because of something too unbelievable within the context of the story.

The case for suspending disbelief also applies to artists, especially performing artists. An artist’s persona and art is their story they use to connect with an audience, who then suspend their disbelief about the person behind the persona. Many times, we as audience members don’t want to know what lurks behind the surface, lest it ruin our enjoyment of the persona and the created artifact. But when the artifact created is deeply personal and empathetic to audience members (unlike, say, an abstract painting might be), the person and the persona collide into one amalgamated being. We begin to open ourselves up to the person, creating a trust that few artists are able to forge on any wide-scale basis.

This thought brings me to Michael Jackson. As the 80s waned into the 90s, nearly everyone thought that Michael Jackson wasn’t exactly all there (and there were more than a few questions about his sexuality). But still, most of his fans either retained their suspension of disbelief about him (he oozed sex in everything he did) or they just didn’t care as long as he was the same performing badass we all grew up with. However, during this time, Michael Jackson was carefully converging his persona with Michael Jackson the person, creating an interesting mix of controversy and adoration.

In short order, Michael Jackson sang about women (The Way You Make Me Feel), creating understanding (Human Nature), eradicating famine (We Are The World), and uplifting yourself by uplifting others (Man in the Mirror). If we were to believe in the songs, we had to believe in the artist, and thus we ended up having to believe in the person behind it all. Michael Jackson seemed to be a genuinely good person underneath it all, making his personal pleas all the more palatable for the general public.

Then came the (first) molestation charge.

As great as so many of his songs are and as great of an entertainer, dancer, choreographer, and composer he was, upon the accusations of child molestation, his increasingly odd behavior, as well as revelations about his wildly extravagant lifestyle, he no longer had an artistic port to dock his boat of understanding, goodwill, uplifting others, and yes, sex. What could he possibly sing about that his would-be fans would not only support, but could also arm them to maintain their suspension of disbelief?

Even if the accusations of molestation weren’t true—he was left with nothing to write about, sing about, or dance about. There were too many holes in the story. Nothing was true anymore, either for the audience or for Michael Jackson.

At the end of it all, he produced nothing of consequence in the last 15 years—during what should have been the prime of his life. Instead, he ended up a grossly disfigured man, a shell of what he once was, hooked on painkillers, imprisoned by his now world-famous persona that he could never escape and yet had no outlet for. Right or wrong, good or bad, this was the tragedy of Michael Jackson, a man who was not only one of history’s greatest and most influential artists, but a man who needed to create, to entertain, to move people.

Upon his passing, we’ve seen millions upon millions of people coming out in support of him. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but I suspect that some of it is because the crushing weight of the Michael Jackson story has been lifted and we can now enjoy the artifacts from when the story was fun and the ending was surely going to be good.

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Throat-Clearing + Happy New Year

December 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Some thoughts as we round up 2008:

• As some may have noticed, I have taken down nearly all my posts having to do with politics. While I greatly enjoyed writing about the election, in my current unemployed state, it seemed a tad reckless because, frankly, politics and work just don’t mix.

That said, I never really felt like I was “political”, per se, and yet, I’m still surprised at the reaction I got from some people. While I did have a candidate I personally supported more than the other, with my background in trial/courtroom communication and argumentation, my only real agenda was analyzing each candidates’ strategy and how it persuaded or affected the so-called moderate voter. Some of the reaction I got from people was pretty interesting, though. When I wrote something that I thought actually showed more support for one candidate, I got comments that suggested I was supporting the other. And vice versa.

I quickly realized that there’s no controlling how people will interpret your words, no matter how carefully you craft them, no matter how much you focus on the process of getting elected and ignore a hoped-for election outcome. Politics is just too hot-button of an issue. So, I took all those posts down except for one, because that post was about a personal experience regarding bigotry, hypocrisy, how we seek out those who agree with us and the collective need to challenge ourselves to be better. And if someone doesn’t want to hire me because of that post, then so be it.

•  In general, blogging has been tougher to keep up on than I thought it would be. I thought that, in my current state of unemployment, blogging would be fairly easy. But I’ve realized that you have to have experiences and conversations that make you want to blog about something on your mind. In this, my unemployed (read: broke) state, I don’t have a whole lot to write about. Most of my days involve either going to the public library to get out of the house, finding a corner of the house to get some privacy, or going for a run. My nights tend to be made up of going to the corner watering hole to play a few rounds of Golden Tee Golf. (The interaction design in that game is stupendous, by the way.)

In other words, I’m not visiting the richest of environments for new thoughts and experiences regarding designerly things. Quite the opposite of Carnegie Mellon, to be sure. For the most part, this is fine: It’s been healthy to not obsess too much over design, but it also means there’s not a whole to say, but when there is…

•  My posts tend to take longer to write than I mean for them to. I’m pretty obsessive about my thoughts and insights and writing and clarity. Basically, I don’t want to sound like a total schmuck and I’d rather be thorough and thoughtful than quick and controversial. For example, my Abilify post took a solid 14 hours of research and writing. (Yeah, I know, I need a job.) Why so long? I knew basically nothing about drug names, always had a curiousity about them, and had to get all my facts in line before spouting off about it (and I certainly had never thought about drug names as an ethos-pathos-logos thing. All that was made up on the fly, then hammered out, drawing on design school stuff that I never thought to apply in such a way.)

So, yes, this is why there are not as many posts as I’d like there to be. But hopefully, they have some quality to them, even if they sometimes verge on pedantry.

• I’m pleasantly surprised that I get any traffic at all and find myself intensely flattered when I get occasional unforeseen boosts in traffic. It’s like I’ve won an Emmy every time anyone reads a post. Thank you all for reading!

• If anyone knows of any design jobs you think I’d be good for, please let me know. The poor economy has made the job hunt much worse than it was, even as recently as early November.

Happy Holidays and Have A Wonderful 2009!

What is Writing in Design?

July 28, 2008 § 3 Comments

On May 17th, 2008 I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Communication Planning + Information Design from Carnegie Mellon. Since that time, I’ve been looking for work. But mostly, I’ve been doing nothing.

And I mean nothing.

OK, so I’ve taken a few trips and posted a few resumes, had some interviews (even came fairly close to landing a job in Amsterdam with frog design) but something just hasn’t felt right about most jobs. So mostly I’ve just laid low, day after day, couch surfing in Indiana, Minnesota, and San Francisco waiting for inspiration to do something.

Anything.

But I don’t have it yet. Inspiration, that is. I suppose this blog is, in some small way, a step towards doing something.

Anything.

Because I have motivation. It’s called debt. Lots of it.

And I have intellectual curiousity. The voice of which is still taking form.

As it goes, I don’t regret my decision to go to school, but this slow job hunt is uncovering this niggling something in my mind, this idea I have about myself and my interests as I’m learning about where I fit in the grander scheme of the job world, specifically in the world of design and ideas. And writing. Yes, writing.

I went to grad school to find out how writing and graphic design play together to create a form of information, how they create something of a rhetorical stance, how “graphic design” differs from “information design”, all with this piddling notion that it’s ridiculous to have copywriters separate from visual designers. Because it seemed like the copywriters were actually much more powerful than the visual designers, in that there was certain explicit information that needed to be in a presentation, brochure, website, financial report, and so on. And so the writers were playing at the concept level, and the visual designers were working at fulfilling the writers’ concepts. Which seemed weird, since the designers would have to understand the concept to fully realize the visual design that fully realizes the written word.

And both were frustrating each other greatly: Writers thought that the visual designers’ input wasn’t all that important for the ideas they were expressing and the designers thought the writers had little business telling the designers where and how the language and visual information should be rendered.

A disconnect, to be sure.

I guess the thing is, is that no one likes to be told what to do. They all want to be part of the process. Well, most do anyway. Or maybe not. Maybe this is more unique to designers and writers, people who are asked to listen, read, learn, absorb, reform, rethink, and reset what the content originators have in their heads, minds, books, magazines, hearts, and intentions. But, I digress.

What I want to get at here is that as I’m looking for jobs, there are jobs for copywriters, which, solely, I am not. There are jobs for graphic designers, which solely, I am not. There are jobs for User Experience Researchers, which I believe I could probably do, but am generally underqualified and/or uninterested in that type of work. There are Interaction Designers, Information Architects, User Interface Designers, Product Designers, Visual Designers, Print Designers, Web Designers, Information Designers, Multimedia Designers, Instructional Designers, Art Directors, Creative Directors, and then various levels of qualification within each of these areas. Like Product Designer I or II, Junior/Senior/Lead Web Designer, and so on. And to add confusion to craziness, almost every company defines these titles differently, so you can’t discount any one job title when looking for a job. Oh no. You have to look at every. single. one. It’s exasperating, exhausting, ridiculizing, and meticulizing.

(I know that there is some of this information out there, but I think it would be in the interest of the design & business community to have a clear sense of what all these different job descriptions exactly mean, qualifications for each, pay scale, and then create a common vocabulary within the industry. Because I don’t know about you all, but when people ask me what I do, I just get tired. I feel my body weaken, my mind flutter, my eyes roll up, and my head falls because I just don’t want to do it one. more. time. I promise not to use the period thing for exaggeration again this post. But maybe this clear definition would help.)

What I’m trying to say is that I am rarely any one of those things—writer, graphic designer, UI designer, UX designer, et cetera—at least as far as the working world is concerned. Yet I’m expected to be. The working world wants neat little boxes and quantification of skills and I don’t blame them— there’s a whole bunch of schmoes like me in the world who want to eat their cake and have it, too. And why would the working world want to waste their time figuring out what I can do for them when they can find any number of people who can fill their nicely laid-out job description that makes sense for their firm’s needs? They wouldn’t. But still, this seems limiting, frustrating, and ultimately detrimental.

And so what do I do? That is the question, yes. I do writing and I understand visual design (I think I’m pretty good, but I know where my bread is buttered). I do design and I understand learning. And I understand how learning affects design between designers designing as well as between designers and the world. I like this messy middle, which really throws the whole “copywriter” or “visual designer” thing into disarray. But where I think this all really places me is at the concepting stage, where all the implicit thought, beliefs, and research findings come together into one big explicit bento box of a meal. Or maybe it’s pie. I really like pie.

So let us define writing and its relationship to design.

For one, writing is much more than, “Wow, Jeff wrote some mean copy for that real estate development booklet.” Or “Jeff really knows how to simplify complex ideas for presentations.” Although it could mean either of those at any given point as both are valuable. Instead, writing is the idea behind the product, the feeling made explicit into a communicable form. Writing is the unpacking of vocabulary so that each of us understand what each other’s understanding is. In sum, it’s creating a clear understanding between two or more people what a person’s intent is in word usage. A “Do you mean ___ or ___?” moment. Unpack it. Understand intent. Build vocabulary from the ground up. And from there, two or more people can create a common vocabulary that becomes the language of a project, business, product, service, interface, brand, book, or whatever else you wish to design.

In this sense, design can be defined as gaining an explicit understanding of an implicit vision by unpacking assumptions and beliefs, looking at the structure of those assumptions and beliefs, and then finding a common, explicit vision that aims for a desired outcome. (Whether that outcome is reached successfully is another matter.) But none of this can happen without language. And putting thought, feeling, or words into an explicit structure that allows communication between two or more people is writing. At least as far as design is concerned.

This is what I do. This is what I hope to explore in this space.

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