How Sophisticated Branding Aims to Make You Rethink Cannabis

How Sophisticated Branding Aims to Make You Rethink Cannabis

Before marijuana was legalized, the plant’s design aesthetic was somewhere between the tie-dyed patterns of the Grateful Dead, the Rastafarian color palette of Bob Marley, and the Jamaican flag. But that’s starting to change.

Colorado legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes years ago, but as you drive along the fringes of Denver or Boulder, you’ll still find plenty of former pawn shops and liquor stores that were hastily converted to cannabis dispensaries. Today, the hand-painted signs, the bad puns, and the Rastafarian flags that once defined the industry are finally giving way to sophisticated design that abandons aging stoners in favor of more upscale clientele.

And with good reason. As the Washington Post recently reported, half of the country’s population, spread out among 28 states and the District of Columbia, can legally smoke marijuana for medical purposes; eight states have legalized recreational pot. In 2016, the North American marijuana market posted $6.7 billion in revenue, according to Arcview Market Research, which anticipates the industry will top $20 billion in annual sales by 2021.

Those sales represent far more than loose “flower” rolled up in a joint. So-called “budtenders” behind the counter serve up chocolates, mints, topicals, and liquid concentrates. As the industry begins to mature, purveyors of cannabis recognize the need to separate themselves with distinct branding, just as breweries and distilleries have done for decades.

In the last few months, Christopher Simmons, creative director for MINE, has designed branding and packaging for several dispensaries in San Francisco, including BASA, Dutchman’s Flat, Petra, and Prophet.


Members of the Prophet cannabis family.

“With Prophet, the question was: How do you get away from the dominant paradigm in the industry, which is still holding on to that Bob Marley stoner culture? Because that’s not where the market’s going,” he says. “When I design packaging for these premium brands, I don’t ask if it’s going to look good in a head shop; I want to know if I could reasonably expect to see this at a Whole Foods or a Starbucks.”

Simmons’ work for Prophet’s flower features a sophisticated, bold, sans serif typeface and masculine color palette on a canister that mimics chewing tobacco tins. On the other end of the spectrum, his work for Petra mints is aimed at women, who generally prefer edibles to smoking. Each color hints at a flavor, and each pattern draws inspiration from a country where the plant is indigenous: A Moroccan pattern is paired with mint, and an Indian pattern is paired with mango.

When designing packaging for the cannabis industry, there’s one big question: Use the iconic leaf or not? On the one hand, it’s become a cliche that could tether a brand to stoner culture; on the other hand, it’s a recognizable symbol that immediately telegraphs the presence of THC. As any Colorado resident will tell you, that icon could have prevented a few houseguests from innocently devouring chocolates they discovered in their host’s pantry—the source of a surprising number of visits to the ER.


Petra cannabis mints: “Consume wisely.”

“Many designers use the cannabis leaf as a motif, but I’ve tried to treat it as an icon—the way you might indicate if a product is vegan or kosher,” says Simmons. “Its job is not to romance you—it’s to inform you. If you remove the leaf icon from Petra packaging, it’s less clear that it’s a medicated product, and I think that’s irresponsible.”

When Mexican design firm La Tortilleria tackled branding and packaging for Seven Point, a cannabis dispensary outside Chicago, they went in the other direction, finding inspiration in high-end cosmetics and natural supplements. Their designs eschew leaf iconography and swaths of color in favor of a minimalist black-and-white design that’s pared down to the essentials (including the amount of THC, which is front and center).

The interiors in Seven Point in Chicago, above and below.

Packaging for Seven Point by La Tortilleria.

“So many people have this idea that cannabis is something bad,” says Zita Arca, the agency’s co-founder. “But if [science] had just discovered this plant today, without its long history, we would consider it some sort of superfood. So we wanted to take a very different approach—one that wouldn’t limit its appeal to teenagers.”

Back in Chicago, Curioso was charged with designing the interiors for Seven Point, a challenge that goes far beyond most retail establishments. Although laws vary from state to state, in most cases, dispensaries require an ID check before customers can review a menu of offerings or even look at the product, which must be stored behind closed doors. That means proprietors have to find unique ways to make the shopping experience feel more like a boutique and less like a back-alley drug deal.

To achieve that end, Nina Grondin, one of two partners at Curioso, drew on the firm’s long history with hospitality clients, from restaurants to hotels and resorts.

“Our goal is always to make people comfortable, and to make spaces approachable and inviting,” says Grondin. “Seven Point sells medical cannabis to patients who may be quite ill, so we wanted to get away from the stereotype of a guy with huge muscles standing by the door checking IDs like a bouncer at a club. We want people to think of a concierge rather than a security guard, so that the space feels more like a high-end pharmacy.”

Another challenge: Seven Point isn’t licensed to grow cannabis to be used in its own products, so for now, the dispensary is selling goods manufactured by dozens of suppliers. Presenting all of those items on a shelf would have created a hodge-podge of garish colors and textures, as if customers were wandering through a flea market. So Grondin created a mammoth glass “humidor” that holds branded Seven Point boxes, glass jars, and canisters to provide a unified appearance. After customers make their selections on one of the store’s many iPads, employees remove the individual products from the branded containers and place them in a branded paper bag at the register.  

In San Francisco, laws regarding the display and handling of products are less restrictive, so Simmons had plenty of options as he worked with Dutchman’s Flat, which takes its name from the historic neighborhood that locals now know as Dogpatch.

“Dutchman’s Flat is in the old dock yards area, where there are a lot of brick warehouses and an industrial feel that’s now being gentrified, like much of the city,” says Simmons. “We tried to make it look like everything that was in the space was either already there or repurposed from something that was already there.”

Inside Dutchman Flats dispensary where the vibe is like a coffeehouse.

The historic building featured a long white wall with painted bricks that would crumbled into dust when holes were drilled into it, so rather than hang menu boards, Simmons designed a display that’s cast onto the wall using projectors. Products aren’t locked away, but simply arranged on custom wood countertops, in magnetic metal canisters perched atop repurposed steel I-beams. “If someone really wanted to steal the product, they probably could,” says Simmons. “But we decided the trade-off was worth it, to make people feel at ease and welcome. Most people haven’t bought drugs before, but most people have bought an ice cream or a cookie, and we wanted it to feel more like that experience than anything else.”

As the cannabis industry continues to grow up, agencies like Mine, Curioso, and La Tortilleria are helping to erase stereotypes, creating a new language that doesn’t yet exist. And that’s part of the fun.

“One of the big reasons that I’m excited about designing for this industry is that we’re not beholden to history,” says Simmons. “If you’re designing liquor packaging or chocolate packaging, you already know what high-end liquor looks like and what bargain chocolate looks like. Walk into a liquor store and you can see, from a distance, what’s vodka, what’s gin, and what’s scotch, because they all have an established look and feel that telegraph the category. Pot doesn’t have that yet; it’s too new. We’re like the designers who created computer packaging back in 1985—it’s exciting to be at the forefront, setting a standard that other people will follow.”

from 99U99U

Floyd Norman: It’s not Over Until You Say It’s Over

Floyd Norman: It’s not Over Until You Say It’s Over

Animator Floyd Norman’s childhood dream of working at Walt Disney Animation Studios came true in 1956, and, at the age of 81, he’s not done yet.

Known as a troublemaker in the industry, Norman is the subject of the recent documentary, An Animated Life, which chronicles his life as the first African-American artist to work at Disney, and how he persisted when they forced him into retirement at age 65. “When you get booted out, look at that as the beginning to create something new. My career isn’t over until I say it’s over,” says Norman.

Throughout his colorful career, which began at Disney, Norman has worked for top animation companies including Hanna-Barbera Productions and Pixar. If you’ve seen Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Toy Story 2, or Monsters, Inc., you’ve seen some of Norman’s handiwork. He’s also received numerous industry awards including Comic-Con International’s Inkpot Award and is a Disney Legend, which is the hall of fame program recognizing individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the Walt Disney Company.

Norman’s career is not without its setbacks. He was drafted to war in 1958, in his twenties, launched his own motion picture production company in Los Angeles, which later closed, and was forced into retirement before he was ready. But, with the resiliency of a child, Norman always bounces back, and encourages creatives to cherish the beginnings—whether it’s the start of a new day, new project, or unexpected opportunity. 

Over the years, Norman’s love for the craft and staying current on industry trends have helped him reinvent himself. When he’s not freelancing at Disney or serving as a judge at industry events, he’s speaking at universities to the next generation of animators. “Creative people don’t just hang it up. We want to create magic and continue working,” says Norman.

We spoke with the animator, writer, and comic book artist about his documentary, pivotal moments in his career, and why creatives should care more about beginnings than accomplishments.

Can you briefly tell me about your childhood, and when you developed an interest in the arts?

I grew up in the 1930s in Santa Barbara, CA, and was luckier than most kids. It wasn’t your average community due to its proximity to Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Many residents worked in show business as composers, actors, and writers. So, when we kids expressed an interest in becoming dancers, poets, writers, and musicians, nobody thought this was odd. Seeing Dumbo in the movie theater was a magical experience and inspired me to pursue animation. Many of us left school to become film directors and actors, and in my case, I went to the Walt Disney Studio to make animated films.

Were you parents artists or were they just appreciative of the arts?

Most of my family played at least one musical instrument simply because they enjoyed it. Music was always part of our household. I learned to read music as a child because it would broaden my educational experience. I studied the violin, clarinet, and flute, and played in the high school band and orchestra. This skill came in handy when I began making motion pictures because I could read a music score. You never know how early experiences will help you later in life.

What was it like working at Disney in the 1950s?

It was very exciting because this was my childhood dream—to work for Walt Disney. I still remember receiving the call that I was accepted as an animation intern to come learn the craft.

In An Animated Life, you said, “If you can get through Sleeping Beauty you can do anything.” What made working on this movie so difficult?

For one, this was my first film. Every artist working on a Disney film had to be a darn good artist because the standards were extremely high. Our bosses were demanding, and everything had to be exact. They put us through an animation boot camp to qualify us to work on this feature film.

Back then, films were made entirely by hand. Every image on the screen had to be sketched with a pencil, inked by an inker, and painted by a painter. My primary goal was to learn how to do the job and become better at it. Today, we have technology as a major assist in filmmaking, which means they’re not as dependent on artists.

Can you walk me through the animation boot camp?

It was a cumbersome process. In an animated scene, every drawing must be drawn by hand, and each scene is a series of 10, 50 or even 100 drawings. It’s these individual drawings that give the illusion of life on screen. Consequently, somebody must make all those drawings and there were 600 of us on Sleeping Beauty alone! That’s a lot of artists who must be skilled enough to draw those characters and keep the characters on model. If you don’t love it, you won’t last long in this business. The artists who did this work were die-hards.

How many years did it take to make Sleeping Beauty?

This film was an exception, and took about six years to make. Walt Disney had just gone into television and he was building a theme park in Anaheim, called Disneyland. Many artists struggled to keep his attention, which slowed down the production process.

After completing Sleeping Beauty, you were drafted into the military in 1958. Did art help you cope during this time?

Yes. As an artist, anytime we’re not at work or doing our job, we start drawing and painting. I’ve always loved motion pictures and storytelling, and as a kid, I watched everything from westerns to war movies. When I found myself in the military, in an odd way, it felt like I was in a Hollywood war movie with John Wayne or Gregory Peck. I think this delusion helped me cope through difficult, stressful situations because I never looked at my situation as being real, even though it was real. I was lucky to return from South Korea without any trauma.

So, after a few years absence from Disney, I was back at my drawing board working on 101 Dalmatians, which was nearly complete.

The animation process wasn’t computerized when you began. Do you feel that technology has distracted from or enhanced the animation industry?

That depends on one’s point of view. It’s a totally different business today because of digital technology, and apps like Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator are key. Back then, Walt Disney dominated the animation industry. Occasionally, another studio would try to make a film, but more than likely failed. In recent years, the computer has allowed other players to enter the game, and if they have enough investment to build the digital infrastructure, they can join in. In the 1950s, Disney had an army of skilled artists who took decades to train. Today, a new studio can be up and running in months.

Working in the animation industry demands that you’re funny on cue. Is this difficult?

You’ve got to be a funny person or else you’re not going to be in the business long. If somebody says, “I’ve been called in on a film where one of my bosses said ‘This sequence isn’t making me laugh.’” Well, you fix it and make the sequence funny—that’s your job.

That seems like a lot of pressure. How did you manage?

When your boss is Walt Disney—that’s the guy you must please. And, making the old man laugh is what got me through The Jungle Book. When I joined the project in 1966, The Jungle Book had been in the works for a year, and was a dark, mysterious story. Walt hated it and found it depressing. He said, “I want this picture rewritten. I want it to be fun. And, I want audiences to come out of this movie with a smile on their face.” Lucky for me, I knew exactly what he meant. He wanted to see Disney entertainment on screen. As a kid who grew up on Walt Disney films, read Disney storybooks, Disney comics, and listened to Disney music, I knew what a Disney film was.

So, my colleague Vance Gerry and I analyzed the storyline to bring laughs, music, and humor back into the story, and delivered exactly what Walt wanted. Fifty years later, The Jungle Book, is still very popular with audiences.

What are some tips artists can use to deliver strong storyboard pitches?

I tell young board artists to be confident in what they’ve done. If you’re hesitant about your work, this will show in your pitch. If you feel like you’ve delivered the goods, then you can pitch with confidence because you know what you’re showing works. I’ve always tried to pitch sequences I’ve boarded like, “Look, this is what I’ve done. This is what I feel works, and you can take it or leave it.”

What motivated you to leave Disney to start your own firm?

Walt passed away in December of 1966, which hit me hard. And, my friend Leo Sullivan and I had been talking to educators, and realized nothing existed in school systems addressing black history. We saw a need to create films about black history and culture and knew we could fill this gap as storytellers and filmmakers. So, by the first of the year in 1967, Vignette Films was up and running.

We produced four initial films about Paul Laurence Dunbar who was a poet, Booker T. Washington, an educator, George Washington Carver, a black scientist who played a major role in agriculture in the south, and jazz composer, W.C. Handy, the father of the blues. These were distributed to school systems as educational films, and we’re very proud of the work we’ve done.

You ran into challenges with Vignette Films and had to get creative to keep the business going. What did you do?

We lost our office, and in Hollywood, perception is everything. If you can be perceived as successful, that’s mainly all you need to do. People will fill in the blanks. So, when we moved into a coffee shop, this became our Hollywood office. The payphone became our Hollywood phone number. It was all bogus, but it worked for us. That’s how we managed to keep going, even during difficult times. You must find a way to do things when it looks impossible. We had to finish a motion picture, and had nowhere to do it. What better place to make a movie than in a Hollywood coffee shop? We worked on other projects including the original, iconic Soul Train animation, but eventually closed shop when it became too difficult to make ends meet.

After working for various animation companies, you returned to Disney, only to be forced into retirement when you turned 65. What was it like to be taken away from what you loved most?

It’s tough because when you lose your job, you also lose part of yourself. My identity was so wrapped up in this business—it was part of me. For some time, I walked the streets of my hometown of Pasadena grumbling and feeling rejected. Then, I realized I can’t continue like this and must make a new start. So, I worked at other studios, wrote for television, and did anything I could to stay busy.

I had been pushed out of the game, and was determined to come back on my own terms. Part of this involved coming back to Disney and moving into an office where I didn’t belong. In truth, they could have called security and kicked me off studio property, but they didn’t, so I stuck around year after year. Animator Avi Tuchman affectionately coined what I was doing as “Floydering,” and its stuck ever since.

This ties into your blog post about beginnings—can you talk more about this?

Many people lost their jobs when we went through the transition in animation where hand-drawn animators were replaced by digital technology. People who had been in this business for 20-40 years found themselves without a job. One person who is in his 60s spoke with me about how he’s struggling to find work. I told him this: “You can’t wallow in your misery. You can’t let the corporation run your life. If the corporation boots you out, then find something else to do. If they don’t want you, then find somebody who does. If your job no longer fits in this industry, then create a new job.” Mainly, I’m telling people don’t quit, and don’t let the company—whether it’s Sony, Warner, Disney or DreamWorks—don’t let them run your life. If they kick you out, and one day they will, because they always do, don’t take that as the end.

You’re in charge of your life, not the corporation. That’s why I said, “Screw the corporation.” Always remember—it’s not over until you say it’s over.

from 99U99U

Telling Your Story

Telling Your Story

The first serious story I ever wrote was to impress a girl. We met one summer during college in a small town with a big lake. Over the course of our weeks together, she taught me how to sail. I bought her bags of gummy bears at the old-timey candy store on Main Street. And we went to the town’s biggest social event of the year, the semipro rodeo, followed by the postrodeo honky-tonk dance. Few things scare me more than a dance floor, and yet I kept up with her because I was smitten.  

When summer ended, we both went to back to our respective colleges, a thousand miles apart. I wondered how I could keep this good thing going, and I thought for all of about a minute before happening upon the best, most logical solution: I’d write her a book that relived our best moments from the summer. To make sure it didn’t feel too awkward, though, I’d change the names, alter some realities, and throw in as many one-liner jokes as I could come up with.

Months later, when every word was perfect, I sent her the resulting 100 pages, all nicely bound. A few days later, via a very polite AOL Instant Message conversation, she said she found the book charming. She added that in the interim she had found someone else, the man she would later marry.

The story, I guess, just wasn’t enough to bond us forever in love. Looking back, it’s easy to see why – the narrative lacked any sense of a plot, had poorly defined characters, and possessed no theme other than the great lengths to which a college-age male will go for young love.  

But on the bright side, I discovered that I loved telling stories, and that feeling eventually took me to New York City, where I’ve spent countless hours working through my earlier mistakes. As the editor of 99U, I now get to do what I love every day: track down, investigate, and spread the word about creative leaders who are mastering their crafts, building incredible careers, and shaping their industries.

We at 99U believe in a story’s ability to foster meaningful human connections so much that we published the piece “Why Every Artist Should Be a Great Storyteller.” Key among the reasons it explores are that stories serve as an organic means of marketing what you’re doing, provide additional ways to connect with an audience, and allow you to promote your work without feeling like a self-promoter. And whereas product pitches disrupt our lives and exasperate us, stories provide something of value and are enjoyable. If you tell your story right you can resonate with your audience over the long run, rather than gamble on a short-term hard sell of whatever you’re trying to move this product cycle.

Here’s a five-step guide for how to build and develop a compelling narrative. It uses 99U articles as examples, so readers can see how an editorial property evaluates ideas, decides which ones get published, and why. Granted, there is no one-size-fits-all way to tell your story, so this is intended to serve as a blueprint that can be adapted to your medium, whether it is text-based or visually driven, a 60-second bio pitch to a new client or a six-month social media campaign that showcases the creative process behind your latest project –  or even a 100-page love story, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious.

Step 1: Find your story by identifying your unique spin on a universal theme

The hardest part of telling your story can be getting started, which is ironic, because if you’re the main character in your story, or championing a brand, you should theoretically know everything there is to say about it by heart. But the reality is that when we’re drivers of a story, we sometimes barrel down the road with blinders on – all we’re focused on is what’s ahead, when we also need to see the larger themes at play around us.  

If you’re having trouble nailing down your narrative, you’ll appreciate the tale of Texas sign painter Norma Jeanne Maloney. Her story wasn’t initially obvious to us. We were intrigued by the words that described her – “Texas sign painter” – but it was hardly enough to warrant a 2,500-word feature. So we looked more closely at her life in an attempt to uncover what we could about someone who has never led a global branding campaign and is not widely known outside of her community.


Norma Jeanne Maloney outside of her Texas studio.

Here’s what we saw: For the past 25 years Maloney has hopscotched around the country, from San Francisco to more affordable Nashville (where she painted honky-tonk bar signs) to affordable-turned-gentrified Austin to sleepy, and way more affordable, Taylor, Texas, in pursuit of one thing – painting colorful signs by hand for the likes of BBQ joints, butcher shops, and tattoo parlors. Hell, she even drove a meat truck for two years to fill her coffers during a work slump.

Today, out on the sun-punched Texas plains, Maloney puts on her cowboy hat and works from dawn to dusk, “like a farmer,” in a 117-year-old mint-green building that resembles an Old West saloon. Her rent is relatively low, giving her the financial freedom to create on her own terms.

The more we learned about Maloney, the more we got behind her story, because in it we saw a familiar, compelling theme: Here is someone who has spent nearly half her life doing whatever it took to do what she loves. Yes! So even if we’re not sign painters ourselves, we can still relate in some way to Maloney. That theme, then, became the frame to our story, and we could use it as our opening to illuminate Maloney’s unique cross-country journey within it.

Making sacrifices to live the creative life might be the theme of your story, too. Or it may not be. Begin by outlining other universal themes – like the underdog story or the coming-of-age story – to find the one that best fits your journey. Then sketch out the details that paint your character portrait using as many bits of real-life flavor as you can come up with: hand-painted signs! From sunup to sundown! The meat truck! Once you’ve done this, you’ve established who you are and where you’re going: the start of your story.

Step 2: Take us on an adventure

Stories need motion. They need action. They need someone going on an adventure, whether that’s a physical trek or an introspective, reflective one. Better yet, stories should have both, because your goal is to add as many memorable wrinkles to the narrative as you can in order to differentiate your tale from every other one in the marketplace that follows a similar theme.

Take a scenario we at 99U get pitched a lot: that of a young artist who moves to New York City with nothing but a suitcase and a dream to put their artistic stamp on something. While that’s a relatively uncommon journey in the U.S., it’s typical among the creative set. So how did we pick the one we published over the rest?

We decided to feature Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo because his physical journey was so great. He grew up in a family where the males, for generations, had become lawyers because that was considered a respectable job. Senbajo initially went that route himself, but then quit and opened an art gallery in Nigeria. His father was so disheartened by Senbanjo’s artistic pursuit that he once drove Senbanjo around their city’s slums, telling him that if he kept this up, he’d end up there too. But Senbajo kept at his art, and received a visa to the United States.

Laolu Senbanjo.

That’s a good start to Senbanjo’s story, differentiating his journey from those of others who had parental support and traveled a much shorter difference to New York. But there are other strivers who come from humble beginnings and travel long distances, so how could Senbanjo separate himself from that pack? Well, a few years after he arrived in New York City, he got the job of a lifetime: painting Beyoncé’s face with his Afromysterics designs for her music video Lemonade. That led to work with Nike, the Grammy Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution, among others. Not bad! It was only then that Senbanjo’s father came around to his son’s pursuits. “We are your parents and you taught us something about art and being an artist,” he told Senbanjo.  

By the time we reach the end of Senbanjo’s interview, we’ve gotten to know him on multiple levels, both inside and out, and each move he made differentiated him more and more from other New York City dreamer stories. In the process, his multiple thematic adventures have given the audience more strands of his narrative to connect with.

The fact that Senbanjo’s story has Beyoncé in it certainly helps, but if you’re like the rest of us and your story is missing Queen Bey, look for stories within a story – say, a father-and-son career-tension story happening within a young dreamer’s journey story – and start weaving them together to give your narrative a unique texture and richness that allows it to stand apart, and stand on its own. 

Step 3: Reveal your struggles

Conflict. No good story is complete without it. That means you have to share tough moments – even moments when you failed. This is tough for everyone. The objective, though, is not to relive memories you’d rather forget; it’s for you to provide another avenue for your audience to connect with you. Think of an aspiring Olympian who misses the Olympics one year, then sacrifices for four more years before trying again. It’s human nature to want to cheer for them, even if we don’t know them personally. That’s not because they’re athletically superior to 99.9% of the population – it’s because they have missed out on achieving a big goal, just like the rest of us. A struggle shows that you’re human, and it gives you a chance to display what you’re made of.  

This helps explain why our readers connected with master woodworker Mira Nakashima. She let us in on those moments that hurt. It was Mira’s father George, one of the most respected woodworkers in the U.S., who decided that Mira would follow in his footsteps and make chairs, tables, and other furniture pieces at the family’s rural Pennsylvania studio. George often made important decisions for Mira, including where she would attend college (Harvard), what she would study (architecture), and whom she would apprentice under (him).

Mira Nakashima.

Flawless execution on the part of Mira was the expectation. But no matter how hard she worked, it was never enough. “I don’t ever remember being praised for being successful while I was working for him,” said Mira. It was this moment of the story that really sold us on publishing this piece. Imagine if your boss never complimented you on your work. Now imagine if that person was your father. How do you come back from that?

Mira, naturally, is feeling low as a result. But the audience hasn’t deserted her. Instead, they empathize with her – it’s the circumstances around her that are driving the conflict, and she’s doing her best to endure them – and are waiting to see how will she respond.

George passed away in 1990, and Mira finally takes over the shop. She knows she must move forward and evolve. She does, leading the Nakashima Studio into one of the most impressive chapters of its history. If Mira had been born into a renowned family, enjoyed success working for her dad, and then taken over a thriving business, that would have been a nice albeit standard narrative. But stories need to be more provocative – they need to push people out of their comfort zones. That gives Mira a chance to show the audience her human spirit and fortitude – just like an Olympian – making her someone we want to cheer for, both at her low and in the end.

Remember: Showing your vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness. It shows you’re real, and that gives your audience another way to relate to you. 

Step 4: Add literary spice to jazz it up   

This is the fun part of the storytelling process, the place where you must inject your own personality and character to further make the narrative your own. The key is to add details in spots where they can make the biggest impact, in particular those moments that are out of the ordinary or when you are introducing a particular character or scenario. Once you identify those moments, see how many of the five senses you can engage to capture and hold on to the audience’s attention. Your goal is to show your audience what is happening, not tell them, as your aim is to depict a scene that allows the reader to process it on their own terms and reach their own conclusions. The more you can show them, the more real the scene becomes. 

The opening paragraph is particularly important and often the most challenging. You have a few sentences to make readers care about where this tale is going. I felt the pressure myself when I did a piece on Spanish artist Rubén Sánchez. He’s a rising star and a fascinating guy, but he is not yet a household name (strike one against the storyteller); plus, there are a lot of people out there who paint (strike two). So it was my responsibility to find a way to differentiate his story from that of every other painter the audience has encountered.

When Sanchez told me about the time he painted a six-story mural, it was clear that would become our starting point, as such opportunities don’t come along every day. Here is the result:

“Raised up six stories in the air by a rickety blue crane balancing on rocky, muddy ground, Rubén Sánchez tried to figure out what was the biggest challenge of spray painting this mural on the side of a concrete building in Russeifa, Jordan. Was it the blinding two-day sandstorm? The birds-eye elevation that felt magnified by the tight working conditions – Sánchez stood in a bucket large enough for just him, protected from falling overboard by two thin rebar wires. While dreadful, none of these matched Sánchez’s biggest problem – the bathroom was a long way down in the achingly slow crane that took forever to inch back to Earth.”

Rubén Sánchez.

My goal here was to describe an unsettling scene by drilling into the details. Sanchez wasn’t just in a crane bucket – he stood in one fenced in by metal threads. And I purposefully don’t describe what he is painting right away. That can come later, because how he is painting creates way more tension. The birds-eye elevation! The possibility of death! Forgive me for the bathroom humor, but sometimes you shouldn’t overlook the obvious, which can all too easily disappear in plain view. Hopefully, by the time the reader is done with this paragraph, they realize this guy isn’t like any other painter, and they can’t help but wonder what happens to him.

As you develop your style, your goal should be to say things in fresh ways. The sun shouldn’t be “hot” or “yellow.” Instead, how about “fiery” or “golden” or “bakes” or “blazes” – words that conjure up multiple images. And take us to unexpected places that shake us free of the usual stereotypes. If your main character is a painter, don’t have them painting a canvas if you can go with a crane and a sandstorm.  

Over time, these descriptors will become part of your literary spice kit, devices you can use to carve out your own voice and say things in a way unlike anyone else.  

Step 5: Teach us something we can benefit from   

Every story should have a moral, but what’s more, it should also have what we in media call “service tips.” These are pearls of wisdom you’ve shared throughout your tale that your readers can apply to their own crafts and careers. As the storyteller, this is your chance to show your value: You’re mining your own experience for insights others don’t have, and trading that information for the attention of an audience who could benefit from it. In other words, what do you know that the rest of us don’t?

When we did a piece on Bob Mankoff, the former cartoon editor of The New Yorker, we realized he had two stories in one. The first was a delightful human interest story, in that he’s spent the bulk of his career in an enviable job that sounds made up and just plain fun.

The second one to emerge was that this guy really knew something about how to generate winning ideas under tight deadlines. Each week Mankoff oversees a process where about 50 New Yorker cartoonists submit 10 cartoon pitches each for a handful of openings in the magazine. We wanted to mine him for his knowledge on the topic, so this story had the ability to reach multiple groups of people: cartoon junkies (a relatively small demographic) and people who need good ideas fast (essentially everyone).

Throughout the course of the piece, Mankoff let us in on three strategies he uses to come up with a good idea under pressure. The easiest way to get a good idea, he said, is to dream up a lot of ideas. A single idea is never enough, and it’s rarely good, he noted. And that is why he requests 10 cartoons per person – because nine out of 10 things in life don’t work out.

To get his creative juices flowing, Mankoff starts by putting together things that don’t normally go together – like heaven and an E-ZPass lane – and sees what happens. The juxtaposition gets his brain thinking What if? and serves as a jumping-off point. Even if the first few concepts aren’t mind-blowing, he is working his way toward something good in a way that’s far less fraught with pressure than staring at a blank page and hoping for a winning idea right off the bat.

Finally, we learn that a rejected idea doesn’t always mean it’s a bad idea that should be discarded. It simply means that it didn’t work this time. A number of New Yorker cartoonists keep unsold cartoons in their files and return to them again and again, refining the punch lines until one day they stick.

By the time our readers, the majority of whom are not professional cartoonists, are done hearing from Mankoff, they’re now in possession of proven strategies about how to generate new concepts when the odds are against them. Mankoff has delivered something of value in an entertaining, enlightening way. And providing value to your audience, something at the heart of any good story, makes what you say worth listening to.

from 99U99U

What Design Can Do: Spark Social Change

What Design Can Do: Spark Social Change

In its adolescence, design was invested with vision. Its ambitious exponents claimed that it could imagine new structures for society; design would give birth to an inclusive, collective language and help craft a new positive reality, delivering the world from exploitation and inequality, forging a utopian future in its place.

As graphic designer Neville Brody and historian Steward Ewen asserted during the 1989 AIGA conference in San Antonio in the great and still very relevant paper Design Insurgency, this optimistic idealism faded as design reached middle age. “Design is shackled by historical amnesia. The sense of social vision that once inspired it is but a dim memory,” they wrote. “Obedient to the orders of corporate clients, designers are cogs in the wheels of commerce. They serve as pastry chefs in glorified soup kitchens, doling out mass-produced visual gruel.” The First Things First 2000 manifesto, published by Adbusters in 1999, similarly asserted that designers pledge “to put their skills to worthwhile use” and address the “unprecedented environmental, social, and cultural crisis” of the times.

These were calls for design to envision and invent instead of advertise and confirm, to inform and educate instead of promote wealth and power; a call to arms that in the current state of affairs triggered by aggressive Trumpist instability and strengthening alt-right movements around the globe is relevant and needs urgent revisiting.

In recent months, designers and the creative industry at large have notably been using their skills to resist and organize, to inform and educate. The major effort led by the Amplifier Foundation meant the solicitation of hundreds of graphics for the women’s march from image-makers across the United States. Artifax, led by L.A. studio Use All Five, are faxing artworks by designers—including Pentagram, Open, and Isabel Urbina Peña—to local government offices to protest the Trump administration’s gutting of the National Endowment of the Arts. Art director of the New Yorker Françoise Mouly and cartoonist Nadja Spiegelman are publishing political comics newspaper Resist!. In Germany, designers at Public Positions have been combatting Syrian refugee dislocation through poster workshops.

Sites like offer free, downloadable signage; send out daily emails with concrete actions that creatives can take; and there are countless Google Docs emerging that invite designers to add their details and make themselves publically available for organizations seeking graphics, like Designers Available. In the midst of this vital floorage of creative political energy, in makes sense that Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic have been collecting submissions for a second edition of their 2005 encyclopaedia of dissidence, The Design of Dissent.

Creative modes of resistance and collective practices exist and are being built, and it’s important to consider their significance. How can we support and contribute to their existence and expansion, and promote design with social vision so that it’s practical and enduring enough to achieve the kind of transformation it works towards?

The central issue is what Design Insurgency and First Things First 2000 highlighted, and that’s to do with definition—the pervasive understanding of what graphic design’s role in society actually is. Both manifestos locate design’s primary current role as the bound right-hand of corporate commercialism, instead of as a potential tool for social transformation.

Image by Partner & Partners.

The design of activism on the other hand, is commonly understood as just that—as a part of activism—as opposed to being an energizing example of design’s potential. There are special one-of issues of magazines dedicated to activism, there are exhibitions of protest art: design for change is given its own separate, sidelined category.

Since 1998, Artists’ Cooperative Justseeds have been producing graphics for grassroots struggles, and New York’s Interference Archive explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements through exhibitions, workshops, and talks. These groups and many of the aforementioned self-identify as activists first and designers second, and they are viewed as such by the cultural industry. What if practices like these—none of which viewed primarily as design—were not slotted into the category of activism and dismissed as such by the industry, but instead understood, discussed, and taught as the most courageous and vital examples of what graphic design is capable of?

We need to consider what we validate highest through profiles in magazines, in exhibitions, in award ceremonies, and in the line-up of main-stage conference slots. During this period of instability and dangerous normalization, design historians of the future will not look back kindly at the industry’s championing of catchy Nike campaigns over output that’s strengthening grassroots causes or directly challenging that idea that our political situation is normal and fixed.

Image by Partner & Partners.

It could be that instead of the omnipresence of stories about navigating client-designer relationships, the cultural sector focused on stories about community-designer relationships, and the intricacies, practicalities, and problems needing solutions when designing for a protest and for social transformation.

The following studios and projects reveal the challenges of visualizing a movement: the problems in need of creative solutions when design is invested in change. These challenges give way to a new set of criteria that should determine what we understand, discuss, and teach as the most important examples of what design can do. 


1. A dynamic, living, breathing movement can’t (and shouldn’t) be summed up with a singular design or image produced by one person or designer.

New York-based studio Partner & Partners puts campaigning before client work, and was founded by a team of three designers, Kathleen Scudder, Zach Mihalko, and Greg Mihalko, in 2013. Its identity for an exhibition at Interference Archive about renter rights movements has now become unanimous with housing demonstrations. Through open-source availability, this We Won’t Move poster has been used across the globe, hung in the windows of estates in London and across the wooden porches of San Francisco—a global slogan of defiance amongst a plurality of other images that resist.

Most recently, Partner & Partners designed the site for The Illuminator, an art-activist group who rose to notoriety during Occupy Wall Street, and now it’s seeking funding for its self-directed project called Next Vote, a simple website where users will reliably see upcoming elections and ballots in their zip code from local to national scale. “Our political foresight should be as familiar as checking the weather,” say the studio.

Partner & Partners locate a central, special function for print in protest: the production of posters, leaflets, flyers, and booklets takes on another meaning in our post-digital context. “If we continue to view movements from a distance, a (2D) design perspective, and never really get involved or join in a physical, emotional way, then we run the risk of perpetuating a kind of apathy, thus relying on a smaller and smaller subset of people to actually demonstrate,” say the studio. This idea chimes with a second powerful potential for print, and that’s its ability to move outside of our self-imposed online networks of insular like-minded individuals. Its physical nature not only affirms the largeness of a group—the image of thousands of signs of defiance is a powerful one—but, in the form of leaflets and magazines, it also means the distribution of messages to those who don’t readily agree with or understand other perspectives, and who aren’t familiar with certain ideals.

The output and thinking of Partner & Partners illuminates a set of questions for a new criteria when valuing design: How is it simplifying complex information in a way that inspires action and participation? Is it encouraging people to get involved, to be a physical body adding to a positive mass? Is it reaching out to people beyond those who already agree with a cause? And how it educating individuals to consider new ways of thinking?

2. Activism depends on genuine engagement, and good design is essential for that to happen. It does not have to be pretty, but it does have to be functional.

A 13-member, worker-owned cooperative, Design Action Collective creates imagery solely for grassroots organizations and activist campaigns. It’s best known image is the ubiquitous Black Lives Matter logo—a design that conveys strength and seriousness, that asserts itself as statement and fact, one that cannot be questioned. As an open-source, high-contrast type logo, it’s easily reproduced with a desktop printer or photocopier, which is key for its need to be quickly, cheaply, and widely distributed.

“When you have a large decentralized network or a coalition fighting a common campaign, there are many voices to negotiate,” says Design Action Collective, of the challenges of creating for large-scale activism. “Presenting a strong and unified visual message, and one that isn’t convoluted or watered down with all the information, is the challenge. Facts can be found on a website. The poster, social media graphic, or homepage therefore needs to strike to the heart immediately, and have a legibility or usability that can be easily understood, or that challenges assumptions and creates psychic breaks for people.”

Most of its logos and websites are conceived in a number of hours—when working on campaign or movement work, time is a luxury. “You could say we have an unconscious toolbox, where successful, tried, and true styles are stored,” say the collective. “When working with organizations connected to movements, you learn that their design needs are mostly unplanned and they might need an image ready by the afternoon. It’s important to be prepared for rapid response; we’re constantly reshuffling our schedules to accommodate the latest crisis, which in these times, is happening more and more urgently.”

Image by Mark Titchner.

Open-sourced themes have made work easier when it comes to quick turnaround. “That, however, underestimates the importance of working from the ground up with real content, creating custom architectures and designs,” say Design Action Collective. “Instead we end up forcing the content into generic tech frameworks.”

The everyday practicalities that Design Action Collective highlight suggests more criteria for evaluating contemporary design that deals with new conditions. Is it functional, even if it’s not pretty? Is it easily reproducible, if that’s what’s required? How is it navigating the need for speed under the pressure of a quick-turnaround, while simultaneously working with the bespoke needs of a cause? How is it uniting a multifaceted ideology, with various histories and complexities, into one powerful, single, resonating sign? 

3. Don’t be swayed from telling what you believe is the truth and say it in a clear way so that it that cuts right to the issue.

A central role design can play is laying truths bare and uprooting lies or close-off mind-sets. Protestors of the late 90s attempted to do this by tactical aesthetic interventions in public space; neo-situationist hijackings transformed the street into an arena for sarcastic billboard manipulation and play. Interventionists like Billionaires for Bush portrayed corporate CEOs protesting for the President, highlighting the marketing of demonstration; Adbusters shot into the popular imagination; the Pink Bloque (a riot grrl-inspired response to the aesthetics embodied by the Black Block) distributed feminist literature and zines.

At its most powerful, design has the capacity to combat false outlooks and experiment in finding news ways to replace dangerous misconceptions. Graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook, responsible for the 2011 Occupy London logo and a signatory to the First Things First 2000 manifesto, has memorably applied a Dadaist, interventionist sensibility to his output—in 2001, he famously raised a billboard in Las Vegas baring a quote from Tibor Kalman: “Designers, stay away from corporations that want you to lie for them.”

Barnbrook is clear about design’s potential in combatting the actions of the current U.S. administration, and the essential role humor and absurdity have in this battle. “Because Trump, and the people around him, are highly narcissistic, I do believe that satire is the best approach, to constantly undermine and ridicule. I am not talking about personal insults, but a calm highlighting of the situation with clear, intelligent thought,” says Barnbrook. “To me, rather than graphics, what has been most effective has been the work of comedians on programs like Saturday Night Live—so design can take a cue from this. Speak clearly, simply, and with humor to a wide audience. Don’t always say you have the answer, just show the problem.”

Interventionists like Barnbrook and others have laid down a criteria before, one that we should add to and build from when evaluating design today: is it challenging and subverting dangerous thinking? Is it revealing lies instead of participating in their propagation? Is it clear, legitimizing, and calm, so that it cannot be easily undermined by those in power? Does it honestly reflect the designer’s own belief? Is it revealing a problem?

Image by Partner & Partners.

4. It’s important not to be nostalgic. Each movement developed the way it it did for a specific reason, and to suit a specific time.

An art class at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg, Germany arrived at school the day after the news broke that Trump was President Elect with an urgent feeling that something needed to be done to confront the rising spectre of the nationalist and populist right. Together with their professor, the artist Adam Broomberg of Broomberg & Chanarin, the students developed a website for what would soon become the locus of a global art coalition determined to counter right-wing rhetoric. Assertively, it called itself Hands Off Our Revolution, setting out to reclaim the vocabulary of revolution that’s been appropriated by populist movements.

In the months since the site first launched, more than 200 artists, designers, and cultural figures have signed up as signatories, promising to participate in a series of exhibitions and art projects that will take place around the world. Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Anish Kapoor, and Wolfgang Tillmans are a few of the many that have put their name to the project, and to celebrate the launch, Mark Titchner created a series of gifs to disseminate across the web—a typographic statement that switches between sentiments: Hands off…our bodies…our justice…our lives…our borders…our homes.

A simple black and white web design embraces the transatlantic aims of the project, which is to provide space for different movements taking place worldwide. By not referencing any overt aesthetic, and by creating a stripped-back space, Hands Off is an open canvas. “We’re about knowledge generation and facilitation,” says Broomberg. “We’re organizing poster creation and banner campaigns, and we don’t want to impose our own graphics or sensibility onto that.”

The website’s use of Tera as a typeface (a font first recommended to Broomberg by London-based design studio A.P.F.E.L, another signatory of the cause) does subtly conveys the project’s renegade attitude, and is distinctive and timely with its unusual, spiked ends. “It’s got the right feeling, says Broomberg. “It feels like you haven’t seen it before, it’s homemade and artisan but not hokey or nostalgic.”

He’s convinced it is vital not to be nostalgic when designing for a movement, a point that needs to be seriously considered. While some designers creating imagery for protest argue that adopting or referencing graphics from history is important—imagery steeped in protest from the past reminds people of the optimistic hard work that’s been done, the change that has been accomplished—nostalgic graphics, while effective, can also be false promises. Shephard Fairey’s graphics, like his famed Obama poster, draw and play on constructivist propaganda and alludes to the iconic. Yet it is worth considering whether work steeped in halcyon political imagery that, for example, communicates the notion of a massive revolution actually jars with the potential and promise of a new campaign. The Hands Off website, on the other hand, reflects the striking, internationally networked aim of the project, an aim that is relevant in our post-globalized present.

The thinking behind Hands Off Our Revolution’s visuals adds a new set of questions when analyzing design. Is it relevant in a contemporary world? Is it resisting the urge to make false claims? How is it being implemented to reflect a movement’s goals and circumstance, and to respond to the specific needs of the era we live in now?


These practitioners and their examples make it clear that current conditions and emergencies must encourage social criticism, vision, creative self-expression, questioning, dangerous ideas and subversion in the field. Meeting the requirements of the community, and promoting the liberating power of education, not indoctrination, should stand at the center of the design process. 


from 99U99U

An Abbreviated History of Design in Silicon Valley

An Abbreviated History of Design in Silicon Valley

Between the global tech firms, independent agencies, start-up scene, and boutique studios, Silicon Valley has a greater concentration of designers than anywhere else in the world. So how did this come to be? California College of the Arts Professor of Industrial and Interaction Design Barry Katz tells the history of design in Silicon’s Valley in his insightful book Make It New, which is now out in paperback. Below Katz discusses the notable people, milestones, and ideas that led to Silicon Valley’s awakening as a design hub.

Silicon Valley design didn’t begin with Steve Jobs.

I scratched all the way back to August 1, 1951 where I found the first professionally-trained designer to work in what was not yet even called Silicon Valley. His name is Carl Clement, and he showed up at Hewlett-Packard carrying around his industrial design portfolio. This instrument company, full of the physicists, engineers, machinists, had no idea what they were seeing, and even the more tolerant ones had no idea why this should be of any interest to them. Clement probably just talked himself into a job as a draftsman and then began looking for opportunities until he actually built up a design group.”

Stanford, naturally, played a role.  

In the mid 1950s, a guy named John Arnold migrated from MIT to Stanford. He was a self-trained engineer with a psychology background. He had this philosophy he called ‘creative engineering,’ which sought to blur the distinction between the creative arts and the hardcore analytical engineering disciplines. He believed that some of the creative techniques that artists use as a matter of course could be incorporated into engineering problem solving, and he brought that to Stanford. Out of that emerged Stanford’s Product Design Program. It tended to attract people who often had a pretty heavy duty technical background, but an interest or an inclination to look beyond the traditional canons of engineering.”

And Steve Jobs did too, of course. 

The turning point came 30 years later when Steve Jobs had a revelation: Jobs bet that for every hardware enthusiast who wanted to build a computer from a kit, there were a thousand software people who wanted to just buy the finished computer, plug it in, and be able to get to work. So that led him to selling the Apple II computer in a sealed box, which raised a whole new set of design questions. “Jobs said that ‘Design is not just about how it looks. It’s about how it works,’” says Katz. “So the effect is you should be able to design from the outside in and then turn around and design from the inside out.” A design culture emerged in which, if you’re not technically proficient, you’re disposed to talk to, work with, and take seriously the people who are, leading to a cross pollination of ideas between engineers and designers. “This is not unique to Silicon Valley, but I would say that the difference is out here we just do it a lot more,” says Katz.

Hardware competition among Silicon Valley companies has driven design innovation.

Consumers generally can’t discern the difference between technologically-similar products. And the tendency for technologies to converge and competing projects to become functionally comparable opens the door for what will differentiate my product from yours. What happens then is that the key differentiator between your Galaxy phone and your iPhone is not the memory chip or the processing speed. It’s the design, by which I mean the entire experience of using it, along with how it looks and feels.”

The transformation of technology from enterprise to personal has allowed designers to drive more product value.

“Computers are no longer a refrigerator-size processing unit in the backroom of an insurance company. When we start putting computers on our desktops, then in our briefcases, then pockets, and then wearing them, our tolerance for a bad experience goes way, way down and our standards go way, way up. If you’re a computer professional using a computer, you can put up with a lot. But if you’re an athlete wearing the thing, the points of pain, discomfort, inconvenience, and difficulty of use become intolerable. And that’s where design is in a position to make the critical difference.”

Product systems have further elevated the importance of design.

“We no longer really talk about individual products any longer, in which it’s just a case of styling the box. What we’ve got now is an integrated system of products rather than a single object, and design then becomes a critical component in integrating those systems. Google, for instance, began thinking seriously about design when they had a group working on Maps, a group working on Search, and a group working on Gmail. As long as they were working in isolation from one another, those products and the several others that Google had were moving in different directions. Google co-founder Larry Page realized that they needed to be pulled together. And what pulls together disparate things? Design.”

As go tech companies, so goes many others.  

When you got a company like Apple, which is the single most valuable corporate property in the world, selling the single best-selling product in the history of the world, namely the iPhone, almost every company in the world asks: ‘What are they doing that perhaps we should know about?’ It’s not just Apple, but a range of companies in Silicon Valley that have defined whole new industries: Google, Facebook, Airbnb. These companies are heavily dependent and respectful of the work of their designers. And so places like banks, management consultancies, and insurance companies that don’t make products for consumer markets began to absorb some of those lessons, even if “design” in the classical sense is of questionable relevance. This is how the whole design thinking thing began to take off as companies like IBM, SAP, or Capital One Bank began to use the underlying process, mental pictures, and methodologies–the core of design thinking–that designers use.”

Biotech is the next industry that will demand good designers.

“We’ve seen plenty of design work within the life sciences and the health sector, mostly in such areas as medical instruments, packaging, and things like that. But we are now seeing a growing interest in design strategies being applied to healthcare. I’m suspecting that biotech is now poised to make the same sort of move that software and electronics did toward the consumer markets–you know, it cost a hundred million dollars to sequence a genome 25 years ago and now you can do it at 23andMe for $100. At that price point when non-specialists, and non-scientists start buying these products, that’s an enormous opportunity for design.”


from 99U99U

One House, Two Opinionated Designers, and the Joy of Collaboration

One House, Two Opinionated Designers, and the Joy of Collaboration

Ettore Sottsass was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century and David Kelley founded the design firm that ushered us into the 21st. But more than an ocean and a generation separates these two creative iconoclasts: Kelley is an unpretentious engineer from blue-collar Ohio who enjoys nothing more than a good tuna melt. Sottsass was the epitome of the Italian designer—mercurial, oracular, and slightly mischievous. Sottsass never knew what to make of Americans who eat fish out of cans (and then put cheese on it). Yet they remained the best of friends.

So in 2001, Kelley, flush with the success of his design firm, IDEO, asked Sottsass to build him a house in the horsey foothills above Silicon Valley, and Sottsass agreed. What followed was an elaborate courtship as the 80-something Italian architect and the 50-something American client, each of whom casts a long shadow across contemporary design, circled and sparred, thrust and parried, and together created an extraordinary house.



The friendship between Kelley and Sottsass goes back a couple of decades to the glory days of Silicon Valley when “disruption” was not the only thing on everyone’s minds and interesting people were naturally gravitating toward each other. Kelley had just founded what was then David Kelley Design, and a mutual friend—Was it Steve Jobs?  Was it the art collector Johnny Pigozzi?— suggested that he seek out the legendary architect who had just jolted Milan’s fashionable design world with the opening of Memphis.  

Each was, in his own way, a bit of a renegade: Kelley had barreled out of Carnegie Mellon University with an electrical engineering degree and visions of rewiring the world. After six months spent at Boeing designing the circuitry for the “Lavatory Occupied” sign on the 747 he decided that this was not for him, and migrated toward the Valley just as the digital revolution was confronting designers with an endless wave of unprecedented challenges.  First he formed the Intergalactic Destruction Company; then Hovey-Kelley Design; then David Kelley Design, and finally IDEO. Sottsass, meanwhile, had just reinvented himself for the umpteenth time: The Memphis collection—with its bizarre collection of furniture objects crafted out of rare Brazilian hardwoods overlaid with cheap American formica, chrome tubing, and a red lightbulb—was only the latest provocation. At the opening of the Memphis showroom in 1981 one of Italy’s most revered furniture designers was heard to whisper, “You see? This lot has fucked us up for the next twenty years.”

As opposites attract, they were drawn to each other by a kind of mutual fascination. Sottsass lectured Kelley about the importance of metaphor while his muse, Barbara Radice, curled up on a sofa translating Sanskrit poetry. Kelley, not to be outdone, presented Sottsass with a package of Jiffy-Pop, which the architect spent days cleaning off the ceiling of his apartment in the Via Pontaccio. They liked each other, they respected each other, they complemented each other, but most of all, each got what the other was about without yielding one inch.



Once they even decided to go into business together, launching a venture—Enorme—that would have been fatal to any normal friendship. The first product was a telephone: Sottsass designed a pure objet, accented with hints of Mondrian, Rietveldt and de Stijl, while Kelley’s firm handled the engineering. The Enorme telephone, with its logo of a gigantic Sumo wrestler, was instantly acquired by museum curators around the world—and by nobody else. From opposite sides of the Atlantic the partners watched in dismay as it passed from design to art, which is to say, became magnificently useless.

The friendship flourished, however, even as the partnership collapsed, and both began to think about what came next. Sottsass returned to architecture and to his newly-formed firm of Sottsass Associati. Riding the wave of Silicon Valley innovation, IDEO grew steadily to become certainly the largest and arguably the most influential design consultancy in history.  In time Kelley decided to move out of his loft in downtown Palo Alto and build himself a house. He did not spend a lot of time looking for an architect. 

Sottsass had already done some building in the United States—most notably a house in Ridgway, Colorado (1987-89) for the art collector Daniel Wolf and his wife, the celebrated sculptor-designer Maya Lin. But neither architect nor client had reckoned with the perversities of Silicon Valley, whose culture of technological adventurism is matched only by its hidebound architectural conservatism.  After endless applications, negotiations, inspections, and outright threats, the village elders of Woodside yielded, plans were approved, permits issued, contractors contracted, and the project got underway.

Ettore Sottsass, who believed that he understood David Kelley better than Kelley understood himself, did not begin by asking his client how many bathrooms he wanted. He asked him about his point of view on love, on food, on politics. Design, after all, is not about marrying form and functionality. It is, as he once reflected, “a way of discussing life.” Kelley tried to be helpful: He and his wife created a detailed process book of their daily life; they rented a helicopter and supplied aerial photographs of the building site; he shuttled back-and-forth to Milan, and fired off thousands of faxes. His confidence in Sottsass was great, and his requirements few: The only thing he specified was plenty of space to showcase his stuff.



David Kelley had, after all, spent twenty years at the forward edge of design, and a fair amount of stuff had come his way: a canary-yellow Ducati that he parked in his living room; a coin-operated mechanical horse (“Sandy”) spirited away from outside of a grocery store; a 1948 Wurlitzer jukebox; an old bathroom scale that gives you honest weight and your fortune for a nickel; a shoebox containing the world’s first commercial mouse (which IDEO designed for Apple); a Braille edition of Playboy, complete with a pointillist bas-relief centerfold.

Sottsass told him to get rid of it. All of it. A house is for interrogating the present, he insisted, not memorializing the past. It is a space for meditating, for conjuring, for plotting against one’s enemies, and for writing a poem. It is not a machine for living in, as the Modernists had claimed, much less a warehouse of machines for living with. And so they circled one another, warily, tentatively, like a pair of giant Sumo wrestlers.

In The Art of War, the 4th century military strategist Sun Tzu argued that the most decisive victory is one in which your opponent believes that he has won. So it is with the house, which manages to express the intellectual vision of both architect and client.  In contrast to the sprawling trophy houses built for the princelings of the Silicon Valley dotconomy, the Kelley residence is not precious, lavishly-appointed, or large.  It takes the form, rather, of a spatial meditation on what is distinctive about California, and that proves to be the landscape.




The result is a house consisting of five inside rooms with five outside “rooms”—courtyards, patios, play areas—negatively defined by the articulations of the building itself and blurred together on a single grade. Seen from the hillside above, there is absolutely no focal point, axis, or grid. Seen from a distance, it looks more like a village of little buildings than a house, with each room governed by a different architectural idiom: shingles on one, wood siding on another, brick on a third; there is a room with a flat roof, a room with a pitched roof, and a room with a barrel vault; a child’s room resembles a stylized playhouse—much as a child might have drawn it. 

The interior, likewise, bears the marks not of compromise but of a series of negotiated solutions.  Kelley’s approach to furniture is that of a hard-wired engineer:  (1) go to the store; (2) look at what they’ve got; (3) choose one. Sottsass takes a different approach: articulate a vision, then do what is necessary to make it happen. Kelley wanted smart-looking “Italian” chairs around the kitchen table. Sottsass refused: “No,” he thundered! “You want stupid American chairs,” and the solution was for Kelley to select a domestic icon—the ubiquitous, ladder-backed “schoolteacher’s chair” from which Mrs. Wormwood might have presided over the third grade. Kelley said he wanted a large open space for entertaining, but Sottsass forbade it because large rooms violate the human scale.  The solution is to break up the expansive living room-dining room-kitchen space with a forest of mysterious six-foot towers—“inscrutable Japanese boxes that make you wonder what’s in them”—that articulate the space without interrupting it.



But on one account Sottsass prevailed: The collection of industrial detritus that is Kelley’s pride and joy has been exiled to his office, relegated to his garage, given to his friends, and consigned to the landfill. In their place stands a collection of Sottsass’ own ceramics, the architect’s secret first love but in their very uselessness an affront to the practical engineer: I have always imagined them, Sottsass once wrote, as “catalysts of perception,” emblems of a cosmos that is “neither measurable nor predictable nor controllable.” Ceramics are “older than the Bible, older than all the poems ever written, older than goats and cats, older than metals, older than houses.”

Older, even, than houses.



This essay was originally conceived as the Kelley-Sottsass house was being completed in 2001. Ettore Sottsass died in 2007 at the age of ninety, and David Kelley has recently moved onto the campus of Stanford University, where he is a professor. The house is now on the market.



from 99U99U

How to Redesign an Airline

How to Redesign an Airline


Look up and you’ll know: Air Canada is in the black.

Black bellies are part of its bold, sharp brand-wide redesign by Winkcreative, one both granular (the most gorgeous route map in the biz) and grand (its iconic 1962 rondelle is back). The shop, headed by Tyler Brûlé, has become something of an airline agency. Having renovated Bombardier, Porter Airlines, José Balazs’ StndAir, and Swiss Air, Winkcreative is currently tackling Air Canada, the 300-plus fleet of national carriers celebrating their 80th anniversary. We spoke with Maurus Fraser, their creative director, about what goes into redesigning an airline.


The color black is used throughout the airline’s design color scheme, which is rare for airlines.

What stands out immediately about the Air Canada redesign is the unexpected stark black component. Can you talk about how that came into the mix and how you decided to get out of the red and white colors that Air Canada has been in for a long time?

The opportunity that we saw was to really celebrate the rondelle. Air Canada had a mark designed in 1963 by Hans Kleefeld, the famous Canadian graphic designer, and they had this icon which companies would die for, and they’ve had this for so long. To not have that on the tail of the plane kind of felt like a missed opportunity. Maple leaves are quite used in Canada—you get a maple leaf in the middle of the golden arches of the McDonald’s. They put them on many things.

How did you pick the black color?

We had several versions of black: How black is black? Is it cold black? Is it warm black? When we were looking at the tones that we could use on the plane we had to work with Boeing, with the Boeing colors and they’ve got quite a small palette. Well, they’ve got sort of a wide palette, but it’s limited when you’re in certain color ranges. There was this jet black, which was just perfect for what we wanted.



Black is heavy on the eye, but it’s also literally heavy in an engineering standpoint. In an industry that wants lightness, weightlessness, was that a tough decision to make?

Black is a pigment and actually it’s not heavier than a white, as long as you have an opaque color painted on a plane. You could argue that maybe black absorbs a little bit more heat, but even in those circumstances the aircraft has been designed so powerfully, like most vehicles, that they’re designed to handle these kinds of heats and it doesn’t necessarily get absorbed that much. So we’ve been assured that it’s no heavier in all practicality. There’s a slight metallic fleck that gives it a pearlescent effect, which is actually slightly heavy and going to the clean, just the clean white, not overlaying too many colors, does actually make it much more efficient.

So you’re right. This is at the forefront of all the airlines minds, when the paint’s being painted the engineers are testing the depth of the paint; it can’t be painted at too much depth and the use of black on planes is incredibly rare. You don’t see it. There’s Air New Zealand, and there’s a great airline in Japan called StarFlyer, which is very cool, using black. But no one’s really been using it in this way that we’re doing.

It’s interesting that you mention New Zealand because they just did that flag redesign attempt that kind of went nowhere, but they had that Māori fern design. This black, white and red combination palette can be very tribal; it’s the same sort of color palette that you see on a lot of Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, totem poles.

We’ve definitely been looking at those influences, especially when you look at the nose mask that we’ve designed. We looked at, and studied the shapes of, an indigenous bird, a common loon, that has a red eye. The nose mask is a symbol of confidence and the use of black is charming because it has a bit of personality celebrating the cockpit. The pilot is a key part of this experience and nobody today really celebrates the cockpit and the pilot, although I guess years ago they did, in the World War II planes.

An airline redesign is not just object design or industrial design. It’s also fashion, interior decoration, and architecture. How did you address that breadth?

One of the things we were careful of is rondelle fever. You shouldn’t have rondelles everywhere. It’s scaling things down. Sometimes, you can get to a point where you have a successful symbol and you use it on everything. Then before you know it, you’ve got 10 of them on one application and you’re just scratching your head.

Did Winkcreative have an all hands on deck approach? Or did you bring in any extra staff?

We have been directing a team based in Canada called Mosaic. When it comes to illustration, we’ve been working with a Japanese illustrator. Working alongside our designers and art directors, we have a team of art buyers that help us find illustrators, photographers, film makers, and animators. When we’re working on identities, we’re very careful that we don’t want things to be repetitive. If we’re working with one collaborator on one project, it’s not necessarily the best person to be working with on another. 

The Air Canada redesign included the attire, too.

Did you have lessons that you brought over from being in the airline redesign business, lessons you didn’t realize you had learned until you were unconsciously, subconsciously applying them to the Air Canada project?

Yes. When we were designing Swiss Airlines In 2002, there was a lot of experimentation happening in airline design. British Airways was doing all these different art techniques from different countries. It was very exciting from a design perspective. From a branding perspective, however, it was too much of a compromise for British Airways, because they had planes flying through air that people didn’t ultimately recognize were from British Airways.

When an entity like Air Canada acts as an unofficial ambassador for how their country is perceived around the world, how do you take that responsibility and apply it to tastefully redesigning something like the seat pocket sick bags?

We’re still in the process of working on those pieces, but there’s a series of elements that we’re working on for the brand where we exaggerate a little bit of that character and charm. 

One of my favorite redesigns is the worldwide flight path map on that red graphing paper. It’s very clean, linear, with a circuit board kind of look. Very 70s or 80s, in a good way. How’d that happen?

It goes back to the golden age of travel and the things that inspired us when we go on a plane. Everything was so sharp. All the touchpoints were so well designed. When you look at most airlines, their route maps, it’s a photograph or some sort of image of the world. And then there’s these huge kind of lines that always overlap, and you can’t tell which line is going where. You know its gotten to a point where airlines don’t care.

We drew Air Canada’s route map in-house, probably spending far too much time pouring over each of those routes and angles. It’s a strong moment and opportunity for an airline to communicate to their customers. The moment you get to the pages in the in-flight magazines and you see the route map, that’s when you’re inspired to go somewhere and realize how convenient and simple it is to go there. Air Canada is really enabling you to do that.

Your design will reach a wide range of people, from those traveling to Canada for the first time to the road warriors for whom the plane has become as familiar as an office cubicle. What impact do you hope the design has across the spectrum of flyers?

To ultimately improve people’s lives. That’s an ambition that I think most designers share. If design can make your everyday life just that much bit better, then why not right?

There are some design similarities to Delta’s new branding. To what degree is that coincidental, or was Winkreative inspired by things Delta did?

Delta is a very different design and not something that influenced our work. Our use of red, white and black, the introduction of the mask, placing the rondelle back on the tail— after 24 years—and the distinctive rondelle on the belly, are not something we have seen before. 

from 99U99U