Andrew LeClair talks with Christina Rees
Andrew LeClair is a New York-based designer interested in archiving and digital publishing. Projects include Ether Press, Otlet’s Shelf and Flatfile

How do you interact with the browser when creating your work?

What I like about the browser is that it’s fluid and so designing with it is fluid. When you design in InDesign, you place each element in a particular place, and that’s static. It’s fun when you start to set up rules that determine how things should flow in a browser, and you start to see how those rules can produce more interesting layouts. It’s more like a building a system instead of just building a single composition.

How does your process/approach change when working with different mediums?

I don’t think it changes that much actually. A lot of the same issues apply. What’s different is that when you are designing in print you’re thinking of only one set of relationships. You’re thinking of the relationship of a headline to an image to a deck to a piece of body text. When you design in the browser it becomes more complicated, because now you’re thinking about that arrangement and many other possible arrangements that emerge from the system that you’ve set up. If someone resizes their browser down, at a certain point the proportion of the headline becomes too large relative to the frame (the viewport that they’re looking at your design in). It becomes more three-dimensional. You can think of the x and y dimensions of your design and its proportions and then the third dimension as the variability of the sides of the viewport. It’s more of a continuum of different possibilities.

There’s this idea of chaotic systems that shift between different states. A simple example is a double pendulum that generates very complex behavior, and you can’t tell from any state of the pendulum what it’s going to do next. If you look at one of those systems, there tends to be certain areas it will gravitate towards. These are the stable resting positions of the system that it can shift between. There’s often an unstable boundary at which you can push the system and it will move into that unstable boundary and then either revert back to the state it was in or move to a new state. When you’re designing in a browser, you’re thinking about all the different viewport sizes. You’re thinking: at what point does the system of relationships that you’ve set up get destabilized and have to shift to a new arrangement that makes sense? What are those different stable arrangements and how do you have the design seamlessly transition?

The content in a website is always changing so you have to leave some of the subjective decisions about layout and sequencing up to the browser or the user. At Project Projects, I worked with Adam Michaels and Rob Giampietro on a site for the philosopher/theorist Susan Buck-Morss that archives collections — or constellations — of images around different areas of her research. The images are arranged in loose grid visual clusters according to a few simple rules that determine which images should be large, which should be small, and how the images should be arranged together. When I was working on this system, it was an interesting feedback process of tuning different variables until the output felt right, while at the same time still producing surprising results.

How can design tools (like InDesign or HTML) affect the final form of a project?

It affects it a lot. There are certain things that a tool will let you do very easily, and then other things that are harder to do. You can think of the tool or the medium as having a grain, and you can either go with the grain or go against the grain. At a talk that I saw at the Cooper Union, Petr van Blokland talked about the difference between the ideaspace and the toolspace. The toolspace is all the things you can do with a tool, and the ideaspace is all the possibilities that you can imagine. Those two things may partially intersect or one might be contained within the other. You might have more ideas than what you can do with the tool or you might still be learning how to use the tool which means you have a smaller ideaspace than the toolspace.

To be more specific, in a website it’s easy to center things horizontally, and in InDesign it’s easy to place things in asymmetrical positions. If you look at a lot of web design, it’s centered because that’s what is easy to do, and when the browser width changes it makes sense to have something that’s centered. If you look at design that looks the most web-like, it’s a centered single column of text, and if you look at design that looks the most book-like, it’s a text block that’s asymmetrically placed.

About the Ether Press project: why did you choose Twitter as a source of content to translate into print?

I like Twitter because it’s ephemeral. One of the ideas that motivated Ether Press was the idea that a book (like a website actually) no longer had to be a fixed thing but could be something that is published only on demand when it’s needed. It made sense to use a source of material that was changing often. If I continue to develop the project I would make different books to be published under the Ether Press imprint. Ellen Lupton has said that a lot of self-publishing is “publishing the self” and so I think it’s nice to connect Ether Press as a publishing platform with an online platform that has such a low barrier to entry.

What thought processes led to the formatting decisions in the book?

The book has an index that it generates with the words you use across all of your tweets, and it also has a section where all the tweets are run together in a single textblock divided by month. I included an index because I wanted it to have all the parts of a book, and it also seemed like part of one’s motivation for creating an archive of your tweets was self-reflection, so being able to see data in a different way seemed interesting. You can see what words you use a lot and what things keep popping up. You can see all the people that you had @mentioned — those would be listed at the beginning of the index — so the index also revealed your social network on Twitter.

The formal quality of the book came a lot from TeX, which was the typesetting system that Donald Knuth created. You plug in content that has markup very similar to HTML and CSS and it creates the PDF pages by running the text across multiple pages. This project actually uses ConTeXt, which is a variant of TeX that provides more control over typographic detail. The typeface is called Computer Modern and it’s one of the typefaces generated by Knuth’s METAFONT program which he built to generate typefaces for use in TeX.

The interesting thing about Ether Press was not the actual making of the book, but how people used the book. My favorite part of the project was that people could set their own title, and that was interesting because you could see how they were actually thinking about the object. Some people would think of it as more of an archive and other people thought of it as humorous to be printing out all of their ephemeral tweets. A lot of people gave them as gifts to other people which was interesting, kind of like saying, “I’m listening to you," or “What you say is important to me”. Some were really thin because the person didn’t say very much, so the book was more like a poetry chapbook. Others were really fat, so the book was just this brick of chatter. One person asked us to typeset a book with just the question “Will you marry me?” repeated. They were going to give it to someone to propose.

What is your opinion on the temporarily of web content?

The web is ever-changing. You can’t count on a particular site that you used to go to still being there or being the same. We’ve experienced website redesigns enough times that we understand that the web is not a place that always provides a sense of familiarity. Now that the web has become a place where we can do a lot of reading and finding things, print will become a place where you can have something that you can own. You can have a book in your space, and you can know that when you open it, it’s going to have the exact same thing that it had in it last time.

The two mediums push each other further apart so that they can do more of the types of things that they’re good at. In general, print might have been used for sharing ephemeral information (like newspapers), but because you have to get it [a newspaper] delivered to your house physically every day, and then because you throw it out, print is not necessarily the perfect medium. From the time that people had newspapers, they were thinking, “what if there was a magic newspaper where the pages could change?”. Now we have that, and it makes more sense in that medium.

There’s a great quote from Irma Boom. She said whenever she goes to a book store she’s depressed by all the books that could have been PDFs. If you actually think about what she’s saying, it makes you question what about a book couldn’t be replicated in a PDF. There are a lot of advantages to a PDF. You can search, you can carry it with you and it doesn’t weigh anything, and it doesn’t take up any space in your apartment. [Irma Boom’s quote] forces you to think about what makes a book better as a book. What types of books are better as books and what types of books are better as PDFs?

Do you have anything else to add?

We’re in a transitional period right now where people are particularly interested in the relationship between web and print because we’re experiencing the shift between them. If you think about it, no one’s talking about SoundCloud and vinyl. It’s a temporary phenomenon that’s happening because we’re experiencing a lot of print artifacts that we’re used to becoming superseded by digital artifacts, and that is making everybody think a lot about the value of the different mediums. When you think about them in relation it makes you think about how to translate things from one to the other and that’s a good way of figuring out what each thing is good at.

Kevin Kelly — who I don’t agree with on everything — said one thing on technology I thought was interesting: if you look at the old Sears and Roebuck catalogs, and you look at all the things that were available for sale then, most of those things — farm implements and random pieces of technology — still exist and are used today somewhere in the world. So there’s a certain sense in which [older] technology has never completely been superseded. It still has a value but for fewer people or in specific places. We have industrial farming implements but in many parts of the world we still use a basic plow drawn by a horse. It’s not like new technology wipes out the previous technology. We just think it does because we’re looking at it from our elite circle. It’s more that another technology gets added to our inventory, and our total range of possibilities gets expanded. Now you can type on your typewriter, check Twitter on your iPhone, get your New York Times Sunday paper and check it on your iPad. They can all coexist. That’s a good thing to remember. It’s ultimately not that print is dead or the web is dead. Those questions will never get resolved.

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