Design Notes · · 21 min read

A Prompt for Creative Renewal: David Reinfurt, “A *New* Program for Graphic Design”

ORG Founder David Reinfurt on how identity intersects design, and what art and design have in common.

A Prompt for Creative Renewal: David Reinfurt, “A *New* Program for Graphic Design”

For the first episode of 2020, I spoke with David Reinfurt, founder of ORG, half of Dexter Sinister, and author of a new program for graphic design. In the interview, David and I unpack the various ways identity has intersected with his work and collaborations, how art and design are linked, and the origin of the iconic MTA ticket vending machines in New York. Let's get started.

Liam Spradlin: David, welcome to Design Notes.

David Reinfurt: Thank you.

Liam: So to start off the same way I always do, I want to know a little bit about the journey that brought you to your current work, and also how that journey has influenced the type of thing that you're doing now.

David: I've worked as an independent graphic designer in New York for 20 years. Before that, I went to graduate school and studied graphic design. Before that, I worked in graphic design, and before that, I didn't study graphic design. So it's a, I think typically circuitous route to the work that I do now. Perhaps the most important thing to know is that during the 20 years of working independently, I've worked with always collaborating with others.

Liam: The first thing that I want to talk about, because this is something that I use all the time and that I've actually studied in the past for projects that I was working on, and that's the MTA vending machines, and they have this very enduring and iconic interface for New Yorkers and anyone who's traveled to New York. So I want to hear a little bit of that story from you.

David: My second professional job was working at IDEO in San Francisco. I started working there in 1995. At the time, I had moved from New York City, where I'd worked in a small graphic design studio. I was interested in interface design, interaction design as it was called at the time at IDEO. And I made contact with the San Francisco office, which at the time was, I think, maximum 13 people. So IDEO was a very different place at that point. I was offered a job, and I moved out to California to become an interaction designer, one of only a few in the studio there. While working at IDEO, after, uh, maybe about a year, a project came in, a last-minute project came in from the MTA in New York.

David: And as I had just moved from New York and was a little bit pining for New York while living in San Francisco, I knew how important this project was. I was the youngest in the office, and my billable time was probably the last costly. Turns out the project was, um, IDEO was called in at the last moment to reconsider the interface design that was already built out by Cubic Westinghouse. That's the company, a defense contractor, and they also built all of the furniture for the subways, based in San Diego. Um, they're very good at building robust machinery, and turnstiles, et cetera.

David: They're less savvy at designing interfaces, certainly at that time. The metro card touchscreen vending machine was set to arrive already in three years from that point, so this was a very last-minute design rescue job. Masamichi Udagawa is a product designer at IDEO who had recently started around the same time that I had. He was set up to open the New York office of IDEO. He had recently worked as a product designer at Apple, designing one of the PowerBooks. Prior to that, he worked at Yamaha, and he was a much more established and, um, mature product designer.

Masamichi and I had struck up a friendship pretty quickly, and we both clamored to work on this project. Made a lot of sense, since he was going to be the New York office, based out of his apartment on 16th Street, right nearby here. And, uh, I was just simply maybe pushy enough or cheap enough to get put on the project, as well. We had a clear communication with the MTA, facilitated by Sandra Bloodworth, who was head of arts for transit, who brought in IDEO to this project. Masamichi handled all of the coordination with the client and with Sandra Bloodworth and the others at the MTA. I was the lead designer on the inter, on the interface. I was the lead interaction designer for it.

The project began with an existing spec and existing interface. We took that apart pretty quickly to understand what could be changed and what could not be changed around that. Kathleen Holman was also an interaction designer at IDEO at the time, worked on Nokia phone interfaces, and she was based in London. So I moved to London for about three months to work on this project. I was based in a small attic in Camden in IDEO in the kind of overflow space of IDEO, so again, it's worthwhile noting that the kind of liminal space of working small and kind of out of the flow of other projects allowed this to proceed relatively smoothly.

From the beginning, I was already interested in how to make this interface something that would persist, that would last. And so the graphic design of it uses coarse graphics. In fact, the type was huge on screen at the time. We would be used to seeing 12 point, 14 point type, on a screen interface to this point. This was absolutely gargantuan. And this was a practical consideration that was developed as we worked through the project, to do with the relative coarseness of the touchscreen that was going to be used and the novelty of a touchscreen interface at that point in time, as well.

The initial design work proceeded through a process which the MTA had set up, which included a number of review milestones and, uh, small user testing groups. It was quick. It was six months. Um, the principal design work both on the hardware, which Masamichi was doing with Cubic Westinghouse, as well as the interface, software design, was a very compressed process, and again, I think the combination of one primary contact at the MTA, an extremely compressed design process, and perhaps a acknowledgment of how contested this screen real estate would be in the future, all ended up in a project which wrapped up in six months and left plenty of room for it to change as it needed to.

At that point, then I decided to go back, do graduate school at the Yale School of Art and study graphic design properly. I could've kept on working at IDEO, but something told me that I needed to give myself a little bit more, uh, nutrition to continue to do graphic design for a long time. So I started back in school in 1997. All of the graphics and hardware spec had been sent off to Cubic. The project went away, essentially, for two years. By February of 1999, the first machine was installed in the 68th Street Hunter College station on the 6 Line. And I went to go see it with Masamichi, and I was stunned, stunned, that the interface was almost exactly as sent. I had already been through enough projects where the manufacturer was divorced from the design and been disappointed with the results, and so I was flabbergasted and excited that it was, it matched what was the design intent.

It changed in the details, and it continues to change, and in fact, the aspect of this project that I feel most pleased with, this has existed for 20 years now, is the ability for it to accept change over the course of its lifetime.

Liam: I'm really interested in this relationship between the work that was happening on the interface design and the hardware design because it's a device where you have to use both in order to have a successful interaction with it, and the interface is built to account for all of the people who would be using it in New York, so I'm interested in, what are some of the specific details that allowed you to accomplish that, especially, as you said, at a time when touchscreen interfaces in public were still a novelty?

David: We took as a given that we would make direct links between all the parts of the machine you needed to touch and what you needed to touch on the screen. We decided to use color to link the parts of the machine directly to the interface, and we went through a couple of rounds of even more direct links between what you see onscreen and what you see offscreen, but for example, when the interface asks you to put in cash, then the instruction bar is green, and that links to the area that's green on the machine.

Masamichi designed those areas of interaction with the machine with exaggerated geometric shapes, which also pulled out the colors. All of this was done in order to make it as direct as it could be, to link what you're doing onscreen with what you're doing offscreen, but particularly because you might be using a credit card, you might be using cash. You have to have a place to have a receipt. The metro card asked you to do a transaction which is unfamiliar, which is you can restore value on a card, and so you have to put in your card, get it loaded up, and then get it back out. And so all of these seemed like significant enough kind of interaction design problems with the machine itself that making the link between what's happening onscreen, the instructions, and what's happening offscreen, had to be as direct as it possibly could be.

Liam: I want to get into your work at ORG, but first, I want to ask who is Dexter Sinister?

David: Dexter Sinister is a shared name that I share with Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey, who's a graphic designer who know lives in London. Stuart and I have known each other for 20 years and worked together for about 13 years under that name. Dexter Sinister began as a project for an art biennial. The Manifesta 6 biennial on the island of Cyprus. It evolved into a space on the Lower East Side in a basement on Ludlow Street, which was a bookstore we ran once a week. It was a studio, and it was a space for event. The name of that space was Dexter Sinister. The bookstore ran one day a week on, on Saturdays for 5 years. Another 5 years after that, by appointment. It was small. All of this is rather small-scale. Very small-scale.

Dexter Sinister, then after setting up the bookstore, running events in the space, and collaborating on design projects, we started to be invited into art exhibition projects or things which didn't really fall into graphic design clearly. And we welcomed those invitations because the invitation was so strange to what we did. We are both rooted very firmly in graphic design as a kind of discipline or an identity or something like this. However, we've made exhibitions for about those 13 years all around the world in institutions of various sizes, from MoMA to like a small gallery or a basement somewhere. In these exhibition projects, we have tended to treat the invitations as design projects in one way or the other.

So when asked to show a piece of work in an exhibition, we've often turned around that request and said, "Well, we'll do the graphic design for the exhibition as a work in the exhibition." It's still fresh. The piece of that work that I remain very committed to is the way in which it troubled distinctions between, uh, what are the limits of a graphic design practice. How can you intersect it? What does it need to do in the world? Et cetera. That's Dexter Sinister.

Liam: There's a lot in there that I would love to dig into.

David: Okay.

Liam: First of all, I guess, how does graphic design as a practice intersect with art, practically?

David: It's adjacent, I think.

Liam: Hmm.

David: A certain segment of graphic design certainly works closely with the contemporary art as a client, so that's the way I was introduced, I think. So in 2008, Dexter Sinister was invited by the Whitney Museum to participate in the biennial. We were invited, we were given three possibilities for how we might participate. We could design the catalog. That's pretty straightforward. We could design, edit, and produce a kind of separate catalog, which would be a parallel to the existing institutional catalog. Or we could make an autonomous project in the show as an artist.

We decided to take the third option because it seemed the farthest from our comfort level. But the project that we proposed back to them was called True Mirror. For that project, we, Dexter Sinister set up a press office in the exhibition behind a hidden door in a secret room, and we went to work there every day for three weeks, and we collaborated with approximately 30 artists, writers, um, designers, curators, other creative people, to write a press release about the show. The Whitney Museum was kind enough to give us access to all of their email and fax and other press contacts.

We sent these press releases out as if they came from the Whitney, although they were coming from us, and so we would design the layout of the press releases in a certain way or consider how they were distributed. For example, one of those press releases was a piece of music performed on a Saturday afternoon at the Whitney biennial, but we called it a press release. This seems like a straightforward art project, in a way, or maybe not so straightforward. I think the distinction I would highlight is that the work itself attempts to be useful, which is usually anathema to artwork, where its uselessness is what often gives it agency. It becomes something you can think about the world through because it doesn't have to do any work in the world.

I think I'm always interested in troubling that distinction, and so I think graphic design and art are certainly separate, but I think you can approach graphic design as ambitiously as you can approach art.

Liam: I think as we talk about these distinctions and also about Dexter Sinister itself, particularly with Dexter Sinister, it seems like this is an identity that is shared, not just between people, but between physical location and programs that happen at that physical location. And it seems like there's a certain filling up of this identity that maybe explodes what's contained inside of identity itself, and I'm curious how this approach to identity impacts the work or how you think about the work or how other people think about the work?

David: That's a perceptive question–

Liam: (laughs)

David: Perceptive insight. People are always confused. What is Dexter Sinister? We never set out to make it confusing, to make it obscure. In fact, just the opposite, really. But I do think, uh, the way we've treated the name and the way we've treated the work, it jumped from one place to the other. So it's funny you had mentioned identity, as I think that's something that, coming from graphic design, we're particularly attuned to. When we set up Dexter Sinister, we also designed a badge, like a coat of arms, which became our symbol, and I feel like that worked like a typical piece of graphic design. Like the relative success of that mark also amplified what we were doing.

Turns out that the name Dexter Sinister even comes from the design of that mark. In the design of coats of arms, there is a written form, a visual mark, which comes before the mark itself and acts like a set of instructions for how to draw the mark. Our badge is defined by what's called a blazon, a, a, a literal version of it, which is "party per bend sinister," which just means take the form, divide it from the top right to bottom left with a diagonal line. So sinister means left, dexter means right. Hence, the name, Dexter Sinister.

As Dexter Sinister, one project that we made addressed identity very directly. It was an exhibition at Artists Space in New York. I don't remember the year. The name of the exhibition was Identity in quotes, so "Identity." It was a three-screen video about 25 minutes long, which provided a three case studies of art institutions and their relationships to their graphic identity. On the left screen was the Pompidou in Paris, on the middle screen was the MoMa, and on the right was the Tate.

And the work provided a reverse chronology of how they got to their current logo, essentially, and had lots of digressions about the kind of limits of branding in relation to art institutions. This project, I think, addresses some of the same things you're getting at when you, when you say that the name Dexter Sinister bleeds from one kind of identifying capacity to another, so, I, I guess I think that even graphic identity is quite a bit more fluid than the profession wants to identify it as.

Liam: I also want to touch on ORG, which is an organization that you've described as a one-person concern masked as a large organization. It seems to me, especially given the conversation that we've just had and how you mention that graphic design can be ambitious in the same capacity or the same direction as art can, that perhaps positioning an organization this way is itself a kind of commentary.

David: It absolutely is. I incorporated ORG on the first business day of 2000, by design, or by...That happened to be approximately when I needed to do it. The project was self-conscious in its set-up. So ORG, I took the name, as it sounded like the three letter acronym seemed to be a good way to indicate size. I wasn't actually interested in masquerading as a large organization, but I was certainly interested in inhabiting that form, and so I took an office that was on 39th Street in Midtown. I thought that was a good corporate address. When I called the telephone company to get a telephone number for the studio, I asked them to give me as many zeroes as they could give me. And they did. They gave me two. Fairly generous. And a 212 number, so that was good.

I incorporated on the first business day of the new millennium, which was January 3, 2000. I saved or kind of highlighted the papers, which I needed to file in order to become an S corporation in the State of New York. And I wrote a bit of narrative and did some staging of the office in order that it looked kind of bigger than it was. I even ended up writing a piece in The New York Times Magazine about that time that was called "How to Make a One-Person Firm Appear as a Large Organization." I must have written a better title than that, but anyway, it was not the goal just to get press. The goal was to actually do this project where someone might have to hiccup or stop and think for a second about who and how they were hiring this designer.

I guess I'm always interested in questioning or considering the kind of design-client relationship, not as a power grab or anything else, but just as a kind of human reconsideration of it on each project because it's so different, and I think it's very easy to fall into lazy patterns of interaction, which short-circuit what's possible to be made.

Liam: I think it's interesting that ORG is described as another fluid identity of collaborators coming in and out. At times, it's been just you. At times, it's been multiple people. And so it strikes me that that approach can ensure the kind of collaboration that you have said is fundamental to design work, but then there's also the kind of interaction with, like you said, the people who are hiring this organization. And I'm interested in how this approach has impacted those people who hired ORG, and if that thought was sparked as maybe you had hoped.

David: I think sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn't, which also I suppose is not surprising. There are clients I've worked with since then, so that's an awful long time, and so obviously they bought the structure and were influenced by it. I think in almost all the situations where I worked on projects, it was very rarely the case that the clients treated the relationship as a straightforward design-client relationship. I was very fortunate in that way.

When it devolved into a more transactional exchange, then I feel like the work got weaker. I got more frustrated. Likely the people hiring me, as well, got more frustrated. The ORG started out as just me, and then became a kind of, as you were describing, a fluid network of people who were both employed by me or simply a writer who I might be working with would stay in the studio for, you know, two weeks, or might be the case. Or sometimes, simply friends or other designers would use the studio from time to time as a kind of base to do work and have some conversation and these kinds of things.

Liam: I also want to hear about the Demise Party.

David: So I'd run ORG for six years by that point. I was getting increasingly frustrated by, not by the scale, but rather by the kind of waste that was inherent in doing projects which needed a larger scale. And so I wanted to reconsider how I was working. I was feeling frustrated by working quite so hard and having so much of it fall by the wayside, and this didn't feel very effective for the people I was working with. Didn't feel very good for me. So I decided to shut down the studio and recalibrate how I work, and work without any assistance, and to work only with Stuart, in that case, to reconsider the conditions of working, as well.

So Stuart and I had found a small basement space on Ludlow Street on Lower East Side, where the rent was really cheap. Also, by reorganizing the studio, I no longer needed all of the equipment I had in the studio, so I had computers, and I had lots of books and reference materials and tables and lights and even a fax machine, at that point. So the Demise Party I held is a public event where I gave away everything in the studio, so those who participated in kind of building up all the material, they came to this party and just took what they wanted, so computers and lights and tables and printed matter and books, and I found it to be liberating. You can imagine. It sounds like it when you clear out a place.

But also really made me feel very good, as those people I'd formed friendships with probably all of whom I still see now, many have gone on to form other studios, do other things. Anyway, the party, we gave away everything. It all happened in one night. By the end of the night, the studio was trashed, and a lot of the stuff was gone. Not all of it by any stretch. People came back and took tables and other furniture later, but that was the Demise Party.

Liam: It seems like quite a radical approach to closing a place down, to give everything away.

David: It was. I think it's typically theatrical in the way that I've organized my design practice, like-

Liam: Hmm.

David: You know, it was both a practical way to give away everything and a way to flag that up as an event.

Liam: I also want to talk about your new book, A New Program for Graphic Design. The book is based on three courses that you had developed for teaching at Princeton, and I'm really interested in what it's like to translate the foundational material of this book into a book format.

David: We did it in a strange way. Again, using some aspect of theater or performance. I started teaching at Princeton 10 years ago, and I was brought in to invent a graphic design course that had never been taught at Princeton previously. The first course I developed was called Typography, and then that developed into a second course called Gestalt, and a third course called Interface. There are now a couple other courses, as well. There have been several other people teaching with me along the way, including Danielle Aubert and Francesca Grassi, and now, Laura Coombs and Alice Chung. So it's just to say, it was not done by myself in isolation, to be clear about that.

The book began as an invitation by Inventory Press, based in Los Angeles, about three years ago. Actually, the Inventory Press is a partnership of Adam Michaels and Shannon Harvey. Adam used to be part of ORG, so that's how I met him. He knew about the teaching I was doing at Princeton, as I was developing these, these courses, and he thought it might have a broader appeal outside of the classroom. So he invited me to make a book. I had very little desire to write that book, because somehow that felt like it would make the material too static for me, and it was still working material. So we came up with a different way to make the book, which was instead of writing it, to speak it.

We set up a series of three days in Los Angeles, where Inventory Press is based, two summers ago. Over the course of those three days, each day I gave six 45-minutes lectures with 15-minute breaks in between. These were attended by art students from Otis, from CalArts, from ArtCenter, about 60 people a day or something like that, who were patient enough to sit through all of these lectures. All of these, the proceedings were video taped, video recorded, and after the fact, transcribed, and that became the basis of the book. The event itself was carnival-esque. Between the lectures, uh, there was synthesizer music and light shows and some other things. I think that kind of activity helped give the material a bit more levity than it would have otherwise.

It was also an absurd endurance performance. By the third day, after speaking for two days straight, my voice was shot. And I imagine the audience, at least the persistent audience, was flagging by that point. Anyway, that material was transcribed and edited by Eugenia Bell, and that forms the basis of the book. I think what I am very happy with in the book is that the relative casualness of the address, of the text, of the language, makes it feel a bit more like being in a classroom. And I write in the introduction, and this means I said it when I was out there, I said something to the effect that, "This book is not intended to be a kind of graphic design historical canon. These are simply references of models of people that I know and like and share with students, and anybody else would do it totally differently."

And so I suggest to the reader and to the people who were there, I said, "This is a prompt for you to do the same thing. When you finish reading this book, rip it up and make your own." And I think that license is something I'm always trying to get across in teaching. Like, as a student, you can absorb what you hear in the classroom, but it will only be valuable when you redo it for yourself.

Liam: I think it's really interesting that you delivered the book in that format. But a book is definitely still quite a solid artifact and can't necessarily reproduce the interaction that you might get between a teacher and students or between students themselves. So I'm interested in how that played into how you approached it or how you view it now?

David: You certainly miss the back and forth. That's clear. In teaching, that's a rhetorical strategy I use without like naming it as such, but I don't want to hear my voice drone on for very long. Not because of what it's saying, but more so, I'm worried that the form of one person speaking and nobody else speaking immediately communicates a kind of imbalance that's completely ineffective in a classroom.

In the book, I try to broker the limitations of it being a monologue by making it clear when I don't know something, by offering the material in a manner that perhaps seems tentative or provisional. And that at least I hope allows some room for the reader, not to necessarily disagree, although that's fine, too. Of course they will. But to imagine that they are part of the conversation.

So the book was published by Inventory Press, together with DAP, Distributed Art Publishers in New York. It came out in September of this year and had a substantial print run. We, it's been successful enough that they are reprinting it now. So I'm just going through the page proofs of the second edition, and what I'm finding in reading my own words is a slight bit of discomfort with the casualness of the language. But I think that won't change, and I'm pretty sure it is that looseness which gives it some spark. It looks like a book. I mean, it is a book. Even looks like a straightforward kind of graphic design textbook. But I think there's a bait-and-switch going on.

I think when you pick it up, you realize, oh, this isn't gonna offer me any rules at all. This is simply kind of a recording of one particular point of view, and maybe provides a model for how to do this, or one approach, and that's it. I'm consistently drawn to making work that does that bait-and-switch, and it's not a matter of trying to be elusive or anything else. But I feel like the exterior form can set the conditions for reception, which then the details can undermine and along the way leaves a kind of complicated understanding of the object, of the thing, of the project.

So I, I am thrilled when I see artistic interventions in things that are in the public, and I don't mean public art, but what I mean are like choices which don't seem to be immediately coherent with the situation that they find themselves in.

Liam: And to close the loop from earlier, perhaps the way in which the book is delivered and the casualness of the words actually crystallizes your own identity in the work.

David: Yes.

Liam: There's certainly a much bigger, broader question underneath this, but I think as long as we're talking about one specific work, maybe that'll be helpful. I'm interested in, when you were approached about doing the book, how did you know that it was time for a book or that you should do this or what was your thought process that was like, "Yes"?

David: I think it was the same as all of the work that I make. It's always by invitation. That sounds lazy or unconsidered, but I've realized that's my orientation, and it's not passivity. But it's certainly a, I'm not motivated to make work on my own. I'm motivated by an invitation. I think that's my orientation as a designer, or my, like, identity in that way, is I'm much more interested to be given a situation to work into rather than inventing everything from scratch.

So I was invited to make a book around the teaching. I didn't even consider that it would be 10 years when it came out. I always treat teaching as absolutely continuous with my other work. I never think of it as something that I have to do or I don't, never think of it as something that is external to any of the concerns I have in doing any of my other design work.

So when the invitation came to make a book, I said sure. But let's figure out a way to make a book in a different way that is productive, that makes something new, that doesn't simply wrap up what I'm doing here and seal it away and put it to bed, unless I'm going to stop teaching, which was not my plan. So I can understand what the larger question is, and I think it's essential to my orientation as a designer. Like it's just invitations are what initiate projects, and I never buy the distinction between commissioned client projects and self-initiated projects for myself. This distinction is nonsense. I never, I never initiate projects. They're always by invitation, one way or the other. They may be better or less well-funded, but they're always sparked by somebody else inviting me.

Liam: All right, well, thank you again for joining me today.

David: Thank you very much.

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