Rhode Island School of Design
Jacobs by Marc Jacobs for Marc by Marc Jacobs
in collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Marc by Marc Jacobs
Although the tote bag is currently a popular accessory, it is not a new form. In fact, it has been around for centuries. It arose as a practical solution for carrying a wide variety of goods and still serves this utilitarian role. The tote bag has gained popularity with the growing trend towards sustainable lifestyles. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see shoppers bringing along their own tote bags to the grocery store as an alternative to provided plastic or paper bags. However, the tote bag has recently taken on a new significance as a status symbol.
In 2007, designer Anya Hindmarch’s tote emblazoned with the words “I’m Not A Plastic Bag” was distributed in the Academy Awards’ goodie bags. It was instantly seen on the arms of many celebrities. Hindmarch’s bag became an overnight “must-have” item and was highly sought-after worldwide. Additionally, limited run tote bags produced for artistic or cultural institutions signify the owner’s access to exclusive circles. Unlike most status symbols, the tote bag is unique because it’s not a luxury item. Miranda Purves of The New York Times writes, “Seemingly democratic and certainly affordable (if not free), the tote might be the ideal carryall for these post-luxury recessionary times.”
As graphic designer Dimitri Siegel writes, “one vehicle for graphic design has vaulted to almost instant ubiquity: the canvas tote,” perhaps replacing the tee-shirt as the pervasive canvas for graphic designers. The tote bag represents a dual message, one inherent in its form as a sustainable carry-all, the other in its applied message.
In the context of the thesis, the tote bag provides a portable canvas for a message from each person’s area of investigation. Each student’s screen printed editions represent multiples with the possibility of distribution. The form’s existence and use in the everyday context delivers its message outside of the thesis realm.
A Message on Every Arm, The New York Times, December 9, 2011
Paper, Plastic, or Canvas?, Design Observer, January 20, 2009
Venice Biennale: The “It” Bag, The New York Times, June 2, 2011
Gillian Wearing, Signs that say what you want them to say and
not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say
The picket sign is a hand held sign used as a form of non-violent protest. As a visual form, it is characterized by its portability, disposability, and handmade aesthetic. It is an ephemeral means of communication in the sense that it is always tied to specific moments in history.
Picketing has roots in the labor movement, as protest is achieved by congregating outside a workplace or other venue and trying to dissuade others from going in (“crossing the picket line”). For more than a century, groups of workers and trade unions have often used picketing to protect their employment rights, and for this reason, picketing has been called “the working man’s means of communication.” In recent years, picketing has been used by campaigning and protest groups to publicize their views.
As an artistic form, the picket sign is one often appropriated by designers and artists as its handmade aesthetic encourages and solicits individual participation. The project Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say by British conceptual artist Gillian Wearing is an example. Standing in a busy area of London, Wearing asked people to write down what was on their mind. The project evolved into a series of photographs of people holding their signs. A wide range of thoughts where expressed, from intimate thoughts to strong opinions on Britain’s economic decline in the ’90s. The form of the sign served as a vehicle for expressing private identity in a public arena.
The act of picketing also implies actions performed in space. In The Near Future is a performance-based project by artist Sharon Hayes enacted in sites associated historically with public protests, namely Brussels, London, New York, Paris, Vienna, and Warsaw. Hayes appropriated the tools of public demonstration by staging “anachronistic and speculative” protest actions in these cities. The texts she used in her signs are derived from past and current acts of public speech and protest. The form of the picket sign was used as a means of investigating the figure of the protester and his or her relationship to politics, public space, and public speech.
The picket sign is a public form that allows for multiple voices within the context of a single cause. Once characterized by their site-specific quality, picket signs have evolved alongside our changing understanding of space. Recent global events, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, are evidence of our altered idea of space as the physical expands into the digital and the site-specific extends to the global. The Occupy Wall Street related blog We are the 99 is an example of the extension of public physical space into the digital realm. Some have described it as “virtual picketing” as contributors upload photographs of themselves holding personal messages and handwritten signs. In this way, the blog becomes the extension of the site where individuals congregate to form their picket.
Wall Street Protest: Signs, The New Yorker, October 2011
The 50 Best Picket Signs of 2009, BuzzFeed, 2009
All the Angry People, The New Yorker, George Packer
Your right to peaceful protest, Your Rights: The Liberty Guide to Human Rights, January 2012
“Picketing”, Dictionary of American History, 2003
Tabletops on the cover of the Holt Basic Reading System
A tabletop is a collection of physical objects, arranged on top of a table or elsewhere. It can be a three-dimensional still life that exists as an installation in its own right, or it can be documented photographically as a means of bringing physicality into two-dimensional space.
One tabletop trend involves documenting objects we carry in our wallets, handbags or backpacks. These objects say something about who we are, arguably even more than the clothes we wear. In the movie The Breakfast Club, for example, the basketcase character played by Ally Sheedy dumps out her bag for everyone to see: she literally and figuratively unloads her baggage, hoping that her peers will see who she really is.
Websites such as What Do You Carry and Things Organized Neatly archive typologies of collections from various artists and designers: their studios, bags, and surroundings. These images outline a narrative of the artists and their work, prompting a reflective process for both the image-maker and for other viewers. Additional examples of tabletop-style object collections include Dan Spoerri’s “An Anecdoted Topography of Chance”, Brittny Badger’s photographs, and the RISD 2007 yearbook.
Other tabletop precedents are still life arrangements that convey an external narrative rather than a personal story; these pieces are not directly descriptive of the artist or maker. Lisa Young’s Flocking piece portrays innocence and manipulation through a collection of posed figurines. Laurie Simmons’ Interiors are elaborate dioramas captured with photography.
Some of the posts found on Things Organized Neatly, such as Sam Kaplan’s photograph of Big Red and this cocktail series, suggest a particular sequence of events through their presentation of objects. Others cast their objects as characters in a story, as in this Muji tic-tac-toe board.
Finally, tabletop displays can be an effective means of staging design or artwork. This exhibition poster by Elektrosmog was created by arranging and photographing the art magazines being exhibited. Several presenters and vendors at the New York Art Book Fair and exhibitions of graphic design like the Printing Matters exhibit in the Netherlands also make use of table displays to creatively present their design work.
The supercut is a genre of video that has grown prevalent in today’s digital age, when the tools for video production and media sharing are widely accessible. Andy Baio and Michael Bell-Smith, creators of Supercut.org — an internet archive of supersets — define it as: “A fast-paced montage of short video clips that obsessively isolates a single element from its source, usually a word, phrase, or cliché from film and TV.”
The supercut can be used to communicate a variety of messages (political, TV fan-based, etc). What all supercuts have in common is their appropriation of preexisting footage, usually without legal consent. In this way, supercuts are often a form of commentary about the subject of the original footage.
Supercuts can be broken down into numerous categories. There are rhetorical supercuts, like the 2007 “Hello” Apple iPhone commercial, a video montage that effectively fixes the iPhone as the next logical step in phone evolution. There are informative supercuts, which make a palpable experience of information, like the number of times Bill Clinton says the word “numbers” in his 1997 State of the Union Address. There are critical supercuts, which can be used as a form of cultural critique, as with “I’m Not Here to Make Friends,” a montage of countless America’s Next Top Model contestants saying that very line. There are collections, usually made by obsessed fans of TV/film productions, who compile signature moments, like every time the Big Lebowski says “Dude.” Finally, there are narrative supercuts, like “Charlie Rose” by Samuel Beckett. These edit disparate footage together to construct a brand new story.
Single Serving Sites
The term single serving site is generally attributed to Jason Kottke, who first used the term in a post to his popular, eponymous linkblog kottke.org in February 2008. He wrote, “lately I’ve noticed a pattern of people building Single Serving Sites, web sites comprised of a single page with a dedicated domain name [that] do only one thing.” The form may have been newly popular, but it had a history. The earliest known example, Purple, first appeared in 1994. In 1995, The Last Page of the Internet appeared, informing visitors, “you have reached the very last page of the Internet,” and suggesting, “turn off your computer and go outside.” Other notable early examples from the late ’90s include a horde of animated dancing hamsters at webhamster.com and zombo.com, where … you can do everything.
Kottke’s post appeared right in the middle of a sudden explosion of interest in the form. The simplicity of the form combined with the ease of production and distribution make it a format perfectly suited to respond to the changing zeitgeist of the Internet. Some are sunnily optimistic: Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle; some reference the form’s history Sometimes Red, Sometimes Blue; others are the perfect blend of image, text, and sound: You’re The Man Now Dog. Some are utilitarian and offer up helpful information for a variety of situations. In the kitchen? Try How To Bake A Potato. Can’t remember how to spell that word? Check D-E-F-I-N-I-T-E-L-Y. Or how about Is It Christmas? or Am I Awesome? (Answers: “No”, and “Damn Right!”). The sites are disposable, and many from just a few years ago have broken down or disappeared. Still, with the cost of domain registration hovering around $10 per year, countless others live on unchanged or have faded into a graceful retirement: Is Lost A Repeat?.
The form has also provided a venue for artists, most notably the Dutch-Brazilian artist Rafaël Rozendaal. Beginning with whitetrash .nl and mister nice hands .com in 2001, Rafael has launched a series of vibrantly colored, animated, and frequently interactive single serving sites, with evocative, but sometimes explanatory, URLs. Best navigated via the row of favicons at the top of each site, his three most recent releases are like this forever .com, into time .org, and falling falling .com.
Super Mario Bros
Crumbling maps, a cryptic set of clues, booby traps, and intricate puzzles; ruthless competitors and greedy bandits. These are the essential ingredients of a treasure hunt — the adventurous search for a prize that has existed since ancient times.
Most instances of treasure hunts in popular culture follow this formula. While the most iconic treasure hunters are sea-faring pirates searching for buried chests overflowing with gold coins and sparkly gems, as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island and the film based on it, treasure hunts come in all sorts, from Indiana Jones to National Treasure, from Romancing the Stone to Super Mario Bros. Popular culture has given people numerous opportunities to live vicariously through the riveting adventures of treasure seekers.
Whether you’re a child looking for colored eggs on Easter or a beachcomber scouring the sand with a metal detector, the human spirit thrives on a good dose of mystery and adventure. Perhaps without knowing it, most of us hunt for treasure in our daily lives. Whether rifling through dusty piles at flea markets, tag sales, and used book stores; patiently inspecting the overcrowded racks at H&M; or even sifting through the glut of information on the web, we are acting out a similar seek-and-you-shall-find inclination.
The art world has adopted the treasure hunt premise as well, often offering interesting and unexpected ways of interpreting the format of this historic quest. In 2010, the Christina Ray Gallery organized Mission Edition, a “Social Media-Powered Art Treasure Hunt in New York City.” Guests were invited to follow clues (announced via Foursquare) to locate limited edition prints, which were hidden in public spaces throughout the city.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Walks are similar in format to an audio guide in a museum. Users listen to a voice, which not only gives instructions on where to walk, but also provides insightful ponderings and bits of narrative that connect to one’s immediate surroundings; the soundtrack also includes the sounds of the street, animals, passersby, footsteps, and so on. These guides are simultaneously the treasure map and the treasure itself.
Sound artist Christina Kubisch’s Electrical Walks also asks its user to walk around wearing headphones. However, these headphones are custom programmed to pickup electromagnetic signals from the environment — emissions from sources such as ATMs and subway systems — and convert these signals into sound, giving the user a new awareness of his or her surroundings.
Lastly, there is Robert Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic. This essay and photographic series features the often overlooked, rundown, and banal “monuments” of his hometown of Passaic, NJ — decaying bridges, filthy sewage pipes, and other “non-sites.” In this work, Smithson takes his audience on a treasure hunt of the mundane, looking for beauty and art outside of galleries and museums.
As graphic designers, we have the opportunity to orchestrate an array of treasure hunts, both in physical and virtual spaces.