Sometime in the late eighties, I paged through a small, red, cloth-bound book that arrived unsolicited in the mail. Each and every page had but one message, “This book is printed on recycled paper. So what?” in black, 12-144 pt upper and lowercase Helvetica. Curious: Wasting paper to protest wasting paper. I noted a red silk page marker had been sewn into the book. So what? Months later, also in the mail, came an offensively large poster, which I unfolded and laid on the floor. Within a small rectangle, in the midst of gigantic bold yellow and black caution stripes, (again in Helvetica upper- and lowercase), was “Warning: We have met the enemy and he is us.” Even curiouser. Was I to hang this, did I even have a wall large enough? Should I laugh or cry? I refolded it and filed it under “anomalies” along with the small red book.
A slim catalog of asinine consumer products arrived in the mail, from the same address as the others, in a Ziploc plastic bag from Virtual Telemetrix (most curious: doesn't VT sound like it would be a high-tech company?). On the cover were the title Ceci n'est pas un catalogue1
and a full-bleed, moody photo of a liver tastefully mounted on a stick. You see what I mean: Curious to say the least! Highly unlikely designer products by VT designer John Bielenberg and his designer pals were elegantly displayed throughout: Ethnic cleansing bars (“select your color preference”) by South African designer Jilly Simons. And pasta utensils made of pasta by the Samatas. Each product oozed with irony and humor.
In the early nineties, just prior to the dot-com bubble,2 Bielenberg, had concocted Virtual Telemetrix, clearly a company hard to pin down. Employing his devilishly sardonic side, he tested the credibility of corporate branding by designing an annual report for VT that, of course, had no real content. In this oversized A/R were of course, spreadsheets, of full-bleed photos of wrinkled white bedding. There was a photo of Mr. Williams, VT’s CEO, in his office next to the obligatory CEO letter that, of course, said nothing. In the background of the photo, a lone stiletto heel poked out from under Mr. Williams' corporate desk suggesting something: Corporate corruption? The AIGA included this farcical A/R in their annual book as if it were real. Hard to say whether they were joining in the fun or just being dull-witted. The Mead Annual Reports competition was unequivocal: They threw it out when they realized VT was not a publicly traded company.
In 2000, just as the bubble was bursting, most painfully in the high-tech Bay Area, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired several copies of the VT A/R and helped Bielenberg stage a mock initial public offering for Virtual Telemetrix and its bogus product line. Bielenberg, who is a partner with Erik Cox and Greg Galle in C2, the bi-coastal design firm in Half Moon Bay, California, and Belfast, Maine, sighs, when he says, “Then I ran out of steam. It’s hard to parody business. It does it so well all by itself. But Virtual Telemetrix started me on the road to inventing my own projects. No client.”
My anomalies file bulged by the time I got to know Bielenberg and started to understand more fully how his mind worked.
According to Bielenberg, his “think wrong” process casts off embedded assumptions and approaches design from a fresh perspective. The internationally respected Bielenberg started thinking wrong early on and this approach has become the hallmark of his very successful career.
In reality, we have opportunities to think wrong all day long: An idea flies into your head and collides with another seemingly unrelated one, but are we open to the potential? Maybe not. Bielenberg is. That’s the difference. He often describes thinking wrong as a “mashup” of two unlikely ideas. For instance, an exercise he uses with his corporate clients includes the mashup of MINI Cooper and Sesame Street. What would that look like? Since our minds are usually fixed on a routine, with concrete goals, innovation can go right over our heads. Were we to pause and consider each and every anomaly, we might go crazy, after all. Bielenberg suggests that every once in a while, we should bring them into focus so we experience an altered perspective, perhaps shift our trajectory. As the eminent and wise Ralph Waldo Emerson so famously stated, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
In 2003, inspired by Auburn University architect and teacher Samuel Mockbee and feeling a need to create with greater meaning, Bielenberg founded Project M (M means Mockbee, Maine, mentoring). Bielenberg says, “It’s an intensive immersion program meant to inspire designers, writers, filmmakers and photographers to use their work for the greater good by thinking wrong.” Each year, M’ers, as they are called, tackle a new cause: create a book for a rainforest preserve in Costa Rica; design a green space in East Baltimore; gather and distribute design supplies for displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors. Bielenberg attracts some of the most creative designers to join in, and M advisors have included the likes of luminaries such as Art Chantry, Bill Drenttel, Laurie Rosenwald, Michael Vanderbyl and James Victore. He says while most are engaged, some can’t do it. “There's the Lone Wolf Syndrome: they disappear and develop stuff on their own. ‘This is mine.’ Some geniuses can’t collaborate.”
Josh To printing Open Source Altruism posters on letterpress during Project M.
As the M reputation and its advisor/alumni networks have grown, becoming a M’er has developed its own appeal. At this point, Project M3 has taken place around the world, in Costa Rica, Iceland, Germany, San Francisco and Minneapolis and now has physical labs in Greensboro, Alabama (home of Mockbee's Rural Studio) and Belfast, Maine (home of John Bielenberg).
I flew to Alabama on a puddle jumper in the wee hours of a warm June night at the tail end of a month-long Project M session. I was picked up at the airport by two recent college grads, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteers working with HERO, a Greensboro group working to end rural poverty. I asked them why they—so bright, spunky, full of potential—wanted to come to Greensboro, of all places, for a year. They weren’t sure, they answered, but they had a hunch they could help there. They took me on a spin of some Mockbee buildings and I tried not to blink or I’d miss my first glimpse of Greensboro (population 2,700). Then we rolled down the gravel road where my B&B, an elegant ante bellum manor, was tucked away. I was to be its only guest.