Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition at Kunsthal Rotterdam
“The idea: that we can push together whatever is around, just made sense”
Dead History is a lecture by Laurie Haycock Makela on the legacy of her late husband and creative partner P. Scott Makela. The Makela’s are iconic graphic designers who came to prominence in the late eighties and nineties. They were co-chairs of design at Cranbrook from 1996-2000 and my teachers and mentors who made a profound impact on my life and work.
[Originally posted on Cranbrookdesign.com [now closed] on 8.7.2009. I wanted to archive the interviews of that website here as a resource to everyone interested.]
Awkweird! An interview with Amelia Irwin. by Arjen Noordeman.
As you might have noticed in literature, film or contemporary art: considering “the world to be a highly absurd and weird place”, can be a very inspiring perspective to have as a creative person. Studying the work of graphic designer Amelia Irwin, you will find this to be true more than ever. Amelia creates her awkwardly inspired work for high profile employer, Nickelodeon, her own clients with partner Nicole Killian (under the brand new umbrella Hot Sundae) as well as for autonomous projects, which include paintings, typefaces and more.
Arjen Noordeman: 1. Absurdity, awkwardness and weirdness, you make it all seem so charming. Can you tell us about the role this attitude plays in your life and work?
Amelia Irwin: I don’t even think it’s a conscious decision. It just happens. My work is a natural extension of me and the way I see the world. So yes I am saying that I consider the world to be a highly absurd, awkward, and weird place. Viewing things through this lens lets me have fun with my world and shape it into something that I find to be humorous, positive, and wonderful. I would much rather focus on these things.
Mostly I think that’s because it’s hard to separate yourself from your work, client-based or not. Also, work should be fun. I think these attributes come along for the ride when i am having a good time. I seem to like and be drawn to things that are strange and cute. It’s a good combination, no?
AN: 2. You were born in West Virginia, I’ve had the chance to visit your lovely state and—all kidding aside–you were probably not exactly tripping over graphic design role models, when you were growing up and going to high school there. Were did your interest in creativity begin and what did the route that eventually led you to Cranbrook, look like?
AI: Wait, are you saying West Virginia is not a breeding ground of awesome design?! Just kidding. You are right to say that there were very few “design role models” around me. The arts and creativity do not manifest in that specific way from where I am from. That is not to say that there was not the creative spirit at play all around me. It was just in a different way. Craft is very big in West Virginia. I grew up going to craft fairs. People use their talents to create things that are of use (ie. tables, benches, quilts). So while you may not have heard of any of the people in books or in museums, I do feel as though I was surrounded by amazing artists and this did have an effect on me.
And like any good country kid I was always into rule breaking and getting into things I shouldn’t be mangling with. Making my own fun if you will. I think that’s all part of the creative process. Somehow this all came together and led to me going to university for design. A few professors of mine, one being a Cranbrook grad himself, had mentioned Cranbrook to me while I was in undergrad so when the time felt right, I applied.
AN: 3. Do your Appalachian roots inspire you in some less direct way perhaps, especially when you are creating autonomous work?
AI: Oh for sure. Our state motto is “Mountaineers are always free.” The state exists because it was full of independent people who didn’t agree with Virginia during the Civil War. The idea of being independent and autonomous is embedded in the landscape, the history, and the people. Finding your own way and being pridefully independent is what its all about. I apply that spirit to everything I do. I am a West Virginian through and through.
AN: 4. After leaving Cranbrook, you wound up–like so many of us– in a big city, in your case, New York. How did you experience this transition, and did you start working in Nickelodeon’s brand team, immediately after that?
AI: I’d be lying if I said it was super easy to move to New York. However, it was definitely a good change after living the monastic life in Bloomfield Hills. Nickelodeon has been a good, actually great, first job coming out of Cranbrook. But as always, it’s a difficult transition going from autonomy to corporation. It’s definitely not somewhere I want to be forever, but it’s been a good learning experience.
AN: 5. Your personal taste and aesthetic seem to mesh exceptionally well with the Nickelodeon brand, I’m thinking for example of your “Fruit” paintings, your poster collaboration called “Heart” as compared to the various show logos and brand spots you’ve worked on for Nick, such as the 2008 Kid’s Choice Awards Identity. Was it like a hand in glove fit when you started, or did the two bodies of work grow closer together over time?
AI: Honestly it was a very good fit for me. When I first started, I was always encouraged to bring myself to the table and not try to constrain to myself to anything. My creative director gave me full autonomy to put my spin on things. He felt as if my sense of humor and style where a natural reflection of the spirit of Nickelodeon. Luckily this was able to manifest in great projects like the “Kids Choice Awards”. Over time I would say that these two worlds have started to drift further apart but I would honestly be scared if they hadn’t.
AN: 6. You were involved with the very large project of re-branding and relaunching the Nick at Nite network on Nickelodeon, which must’ve been a thrilling assignment. Can you give us a look behind the scenes of a process like this?
AI: Well, my creative director was a really hands off guy. He let me come up with a few ideas and pitch them. The only parameter was that it needed to be tied to the Nickelodeon spirit but aged up for a more adult viewer. At that time I think they were aiming to pull viewers of my age that had grown up with Nick but were too old to enjoy the channel anymore. So from there, myself and 2 producers started looking at the channel’s programming. All the shows were re-runs from 80’s and 90’s. There was no way that the content was going to change so we basically ran with it. In a tongue and cheek way we embraced what we were. The tag-line became “We Recycle T.V.” The hosts were discarded t.v sets that were talking about all about the 90’s. They spoke longingly and lovingly of the days of yore, referencing the shows we grew up with, the people we loved, and the overall culture from that time period. One long night of shooting and some terrible voice acting later we had a great looking project. Sadly it was never fully realized on-air. I still think it was hilarious.
AN: 7. Despite the overtones of playful absurdity in your personal work, some of it also has a tone of melancholy. In particular the piece titled “happiness”. Ofcourse nobody is quirky and happy all day everyday, but in what way does this slightly more subdued, yet poetic work differ from the other projects we’ve discussed here so far?
AI:I do think my work overall has a tinge of sadness sprinkled throughout. But in this particular piece the melancholy is much more on the surface. Perhaps it is due to the subject matter. I was attempting to give form to a memory. To what it feels like to have a memory. In general I believe memories feel melancholy. Even happy memories have a sense of longing due to the fact that it is over and in the past. It is an experience that you will not have ever again.
AN: 8. You have also explored type design in the form of the “Coded” project (2005). This project created a sort of artificial “in-crowd” by creating a code that only the members of this group were able to decipher. This brought to might the much-discussed issues of bullying and elitism, for example. What was it exactly that got you to think about and explore exclusivity in this way?
AI: I have always been interested in the silent ways we human being communicate things both good and bad. This was an attempt to give form to those feelings. I myself have often felt like an outsider and have found it hard to “fit in” or have a voice at time. That was an attempt to isolate and create those feelings in others. To place them in that mental space. To see how people reacted and responded when given or not given the knowledge to decifer meaning. I just wanted to bring an awareness to this particular social dynamic and how it relates to branding as well as life.
AN: 9. What are some interests or facts about you that one might not be able to learn from your website but you feel are important in understanding what you are about and what influences you?
AI: Jeez. There are so many things about me that you can’t find on the internetz. I’m obsessed with religion and history. I’m a recently failed vegetarian. I prefer savory to sweet. I love my cat Cookie and she loves Weezer. I am afraid of slugs and I still like skulls. These are just a few gems that you should probably remember about me. Just in case we ever meet.
AN: 11. What’s next for Amelia Irwin?
AI: Well I have recently started collaborating with Nicole Killian on a variety of personal and professional projects. So hopefully you will be hearing about Hot Sundae making great stuff, having fun, and generally running amuck in the design world.
AN: Thanks Amelia!
See some more of Amelia’s work here at her website.
[Originally posted on Cranbrookdesign.com [now closed] on 9.21.2009. I wanted to archive the interviews of that website here as a resource to everyone interested.]
An Interview with Bethany Shorb of Cyberoptix TieLab: Hand silkscreened TIES THAT DON’T SUCK! by Katya Moorman
Designer, photographer, fashionista Katya Moorman interviewed artist, musician, designer, entrepreneur Bethany Shorb of Cyberoptix in Detroit, MI. Here’s one meeting of creative minds you don’t want to miss! (AN)
Katya Moorman: When I was at Cranbrook (design 04) I knew Bethany Shorb as the girl who maintained the website and looked like she just walked out of Blade Runner. A Cranbrook Grad herself, little did I know that she was also an amazing designer/entrepreneur.
She founded her company, Cyberoptix, in 2001 and began by making custom clothing for stage and film. The Tie Lab division was founded a few years later and offers “a subtly subversive, well designed, handmade alternative to the men’s uniform staple while strictly adhering to ethical manufacturing processes.” She has recently expanded to scarves as well and her work is represented by more than 100 stores in a dozen countries: from Fred Segal in Los Angeles to Libertine in Western Australia. I caught up with Bethany over the summer in Detroit.
KM: So you make these witty and clever ties. This seems like such a random object to develop into a business! How did it start?
Bethany Shorb: I started doing the screen printed ties back in 2006. And at the same time I was doing costuming work. I worked on a movie called the Gene Generation and I made full garments out of recycled, re-claimed truck inner tube tires and bicycle inner tube tires. Although they were really fun projects, they weren’t lucrative for the time involved so it wasn’t really sustainable nor was it something I wanted to do full time.
I was attracted to working with ties because it’s the complete opposite of the costuming work in that it’s a comparatively very fast process. Also, I found making a compelling graphic on such a restricted size and shape was an interesting design problem — the tie “canvas” is only 3.5 x 16 inches.
KM: I have to say that I really love that there’s a narrative in your work. How do you come up with a design/narrative?
BS: I’m fascinated by language and double entendres so I’m always looking to interpret those visually. And I’ve noticed it attracts people who appreciate if there’s a quirky little story or pun -another layer of meaning within the design.
And as far as patterns and themes, I enjoy subverting traditional tie patterns. Like the hound’s tooth; I put little eyes on it and gave it a quarter turn and it turned into cat’s tooth. It’s not that clever but it entertained me for a second. I’ve been doing a lot with viral and disease motifs so I took the paisley and the Black Plague and did a little mash up of those so it’s Plaguesly…I like that it doesn’t obviously say Plague right across it, you can wear that design to a work meeting and no one would know you have Black Plague on your tie…bad puns come to me when I’m sleeping
KM: Yeah, they’re really funny.
<b>BS:</b> People like to laugh and if they see a design that they can laugh about and something that’s not usually laughed at at all it works. People are used to funny tee-shirts but you don’t have a funny tie that’s not just a gag gift or cartoon character..
<b>KM:</b> Do you ever think of doing other clothing?
<b>BS:</b> Well I’ve added scarves as well but I really want to take some of the patterns that I’ve developed and take them larger because I feel that they’re not getting the air time that I’d like them to, the visual air time so I want to do some wallpaper. I’ve got one of my patterns called “plaid habit” and it’s all interlocking antique syringes that make a tartan. I’d like to see it a little bit bigger than just 3” wide. But I have to somehow make the time. Right now I’m still printing every single tie myself. I’ve probably printed close to 12,000 ties.
<b>KM:</b> Are you a control freak?
<b>BS:</b> You think? (both laughing) just a little bit. OK it’s a huge problem!
<b>KM:</b> So you do everything?
<b>BS:</b> Well, I have one full time person who is excellent, he wraps, packages and ships everything out (and keeps me sane) and there is a family in Thailand that weaves all my silk and they fabricate everything by Fair Trade practices.
<b>KM:</b> How did you find them?
BS: Online. That’s pretty much how I do everything. I’m a little phobic about talking to people sometimes and I communicate really well on the internet, so I found this really nice couple, I think the guy is Dutch and his wife is Thai and communication is really easy and I just ordered a couple of samples and we got talking back and forth and they told me all about how they make it and we just established this friendship and now that I order hundreds and hundreds from them…
KM: …you’re buds.
BS: We’re buds. I like to help out people who are doing a good thing in their community even if it’s far away and after having this relationship with them I know they’re not just blowing smoke up my ass about their principles.
KM: That leads me to another question: how does the internet allow you to do your business or create your life how you want it?
BS: It’s made it 100% possible. Detroit is an amazing place to make things but I don’t believe it’s a big enough market to solely sustain a designer. So being able to sell my stuff all over the world and get it out there fast has been absolutely invaluable. Right now I can come up with a design, make the screen and have the webpage for it online in two or three days. So that kind of immediacy is key to getting a product out before someone else does and sometimes I capitalize on bad puns and a lot of current events and you know that’s going to go stale if you have to have someone put up a page for you, if you’ve got to call your webmaster
KM: The immediacy of doing it – yourself!!!
BS: Right. Yeah, it’s always getting back to the control freak. I actually shoot all of the models, I do all of the editorial and honestly I think that’s more fun for me than screen printing ties. I really love doing photo shoots.
KM: How do you get your ties out there? Advertising? Word of Mouth?
BS: Well it’s become this really interesting organic animal that powers itself. I started by looking through a couple of stores that I really liked and sent out a couple of little packets like “hey I’m doing this want to do a little trial order of say 10 things” and a few stores picked me up and then once I got on a roster of a few stores other stores became. And it just snowballed from there and I’ve been fortunate that people on the internet, blog writers, have been really kind as far as saying great things and it’s just propagated that way. I do very little advertising. I have a few banner ads and I sponsor a couple of things on ETSY but my ad budget is about $50/month, I do very little.
KM: You’re one of those who came to Detroit for school and stayed. Why is Detroit such a good place to do business?
BS: People who have stayed here are more focused on making, rather than just consuming, and that makes a great environment to work in. Plus, the overhead’s really low. I have a 3000 square foot space. I’ve been in there for almost 7 years and almost everyone in there is an artist of some sort whether they’re doing music or fashion or painting or kung fu…there’s people baking bread –and for me to be able to really spread out like that, if I were in NY my place would be like $4000/month. And that’s just insane.
KM: yeah, for sure…
BS: so…if there’s an opportunity for me to fly somewhere cos there’s a great show for me to be in I don’t have to eat Ramen for the next couple of months, you know, that freedom to not have to worry financially is really liberating and I couldn’t do that if I didn’t sell stuff online and elsewhere because if I had to rely on people consuming here it’s bad…and I really would like to encourage artists and makers of product to come here and not…use it per se- but take it for what it has to offer.
KM: Right. It’s like Berlin at this point. If you can make money elsewhere, you can live and produce there.
BS: Right now it’s working but sometimes it’s frustrating. I wish there were more places to go eat…I wish more friends still lived here…
KM: that there were margaritas at Margarita’s [restaurant]…
BS: (knowing laugher) No there are no margaritas at Margarita’s…
KM: Do you think your experience at Cranbrook encouraged or prepared you to be an entrepreneur at all or do you think it’s just intrinsic?
BS: Well, I was really young and naïve which was kind of tough but in hindsight I really liked it. I went to Boston University for undergrad and Cranbrook and BU (which is a very traditional program) are the absolute antithesis of one another. I think having that totally bi-polar education really helped me figure out what I wanted to do because I didn’t fit in either of them so had to find my own way.
I wanted to do graphic design, I wanted to do photography, I wanted to do sculpture…so I was a little scattered. But I also really wanted to do fashion photography. I think I almost started my own company because I couldn’t figure out how else to do everything. I’m really good at self-motivating, really good at working on my own. I’m not such a good team player.
KM: Being a team player is over rated. And you get to do everything now.
BS: Yeah…it’s really fun, it’s really exciting having your own company. People always ask me “don’t’ you get bored just making ties?” I tell them making ties is only 5% of what I do all day. It’s marketing, it’s coding, it’s photography, it’s photo editing, it’s product research, there’s so much different stuff I have to do all day – I’m not just making ties. So that’s been really fun.
KM: Anything that you consider to be the best part of what you do?
BS: Well personal responses from people are pretty cool…I’ve gotten letters from people that have told makes me that wearing one of my ties in a super corporate office makes them feel kind of mischievous or devious, and that they can have their own fraction of a sense of style while stuck in this horrible environment…and I’m like awww, I hope I can make your life suck one quarter of one percent less.
I’m sure Dickens would not mind sharing this day with Kafka.
“It needs saying that Kafka’s books are, among other things, funny, sentimental, and in their own way, yea-saying. I am so weary of the serious Kafka, the pessimist Kafka. Kafkaesque has become synonymous with the machinations of anonymous bureaucracy- but, of course, Kafka was a satirist (ironist, exaggerator) of the bureaucratic, and not an organ of it. Because of this mischaracterization, Kafka’s books have a tendency to be jacketed in either black, or in some combination of colors I associate with socialist realism, constructivism, or fascism- i.e. black, beige and red. Part of the purpose of this project for me, was to let some of the sunlight back in. In any case, hopefully these colors, though bright, are not without tension.”
Peter Mendelsund on designing Schoken’s forthcoming series of Kafka re-releases.
Mendelsund is here on Thursday, talking about his design work with Glenn Kurtz. 7pm!
[Originally posted on Cranbrookdesign.com [now closed] on 1.12.2009. I wanted to archive the interviews of that website here as a resource to everyone interested.]
Interview with Scott Klinker by Arjen Noordeman.
Scott Klinker is the designer-in-residence for the Cranbrook Academy of Art 3D Design department.
Scott Klinker’s describes himself on his website as follows:
“Designer, inventor, entrepreneur and educator, Scott Klinker is passionate about giving form to new cultural ideas. He heads the graduate 3D design program at the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art as Designer-in-Residence, where he also received his MFA in 1996. After building experience as an in-house designer at Ericsson, and as senior staff at IDEO - Klinker ventured to Japan in 1999 to lead a product design program at the Kanazawa International Design Institute and founded his independent studio, Scott Klinker Product Design - focused on developing licensed designs for contract furniture, household goods and toys. He moved his practice to Cranbrook in 2001 and built partnerships with small, design-driven manufacturers that share his passion for innovation. In 2004, Scott’s Spaceframe Builder’s Kit was selected by Fortune magazine as one of the top 25 products of the year. In 2006, he was featured in Newsweek’s annual ‘Design Dozen’ selection of best new designers. Scott has organized and curated exhibitions to promote Design in Kanazawa, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Milan. As an active agent in education, culture and commerce, he is building new works, connections and discussions to inspire design culture in America and abroad.”
10 Questions for Scott Klinker.
1. You identify yourself as an “inventor and entrepreneur”, alongside “designer” and “educator”. Do these four sides of your practice help or compete with each other?
First thanks, Arjen for building this site. It’s a great resource for us all.
Like many designers, I like to wear several hats. In my studio, I try to balance theory and practice to keep learning on all fronts. If you look on my website (www.ScottKlinker.com, you’ll see experimental concepts alongside commercial products. Sometimes open-ended research into a material or process will lead to a real product. For example, The Spaceframe Builder’s Kit came from playing with a new material, nonwoven PET plastic. The Truss Collection was a self-initiated study of digital fabrication. Both of these research projects found manufacturing partners to make them into real products. That kind of synergy makes me very happy. In this way, I try to lead my students by example and offer an inspiring model of practice. These different roles work well together. The entrepreneurial role is the most difficult so far. The royalties on this kind of work are very thin and barely pay for your time and talent. My newest furniture collection for a Michigan-based retailer includes 28 new products and will launch this summer. This project may help me to grow my practice over the long term.
2. When you founded your studio “Scott Klinker Product Design” , you were living in Japan. How would you say being a part of such a different culture influenced your design practice?
SK: It changed everything; 2+ years immersed in glorious POMO weirdness. All my defaults were useless. After I got over that discomfort, it did wonders for my process. In Japan, all cultural codes are free game for the remix – East, West, Old, New. Japan is advanced.
3. As the head of the product design department at Cranbrook, you are part of a progressive academic and design tradition. It seems that this environment would be an excellent incubator for your own focus on innovation.
Do your design theory and studio practice work well together or do they sometimes clash with each-other?
SK: I’m a maker and a form giver, two values that sometimes seem to be disappearing from design education. Cranbrook designers should be able to think, make, and give specific form to the stories that are important to them. I try to provide a progressive example of this as the head of the program. Some of my projects involve real world constraints, like clients and budgets, that are not always ideal, though I choose my projects and partners carefully so that there is room to explore. I’m interested in the scalability of design, moving between mass production and craft. Mass produced projects have more constraints, but put incredible resources behind my creativity. Craft (or digital craft) projects offer more theoretical freedom. I try to balance these two.
4. As a teacher, do you have a mantra that you live by and try to convey to your students?
(For example, Laurie Haycock-Makela and Scott Makela used to tell us (The 2D Design Department at Cranbrook) “Experience before Theory” which I interpreted to mean that it’s better to try things out and then dissect the experience, than to over-think projects before starting them and then get paralyzed by theory.)
SK: Storytelling is a key goal now, with an understanding that we live in a world of many competing stories so products must speak to specific cultural attitudes. Earlier experiments with theoretical tools like deconstruction or phenomenology have been absorbed into these overall goals. Some mini-mantras support this approach: Play with Words, Know Your Genre, Fit Our Time, Nail the Subject, Point Your View, Build a World Around It.
You can read more about these in this ‘crash course’ for Core77 called ‘Spinning Form: How to Tell Stories with Product Design.’
5. The “space frame builders kit” is a large scale construction toy for kids. It was recognized by Fortune as one of the top 25 products of 2004. Where did the idea for this project originate and did you plan to use recyclable materials from its inception?
SK: This particular project started as a material investigation. I befriended a factory in Holland, MI that specialized in this new material, non-woven PET plastic. After many experiments with the material, I tried to identify a product idea that would exploit the material’s light weight and rigidity. I teamed-up with Offi, a small design-driven company in the Bay Area to develop the Spaceframe. They liked the story of ‘green architecture for kids’.
6. “The Truss collection” is a line of furniture that packs flat and assembles easily. Is the iconic look a typical example of form follows function or did you explore a very wide range of stylistic solutions?
SK: My goal was to develop an authentic form language for CNC digital fabrication. Bold graphic exaggerations of familiar structural forms seemed to best emphasize the digital tool path. While engineered forms were the inspiration, the lines are stylized and Pop.
7. Which invention or product surprised you the most after you completed it and for what reasons?
SK: Offi gave me 10 Spaceframe kits and I built a structure that reached the ceiling of the Cranbrook Art Museum. I really didn’t know how the material would respond, so it blew my mind.
8. Over the past 10-15 years we’ve seen the emergence of the “star” designer, creating one-off or conceptual products that have been sold in galleries and collected by museums while building their own names into a valuable brand in the process.
Do you feel that these designers push design into unexplored territory or do you feel there are some negative side-effects for the profession at large to this elevation of the individual designer?
SK: Of course, I’m all for individual authorship. Design is now a fashion system. Young designers create couture contexts to get noticed. This has made the field much more interesting and created space for new kinds of authorship and new models of practice. The down side comes when design becomes a vulgar side show of young designers trying to out-spectacle each other with heavy-handed concepts. When branding eclipses actual design content, then it’s dubious. Memphis predicted this. However, ‘Design about Design’ is here to stay and Cranbrook - being focused on authorship and making - should be a thought leader in this discussion. As an American school, we have to work harder than our Euro counterparts who have more advanced venues for young designers to show their work and get noticed.
9. As a curator and exhibition organizer, do you feel that the increased design awareness of the general public–through events such as Design Miami–has been a positive development for the design community?
SK: Design Miami has made design rarities collectible, like Art. Is awareness of Art a positive influence on the general public?
10. What was the most successful exhibition that you either organized, curated or were a part of as a designer?
SK: Selfishly, my solo exhibition at the Cranbrook Art Museum was the most successful one for me. It drove a completely new body of work in a short time and I was able to art direct everything – the work, the story, and the installation.
Online Essays by Scott Klinker:
[Originally posted on Cranbrookdesign.com [now closed] on 1.24.2009. I wanted to archive the interviews of that website here as a resource to everyone interested.]
Interview with Scott Santoro by Arjen Noordeman.
I’m proud to present this exclusive interview with Cranbrook alum, AIGA/NY official and Worksight design studio partner, Scott Santoro. Mr. Santoro is a central figure in the New York City graphic design scene and if you’ve attended any AIGA New York lectures or events, you’ve most likely bumped into him at some point. Read about how he surfaces his identity as a designer, how important AIGA events are, what it’s like to work with your spouse and much more in this interview.
1. How much experience in graphic design did you have before you attended Cranbrook Academy of Art, and why did you come to make the decision to apply?
I remember people trying to convince me that I didn’t need more school and should just keep working. But they didn’t understand that school wasn’t a chore and that I actually liked being a design student. This was coupled with the fact that I was fed up with not knowing where to take graphic design for myself. I wanted more, and Cranbrook gave even more than I thought I was going to get.
2. Your father is a plumber and you have used the plumbing practice over the years as a metaphor for your graphic design approach. How does this metaphor serve you and does it still hold up 20 years after leaving graduate school?
Graphic designers don’t enjoy being invisible; oh, well, maybe some. But for me, I always hated the idea. Framing a metaphor like plumbing, within the context of design, gets more of “me” into the process. Surfacing my own identity has the effect of exercising the same muscles I use in creating identities, meaning, and messages for clients. Plumbing was the vehicle, but it could have been some other aspect or activity in my life. The thing is, you have to be willing to massage and develop the metaphor over a period of time; you have to live it if you want to build a body of work around it.
3. You recently introduced Ed Fella, when he was being presented with an AIGA medal in New York City. How did you meet Ed, and how meaningful or influential has this friendship been in your daily design practice since then?
Ed was the student I met up with during my visit to the school. He said he wanted to meet the “big idea” guy from New York City. Within the first few minutes of conversation I was excited about attending Cranbrook. His entire class explored territory that I didn’t know existed. And Ed put it all out there for me to feast on, explaining as much as he could. He’s still that way, and I still get exciting when talking postmodern shop with him.
4. How would you describe the role that your teaching career at Pratt and Cooper Union have played in your life and work?
Moholy-Nagy wrote a paper entitled “Designing Is Not a Profession But an Attitude.” I agree. My approach to teaching design is based on encouraging students to find themselves in what they make—to understand how design can integrate with their personal lives, and with the rest of the world. I teach this, but at the same time, I’m amplifying the idea for myself.
5. You have been involved with the NY Chapter of the AIGA. How would you characterize the importance of professional networking for the practicing designer?
Being on the board gave me the chance to initiate the kind of events that I would want to go to. For example, I wanted Ed Fella to present alongside Massimo Vignelli because I thought it would be an interesting discussion. It continued on with Irma Boom matched with Rick Valicenti; and Piet Schreuder with Shawn Wolfe. But to be honest, it might takes days, months, or years to have an event really mean something to you. It has to be processed through your brain, with associations to the real world. The value is when you find yourself referring to what was said, what you saw, who you met, etc. The worth gets realized, but with a delayed effect.
6. Do you make distinctions between advertising, marketing, and graphic design?
Advertising is much more ephemeral than graphic design—an ad’s shelf life with it’s audience is 30 seconds, maybe. It’s why the word and image play of an ad has to be so immediate. You see the picture, read the text, and it usually makes sense in a humorous way. But layout, visual coding, composition, structure, and typography are more the realm of graphic design. There are exceptions, for example the advertising genius Helmut Krone. But even Krone called himself a graphic designer.
I think there’s a further distinction within graphic design itself. Chip Kidd wrote about it perfectly in The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel In Two Semesters (P.S.) : “Commercial artists try to sell you stuff, graphic designers present you with ideas. Uncle Sam is commercial art, the American flag is graphic design.”
7. Can you name three of the most successful Worksight projects over the years, and tell us what those different accomplishments meant to you?
A tubular steel furniture manufacture—Images of America—was the first project out of Cranbrook where all my critical muscles were put to use. I designed a full identity, brochure, and catalog for them in a kind of “grunge meets the Bauhaus” aesthetic. The work immediately put them on the radar screen for architects and interior designers, and even Knoll got interested, offering to buy the company.
Another was Gilbert Paper and the series of promotions they commissioned Worksight to do. This is an example of when I could state “There is a God” because Gilbert let me create the theme (about American subcultures), paid us a decent fee without any strings attached, and supported the final result by getting the sales force behind each of the four pieces.
The third is an ongoing project for the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault where they began with a visual identity that was dragging them down. There was an education process involved, but eventually they “got it.” City and state agencies perceived them in a new and better way because of design, and an especially nice payoff in believing was when we received a large Sappi grant allowing us to fill out the entire design system including a poster, brochure, and redesigned website.
For each project we knew right away that something clicked. They respected what we had to offer, and good things came out of it.
8. Do you see Worksight evolve or change over the next 5–10 years, or is there a formula that you’ve established that you think will continue to work well for you both? (If so, how would you summarize that formula?)
We don’t have any formula—no five year plan. Simply producing designs that we’re proud of is enough—and getting paid of course. Good projects come along because people notice the quality, which is the direct result of loving what you do.
A graphic design professor of mine—who died recently—once told me that he was happy just cobbling out his work with a pure joy of the craft. I like that attitude. It relieves you of the stress of working for what “they” told you was success—the big office with huge commercial projects. But making graphic design is the reason why I went into the field in the first place and so I’m happy doing that first and foremost. Everything else is gravy.
9. What is the one thing that we haven’t touched upon in this interview that is important to you and you would like to talk about?
Just that it seems clear to me that as design develops alongside technology, design thinking will still be about developing ideas with the goal of conveying thoughts and engaging the viewer. I think designers will still find inventive and intelligent ways to use type and image, composition and structure, interactivity, motion, and time. That’s why Cranbrook is still Cranbrook.