Headgear: Becca Abbe and Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab

Welcome to our chat transcript. The following conversation took place on September 20, 2019 at 4 pm in the Seward Park Library, NYC. We agreed to publish this Q & A session with the aim of sharing our thoughts and motivations behind Headgear one year after its initial release. Thanks for joining us, and enjoy!


Shiraz: Hello!

Becca: Hi :)

S: How are you?

B: I'm doing well now.

S: hahah that's good!

B: Do you have any opening statements?

S: Yes, I think so. I'm really excited to have you! It's been a little over a year since we published Headgear, and I've been eager to "talk" with you about it in one way or another.

B: Woohoo! I can't believe it's already been a year. I know we had always planned to have a Q & A element as part of the physical show last August, but it was logistically difficult to plan with the gallery being in Ohio.

S: Yeah.

B: I'm glad we're doing it now and especially in this format...

S: How was it working on this project compared to your other websites?

B: I think of all my projects with clients as being collaborative to some extent, because it makes the experience more positive and holistic, but working on Headgear with you was explicitly a collaboration, and that experience was much different, because we both were more aware of our creative roles and you carried more weight than my standard website clients.

B: I could also leave a lot of the design choices to you because I trusted you as a fellow designer.

S: That's interesting, and I'm glad you felt that way. I think this was the first time that I had another designer take on the responsibility of formatting my words and expressions. And I'm really glad you agreed to do it, because it helped me concentrate on the written material, which was already pretty painful to write lol

B: Heheh, ya, in a way you got to live out one of my longtime fantasies, which is to hire someone to do what I usually do for other people... Like having a friend make my personal website or something.

S: Yeah, for sure. I also remember us talking in the early stages about how the internet was more playful and expressive in the '90s. How do you feel about the web now versus then? How would you say it has evolved?

B: Yes, I loved the research phase of this project -- you were finding so many cool email clients I had never heard of. I was so young when the internet began, and a lot of those tools felt too "adult" for me to use or even understand. When I first saw the internet I could barely read!

B: For me, the biggest change is that we've lost the sense of the web being this maze or... knot of twisting paths... forking paths? You used to make a search, click a link, and then you're gone for the next few hours following the link trail and ending up somewhere you never could have imagined.

B: Now it feels like I just go to the same three websites to check my feeds and stuff. Pretty boring.

B: omg sorry

B: have to add

B: Websites now, if they are custom, are simply dead ends!

S: Oh, what do you mean?

B: Like you go to a site to find some information and once you get it, that's it. Close the tab.

S: Ah yeah... that is so true.

B: The system of linking networks seems less and less these days.

B: Even Headgear is guilty.

S: Damn lol

B: :(

S: I agree though. When we were working on this project, I was in Milwaukee and someone at my job claimed that people don't go on websites anymore; they find the information that they need through larger platforms like Google and Facebook. I feel like our online experiences are way more centralized and predetermined today.

B: Totally, so many people I talk to feel like they don't even need a website anymore.

B: Might be off-topic but they seem to feel like word of mouth is more powerful, which I find interesting to think about. The human network lol

S: That's actually a great point. I've been thinking about how we can better integrate our "physical" experiences with the way we shape and design web experiences. When I was researching email clients and outdated computer interfaces, I was trying to figure out if I was being nostalgic... or if there was a deeper reason for my interest in them. Ultimately, I have found that most of those older interfaces have a tactile or physical aesthetic. Beveled buttons, physical switches, images of nature, etc.

S: And I appreciate that those interfaces remind me that there are physical consequences to what we do on the computer. Versus today's interfaces, which appear seamless and "invisible."

At 5 pm, the library was closing, and we were asked to leave. So we migrated to Round K and continued our conversation over cookies and coffee.

B: I have that fear too that I'm falling into the nostalgia trap. It's hard to separate it in your mind, especially when a lot of the early computing memories are entwined with childhood memories. I don't want to be too hard on the current day either. I think it's an incredible testament to all our brains that we no longer seem to need those physical signals in order to understand how to use software. That's kind of cool actually... At the same time there was a playfulness to the things people were making in the 90s and 00s. There was so much to be invented at once back then. I guess the truth is that we just aren't really living in that experimental phase anymore. Things are more baked.

S: Definitely. With that in mind, how would you describe your design process when working on Headgear? How did you respond to the references that I sent (PINE, Sylpheed) given the technological changes we have seen?

B: It felt like remembering a place I'd never been. Like I said, I was too young to have needed an email client like PINE or Sylpheed. Even so, their design felt so familiar: shades of gray, bevels, a bit clunky. There's something solid and concrete about that aesthetic. I mean it literally looks like poured cement. I wanted Headgear to have that same sturdiness. Like it's a bit architectural. The persistent frame of thick borders, in fact borders within borders, was meant to make it feel monumental. I'm not sure I could have articulated it then, but looking back at it now I would say that I wanted it to feel like you had arrived at an ancient monitor carved of stone. One of my favorite elements is so lame but I love the strip of red that appears on the left side of the table of contents menu. It's the indicator light for which chapter you're on. I'm really tickled by the idea of a little lightbulb within the world of the stone monitor.

S: That strip of red is really nice, because it is subtle but very active and alive. Your description of the website also reminds me of another early conversation we had. I think we briefly talked about how text is rendered and activated on readers that use e-ink, but in hindsight, I'm glad that was just a thought and not something that we really tried to pursue. It seems like the design was definitely informed by concrete objects and experiences, but still grounded in the fact that it was designed and developed in 2018.

B: True! For me it feels like it exists in no time. Maybe this mirrors your writing (I mean hopefully!)... text that was meant to be sent but not sent. It makes sense that both the design and the words would exist in this kind of purgatory state. Your choice to publish as a website is interesting in light of what we've just said about the shift or potential extinction of custom ("off grid") websites. Like to create your own website has become a fantasy -- a world creation. It makes sense that your letters that aren't really letters would exist there.

S: Yeah, that definitely makes sense -- especially what you said about the text living in a purgatory state. When I was writing the original passages, nothing was making sense. I wasn't satisfied with what I had written, because I couldn't properly express how I felt at the time. I would have never used the word purgatory, but now that you've said it, I definitely wanted to punish the passages by putting them through a blender and forcing a relationship between things that didn't belong next to each other.

B: PUNISH! lol! From knowing you I've come to learn that you are extremely detailed and thorough with all your work (Virgo vibes). But writing isn't your primary outlet... How were you able to structure that task in order to feel like you could gauge the work against your usual standards? Did it drive you insane? hahaha

S: Absolutely. I lost my mind especially when we were close to launching the site, lol. I typically do a lot of editing and rewriting before I publish a text, and for this project, I couldn't figure out how to do that. The text was too fucked up to revise, and revising it felt like I was sanitizing how I felt or something. At some point, I reached out to you about building a generator and leveraging that tool as an editor of sorts. I'm not sure if I thought of the generator as an editor at the time, but looking back now, it definitely helped me reimagine what I originally wrote. And of course, after the generator was put together, I continued punishing the text (and myself) by attempting to edit the generated text. It was a constant back and forth between accepting the words for what they were (messy) and trying to spruce them up a bit.

B: It's funny to hear you talk about it now, because at the time I just sort of went with the flow. Like -- oh, you need a generator? Ok, I'll make that for you. And I could see that you were purposefully destroying everything you wrote, but I was so wrapped up in managing the technical production that I never even asked you why! Had you always planned on the generator? Or was that an idea that came up as we went along? To me, it seemed like you had written something extremely personal, and you were looking for a way to scramble it beyond public recognition. This project put you in a potentially vulnerable position, which you must have known going in. How conscious was the decision to engineer the premise in a way that protected yourself? Or is that even how you see it...

S: These are great questions. I don't know if I originally intended on putting the text through a generator. When I first proposed the project to you, I wanted the text to be an emotional dump of things that were on my mind for the past two years. But as you noted, that approach introduced me to a vulnerable state that I wasn't really ready to enter. The generator definitely came up later, but when I was writing the original passages, I did start to think of how the text could be treated as modular form. I remember trying to do this myself, but I wasn't happy with the results. So by the time we discussed the generator, I grew more invested in camouflaging the original language and protecting myself and the people I was writing about.

S: And with that comes the cultural baggage that I carry. I grew up in a Sudanese household, and it is typically discouraged to share personal problems with outsiders -- especially ones that involve a person's family. All of this inevitably informed my decision to create and destroy, and repeat.

B: I think that's what makes the index so interesting. To see the parts you were working with is pretty revealing. "I want/wanted" is so frequent, for example. Do you feel like even though you obscured the original passages, the final result provides you with some kind of personal catharsis?

S: Yeah, definitely. And even in many of the obscured passages, there are statements that shed light on how I felt. Maybe even more so than the originals.

S: I want to ask about something that you mentioned earlier. You said that we aren't living in the same experimental age as before, and I wonder what that means for you since you work on a lot of websites. Do you find opportunities to continue experimenting? Or does "experimentation" mean something different today versus your impression of it in the '90s and '00s?

B: Yeah... definitely. I certainly don't mean to say that experimenting is over. That could never be the case. It's just different now, because the structures of the internet are so fixed. The landscape feels overly defined and restricted. Social media takes the brunt of the blame for this, but to be honest, I think it's wonderful that people are free and able to publish so easily. Still, the frames aren't quite ideal for me personally. Content is thriving, but our online imagination could be encouraged further under the influence of more diverse and unusual platforms. The way things are set up now makes it hard not to conform, not only to the template of the platform, but also to the implicit templates of individual posts. I've been lucky enough to meet people who are open to making sites with me that deviate from a typical mold. But usually I don't think of my work as being very experimental at all, sort of the opposite. The radical twist is that I'm so boring and resistant to flashy bells and whistles. Everything I do comes down to typography in the end, which is not something the browser handles so well. Often the experimenting has to do with struggling to force the browser to follow my rules. It ends up being a lot of handwork... counting pixels... lol

S: That's a nice way of putting it. Perhaps the browser comes with a set of limitations that fuel your process. At least, I can see that in your work -- that you leverage those constraints and even celebrate them in many cases.

B: Yes! We do love constraints!

At approximately 8 pm, we agreed that it was time to wrap up.

S: I think we might be out of time. Do you have any closing words?

S: No pressure :)

B: I'll just say thank you for asking us to revisit Headgear with the perspective of time. I'm feeling inspired by our old selves to continue pursuing the mystery of one-off websites. I think they're important even though no one seems to understand why they still exist.

S: Thank you for agreeing to talk! This was fun.



Many thanks to the Seward Park Library and Round K for hosting our conversation. And special thanks to Jesen Tanadi for adjusting the code of this talk.