Dribbble, Philosophy and the Art vs. Design Debate

by on 28th April 2011 with 36 Comments

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Always eager to jump into a debate, today I tackle the concept that artsy eye candy is currently too prevalent in design. Design inspiration galleries and communities are constantly critiqued for displaying art when their focus should be on design.

Can we cut through the biases and assumptions of the common rhetoric and discover the proper place for artistic talent in relation to functional design? Let’s find out.

Art Vs. Design

There has been a significant amount of discussion lately about the differences between art and design. There seems to be a tendency among designers right now to view aesthetic dressing as something inferior to function-based design.

As “enlightened designers” we take pride in our minimalist creations that score high on the usability charts while making heavy use of whitespace and simple typography. From this lofty position we look down upon the uneducated designers who are still using such antiquated effects as gradients, drop shadows and God forbid, a reflection.

An interesting and important aspect of this debate is that it sets up two distinct practices: art and design. Art being the practice of creating something attractive as an end in itself and design being the arrangement and styling of some form of communication or interface.

Dribbble Under Fire

The star of this entire debate right now seems to be Dribbble, a self-proclaimed “show and tell for creatives”. Basically, you upload a little picture of what you’re working on (most often a heavily-cropped portion) for other designers to see, comment on and be inspired by.

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The argument that I’m hearing from a lot of designers is that Dribbble is filled with a bunch of eye-candy that doesn’t really count as real design inspiration. So is Dribbble full of art or design? Which one should it be used for?

What’s The Big Idea?

The question that we’ll set our sights on today is whether or not this debate holds water. What is the relationship between art and design? Are they mutually exclusive? Is one better than the other? Let’s find out.

Why Design Isn’t Art

To start off, let’s give credence to the idea that art and design are genuinely not the same thing. One of the main reasons or proofs of this can be seen if you take a content-centric approach to design.

Design as we know it usually has one of two different functions. The first is commercial design: you want me to buy what you’re selling. This covers everything from business cards and letterheads to websites and cereal boxes.

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It doesn’t matter if it’s for a corporation, an individual or a non-profit. It’s nearly always the case that the message is the primary concern. Messages, be they long or short, are inherently visually boring. Design’s sole purpose in this case is to take the message above and beyond plain text and transform it into something that is engaging from a user’s point of view. The designer can take a reserved approach or go crazy, either way, he/she must keep in mind that the focus is on the content.

The second type of design is interface design. This goes beyond software and extends to how we interact with real products in the physical world. Here the content-centric focus is on functionality. Buttons, levers, sliders, etc. make both real and digital interfaces easier to use. For instance, Photoshop has a wealth of functionality, which is the heart and soul of the software, by focusing on how to make this functionality user-friendly, the UI designers at Adobe have created the palettes, buttons and tools we know today.

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Contrast these ideas with the concept of art. Art is emotional, whimsical, mysterious, fun, clever and often intentionally complex. There are underlying concepts that are meant to be peeled and chipped away at. The viewer can attempt to discover the artist’s intention for a piece or impose their own. Both prospects are equally legitimate.

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Art doesn’t need to have a clear goal or focus. It can, and many prefer that it do, but when these are stripped away it doesn’t cease to be art. This line of thought establishes that art and design are, at heart, different practices. However, at this point we’ve perhaps made too much of a distinction between the two. As is commonly done in this debate, we’ve created a conceptual chasm between art and design that doesn’t always exist in the real whorld.

The Science of Art

Have you ever taken a close look at art from the Renaissance period? If you have ever studied art history, you’ve no doubt learned that artists during this time often based their compositions on a triangle.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at one of the most famous pieces of art ever! See how Christ is structured with his hands spread to create a triangle?

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Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Raphael, I’m not talking ninja turtles mind you but famous artists who used triangles heavily in their compositions. Just Google “Renaissance art” and you’ll find that most of what you see has at least a subtle suggestion of a triangle.

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Why a triangle? This shape creates a strong structure that is attractive, balanced, and utilizes the number three, which was often ascribed importance. The key here is that these artists realized that triangles were a tool that helped them create better artwork. This hints at the possibility of there being a science to aesthetics.

Let’s take a look at the work of another famous artist, M.C. Escher. This time we can identify several principles at work: contrast, repetition and symmetry to name a few.

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Do these concepts sound familiar? They should, they’re the same ones that we use to define good design! There is a massive realization here: a large portion of art is designed. Here we are arguing that art isn’t design and we find traces of design in art!

If we look close enough at art we find science, function, layout principles and even a message all mingling together in what we thought was purely an aesthetic exercise.

Presuppositional Thinking

In Philosophy you are taught to assess a thing in light of any presuppositions. This leads you to analyze the nature of different things by ascertaining what is most basic about them. As an example, the sentence “blicks are grue” is often given with the question of whether it’s true or false.

Obviously, you can’t know whether this statement is true without knowing what the terms mean. Therefore, meaning is more basic than truth. Put another way, truth presupposes meaning.

We find a similar relationship in art and design. We perceive something as aesthetically beautiful if it meets a certain criteria. Often, the criteria here is our recognition of order. We see intentional symmetry or maybe even a chaos of shapes with a nicely balanced color scheme and perceive art (sometimes even the noticeable lack of these things is also an artistic statement). We are using what we instinctively know about design to shape how we see art. In other words, design seems to be more basic than art.

We designers are visual creatures so let’s look at this a different way. Here’s an example of a great-looking web design. We see that an artist is at work here, there are several drawings and visual stylings that add aesthetic quality to the page. But the simple fact that this page contains art doesn’t mean that it isn’t design.

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In fact, it’s possible to separate the design from the art to a certain degree. We see that the functional design of the page is more basic than the art layer that sits on top. However, the two work together to create a finished site.

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So you see, the fact that design and art are two different things doesn’t necessarily negate the idea that the two are intensely related concepts. In the same way that design gives life to boring content, art gives life to boring design.

Can too much focus on art detract from the strength of a design? You bet. Are some designs genuinely stronger when they are simpler? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that art has no place in design or that designers shouldn’t strive to be good artists. Show me a good artist and I’ll show you someone that I can easily teach to be an amazing designer.

Stop Taking the Art Out of Design

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This lengthy and perhaps overly-cerebral argument is meant to bring you to the conclusion that all this talk of how designers are too caught up pretending to be artists is misguided. Taking the two website examples in the previous section, if you can produce the second one, congratulations, you have a modicum of talent as a designer that you might or might not parade as superior in the name of minimalism.

This is all well and good, just don’t go and start looking down on the guy who made the finished Convax website design because in reality, he might just be a better designer than you.

Once upon a time, graphic design tools and artist tools were indistinguishable. In fact, our profession came from artists who were hired to make ads. Photoshop and CSS can now perform so much heavy lifting that we dare to suggest that artists should tone it down and remember that a bare interface is a good one. We complain that services like Dribbble are riddled with people possessing real artistic talent because we’re insecure about the fact that we can’t sketch to save our lives.

The bottom line is, I think it’s time for the design community to stop belittling the most creative among us. If someone Dribbbles something that you consider to be art, remember that just because you can’t see past the art to the design doesn’t mean it’s not there. Also remember that people enjoy aesthetically pleasing design. Finally, remember that, even if it’s a clear example of pure art for art’s sake, it’s still a good exercise that every designer should practice.

Conclusion: Drummers Make Better Guitar Players

As a guitar player, I always notice a lot about how other people play. One specific group of players that I am always envious of are those that began their musical education as drummers. Trained drummers have an incredible understanding of rhythm that your average Joe like me simply doesn’t possess. For this reason, when they pick up a guitar, the result is a much more rounded musician and ultimately, a better guitar player with much more complex and interesting strum patterns than someone who only knows how to play guitar.

This is a good metaphor for designers and artists. I’m admittedly more on the designer side of the spectrum than the artist side, but this doesn’t mean that I think my way is better. In fact, I envy and respect those with more artistic talent than me and I openly recognize that this talent makes them better designers. Good artists can make Photoshop do things that I never thought possible and dream up interfaces that people will line up to get their hands on.

In closing, consider that the great thing about communities of designers is that we can all learn something from each other. If everyone on Dribbble were just like me, it would be useless. Because there are people on there that can do things that I can’t or simply haven’t thought of, the service has value. Let’s focus on recognizing and learning from great designers more than shaking our fingers at those who create something that doesn’t fit into our conceptual box of what design is and isn’t.

Comments & Discussion

36 Comments

  • http://antonpeck.com Anton Peck

    This hit very close to home for me, being both an artist and a designer. I find myself using my sense of art while I design, and vice-versa.

    I actually want to go back and re-read some sections, but I’ll be sure to share this fine article.

    Thank you!

  • Joshua Johnson

    Thanks Anton! I’m a big fan of your work!

  • http://www.michaelaleo.com Michael Aleo

    Great article. I can totally identify with so many of your points, myself being more of a designer than an artist. Actually gave me lots of ideas on how I can grow as a creative.

  • http://maxlabs.de Maximilian

    Lovely note. Thanks!

  • http://www.mariafrey.com Maria

    Great insights here that are well presented. I agree with most, if not all, of this. Especially the drummer metaphor. There’s a raw truth to the benefits of having a foundation of rhythm/art.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • http://nataliav.me Natalia Ventre

    I take for granted that designers know what design is really about. I think that the debate is how the design community portrays itself to outsiders or potential clients.

  • http://rockatee.com/ Maleika E.A.

    When I stumbled upon this in my feed, I thought, “oh no, not another one of those dribbble bashing wotsits…” but it turns out your article is far and beyond from being a meaningless one-dimensional rehash on why dribbble is a worthless outlet with nothing to offer other than inflating egos of a supposedly elite. Great article, strong analysis, fair arguments. Refreshing! :)

  • http://obxdesignworks.com/ Billee D.

    Excellent post. The “drummers make better guitarists” analogy truly struck me as a musician because I started out playing drums and piano, and later on moved to bass and eventually guitar. I’ve also noticed parallels between music and design and I feel music is a convergence of both functional design and art. It’s also applicable from a jazz perspective where the musicians support each other and converse with their instruments through the music.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  • http://kylesteed.com Kyle Steed

    I find myself more and more questioning, not if it’s art or design, but how beneficial is it to my growth as an artist/designer. I’ve gone through phases where I constantly check dribbble and overwhelm myself with all the great work and then I go through times where I won’t look at it for long periods of time. What I’ve found is that the less I look at Dribbble the more in tune I find myself with who I am and what my style is and can create more original work.

    The argument of art and design will continue I’m afraid. But what’s more important is finding who we are as an artist/designer outside of online galleries.

  • http://www.wearepixel8.com Erik Ford

    As you so deftly illustrated, there is a place, in our profession, for both art and design and I, personally, don’t believe that the two are mutually exclusive. I would add, as an addendum, that the goals and parameters of a given design project dictates whether art will enhance or detract from the messaging.

  • http://divinefusiondesign.com divinefusion

    Great post Joshua. It was refreshing to read an article that takes a look at all sides not swaying one or another or vomiting your dislike all over us : )
    Trained as an artist and now working as a designer, I have often found myself having to define my intention in a given project. Finding that balance creates opportunities for growth and developing skills that will extend long past its original intention/project.
    Keep up the posts ; )

  • http://3.7designs.co Ross Johnson

    Very well thought out, articulated and demonstrated post. I disagree greatly with the argument though.

    You state that the primary focus of design is the message: “It doesn’t matter if it’s for a corporation, an individual or a non-profit. It’s nearly always the case that the message is the primary concern.”

    When in reality that is almost never the case. The primary concern is almost always the return that the company/organization hopes to get out of their investment of building and maintaining a website. Often this can be boiled down to making or saving money.

    Look up the definition of design and you will see that there is no mention of aesthetics. Instead it is described as creating something that serves an intended purpose and function.

    As a designer your job is to create something the servers it’s intended function and purpose. Aesthetics play a role in the success of a design but it is highly overemphasized and often used incorrectly.

    A site can be visually drab and still well designed, but a site that users can’t understand will always fail regardless of how “beautiful” the art of it is.

  • Joshua Johnson

    Ross, thanks for the comment and insight. I appreciate the push back. I do have some thoughts though:

    “The primary concern is almost always the return that the company/organization hopes to get out of their investment.”

    I think you’re agreeing with me! How could you focus on this goal without giving importance to the message and content that they want to convey? Your argument carried out to its logical conclusion focuses on getting the user to understand and believe the message: click here, sign up, pay this, download now, stream live; it’s always going to be aimed at what the client wants the user to do.

    As far as the rest, I’m not sure you read the article thoroughly. I clearly argued that design and art were different things, so I’m not sure why I need a refresher on the definition of design. Further, I also stated that designers can lose focus by spending too much time on aesthetics at the expense of core design.

    The point is, these facts aren’t an argument for bashing designers that spend a lot of time on aesthetics. If they feel that they’ve nailed the design aspect, why not spend some time using the talent they have to make the site look good?

  • http://chriskirkham.com elkirkmo

    Am I weird because I like the stripped down convax more than the one with the whimsical skyline on it? Yeah. I’m weird.

  • http://www.yvonne-tang.com Yvonne Tang

    Even though I’m a firm believer that form always follows function, I certainly admire the artistic talents of many designers. I also believe that aesthetics plays a major part in good design, and a lot of times, bringing in profit as well. Would people be willing to pay so much for Apple products if their designs weren’t so elegant?

  • Philip Allen

    I think saying outright that “Design isn’t Art” is a little too strong.

    This article attempts to point out that some design contains art and that artists must utilize design to some degree. But if we concede this level of “overlap,” why not just concede that the people we call designers are in fact simply “commercial artists,” or, in other words, artistic people focusing their artistic abilities toward the purpose of advancing commercial interests, and that this focus by its nature has different concerns and constraints?

    The difficulty with all of these “is it art or is it something else” discussions is that it is almost impossible to suggest an essential difference (i.e. what essentially makes X *not* art) that really sticks. This article doesn’t establish this difference. It suggests that design is unique in what it is in that it is about a MESSAGE, or about USABILITY. But who is the author to suggest that these are functions necessarily outside the realm of art?

    We have to remember that the concept of art has a changing history and over time its reach has expanded and contracted. Right now, you can go to art school and study ceramics. Historically, ceramics would have been considered a *craft*, but now you can hardly find a major US art museum without a section displaying ceramics. So is this art or not? The boundaries are very fuzzy. I would say the same is true of “design.”

  • http://be.net/skinnyd James Bratten

    Great article. I always create with the understanding that “Art and Design are not mutually exclusive terms,” and indeed when we start to behave that way we lose a lot from both fields. I’m an artist. I’m also a designer. You don’t have to be both, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

  • http://3.7designs.co/blog Ross Johnson

    Hey Joshua, thanks for the reply… awesome last name ;)

    I think we agree on a fundamental level but disagree on execution. A business / organizations message is a component of design that includes artistic qualities but rarely makes or breaks the goal and often (when done poorly) get’s in the way of user goals. So many companies / designers focus on “what do we want to tell the user” rather than “what is the user looking for?” I guarantee it isn’t a flash banner with the companies messaging about their capabilities, yet those are everywhere.

    While I don’t doubt the client will want the user to do something, they are not in control and neither is any designer. The user is, trying to manipulate otherwise is futile. Rather the design should give the user the tools to make the decision instead of trying to force them. A strong call to action button functions because of awareness of next steps and capabilities rather than the art of the button being irresistible.

    My use of the definition of design was to illustrate that you can’t put ART back into design because as you stated (and very well I might add), art is about expression and design is about intention. I agree completely that there is overlap in the two practices in terms of the psychology of what people find visually pleasing but the two practices have two extremely different purposes. You can’t combine them because they have share some visual principles. Design is not art and art is not design.

    I agree that there is good reason to focus on aesthetics if you have figured out the rest of the puzzle. My understanding of those bashing dribbble was that too much focus was on visual expression with out any context to determine how effective the treatment is for the application (from a design perspective). I don’t really browse the site so I can’t say I agree / disagree.

    Great debate though and again, well written article and response.

  • http://www.moonthemes.com Moon Themes

    I really don’t like dribbble for design inspirations, because we can only see the small part of any design, some time we can not even judge the design, because of it’s lack of smallness, so how come i get inspiration.

    On the other hand i am using Forrst for design inspirations, and for feedback of my own designs, because people can see the full site design, this we i can get full inspirations and useful tips and feedback for my own designs.

  • http://vivid-ness.co.uk Alistair Chisholm

    Fantastic to read. Will be coming back to this. Reminded me of this a bit… http://vimeo.com/14513636

  • http://adamnfraser.com Adam Fraser

    Fantastic! Very well thought out. I really liked where you stopped at the end of “Why Design Isn’t Art.” It seems that those who are dwelling on the differences are telling us something about themselves. Maybe their taste for is for minimalist design, or maybe they have a lot to learn from the art community.

  • http://coleran.com Mark Coleran

    It is pretty simple.

    If you are making your own decisions, you are an artist. If some other person has a hand in making decisions about what you do, your a designer.

    It does not mean either are good or bad. Just the position of the stakeholder.

  • http://www.pixelbath.com/ Michael Hoskins

    “The argument that I’m hearing from a lot of designers is that Dribbble is filled with a bunch of eye-candy that doesn’t really count as real design inspiration.”

    Honestly, so what? I don’t actually recall that was ever the goal of Dribbble. If a designer is looking for actual design inspiration, there are plenty of other sites for that. Plus, I’d argue that designers should draw inspiration from more than one type of site, and actually do some legwork.

    “Which one should it be used for?”

    Whatever the “creative” wants. I’ve seen both art and design there, and think it’s a bit narrowminded to try and pigeonhole how people SHOULD be using the service.

    “Design inspiration galleries and communities are constantly critiqued for displaying art when their focus should be on design.”

    Why, exactly, should they be focused on design?

  • http://blog.stylej.am ngw

    I really enjoyed this article, but I felt the urge to answer, because I think the difference between art and design is not only quite big, but also very well defined.

    http://blog.stylej.am/im-truly-sorry-to-inform-youre-not-an-artist

    Thanks for the interesting read.

  • http://xk9.com/ Bill Dawson

    I think it’s actually pretty simple – when you do it for yourself it’s art; when you do it for a client it’s design.

  • Yaron Schoen

    Interesting article. A few thoughts:

    You said: “Art being the practice of creating something attractive…”. That is absolutely not art. It can be hideous or dark or anything else the artist dreams it to be. It is a personal observation / reflection that is expressed by the artist.. It has nothing to do with attractiveness.

    In the website example you mention that we can see an artist is at work. Why is that? Because there is a drawing? So any drawing is considered art?

    Yes you can say that everything in the world has been designed, and that everything is art. But then what’s the point in saying that?

    You mention: “Good artists can make Photoshop do things that I never thought possible and dream up interfaces that people will line up to get their hands on.” Artists are not designers, they are not trained to solve problems. Now, if you would say that artists could create amazing visual experiences, then I may agree with you. There is a fundamental difference between visual experiences and interfaces. Yes an artist may create a stunning chair, but will it be comfortable?

    When applied to a design project, Illustrations and visual effects are “just” aesthetic layers that aim to achieve a certain goal. The backlash you are seeing lately is the fact that designers are adding these layers unnecessarily because of certain trends, that start from places like Dribbble, Behance and galleries.

    My 2 cents. Thanks for writing this down!

  • Ian Jones

    This isn’t a case of Art vs Design, I think you’ve missed the point.

    “This design is eye candy.”

    I have to agree is a flawed statement, because it can be better stated as:

    “This design is visually decorative instead of communicative.”

    If we are talking about how design is meant to ‘communicate visually’ then something which is purely an aesthetic decoration, having no or very little communication value (or conceptual intent), can be considered ‘eye candy’. We can all agree that visually pleasing elements are important in design, but they do not override the need for the design to communicate (or interact). Thus, if something is labeled ‘eye candy’ it’s a criticism of the design communication effectiveness, not its artistic value. Another way of looking at it is:

    “Signal vs Noise”

    Unfortunately we can’t assume anything though, because Dribbble doesn’t make a precise definition of what sort of work it expects to be showcased. I suspect that Dan Cederholm likes it just like it is, and expects it to evolve organically too, meaning there is room for works across the spectrum. He would provide clearer constraints if he thought it necessary.

  • http://www.soccerjerseysplaza.com Soccer Jerseys

    Thanks in advance for your help

  • ilhan negis

    simply art creates problems and asks questions or art has problems with things, which is very important. and design tries to solve problem, answer some questions and negotiate things. as important as art. cliche but true, yingyang relation.

  • Ian Jones

    On the question of Art vs Design:

    They are not mutually exclusive, in fact they share much in common, especially creativity. The main difference is in creative freedom vs constraint.

    Art is creative expression, with very little constraints or only self-imposed constraints. You can make anything you want, it’s a blank canvas, you can do nearly anything you subjectively desire. You even get to decide if it’s successful, because you set the criteria.

    Design is subject to external constraints, usually by client direction, but also subject to the constraints of context. It’s less about creative expression and more about creative problem solving. You craft objects or experiences, based on the constraints of the context. Success is measured against much more objective criteria, or at least someone else’s subjective taste.

    Both seek to communicate and interact on a human level, even if only introspectively. Both often share common principles—such as balance, proximity, unity and gestalt—because humans have fairly predictable/universally similar psychology, behavioural patterns and subjective preferences.

  • http://designlabcph.com Claire

    Cudos!

  • http://chrismar.sh Chris Marsh

    Great article!

    I’ve worked at places where there are graphic designers who are mostly artists, and vice versa, and, depending on the job, it’s sometimes good to have both inputs. Especially since a website is (usually) a functional tool, art cannot take over from design, but it can and does enhance basic design.

  • David Young

    Excellent article. Many of the replies, in my opinion, only further reinforce the points that I took away from your article.

    Aesthetic is arbitrary, and equally can be applied to both art and design, if you choose to view them as separate entities. Just because a majority of (insert group here) may agree something IS or IS NOT aesthetic, does not then invalidate the opposite opinion of the opposing group. It’s an arbitrary value, abitrarily applied to arbitrary objects in an arbitrary place at an arbitrary time. Case in point: How rich was Picasso in life?

    Likewise, an ARTisan who first conceptualizes, designs, then executes the construction of a chair (pulled from a previous commentator) – has also, without a doubt, considered not only the comfort, but weight load distribution, the janka of the material, the aesthetic value of the grain, the directional placement of the grain for strength and durability, etc. Does that make a piece of finely sculpted furniture any less than a work of art? Absolutely not. Does that mean the Artisan that created said furniture is any less of an artist? Absolutely not. And yet, that same piece of furniture had to be designed, and designed with a specific intention in mind. That does NOT negate the inherent emotional appeal that same piece of furniture may evoke in any given place setting, whether a foyer, or study, or even a commercial office space.

    Just because an arbitrary item has a functional purpose does not then exempt it from also being considered art. Likewise, something does not have to be classified as “art” to evoke an emotional response. Every piece of art can be found to have underlying design (as noted above) just as everything considered design draws upon a fundamental human ability to present our given perceptions at a given point in time to others in a way that is always interpreted arbitrarily based upon our own arbitrary sense of aesthetic.

    So, my take away is this:
    I loved the article. I found the comments, both pro and con amusing. In the end, however, Artists can be designers and Designers can be artists…and neither can legitimately claim to be superior to the other. Designers and Artists alike simply need to recognize that one truly cannot exist without the other…and everyone simply needs to get over themselves. :)

    By the way, I’d also like to add that you should mention the Golden Ratio in your article. There’s a ton of science behind why this ratio appears time and time again in all things art AND design.

  • Jesus

    Rip off Surrendra Gangadean much?

  • http://www.vetdepot.com petmed

    Thanks for the informative blog. The place else may possibly just I get that kind of info written in such a excellent approach? I’ve a venture that I’m just now operating on, and I’ve been on the glance out for such info.

  • Joshua Johnson

    Jesus, I never sat under Gangadean, but my Philosophy professor did. So yep, if you see his ideas riddled throughout this post, it’s surely no coincidence!

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