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Interview by Winston Struye

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For me, I think a found an interest in design because I was interested in storytelling. I know others who got into design because of an interest in art, or maybe information, data visualizations, etc. For you, was there a sort of “stepping stone” that led you to be interested in design?

I think it goes back to my curiosity about contemporary American culture

For example, Advertising - what are the stories that are surfaced in this ubiquitous medium through image and text - and what does that say about who we are, what we value, what our blindspots are, where we are going, where we’ve been.

Can I ask more about that?

I was in so interested in that from a sort of theoretical perspective and I thought it could be really powerful to learn how to make that. And I thought I might have more access to an understanding of culture if I became someone who was contributing to the culture.

Do you think that was kind of your entrance point into grad school? Maybe your goal as a designer entering into graduate school?

I think my goal was to learn skills in order to impact culture and understand culture.

And do you think grad school reinforced that - graphic design as this sort of cultural manipulator - or made you question that?

I think it, well, I think it reinforced it - but, I’m not sure that . I think that a lot of the visual ephemera that I was looking at from an academic perspective wasn’t made by fancy Yale graphic designers. It was made by like marketing people in Iowa

And I think that alot of the work that my colleagues and I were making in graduate school was talking to itself, and was not going to have much of a dent outside. And actually that matters tremendously. So I think who we were aiming our work at was not America.

So my wife was in law school at the same time I was at arts school, and I was in graduate school it was still cool and funny to use Times New Roman in design projects. And as a law student my wife had to use Times New Roman. So she would look at the work coming out of the graduate school and say “you guys could use any font in the world yet you’re using Times New Roman, why? What is going on?”

And the only way you could respond was by saying “it’s an artsy grad school trend.”

Right, but those trends are nonsense, meaningless to people.


What was your thesis in graduate school?

So the way our thesis projects were structured at Yale was we were expected to choose a word that would be the driver of our thesis work, and the word that I chose was concentration.

I was thinking as concentration as a sort of metaphor for a design process. That in graphic deign it’s often about distilling an idea into it’s simplest and most clear form.

It was just one word?

I ended up doing some design projects exploring that notion and in my book I wrote a lot about how graphic design is similar to the short story format.

So I was on Micheal Beiruts teams, we were working on books, signage programs, identity projects, print pieces for a non-profits, not a lot of video. So pretty traditional graphic design, at a really high level.

Did you find that was a big change coming from Yale?

I think no, because Yale, atleast at that time, was so proudly outside the market.

There was no conversation about jobs, about how you would translate your portfolio for a professional context, no binder of internships, all of that was absent.

So it didn’t really set an expectation for us that we were making would be anything like what we would be making.

Did you find you had to redefine your personal definition of design when you started working at Pentagram, as opposed to what it was at Yale?

No, I think the much bigger change came when I moved to Bay Area.

After Yale, you went to work at Pentagram. What kind of work were you doing there and did you find they were talking about design as this very broad thing there?


Interesting! What changed when you moved to the Bay Area then?

So I moved here in 2009, and there was no jobs. I would go to a studio and they would say “you seem great, but we just layed off three people.” The upside to that was that I had like 75 informational interviews, and I met everyone.

I had some work that I brought with me from the East Coast, I did a little project at a place called Altitude which was run by Brian Singer, and then took a contract at SYPartners that got renewed and then turned into a job. But I was talking to people everywhere.

And your first job at SYPartners?

And something that I was really confused by was that the work that was being made in alot of the studios felt so different visually than the work I had been trained to make and to value. What I was seeing at Mendes Design, or Volume, or any of the studios was a super different style. The only work that I recognized was what Jon Sueda was making. Cause it was like the Silly Dutch stuff that I had been taught to think was really great.

Yeh. Here there are many many people who call themselves designers who have no interest in aesthetics.

I've felt the same way for so long.

in New York I don’t think that’s the case. And so it can be very destabilizing for someone who has been raised to believe that it is fundamental to design to have an interest in aesthetics to check that.

It was latent, but I’m sure it was true.

But what I quickly became aware of at SYPartners is just this expansive notion of what design can include, which was really empowering and kind of terrifying. That you can design a conversation, or a meeting.

And designing a meeting doesn’t just mean the agenda but really thinking through it all, when the snack is, what the snack is, what the lighting is, how you greet someone when you walk in. Those are all, what some people would call “service design” now, and that was really interesting to me. That wasn’t part of my education.

Going back to what you said earlier about design as this sort of “perpetrator of culture,” if we take that to be true, would you say that design is a different “prepretrator” in New York City than it is in San Francisco.

That was true even in 2009? Even before the start of the current big tech-boom we’re in now?