DDD Episode 007

A Million Shades of Grey ft. Purin Phanichphant

When we design in Photoshop, open the Brightness panel, we use the slider to transition from black to white. Those are the two colors that design emerges from, and it is intuitive for us designers to choose colors in between. But it is not always the case when it comes to more abstract design decisions, the two extremes of things, the dichotomy of our life. Right and wrong, true and false, success and fail, yes and no, contrasting objects are common in our design decisions, and in our life. But our mindset always makes us neglect what’s between the juxtapositions of design decisions. There are colors in between, and they are composed of a million shades of grey.

Welcome to Design Despite Disciplines- A podcast series from the Master of Design program at UC Berkeley, where we explore the important fissures and emerging territories of interdisciplinary design practice.

This is the episode”A million shades of grey” featuring “Purin Phanichphant”. We are your hosts Xiaobai, Yiying.

I’m calling this shape, like a rhombus, a diamond or a rhombus. I don’t know the exact term. But when it folds, see how this is a shape like this, but when it folds that the thing becomes almost like a square, right? So a square pixel. So it’s almost like crunching up this form into the fold.

Purin Phanichphant was just describing his project called “black, white, and everything else in Between”. This installation art is composed of hundreds of these corrugated paper and folded squares, which have two faces painted with black or white and from certain angles, only one face can be observed. Each face is used as a pixel that all the art piece delivers different information if you observe from different perspectives. The audience moves around the piece to see its transformation, from black to white, and the combination of the two in between.

In Buddhism there’s a concept called “dhitti”, “D H I T T I”, if you look that up it doesn’t translate very well to English. And what dhitti means kind of like perspective on one thing and you’re so attached to that perspective in a way that you do not see other perspectives. The only correct perspective or the only right perspective is all perspectives or no perspective at all.

Another series of art pieces from Purin more directly show this idea called “Right Perspectives”. In this series, Purin talked about three groups of opposite concepts: Birth/ Life/ Death, Memory/ Presence /Fantasy, Nothing/ Something/ Everything. As the viewer moves around the lenticular prints, the appearance of the words presented transforms as the viewing angles shift. One may realize that seemingly opposite concepts can coexist within the same piece of content. According to Purin, this series of word-concepts serves as a reminder that as we move within our days we must fiercely detach our personhood from our perspectives. Everyone has a limited view and it’s possible that you only view things and making decisions based on one perspective.

It can not be just one or the other kind of perspective. It’s that idea of omnipresence of knowing all from all perspective, which is kind of impossible or having no perspectives all just staying within yourself and just being still, and not having opinions about something.

Everything has all kinds of perspectives that people can choose to watch from, and a million shades of grey remind us of the multiple perspectives one object can embody.

And that could be a very useful intellectual concept in navigating this world of how do I want to share while I’m receiving other people’s perspective? I’m making a piece of art. How do people perceive it? What’s my perception of it. And again I oftentimes when I make art and it resonates with me. It’s channeling my energy, but I might put it in front of another person, another artist or another collector, and they’ll be like, this doesn’t speak to me at all. This bright vibration does not resonate with me. And that’s fine. That’s their perspective. Right? You’re not making art to please them. That’s kind of design, but you’re making art for yourself as a way to channel your truth as a way to communicate your God, your personal God into a piece of work, then someone might go and buy it.

Art creation has, indeed, become a channel for Purin to communicate with the general audience and show his spiritual world. Now Purin’s work is composed of a lot of conceptual art like the Perspective series. He combines that with some of the latest and greatest technologies and enjoys the process of making by his own hands. During the COVID, Purin has made street art pieces containing short phrases and installed them on the boarded storefronts of San Francisco to challenge viewers to pause and think about what the messages could mean in their lives.

Purin never provided a clear answer to anything definitive like black and white. Instead, Purin offered a million shades of grey in between.

What is this art thing it’s kind of inspiring and it looks like he’s expressing something. And it is also a question provoking rather than providing the answer like design.

I really did not get that world. And here I am selling my paintings and selling my NFT work for tons of money. And what is it that it’s different now is I have found that the purpose of art is to express this, to be the medium between you and some higher being to be able to channel that into your work whether it’s physical or digital or whatever.

And then that energy, that feeling, that information is getting channeled to your audience, whoever they are. So if I’m making an interactive piece, I’m literally putting myself in my work and letting other people touch and play with me, with myself through my work and whatever I want to communicate with them.

And right now my message to the world is please be mindful. A lot of the projects that is happening around my life is to remind people, to be mindful to yourself and to others, to each other. I think mindfulness is one of the rarest things out there in the world. If we can have the wealth of money, we’re going to have a wealth of time, if we can help them have a wealth of friendship, abundance of all the good things. So my work right now is channeling a lot of this message. I want our society to be a more mindful one.

Purin has created meaningful connections with everyday objects, people, and places around us. That is the purpose of his art. That is mindfulness. So maybe art is indeed capable of provoking the ambiguity between the definitive like black and white, to provoke the viewers to reflect on themselves, to be mindful about themselves, and to draw connections in their daily lives by themselves.

For Purin, he has surely experienced a lot in his past and drew a great number of connections, and it is from the connections from his past that enlightened his future ideas and art practices. For instance, after forgoing the Microsoft designer job, he went back to Thailand to become a monk where he learned about Buddhism. From his perspective, maybe he didn’t fully understand what they were chanting, but the ideas and practices of Buddha had become the dots that Purin later connected and guided him to think about promoting the practice of meditation. The same progress applied to us all. You are made from the different dots in your past, true, false, despair, hope, black, white, and etc. When you connect the black or white dots, a million shades of grey emerge from the connection lines, and you fully understand who you were, who you are and who you will be.

One of his projects, the DADA meditation where Purin leads a guided meditation series, is informed by his time from connecting his own dots in the past as a Buddhist monk.

If you connect the dots from in your past, and you only are able to look at the back of your paths and like, Oh wait, I get that in my kindergarten. And now I’m using that in my life as an artist. Your brain starts to make these connections, but when you look forward to looking into the future, talking about probable future or preferred future you can only look at one next dot at a time though you can say that I have a trajectory of going somewhere, and this is the same as setting an intention.

If you’ve ever done psychedelics, you’d know to do intention setting, exercise, and where to head as opposed to being attached to the outcome. If you plan your life up, you have a master plan. You’re going to fail so hard at sticking to that plan because the universe is not working like that. Your intention is a different thing. Your intention and your outcome are two separate things.

So detach from the outcome and set intentions. And I even wrote down my intentions last night, strangely. My intention is to live, to grow, to learn, to be grateful, love, to experience sorrow, to experience happiness, to give, to receive, to help, to save to honor and then to die.

Purin promotes his idea about people being mindful of themselves, about the connections between their past and present. As an artist, Purin’s art and spiritual universe are composed of perspective, mindfulness, unique individuality, and identities as a designer, an artist, an educator, a monk, a traveler, and these words come from his unusual life experience and intention.

There are simply so many shades of grey in Purin’s life. Started working as a professional designer after graduation, Purin didn’t linger in one shade of grey long.

The more I look at this, the more I kind of over time and just starting to feel like I might just a hamster in a hamster wheel just playing this resume game that goes nowhere. And when I had that realization, I was like, what would I do right now? And the one thing I do right now is just step out of that hamster wheel. And that’s what I did. And rethink. And what if there’s another framework besides the resume? What if there’s another operating system besides the resume? What if just a thought experiment you figure out what you love to do or what you’re good at. What is it that I’m really good at or love to do? And then on the other side, what is it that the world needs help with? Whatever it is or the problems in the world, climate change, rethinking education, eliminating social inequality, helping people become healthier, getting rid of inequalities in the world and all that.

So the sweet spot lies between the two worlds, what you are good at and what you love to do and what the world needs help with. And reframing the resume as a non-helpful and not so helpful platform and transitioning it to what’s the intersection between yourself and the world like that sweet spot between those two circles really, really helped me unlock step away from the crazy hamster wheel that I was operating under. And then now I’m just operating in the place of purpose and joy and finding joy in what I do, and also knowing whatever I do is contributing to the wellness and the goodness of the world as well.

Don’t linger in one shade of grey long, there are a million shades of grey in our life that are worth exploring. Purin surely enjoys his life jumping out of the hamster wheel and becoming the master of his own life.

And if you know me, you might know that at one point, I decided to say goodbye to IDEO and traveled the world and became an artist, like start again, go to basically, after all my IDEO career, after all my teaching at Stanford, I decided to, it’s like, okay, I’m going to take a break with that. And I’m going to go figure this art part out within me. And during that journey, I saw my background in design as a disadvantage. Case in point, when I, it is 2006 my professor, Brett Yaskow at Carnegie Mellon had us write down: why do we want to become designers? And I wrote down something poorly worded that said something like, I want to be a designer because I enjoy observing people’s behaviors and solving challenging problems that might make a difference in their lives.

I enjoy making things with my own two hands and watching people react to my designs. And that was sort of a seed within me that I didn’t know. I hadn’t discovered this card way later.

So doing that 10 years later, and I just change the word design to art. As you may know like you saw that I worked on a bunch of design projects, but on the flip side outside of my work time, I love being an interactive artist. I love seeing people react to my interactive art pieces.

However, not all people experience the same joy as Purin does, and not all of us enjoy the same freedom of life intentions jumping from a shade of grey to another. Some people are still in the agony of fearing ‘not getting there’ or worrying about potential failure. To that, Purin is more open-minded and not eager for wealth and success, just like what Buddha hopes people to be.

Just know that you’ll get there, trust the universe a little bit, because if there are a lot of unresolved things in your life, your desire to go out and work at IDEO, your desire to go out and become the next start-up billionaire or your desire to go and have kids and finding the most beautiful spouses you can marry or those kinds of wanting. It’s normal. It’s part of human nature. And I go through it too. I still go it through day. I still want to become a famous James Turrell level artist, and I will get there. But I just have to trust the universe a little bit more and knowing that it will happen, it just takes time and enjoy the process. Enjoy being stupid, enjoy making mistakes, enjoy varying out late at night 3:00 AM still buying NFT art online. That’s what Steve Jobs meant by stay hungry, stay foolish.

Fail early, fail often fail all the time. I fail all the time. Every day I failed. I’m like, yes, failure kind of like type thing, because we don’t allow ourselves to fail enough. And for me, it’s like a nightmare to get an F, right? But as I go through my life is I get a lot of this from Stanford and from IDEO is fail early fail often. And if you fail, celebrate that failure and learn from it and do a better version the next time.

There is no dichotomy in this world, just like there are no pure true and false, right and wrong, success and failure, grandiose and mundane, and black and white in this universe. Any people and any objects are only in the middle of somewhere, sitting on some shades of grey.

Moving from one shade to another constantly, Purin never lingers. Transitioning from design to art, people are wondering if Purin has changed himself during the process. Purin, however, believes that it’s only you, as a very unique individual, who is behind all the designs and arts. Both design and art are channels through which you express yourself, your characteristics, your ideas, your voice, and your individuality.

Being an artist and being a designer in my mind right now is this exact same thing. I’ve come to terms with my separate self whatever that means. I’ve come to terms with Oh, Purin as artists and Purin designer that does not make sense anymore. Both of them combined into this. The statement and artist’s statement will constantly evolve. I think you have a voice and you have whatever you need to say.

And it is your very own individuality and identity that will ultimately reflect on how your design and your art pieces look like.

Voice is usually the style that you speak at in. What’s your tone? What’s your style? What’s your medium? That’s your voice. And the content is like, what do you want to say to the world? What do you want to say to yourself? What do you want to say to your loved ones? What do you want to say to your enemies? And I asked myself around and it was like what if I own this uniqueness? What if this is my gift?

Everyone is a unique you. And everyone is a unique shade of grey.

You have just listened to “Episode: A Million Shades of Grey” from the Design Despite Disciplines podcast series. Over the course of the Spring 2021 semester, eight teams of MDes students researched, interviewed, presented, and produced episodes featuring invited speakers from the colloquium. We’d like to thank “Purin Phanichphant” for sharing your time and insights with our class. To learn more about Debates in Design and the Berkeley Master of Design program, visit design.berkeley.edu