After the Nightmare Project: Lessons Learned

After the Nightmare Project: Lessons Learned

We’ve all had at least one: a nightmare project that you wish you could walk away from.

Once you’ve abandoned the idea that it’ll end up in your portfolio, you just want to get that final approval, send off the invoice, and never think about it again. We asked a few seasoned design pros to think about it one more time. (Sorry guys.) Why? Because those projects are the ones that teach us the greatest lessons – the ones that lead to revamped creative briefs, new paragraphs in your proposals, and updated clauses in your contracts. Sometimes they even lead to entirely new approaches to shaping your portfolio, sizing up new clients, and deciding when to say “No.” 

Avoid “small” changes that create a ripple effect of additional work.

“Elefint was just a few months away from launching a new brand and a website for a nonprofit focused on end-of-life care when the client switched the project management role from a contractor to a newly hired staff member. Unfortunately, a lot of our efforts and insights were lost in the transition, and the client started asking for “small” changes that inevitably created a ripple effect – from logos to the website, animations to print collateral. Each request led to weeks in delays – waiting on feedback, explaining our rationale for the originally approved design, revisiting initial strategy. A project we thought would take 12 months ended up taking more than two years.

Knowing there had to be a more efficient way for us to work, I started experimenting with design sprints for our other nonprofit clients, to eliminate the inefficiencies that come with long feedback loops and broad scopes of work. Design sprints have allowed us to experiment with what’s possible within the context of building out complex digital projects and brands, and to work more iteratively and collaboratively with our clients, with timelines that are both practical and motivating. Working in shorter increments helps our team and clients stay focused, energized, inspired, and, most important, aligned throughout the lifeline of the project. We now integrate our “Design Sprint for Social Good” methods into the design process, and we’ve launched 10 complex digital projects in less than one year. As a small team, that’s a tremendous feat.”

— Gopika Prabhu, Founder + Creative Director, Elefint, San Francisco

Show a healthy skepticism toward new and experimental technology.

“As an interactive designer at the Newseum, I designed touch-screen experiences for museum exhibits that teach visitors about their First Amendment freedoms and how news is made. This was years ago, when smartphones were just taking off, tablets were just entering the retail market, and pinch-to-zoom was a new behavior. On the eve of this digital boom, our in-house multimedia team had a unique opportunity to create a gallery that highlighted digital media and its effects on how we receive and consume news. Our team controlled the content and developed the software, and an external partner promised to provide the hardware: the latest in multiscreen surfaces and projection technology.

We were creating bespoke designs for screens that didn’t yet exist, weren’t available for testing, and wouldn’t be out for months. But our tech partner couldn’t nail down the specs. They often reported changes to the monitors’ and projectors’ aspect ratios and resolutions, rendering our interactives and graphics unusable until we adapted our files. This sounds ridiculous now – because everything is flexible, adaptive, and responsive – but back then, this wasn’t an option.

We had to expect the unexpected. We limped through development and recreated (and recreated and recreated) the files—never knowing if they were right until we finally installed them onto the hardware in the gallery. I learned that with any new and experimental technology – whether it’s hardware, software, a new tool, pattern, or process – it’s okay to feel wary. Use that healthy skepticism to look beyond the current deliverable, to evaluate where the product might show up once it outlives its current platform. Making design into a flexible system expands its utility and its reach, which is especially important across products. Devices, interaction patterns, communication, and tech change faster than our understanding of them. And that’s okay.”

— Libby Bawcombe, Senior Visual Product Designer National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.

Clarify what exactly you are there to do.

“I was commissioned by an independent animation and advertising company to produce, or help produce, a very short film. It was supposed to be between two and three minutes long, and I had just three weeks to do it. I opted to be in-house rather than work at my own studio as, I thought it would make communication easier. On this front, I was wrong.

Initially, I had gone in for an interview where I was referred to as the freelance “talent.” (It was a little uncomfortable, and vague, to be referred to that way and not as the visual stylist or creative director or whatever my role was meant to be.) I started the next day, never having discussed the official job title: I was just given a loose concept (make the animation look like a Charley Harper painting) and no script. 

I was completely left to my own devices, with small deadlines at the end of each day. I should have taken the initiative and spent the first day figuring out storyboard, style guide, transitions, and color scheme, but I was too stressed and confused to do so. I had no idea that I was in charge of the entire direction of the project. It got a bit better in the weeks ahead as I navigated my way in the dark. 

Needless to say, I wasn’t proud of the final outcome, or of my performance as a freelancer. I should have been more vocal about needing clear signposts. In the end, I was credited as the illustrator, although I had ad-libbed the entire direction and narrative. The animation firm was fantastic but I think just as confused as I was about my role. I realize now that I shouldn’t have winged it, but clarified what I was there to do from the get-go. This is something that I now try to do with every new freelance commission.” 

— Jon Jones, Illustrator, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

When a brief is conceptual, seek client feedback early on.

“When the offer came in last June, I was all in. It was a commission for a governmental organization – a rather conceptual brief but with a generous budget. That’s a lethal combination, as one doesn’t want to disappoint and one definitely wants to please. What followed was a couple of rather stressful weeks and an ample dose of frustration. Both were completely avoidable in hindsight. 

The brief was to create a series of illustrations that clearly described the process of patenting in the science industry. I had to design images for a three-metertall, very narrow banner, which would be displayed at a conference. As I was dealing with American clients, most of my talks and feedback happened over Skype. This was the first part of the nightmare: Skype combined with a temperamental internet connection, conflicting time zones, and muffled accents is a tricky thing to navigate, and can add to unnecessary stress. I’ve learned to stick with emails.

The nightmare got worst. I should have pushed for image revisions at an earlier stage: The client decided to make small changes after I had everything in place and locked down in a very tight layout. That added massively to the workload. I formed a very close relationship and personal attachment to my color choices, too, but when the client at the very last minute decided we should go with murky, corporate colors instead of my usual palette, I said okay even though I didn’t agree. Lesson learned.

Through this experience, I realized that even if it’s a big client, it’s still just a bunch of humans trying to come up with a decent solution to the problem at hand. For the time that you’re working together, you are a member of the team and should act like one.”

— Martina Paukova, Illustrator, Berlin

Creative projects need creative people in the room.

“A sister agency had asked my team to work on a massive experiential project for a meteoric-hot tech and transportation brand in San Francisco. And since my chief creative and I had the requisite sleeve tattoos and hipster facial hair, we were to lead the creative elements of this multimillion-dollar campaign. But on the day of the kickoff meeting, I chose to ignore the first red flag: The client hadn’t invited a single member of their own creative team: just the head of procurement, a couple of mid-level producers, and an account lead with two months on the job.

For the next four hours, not one minute was spent talking about the idea, let alone the intent of the idea. It was all about rate cards, travel plans, and the office politics required to get things done. Of course, this made sense coming from a tech company hell-bent on maximizing valuation. But this laser focus on margin and production timelines meant that the creative had to fit into increasingly oppressive and consequential parameters. Which proved to be a disaster.

Everything we presented was judged on feasibility and budget, not creativity or effectiveness. When we proposed a visual identity system for the campaign, the people in the room didn’t feel qualified or empowered to give direction. As the kickoff date approached, we got farther and farther behind. Ultimately, the campaign was pulled. The work went “in-house,” which is where it always belonged.

Yes, this is a clichéd story of how procurement and creatives don’t mix. But there’s truth in the cliché. If budget decisions require a leader, then creative decisions do, too, If you don’t see another creative when you walk in the room, run in the other direction.”

— Max Lenderman, Founder + CEO, School, Boulder, Colorado

Money matters, but how much? 

“Since abandoning computer science to pursue commercial art as a living, I’ve struggled to balance the creativity of my dream job with work that’s comfortable, safe, and lucrative. The biggest frustrations and creative blocks that I crash into are the ones I could have avoided, if I’d just followed my internal compass. 

A few years back, a particular style of mine gained attention, and the commissions rolled in, at three or four times the fees I’d accepted a year earlier. I was happy to be getting the work, but something was off. I wanted to be doing work that was more colorful, fun, and whimsical than the things I was being hired for. I thought the money would keep me entertained, but I was wrong. Projects started becoming headaches for me: I’d put things off, I’d get stressed out, and I’d start to think I couldn’t complete the job. My clients were happy, but I was bored, and worried that I had “broken” my creativity and, in turn, my career.

The solution was simple: Put in the time to do what you really want, even if it requires a financial sacrifice. I started consciously turning down work that didn’t excite me, and spent any leftover time focusing on side projects that aligned with my creative goals. Soon, the paying work poured in again, and I noticed that my favorite clients usually discover me through my personal work, which we adapt for their commercial pieces. Now I know I have to constantly fine-tune my work to be sure it’s taking me where I want to go, rather than taking the easy path. Heck, I’ve already decided to throw job security to the wind by being a freelance illustrator – why start wearing a safety belt now?”

— Kirk Wallace, Illustrator, Boston

When outsourcing jobs, be crystal clear about what you’re requesting.

“Some years ago we were hired to design an exhibition. It was located in an old building (not your average white cube,) and we had commissioned a special orange carpet for the floor. It was going to be installed the morning of the show, right before the shelves and sculptures were brought in. We were working on a very tight schedule! 

When we arrived on the day of the opening, the carpet had been installed but the carpet installer had already left. What we found was the most sloppy, bubbly orange carpet that we had ever seen. When we called to ask for an explanation, the carpet installer told us that he thought the floor was going to be used for a one-night Queen’s day party instead of an exhibition. (Queen’s day is our national holiday, and orange is the national color.)

The exhibition content was about to arrive, so we had to think and act fast. We freestyled a new design by cutting up the orange floor into small graphic shapes that we combined with the original tiling. We barely made it by the time the shelves and sculptures were brought in, but it looked better.

The carpet installer had had no idea what the floor was actually going to be used for, and we should have briefed them better. In the end, though, we learned to surround ourselves with a network of creatives and suppliers that we really trust.”

— Jaron Korvinus, Cofounder of Studio Spass, Rotterdam

Red flags won’t simply go away.

“Soon after I founded my design studio, a California chocolate company asked me to create a logo for their growing business and storefront. Given my slim portfolio from a previous in-house design position, I was eager to collaborate with a food brand on the West Coast. But my overt optimism made me blind to a few red flags – the client’s small budget and their unwillingness to hand over the creative reins – which ultimately doomed the project.

I pride myself on being able to understand and translate obscure client feedback, but in one of the early reviews, the client asked for the logo to “express more devotion,” words that baffle me to this day. I designed countless concepts and made countless revisions because I was determined to make the client happy. I even asked the client to share examples of other “devoted” logos, which was no help at all. For the first time ever in my design career, I was at a complete loss, utterly defeated. What’s worse, my contract had failed to note a maximum number of revisions or the fact that the deposit was nonrefundable. I gave it my all, lost thousands in unbilled hours, and endured weeks of self-doubt. And my other work suffered for lack of attention. Eventually, we parted ways and the client had a family friend create the logo, so you can imagine the final result.

Fast-forward to today. I still pour my heart and soul into absolutely everything I create, but all of my proposals and lawyer-looked-over contracts help avoid failure or confusion. Now I show clients a few rough concepts early on (rather than perfecting dozens of options) and my contracts clearly note that each project includes two revisions, with additional rounds charged at an hourly rate. With these processes in place, I’m able to demand a fair wage for my talents and time.”

— Kelsy Stromski, Founder + Creative Director, Refinery 43, Massachusetts 

Have a strong understanding of the brand’s product story.

“A year after I completed MAX100 (a personal project illustrating the Nike AirMax 1 in 100 different ways), Nike asked me to use a similar approach to create 30 shoes for their Nike Air Reinvented campaign. Nike was a brand I had long admired and a bucket-list client, so I was excited and nervous. But I assumed the work would follow the same loose, stream-of-consciousness approach inspired by whatever mood hit me at the moment.

When I presented my first round of sketches, it became pretty clear that this was a very different animal. As you can imagine, a brand of Nike’s size had a lengthy and complicated approval process, which meant dozens of my ideas were rejected because they didn’t fit into the product’s brand story. In my personal work, I had generated three to five pieces a week, but this time I had completed only two illustrations after nearly a month. At that rate, I’d never complete the project on time.

I recognized that I had to abandon my early expectations and shift my way of thinking to become much more strategic: Each illustration had to tell the story of the product. Nike’s internal team was incredibly helpful in arming me with detailed background information, and the approval process started to accelerate. It was a grueling project, but by the end I could look at each piece and know that the work was better because of the focus on story and the feedback that helped shape the work.

Here’s what I learned: My success as an independent designer is built on a foundation of personal projects, which have created dozens of opportunities for client work. But once you get that opportunity, you have to be prepared to adjust your thinking. Work to maintain what makes you unique in the process, but find out how the client operates and what they respond to, then fold those ingredients into your process. Be prepared to let their direction and feedback make the work better.”

— Matt Stevens, Designer + Illustrator, Charlotte

Just because something worked for one brand doesn’t mean it will work for the next.

“I’m currently rebranding a local flower shop for a client with enviable taste. Our kickoff meeting went great, but I soon realized that I hadn’t asked the right questions. The owner said she loved a clean, abstract logo I’d created for a local coffee shop, but I eventually realized she liked the brand and feel of the coffee shop itself more than the minimal mark.

I shared mood boards, and then the first round of logos (with far too many options), and the response was kind but somewhat tepid. A month later, the client finally shared specific feedback, and I revised the logos she liked best, although she wasn’t thrilled with any of them. Another month went by before she told me, “We need to start over – here’s an example of what we really like.” The sample made perfect sense, but it felt derivative and cliché; I was dejected and took it personally.

After I thought about the process for a long time, my frustration slowly turned into empathy. It was my fault. I didn’t get to know their brand: The logos I’d shown were cold and impersonal – the exact opposite of a flower shop. I’d been lazy and arrogant, thinking, “I’ll just do what I did for the coffee shop, and they’ll hoist me on their shoulders in a victory parade.”

So here’s what I’ve learned: Do your research up front, understand who the client is, and communicate expectations clearly. And when you inevitably get frustrated, try to put yourself in your client’s shoes. That empathy can lead to something unexpected.”

— Matt Lehman, Designer + Illustrator, Nashville

Creative briefs demand details, details, details.

“Years ago, my previous agency landed a web project for an East Coast client that runs a popular cycling event. We’d pitched them on designing their logo as well, but they chose to go with a local agency. So I started the project a little bummed about the lost opportunity.

A few weeks in, the client asked for daily email updates on top of our weekly phone calls. Requests for features that were outside our scope quickly turned into demands and requirements. Unfortunately, our proposal lacked concrete details regarding features, functionality, and timelines, so it’s not surprising that the client’s expectations went way beyond our own. Eventually, the client got angry, asked for their deposit back, and said they wouldn’t be using the site, even though it was close to completion. I had to talk to my boss about it (not fun) as well as their lawyer (even worse). 

The first thing I learned? Don’t take on projects you’re not interested in. Once we’d missed the chance to do the work we specialize in (branding and identities), we should have passed; taking on creative work that doesn’t excite you rarely leads to a great client relationship or stellar results. Second, I promised myself I would make every proposal as clear as possible. Sometimes I feel like a hack, writing ultra-specific agreements that suggest I don’t trust our clients. But that’s not the case. A crystal-clear scope of work allows for open and honest conversations with clients – a project where no one yells, cries, or gets sued in the end.”

— Michael Benjamin, Creative Director, Anthem Branding, Boulder, Colorado

Don’t shortchange your design approach in the interest of time.

“A few months after I moved West to take a new position at a small studio in Boulder, Colorado, we lost a crucial account. We quickly realized that we needed a new identity and website to separate ourselves from previous leadership challenges and to reveal our new business model. To get it done quickly, we abandoned our typical design approach and skipped some key steps. I was tasked with the design deliverables, but I never had an opportunity to think holistically about the experience or collaborate with the internal team, since the leadership wanted to keep the brand reveal a secret. Instead, I went straight to the computer and wasted a lot of time, suffering in silence. Who was our audience? What was our message? What experience were we hoping to design? And where was everyone else?!

I took a step back, restarted the process, and insisted that two of the agency leads – a married couple – invest some time in the discovery and user experience. There were arguments every step of the way, secret talks about the direction, and clear disagreements about the new business model. In the end, the design came out okay, but the process highlighted misalignments on the leadership team, including the married couple themselves. Shortly after the design went live, the couple divorced and the studio went out of business. I wasn’t sure if I’d torn my new family apart or if the project was just another symptom of a difficult relationship.

The experience reminded me that the discovery and strategy process is essential prior to diving into any design deliverable, no matter how personal or painful it may. It ensures that we’re identifying pain points, solving the right problems, and capturing the full story that will lead to a more compelling design and, in the end, more customers.”

— Sumiko Carter,  Creative Director,  Gorilla Logic,  Boulder, Colorado

Chuck the calendar and embrace the stress.

“I’m a very chaotic guy. I procrastinate. I don’t ever check my calendar. Every deadline that seems a long way off quickly and suddenly becomes a very short deadline. I‘ve tried over and over again to organize myself but it’s never been very productive. One particular commission was especially frantic. It was a lettering piece, for which I had to draw 19 letters out of landscapes, people, machines, cities, cars, and other doodles. I completely forgot that I had to do it and then suddenly realized my oversight the night before the delivery date, when I got a reminder email from my agent. I had it in my calendar, but I never looked at my calendar.

I was busy with two shows in Düsseldorf, Germany, at the time and I had a few other commercial commissions on the go, so I stayed up all night sketching and drawing to make the deadline. Luckily, in the end, the client was incredibly happy with the results. And so was I. 

What I came to realize – through this experience and many others like it – is that I need stress to be motivated and succeed. The things that I’m most proud are the things I drew on the day of a deadline. So you could say, in a way, that all my illustrations are nightmare projects. I need the nightmare: It’s my vital source of energy.”

— Jonathan Calugi, Illustrator, Pistoia, Italy

The client is the client, not the designer.

“Every project has its own level of complexity and comes with different challenges, though the nightmare project will always be the one where the client tells us exactly what to do. It’s always detrimental if the client doesn’t give us creative license and doesn’t trust us to do our job. 

Our error with these scenarios has been to give up and follow along with the client’s opinion and direction. Over time, we’ve learned to be more convincing and not to allow the client to be the designer. In the end, we want to create graphic design that makes an impact, but if the client is the creative director, then it’s hard to make something incredible. It’s also, of course, very important to keep clients happy and satisfied, so in these situations it’s often a tough balancing act.

To deal with these nightmare projects, we try to be honest. Sometimes it’s about showing multiple options and saying, “We could have done this, but here’s what you asked for,” making it clear which idea we prefer. In the end, it’s the nightmares that encourage us to grow.”

— Marissa Gutierrez, Graphic Designer, Anagrama, Mexico City

from 99U99U

Rejane Dal Bello: Design to Give People a Voice

Rejane Dal Bello: Design to Give People a Voice

Rejane Dal Bello, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and now lives in London, has followed an unusual path to success. Accompanying her dad on his physician’s rounds, it seemed she might follow in his footsteps. Instead, she discovered a passion for art in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she was a foreign exchange student, and there was no  turning back. But like Milton Glaser, with whom the designer studied at New York’s Parsons after completing high school, she also has a passion for people, particularly those suffering from illness, disease, and poverty.

She ended up in the Dutch city of Rotterdam to study at what she considered the best university for combining design and social work, and because of her pro bono work for a children’s hospital in Peru, the design studio she worked at to fund her way through school put her work on their site to give them credibility with health-centered nonprofits. It worked. The design studio scored a major campaign on Alzheimer’s, a project Dal Bello considers her finest work to date and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Unlike most of us, who give back on the side, Dal Bello is making change an integral part of her work, whetheenlightening the Dutch about an often unseen disease or creating a children’s book for kids born with cleft palate: a welcome reminder that design can have an impact on people’s lives and that “good design” doesn’t always refer to the quality of a global ad campaign. But Dal Bello is also, at her core, an artist and a free spirit.

We caught up with the impassioned globe-trotting designer to talk about her travels, her arduous work process, her recent Earth Art series, and her most ambitious project to date, called Dr. Giraffe, which puts those many hours at her father’s side to good use.

You grew up in a family of scientists. Did you ever consider taking that path?

Doctors. My father is a pediatrician, my mother is a dentist, and my older brother became a doctor, and the other one became a dentist. I never went to museums growing up but did go to hospitals with my dad, so there was not much cultural upbringing in my family. My father pushed me to be a dentist but it did not work out. 

How did you realize you were meant to be a designer?

For me it was eye-opening when I did a high school exchange program in Lynchburg, Virginia. I had put myself into an art class there and did art every day, so I really developed. Before that, I could not say that I had talent because I had nothing to show. People just thought I made funny drawings. At the end of the school year the school had a big audition and I won best in show. That was my first awakening that I should be doing something with the arts. 

You’ve had such a global life. What made you leave Brazil again?

I finished university in 2000 and, after being really tech-focused in school, I decided I wanted to do graphic design. I didn’t have money to do a master’s, but I thought, Why not do a course with a master? So I went to New York to do a six-month continuing education class with Milton Glaser.

What was it like working with him?

We talked a lot, and had similar feelings about design. At that time people still did cigarette campaigns, and he would say that when we communicate something we have to take responsibility for it. I could relate. At my first job in Brazil they had to do a cigarette advertising campaign and I went to my boss and said, “Sorry. I don’t work on cigarettes or alcohol. I don’t believe I can sell it, even though it is my responsibility to.” Thank God my boss did not fire me. You have to have a point of view, which nowadays is normal, but back then it was not.

How did you end up in Rotterdam after that?

I did not feel that New York City was the right place for me and went back to Brazil and worked in the biggest studio in the country. My wish was to do a master’s where I could combine social work with graphic design, but Brazil did not have the means to support that field of study. I found what I was looking for in Holland, and learned it would be cheap to do a master’s. It was 1,500 euros per year – ridiculous! Also, my father’s father is an immigrant of Europe so I was able to get a passport. After six months in Holland, I got a job at Studio Dumbar, a place that, even though nobody spoke my language, they spoke my vision. We spoke to each other in our visual language. We understood each other. I stayed there for eight years.

The body of work you did there is extraordinary. Why do you think that is?

It’s quite funny you say that, because I struggled with a lot of the work I did there. Much of my work did not get used. Not the projects you’ve seen, of course; those got through. But there was one point at Studio Dumbar when it was hard to get anything approved. My work went a little bit too far; it was too pushy. I’m always the one who never does the same thing twice. It became too painful, because so much of myself went into the process. I started collecting everything, the sketchbooks, to remind myself that it wasn’t all in my head: I actually did this work.

Are there certain steps you take when you’re looking for branding solutions for a new client?

Let me just say that I hate the word branding. I like the word identity. Branding is such a big deal nowadays, commercializing. But I’m about personalizing, and I think that’s the problem I have with the design profession. Because an identity comes out of identifying what it is that makes you different and unique. Our profession is confused as to what our role is. A lot of students these days are feeling that visual identity and branding have become almost like a separate category for them, because they feel the need to always be the same.

My process is to see every client as a different entity. What I do first is understand the core of the project. Once you have the core, you need a satellite concept that will make it different from any other project. That helps you find the balance graphically. 

One of your projects at Studio Dumbar was your work for the for the organization Alzheimer Nederland, where you used disappearing or disintegrating type for phrases like “Not clear anymore” or “Not home anymore,” which you can barely make out, to convey the sense of losing one’s way, and in a sense one’s life. What went into that?

I remember that when the creative director told me about it I said, “I have to work on this.” I’d been doing pro bono work for around 14 years for a project in Peru, a children’s hospital. So Dumbar had put that work on their site’s portfolio page, to get across that they had people with design experience around diseases and hospitals.The process was great.

My first batch of sketches was about how to translate the disease, the core of the disease, because it is about communication. That’s the only way you can actually know if somebody has Alzheimer’s; it’s not a physical or visual disease, like AIDS or cancer. It doesn’t have an identifiable thing that shows itself. The person is lost. The person repeats things several times, saying or for getting things. It’s about losing yourself. So that’s why I ended up with my visual concept. Alzheimer’s is such a big problem that it needed a sensitive solution. For me visually, it was not just about making a design. It was about realizing that I had to communicate that this is something people die from. It was the project of my life.

It must have been hard to leave the Netherlands.

Overall, working at Studio Dumbar was positive, but after nine years I decided it was time to move on. It’s like your parents’ house: You love them but you have to leave. Then I got an offer to come to Wolff Olins in London. I wasn’t planning to take the job but thought about this as a challenge, a big agency in another city. I needed a fresh start.

But when I got to Wolff Olins I did not fit in; I wasn’t a good fit for their design. At Studio Dumbar I was not asked to be a creative director. Instead, I was just creating. At Wolff Olins, when you grow older you become more part of the business. You become more of a leader but you don’t do that much design anymore. I like working with others but I wanted to actually do the job myself. I realized this is not how I was going to grow, so I left after two years. I decided it was time for me to try having my own studio. I had always done my own social projects, and I wanted that again.

Tell me about the Dr. Giraffe children’s book series. The simple lines and shapes and limited palette of red, black, and white almost remind me of Dick Bruna’s work.

Thank you. The series is a social project I initiated that’s designed around health. I’m working with a doctor and a copywriter and we’re going to create a library of all the diseases. We’re starting with chickenpox and then cleft palate, which is a problem you’re born with, and then leukemia. Using the character Dr. Giraffe, we’re telling stories that parents can use to let their child learn about the progression of the disease a child has–the story of the illness in a metaphorical way. Like the Alzheimer’s project, it’s quite emotional, but it’s helping give a voice to parents, so they can talk about a disease and have a more lightweight way to tell the story.

What is an example?

My niece has a friend that’s going through leukemia, and I read the book to my niece so she could also understand what was happening with her friend. This book’s concept is that since it is a deadly disease there is a “Land of the Big” where the little giraffe wants to go, where she can grow. She travels there with her balloons, which are metaphors for the cells that become weak while she travels, and she has to do a landing in the Land of Chemo first to get stronger and wait to get better so she can continue on to the Land of the Big.

They’re hard stories to tell. With this one girl, we read it at least five times, because every time she wanted to know which stage she was at. When she first read it, she was not aware of this. But she wanted to read it again, so she could be comforted knowing that it’s going to stop, that it’s going to go away. I want to put these books out as a test, and everybody’s doing it as a pro bono. The idea is to have partnerships and investors to be able to offer this to any hospital or doctor.

You’ve also started dipping a toe into the world of fine art. How did your Earth Art project come to be?

I was going through a dark period after Wolff Olins, and I knew that I had to get out of it to survive. This project really expressed that, because I did not want to be in the present. I wanted to be somewhere else. I’d always had this obsession with Google Earth and I started collecting images from it and putting them in a folder. One night, I was looking at one of them, admiring it. And then something just came into my head – the rivers looked like strokes of paint and I could take this, because it looked like a stroke of paint, and make something else.

Then I had the idea that the images I looked at resembled the expression of an artist from a specific period of art history. One looks like Mondrian, and another one is Pollock: Pollock paints from a river in Nigeria! It looked like it was literally a Pollock painting. I wanted to make a new world – to paint images of Earth in an abstract form. It was an artistic way of showing how I saw the world and how I want my world to be: much more artistic, open, and emotional.

Do you think of London as your home at this point?

I hope I don’t have to be in one place to do design. When everything’s the same, I think it’s so sad. I’m not saying no, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I cannot say I’ve found the place. I don’t think I ever will.

from 99U99U

Big Spaceship: The Indie Agency That Grew Up With the Internet

Big Spaceship: The Indie Agency That Grew Up With the Internet

From its humble beginnings in Brooklyn’s Dumbo in 2000, when that part of New York City was a desolate, off-the-grid stomping ground of artists and artisans, to the 115-person agency that has been the focus of two Harvard Business Review case studies and was knighted digital partner by JetBlue in June, Big Spaceship is still doing what it does best: paving new paths for how creative agencies define themselves, what they do, and how they work.

Calling itself a “modern partner to ambitious brands,” the agency has dropped the word digital from its list of attributes in a move aimed at putting the limiting and, in its opinion, now obsolete definition of digital agency behind it. (If the whole world is digitized, the thinking goes, why would you call yourself digital anymore?)

Big Spaceship, whose name seems more relevant than ever, is focused on what it can do for brands – and how culture and behavior affect their ability to do this – rather than which vertical they inhabit. In this vein, they divide their services into the three unique offerings: systems, stories, and communities. Big Spaceship is clearly doing something right. In addition to landing JetBlue, the 17-year-old company recently became Hasbro Games’ agency of record (note: not just “digital” agency of record), redesigned the Boston Ballet’s digital identity, created an app for BMW drivers that connects them with company engineers, and made a three-part film series in White Sands National Monument to showcase the photographic prowess of Samsung’s new phone.

99U Contributing Editor Dave Benton sat down with founder and CEO Michael Lebowitz, the man most responsible for Big Spaceship’s flight patterns, to find out how the agency manages to win clients David vs. Goliath–style from competitors many times its size, why the company’s culture is such a fundamental driver of its success, and how the company’s ethos plays out in everyday working life.  

How have you seen Dumbo change over the course of 17 years?

In the first four or five months, we were in a 100-square-foot bedroom in my partner’s apartment in Brooklyn. Very soon after that we found our first office space and it was wildly cheap. Early on there were tumbleweeds blowing by! Our first building was pretty rough and tumble, and now there are extremely fancy and expensive condos nearby. There was a period of time where there weren’t even any services in the area and we had to walk up into Brooklyn Heights to get anything to eat. There was a great artistic community here – furniture makers and artisans and the like – and there was a vibrance to it even though it was quiet.

Eventually we got an actual market, which was a big step, and now that it has turned into a digital agency hub; part of me loves it and part of me regrets ever saying anything about Dumbo. It’s always a double-edged sword. Dumbo is such a neighborhood unto itself; you experience it the same way you would with the gentrification of a residential neighborhood. We’ve maintained a certain internal culture and are just as we used to be. The main difference is that our friends and clients are happy to spend time with us here.

How did you come to design?

It goes far back, in a strange way, to the Macintosh 512 I had when I was a young kid. I got one early on at my house, and there was no turning back from there. It was black and white and had a tiny screen, but it was incredible. We then got an early modem and had CompuServe, and I figured out how to do file downloads for the software to create my own bulletin board. I was probably 12 years old, and people would sign on and we would chat and trade files, so I guess I was into the internet before the internet, in a weird way. This was around 1984 or 1985. Design-wise, I was using Mac Paint and would create covers for my schoolwork, but I was never a good designer. I might have actually been the world’s worst designer.

My first real commercial work wasn’t until 1996. I had a friend who worked at a record label, and he introduced me to an internship out of a small web design company in Massachusetts. I swallowed my pride and moved back in with my mom in order to take it. Three of the guys who owned and worked at the studio lived in the house, and I would turn up in the morning all enthusiastic, and they’d wander down in their bathrobes with cigarettes and coffee! Their niche was music, so I worked on the Aerosmith website and a few other things, and that’s where I really began to cut my teeth and taught myself Flash. After a while of doing that, I moved back to New York and got my first full-time gig out of the print division at the back of the Village Voice.

It was incredibly quaint to get a digital job at a printed newspaper. It was the Wild West in web design at that time. There were barely any books, and when I started out you would see something online and just try to reverse engineer it. There was this great sharing community, but there really weren’t any classes or curriculum. You could be a designer just by having enough jobs and Photoshop to do it.

Thanks to the Harvard Business Review’s write-up on Big Spaceship, you’ve had a lasting effect on how digital agencies have structured their teams. How is your structure special, and how does it help your team?

There was a moment in 2007 when we were still seated in the office by discipline. I heard somebody say, “That’s not us; that’s the producers.” It horrified me! I felt like we were a band of misfits that all worked together, so the very next day I reseated everyone by the project they were working on so everyone sat cross-functionally, oriented toward the goal of the work rather than the skill sets that they aligned with. We never looked back.

At that time, all of our projects were of a very similar size and shape. We had fixed teams with a fixed number of people of different disciplines and they had names and numbers – that’s what Harvard wrote the case study about, and whether that structure would allow us to grow and scale. We can scale it, but when you are dealing with many different accounts and sizes of projects, as digital matured more and became the center of things, that’s when things got more interesting. We needed to make our organization more elastic and make sure we could slide people where we needed. But keeping the cross-functional accountability for great work always stayed the same.

The downside of cross-functional teams is that you don’t have all the designers sitting together and learning from each other. It is important that you develop every channel for communication that you can. We have Slack channels for each discipline. We focus on creating the connectivity that you don’t have from sitting together. We became much more efficient with this structure, and the team system was driven to make it like there were several small agencies within a small agency. One of the most important parts of this is that problems within teams surface far more quickly, so they can be resolved sooner. It keeps everything more transparent.

What does it take to create a great organization for the future?

The one thing you have real control over is values. It’s about your day-to-day job satisfaction. Our core values are to “take care of each other,” “collaborate inside and out,” “speak up – no silent disagreement,” and “produce amazing work.” It sounds pretty simple, although it took a lot of tweaking over time to get it down to that. I’ve recently been thinking of adding one around inclusivity and the value of diversity of perspective. One of the reasons we say “speak up” is that I have a lot of experience in what we do, but I don’t have the perspective of someone who has a 23-year-old’s interface with the culture right now, and neither of those is more valuable than the other.

An intern’s view is as valuable as mine, just in a completely different way. And I’m talking about the broadest sense of diversity, where it’s about bringing your whole self to work. I don’t want someone to just be a role; I want them to be a person. How can we embrace that as fully as possible and bring in every new facet we can bring in?

How are you adapting your agency to the post–“digital agency” world?

We should be thinking about people, and that people are at the center of it. Everything is being transformed by the biggest economic revolution of our lifetime, and it needs more nuance. Digital was enough of a differentiator for a while, as it could still be seen as separate from other things, but now it can’t. It could be used to optimize a company’s supply chain or for a social post. So digital is no longer a useful word. I understand that people are calling themselves digital agencies because that’s what clients are searching for, but I prefer to put our philosophy first and call ourselves a “modern partner,” as we were born into the digital world and understand it. The term digital agency means different things to everyone. We are in a position to be fortunate enough to say we are “a modern partner to ambitious brands.” We want to say something about our ambition because we are now in a position where we believe we can deliver on it.

How do you stay on top of what’s happening in the world around us, and when do you pull this knowledge in for your clients?

We hire curious people with a broad range of skill sets at the company now, and we always give people a voice. We tend to hire people who are good at connecting dots that might not otherwise be connected. My superpower is connecting the real superheroes. I also try hard not to dive too deeply into the industry trade publications, as I don’t think you find inspiration there. We will look at other agencies’ work to admire it, but I think it’s dangerous to get your inspiration from an echo chamber. If it’s being talked about in a publication, it’s probably a bit late anyway. Look at what the kids are doing: That’s being aware but not overcommitting. VR is an example; I tell my clients to be aware but the time is not right to go there yet.

How do you maintain perspective when you’ve done the same thing for so long?

Having lived in Dumbo for 17 years, I don’t think about it as one job. We have a slide we show on our agency credentials presentation plotting us in internet history. It’s essentially a timeline of logos. I love being able to say we are only a year younger than Wi-Fi being standardized, and only a year older than iTunes, the iPod, and Wikipedia. So it’s not one company when you predate so many things and have seen them all happen. We saw the iPod emerge and thought that would change everything. Then we saw the iPhone emerge and that did change everything. It’s a pretty soft transition, as you can’t watch yourself grow. It doesn’t feel the same: It feels like we are one set of values and ethos but we’ve been a dozen companies over that time. 

You are one of the last original digital companies that has not been purchased. Why maintain independence?

I have been portrayed in the press as rabidly independent, and that’s not really true. I do get overtures almost weekly, but the problem historically was that I would have these conversations and think that they just didn’t get me and would try to assimilate our agency into their culture. If someone came to me and said they really got us and would want to structure us in a way that doesn’t change us but made us better, I’d be open to that. So I’m just incredibly picky. When I see something that’s amazing, that will be the next chapter. I love this place, and I have an obligation to all these people, as they came in for something really specific. You don’t do something that is going to change it negatively lightly. I consider myself personally responsible for the culture of the place. I need to make sure we are doing everything we can to tend the cultural garden.    

from 99U99U

Print Ain’t Dead!

Print Ain’t Dead!

Whether standing in line for checkout at a supermarket, sitting in a local coffee shop, or browsing in a modern bookstore, it’s not unusual to see magazines with $15, $20, even $25 price tags. Deluxe paper, niche topics, beautiful design; at a time when there are plenty of articles about the decline of newsprint sales, where on earth did these elegant creations come from?

They’re known to the world as independent magazines, as if this emphasizes their maverick attractions. There are the lifestyle giants that fall into this category, like Kinfolk, the magazine about slow-living that’s cultivated a huge audience of alternative aspirationalists, and Monocle, the high-end bible for business entrepreneurs and jetsetters. You might know Cherry Bomb, a magazine founded by two restaurateurs in Brooklyn that features interviews with women chefs, or Gather Journal, the digest for the organic food movement that comes complete with rustic art direction. (We’ll even give our own Ninety Nine U magazine a plug here.) Designers inevitably love these lovingly-designed magazines: they collect them, they read them, they study them. Some even make them.

Soda Books, Berlin

The idea that print is dead has been prevalent for over a decade, digital warriors saying print is dead and buried whilst print devotees proclaiming with reverence that its fighting back. Digital vs. Print: the two pitted against in a bloody battle to the death. Which will win? The presence of the defiant, glorious spines of Cherry BombGather, and more, along with their vibrant online community of followers tells a whole different story though, as does a recent report showing that the number of magazines in the U.S has stayed consistent since 2008, varying from around 7,100 to 7,300 over the years.

The truth it, there’s no real battle. Print is in a co-dependent, productive relationship with digital, and the function, meaning, and use of a magazine is simply evolving as times and habits change. It’s no surprise that the Internet does fast, cheap disposable content and vital, instant news much better than print does, which is why newspapers have had to adapt: its true a certain kind of print is dying, but digital media has created a space for more interesting, thoughtful, and innovatively-designed printed material.

The central change is a liberating one. Print is no longer the business model: print is the heart, the core expression, of an idea. And it’s this shift that has allowed graphic design to flourish. The idea given visual presence; the idea as an object.


The turn of the century is always a moment given to apocalyptic predictions. For print in the 2000s, several things began happening all at once to create the kind of landscape where people could easily—and with style—self-publish.

Large publishers became distracted and obsessed by the developing power of digital—there were countless conferences about how the iPad would change publishing, and titles like Wired and the Guardian poured huge amounts of cash into digital projects. Meanwhile technology gave way to better versions of InDesign and desktop equipment steadily democratized, making it a lot more accessible for people to experiment creatively with page layout in their own homes, in coffee shops, in libraries, wherever they were.

Images courtesy of Newspaper Club.

In 2009, a small, idealistic Glasgow-based printing company, The Newspaper Club, helped shift the landscape even more. Inspired by the original power and presence of the newspaper, the small company would allow all types of clients—from students and photographers to large tech companies—to self-publish by uploading their designs online. In the same year, Kickstarter partially solved problems of funding. Print self-publishing flourished because, some might say ironically, of the Internet.

For graphic designers with passion for editorial, the change in technology was a revelation. At mainstream magazines things like the quality of paper often gets cut in order to keep costs down and a lot of design decisions are driven by marketing and profit requirements— a cover’s design often determined to be what spurs mass market sales. When creating their own magazines, people could do something different, outside of market place constraints. And because of low print runs, they were able to experiment. They could do more with die cuts, they could select higher quality paper if they wanted to.  

This freedom and potential was especially revealed to others when they saw the success of a small group of film enthusiasts in 2005 in the UK. While sipping beers in London pubs after work at their jobs for commercial publishers, the group dreamed up the idea of a different, cooler kind of film magazine from the uninspiring commercial glossies around them, one that would reflect the independent cinema they loved. They called it Little White Lies, which is now a film buff’s favorite. 

Images courtesy of Little White Lies.

“Film magazines at the time were dominated by clouds of cover lines. We felt like these were a cheap marketing knee-jerk response that most magazines on the shelf were blindly perpetuating, and didn’t seem to be questioning,” says the founding art director of the title, Paul Willoughby. Today, he works with the Little White Lies founding editor Danny Miller at their Human After All design agency; after they first published Little White Lies and it gained attention, they then went on to publish a magazine for Google and started up another magazine, this time about subcultures, called Huck.

“With Little White Lies, we aimed to make a magazine with a very pure visual approach, eschewing the design conventions that were steering magazine culture towards a homogenous mass.”

Illustration was their prime differentiator; a signature strength, and one ripe for a renaissance in editorial design since it had died away during the arrival of Photoshop compositions. Presenting illustrated portraits on each cover with little or no cover lines, and illustrating the magazine’s interior in its entirety, Little White Lies catered for intelligent, curious readers, and their appetite not just for intelligent film writing but for fresh perspectives on design. On the other side of the globe in San Franscisco in 2003, a similar tactic had been taken by best-selling author Dave Eggers for his literary magazine The Believer: each cover of the magazine beautifully illustrated by notorious comic artist Charles Burns.

Both magazines were probably aware of each other online, drawing confidence from the other, as several blogs had sprung up showcasing the work of innovative editorial designers. One such blog is magCulture, founded by self-proclaimed magazine enthusiast Jeremy Leslie, a graphic designer who has art directed numerous titles including Time Out and the very design conscious 1980s style bible Blitz. The blog loves print, but celebrates it using the Internet, seeing it not as a threat but a way of transmitting forward thinking enthusiasm.

Images courtesy of The Believer.

“The networking of the Internet allows people who are making magazines in different countries to realize what other people are doing, to get inspired and see how they can do it,” says Leslie. “People say there’s now an independent magazine renaissance, but really, there have always been people making independent magazines. In the 60s, you had the alternative press, there was the avant-garde in the 70s, fashion mags in the 90s. The difference is today magazine makers can see one another around the globe.” A few lightening rod shops then stock these publications—Do You Read Me!? in Berlin, PRINtEXT in Indianapolis for example—and in London, to help distribute these magazines, a delivery service called Stack established in 2009 to sends subscribers a different indie every month.

mono.kultur, the interview magazine taking on one person at a time was established in 2005 in Berlin; in London, the first issue of Monocle, for the stylish world-traveller, in 2007; Fantastic Man, the ground-breaking men’s style tome, appeared in Amsterdam in 2008; Apartamento, for those with eccentric interior design tastes, in the same year from Barcelona; for stylish women carrying great books as well as solid purses, The Gentlewoman, from London in 2010; and then Kinfolk, for the aspirational creative, from Portland in 2011.

With each new magazine, a design and style emerged to react to and energize its reader: design directly expressing the identity of the person carrying it.


I contributed to the magCulture blog for two years between 2015 – 2017, and during that time, I’d receive around three or four new magazines each week. New titles crop up all time, some good, some great, some bad, and some wonderfully peculiar. When tracing the origins of these titles, it often is apparent that the idea for an independent magazine first appears online: people develop their opinions and voices writing blogs and sharing ideas on social media, they connect with like-minded individuals, and the next step from there is to create something permanent.  To give visual shape to beliefs, opinions, and preferences through graphic design. An identity. There’s something defining about making a magazine: This is who we are. This is what we look like.

The ones I find the most exciting are by those who feel underrepresented in the mainstream; makers create their own space through self-publishing, an act of legitimization where design subverts the media norm. From New York, there’s Banana magazine about Asian-American creatives with a mission to obliterate stereotypes: its design is a lively, energetic assortment of stimulating cross-cultural references. From London, there’s Niijournal, a fashion magazine exploring issues of diversity in the British fashion community, showcasing shoots only by and with people of color; its title pages are the color of various hues of black and brown. There’s the fiery and fantastic Krass Journal from Adelaide in Australia; a third wave feminist title about queer theory and gender politics. Its active design breaks away from feminine stereotype; its typography jarring and loud as if demanding for people to pay attention.

In 2013, Riposte appeared in London, an alternative to mainstream women’s magazines fronted by a design curator Danielle Pender and creative director, Shaz Madani. Its name is a blatant proclamation that they are a riposte to mundane mainstream content shackling women with unattainable beauty standards. Instead, Riposte features strong, intelligent role-models with plenty to say. With a brave, all-type cover featuring the names of the women interviewed in the pages, the first issue visually expressed its aim: This magazine is about more than the way women look. This is about who they are. Their minds, their words. Their energy.

Images courtesy of Riposte Magazine.

“The typographic cover was a way of stripping away the over styling and false glamour, to try and shift the focus back on to the women, their achievements and what they have to say,” says Madani. The design decision defied the conventional wisdom that all-type covers are newsstand disasters, and that year, the cover secured Riposte a nomination for the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award in the UK, and it won them gold at the European Design Awards too.

“Now that we are a bit more established with our own voice, we’ve started to introduce photographic covers as we as the type ones,” adds Madani. “With this we aim to change the way women are perceived. As an indie publisher we can push and challenge what more traditional titles are not able or willing to do. On our last cover, we featured black activist and cancer survivor Ericka Hart with her post-double-mastectomy, post-reconstruction breasts gracing our cover.” 

Design can perfectly express what magazine makers most believe in.

That’s not only for individuals creating initially self-funded, passion driven projects alongside their day jobs. Online media platforms and companies have embraced the creative potential of a magazine as a way of articulating core values. The traditional media enlivens parts of their business that other solutions can’t reach. Airbnb, Google, and Net-a-Porter, and other Internet regulars have made them. A magazine is a character: it can purely represent the voice style, tone, and look – the innate personality – of its makers.

The Vice magazine model especially articulates why print publications can be central to a brand: the publication that started the empire still exists, it anchors the world wide media giant, it defines and maintains their irreverent voice, even though money comes from partnerships, events, and TV channels. The media giants have also taken heed of independents and their flair for design as enlivening the meaning of a magazine: memorably in 2015 for example, The New York Times Magazine brought in Matt Willey as art director, who has his roots in the independent magazine community where he launched men’s mag Port and guide for the modern adventurer, Avaunt.

It’s safe to say that the idea that “print is dead” is dead. Print was never really going to go away in the first place, it’s simply evolving. If there ever was a threat to the future of magazines, graphic design saved the day; freed by the internet to not have to bother with certain kinds of content, designers can concentrate on new ways of producing and presenting the page and the image. They can create publications that complement the Internet, that emerge from it, and that feed back into it. In a new world magazines mean something different to what they once did, but they are as necessary as ever, as lovely objects, statements of intent, emblems of defiance, and personal and collective manifestos.

from 99U99U

Connecting the Dots: Why Tech Brands Are Embracing Illustration

Connecting the Dots: Why Tech Brands Are Embracing Illustration

When you think of tech brands designed to improve our working lives, you probably picture whimsical illustrations of delighted people getting things done. Those warm and welcoming line drawings have become such a part of the digital landscape that we may not even think to ask: Why use an art form invented by cavemen to represent the most modern technology on the planet?

“So many tech companies are focused on productivity, which boils down to work—and work isn’t always fun,” says Russell Shaw, art director and illustrator at Slack. “We’re trying to remind people that, yes, this is about work, but it should also be fun. Illustration is also a great alternative to yet another stock photo of someone staring at their phone—a good a way to humanize a concept while also making it feel new.”  

For Dropbox, which today announced a complete redesign emphasizing color contrasts—think purple letters on a salmon background—the link to illustration is embedded in the company’s history. “When Dropbox was brand new, the idea of cloud storage didn’t exist,” says illustration lead Michael Jeter. “The product was very buggy, and the company discovered that users were along for the ride out of loyalty to the people who made the product, more than the product itself. We did anything we could to make people smile, to make them feel like there’s some humanity behind what we’re doing. And it’s a tradition that’s carried on today.”

Images courtesy of Dropbox.

As Jeter points out, cloud storage is a commodity: Users can quickly migrate to Box, Google, and a dozen other competitors, and it’s hard to forge a brand connection with an empty square on a computer screen. When it comes to tech, most users will stick with the first product they truly understand—yet another reason to put illustration front and center.

“If you want to exaggerate the benefits of a product, and drive home how powerful a tool is, that’s something that illustration is really good at,” says Meg Robichaud, illustration lead at Shopify, a Canadian company that allows entrepreneurs to set up digital storefronts. “At the end of the day, illustration is just another communication tool, but it’s a great way to persuade people to love the weird little thing that your product does, while explaining it at the same time.”

It’s also an effective way to unify a brand across multiple realms, from product to website to blog and beyond. But if you’ve got a team of illustrators tackling dozens of assignments, it’s difficult to keep things standardized. When Shopify moved away from predictable icons to metaphorical illustrations of business owners going about their day, the new style introduced a lot more variability, and some headaches, too.

“When I first came to Shopify, I was excited about making this beautifully-neurotic style guide, but as I started seeing all the different ways that everyone draws noses and ears, I realized there’s no way to make a guide that’s detailed enough to capture it all,” says Robichaud. In the end, the four illustrators agreed on some fundamentals, like the thickness of a line stroke, folds and shadows on clothing, and the details on hands and feet. But ultimately, they were more focused on the tone of each illustration—when characters should convey a positive, neutral, or negative attitude—which would naturally vary with each situation.

Images courtesy of Shopify.

In a similar way, Dropbox created custom brushes, line weights, and color palettes for consistency, while leaving the door open enough for each artist to express their personality in their concepts. As the product’s users have gotten increasingly savvy, Dropbox has moved away from literal icons that represent folders and speech bubbles that denote comments. Now, a roped-off club says “access denied” without the need for words, and a pair of fishbowls represent storage options—clever metaphors that make users stop and think, and even smile.

“The design world has really fetishized the idea of everything being extremely simple and ‘gettable’ for everyone, and at Dropbox, we’ve got no loyalty to that,” says Jeter. “If you go on a date with someone and they immediately tell you everything about themselves, you’re just not that interested, but if you have to figure them out on your own, you start to connect with them. When we use Easter eggs and inside jokes, there’s a chance not everyone will get them, but the people who do get them suddenly have a much more human connection to our brand.”

“I think it was Michael Bierut who pointed out that as consumers get more and more informed, they’re less interested in meaning that is handed to them in a very on-the-nose way,” says Slack’s Shaw.” They really enjoy looking at something that is a little bit abstract, and then filling in the gaps; rather than saying, ‘Here’s the data’ without any emotional connection, we’re reinforcing a sense of storytelling and play.”

Illustrations from Slack.

As illustration and UX grow more sophisticated, everyone’s looking for ways to quantify impact: Robichaud is starting to plot out A/B testing options to back up her long-held hypothesis that illustration is the best way to move frustrated users to a solution. Dropbox lore has it that the aforementioned fishbowl illustrations kept thousands of users from abandoning the company’s paid plan, generating as much as a million dollars and solidifying the brand’s commitment to the art form. But Jeter is convinced there’s still plenty of room for evolution.

“Now that illustration has been co-opted as a tool in tech, everyone’s gone to this childlike, friendly style where characters are smiling at you like the Stepford Wives,” he says. “But [there’s a disconnect between] product engineers making these sophisticated tools that are incredibly nuanced while communications teams are dumbing down the messaging, as if they’re talking to two-year olds. As the industry grows up, I think we’ll find illustration styles that are even more sophisticated, but that can still help people connect to the brand. Ultimately, illustration can help you understand that the company as a whole is thinking about every little detail of the product—it shows they really want to make the best possible thing for their users.”  

from 99U99U

Eike König: Deliver the Unexpected

Eike König: Deliver the Unexpected

One word connects almost every graphic designer, illustrator, or young type enthusiast that I come across in Berlin: one inconspicuous code word that binds together a continually growing, ever-connected chain. That word is an expected one: it’s Hort, the German word for “nursery.” 

“Hort is where I discovered my stencil technique,” says an illustrator selling prints at a zine market. “Hort is the best place to grow,” says a code wiz turned typographer. “Hort is where I realized I shouldn’t work ‘for’ a client but ‘with’ them,” says a graphic designer at a poster show.

They’re actually talking about Hort studio, the Berlin-based graphic design collective founded in 1994 by Eike König; a studio known for its commitment to reinvention, its support of young designers through its internship program, and its playful sensibility. It emerged from the Frankfurt techno scene in 1994, a disruptive, vibrant blip in an otherwise repetitive song: König deliberately rejected the agency model he observed around him, and also the idea that a designer should be associated with just one aesthetic.

Hort was founded on the principles of play, fair pay, honesty, change, and exploration. König penned eight golden rules for his dream studio, including 1. Have fun, 2. Get paid, 3. Don’t work with assholes, and perhaps most crucially, 8. Quit when you don’t have fun anymore. In 2007, the studio moved to Berlin, and has worked with institutions such as Bauhaus Dessau, and global brands IBM, Microsoft, Nike, and The New York Times.

Hort is not, and never has been, just König. As I write this, Hort is Anne Büttner, Eike König, Elizabeth Legate, Tim Rehm, Tim Schmitt, Tim Sürken, Alan Woo, and its network of freelancers. (By the time this is published, more names will probably have been added to the list.) Just like Hort is not just König, König is not just Hort: since 2011, he has been a professor at Offenbach University of the Arts, and since 2015, he has been producing his own artwork and prints. And just as the studio changes, grows, splinters, mutates, waxes, and wanes, though, so does König. It’s been a long process, and one that is by no means finished.

For this story, König was photographed throughout Berlin.

When did you first become aware of graphic design?

When I was quite young, during the Cold War years especially.  Magazines were filled with infographics about the current global political climate: I found them touching and exciting. What was the power behind something so little? I figured out that the power was graphic design. I was also into music growing up. I loved records, especially the records that my cousins collected. I would go hang out with them and play close attention to the music that they were buying and listening to. I liked the ritual of a record: opening it up, taking out the vinyl, putting it on the player, and then listening to the music and looking at the artwork at the same time. There was a strong connection between the visual moment and the listening moment, which I was drawn to. Back then, I listened to music in a different way from how I do now. I took my time with it, I sat down, and I didn’t do anything else. Nowadays, music is more like having a nice background noise. It’s atmosphere in a room and not a ritual.

Were there particular sleeves where you found the connection between the visual and the aural was especially strong?

One of my cousins was listening to Pink Floyd a lot, so I got into Hipgnosis (fairly early on the designers behind Pink Floyd’s albums) I liked the way the covers told surreal stories using photography, and how by putting an image in an unusual context, a new story was created that you didn’t necessarily get straight away. I always appreciate it in design when there is something I recognize put into an unrecognizable context. Complex juxtapositions make you think in a deeper way. I found it very clever how Hipgnosis could translate the complexity of the music, the emotions of the music, into something that visually doesn’t just tell the same story as the songs but gives the album another layer of meaning.

After learning about Hipgnosis, I also got into Peter Seville of course, and his work for Joy Division. I admired the label 4AD, so I was looking at the work of Vaughan Oliver. At the same time, I got into magazines like i-D. With independent music labels and new youth culture magazines, designers were suddenly being connected to their output. Before, the designer had been invisible.

That’s how I got into design, and then I enrolled at the University of Applied Arts – they’ve since changed their name – in Darmstadt. I didn’t really know at that time what design was, though. The universities were focusing on educating people to go into ad agencies. When I got there, I realized that 90 percent of the students were going to go into advertising, which was a completely different world from where I wanted to be. 

You were admiring independent practitioners like Saville and Oliver, so you were looking at a model that hadn’t yet become pervasive. The idea of an independent practitioner, let alone an independent design studio, was still rare.

Exactly. It was a shock getting to university and figuring out there that what I wanted to do didn’t yet have its own framework or structure. I also had no real understanding when I was 19 of what design could really do. Design was not taught in school. You only knew what art is and what music is, but not what design means in your life. Yet everything is design. It’s very important.

I think even nowadays, most students starting out don’t really know what graphic design is or what it can do – I see that with my new students every year at Offenbach. They don’t really know how broad it is. Most people think, like I did, of record sleeves and infographics. I didn’t think about what typography is, or what a way-finding system is. I thought design was creating artwork for a product. Getting to art school was frustrating because I was a big fan of people like David Carson. I was fascinated to see that there was a designer using a platform like Ray Gun magazine to experiment and provoke. I wanted to do that. I didn’t want to work in an ad agency.

What was it about Carson’s form of experimentation that you found so effective?

How he would take an image and place it somewhere else so that it didn’t have its previous context, but gained a new one, like what Hipgnosis did. If there is a disruptive moment, it instantly grabs your attention. 

I started to wonder, How can I not simply follow the rules that come with a platform? How can I hack something? That fascinated me from the start. How can I question things that have been built and developed and ingrained into an audience’s way of perceiving? How can I not repeat, but create something new? How can I put my own signature onto something? How can I deliver something to society that is more than a repetition?

At university, they didn’t want that. They wanted to educate people so that they would become functional workers. You weren’t educated to be a critical designer. It was about selling things. It was, “How can you make something that’s not great-looking something that people will buy?” You know, it was all about capitalism and tricks.

Apart from this emphasis on advertising, was there anything else about the university’s approach to the design process that you objected to?

The school came out of the thinking of the Ulm School of Design, and emphasized a holistic, multidisciplinary approach like the Bauhaus had done. It was closed-minded about pop culture, though, and more interested in the idea of designing something timeless. I was more open to the idea of the contemporary. I was interested in history, of course, but I also thought history is history. I wanted to create work that is rooted in its specific time, so that people could work out later where it came from. I’ve always liked that people can say, “Oh, this is the first time that a designer worked with a computer.” I don’t want to design something that looks like it was designed in the 60’s.

When did you get to put these feelings into practice? When did you first get to design something that you felt was truly “timely”?

I worked in an advertising agency during university, but then I started working at a record company, a techno and dance label in Frankfurt called Logic Records. That’s when I started making work that felt rooted in its time. I was 23 or 24. I was interning at the label, and then eventually I was asked to be the art director. I decided to quit university and accept the position.

There was a new genre around: techno. It’s amazing to see a new genre rise. It doesn’t happen very often. Techno at the time had no fixed face, so being involved at its genesis meant that I was able to explore different visual looks for the new genre. It was during a time when Frankfurt was one of the most important cities for techno music.

What kind of “face” did you envision for Frankfurt techno?

I didn’t want to design a cliché. The cliché would have been to do what other people had done in the 80’s for electronic music, drawing on the idea of a utopia. Using electronic imagery felt too easy, and I never like to go with the first association that comes to mind. Why not give the audience a visual experience that is different from how the music sounds, to jar and juxtapose and create new connections?

The label was successful, and they were open-minded and said, “Do whatever you feel is right.” I could explore, using the format of the record sleeve. I decided to design every single sleeve in a completely different way. Sometimes I did collage; at other times, it was purely typographic and Swiss. Sometimes I had a photo concept. The label liked it and said, “We don’t want to have a fixed identity; we want every product to look individual.” There were other labels that had more of a recognizable face. Our face was to have many faces.

This sounds a lot like your approach at Hort, where you emphasize the importance of trying things out, experimenting, and starting from scratch. At Hort, you don’t want to repeat an idea too often. Do you think these techno record designs were the root of Hort?

Yes; it was the DNA of Hort. I didn’t ever want to repeat. It’s easy to find something that looks good and works well, and then reproduce it over and over again. It’s clever from a business perspective, but it’s not challenging. I didn’t want to be the kind of designer that has a visual identity that they put on each record. It then feels like I’m taking over. Like I’m using myself and my aesthetic as the promotional tool.

You don’t want to be a designer with a brand.

Every musician and producer I’ve ever worked with is unique, so they should get something unique from me.

You mentioned quitting university to work full-time at Logic. What did you learn at the label that you weren’t getting at school?

I was trained not just to be a designer, but to work with a team and find the right people to collaborate with. I learned how to support and motivate others, and how to critique.

After about a year, I had complete freedom; it was a dream job. I got money, I could work with a product that didn’t hurt people – unless it’s bad music…but then you can turn it off. – I was also going to clubs, raving a lot, so my lifestyle became my job, and I never expected that that could happen. I learned that the culture I was surrounded by could be part of my working life.

How did you come to the decision to leave the label, go out on your own, and set up as an independent designer?

The great thing with vinyl at the time was that it was like your business card. If someone saw the design and liked it, your name was written on the sleeve, so they could contact you and say, “I want to work with you.” That started happening to me quite a lot.

I suddenly found myself in a situation: Did I want to work for different people or one client? I didn’t have to think about it very long, though. I was 25; I was naïve. I was like, “Everything is running so smoothly so, why not just jump in and try being freelance?” I wasn’t scared; I had no idea how things worked, and I had no business plan.

Logic supported my decision to go and said I could continue to collaborate with them. And amazingly, everything worked perfectly. I never had to ask someone for work; word just spread around that I was available. The design scene in Germany at the time, especially for music, was very small.

You formed Eike’s Grafischer Hort. When and why did you drop the “Eike”?

I was flying first-class, staying in fancy hotels; I wasn’t saving money. After three of four years working in this way, I had a breakdown. I was so successful in such a short time and I started wondering, What will be the next step? What comes now? It was all too fast and I feared the blank page. I kept thinking, What happens if I don’t have another idea?

Because of that, I looked inside myself and realized, “OK, I want to work with other people.” This was in 1994. I wanted to learn by having discussions with others, so I got my first employee. I still want discussions; it’s a crucial part of my process. Eventually, we dropped the “Eike Grafischer” and just became Hort because I didn’t want the studio to be about me as a brand – I wanted it to be a collective. Now, we’re seven people in our office, plus a couple of interns and our network of freelancers outside the office.

How do you choose the people that you work with?

Designers often start as interns; it’s the way that I get to know them. They do internships for six or seven months, and then during that time I can figure out how well they fit into the idea of Hort. I like when people are up for conversations and are open to critique; when they step back from ego, when they can work in a team. Right now, I think more than 80 people have gone through Hort. We still have contact with a lot of them. We keep in contact and create a network. I also wanted a flat hierarchy from the start.

Can you tell me how the flat hierarchy works on a practical level?

We decide on jobs together. Everyone has their own little company within the studio, and they work on their own projects, so they can design their own future while being a part of ours. We only join forces on the bigger projects. It’s a modern way of working. It’s important that people also have their own thing going on because it keeps up the creative energy and flow and mental health. That’s always been important, for myself too.

When a new client comes in, how do you divide up work or decide who is going to get the project?

In the beginning, I had to think about people’s strengths and decide who would fit a project best. Now, though, we’ve worked together for such a long time that I don’t have to do that anymore. I usually get the first email from a new client, and then the whole team sits around the table and we discuss each job together. We debate whether it’s too small, too big, whether it’s challenging enough, whether there will be too many problems. We decide together; that means that the whole team is involved.

It’s completely organic. Back in the old days, especially, I would put people together who had never worked together before, in order to create a spark. The work you get out of collaboration is much better than if one person does it alone, especially if it’s two people who you might not necessarily think would fit together neatly.

When you put two people together who don’t normally work together, the drawback is that things become less efficient in terms of working under deadlines. Can you tell me about time management at Hort?

There’s a lot more discussion when you work this way, at the cost of time and energy. But people then learn from each other and share, and that’s what I always wanted. For sure, things do take longer. Absolutely. We have had to build this into our strategy. The way we work doesn’t have a rhythm. You can’t say, “In a week we’ll have completed that, and in the following week, we’ll have completed that.”

Often, we have to have quite difficult discussions with our clients to get them to understand that design is a process. In the beginning, clients come with a specific image in their mind and a concrete timetable. A new client will say, “We want a new identity.” We will ask, “When do you want it by?” and then the reply will be, “We want to launch in three months.” We’ll take a look at the brief and say, “Oh. It’ll take us two years.” The clients are always completely shocked.

If you’re allowed to take your time, than the outcome will be much more exciting and precise then if you follow a strict, systematic method. No single job is like another one. There’s no recipe for how to solve a problem.

When you’re working for certain music industry clients or smaller independent ventures, it’s a lot easier to negotiate the kind of freedom you’re describing. How did you negotiate time when taking on major international clients?

First, we deliver something that they don’t expect. I remember the first job we did for Nike, which started as a brief for the packaging design for the LeBron trainer. We thought, Sure, we could design the surface of the box, but then it’s just a nice skin. Why not create an entire system, and with that system, there could be a connection between the box, the poster, an in-store decoration, even the fashion? We created a typeface based on the characteristic of the shoe, so that Nike could do whatever they wanted with it. Nike was surprised but also pleased. They said, “Oh, why don’t you also do the visual guidelines for the entire season?” We developed the guidelines, including store applications, fashion components, posters, everything – a big identity that started off as the design of a box.

Nike now always expects something unforeseen from us, and I think that’s our trick. We don’t just deliver; we create something that lets them imagine a bigger picture, a picture they haven’t seen yet. It’s much more interesting to us than finishing a job in a short time and getting the money quickly. Most of our clients understand that. They come to us and are open about seeing where things could go. Everyone comes with a picture in their mind, but we prove that it’s not always about delivering that image by, first of all, showing them something unexpected.

We’ve talked about how you went from art director at a label to independent practitioner because you wanted to be on your own. Then you realized that what you thrived on was being in a team and bouncing off others. In the past two years, though, you’ve started working on your own again and reclaimed the name “Eike König” as something independent from Hort. You’ve been working on your own typographic prints and posters. How have you found it returning to something that is entirely your own and that has your name on it?

I do three things, and all with the same passion: I have the studio, I teach, and I do my personal work. With my personal work, I am still a designer. I still use the same methods of design and typography. It’s not like I’m knitting or creating sculptures. It’s the same as what I’ve always done, but with the stress of a schedule taken out of the process, and I find this incredibly rewarding.

Ultimately, I made the decision to spend some of my life focusing on my own personal work because I realized it’s good for my health and my brain. It’s not a different way of thinking from what I do at Hort, but it’s a different context. I’ve learned that I need three elements in my life: I need the team at Hort, I need my students, and I need time to work on my own design projects. It’s the combination of these three things that keeps me balanced.

from 99U99U

Fatherhood Forces a Selfish Creative to Grow Up

Fatherhood Forces a Selfish Creative to Grow Up

A friend called the other day. His partner is expecting their first child within the week. Two years ago they were living in a yurt. Now they’ve got wish lists of baby shower gifts on all the major e-commerce sites.

“I’m cranking on projects as fast as possible and remodeling the basement and replanting the yard,” he said, a little breathless, like a guy on too much Adderall.  “But, really, I can’t wait! I’m super excited.”

I’ve never had an expectant parent tell me they were scared to death and kind of resentful, or worried that their entire way of being was about to change, or that their career as an artist/writer/musician/creativist was about to nose dive into a lumpy sea of incredibly malodorous baby poop…at least not within the first two paragraphs of a conversation.

This time it took about three minutes. My friend is 35. Because parenthood is a place that you can’t quite begin to imagine before you’ve found yourself marooned there (no matter how many books you’ve read), the only thing he really understood at this point about the coming years of self-sacrifice was the specter of sleep deprivation.

“I need a clear head to work,” he bemoaned. “There’s a certain flow to my day. How am I supposed to get anything done? What have I gotten myself into?


Like many an aspiring artist before me, I entered the writing game, in part, because I fancied myself capable of making some kind of mark on the world. I started working at my craft with serious intent beginning around 11thgrade.

Later I followed my muse through the seamy underground milieu that became my journalistic beat—sometimes I pictured her as one of my idols, the anthropologist Margaret Meade, updated for the task with black jeans and Dr. Martens, a stainless steel throwing knife strapped to her ankle. I lived with a crack gang in LA, hung out with pitbull fighting middle schoolers in the ghetto of North Philadelphia—the most disappointing of the dogs were hung with electrical wiring from rafters of abandoned houses. I embedded with the Animal Liberation Front on a raid of a federal research facility—29 cats and seven miniature African piglets were saved that night. I lived inside a refugee camp in Gaza during the early days of the Palestinian Intifada. I even risked a days-old marriage engagement to my future ex-wife with an assignment at a swinger’s convention on the Gulf coast of Florida. I shall never forget one husband from Alabama, his greenish teeth: You gonna get with my wife, ain’t cha?

By the time I was 35, I felt like I was beginning to make some progress—the work I’d produced was the evidence, little darlings that had come alive and could speak for themselves.

When the idea of actual children came up, however, I was pretty militant: I believed I had a higher calling on this mortal sphere than mere parenthood– which, after all, is something anyone who is physically able can do. I wanted a quest, not an heir. To devote so much time and effort to the vain purpose of reproducing myself seemed a waste of my talent. I was, after all, the great river of Mike. I had a turbine to spin. Work to produce. A legacy to leave. To waste one drop of energy on such a mundane pursuit as child rearing seemed unthinkable.

That scene in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Where Paul (George Peppard) goes with Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) into the New York Public Library and takes out is own book? And she makes him sign it?

I could have died happy right there.


After no small amount of drama, I learned that nature takes its course, despite one’s grander plans. I might have considered myself an artist, but I was still human. My wife wanted a kid. I wanted my wife. I suppose that’s nature’s plan.

Going into fatherhood at 37, I remember being super excited—furiously baby-proofing the outlets and toilet seats, adding gates on the antique hand-tooled staircase, upgrading the master bathroom, equipping the whole house, upstairs and down, with air conditioners against the impending summer of high pregnancy.

I also remember being deeply fearful that I’d inalterably screw up this human life I’d so selfishly created. Or this human life I’d so selfishly created would inalterably screw up the artistic life I’d so selfishly created for myself.

At the time, I had some understanding of the sacrifices that were about to be made as I entered parenthood. I knew there would be no more staying up to all hours partying or reading, sleeping until the early afternoon. No more bragging about how, as a self-employed creative, I owned every hour of every day and nobody owned me. No more spontaneous smoky salons, full of deviant artistic types, taking place in my dining room. No more unplugging the clock, no more ignoring the needs of others, no more onanistic pursuit of the creative brass ring.

No more pandering to the spoiled and ill-behaved bon vivant who represented my inner creative.

For fifteen years, my talent had been my child. And there was nothing I wouldn’t give to him, do for him, sacrifice for him.

And believe me, he could be a crazy little fucker.


The first night we brought home my son from the hospital, we put him to sleep between us in the bed. Exhausted, my now-ex fell asleep immediately. I lay there wide awake, afraid I would roll over and crush him. As the hours wore on, I noticed my kid had a stuffy nose—kind of like both sides of the family, we’re all allergic. I stayed up all night, watching his chest move up and down, terrified he would stop breathing.

Over the next months and years of my fatherhood, the selfish creative inside of me was forced to grow up, though not without a fight. We don’t need to go into all the sordid details—let’s just say I was left with enough material to write a novel called Deviant Behavior, which I like to think of as a memoir of male post-partem depression.

But as time passed, and I realized exactly how much this kid needed me—and how rewarding, in the most elemental way, time with him could be—my creative self managed to mature and become a mensch, which is a Yiddish word that means, in a nutshell, “a person who does the right thing.” There was a new baby in the house. Everyone else had to grow up.

And so it was that I began to keep regular hours. I would stop work every so often to take a baby break, often interrupt my work entirely because some super-important errand had to be run (one of my crucial designated duties). Over the next two decades, hours of perfectly good creative time were spent sitting in doctor’s offices, on the floor playing with toys, on the couch watching Pokemon, in tiny chairs and then bigger chairs in school classrooms, on buses going to fieldtrips, in godawful bleachers, in a car driving back and forth from college.

Along the way, I learned that the mighty river of Mike could be diverted and that more tributaries could be formed, additional turbines supported. The old maxim about getting more done when you have more  to do? I had a kid to help raise. Soccer and basketball teams to coach. Carpet wrestling to engage in. Homework to supervise. Ice cream to dip. Story time. Jump shot. Junior Prom. The Talk. Driving lessons.

Oh, and my career.

I have a photo on the wall of my office bathroom, one of my favorite hero shots—a selfie I took in a motel room in central California at six or seven in the morning. I was with my son at a basketball tournament. He’d played two games the evening before and was still asleep. I had a column due Monday morning. I wheeled the desk chair into the bathroom. The counter made a decent desk. The photo records the moment, the hero in a true life setting, daddy getting it done.

My son is 23 now. My services as a father are still needed, most often via text; we do on occasion collaborate on projects as colleagues, though that’s a piece for a different day. Sometimes, looking back on the years of his childhood—the early mornings, the school projects, the usual family sturm und drang—I wonder how I ever got anything done, much less managed to create some lasting pieces, and, yes, to make a small mark. Sometimes I also think about the way my son’s life changed the course of my career entirely. Because my son needed me, and because I wanted to be there for him, I made different choices, I stayed close to home and kept my travels to a minimum.

But I also know, without a doubt, that of all the stories I’ve done, of all the places I’ve gone and the people I’ve met, nothing has taught me as much as fatherhood. 

Because raising a child is the ultimate creative act.

from 99U99U