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Confessions of a Spam Crafter

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Issue: 42 Section: Arts Geography: USA

January 15, 2007

Confessions of a Spam Crafter

A designer of "junk mail" reflects on the 2006 Art Center Design Conference

by Sharon Mizota

Does junk mail have to be ugly or cheap-looking?

In her opening remarks at the 2006 Art Center Design Conference "Radical Craft," Chee Pearlman dissed my job. The esteemed former editor of I.D. magazine (and the conference's Guest Program Director) compared "junk mail" -- form letters that try to look like personal correspondence -- to a hand-written thank you note from her niece, disparaging the former as "fake craft." While it's hardly a fair comparison -- pitting a corporation against a relative -- the distinction immediately disappointed me. I make my living designing "junk mail" and "spam." The conference was only minutes old and already I had learned that my craft was "fake."

Of course, Pearlman's comment was not the only indication that perhaps I didn't belong there. The Art Center Design Conference was a very expensive (standard conference fee: $1,250), corporate-sponsored event that lured an audience with luminaries such as fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, Apple product designer Johnny Ive, Pulitzer-nominated author Dave Eggers and graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister. The venue was accordingly showy, even a little Las Vegas. Walking into the main session hall, you passed through a rainbow-coloured curtain of mist glowing with the GE logo. Steelcase supplied all of the conference seating -- rows and rows of brand-new, high-tech task chairs and stylish leather armchairs -- and the souvenir conference tote was a full-size messenger bag from Timbuk2.

It was odd then, in a venue so pumped up on high-tech and corporate endorphins, that the conference theme was a re-valuing of "craft," a word usually reserved for basket-weaving and needlepoint. Keynote speaker and The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik described craft as an almost Zen-like, spiritual undertaking: something learned by doing, intelligent without being intellectual. Jane Olson of Human Rights Watch related how knitting enabled her to find common ground with traumatized Bosnian refugees while providing them with a means of income long after her visit was over. Martin Fisher of non-profit KickStart discussed how the company's portable, human-powered irrigation pump is helping sub-Saharan African farmers out of poverty. Radical craft indeed, these practices are actually changing people's lives in substantive ways.

Like anything else, junk mail can be "crafted" to show care and consideration.

As much as I was in awe of the parade of spacecraft designers, oceanographers, inventors and Academy-award-winning filmmakers who rounded out the first day, I couldn't help but wonder how any of this marvelous stuff applied to my own design practice. With the possible exception of advertising (which is much sexier), direct marketing is the most bald-faced and disposable form of marketing. A direct communication from the corporation to the consumer, it's one step up from telemarketing and low on the totem pole of design disciplines. If "radical craft" is, as it was defined throughout the conference, the act of creating something that solves a problem for someone else, then direct marketing is its ultimate perversion. Not only does it substitute a corporation for a person, but it inverts the relationship so that the only problem it solves is the company's need to make a buck. By the end of the first day, I felt like a shallow poser, a huckster, a hack. Yes, design could change the world, but by that standard, I could hardly call myself a designer.

Thankfully, the second day of the conference included some less weighty presentations: Claudy Jongstra's incredible felt creations, made from the wool of her flock of 200 rare sheep; advertising guru Jeff Goodby's impressive reel of hilarious television spots; Isaac Mizrahi working the room like a manic talk show host and the achingly lovely everyday poetry of former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins. At times, the conference's reach was so broad, that it risked turning into an overly grandiose survey of all of human creation, without respect for important differences. For example, it seemed disrespectful to frame both the subsistence needs of poor farmers and the haute couture demands of rich socialites as "design problems." Some projects are clearly more vital and necessary than others; but some hierarchies, such as those between the disciplines, could use debunking. Is there necessarily more craft in a poem than in a piece of felt?

It was this idea -- that every kind of design has its own “craft"; that there is artistry in even the lowliest of tasks -- that redeemed my conference experience. I was even inspired to stop joking that I design "spam." Direct marketing is actually the most customizable one-on-one form of mass communication. It only seems "fake" when it hasn't been delivered to the right person. And it doesn't have to be ugly or cheap-looking. Like anything else, it can be "crafted" to show care and consideration. The best design advice came from Jonathan Ive talking about his own practice: "We focus on a small amount of stuff and care about the few things that we do." It's easy to lose that focus in the daily flurry of deadlines, difficult clients and office politics. The conference helped me see that underneath all of the details, my obligation as a designer is to get down to the root of the problem, in order to see it anew. Now that's radical.

This article originally appeared in the Summer-Fall, 2006 issue of CMYK. Reprinted with permission.

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