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. 

Remember if you’re a fan of the pod­cast and want to help sup­port it you can become a mem­ber for $5 a month or $50 a year. Members get an exclu­sive month­ly newslet­ter that fea­tures behind the scenes con­tent, links and arti­cles from for­mer guess about design and writ­ing and crit­i­cism, as well as pre­views of the upcom­ing episodes. Scratching the Surface is ful­ly sup­port­ed through these mem­ber­ships, so if you like to show, if you wan­na see it con­tin­ue and help with its ongo­ing pro­duc­tion I hope that you con­sid­er join­ing. Thanks as always for lis­ten­ing, and enjoy this episode with Denise Gonzales Crisp. 


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 have 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…

Fuller: Oh.

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.

Fuller: Okay.

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.

Fuller: Yeah.

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.

Fuller: Okay.

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.

Fuller: Yeah.

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 yea, 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: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.

Fuller: Yeah.

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. 

Fuller: Right.

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.

Fuller: Yeah.

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. 

Fuller: Yeah.

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?

Fuller: Yeah.

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. 

Fuller: Right.

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.

Fuller: Yeah.

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]

Fuller: Right.

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. 

Okay.”

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.

Fuller: Yeah. 

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.

Fuller: Yeah.

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—

Fuller: Yes.

Gonzales Crisp: And they can affect the world in a way that only they can.

Fuller: Yes.

Gonzales Crisp: And they can’t know that if they’re just learn­ing how to do logos.

Fuller: Yes.

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. 

Fuller: Yes.

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]

Fuller: Yeah. 

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.

Fuller: Right.

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. 

Fuller: Okay.

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…

Fuller: Yeah.

Gonzales Crisp: It was…sort of that was the impas­sioned con­clu­sion. [laughs]

Fuller: Okay.

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.”

Fuller: Right.

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.”

Fuller: Yeah.

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.

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