Join Petrula Vrontikis for an in-depth discussion in this video Peter Lunenfeld, UCLA, part of Real-World Design: Live Presentations from Creative Leaders.
(ambient music) - And now for a complete change of pace. (audience chuckles) Our final presenter's work includes media philosophy, interactive technologies, art and design theory and the digital humanities. He's a professor at the design media arts department at UCLA and core faculty in the digital humanities program. He was a faculty here at Art Center for many years and it's great to see him back.
His books include The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading, winner of the 2003 Dorothy Lee prize. Digital Humanities, co-authored by Anne Burdick, Joanna Drucker, Todd Presner and Jeffery Schnapp. USER: Info Tech demo, Snap to Grid and the Digital Dialectic, all from MIT Press. Please welcome Peter Lunenfeld. (audience applause) - So, first I'd thank to thank Petrula for bringing me back here.
One of the, I guess, dirty secrets of my career was that I got a PhD in film from UCLA. Came to Arts Center one time when my wife was teaching here, took one look around and said "I want to be here." And then spent the next 15 years here, essentially getting what amounted to a second PhD in design. And design thinking and design theory. And I think basically just design love. I fell in love with design and I've tried to bring it into the kind of work that I do.
And the kind of work that I do at base is I sit by myself in a room and I think and I write and that's what I like to do. And so, when I'm asked to come to an event like this, I always think of it as a kind of box that I have to unpack. And so, the name of this box is the power of media and I decided that what I'd do is I'd try and talk today about what people expect I'm gonna talk about, which is the experience of post-print.
Like what happens after print and when the book is dead and all the rest of that crap that I don't believe in. What I believe in, is I believe in print plus. And I believe that design can bring a certain level of engagement with media. I believe that media can add new ways of forming, creating and taking in knowledge. And so what I thought I'd do tonight in preface to sort of the real reason to be here, which is actually to have a discussion, I thought I'd show some of the work that I've done over the years and you know, talk about it and then try to point out how I think media adds to a deepening of meaning, rather than a distraction from meaning.
So, my first example or demo is the idea of transmedia. And I'm gonna blow through this really fast because this is what I did early in the millennium, as we can now say, right. I did a series of books with really interesting and creative and wonderful designers and really brilliant thinkers. And they included Brenda Laurel, who was at the time the chair of the media design program here, called Utopian Entrepreneur and that was designed by Denise Gonzales Crisp who was also here then.
Writing Machines, by N. Katherine Hayles, who's now at Duke, and that was designed by Anne Burdick, about who you will be hearing more. And then Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling, who actually worked on that while he was a visionary in residence at Arts Center. And that was designed by Lorraine Wild. And the whole point of these books was to take design and apply it to really deep, complex and interesting thinking in order to turn private theory into public discourse and media experimentation into cultural intervention.
Again, I'm not gonna spend that much time, I'll mention a little bit more about this one. This was Rhythm Science by Paul D Miller, aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid. And there were really four ways of making meaning with this book. The book itself obviously offered text, that was the first one. There was a lot of work trying to think through what, what magazines bring, the poll textual, I called it. And then obviously we we're trying to create a visual object.
And then finally, in the back of the book, we inserted a historical object that most of the people in this room will have never heard of, a CD. And so, there'd be music as well, so a final way, an aural way of getting some of Paul's ideas and Paul's arguments. After that, I was really interested in trying to take some of the experiments that came up in the media work project and pushed them a little bit harder.
And I ended up working with Mieke Gerritzen, who was head of the Sandberg Instituut at that point in the Netherlands and now runs the Museum of the Image in Breda in the Netherlands. And she actually is someone who is known in Holland of all places, she's one of their most famous designers and also the only one who refuses to use more than one font. That's it, she said "Helvetica's fine, I'll just keep using it.
And part of what we really wanted to do and in a review someone really caught this, they said that "we were trying to turn the idea of design up to an 11." So each page was supposed to be a poster. This was, or at least that was one of the kind of concepts and this was from an essay called Solitude Enhancement Machines, 4chan users will understand what I'm talking about.
And so she designed the most phallic joystick I've ever seen for one of those pages. And again, all of these things are available and still in print, which is nice. And I sort of felt, this came out in 2005 and then I started to write a book that I thought would come out within two years, it took me seven. It just took a long, long time to write a book called The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading.
And when I came to give it form I really wanted to step back from this and I'll get to the app in a minute. But I worked with Brian Roettinger, brilliant young graphic designer in Los Angeles. And one of the things that we really wanted to do was we wanted to get a kind of level of typographic and book design excellence and a gestalt that was going to be one where the writer and the designer were together. And I literally tried to write to design.
I tried, I sat down with him after I'd done a full, completely edited version of the book, I gave it to him, he worked out a template, he designed it, and then we went back through every page to get every page to look exactly the way we wanted it. So, it's a 200 plus page book with no widows and no orphans. This doesn't happen with kind of critical, historical, theoretical work and in retrospection I'm not even sure why it was so important to me, but it was really, it was important that every page be perfect.
And so I was willing to write a little bit more or edit a little bit back to be able to do this. And working with Brian was really a wonderful experience of trying to get to a certain kind of ideal, right. Thinking about Plato and the ideal, we were really trying to search for that. As Eric said, every time you look back at a project, you always say "If I'd done that a little bit differently." And this, you know, I think there's one page that I look and I say "We really should've worked on that one harder." But, I was also fully aware that doing this kind of work in the 21st century was not gonna be enough.
I couldn't just do a book about this without thinking about the interrelationships between what I was writing about, which was the computer as a culture machine and the computer itself. And so, I started to think about how you can build an idea of affordance. Now, when I talk to most academic audiences there's this complete blankness when I use the word affordance. Generally, when I talk at Art Center, there's only half blankness, which is a really good thing.
I mean, affordance is, actually, just how many, any industrial designers, anybody know what I mean when I'm talking about affordance? Okay, essentially affordances are the kind of cognitive psychological expectations and... tools that we get from our very environment. There's not a person in this room who looks at that door right there and looks at the piece of metal and doesn't know what to do.
Plates are for pushing. What's a knob for? A knob is for turning. Right? Basically, and I think this also gets back to what, I think you were talking about earlier when you were talking about like trying to get like the JFK Cuban missile thing down and down and down and the Melbourne thing down and down and down. In other words, how can you, and the phrase is lessen the cognitive load on the user.
Users have cognitive loads that they come in with and so trying to come up with this is one of the things that I was kind of interested in. And so, I worked with a really great team to develop an app that was gonna explore not the additive qualities of text, right? What's the first thing that happens in multimedia, if people even still use that word. Like, you've got a piece of text and some genius says, "Why, if you added in an animation, it'd be great.
And if you added sound that would be fantastic. And how about embedding a movie?" And then you've got something that's really not about text anymore. Like, what if you just started to think about what the new technology, right, this pad, right, that people carry around. What if you can start to think about, well what if you're just gonna restrict yourself to working with text? Text alone. And so, you know, I'm not gonna... This is available, it's on the app store. It's called GenText and it takes the last paragraph, if only.
No, it takes the last chapter of my book which is called Generations. Which is really a history of the computer as a culture machine and makes it possible to kind of go through, let's see... There we go. To go through the text as though it were almost a pyramid. And so the very tip of the pyramid is just the title, then you can start moving around back and forth. But really then you can go and you can find, obviously the little white dots are your fingers, but if I put your fingers in there you can't see what's happening.
But the idea is to be able to shrink the text up back and forth and again, you have to write for the design of this. You have to write the title, you have write the tweetable description, you have to do the one-page summary and then you even have to build in how are the footnotes going to be doing that. So, all of these experiments that I've been talking about can be brought together in a rubric that we call the digital humanities. It's a new way of thinking, especially within the research university, of how you can take our oldest concerns, our concerns about literature, our concerns about art, our concerns about philosophy, our concerns about religion.
All the things that humans have been thinking about since humans have been thinking, and tie them together with everything from GPS to you know, large text database analysis to whatever it is we can come up with. And I think we saw a really great example of that in the JFK piece that we saw about the Cuban Missile Crisis. And how do you write about this? How do you come to grips with this new emerging way of thinking about the world? And what we decided to do, the group of us, there were five people who wanted to write a collaborative text.
It's not five people writing individual texts that are then slapped together on that. I've done that. These are five people who really wanted to work together in the way that designers, that architects work together. And we actually plotted out the form of the book in a series of charretes. And this was not the way that people usually write a book together. And we ended up with a really strong (audio degrades) because one of the co-authors is Anne Burdick from Media Design Practices here at Art Center.
And one of us comes out of German literature, but he's done a lot of work on building HyperCities projects. Another person is from information studies and has done wonderful work on like interactive bibliographies. Third person, no, fourth person is at Harvard at MetaLAB who is an expert in everything from Dante to Italian futurism to contemporary design.
So, we really had this sense that design itself, all the things that we've been talking about tonight, can be become absolutely central to how we think the most important thoughts in the newest possible ways. The point is not to get to the old answers faster, but to ask new questions and ideally generate entirely new questions. So... I've got about two minutes left and I thought I'd switch over to talk about what is nearest and dearest to my heart right now, which is a book that I'm writing about Los Angeles.
I'm kind of stepping back a little bit from thinking about the new or the next and thinking about the history of a place that I've been in for a quarter of a century that I dearly and truly love. And so I'm starting to write a series of essays. And I'm trying to come up with different ways of embedding them in new environments. And again, to bring new modes of knowledge formation to bear. So the first one I'll talk about is dynamic.
And it's actually a piece that I wrote for a magazine called the Believer called Gidget on the Couch, Freud, Dora no, not that Dora and the Austro-Hungarian Roots of Surfing. And if you follow this up here, it begins in this journal and then gets ported to the web. Right, we kind of expect that. But these are materially different, then it was collected and put in the best of the... of the Believer book called Read Hard.
And then I was actually very lucky, I got a fellowship from USC and their vectors program to turn it into something dynamic. And I was able to work and again, I can't do any of these things that I've been showing, I really believe in working with other people and I've always needed people exactly like you and I really hope that when you go out into the working world you seek out, for some odd reason, people like me. Because I mean, I was telling Petrula, I'm a believer that there's a...
Like, you pimp your friends up until a certain age and then you stop pimping your friends. You actually start paying them. And I've never been able to pay my friends what they can make on the open market, but I pay them something. So don't go with a pimp, but find somebody who's willing to invest the same amount of effort and thinking into how to raise the money to do these kinds of projects. Right, even if it's not as much as you'd get as your day rate. But you will get really interesting content. And so I was able to work with Dmiti Siegel, who at that point was the chief web designer for Urban Outfitters.
Me, Urban Outfitters, guess who could pay more. Yes, you've already figured that out. But couldn't talk about Freud and Vienna now, could he? At that site. So let's take a look at like a minute of this... movie. And this is kind of an example of of what I used to teach here and come up with as a kind of term. Which is design cinema.
And you'll see what I mean from this small clip. So, it's basically, well you'll see. We build our pictures about culture from lots of different pigments and different ways of holding the brush. That's how we paint a portrait of when and how we live. And that's why I thought it would be really interesting to look at modernism which in its Southern California variant became truly a dominant style of building, at least in that way the early California modernists like Rudolph Schindler, like Richard Neutra, opened up a dialogue between inside and outside and created a new concept of what constitutes flow from the exterior to the interior and back again.
A way of building that simply isn't possible in a frozen place like Vienna. That's fine. I talk about Vienna and these expatriate modernists here because actually the most famous surfer in Malibu's history was the son of a Hungarian hussar, his name is Miki Dora, Miklos Sandor Dora. And when I wrote the piece I talked about the inside outside flow of California architecture.
To be able to go to the Schindler house and actually as I'm saying that to be able to move through I think makes it clear to people who don't really have a great understanding of what that, you know, that essence of California modernism is. And I'm planning to do more of these in the future. I've done another chapter which was essentially about how Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner are the same person, they just have different demographics.
And I did a performance of that piece, Mika Harrison, when she was the visionary in residence at Art Center a couple years ago in 2008 did one of her big power shows and she informed that I had backup dancers only the day of. So I don't know if I'm going to be doing that again. It was certainly fun while it lasted. And now, I guess, remember when I said you should try and find people like me, you should fine people exactly, actually you should find me.
Because right now I'm writing a piece about how LA is really the only place I can think of where two major musical movements were destroyed by police. And it's called Riot's Going On and it's about how the LAPD destroyed the Central Avenue jazz scene in the fifties and the LA Sheriffs Department destroyed the LA pop movement in 1966. And I'm gonna just close by saying that I've always been both interested and horrified by these Starck panels, that's what they're called.
So Phillipe Starck did the way finding and historical information for the city of Paris. And there's a lot of them and they're all over. I'm not crazy about it but I will say that Paris being Paris and Parisians being Parisians, boy, they know their history. And they care about it and they put it up and I think that when you think about Los Angeles, I can't think of a single important historical marker. No one, okay I got a question. How many of you have ever been on Rodeo Drive? Okay, I've got pretty close to a majority.
How many of you know that smack dab in the middle of it, right across the street from the Prada store is a Frank Lloyd Wright building that was his model for the Guggenheim. Okay, we do a terrible job of letting people know about it. So what I wanna do with this project is I want to figure out a way to do historical markers that can engage with precisely this sort of trans intermedia and mobile media issues that Eric was talking about and I'd like them to be pirate radio transmitters because it's all about great music.
And I'd like it to be locative, I'd like it to based right there and since I don't have a single one of those skills I'd like you to come and help me, I will find some money. So, with that I would like to say thank you very much and it's always a great pleasure to be here. (audience applause)
The second round of the series, recorded in late 2014, features Erich Joiner from the design firm Tool, Dave Bullock from the crowdfunding site CrowdRise, and Peter Lunenfield from UCLA talking about the power of media in design. The first panel features the 3x3 group: YO | LAI | DO event, featuring Yo Santosa (Ferroconcrete), David Lai (Hello Design), and Chris Do (BL:ND). This transmedia trio presents projects from the fields of branding, web, and motion design, touching on the challenges of running their own firms and the importance of story, inspiration, and constant evolution.
Art Center professor and lecture series leader Petrula Vrontikis guides both panels in round-table discussions about managing client expectations, overcoming professional uncertainty, and much more.