MFA Thesis book: Shift

Shift: Intuition. Transformation. Feedback. is available through my blurb bookstore.

Enjoy, James

0.0 Abstract

train blur

Shift, in concept and method, is a view on empirically based graphic design.

Inviting constant shifts of perspective—from one place, position, direction, or person, to another—I assume the stance of observer and documentarian of the transitory. My work, which operates in the liminal space between ordinary and extraordinary places, things, and people in everyday life, is a time-lapse archive (whether in print or on screen) of localized experience. Within this role I capture the “qualitative data” of my daily commute, both as record of the everyday, and as a perspective on a culture in motion. The blurred color gradient of dawn seen through the window of a speeding train, the minute observations of a tattered ticket stub recording the travel zones in eight point Helvetica type, or the off-glances of the commuters trying to ignore the quotidian space, are the fragments that construct a document of the rituals of everyday life.

Shift is an inquiry into an empirically based graphic design methodology based on a process of observing and synthesizing amid constant flux, organized into three parts: first, intuition enables me to understand that my surroundings are the primary source for design inspiration. Second, transformation is formulated by using tools such as still photography and video to capture my intuitions. Then, I distill, edit, and reflect on the captured footage in order to uncover the essence of the original inspiration. Finally, feedback occurs when the transformed content is presented in a new context: whether it be a printed matter, a video vignette, an interactive screen project, or a physical installation. Although the process is based in science, it is anything but rigid or didactic. I do not seek predetermined outcomes so much as the awareness necessary to inspire further explorations—whether mine or that of others—in this method.

0.1 – 0.2 Point of View

Boy with a Movie Camera, Kona, Hawaii 1992

0.2 Point of View
When I was fourteen, my family went on a trip to Kona, Hawaii, and I brought my first video camera with me, a Sony HI8 HandyCam; I was rarely seen without it. Although most tourists capture Hawaii’s environmental beauty, I, for some unknown reason, mostly chose to film anything but the typical scenic viewpoints of majestic volcanoes, black sand beaches or botanical gardens; instead, I documented the ordinary events of the everyday: the hotel elevator, the front desk attendant, the other tourists coming and going in the hotel lobbies, the bathroom, and the TV in the hotel room that was continuously showing a loop of activities geared toward getting tourists out of their rooms. Little did I suspect that this unique point of view would continue to influence my work twenty years later.

During the intervening liminal period, the state of the ritual subject (the “passenger,” or “liminar,”) becomes ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and between all fixed points of classification; he passes through a symbolic domain that has few or none of the attributes of his coming state. — Victor Turner

Past points of view continue to influence present work. They both operate within a liminal space, between ordinary and extraordinary people, places and things in my everyday life. Throughout my methodology I act as an ethnographic researcher using a set of conceptual tools for investigation to observe these categories. The term liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”)  is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a “liminal state”) and in the anthropological theories of ritual by such writers as Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. In ethnographic research, the researcher is in a liminal state, separated from his own culture yet not incorporated into the host culture—where he or she is both participating in the culture and observing the culture. The researcher must consider the self in relation to others and his or her positioning in the culture being studied.

0.3 – 0.5 Methodology

process diagram

0.3 Experience
Before coming to graduate school, I spent eleven years working at a graphic design/brand strategy firm. We used qualitative and quantitative process models for integrated branding strategies. Although I see the value in this research I became frustrated with the imbalance clients put on quantitative research versus qualitative research and creative work. Quantitative research marginalized certain creativity and limited experimentation through design making. One of the main reasons I came to graduate school was to investigate my own creative methodology. In How do you design? Graphic designer Hugh Dubberly evaluates a typology of over one hundred descriptions of design and development processes in hopes to foster debate about design and development processes. Is there a system that works better than another? I suspect that they all can work. Creative methodologies are moving targets. In order to stay creative and relevant, designers need to adapt and evolve – that seems to be the only constant in design.

0.4 Empirical Methodology
Empirical evidence is information that is derived from the trials and errors of direct experience rather than controlled experiments with expected outcomes. Empirical research is a way of gaining knowledge by means of direct and indirect observation or experience. The structure of my empirical methodology is organized into 3 parts:

1. Intuition enables me to understand that my surroundings are the primary source for design inspiration.

2. Transformation is formulated by using tools such as still photography and video to capture my intuitions. Then, I distill, edit, and reflect on the captured footage in order to uncover the essence of the original inspiration.

3. Feedback occurs when the transformed content is presented in a new context—whether it be a printed matter, a video vignette, an interactive screen project, or a physical installation. Although the process is based in science, it is anything but rigid or didactic. I do not seek predetermined outcomes so much as the awareness necessary to inspire further explorations—whether mine or that of others—in this method.

All artists and designers have some type of creative process, but I believe as Buckminster Fuller states, “If each project is unique, the process should be unique.”

0.5 Feedback Loop
According to Robert Mattison, “Robert Rauschenberg’s greatest strengths are his instinctual responses to images, materials and formal structures and his ability to absorb the complex surface of life.” My work reflects a similar immediacy and reaction to an ever-changing environment. I use feedback from my environment as well as feedback from the designed form transformed from that environment. I am not necessarily looking for a finished outcome but for an action that will inspire me or someone else to take the next step in the method.

0.6 Full Circle


On August 3, 2011, my daughter Joy was born. Seeing her develop an awareness of her environment, while I am simultaneously developing my thesis, teaches me to be more aware than I could ever learn to be on my own. It is astonishing to see how she interacts everyday with her environment, and I try to look at my environment with the same newfound curiosity and bewilderment, and apply it to my work. Full Circle, juxtaposes my self-made, childhood home videos and my daughter’s in utero ultrasound images. Through manipulation of speed and rotation, the two forms are a representation of life’s cycle through the past, present and future, merging together in a dream-like experience.