We don’t know what we’re doing

I wrote this short text as an introduction to a publication titled ‘Reflections on Practice’, authored and designed by the Print Matters Interest Group on the BA [Hons] Graphic Design course at Central Saint Martins. The text refers to the formation and activities of ‘Print Matters Interest Group’ which I lead. The group meets once a week during term time and all students especially interested in printed matters and the future of content are welcome to join in.

Attendance sheet from the first meeting.

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Here’s a teaching experiment: Put a group of well-behaved, thoughtful students in a room, and ask them to take a decision. No decisions will be immediately taken. An enjoyable conversation will be had but the focus will be on the space between each other; on engagement rather than on decision-making. Frustrating for some, lifeblood for others.

Print Matters began as a meeting space for second and third year BA students who were familiar with print, and had a special interest in printed matters and the act of publication. We were interested, as Herbert Spencer suggested, in the purpose of printed matters (whether words or pictures) to spark off ideas and activities.

At the outset, before we met, I hoped that some of the concepts we would explore included narrative, documentation, publicity, failure and mistakes, and spontaneous and peripatetic publications… We would experiment and engage with content, craft and sustainable production. I had no real structure or plan as to how we would go about this. Rather, I hoped this would evolve naturally from the group. For me, as this was not a formal academic curricular activity, it was important that it form its own shape and boundaries based on the people in the group.

We had our first meeting in the Letterpress Workshop. At that time, it seemed crucial to be where a part of ‘making’ was situated on our course. The interest group had no identity as yet – having a place of ‘making’ as a meeting point would give us a small sense of structure and belonging. As we gained confidence, Print Matters appropriated different spaces around the college depending on the nature of our activity – computer room, common room, design studio, library, café…

Email communication with estates about the placement of posters.

Early on, as a group, we made a few decisions. Print Matters was not about a print fetish or making beautiful things. We thought this seemed crass and unseemly given the recession, sustainability issues, and reasoned criticisms levelled at contemporary publications. We discussed the nature of print in relation to ongoing technological developments – the mass digitizing of books by Google, the birth of the tablet (in particular the iPad), and the rise of risograph printing in London. All of this would provide fodder for our discussions and impetus for future publications.

Our work, we decided, needed to be linked to the course – we spoke of providing some ‘physical evidence’ of our community, BA Graphic Design. This was important, as the size of the group was small (16 students in all) when compared to the number of students on the course. It was essential that our making and our activity extend beyond our own selves to engage and involve our community.

Poster for a talk by Ken Hollings. Designed by Ed Cornish using stickies.

At the end of that first meeting, we came away with two aims. One practical, and the other exploratory: to provide publicity for the weekly Wednesday lectures, and to give us the chance of a journey, to find our own path (or put another way: to look for questions first, before we provided answers). We put our names to a manifesto.

In an age of instant gratification, this manifesto is deeply old fashioned. As a result, this has been an arduous journey, and the manifesto has caused us all sorts of trouble on the way.

We had casualties on the way. Some students dropped out because they had other priorities, others were unable to commit to the Interest Group and manage course work, and for some who had committed to a peripatetic path there was realization that they required more structure.

This has brought up several questions – What is the purpose of a special interest group on a BA course? Is it possible to have students learn and engage with facilitation rather than directive teaching? Is consideration a luxurious activity? Is print primarily evidence of doing? Do designers need to be respectful, thoughtful human beings? Is collaboration an important aspect of design?

Some of these answers are found between the lines in these pages.

Today, as we put together this publication, we appear to have slowly but naturally found our path. With three publications in the offing, including a collaboration with AND Publishing on a publication related to Google Books, we have been strangely busy. Looking back at the Posters for Talks, I realize that we have been quietly but effectively producing in the background. Perhaps you’ve noticed us…

Publicity for a talk by David Preston. Designed by Nia Murphy using a rubber stamp.
Publicity for a talk by Paul Rennie. Designed by Boya Latumahina and Magdalena Sobczynska as a postcard printed by letterpress.

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