Designers YuJune Park and Caspar Lam met while getting their MFAs from Yale, and started the New York-based Synoptic Office before they had even graduated. It’s a fitting genesis for a practice concerned first and foremost with making the space to think about long-term, ideas and consider how the design industry is changing and moving forward. “We saw design as a way of asking questions about the world, and understanding the visual world around us,” says Lam. “We wanted to find a way to consolidate those things into a practice where we could make work in that space while still pursuing our interests.”
The result is a design studio that lies at the intersection of technology, education, design, and culture. For the past seven plus years, Park and Lam, and now a junior designer and team of about five freelance designers, have worked with the likes of the Met Museum, machine-learning startup Yewno, digital archiving non-profit Artstor, and a Hong Kong-based rooftop farm. On the Synoptic Office website, these projects sit alongside descriptions of classes like Translations, a design seminar the pair teaches at Parsons, where they are both full-time professors (and where, until recently, Park was the program director of Communication Design). Lam and Park’s educational work and design work are given equal weight: they consider making, thinking, writing, and teaching to be part of a cyclical pattern, with each aspect continually informing the other.
From the beginning, learning has always been an crucial part of that model. “In grad school, we were asking ourselves, ‘where is our industry moving? What kind of work do we want to make one day? What does it mean to have a research-driven practice and to carve out space for experimental works?’” says Park.
“We saw design as a way of asking questions about the world, and understanding the visual world around us.”
In design, the phrase “research-driven practice,” as frequently as it is used, is often murky in meaning. Doesn’t research drive most design work? Is the term meant to be somewhat synonymous with “cultural work,” (as opposed to “commercial work”) and if so, how cleanly can that line really be drawn?
For Synoptic, “research-driven” is meant relatively literally: it alludes to one of the most interesting and defining aspects of Lam and Park’s studio, which is that they consider teaching to be a part of it, not something they do on the side. “To us, it seemed that there were two options: you can do research in a vacuum, on your own [as with most client-based project], or you can do it in a community,” Lam says. “Because of the way our society is structured, if you research in a community, it’s usually an academic community. So that’s where teaching comes in.
“I think many people think of [teaching] as imparting knowledge onto another person. But we think of teaching as more of a dialogue, because students will have something to teach you or offer you in return—specifically, their perspectives and their viewpoints. For us that type of dialogue is integral to figuring out what our culture is and what design is.”
One example of how that theory works out in practice is Synoptic’s Artstor Arcades web app. In the interaction design courses Lam and Park teach, they explore with their students the concept of user participation: what does it means for someone to interact with a screen? And how might the screen actually respond back, rather than be a passive entity? These ideas came into play in a very tangible way when Artstor, where Lam worked before starting Synoptic, approached the office to help them catalog a collection of contemporary photographs by D. James Dee. A photographer who documented New York’s SoHo neighborhood and the city’s gallery scene over the past 40 years, Dee’s photographs were not labeled, nor did they have any metadata associated with them. Since Artstor digitizes collections such as Dee’s so that they can be used by researchers and institutions, the organization needed a way to tag the 125,000 uncatalogued photographs with the appropriate data so that they would be accessible.
Synoptic’s solution was to create a crowdsourced game that brought the general public in to help tag the work with data. Players were tasked with entering terms for a selection of key fields that would help identify the work (date, title, artist) and were given points based both on the number of data fields they could fill and the answers that matched that of other players. The higher volume of matches, the better the data. That base data allowed for it to be more quickly analyzed and cataloged by experts. Within two months, Artstor was able to release 500 images from the collection tagged with metadata.
“To us, it seemed that there were two options: you can do research in a vacuum, on your own, or you can do it in a community.”
Synoptic explored similar ideas about bringing art to life in digital spaces in a collaboration between Parsons and the Met, which manifested as a design seminar exploring how to contextualize the Met’s collection through interactive media. Recently, the studio also worked with IB5K, an organization that supports civically-minded design projects, to tackle the unwieldy data of the U.S. government. Unlike the Artstor project, the problem of designing the Congress Now mobile app was less with sourcing data than with structuring it in a way that could be accessed and understood. The app provides a real-time look at the House’s legislative agenda, by bringing together information that was previously being stored on several different government websites, and organizing it into up-to-date daily, weekly, and yearly calendars.
Despite what both their classes and their design work suggest, Lam and Park haven’t always been interested in interactive design. Park has a furniture background, which after going back to school for graphic design turned into a specialized practice of rendering graphics and typography in unconventional materials, like plastic or glass. She created material-based graphics for New York-based firm 2×4 and for London-based consultancy Graphic Thought Facility.
“[Our focus on interactive design] goes back to our focus on systems, and systemic ways of thinking, but it’s also just a product of our time. I don’t think it’s feasible for someone to call themselves a designer and just make posters anymore. You can do that, but it’s just not the world that we live in and the technology that we use every day.”
“We recognize that our industry is shifting,” adds Park. “It used to be that design was experienced in a moment, and by that I mean as a package design or a poster or a logo or a billboard. Increasingly what we see is that design is experienced over time; it becomes a living thing.”
“I don’t think it’s feasible for someone to call themselves a designer and just make posters anymore.”
Remaining in an academic environment while still running their studio has allowed Lam and Park to explore ideas and understand the factors affecting design. In turn, they’ve been able to examine the changing nature of design more holistically, and more deeply. Academia balances out the more insular aspects of their practice—like designing interactive experiences, or writing about particular projects—by broadening the scope, and shifts their approach to time from the short-term to the long-term.
“In design, it’s easy to get lost in each individual project, and to some extent that’s really healthy,” says Park. “But the interesting thing about teaching is that it allows you the space to ask yourself bigger questions. Not where you’re going to be tomorrow, but where you will be, and where the industry will be in five years or ten years.”