Sep 3, 2018

form giver

I loved this conversation between Jarrett Fuller and Robin Sloan on Scratching the Surface, Jarrett’s podcast about design + writing and adjacent topics. Robin is an ideal guest there because he’s so voraciously curious, medium-agnostic in his body of work, and at least in my observation from afar over some years, unfailingly generous-hearted. These three dispositional traits are among the most critical for anyone wanting to do ambitious creative work, if that work is ever collaborative or takes you into new and uncharted intellectual waters.

One of the things these two speak about is how Robin got to “media inventor” as a phrase to capture the big picture of what he does. Jarrett compares and contrasts this term to “art monster,” a moniker that appears in Jenny Offill’s novel, Dept. of Speculation. Art monster or media inventor: both indicate big lateral territories for working, in form and in content, and Jarrett and Robin get into the distinctions a bit. But the impulse is shared by a number of us who are lucky enough to do creative work. To find more nouns and verbs for what it is a person does, one who gravitates toward the expressive together with the sometimes useful; who never tires of the grand poetic gesture, no matter how small; who restlessly seeks to see ideas represented, coming to life in ways you can kick their tires, or swallow them whole, or otherwise encounter them as embodied.

The discussion hints at the trade-offs you get by using art monster or media inventor: trade-offs between the enigmatic and the professional. Between insatiable bravado that risks being mistaken for mercurial or unreliable, and a kind of practical optimism that might read as too tame. Each has its uses.

For me, it’s form giver. That’s the phrase I ended up generating when my friend Diana asked me, in a pointed conversation: “Who are you really?” Who am I? Artist-designer-researcher-writer and erstwhile engineering “facilitator”? At its most essential, it’s form giver: a person who has to sense and synthesize in concrete modes—where the modes are instructive guides, easily as much as the content of the work—and where the need for new and alternate kinds of engagement wins out over deep expertise in one medium. You can’t use form giver in any professional context, so I’m stuck with using a lot of commas or slashes when I have to describe my work. But it’s nice to have a true north of what draws my attention when people ask. And someone did ask me recently: “Do you feel like you were destined to write your book?” It’s not that one-to-one for me. It feels absolutely compelling and necessary as a project, but the thing that’s more fundamental is the impulse to represent, to take ideas out of airy abstractions in my head or lossy conversations with others, and to realize them in time and space.

Note: I gave a talk about this topic a couple of years ago at Eyeo: a process talk about design where finding new nouns and verbs is an essential part of what I do. That talk is a little weird, threatening to go off the rails at multiple points, but I’m still proud of it.