Vince Kadlubek, on Running out of Project Money, and Needing More to Finish

Vince Kadlubek, on Running out of Project Money, and Needing More to Finish

Kadlubek is the visionary CEO behind Meow Wolf, the much-buzzed-about, hard-to-describe, immersive art installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It might just be the future of experiential art. Kadlubek will be speaking at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Kadlubek to reflect on a moment when the future wasn’t so certain and share how he pushed through.

“Opening the House of Eternal Return [Meow Wolf’s art experience in Santa Fe] was definitely the most daunting challenge I ever faced. Prior to House of Eternal Return, the biggest project I’d worked on was about one-fifth the size and one percent of the budget. And it was temporary. House of Eternal Return was the first time we ever got into business. None of us understood business. We kept running out of money. We were sleep deprived. And we were working around the clock to finish it on time.

“‘I can’t do this’ came up all the time. And then it was followed with, ‘Yes, I can.’ We operated for a year with a constant pressure of running out of money. We never had more than two weeks worth of cash on hand. One time our bank was overdrawn and I had 100 artists to pay; $75,000 was needed. I had to make some really difficult phone calls. I called existing investors to ask them to very quickly invest more, with the transparent knowledge that we were out of money. That’s the most difficult and leveraged position a business can ever be in.

“It was nuts.

“The project was really rough at times, but there was a collective creative high that we were all riding. We all just wanted to make amazing art, and that’s what we were doing. There was always this really exciting thought in the back of our heads saying, “What if we really pull this off?”

“During the build, we had over 100 artists working together, volunteering their time, and staying late. Every single person involved was absolutely crucial to the project’s success. We could not have pulled it off if we had not been working together as a collective every step of the way.

“This project really made me believe that I, and the rest of the people at Meow Wolf, are capable of anything. No matter how daunting the project may seem there is always a way to make it happen.”

See Vince Kadlubek along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.

from 99U99U

Can UX Design Fix Digital Healthcare’s “Women’s Problem?”

Can UX Design Fix Digital Healthcare’s “Women’s Problem?”

For anyone who’s ever Googled their medical symptoms and then flown into a panic over the results, good news is on the way in the form of a slew of new, allegedly life-altering healthcare apps, many of which are specifically targeted at women. There are period-tracking apps designed for a variety of different users, from hopeful parents trying to conceive, to those tracking how hormonal cycles affect their skin. There are fertility apps that come with their own Bluetooth thermometers, and others for people going through menopause. There’s even a pregnancy app that provides prenatal imaging (the result is strangely similar to the floating Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Beyond services that collect data, there are telemedicine platforms that link users to doctors who can prescribe birth control, and an app that sends alerts designed to help catch breast cancer at an early phase.

The digitization of health is on the rise. On the one hand, this brave new world has garnered praise for its egalitarian and educational possibilities, but the landscape hasn’t shifted without due criticism, either. Some argue that trackers marketed to female consumers encourage yet another way to obsess about the body. Medical experts bemoan the problem of false claims generated by incorrect data entry, as well as the decline of vital in-person patient/physician relationships, and the issue of the way private medical information is shared. Then there’s the way an app represents its user base; one of the biggest challenges to emerge from the growing number of health startups dealing with female reproduction is how they engage with marginalized groups typically left out of the design process.

The health app industry has given way to a whole new range of challenges for UX designers; challenges that will not only affect a user’s digital experience, but  their mental and physical well-being, too. How can UX effectively inform and console a user in the deeply personal topic of health? And how can design not only encourage trust, but also provide us with a truly trustworthy analysis?

womens-health, app, ux-design, Maven, period-tracking

Maven app screens. Courtesy of Maven.

Maven, founded in 2015, is a telemedicine startup that specializes in women’s healthcare in the US. It’s just undergone a significant redesign, and the number one challenge for its design team was creating a space that felt dependable. The platform offers people advice and prescriptions without the need to actually visit a doctor’s office; for most, trusting an app with your sensitive healthcare needs is not an easy leap of faith to take. As with any other telemedicine network, users book video appointments directly through the app, but Maven differentiates itself through the experts it makes available, such as lactation specialists ($25 for 20 minutes) and midwives ($18 for 10 minutes).

One positive implication of Maven is access. Considering the high cost of healthcare in the U.S., the platform is especially helpful when it comes to providing information, services, and birth control to those who might not otherwise be able to receive attention. But Maven doesn’t want to replace office visits to a doctor. Instead, it wants to replace the practice of Googling symptoms or ignoring a problem because it feels embarrassing. As a result, the app’s design attempts to create a space that makes users feel comfortable and at ease, “as if they’re talking to a best friend,” as Maven’s design director, Kara Yeomans, puts it.

“Our goal with the rebrand was to reject the clinical feel that a lot of telemedicine apps have—they’re medical, white, and rigid, not personable at all,” Yeomans says. “On the other hand, we didn’t want something too playful. When you’re trusting a medical app on your phone, fun isn’t the first thing you want. We decided to use a serif and earthy tones to connect the user with a feeling that we’re here for you.”

womens-health, app, ux-design, Maven, period-tracking

Maven app screens. Courtesy of Maven.

Maven doesn’t use millennial rhetoric like many of the new healthcare apps do—its tone is critical for communicating that sense of dependability to its audience. Friendly, hand-drawn icons rendered in a soft palette of pink, green, and brown balance this authoritative tone, providing a user with that all-important friendly feel. “They’re our favorite elements to design,” says Yeomans. “They have to be universally understood and inclusive for all demographics. The only problem we’ve ever had with an icon was a symbol for the breastfeeding category—a pair of naked breasts—which conservative users had a problem with.”

Viewed from the perspective of gender, Maven leans slightly towards the stereotypically feminine. Although it’s not teeming with flowers and swirls like many health apps marketed towards female-bodied consumers, its soft pink tones and curving font suggest that all its users identify as female. For those who don’t, the feminine elements can feel alienating, and not like a friendly, like-minded hub at all.

A good, certified health app can become an authoritative, safe space for a user, a place that tells you what’s normal and helps you understand what isn’t. If a platform is going to make statements about what’s normal, it should consider how its iconography depicts gender and sexuality, too. Not all pregnant users, for example, are heterosexual or female-identifying, and so UX must encompass a range of identities if it truly intends to be inclusive.

A 2017 report published by Human Computer Interaction & Design research group DUB (Design, Use, Build) out of the University of Washington, found that women’s health apps regularly fail to support marginalized populations of gender and sexual minorities. One of the biggest complaints is how app iconography often assumes that all users identify as female and their sexual partners are male, excluding same-sex relationships, transgender users, and people with non-binary gender identities.

womens-health, app, ux-design, Clue, period-tracking

Clue app screens. Courtesy of Clue.

This is something that Clue, a period tracking startup based in Berlin, takes very seriously. “Clue’s philosophy is that more than 50% of the world’s population get their period, so the design should speak to all of those people,” says design director Katrin Friedmann. Clue’s design doesn’t rely on any stereotypes. Rather, it stems from the company’s overarching brand concept, which focuses on the idea of cycles and balance. Its brand colors span the color wheel, aligning with the idea of a cycle, and its header font, Mrs. Eaves, was designed by type designer Zuzana Licko in 1996 as a homage to the forgotten women in the history of typography. All aspects of the design of Clue embody a feminist sensibility, right down to the icon colors.

For example, where Clue uses red to represent mensuration in your calendar, other period trackers use bright pink, or even worse, a pattern made from flower petals. “We also didn’t want to use that clinical blue to signify menstrual blood, which you often see in period-related products,” says Friedmann. “People bleed during their period, and we shouldn’t shy away from that.” Turquoise represents ovulation in the calendar, and storm clouds represent PMS. These clouds have spurred some criticism from Clue’s user base, as the design perpetuates a negative expectation. “Sometimes PMS comes with positive symptoms, which a lot of people don’t know,” notes Friedmann. “We’re working on replacing the clouds at the moment.”

Like Maven, Clue uses a series of icons to represent different health categories and symptoms. Lightning bolts represent cramps, for example, and a non-gendered stick figure represents high or low energy levels. For skin, a can of tuna represents oily, and a cactus represents dry. While most period-tracking apps use icons of male figures to indicate whether or not a user has had sex that day, Clue uses a boot to designate protected sex, and a rabbit to denote high sex drive. “We love playing around with the icons,” says Friedmann. “To avoid alienating any potential user, we often have to think playfully and creatively. At the same time, the icon’s symbolism has to be immediately obvious to a user; there needs to be that ‘a-ha’ moment.”

womens-health, app, ux-design, Clue, period-tracking

Clue app screens. Courtesy of Clue.

While Clue is bold about its use of red, a quick glance at the screen doesn’t obviously suggest that the platform is a period tracker at all. Its playful icons don’t scream “sex” or “acne.” Clue’s design manages to be empowering in its frank discussion of periods, but it’s also as subtle as a wink for those don’t want subway companions to see the private data they’re inputting in their phone. Its icons are like a secret language exchanged between best friends.

The design of Clue is especially progressive and refreshing compared to some of the other trackers available from the App Store. Yet its UX designers, as well as the UX teams at all other tracking platforms, still haven’t found a solution for effectively addressing and responding to the forgetfulness of a user. While it’s possible to turn on alerts, it’s easy to swipe reminders off the screen when you’re busy, and not all users necessarily realize the importance of regularly entering their data into a tracker. Forgetfulness severely impacts predictions and the reliability of a platform.

One important detail highlighted by DUB’s 2017 report is the negative impact that the visual language of certainty has on users. Instead of emphasizing probability, especially if a user hasn’t inputted much data into an app, most trackers visually suggest that a prediction is a certainty. Recent studies have shown that many U.S. teenagers rely on apps as a primary form of birth control, so this small design detail can have serious implications. Design has yet to adapt fully to these new responsibilities and obligations. It must suggest, for example, that “you might get your period tomorrow,” or “you might be ovulating in two weeks.”

Currently, UX designers of women’s health apps like Maven and Clue have successfully created user experiences that feel authoritative, friendly, and trustworthy, guiding users through the new world health tech like a big sister extending a helping hand. But, moving forward, the largest challenge for UX designers in the health industry will be responsibly addressing the potential ineffectiveness of their platforms, too.

from 99U99U

Pentagram’s Naresh Ramchandani: Do the Green Thing

Pentagram’s Naresh Ramchandani: Do the Green Thing

“Value” and “mission driven” are favorite words these days as corporations dive into social responsibility—from blocking gun sales to minors to sending eyeglasses to Zimbabwe. As companies (and their marketing teams) tangle with lawmakers and mindful customers, our heads are spinning. So we asked Do the Green Thing founder and Pentagram partner Naresh Ramchandani what he’s learned from running Do the Green Thing.

Do the Green Thing has been turning out whimsical, solutions-oriented posters, music videos, and campaigns by some of the biggest names in the design world for the past 10 years. Now, a decade into the venture,  Ramchandani and his art director, Lizzie Reid, reflect on their in-house passion projects and how they direct their marketing and design expertise at global good.

Do-the-Green-Thing, Ungifted, Pentagram, Nitesh-Nagrath, Lizzie-Reid, 99u

Do the Green Thing poster by Nitesh Nagrath and Lizzie Reid. 

A lot has changed in how we talk about going green in the last ten years. How do you design campaigns for a more eco-literate audience?

NR: You’re right, the conversation has changed in the last 10 years. It’s not quite mainstream news anymore as it was in 2006 and 2007. What individual green action is, and the difference it can make, have become more ingrained, and more subtle. But I also think you’ve got something else going on: You’ve got a younger generation who were born into the problem. How they engage in solutions is much more natural and intuitive.

LR: A good example is Ungifted, which is the Christmas campaign we launched in 2016. It’s an example of how you create a solution to a problem such as over-consumption at Christmas.

NR: Which is a colossal problem.

LR: A huge problem. Ungifted a website where you can give people time at Christmas. You e-mail a friend and say “Instead of buying you this cheap scented candle or socks, I’m going to try and find the best coffee with you in our local area. Or I’m going to go ice skating with you.” The conversations we had when we were coming up with the solution is “How far up in the About [section] is talking about saving the planet?” People are quite clued up already. You need to start talking about the other benefits. It has environmental benefits—stopping wasteful gifts—but it also plays into other benefits that young people are looking for: spending meaningful time with your friends when you’re time-poor.

NR: You can assume that people are literate in the problem. You just mention super quickly that the gifts that we tend to buy thoughtlessly are also thoughtless for the planet. Then get into the positive, imaginative solution. I’m waiting for the world to understand how brilliant Ungifted is.

Ungifted, Pentagram, 99u

An e-mail from Ungifted. 

How do you select your campaign topics?

NR: We look for issues that are big enough and new enough. They need to be an obstruction to stop us being green. We did a thing called Glove Love, which I started when I lost a glove. It was the middle of winter and I’d lost my left glove. I was about to throw the right glove in the bin. In fact, I did throw it in the bin. And then I went to the local park with my children and I saw someone else’s left glove left on the fence. Then on the way back an hour later no one had claimed it. And, I thought “Those two gloves could be wasted or I could put them together into a pair.” From that this idea of Glove Love was born. We went to the London theaters and the London Underground and asked for them to send in any lost lonely gloves. We collected them and washed them. And then added a little tag with the story of where the gloves were found and how they met each other. We sold them for five pounds on our site and got lots of coverage for them because it was seen as a cute idea. It was a nice symbol of how to not waste imaginatively. 

Do the issues you take or the industries you question ever put you into conflict with your client work at Pentagram?

NR: A lot of our criticism is about consumerism and our value systems, as opposed to the businesses providing the means of consumption. We will sometimes take issue with particular clients or causes that other [Pentagram] partners may be doing work for. But, we would never criticize Pentagram for doing those things. We’ve never had a Pentagram partner say, “Why have you looked at the car industry in London, or the Christmas consumption glut?” A lot of the Pentagram partners have contributed to Do the Green Thing. That’s humbling and also reassuring that Pentagram doesn’t see Do the Green Thing as a critique, but as an important voice.

Do-the-Green-Thing, Ungifted, Pentagram, Paula-Scher, 99u

Do the Green Thing poster by Paula Scher. Courtesy of Do the Green Thing.

What is the relationship between Do the Green Thing and Pentagram?

NR: Do the Green Thing is not a Pentagram product. It’s not a Pentagram initiative. It’s proudly independent. We use Pentagram’s platform to publicize the campaigns and initiatives. Pentagram is my primary focus during the day and, as often as we can, we focus on Do the Green Thing.

Lizzie, you came on in the last couple of years. How did you end up art directing this project?

LR: When I came to work with Naresh, it was a big draw for me that, alongside the commercial work, I got the freedom to work on a project like this, which a great cause that we all believe in and allows you to work with so many different kinds of creative collaborators. Plus, you get a lot more freedom with creative solutions than you do with clients.

NR: Because…

LR: Because we approve them ourselves!

Where does funding come from? 

NR: We started when the grant and foundation market were very different. We got a couple of small to mid-sized grants and bits of sponsorship. That became harder as the grant world changed, and we became more comfortable operating on favors rather than money. Occasionally, we get the chance to do little bits of creative services work to get a small level of cash flow into Do the Green Thing. It’s important because it means we can give some money to younger and independent creatives. When they’re doing such great work for us, we don’t feel it’s fair to ask them to give their time for nothing.

What advice do you have for companies trying to make Do the Green Thing-type values part of their structure?

NR: Too often, commercial creativity is self-serving for a corporation and their P&L. Creativity needs to understand that potential outcome and try to do the opposite: Put something good into the world. If it can service society or culture as well as service commerce, that equals a different kind of success. The idealism and purity that’s in Do the Green Thing is not isolated. We always try to explore with the organizations we work for ways that they can enrich the society they’re part of.

from 99U99U

Jason Mayden: When Corporate America Doesn’t Buy that your Favorite Title is ‘Dad’

Jason Mayden: When Corporate America Doesn’t Buy that your Favorite Title is ‘Dad’

Mayden is the creative CEO behind Super Heroic, a mission-driven business focused on providing quality play-performance footwear, apparel, and technology for children. Mayden will be speaking at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Mayden to reflect on a moment when he faced a tough decision and how he pushed through.

“The most daunting challenge I faced was transitioning from my position at Nike to the more purposeful role of full-time stay-at-home father. At the time, my son was facing medical challenges that were greater than the ones I faced designing products for athletes. So, I decided to step away and use my gifts and talents to help him heal, both emotionally and physically.

“I expected difficulties to come from the day to day tasks of being at home. But the real difficulties lay in the skepticism from my peers in the design industry. People had trouble understanding my choice to leave a prominent position in corporate America for the sake of the wellbeing of my child. Some speculated that I was going to a competitor. I felt shunned by the industry, discarded, even seen  as a traitor.

“I know that their judgmental perspectives were bound to a lack of knowledge. I was confident that my decision could endure a temporary rebuff from an industry that I deeply love. I decided to remain centered and calm. Ultimately, it was the right decision for our family. It helped me to focus on what mattered to me most: the preservation of childhood creativity and innocence. I decided to focus on building stronger children, rather than fixing broken adults. I decided to dedicate my life to the protection and well-being of all children—not just my own.

“Now, I am the CEO and cofounder of Super Heroic, with the mission to entertain, delight and surprise every child in the world through interactive and imaginative play. We seek to encourage a spontaneous, active lifestyle.

“As a CEO, I try to embed the spirit of what I’ve learned in how we work with and reward our teammates. We have an open, healthy dialogue that’s focused on promoting work/life balance. We have to play with and enjoy our families, in order to embed joy in the work that we do. It’s imperative that we live what we speak.”

See Jason Mayden along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.

from 99U99U

The Invention of the In-home Coffee Maker Emancipated Women in the ’30s—Here’s How

The Invention of the In-home Coffee Maker Emancipated Women in the ’30s—Here’s How

Nothing says good morning like the sound of bubbles rising as you lift your espresso maker from the stove. It wasn’t always so easy and affordable to make coffee at home, though. It was the invention of the humble Italian Moka Express—the first stovetop espresso machine created by aluminum industrialist Alfonso Bialetti in 1933—that made your morning caffeine routine possible. Before that, espresso in Italy was a substance mainly consumed by men in public coffee houses, where they’d spend long afternoons smoking cigarettes, playing cards, and sipping their drinks. When the Moka Express came on the scene, it wasn’t just an exciting new gadget; it was the dawn of a whole new era for women, granting them access to coffee for the very first time. Over the next few decades, the Moka Express’ marketing campaign would shake things up even more, challenging conventional gender roles in homes around the country. Drinking coffee was never so radical.

Bialetti, Moka-Express, coffee-maker, coffee, product-design, 99u

“Bellezza” ad, 1955. Photo via

Today, nine out of ten Italian households own the practical Moka Express, and from the 1950s to the present day, Bialetti has sold over 200 million of them. The celebrated appliance—with its recognizable eight sides and mustachioed mascot—has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the London Design Museum. But the person behind the design wasn’t a designer by trade at all; when giving his invention a look and shape, Bialetti simply copied the functional designs that were most fashionable in the mid ’30s, when a lack of ornamentation and geometric symmetry reigned supreme.

Bialetti, Moka-Express, coffee-maker, coffee, product-design, 99u

Bialetti Moka Express

According to company legend, the idea came to Bialetti one evening while watching local housewives wash laundry in his hometown of Crusinallo. The women would fill a tub with soapy water, bring it to a boil over an open fire, and let the vaporized water rise up through a connected tube and wash over the dirtied linen. In a moment of inspiration, Bialetti dashed to his nearby metal and machine store and applied the housewives’ method to coffee making. It seems wholly appropriate that the design that introduced women to modern coffee culture was inspired by a process itself perfected by women, one that streamlined time-consuming domestic labor.

Bialetti finalized his prototype and gradually began producing units, but the inventor knew next to nothing about marketing; relatively few coffee makers were sold between 1934-1940. Bialetti was selling the product at small public markets and at his own modest storefront, which was cluttered with a range of other metal appliances. During the war, coffee was scarce, and metal even more so. Moka Express production dwindled. Eventually, Bialetti closed down his shop entirely.

Bialetti, Moka-Express, coffee-maker, coffee, product-design, 99u

Bialetti Moka Express ad, 1960. Photo via

It wasn’t until after the war, when Bialetti’s eldest son Renato took over the family business, that the Moka Express flourished. It was eventually produced, marketed, and sold on a mass scale. During the ’50s, Renato brought a playful yet strategic sensibility to its advertising and branding, and shrewdly fabricated the appliance in a full range of sizes to suit different families and needs. He strove to create a distinctive brand that pulled on the public’s heartstrings, combining nostalgia for pre-war traditions with imagery informed by America’s rampant consumerism and new recognition of the female consumer.

Bialetti, Moka-Express, coffee-maker, coffee, product-design, 99u

Bialetti Moka Express ad, 1960. Photo via

Renato commissioned a mascot by the Italian cartoonist Paul Campani as part of the company’s new strategy; the beloved l’omino coi baffi (“the little man with the mustache”) still graces the lower chamber of the appliance. This popular mustachioed man—rumored to be based on Alfonso, but also uncannily similar in appearance to Renato himself—not only differentiated the product from the increasing number of imitators, but also spoke to the grandfathers and older uncles who remembered their beloved lazy evenings in coffeehouses before the war. Just as in those days, the little cartoon figure raises his finger up high, as if gesturing to a barista for “one espresso.” The direction of his point when he’s placed on the appliance also enacts the path that the coffee takes as it’s made: water boils up and—alongside the familiar sound of bubbles rising—that “one espresso” is complete.


Renato’s advertising, on the other hand, transported the coffee shop to the home in a way that was distinctly egalitarian and modern. Campaigns featured women drinking espresso around a table, conversing with men in suits. These images transferred espresso to a domestic space along with the intellectual debate and conversation that came with coffee culture. Many ads presented women preparing espresso themselves, or even more subversively, others depicted men in the kitchen using the appliance—a bold reversal of conventional gender roles. One billboard featured a young boy asking, “Where’s Daddy?” The mother responds, “He’s in the kitchen with the Moka Express.”

Bialetti, Moka-Express, coffee-maker, coffee, product-design, 99u

“La cucina italiana” Bialetti Moka Express ad, 1959. Photo via

Short comics and animated television ads also showed l’omino coi baffi making coffee in the kitchen. These step-by-step guides emphasized speed and simplicity. Another popular ad showed a group of women in stylish black turtlenecks and trousers sipping espresso while ballet clothes hang nearby; they study classical dance and sip classic espresso, says the writing on the poster, but do so in modern clothes,after preparing the drink in the modern way. Under Renato’s lead, marketing underscored the synthesis of old and new, and the Bialetti company would blitz the public with these messages, occasionally purchasing every available billboard in the entire city of Milan. The streets overflowed with pictures of the Moka Express, as if the product was part of the very heart of the city, representing and allowing for the mingling of its old traditions and new way of life as the disruptive fascist past began to fade.

Women’s ingenuity is a crucial part of the design story of the Moka Express. Its invention rendered coffee drinking no longer a predominately male practice for Italians, and the product’s marketing became intertwined with shifting gender politics. All that history bubbles to the surface every morning as we lift the classic coffee maker off the stove, and pour its deep, dark brown liquid into a ceramic cup to start the day.

from 99U99U

Craig Oldham on When Your Dream Job Becomes Just Another Job

Craig Oldham on When Your Dream Job Becomes Just Another Job

“When I was studying, ‘the industry’ felt like a tangible, physical thing that I had to break or find a gap in to access,” says Craig Oldham, designer and author of Oh Sh*t What Now?! (Laurence King). “Once you’re in it, you look out and realize it’s really permeable. There’s such a hypocrisy in how each side of that fence interacts with the other.”

His new book debunks the various myth associated with design practice, and offers hard-won advice for graphic designers at the very beginning of their careers. Oldham takes on everything from job placements, creative process, and career pivots, to avoiding all things “nice,” the “idle-ized” gap year, and not wasting time on work you don’t believe in.

“I definitely identified with [the industry] as a holy grail, and the more I operate within it, the less I want to be associated with it” says Oldham. “Everyone has that Wizard of Oz moment, when they realize ‘the industry’ isn’t that important, it’s just another job—a job that you care about, which is what makes it different, but it’s still a job. If you look at the bigger picture, you realize there’s a lot of work happening outside of ‘the industry’ as we recognize it, and the sooner people are exposed to that, the better. It’ll demystify and enrich it.”

And demystifying is exactly the aim of the book. It stems from Oldham’s experience in education, as both a student and lecturer. “Since graduating from Falmouth University, I’ve lead a split existence—half rice, half chips—as a designer and as a lecturer, trying to share what I learn in real time. When I was studying, we’d have the great and the good visiting us every Friday to give a talk on their practice; you’d see all this amazing work, but have pangs of self-doubt, thinking you could never be as good as them. I decided that if I ever had the privilege of sharing my experience, I’d remove that ‘veil’ and talk about the human experience. I wouldn’t show my work—I get bored of the work. I’d talk about what I’ve learnt.”

For his first lecture, Oldham printed his notes as a broadsheet publication and gave it to his students for free. “I wanted to take into account that people learn differently—some by reading, others by listening—and the idea snowballed into essentially doing publishing for education. I did a few projects like that, and it’s culminated in this book.”

The book is a sort of contradiction in terms. It’s hardbound and weighty, suggesting a level of assurance that Oldham derides, but it’s also bright and bold, set with large, impactful typography printed in neon pink and green. “I wanted the book to be playful. As a person, I’m happy to be wrong, and I was happy for the book to open up questions. Early in my career a friend of mine said, ‘I can’t wait for you to contradict yourself in print,’ and I still hear that ringing in my ears. He’s right: people change, and rather than trying to be a figurehead crusader, why not just say, ‘I don’t know, this is just what I’ve experienced.’ Advice is just a form of nostalgia.”

Although its primary audience is likely to be recent graduates, Oldham was keen to address later crises. “There’s no advice out there for getting your second job. I found it terrifying. You can so easily get tunnel vision and stick to a train track of your own making. Working out what you do next is part of a constant educational cycle, and I really wanted to pull the curtains down on that. You don’t stop learning as soon as you leave university—that’s just the start of everything.”

Not only do you not stop learning as soon as you leave university, but maybe the trick is never fully leaving education. A graphic design practice, like most creative work, is very much an internal process. “As you work, you build up your own tastes and belief system as a designer. When you teach, it forces you to explain it all to someone who isn’t privy to your back-catalogue of references. It forces you to articulate yourself better, evaluate your process, and make you more aware of how and why you do things.”

Keeping a broad frame of reference, and not making self-referential ‘design for designers’ projects is, in Oldham’s opinion, key. “When you see graphic design projects about graphic design, they are so boring. My mum, who appears a lot in the book, doesn’t get any of that. She isn’t interested in Pantone puns. I think it’s a shame when you have a captive audience to just go from A to A. Is that all you’ve got? You’re not going to try to persuade anybody, to enforce your taste in the world, or engage in a debate that’s bigger than yourself?”

Both in the book and in our conversation, Oldham suggests that graphic design, in and of itself, isn’t interesting. “Everything else around it is what’s interesting. You’ve got to draw from other things, disciplines, areas; it’s all got to get in there, because graphic design is a means, not an end. A lot of people forget that, and that’s when you end up with, ‘Look at the white space on that!’”

That doesn’t mean graphic design isn’t complex, though. “You’re not just there to air dress. It’s actually not that visual, most of it is problem-solving. Your task is to pull everything together, to assemble parts that communicate, which are engaging and clear.

“I was always taught that if you get the idea right, how it looks will present itself. I thought if I crack that, no one can argue with how it looks. It takes it away from being an arbitrary, visual discipline, and removes the fight of ‘I don’t like pink.’” But this isn’t to suggest the creation and massaging of a wall of mysticism around the creative process: “People get really romantic when they talk about creativity, and even more romantic when they talk about the power of education. I do as well. Knowledge is key, but you need to be able to apply it, and you’ll probably need to have a degree of commercial practice in order to pay your rent. It’s all well and good being a romantic, experimental creative genius, but if no one’s going to see it or experience it, what’s the point? Even that notion we have of the artist—just doing whatever they want—they still have to be amazing sales people to do that, they still need to have an audience, and fulfil their needs. It’s all the same, and my whole mantra for education is that it offers up a perfect storm in which to find out what version of that you are.”

Essentially, Oldham sees graphic design as a democratic profession. “It’s communication and every human does that, so you’re not special just because you’re a designer. People can find their way into the industry through various routes and learning experiences, with a variety of abilities and desires.” For him, a traditional design education was the right route. “I’d have been nothing without a design education, I just wasn’t confident enough at that age, and I wasn’t aware of the industry enough to know about particular roles. I came from a benign, mining town in the middle of Yorkshire, and I wasn’t exposed to a media-savvy creative city like London.

This, he posits, is where the problem lies. “People hire in their own image instead of hiring people who are better than or different to them” remarks Oldham. “A lot of it is vanity, it’s people believing their own hype and wanting people who flatter rather than challenge them. It flies in in the face of everything people at the helms of design or advertising agencies say about being creative.”

“To engage in the debate and not make active changes, in a lot of ways that’s worse than not being engaged at all. It boils me, it really does.”

“It’s a systemic problem in the creative industries that those who aren’t party to it’s inner sanctum, or the people occupying it, are often excluded from taking part in creative work, or benefitting from it. Access, whether that be in a professional context, in education or simply as a participant or viewer is limited both consciously and unconsciously by those at the reins.

“The problems we have in diversity—race, gender, class—would all be helped if we stopped considering graphic design education and practice as having single definitions that everyone can subscribe to” says Oldham. “People would be able to find their own way into it much easier, and we’ll be able to attract a richer source to it, from all kinds of backgrounds, because that’s what’s going to make it better. A behavior change of how we operate within the industry is the only way we’ll ever address the issues that have become poisonous. We’re at toxic levels now, and it needs to be addressed. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, but I have a pretty good grasp of what I need to do as an individual. Collectively making a change has to start from individuals doing what they need to do.

“We need to not perpetuate ideas about graphic design being a boys club. We need to get rid of the idea that it’s a middle-class playground—we’re in danger of going back to the dark ages of working class people not being able to go to university in the UK, and it’s just going to be super toffs. And we need to readdress the role of the intern, and get rid of this whole ‘rite of passage’ thing. When we rise up through the industry ranks, we need to clear the way, not build the wall back up. We’ll progress so much further if young people don’t have to deal with all this.”

from 99U99U

Don’t Get Promoted to Micromanager-in-Chief, Lessons From Mighty Oak’s Animator-Turned-Creative Director

Don’t Get Promoted to Micromanager-in-Chief, Lessons From Mighty Oak’s Animator-Turned-Creative Director

The fanciful stop-motion animations of the studio Mighty Oak have bedazzled bows, bells, and confetti on clients like Bon Appétit, T Brand Studio, and Netflix. Mighty Oak will be hosting a breakout session at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Mighty Oak’s Creative Director and Partner, Emily Collins to reflect on a creative hurdle and share how she navigated it.

“The most daunting challenge I’ve faced as a creative director has been learning to step away from the process of making. I am instinctively drawn to making things with my hands. As a kid, I drew and invented characters inspired by people with crazy shoes, dogs, and wild patterns. Mighty Oak focuses on hand-made work, so the temptation to create is abundant! At first, it was very difficult to pull myself away from executing on my own.

“The first time I stepped out of the weeds was for a project for Don Julio Tequila and the New York Times. It was the biggest team I had directed and I had to focus my energy on working with people and hearing their ideas. Our work is innately collaborative and needs a combined set of skills and hands. By reminding myself that we hire people for a reason and that I can not physically do all jobs helps keep micromanaging inclinations to a low for me (or at least I try!).

Mighty-Oak, Don-Julio-Tequila, 99u-conference, interview, handmade, animation

Project by Mighty Oak for Don Julio Tequila.

“Once a task is someone else’s responsibility, I let them work it out and do check-ins regularly to make sure we’re on the same page. I fight the inclination to micromanage by highlighting my most important duties for the day—and doing them well—before I consider meddling with someone else’s. If my duties include checking in with people I schedule a couple of check-ins, but I don’t do their jobs for them.

“I’ve found outlets to make things with my hands on my own time. Often just drawing at home at night quenches my desire to work with my hands and keeps me feeling fresh. I discover a lot of new ideas by opening up a drawing pad after 9 p.m. and seeing where my hand takes me.

“My advice to those facing a similar situation would be to embrace the idea of collaboration. A multitude of artists can create much more work than a single maker, and that work is often enhanced by the collaborative process. Remember to be clear with your ideas while communicating with a team—have notes, sketches and examples ready to share. I’ve found joy in working with a group of amazing artists, and seeing so many of our ideas coming to life simultaneously.”


See Mighty Oak along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.

from 99U99U