December 31, 2018

Cusp Conference 2018: It’s Time

One of the things I cherish most about the annual Cusp Conference in Chicago is the seemingly random nature of it—up to twenty-five speakers from disparate industries, on stage, sharing the fuel behind their work. Motivational to learn what it is that truly drives people to actf on their life’s commitment—and the resulting patterns across different disciplines. It’s a glimpse into their long-term focus and its by-products of determination, passion and joy. In 2018, time and flow were the standout patterns of the Cusp talks.

“…In time, it could have been so much more
The time is precious I know
In time, it could have been so much more
The time has nothing to show…”
—Culture Club’s song “Time (Clock of the Heart)” (1981)
Time and its perception were consistently addressed at Cusp 2018. Winter Olympics 1994 silver medalist, John Coyle, recalled the memory-fidelity of lasting summers. Master electrician, Janet Liriano, delivered a meditation on the four seasons. Time was a major ingredient in bioengineer Chris Maurer’s self-generating architecture and food entrepreneur Tyler Huggins’ eco-edibles where both of these inventions capitalize on the natural wonder of mycelium, the fungal vegetation whose accelerated growth and structure are being open-sourced for good. Physician, Ben Ku, and digital creative director, Breonna Rodriguez, ranted about the toxicity festering in their respective fields over time. Ku’s resolution was design, particularly taking advantage of the design method of prototyping in collaborating outside the medical bubble to iterate different and improved solutions for popular scenarios in healthcare, such as effectively comforting soon-to-be mothers before childbirth. Breonna Rodriguez addressed the sanctuary of family by embracing the formative years of her much younger sister as a meaningful force in dramatically adjusting her engagement of work/life balance.

The most transformative benefit of time was given by Chelina Odbert, the co-founder and executive director of the Kounkuey Design Initiative, “a non-profit design practice that partners with under-resourced communities to advance equity and activate the unrealized potential in neighborhoods and cities.” When she highlighted the before-and-after states of their community-design work in Kibera, a division of Nairobi, Kenya, there was an immediate reaction of awestruck from the audience.

The interdisciplinary efforts of Chelina and her collaborators, especially inputs from community experts, is an eminently grounded rally of the global ideal best-stated by anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978): “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Like in previous Cusp gatherings, the presenters are doing their damndest to make use of their time in meeting their respective calling: chronoception (John Cycle), textile circuits (Janet Liriano), bioterial architecture (Chris Mauer), sustainable food (Tyler Huggins), healthcare via human-centered design (Bon Ku) and conscious living (Breonna Rodriguez). Their time on the Cusp stage was a privileged peek into their daily mission statement. Making time to steadily fulfill the ambitious arc of their craft. Appointing themselves to a portal of effort they discovered and decided to go through, forging their own creative license by picking themselves.

“I am rooted, but I flow.”
—Virginia Woolf, Novelist, Essayist, Critic
Paired to the fascination with time, “flow” happened to be another apparent theme among the Cusp 2018 presenters. A few of them highlighted this phenomenon—but it was author, Meta Wagner, who revealed finally its architect: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) wrote the landmark book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (1991).

The “flow experience” is essentially achieved when purpose and joy are united. Illustrator/animator, Chris Sickels, acknowledged his primary source of flow: life. “Life experience feeds my illustration”—as he said while kickstarting the tour of his meticulous storyboarding-turned-world-making process that channels, to me, the animated work of Jiří Trnka (1912–1969). Writer Tara-Nicholle Nelson’s source of flow was inherent in her presentation’s opening affirmation: “I believe in the power of words.” Gamer and game designer Ashlynn Sparrow’s flow-origin was a role-playing game, released in 1997, that became one of the greatest games of all time—as she gleefully stated, “‘Final Fantasy VII’ changed my life.” Her revealing moment was reminiscent of the epiphany that inspired the pioneering game designer, Tetsuya Mizuguchi: 1988, Tokyo, in an arcade, he discovered “Tetris” (1984) and confessed, “I put many coins into that machine. It was such elegant perfection.”

Flow can be synonymous with simply the sensation of pleasure, even peace. A scalable experience, from the solitary act of writing (Tara-Nicholle Nelson) to the collaborative act of developing a game (Ashlynn Sparrow). Flow is also an equal-opportunity event when one blossoms and re-blossoms. The poet, Sharon Olds, declared frankly: “I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.”

In and on the cusp

With Sharon’s sentiment in mind, each Cusp presenter is acknowledging the element of luck in doing what they do. Each one feeling profound pride in what they’re contributing to their professional communities with the empowering perk of pollinating disciplines elsewhere. Each person defining and harnessing their flow. Again, this is the reason I cherish the Cusp Conference—it centralizes an eclectic group of people, sharing their projects, which ultimately compose their life’s work. The Cusp Conference advocates the human varietals of time and flow—amazing with each instance, to receive a snippet of the work that people drive and, in turn, drives them. Getting a glimpse of the progress of their decision—the flow of intent they dedicated themselves to answer and accomplish.

Changing things—and minds

Following the last presentation, when Dave Mason, one of the co-founders of the Cusp Conference, announced that 2018 is the last year for Cusp, it was unexpected. Looking back, it’s not surprising. “Cusp” is shorthand for transition. Since 2008, the Chicago-based strategic design firm, Multiple, has hosted the Cusp Conference for an 11 consecutive years. Up to 25 presenters annually; 11 one-of-a-kind opportunities to feel unanimously unexpected. A total chance to take in the sheer diversity of inspiration demonstrated across the humanities, sciences and business.

Over the years, noted role models have spoken at Cusp: TED founder, Richard Saul Wurman, who coined the term, “information architecture,” robotocist, Ayanna Howard, architect, Michelle Kaufmann, Frog Design’s founder, Hartmut Esslinger, designer, Yves Béhar, and more.

A couple of top-of-mind Cusp presenters whom I gladly recall were Bill Haley, coach of the Jackie Robinson West Little League team, founded by his father, and who won the United States Championship at the the Little League World Series 2014, plus Dr. Gary Slutkin who treats violence as a disease and continues to apply his attention, energies and expertise in reducing violence.

Innovative singer-songwriter, Björk (whom I could easily envision performing and presenting at a Cusp Conference) said, “If optimism ever was like an emergency, it’s now.” The annual Cusp Conference gave a highly varied and liberating serving of optimism through its eclectic composition of speakers—each one realizing an optimistic angle. An angle of professional practice that is both home and storm to each speaker. In total, converging into a prism of possibility and hope. Glowing evidence that there are people actually working hard to change things in order to make the world a better place, from their immediate surroundings to an overarching context.

Organizing an annual event, packed with presenters, spanning two days, is an intense effort. Lots of moving details. Whatever the future of the Cusp Conference is, its past tense–consisting of humans realizing good things at whatever level in whatever discipline—echoes in the present.

Time. Flow. Here’s to tending both in 2019 and hereafter.

• • •

Past Cusp Conference talks can be (re)experienced at Multiple’s video archive.

• • •

Big thanks: to Multiple, Inc., the volunteers and producers, such as AV Chicago, who made Cusp Conference happen in 2018; to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, for being the sole venue.

• • •

Explore my additional coverage of the Cusp Conference in my written series on Events centered on creativity.

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November 16, 2018

The Best is Yet to Come: Maria Montes Improves and Grows as a Freelance Designer, Illustrator, Letterer and Calligraphy Teacher

Designer and Artist Maria Monte’s work in illustration and letterforms is tremendous—and fantastic in scope. Been revisiting her wonderful work over the years. Excited about her opinions on creativity and craft as part of my Design Feast series celebrating remarkable Makers. Here, Maria gives a detailed peek into her world, from her beginnings to getting established to continually improving her illustrating-lettering talents to shaping a creative community—and being shaped by it for the better.

How did you arrive at the desire to become a designer and
an artist who makes her design and art—her life’s work?

My grandmother has been a huge influence in my life. She was a fashion designer and a dress maker. With her support, at the age of sixteen, I started to cut and sew my own garments and I loved it.

At the age of eighteen, I applied for a fashion degree. I was not convinced that you can make a living as a fashion designer, so I decided to enroll simultaneously in a graphic design degree. That year, I spent my days drawing fashion silhouettes and my nights typesetting in Pagemaker and QuarkXPress.

In 1995, while studying fashion and graphic design, Paco Rabanne released XS. I remember discovering the perfume’s packaging. Something about these letters caught my attention and I could not stop thinking about them for months. By the end of that academic year, I decided to specialise in graphic design so I would have the opportunity to learn more about letterforms.

Graphic design, typography and illustration have been part of my life since then.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start
and establish yourself as a calligrapher and designer?

First came calligraphy, then typeface design. Through textile design came illustration and finally lettering as the sum of it all.

I learnt calligraphy for the first time in 1996. During my first year at university, we had to study nine months of formal calligraphy as a compulsory subject.

After working as a graphic designer for a decade, I felt that I needed to go back to the foundations. I consider typography the main tool for a graphic designer and I felt that I needed to up-skill my knowledge.

In 2011, I enrolled for a postgraduate course of advanced typography in Barcelona. During that course, I studied formal calligraphy again with Keith Adams and Oriol Miró. I was shocked by how something you love so much can be forgotten for so many years. I grabbed my calligraphy nibs again and I have never let them go.

After my postgraduate course in Barcelona, I came back to Melbourne and started a collaborative project on textile design. I learnt how to illustrate, create patterns and all things related to CAD from my bedroom. I rediscovered that drawing was another one of my big passions.

My collaborative textile project was going really well—I was illustrating all day, every day and learning a great deal of new stuff.

The experience of learning type design in Barcelona was so good, that a year later I decided to enroll in a condensed program on typeface design at the Cooper Union in New York City.

Type@Cooper was a turning point in my career. By that time, I was illustrating full-time and writing calligraphy every morning as a personal development. At the Cooper Union, I learnt a new method of drawing type by hand, and I decided to apply the same methodology to illustrating textiles.

In 2013, one of my typography teachers at university died and I received an email asking for submissions to pay homage to Josep Maria Pujol, a great typographer, teacher and type historian. This motivated me to send my first lettering submission to a group show.

Lettering made so much sense to me. I see it as the result of combining my interests in writing letters and drawings patterns, which is drawing letterforms.

Nowadays, my practice sits between graphic design, custom lettering projects, illustration commissions, textile design and calligraphic-personal development. I currently teach calligraphy workshops in Australia.

Very difficult to select which work of yours to dive into. One that I keep revisiting is your awesome “We Cannot Not Change” print. How did you arrive at this idea? What was your process/workflow toward this realization of typography and illustration?

“We Cannot Not Change” is a personal artwork originally submitted to a group exhibition in Melbourne, Australia.

The inspiration behind this piece comes from two events that happened during my attendance at ATypI Conference, Barcelona, in 2014. During the second day of the conference, Raquel Pelta gave a fantastic talk called “Graphic design and typography for social change.” I admire Raquel very much and her talk was very inspiring to me.
 The second inspiring event at the conference was typeface designer Erik Spiekermann’s sending of a mailing tube to ATypI containing a poster with the message “You cannot not communicate.” Spiekermann’s poster referred to one of the five basic axioms supported by communication theorist Paul Watzlawick:
“One cannot not communicate: Every behavior is a form of communication. Because behavior does not have a counterpart (there is no anti-behavior), it is impossible not to communicate. Even if communication is being avoided (such as the unconscious use of non-verbals or symptom strategy), that is a form of communication. ‘Symptom strategy’ is ascribing our silence to something beyond our control and makes no communication impossible. Examples of symptom strategy are sleepiness, headaches, and drunkenness. Even facial expressions, digital communication, and being silent can be analyzed as communication by a receiver.”
Combining both ideas “Graphic design and typography for social change” plus “One cannot not communicate” gave me the inspiration to create a piece based on the idea of change, the theme of the group exhibition.

The first idea behind my artwork “We Cannot Not Change” was that in our physical human nature (illustrated in the background), change is inevitable. The second idea was that change is imperative to improve social conditions, create a sustainable living, respect nature as our own family and take responsibility for our actions.

Change must be as driven of a force toward responsible consumption and production; more inclusive, safe and sustainable cities and communities; universal access to water and clean energy; awareness of the effects of climate change and the conversation of the sea and its ecosystems.

I will use a fragment of Raquel’s talk to close my idea:
“Experts say that we are in the middle of four huge scale crises (financial, energetic, food and democratic) and citizens are demanding substantial changes, the question arises, what is the role of graphic design and typography on these changes? Could they become agents of social change?”
One of my favorited quotes is by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut: “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” How do you maintain your calligraphy/lettering discipline?

Calligraphy, lettering and typography are all about learning to see and understand that the foreground (positive spaces) and background (negative spaces) have both the same volume of importance.

As a beginner at anything, it’s very common to say “this is shit,” or my personal all-time favourite “this is not good enough”—whatever “good enough” means.

I learnt Copperplate calligraphy in 2011. I sucked at it for a very long time. This style of calligraphy never came natural to me and it has taken me many years to reach a point where I am feeling comfortable with the pointed pen and finally feeling the flow.

My teacher Amanda Adams once told me, “Your pens are like your dogs; you take them for a walk every day no matter if it rains, it’s cold or hot, you just do it.”

In my personal experience, there are no shortcuts, only practice. And if you decide to put your pens down to sleep for a few weeks/months, be prepared to feel all the shakes again, guaranteed.

How is typography, from drawing letters to designing typefaces, a coping mechanism in these turbulent times? How are design and art helpful in these turbulent times?

Letterforms are a tool for communication. We now have access to multiple platforms where we can amplify our voice and talk about the issues we really care about.

I ask myself this question many times: What responsibility do we, in the design sector, have? As designers, we translate our client’s ideas. As artists, we become the vehicle for our own ideas. Are we using our knowledge and skills for designing for good?

Is there a work of calligraphy/lettering/typography that
you keep admiring, that you happen to re-experience?

For some reason, I go back often to the logotype “Families,” designed by Herb Lubalin in 1980. The simplicity and visual clarity of this logo makes me reflect on the importance of a great idea expressed in a very concise and minimalistic way.

I recently watched a talk by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman where he mentions that the idea is first and craft must come second. And this has resonated deeply with me.

How did you arrive at the idea of making your Green Fairy
typeface? What was the process in getting it real?

The origin of my Green Fairy font family is the lettering I designed in 2015 as part of my illustrated cocktail artwork called “Absinthe. La Fée Verte” (The Green Fairy).

Right after creating the full-colour artwork, I designed a fountain-letterpress print version in collaboration with Ladies of Letters, a.k.a. Carla Hackett and Amy Constable, from Saint Gertrude Fine Printing.

At the beginning of 2016—and thanks to the project @36DaysOfType—I found the motivation, most importantly, the deadline, to draw the rest of the twenty-six letters of the uppercase alphabet.

I started 2017 with having my first two calligraphy courses sold out, so I took this amazing opportunity to devote myself to Green Fairy for nine months straight.

I purchased the font software Glyphs and I started to re-draw all twenty-six letters of the uppercase alphabet again, followed by the numbers, currency symbols, diacritics, punctuation marks as well as spacing and kerning.

Font Production Process

Green Fairy was born as one weight, but quickly turned into a layered/chromatic font.

Green Fairy’s characters have been specifically designed to accommodate its loops and ornaments following a modern font structure.

Green Fairy Font has four chromatic weights:
1. Green Fairy Outline

2. Green Fairy Dots

3. Green Fairy Stencil

4. Green Fairy Full

The Outline weight has been created as the base or structure for the other styles. You can combine these weights as well as add colours to obtain multiple effects and type styles.

Green Fairy font has also three combined weights (combos) to simplify your workflow, for these occasions when you only want to use one single colour in your font:
5. Green Fairy Dots Combo

6. Green Fairy Stencil Combo

7. Green Fairy Full Combo

Green Fairy is the result of an intense nine-month-full-time personal investment and I couldn’t be happier with this release! The font is now available commercially at MyFonts.

What is the one tool that helps make your work more accomplished and pleasant, as a result, making your life good? In your creative work-kit, what are your go-to digital tools, the ones you love using because they prove reliably effective?

I get bored easily, so my favourite part of my work is being able to jump between analogue and digital mediums or combine them both, if possible.

My desk is divided in two areas, the analogue and the digital one. I spend at least 2 hours a day writing. When I am teaching calligraphy at my studio in Melbourne, I focus these daily hours of practice on the specific calligraphy style that I am teaching that weekend.

In the analogue area, I have an A2 lightbox that I use on a regular basis. Most of my lettering work starts with calligraphy, so once I have a good calligraphic sketch, I start to redraw on top of it using paper, a mechanic pencil and a fine marker.

For my calligraphic work, I started to use a portable easel and my neck feels better. I use Brause & Co. nibs and bamboo pens with walnut ink or liquid watercolours. For my Copperplate calligraphy work, I use Nikko G and Zebra nibs.

I have recently purchased an Arttec bond layout pad and I love it. The paper is Bleedproof 70gsm which allows you to see the guidelines clearer. If I want to create a beautiful original, I use a few different papers depending on budget. From Canson watercolour paper 300gsm, to Canson Basik 370gsm, to Moulin Du Gue 270gsm to handmade paper.

In the digital area, I have a vertical mouse (due to my back problems) and a Wacom tablet. For my lettering and type design work, I use the Glyphs app. Accounting app Xero is my new best friend; I started using it last year and I am loving it.

And lastly, I have a big annual calendar stack on my bedroom’s wall, and I use fluro colours to map out the entire year; it helps me to have a bigger sense of my time instead of just having a weekly vision.

How do you get the word out about what you do?
How do you attract people to your work?

Firstly, by word-of-mouth. Normally, recommendations come from peers, people who have worked with me in the past, or students who have attended a calligraphy workshop.

Secondly, via social media.

In running your creative business and managing all
of those moving parts to live and keep yourself busy,
how do you take care of yourself?

In 2015, I experienced a massive creative block after my first solo exhibition; I learned that this is called “post-exhibition blues.” So this year, after opening my second solo exhibition in Spain, I was not going to make the same mistake again.

Going for a walk in nature is one of my best recipes to give myself a break. Physical activities, where my body moves more and my brain works less, typically work for me. And that is exactly what I did in July and August this year.

Being surrounded by friends and family, and disconnecting from social media are pretty good remedies to keep myself healthier mentally.

Now, I’m back at my office in Melbourne being conscious about having a better work/life balance if that exists. I’m reminding myself the importance of doing exercise, and taking distance from my work, as I get too obsessed sometimes.

If an aspiring illustrator/letterer approached you and
said, “I love
to draw and want to become a working artist,”
what’s your response?

Good shit takes time. Social media, smart phones and instant messages are creating the illusion that things happen in a blink of an eye, getting an instant, short-lived result of gratification.

These are a few things I have learnt along the way:

Never stop learning
Work very hard, trust in your potential and find the people who believe in you and stick to them.

Keep yourself fit
Stick to your daily practice (whatever it is) and record/file all your work in progress. Being able to see your own improvements is one of the biggest motivators to keep you moving forward.

Find your tribe
Being surrounded by other creative people that inspire your work and being able to collaborate with them is one of the greatest advantages of our industry. So please take it: be generous, share your knowledge, connect, collaborate and support the shit out of each other.

Do you want to work for a company, be a freelance artist or both?
Being a solo full-time freelance designer means you have to absolutely believe in what you do; have the passion and tenacity for it; don’t give up when things go wrong or very wrong; hope that all your hard-work will somehow pay-off and have faith in yourself—and that’s a lot of things to carry on mentally on a daily basis. The idea of freelancing is not a romantic one.

Find as many resources as you can. Talk to as many people already doing it as possible and take care of your finances.
I would recommend to go to the Association of Illustrators and read, especially if you live in Australia, “The Barefoot Investor.”

How would you describe “good design”?

I have recently read a very interesting thread on Twitter by art director Eric Hu that made me think a lot about the idea of good design and plagiarism versus sincerity.

On this thread, Eric mentions “It’s not about making a solution no one could have thought of, it’s making a solution that makes people realize no other solution would have been more appropriate. Do that and it will be its own thing.”

And while reading it, my mind went straight back to Lubalin’s “Families” logo (1980).

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute
to doing the quality of work you want to do?

Community and studio culture are the most important elements in my workspace.

Having people around that respect, support what you do and understand the emotional mindset of a freelance designer is very important to me.

Being surrounded by other creative people that inspire your work and being able to collaborate with them is the second great deal about my studio.

Other factors that count is having natural light, a good internet connection and a space where you don’t freeze in winter and don’t dehydrate in summer.

I feel really lucky to be at Rotson Studios since it gives me the opportunity to work and teach calligraphy in the same space.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going as a designer
and an artist?

My life motto is “the best is yet to come.” Keeping myself positive is the key for not losing it.

The inspiration behind my work comes from my day-to-day life. The people I am surrounded by, my neighbourhood, my partner, my family and the nature in Australia.

What is your vision of satisfaction, as it relates
to your chosen career?

I have done a couple of conference talks. Both of them have been super-positive experiences and the satisfaction I got from them was worth all the stress before going up on stage.

In terms of my craft, satisfaction is a feeling that only lasts for six months. After that period of time, I look back at my own work and I can only see mistakes. This is, in fact, a good thing, as it means that my eye is improving and I am growing as a designer.

What drew you to relocating yourself to Australia from Catalonia? How does Australia contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

I moved to Australia looking for a big adventure, wanting to learn English and work as a graphic designer overseas to strengthen my portfolio.

My original plan was getting sponsored by a design studio, spend two years in the country and then move to NYC. It’s been twelve years since I moved to Australia! Living in Australia has definitely changed my work. I think my dressing habits are now aligned to my work, whereas before it wasn’t like that.

Australia is a young country full of opportunities. We are building our own story, and there is plenty of room for young and upcoming voices.

From splitting your time between Melbourne
and Barcelona, any traveling pro-tips?

I never imagined I would spend twelve years in Australia, so I never had an strategy regarding airlines. I always chose the cheapest option available, and that sometimes became the most expensive one.

Once I purchased a one-way flight from Melbourne to Barcelona for only 480 euros. The flight’s duration was forty-two hours and I would never do it again! My ankles were the size of my knees by the end of the flight, I got sick and I experienced the worst jet lag ever.

Second tip: Don’t fly with Aeroflot, it can be the most scary experience of your life!

If you are planning to visit three or more cities in different continents, I would highly recommend booking a round-the-world ticket.

If I could go back in time, I would have picked a good airline and become loyal to them from the very beginning. By now, with the amount of flights I have done between Melbourne and Barcelona, I would have accumulated enough points to fly for free or to upgrade and treat myself for once!

Nowadays, I use Singapore airlines, Qatar or Emirates. These flights have only one stop over and the duration is between twenty-one and twenty-three hours which is “pretty fast” considering the distance.

Lastly, I take Melatonine natural tablets for the first seven days in Europe; they help me to get a good sleep.

• • •

All images courtesy of Maria Montes.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of 103 (so far) Interviews
with people who love making things.

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October 17, 2018

Positively Engaging Communities and Putting People at the Center of the Design Process: Director Libby Cole of The Work Department

The pioneering urban thinker and author, Jane Jacobs, expressed, “Design is people.” This embodies the people-centered design approach practiced by The Work Department, directed and owned by Libby Cole. Here, she shares her opinions on the benefits and ultimate value of participatory design, harnessing grounded collaboration, especially the experience of doing good work with good people for good people.

How do you and your team make
your design process “people-centered”?

The Work Department started using the term “people-centered” as a way to differentiate our process from “human-centered” design. The “human-centered” design approach seems more about observing your audience and putting yourself in their shoes and then making guesses or assumptions about their needs. Our approach is very different than that. We use a participatory or co-creation process—meaning our audience participates in the actual design process. We invite the audience and stakeholders to be hands-on, quite literally, through brainstorming sessions, workshops, feedback, ideation and sketching. We know people are experts in their own lives, so we simply listen to them and the end-result is better aligned with their needs.

Project: Detroit UNESCO City of Design initiative

I remain curious about the term “design methods.” Admiring 
your collective practice of them. Though practiced a lot, 
it’s not popular to say, even claim, such as the term 
of “design thinking.” How do you select which design method 
to use per project?

We have a “toolbox,” so to speak, of methods we can use and choose them based on the project needs—that being said, the broad strokes of our process stays the same. We start with research and discovery every time, we then begin an iterative design and feedback process, and then finalize or implement the design. Audience and project goals, as well as time and budget, determine the specific methods we use. A public engagement where we gather feedback from hundreds of people may be appropriate at times, or a small gathering of neighbors workshopping language and sketching might be more helpful to the process.

Your company works on “wicked problems”: education, the 
environment, more. How do you cope with the constant 
of complexity? What’s your mindset in facing complexity? 
How do design methods play a role in engaging complexity?

Complexity is definitely a constant, our strength and differentiator is breaking down complex problems with others. We do this through allowing ourselves time and space to learn from reading research and from subject matter experts in an ample discovery phase. Iteration is also key when facing complexity because rarely is your first draft going to be the last. Feedback loops, testing and small incremental changes allow you and your audience to make the best design decisions.

Working with others is also a way to guarantee complexity! It would be much easier to design in a bubble by myself, and pat myself on the back at the end of the day, but that doesn’t make sense! We have had to gain experience in facilitating conversations among groups, practice empathy, learn to let go of preconceived notions, put our egos aside—most of all, do more listening than talking.

Project: Foodlab. Photography: Bree Gant.

When you and your team create a workshop to gather and 
galvanize human thoughts toward informing/inspiring ideation, 
what are some of the steps taken in making this experience
productive? For example, what was the step-by-step journey
to realize the series of workshops in working with the FoodLab?

Simply put, we work backwards and collaboratively! As an organization, FoodLab wanted to create a set of guiding principles, member expectations and a self assessment for member food businesses. So we knew the goal, and together with FoodLab decided the best way to create this content was to tap into the knowledge of their member businesses who have been a part of the organization for a long time and who have found success. They were like the elders teaching the younger, newer businesses, stemming from their own successes and hardships. From there, we invited a small but diverse set of people and businesses in order to get a variety of perspectives but still have enough time and space for everyone to meaningfully participate.

So we had less than 15 people in the room. We paid them a stipend for their time (something we always push for in a budget, by the way), we ensured there was food, coffee and water, and we reserved a beautiful, comfortable space for the conversations. Basically, by creating space that is comfortable physically and emotionally, people are more likely to share openly. We met for a few hours on a few different days, a few weeks apart, all purposefully so not to overwhelm anyone and take up too much of their time on any one day. We then used a strategy that we frequently use, that is, we start very broad in our conversation and write down all the thoughts everyone has and together discuss each idea—together narrow down, combine and eliminate similarities, until we have a list of ideas that everyone can feel good about and also feel ownership over.

Prompts for conversation were carefully considered and written. For example, when wanting business owners to talk about “good food and good jobs” we asked them to share with the group a story about the best meal they ever ate. The conversation was much more personal, descriptive and warm than if we were to just ask them about a job in their business.

What is design? What’s at the core of “design thinking”—How 
has this term and concept become popular?

Design is a word that can be very intimidating. When working with Design Core Detroit on the UNESCO City of Design designation this was a problem we worked on overcoming. It can imply expensive, high brow, exclusivity. I do not believe that you need a degree to design, it simply means strategically thinking and planning to solve a problem. Design thinking is just another way to describe this. Graphic Design, for example, is strategically using visuals and language to communicate an idea. Everyone, everyday, designs their daily schedule or their outfit based on their unique needs or desires. When working with Detroiters to determine what we would prioritize as a City with our designation, we asked folks to describe the “good life” or what a good quality-of-life looked like to them, because a well-designed city is what facilitates most people’s description. People ended up talking about public transportation, eating healthily, diverse groups of people or experiencing a beautiful landscape.

How did you arrive at doing the kind of design work you do?

I have always been passionate about social justice and have felt an obligation to use my skills to support worthy, value-driven causes. I started out working for traditional design firms straight out of college but found myself unhappy being pushed to use my skills to create ads and other materials for companies selling things like subprime mortgages, for example! I soon quit and started working freelance because around the time the city went bankrupt and just before there was a huge need for communication tools for nonprofits and other groups serving the community in ways I could feel good about. A few friends had started to work together doing the same thing, one of which was a developer, and shortly after, we all started working together instead of separately. And the rest is history, as they say. It has never been easy, but feel it has totally been worth it.

How would describe The Work Department’s work culture? In 
doing the purposeful and collaborative work you do, how do you 
maintain your creativity, critical thinking—your sanity?

I have always felt strongly about The Work Department being different than the stereotypical studio environment—long hours, working nights/weekends, feeling underappreciated and unable to think creatively. Also, I want to point out that we didn’t start out as all women and we didn’t purposefully become an all-women team, but when we found ourselves there, something clicked and we realized it was really special. When we took stock of what was different, we started being more conscious and purposeful about our culture and values.

These things contribute to us maintaining creativity and sanity. We pay ourselves well. We each have other interests and allow ourselves the time and space to pursue these things including but not limited to: taking on freelance work, pursuing residencies, serving on boards and commissions, or running a separate business or artist practice. We are constantly checking in with each other and communicate candidly about what is going right and wrong in each project and as individuals. We sometimes cry at the office because of work and sometimes for other reasons. We make a point of constantly learning from others—people whose lives don’t look like ours through conferences, books, conversations and other experiences. We don’t take on projects that aren’t set up for success, i.e. projects that have unrealistic budgets, timelines or goals. This allows us not to work weekends or long nights (most of the time.) Vacations are required—we close the office several weeks every year to ensure this.

What’s your media diet like? Who and what do you recommend 
to help be aware of current affairs/culture/your community 
and the world?

I recommend being aware of current events in any way that works for you, because knowing what others are experiencing locally and globally helps make better decisions at work and in general. Personally, I consume media of all kinds (radio, TV, podcasts, Instagram, newsletters) for a global and/or special interest perspective, but I highly recommend talking to neighbors and getting involved with a community for your local perspective.

Who and what are your influences related to 
creativity/design/facilitating? That help hone your toggling
between being a team director/leader and a designer?

My team! We constantly take stock of what is working and what isn’t and are in constant communication about it. We are always learning from each other and each client, and we help each other become better.

In these politically-charged times, how are you coping 
and channeling what’s happening into your design work?

The personal is political and everyday choices are meaningful. At The Work Department, we work on projects that prioritize accessibility, equity and shared respect. Turning down work can also be a political decision. Before we take on a new client we discuss as a team how it aligns with our values and how it might affect us personally and professionally. There is a lot of money being spent in Detroit right now and so opportunities come up all of the time that don’t align with our values, and though it can be tough to turn down income, it is necessary.

Who and what are your influences related to design,
especially people-centered design?

Long-time client and partner, Allied Media Projects’ work at the intersection of media, technology and social justice is a huge influence. The Center for Urban Pedagogy is very inspirational for literally everything they do. Jae Shin and Damon Rich and their work at [“urban design, planning and civic arts practice”] Hector is also on this list, we have looked to them for inspiration many times.

In your creative work-kit, what are your go-to tools, the ones
you love using because they prove reliably effective?

My analog tools are always changing because there are so many cute notebooks and special pens out there to try. Digitally speaking: Slack, Google Apps and Teamwork keep us going! Sounds boring, but organization and communication allow us the space to be creative.

How does Detroit contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

I was born and lived most of my life in metro-Detroit and Detroit proper, so it is hard for me to speculate what makes it special for newcomers. But personally, growing up here and being educated here, I felt a responsibility to stay and work in the community I came up in. Detroit is not always an easy place to live, but working in a place where I can see the direct effects of my work and help to build community through various aspects of work is very rewarding.

• • •

All images courtesy of Libby Cole, except for my photos—albums one and two—of Detroit, Michigan.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of 102 (so far) Interviews
with people who love making things.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Please help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

September 11, 2018

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Digital Transformation Consultant Sally Lait Turns Her Admiration of Japanese Details into Animated Art

What are you working on—on the side?

My side project is, which is a site that houses my ongoing quest to capture some (quite niche!) beautiful Japanese details that I’ve encountered over the years—specifically train station stamps and manhole covers—in digital form.

Both of these items have a bit of a cult following, with many people going out of their way to collect photos. Before knowing this, on an early trip to Japan, I ended up being struck by the wonderful design and the care that had been taken to enhance the manholes—something that in the UK we don’t do at all. In addition, I loved the shameless nerdery of being able to collect stamps at train stations, and how each one was completely individual—again, it was a beautiful creation in an unusual setting. This stayed with me, and I started to collect more, weaving them into future trips. The photos and stamps then became synonymous with happy memories from time in a country that I love.

“Natsukashii” (懐かしい) is one of those great words that doesn’t translate well into English. You’ll find it commonly explained as related to the concept of nostalgia, but it’s a warm yearning, prompted by something that you’ve seen, heard or felt. I started the site because I had these photos and stamps, and they would always give me this good feeling when I looked through. I wanted a reason to do something with them, and to spend some time in the memories. As I work in digital, I’m also always looking for an excuse to learn new things and improve my skills, so I decided to use this as an opportunity to teach myself about creating vector-based illustration and to animate them. At present I’m only using CSS to do so, but for some of the more complex pieces I’m thinking about exploring some of the JavaScript libraries that are available.

My last trip to Japan was in July and I managed to collect an enormous amount of new source material, so much that I’m not sure which ones I want to focus on next!

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

With great difficulty! Even the more simple designs take a very long time to vectorise (especially with my lack of experience), and then it takes me ages to get the animation to a point I’m happy with. The first couple were relatively simple, but I’m currently working on one that feels like it’s taking forever! In between my work and other hobbies, I don’t have a huge amount of time, so progress has been slow, but that’s OK because this is for me rather than anyone else.

My work requires a very different kind of head space, and so it’s sometimes difficult to flip into a mode where I’m feeling more creative, and less technical and analytical. However, I enjoy that the mindset for this is very different to other things that I do, and I tend to find myself gravitating towards it whenever I need something relaxing and satisfyingly repetitive.

Why have a side project?

Part of the motivation with this project is to be able to get better at playing with new things (both around design and technology), and creating with absolutely no pressure from external factors. I’m able to explore areas that are interesting to me at any point in time, and take it in a totally different direction if I wanted to. Even if things remain unfinished, I try not to give myself a hard time about that, because I know that I’ve enjoyed whatever time I have spent working on it. It’s incredibly satisfying to work with a subject matter that I love, and which always makes me feel happy whilst doing it.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Sally Lait.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Please help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

September 3, 2018

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Copywriter Janelle Blasdel Creates Comedy from the Page to Stage

What are you working on—on the side?

My side project is comedy, both performing and writing, which is a pretty broad arena to be working in, but that’s one reason I enjoy it so much. Comedy attracts a range of voices, talents, styles and approaches, so there are a lot of opportunities for crossover, collaboration and moving into a new medium that you want to explore.

More specifically, I perform improv across Chicago, namely at iO Theater with my Harold team ’66 Mustang (below) and with The Improvised Twilight Zone at The Annoyance. I also play at CIC, The Crowd and Bughouse Theater with indie teams and as part of variety shows. And I make guest appearances on podcasts like “These Parts” and “Humanoid Resources.”

For my writing, I work on video scripts for the iO Comedy Network team Deep Stretch and have published satirical articles at McSweeney’s. I’m also working on a two-person sketch show and am kicking off work on a new web series.

Source: Joe Gallagher Film/Photography

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

I work full-time as a senior writer during the day, so I use my nights and weekends to write comedy and perform. It can get overwhelming running from a rehearsal to a show to a writers’ meeting to a video shoot, but some of my favorite days are those that have me biking all over the city working on projects that I love with my friends, who are also hustling their butts off. These are passion projects, for sure, and there’s a special kind of reserve energy that accompanies those, but when I do have a night off, I do absolutely nothing and it is GLORIOUS.

Why have a side project?

I love how improv frees up my mind—the idea is to say “Yes, and” to your scene partner. It’s very much about listening to, connecting with and supporting your teammates in-the-moment, building on an idea rather than presenting roadblocks. And I love how comedy writing lets me be more reflective and try out different forms, from video to sketch, to see which one works best to express an idea. What I love about both is that, while the content can be silly and playful, the commentary can be smart and moving in its message—definitely not an easy thing to accomplish, but when I see it happen, it’s really inspiring.

Most of all, it’s so much fun. Improv and comedy writing keep me energized and thinking in different ways, and it’s also how I’ve met many of my closest friends. It keeps me from running on autopilot, pushing me to evolve and grow my voice and perspective and not feel stuck, or—if I ever do feel stuck—it unsticks me. What I do in comedy finds its way into my personal and professional life and, dang, I just don’t think I’d have as good of a time without it. 

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Janelle Blasdel—portrait by Charlie Simokaitis.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Please help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

August 20, 2018

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Katie Puccio and Liz Wells Advocate Inclusiveness in the Creative Industry Through Their Desk Lunch Newsletter

What are you working on—on the side?

Desk Lunch is a weekly newsletter for women and non-binary folks to share experiences of what it’s like to work in the creative industry. We’re here to celebrate, support and project the stories that often go unheard.

Desk Lunch is a contribution-based platform on which a different person every week shares a short essay on a theme of their choice. In addition to our weekly newsletter, we use Instagram to feature work by female or non-binary artists, designers or other creators that inspire us.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

We work together at our day job, so it’s easy to grab a few minutes here and there when it’s slow to put each week’s issue together. If one, or both, of us is particularly slammed, we work around our normal hours and put things together first thing in the morning or later at night.

Liz is charged with the design and layout of the issue, including formatting everything in MailChimp and creating the graphics used in the issue and on social. Katie is responsible for editing submissions, identifying key themes, and managing our Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Why have a side project?

Desk Lunch began as a project to address the lack of representation of women and non-binary people in the creative industry. We realized that few platforms adequately represent stories of what it is like to be othered in our industry. We wanted to create a platform that supports, uplifts and normalizes these stories.

A key priority of our mission is to be inclusive. We welcome all who identify as non-binary, queer, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, intersex, transgender, genderqueer or gender nonconforming. This also includes people of color, and people of all ages and abilities. We wanted our community to be as open and accessible as possible, and we see digital culture as instrumental to disruption and change, so we chose to make Desk Lunch a newsletter that’s available every week to whoever signs up online.

We believe that change starts from the bottom up, and we hope this is the first step in switching up the narrative to include more diverse voices. We’re so honored to be able to tell the stories of women and non-binary folks who are making space for others to follow in their impressive footsteps.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Katie Puccio and Liz Wells.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Please help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.

August 10, 2018

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: UI/UX Designer Shauna Keating Galvanizes the Creative Community of Hudson Valley and Upstate New York

What are you working on—on the side?

I would say that my side project is facilitating the design and tech community in the Hudson Valley and Upstate New York. This takes on a few different forms and takes a little juggling. 

For the last two years, I have been a Co-Organizer of the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup. We are a organization of over 2,500 members that operates out of a page. We strive to connect the people in our region doing cool work related to technology. It’s really focused on bringing people together to share the things they are passionate about. Speakers range from students sharing their thesis projects at local colleges, to founders of nationally recognized tech companies sharing what it was like to get to where they are. These gatherings are not just about seeing people talk, though. It’s where the tech community in the Hudson Valley comes together. It’s how a professionals in the area can form a network and see how many people nearby share their interests.

Also in this time, I have helped organize Catskills Conf, which happens in the Hudson Valley every October. This year will be my third time on the organizing team, and the fourth time the conference has run. I attended as a volunteer at the first event as a college student and fell totally in love with it. This is not your average conference. It has the talks about design, development and entrepreneurship that you would expect, but we also have activities like blacksmithing, letterpress and foraging. It’s unique because you get the opportunity to network with great people, but you also get to stay in a cabin with everyone and toast marshmallows around the fire every night. You get the opportunity to get to know people, and skip over the stress that would normally come with attending a conference. The second year, I led the volunteer team and did all the design work for the event. Last year, I tried my hand at emceeing and taking over more responsibility, and am continuing with that this year.

As of a month ago, I am the Co-President of AIGA Upstate New York. AIGA is a national organization with 72+ chapters all over the country. We are the professional association of design, doing work to advance design and designers all over the country. Our chapter focuses on all of New York State that is not New York City or Long Island. I lead a remote team of over 20 people, all of who live in our state. We run events in the Hudson Valley, Capital Region, Ithaca, Syracuse, Binghamton, Rochester, Glens Falls and Buffalo. What drew me to AIGA and why I have stepped up to lead the organization for the next 2 years, is the people in our chapter. Upstate New York has a truly special design community. Through our events and Slack community, we are connecting employers to local talent, helping emerging designers get started, and making it possible for all of us to build a local network we can collaborate with. Through being involved, I have made friends who also work in the design field all over the state that I would have never met otherwise.

Prior to becoming Co-President, I served as Programming Director for a year. This meant I was leading our team of programming coordinators—the people on the ground in all the locations listed above—and helping them run design-focused events. These include our monthly coffee and cocktails meetups, our annual Design Crawl (think bar crawl, but design talks and studio visits mixed in!), and our emerging designers’ portfolio reviews. Since I am in the Hudson Valley myself, I also help run our local events, and go to them.

I also periodically speak at conferences, mostly on the topic of inclusive design. Most recently, I traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to participate in a panel about the topic, as well as to be a keynote speaker at a diversity-focused hackathon, I think it is important to share my research and hear other people’s perspectives on this topic.

This is the part where the person I am talking to says, “Wow! You’re really busy!”

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

I would not be able to do any of this without the complete support of my partner, my friends and co-workers. Many people try really hard to keep their career and their personal life completely separate, and while there definitely isn’t anything wrong with that, (everyone has a right to lead their life in the way they want!) that approach just isn’t how my life has gone. The people I spend my free time with are also the people I get to work alongside, which can be a really special thing. Knowing the people you work with can result in much more meaningful work, and better understanding of one another overall.

A lot of the time, I will stay at my desk for an extra hour or two after my work day is complete, sending emails to speakers for the Catskills Conf or chatting with our board members for AIGA, making sure they have the resources they need to be successful. Occasionally, a weekend will get sacrificed here or there. It’s not the easiest thing, but my take on it is if you want something to exist, you can’t wait around for it to happen. I care a lot about the place where I live—and I want it to be somewhere that people can feel like they can be successful in their careers. I really believe I live in one of the most beautiful and kind places in the world, and I want more people to have the opportunity to do meaningful work here.

 I’ll also say, none of this would be possible if I were trying to do it alone. All three of these organizations that have members, sponsors and organizing teams that make it all happen!

Why have a side project?

Working on something you are passionate about and getting a lot of creative freedom with can make such a big difference. It is a great opportunity for personal growth. I learn new things all the time that I would never learn at work that are really beneficial to me in the long run. I am developing the leadership skills I’ll need someday when I’m a Creative Director, as well as just learning the ins and outs of how organizations really work.

 A side project can be such a great opportunity to find your people. This is especially true to folks who might not be at their dream job, or who just aren’t finding their day-to-day very fulfilling. This is how you can get to do exactly what you want, and even open up important doors for yourself later by building the right network.

 Also, it’s just really great to do what you want! A lot of what I do is collaborative and team-based, but lots of people do their side project on their own or in a smaller group. While critique and constructive criticism are crucial to our design processes, it can be really empowering to just make something because you want to and don’t have to go back and change it for someone else.

• • •

Diptych and photo of the Catskills Conf courtesy of Shauna Keating—portrait by Jen Thomas.

This series, devoted to side projects, is delivered in association with Chicago creative agency 50,000feet—dedicated to helping brands and businesses soar.

Donating = Appreciating: Design Feast is now on Patreon!
Lots of hours are put into making Design Feast—because it’s a labor of love to provide creative culture to everyone. If you find delight and motivation from the hundreds of interviews, including event write-ups, at Design Feast, please consider becoming a supporting Patron with a recurring monthly donation.

Please help keep Design Feast going and growing by visiting my Patreon page where you can watch a short intro video plus view my goals and reward tiers, from $1 to $12—between a souvenir and a satisfying brunch.