Process & Liturgy; California-style

Over the past few years, many of the graphic design course team have been re-evaluating their sense of what ‘research’ means, how it fits with their teaching & design practice, and have been encouraged to take steps toward defining a clearer personal research agenda. With a changing educational landscape, and a wide variety of opinions regarding the place and definition of research, this process has (on a personal level) been somewhat overwhelming, and I have found myself asking really big questions about, well, pretty much everything.

Mid-way into this process, and almost a year ago to the day, I found myself at the receiving end of a couple of small (yet successful) internal funding bids that enabled me to visit Los Angeles, San Francisco and Redding last July to explore what have become two key areas of focus for the work that feeds who I am.

I had already started a project interviewing graphic designers, specifically exploring their personal design process (the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind the what we do – speaking with Angus Hyland at Pentagram, Phil Carter at Carter Wong and Fred Flade at Soon_ in the Spring). This has been, and continues to work towards a ‘mapping’ project that will eventually express those processes visually. The resulting ‘Process Dictionary’ will compliment a number of other process-based projects already under way and will (hopefully) culminate in a book with colleague Dion Star unpacking ‘process’ more holistically.

California is home to an eclectic mix of individuals & companies who represent schools-of-thought that were either; significant in my own design education, are current world leaders in their respective fields, or paint a much broader picture of the reach of design today. If you start just south of San Jose, and drive one hour north on the 101 to San Francisco (or use the 280, which is way more beautiful), you will probably pass the head offices of most of the leading communication & innovation companies in the world. Never one to name drop (and I might get sued if I do), I was able to spend time in conversation with the head of one of the largest communication media networks in the world, a design director from one of the most influential personal computer companies in the world, a design lead for a company re-inventing the way we think about travel accommodation, the head of product for a team re-imagining recruitment, several creative directors who have flown the UK nest and are thriving in the US, head of a new digital start-up that is challenging the conventional design agency model, two independent industrial designers who each build custom motorcycles (but both for very different reasons), and several academics who represent polarised schools of thought on design education in the 21st Century. What was overwhelming was their unified passion for what they do, their shared belief in the power of design to improve the world around us, and their willingness to share their ideas. At present, the interviews have been transcribed (thanks Heidi), and the journey to now convert some of the conversations into meaningful ‘process maps’ begins…

Alongside the core interviews, I was also able to attend (what is in conventional academic terms) a very unconventional ‘conference’ – with the aim of establishing a clearer vocabulary for broader themes I have been exploring for a while.

The bigger ‘research’ story has led me to question how to integrate my formal interest in design (23+ years), my informal & disjointed experience as a musician (28+ years), and how everything I do is underpinned by my belief that we are spiritual beings and were designed to be in relationship with God (over most of my life in one way or another). This has moved towards a practical exploration of how the broader arts can frame, enhance and compliment communities that seek to connect with God (what musician Michael Gungor calls ‘Liturgical Space’). An immediate example of this is the way in which stained-glass windows have, in days-gone-by, described biblical stories so as to make them accessible to (what would have been) a largely illiterate community. I’m curious as to what the modern-day equivalent of that may be – particularly as we have moved culturally from illiteracy, to literacy, to an increasingly visually-driven method of communication, yet the established modern church has still to fully embrace the arts beyond the trivial. The ‘conference’ I attended in California was organised by Bethel Music – part of Bethel Church in Redding, CA and was attended by a wide variety of creatively-biased individuals interested in how the arts (particularly music in this case, but with some reference to the visual arts) can further our experience, understanding and expression of God. The time away covered a wide variety of themes; from personal character & identity, to making good use of your resources, exploring the creative muse & self-doubt as an artist, to practical sessions on guitar effects (always a highlight), song-writing and the importance of community.

On both counts (process & liturgy), the trip was a definite career highlight, and the impact of the time away, conversations had, and life experienced will (I hope) have a significant bearing on the work that I produce over the next few years. As ever, the broader battle is to now find the time to actually move the projects forward in a meaningful way, but the framework is there, as is the will to do so, so watch this space

AN Dec. 2015-12-09

(Footnote; Particular thanks to Nolwenn Baot, Jon Unwin and Stuart Westhead at Falmouth University for their advice, support and guidance in making the trip happen. To Heidi Ball (again, at Falmouth) for making sure I didn’t end up in Mexico! To Neil Robinson at Chapter SF for opening up his black book of connections, and to The Giddens Family in Redding for opening their home and hearts (especially Rosie for giving up her room).

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