Department of Design

Curated by Timoni West.

Primarily focused on product design, technology, cognitive psychology, and the brain. Also—pretty pictures, sometimes moving.


Posts about literature
January 27th, 2014

When we fetishize “long-form,” we are fetishizing the form and losing sight of its function. That’s how a story with a troubled woman who commits suicide at its center gets told as a writer’s quixotic quest to learn everything he can about the maker of a golf club that he stumbled across during a late-night Internet search for tips for his short game. There’s a place for writers in their magazine stories, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with offering readers a glimpse into the reporting process. The trouble starts when the subject becomes secondary, and the writer becomes not just observer but participant, the hero of his story.

What, then, is the function — the purpose — of “long-form”? To allow a writer to delve into the true complexities of a story, and also to bring readers closer to the experience of other people. Whether a long-form story is published in a magazine or on the web, its goal should be to understand and illuminate its subject, and maybe even use that subject to (subtly) explore some larger, more universal truths. Above all, that requires empathy, the real hallmark of great immersive journalism.

When ‘Long-Form’ Is Bad Form, Jonathan Mahler.

This article is a critique of long-form writing on the internet, spurred by one particular piece in which the writer is unraveling a mystery and thus plays a central role. Mahler is conflating arguments here to support his overarching opinion that long-form on the web is a overly-hyped trend.

Long-form journalism has grown from being the lonely centerpiece in print publications to being the surprise darling of digital products; with tablets and readers, they’re easy to consume, and with the right designers, they’re hallmarks of beautiful visuals and useful dataviz.

But more importantly, they showcase the best work of ambitious writers who prefer hard journalism to listicles. To argue that their ‘fetization’—I’m pretty sure Mahler just means ‘popularization’—takes away from the art of the writing itself is a mind-boggling claim.

Part of Mahler’s concern is that the articles aren’t being read thoroughly before being lauded. While it is a shame, it’s hardly a new problem, and as has been the case for centuries, the only person missing out is the shallow reader.

April 22nd, 2013

With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.

The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, “moving information,” to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

April 15th, 2013
As Stephenson has pointed out, a good science fiction story can save us from hundreds of hours of meetings and PowerPoint presentations by immediately getting everyone on the same page about a potential breakthrough.
January 5th, 2013
He looked at people as if they were things. A nervous young man across from him, who served on the circuit court, came to hate him for that look. The young man lit a cigarette from his, tried talking to him, and even jostled him, to let him feel that he was not a thing but a human being, but Vronsky went on looking at him as at a lamppost, and the young man grimaced, feeling that he was losing his self-possession under the pressure of this non-recognition of himself as a human being and was unable to fall asleep because of it.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

October 11th, 2012
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.
April 30th, 2012
Gertrude Stein did us the most harm when she said, “You’re all a lost generation.” That got around to certain people and we all said, Whee! We’re lost. Perhaps it suddenly brought to us the sense of change. Or irresponsibility. But don’t forget that, though the people in the twenties seemed like flops, they weren’t. Fitzgerald, the rest of them, reckless as they were, drinkers as they were, they worked damn hard and all the time.

Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 13, Dorothy Parker.

I wonder if that sort of thing is partly why I bristle a bit anytime people try to define Generation Y.

July 11th, 2011


  • Herb: Is there no "ending" to "Infinite [Jest]" because there couldn't be? Or did you just get tired of writing it?
  • dfw: Herb -- there is an ending as far as I'm concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an "end" can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book's failed for you.
November 11th, 2009

Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin’s cover for Despair, from the Nabokov Specimen Box Project, via The Nabokov Collection: Slideshow: Observatory: Design Observer

November 9th, 2009

Olympia Le-Tan, via We Love You So

October 1st, 2009
A young girl, transfigured by Italy! And why shouldn’t she be? It happened to the Goths.

Eleanor Lavish, a novelist, in Room with a View, 1985

September 24th, 2009
In the novel’s near future Americans exercise their single freedom single-mindedly: the inalienable right to consume. Desire and fulfillment line the shelves in e-z open twin-paks. Technology offers quicker response times for a nation of addicts choosing from a cornucopia of pleasures. Infinite Jest is the uncanny nightmare of the dream offered us in today’s headlines: groceries, videos, information, the world available “on demand.” It paints a nation of millions “plugged in” like the lab rat which freely chooses stimulation of its brain’s pleasure center to food and water, and starves smiling.

Erich Strom’s review of Infinite Jest from 1996

At first I didn’t know what Strom was talking about; folks consume a lot of this-and-that in Infinite Jest, sure, but other than the parodic Subsized Time, Wallace’s near-future isn’t anywhere near as commercial dystopic as, say, the ones depicted Snowcrash or even Minority Report. Then I realized Strom was most likely referring to Interlace On-Demand Entertainment, which is sort of like the iTunes/Hulu combo of The Future Back in 1996. Interlace is definitely described in ominous tones in the book, but since since on-demand entertainment is so normal now, it’s hard to take those passages seriously. It’s strange, reading a contemporary review, to know that others were reading those passages as a warning of the dangers of omniaccessible entertainment.

September 14th, 2009

This thumbnail came up in a search for “tight back binding”. Apparently it’s student work from Standford. You can see it in this PDF, but the referring page is down, unfortunately. I’d love to see more photos. Looks amazing.

April 8th, 2009

[ Man in Control by Alice Morgan ]

I just found out my coworker’s grandma wrote this book. Also this one, and this one, among others.