Olivia Whittick In your experience, what makes an image travel on the internet?
Tracy Ma If it can speak to a very specific type of thing. My stuff doesn’t go viral, but the viral images that I respond to are very minute. If it speaks to a very small group of people, that’s what I value in a meme.
OW Right, like incredible specificity.
TM Or if something is mesmerizing to look at but also has meaning behind it. If someone can decode something, and enjoy looking at it, they will want to share the feeling that they have decoded something. I’m quoting Darcie Wilder in a speech that she gave – and I’m paraphrasing her wrongly – but she said her tweets are successful because they’re so garbage-y that it feels like whoever is retweeting could have come up with the tweet on their own. So there is role-play involved in meme culture, with shares and retweets. It’s like, “I could have made that joke.”
OW Or, “I wish I did.” It’s interesting to me how deeply people enjoy the process of decoding.
TM It’s what makes memes memes.
TM Trends are something that we talk about a lot in the class I teach at Parsons – which is over soon, thank god. A trend is a trend when you are aping something that has nothing to do with its original context. Like for example, David Carson, who was an untrained surfer/skateboarder dude who made type compositions that spoke to his subculture. At the time he was very cool, and he ended up informing in a short few years the whole look of advertising. So that cool grunge-y aesthetic is lifted in service of something else, and loses meaning when it’s not speaking to its original context. I think that’s one way to overcome being trendy – to focus on the context, and to find what you can fight against.
Graphic times with New York Times designer Tracy Ma, by Olivia Whittick for SSense
This is a good interview and Tracy Ma is one of the editorial designers of our era. If you haven’t read it already, have at it.