Image by Katharina Brenner

One of our goals at Eye on Design is to get designer voices on the site, always. This comes in the form of writing: In our op-ed section, Weekend With dispatches, and in essays and reported pieces. Our longform interviews, shorter Q&As, and as-told-to’s are spaces where designers express their opinions, ruminate on the state of the industry, and talk about the issues they care most about. And in the course of putting together our triannual print magazine, we found that bringing designers together to discuss certain topics of interest, frustration, curiosity, or fascination for the industry were incredibly fruitful.

These “roundtable” discussions, as we came to call them, mostly played out over conference call, with an Eye on Design editor or writer playing moderator, group interviewer, or, at times, merely ushering the conversation along. But mostly the discourse flowed among the three to five designers, educators, or creatives who had experience or expertise in the topic of conversation, and through discussion, critique, and sometimes argument pulled at the most interesting threads and sussed out valuable positions.

The roundtables ranged in topics, from Instagram in design education to branding women’s pleasure. The discussions we were creating for the print magazine turned out so well we started to publish them online, too. We love their conversational tone and the way they allow participants to get deep in the weeds without alienating the reader. And of course, we love hearing about the histories and issues that affect the design world straight from the mouths of those who know the most about them. We’ll do more in 2020, but for now, we’re rounding up the must-reads from 2019.

Casey Reas, “Reactive006”

Bauhaus Meets Binary

The first piece we did in the form of a discussion was more of an oral history than a roundtable, in that it traced a specific history through the voices of those who were there. We wanted to talk to the people who were part of Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop (VLW) at MIT Media Lab during the mid-1980s, which inspired a generation of designers to explore the intersection of design and technology just as computers were becoming more widely accessible. In the process, the workshop built a lineage of “creative coders” who, to this day, are shaping the fields of interaction design, graphic design, and new media art.

“We just kept saying, ‘Computers are the future of design.’ People…looked at what we were doing and were like, ‘I don’t know what this is, but it’s not graphic design.’”—David Small

Liz Stinson talked to John Maeda, David Small, Lisa Strausfeld, Golan Levin, Ben Fry, Casey Reas, Lauren McCarthy, and Zach Lieberman about VLW and the programs and educators that succeeded it. In “How Computer Code Became a Modern Design Medium,” they tell the history in their own words.

Illustration by Anna Haifisch

Don’t @ This Design Class

A more recent roundtable also revolved around education and technology, yet this time the topic of discussion was Instagram and how it might be best used in a classroom setting. We went into this one thinking mostly about how Instagram and design education might be at odds. After all, formal education is mostly localized, taking place inside of institution walls, whereas Instagram is global, instant, and available to anyone with an internet connection. As the social media platform tailor-made for visual media, Instagram also can help forge connections—between people, between styles—and grant access to designers and aesthetic traditions that fall outside the often limited range of the traditional canon. Instagram is having an undeniable effect on style and form in contemporary design, so we wondered, how are educators and students making sense of this shift?

“[Instagram] can become a bit of a virtual village center for my students.”—YuJune Park

We were surprised to hear that the educators we invited to discuss this together, Cem Eskinazi, YuJune Park, and Dori Tunstall, all welcomed Instagram into their classrooms and institutions. They found it to be an effective way of building community, making connections, documenting process, and opening students up to all different kinds of design. But they also recognized that Instagram often has a way of divorcing design from its context, and isn’t an ideal platform for critical questions. In “What Is Instagram’s Place in Design Education?” their conversation verged into territory about reuse, appropriation, and misappropriation on social media platforms, and how institutions can provide students the language to talk about it and the tools for understanding it.

Cover of Riposte magazine, issue 11.

Why Make a Print Magazine in 2019?

In April of this year, we put together a roundtable on a topic that had long been occupying our minds: making (and funding) an independent magazine. We were on the fifth issue of our own magazine, finally getting comfortable with the ins and outs of publishing in print, and having many, many of our own conversations with other magazine makers on money, independence, organizational tactics, business models, and growth.

“You don’t know what you don’t know until you fuck up and you learn the lessons.”—Danielle Pender

We found, and still find, that it’s incredibly valuable to have these transparent conversations with others in the field, so we thought, why not open them up so that others can learn from them, too? For “What Does It Really Take to Make an Independent Magazine in 2019?” we gathered together Verena von Pfetten of Gossamer, Beth Wilkinson of Lindsay magazine, and Danielle Pender of Riposte to talk about how they’re making making a magazine work.

Dame branding.

Branding Women’s Pleasure 

The past few years have been both exciting and challenging for companies that make and sell sex toys, especially ones geared toward womxn. While on the one hand, there seem to be more companies than ever making thoughtful, exceptionally-designed products—with a lot of striking, clever branding to boot—there’s still some pretty pervasive gender bias preventing these brands in subtle and obvious ways. Because vibrators are legally classified as novelty items, products that cater to men’s sexual health are more accepted and promoted through mainstream media. Meanwhile, companies associated with women’s pleasure face increased advertising restrictions on social media platforms, in magazines, and public spaces.

“There’s no option here. We have to normalize sex and sexuality. We take profit and activism and put them on the same level of importance.”—Sarah Brown

It’s also harder for sex toy brands to land venture capital, due to a stigma associated with sex. And unlike many consumer products, the leadership behind these brands feel that what they do is inherently political and activist, which comes with its own set of responsibilities. In “Sex Sells, Just Not When It Comes to Branding Women’s Pleasure” Margaret Andersen talks through all of these things with Sarah Brown of Lora DiCarlo, Ti Chang of design at Crave, Alex Fine of Dame Products, Zoe Ligon of Spectrum Boutique, and Polly Rodriguez of Unbound.