Me, Myself and I

From designer Nicholas Felton’s recently-published Annual Report, documenting his 2008 in minute detail. Last year he travelled 38,524 miles. Average speed: 4.39 mph
Why do graphic designers find themselves so fascinating? As Nicholas Felton issues his latest Feltron Report for 2008, Michael Johnson examines the new wave of ‘me-projects’.

From designer Nicholas Felton’s recently-published Annual Report, documenting his 2008 in minute detail. Last year he travelled 38,524 miles. Average speed: 4.39 mph

Why do graphic designers find themselves so fascinating? As Nicholas Felton issues his latest Feltron Report for 2008, Michael Johnson examines the new wave of ‘me-projects’.

Over fifteen years ago a shock­wave was sent through graphics as designers put two fingers up to the ‘big idea’/’problem-solving’ tradition and turned to self-expression, writes Michael Johnson. They pro­claimed the processes they used almost as import­ant as the product itself, and, if they had the chance they’d be re-incarnated as concep­tual artists.

Detail from Felton’s page on music. Bradford Cox was his most-listened-to artist

Once the predictable flurry of hysteria from the tradi­tionalists died down, it became clear that genuine good could come from this and the savvier students and professionals took the ideas on board. So from Tomato’s early experi­ments to Carson’s typographic blitzkrieg, the profession received a useful kick up its rear end that knocked it out off its cosy woodcut, centred, brush­stroked axis.

How ‘self-initiated’ came to life varied, hugely. In the hands of students it veered into rampant self analysis: endless ‘embroidered-type-on-pillowcase’ projects on dreams and childhood memories; ‘mapping-my-journey-to-college’ posters, or impene­trable typographic essays as design donned Baudrillard’s intellectual beret for the first time.

Page from Felton’s 2007 Annual Report, documenting his subway
and taxi rides in New York

Practising professionals took it elsewhere – Paula Scher began her typographic ‘map’ paintings at about this time, Stefan Sagmeister intro­duced his naked body as the canvas for a series of self-mutilation projects. Daniel Eatock has now taken it to new heights, coming the closest to tipping out of design and into conceptual art. But recently ‘self-initiated’ has mutated into another strain, best described as ‘me-projects’. Taking Sagmeister as their cue, several designers have made themselves the epicentre of their work.

Consider Christopher Doyle, for example. Whilst holding down a day job in Sydney, he produced a set of design guidelines. OK, nothing new there – but the catch is that the guidelines are for himself. For the section on ‘black and white’, there he is, in black and white. He recently entered it into a design compe­­tition in Australia, with addi­tional material. The addi­tional material? Himself. Doyle stood by his brochure for a day whilst the judges passed judgement on his kerning (and his shoes).

Another classic example is Nicholas Felton’s annual report. For three years now we’ve studied how many miles he has run, how many emails and texts he has sent, which books he has read. In 2007 we found out when he met Sarah and when he turned thirty (but were they linked?). We know how much money gathered in his coin bucket, how many photos he has uploaded to Flickr, when he was attacked on the train, and so on.

Felton’s reading habits in 2007. He got through 20 books

He’s taken this to the logical conclusion by setting up a website with interactive designer Ryan Case (called Daytum) which encourages others to collect them-data (or would that be me-data?) and publish it too. So as I write, I can tell you that ‘Hannah J’ wishes she ‘could draw better, could read faster and could skateboard’. (It looks like her new year’s resolutions are sorted then).

Felton and Doyle’s link is that they are practising designers and have chosen known (and groan-inducing) aspects of life in graphics (the manual, the annual report) and turned them on their heads, away from dry instruc­tion to bizarre 21st century pastiche.

Why? When quizzed, Felton admits that ‘it satisfies a real curiosity that I have about my habits. Why is it a popular document? If there are numer­ous people out there who think it is fascinating and don’t even know me… imagine how fascinating I find it’. At first your reaction is ‘Oh please….’ but soon you are scouring the pages to see which was the most visited restaurant, his most-drunk beer: a sort of typographic Truman Show, authored by Truman himself.

An ‘average day’ in 2007 saw Felton listen to 69.2 songs, drink 1.7 cups
of coffee, send 15.9 office emails, and make 20.6 measurements for his Annual Report

Doyle acknowledges a long held desire to do more personal work but ‘never found the time’. He also admits that it was difficult: ‘I hadn’t counted on the self-examination. What this forced me to do was present myself, raw and true. I’ve always had issues with my weight, so it was it was a big thing for me to pose the way I did’.

The fact that Felton is now extending his ideas online comes as little surprise – it’s here that an up-and-coming designer, or blogger (or both) can grab their moment of fame. Some­times the level of profile achieved belies their youth: Craig Oldham‘s projects gathering handwritten letters from designers and ‘12 in 12 things you might learn in your first year as a designer’ publication have been linked everywhere, but in reality he’s just two and a half years into his working life at The Chase in Manchester.

Handwritten letter from Michael Bierut for Craig Oldham’s project

Then there are the blogs themselves, perhaps the biggest me-projects of all. Many design blogs are still written by people whose work, when you follow the ‘portfolio’ link, is underwhelming, although it’s telling that recently the ranks of ‘designers that blog’ have been swelled by British veteran Mike Dempsey and über-gridnik Michael C Place. Their daily musings and observations are fascinating; even when they veer into the banal it still works, somehow.

Michael C Place/Build’s recently launched blog

But Felton is honest in appraising his me-projects: “I’ve been truly fortunate that it’s developed a following. As a result, I strive to make each year more special and more interesting than the last, and it has been an incredible promotional piece for my design practice.” Aha. Now we’re getting to it: it’s a promotional piece, and guess what – he also sells thousands of copies of it each year.

And what became of Doyle’s award entry? Well, he won. Perhaps these ‘me-projects’ are just another form of ‘me-promotion’, after all.

Michael Johnson is design director of johnsonbanks and editor of the studio’s Thought for the Week blog. This article appeared in the December issue of CR and also on Thought for the Week.

  • Interesting thoughts here. Thanks for the post.

  • This trend can only be good news. There is so much bad design out there that the “great and the good” should flood the market with all these “me” projects and show the “great unwashed” what design is all about. *goes to bathroom to check if he’s great & good or unwashed…

  • Thought provoking, inspiring. Lovely work all around. Really.

    Still, I can’t help but think that if ‘we’ all spent as much time and effort selling good ideas to clients, ‘we’ might all be doing more thought provoking, inspiring work for them, too. Like Nigerian mail fraud, imagine how successful they’d be if they turned their cleverness and tenacity to work in legally sanctioned markets!

    But instead, ‘we’ (I include myself in this by using the quote mark device, because by habit, photographers such as myself are brought in only after the client has savaged the idea of the designer/art director – don’t get me started) resign ourselves to our woeful fate, following our clients, instead of leading them.

    Cart, horse. Horse, cart. Or so it seems…

  • Mark Fricker

    So the Big Brother mindset reaches the creative classes.
    I bet it’s ok because we are being ironic… eh?

  • Not Interested

    Minutes of my life wasted reading about this tedious vanity: 10

  • Self portraiture is a mere sub-category in the fine arts just as it is in the field of “self-initiated” graphic design projects. No need to call it anything different just because a graphic designer is doing it in the guise of their daily practice.

    I want to believe that every full-time designer has both hands (if not just a toe) in the art-for-art’s-sake pool. Don’t we all have some sort of “self-initiated” projects going on? This “me-project” sub-sub-classification impresses me as the designer impulse to index and trademark something that has been happening since cave-painting. “Me-projects” are just self-portraiture. Why retrace this imaginary line between Design and Art?

    And why obscure the fine art of self-promotion?

    Whatever you call it, Felton’s piece especially is a typographic joy. It’s not every day that you see your own typeface used so purely and well. The original inspiration for my Heroic Condensed was actually his early annual reports. You might say Heroic Condensed was a “self-initiated-initiated” project. Keep that big wheel of creativity turning.

    And another thing… his surname is FELTON (no ‘R’). FELTRON is his corporate handle.

  • Clarification: Nicholas does not use Heroic Condensed in the Annual Report. He has, however, recently used it in metrics/illustrations commissioned for Esquire and New York Magazine.

  • Chuck Astroclone

    Tedious nerds without clients, without girlfriends, without lives.

  • I think it’s a great move for industry professionals into work that’s more about self expression and examination, aspects that they wouldn’t normally get to delve into in their daily working lives. For me it only escalates designers as celebrities or status symbols, by displaying more of the personality behind the name whilst at the same time blurring the already mirky lines of art—already stepped with celebs—and graphic design.