Jarrett Fuller: Hey, welcome to Scratching the Surface. I’m Jarrett Fuller and this is a podcast about improvisation and impostor syndrome. Today on the show I have a guest that I have been wanting to talk to for almost as long as I’ve been doing this podcast, the designer, writer, and educator Denise Gonzales Crisp.
Denise is a professor of graphic design and the director of graduate programs for graphic design at North Carolina State University where she’s taught since 2002. But for me Denise is one of those people who I first encountered through her writing, which has appeared in all sorts of publications like Eye, Emigre, Design Observer, Design and Culture, and Items Magazine, among others. And she’s currently at work on a new book about improvisation and practicing within the classroom.
So, in this conversation Denise and I talk about why she started studying graphic design, and then going to grad school at CalArts and what that was like. We talk about how she started writing and the differences between her writing process and her design process where they overlap, and she has a lot of really interesting kind of techniques and ideas of how she thinks about writing. And then we also talk about how the classroom is this nexus for all of her interests. There’s a lot in this one, especially as we talk about how she thinks about writing syllabi and structuring classes that I know I got a lot out of.
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Fuller: I’m kind of curious where the term “graphic design” came into your life. Where did you first hear that term or realize that this was maybe something you could do?
Gonzales Crisp: Well, I had heard the term first when I was an undergraduate at ArtCenter in illustration. And I had friends who were graphic designers. But prior to going to that school I didn’t know what graphic design was. And then when I was there, all my friends who were graphic designers were super neat. Meaning very tidy, and very careful, and I am not. Not that I’m not, I’m totally detail-oriented. But you know, back then you had to make these like really intricate comps, what we used to call comps, where they’re handmade and you know, you have to be really good with rubber cement and stuff like that. And so instead I was illustrations where I could be messing with paint.
So anyway, going into illustration, didn’t like it. Found—
Fuller: What didn’t you like about illustration?
Gonzales Crisp: Uh, too lonely. Like…
Gonzales Crisp: Right? You’re sitting alone and you’re making these stupid pictures of whatever, how to tie a bowtie and I’m like “nah.”
Fuller: Okay. Okay.
Gonzales Crisp: So, I don’t remember when I finally decided that I wanted to go back for graphic design. But I did go back. I’m going to say ’89 for 1 year, ’88, ’89. They didn’t have a graduate program, then, so I just did a one-year focus on graphic design. And so it was pretty intensive. Three consecutive semesters, and I just got all upper-level. So I sort of condensed an undergraduate degree in that one year.
Fuller: So your BFA was in illustration, then, and then you went… [crosstalk] back to do that one year? Okay.
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah, so it was illustration with a minor in fine art. It should’ve been the exact opposite, right? So insulting! A minor in fine art?
Fuller: That’s hilarious, oh my gosh. So I have two questions, kind of. Because I think there’s two things in there that strike me as interesting. One, that you were kind of studying illustration…you know, minor in fine art. And that the thing you didn’t like about that was the solitude. And did you see… Were you interested in the practice or the work of graphic design when you were looking at your friends who were studying this? Or did you see it as…’cause you kind of mentioned like oh, it was technical, it looked detailed, and you were maybe not that? Or did you just see it as something that was inherently more social? This is just something where I can be with other people. How did you kind of…what was it that made you go back to do that one year, I guess is the question I’m trying to ask.
Gonzales Crisp: I think I felt that there was a lot more depth potential in design versus illustration. What I didn’t like about illustration, just being sort of like a you know…regular illustrator, not a super famous name, was the insipid assignments that I would get. So I liked the fact that design was more…is more involved with language. I ended up falling in love with typography, obviously.
So I don’t know that the social aspect of design came to me until probably…even after graduate school, I would say.
Fuller: Oh, interesting.
Gonzales Crisp: And that that’s as much a part of kinda self-awareness, right. It has developmentally taken me a long time to realize I really need people. [laughs] So you know, it goes from that kind of like “I’m going to be the heroic artist in my atelier,” to you know, “Let’s get together and make s’mores and drink whisky and make design,” you know. So it’s taken me a long time to get there, but interestingly…speaking of typography, I realized that most strongly when I was writing that book because it was a was solo author. We were on a tight deadline. I had never written a book before. And it was I think emotionally very difficult. So that’s part of why, too. I thought I’m never doing that again. I’m never doing that alone.
Fuller: So I want to talk about writing in a second. But just to kinda follow up on something that you said about kind of not feeling the importance of the social aspect until grad school. Can you talk a little bit about the kind of time in between undergrad and graduate school and then why… You know, you get this one-year kind of intensive. Why you then wanted to go back to grad school again, go to CalArts, and what you wanted from that experience?
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah, so I mean being a graphic designer certainly, everything I experienced in graphic design, working for an agency, came true, right. So I was able to work on bigger projects, and got into the digital stuff, and worked with the clients. All that stuff. Won awards that I submitted to various things. And I just… I think it was the content that was…I felt…stultifying. And…yeah, I just didn’t see that it was going anywhere. Like I was asking myself like did I want to be making [?] doors in ten years? Like…
Fuller: Yeah, yeah. No, I know exactly what you mean. I mean that’s basically why I went to grad school too, actually. If I really think about it.
Gonzales Crisp: And I just wasn’t the kind of person who would maybe open their own agency and… You know, because there’s a level of complexity and challenge if you have your own agency that I think could’ve been very interesting, and that was one of the options. It was either…um… Yeah. No, it wasn’t. That was a later decision. But anyway.
So I felt like I didn’t want to build on what I had. I wanted to kind of turn a different direction. And interestingly… So there was career, which is you know, you have this kind of mental model of what that is. And then there’s going back to grad school…end of career.
Fuller: Right. Yup, yup.
Gonzales Crisp: Because that was…I opted for CalArts which, you know. And that was a very…part of my decision was, “Okay I’m never gonna work again as a graphic designer” Because that was ’93, right. So that was that crazy-ass art school on the West Coast. So I started design school. But I was willing to do that because I could see that I might have, there might be something more interesting on the other end.
Fuller: I mean, I… It’s so funny to hear you say that, you know, and to think about that that’s kind of how you thought about it in the early 90s. Because I definitely in my final year of grad school kind of had this realization of, “Ohhhh… I may have just ruined—” Like I’m doing the most interesting work, I’m the most kind of like creatively and intellectually engaged as I’ve ever been. But none of this stuff makes me more employable. I may have just torpedoed all of this. And I’ve talked to so many people who have gone through that same exact experience. That part of grad school is that idea of, “I am ending my career and I’m just going to try to start somethi— Something new has to emerge out of this.”
Gonzales Crisp: Right.
Fuller: So it’s interesting that it’s kind of always been like that.
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah well, one of my clients was an architect and when I told them I was going to grad school they said, “The ROI on that is terrible,” you know. It was like okay, thanks.
Fuller: So, did you… I mean, what did you think that new thing would…be? I mean, obviously CalArts in the 90s…we all know what was kind of happening in the air at that time. Were you interested in those kind of theoretical discussions that were starting, were you interested in this kind of you know designer as author, postmodernism… What what did you see as next for you at that time?
Gonzales Crisp: I absolutely connected with that, and that’s why I wanted to go there. I also had a good friend…I think you’ve interviewed her, Callie McKeevers? Have you…?
Fuller: I have not. I know of her but I’ve never talked to her yet.
Gonzales Crisp: I’d gone to what was called De Program then, in the Netherlands. And that was a four-month, really amazing, life-changing trip. So, got very connected with what was happening in the Dutch design world. I met the very young Mevis & van Deursen. Vild Focken[?] Just, the connections we made, the way that they talked about design… That was it so much… It was just sort of part of their life, and there was space for that, in other words. People in the Netherlands know of design. So, I think it was that trip, coming back…and also I had been exposed to Emigre actually much earlier, ’85, ’86, and I thought this is just remarkable. You know, it’s the kinda thing you look at it and go, “Are they allowed to do that?”
Fuller: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Gonzales Crisp: So, I think I was very much into that sort of strain, if you will. Because I’d been to been to the Netherlands, been exposed and very interested in Emigre became educated about Keedy and Fella. I knew Lorraine Wild’s design work and book work. She was one of my heroes—I had applied to her studio when I gotten out of…yeah, after that year.
So… Yes. I don’t think I answered your question exactly, but the point there is I knew what I was getting into.
Fuller: Right. And that was kinda basically what my question was. And I want to… I promise this whole conversation won’t just be kind of going through your career step by step. But, was this around the time that you started writing then, also. Because you had mentioned the typography book earlier in the conversation. And as I was thinking about talking to you, you are one of a handful of designers and people in design that I was first introduced to through writing. I saw you for many years through the writing that you did, not through any of the other stuff that you did. And I’m kind of curious how that all started and kind of how you think about writing in relationship to these other things.
Gonzales Crisp: I did start writing at CalArts.
Gonzales Crisp: I took a… I don’t know why. I think it might have been a few things. One, Lorraine Wild taught this two-semester design history course, which like everybody should… I wish it were all recorded. Maybe it should be.
Fuller: Can I tell you something that I’ve never…I’ve never said publicly on the podcast…and I might edit this out because I might like, get self-conscious about it? I interviewed Lorraine about a year ago, and it is the only episode where I ever lost the audio. Like the audio file got corrupted.
Gonzales Crisp: Oh my gosh, that’s terrible.
Fuller: And we talked, at length, about that class. And…the audio’s gone, and so we have not done a rerecording yet. And I’m so embarrassed and so mad. And it was such a lovely conversation. Only time it’s ever happened.
Gonzales Crisp: That’s incredible.
Fuller: Yeah. Anyway, when you said you wished that the class was recorded I was like well, I had a… [crosstalk] kinda part of it recorded, yeah.
Gonzales Crisp: You had it.
So anyway. So, in that course there were readings. She lectured, of course, but then there were readings and then you had to write every week on the reading. And because I was in grad school, and because I didn’t— You know, I wasn’t interested in doing a research paper nor was that called for, I started to develop an opinion about the texts rather than just a reporting out. So I used that to like…I don’t know, sometimes I would critique the thing we read, or critique the writing, or critique a…or you know, sort of spar with William Morris, you know, calling himself a communist socialist.
Fuller: Right. Yeah
Gonzales Crisp: So, I think it might’ve started there, and then I enjoyed it. Especially just because it’s, you know, it’s a voice. It’s like making anything. Like making a design responding to something.
And then I took… It wasn’t… It might’ve been a writing course, or it might’ve been a [CRA?] course in which there was writing, from one of the faculty in critical studies. And that’s where I really started writing, because I felt very self-conscious in that context because of course you know, the faculty member had done all the homework and all that for all the theory. Where I was just like—I felt like I was this little…you know like, those little tiny dogs that are yapping up at the Great Dane. That’s what I felt like.
Gonzales Crisp: But at one point you know, I was sort of hemming and hawing talking about a piece I’d written. And he said, “Oh, you can write. Shut up. Just do it.” So that was shot in the arm. And then he served on my thesis, which was a written thesis. But it was a document called Graphesis that was this combination of design and writing, and playing around with the language, with creative writing, with created fiction, with creative non-fiction, reporting on things going on. So it was just this…quilts of…you know, what was it, sixty pages of image and text working together.
Also, just prior to that, I had submitted a writing piece to— Anne Burdick was editing Mouthpiece.
Fuller: Right. I remember that.
Gonzales Crisp: And that’s when Anne Burdick and Andrew Blauvelt were here at NC State.
Gonzales Crisp: So she was editing. I submitted something. It got in—that’s how I met Anne. And that was a real sort of turning point, because I wrote it, And it was this like, you know, sufficiently snarky for a graduate student.
Fuller: Uh huh. Yup. As it has to be.
Gonzales Crisp: As it has to be, right.
Gonzales Crisp: And then I was also designing it. And then I was designing it, I realized that I was designing it kind of in my old head. I don’t know if that makes sense. Like… I’ll see if I can articulate it. Like in a way, the design made too much sense. It was too easy.
Fuller: Oh, right.
Gonzales Crisp: And I remember waking up thinking that at like two or three in the morning and I went down to the Macintosh and I spent the next five hours just totally re…just challenging myself. And so the result is Ways of Looking Closer. That was in Emigre…the first issue of Mouthpiece.
Fuller: Right. So, it’s interesting you say that about the kind of like, the…where you are writing it and designing it kind of at the same time. And as you were talking about what you loved about writing and this idea of kind of the voice, and that you were forming these opinions… It’s interesting that you said one of the reasons why you went to grad school and why you were kind of… You know, you could see kind of your career ahead of you in some ways and thing like is this…am I doing these brochures—
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah.
Fuller: It was partially a question of content.
Gonzales Crisp: Yes.
Fuller: And was… Did you see writing as a way to…you know, rethink that content? Like did you see writing as content for design at that point?
Gonzales Crisp: Yes. Yes yes yeah, absolutely. And of course the conversation then was that visual languages voice. That form is content. And of course…you know, I’ve always said I think CalArts, you know, people say, “Oh, well that’s not a research school.” And that’s nonsense. It’s form research, right. It’s understanding that form speaks. So to then add on this cartridge of being able to supply the content as well, it’s heady stuff. It’s very fun. So I think that’s well put, that the writing was almost imminent because I was continuously kind of…not very excited about the stuff I’d have to design. Yeah.
Fuller: Right. Do you think… This is potentially a weird way to kind of frame this question. Did you think…at the time and maybe still today, do you approach writing…as a designer? Do you know what I mean?
Gonzales Crisp: I do.
Fuller: Especially like having your adviser say that you can do it.
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah, no, absolutely. I tend… Like I can’t write…things… I can. I can write things in Times Roman 12pt double-space. I can do that. In fact I’m having to do it right now with the manuscript. But, my preferred way of writing is in something that is much more visual. So you know, choose a typeface and create the format, and you know. I don’t just open the document and start writing. I create a space for the writing, in the visual. So a visual space. And it affects how I write. And that makes me think of a couple things. You know, Jack Kerouac writing on a continuous sheet of paper on the typewriter. Or John Christopher Jones, the person who wrote Design Methods also wrote Designing Designing. And in that book, he has many…I would call… He calls them sort of…well they’re improvisational, or you know, you set up—they’re condition. So you set the set of rules, and then write to those rules. So he might write you know, a quote or something in the middle of the page, or somewhere. Or he might put a— And then he just types around it, writes around it.
So that coupling of the visual and the system or the process by which you’re going to write as well as what you’re going to write, it’s very rich. And then now I write syllabuses in…sheets. In Excel sheets.
Fuller: Oh, interesting.
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah, and they’re not Excel, it’s Google Sheets. But in practice I’ve been doing this for a while. So my medium now, I’m designing and writing my courses in spreadsheets.
Fuller: I want to talk more— I wanna like ask you how you do that, but I want to…you know, I feel like there’s a subset of designers—and it sounds like you are one of these people, I think I’m one of these people—that… You’re either a designer that kind of is allergic to spreadsheets? Or you are a designer that really like spreadsheets, and I’m one of those that really like spreadsheets, and love spending time in Excel or Google Sheets. But I’ve never thought about doing a syllabus in it. How do you do that?
Gonzales Crisp: I’ll have to send you a picture because… It’s a designed thing. I mean, the wonderful thing is…it’s a grid.
Fuller: Mm hm. Yeah. Exactly.
Gonzales Crisp: Got that down. And not only that, it’s a pliable grid.
Gonzales Crisp: And so it’s fun. In fact I’m writing a proposal right now for Wayzgoose, which is in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, and that’s where the Hamilton Wood Type Museum is. Which I think— I mean, I haven’t laid hands on a letterpress probably since I was there doing a little three-day residency. Which is…that was before I wrote the book.
So anyway, my point is. I’m writing something called the Letterpress Zen of Spreadsheets.
Fuller: Okay. I love it already.
Gonzales Crisp: And I’m intending to write it in spreadsheets. I just have an outline now but my proposal will be in spreadsheets. I’m not sure how it connects with actual physical matter, but I’m gonna try to see where that goes.
Fuller: Is your process in designing and writing different, and how are they similar? Because it’s interesting to me to hear how interested you are in the process of putting together the form of the text. Does that come out of, or is that similar to, your process of designing? You know what I mean?
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah, I— I’m not sure I can… I’m not sure I could claim a process of either. In the sense that… Where… Like I was saying, what that structure is, I guess is usually the first question that comes to mind in both. Not so much the structure of the writing, but where I am placing down the words. I’m getting better at being able to structure writing. To me I’ve never…you know, like I was not that kid in college who could do an outline. I don’t know how to do that. It’s just…I don’t know what I’m going to say yet…how can I put it in an outline?
Fuller: Right right. Yeah.
Gonzales Crisp: Now I’m better at it, now I realize it doesn’t have to be outline, it’s just sorta capturing you know, different thoughts. So I’m better at it, but I don’t… Where maybe the crossover or the shared things would be, I’m definitely as a designer…I will just try to make something. I don’t sit there and sketch and sketch and sketch, you know. I just start making something. And then I make something else and make something else. So, iteration is is a way to get ideas. So maybe in that way it affects design for me, whereas we have this… I guess if you wanted to say a kind of you know…steps of making. First you ideate, then you iterate; well I kind of…flip that over because iterating is a sort of form of sketching and thinking it through. So, I iterate and then that gives me ideas. So I would say that’s true of writing, too.
Fuller: And maybe “process” was too rote of a word for kind of what I was thinking about. And I mean, I’m not saying that you didn’t answer the question. But I guess what’s interesting to me… I’ve been thinking about this, I just finished a big essay for somebody. And so I’ve been thinking about how… The challenges that I have when I’m designing versus the challenges that I have when I’m writing, the kind of ways I work through problems, where they’re different. And in…design, historically I have been one of the always making things and kind of whittling it away, keep iterating. But in writing, for a long time I like, couldn’t start writing until I had a sentence…
Gonzales Crisp: I’ve had that, yeah.
Fuller: …or an idea. And I’d be walking around thinking about it and it’s like okay, here’s the sentence that I want to open with, and then it…flows. And with this piece that I just finished, I tried to do that iter— I was just kind of like…I’m just gonna you know, capture all of this, and see…much more how I design, and it completely changed the piece in a lot of ways, I think.
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah. I’m so glad you brought that up because I think you’re right. When you’re new to anything, right, you’re gonna…there’s gonna be that tentativeness about laying those first marks or words or whatever down. And what you’re describing I think is the realization that you get after many years of designing that you know, the ideas will come as you make things, so. But going to the writing I think you definitely like… Well, what you’re describing there is probably what real writers do? You know, what we call real writers, right. In other words, their craft, very much like any creative thing is that…just start, you know. Write it down.
Gonzales Crisp: It’s a practice, right. It’s not a thing, it’s a practice. So you have to do it…not every day but you know, you have to continue to do it, etc. So, it could be that we just didn’t come to writing first.
Fuller: Yeah. I mean, I think…I think it is, and I don’t mean to turn this into some sort of therapy or something, but in the process of working on this piece I kind of realized you know, like everybody I have an impostor syndrome about everything that I do. But, my impostor syndrome when I’m writing for somebody? is much higher than my impostor syndrome when I’m designing something for somebody.
Gonzales Crisp: Right, right.
Fuller: And it’s always been that. And every piece that I write it’s like, here’s the one where everyone’s going to realize that I’m not a writer. The sham is up. But I have that in desi—but nowhere near the writing. And I do think it is because I’ve been you know— These kind of conditions. I’ve been trained as a designer. I went to school as a designer. Writing is something I like, taught myself. I think you’re exactly right.
Gonzales Crisp: So, I think it has to do…for me, I’ve been fortunate to be able to write in a certain way. So, as I was developing a kind of voice or an attitude that I preferred, I had opportunities to have those published. And so an example is after I did the first Emigre, the Looking Closer, I had two opportunities through Rudy to he said— One of them was he just said, “I’ve been getting all these fanzines and all these kind of things, and would you like to write an article about these?”
So he sends me this box of things from all over the world.
Gonzales Crisp: So I had this conversation with this box, with these zines. And then the other one was a criti—no, it… Can’t remember what it was. Oh yeah, it was for Rick Valicenti’s book. This incredible [indistinct] of something else.
But my point there is that in both of those cases, I was able to take on these personas, right, and write in personas. And that was something I had developed in the Graphesis, the thesis thing. So, I had the opportunity, things I was just dipping my toe into for the graduate thesis project that I then got to really dive into in these Emigre articles. So it really expanded. So it was sort of this petri dish that I’d created, that then I could take out little bits and grow a full-on thing.
Fuller: Right, yeah. I like that.
Gonzales Crisp: And that’s what I always, when I talk to students about their thesis, you know, I always… I mean we did it, too, right. You just think think it’s this grand thing that one, going to be the worst thing ever, and two, needs to be the best thing ever.
Fuller: Right, right.
Gonzales Crisp: So, a little bit of conflict there.
Gonzales Crisp: Versus you know, what you’re doing is you’re creating seeds for the next ten years, you know. And further. Because that’s gonna lead to other things. So—
Fuller: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah. So I did have opportunity to write in voices. I did a couple of— Early on I did some writing for like book reviews, or an opinion piece or two for like Print or…
Fuller: Eye, yeah.
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah. But I didn’t—I don’t enjoy those as much.
Fuller: Well I have one more question about writing and then I wanna completely turn and talk about teaching for a bit to kinda take us into the last part of the conversation. But you know, you mentioned earlier that…talking about kind of writing also has a practice you should do it kind of every day, kind of talking about— I’m even thinking about why you didn’t like illustration and that kind of solitary…the solitude of that, and how writing is that solitude. And I’m interested in what— How you think about, or how you write today. Are you writing every day? Do you have that kinda solitude now again [crosstalk] that you tried to get away from?
Gonzales Crisp: Well, okay so. Yeah. And when you say solitude versus like social or collaborating or something, right?
Gonzales Crisp: I do not have the solitude of writing. Anything I’m writing… Well let’s see. Anymore, of late, I write and/or discuss with others while I’m writing. So Gail Swanlund and I just did something for Slanted that Ian asked us to do. And he had asked her write it, and then she asked me—we’re very close. So we would collaborate on it, and then… It was the best writing experience you’ve ever had. Because we’re both on the same wavelength in terms of establishing that voice. We’re now good enough writers that we can do that, we’re able to do that.
And so it became this kind of imaginative romp. So you know, she just started out with just jotting down these things; something of an outline but not really. Then I would pull something up and write a sentence and then she’d go, “That’s so good!” And were were doing it in a Google doc—
Fuller: I was gonna say.
Gonzales Crisp: —and we crafted something we really loved. And then I told you I’m writing the book with Nida Abdullah in part because she’s a former grad student, because I don’t want to do it alone.
So… Yeah, I don’t have— I would say I do not do it— I do write every day but I write… I craft emails.
Fuller: Yeah, yeah.
Gonzales Crisp: You know, I work on my syllabus.
Gonzales Crisp: Because there’s a lot of writing in what I have—what’s called the dynamic syllabus. So there’s a lot of response that I need to make in the space.
So, I was asked to design… Okay, Benjamin Gaydos, who’s at Flint— I’m sorry, lives in Detroit, teaches at Flint. They have Flint Magazine, he and his wife Julia run Flint Magazine. Julia also has another publication that is publishing an essay by Peter Lunenfeld. Peter Lunenfeld and I worked together on Utopian Entrepreneur way back in the day.
But Ben, who had seen my dynamic syllabus said, “We have an essay by Peter Lunenfeld. Do you want to design it in a spreadsheet?” I’m like, hell yeah. Yes.
Gonzales Crisp: So then I contacted Peter. And I hadn’t talked to him in years. So I emailed him and said I’m gonna do this thing. And now it’s going to be more of a collaboration between us. So it’s not just me designing it.
Fuller: Yeah. That’s so interesting. I mean it connects. It connects all of these things we’re talking about. Because there is this idea of collaboration or you know, the bringing people together, the kind of social aspect of it. Which leads us nicely into teaching, I think, which is perhaps the most collaborative of all of these activities that we’re talking about.
Gonzales Crisp: Hopefully, yes. [crosstalk] In an ideal world.
Fuller: In a best-case scenario. How did you start teaching, and what was it about…how’d you kinda find yourself… You know, now that is kinda the thing that you do probably the most of, I imagine.
Gonzales Crisp: Yes, right. And it’s—well, interestingly it’s a nexus for all the things I’m interested in, so—
Fuller: Exactly, yeah.
Gonzales Crisp: —it’s kinda perfect. Okay, when did I start teaching. I’m laughing because if my younger cousin were to say, she’d say [in a nasal voice], “You started teaching when you were like 7.” [laughter]
Gonzales Crisp: I even remember—this is a weird funny thing, but I remember I said, “Okay Cathy, let’s play. We’re gonna play school.”
[bored tone] “Well, okay.”
“And I’m gonna be the teacher.
And then my favoritest part was writing the lessons and designing the worksheets, so.
Fuller: Right. Right. Of course.
Gonzales Crisp: And I’m 8 years old, like hello.
Gonzales Crisp: I have a friend, I think it’s Gail, who said whatever you were doing when you were 7 is what you should probably do for the rest of your life.
Fuller: I was just gonna say that. I feel like I’m the same way. Like, all the stuff that I was doing when I was 7 years old is basically this—I’m still just doing the exact same thing.
Gonzales Crisp: Great.
Fuller: It has not changed.
Gonzales Crisp: [laughing] With a little of side trip in there…
Fuller: Yeah. Yeah.
Gonzales Crisp: …on the way.
But I taught my first class at ArtCenter High School. ArtCenter has a thing called Saturday High. And this was in that year I just…I think it was during, maybe, so it was in the last semester of that one year. So it woulda been ’89. So that was high school, Saturday High. And then I started teaching ArtCenter at night, which is…you know, ugh, two nights a week. So just one class here and there. And I’ve just always… I’ve actually frankly never thought about why I like it, but it’s certainly nerve-wracking. Like it’s not because I’m an authority. I think some of it may be the social part of it. Maybe you know…exciting to introduce to people who really want to know something? So the classes…course in design at ArtCenter night, they were all quite eager because they were trying to get into the program. So you know, it was sort of this nice connection to that aspiration, I guess.
And then of course as time has gone on I’ve taught a lot of… I’ve taught at all the major… Like UCLA, Otis, CalArts, ArtCenter… Just one class, you know.
Gonzales Crisp: So I got a lot of different experience, different kinds of students. Yeah.
Fuller: I mean I think— You kind of answered it right at the beginning, you know, kind of flippantly. It’s the nexus of all of your interests, which is exactly the same for me and why I have come to like teaching and feel like that’s the core of my practice as someone who’s interested in design and content and writing and…yeah this—
Gonzales Crisp: And people.
Fuller: And people. And yeah, seeing people get interested in a subject. I think that’s exactly right.
You said something to me—we talked a little bit once before recording this interview, and you said something to me that I’ve thought about a couple times that I’d like to ask you about if that’s okay, even though—
Gonzales Crisp: Sure.
Fuller: —that was a not-interview conversation. You said something to the effect of that you got into teaching or education not necessarily because you were interested in education but because you were interested in changing design in some way.
Gonzales Crisp: Yes.
Fuller: Could you talk more about what you mean by that?
Gonzales Crisp: Yes. When I started teaching I don’t think I had that sense. That was more like you know, I’m teaching you how to be a designer, or how to prepare to be a designer. And then over the years, kind of that lost…I saw the sort of… I’m gonna say I don’t wanna insult anyone but you know, that can be soulless, I think. In other words if you’re not really developing a person? then…you’re not teaching. In my estimation.
So, I think at some point I really started moving more toward these are human beings; these are people; I would… Like I’m just flashing to like in the past it woulda been really brave of me but interesting to have sat down with students and say, “Let’s propose what chemistry is. And let’s have a conversation about that. And then let’s see how wrong or right we are.” And that would be in a design class, by the way.
Fuller: Right. Right. Yeah, yeah. Of course. I got it.
Gonzales Crisp: So, I guess maybe…to change design, to answer your question. It’s maybe the perception of what it is that designers bring to the world. And the perception is that we bring things. We bring the designed world. But that comes from— We tend to think of it more like let’s say as a manufacturing head, and not a culture head. Not that manufacturing isn’t part of culture but. So, let’s say more of the human part of it. So maybe it’s… That a human being can know—who studies design—can know, when they go out, that they can affect the world—
Gonzales Crisp: And they can affect the world in a way that only they can.
Gonzales Crisp: And they can’t know that if they’re just learning how to do logos.
Gonzales Crisp: They have to do that. You have to do— Although I’ve recently dropped that from the vocabulary. Which reminds me too, in my final statement on my— This is totally disconnected but. The final sentence on my application for grad school was “No more logos, or Naomi Klein.” So it didn’t mean the same thing at all. I meant it completely differently. But anyway.
So that people are going out with a way of perceiving the world and a unique ability to change it. Because, if they are educated to know that any molecule can be moved… With enough money, time, etc., whatever. But that things are not static.
Gonzales Crisp: And that designers have a capacity to kind of move within that. And in fact that’s what this book is about that I’m working on now, is the uses of things like improvisational, situational, circumstantial…methods I guess.
“Methods,” she said, under her breath. [laughter]
Gonzales Crisp: Forms of pedagogy. Because you get at things that are not about designing, but they are about creating…establishing, I guess, ways of designing that are more inclusive.
Fuller: Yeah. I mean you can—we can’t see each other right now but I just have a big smile and I’m nodding. I was nodding in agreement for the last two minutes out of your answer. I agree with that a hundred percent. Its funny to hear your say that in graduate application you said no more logos and that you’re kind of dropping that from your vocabulary now. And something I was interested in talking to you about is how design education has changed over your career. And I think one of the big ones you’ve already started talking about, is this idea of moving away from just kind of training a designer to thinking about the entire person and this idea of design not as an isolated field but something that affects everything else beyond that. Are there other kind of big changes, either in content or even methods, and maybe that can kinda lead into the book. But you know, other big kind of evolutions that you’ve seen as an educator, over your time as a teacher.
Gonzales Crisp: Um… I would say maybe that I have seen but not that has been sort of anything like a groundswell that affected it until…you know, there was The Designer of 2015? I think, that Meredith Davis and a number of others wrote for AIGA, which was pointing out how required competencies in design are changing, and therefore education should change.
Gonzales Crisp: So I would say that was sort of the start. And then that has involved now into…The Designer of 2025 and futures…they call it design futures on AIGA. I would say that’s the biggest groundswell. And that’s actually something that I am sort of…not negating but resisting, wholesale.
Gonzales Crisp: Because those discussions are about making design relevant? Continuing— You know, so that design remains relevant. And influential. And that the discipline is more established, or more solidified.
Fuller: Yeah. Yeah.
Gonzales Crisp: To me those are these underlying motives under this umbrella or the aegis of transdisciplinary design, right, that’s gonna be where… Okay, so I’m not…thoroughly against that although I do think it smacks of…post-Taylorism. I think the knowledge that these people are promoting is very important. I think the capacity to move across and understand and have the skills to collaborate with many different kinds of people is important. I think that’s more developing the person than you know, what they need to know about manufacturing, but.
So I think that’s all fine. What these people are not including is again that individual. Who comes to the table with their you know, really interesting set of experiences. And ideally would come to the table with the flexibility, with openness, with expectations for…change, knowing that things today you’re not going to be the same as tomorrow. But still kinda moving forward and seeing that— It doesn’t go into those kinds of what I would call design skills, and very particularly design skills. And then also to be able to within those you know— So, we’re talking about sort of circumstances, but then to be able to articulate and make, and produce and try, or essay, in that process, to me, is sort of being overlooked, and that’s— Or at least not discussed. So that’s part of why I’m…
So I don’t know that this will have any much impact on anything, but that’s what I feel like I wanna talk about.
Fuller: Yeah, and maybe that connects to…you know, the last question that I often ask guests on the show is kinda what they’re thinking about now, or where they…you know, what’s next or what are their kinda interests at this point in their career. And I think… You know, I wanted to kind of tailor that question a little bit to you to hear a little bit more about this book that you’re working on about kind of improv and kind of situational practice. Because I imagine it is what you’re thinking about the most and it connects to what you were just talking about. Can you just…to kinda close in on this conversation talk a little bit about the ideas of this book that you’re working on and kinda what your interest is around these ideas?
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah. So I think what I just talked about…
Gonzales Crisp: It was…sort of that was the impassioned conclusion. [laughs]
Gonzales Crisp: So to fill in the gaps.
Fuller: Okay, yeah. That’s a better way to put it.
Gonzales Crisp: [laughs] To fill in the lead-in, yeah, or the actual content. So, this book emerged because I have been developing, or trying out— I don’t know why improve. I think of in part, trying to find ways where things don’t feel so final and threatening. Discovering or thinking about and reading about improvisational theater, where people together build something, there is nothing… You can’t say anything wrong. What they say in improv, “There are no mistakes, there are only opportunities.”
Gonzales Crisp: And it’s collaborative, and etc. So, that as a sort of general principle informed how to handle critique differently. Nita Abdullah as my TA at the time when I introduced this idea of improv critique. And then she came up with one in that same class called I Wish, and then we had this great sort of dialogue through practicing. In the classroom, with the students. And then I contin—we both continued to develop this. She graduated and then went on to teach. We both continued to develop this. And so at one point said, “I want to write this book, do you want to coauthor?” She said yeah.
So, together we have been developing these critiques. So in this book that’s one of the sections, is not just improvisational critiques. We’ve got a bunch of them that we’ve used and so the classroom has been our lab a little bit. And we’re very open about it with what we’re doing with the students, and why we’re doing it, which is to keep them from locking themselves down forever, you know. So the book will also talk about—because we know that a lot of people teach say in universities so you can’t just have a free-for-all in this space. It’s like how do you structure a course that is more open-ended, that includes these kinds of potentials for not only to be responsive to whatever happens, but where the students have agency in determining what happens. So what are the structures in the classroom? What are the attitudes we have to change, the attitudes of what teachers are. You know, what are you doing? Are you standing at the front of the class, are you sitting down in the middle of the class with everyone?
You have to have a syllabus that isn’t already the Dead Sea Scroll, right. You have to be malleable. Students have to be able to add to it. Students collect their own thoughts in it. There’s collective thought in the hub.
So, structures. And then we get into…let’s see, structures, critique… I haven’t written it yet. [laughs]
Fuller: Right. I guess I should say you know, you’re in the proposal phase. This is what we’re talking about.
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah. We’re in the proposal phase. So there’s a section on setting up and utilizing the classroom. And it’s a natural place for that. One on actually structuring the course and allowing students… Not allowing. Enjoining students to have agency in affecting that. And then project framing Project/activity framing like what are the terms, what are things that we’ve done. And then critique. And then the point of this whole book is really to…it’s a provocation. We intend it to be a provocation. It’s not a how-to. Sort of here’s what we did, here’s what we found, and then ideally provide a philosophical motivation for trying it.
Fuller: I am someone who in the classroom is kind of interested in all of those things and…you know, like playing with— You know, today we’re all going to sit around a table in class. [crosstalk] Or—
Gonzales Crisp: Yeah! Sorry, I was gonna say that’s actually— In the structures we actually talk about the physical space.
Fuller: Yeah! I think like the space is so interesting. I think— You know, I’m also someone who does all of my syllabi in Google Docs so I can edit as we go. But I never have actually thought about letting the students comment or something in there. And I’m really interested in all of these ideas, but I don’t always know how to actually do them in a way that is beneficial to everyone involved. You know, both the students and me. And so just hearing you talking about the kind of philosophical underpinnings of it, I just think it’s such a great idea and is… A book that is… This sounds so dramatic but…needed, you know. I think—
Gonzales Crisp: Thank you. And I’ve heard that from other educators as well. And one thing that is important: we used word “practice” earlier, right. Like, daily practice. Well, the primary idea here is what we’re calling “practicing.” So that we think of the classroom as a space
for practicing. And what that means is… if you’re talking about teachers and students all being participant. And all under this idea of practicing. Then, let’s say you’re in the classroom and you have an idea and you’d like—oh, let’s try this. That’s a form of practicing—
Fuller: Right, Yeah.
Gonzales Crisp: —so that you’re developing it. You don’t have to walk in and say, “I know. Here’s what we’re gonna do today.” In fact I have done improv stuff with my—I think I did this last semester with my grad students. And it was the kind of thing where they would do something, I would respond to it, we would all respond to it. I would respond to it. Next, next. That becomes information for the next step.
At one point, i felt that there was this kind of… They were like, “What the fuck?” They were looking at me—
Fuller: Yeah. Right right right.
Gonzales Crisp: I’m sure there were many such points. But the point is you know, I had to stand up and say you know, it’s not like I’m back home or back at my desk and I’m going, “Heh heh heh,” you know. “Now I’ve got them. Oh, they’re responding exactly as I had foreseen! The scientific experiment is working.”
Nothing like that. I said, “I don’t know what’s coming next, either.”
Gonzales Crisp: And that’s part of the point. So, that’s a really hard sell.
Fuller: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s why I’m so excited to read this when you do write it and when it does come out, because in a weird way I feel like all of these ideas connect to everything else that we’ve talked about. You know, it is this idea of the social, and the collaborative, and the practice, and the form and the content. It all comes together in this book, which was not planned to end that way but actually is a nice way to kinda wrap all of this up. This was such a great conversation. Thank you so much for [crosstalk] being on the podcast.
Gonzales Crisp: Oh, yes. No, thank you. It was really great.