Piper Loyd

By Heidi Biggs

Piper Loyd came to the UW MDes program from San Francisco, CA, where she was previously employed by IDEO, a design firm known for being early proponents of design thinking. Piper worked in marketing on the small, innovative, IDEO Futures team. Yet at some point, Piper noticed her job was not something she could get lost in. Not quite knowing where to turn next professionally, she saw a new path forward when her team hired a web and a graphic designer. As the designers worked, Piper jokingly confessed that she was obsessed with what the designers were doing — she would sit beside them and ask, “why did you do that? And, Oh! Why did you do that?” or stare longingly at the screen of the designer she sat behind while the designer worked. Piper realized she was passionate about design and decided to pursue a master’s degree — it was her only way forward, she simply knew it in her gut.

Over the course of her master’s program, Piper was drawn to visual communication design and became fascinated by the book as an object. Books are some of the oldest instantiations of visual communication design — beginning with monks hand-writing calligraphic, illuminated manuscripts and, later, type-setters and typographers designing type and layouts for printing presses. Over the course of her research about books, Piper asked how books engage a reader’s attention as well as how they are meaningful as collections. First, in the “age of information,” Piper’s thesis asks how books exist and matter in an information ecosystem that is immediate, overwhelming and “always on.” As curiosity and concern mount over how new, fast-paced modes of consuming information might literally be rewiring our brains (1), Piper finds books an important tool for slower, more reflective information processing. In addition, she was curious about why people collect books and what those collections tell us about ourselves and others.

Although she started her research project swimming in an “ocean of books,” Piper narrowed the scope of her research to her own book collection, which served as a touchstone for larger explorations. Through conducting a detailed, autobiographical analysis of her book collection and creating a catalogue of high-fidelity scans of her books, Piper peeled apart the layered histories of her book collection — examining books as designed objects, curated collections, meaningful personal texts, historical markers, and as objects with their own vibrant material histories.

An important aspect of Piper’s research process was a Google spreadsheet that she used to track her relationship to her book collection. Piper began by listing books in her personal collection, initially gathering simple information like title, notes about the book, if it was fiction or nonfiction, and if she had read it or not. However, the spreadsheet columns gradually increased in numbers — she added columns for when she bought the book, whether she re-bought it, if it was a gift, if it was recommended, if so by whom, and if she found a physical memento — like a bookmark from a bookstore or a boarding pass — pressed in its pages. Piper’s spreadsheet ultimately traced the ways her book collection reflected her personal history.

Piper also used the School of Art + Art History + Design’s scanners to make high resolution digital images of her books — scanning the front and back cover, the first page and any meaningful marks she had found in the interior. This process of handing and flipping through each book, along with the fidelity of the scans, allowed her to engage with the materiality of the books, their hidden surprises like hair ties, notes, earmarks, and underlines. She also used the high fidelity of the scans to zoom in to view details of the book’s wear and tear not normally attended to. She explained how she started to notice details like stickers peeling off, or scratches on the cover, which made her aware of each book’s history — some books were worn because she had read them so many times while others she had bought used and were worn by another life the book had had with a previous owner. These material imprints tell the story of the book and its own vibrant life — the life of the object.

Her bookish inquiries were inspired by other designers, artists, and projects. She was inspired by the performative book making of Craig Mod who took a six-week-long walk across Japan during which he sent one text per day to a pre-determined group of recipients. All of the responses to his texts were re-routed, collected, and made into a book that Mod received and read once the walk was completed. Piper also cites designers such as Irma Boom, known for conceptual book designs where her books become art objects in and of themselves, their materials and content held in formally metaphorical dialogue with one another. Finally, she drew inspiration from projects like The Sorted Library, where the owners allow patrons to organize their collection of several thousand books according to the patrons’ own personal, curatorial visions. These designers and artists play with the content, material, and curation of books in ways that push boundaries of traditional modes of making and crafting books, which is how Piper approached her final thesis outcomes.

In her final few explorations, Piper synthesized her personal findings through inventive ways of exploring the content and form of her books into two projects. She hand built a website that operates as a filter-equipped gallery for the beautiful scans she made of her books. It allows a visitor to shuffle and explore the scans of her book collection by search categories she based on columns from her spreadsheet. This website, titled 22 ways to organize 203 books, is a way for an audience to explore the visually rich, scratched, bent, and tattered covers of the books she loves so dearly and get a glimpse into the texts that she holds near and dear to her heart (maybe you can judge a book, a little bit, by its cover). In a second project, she created a series of books about her books: some are experimental and zine-like, some are typographic meditations that use quotes from her reading, and others are explorations of material and form. They were her reflections of the material and textual content and form of her books, based on intimate understanding gained over time as Piper engaged her book collection throughout her thesis.

While formalizing texts and books is a tradition of design, where designers consider typographic systems, margins, paper, and cover design, the question of the texts they contain is often the purview of philosophers of language and critical theorists who theorize the impact of language — its seeming inescapability — and its pluralities. Piper, in her thesis, uses the lens of her relationship to her book collection to frame the book as an object that sits at the intersection of text and form: books stacked together, given and found, bought multiple times, scuffed and bent, underlined and earmarked. In her thesis she shows the book as both object and text, holding together a web of meaning and relationships between thinker, writer, material, designer, friend to friend and self to self — a loving meditation on what books do and mean meshed in the fabric of everyday life.

(1) Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows : What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

Return to Piper Loyd’s portfolio.