NO. 2: WHY AND WHAT TO READ — JANUARY 2016
In Praise of Prose
My parents were avid readers and both made a living from writing (my dad wrote for newspapers, my mom for magazines, and both had been copywriters in advertising). At home I was exposed to a rich variety of books (and magazines and newspapers) and encouraged to read from an early age. However, my passion for reading and for books -- seeking them out for pleasure rather than merely out of a sense of duty -- didn’t really kick-in until my mid-teens (and in response to a very enthusiastic and charismatic English teacher who I desperately wanted to impress). At My Hudgel’s request, I sat down one afternoon and read my first, very short, ‘adult’ novel, Candide by Voltaire, and experienced the joy of complete immersion in some else’s world while also discovering that a satirical portrait of an ‘alien’ culture, written way back when (1759) by someone much older than myself, could still seem extremely funny, irreverent, insightful and relevant to an awkward, unfocused adolescent heavy metal music fan living in London in the 1970’s.
Briefly, some of the things I love most about reading: the emancipating quality of being able to take in information at my own pace; of being able to stop and reflect at will, drifting in and out of the internal, cerebral world to the physical reality one is in at any given moment; the enrichment that comes from exposure to experiences, situations, attitudes and understanding that would otherwise have not occurred to me; the temporary escape from my own, well worn, internal thought patterns and processes; the critical stimuli of exposure to materials that illuminate, baffle, provoke, emote, confirm, contradict, charm, infuriate, etc.; the moments that ring bells, ring true, and leave me breathlessly in awe of a writer’s ability to find the perfect language to express so succinctly a thought I recognize but have struggled to articulate myself; the escape from my own limited experience and understanding, or my current challenging realities and responsibilities by allowing someone else, remotely, to direct my thoughts and experiences for a while; being able to make pages and write notes in the margins.
In times of sickness, despair, depression, reading books has offered me incredible solace and a temporary sanctuary from my own imperfect reality; and expanded my understanding, vocabulary, and options for expression. Books have also, to an immeasurable degree, affected my sense of reality, what I feel and believe, how I view myself and the world, what I wish for, what I fight against, what I aspire to. Reading the last thing at night makes me sleep more soundly, dream more vividly. Reading in the morning gets my brain in gear for the day ahead.
Everything is information, dip into and immerse yourself in as much of it as you can regardless of form or context. Find, in all the wealth of materials on this planet, what resonates specifically with you. Start somewhere, anywhere, and just keep going. Cram your minds with information, any information, because you never know what might prove useful at some point. Books, newspapers, magazines, periodicals, movies, TV, podcasts, music, art, design, the worldwide web, conversation, reflecting and pontificating, are all potentially enriching sources of information. In fact, books as a designed and practical knowledge interface/substrate/medium, and as a democratic and accessible form of information distribution and sharing, may well prove a very short-lived phenomenon (despite their clear historical relevance). But long forms of communication, such as books, are exceptionally richly layered as experiences and the revelations with each new letter, word, with each turn of the page, moving through the information, the information moving through you, are lessons in nuanced expression and effective organization.
Information absorbed this intimately and employing such a heightened degree of focus -- from abstract characters on a page into vivid concepts in your brain -- stays with you, lingers, makes an impression and builds the complexity and depth of the intellectual resources you carry around with you and can call upon and conjure with at any time. Learning the fundamentals of reading and writing is one of the most challenging and complex skills a human being ever undertakes, so having mastered these skills, to some degree or other, it would be a shame not to take advantage of this extraordinary and hard earned expertise.
The Assignment Sheet
Over the years I have had more than a few students claim that they don’t read the assignment sheets provided in their classes. I have begun to wonder if some say this because they don’t want to admit they don’t understand what is being asked of them. Like somehow it is better to seem apathetic rather than to admit a perceived deficiency. I use the word perceived purposefully here, as a lack of understanding is not a deficiency but a state of being a student. Thus I would like to take a moment to offer some of my perspectives on what it means to read an assignment sheet.
First, I would like to propose that the assignment sheet is not a self-contained object; It lives in context to course learning objectives and content, the program, and the instructors’ worldview. Consequently, its language use, opportunities, and limitations are not arbitrary nor are they grounded in the colloquial; they are referential to the discipline and practices of design.
So… where and how does a student begin understanding the context of the discipline?
While there is no map to help you navigate the uncertainty you will feel as you start out on your journey, we in graphic design, for example, offer you a basis for making in our core vocabulary list of elements, principles, actions, and practices. Given one of the focuses of first year is craft-skill acquisition and development the list at its essence a kind of mapping for the language of compositional organization. Thus each first-year student could refer to this list as a support to give language to their making, to directly inform the generation of numerous-making responses for studio-based assignments, for reflection on what an individual makes, to critique the work of peers, and to better understand the learning objectives the assignment sheet is addressing.
Often a not-so-obvious context is that of the individual as each student comes to the program with a variety of skills, goals, experiences, and worldviews. Thus it would be simplistic to think that everyone will experience things the same way, arrive to courses with similar types of experiences, or need the exact same experience to come to an understanding of a specified process. Consider for example this quote from John Dewey, an educator and philosopher, on the conditions of an experience:
“… every experience is the result of interaction between a live creature and some aspect of the world in which he lives. A man does something; he lifts, let us say, a stone. In consequence he undergoes, suffers, something: the weight, strain texture of the surface of the thing lifted. The properties thus undergone determine further doing. The stone is too heavy or too angular, not solid enough; or else the properties undergone show it is for the use for which it is intended. The process continues until a mutual adaption of the self and the object emerges and that particular experience comes to a close.” 
Consequently, while the assignment sheet provides a space for the conditions of an experience it does not guarantee one. Each student will need to lift their own stone and while we have a tendency to think that the act of stone-picking-up is the point of an assignment, that is not necessarily the case; adaptation is key.
It is also important to understand that one student’s stone could be embedded in amongst other stones and they have to engage with multiple experiences before they can even access it. Others may have to pick up twenty stones before they can realize an experience. Others still, may continually pick up the stone and wonder what is the big deal, it is just a stone—and frankly, that is a whole other conversation.
All of these individual aspects contribute to the reading—and thus interpretation—of the assignment sheet. By establishing the assignment sheet into context(s) you can see that reading an assignment sheet is never just simply reading; it is an engagement on multiple levels.
Second, I contend that the assignment sheet is a framework versus a prescription. While the assignment sheet provides the fundamental supporting structure of the assignment it may not overtly contain aspects of design that are challenging to define such as individual will or ethics. Sure you can be guided as to how to make a gouache relief or instructed about the functions of the pathfinder tool in Illustrator, but to be a designer is not only about skill in craft and technology but the ways in which you engage with a project and the making responses that you create based off of those engagements.
Now of course there are elements of the assignment sheet that are prescriptive as they have due dates, specify size, colour limitations, etc. and yes some assignment sheets are very specific in the ways in which they ask you to engage in a particular project which brings us back to the first point about context.
What I really want to emphasize here is that each assignment sheet offers an opportunity—no matter how prescriptive it may seem—for an individual to experience making and thinking through a variety of circumstances. Sometimes it could be about strengthening skills you already have. Other times you could introduce ways of thinking or doing that you may not have considered before. Thus in a way an assignment sheet contains only a portion of the learning objectives; the other portion comes from learning objectives as defined by the individual student in relationship to their goals and specific areas of interest.
To conclude what I have made a case for here is a reframing of how to think about reading an assignment sheet, plus the role it plays in your learning experiences; the state of being a student is not that of a receiver of information but of active and purposeful engagement. Thus consider the assignment sheet as a starting point for exploration, orientation, and contextualization; it is after all one thing to be told about (or to do) something and an entirely different thing to experience it for yourself.
 (Dewey, 2005, p. 45)
We asked people engaged in the arts to share a list of their favourite books. They are reproduced here, for your cerebral pleasure.
Instructor at OCAD University
Reading and making share several common threads in my mind: curiosity, opportunities to see the world through different perspectives, to learn or understand something in a new way, as a form of reflection on thoughts and actions, and to be challenged. The following selections are a smattering of recommendations that are not necessarily about notions of good writing or exemplar text which makes this list a bit personal. I could argue that this is the main point behind sharing narratives in any form; communication is not just about transmission of content, but about sharing beliefs and values and making connections about the human experience.
A Little Dystopia
Battle Royale -- Koushun Takami
The Long Walk -- Stephen King
Ella Minnow Pea -- Mark Dunn
Oryx and Crake -- Margaret Atwood
The Watchmen -- Alan Moore & David Gibbons
Emotional Design: Why we Love or Hate Everyday Things -- Donald Norman
Stuff -- Daniel Miller
White -- Kenya Hara
Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary -- Naoto Fukasawa & Jasper Morrison
No More Rules -- Rick Poynor
Short Stories That Stay with Me
Unless the Eye Catch Fire -- PK Page
Pop Art -- Joe Hill
The Victorian Chaise-Longue -- Marghanita Laski
Feeling a Bit Queazy
I Am Legend -- Richard Matheson
The Hunger -- Knut Hamsun
Lolita -- Vladimir Nabokov
Pontypool Changes Everything -- Tony Burgess
(Augment this group by watching these: Upstream Colour by Shane Carruth and The Battery by Jeremy Gardner.)
Student at OCAD University
A Taxonomy of Office Chairs -- Jonathan Olivares
Never Modern -- 6a architects & Irenee Scalbert
2G N.63 Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen
Takuma Nakahira 1000 -- Takuma Nakahira
Post-fordism and its Discontents -- Gal Kim
The Violence of Participation -- Markus Miessen
Maarten Van Severen Work Source Material -- Morrison, Olivares & Velardi
What is Critical Spatial Practice? -- Nikolas Hirsch & Markus Miessen
SQM: The Quantified Home -- Space Cavier
Instructor at OCAD University
Semiology of Graphics: Diagrams, Networks, Maps -- Jacques Bertin
The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization -- Alberto Cairo
Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data -- Stephen Few
Visualizing Data: Exploring and Explaining Data with the Processing Environment -- Ben Fry
How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design -- Alan M. MacEachren
Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography -- Arthur H. Robinson
Cartographies of Time -- Daniel Rosenberg & Anthony Grafton
Information Visualization: An Introduction -- Robert Spence
Visualization Analysis and Design -- Tamra Munzer
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information -- Edward R. Tufte
Information Visualization: Perception for Design -- Colin Ware
Student at OCAD University
The Story of the Sahara -- San Mao
Solutions 1-10: Umbauland -- Ingo Niermann
The World Without Us -- Alan Weisman
Mono.Kultur #32: Martino Gamper, All Channels Personal -- Emily King & Kai von Rabenau
Animal Farm -- George Orwell
Pale Blue Dot -- Carl Sagan
To Live -- Yu Hua
Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist -- Peter Hall, Michael Bierut
Soul Mountain -- Gao Xingjian
Designer in London
Life, a User’s Manual -- Georges Perec
The Unknown Craftsman -- Soetsu Yanagi
The Roots of Modern Design -- Herin Schaefer
Student at OCAD University
Timequake -- Kurt Vonnegut
Do It: The Compendium -- Hans-Ulrich Obrist
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America -- Thomas King
The Bell Jar -- Sylvia Plath
Building Stories -- Chris Ware
Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work edited by Judith Rudakoff
Design Studio in Toronto
Bohdan: Confessions of an Advertising Man -- David Ogilvy & Sir Alan Parker
Ali: Design as Art -- Bruno Munari
Tucker: The Shock Doctrine -- Naomi Klein
Lisa: No One Belongs Here More Than You -- Miranda July
Marcello: Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? -- Seth Godin
Symon: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle -- Haruki Murakami
Instructor at OCAD University
Books That Were Particularly Inspiring For Me At Art School
Ways of Seeing, About Looking, Another Way of Telling & A Fortunate Man by John Berger, interesting perspectives on how we view and evaluate the image.
Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek, the first book I read about design, it destroyed all the assumptions I had previously held dear.
Various Monograms about the artists John Heartfield, a collage artist/graphic designer who challenges and ridiculed Nazi Party propaganda in 1940’s Germany.
Selected Writings by Antonin Artaud, a performance artist/radical theatre actor and director whose life and work pushed beyond what was considered acceptable.
The Medium is the Massage by Marchall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, which challenges my assumptions about what a book could do.
Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan, as astute and relevant today as when it was written 50 years ago.
The Journals of Jean Cocteau, my first taste of bohemian thinking and expression.
Four Screenplays by Ingmar Bergman, stark and poetic storytelling.
The Complete Little Nemo by Windsor McKay, a ridiculously inventive weekly newspaper comic strip from the 1920’s riffing on Freudian dream theory!
A Selection of Books I Have Regularly Recommended to Students
(I am painfully aware that most of the books listed in this section are written by white men which is neither an accurate reflection of the demographics of our students or the current art and design professions or how wisdom is distributed amongst the sexes or ethnicities, but is sadly reflective of the historical domination of Caucasian white males in both academic and the arts and my own too limited exposure to works of greater cultural diversity.)
A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, an important consideration of the tendency for dominant human civilizations throughout history to self-destruct and the catastrophic potential of this happening on a global scale.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations by Edward R. Tufte, three impeccably written, designed and illustrated books demonstrating numerous approaches to information visualization.
The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design by Vilem Flusser, accessible and provocative theory connecting numberous aspects of human designed culture in an intriguing, poetic, and provocative fashion.
Speculative Everything by Dunne & Raby, a ‘Critical Design’ primer for developing alternative design practices that challenge and question the assumptive, service culture or mainstream design and relationship to its audience.
The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje, revealing and stimulating conversations shared by the Canadian author, Ondaatje, and one of Hollywood’s most accomplished movie editors, Murch, considering the richly layered relationships between sound, image and mind.
Looking Closer (a series of publications) Edited by Michael Beirut, Jessica Helfand, Steven Heller, Rick Poyner, etc., historical and contemporary critical writing about graphic design from a wide range of sources and commentators.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a thorough consideration of contemporary food production and culture and the ethical minefields one has to navigate for something so basic and essential as a nutritious meal. Hopefully, it will put you off eating at MacDonald’s ever again.
Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice by Tony Fre, a book that seriously considers, and attempts to articulate, the need for a more profound understanding and application of sustainable practices within political, and particularly, design culture in order to avoid potential ecological disaster. Ambitious, provocative and, one hopes, inspiring.
Shift: Positions, Shift: Perspectives, Shift: Approaches, Shift: Conventions, etc, and Rivet (editions 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) by various authors and editors, OCAD U’s very own Student Press publications. Largely featuring upper year student work and thesis research considerations across all disciplines.
Student at OCAD University
Persepolis -- Marjane Satrapi
Art Power -- Boris Groys
Tender Buttons -- Gertrude Stein
Drive Yourself Sane Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics -- Kodish & Kodish
Safari Honeymoon -- Jesse Jacobs
Sign Painters -- Faythe Levine & Sam Macon
The Grammar of Ornament -- Owen Jones
To Say the Very Least -- Matthew Brannon
One for me and One to Share -- Dave Dyment & Gregory Elgstrand
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- Robert M. Pirsig
Part-Time Instructor at OCAD University & Part-Time Designer in Toronto
Proposed Readings for Somewhat Fictional Classes
Color Theory: Bluets -- Maggie Nelson
Speculative Design: The Left Hand of Darkness -- Ursula K. Leguin
Life Drawing: 10:04 -- Ben Lerner
History: Austerlitz -- W. G. Seabald
Urban Planning: Open City -- Teju Cole
Physical Computing: Us Conductors -- Sean Michaels
Poetics: Citizen -- Claudia Rankine
Graphic Narrative: My Friend Dahmer -- Derf Backderf
Computational Art: Life A User’s Manual -- Georges Perec
Social Psychology: My Brilliant Friend -- Elena Ferrante
Knauf and Brown
Design Studio in Vancouver
Diamond Age -- Neal Stephenson
His Dark Materials Trilogy -- Philip Pullman
The First Men -- Howard Fast
Design as Art -- Bruno Munari
The Laws -- Plato
An Essay on Morals -- Philip Wylie
Walden -- Henry David Thoreau
2001 A Space Odyssey -- Arthur C. Clarke
Half Asleep in Frog Pyjamas -- Tom Robbins
Illustrator in Toronto
One River -- Wade Davis
The First Bad Man -- Miranda July
Seven Days in the Art World -- Sarah Thornton
America -- Jean Baudrillard
The Golden Spruce -- John Vaillant
Paying for It -- Chester Brown
Persepolis -- Marjane Satrapi
Sign Painters -- Fayth Levin, Sam Macon & Ed Ruscha
Wendy -- Walter Scott
Stone Butch Blues -- Leslie Feinberg