Case Study 13: John Caserta

A lot of times when we’re hunting around on the internet for Jewelboxing projects we can talk about, we stumble across a real gem. Other times, not only do we stumble, but we fall head over heels for. Such was the case with John Caserta’s packaging work for artist Tim Hyde. We loved it right off the bat, but as soon as we started looking at the rest of John’s work, we were bowled over and that voice kicked in: “This has to be a Case Study.” Fortunately, John, an information designer, teacher, and the founder of The Design Office in Providence, Rhode Island, was up for talking, which resulted in this great interview:

Can you tell us about yourself?

Might be best to refer you to my bio online. I don’t have (m)any memorable hobbies and interests like spelunking, sky diving or the like. I’m from North Carolina…and do love my pulled pork. I am a citizen of Italy, have lived there on occasion, and spent some time overseas in Cambodia. Married, dog, baby on the way. I was hooked into design and photography by my aunt. An odd lady who was an architectural photographer in the 40s and 50s and gave me a Pentax K1000 when I turned 15. She gave me her old Apple IIc in 1982 or so. I learned BASIC and had a lot of fun printing patterns on my Imagewriter. It took me until 1991 to buy my own Mac Classic. She willed me a bunch of her great old cameras when she died five years ago.

What’s The Design Office?

The Design Office was realized when I decided to move my practice outside a room in my home in 2007. Rent in Providence is relatively cheap and I found a gorgeous space downtown that I thought other designers would like. It’s a great place to be all day long. There are four spots and we do have four people working here. It’s part organization, part collective. Everyone pays dues to help the organization pay for itself and to give out mini-grants to designers who need a bit of help. I use The D.O. as the imprint for my larger (and collaborative) projects and products. We discuss, share, and create uncommissioned works under the name, too.

With the Rhode Island School of Design right there, are most of the people who use the space students, faculty, etc? Anyone from outside the school?

The other three folks are not affiliated with RISD. One went to Brown a few years back. The other came up from New York recently. The other is from Boston, but has lived here for years. I meet with students here, graduate students also work with/for me. Faculty do come by. It’s a block and a half from the department.

What led you to created the space? Was there a specific lack of resources in town? Or you wanted someplace to exist outside of the school?

It wasn’t so much that there was a lack of resources, but that I was accumulating equipment (and methods) that could easily serve others. The best example is when I bought a 24″ Epson 7800 printer for a project. I kept asking photographers to come use it…but it was at my house. Now, folks can come in for a few hours, or days, and complete a body of work.

Now I have an incentive to invest in additional resources: binding systems, rototrim, guillotine, books, digital equipment.

How do you make the Office function financially, with things like rent and keeping the lights turned on? Commissions, grants, donations, or through your store?

The Office is financially a break-even situation. I have resisted moving it to a non-profit, and resisted making it too revenue focused also. I have considered expansion to accommodate folks who want community and equipment more than a permanent workspace. This would bring in more money, but it’s more risk. I suppose I like as much of my time to go toward making work, so I’m skeptical of decisions that would take me away from that.

Since the mission is to support freelance designers, I’ve kept the dues very low. They’ll likely go up to allow for additional investments, project funds, and mini-grants. All utilities and toner and paper come out of the dues. Always plenty of money for those essentials.

We create products to fund the Office as well. Obama t-shirts, COFFEE/TEA mugs, etc. The products are also part of our work.

I also use the Office as a write-off for my design business (which I market under my own name).

I do apply for grants and they are a big part of how I see projects getting done.

I solicit galleries to sponsor projects. For instance, the parking lot painting project. It requires a site and it makes sense that a gallery would promote it like they might any installation. I’ve worked with three galleries, but we have not been able to get it produced, yet.

Any projects that have been created at The Design Office that you’re particularly proud of or enamored by?

Hobo 2010 is really resonating with a lot of people. It’s playful, funny, and revealing. It’s about design, observation, and community, among other things. It’s a call for photographs of the typeface Hobo in use.

There are quite a few conceptual projects on our group projects page. I am excited about all of them, and believe they will all get done in time. They require the right people, sites and/or funds.

Our most recent project: Letterboxes, is a nice combination of visual research (academic) and functional design. It has a mass appeal. It was a bear to produce (we had a custom box die made)…and we only made a couple hundred to start.

Back to you personally, you’ve been working in information design online since that early period in the mid-to-late 90s when the public at large was first really finding out about the internet. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen since then, within information design?

Information design feels very techy and cold to me now. Data-rich web visualizations are treated with too much authority. It’s easy to be seduced into thinking that there must be truth in the presentation of quantitative data.

Information comes from somewhere in the service of someone. The presentation of such should be more honest about that. The computer’s voice is more prominent than the author’s. What this means is that there is a certain faux-objectivity that the information carries.

Information design often relies on symbols — however it can just as easily rely on video, photographs, voice. This is when the honesty and humanity comes in.

For me, it was always about play. Allow the viewer to venture into the information and discover the complexity of a situation. There was certainly a great deal of naivete in the pre-Flash 5 visualization work.

I designed a touch screen kiosk displaying the information of all U.S. soldiers buried overseas. Four of these 15″ screen were installed next to each other at the Normandy American Visitor’s Center. Instead of listing the results in a chart (label: result), or using visualization techniques (when the soldier died relative to others), we created a sentence from the data. It effectively made a miniature obituary from the database. This felt appropriate given the delivery and subject matter of the project. Additionally, the only color that appeared on the screen was the background color. The background color shifted slightly with each touch of the screen. Noticeable only after about ten touches, the hues represented each soldier listed in the database. A simple tip of the hat for each of them. It also kept the information in black and white: often all that’s needed for information design.

When do you think that information design functions at its best?

Professor Lev Manovich wrote in The Language of New Media(end of Web 1.0 in 2001) that database and narrative are ‘natural enemies.’ The former categorizes information well, but does not offer an order, and the latter is order from seemingly unconnected information.

Information design can side with either of the above. And I believe best when narrative (subjectivity and authorship) is foregrounded. Because more and more information is held within a database or will be disseminated through a database, most projects take on the look of database. The data is displayed either spatially, or color-coded, or what have you. This often brings attention to the quantity of information, and not what it could tell us if edited or organized more carefully.

Take the example of a book of photographs that I assigned my students to edit. There are 8 students who each photographed 20 images over 3 months in 5 cities. There was no specific directive; it was an editing exercise.

What I saw was the database’s influence on the editing process. The students ordered the book by either location, student, color, time, f-stop, or other pre-existing categories. They perceived the photographs as data objects, with their meta data as content. When the meta-date is the order, the narrative becomes random, a bi-product of how and where the data was acquired. However the project lies not in the quantifiable information (where, when, who…), but the student’s ability to weave together the pieces into an unexpected story. These are the projects we remember and that is something a database cannot do.

A lot of your early background was working with big outlets, like the New York Times, the Tribune, and NBC. In your bio, you’ve said in you still have a stable of clients, but you’re also doing all of this work with The Design Office and your role at RISD, so are your normal days split up more toward these creative or academic pursuits or split fairly evenly? Any goals to make either/or your primary focus?

I see my life split into thirds: RISD (teaching, advising), The Design Office (art/design making), and client work. I’d like the first two to generate the last. “I like how you think” is a great thing to hear. And ideally after that, “I have a great project for you.”

Providence life really affords a more self-driven creative life. Less overhead than bigger cities and fewer dramatic clients. I primarily work with Brown University and with a three-person company that generates automated graphics for large media companies (that I am part-owner of).

We first landed on your site after seeing your work for artist Tim Hyde and the Max Protetch Gallery. Can you tell us about Tim and his work?

Tim is an old friend from San Francisco. He moved back to New York to attend the graduate program in art at Columbia. He produced a rich body of photography work there. Max Protetch pulled him in right away as one of their artists and he has gone on to produce video and installation works with them. I love how he sees and how he thinks. His work is sincere…very human. That is a really rare trait in the Chelsea art scene. He has a solo show coming up at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

The cases you put together for both his videos are just beautiful. Can you tell us anything about designing them?

I started the project by looking for a solid and authoritative DVD case. I felt it was important that the case itself was substantial when art dealers, collectors and museums buy Tim’s videos. It needed the weight of a $10,000 purchase (or however much they are). So when The Museum of Modern Art purchases one of Tim’s videos, they are handed this case. In fact, the buyer receives two disks (in one case). One is for exhibit, the other for archiving.

I used Trade Gothic condensed because it matched the proportions of the disk. His Bus Passengers piece really works well opened up because the video is a series of portraits where you often see one person in front of the other.

It’s always a pleasure to design work for something I believe in and love.

What’s next for you? Any big projects you have coming up or something with The Design Office?

We just finished a prototype for a kids toy. Cardboard boxes with geometric shapes that assemble into giant letterforms. And there is a typeface with it. We’re looking for someone to produce it.

I suppose I am working on other projects that are not on the website. Because my wife and I are expecting a baby in May, I have been thinking of graphic toys: puzzles, blocks, books, mobiles and the like. That is how the cardboard boxes came to life. It is not clear how many of these will simply be for the home, but hopefully the better ones we can document as prototypes.

There are several other products that we could start work on soon, but I’d like to see some of the group projects get completed. There’s quite a bit on our site that you see is ‘in progress.’ All of those projects need some pushing.

And finally, how is it having John Maeda as your new boss at RISD?

It hasn’t made a huge impact on our department quite yet. Unfortunately he has been bogged down in the financial crisis. His belief in conversation and innovation is beginning to take hold — initially through blogs and large flatpanel info screens.

There are many of us who are quite excited about how some of the Media Lab models might penetrate the culture here — particularly a more research oriented approach.