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Somethingness

I teach an online design class from time-to-time, and one of the things I try to instill in my students is that whitespace is their friend.

Whitespace looks luxurious. Look at a pennysaver-style ad sheet or tabloid and you’ll see that every available inch has been filled with words and images. With stuff.

Look at a high-end fashion magazine or design publication, however, and you’ll notice that many of the pages are barely utilized. There are far fewer images, far less text, and a whole hell of a lot of empty space.

I should note that ‘whitespace’ needn’t be white; it’s a term that means there’s nothing there. An absence of design elements which, in turn, itself becomes a design element. Because although there’s technically nothing there, no images or text, that emptiness helps draw your eye to what’s most important on the page. The whitespace is an amplifier that says, “Hey, you, look at this thing over here. This thing that’s a thing.”

Whitespace is a statement, not about nothingness, but about somethingness. It’s an indication that the elements presented are of vital enough importance that the entire page is focused on making certain you see them. That you focus on these things and are not distracted by anything else.

There are parallels between the concept of whitespace and the surge in minimalistic philosophies and practices.

On a magazine rack filled with noise, it’s the stark, bold, focused imagery and text that stands out. In a world filled with clutter and distractions and opportunities galore, it’s the life of focus, clarity, and intentionality that stands out.

The resurgence of people building tiny homes, living out of carry-ons, and buying less of better is a testament to the fact that we’ve begun to view lifestyle whitespace for the luxury it is, rather than as some kind of sacrifice. That we no longer see not filling every square inch of the page as an indication of not having enough to say.

Update: April 18, 2017

This metaphor seems to hit people hard, as we’ve all seen this aspect of design, the application of white space, but unless we’ve had some kind of design education, it’s unlikely to stand out as what it is.

Putting it into that bigger context, though, usually helps people see why intentionality and minimalism are luxuries in many ways. Which is not to say they’re only for people who are wealthy or otherwise privileged, but rather that they are something nice we do for ourselves; we clear away the clutter and fixate on the vital.

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Public Pianos and Amplification

There’s a piano in a park not far from where I live in Prague. The park is the hub for a bustling tram station and metro line, and stretches out in front of a beautiful cathedral that people crowd around to photograph all day long.

But my favorite part of the square is one of the walkways leading toward the cathedral, where a piano has been placed. There’s an unadorned stool in front of the piano, and the instrument itself is gritty and aged. Yet that walkway has brought immense joy to me and thousands of other people who pass by it every day: some who sit down to listen before returning to work after lunch, some who stop for a few minutes between errands. Some people, like myself, go there for the express purpose of being the near the piano.

I usually sit near the piano for twenty or thirty minutes in the afternoon, and oh the things I’ve seen and heard during those short visits.

Music students taking turns at the ivories, working through tough songs they’re still learning, and basking in the applause from passersby.

Middle-aged tourists, taking the opportunity to show off an old skill, a little dusty from years of under-use, but clearly stoking the flames of a still-living creative passion inside them. They look ten years younger when they stand up after playing through a five song set.

Just today I saw a grizzled, paunchy homeless man sidle up to the stool, run his fingers along the keys with something very close to longing, and then play the most magnificent set of classical music I’ve ever heard performed live. By the time he was done, the audience of a dozen had turned into nearly a hundred, and he looked on the verge of tears when he realized people were applauding him and his performance.

A lop-eared child of six or seven was up next, and though he looked ready to wet his pants with nervousness, he played a few songs that, although simple, showed that he was very capable for his age. The climax of the performance was when the homeless man stepped back over and played a duet piece with the child, improvising over what the much younger pianist was comfortable with. All of it was caught on video (from two angles) by the child’s smiling parents.

It’s remarkable to me how much value can be created by a simple act like installing an old piano in a public place. The effort required to get it there, and the effort required to cover it up when there’s rain, is amplified a thousand times by the joy it creates for those who play it, those who listen to the music played on it, and those who walk by, smiles on their faces, enjoying the novelty of a neighborhood that has a public piano. That portion of the park just feels different, even when there’s no one playing. And though I’m certain it’s not easy making sure the piano itself is taken care of — there are pianos all over town, their presence instigated by a local man and several businesses he’s recruited to sponsor their upkeep) — the investment pays an incredibly high dividend.

It’s worth keeping in mind that this is an example of amplified effort from the real world; a world of atoms and distances and potential destroyers of property around every corner. Amplification is even more feasible, and requires a far smaller investment, with the potential for even greater results, online. We live in a world where we have the ability to casually communicate with a significant portion of the global population, and that’s a powerful thing.

So the question is this: what is your public piano project? What is it that you can do that will allow you to invest a little effort or money or time, but that will result in an astronomical payoff for humanity?

Answer that question, and help others do the same. Sometimes the most creative and beneficial thing a person can do is figure out how to enable others to be creative in a beneficial way.

Update: April 18, 2017

I go back to this idea constantly, always trying to figure out more ways to create more ‘value generators’ in the world. Things that will pay off far beyond the initial effort put into them.

Even things like blogs can fall into this category, though it’s feasible to make even more complex machines, and make them widely available, for heightened payoffs.

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Philosophical Fluidity

It’s possible to have a preference, act counter to that preference, and still have a good time.

A high-end chef, for example, needn’t dine on the finest cuisine in order to enjoy food. She’s equally likely to savor a feast at a Michelin star restaurant or relish one served up by her local Denny’s, so long as she’s in the proper frame of mind to do so. And neither experience is more or less legitimate than the other, in terms of her own satisfaction, so long as she is, indeed, satisfied. Thankfully, for our wallets in particular, in the case of high-end dining, how much we enjoy that which we experience is largely up to us.

I call this concept ‘philosophical fluidity.’ It’s the idea the you can believe strongly that, say, long-term, constant travel is paramount to a happy lifestyle, and still be happy staying put for a while, traveling no further than the grocery store. I would argue that being able to stop and live differently, while still having a good time and finding value in the experience doesn’t display a lack of enthusiasm for travel, it demonstrates a belief that we benefit from a given stimuli or situation, or don’t, based almost entirely on our own decision to do so.

This is not a new concept. Philosophers have mused on the existence and substance of happiness for longer than we’ve had the letters to record their thoughts on the subject. But the concept of ‘taste’ is something that has evolved over the years, and has become more impactful because of the technologies we have available today: particularly those we use to interact, relate, communicate, and present ourselves and our beliefs to the world.

Where once taste was an indication of breeding or social status, today it’s an integral part of every person’s brand. The logos we wear and the food we eat or don’t eat and the coffee we drink, and how it’s prepared, and by whom, and the artists we listen to and the shade of the hardwood floors in our homes; so many things we use to define ourselves, both to ourselves and to others. So many passions! Which is wonderful, except that in presenting them as indicators of taste or identity, we aim for purity in message and ease of communication, and as a result blind ourselves to other aspects of the world.

Consider pop music. It’s a common pastime for the music industry intelligentsia to bash on anything too popular, too massive, too disseminated and widespread. Too viral. The idea is that anything so all-encompassing must also lack substance, because if such music said something important, it wouldn’t appeal to so many listeners. There may be some truth to this idea, but consider that by deciding ahead of time that pop music is inherently bad, such people cut themselves off from a whole industry’s-worth of potential experiences. Theirs is an identity defined by which aspects of the world they’ve decided to ignore and not judge by relevant standards.

It’s possible to believe that graffiti is generally disruptive visual clutter while still allowing yourself enjoy a particular piece that speaks to you. What might initially seem weak-willed and flip-floppy — you said you didn’t like graffiti! — is actually a matter of allowing yourself to be round, not flat. Complex, rather than simple and easy to describe.

The result of such taste-complexity is that your image is more accurate, but you don’t fit as cleanly within a tribe. The record store guru who doesn’t hesitate to recommend pop to customers when warranted may be looked down upon by some underground-only believers within the industry. I would argue, though, that those who would apply strict, black-and-white guidelines to themselves or to the world are reducing society’s complexity and simplifying to the point of worthlessness the many facets and dimensions we require to be fulfilled.

Which is to say: if there’s only one ‘correct’ type of music to listen to, you’ll never be exposed to incredible examples from other genres because you’ve already dismissed them. Any data you receive after having made that decision will be filtered through your existing bias.

Music, food, and graffiti are some of the simplest examples I could give here, but the real problem with philosophical inflexibility is that is keeps us from considering other perspectives, other value systems, and data compiled in cultures beyond our own. Having rigid belief systems means that we are disallowing our own education, not allowing yourselves to change our minds or grow in any but one direction.

Philosophical fluidity is an excuse to find the good, the value, in anything we encounter. It’s an excuse to sit down at that diner in the middle of nowhere and appreciate the ambiance, despite the greasiness of the food and the chalky taste of the coffee. It’s incentive to hear a pop song and not immediately dismiss it as trash; to allow yourself to dance to it if you feel like dancing. It’s a structure that allows you to consider the viewpoints of others and see where they’re coming from before passing judgment on who they are and what they believe.

Philosophical fluidity is an excuse to have a good time no matter what’s going on in your life, and to enjoy the hell out of whatever life throws at you. So enjoy. Have fun. Dance. Happiness is the potential consequence of everything that happens to you: you just have to decide to experience it.

Update: April 18, 2017

I think that last line is the most important one in this piece: you decide how you respond to the variables you encounter. And that includes music and food, but also pain and stimulation. Recognizing this power goes a long way toward learning to control it, which in turn allows you to get the most out of any situation, and shape what you get, rather than simply taking what’s offered.