Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Power of Physical Words

The Holstee Manifesto
I went to a potluck dinner last night at Holstee, a business that describes itself as "a Brooklyn-based design studio offering sustainably made posters, cards, and frames that inspire people to live mindfully." They are known for the Holstee Manifesto, a declaration of what a successful life would like, which they wrote for themselves at the outset of their journey, with no intention of turning it into a product.

The mix of people included total newcomers such as myself, as well as two of the founders and a number of members of the Holstee "family," who had been there since the beginning (or almost beginning). I was sitting next to co-founder Dave Radparvar, who was talking with a couple of these Holstee family members about the Manifesto and its runaway success. They sell so many posters of this simple statement of purpose that it's become the economic engine that enables the rest of their activity. Apparently people even get it tattooed on their body. They have a whole page of Holstee Manifesto products, ranging from $12 for a 5" x 7" print, to $180 for a  48" x 64" wall decal; it's almost as if they've become a company that sells the Manifesto as its primary line of business.

On the face of it, this seems highly unlikely. Don't we lament the death of print, even while we argue that content should be free? Why would people pay for content that any five-year old who has used the Internet could find for free. Holstee themselves have a downloads page where you can get a high-res copy that you could print and hang yourself. So what's going on here?

The conversation turned to the parallel question of, what is Holstee, exactly? Is it really a company that sells posters, or is it something else? They've been around for nearly seven years now, six of them with the founders working full time. That's a lifetime in startup terms (not to mention actual lifetime terms, when it's your full-time gig and it's a constant hustle to stay above water. Having been an entrepreneur and a VC I'm super impressed with their perseverance). Dave told us how the company had pivoted its product many times, but always within the original mission and ethos.

Dave gets it though. Almost apologetically, but with laser insight, he said, "People aren't really buying the poster." So, if they're not buying the poster, and they're not buying the words, what are they buying? And suddenly it all came together for me: They're buying the physical representation of the words, the words on the poster, because physical writing has power. Physical words impart their meaning to the thing they are written on.

We've fetishized paper, books and magazines, because for so long that was the only physical medium for words that we knew, but it was never the paper that made books special; it was the permanence of the writing imparted to the object. Before paper it was tablets, cuneiform, parchment, animal hides wound into scrolls and regally decorated to indicate their importance. Tactile sensation is one way of communicating the sensation of permanence, but not the only way; you don't have to touch a poster to know that it's there.

But meaning goes the other way too. What we write on imbues meaning to the words. The physical form is an indication of the importance we place on the content, an homage to its value. That's why we buy elaborately tactile invitations for our weddings and heavy cardstock for our business cards. That's why people are willing to pay more for the same words in a 48" x 64" wall decal than for a 5" x 7" letterpress print. That's why it matters that the posters are printed by a press that puts a dent into the sheet and doesn't just spray ink on the surface.

The context, the physical location, geography, and position of words, additionally impact their value. The wall decal takes on additional meaning because of the way it becomes visually part of the wall, with a permanence and integration into your life that goes beyond that of even a framed poster. Meaning can even be said to be proportional to the degree of permanence, or the amount of persistence in time we expect the object to have. A book is more meaningful than a magazine, but something "written in stone" has greater meaning than a book. [1]

The problem with digital mediums, then, is their impermanence. The words aren't really there; they're just a transient arrangement of pixels, at the whim of electromagnetic fields pushing and pulling colored electrons [2], like words in the sand by the sea. They are great for communicating, consuming, and storing content, but they will never have the same meaning, because by definition the words and the medium are separate. No amount of skeuomorphism will work, now matter how clever the simulated page turning, as long as you know it is impermanent.

So why are books and print news mediums in such decline? Maybe its because paper was never the ideal medium for such broad applications of writing. Maybe most writing is perfectly suited to digital, transient mediums, and doesn't need to be permanent. We used paper broadly because for hundreds of years it was the best tool we had, but maybe its set of use cases is much narrower, best reserved for communications in which we need to imbue a bit of extra meaning, such as a business card transaction, an important invitation, or a declaration of purpose. Maybe if we stopped taking paper for granted as The Medium on Which All Things Should Be Printed, we would realize what is special about it, and what is not. I didn't really know where this essay was going to end, but it seems as if Holstee's goal of inspiring mindful living has succeeded in this one particular case.

[1] Indeed, at one point this very comparison was made by Victor Hugo in Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which in 1831 featured an archdeacon lamenting that the book would kill the cathedral. I discovered it through this article in the NY Times book review
[2] I know this is not actually how screens work; I claim poetic license.

No comments:

Post a Comment