“From a global level, it is difficult to take risks in education, and collaboration is always a risk…things like the rise in the cost of education, tenure reviews, and other external and internal pressures in academia, naturally tend to push toward safe bets.”—Brian Wiley
Maurice Meilleur + Brian Wiley: Art Directors, Ninth Letter / University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
“from a global level, it is difficult to take risks in education, and collaboration is always a risk…things like the rise in the cost of education, tenure reviews, and other external and internal pressures in academia, naturally tend to push toward safe bets.”—brian wiley
What is the makeup of the group involved?
Maurice: There’s an editorial end, and there’s a design end. The editor-in-chief is Jodee Stanley, who is in charge of the whole publication. Her editorial side has a team of editors who are students, and there is at least one non-student or non-faculty member as well. They do all of the manuscript review and choosing the final content. They deliver that to us as a package and say, “Here, make a book out of it.”
Ninth Letter, Vol. 10.2
courtesy of ninth letter
How many students are involved?
Maurice: There are typically eight to ten students in the graduate creative writing program who work as editors. On the design side, there have been as many as 24 or 25 students. Recently, it has been more like 13 or 14 students.
Why are you working with a smaller design group?
Brian: At 25 students, it becomes hard to teach this class in any sort of practical way. For them to really invest in it, the students have to know that there is some sort of end product that they are going to be a part of. In reality, even though it is a very large task, there is just not that much room to meld 25 students together. It becomes more of a theoretical exercise for about 12 of the 25 students, whereas if we can afford to keep it at lower numbers—like in the 12 to 14 range—then there is a much higher chance of a practical application of their work.
Maurice: When there have been more students, it’s been harder to get only meaningful visual content into the issue. There aren’t any issues that I look back on as being unsuccessful, but a few of them look like dogs’ breakfasts. You know, there is some marginalia here, and we’ll let you do some sort of a clip-art thing in the corner, and the students are happy to do that, but sometimes it gets tricky.
How does Ninth Letter exist as a course structure?
Brian: It’s a special case. The graphic design students have to apply to be in the class. There are non-majors that we select, but they are by invitation only. There is a lot of overlap with what they learn. Their typography classes help them, their image-making classes help them get in, and that kind of stuff trickles down. But it does exist as its own entity. It replicates professional practice a lot more than our other curricula.
Maurice: The course is an elective; it’s not meeting any specific requirements. It’s a feather in the students’ caps to be able to get in; they are really happy if they make the cut.
What is the collaborative process between students?
Brian: It starts by identifying all of the different components of the journal. As a class, they go through all of the old back issues. It allows them to become familiar with the history. The secondary hope or goal is that they also don’t propose ideas that we’ve done before. So they go through as a group and discuss what needs to be in and what doesn’t. After that, they break up into groups of two or three students per group, with each student in two or three different groups. Then they propose visual or design solutions for those identified components of the issue.
Maurice: They can work alone; they can say, “I have an idea for the design that I want to work out.” But we encourage them to work together in small groups on the design. We give them a lot of latitude, though.
Brian: They have to propose multiple solutions to each component. Some of the students will do both; they will propose an individual solution, and then they will also collaborate on another solution with another student. More often than not, they opt to provide joint solutions.
Do they pitch their ideas to each other?
Maurice: They also pitch their ideas to us along the way. The first couple weeks of the process, we will look at what they are doing and nudge them in one direction or another: “This is working…” or, “Maybe this is not as successful.”
What is the timeline for the whole project?
Maurice: This semester we put the issue to bed around Week 12. We accelerated the process a little bit compared to past years, because we felt that we could. It worked out well this spring because we ended up changing printers, and our new printer was a lot faster than our previous printer.
Brian: Traditionally, Ninth Letter has had something called an art feature, where the students identify a particular artist that they think will go well with the visual theme of the work. It might be paintings by Laurie Hogin or illustrations by Mattias Adolfsson, but it is all done by external artists, designers, illustrators, etc. This semester we invited two design studios and one illustrator to come and make a whole signature with the students: Studio-Set, Zut Alors!, and Adam Setala. Three of the signatures of the issue were a collaborative process between students and professionals.
Maurice: And that was a much more concentrated timeline. Students were literally meeting with the guests for the first time on a Wednesday, doing an evening session in the first round of work, and coming back on that Friday to finish it up. For all three cases in this issue, that was the schedule.
What was the pro/student collaboration like?
Brian: It was a gamble because of the time commitment. The end product looked good, but I don’t think we will be repeating it with three guests. The intensity was really rough. The students are not used to working at that pace, especially with new people. The Design Department has some interesting things going on in terms of fostering collaboration. For instance, there is a Vertical Studio Model, where they are working across majors and creative levels over the course of an entire semester. The collaborative process is a lot slower compared to a professional pace. School in general is a slower pace than professional practice, so the students weren’t prepared for that. It was very taxing, creatively speaking. They churned out a lot of ideas, and they were working in a very different space than what they are used to working in. I think that drained a lot of the momentum. By the time they got done with those three weeks, they were pretty spent.
Maurice: The students still had to think about all of the other content that they were going to generate. In the end, we’re happy with how the issue turned out, but I think we had less options on imagery to choose from because of that.
Brian: I don’t think there is anything that the students would have gained by working with a third studio that they didn’t get from the first two.
What year are the students in?
Brian: We occasionally have sophomores, quite a few juniors, and some seniors. Last semester we had graduate students as well. We open it up to the full gamut.
Maurice: We had one industrial design major last fall, and we also had photographers, painters, illustrators, and sculptors.
How does this compare to an internship?
Brian: The strength in this model is that the students are allowed to fail. There is nothing at stake in some internships, and I don’t think students take as much risk in an internship setting. But Ninth Letter seems to me like a good balance of having real-world applicability while maintaining guidance. There is a chance for them to screw up, which I think is super valuable, as an educational process. They can just crash and burn. I don’t think there is any difference in the seriousness of Ninth Letter and how we attack this, but because it’s kind of a safe environment, they feel willing to contribute more.
Do you impose any collaborative structure upon the students?
Maurice: Initially, we assign people to groups, but a lot of the groups are self-chosen, too. We ask students what they want to work on. We sort them accordingly and give everyone something they really want. In the working process itself, we give them a lot of latitude. They know the kinds of stuff that they need to make. We come in at the end, after they have shown us their best stuff, do some crits, and talk about solving for actual production.
How does the interdisciplinary makeup of the group impact the process?
Maurice: We act as art directors. It is educational for everybody involved. For example, we had one grad student from New Media, and there’s a lot of software that you don’t learn about in that area of study. The other students ended up teaching her quite a lot. On their end, a lot of graphic design students had not seen studio art after their foundation year, so they got to see what artists actually do and watch them work.
Brian: There were similar moments with the industrial design student. Industrial design and graphic design are very close cousins, but industrial design is geared more towards working in 3D space, and graphic design is more 2D space. There were certainly ideas that we had in the brainstorming session that I don’t think would have been solved, or maybe not solved in as much of an elegant way, if the industrial designer hadn’t been a part of that conversation, and knowing how to prototype things. Graphic design students want to go from Point A to Point Z without anything between. They want to land on the finished product without trying multiple iterations and multiple prototypes and small-scale tests. The industrial designer said, “We are going to do this, but I don’t know how quite yet.” Half of the time, I didn’t know what she was up to. She would be cutting on her mat board, making physical mockups of the Journal. She would end up with something that reveals the glyph character set on the fore-edge when you fan out the pages. She calculated how much of a very thin slice of the letters—how much or how little needed to be there—for it to read correctly when you skewed the edge. It was something that even the printers were having difficulty figuring out, and I think the graphic design kids would’ve given up on it because they couldn’t click an Illustrator filter or something. We want to do that again in the future: shift the conversation by having one or two people in the room that come from a similar, but separate, discipline.
Having that diversity brings more value when the task at hand is more theoretical. Those kinds of people are more helpful during the brainstorming session. When somebody in the group has no frame of reference for anything and is not constrained by the tools or past experiences, they can ask dumb questions and propose really far out solutions, like outliers.
Maurice: It keeps the work fresh. In graphic design, like everything else, there are fads and trends, and sometimes student work, if left to itself, will start to homogenize. Somebody from the outside, pitching ideas about image-making at right angles to whatever the group might be thinking, can be really useful. On the other hand, I think having a person in a field that is a closer cousin to whatever discipline you’re working in, is helpful during the production stage of things, because you’re speaking similar languages. It isn’t a stretch for graphic design students to talk to an industrial designer. They all know the Adobe suite; they all know the basic tenets of design, so producing something comes from an interesting conversation between them. Both kinds of interdisciplinary situations have a place in collaboration, but work best during different points of the collaborative process.
Do the students know what to expect from the class at the onset?
Maurice:They are most likely to be surprised by the amount of work. They know it is an intense class, but they don’t really know how intense until they experience it. Brian and I really act as art directors for them. We tell the students up front that we have to decide what is in and out. Other faculty in other classes let them do their projects, and at the end of the day, they make what they choose. With us, a lot of the stuff that they do in the semester is not going to show up in the final product. That part is new to them as well.
How does the environment impact how they collaborate?
Maurice: It’s one big, long room. We have back issues stored here. We have a cork board on one end, a pretty long table, a bank of printers and computers, and windows all along one wall.
Brian: Compared to their classroom studios, it seems to be preferred by the students. Maybe it’s the mystique of what goes on in here, even though it’s nothing crazy. They have 24-hour key access to it, which is super rare. For whatever reason, more than any other school that I have ever been to, they have this place locked down very tightly. That’s difficult to get around, especially in graphic design, which has a very necessary social aspect to it. When everyone is under the gun with deadlines, having the ability to turn your computer around at any given moment and ask for quick feedback or critique is really helpful. With the Ninth Letterspace, because they have access to it all of the time, they take advantage of it a lot more. There is almost always somebody in the space, even if they are not working on the journal; they can work on other projects while people are in there. We do our best to make people feel welcome. I was surprised by how comfortable they were with me being in there. I think if I went to their other studio and sat there, it would make everyone uncomfortable.
Maurice: Yeah, but here they don’t seem to mind.
Brian: They talk a lot, probably louder than they should, and I overhear things that they talk about. For instance, the school keeps pretty close tabs on their printers; they have to walk a half-block, which is not very far, but it is enough of a deterrent to print out test ideas at 2 AM. So I put in an extension cable to the printer so that they can bypass the software blocks that charge them for every copy that they are making. Another instance was that they were having problems photographing their work. I said to them, “Why aren’t you guys putting this up?” They said, “Well, we have to check out the photo suite room, and we have to check out a camera, and it’s always at peak times, and the photo kids get first dibs.” So we built them a mini photo suite in the corner of the room that they can pull out. It is nothing special. You wouldn’t be able to photograph a piece of furniture on it, but it works great for small stuff. It expedites their process. We have done our best to add amenities that cut down production time. We have a refrigerator in here because they couldn’t bring their lunches, since they would be warm by the time they were ready to eat them. So we went out and bought them a refrigerator when they needed that sort of thing. It’s only $100, but it goes a long way in getting people to stay beyond the time that they normally would spend.
Maurice: Past art directors still have their keys to the space, so at any given time, there might be faculty coming in and out, or students from past classes coming in and out, plus students working on the present issue. It can get pretty busy in here.
How do you work together as art directors?
Maurice: Some stuff we do together and some stuff we take upon ourselves to do individually.
Brian: Last semester was probably a little more demarcated because we were both new to it, and it was easier to handle discrete components. This semester was more of an on-the-fly dynamic.
Maurice: This semester was busier for both of us too, so a lot of it was forced. We communicate a lot; lots and lots of emails go back and forth. I realized, in the process of talking with students, that a lot of the emails that I had been sending were before 6 AM or after 11 PM. There’s lots of texting. We use Basecamp to keep the students aware of their tasks, and for us to be able to check up on it, so they put files up for us to take a look at.
Brian: We don’t make unilateral decisions, it’s usually us kicking stuff back and forth. Every facet is collaborative in some way. There are typographic decisions that Maurice made, and I was happy to let him make those decisions. There are situations where one of us has more experience, so we let each other take lead.
Maurice: Yeah, I set a lot of the type and did the layout of the book. Brian did most of the image editing because he is a Photoshop stud. But a lot of it was stuff that we did together. We spend a few days together before sending the issue off, working right next to each other in the studio.
How much back and forth is there between design and editorial?
Brian: Historically, there has been a lot of back and forth. In the earlier years, there was a little more; Ninth Letter wasn’t really established, so both sides tried to assert their vision a little more. Part of that might’ve been the pressure that the editorial side was feeling to produce something that looks like a traditional journal, and to do right by the writers who had submitted stuff. The writers expect a very specific thing. Unless you have seen Ninth Letter before, it can be a bit of a shock; it is not like many literary journals. Early on, a lot of people were counting on these things for tenure, and they got this weird design piece. There might have been some anxiety in presenting that to a tenure review board. Now in its tenth year, everybody knows what they are getting into, so there is a lot less pushback from the editorial side. When it does show up, it’s questions about things like legibility. For instance, we may push the table of contents typographically to the point where there are no page numbers, but a weird glyph system. But it is always a civil conversation.
Maurice:The journal was actually the brainchild of the Creative Writing MFA program. When they initially approached faculty in Art and Design, they wanted to task someone with making a book for them. The faculty member said, “If that is what you want, I can point you in the direction of a number of perfectly competent graphic designers. On the other hand, would you be interested in making this a true art and literary journal with an online presence and specific artwork?” Early resistance came from some faculty members in the English and Creative Writing programs, who really just wanted people over here to shut up, turn Ninth Letter into a book, and stop doing all of this weird stuff.
When the first issue came out, the press was focused on the design of the book. That persuaded them. They have final say, but our relationship is very harmonious now.
Is collaboration a tough sell?
Brian: From a global level, it is difficult to take risks in education, and collaboration is always a risk. That is one of the greatest things about it, that you don’t always know what is going to come out of it. Things like the rise in the cost of education, tenure reviews, and other external and internal pressures in academia, naturally tend to push toward safe bets. It becomes harder to put all the chips on black, work with a community partner and two different graphic design classes of different levels, and see what happens. That is a scary proposition for the administration, the professor involved, and even the students to a certain degree, because—and this is one of our primary jobs as educators—they have very specific ideas of what graphic design is or isn’t, and we have to challenge them on that. If you get enough of them revolting, it can be very hard, especially if you are a non-tenure-track faculty who lives and dies by their assessments. If you are on a tenure track, you don’t always get something publishable out of it. Those sorts of situations and demands lead educators to being risk-averse more often than not.
courtesy of ninth letter
Maurice: Especially when you work with projects without tangible outcomes, you end up documenting a lot of the process. Speaking for myself, that has been a hurdle for me, to get into the habit of constantly photographing what I, and others, are doing. If you are already overworked, and you are facing the prospect of doing a project that may not result in a specific piece that you can put on a pedestal and photograph for your portfolio, you start opting for things that may be easier.
Brian: Collaboration is more risky, and it is also more work to manage that many people. If you have a class of 32 and you pair them, that becomes 16 individual projects, or independent investigations where you have to manage 16 radically different ideas and outcomes. That is a lot more difficult than just giving some standard make-the-icon-from-the-word project. That kills a lot of things before they even start.
How did you overcome all of that?
Maurice: You’ll laugh, I think the editor, Jodee, would say the same thing as me: we wonder whether the university remembers that we exist. The magazine has won several design awards. Many of our authors have won big literary prizes: at least one Pushcart, at least one Newberry. I have been spending the year documenting the history of the magazine, so I’ve been thinking systematically about the process, and as far as I know, this is the only journal like this on the planet that is created this way. I am surprised that the university doesn’t use us more. Sometimes it is even difficult to get faculty to pay attention to the magazine. The students certainly know about it; they know that it exists, and they know that it is prestigious. The design faculty know about it, and they know how big of a deal it is. Because we are under the radar, we don’t get a lot of pushback from the university. The college will sometimes acknowledge us; I noticed just recently that the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences tweeted that the new issue of Ninth Letter is out.
Is that anonymity a good thing?
Maurice: I wish we had more money.
Brian: It’s a double-edged sword, because if they get involved, then they start imposing their will. More money would help, but it hasn’t stopped me from spending more than we have before. Somebody will pick up the check at an R1 institution, for sure. I don’t know that I would ask for any more involvement, because there would be a lot of demands.
Maurice: Our model isn’t sustainable right now. All of the funding presently comes from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences through the Creative Writing program. All that the School of Art and Design contributes to it is a course and assigns a faculty member to it. So far, the funding has been secured in bits and pieces. Jodee recently got the line extended for at least another couple years. At some point, the journal needs to be more self-sustaining. We are not charging enough for the journal to pay for more than the production itself.
What would you like to see happen that hasn’t happened yet?
Maurice: Even though the magazine has won a couple design awards, designers don’t know about it. Ninth Letter doesn’t really have a presence in the design world. For the last issue, I asked Martin Majoor and Jos Buivenga to lend us the typeface that they had been collaborating on, called Questa. We made a point of using it throughout the issue, and then sent them copies of the journal after it was done. I have also been in touch with John Walters from Eye Magazine. We want to do more to get the journal in front of designers. Besides being a really great book, it can be a great recruiting tool for our undergraduate program, and yet it really hasn’t been used that way.