Category Archives: Vocabulary

Support de Fortune

[W]hat then, would become of it — this context — if transferred? — if translated? Would it not rather be traduit (traduced) which is the French synonyme, or overzezet (turned topsy-turvy) which is the Dutch one? 1

SdF-1aprilThis month, Kristien Van den Brande installed her research Support de Fortune in the vitrine of Recyclart, Brussels.

“How do supports of writing — a book or a single piece of paper, pencils, typewriters or internet pages — work on our thoughts? How do ‘chance supports’ (a train ticket, the back of an envelope, the margin of a book) challenge common ideas and practices of archiving, binding, displaying, reproducing, translation?”

With Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield, Nick Thurston we contributed artist talks and performative readings, adding to the rich collection of material (books, references, ideas) that Kristien had brought together. It was a welcome opportunity to revisit many familiar themes, an occasion for a re-take of A Romance of Many Dimensions and a first try-out of Technical Writing.

forget that you are

click for video!
i P a d (Michael Murtaugh’s melted version for Prototyping Futures)

I am enjoying Household Words, an associative analysis of ‘common-sensical’ words such as Sucker, Bloomers, and Bombshell. In her last chapter, Cyber, Stephanie A. Smith refers to On the road to intimacy, a 1992 whitepaper calling for the development of ‘personal digital assistants’. The authors David Dunham and Scott Shwarts predict that we would one day all carry “a helpful friend in our pocket”. Intimate devices for them, should be like telephones:

The telephone is an intimate device. You don’t have to think about using it, and probably don’t consider yourself to be using high technology when you do. When you talk on the phone, you frequently forget that you are. An intimate computer should be equally transparent. Ideally, you shouldn’t know you’re using a computer until it does something wonderful.

Smith asks herself:

Now really, who can forget they’re on the telephone? More interesting is the syntax of the statement “When you talk on the phone, you frequently forget that you are.” What might it mean that you forget that you are?

A Dictionary of Received Ideas

Her colleagues often repeated that ‘there is no perfect solution to a design problem‘. Rebecca was pretty sure she had read it somewhere within the context of computer science or learning technology but after looking all over, she still had not found a solid source for the idea. After posting her question to the mailinglist, Luke e-mailed almost instantaneously:

It sounds like you are looking for Rittel and Webber’s third of ten characteristics of wicked problems:
Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad1

The ‘third characteristic’ Luke was referring to, came from a book on the theory of planning:

For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness.

Jude thought that it was something Herbert Simon might have said:

Evidently, organisms adapt well enough to ‘satisfice’; they do not, in general, ‘optimize’.
A ‘satisficing’ path, a path that will permit satisfaction at some specified level of all its needs.2

In her e-mail Jude explained what she thought Simon meant by that:

What is good enough is certainly better than what is not good enough.


The bar for what satisfices can be raised over time, this achieving the even better, but not necessary the best.

Neil agreed with Jude and added a reference to Henry Petroski’s Small Things Considered where the same concept of ‘satisficing’ accounts for the role of decision making in design. Rebecca was not sure which of these two quotes would be more useful for her research.

Design must always conform to constraint, must always require choice, and thus must always involve compromise.

or rather:

We live in a world of imperfect things, just as we do in a world of imperfect fellow human beings.3

Prue suggested the gnomic but brilliant remark made by Ray or Charles Eames:

The best you can do between now and Tuesday is a kind of best you can do.4

Terence was not being very helpful. He felt she might first need to ask herself what it meant for something to be a ‘perfect’ design solution.

Derek suggested that all of this was spinning around good oldfashioned pragmatism. Therefore the relevant source would not be a designer, but psychologist and philosopher William James:

We say this theory solves it on the whole more satisfactorily than that theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasize their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.5

Ranolph liked to apply Samuel Beckett’s famous quote from Worstward Ho as a definition of design:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.6

and pointed her to the reworked Rittel and Webber statement by Jeff Conklin:

Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.7

She closed her laptop, smiled to herself and thought:

Perfect is the enemy of good.8

  1. Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.
  2. Simon, H. A. (1956). “Rational choice and the structure of the environment”. Psychological Review, Vol. 63 No. 2, 129-138.
  3. Small things considered: Why there is no perfect design. New York: Vintage Books, 2004
  4. Quoted in Eames Demetrios, 2001, An Eames Primer, New York Universe Publishing p 173. Prue Bramwell-Davis.
  5. Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. William James, 1907
  6. Samuel Becket: Worstward Ho, 1983
  7. Conklin, Jeff; “Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,” Wiley; 1st edition, 18 November 2005
  8. Voltaire in La Bégueule, Contes, 1772

Word, Work

A group from Chicago visited Constant Variable last week. One student explains his mother is a publisher and that she compiled an on-line glossary of terms used in her mixed practice of printing, publishing and writing. It is stunning.
For example, under W:

word spacing:
The amount of space between each word in typeset text.

An informal means of promoting a product from one person to another.

work and tumble:
To print one side of a sheet of paper, then turn the sheet over from gripper edge to back using the same side guide and plate to print the second side.

work and turn:
To print one side of a sheet of paper, then turn the sheet over from left to right using the same gripper and plate to print the second side.

work for hire:
A type of agreement in which the writer or designer sells the complete rights to a work to a publisher.

Pen and paper

The LGM splash

An M for Meeting

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

For the 5th edition of the Libre Graphics Meeting, OSP proposed to replace the paint splash by an abstract drawing of three squares forming a flag and also the letter M.1 The splash had been in use since 2006 and some community members felt alienated by the proposal. On 10/10/2009 AL explained on the CREATE-mailinglist: “The main issue for OSP, is that we don’t think continuity can be resolved by going back to the paint splash. We honestly feel it misrepresents the pleasure of using and developing Libre Graphics Tools and we have consciously decided to work with imagery that avoids such remediation.2

Two years later, the Scribus Icon Contest (deadline October 31!)3 seems to have run into a similar argument. One of the proposals features yet another stylized iteration of a fountain pen:

Original Scribus logo

Scribus 1.3.5 introduced: Handwritten textboxes

Calligraphy AND textboxes. Proposal: Ian Hex

I am not the only one who doubts the calligraphic turn. LD responds:
The pen has been around for ages. Yet, a pen has not much to do with DTP and has always seemed to me a bit out of topic or a bit misleading. Typography is not calligraphy. No pen is involved in the work, really. It’s also arguable what a “scribe” has to do with DTP but here I find myself more comfortable since the scribe’s work was in fact to put down the ideas on paper. From that to layout, I think the link is pretty clear.4
GP does not altogether agree: “I think the connection makes some sense in that you have something of a depiction of the work of a scribe, which at least connects to the name Scribus. Furthermore, scribes worked as individuals, sometimes adding embellishments of drop caps and artwork in the margins (primitive layout) and were therefore much like the idea of an individual doing publishing on his own.
He adds: “The difficulty with using computers, screens, mice, keyboards, etc., is that these might be used in the logo for almost any software”

Avoiding the problem: Adobe InDesign (2011)

Reverse evolution: From a typographer's portrait to a writing tool. Aldus Pagemaker (1985)

An individual doing publishing on his own?

It puzzles me why the Scribus community — like other Libre Graphics projects — would want to ignore the rich source of imagery provided by their own object of development. Some keywords for a dreamt logo:
Box, Canvas, Chain, Character, Colour, Column, Curve, Diagram, Document, Figure, Font, Frame, Gap, Grid, Guide, Hyphen, Image, Layer, Line, Margin, Masterpage, Origin, Padding, Page, Pagenumber, Paragraph, Path, Point, Script, Sentence, Shape, Space, Stream, Stroke, Style, Table, Word.


Table practice

A late report from I Don’t Know! — an artistic conference on knowledge production [18/09/2011]

Arriving for the second day of the conference, I am welcomed by EVC with a cheerful: “We are very curious what you’ll do. When we received your proposal we really did not know what to expect!“. At that point I had just read the descriptions of the other parallel ‘table practices’, and was panicking about choosing such a pragmatic approach. Oh well.

Before the seven sessions begin, the organisers ask us ‘to make our notes public’, meaning to write them on vertically placed cardboard surfaces scattered around the room. Additionally, we are invited to formulate ‘matters of concern’ on pink post-it notes (yellow ones are for possible responses, solutions). It is probably post-it fatigue but the question rubs me the wrong way, as does the term ‘mise en abyme’ that is used to explain the purposeful recursion of the discourse. Another coffee, and it is time to start.

The two discussions starting from The GML-Field Recorder Challenge are each useful and interesting in their own way thanks to many smart and generous people around the table. First we ‘simply’ discuss The Challenge in relation to the questions posed by the conference. Participants point out the difference between ‘writing about’ (or data from?) movement and the act of moving itself; the interplay between standard and practice (referring to choreographer Steve Paxton who resented the standardization of ‘his’ method Contact improvisation, feeling it would risk transforming a practice between people into a technique) and reminding me that the relation between markup and text is architectural.

The second session is a bit more complicated. It takes a while to get started, and in the end The Field Recorder Challenge is used as a ‘case’ in an attempt to compare artistic research to case law, or in short, to a ‘file’. Surprisingly, the situation gets almost out of hand when we discuss one of the stipulations of The Challenge: “The winning design will have some protection in the event that the device falls into the wrong hands“. Apparently one of the blockages for approaching artistic research as a ‘file’ is that it would imply an act of sharing without control. What if your work would be used for a bad cause? How then to take responsibility for your work?

The entertaining Discourse Machine is another kind of ‘table practice’, developed by EVC and PR. It is a conversation-game in the genre of Talkaoke1, though more intellectual in style. In proper Don’t Know!-fashion, it at the same time provokes discourse AND a reflection upon the discourse itself (or on the provocation?). The game is played in rapid succession by seven participants who take up the role of presenter, audience member, interviewer, critical facilitator, feedback-person, interviewee or communications manager. PR confirms that this Discourse API could work with altogether different questions too.

Throughout the conference, the vocabulary of Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour is omnipresent. The confidence by which participants refer to them in conversation makes me wonder about my own usage of their work. A week later, inspired by AL, SV, PH, and LL working courageously through Stengers’ essay Ecology of Practice, it is good to read:

To challenge is something rather easy, you can always challenge somebody. But challenge as related to the eventuality of a cosmopolitical achievement must include the very special fact that in front of a challenging situation, nobody can speak in the name of this situation. Indeed borders are involved and there is no neutral, extra-territorial, way of defining what matters in the situation. It implies, for each involved party, different risk and a different challenge.”2

When it is my turn to speak in the gigantic plenum that concludes the day3, I am too impatient to say anything properly nuanced. As usual, KVDB is to the point: “Be careful not to fetishise your Don’t know!“.

  1. “The most fun I ever had with my clothes on”
  2. Ecology of practices and technology of belonging
  3. 50+ exhausted participants placed in a large circle. One by one we respond to yet another quest for ‘matters of concern’. In the middle some conference debris, a recorder slid into the void space, two microphones and a spaghetti of black cables.

Don’t read

Exercise for next week:

"From the phrase Don't read, a line extends horizontally and then angles diagonally downward to the word Take, from which extend three short lines that connect the words paper, rods, blocks to the rest of the phrase. To the right of this cluster is the phrase, set them out, color, build"

[Description of About Two Squares (instruction page), El Lissitzky’s revolutionary children’s book. In: Margolin, Victor. The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy Nagy, The University of Chicago Press, 1997]


Think Python: How to Think Like a Computer Scientist
by Allen B. Downey


[The Open Source DTP application Scribus can be automated via a scripting API using Python. Booklet: The F*cking Manual, by OSP]



Co-position from scratch

Mark Twains’ design for the title page and dedication of The Surviving Innocent (or: Following the Equator). Image: All rights reserved, The Shapell Foundation

On 5 October the Co-position team will travel from Amsterdam, Brussels and Porto to meet in Eindhoven (NL) at Baltan Laboratories. Co-position is the title of the thread at the Libre Graphics Research Unit focusing on digital tools for lay-out. This particular compartment of the (Libre) graphics toolbox is very much defined through historical practices of printing and heavy with the terminology of movable type. On the one hand tied to the needs of the publishing industry and on the other to pre-press requirements, it is a type of software that is also production driven and oriented on conventional workflows. What if it would be inspired by altogether different practices?

When the Co-position team bravely took up the challenge to rethink lay-out tools from scratch, they realised that they needed to reinvent its vocabulary first. This is what they will make a start with in Eindhoven.

Below is the workshop description so far; more details about how to participate etc. will be published on the website of Baltan Laboratories soon.

Collective co-positioning (a toolbased workshop)

Digital lay-outing tools are path dependent in their way of mimicking the past processes of 600 years of moveable type (and maybe even beyond). Often practice proceeds without extensive critical reflection by practitioners themselves. Practice is spoken of in a ‘living language’ that addresses day to day actions and gestures. To re-dream lay-out practice from scratch, we start with developing a vocabulary of lay-out in order to better understand relations between workflow, material, and medium.

For this workshop we ask participants to bring “spatial arrangement of texts and other graphical elements” they have made or would have liked to have made. These posters, lay-outs, designs can be completely various, trivial, unfinished or imaginary. We’ll work together to analyse these arrangements, their spatial relationships very precisely and find the more broad criteria as possible to describe them. This operation will be the start of a methodology of classification and create the missing vocabulary needed to build the first phase of the Co-position project.

In the evening, we’ll present Co-position in the larger context of the Libre Graphics Research Unit, a collaboration between Medialab Prado (ES), WORM (NL), Piksel (NO), Constant (BE) and others. The Unit is a two year project bringing artists, designers and Free, Libre and Open Source Software developers around the same table to exchange ideas and share experiences about digital tools and future artistic practice.


John Haltiwanger works in programming languages, new media theory, and typographic design software, John strives for a balance between the practical, the aesthetic, and the boundary-breaking.

Pierre Huyghebaert explores several practices around graphic design, he currently drives the studio Speculoos. Pierre is interested in using free sofware to re-learn to work in other ways and collaboratively on cartography, type design, web interface, schematic illustration, book design and teaching these practices. Along participating in OSP, he articulate residential spaces and narratives through the artists temporary alliance Potential Estate and develop collaborative and subjective mapping with Towards and others Brussels urban projects.

Ana Carvalho and Ricardo Lafuente run a libre graphics & design research studio based in Porto, actively engaged with design, typography, independent publishing and software culture. Developing innovative design software such as Shoebot and Batch Commander, and co-edit Libre Graphics Magazine. Involved in building up and maintaining Hacklaviva, a hackerspace in the center of Porto. Manufactura Independente brings their expertise in publishing with F/LOSS, generative design plus the development of typographic systems to LGRU. They will host a research meeting in Porto (PT), and participate in research meetings and the Future Tools conference.

and FS :-)


Interface sketches for Oral Site

With SARMA (‘an artistic and discursive laboratory for criticism, dramaturgy, research and creation in the field of dance and beyond’) AL + SV are developing an on-line archive for oral histories, a branch of the Active Archives platform.
How to imagine a software together? KVDB responded with this astute sketch.

The killer argument

Question: “But what would be the real advantage of developing free software tools, if soon proprietary ones will offer you the same ‘hackability’ (through APIs for example), or what if they would even be more flexible?” Answer: “More interesting frictions?” After discussing the “many cans of worms that have been hiding behind the glossy, happy-go-lucky, […]

Shape and orient

Tools shape orient practice Practice shapes orients tools We are imagining the future of Constant this afternoon. At some point, we discuss Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, a book by Sara Ahmed we like. She uses queer both in the sense of sexual as in spatial orientation; literally thinking through what that means for bodies […]