Scott Marble, editor
The discussion around digital vs. paper publications is part of a larger debate about the rapid virtualization of many activities that have long been part of everyday life. Learning in classrooms is replaced with on-line education; meeting face-to-face is replaced with Skype; work is replaced with robots; turning the pages of a book is replaced with swiping a tablet. Despite all of the practical advantages of these changes, there is still a lingering desire for an authentic experience and the aura of an original object.
Two years ago, we cut three holes in Abstract that removed almost a quarter of each page and forced drawings, renderings, photographs and text to compete with empty voids. By all accounts, it was well received and considered a favorite among the last several editions. It wasn’t until last year when the book disappeared altogether that it became apparent that Abstract serves a very specific purpose within the plethora of media generated by the GSAPP. There was a brief flurry of social media responses and even a few reactionary performance art pieces by students that made it clear that we had touched a nerve. It turns out that people still like their books.
While one of the objectives of last year’s digital version was to overcome the organizational and space limitations of a physical book, what was put at risk was the role of Abstract as a permanent and definitive record of work produced within a given timeframe. There were particular goals behind the digital version. We were able to include more student work, the interactivity and cross referencing of content that we had been exploring in book form with previous editions was more fully realized – users could sort work in a number of categories based on their particular interests. Equally important was the interest in expanding the audience beyond the school. Abstract has always had a limited print run and with the number of students and recent alumni who receive free copies, it had very little reach beyond GSAPP affiliates. With the app, we significantly increased the exposure of the student work with downloads in 45 countries, including several countries that have no student representation at the school. This is expected to increase as both the desktop and iPad app continue to be downloaded every day.
The shift to a digital version of Abstract also occurred in the context of an ongoing discussion at the GSAPP about an active, living and searchable digital archive that would preserve and allow access to all student work. Currently, the amount of work selected for publication represents only about ten percent of the total work collected. Moving forward, the digital version of Abstract might evolve from only containing work that is printed in the book version to being linked to the complete archive, allowing the flexibility of a searchable on-line database. A future edition of Abstract might even be based on a concept that was initially considered for this edition that would allow users to access an online resource of content, select what they wanted to include and then order a self-edited printed version of Abstract for delivery.
This kind of experimentation with the design possibilities of a publication has been a core part of Abstract for many years. As with most things done at the GSAPP, it carries the risks that must be assumed when continually challenging the familiar. With this new edition, Abstract has evolved to include both a digital and physical format.
The book is back with a new physical presence. We have replaced the app with a simple web-based version that is device agnostic and doesn’t require downloading yet accomplishes all of our goals of user interactivity and availability to a larger, international audience.
Abstract is not only a publication of student work, but also an opportunity for the editorial and design team to question the very nature of what a book is, how it is produced, how it is perceived, what it is intended to communicate and what form it might take in the future.