1039 Smudged Out (Slappy Hours)

I have spent the bulk of the past five days attending to a server-related crisis for a client. My other projects are piling up, so, naturally, my brain tells me it’s a good time to write. I put down the phone, but even now, I contend with actively resisting the red dot on the blue stamp to my right that derails so much of what I intend for days on end.

By setting aside my iHouseArrest© 5S, I can finally turn to the stack of books and magazines piling on the table since Christmas. I consider picking up the phone again; my Instapaper account is brimming, even after exporting and sorting to HTML lists which I later print-to-PDF and then print-to-paper and then stack on a shelf in a defiant act of procrastination. User > Aa > Dropbox > xx_Later > xx_ToPrint is nearing the tasteful bounds of free Cloud storage.

Some call this Data Debt, yes? That modern affliction in which FOMO insists you archive every snippet on a topic you might be interested in. In my case, topic wears the ultimate plural. As a multidisciplinary cross-media creative technology professional, one might begin to unpack the rather long tree of woe cascading beneath the millstone around my neck labeled Related to My Interests. At this point I dream of gaining ‘many leatherbound books’ while stewing in the hell of my own obsessive digital hoard. #FML, indeed. (And #FMAmazon cart half full of now-out-of-print titles.)

For the past hour, I set to my three recently-received issues of The Smudge. The Smudge has been bandied about the internet as this retro-revival zine, recollective of something a blossoming Patty Hearst may have cranked out in the basement of some student center circa 1973. An instagramfanboy of co-editor Clay Hickson‘s avant-hippie illustration style as well as disgruntled progressive politics, I sent for my subscription. Although I got in a bit late in the game, they graciously sent the entirety of the newborn run.1

The publishers have made it clear (in several places) that this is a learning experience for them as artists. The end result is definitely non-classical, yet respectably not amateur. Hickson and Co. approach the design through the momentum of pressing thoughts rather than towards the self-promotional bonechill of Dribble fame.

I will admit, as a quote-unquote ‘classically trained’ designer,2 this concerned me initially. As per paragraphs 4 and 5 above may attest my sensitivities grow horribly promiscuous once a thing is set to print, even if fundamentally worn ragged by the shitty-for-who-gives-a-shit small press trendencies of the past 20 years.

Here, however, the naivety was one of the first things to strike me. This was not (yet) a(nother) RISD grad slumming brutalist ignorance to troll the Behancescape. While there is no lack of typographical misdemeanor throughout, the warmth of a single typeface3 feels immediately nostalgic; dumb grin, tickled-pink nostalgia. Importantly, this sense is not found in a synthesized parroting of a cult style that died out over before I was born, but because it so accurately reflects my own experience writing and learning and shipping4 ‘small’/’alternative’/’DIY’-press zines in the mid-90s. Just making something to make it; doing what can be done with the knowledge on hand in and of that particular half-hour in time. I smiled at a ‘kindler, gentler’ time in my own life in which I could lose myself in an ongoing stream of creation that formed my ‘formal training’ in a time before the YouTube soured a generation against meandering-paths.

This reminiscent feeling of discovery can be felt, at times, even from page to page, within a single issue. I forgot the awkward thrill of unlocking certain parts of the production process that filter down to muscle memory over time. The varied use of 2- and 3-color spot printing throughout The Smudge is case in point. In my first life, I worked on a newspaper where it was regular practice to have a single full-color cover spread and only another few spot signatures among the regular black newsprint. More ads meant more pages, more money, more options. As late as 1998 we were still using rubylith overlays to strip in spot areas for select favored-nation-status advertisers.

A half-lifetime ago, color held sway through scarcity. I see the designer here, again, out of necessity, respecting those a priori constraints. Defining design workarounds on the fly, masquerading as decisions, resulting in craft.5 So much has changed for ‘the better’ since, I suppose, yet some of that richness is hopelessly gentrified.7 Even through this almost imperceptible facet, I can smell the excitement and passion behind what might be the next, best issue to come as they share what they’ve learned since.

Ironically, the first issue includes a discussion with Sing-Sing Studio about their Year of The Flip. The duo’s self-appointed experiment rationally distances themselves from technology to find focus and meaning among the noise and distraction. From putting their cellphones in a box while at the studio (one a non-smart flip-phone, hence the name of said year) to, mostly, just being more conscious of their consumption. I love that they pine for ’92 in the way I often do.6

It’s rare in a world of redundant reboot movie mash-ups and parody Simpsons patches that the nostalgic remains capable of earning its keep as a truly ‘new take on an old thing.’ This feels like something at the crest of a more philosophically reflective post-skeuomorphism that transcends its the reflexive, quick hit nature of retro-appeal. While it may seem the fine folks of The Smudge have, in fact, crafted a fine piece of propaganda in the stylistic vein it echoes, it is a forward-looking platform of edification that it promotes. This could perhaps be too easily written off as yet another Kickstarted brandbook redux, but instead (like all good political sloganeering): heartstrings have been plucked. Endearing meaning that outstrips the confines of what is seen on page, The Smudge represents a future direction for graphic design that requires a personal investment and humane sensitivity that Adobe can’t co-opt through AI. That, in itself, is the most encouraging thought I’ve had all year.