Rob Walker | Essays

Cover Story

The relationship between a book and its cover is famously fraught. Keep that in mind when considering the unhappy reaction of at least some in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation program to its most recent annual publication of student work — Abstract, as it’s titled — suggested by the photographs here.

Here's the deal. Departing with the familiar tradition of producing a hefty physical volume, GSAPP offered its most recent Abstract in the form of an iPad app. In addition to (or on cover-like behalf of) this app, students received an object: It looks like a book, but turns out to be a book-shaped plastic box, and its contents consist of a URL, where the app can be downloaded. This object, as you can see, has not been universally embraced.

Images of the non-book strewn about campus like so much trash made their way to me from individuals who prefer to remain anonymous. I was intrigued — obviously it’s attention-getting when people are this hostile to any object designed to have some kind of lasting value. But at first I wasn’t quite certain what, if anything, I wanted to say about it — I am in no position to know what the real function of an architecture school’s annual publication is supposed to be, so who am I to weigh in?

But this has stuck with me, and I finally realize that it's is because I think the real question is whether these students were reacting to the “book,” or its “cover.”

Archetizer assessed the app that is available via said URL, pronouncing it “stunning” — and furthermore declaring those un-stunned to be fuddy-duddy enemies of progress: “This tribe stands stoically entrenched in the smell of ink, in the touch of uncoated paper,” etc. An app, in short, is better than a book, because “anyone can download” it, for free.

Well, just to clarify: Anyone who has an iPad (the app is for that device only*) can download it, and of course books in libraries are also viewable for free. [*April 16 Update: It appears I'm wrong about that, and you can also download the app to certain Windows and Mac computers; I regret the error, but my basic points remain (and, again, really I'm more focused on "cover" than "book").]  Nostalgia aside, an ink-on-paper book on a shelf today will still be a book in ten, twenty, fifty years, or possibly much longer; I don't know what kind of commitment Columbia has made to future-proofing this edition of Abstract, but do you think today’s iPad apps, as-is, will function seamlessly in whatever digital-consumption environment exists in a generation or two? If so, I’ll be happy to sell you some lasesr discs.

Then again, maybe Abstract is not meant to transcend time, but rather to perform as a here-and-now portfolio credential. If so, then an iPad app might be the right “book” — but that still doesn’t explain the “cover” strategy here.

I’ve seen interesting examples of a physical thing that serves as a keepsake, trophy, or similar marker of digitally captured expression: See this 2010 column about Ghostly International and Boym Partners collaborating on a sculptural object tied to a Matthew Dear music release. 

The general notion of "built to last" seems consistent with the architect ethos. But alternatively one could conceive a “cover” that's instead built to spread: A limited set of letterpress cards, for instance. Like the plastic box, such cards — or a sculpture, or any number of physical markers — could easily incorporate the URL. While that may still be a needlessly material way of communicating a digital location (which could obviously be spread by a simple email), the materiality might at least signal value, special-ness.

Instead what students received was something closer to a decoy, a pulled rug, a trompe l'oeil: It resembles a book — but it’s just a stand-in. As such, it seems vaguely ridiculous as a keepsake. (The decision to use plastic, of all materials, is particularly strange, given that plastic is almost synonymous with the worst kind of disposability.) But because the object poses as a keepsake, it’s also impractical as a means of spreading the associated “book.”

I’m sure you could come up with something better than the “cover” alternatives I’ve floated above. The bar, after all, is not terribly high. While the dissatisfied students could surely have devised a more productively creative way of expressing their reaction, it’s not exactly shocking that some might respond to a function-less plastic box as, in essence, garbage.

Posted in: Media, Social Good

Comments [10]

The GSAPP has always embraced digital technology first, however after looking at the app, I can understand the students concern:
The design sucks some of the air out of the work. I find myself looking at the buttons, the text, saying, oh isn't this interesting. The work itself is an afterthought. This is all about graphic design strategy and marketing to the outside. For the most part it looks pretty, but the student work is lost in the app's structure--there is no serendipity of finding a project by flipping through--you have to know exactly where you are going. Not to say architecture work can't be represented on an app, but the app here is just a graphic design and advertisement exercise.
I assume the GSAPP to be diverse in architectural and design philosophies, but my own stereotype tells me that Columbia represents the school of thought focused on image and a computer first mentality. If one were to make an ipad app that better represented the ARCHITECTURE in the student work--with all of its meanings, spatial elements, context etc, I would celebrate that. Sort of like how S,M,L,XL--as good as that was--is more about graphic design then a specific analysis and showcase for projects.


With a better understanding of architecture, an app would be a perfect medium for highlighting student work.


Daft Punk is using 70s disco and organic instrumentation, yet we are convinced in the supremacy of digital over everything? Will our tombstones be engraved with website addresses?

I find the design of this app to be overwhelming and inorganic. A collage of graphics thrown at you, not unlike so much of the disposable digital culture (which the author points out is very short lived). Design Observer's on the other hand, is focused and more thoughtful.

Success in the digital future will be won by those that embrace a certain human quality first--those that slow down and don't overwhelm. Think about the digital success of Louis CK, an unappealing guy who won the internet with simplicity and authenticity.
Mike Lowe

This made me think of how books and their covers are received as images online. On image aggs and design thinspiration blogs, an image of the book cover is reblogged into oblivion. In fact, the image above of the books lying discarded next to piles of trash would probably be more popular than the cover image. You could design a hundred covers, put them on a blog, and few if any would question whether they had contents beyond that cover. The same critical attitude the students had when receiving these empty books is an attitude missing from the digital networks where a book is just a thing that you "like."


Discarding a useless book isn't surprising. But the image of the Abstract in the trash has to be bad PR for Columbia--it looks kind of like all of the student's digital work is disposable.
Ed Nai

Seems like sending a url via email would have been simpler, more efficient and less wasteful.
Sam at Wordstrong

Columbia has a few good professors, and a whole lot of digital baloney.
R. Mackintosh

This is not a book or
Will the real Decoy please stand up?

If Education is all about trust, as we read in the Deans Statement, then Columbia University’s GSAPP should not only trust its Architecture students to design their own Abstract, they should make it a requirement. Yes, I love the design of this App by the talented design firm Sagmeister & Walsh + developer Red Paper Heart, but isn’t it time that the students take over the design process and become literate in the architecture of Graphic Design? Thank you Rob for another good read and congratulations to Stefan a few days in advance of receiving the AIGA Medal “!”
Carl W. Smith

Whew, I was about to spend 100k+ on GSAPP but I just downloaded this funky app instead. Thanks!
Kevin J. Hogan

Thanks all for the comments & useful/thoughtful feedback.
TravisStearns: That's actually a particularly interesting line of thought. Good stuff.

Much obliged all...
Rob Walker

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