Love the Design Work, Hate the Designer. How Much Do a Designer’s Morals Matter?

Love the Design Work, Hate the Designer. How Much Do a Designer’s Morals Matter?

Each month we present three diverging opinions one on divisive issue. Here, Erik Carter, Debbie Millman,and Paula Scher take sides on whether we can (or should) separate great design work from a morally objectionable designer. Ready, set, debate.

“We must set a precedent so that the design industry becomes more inclusive and diverse.” Erik Carter, independent graphic designer and art director

The industry needs to show people that bad behavior won’t be tolerated. We shouldn’t celebrate the work of a morally reprehensible designer; it sets a terrible example. It says that even if someone has done something awful to someone else, they’ll still be championed. When we discover that a designer has acted terribly, first they should be called out. Then, they should be historicized for what they are. And then, their work shouldn’t be promoted by the community. If someone you look up to or work with is outed for bad behavior, it’s your responsibility to stand by their victims and against their malignant viewpoints. If someone is outed today, we cannot invite them to design conferences, or write profiles about their work online. They need to have no opportunities for financial gain whatsoever, and no professional gain.

Someone like Eric Gill should be discussed as he was: a type designer and a child molester. If it’s a choice between using Gill Sans or Johnston Sans, I’m more than happy to use the latter. There are more than enough good typefaces by decent humans to go around.

Western graphic design has had a persistent diversity problem and if someone is rightfully called out for abusive behavior, then that’s an opportunity for a designer with an underrepresented voice in the community to be heard instead.

The sexism and lack of diversity that is in design is not a problem that’s unique to our profession. It’s rooted in many things outside of design, but it is our job as designers to try and fix it. For the next generation it’s even more important to try and create a community that is more diverse and inclusive. And it is the responsibility of those currently working to stand up for victims and call out bad behavior.


“It’s very difficult to reconcile the fact that we’ve been duped.Debbie Millman, writer, educator, artist, brand consultant, and host of the podcast Design Matters

I’m conflicted by people whose work I adore when I’m also disgusted by their behavior. I’m crushed by Woody Allen, for example. Growing up, Woody Allen’s movies helped me become the person I am now. If you look back at interviews that were conducted with me at the start of my career, when people asked what my favorite movie was, I would always say Manhattan. Always.

But I fell out of love with Woody Allen after he started a relationship with his stepdaughter while in a relationship with Mia Farrow. Now, the allegations that he sexually assaulted his daughter has made it impossible for me to see any new Woody Allen film. I don’t want to participate in s contributing to his prosperity, knowing the things that he’s done and been accused of.

It’s also really hard for me to reconcile the fact that Elizabeth Moss is a Scientologist, and Scientologists have very specific points of view about women that I don’t agree with. But I loved her performance in The Handmaid’s Tale. The fact that she’s a Scientologist doesn’t take away from the excellence of Moss’ performance, but what it takes away from is my willingness to participate in her artwork.

Discovering that someone is morally reprehensible really changes how I view the person, but whether or not their work is good work becomes hard for me to assess. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a fair thing to do. And as someone who has been perpetrated against in some really difficult and abusive ways, I’m saying this fully cognizant of the bad behaviour people are capable of.

I wouldn’t commission or collaborate with a designer that I discovered had behaved badly. Why would anyone? I wouldn’t buy a typeface from them, or hire them to do work with me, or collaborate with them on Design Matters. If they wanted to come clean on Design Matters and talk about their regret and apologize, I might consider it. But I would not give them a forum to promote their work if I felt that their behavior was abusive.  


“Don’t confuse protest with value judgement.” Paula Scher, graphic designer, partner at Pentagram

Ezra Pound is a great poet, even though he was a fascist.

Louis CK was a brilliant comedian, and I will miss him.

Al Franken was a terrific senator who committed a misdemeanor, and I will miss him.

We all know about Thomas Jefferson’s treatment of Sally Hemings; do we throw out all of his achievements?

Sometimes terrible people make great art, and sometimes wonderful people make mediocre crap.

Repugnant human behavior has nothing to do with the judgement of art. The two are not aligned. If you want to boycott something in protest, that’s okay. But you can’t make a value judgement about the work that way. Art is art.

I had an experience with Planned Parenthood recently. I was doing a mural for them that was theoretically about their history, but I couldn’t put up a picture of the founder, Margaret Sanger, because it turned out she was into eugenics. So the founder of Planned Parenthood, who essentially changed the power structure and shape of women’s lives forever, is written out of their own history. I mean, that’s sort of sick. To put her on the mural doesn’t mean you’re for her position—which is disgusting—but by leaving people out from history, you become part of this crazy dialogue that doesn’t accept the fact that human beings aren’t perfect. By this standard, we’d never be hanging up Pablo Picasso’s work. Wouldn’t that be a loss?

I’ve only ever had problems with people—never their work. I knew a few designer-predators firsthand; they were terrific designers and their best work is still great. It’s always a bit confusing because you can admire them for their work while you also resent and hate them. But you can’t make a visual judgement about a typeface because the person who designed it is a predator. That’s insane. It’s pointless, actually. You could say that they shouldn’t get a royalty for it, but that’s another story.

Peter Martins of the New York City Ballet was my client. On the one hand the notion of him is as completely offensive; and on the other hand, there are movies made about people like him. He was an artistic director who had a Machiavellian relationship with his ballerinas that’s like something out of literature. You can’t say you’re shocked when you discover he’s a predator, because that’s his expected role.

This stuff is very confusing. I don’t think any woman should put up with bad behavior, but also you can’t change your judgment of artistic or literary or political contributions based on it. We have to look at the culture that something occurs in. It’s the culture that should change.

from 99U99U

Firing Your Most Lucrative Client, and Eight Other Crazy Career Changes That Were Ultimately Great Moves

Firing Your Most Lucrative Client, and Eight Other Crazy Career Changes That Were Ultimately Great Moves

When you launched your creative career, you may have pictured a series of razor-sharp lines leading from one position to the next—a sequence of steps moving irreversibly onward and upward. For most of us, that career path is less like a staircase and more like a hiking trail, twisting and turning organically, and even branching out unexpectedly.

No doubt, change can be terrifying, but sometimes it’s a little less terrifying than the prospect of staying on the same path you’ve been on for years. The next time you’re considering a new direction, keep stories from these nine creative leaders in mind.

Carve out time for yourself.
Kim Knoll and Kyle Eertmoed, partners, Knoed, Chicago, IL

Last year was Knoed’s fifth year in business and one of our most humbling. As a husband-and-wife agency of two, we’ve always prided ourselves on our ability to juggle a lot. And we appeared to have it all—a steady stream of work, good clients, prestigious awards, and active involvement in the creative community.

But behind the scenes, we were slowly suffocating ourselves, working weekends, eating dinners at 10 p.m., and waking up in the middle of the night worried about deadlines. We didn’t realize how much it was affecting us until Kyle (a fit 36-year-old) returned from the doctor with a prescription for blood-pressure medication and a stern warning to make some lifestyle changes.

Leading into 2017, we shifted our perspective away from what we thought we were supposed to do to what we needed to do. After four years of leading the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings (a monthly lecture series), we handed the reins to a new organizer. We said goodbye to a lucrative catalog client and the thousands of dollars that came with it. We even suggested that one of our favorite clients hire another illustrator to take over our work.

Flash forward six months: Freeing up that space has allowed us to do more of what we love, with some downtime built in. We brought in two new clients with branding needs, and one of our favorite long-time clients agreed to a monthly retainer—a move that would have been impossible with our previous workload. And the new arrangement with the illustrator is working out great. For the first time in years, we were able to take a three-week vacation, renting a campervan from Denver to San Diego and hiking in national parks all along the way. It was heaven.

In the end, we’ve learned that adding “health” and “happiness” to our client roster is important, and sometimes making a big shift is worth it—even if it’s a little scary in the beginning.

Listen to your own voice.
Glen Hilzinger, SVP, integrated group creative director, Leo Burnett, Detroit

Four years of design school taught me one thing: I wasn’t a good designer. Or at least, not as good as I wanted to be. Though my design work was generally well received by others, I was never happy with it. I was my toughest critic.

After a few years at a small design shop, I found myself doing much of my own copywriting. And I found myself enjoying it more than design. Scraping together some writing samples, I landed a junior copywriter job at J. Walter Thompson. My first assignment? A radio spot. Yes, the quintessential copywriter’s assignment. Never mind that I’d never written one before. It was, I felt, the perfect opportunity to prove to myself why I gave up my life as a designer.

Sooner than I would have liked, it was time to present to the executive creative director, a middle-aged man whose three-piece suits underscored his austere, prickly manner. As I stepped into his stark corner office with several other writers, he gestured to a small table that sat beneath a signed portrait of Pat Buchanan hanging on otherwise blank walls. When my turn came, I gave it everything I had, character voices and all. I finished presenting my script, anxious for a reaction. Quietly, the ECD reached across the table, grabbed the script from my hands and slowly wiped his butt with it. Without so much as a smirk, he handed it back to me saying to the group, “Next.”

Surprisingly, even though my first radio script had just been summarily reduced to toilet paper, I wasn’t crushed. Instead, I was eager to get started on a new one.

And that’s when I knew I was meant to be a copywriter. I enjoyed the craft of writing enough that it didn’t matter how tough the critic was.

Honor the work—even if it means butting heads with the client.
Jonden Jackson, co-owner, senior designer, Forefathers Group, Tulsa

For nearly two years, our small agency had tried every method possible when handling clients’ requests for design revisions. From an open-door policy that allowed any revision they wanted (worst idea ever) to additional hourly billing (never fun), all the way down to a limited number of revisions allowed for the project. And guess what? It rarely, if ever, improved project results.

Finally, in the Summer of 2016, we wrote The Declaration—an eBook that we share with all of our clients before we begin working together, which explains our design process and our decision to refuse any revisions that don’t serve the greater good of the project.

It was a risky move, to be certain, but it was one we fully believed in. Forefathers was built on the idea of taking big risks to get to where we want to be, and it was important for us to keep taking big risks to continue growing and learning. And that means pushing our own boundaries to get the best results for our clients.

The Declaration has completely transformed how we work, and has helped bring order to the results-driven design that we pride ourselves on.

We firmly believe that guiding clients to think in terms of results and urging them to ask themselves, “Will this revision improve a user’s experience with my business?” gets them more deeply involved in the design process and helps them start thinking more like their customers.

Be willing to walk away from something good, for the chance to launch something even better.
Claudia de Almeida, principal and creative director, o Banquinho (The Tiny Bank) San Francisco

In 2013, I finally landed my dream job: WIRED Magazine. I honestly thought I would be there for 10 years; after all, the content was amazing, and the opportunity to do great design felt limitless. It was immensely gratifying to bring stories to life with the help of editors, writers, photographers, illustrators, type designers, and letterers—being an art director felt like coaching an all-star team.

But things don’t always goes as you plan. I stayed at WIRED for close to two years and made wonderful friends and work that I am proud of. But when you work for a company, there are things that you cannot control. Change is often good, but sometimes it can be disruptive; ultimately you need to decide if you’re still having fun and doing your best work. I decided to move on.

The demanding deadlines at WIRED made it nearly impossible to plan my next step, so I just left, and figured I would find my way. My good friend Carl de Torres told me to establish myself as a brain + hands: “Let people know you’re a contractor, consultant and a maker.” When you work for yourself, people often assume that you’re just a pair of hands. So I teamed up with my WIRED colleague and pal, Margaret Swart, and we launched a studio as a way to protect ourselves.

I now do all kinds of projects. From consulting to magazine redesigns, logos, type audits, teaching, and sometimes in house work with agencies and companies. I definitely have a long-term plan for my career, but I’ve learned to be flexible.

You don’t need to rush to get to your ultimate goal (and truth is, that goal might change, because life is unpredictable).

For now, I’m most interested in making great stuff. Using the skills I learned from all the amazing people I had the opportunity to work with; eventually, I’ll get where I am going. I think of my career very much like a design project: It’s a process, and you need to learn to love the process.

Pour your passion into self-initiated projects.
Claire Dawson, co-founder, creative director, Underline Studio, Toronto

Back in 2014, our studio was doing well—we had great clients, challenging projects, and a solid team—but we felt a lack of energy and enthusiasm. Creatively, we needed more experimentation and more collaboration.

We realized the solution wasn’t about changing anything, but simply adding to our work through more self-initiated projects.

For our first project, we designed team posters for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, debuting one as each country played its first game. Everyone in the studio participated, designing 16 different posters that were sold online and at an event in a Toronto bar where we celebrated the end of the campaign. Sales of the posters covered some of our costs, but, more importantly, the project energized the studio in a big way. We had no intention of influencing future work or connecting with new clients, but somehow we did.

Months after the campaign launched, Google’s head of marketing in Canada reached out to us, told us he loved the posters, and asked us to design a lookbook celebrating the creators of Youtube—the first of several projects we’ve completed for the brand.

We continued the initiative with two more poster series, and then we decided to make an impact in a more meaningful way: We designed a newspaper series to commemorate the victims of massacres that took place during the civil war in El Salvador, the original home of my co-founder. A corresponding Kickstarter campaign successfully raised $16,000 for Pro-Búsqueda, a Salvadoran human rights group that searches for children who disappeared during the conflicts, from 1979 to 1992. It’s been a wonderful way to collaborate with poets, writers, artists and photographers to support a cause we believe in—and we’re just getting started.

Showcase the type of work that you really want to do—and get rid of everything else.
Justin Mezzell, UI/UX designer, Pluralsight, Salt Lake City

A few years out of school at the University of Central Florida, and fresh off a failed startup in New York, I returned to Orlando and found myself feeling directionless. Although I’d dabbled in illustration while putting myself through college—doing work for friends, family and the occasional church or nonprofit—I had no real experience within the larger design community. I was fortunate enough to land a gig at a small agency focused on branding and more traditional marketing initiatives, but the job wasn’t terribly inspiring. I found myself returning to the blank Illustrator canvas in the crevices between work and the demands of daily life, but I wasn’t sure how to pivot to another career path.

Things started to fall into place when I realized that being unknown meant I could become whoever I wanted to be. If no one was going to ask me to produce the work I wanted to do, I’d do it myself and hope the clients followed.

I created a new portfolio with a focus on illustration, and removed the work that I didn’t want to do anymore (mostly print, branding, and marketing collateral). Every morning, I woke up and produced new work before heading to my day job; that pattern helped me establish a new rhythm.

Over time, the requests began rolling in. A trickle of inquiries eventually became a steady flow, allowing me to leave my day job and dive into the world of freelance illustration with both feet. As time went on, I had the opportunity to apply my illustration skills to UI design, and I fell in love with the interdisciplinary approach that combines illustration, layout, brand, and traditional design principles. That eventually led to a full-time gig at Code School (now Pluralsight) and a healthy dose of freelance illustration on the side.

If the people around you aren’t on the same page, turn the page.
Matt Wegerer, owner, creative director, Whiskey Design, Kansas City, MO

I love the creative industry. We get to cook with art, commerce, data, bravery, and showmanship, and watch it congeal into a crazy pile of weirdness and (hopefully) success.

But after a few years as a senior art director at a small agency, my excitement was waning. The reason? I’d been busting my ass to produce work that was unique, attention-getting and smart, but too often I would hear, “What if this scares the client?” or, “How could we ever pull this off?” or the dreaded, “I don’t feel that this represents our agency’s core values.”

I saw dozens of great ideas smothered by a mound of fear, laziness, and a peculiar need to worship a list of words on a wall—none of which said, “Do great work.”

Moments like this made me go on my own in 2009. Yes, that 2009—the one with the Great Recession making everything shitty. I knew I had enough freelance work to keep me busy for a year—a year where I could work on exciting projects with smart and ballsy clients. Don’t get me wrong; it was scary. I was giving up a solid paycheck in the middle of the worst financial crises in 50 years. But at the end of the day, I was more sickened by the idea of another year of unsatisfying work than the possibility of failure.

That one year has now stretched into eight. Whiskey Design’s roster of clients is diverse, and every day our clients challenge us to make amazing stuff. And, maybe most important, we’ve become a shop where other crazy-ass designers want to be. Now I work side by side with a small collection of creatives whom I would take into battle against anyone. And at the end of the day, I hope they all know that mediocre excuses for mediocre work will never have a home at Whiskey, as long as blood and bourbon are pumping through my veins.

Team up with a partner who complements your strengths.
Eli Horn, partner, Fivethousand Fingers, Montreal

I’d always wanted to work for myself. I started freelancing in school and tried to keep it up following graduation. My design studies included a business class, but for a young designer more inclined towards painting than entrepreneurship, I had no clear path to starting out on my own.

It took me a year to realize how arduous and lonely freelancing can be; while I managed to get gigs, learning how to maintain client relationships and ensuring that I got paid was a full-time job, in addition to doing design work I was proud of.

Lexane Rousseau, a friend I’d met while studying at Vancouver’s Capilano University, had similar sentiments as she went in and out of agency positions and pursued her own freelance work. Eventually, we started bringing one another into our projects, and learned how to collaborate; when there is no hierarchy or defined positions, it’s up to each person to check their ego, discover how to give and take criticism, and make sure the work is fun and inspiring.

After a few false starts, quickly abandoned names (and business cards), and misguided positioning (limiting ourselves to progressive clients didn’t quite pay the bills), we picked a direction, stuck with it, and began to work together in earnest. The benefits were immediate: Representing ourselves as a larger entity instilled more trust in potential clients, and our individual strengths and weaknesses were balanced—Lexane now focuses on strategy, communications and client relationships while I excel in web development and more technical work. Most significantly, stresses and successes were shared, and we gained a moral support not possible when working alone.

We’re constantly adjusting our direction to pursue new goals, but that evolution from two freelancers to one design studio is well behind us. It was a gradual change, but the most consequential of my career.

Recognize when it’s time to move on to the next big thing.
Emily Sander, advertising department chair, SCAD, Savannah, GA

After more than a decade of hustling through the halls of advertising agencies, working my way up from a junior copywriter to a creative director, there was one question I couldn’t shake: Now what? Armed with a desire to do something more meaningful with my life, I left the world of Brooklyn brownstones for the world of academia in Savannah, Georgia. My new clients were college students, and my new challenge was to help them realize their future.

My focus shifted from creating brand stories to instructing others on how to do the same—a task that proved to be surprisingly difficult.

For so many years, I was caught up in the sheer act of doing, and I never stopped to consider how one actually does.

When I recognized that my ability (or inability) to break through to my young audience could reverberate through our industry for years, I gained a deeper appreciation for every teacher I’d ever had. So I started with the 30,000-foot perspective of a creative director, and tried to see the work from 30,000 feet higher. I spent hours reading materials about the processes I had unwittingly employed for years. I formulated my own charts and graphs and templates to breakdown the lessons I’d learned while sweating every detail of million-dollar ad campaigns. But compared to the seasoned professors who had crafted lectures and moved about the world of academia with precise choreography, I was deeply behind in a new role that left little room for failure.

I scrambled to keep up. I lectured, graded, learned, advised, wrote, and analyzed. On the last day of class, a student approached me, and, reaffirmed my decision, with the smallest gesture: He simply thanked me for leaving NYC to become a teacher. Looking at him, I saw what I had been missing from the most successful campaigns and client meetings. I experienced my direct impact on one person’s life—not his buying habits, hashtag sharing, or general viewing pleasure, but something much more meaningful.

from 99U99U

How Photographer and Founder of Women of New York Went From Waitressing to Working with Chris Rock

How Photographer and Founder of Women of New York Went From Waitressing to Working with Chris Rock

French-Senegalese photographer Delphine Diallo lives for life’s surprises. Little did she know, a chance meeting in Paris with famed photographer Peter Beard, who is known for his African wildlife shots, would come full circle, and he would become her mentor. In February 2008, Diallo received a call from Beard, and he asked, “What are you doing in April? Please come to Botswana with me to be my assistant on the Pirelli calendar.”

Diallo said yes, and the transformational trip solidified that photography was her calling. She later moved to New York, quit her full-time agency job, started waitressing, and moonlighted as a photographer. Randomly bumping into a lost Chris Rock in her Brooklyn neighbor led to photographing Rock for a recent comedy tour and resulted in a huge career breakthrough. Clients have been coming ever since, including The New York Times, Nike, and Swizz Beats.

Her striking portraiture and mixed media collages combine artistry with activism to champion women and challenge societal norms through the exploration of anthropology, mythology, sexuality, identity, and race. “To make it in this male-dominated industry, you must be strong,” says Diallo. “I build my physical and mental strength by studying martial arts and reading constantly.”

Delphine-Diallo, photographer, artist, brooklyn, interview

Delphine Diallo was photographed in and around her apartment in Brooklyn.

You grew up in France—what was your earliest exposure to the arts?

My mother has always been an artist at heart, but was never able to make a career of it. Every weekend, she’d take me to the Louvre Museum, and an artistic aesthetic was always around me. Therefore, my photography today is very close to a painting or portraiture.

You worked as a graphic designer in Paris. What did you enjoy about it, and what led to your realization that it wasn’t for you?

Society tells you that to be an artist is not something you can do for a living. When I graduated, I applied my art skills as a graphic designer and video editor working for companies and branding musicians and artists. I did it for seven years, I did it well, and got the respect. But, as new technologies emerged, I spent more time keeping up with technological changes that I felt limited creatively. These frustrations led me back to photography, which I had studied in school. I wanted to be great at one thing, so thought, “Okay, if this is the beginning, why not give myself 10 years to do this?” When it comes to your vision, you don’t have to stop for technology.

How did you make the move to New York City?

In 2008, I received an O-1 Visa [artist visa] from a creative agency to work on graphic design and video editing projects. It was good, but I felt stifled by the office environment. And, I barely had time to create for myself because I was constantly producing for them.

How did you go from getting back into photography to being mentored by photo icon Peter Beard?

Crazy, right? Sometimes you need one good dinner in the right place at the right time to lead you to a world of opportunities. My friend and actress Aissa Maiga was in Paris for the holidays in 2007, and we had difficulty coordinating our schedules. So, Aissa invited me to tagalong to a dinner event on the Avenue des Champs- Élysées, and I struck up a random conversation with Beard. It felt like a meeting of creative minds, we talked for hours, and I showed him a photo I shot of my family in Senegal that made me proud. I remember he said, “You capture something that I’ve rarely seen—what you capture is full of life and energy.” When he called me a year later to work on the Pirelli calendar shoot in Botswana, it felt like a magical call.

 Delphine-Diallo, photographer, artist, brooklyn, interview

What made this trip transformational?

It was an eye-opening experience to be in Botswana—ten days felt like six months of training. One day, we’re in the middle of a village with elephants coming out of the water and the next night, we’re in the desert surrounded by two bush men and a boar. Botswana is very close to the equator, so when you look at the sky, it feels like the stars are touching your face. I can’t explain it, but when I laid down and looked up at the sky, I began to cry, and boom, I knew what my mission was. After the trip, Peter said, “Please use your gift and photography tools to wake people up.”

When you returned to New York, you quit your agency position and started waitressing?

Yes. This was the beginning of my journey to pursue photography full-time. I knew there would be struggle, but I asked myself what I needed to produce and make money. The answer was I needed three days a week to only take pictures, and waitressing afforded me this.

How did you juggle your schedule, and what skills from waitressing are applicable to photography?

I worked at a very popular restaurant, and had great hours working four shifts from 4 p.m.-1 a.m. This meant I could create during the day, and still have three days to devote entirely to photography. It’s difficult to deal with rude people, but you learn to understand them more. I spent a year and a half studying human behavior, and served people from all over the world. It was an adventure and this experience informs my photography today. Waitressing teaches you empathy, not to take anything personal, and teaches you to be social, in a good way. It was tough, but it was necessary for my photography work to be created. If I had to go back, I would do it again.

Delphine-Diallo, photographer, artist, brooklyn, interview

After a while, your photography gigs began to compete with your waitressing schedule. How did you make the transition to full-time photographer?

Before Instagram, I had a WordPress blog in 2009, and it was very popular. I took lots of pictures of New York City, and posted constantly. I always have someone who is watching my work, and an art director from Nike, Stanley Lumax, was a fan. He hired me because my street photography pictures were cool, and they wanted me to recreate this aesthetic with Nike’s athletes. I was hired regularly for Nike shoots, which allowed me to make consistent money, and led to work with Converse. I never want to be typecast as one type of photographer, so my portraiture photography led to editorial work with The New York Times, Inc., Esquire, and The New Yorker. The key was finding consistent clients.

You created the cover art for Chris Rock’s Total Blackout Tour. Walk us through landing this project and your creative process.

It’s a funny story. Chris Rock discovered my work two years ago. I saw someone from the back walking in my neighborhood, and could tell they were lost. So, I shouted, “Hey, are you lost?” And, it was Chris Rock, but I didn’t recognize him at first because you don’t recognize someone famous, especially if they’re in your neighborhood. Before recognition sunk in, I jokingly said, “I know you’re looking for something. And, you don’t know it, but you’re looking for me.”

We kept walking and talking, and he was incredibly kind and humble. We continued talking about life, and I invited him up to my Bushwick photography studio. Before he left, I gave him a copy of my photo book, The Gift, and he said, “I’ll work with you next time I have a project.” A year later, he called and said, “Hey. Can we work together? My tour is starting, and it’s a big deal.” I was like, “See! I knew you were looking for me.” Then, I asked him to send me portraits of pictures he liked, and we’d work from there. It takes a while to get portraits right, and I wanted to push to envelope beyond a shot of him holding a microphone.

During our shoot, I asked him to give me a screaming attitude, and used smoke to make it edgier. You have choices to be more like portraiture, still photography, looking at the camera or sitting, but the screaming shot was perfect. Therefore, the title, The Total Blackout Tour, came after the image—so it was a total creative collaboration.

How do you make your finances work as a full time photographer?

Most people believe that a photographer is making good money no matter what, but it’s not true. When it comes to editorial projects, magazines don’t pay much unless you’re on staff. The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Esquire cover your expenses and day rate, which is around $500, but by the time you’re done editing and retouching images, and deduct your taxes, you’re not left with much.

There’s a level of prestige shooting for these publications, so when I was starting out, it was great. However, when I’m commissioned for campaigns from creative agencies, organizations, and celebrity projects like Chris Rock’s tour, these provide for me well beyond any editorial job. I own the copyrights for my image for multiple years, and it can be renewed. I receive royalties for any marketing and promotional use of the image whether it’s used online, on a poster, T-shirt or mug. And, when images I’ve shot are part of a global campaign or worldwide tour—this helps my work reach a wider, international audience. This meaningful work also helps fund my personal projects.

Delphine-Diallo, photographer, artist, brooklyn, interview

Finally, you’ve launched your personal project, Women of New York. What’s the inspiration behind this?

For the past eight years, I’ve been shooting women and girls, so the idea is to create visibility through classic portraiture. One day, I woke up after the We the People campaign, and felt like, “Damn, I’m lazy—I didn’t shoot enough women.” To develop structure, I realized I need to create a book, so I’ll shoot 200 women in New York, and cut it down to 111, because I love that number, and it symbolizes oneness.

For the first time, I’m blind casting for this project. I feel like if I select women, then I’m discriminating against other women who want to participate. I’m not going to do that. So, my assistant handles the model calls I post on Instagram, and 30 women might reply, and because they’ve expressed interest, they are part of this project.

I want to give each woman who has felt defeated, unprotected, ignored or degraded, a new light to shine on her brilliance and beauty. And, for the women who have always felt empowered, despite society dismissing her in the workplace, educational institutions, media outlets, and even in her home, I want Women of New York to illuminate her strength in ways she may never have imagined.

from 99U99U

From Copy Center Clerk to Bankrolled Artist, How Adam J. Kurtz Overcame His First Big Creative Hurdle

From Copy Center Clerk to Bankrolled Artist, How Adam J. Kurtz Overcame His First Big Creative Hurdle

The often humorous, sometimes dark work of the artist known as @adamjk can be seen everywhere from tote bags at New York’s iconic Strand Bookstore to enamel pins on the shelves of Urban Outfitters. Kurtz will be speaking at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, so we’ve asked Kurtz to reflect on a pressure-cooker moment and how he navigated it. 

“The earlier years of my creative life were about making the most with what I had. Just five years ago, money was extremely tight. My rent was very low in a pretty grimy house with five roommates, but I still had trouble scraping it together sometimes. The first edition of my Unsolicited Advice planner was born out of necessity: I had zero money for holiday gifts. Instead, I looked toward my resources and skillset to make something to gift friends and family. I didn’t have money, but I did have access to free printing from a copy center job.

“After a small run of that 2012 Unsolicited Advice weekly planner, I decided to try Kickstarter for a 2013 edition. I wanted to take a risk and see if the project could grow into something more. Turning to Kickstarter was about establishing my own legitimacy on a platform that had more brand name value than I did.

“Telling the story, creating a video, and essentially selling myself as an independent creative and trustworthy person felt much more daunting than just printing 25 books at a time. The “all or nothing” goal was intimidating. Even low fundraising goals are sometimes not met, and I was worried and embarrassed about what could potentially happen.

“I ended up hitting my goal of $1,600 on day one, and exceeding it several times over ($7,598 total). It was more money than I’d ever had in my bank account at once. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility. I was used to doing small batches of zines, but this was the first time I thought, Wow, I do something that people really like. This might be a future. It seems silly now, but it was a formative moment in my life and career. Taking on some financial, and definitely emotional risk with that first Kickstarter project opened up a new chapter.

“My big OMG am I an artist? freakout wasn’t entirely pre-emptive. The next month, I signed a book deal with Penguin Random House. And I created a personal manifesto that’s helped me set my intention and goals for the future. It’s given me something to reflect on whenever I’ve lost my way over the last few years. Knowing what actually matters to you, whether it feels important or a little silly (which is still valid!) enables you to focus on the work and keep you on track.”

See Adam J. Kurtz along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.


from 99U99U

Want to Know What the Future Holds? Look No Further Than the Nearest Crossword Puzzle

Want to Know What the Future Holds? Look No Further Than the Nearest Crossword Puzzle

The grid, full of restrictions and possibilities, has entranced graphic designers for hundreds of years. This story isn’t about them.There’s another kind of grid whose black-and-white beauty has bewitched a different group of equally meticulous problem solvers: the crossword puzzle.

It first ensnared David Steinberg when he was 12. He holed up in his bedroom to create a set of clues inspired by a board game (Clue, natch) and sent it off to the New York Times crossword editor, Will Shortz. The answer? “‘No’, as it deserved to be,” Steinberg recalls. But the rejection came with an encouraging note. Precociousness turned into perseverance, and Steinberg waded back into wordplay. “After my 17th submission, it was a ‘maybe,’” he says. “Finally, a different answer!” Eventually, the 14-year-old Steinberg became one of the youngest constructors to publish in the Times.

Unlike many other freelance creative gigs, the hallmark of the crosswords world is moments of encouragement, like a lukewarm note from a Times editor. Instead of vying for a tiny number of publishing slots while editors keep the doors locked and their emails unlisted, crossword puzzlers thrive on mentorship and collaboration.

Each week, 70-100 puzzle submissions are driven from the Times’ Manhattan office 30 miles north to Shortz’s Pleasantville home. For one summer, the door might have been answered by David Steinberg himself, grown from child prodigy to 19-year-old college sophomore, and living on Shortz’s couch during his Times internship. Every morning, Steinberg would pour out a bowl of Alpha-Bits (yes, you read that right) for breakfast and dig in to the submissions. As Shortz’s gatekeeper, Steinberg coded grids with check marks for “good” or “TDEME” for “Theme Doesn’t Excite Me Enough.” Exclamation points were best of all: language that was fresh and lively—the X-factor. Sometimes literally. One of Steinberg’s favorite puzzles used a Battleship game theme to scatter the grid with Xs, indicating how many hits it took to sink answers like DESTROYER or SUBMARINE.

Now 22, Steinberg has published 74 puzzles in the Times with answers like SASHAFIERCE and RAPBATTLE and swapped his major so he could edit for a local newspaper. His goal is to be one of the few cruciverbalists who work full time in the business, just like Shortz. At the Times’ rate of $300 for weekday puzzles and $1,000 for the weekend grids, most constructors are in the business for the laurels, not the paycheck. Jeff Chen, who’s published 78 Times puzzles and oversees a stats database called XWord Info, estimates that fewer than 10 constructors are full time. Instead of money, everyone chases that career-defining puzzle—their own “Battleship” grid, a one-song-glory puzzle that people will talk about for years to come.

Back in the day, crosswords were a hand-gridded, dictionary-fueled endeavor. Now, computer programs with built-in dictionaries are an industry norm. Constructors add lists of new words to their personal dictionary so the program’s algorithm can suggest it for a future puzzle. It’s a generous gesture for an expert to share their dictionary so a newbie doesn’t have to start at square one. As more software programs find a space in the industry, some publications are using the programs and the algorithm to auto-construct puzzle grids. Daily newspaper puzzles, though, are still bastions of the human hand.

XWord Info tracks a gold standard metric for constructors—the number of words they’ve debuted in the Times crossword. Elizabeth Gorski learned puzzling and code-cracking from her military cryptologist father. In the eight-person contingent of constructors who have pushed over 1,000 new words into the Times’ lexicon, Gorski ranks #3 with 1,514—from CLASSACT to MOTHERSOFINVENTION. “I want to incorporate new words to entertain solvers the way a chef adds new dishes to a menu,” Gorski explains.

Answers can be a barometer of the times. According to Chen, AMA used to point to the American Medical Association. Now, AMA points to the Reddit interview. Major themes can be subsumed from the data about the words our society is comfortable with, the ones we find unspeakable, and the inflection moments when that shifts. For example, for decades of the New York Times crossword, CHASTE was as much the watchword as it was at a local bible camp. THEPILL was called into action in 2013 and then used again with a doozy of a clue by XWord’s Chen: “Medical product with no conceivable use?” A sophomore at Brown University successfully inserted NUVA, for the birth control brand, into the lexicon in 2010. And, in October 2017, CONDOM burst onto the scene.

Clues are a reflection of societal norms and where they’re heading. “The industry is sometimes locked in the Mad Men era,” Gorski says. In a recent puzzle, Gorski clued AMAL as “Barrister/Activist Clooney” and was disappointed to see the editor update the clue to “Mrs. George Clooney.”

“I want to eliminate outdated, gendered ways of describing women and men,” she says. Gorski uses clues to literally redefine our cultural norms. NUN is a particular favorite. “I use “Convent manager” instead of the tired “Creature of habit,’” she says, noting that nuns have graduate degrees, and run schools and nursing homes. It’s hard not to picture Audrey Hepburn in a Givenchy lace mask in How to Steal a Million when Gorski confides that she and a band of likeminded constructors “meet in secret locations around the city… to avoid arrest.”

Once a year in late winter, a cadre comes together at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, run by Shortz at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. Junkies for speed-solving puzzles pack the ballroom and shoulder into invite-only Jeopardy in the guest rooms. “Everyone makes puzzles and loves puzzles. You think: I have found my tribe,” says Brad Wilbur, a reference librarian by day who’s also the crossword puzzle editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. And attendees only want that tribe to grow. Perhaps as a part of the effort to mentor new voices, there’s a growing trend in collaborative constructing where an expert will pair off with a newer constructor. Working in teams comes naturally to many. “Be a partner and a critic at the same time,” advises Wilbur. “Say, ‘I want as much of your work to survive the process as it can.’” 

Every constructor has their own puzzle point they want to get across, but at the end of the day, they’re working with one person in mind: the solver. “It’s the constructor’s job to set up the solver to ultimately triumph over the constructor,” says Chen. “You don’t want to create something that’s going to leave the solver defeated… It’s your fault if they don’t finish it correctly, not theirs.”

from 99U99U

Designing a Live-Work Studio? Copy/Paste This Dreamy Spanish Space

Designing a Live-Work Studio? Copy/Paste This Dreamy Spanish Space

His airy studio in located within the modern two-story house he shares with Maria and their dogs in Gaucín, an enchanting hillside village in the Andalusian mountains near Spain’s southernmost tip. The space has succeeded as a live-work space due to “the simplicity of its construction, the use of light through a large window that makes the landscape become part of the house itself, and finally, the adaptation to the topography of the landscape and the street,” says Zabaleta.

The walls of the open ground-floor workspace are white, the floor is concrete, and the space is flooded with light thanks to the double-height ceiling and an interior, glass-enclosed courtyard. Blond-wood partition walls and shelving echo the color of the wood easels at which Zabaleta works on his canvases. “I get up early and walk for an hour, alone, or sometimes with Maria and my three dogs,” says Zabaleta of his daily routine. “A bad habit of mine is not to have breakfast; the good thing is that I work every day, especially in the mornings. When winter comes, I like to light the fireplace and put on some music.”

A white steel staircase leads from the studio to a mezzanine bedroom, then up to the relaxed, open-plan living space with the picture window Zabaleta referred to that frames chockablock rooftops and a panoramic view of the mountains; a simple patio on the other side of the glass beckons, as does the surprise on the rooftop: an ultra-minimal swimming pool. Artwork, plants, and books – those distinctive signs of human life – are everywhere. Back in the studio, it’s easy to become entranced by the intriguing, sometimes apocalyptic paintings that line the studio walls, which are as hyper-realistic as they are otherworldly.

“I am not a painter, as a poet could be, of experience. My life is full of unforgettable moments, but there is something that makes me look in that other direction in which the human being seems to disappear,” says Zabaleta of his work. Clearly the studio is just what allows him to go there. “It doesn’t take much to paint; not in my case at least,” he says. “I have good light, even though the studio is not oriented to the north. Many times the light is too much and I close the window. Then in the darkness I turn on the electric light as if lighting a candle. Despite the white walls, it becomes the best refuge, in the best cave.”

from 99U99U

Can Russia’s “Neutral” Olympics Uniform Pave the Way for More Radical Redesigns in the Future?

Can Russia’s “Neutral” Olympics Uniform Pave the Way for More Radical Redesigns in the Future?

Despite their ban from the Olympics for systemic doping, Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in the games—they’re just not allowed to represent Russia. Wait a minute, you say. What does that look like? Or, as the case may be, not look like? Banning a Russian athlete from representing Russia means neutralizing the uniform and the insignia they wear, creating a provocative design challenge: How do you take the Russian-ness out of Russia?

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies is one of the biggest branding showcases in the world, where countries communicate their current mood to the global community. “Fashion is a huge part of soft power,” says Anastasiia Fedorova, a cultural critic in London.

This year, Russia, a country that goes to great lengths to project its strength (gotta love those shirtless Putin photos), will see its athletes march in what look like knockoff red and gray Adidas track suits stamped with a circular “Olympic Athlete from Russia” mark on the chest. This adheres to the design guidelines released by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last December, which stipulate that the athlete’s uniforms can only have two wordmarks, “Olympic Athlete from Russia” or “OAR;” that Russia’s national emblems must be replaced with the OAR logo; and that only single or dual color elements are permitted on uniforms. And separate items of clothing are not allowed to create Russia’s signature red, white, and blue tricolor when worn together.

All of these requirements seem like a great effort to censure Russia, without really censuring them. They aren’t supposed to be representing their nation, but they’re clearly representing their nation. (See the “Olympic Athlete from Russia” logo.) 99U reached out to the IOC, but they declined to comment for this story.

Olympic, Russia, OL, costumes, 2018

Via the Olympic Russia Twitter page.

So what do designers think of the mark? “Whoever designed it was obviously told to make it as bland as possible,” says Steven Heller, author of Iron Fist, Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State. “It’s a seal without being a seal. You have to decipher it.” Heller likens the design to a 1980s supermarket trend, where product names were presented in black Helvetica type against a white background, to see if the most generic product design imaginable sold better. (It didn’t.)

Then there’s the circular type, with all the letters the same size, capitalized, and kerned to appear interconnected (and unreadable). “It’s only done in situations like E Pluribus Unum, where you know what it says,” says Bonnie Siegler, founder of Eight and a Half design studio. “This is daring you to read it in its illegibility.” And therein lies the rub.

Far from making them neutral global citizens, competing in clothing devoid of identifying features actually distinguishes these athletes from everyone else.

The neutral uniform design stands out only for its stark contrast to designs from previous years. From fur hats to intertwined khokhloma florets, past Russian uniforms have embraced opulence and the country’s folkloric history. But the Olympics that really made an impression? That would be the 1980 Summer Games held in Moscow, when Adidas was selected to design the Soviet Union’s Olympic team uniforms. The iconic tracksuit embedded Adidas in Russian national identity for decades. “Adidas was the first global brand Soviet people were exposed to,” says Fedorova, “It was so prestigious to own a pair of trainers or a tracksuit, people would wear them to the theater or a lush restaurant.”

Look closer at this year’s rush job, pulled together by Moscow-based athletic wear company Zasport in less than a month for Pyeongchang: the simple red-and-gray tracksuits sport double white stripes running down the arm and pants leg. Look familiar? They’re not unlike the Adidas suits that stole Russia’s heart at the 1980 Olympics.

“Graphic design is not neutral,” says Heller. “It has a point of view and the designers who make it happen are either given that view, drive that point of view on their own, or copy that point of view from others.”

(99U reached out to Zasport for comment, but at the time of publication, had not heard back.)

summer-olympics, russia, OL, adidas, uniforms

XXII Summer Olympics. The Soviet field hockey team (women) wins bronze medal of the Olympic Games. Photo by TASS / Yuri Nabatov; Mikhail Potyrnike.

Extranational teams have a creative history at the Olympics. During the Cold War, East and West Germany designed a compromise flag that emblazoned the Olympic rings on top of a set of black, gold, and red stripes. In 2016, Syrian artist Yara Said created a flag inspired by the design of a life jacket that the newly formed Refugee Team competes under. And this year, North and South Korea have agreed to march as one team under a flag displaying a unified Korean peninsula. In all cases, graphic design was used to communicate an identity beyond a single nation-state.

“The Russians should be marching under a white flag,” says Siegler. “It’s like a surrender. They gave up their identity.”

If these groups are not bound by nations, are even more radical redesigns possible? “In the past years, more and more athletes have expressed themselves in terms of their gender identity or their political identity,” says Jilly Traganou, author of Designing the Olympics: Representation, Participation, Contestation. “Give individuals agency to have expression and affiliate with a group they feel strongly about.” Like Siegler, Traganou envisions a white flag at these post-national Olympics with every athlete walking behind it. “They would all wear white,” she says. “No states. No meaning. No identity.”

Until that day, let’s turn the focus back to what the Games are really about: winning (by which we obviously mean healthy competition and sportsmanship). “The Olympics is always a place where nations get together and try to out-muscle one another,” says Heller. “Whether they out-muscle with the physical prowess of their athletes or their graphics.” May the best identity win.

from 99U99U