License Plates

Nathan Sinsabaugh at Sam’s Silver Circle

Originally published in Fall 2014 Issue #4 of Pattern*

I’m meeting Nathan Sinsabaugh for a beer. We are at Sam’s (aka the Silver Circle), a neon-lit darts bar on the corner of Shelby and Fletcher. And we are surrounded by stories. There are license plates and Sports Illustrated’s and reality signs and Cathedral banners covering the walls. There’s a kid’s bike hanging from a ceiling, a skateboard attached to one wall, and a single croc shoe pinned to another. Business cards from hundreds of businesses are tucked into the corners of picture frames. There’s a giant MASS AVE sign over one of the archways, even though we’re in Fountain Square.

It’s a mess. And I love it.

But I have questions too. Where did it all come from? Why is it here?

Each piece on the wall hints at a history Everything came from somewhere. Someone brought it here. Then someone chose to throw it up on the wall. All of that is intentional, a fundamental of design. But the walls and the lights and the business cards and the skateboard are haphazard, accidental. It’s too much to take in all at once. My eyes don’t know where to focus.

So is this place designed, or not?

Over our $1 pints of draft PBR, I ask Nathan.

Nathan is a designer, a Design Director at an agency called KA+A. His job description is to create user experiences. The experiences” part is apt, he tells me, but Nathan isn’t keen on user.” The word is jargon culled from computer programming where there are system admins who control the world, and users who live in that world. Designers adopted this word but not without consequences.

By using the word, designers empower only themselves, Nathan says. By using user” designers treat the people as recipients, even a receptacle, of whatever the designer deems good. This designer-centric approach typifies a post-digital design methodology, and it that lacks an appreciation of time and context and place, according to Nathan.

Nowhere is that truer than the web. Everything is right now. Nathan tells me about dribbble.com, where high-end designers post hundreds of instagram-like design concepts every day. It’s a necessary evil in 2014 if you’re a graphic designer, but it’s design for design’s sake.

Or, as Nathan calls it, a design-jerk.”

He contrasts dribbble with the the hundreds of license plates on the wall at the Silver Circle. Both are similar: messy, abstract, overflowing. But the plates and the shoes and the bike and the business cards have advantages over the bits and bytes posted on dribbble: everything in this room came from someone, from somewhere. And some of it has been here a while.

The curation of these objects, the placement, the time they’ve stayed on the wall, this is what Nathan refers to as earned design.” Design, he says, doesn’t have intrinsic value. Design must inherit value, build it up, bank it over time. Design must find itself and then exist in context with non-designed things.

Design is rarely good unto itself.

This idea of Earned Design means thinking more often about the physical world than the digital one. To be a good designer in 2014, to resist the inclination to create design for design’s sake, means thinking like a designer would have 50 years ago,” according to Nathan. How does this piece of design interact with the world and people around it? Where does this design come from, and where is it going?

In between darts games the regulars stop by to say hello. They can tell we’re new to the Silver Circle, but it seems typical for them to explain things to us newcomers. The teacher from Arsenal Tech winning all the games? It’s her birthday. The bartender? She knows everything about everyone, but you’ll never get it out of her. And that guy over there? Fifth best dart player in the state. It’s true.

If we showed up enough times to the Silver Circle, we might start to learn the stories of everyone and everything in the place. Why the skateboard is on the wall, or where the MASS AVE sign came from (hint: not Mass Ave), or who tucked the first business card in the picture frames.

Nathan is taking the same approach to his designing as we might with Silver Circle, if we were to come back again. Which we will.

Unlike our barmates, Nathan asks questions more than he answers in the course of our conversation. This is especially true when we’re talking about design. But I like that. It’s almost as if he’s designing the idea of design; interrogating it, finding its story and place, giving it context, refining his understanding of it.

September 1, 2014 / writing