Tiger Dingsun on how poetry and graphic design reproduces inarticulable feelings
The Philadelphia-based designer and developer talks about world building and facilitating new ways of encountering text.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 12 March 2021
Tiger Dingsun, originally from Portland, OR, triangulates his creative practice somewhere between graphic design, web development and editorial work. He sees these disciplines as interconnected in the way that they allow him to manipulate and play with text to draw out various levels of meaning. Language, for him, is affective, as words produce meaning not only from their semiotic function but also in the way that they engage the senses. They create what he calls “weak synaesthetic relationships” between different colours, smells, tastes and textures. Present in the visuality of a word – not just the typefaces chosen to represent it but the shape of words and the base of the letterforms – are objects that carry aesthetic value within its own right.
Currently living in Philadelphia and working as a full-time front-end developer, Tiger tries to keep his creative practice separate from the business end of living, mostly through his Reading Machines project. “The thing that excites me most about the web as a medium is that distribution and publishing is built in. The web is the primary medium of contemporary life. So many aspects of our lives have moved online,” Tiger tells It’s Nice That. “The way that I encounter text and literature nowadays is all online, through blogs, Twitter, fanfiction, forum posts and I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people. I feel a creeping sense of dread, then, around the increased regulation and monetisation of online platforms,” he says, referring to Twitter’s new super followers feature as an example. Beyond that, Tiger also considers the web as an ambiguous medium, a notion that appears over and over again in his work. If the novel, the film and the video game have a specific mode of interaction built-in with the audience, the web offers almost limitless possibilities in the models of interaction.
Tiger has identified with the figure of “the reader” since he was young, recounting books that came in unique format like the PowerPoint chapter in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. “Looking back, that move feels kind of gimmicky, but it also feels like the text is pushing against the confines of the format it’s being presented in. I was also really interested in this idea of taking something really boring and structural, and injecting it with a sense of poetry or an interesting narrative,” he says. His decision to study graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design was driven by his interest in making something interesting out of the mundane; something that's consistent with his work in web development today. “The technical aspects of web development can feel very mundane and standardised, but that just makes it more interesting when the content that’s being presented in the website somehow pushes back against and leaks out of its container,” he adds.
“I have a lot of respect for poets — poetry feels paradoxically accessible yet difficult to articulate. The best poems, to me, are ones which open up a broad field of interpretation,” Tiger says. “I try to do that with my work as well. It strikes me that both poets and graphic designers are working with linguistic material in aesthetic ways — typography and phonoaesthetics are basically analogous, just working in different domains," Tiger says, with phonoaesthetics meaning the study of speech sound through aesthetic properties. “I’m most compelled by work that attempts to reproduce inarticulable feelings, where the author’s interiority is interpreted and refracted through other people’s interiority.” Because of this, he likes working with other people’s text the most, translating them into new formats and facilitating new ways of encountering the words.
He talks about one of his projects, LP20x20, a platform where 20 friends shared 20 songs that they listened to in 2020. “This was a fun project to work on because it involved creating two views of the content: the main index where you can see everyone’s list and a detailed view of each list where there are descriptions corresponding to each song,” he says. Created using Angular, he held all the content in a json file and referenced the data in the code. “It’s a pretty simple website, so there weren’t a whole lot of technical challenges, but one decision definitely involved how I was displaying a YouTube video for each song in someone’s list. At first I just had a YouTube video embedded for each song, but as it turns out, loading 20 iframes at once can take a while, and also didn’t look the best.” Tiger solved this by pulling the cover image from YouTube’s API and playing the song over this single frame, creating a smoother experience overall.
Tiger currently works through the framework of world-building. He likens this to the rigid internal logic that sci-fi and fantasy works tend to reveal as the reader goes through the text. He patches together personal mythos with shared cultural references, attempting to inform the impression of the reader by having them link seemingly unrelated signs and symbols. “World building suggests underlying structures without fully revealing them at first, in order to make the work more about the journey of uncovering meaning,” he says. More recently however, he’s thinking about fandoms, the disjointed nature of internet subcultures and the way that internet communities self-mythologise. In the inarticulable and ambiguous, Tiger finds ways to reflect interiority throughout his creative work.
Tiger Dingsun: LP20x20 (Copyright © Tiger Dingsun, 2020)
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.