At the intersection of design and power

May 16, 2018
poster on a letterpress

When the students in Will Thomson’s class visited the U-M Library together, they brought with them backgrounds in a variety of fields, representing at least three of the university’s schools and colleges. The course, titled Design and Power, was cross listed in LSA’s Department of Anthropology, the Penny Stamps School of Art & Design, and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

At the library, they found themselves on common ground.

This interdisciplinary bent comes readily to Thomson, who holds dual undergraduate degrees in journalism and East Asian language and literature, and worked in journalism for several years before earninging his doctorate in anthropology. He also spent time as a child immersed in the professional world of his father, an architect.

Design + Power
The course was first conceived during Thomson’s post-doctoral fellowship at the The Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies. He describes Design and Power as a “fantasy class,” aimed at the emerging field of design anthropology, and particularly focusing on the extent to which it does (or doesn’t) address important questions about the inherently political nature of the tools that it borrows from other fields.

To bring home how the tools of design influence the creations of the people that wield them, Thomson had students create broadsides — sheets of paper printed on one side, bearing a (necessarily short) selected text. To prime this work, they visited the Special Collections Research Center and viewed examples from the library’s holdings.

A visit to the Special Collections Resource Center
“The library resources here are incredible,” Thomson says. “And not just because of the materials in the collection, but also in terms of the people who are there to activate it.”

Curator Kristine Greive showed the student a wide variety of broadsides, from historical pieces, to local and renowned literary and arts presses, and spoke particularly to the relationships between the content and the form — a poem, for example, might be laid out to achieve a very different effect from a piece intended to draw public attention to an event or a political movement.

Anthropology major Sean Moore describes the visit as inspiring. “I tend to be more analytical, so it was cool to see how the concepts we’d learned in the reading material were applied to these broadsides,” he says. “I wish more classes here took advantage of opportunities to see collections or artifacts related to what we’re studying.”

Working in the Book Arts Studio
Their next library stop was in the Book Arts Studio in the Duderstadt Center, where Jamie Vander Broek, librarian for art & design, facilitated sessions with the letterpress equipment. Because letterpress work is time-consuming, they started from a template: the poster Thomson had created to promote the class.

Given that they also created broadsides using modern design tools — computers equipped with Adobe Creative Suite — why did Thomson include the letterpress work in the syllabus?

“One reason was to have students engage with an unfamiliar and very resistant medium,” he explains. After the laborious work of “pulling” and setting the letters, a student might look at their print and want to reconsider the layout — but the desired changes might mean an additional three hours’ work. “It’s not just a click. To some extent, you're stuck with the decisions you made in the past.”

The lesson isn’t, Thomson says, “‘Oh, we have it so good now,’ but rather, ‘Look, the design tools you use have innate tendencies that may become invisible through use, but that nonetheless pattern the way that you work.’"

Shared vocabularly, shared experience
The letterpress session, with its emphasis on design, also highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of the class, whose students were divided more or less evenly among the three fields. This made for an experience that Sean Moore called eye opening.

“For one thing, the architecture and design students thought differently about the readings,” he says. “Their comments often related to the aesthetic or functional aspects of architecture, or they would relate it to their own work, which was fascinating.” But in the Books Arts Studio, the student were on equal footing, most of them working with a letterpress for the first time, and applying their accumulated knowledge to a new and challenging tool. It was, Moore says, “a humbling experience, clunking down the characters and having it not work half the time. It clarified the gap between theory and practice.”

Moore, it turned out — who describes himself as “not super creative” — became so interested in the application of theory to design that he embarked upon his own work with the letterpress, taking advantage of the space’s open studio hours.

“Interdisciplinarity isn’t always easy,” Thomson says. “You have to negotiate, among other things, a shared vocabulary.” Shared experiences — a visit to see a library collection, common challenges in a library studio — can be a vital component of this process.

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Last modified: 05/16/2018