South to Southwest

Absorbing the transition from Tampa Bay to Austin: lush misty semi-tropical winter day at St. Pete Beach / abandoned motels on US 19 / deep south Spanish moss / flat sparkling Pensacola and Mobile bays / half the Gulf-side Biloxi mansions deleted by Katrina / Cajun catfish sandwiches / interminable I-10 causeways / Big Thicket Piney Woods / Baytown refineries / Houston Christmas traffic snarl / dry dry Texas 71 through LaGrange / sweet Lake Austin, calm despite encroaching suburbs.

Why do I like these road trips so much? My companion, Foster, preferred playing scrabble on his iPhone to looking out the window as the South turned to Southwest. But I was entranced by the changing panorama.

It made me think about an article in the Times a while back about Christian Lacroix, the French designer responsible for the “pouf” skirt who went broke last year. He likes train travel, as opposed to the plane.

“There’s something that’s very romantic,” he said. “You are always in between two stories, between being two different persons.”

I think of Lacroix going though the transition of the Arles state-of-mind to the Paris state-of-mind in a Cartesian way. The idea that you are a different person in a different place made me understand why I travel so much. I like the change of the state of mind. Like Lacroix, I enjoy drawing out the transition, even reveling in it. And so I move around, changing locations, even houses, at least every three weeks.

Getting there is half the fun. Maybe it’s all the fun. It’s about process. The means are the ends. It’s about the way your mind slowly adjusts to the changing flow of your environment.

Recently, I began to understand that this preference for movement over staying still is the same in my work. In the first 15 years of my career I moved restlessly from job to job. First L.A. (a weekly tabloid), then Rolling Stone, then New West and New York, then The New York Times, then Newsweek. Then I realized that I wasn’t as interested in designing pages as designing the style and typographic logic for pages. That I wasn’t interested in book or poster design, unless there was a series involved. I liked to see how the design could adapt to new content, to constantly changing content. I was more comfortable in dailies than weeklies, more comfortable in weeklies than biweeklies, and I never took a job a monthly. We called the product of this kind of publication design, formats. In 1987 I switched full-time to designing or redesigning formats, and was able to get work all over the world, which kept me moving constantly. In the early ’90s I thought of months as either two-continent months, or three-continent months.

Then the web started, and I found that for these new sites you could design “formats” (we now call them templates) that took changing content, not just daily, but constantly. The templates were crudely simple, but the notion of dynamic pages was really fulfilling.

Now, with CSS3 we’re getting useful design refinements; with web fonts we’re getting the type to make publications more distinctive; and with Treesaver we can design not just containers for content feeds, but dynamic publications. Dynamic because they can take live feeds (like the AP news demo Filipe Fortes has designed), and dynamic because the design adapts to different screen sizes, using algorithms to adjust the relationships between text and images and other elements, so that the resulting pages are well designed, and so that a reader can easily follow the flow of a story.

It’s all about flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes “flow” as the state of consciousness that takes over when you are doing something you know how to do. He notes that then people become absorbed in their work, and focus completely on the work, not themselves.

I think of flow as that state of mind you enjoy when you are on the road, or designing a newspaper or a web templates and then watching them in action. This feeling has moved to real time with Treesaver. It’s much harder design than anything I’ve done. It’s like driving a 911 really fast down a great highway that you’ve never been on before.

The result can be a wonderful dynamic flow for readers. (See Nomad.) The sense of satisfaction that I am getting when I see this work is not so much like finally getting to the end. It’s like starting out on a new trip.