Autistic Mercury Interview With Design Critic Eli Schiff
May 7, 2019
Warren: Hey Eli, I’m Warren, welcome to The Autistic Mercury! How are you doing today?
Eli: It’s a gloomy day outside but I’m doing pretty well.
Warren: Could you please give an introduction to our dear readers who may be unfamiliar with you or your work with regards to who you are and what it is you do?
Eli: I observe the world, and while I am often skeptical of the meaning of what’s in front of me, I trust my eyes to make sense of its form. This makes me a critic.
Warren: Where are you from + where are you based now?
Eli: I was born in the heart of the American Empire—Boston, Massachusetts. Currently I’m in Austin, TX.
Warren: You are a design critic, correct? Has your criticism ever brought you any backlash, or perhaps a noteable memory?
Eli: There are too many episodes to count. In many cases, the backlash is short-lived, and I unconsciously play the role of the heretic for the crowd. And while I am sincere, I know that the discourse isn’t everything. For a handful of people—maybe somewhere in the hundreds, the game is deathly serious.
Warren: With your scope– do you hone in on any one specific area of design, let’s say digital marketing? Or are your views and critiques quite general and would you say, apply to the greater world outside the sphere of the digital landscape?
Eli: My lens is certainly from the world of design—in particular interface design—and likely always will be. That said, I do occasionally write film criticism and more broad cultural criticism. The borders between one area of media and another collapsing these days.
Warren: Very nice. What are some of the top things that people do in the design world that annoy you the most?
Eli: Generally what annoys me is that designers simultaneously believe in scientism and mysticism
Warren: Expand on that please?
Eli: Designers emphasize what in their view is the supreme importance of quantitative and data-driven research while without any sense of hesitation promoting empathy-driven design. Both can be valid tools, but they are fetishized to the point that they are actively harmful.
Warren: Ah. Well, the design in digital landscapes impact our non-digital lives, would you agree? It would seem to me that design, aesthetics, are everywhere in the real world, whether they started on a computer or not, and these things shape our reality. What are some consequences you can see stemming from this, or have seen as a consequence of this?
Eli: This is something I’ve said since quite early in my career as a critic. Skeuomorphism, otherwise known as the referential transfer of ornamentation or instrumentation from one medium to another, doesn’t just go in one direction—from the physical world to the digital. It equally goes in the opposite direction. UI designers have immense power in building interfaces, but their power hardly stops there.
Warren: Tell us a bit about some projects you’ve got out, and what you’re currently working on!
Eli: I recently published a book called Uber’s Undoing. In it, I document the scandalous design history of the company and Uber’s symbolic significance as a reference for the state of design.
Warren: Ok, the best designer right now is…
Eli: Toiling away in obscurity, under NDA, and will never show their work to the world.
Warren: Haha. The best designer to have ever lived is?
Eli: Anyone who drew icons on MacThemes or DeviantArt and never went on to promote flat design
Warren: If you could take over the entire design team of one company, what would it be and why? What would you do with your direction?
In theory, I would like to run the design team at Apple. Pure and simple they have the most leverage at the moment to usher in a sea change in the industry for the better. Their current negligence is a choice. But their dominance won’t last forever. Perhaps a decade or two more at best.
Warren: I quite like it, but I’m curious what you think of Urbit.org’s overall design?
Eli: Urbit had the chance to revolutionize not only the foundations of computing, but accordingly, the foundations of digital aesthetics. Their founder, Curtis Yarvin, farmed out the vision to a team that saw their medium as as simply an extension of edgy print trends rooted in the mid-nineties. It’s a disappointment.
Warren: Just as comedy is affected (usually negatively) in a volatile and chaotic political climate, would you say the same has happens with design?
Eli: I’d say there is more comedic material to work with in a repressed and fearful culture than in a confident one. That applies equally to design as it does to comedy. It’s not ideal to be a designer today. But there’s plenty of idiocy to fill the void.
Warren: How do you see this manifest within the world of design?
Warren: Anything you feel we should know before ending?
Eli: Don’t let yourself live in fear of laughing.
Warren: Where can people go to view or support your work?