Age of Humility

Scholarship: Creative Work Award Runner Up

Design Team

Rebekah Modrak, Professor, University of Michigan
Jamie Lausch Vander Broek, Librarian, University of Michigan
Sam Oliver, Designer, Shaper Realities

The Age of Humility project asks: can we reinvigorate humility from seeming like an archaic virtue studied by scholars and clergy to a living value, practiced in every workplace, from hospitals to courtrooms, and relevant in all realms, informing our choices as friends, colleagues, parents, and citizens? This project involves multiple work products—from a collection of essays to a series of researched posts distributed via social media—all with a centralized base: the Age of Humility website (AgeOfHumility.com). In designing the website and social media pages, our goal was to support the project and to inspire interest in humility as a value during this time in which political boasting and status-seeking are pervasive, and humility is rarely discussed.

In designing AgeOfHumility.com, we understood that exploring humility through scholarly research and anecdotal/personal narrative would not be served well by the current commerce-based paradigm for web design, which emphasizes self-promotion and facile consumption of information. Literary promotional websites, by default, have a self-congratulatory aesthetic. Their goal is to impress visitors. Critics’ praise, flattering headshots, and authors’ accolades take center stage in an effort to persuade would-be readers into making a purchase. We wanted to design an alternate approach.

We entered into the design process with several questions:

  • If humility involves a capacity to acknowledge error and learn new perspectives, how can the website design communicate and enact this openness to change?
  • How do we encourage users to see our contributors as an extension of their own community, and how can we prioritize ideas rather than promote people?
  • Can we approach web design in such a way that we encourage users to slow down and take time processing complex insights about humility?

Using a collaborative process, we developed several design strategies meant to engage visitors in conversation:

  • The meandering line — a line of curiosity that leads users from thought to thought.
  • The hand-drawn curlicue frame — a momentary pause to consider an idea or image.
  • The gradient — communicating the fallibility of represented perspectives.
  • The animated ink cloud / moving field of pigment — indicating that thought is not static. The ink cloud also conveys emotional content to indicate elation or turbulence.

All elements mimic organic movement to defy the flat space of the digital screen and the grid-based template of much web design.

The Age of Humility website and social media use this visual language to create contemplative space within a traditionally fast medium. The home page introduces viewers to diverse dialogues around humility. We intentionally avoid the primacy of the cursor’s point-and-click as the method of interaction. Instead, the main activator on the site is the imperfect, hand-drawn winding line that coils around quotations and entices users to scroll down the page, reading ideas that come politics, consumer culture, psychology, and other perspectives. The line and animated ink cloud all indicate that thoughts are pliant and yielding and prompt an introspective, gentle tempo for navigating the site. We use two complimentary fonts filled with a watercolor texture as a way of implying a spoken voice that fluctuates in timbre, and as a means to emphasize key words within that speech. The home page uses these designed tools to emphasize thoughts about humility rather than specific people.

The site’s navigation menu leads users to the contributors page where we replaced the traditional headshots with watercolor portraits so that contributors are seen as approachable, and to convey the idiosyncratic nature of the project. The watercolor medium treats contributors as characters on the page within a book of tales about morality and ethics. None is more important than another and, collectively, they build a broad, diverse understanding of humility. On the individual profile pages, we again emphasized excerpts and perspectives over biographies.

As contemporary social media is synonymous with self-promotion, Instagram presented a more severe set of challenges. We designed a strategy here of featuring one discipline or perspective for a two-week sequence of posts. For example, humility and mathematics; humility and Black girlhood; humility and aging. Working with two-week increments, we developed the website’s toolkit to be dynamic and compelling for fourteen days. We developed multiple variations of hand-drawn coiling frames and ink clouds. The hand-drawn curlicue frame transferred well to social media, providing a recognizable and consistent hallmark and a border for logos, photographs and other content that we want to absorb onto our site. We extended the hand-drawn meandering line into fully drawn illustrations; each two weeks of content are illustrated by five or six whimsical drawings, rendered carefully but without hard lines. The color watercolor portrait of the contributor who has inspired the series begins each two-week period. And because putting a face to people is so important to us, we create black-and-white portraits of guest social media contributors as a way to distinguish them from long-term contributors.

The resulting Age of Humility website and social media sites avoid the tropes of vanity websites and become both a preface for and visual extension of our exploration of humility. The site launched in January 2019 and we are excited to note that the audience is growing every day, both through the mailing list and social media. We’ve just passed 4500 followers on Facebook. After viewing the Age of Humility sites, the literary agency Dunow, Carlson & Lerner offered us a contract to represent our forthcoming book, citing the compelling way we’ve created a conversation around humility on the website and social media. Most importantly, the site has set up a platform for us to connect with communities across the world. We recently hosted a week-long series about humility from the perspective of residents of Ishinomaki, Japan; we partnered with author Rob Walker for a series of joint posts in which our contributors commented on excerpts from his book Art of Noticing; and we provided a forum for artists working on issues of free speech and democracy to share their work.

Age of Humility website: https://ageofhumility.com/#/

Age of Humility on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ageofhumility/

Rebekah Modrak

Rebekah Modrak is an artist and writer who practices at the intersections of art, activism, discursive design, and creative resistance to consumer culture. Her net-based artworks critique brand appropriation. Re Made Co. (remadeco.org) takes the form of an online “company” to parody actual company Best Made Co.’s appropriation of working-class imagery and values for leisure consumption. Rethink Shinola analyzes a complex and patronizing agenda of marketing the White savior myth. Modrak’s writing, published in such journals and books as Consumption Markets & Culture and Afterimage, analyzes the links between design, education, and brand marketing. For the past three years, she co-built and directed the site Age of Humility, bringing together dozens of diverse participants representing fields such as philosophy, the arts, law, race theory, and business, to reflect upon humility. Rebekah is a professor at the Stamps School of Art & Design at University of Michigan.

Jamie Lausch Vander Broek

Jamie Lausch Vander Broek is a Librarian for Art & Design at the University of Michigan. This summer, she bought a book made of cheese for her library. You can read about it on saveur.com [https://www.saveur.com/cheese-book-university-of-michigan]. She holds a tailored Master’s degree from the U-M School of Information in Art and Art Museum Librarianship, and received a B.A. in Art History with a minor in Italian Studies from Wellesley College. Since arriving in Ann Arbor, she has been active in the local art and book communities, and is currently on the board of the Ann Arbor District Library.

Sam Oliver

Sam Oliver is the founder of Shaper Realities, a product and interaction design studio based in Brooklyn. He founded the studio as a rebuke to the industry standard separation of design and development. Shaper Realities strives to combine the two practices within a single process. The members of the studio are all technical, and have ownership of projects from conception through launch. The studio works primarily with startups using bleeding edge technologies and artists reimagining the future implications.

Outside of his studio practice Sam Oliver remains an active part of the Hacker community. He believes strongly in the virtues of creative ownership within any maker practice, and works within the community to promote whimsical, non-commercial applications of technology.

Humblebrag: A Game of Influence

A game that uses satire to draw attention to narcissistic behavior in the digital age and invite self-reflection.

Kathy Mueller
Assistant Professor
Temple University

A national study found loneliness to have reached epidemic levels in the United States, and found Generation Z to be the most vulnerable. While built with an intention of creating meaningful connections, social media may accomplish the opposite. Studies have found it increases social comparison and envy. It is especially pertinent for young people, entrenched in behavioral norms of the digital age, to think critically about how they contribute to culture. Humblebrag is a game that uses satire to draw attention to narcissistic behavior in the digital age and invite self-reflection.

In this easy-to-learn strategy card game, 4–6 players compete to earn the most social influence. Players collect influence with point value cards such as “check-in at the gym” and “craft the perfect effortless look.” To get ahead, players must keep others down through the use of action cards, such as “Backhanded compliment,” that steal influence from other players. Five cards in a bank closes the round, and the player with the highest influence wins.

The game uses entertainment to engage with themes of narcissism, selfishness, envy, self-esteem, and empathy. Presenting the behaviors outside of their native digital context exposes frivolous aspects of influencer culture. The presentation will discuss the work-in-progress, spark critical conversation, and examine outcomes—such as a potential shift in awareness, measured in a survey before and after Humblebrag game play.

How important is it for an author to have a significant social media presence and to demonstrate that to the publisher?

Questions: How important is it for an author to have a significant social media presence and to demonstrate that to the publisher? –SR 

Answer: Generally a social media presence is less important in academic publishing than in trade publishing (which are books for the general reader).

But obviously being able to utilise your contacts for promotion of the book is certainly a plus and may well reach people we wouldn’t naturally get to with our own marketing. 

It wouldn’t be a sticking point really though on whether a project was signed up – there are plenty of hugely successful academic authors who barely touch social media.

Your background, the project and the reviews are the most significant aspects for us.  It’s nice to be able to say when presenting a new book idea to our committee that an author has 10,000+ followers, and we would certainly exploit that with the author’s help, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the book will sell any better than one which relies on our own marketing contacts. 

With fairly limited marketing budgets across academic publishing, having a pro-active author, whether on social media or through other channels, is a big help in reaching the right people.

Louise Baird-Smith
Commissioning Editor – Design and Photography
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

“Ask the Editor” is a Design Incubation series, where design academics, researchers, and practitioners pose their questions to editors of books, journals, conferences and other academic and design trade publishing organizations. If you would like your questions answered by publishing professionals, send your questions to Design Incubation via the “Ask the Editor” form on our website.

Making Small Things: Robots, Cracks, and Hamburgers

Whether exploring meditations on a single theme, embracing new materials or studying the affects of repetition and reproduction, designer Chris St. Cyr’s work exploits both the familiar and the unknown.

Chris St.Cyr
Assistant Professor of Graphic Design
The College of Saint Rose

cracksMake some thing. Somewhere between morning routines, client projects and preparing for a class there is time to create something… a small something. Over time, these creations may evolve into larger projects or they can remain a collection of random ideas waiting for connections to given them form. The trick is to think small— a two-minute sketch, a single bullet item, one typeface, one principle, two constraints, no command z, a page, or one post.

hamburgersOver the past five years I’ve developed a series of small personal projects that continue to evolve and grow. Social media is part of the production process. It is used to start conversations and provides a place for my creations to exist on their own and to engage with a globally networked community. One project, an investigation of the efficiency of modular design systems and has evolved from building 3D Lego structures to using Lego block printing to create a system of robot symbols for use on T-shirts, stickers, and in augmented reality. In another project (perhaps a reaction against the Lego project) old rub down press type is used as a catalyst for the investigation of randomness, reaction, and flow. Here there is very little control and rubbing cracked letterforms onto sketchbook paper gives form to the compositions which are then scanned, manipulated and printed, all of which adds another layer of uncertainty to the outcome. robotsA third, and more recent project, is a meditation on the mobile menu symbol—affectionately known as the “Hamburger Menu.” More specifically it involves a series of motion design experiments that explore how three horizontal lines can transition into the shape of an “X.” As the projects have changed over time one thing remains consistent—they all started as a single small exploration of a design principle, material, tool or technique.

Design Criticism in Search of a Platform

Dr. Gaia Scagnetti
Assistant Professor
Graduate Communication Design
Pratt Institute

By definition criticism presents negative connotations. In philosophical terms, criticism is not an action but a method of systematic analysis of a written, oral and visual discourse. It involves merit recognition and it means a methodical practice of doubt. Design criticism has had a short life story and never reached the popularity of Architecture or Art criticism, Film or Literary criticism. Probing design work is perceived as a threat, especially in a time when liking is the expected way of supporting peers both within and outside of social networks. To like and express appreciation for the work of others is a consolidated strategy to get noticed and welcomed in a community of practice, especially among the young generation.

Support is rarely shown through critical encouragement and is mostly communicated through unconditional recommendations; endorsement is seen as a currency to be exchanged regardless of the intrinsic value of a certain production. The problem gets exacerbated by the platforms we use to contribute to disciplinary conversations: symposia, conferences, talks are now always recorded and publicly streamed. This public exposure does not support attempts to make critical analyses; streaming is an opportunity for advertising others or yourself, your connections and your relevancy. Public speeches are opportunities to create connections the so called shoutout to other projects, friends or celebrities. In a time where positivity is the currency nobody wants to practice doubt.

We can consider the process of criticism to be equivalent to making strategic decisions it is a part of how we govern ourselves. Strategies are rarely discussed out in the public, but within a dedicated environment where the social rules of conduct are made explicit and intentions are shared. Similarly, design criticism should be fostered and cultivated within purposebuilt platforms. Design criticism needs a home more than ever. Analysing, considering or dissecting design discourse is a contribution to the politics of truth and criticism is the art of not being governed quite so much.

The Design and Branding of a Project

Anita Giraldo
Assistant Professor
Communication Design
New York City College of Technology, CUNY

Steel Ice & Stone is an interactive installation consisting of nine 3 x 4” backlit photographic images, each equipped with a dedicated sensor-driven sound unit which play back nine sound compositions. It was first exhibited in December 2013 at ArtWorks Trenton, followed by its Brooklyn exhibition at the Gowanus Ballroom in June 2014.

The work employed various forms of social media for its promotion and funding, most notably a successful Kickstarter. Attaining this form of funding was a complex task requiring agile strategies across a system of social media outlets, all designed to further the brand of the work.

The ultimate goal was to build the most appropriate target audience—a fan base—who would identify so strongly with the project that they would fund it, attend its exhibitions and buy an artwork from the installation.