Today in Tedium: Back in college, possibly the most important book I read during the entire time I was there was extremely short and very opinionated. It wasn’t even long enough to be a novella. But it was compelling nonetheless. It was a short book about design and typography called The Mac is Not a Typewriter. A svelte style manual in the vein of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, it basically laid out the essential elements of layout and typography in a way that was simple to understand and forced you to think about what was said. Despite being written for the earliest Macs, it was still relevant more than a decade after it was first published, and even holds up today. The author, Robin Williams (no relation), planted a seed in my brain about the “right way” to do things—an approach that speaks to the way things are supposed to be done when it comes to typography. But given a little age and grizzle, I sort of wonder—well, what about the wrong way? Today’s Tedium breaks some technical rules. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s issue is sponsored by Lemonade. (Welcome back, guys!) More from them in a second.
“We have figured out the rules of creating sleek sophistication. We know, more or less, how to get it right. Now, we need a shift in perspective that allows us to move forward. We need a pole right through a horse’s head. We need to enter the third stage of this cycle. It’s time to stop figuring out how to do things the right way, and start getting it wrong.”
— Scott Dadich, a former editor-in-chief of Wired and the founder of the design firm Godfrey Dadich Partners, discussing the importance of rule-breaking and “doing the wrong thing” when it comes to design. Dadich lays out his point as a three-step cycle: First, focused on inventing and improving rules, then turning those rules into laws, and then starting again after someone takes a different route. Once the parameters are set, they must be broken, essentially. (In case you’re wondering, the reference to the pole through the horse’s head reflects Edgar Degas’ Jockeys Before the Race, a painting that intentionally had a wrong element in it—a pole in the foreground, in front of a horse, in an effort to try something new.)
The difference between a mistake and a technical error
I’ve written about the nature of mistakes before, and how they reflect human nature of sorts. But I think there’s something of a distinction that must be made here. I’m really talking about a specific kind of mistake: the type of mistake an individual might make within a traditional creative or technical process, because they don’t know what they’re doing or they’re choosing to ignore a longstanding norm.
But the fact that they make the mistake, which is truly a deviation from convention more than a genuine error, actually proves more useful from a conventional standpoint than simply staying within the lines of what’s expected or accepted.
This has the result of ultimately stretching what we’re willing to accept as a society. Language is a great example of this: Part of the whole reason the debate over the singular “they” became a longstanding conflict of sorts in the world of copy-editing was because it deviated from the traditional rules, despite the fact that the rules didn’t really make sense, because it often doesn’t make sense to assign gender to a singular object—even though that’s what the English language asks of us.
Another example of this might come in the form of “desire paths,” or as they tend to be called after major snowstorms, “sneckdowns.” This is an urban planning term of sorts—basically, the creation of a path where there wasn’t one initially, guided only by human preference, rather than existing rules. Technically, you’re breaking the rules by walking in a path that isn’t actually a sidewalk, but in a way, there was a natural tendency to break those rules anyway.
Of course, not every creative or technical error has a desire path leading the way. In fact, many do not, and those situations create natural opportunities for risks, or things that might seem like errors in the outset but actually break new ground.
Outsider art, especially music, has this tendency. A perfect example of this might be the recording style that led to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica. Rather than wearing headphones when laying down his vocals for the album, Don Van Vliet based his singing off of the sounds he could hear coming from the studio, which was a severe technical mistake, but was allowed in the context of the recording of a freewheeling art rock album. The result sounds “broken” and out of sync, but in a way that gets you thinking about why a more traditional approach is the accepted way of doing things. It leaned into the dissonance, and the result is considered a musical landmark.
But Van Vilet had previously recorded music the “correct” way, and he would record music the “correct” way after that as well. In the context of that recording, though, the technical mistakes added far more than they removed.
Cooking is another great example. It’s easy to cook things incorrectly and make a mess. But sometimes, doing things that aren’t considered technically right can pay off in a big way. A few years ago, a French musician named Joël Roessel made a realization about a substance that many cooks would have otherwise thrown away: If you put the leftover brine from a can of chickpeas into a mixer, the resulting emulsified foam makes a great replacement for egg whites or meringue. Technically, he’s using the bean juice in the wrong way, but it opened up a lot of new opportunities for vegans looking for another option, and since his discovery in 2014, aquafaba has become a mainstay of vegan cuisine.
All of this brings me back to Williams. When I first read her tiny 72-page book around 2002 or so, I needed that perspective on design in my life, because it taught me simple rules that could be translated to basically any tool. And despite the fact that the book was published in 1990, nearly 30 years ago, it remains as simply relevant as ever, because the things it focuses on, for the most part, are general rules of thumb rather than suggestions of how to use specific kinds of software. Rules of thumb can be broken, but you should have a good reason to do so, and being armed with that knowledge makes it easier to know when to do so with purpose.
To be clear, the kinds of technical errors that I’m highlighting here are the kinds of things that don’t endanger the lives of others for the most part. If you’re operating a machine in a factory or driving an 18-wheeler down the highway, you should probably handle those things the “right” way.
But in many fields, particularly creative ones, there is room to break the rules—intentionally or not.
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The big mistake an indie-folk icon made in producing his breakthrough album
One of my favorite albums of the past 20 years has something technically wrong with it. Not that you’d notice it simply by listening to it.
It doesn’t sound lo-fi. In fact, it sounds pretty great. But when recording it, the musician whose initial success was largely built off the record made a big mistake, something that would upset recording engineers the world over: He significantly lowered the quality of his own music—and recorded it at 32 kHz, a lower sampling frequency than the 44.1 kHz that is considered standard.
Here’s what happened. Sufjan Stevens became increasingly interested in digital recording thanks to the Roland VS-880 his stepfather and modern-day business partner, Lowell Brams, had given him. (Stevens later named an album after Brams, along with his mother Carrie.) When he was recording his 2003 album Michigan on the device, he ran into a technical limit on the recording tool. To put it in layman’s terms, he ran out of hard drive space. He found that he could effectively double his storage if he lowered the audio quality from the standard audio frequency to 32 kHz. The result gave him the storage space he needed to finish the album, but unknowingly broke a key rule about recording and limited the quality of the final result.
In an interview with Tape Op magazine, a publication for recording-industry professionals, Stevens admitted the error of his ways:
I did! I didn’t know! The only thing I knew is there was a switch on here on the VS-880. If you opened up a file at 32 kHz it doubled your space. I had all this stuff on the hard drive, so I was running out of space. I just started recording everything at 32 kHz and then transferring it out via the RCA jack into my computer. I was just losing quality left and right. I didn’t know that it was lower quality until after the fact. Somebody said, “Obviously it’s lower quality if it created more space.”
Stevens’ mistake is not the kind of thing you’d be aware of unless you were listening to the album with really good headphones and were looking for it, or were a recording engineer and understood the impact of the limited recording range.
Stevens took a lot of heat from producers for some of the other decisions he made on the record, including the heavy use of Shure SM57 microphones. And while he eventually stopped using the SM57s for everything and started recording everything at a standard audio frequency, he maintained many of his general processes for recording Illinois, the followup record that became an even bigger hit in indie circles. But the guy who interviewed him for Tape Op, Rafter Roberts, defended his recording processes, calling him “a total recording rebel.”
“Both of his ‘Fifty States Project’ albums, Michigan and Illinois, sound incredible,” Roberts wrote. “And both were made using ghetto-style techniques that most (if not all) recordists would be crippled by: doing all your mixing on headphones, tracking an entire record with Shure SM57s and an AKG C 1000, recording your album at 32 kHz, tracking on a cheap digital 8-track and dumping it into Pro Tools two tracks at a time thru the 1/8” jack and lining them up by sight. Yow!”
Now, Sufjan Stevens is not a bad musician because of this approach to recording. Far from it—he was nominated for an Oscar for a reason. The level of detail on Michigan, if not felt from a fidelity standpoint, is made up for in other ways, including a wide variety of instrumentation, lyrical depth, and tonal moods. Listening to the record today on a nice pair of headphones made me think two things: One, could you imagine Stevens remaking “Flint (For the Unemployed & Underpaid)” now? And two, the fact that the mix seemed to very much be “in the middle,” without a lot of highs and lows.
Even so, however, it’s a great album. And given a choice between lower recording quality and the ability to fit on all the music he wanted to put onto that record, I think we can safely say he probably made the right call.
This topic made me think of an interesting anecdote from my past in which I keep going back to.
As I mentioned early in my history on Tedium, I had a friend who created something that still blows my mind: A 40-string behemoth that hit somewhere between a guitar, harp, and Chapman Stick. The Stringstation, as Jim Bartz calls it, is still one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen.
Well, anyway, at one point, I offered to collaborate with him on some design stuff—flyers for his shows, things like that. This was around the time that PowerPC Macs were pretty big. He had a lot of creative assets already built, including a logo and a lot of artistic elements that played with lens flare.
This was cool, and worked for him. Unfortunately, I was knee-deep in newspapers and design at the time, and I had a much more formal approach to design instilled in me by both professors and my job.
Thinking in terms of what I learned in my design classes and what that Robin Williams book said, I recoiled in horror at the fact that the typography was stretched and morphed in Photoshop, rather than allowing the integrity of the type to stay straight.
And it got our discussion about design off track. I was focused on formalities, he on the work he had already been doing that he had been successful with. It wasn’t enough to ruin the friendship or anything like that, but more that an incompatibility in our respective ways of thinking surfaced.
In the end, I can look back 15 years and say that I had the wrong mindset about it. It wasn’t “wrong,” it was what Jim wanted, his vision for the thing he created.
When it comes to design and creativity, ultimately there may be rules, but nothing is truly “wrong.”
I can’t say for sure what I was exactly thinking when I let my desire for formalities get in the way of helping my friend, but I think that a little bit of age and perspective has taught me a bit about why my thinking about design, at least in that moment, wasn’t very helpful. The school of thought instilled in me by that book from designer Robin Williams (again, no relation) has its place. But sometimes, those dusty rules just get in the way.
So what if the type on his logo was stretched and layered with extra design stuff in Photoshop, getting away from the it-must-look-good-at-all-sizes approach to logo design? It worked for his needs.
Rules have a time and place, and “doing things wrong” is just a matter of your opinion, man.