SpearTalks: Joshua Davis

Posted on December 14, 2007 Under Design

If you consider yourself a graphic designer, you’ve probably heard of Joshua Davis. As one of the first adopters of Flash, a significant new media artist, an author, and one of the design world's weightiest members, Joshua Davis is a name that rolls off many tongues during discussions regarding progression, experimentation, and development. A pioneer in the word's most technological sense, Joshua has never been one to find a niche and stick with it, instead choosing to find what's next — or in what's often his case, to create it. We chatted with Joshua about things like Praystation, philosophy, and his plans for the future, and wound up feeling a little bit like we do when we look at one of his mathematically composed graphics. In other words: utterly enthralled.

Joshspear.com: For our readers who aren't as familiar with your background, can you give us a brief rundown of your life up until today?

Joshua Davis: My name is Joshua Davis, born 1971 in San Diego, California, moved to Littleton, Colorado where I pretty much grew up. I had always been interested in art and in high school I entered a statewide competition and took second place in the state for painting. After spending ’89, ’90 in Huntington Beach, California skateboarding and ’91, ’92 moving back to Colorado living in Frisco to do some snowboarding, I moved to New York in November 1992 and eventually attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. At Pratt I worked on Design and Illustration and through fellow classmates got into working on the web in 1995 (Netscape 1.1). When Netscape 3 was released (at the end of 1996) I had a moment of clarity to use technology and the web to create my work. 13 years later I run Joshua Davis Studios where I use design and technology to create work for corporate clients, private collectors, galleries, museums, and personal exploration.

JS: You've been in this game since Netscape 2 — how have you progressed as a designer since then, and what keeps you from getting bored?

JD: I actually started with Netscape 1.1 in 1995, but I didn't get serious until Netscape 2 came out in early 1996 (which for me was an environment about embracing the computer to create work). It wasn't until Netscape 3, HTML and JavaScript, that I had an understanding about how exciting work could be. I remember learning how to create image rollovers and thinking, “holy shit.” In retrospect, in comparison to how things have evolved for today's standards, image rollovers we're pretty lame, but at the time it seemed like the heavens had opened up.

Over the next few years I remember being frustrated about spending so much time writing code just to sniff out what platform (Mac or PC) and what browser (Netscape or Explorer) the end user was using to present them with an interactive experience. I got turned onto this product called futuresplash (pre-Macromedia acquisition) but I didn't really consider myself an animator. So, after getting familiar with the application I got back into diving into PERL, DHTML, CSS, and HTML. Then Macromedia acquired futuresplash and was renamed Flash 1. After getting familiar with several releases over the years, it wasn't until Flash 3 and "tell target" that I spent more time than usual poking around Flash. Flash 4 hit, and the rest was history. Flash introduced ActionScript and my shifts changed drastically – a programming language in an interactive, animation environment. If they had the plugin , they'd see exactly what you intended – no more sniffing code "“ and that's when me and Flash got married.

But I have to remember Flash is just a tool, and while I'm grateful for it existence, it's what we bring to the tools – our ideas, our craft. Give Stevie Wonder a shitty pair of drums and he'll still wreck it.

JS: You were named one of the ‘Ten Most Creative People’ by the Internet Professional Publishers Association. That's a heavy honor, but one that appropriately demonstrates your dedication to your occupation(s). How do you condition yourself for creativity, and have you managed to reach a point where you feel in control of it?

JD: I hate to say it — I'm not a big fan of titles, accolades, or awards. My agent writes that crap in my bio for the whole damn world to see, but I don't really give a shit. I want to make work for love or personal growth, not for acceptance. I'm glad some people like my work, but it's not for them… I think there might be something wrong with me. There's a whole planet of people who communicate with words, but I need to express myself visually. Point being, I'd still be doing this even I didn't get paid to do it, I'd still do it even if every last person on the earth hated it.

In Ayn Rand's book "the Fountainhead," the main character, Howard Roark, an architect, builds this structure that's not well received, and someone says to him, "Look at what you've done… who's ever going to let you build anything?" And Roark replies, "Who's going to stop me?"

JS: How do you condition yourself for creativity?

JD: Being creative, for me, is just a way of seeing the world hyper-sensitively. It's not something I can turn on or off or something I learned.

Now, if I ever reach a position where I feel in control, I'll know that I'm dead. I don't ever want to understand. The more I learn, the more I create, the more people I meet, the cultures I get exposed to, all help me grow and reach out for new ideas. Confusion is a great motivator to explore that which is unknown.

JS: It seems as though you approach design philosophically; as if the whole design process is a very meaningful, almost religious pursuit. Can you tell us what art and design are to you, and what you think they do?

JD: The classic art vs. design debate. I'm not a big fan of labels, but if I had to use one, I'd probably say I'm a designer who, on occasion, shows Design as Art. To refine things even more, I'd say what I'm doing is Illustration. My character Maruto (who has been on Once Upon a Forest for the past few years) has been creating interactive and static environments that, from my perspective, are illustrations in a children's book. So, illustration minus the text of the story (which was the responsibility of the viewer to create).

I agree that the process by which the work is created is very meaningful to me. Even though the process itself is rooted in meaningless. Philosophical? I've often said I'm trying to remove the graphic designer from graphic design.

It's definitely a religious pursuit. In computational/algorithmic systems, you're getting to play god for a few moments. You construct a micro-universe based on rules and boundaries, set things in motion, and see what sort of visual results you get. Sometimes I get things that look horrible, and sometimes I get things that look amazing. I'm living with these systems, tending to them to refine the results, waiting for that "Beautiful Accident."

The process does lack narrative — the story is the process. If you don't explain the story of the process the system is completely meaningless. That, on occasion, creates random unexpected compositions, exquisite or disastrous.

And finally… I love being a designer. In my opinion I think doing "design" is harder than "art." Lets preface this by saying, of course there are exceptions. However, my perception is that art is self-masturbation, because the only person who has to understand, like, or appreciate the art, is the artist. For a long time, I have felt that art is wonderfully meaningless and doesn't usually serve any universal need other than being "art." I love Mathew Barney, and I'm glad that he exists and creates work, but I can't brush my teeth with The Cremaster Cycle. Design on the other hand is usually created to be wielded by and for the public to server some sort of purpose. We forget that your toothbrush is design, designed to serve the oral hygiene of your mouth.

I have commercials clients who hire me to create systems for commercials purposes. I feel it's harder because you need to take the rules and boundaries of the clients project and brand, try to breathe a bit of yourself into those confines, and hope you create something new and exciting that benefits your growth as a designer and helps elevate the clients brand. Also as a designer, as I take on new commissions, I get to wear new hats: new client, new project, new rules, new boundaries, new challenges; paths into discovering new things about myself. If you look at a book of paintings by Rembrandt, you can't deny he was an amazing painter, but I often feel that "If you've seen one Rembrandt, you've seen them all." Now go pick up Stefan Sagmeister's book Made You Look. Each turn of the page reveals a new creative solution specific to the project/client's needs that's undeniably Stefan, yet also a blueprint or timeline into Stefan's creative process. It's diverse and visually invigorating.

JS: Whom do you admire?

JD: I'll name drop the usually suspects… Ben Fry, Golan Levin, Casey Reas, Robert Hodgin, Toxi, Marius Watz, Lia, Amit Pitaru, Jonathan Harris, Martin Wattenberg, Jared Tarbell, Josh Nimoy, Mark Napier, Manny Tan, Ed Burton, lennyjpg, Simon Geilfus, eskimoblood, James Patterson, Geoff Lillemon, Niko Stumpo, 123Klan, Matt and Mark Owens, Craig Swann, Mike Young, Mike Cina, Marcos Weskamp, Thierry Loa, Drew Trujillo, Jer Thorpe, Evgeny Kiselev, c86, Yoshi Sodeoka, Auriea Harvey, Michael Samyn, Commonwealth, Paul Pope, Francis Chan, Kozy and Dan, Nando and Linn, Chuck Anderson, Patrick O'Brien, Dustin Amery Hostetler … these are friends and peers who, consciously and sub-consciously push me to be a better designer, but I'd like to single out a few people specifically…

Erik Natzke: We always managed to connect and exchange ideas and push each other into the unknown. I truly respect his opinions.

Branden Hall: I'd find it hard to have gotten as far as I have with programming without the guidance of Branden Hall. He truly pushes me to be a better programmer (even though Eric Miranda and myself want to write the official Branden Hall, Demystified book). His knowledge of programming, computer science, design patterns, mathematics, and his energetic passion to immerse himself into your ideas is a gift.

John Maeda: I put him on the spot in Toronto; I said I thought he was the front man in our rock band. A talented programmer, a beautiful designer… but he also has written so eloquently about our community, has really brought it into the spotlight, and has given many of us the platform to show our work to a broader audience.

Stefan Sagemeister: Stefan has told me about his experiences learned from Tibor Kalmen, and my conversations with Stefan have been the same for me. How I conduct my studios philosophy and business is based on conversations I've had with Stefan. For me he's the perfect role model; he's the guy you could only hope to become. I first met Stefan in Singapore and I found him sitting on the ground, in a courtyard, surrounded by 40 people, whom he didn't know, talking about design, answering questions, listening to other peoples stories. I guess I didn't expect him to be so humble and accessible. He's simply a beautiful human and designer.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Texture, collage, color and randomness; he's the man, and it's sad to have lost him so young.

Cy Twombly: I wish I could write programs that captured the tactility and flow of his paintings and drawings (specifically "Poems to The Sea").

Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800): I strive daily to create a compositional harmony that exists in Ito's work. Chaos, calm, space, color, flow, texture, form, level of craftsmanship, and the obsession of the details are the goals I desire to attain in my own work.

Mathew Barney: Thank God someone gives you money to make art, you crazy fucker. I got sober 14 years ago, and thanks to you, a mind-altering experience is only an installation/performance away.

Eric Miranda: "So, there's that one." Eric's my Best Friend and personal Sherpa "“ he's turned me on to Ayn Rand's book The Fountainhead, and Napolean Hill's book Think and Grow Rich (my 2 bibles). He calls me too much, calls me on my bullshit, and speaks to me without filter. Someone I admire him so much I'd put his needs ahead of my own. He's also a truly gifted musician. Watching his band MingDynasty evolve and being involved in his creative process has been an honor.

JS: Where did the name "PrayStation" come from, and what are some interesting things that have developed from the site?

JD: My first computer was the Commodore 64. Ever since the C64 I've been collecting gaming consoles, and for my website I wanted to pay homage to gaming but also have it be a play on words. So I kicked around ideas like dreamblast/dreamcast, nofriendo/nintendo, and praystation/playstation. I finally picked PrayStation because I thought it pays homage to gaming, and also has that play on words, but also has this semi-religious undertone (which I thought was hysterical).

Year one of PrayStation played on these ideas. It was about video games with religious undertones. For example, Virtual Voodoo, a collaborative project between Richard Pasqua and myself, was a Director APP that allowed you to put someone's name on a Voodoo Doll, poke the doll with pins, and then mail the results as a greeting card.

After a year of this I felt the work becoming hollow inside me. It would never be about my own artistic endeavors, it would only steal from popular video game iconography and mash it up. So PrayStation year two presented itself as a calendar based diary (pre-blogs) within which I'd daily archive the things I was experimenting with. I'd offer almost everything I was experimenting with as open-source downloads. I was teaching new people Flash and I was learning from other Flash developers and programmers. PrayStation ran for several years under this format and in 2001 won the Golden Nica at the Prix Ars Electronica in Linz Austria. Winning the Golden Nica gave me this feeling that I had taken PrayStation as far as it could go, so three days after returning from Linz I took the site down. The archives are still up, but if I decide to return to PrayStation I would need to work out a new concept and format.

JS: What is the concept behind once-upon-a-forest.com, and what is the site accomplishing?

JD: While PrayStation was a place for Joshua Davis to work out ideas, Once Upon a Forest was a place for me to get away from Joshua Davis. I created a character, Maruto, who has certain rules and parameters, and I create work through this character. Much like an actor gets into character and acts in a movie for 2 hours, I've been getting into this character for the past 9 years (since 1999).

PrayStation was about the research and development of ideas using programming. These ideas didn't have much of a visual style, though, so Once Upon a Forest is a place where I can take ideas I learned on PrayStation and use them to create visual design.

At the time the trendy thing was to have a short catchy web address like pop.com, boo.com, etc. So in response to this I wanted to register as once-upon-a-forest-and-many-blades-of-grass-ago.com, only to find out that, at the time, there was a 32 character limit to a domain name. I dropped "-and-many-blades-of-grass-ago" and settled for www.once-upon-a-forest.com.

The current build of once-upon-a-forest.com contains 23 plates of artwork generated by programs I've written, and if you view the source on the site, there are comments in the HTML that outline the concept and foundation of the project.

Does it accomplish anything? For me? Absolutely! A personal project where there's no budget, no deadlines, no client, etc. a place where I can meditate and work out visual ideas.

JS: It seems as though, with any job, the goal is to get the day's work done, then make it home as quickly as possible. You must have crazy workdays, yet you're consistently involved in personal side projects. Where would you say the energy, creative and otherwise, for all of this comes from?

Nope, no crazy work schedule – I work Monday through Thursday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Fridays I teach at the School of Visual Arts from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Remember that my studio consists of 3 people, so if we have more than 3 or 4 projects in for the year we're slammed. The rest of the time we spend working on research and development. It's this experimentation that will later become the foundation for future projects.

The personal side projects I engage in — like gallery shows, installations, and performances — give my studio an opportunity to showcase our design in an art context. A kaleidoscope engine for Motorola became the foundation for showing new artwork in the engine in an exhibition at TAG in the Hague Netherlands. Personal projects like limited edition prints also supply the studio with a bit of revenue here and there and is also a nice break from doing corporate commissions. Limited editions also help me get my work off the screen and into the hands of people who want to hang it on their walls. Getting these programs into an edition also timestamps a visual aesthetic of the algorithm I've written and also timestamps a moment in time in the program's animation/evolution.

Teaching at the School of Visual Arts also helps me pass what I know and have been through on to a new generation. This exploration helps them arrive at new ideas and processes that they might not have initially had the opportunity to utilize (teaching painting majors to program; FUN). Watching 20 new students each semester work through the same problems I went through, yet arriving at the solutions via diverse paths, also helps me to see different paths towards common goals.

JS: You've been know to prefer clients to stay out of the creative process while working on jobs- why do you feel this way, and how do clients generally respond to this?

JD: Ha, let me clarify this a bit. In the past I worked for a studio and we had a situation happen with a particular client. This client was trying to control the creative process so much that they nullified anything exciting from ever happening. So we fired the client. This situation was mentioned in an interview I did for the Industry Standard Magazine. This interview was read by CNN, and then CNN asked if they can come film a spot for a program of theirs called "Business Unusual." (And the rest is history.)

To this day, I still have people who contact the studio with an RFP that lists several projects, saying things like, we'd like to take this from this project, and this from this project, and maybe this could happen from this project when this happens from this project. We respectfully decline these projects. If you want a project that looks like another project than the client should hire the studio that did the project they want to replicate.

I'd like for my studio and the projects we take on to attempt to innovate and not replicate — set the trend, rather than following it. A lot of time this refers to the fact that clients often aren't thinking about innovation, they're just looking at what's already been done. My studio is in the business of trying new and unexpected things. If my client makes shoes, they should make shoes. If my client makes shoes, and they act like a design agency, then they're blocking the design agency from being the design agency.

Because I've been in this business long enough, I'm pretty fortunate to have worked up a reputation of working my ass off if you give me the freedom to present new ideas. So now most of my RFPs usually present a theme, I have free reign to work out ideas, and my clients are receptive to the collaborative process.

JS: Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?

JD: A few things: Working with Thinkware in Korea to do graphics for a car GPS system; working with Absolut in Sweden on their campaign "In an Absolute World"; Commonwealth and myself had our show, Tropism, showcased at Art Basel in Miami (as part of the "Fragiles" show curated by Die Gestalten Verlag); the past few months I've been working closely with Umbra in Toronto to create a new visual line of contemporary design products for the home; and I've decided to embark on the arduous task of porting my entire portfolio to wordpress. I've had a great time getting back into CSS and PHP and hacking wordpress to get it to do things that's a bit of a juggle using Flash and XML. The CMS and CSS possibilities of WordPress make it too easy — hooray for easy — to update.