About




Sitting with the mess is a research project by Nina M Gibbes for the fulfilment of the Master of Communication Design degree at RMIT University in Melbourne. The project investigates how designers are making space to address the inherent gender and cultural biases present in the canon of graphic design and in the wider industry. This research project comprises a series of interviews with design educators and designers, as well as the development of a practical workshop for designers and students to engage with messy design history through the construction of crossword puzzles.

While this website houses the completed project for my master’s degree, I must acknowledge that this is an ongoing project and a constant work in progress. It is a space that will shift and change over time as I learn, discover and talk to more people. If you would like to speak with me or be involved with this ongoing project please get in touch, I would love to talk and make work with you.

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Interview: Of Common Interest







is the research practice of Nina Paim and Corin Gisel. The designers refer to themselves as shapeshifters within their research practice, where content is explored through a variety of methods and outputs. The following article is a transcription from a recorded conversation I had with the two designers about their research practice, the aims of Common Interest as a research initiative, what they are working on currently, feminist publishing, hosting a workshop during the pandemic, safe spaces for communal collaboration, and how creating these informal spaces for learning can lead to some amazing uprooting of knowledge, stories, shared feelings and empowerment.

Nina Gibbes: Sometimes within Of Common Interest, you’ll explore research through having a workshop for example, or other times you’ll do a publication? What are some of the ways you explore the research?
Nina Paim: I think through texts, editorial works, publications, exhibitions, workshops, events, pizzas – what I said about being shapeshifters. It depends, and I think that’s kind of the designerly aspect of it. When we were also starting off our careers as graphic designers, we were also a bit annoyed that we would be told “okay this is going to be a coffee table book”, you know? And this is the content. We were really interested in the form that things can take and of course, we have some personal preferences with the mediums we like to work in, and they are different for Corin and I, but we like this kind of brain exercise of thinking about what something can become, and exploring different modes of storytelling.
   
Like, for example, once we proposed to look at the gender balance of the last 20 years of the Swiss Design Awards which is the most important design competition in Switzerland and we did a quantitative data analysis of this and we presented our findings in the form of an
where we had the majority of male awardees were cheese pizza, they had no tomato sauce, and the female awardees were a pizza with tomato. We didn’t have data on non binaries, so we had to resort to this gender binary because of how the information has been gathered. We also had people who had applied as companies which were pesto pizza.
   
Bottom line is, it was a very cheesy pizza! And still in Switzerland, it’s quite hard to talk about such issues with policy making in the public sector, people get uncomfortable when we point out the obvious issues, so this was a kind of a non-threatening way to start this conversation. It’s a designerly way for us to think “yeah, we’ll have pizza graphs! That makes sense and we can start a conversation.” So it does not have to be a text, or an exhibition or any kind of traditional format, but these traditional mediums are normally very helpful.

Corin Gisel: I think just to emphasise, when projects are initiated by us, the mediums and forms that we work in come from the content itself, but also the intention with who we want to reach and how we want to present certain findings and certain content. Of course it’s a bit different when we partner with institutions such as museums, then it’s a bit more pre-defined, so usually it’s something within a space or something spatial. Sometimes there’s also a precondition, so for example if we are hired to curate an event, then it’s obvious it’s an event.

Nina Paim: But even with an event, or with anything there’s so much room for new thinking and the ways that we talk about things. For example with a lecture – what is a lecture? So sometimes by rethinking these formats, you create space for other kinds of conversations.


“Even with an event, or with anything there’s so much room for new thinking and the ways that we talk about things...so sometimes by rethinking these formats, you create space for other kinds of conversations.”




Nina Gibbes: Can you tell me about
Is that a new project that is linked to what you’re doing with Common Interest?

Nina Paim: Yeah, so Futuress is a really interesting case of something that shapeshifted many times. So it started when we were asked by two curators Vera Sacchetti and Matylda Krzykowski who were doing an exhibition at the Dresden Kunstgewerbemuseum last year which was called
to make a contribution to this exhibition. The whole idea was to think about: what are the roles of female identifying practitioners in the future? And then we proposed to create a library of books that are yet to be written, so the unwritten histories, unwritten theories, unwritten perspectives that are missing in the design canon and the design discourse. That materialised in the form of a website where you can go online and type the title of a book and write a little blurb and it would create the image of a three dimensional book that would rotate. The idea was to create a grounds up collaborative platform where people of all different kinds of perspectives could input what they think is missing. In the exhibition it was just projecting the website.


“The whole idea was to think about: what are the roles of female identifying practitioners in the future? And then we proposed to create a library of books that are yet to be written, so the unwritten histories, unwritten theories, unwritten perspectives that are missing in the design canon and the design discourse.”




We were supposed to make a physical installation but we actually ended up making a website and people could work on and collaborate with. It then got picked up by a couple of biennials and events, so it travelled to Porto, it travelled to Ljubljana, and people were excited and it opened up a conversation but we also soon realised that the things that people were inputting on the website – they were not unwritten, they were actually beginnings of research, or something that someone had begun writing or an ongoing PhD or just an interest that they have that they have begun collecting. So it wasn’t like it was completely fictional or speculative, it’s actually already there. So we started thinking we have to stop pointing them out and we have to start finding ways to publish them, and to lift them.
   
So, then we started thinking how we can transform this speculative library into an actual publishing platform. This was last year (2019). So then we got a grant to do that, and we started making budgets and thinking about why these perspectives aren’t here, it often has to do with the fact that the people who are doing the work are in a situation of precarity, they might have several jobs, or they might be academics – there are reasons why these histories are not published already. So in order to counter that, we have to find a situation or a structure that is providing the resources for people to think and write.

At the same time, we were also thinking and writing about who has done that in the past, and what were the challenges of the past? So it made sense to look at the history of feminist publishing. So we started reading a lot, and thinking about the difficulties and what was “good practice” and what was “problematic practice” and this was just to understand. Of course, we understand that we are standing on the shoulders of many, many, many others who have come before us, we by no means think that this is a completely original idea so it’s important to look back and think about how others have done that differently, and learn from them.

Then the pandemic hit.



Corin Gisel: Yeah, so then the pandemic hit, and as with so many other practitioners, suddenly there was this question of what will happen. We didn’t know if projects were going to be cancelled or if new projects would come in. And then we were suddenly faced with this moment of fear for the immediate future, when we got an email from a French institution in Chaumont who were running the
As it was for many institutions, they were suddenly faced with their physical exhibitions and programming not being possible anymore. So they reached out to us out of the blue and asked us if we would like to come up with a remote workshop that would happen online.

Because we were thinking about feminist publishing at the time, we had realised that there had not been much effort by activists and feminists to digitise a lot of Swiss materials and periodicals, so that’s what we wanted this workshop to be about. So we came up with this idea of a feminist liberation in print collective which was in the end a 6-week workshop. Initially it was only meant to have 10 people but 60 people applied and we took about 25. We would meet every Wednesday, and each person was doing their own research into certain periodicals and we were like this collective research group, but everyone wrote their own essay or a written piece, but some made websites or movies, so it kind of exploded.

As we were doing that workshop, there was this feeling that maybe having these kinds of moments together online and creating a community together with the help of digital communication channels, this could be one part of what Futuress could be. It was amazing, people joined from LA to Melbourne, Dubai, Moscow, London, France, it was such an amazing feeling of connection. Sometimes even here in Switzerland, we feel a bit alone bringing these topics forward, and when you connect with all these different people from all over the place, you realise you’re not alone in doing this. You realise sometimes it’s hard to find your community locally. At the same time, it was also a political move to think about the economic model as we move forward.


“Sometimes even here in Switzerland, we feel a bit alone bringing these topics forward, and when you connect with all these different people from all over the place, you realise you’re not alone in doing this. You realise sometimes it’s hard to find your community locally.”




There was COVID related funding opening up with the Swiss government for arts and design projects, so we have been toying with this idea of making a publishing house, even if it is a digital publishing house. But to make that non-exploitative, you actually need a huge budget, you need a huge starting capital that to be honest, we just don’t have. It is sometimes really heartbreaking when you start looking at business models, you start crunching numbers, because publishing can be such an exploitative industry, it’s really hard to create a business model that is viable, especially at this moment. We started toying with this idea very early on that we have to think about publishing more widely. Publishing is not just books, it can take so many different forms. You have to think about finance so much before the book actually appears, before you can start selling and offsetting your investment. We also felt that because these stories need to get out now and they need to get out quickly, you can’t just publish five books. We want to publish a lot and we want to publish a lot of different perspectives.

That has been a bit of a frustrating thing with Common Interest, that it’s really hard to involve other people in a way sometimes, which is what we were trying to do with Futuress, where we find a model that really goes way beyond. We’re still figuring it out, it’s early on in the process but we now have this dual model between an online magazine that is asking people to think about what an online magazine is – it’s publishing articles at a regular interval, everyone who is asked to write is paid there is no free labour. Alongside that, we would also have a space where we have workshops and have part of it that is more a community space for collective contemplation and research. So that’s where we’re at right now.


“Publishing is not just books, it can take so many different forms. You have to think about finance so much before the book actually appears...we also felt that because these stories need to get out now and they need to get out quickly, you can’t just publish five books.”




Nina Gibbes: It did make me wonder about what's happened with the pandemic, how workshops change and how digital spaces can add these different elements to how people learn and exchange knowledge with each other. I’m in the process of trying to design one myself for this research project. The conversations I’ve been having with other designers is revealing that it is such an important part of learning these histories, through having these kinds of informal spaces where you’re sharing these stories with one another. I was thinking this was going to be really challenging to do this online.

The workshop I am looking at developing would be much smaller as I don’t have the time to do something in 6 weeks, maybe something that is one or two days. I was thinking about designing something around the idea of making crossword puzzles or some other kind of word puzzle, where it engages someone to actually search for the answers. What is your advice on the steps I should be aware of when creating something like this for people to work with?
Nina Paim: I think what was really nice about the worksop we did was that it brought together a group of people who really shared a similar interest even though they were very different people from different parts of the world. I think that one of the main questions is how do you do that? How do you get people in the room in the first place? I really believe that the act of getting people in the room is more than half of the job done. The people themselves already carry with them the knowledge and the history and the interest. Specifically, our workshop was research based, it was about researching something, it wasn't about designing something or creating as much. That also helped create a common ground because over the course of several weeks people had similar challenges, trying to source material, so there was a lot of exchange between each other so this made a lot of natural moments for exchange. The commonality drive was another thing, what drove them there was the common interest. That’s what I mean about it being half the job done.

I don’t know if you have heard of Nina Simon, but she calls herself a space maker. She wrote a couple of books, one which is called The Participatory Museum. She uses the metaphor of the invisible neon sign over a door that tells certain people “come in” and other people “stay out”. The same door has different signs for different people. I know what makes me want to go in, as the person I am being Brazillian and living in Switzerland, there’s certain things and certain signs that work for me but might not work for Corin, who has a different life and different interests. So by working together, I can understand what the neon sign is for them, and they can understand what the neon sign is for me. If we want people to enter through the same door, then we have to use each other and make those neon signs. I think personally, a lot of the job is getting people in the first place.

Corin Gisel: That’s why I was asking before, is this open to anyone or is it in a specific institution? That is something that was powerful about this for us, this self initiated workshop. There was an institution behind it, but it wasn’t a specific class. Usually we are invited to teach or create a workshop for existing classes, within a specific department. Especially when you bring forward political topics, it’s really hard especially if it’s a mandatory thing, if it’s not an elective, everyone in the room is not on the same terms. Having similar ethical grounds that people do the work on, and similar motivations, that was the very powerful thing about the LiP Collective, and how you write the introduction text together, that’s the neon sign. We did not have one incident where there was discrimination or harassment. This happens in mandatory classes when you bring forward topics like this.

So because it wasn’t restricted, by being in a physical space or being in a specific city, the only restriction was time zones which we tried to accommodate for with having different groups. It brought together people who really shared a similar interest and a similar ethical ground to do that work.

Nina Paim: There’s a seemingly strange contradiction, between choice and mandatory. If you think about intersectional feminist pedagogy, one might think that actually what you want is for that to be mandatory. You want everyone to study this intersectional feminist approach because it should be everywhere. That would make sense for me. For example, in the faculty of art and design in Buenos Aires, in the beginning they thought about making their gender course mandatory but they realised the power of the elective choice. They had 200 seats available and every class is full because people really want to be there. I think that’s really important that they are driven to that space because they want to be there. That’s a choice they made, which is a different thing. We do that often as Corin said where we are invited to teach a workshop where we don’t really get to choose the students who are attending because it’s just a class. Oftentimes you feel that when you bring up these subjects which can be difficult topics, we have a very critical approach, and encourage people to ask questions. You might have a class of 12 with 4 who are really interested, and then some people who don’t care, and others who are really disrespectful. That’s not really an environment that is conducive to collaboration and community. They need to have that drive.

Corin Gisel: I think there’s also the case that in general, queer, intersectional topics should be everywhere, they should not be a separate course. But, the political work of creating a safe space for the students who are interested in those topics or are from a marginalised identity, if you open it up by making it mandatory, it can create a space that is not safe. It can create really difficult emotional labour for some of the students who suddenly have to explain queer experiences to non queer kids and that is really hard, especially when it is this collaborative collective process.


“If you open it up by making it mandatory, it can create a space that is not safe. It can create really difficult emotional labour for some of the students who suddenly have to explain queer experiences to non queer kids and that is really hard, especially when it is this collaborative collective process.”




At this point of the conversation Corin had to leave as they had other commitments planned for that day. I continued to discuss these issues with Nina Paim...
Nina Paim: Very regularly we receive emails from students, mostly from Europe but also from Brazil and other places that are sharing similar stories with us. Such as they want to do a feminist research project, and they’re in a faculty where no one is giving them the literature they need to do that research, and no one is really telling them about methods, or no one is reading what they’re writing and engaging with their topics in the way that they wish. So now we’re in the process of thinking about a space where we could do that, within Futuress, and we’re calling it the Troublemakers Class, because it’s very much like how we felt as students. Oftentimes we were asking why there were no women in a lecturer’s presentation about typography. So this would be for people who are already doing a research project like yourself, and we provide a paracademic space to bring people together who are researching these different topics and help them along, and invite external experts to give input. Almost like a parallel class with other students who are in a similar situation. The idea is that we help you find a way to present an aspect of your research in writing and we help you to discuss it and create a space where you can meet other students who are doing a similar project, you can learn a lot from them. Maybe sometimes in our immediate surroundings we feel alone, as Corinne said, but there are other people out there who are looking at the same topics



Nina Gibbes: I feel like that space is something that is so needed for students like myself as well, because I’m not sure if there are other people in my cohort who are as passionate about this, I don’t have many people to speak to about these topics with other students, and it’s nice to have spaces like this that I can access to share my progress and the things I am learning and what people think of that, how I can make it accessible, inclusive etc...

So I have one more question, I have been asking everyone I have been talking to who their design heroes are. And I use that term not as a cheesy way but in reference to Martha Scotford’s essay
She mentions that creating heroes and icons can be problematic, and I wanted to turn it around and ask: well, can we create new heroes in this space? So I’m interested to know if there is anyone who has brought great inspiration for you, or is there anyone you consider a design hero?
Nina Paim: I’m of course very critical of the term ‘hero’, maybe it’s a term that I cannot use, or identify with because it’s so connotated with a meaning that I don’t believe in, but I’ve certainly have models. Maybe models is still not the best term for it, but people who have inspired me – and I think that’s very important, there are so many people who have been incredibly inspiring and have done work before me and Corinne, it’s a pity they are not here because I think Corinne would have a different answer to that question.



Nina Gibbes: I think that’s why it’s an interesting question because it brings up different answers for everybody.

Nina Paim: The first one would be my grandmother. She was a nurse, and she ended up working for the public health institute of Brazil, and she was responsible for a lot of vaccination campaigns, especially in the north of Brazil, the Amazon where she was from. She was very independent, and an extremely open human being who really listened and accepted people with difference and also really enjoyed life.

My parents, who are both potters, they studied journalism but decided to do this very traditional craft as their practice and they decided that when they were about 21, and they’re now just over 60 and have been doing pottery ever since. They wake up every day and go to their atelier and make ceramics and I think that’s very inspiring, their commitment and their strength. I have so many others, I could go on and on forever. Of course I have heroes in the design world, but I think my parents are also in the design world and can be heroes.

This year I have been very very interested in Adrienne Maree Brown, she calls herself a pleasure activist, she writes a lot about activist practice and change. For example if you want to live in a democracy, then you have to practice democracy in your smaller units of social activity, in your family, in your coworking space. How many of us actually practice democracy in our families? I have been really influenced by her this year.

I think I’ve been fortunate to have had models. I don’t love the idea of the name so much, but growing up I was reading a lot of
who is an amazing Brazilian writer who really portrays the female experience in a very interesting, open and intricate way. Of course I read work by male authors, but I very fortunately read things that helped open up my horizon of what I could be and the person I am.
the architect – I could maybe say she is a hero, in many ways. She built one of the most memorable
buildings
in Sao Paulo, I remember going there when I was about ten and being so impressed, and it’s this gigantic mass of concrete that’s elevated. She also did this really beautiful building in Baia, which is this museum that has no separation between the street and the museum, it’s a museum that opens up and invites passersby to enter the museum without any hierarchy. So she’s a hero, definitely.

I also think Maya Ober, my friend who started
she’s a hero, she’s very very fierce and she always calls the bullshit every time she sees it even when it’s hard and I really admire her for that. 


“If you want to live in a democracy, then you have to practice democracy in your smaller units of social activity, in your family, in your coworking space. How many of us actually practice democracy in our families?




Nina Gibbes: Thank you so much for sharing all these wonderful ideas with me, I’m really eager to see what happens with the Troublemakers exchange for students like myself, where we can talk to other students who are interested in these pedagogies.
Nina Paim: I think the LiP Collective was very topical, it was centred on feminist periodicals, and we’ve been receiving these emails in the past months where some people are doing feminist pedagogy research, but other times it’s other topics like they’re dealing with questions of race,heteronormativity, various issues which are in themselves quite political and they don’t really feel that the institutions they are in are really supporting them. Sometimes it’s about food, but sometimes the institution might not accept that food is a proper design topic and they have to go to great lengths to convince their supervisors that this topic is worthwhile or has value. Or sometimes they’re just the only black person in a class, and the classmates around them are ignorant. So the Troublemakers space is for those people, it’s a little bit of an experiment to see if this will work. Many people want to be brought together because of their specific thematic interests, and not so much about the struggles they’re going through.

A lot of students we have spoken to have been told that research is not enough and that it also has to become something else, in order for it to be considered design.



Nina Gibbes: Yeah, I sort of resisted that for a little while in my own research project because I didn’t like the pushback that I was getting. I do find value in designing a workshop, which is how I have come around that criticism, but that is exactly why I am continuing to have conversations with a bunch of different designers about this very topic that I want to publish in my research, so I’m still in a sort of sneaky way doing what I wanted to do before.

Nina Paim: Yeah, well that in itself is also a feminist practice, you actually end up smuggling your work. We are embedded in hetero-patriarchal, western systems that have certain beliefs in them that are really rigid. And in order for us to do the work, we have to smuggle. We hack, we take a budget for something and make it into something, but when you start making workshops and bringing people together in the room, your work goes much closer to the work of activists. I think for example someone like Adrienne Maree Brown who I mentioned, talks about the fractal nature of work who is someone who would be really interesting for you to read because she’s really writing about organising, and what it means to organise people. If you think about it, a workshop is a form of mobilisation, to bring people together who are looking at unwritten histories together in a room, is a way of creating a community for them, which is much more powerful.


“When you start making workshops and bringing people together in the room, your work goes much closer to the work of activists.”




Nina Gibbes: Finding out more and more that these settings are much more powerful than a university environment, and that they are in some ways so much more meaningful to designers—or to anyone really—but in a design context, it made me start to think that my masters is just a piece of paper, which sounds sad. But I’ve had a really interesting experience though and it’s made me think in this really critical way about “what are these systems doing for me?” It’s been liberating to have a breakthrough in your own mind about that when you start to see things in a different way.
Nina Paim: Definitely.



This interview was conducted over Jitsi on Friday, 21st August, 2020
Visit Of Common Interest and Futuress to see more of Nina Paim and Corin Gisel’s research.

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