cruise control to elsewhere

Originally posted on 5.14.2020 on previous website version:

collection of thoughts around Ambi font collection (Type West)

Context: [1][2][3]

I think a lot of people will make a sculpture when they really want to write a paragraph… it takes a lot to make art as critique work.

— Betsy Ellison (source)

Ambi was an attempt at contributing to Vietnamese American visual culture, which is nascent as the first major wave of Vietnamese immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the 1970’s. The project stems from examining the multi-genre typography Vietnamese American or Asian American food packaging and restaurants and extends into layered discourse on Asian American identity. The ambition was to have the type collection itself be an entryway to critically thinking about racial identity and reclamation, hegemonic culture, and the treatment of the banal in design. How does a set of fonts (whether that be a conventional typeface family or a collection) affect typography, and in turn reflect culture broadly (visual, ethnic, identity)? When are fonts actually salient?

Before typography came language

I struggled throughout the project because I did not have all of the language, oral and visual, to communicate my vision. The thoughts were still developing and not quite ready to become things. I unlearned the design process a bit too thoroughly… I was/am writing and editing as I go along. Ambi is a draft.

The people who have largely given me language to think through these ideas are the poets Paul Tran and Ocean Vuong.


1. Exigence

Reflecting on my application to Type West (submitted on Halloween 2020?):

Material of language: Ellmer Stefan in his Letterform Archive talk references a 1960s French-speaking writing group Oulipo which described itself as a workshop for potential literature, what to Ellmer is “type in a nutshell”. I love how potential literature activates type. Potential culture extends it further.

Poetic & artistic: meaning the type itself, its form and system, says something beyond what has already been said. It participates in culture. It encourages dialogue. It reflects critical thought. It does not only look at itself. It influences linguistics and the perception of language.

A rare place…: one in which by circumstance, enthusiasm, support, encouragement I have been afforded a voice, an audience, a potential commmunity. I enter young but am unsure I’ll stick around. There are more effective mediums with through which I can affect meaningful change. It’s such a focused discipline which makes it a bit more manageable to learn, but it lacks reach. Asking all these big questions through type makes me wonder what the fuck I’m doing here. Culture drives type more so than type drives culture. It was therapeutic at one point, but now I perhaps know too much to find that unedited joy, and to be able to focus on something so small. I see beauty in its intersections, a potential to practice multiple interests. But it is not the only creative intersectional space.

Library: my favorite part of my project Zazz is how it is an avenue to a hoard of links and writing about typography, technology, questions about culture, economy, labor. The font is only the surface. My favorite fonts and foundries are similar.

without a group…: I came up creating in isolation, in the corner of bedrooms, at my own desk in school. Art and design were self-serving endeavors, an antidote to the routine rigor of memorizing facts for tests or being drilled essay after essay. Nowadays I don’t find much value in centering myself in it, and now that it is work, it is no longer therapeutic. I want to make work in groups and communities that have something to say. Socially I struggle with that. I am still learning how to collaborate and be a good supporter.


2. Context & influence

I saw a student project branding an east coast Vietnamese restaurant. Their visual basis for the identity was Vietnam War propaganda and South Vietnamese Armed Forces tiger stripe camouflage which was later used by US Special Forces during the war. My initial reaction was what…? How does recolorizing these visuals make sense for a restaurant? I was reminded how many people know of Vietnam firstly because of the Vietnam War. Classic American history textbook syndrome. When one who doesn’t know Vietnamese culture tries to go find authentic visuals to use, war is one of their first touchpoints. War, war, war. It’s limiting. Not knowing where to look or learn is part of the problem, but I also wonder if the initial depersonalization and focus on form in education is part of the problem as well. It also signaled to me a lack of visibility of Vietnamese American culture.

With Ambi I wanted to contribute to Vietnamese American culture by acknowledging the existing typographic language, which was heavily shaped by American-made/Eurocentric fonts, and innovating upon that, reclaiming it. Lineage.

American culture and economy is built upon appropriating, colonizing, stealing cultures, so much so that we easily forget to ask or even realize when it occurs. If something is in the world, is it up for taking? Context? What about it? Pop culture does it all the time. The model is pervasive. Nobody cares. If I can use it to build my vision, I will. Designers are agents of culture. We synthesize what is around us. The Instagram likes reaffirm us. It is those outside who are able to critique most damningly.

Systematizing cultural forms into a typeface, which is then most often distributed through commodification and divorced from the original context. Do you see the problem here?


3. Intention, accident

(text repeated below)

Different languages necessitated combining different fonts. When cooking, immigrants without access to their native country’s ingredients adapt American ingredients to Asian dishes by finding overlaps in flavor and texture. In the typography, the fonts overlap in proportion, tool (commonly the brush), or expressive quality. Fundamentally the Asian American dish will not be the same as the “authentic original,” but it is authentic in that it reflects the geography and context of where it is made. In the same vein is the common struggle of feeling neither Asian or American and or feeling insecure in the identity of Asian American, as it is in-progress. Culture and identity is collectively built throught the accumulation of individual voices and confidence and pride is formed through diverse visibility.

I did not want to distill this typography into a grayscale of one style, of one voice, but instead attempt to create a collection of editorial fonts, each style sharing attributes but having a distinct purpose and voice.

Ideas I was interested in communicating through individual fonts:

  1. in-betweenness (cross-genre)
  2. reclamation through parody / humor as a disarming way to critique / aesthetic attraction and taste as a way to critique (re: stereotypical ethnic fonts)

Non-linearity: The typography of Asian American packaging was not by design, but emergent. Overtime proximity created connotation. What conversations happen when seemingly unrelated fonts are created in proximity? A mistake I made was trying to construct a narrative, a plot line, before knowing the characters. I was always holding different perspectives in my head at once: the one I have learned to make my default (what I was taught in school) and the ones I aspire toward.

Yes the creative process in general is often non-linear, but the thinking and design is still often linear in that the architecture and model of the typeface family is tied to convention, book typography.

Latin fonts that stereotype Chinese bastardize Chinese calligraphy by modularizing it in ignorant ways:

Did I bastardize Roman brush calligraphy and the concepts of rotation and translation through abstraction?

I was drawn to the ambiguous potential and the metaphor of overlapping an upright skeleton with an angled one. I also come from a more geometric/shape-based understanding of constructing letterforms, so this was a way of abstracting the stroke-based model of type design, helping me understand how to build the whole system. Depending on point of view / school of thought, it is either valid or invalid, inventive or naive. I’m conflicted. I am frustrated by the common educational model that you must learn the rules first to break them. Are they rules or conventions? Truth or dominating models?

I do admire the work done before me. It is frictional to break those rules, feeling like I am working in opposition. Rather I seek to make my own rules, existing in parallel. It is difficult to unlearn. What I have to offer is not saying what has already been said or speaking in the same way.

Poetry doesn’t only communicate directly. It seeks to reinvent language itself, how form communicates. How does reinventing the structure of form transform language? Re: Univers, Futura.


4. Modes of criticism: the space and frame of education

It is so hard to make design that by itself critiques. Why is that?

Curriculum:

  1. Agency in content, but what about form?
  2. How do you design a flexible, responsive framework?
  3. When education is objective based: it does not ask: where do you come from, but instead, where are you [in our framework] and how do we get you all to graduate?
  4. What are your goals framed in the social context (i.e. beyond the self)?
  5. Does the curriculum reflect culture, the hyphenated self, or something still rooted in assembly-line thinking? Is there room for tranformation beyond filling the box?

Critique is the frame for the conversation and actionable iteration. When the critic is concerned with mechanics when you are concerned with concept, there is not productive conversation.


5. What are the limits when working outside convention?

By building an unconventional type family model, I was limitless. Oops. Overwhelmed.

There are different types of perfection. It can be hard to discern which details matter when the intent isn’t clarified. The inability to prioritize compounding typeface edits is paralyzing. Critiques in the moment are a discussion between the critic and your work more so than the critic and you. I didn’t set space to fully reflect on critiques. What the critic sees and what they suggest to do do not necessarily align. Critique brings the project into questioning. Blindly answering, responding without real intent, is a recipe for feeling lost. Consistent reflection is so important, and I did not do that for this project.


6. Post

I struggled figuring out how to write about Ambi, largely because all of my writing on this site is written without an audience in mind. When there is a perceived audience, I feel a need to explain every facet of my thinking. I let go of that here. Perhaps those who get it, get it, and can make inference and connections with these thoughts that are placed in proximity to each other.

I still feel I lack a community that fully understands, or I am still choked by my social anxiety, inflated pressure.

I fear how the type being used can betray its intention (appropriation, being stereotyped). Intentional distribution, pre-emptive application, building connotation, and participating in alternative economies is an essential part to the vision.

We do not need to wait 100 years.

It takes a lot to unlearn and innovate when we inherit systems that weren’t designed for today or for us, when our identity was founded elsewhere.

A truer vision of this project would be to invite Vietnamese-[] type designers to contribute fonts to a library. A collection and a culture is not built by one person. I am still learning how to collaborate effectively. I am unsure if I should wait and learn more until attempting to lead a project like this.


+

Huệ Minh Cao made a font whose modules began with Vietnamese diacritics.

Thy Hà on Cooper Black, a font with one foot in American 60’s and 70’s culture and the other in everyday Vietnamese culture.

Any and every Ocean Vuong talk and interview. One.

Also any and every Paul Tran interview. One: being the primary source of our history.

vibe check (Type West)

Process writing and regular reflection help me feel confident in my decisions, in that there is proof of lineage and things aren’t arbitrary. I haven’t been keeping up with logging my process, which I have been meaning to. Not doing it has been hindering me. I’ve been getting caught up in capturing a certain feeling in my typefaces that I’m not able to articulate, meanwhile forgetting to look back at where I came from to help define that. Other projects and work have been reminding me how lineage, history, gradual growth overtime are important for me to fully understanding what I’m making. It’s hard to start in the middle of in progress projects, for example.

I feel behind in the context of the program, as we are nearly halfway through the last term, but at a good pace in the whole of things or if I had been attempting to do this project on my own. Creating a whole family in a couple months is quite a bit when you’re not doing it full time and attempting it for the first time.

The prompt last term was vaguely to create a typeface family. How we decided to interpret “family” was open. I have been interested in the composed complexity of Asian food goods and restaurants and wondering how it is not a single typeface but the overall typography and the different fonts as a collective that creates a shared identity or baseline generic theme across these goods and environments. The sriracha bottle for example uses a mix of American fonts and Chinese ones. Brush fonts are often used in Asian goods, as they correlate with brush based Chinese scripts. I wanted to create a brush based serif as that is not a heavily explored space and fit the tone I am going for. Understanding the brush is a whole ’nother level though and I didn’t explore enough in time to get to where I aspired.

I still have a lot of Vietnamese typography to see. One of my classmates, Ðức Cao, is part of a Vietnamese typography collective. There’s an interesting cultural exchange between American-made fonts and Vietnamese typographic culture since written Vietnamese is Latin based, due to French colonialism.

Using American fonts in this way contributes to what banal Asian American visuals are. It relates to how Asian immigrants adapt American groceries and produce to Asian dishes. There are shared qualities in the alternative ingredients, but they are not the exact same. The dish can still be delicious, even it is not “authentic.” But adapting a dish to one’s new home and geography is authentic in itself.

Asian Americans often struggle with what is authentic, what is truly Asian, to their current generation vs. the generations before them. Generational transitioner. Generational transistor. Asian American is a complex synthesis, different for every individual.

A lot of the reason why I was lacking energy to flesh out the collection more clearly last term was because I was still working 4-5 days a week at Trader Joe’s. I have been full-time there for about 2 years. In early October I went down to 3 days to focus on Type West, which helped, but then I went down to 1 day after unexpectedly saying yes to some freelance work. Then I realized how draining food retail is and how much I actually do like doing certain design work. Big moves vs. pushing pixels.

I was inspired to think of a family as a collection of fonts that conveys a typography and a culture. I also thought it would be more fun and motivating to work on different fonts simultaneously, such as jumping from a fun, puzzling display to a more straightforward sans. It is fun and ambitious, but also overwhelming. But the limits of time do that — it limits ambition and promotes efficient, linear, interpolatable systems.

Some things that have been on my mind are how interpolation is an industrial product that reflects technology, how that allows type designers to greater capitalize on their work. Interpolation does reveal how expressive a typeface can be at different weights though, and other axes. But I am interested in the idea of releasing collections of fonts, like fashion collections. That seems more fun than laboring over several interpolatable styles. A lot of culturally impactful fonts are one offs.

So I don’t really regret trying something that is less of a straight line. I still plan on trying a bold though. It is instructive and useful to employ interpolation as a design exploration tool. I think it’s just not the type of puzzle I’m interested in solving.

Another major inspiration and discovery of the year has of course been Yellow Magic Orchestra, who in the 80’s reclaimed and transformed Japanese musical identity by skillfully parodying American perceptions of the Pacific East and leveraging Japanese stereotypes via the new and unfamiliar synthesizer. I love that you can still appreciate the band without knowing that context.

photos by Sophia Wilson

Earlier this year I designed a sticker label for my young brothe’s vegan dumplings. I had been collecting images of Asian food packaging before this. Yellow taxis, yellow race. I really enjoy talking with him about his food ideas and collaborating with a sibling is uncomparable.

The fashion designers Private Policy and Bode have also been in the back of my mind. The way they think about materials and silhouettes of history and today is incredible. Again the work can be appreciated without the context, but there is clearly a story present. The way they think about the architectural and local presentation of their work is also strong. This week at Type West we’ve been encouraged to think about our type specimen and showings. One of my interests going into Type West was figuring out how to engage type with layers beyond itself, one of those layers being culture. I’m currently thinking about how the type specimen can be a lookbook of sorts, how each font is an article of clothing to be combined and styled with other pieces. The default medium is the page itself. I am wondering how I can create a dynamic frame within that, whether through illustration or creating photographic type compositions. Take-out menus are another inspiration.

Private Policy FW21 & Bode store designed by Green River Project

from University of Toronto’s menu collection

What I have been collecting and have been interested in says some things, but what I’ve been draw-writing says another.

I learned a lot from Gen Ramírez’s Roman capital brush lettering workshop. It led me to creating a new lettering style at work, but also fundamentally changed how I think of serifs. Though I had been told that serifs come from the brush, I didn’t fully understand how, so serifs seemed quite ornamental. But painting them first hand proved otherwise. I also love the flexibility and expressiveness of the brush. It is more compatible to how I write letters and what I appreciate about them, as opposed to broad nib or pointed pens. I need to make time to do more brush work.

I am insecure about drawing things beyond shapes and letters, but have been trying to think about everything as shape. I like how I drew the corn. I see overlaps with lettering and illustration and think I would like to explore illustration more, less so in a narrative way and more so in a formal sense. It’s a great way to dynamically use color as well, which is a dimension missing in black and white type design.

the italics workshop with Rob Saunders was also informative, specifically in understanding why the flat-top a’s occur

one of my early ideas was to add Roman cap style serifs to a contemporary geometric sans model, but it felt quite postmodern 90’s and too much like a joke I wouldn’t want to use or work on long term

Early attempt at trying to figure out this triangular skeleton + broad nib + sliced italic. The idea of parallel guideline sets at different angles was sort of there, but not quite systematized enough for a sustainable typeface. This italic began to feel like a tricky in-between of lettering and type design. It’s stuck at the moment and very much specific to width and weight, so I decided to move on to a different system that expresses a similar but different idea with the potential for more range.

I was applying Blaub’s process to this italic since I thought that’s just how I work. But then I came to realize how that process was specific to Blaub and not applicable to every font. It is exciting to see the different ways I have to work for each font I make.

Prototypes from term 2. A lot of the things I try to digitize end up having this playful friendliness to them, along the lines of my Trader Joe’s lettering, and part of the struggle was challenging myself to get away from that and figure out what moves to make to have things not feel mean, but more ??? Modern and clean isn’t what I’m interested in contributing either. A diffuse personality, elegance, edge, unfamiliarity I guess. That maybe sounds annoyingly pretentious.

I ended term 2 with this family plan.

the atmosphere I’m envisioning

I reread something I had written and can’t remember where I wrote it but it was something along the lines of:

the roots are visible but it’s going elsewhere

not in a futuristic, speculative sense, but one based in reality, an implicit momentum and direction reflecting the cumulative current

the last two are from this term; I included the third as a reminder to make a chili pepper emoji. If there are any two symbols I’m connected to, they’re 😎 and Thai chili peppers.

where I’m at now

I am forcing myself to commit to this italic now. The idea of this italic is overlapping an upright skeleton with an angled one. I have been interested in inbetweenness. Alternatively this italic idea reflects my indecision — pro synthesizer over here.

In the first image, I finally figured out a sensible method for drawing this thing. The middle drawing is from one of the instructors, James, who in an earlier critique was trying to help me figure out how to draw the original italic and find the logic in the pen I invented. He learned this method of drawing to figure out where the thins should go from the Dutch stonecarver Françoise Berserik. The last drawing was a sketch I did in 2018 and liked, but never quite figured out what to do with it.

maybe I should go for this reaction

The sans came from Proto 5A, which felt too slick. I applied the pinching from the original italic to the sans and liked the feeling better. But after pairing it with the new italic, it reminded me of how I’ve seen Minérale and Infini paired. It was feeling like a lesser version of Inifini, but I knew how I got where I got, so I tried to stay committed to the sans and not rethink another style. But then in critique, one of the instructors Graham also saw correlations to Infini. The pinching was also artificially applied to the sans form and not inherent to it or tied to any real logic or tool. So its time to rethink the sans, which can be tricky since it can seem generic, though I was really liking how well it was working at small sizes. The original plan was to also have a serif to create a nice trio of italic, sans, and serif, but I didn’t get to a good point with one, plus it’s a lot to attempt to do an unconventional collection of 3 different styles in a couple months. I mention this because I might return to my geometric serif idea and create some inbetweener of a seriffed sans. The Gerstner Original font, an in-between or alternative to sans and serifs, still takes up memory in my brain.

Agh, I really should have written this sooner as my concept is clearer now, but I don’t have time to fully execute it. Still don’t know how to talk about it all succinctly though.

mushroom on a log

When it comes to conversations, I am more of a mushroom on a log than a ping pong player. In my head though, I am an atom in an expanding balloon.

Drüp Roman / Römische Antiqua revival (Type West)

Since graduating in 2019, I have unlearned and learned anew. Currently I’m noticing an overt synthesis of the two: reapproaching old lessons from a new perspective, a perspective not fully known to me. The present is ephemeral; the past is easier to construct.

I am overwhelmingly inspired at the moment, with so many thoughts and ideas, but unable to execute and realize them all at once. Restless. Writing is often the first step. I have been so full in my head that I’ve had trouble articulating myself, because where do I start! I have 1 million things to say at once. Everything is connected and non-linear.

I revisited previous archives and process writings as I’ve been prompted to revisit work and thoughts that are at least 2 years old now. I am excited to pick up where I left off now that I’ve had time to grow in other areas.

I am currently in my last term studying type design at Type West, and my god, looking back to when the program started in February, I have been in a different place mentally each term and break. The program has felt both short and long.

The first term project was doing a revival. I framed my project as an interpretation, but where I ended up is still quite faithful to the original. It was a negotiation of how to make something feel contemporary. Understanding what is contemporary is a question beyond time. It is an evaluation of the present and culture as a whole. I was drawn to Römische Antiqua because it is simply beautiful. Classic but not in a standard way with an understated personality.

link to the full PDF

I ended the term feeling like the project was unambitious (I had never drawn a seriffed typeface like this and was expecting it to be a difficult process. It was honestly pretty chill overall). But looking back on it, my decision to digitize this typeface in particular reflects the kind of type I am interested in making. I described Römische as lacking a connotation, something that when remade is brought into the process of becoming. I am having trouble articulating what I want the current typeface family I’m working on to be, as it is in conversation with the past, present, and future and something that is to be complete after the fact. It reminds me of how I often write essays without an explicit thesis statement. I and the reader arrive at a point at the end, but even then the essay usually ends with a question or a thought to be developed.

I am starting to ask myself more what I want to learn. I still am not quite proficient in understanding the pen and contrast models. But how I want my typeface to overlap with other facets of culture is still on the fore. I can only focus on form for so long nowadays. I am interested in asking the bigger questions. Though I do need to answer the smaller ones to be able to get there. And again, making brings things into the process of becoming. Too! Many! Thoughts!

turn of the spiral

turn of the spiral

Fiction

The greatest fiction in my life is my future. I mainly read non-fiction.

It is depressing how much people hate their life currently. I am avoiding that as much as possible. I am more comfortable at an inaudible distance. I feel disappointing up close. Eventually I will move beyond avoidance and toward pursuance. Well, I am. I am avoiding bullshit careerisms and pursuing life’s simple pleasures. My own hierarchy of needs. Good food, good company. Enough.

If I don’t enjoy now, I won’t exist tomorrow.

Meet Milo Benji (he’s not chill and conistently sweet enough to be a Milo, but he is a perfect bungee cord Benji). My body is a pillow & I can blink “I love you.”

Now that’s what I call making a living.

The ultimate distance is posthumous.

I’m a virgo. I recently learned that my rising sign is aquarius and my moon sign is sagitarrius. Steven Yeun talked about primal astrology (combines western and eastern astrology) in his GQ interview. I am a starfish. It’s all pretty accurate. INTJ, too.

I hear gunshots from my apartment every other night it seems. I feel okay knowing I lived earlier in the day.

White horses

Poetry and Ellmer Stefan

All of the songs I write remain half-finished and unresolved as most of my experiences are. Lyrics isolated from the music are often read cheesy, but oh well, I’m not releasing a demo here:

Late spring 2021

It blooms
Put it in a vase
Change the water
Watch it fade

I see it coming
Tomorrow’s wilt
Remember the color
Press it in a book

Archive

January 2020

Feel no warmth
Lost inside
Distant friends
Timid love
Where is home

Cruise control
to elsewhere
Cold feet
ice
Shaking hands
Snow burns eyes

Clear blue skies
Frozen wake
Sun above
Cracking lake
Bless the warmth

February 2020

Fade into
the blue
of distance

Past
sunk cost
Present
not here
Daydream
always

I-
solate
my-
self for
one more
year

I
don’t know
where
why
how?

Past
sunk cost
Present
not here
Daydream
always

I-
solate
my-
self for
one more
year

I
don’t know
where
why
how?

Fade into
the blue
of distance

The closest I’ve gotten to being succinct with words / as memorable as journaling.

Ellmer Stefan / Stefan Ellmer gave a talk at the Letterform Archive today, and I felt represented. One point he made was typefaces are potential literature. I have been calling typefaces the material of language, but potential literature frames it more actively and implies a creativity. He also mentioned how typeface marketing can be a practice of poetry. Falls in line with what I aspire and have been thinking about. The arc of his practice also follows a philosophical origin with formal exploration to conceptual questioning to engaging with the larger layers of culture and art—it is richly varied in a natural, organic, and paced way. Am I projecting? Anyway, he is also collaborative. His practice is very whole yet focused.

He was asked what projects are in store for the future, and his answer was he doesn’t have anything planned long-term. When he gets bored, he pivots. He considers what practically merits becoming a typeface, which is a question that I’m unsure people ask enough. The compulsion to systematize something into a typeface seems problematic at times. The medium is the message. I don’t know if people understand enough why typefaces are what they are, as opposed to lettering or calligraphy or illustrative writing (a nuance Ellmer pointed out). Working in the production side of a ranged typeface illuminates how industrial the practice is and how it reflects the demands of a capitalist society. I think my goal is to increase the percentage of time spent on making the idea and decrease the time spent on perfecting the idea to death (production work). Small-scale typefaces that are useful enough and make a greater cultural impact.

It was reassuring to see a practice revolving around language and the language of letters, rather than only about typefaces.

You Can Be a Robot, Too — Shintaro Sakamoto

currently these and the entire Danny Brown discography

Eric Andre

Beautiful examples of absurdist writing:

Sidebar: my coworker somehow owns a rare book on Yellow Magic Orchestra that I got to borrow. It confirmed that the Japanese businessman in the audience of YMO’s Soul Train performance was their manager. Humor! Parody! Subversion! Reclamation!

Yellow Magic Orchestra

one of my favorite things is watching people express their joy through dancing, particularly this guy who gives it throughout the video

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full live YMO concerts: [1][2][3]

Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tampopo

dude
DUDE
I’m glad I saw this movie

the movie isn’t animated and it’s from 1985, but these are nice contemporary covers and posters by Ping Zhu

After getting a trial on The Criterion Channel to watch Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, I watched Tampopo, a self-proclaimed “ramen western” (a play on spaghetti western). It was the food movie I’ve been looking for without knowing, a familiar comedic basis with bizarre interludes of people unrelated to the main plot characters and their relationships with food, ranging from uncomfortably erotic to dark-comedy tragic… I don’t even know how to describe all of it. Food is in everyone’s life, in every culture, but its pleasure differs across individuals. One of the first interludes shows a gangster sucking whip cream off his partner’s breast, and the movie ends with credits rolling over a gradual zoom of a baby breastfeeding. It’s a digestible, funny, joyous film but also leaves you kind of thinking, wait, what did I just watch? And also, dang, I want to eat.

I am a grower

I wrote this some time late last year, in November maybe?


¹ clearly just read Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Froer
² re: the fish sauce episode of Flavorful Origins

Kung fu, architecture, digital minimalism, Vietnamese American reality TV, Japanese woodworkers, music

I took a month off any kind of work as I didn’t take time off all year. I didn’t plan to do anything. Aside from oversleeping and feeling like shit, I mostly did cultural catch-up in classic Vanna binge fashion:

  1. Kung fu movies I listened to a Dave Chang Show podcast about The Last Dragon, a full-blown 80s Black kung fu movie made in homage to Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. It is unexpectedly comical and subversive. One comment I read afterward about the movie points out how the main character, Leroy Green (aka Bruce Leeroy), is a trained martial artist who doesn’t know how to act while one of his antagonists is a trained actor who doesn’t know martial arts. The other antagonist is an obnoxious, exploitive, wannabe entertainment mogul of a short, balding, gap-toothed white dude. The movie was half produced by Barry Gordy, Motown record label founder. The Last Dragon made me laugh the hardest I’ve laughed all year.

    In my fascination, I followed up with Kung Fu Hustle and Ip Man. Seeing Donnie Yen reminded me of another movie he starred in that I watched a fair bit as a child, The Iron Monkey. For some reason, one of the most memorable scenes for me is this one:

    Ip Man introduced me to wing chu, a defensive and relaxed-looking fighting style. That was the first time I really wished I had learned a martial art.

    Part of Ip Man 2 depicts cultural differences in fighting between East and West. One is about earning respect through merit and skill, admitting defeat. The other is about conquering, being the best, justifying brutal violence. Ip Man is asked to give a speech after winning a fight against a psychotic American boxer and says that it is not about who is better but about maintaining the diginity of both sides. I was surprised at the moral messages in a kung fu film, but that’s what half of kung fu is, the philosophy and cultural grounding of it.

  2. Building houses in the Sims & exploring architecture I used to draw floor plans for houses in the Sims during free period in high school and considered doing architecture until I job shadowed a firm for two days. Every now and then I get a hankering to play the Sims, mainly to build houses. I watched an episode of Grand Designs that featured the Vega Cottage, a beautifully simple Norwegian cabin. Its base is carefully carved around the rock it is on top of, and special construction cranes were used to minimize changing the immediate landscape. I was inspired to learn how it was laid out, and the Sims is an accessible tool for doing that.

    Vega Cottage, © Kolman Boye Architects / Lindman Photography

    I ended up learning about archdaily.com and dezeen.com’s architecture section, which show the floor plans and elevations, and obsessively and restlessly (why do I have to be like this) researched a bunch of houses to study and build.

    A house that resonated with me is the Steel Craft House designed by Zecc Architecten in Utrecht, The Netherlands:

    © Zecc Architecten / Stijnstijl Fotografie

    © Zecc Architecten / Stijnstijl Fotografie

    As described by the architects,

    • The windows in the new façade all have their own character, anticipating the function that is housed behind them but jointly forms an abstract composition… The ‘bay window’, shaped as a cantilevering enclosed surface at the location of the bathroom, provides for privacy. A small air gap was made at the top.

      Behind the hard, occasionally somewhat closed steel façade hides a soft and light residence. The interior is formed by a sculptural piece of ‘furniture’ in oak over three building layers. Extra daylight enters via a patio and several skylights. For instance, the dormer was equipped with a light dome, and in the bathroom, the light enters via a small air gap in the ‘bay window’ of the front façade.

    © Zecc Architecten

    The house captures much of my design approach and personality.

  3. Should I become a librarian or archivist? No. This nice dude helped me figure that out: Stacks & Facts

  4. Digital minimalism & the Light Phone 2 I was weaning off of Instagram around November, only logging on to see what my brothers were up to. It was sort of pointless having one at this point / I had a hard time controlling my time on it anytime I opened the app. Once my break started, I deactivated and hid the app on my phone. Now it’s completely uninstalled from my phone and I can’t check on my computer without logging on. Similar story with Facebook, which I was only using for shift trades and updates for work. Before these apps, I would watch concerts on YouTube while drawing and crafting. Focused lengths of time vs. the constant fragmenting of my mind. I never really got used to social media. They’re drugs that I didn’t intend to get addicted to. Creating for Instagram as opposed to sharing things to Instagram I’ve already made is a whole thing. Like I’ve said, do I want to design for squares that maybe get looked at for 5 seconds? Nah brah.

    As someone who is already shy, Instagram sort of exacerbates that in a way. It helps to a degree with connecting to people, but not much deeper. It’s a crutch. I don’t know if abandoning it will push me to reach out to people more. It feels a little culturally odd to contact outside of social media with acquaintances. Oh well. I’ve always struggled with friendships that start online anyway. But physical proximity isn’t necessarily the answer either. So what’s to blame is my own ineptude really.

    thelightphone.com

    I can’t remember exactly how I found out about the Light Phone, but it was somewhat surreal to come across it as a real object that people are using and not a purely hypothetical design. As my brother put it, it’s such a late capitalist product. It’s magnetically appealing, as an object and an ethos. I’m fascinated that this exists and has survived into a second model.

    1 Entreprenuership is one of my greatest weaknesses. Sure I can think of the new, but building it?

    The Light Phone is an e-ink phone with intentionally limited features, designed for people avoiding privacy breaching smartphones or the app-addicting nature of them. It was designed by Joe Hollier, artist-designer-photographer-what-have-you, and Kaiwei Tang, product designer with prior experience in the phone industry. They met and concepted the idea in a Google Experiential Lab, which Joe entered with high skepticism toward big tech. Despite his supposed caution with tech business, he’s still gone through with the startup and getting investors and venture capitalists on board. Business is still a mystery to me, as is entrepreneurship¹.

    Some of the YouTube reviewers of the phone are… interesting — not your average folk as anti-big-tech people can be. They worship the phone for improving their life and enthusiastically hate smartphones. Commentors slam the phone, calling it ridiculous for its price and limited features. It’s polarizing.

    It launched with only calling, texting, and alarm abilities. Now it also supports music, podcasts, and soon directions, perhaps car sharing, and an SDK so people can accessibly make their own features and tools. The main turnoffs are slow and hard-to-correct texting (being improved) and its $300 pricetag (originally it was $350).

    I’m interested in getting it to see how the limitations change my behavior and partly for having it as a future artifact. The upcoming SDK is intriguing too, but I don’t know if I would truly commit to building my own tools. Financially and practically, not the smartest purchase for me, so I’ve held off and modified my Android to be less stimulating (which by average standards, was already pretty sparse.) Now it looks like this thanks to Before Launcher, dark mode, grayscale, low level blue light filter, and Attribute, the only decent monospace font available on the Galaxy store, which is monopolized by Monotype:

    left swipe (stimuli free notification for non-urgent apps) / home screen / right swipe with more apps hidden in the “+” and “–” folders

    I really like how my phone looks now, yet the changes have dampered how much I’m drawn to it (I love color!)

    Other font options for maximizing disdain toward your phone
  5. Viet in media I found a new podcast called They Call Me Bruce and they had a pod on a new reality show called House of Ho which focuses on a wealthy first generation Vietnamese American Catholic family in Houston.

    I’m not one for reality TV, but holy shit, I kind of get why people watch the Kardashians and whatnot. I don’t know if they’re relatable to white people, too, but the things that the Ho family are struggling through are in fact relatable, looking past the private jet to go shopping and other frivolties. And as one of the podcasters argued, pop culture is often the first step toward cultural immersion and visibility. It should also be clear, hopefully, to people that a super wealthy immigrant family in Texas doesn’t represent all Vietnamese people.

    The issues shown in House of Ho: ex-lawyer mother of three going through a divorce who is financially dependent on her parents, learning what it means to act for one’s happiness; immature first-born alcholic son expected to take over the family business who relies on others to do the work for him, protected from his poor decisions in classic, unacknowledged and in denial swept-under-the-rug fashion, expresses love through expensive materialism, vies for the approval of his parents, but eventually makes a small breakthrough upon learning that really, he will never be good enough for his dad; youngest son who keeps his distance from the family and who isn’t afraid to speak up and tell it like it is, doesn’t give in to his parents desires, to their dismay, obviously; wife of the first-born son struggling to manage and change her husband and herself to fit the expectations of her in-laws, comes from a hardworking and traditional Oklahoman household that was in the restaurant business, has a doctorate in pharmacy and works full-time from home, opinionated, respectful and compliant to elders but still stands up for self; problematic yet lovingly free spirited alcholic party aunt; manipulative father who uses money and withheld support and affection as power; standby mother who takes it because it’s the best she can get.

    It’s a lot. As Vietnamese people can be. Now that I think about it, a lot of Vietnamese people are not chill.

    ² Linh Truong, Dustin Vuong, bestdressed

    In any case, I have found some hardworking and impressive Asian American YouTubers² my age or younger that are on the platform to take advantage of the economic opportunity through a creative means, largely for the sake of paying for college, relating to peers through sharing transparent life and financial advice, talking about taboo subjects, and sharing anxieties. They are willing to for-go a certain amount of privacy, which is perhaps influenced through them coming up with social media, and they intentionally approach brand deals, saying straight up that it’s easy money. They have greater aspirations beyond YouTube. YouTube is a fun and lucrative tool, not something forever. It’s a way for these creators to gain independence and leverage. It’s inspiring, but also worrying. They are completely aware and willing to brand their identity, which can be hard to manage, and compromise with algorithms. If they didn’t have these financial pressures, would they still put themselves out there?

    Aside from their relatability, entertaining mannerisms, and inspiring self-determination, they actually make you think. They aren’t merely selling a lifestyle or clutter of objects. It’s really cool to watch these people grow as well.

  6. Japanese craftsdudes
    House frame constructed with no hardware and only hand-chiseled joints. Features a beautifully coordinated team. I teared up watching this???
  7. Music
    + Opus III — It’s a Fine Day (1983) A classic rave song that I learned through my brother
    + Haruomi Hosono — Sports Men (1982) Influential Japanese pop musician who started in 1969 (read: synths)
    + Fela Kuti — Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (1980) Nigerian musician and political activist

  8. I will be starting Type West in February and I was unsure about it (read: scared) transitioning to I am anxious transitioning into excited transitioning into chill confidence. I over-elaborated my application and sent it in as late as possible, which makes me feel stupid but really means I care and am afraid of rejection. I really don’t fit in with where I am currently and am anxious to move in another direction, so I’m trying to plan where I’ll be in the latter half of the year or next year. New York, maybe.

Here I was / There I will be / Where am I

Musa McKim & Philip Guston (image source)

I first saw this drawing in Venice. I am in Bentonville thinking of Minneapolis. If I had went the other way in my 50/50 of to visit or not visit: there in Minneapolis thinking of Bentonville. But I chose to drink mother’s milk, despite intolerance. Fooled by language.

It is disturbing to listen then to witness the opposite then to commit the same. What of the who to trust.

Where I come from is different from where I came from. I am homeless.

HOMELESS

Here   I was
There  I will be
Where  am I

(repeat)


In feeling homeless, I built a structure.

I heard that at work a couple weeks ago.

Apparently

Avoiding, becoming

Teddy Zee (source)
+ full context: Zee speaking in a podcast with David Chang about how in doing everything to avoid the same relationship he had with his father, he ended up having the same relationship with his children

Reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s rear-view mirror syndrome mentioned in Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

Getting rear-ended by the past vs. crashing forward into the past — what’s the difference?

Social anxiety

Social anxiety

Actor actor where’s my script

Cortisol cortisol cortisol

Flight

but not quick-footed

Retail exposure therapy

Insipid small talk

New person, old me

Can’t get a word in, can’t get a word out

Homebody homebody hear myself now

Whole lot of nothing til I sit down and write

And then what?

  1. Non-industrial pathways:
  2. Avoiding abstractions & metaphorization & fictionalization of self — but what are we but language & material :: advertisement & product
  3. Inquiry [= / ≠ / →] action

Glass half fool

  1. Glass half full
  2. Glass half empty
  3. The non-figurative reality of what is outside the lens of the glass
  4. The camera’s point of view

Iceberg flipping over

Japanese book repair

The tiny iron! And high school lover’s initials, oh boy.

Wish I did book repair work the summer after graduating. I’m realizing I like doing maintenance work perhaps more than average. Doing all the little things that help everything operate, work, and stay organized. All in balance to the bigger actions. I write a lot of fragments nowadays.

Skeuomorphic serifs, variable fonts, digital media sans body

Me: “Seriffed type on screens is skeuomorphic”

Klim: https://klim.co.nz/retail-fonts/signifier/

Goddamnit.

Sowersby and his collaborators know how to market. But when you look at most of the typefaces, they really are smartly made. He’s not the only one aware of these concepts to digital type design, but taking the time to write about it, to self-publish ideas that are visible but not wholly self-evident is often the first point of understanding and noticing. When the interface is as broad and tactileless as a computer, it takes a bit of wading through what feels invisible to understand it.

Digitally native material. Medium natural. Nature?

Type designers are a medium themselves. It is a loss when an idea does not truly process in the mind and through the hands. That is the difference between a derivative, stiff revival and a typeface with palpable presence (the same goes for design in general: the time and process between research and production). Sketching is essential. Software designed for production is not software for sketching (at least for me, as I came up with hand-drawn sketching). The troublesome point for me is the meeting of body to digital interface: mouse and font editor. That is why drawing on the iPad is an intermediary for me.

Ignoring the digital medium is a mistake. That is the default substrate. Print substrates come to mind first; screen type feels vague. Perhaps the trouble is that the tools aren’t defined yet, as a printer and paper are. There isn’t a clear screen proofing tool; it is up to the type designer. What is a sheet of paper on the screen when the screen is responsive and variable in size? That is exactly the answer.

Static type families may become outdated. Variable fonts are restrictive and somewhat of a pain for getting to interpolate if one chooses to think non-linearly, but there is always a way to feel liberated in constraints. The constraints are just changing. Understanding them takes time.

Maybe the future idea of a type family is non-linear, in that all the fonts are variable and the family is a collection of styles (like OH no’s type collections.) Fonts used to be defined as an individual style and its point size, e.g. Garamond Italic 12pt, which makes sense for things like wood type. Now they are defined as just an individual style, e.g. Garamond Italic, or named for implied point size ranges (display, text, headline) as point sizes are fluid on computers. Stylistic adjectives like light, bold, italic, are now axes: weight, slant. Variable fonts are already called variable fonts and not variable typefaces.

I was a bit resistant against variable fonts but I’m realizing that was largely out of practical and skill-lacking insecurity. They add a layer of complexity to the already arduous process of producing a typeface, and as a fairly new framework to typefaces, not everyone wants to be on the frontline to dealing with getting them to work and easier to make. And they seemed to harden linear thinking in typeface design: here’s a skeleton, now just slide weights, slant, etc. That’s reductive and ignoring the things that happen when getting to the extreme ends of those axes, but point is that the collapse of those axes into being essential to typefaces is changing the definition of a font and a typeface. It is largely expected that a typeface have an italic and a range of weights. Eventually it will probably be expected that everything is variable. Responsive media asks for responsive type. It’s also annoying to have to go through a giant list of styles in InDesign instead of using sliders, or the same fluid mechanism that point sizes have.

I genuinely get why answering “what’s the substrate for this typeface?” is important now. I want to keep things as simple as possible, but ignoring the complexities is detrimental. The best way to deal with them is head-on and from the start. It takes a lot to be able to deal with production work. All type designers know the fun part is coming up with the idea, but then 90% of the work is getting it to work. If production work didn’t mean severing my hand or leashing it to a mouse, I would enjoy it a lot more. I don’t mind binding books, which is also repetitive and time consuming, but moving points on a screen? Gets a bit difficult to enjoy overtime. Which is worrisome. But the outcome! Can type be made without requiring vectors? Oigh.

Is this what feeling old is like?

Square

all the other sketches are as wonky as the top half and not as ooh as the bottom half; that’s why this one is pictured

Trading in square pics for a square brush. I understand this brush shape, whereas pointed brushes and pens continue to merely be an inking-in-outlines tools for me.

+ nepantla [1] / learned about through May-Li Khoe & Federico Ardila
+ nakasi [1][2] / learned through the band Mong Tong (one of the members collects Taiwanese sci-fi book covers)

It has been a month of work and less so words. In my drafts from earlier this month are nepantla (in-between-ness), nakasi (in Taiwanese and Japanese cultures, parlor/bar-accompaniment-music associated with the working class), and thoughts about supremacist perfection:

We are taught perfection.

Before design school, one often doesn’t see all the little so-called imperfections. And then you learn how to judge all those details, what’s “right” and “wrong.” What wasn’t distracting before is suddenly an itch. And guess who cares and is aware about those details: not most people. Do we talk about language and communication enough? Formal aspects are easier to talk about, quicker to point out. And then when looking at other people’s work, it becomes easy to dismiss it as unprofessional if a non-crucial detail is a little off. And not just to dismiss it, but also the person behind it.

Perfection isn’t the point.

There are a lot of sentiments about freeing oneself and others from perfection. Unpacking what that actionably and perceptively means is subjective. Do I believe in the rules and personally unlived truths I’ve absorbed?

(p.s. the new album Shore by Fleet Foxes is lovely.)

Bro de Does

from the hit documentary Systematically Sloppy

Beyond representation: relationality & the pluralistic self

Quotes from “Can We Share a World Beyond Representation?” (February 2020) by Irmgard Emmelhainz, who argues for doing away with “representation, recognition, and difference and replace them with frames for relationality and reciprocity”:

I think of these quotes from The Darker Side of Western Modernity by Walter Mignolo:

How the absence of body- and geo-politics in Western thinking — removal of body and place — is wholly colonial, the very definition of it.

Back to Emmelhainz article:

Could representation (potential homogenization, nonconsensual agency) be as deceitful as inclusion and diversity (i.e. assimilation and tokenism) which was preceded by desegregation (i.e. assimilation)?

(Cue intersectionality.)

This has been by moral struggle with understanding the marginalized groups that I am part of, but not feeling like I represent anyone other than myself. And I think again of being in the middle space: of being marginalized but then afforded privileged opportunities because I am part of marginalized groups. Can I only profit from my own oppression? I think of the artists, etc. who were given voice, attention, finally, but because someone in the group they represent died unjustly or was belittled by the very industry that now has felt pressured to give voice to ___ artist. How can I trust that I do represent, without knowing how much I have actually assimilated by accepting opportunities? But how else?

I also cannot say I am represented by a group or a person, but groups and persons, and even then parts of groups and persons, which really means parts of everyone and peoples. I bring up a question I’ve asked before: am I a synthesis of everyone or a refinement of myself? The fallacy in this question is the “or” dichotomy. We may be individuals, but we are pluralistic.

What do we share more often than the architectures that contain us?

Representatives (individuals) part of marginalized groups are seen as a success for the advancement of those groups. But a representative is not the group itself. But we must start and inspire somewhere. But is the start to that answer through an individual breakthrough, or as Emmelhainz concludes, through mutual aid and reciprocity? Breaking through together, not individually through the helping hand of the privileged. But how can you under such grand systems that constantly erode the sustainability of any alternative? One of the greatest struggles is having enough money and resources. And guess who holds the money and resources? AH.

And how do you respond without violence, the requirement in past revolutions?

communities of morally concerned spectators

Irmgard Emmelhainz

Emmelhainz ends with an appropriately nebulous proposal of relationality and reciprocity. Relationality makes sense to me more so than representation. It implies a horizontality that is missing in representation, which connotes a singular face speaking for a faceless mass.

Just go read the entire article which I have basically quoted half of here. It’s not that long yet says so much. I understand it, but am still trying to understand it. The context of decolonial readings like Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth helps informs and contextualizes.

“::”

nail salon :: graphic design
creative labor largely in service of the rich white corporate (but who isn’t under service of rich white corporations)

Christianity :: white supremacist patriarchy
saviorism, worshipping individuals, a virgin giving birth, martyrdom, chants, prewritten prayers
living in a matriarchal household under a patriarchal society isn’t great either

design :: competition
Modes of Criticism articles: “Graphic Design Systems” & “It’s Nice That Intro
hierarchies, standing out, grabbing attention, networking, awards, self-commodification

American dream myth

The partial poem above starts off the article “Sleep Walks the Street, Part I” by Metahaven, who argue that “metaphors, metonyms, and allegories have become scalable political technologies obfuscating, undermining, and instrumentalizing the realities they represent.”

Another quote:

It is a reminder that the internet has long been a dimensional layer to world, not separate from it. For some, Facebook is their entire internet. We are still catching up to media literacy. The speed of everything is inhuman.

I viewed design often as visual metaphor. Design composition is a form of collage. Beautiful when poetic. Eventually gimmicky when clever. Insidious when deceitful. Somewhat inaccessible when innovative.

Metaphor is ingrained in how we think, speak, understand, make. Why do we find so much meaning in metaphor? Has its appropriation stained it? Can it be trusted?

When do words speak louder than actions?

Raw emotion is indigestible. We often understand it through a medium, a material, a product. It has to be processed and sold. Is that evidence of inhumanity? Or is it a result of emotion’s potency?

Storytelling and language feel essential to being a human though.

So often in design and art, metaphor is another layer to interpret. It complicates the process. What and how does it mean to be straightforward? Why has Trump’s language angered the progressives while illuminating rural white America and conservative immigrants? Do we truly listen to those who do not speak like us?

Designers are agents of culture. And what is culture under a patriarchal capitalist white supremacy?

Lettering as journaling

from 11.19.2019

These lettering sketches are a synchronization of thinking and drawing. The words come as I draw/write them. It’s a slowed down version of journaling, forcing me to be succinct. It reveals the primary worries, or sometimes non-worries. It allows me to come to words in a present way that is not as immediate as speaking (which I am not good at).

When nothing anxious is on my mind, the pages end up being random layered chaos as I try to search for something:

from 11.14.2019

from 10.30.2019

“Changeling” by Hieu Minh Nguyen

by Hieu Minh Nguyen, a poet around my age who is from Minnesota (source)

Originally I typed the poem, but realized that a lot of poems aren’t made for web typography.

It is eerie how poems and prose I’ve written in the past hold similar themes and metaphors to “Changeling”. I regret not attending one of Paul Tran’s poetry workshops, as we were both students at WashU. My friend attended and loved it. Paul started off the workshop asking what everyone’s rose, thorn, and bud was that day. I don’t know why the Vietnamese Students Association never reached out to them. Man is it cool as heck to keep learning about these Vietnamese poets instead of hearing from my mom about another faceless cousin becoming a doctor.

Lyotard tailspin

First semester junior year, second semester of being in the design major, I was thrown into an existential and philosophical tailspin (which I didn’t realize that’s what it was until later, though I remember my professor Ben, who was frustrated at my struggle, asking me if I was having an existential crisis) in trying to make an editorial book containing “The Crystal Goblet” (the required text) by Beatrice Warde and “Paradox on the Graphic Artist” (my chosen text) by Jean-François Lyotard. When I struggled before, it was no big deal. I moved on and improved, in bliss of being in design school, but thinking in the back of head, when will I be jaded by all of this?. Pretty soon apparently.

But this struggle was less about skill and more about deep critical thinking about design and my place in it. And because I was not prolifically producing and iterating, the project felt like a failure, even though it was not a bad book. There seems to not be room for theory in undergrad, or I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. In any case the thinking was crucial to what was to come, and I regret nothing.

For some reason I thought back to this time and a message I wrote that I wanted to print photocopies of and distribute on my peers’ desks anonymously. But I was too scared to do it. It probably would have been confusing and weird anyway. Manifestos are the language of patriarchal white supremacy.

December 2017

Notes that followed that writing:

Cool if you like it in the end, but I myself need to feel proud of what I’ve done. I’m over all the neat, well-done stuff because, well, I’m not learning that much anymore. I’m just doing what I already know. What an uninspiring way to live. I almost avoid confidence in pursuit of staying humble. There is so much I still don’t know. Endless solutions. That’s the addiction of design: there is no single, definite solution like there is in math. So the solution, the perceived ending, can always be improved, which means there is always something to learn. But I guess I’m done learning all the little things that don’t significantly matter in the long run. A lot of those little things are in pursuit of perfection that that don’t really benefit anyone or anything. They’re kind of just a way of showing off how anal you are and how good you are at spotting little things. But what about the big things? Yeah, what you’ve made is nice and neat but what does it say? What can I learn from it? What questions does it raise? What do I now see or know after looking/reading your design? That’s what I care about. I hate wasting my time on things that offer nothing. Especially those things that are parasitic or selfish. So that’s why I’m wary of ad agencies and the paradigm of the job search. Because the goal is for yourself to get a job, and that involves using other people to get there in a way. This artificiality is rubbing off on me. So is this why I isolate myself? Because I can feel myself becoming all like them? If we’re all the same, how the hell is this world going to change. It’s not being different for the sake of different but to offer another perspective, to expand the visible field of possibilities so that a better solution — always temporary and changeable — can be discovered. Then we can take what we’ve learned from that and continue onward.

I’ve noticed that I tend to forget what I’ve written as it becomes ingrained in my actions instead.

Paul Tran & Audre Lorde

There’s an infinite past… And I come to poetry because I want to write the primary source documents for my mother and I.

Paul Tran (source). Paul studied history and has found that poetry (an act of creation) is a way to address the present and expand the histories of Vietnamese Americans that white scholars and writers cannot.

Before typography came language.

I have been thinking of authorship and what centering history means, as much of it is displayed through individuals and individualized events, objects, etc. when truly we are all an accumulation. What is left unsaid, and therefore eventually forgotten? Yet, the now perpetually becomes the past. Past and future are extended. But why think of past, present, future separately when they exist all at once?

It is incredibly powerful to be able to hear queer Vietnamese American creatives and thinkers. It has been hitting me to realize that only contemporaries exist for this perspective, as the Vietnam War ended only 45 years ago. I am part of the precedent.

I wondered why I had a hard time truly taking the advice of older people. Part of it is probably a tendency-to-not-listen-to-adults problem, but also they are fundamentally not me and I am not them. My brothers and I have always learned the hard way, i.e. by doing. It is still a mystery to me the what and how of getting help, when so often it is just a matter of getting me to do what I am thinking. Getting help is often getting validation or some form of permission. When will I entirely be autonomous?

I think I am most autonomous when I make, as thinking and doing synchronize. Then critique and feedback and deadlines are structures for maintaining momentum more than anything.

Still need to do this:

After looking at these questions again and typing them out, I am realizing that I already am doing a lot of these.

“The Fall” by Russell Edson

Ocean Vuong shared on his Instagram story one poem that changed his life:

It reminded me of my college admission essay which began with “My mom is trying to create a clone of her idealistic self.” My mother was always telling me to drink more milk so that I would grow taller and have stronger bones, a nagging advice that continued throughout high school. Then I elaborate on my disbelief of Catholicism and consequential performative confirmation to appease my unknowing parents. The first time I went to confession was to tell the priest that I was not Catholic. No one really knows how to react to the quiet kid who eventually speaks up to hyperventilate that they reject everything, how to respond to someone who is so vehemently and clearly saying no.

In my essay I see this experience as a rotting piece of my heart decomposing and become fertilizer for the self.

Drinking “Christ’s blood” didn’t teach me anything, but not drinking it did.

I never did drink the milk my mother poured.

I originally wrote the essay for a memoir prompt in an English class taught by Ryan Stripling, a very kind dude who sponsored the literary magazine crew and was one of those life-changing English teachers. He would write a letter to every one of his students at the end of year about how their presence contributed to the classroom, or how they grew, and encouraging how they can grow. He believed that “words create worlds.” I had intended to write a thank you letter after graduating college as I never did in high school. At the end of last year, I went to see what he was up to as I last heard he was writing a book. I found out he just died of cancer in a span of half a year. That was the first time that someone in my life died. I still am hesitant on rushing, but perhaps it is naïve to continue assuming that I have plenty of time. No one knows that.

Paul Tran is another contemporary Vietnamese American poet. A snippet from one of their interviews:

For some reason in October 2018, I wrote “Everyone’s got their own voice. I’m not European.” on the back of a handout that was also covered with sketches for typeface idea. I still do not know what I was responding to. I guess all of it really.

Post-metaphor

Post-metaphor

tendency to compare to things rather than ideas, processes

teachers often analogizing: is it actually helpful?

a typeface is not a metaphor

Middle space

Middle space

to exist in the air between people, not helium-minded all the way up in earth’s atmosphere

from Pedagogy of the Oppressed — Paulo Freire

I read the above statement back in June after being introduced to the reading via Modernity + Coloniality. The oppressed becoming the oppressors is so common. I want the notion of the oppressed liberating themselves and their oppressors to be true, but it feels so impossible.

Teaching as a Subversive Activity

I read Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner in the last semester of undergrad (about a year and a half ago) after hearing it mentioned in a podcast with Laurel Schwulst. It is a book students should consider reading (good teachers know they are students as well). I returned to my notes on the book after a friend brought up ideas about pursuing anti-institutional alternatives for design education.

Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.

From Chapter 5 of Teaching as a Subversive Activity

For a while, I’ve realized, I have been thinking of not approaching design as an essay, to not assert or prove a point or problem solve, but to allow it as a process for exploration and discovering insights. There is a deficiency in learning how to ask questions and what questions to ask. As malleable and not wholly scientific as design is, it is insidious to think that it is a practice of conclusions. Part of the issue lies in having to give designers leverage and validation, but we must admit that we do not know everything. We can post-rationalize til eternity but what are we reasserting by doing that? Why do we have to convince ourselves to such a degree? Is it okay to accept uncertainty, to admit genuinely and not dismissively “I do not know”? What is intuition and “feels right”? Do we assert and create culture or reflect it? Are we humble, or competitive supremacists?

I am going to try reading this book again, or at least revisit Chapter 5, titled “What is worth knowing?” as it is asks a series of questions that I answered back in 2019 and would like to answer again now. These are some of the potent questions, along with my answers from March 2019:

  1. What do you worry about most?

    Submitting to capitalist requirements, feeling defeated and meaningless. Building ingenuine networks just for me. Misleading someone. People unable to be independent and secure their own backbone.

  2. What are the causes of your worries?

    The professionalization of curricula, professors with blasé attitudes who reinforce the client mindset over individual expression. Templated advice that reinforces convention, doesn’t question truth. Lack of depth in relationships. Insecure people with no passion or opinion.

  3. What bothers you most about adults? Why?

    Those with no opinion or desire to reconsider; they perpetuate conventional systems or hold an authoritarian stance that doesn’t support different perspectives. The neutral are also discouraging; they seem to not care; if they have no exigence, how can you? Ones who don’t go for ideas: stagnant. Those who don’t encourage or push or just fucking care.

  4. What, if anything, seems to you to be worth dying for?

    Liberation

  5. How did you come to believe this?

    It is easier to fly weightless.

  6. What seems worth living for?

    Witnessing where all the good people go and what they do. The growth of deep relationships. The potential of finding a genuine group.

  7. How did you come to believe this?

    I am getting closer to it every day. The things I make say more than I ever will be able to, as well as the actions of good-willed people. Without them, I would not be here. Each day I am becoming less timid, especially by engaging with people who are bold and honest, but not sensationalists. They are remarkable in the basic desirable traits, which are unfortunately hard to come by. And you can only grow by crossing with new perspectives and accepting support. Hearing of people’s journeys is always a source of optimism.

  8. At the present moment, what would you most like to be doing? Five years from now? Ten years from now? Why? What might you have to do to realize these hopes? What might you have to give up in order to do some or all of these things?

    I would like to be loving every minute of school, of making things I’m learning about and engaging in insightful discourse. What I would most like to be focusing on is type design. 5 years from now I hope to be doing type design and related things, or studying it at KABK or elsewhere where I can focus on it in an interdisciplinary way. 10 years from now I hope to be teaching and working in an independent studio, either by myself or with 1 to 2 other people who share similar values but also all bounce off of and push each other. Maybe I will be in a midwest city to continue growing access to type education. I want to do all of these things because type is a beautiful intersection of craft, technical acuity, passion, language, etc. but also because I want to be fueled by others and to fuel others. To do these things I must have independent drive and uncompromising commitment and to a degree, money. I may have to give up either maximal income, securities that large corporations offer, or suspend my beliefs for a little bit. There will be dissonance.

Post-portfolio

Took a while, but after giving a casual and not well practiced/prepared portfolio share on Zoom yesterday, I was motivated to finish configuring a new reference repository as it’s a really nice way to document interests and thoughts. I included a screenshot from this 2018 entry:

This is still true.

I start this repository with that as a reminder of non-linearity.

Currently I am in a Display Type class through Type@Cooper. The class is usually in person in NYC, but due to the pandemic it’s online. And because racial injustice has come back to the fore, the instructor was successfully able to fundraise multiple scholarships for BIPOC. So there I am as a non-binary Vietnamese recent first-gen grad sometimes-freelancer grocery store worker from Bentonville, Arkansas who currently lives in Minneapolis.

I am grappling with what this all means. What is my identity? What does it mean to be who I am and to have been enabled to go to a prestigious school via needs-based scholarship and to jump into the design school sans portfolio? To have immigrant conservative parents from the rural South Vietnam, a mother who stopped school at middle school and a father who went through to high school, still chasing the so called American dream, their goals largely influenced by their privileged white Southern customers in their former nail salon? Wherein the strongest genuine tie I have to whatever my perspective of Vietnamese culture is through food? Does it really make sense to mine the visual culture of Vietnam, contemporary and historical, when I am not really part of it? When I was not taught written Vietnamese? When I was naturally drawn to the aesthetics of modernism since youth, ignorant of the manifestos, capitalism, industrialism, colonialism behind it all?

Part of the struggle is how different every Asian American is. And how new Asian America is. There is a history, but do I come from it? Rather I became a part of it the moment I was born. Is it valid to just create and to shape that history now? To not look back since I don’t really come from any of it?

Maybe that all sounds super ignorant. Bentonville, Arkansas is not Vietnamese-American populated like Texas or Cali. The Vietnamese restaurants in NW Arkansas end up assimilating to the tastes of Ozarkians: cabin themed, gentrified outdoorsmanship. But what say of me given my education and draw to the modernist works of Europeans? I am not just as white-washed? But what else would I be? The best I can say is that I am just Vanna. An accumulation. Representative of what?

Is existing enough? Must everything be argued? I cannot rationalize the entirety of the self. “I think therefore I am” is a privileged statement.

I was momentarily is a short-term Visual Criticism & Theory class (until realizing I overloaded myself with work, more work, and school), but one of the first exercises we did was writing down how we are privileged and not privileged. It’s not so easily categorized, but dependent on context and who we are in proximity to given the moment. Largely I exist in the middle space, which means a certain level of empathy but also power. I am figuring out how to make the best of that to give leverage to others. So often in the past I simply lead by example, somewhat alone. Asking questions but unsure if anyone else truly pondered them too. I don’t know if continuing to do as that is enough, if sharing is enough. One of my biggest weaknesses is collaboration. Why is that? I also rely on the nicety of others to spread the word about me. I do not assert or market myself really. As I don’t really want to scale or submit myself. I guess a large part of that is that I am super isolated and not part of a community. Without that there is no horizontality but an insidious amount of individuality.

Well this is what happens when I put off a reference repository. A dam breaks.