Topher McCulloch is the wry, self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek, grain-of-salt, devil-take-the-hindmost creator behind the fantastic Tumblr Make Something Awful Every Day — though, as you’ll see from our exclusive interview with him below, he might wrinkle his nose at the term “creator.”
“Tragedy plus time equals comedy” is a common trope, and Make Something Awful (putting emphasis on the TRAGEDY) isn’t afraid to ask the depressing questions: “Why be cool when you can be awful?” Designer and developer Topher Culloch pokes fun at buzzwords like Shareability, Synergy, Branding, Aesthetic, and Content Creation (capitalization firmly in place for maximum irony). His emphasis on the mundanity and hollowness of virality also highlights the silliness of it all, giving his parodying pronouncements a snarky levity. His work often turns various web flora and fauna on its head with a morose but cheeky flourish that would make Warhol proud.
Can web and graphic designers still find inspiration while raking through the seedy underbelly of the Internet? Is there anything (gasp!) that hasn’t been done before? Check out our interview with Topher below for an in-depth glimpse at how a skeptic can still discover unique ingenuity online.
Your work on Make Something Awful Every Day seems to smoosh together everything from skewerings of Internet shareables to evocations of artist Jenny Holzer. How much of your work is inspired by pre-web performance art, like the latter?
The recent Jenny Holzer pieces are a followup to an early earlier Barbara Kruger series titled Sorry, Barbara. In college I fell in love with Barbara Kruger, which I later realized is a somewhat of a cliché, especially among graphic designers. Apart from the fact that their work is really powerful from a visual and literary standpoint, I’m now interested in these artists because there’s a set of people inspired by their aesthetic (see OBEY clothing) that doesn’t seem to know or get the source material. A little bit of it comes from the school of Incorrect Sylvia Plath Quotes where complete non-sequiturs get applied to this artist persona. I’ve started seeing that happen with Jenny Holzer, so I figured since she has such a strong aesthetic, it was time to take that to the next level. I’m also a huge Cindy Sherman fan, which I think feeds into this desire to mimic the aesthetics of others.
What on the Internet now actually sparks your interest, inspires creativity, and is to you a step in the right direction?
A lot of make something awful is very self-reflexive to tumblr in that its either portraits of tumblr users or commentary upon tumblr culture. I joined tumblr in 2008 and it’s been the last stop on my internet journey from online community to online community, but it’s become very overburdened with its own baggage and it’s feeling like time to move on. I don’t have the same sense of joy of discovery looking at it as I used to. I miss Google Reader and honest to god blogs. Sites like tumblr became super important for their networks. My strongest roots were in deadjournal, which was a goth livejournal rip off, but it felt like you could write privately to a small group of friends even if your posts were ostensibly public. I’m reading a lot of good stuff on Medium these days, but it’s hard to identify a single positive source of creative inspiration. I do appreciate the curation of Medium’s newsletter, as well as Kickstarter and Digg (Digg still exists!). Behance’s creativity blog 99u is also consistently very good.
When did you first discover the wonderful world wide web? Any origin stories from the seedy underbelly of the Internet back then (think chat room escapades, Angelfire, etc)?
My first memory is in 1995 when the school library in fifth grade said we’d be allowed to visit a single site if we submitted a URL for pre-approval. I believe I sent cartoonnetwork.com, which I ended up not being able to visit due to bureaucratic red tape. I got online for real the summer after sixth grade and quickly got my first hotmail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and geocities accounts. I’d soon be making sites full of Dragonball Z, bleeding divider bars, and under construction gifs and teaching myself HTML, not knowing how important those skills would become for rest of my life. I always knew gifs would be big, even during the gif dark ages of 2000 – 2008. I still credit myself with the important innovation of calling my Dragonball Z hit counter my “power level.” Also, when we first got internet at home it was through those free AOL discs, though since we lived in a small town in South Dakota, my sister and I ended up running huge long distance bills while lurking in chat rooms since the AOL number wasn’t local.
If the Internet had a slogan, what would it be?
Is it narcissistic to make it a play on my blog title? “Share something awful every day.” Maybe that question is the better answer: “Is it narcissistic?” How about “We’ll process your internal thoughts so you don’t have to!”