Yr03, Ep21 :: Lance Kagey on Authenticity

Lance Kagey

by This is Design School

On this episode, Lance Kagey, an owner and Principal at Rotator Creative, talks about community building, the tangential hobbies that make designers interesting, and creating more authentic work by using elements and materials from the world around us.


Jp:

Lance Kagey, thank you so much for being on This is Design School with us.

Lance:

My pleasure.

Jp:

I’m excited to talk to you because one of the things that interests me is your story of how you got to where you are today. Can you give us a little brief history of where you started and where we are right now?

Lance:

Well, right now we are in my creative agency, Rotator. We’ve been doing this particular business venture for just over a year. But, I’ve been doing graphic design for… Well, officially for the last 20 some odd years. But, even before that, as a child I was enamored with graphic design. So, I’ve been doing it for pretty much my whole life. I’ve had an opportunity to both work in a corporate setting, which I did for going on about 15 years in a corporate setting. And, I’ve also worked in creative agencies and other multidisciplinary firms.

Then, last year myself and two partners decided to start this firm, Rotator, which is a unique creative agency from other design firms. We do traditional branding and marketing – helping people with marketing strategies and so forth. But, we also do a discipline called placemaking. Placemaking is the idea that you can use creative problem solving to make a city more livable or an environment space more inviting or inclusive. So, that’s an area of discipline that differentiates us from other creative agencies that are out there.

Jp:

That’s pretty cool.

Lance:

We really like it.

Jp:

And, how did you come up with that idea?

Lance:

I’ve had an interest in community building for quite some time. In fact, one of my alter egos has been as the executive director of First Night in Tacoma which is the New Years Eve celebration. It’s a music festival with multiple stages, I think they have like a dozen different stages of music and arts. It’s a celebration of arts and culture in Tacoma, which suits my passion for creativity. But, that type of community building actually helped me understand the value of connection between people. Not just in the creative community, but in the larger community as well.

Jp:

One of the things that people also know you for, especially in the Tacoma area, is the guerrilla-style letterpress and printing work that you do.

Lance:

I have been doing a guerrilla arts project called Beautiful Angle with my good friend Tom Llewellyn for 15 years now. Like I said, I’d been in a corporate setting and as a creative, a corporate setting can sometimes be a little dry. But, it was really important for me at the time to create great work. The type of work I was doing in the corporate setting was like, you know, forms and updating copyrights on the back of bland number pages.

Jp:

The stuff that pays the bills.

Lance:

Yeah, it pays the bills. But, it’s not highly rewarding. But, I’ve had so much passion to do great work, which is, I think everyone in the design field if you’re going to be successful you need to do that. But, a friend of mine, Tom, and I were talking about the challenges of working in a corporate setting. And, any setting where you have paid clients, the client is the one who decides what moves forward. So, you present, say, three designs and they invariably will pick the one you like the least. So, you have to run with that.

So, we were talking about, “Well, what if you were to take money out of the equation. What would you do?” And, in the same time frame, I’m also a singer and musician, and we had a band together. Just a kind of rock band. We played local coffee shops or whatnot. And, that had come to an end when our drummer moved to Brazil. So, we were kind of in the inflection point where you’re deciding what sort of creative output will you do next? And, this conversation led to an idea of putting art out into the city as this guerrilla art project that isn’t driven by any type of agenda, it’s just whatever we want to do, and something we could sustain month in and month out. Tom and I are two middle aged guys with families so we couldn’t do something overwhelming, but we could do something that could have a rhythm to it that built out over time.

“What if you were to take money out of the equation. What would you do?”

 

Jp:

And, it’s had quite the following, too, over the years.

Lance:

It’s really quite surprising how in the first couple months we did it, people were suddenly like, “Oh, you’re doing that cool thing. I want to play along.” So, we decided that we’re just going to keep it very Tacoma-centric. And, we have guest artists and writers come on board with us. The only rule is that they have to live in Tacoma to be a part of the project. We talk about all sorts of themes on these posters.

These posters are hand-cranked letterpress posters that are created with old wood type, lead type or old engravings that we’ve got our hands on. And, we’re also pretty experimental. I think probably the craziest one is we took weather stripping from the local hardware store, glued it onto a board and tried to print with it. It was a big mushy mess, but it actually fit the context of the poster we were doing at the time. So, you know, we try crazy things like that.

One of our most popular posters is a giant, kind of, rendition of Andy Warhol’s Tacoma Dome flower. And, it’s basically wire glued down to a board and this stuff called printers matte that we cut out the flower on it with. And, that in combination with some lead type creates this interesting combination of elements.

Jp:

You seem very non-traditional in the sense of how you’re designing these posters. Does that translate into the work that you’re doing?

Lance:

Yes, absolutely. The thing about letterpress is it can easily become nostalgic regurgitation of someone else’s old ideas. But, we don’t look at it that way. We look at it like, “This is a really cool tool that people aren’t using that much. And, we can explore it in new and different ways.” That is kind of the approach we take. And, also in design. I’ve been doing design for, you know, 30 years. And, you have some… a toolkit of ideas that you can draw on that are basic concepts in composition and layout, and working with various ideas like a Swiss grid, or something like that. These help you define what your variables are.

But then, to make something fresh and new you kind of have to work within those rules and break those rules at the same time. That’s one thing that letterpress really does well for me as a designer. It constricts you with the limitations of letterpress. For example, if I am working with a particular font; on my computer I can have as many letter “e” as I want. But in letterpress, when I run out of the letter “e” in that particular font style, I have to decide, “Okay, now what?” You know?

So, those types of limitations really push your creativity and allow you to think in different ways. And, that has been really good for my commercial career. My artistic career has kind of influenced that.

“Limitations really push your creativity and allow you to think in different ways.”

 

Chad:

Can you describe the studio space?

Lance:

The studio space that we’re sitting in now?

Chad:

And, where your letterpress is.

Lance:

Yeah, I can do that. So, the space we’re in right now is an old warehouse – West Coast Grocery Warehouse – which is one of the earliest buildings in Tacoma. It was a brick building that was built along the Prairie Line Trail which is the rail line that comes into Tacoma. It’s the end of the Trans Continental Railroad. And, this was a building that was a grocery warehouse, and on the the street side was their storefront. We’re in part of the warehouse area. There are big timber beams and old warehouse kind of piping and so forth through the building. We’ve converted it into sort of a loft-style studio space with the workspace and a conference room and a living room/library that allows people to come, relax, and peruse our design library we have here.

My letterpress studio, which is in the basement of my home, is about a thousand square feet, maybe 800 square feet, of old letterpress type cabinets and I have one larger hand-crank printing press called a Challenge proof press. It’s a cylinder press. And, then I have several tabletop proof presses. And then, a whole bunch of type and engravings.

There was a print shop in Tacoma that had been here for three generations, back to when printing presses were run off of steam engines and belt drives. And they were closing up shop and contacted us and said they had all of these old Tacoma-centric engravings they thought they’d just be tossing them out and wondered if we were interested in them. So, of course we were interested in this great collection of old type and so forth. And, then we helped him, kind of, share what we couldn’t use with the rest of the letterpress community in the region. And, that has been a big asset to our project.

Chad:

What about establishing Rotator? You kind of established it in the center of downtown in a very historical area.

Lance:

Yeah, we’re in a very historical area right across the street from Union Station. This allows us to be in the hub of activity with both retail and commerce. We’re right on the main strip of downtown Tacoma. And, at the same time, it is a setting that allows corporate meeting with clients and gives a sense of credentials. You’re here and they’re like, “Oh, yeah. You’re a legitimate firm.” In fact, this was one of the debates when we first got started, we could easily have worked independently from our own homes, then come together at a coffee shop, or something, to catch up together – the three of us that own Rotator. But, we decided we wanted to have a brick and mortar presence.

Chad:

What was the hardest thing about working with two other people that decided to start something? I imagine part of that process was quite scary.

Lance:

Absolutely. (laughs)

Chad:

But what, in your mind, was the hardest part of that, and how did you work through it?

Lance:

Right. So, the three partners in Rotator, Scott Varga, Mark Alvis, and myself, we are co-equal owners. That was a decision to make early on as a business – whether it would be a single owner with employees and partners, or equal co-ownership. So, that was a decision we had to make. I’ve worked with Scott for, I think, nine years prior to starting this business. So, we had a long history of working together. But, it’s different owning a business together, for sure. We worked together in a corporate setting for a financial firm that was here in Tacoma and moved up to Seattle. We did that for a number of years.

Then Mark, the other partner, has been a local Tacoma guy as well here, entrenched in the local art scene and music scene here in Tacoma. And, he was contracting with us at this financial firm we were at. And, I’ve worked with him on and off in that setting. But, he also has a deep connection in the coffee industry. He’s done a lot of work for, say Starbucks and other smaller coffee companies. So, we have this really eclectic mix of people that have come together. And that, in one sense gives us a strength. Three very different people provide different things to the business. On the other hand it is, you know, the interpersonal dynamics. You have to learn their style and how to work with their style. And, they have to learn to work with the ways I frustrate people and work through that. It takes commitment.

“We have this really eclectic mix of people that have come together. And that, in one sense gives us a strength.”

 

Jp:

How do you feel that you’ve grown over the years by being influenced by these people, but also by mentoring people?

Lance:

I am a very collaborative designer. And, I enjoy working with people of all skill levels. I actually taught in the local arts high school in town, and I’ve also taught in a design school up in Seattle. And, I find young designers have a enthusiasm and naiveté, which is a good thing in the way I’m using the term at least, to bring dynamism to the design that you’re doing. On the other end of the spectrum, the great designers I’ve had the opportunity to work with, who are super experienced, amazing, often time celebrity designers, you get a different kind of collaboration with them. So, often times I get to be mentored by their skill. I love that. Kind of going back and forth between people to grow and learn together in both directions.

Jp:

I’m going to push you a little bit further and inquire: How do you stay inspired? Looking around your studio right now, one of the things that is really interesting, is there are a lot of visually stimulating things here that you have made. What are ways that you get inspired?

Lance:

You should see my letterpress studio. It is like… My children say I am one catastrophe away from becoming a hoarder because their is so much crazy stuff in my studio. I love the visual stimulation of objects. So, that is one way I do get inspired. I also am an avid digester of design books, design magazines, learning about what other designers have done.

I’ve had the incredible opportunity to travel all over the world and go to a lot of museums and whatnot. Those types of things, I think, give you an education I don’t think you can get from just being an academic. Although, academics also give you an education the other cannot give you. So, they pair well.

Jp:

Do you have any questions, Lance? We seem to be asking you everything, but if you have anything please feel free to ask us.

Lance:

Yeah. I do have a question about design school. Do you find that young designers coming to school…

I’ll tell you what I see, and I’m not sure if it’s true or not, so please correct me if it’s not. I see kind of two designers coming into design school: young, artistic, creative people who see themselves as artists and acquiescing to learning design because that’s the closest thing they can get to being an artist in their mind, and the other demographic I see is young gamers who imagine themselves designing video games for a living and coming at it from that angle. Is that off-base, or where you see a lot of students coming at design school?

Chad:

I guess that’s interesting. The second one I don’t think I’ve considered before. I think when I was teaching I saw a lot of students who were seeing what was going on in tech and being really passionate about that. They were approaching it less from the angle of the artistic side and having less of an artistic drive, but having more of a drive to make change in the world. And, seeing the potential of a design process in that.

Lance:

Mmmhmm.

Chad:

Which in some ways is really great, because they have this desire to change, but at the same time the desire for craft, maybe, is a little less there, if that makes sense. So, I felt like I saw a lot of that. I don’t know what you see in your students, Jp.

Jp:

There was a comment that you had made in there that I definitely see. Which is wanting to lead a life of creativity, but wanting to make money. Or, wanting a life of creativity, and their parents telling them, “Be a designer so you can make money.” And, I think it fulfills both of those two scenarios that you were talking about in that they see design as a way of fulfilling their creative spirit. And, then the gaming side of, they see something creative and they want to be involved in it. And, design is a way for them to get into it.

But, a lot of times, I’ve had students over the years that are creative, but are not designers. A really good example of that would have been… a couple of years ago I had this student, amazing ceramicist who took ceramics her last year. And, she struggled as a designer, just struggled as a designer. And, someone mentioned to me, you should see what she’s doing in ceramics. So, I kind of wandered around the building into the ceramics studio and it was amazing! I could not believe it. And, the professor had said this was the first time she was touching clay, and she’s a natural at it. And, I had asked her at her next advisee meeting, “So, I was in the studio. I saw what you were doing. Why aren’t you in ceramics?” “My parents said, if you’re going to study art, you’re going to study design so you can make money.” “Like why aren’t you a ceramicist? Or, why are you a designer?” And, she was like, “I don’t know!”

Lance:

(laughs)

Jp:

And, then there’s this whole, you know, life crisis. Design is going to teach you about aesthetics. It’s going to teach you about composition. I broke it down to the basics for her. I said, “You’re not wasting your time. Here’s what you’re getting out of this. You may not open Photoshop ever again. You may not use InDesign ever again. But, you are going to understand how typography is about language. Your’e going to understand how composition is translatable to building a house, organizing your furniture, to understanding lists and so forth. Or, in the creative process she’s going to understand a 3D form a different way by studying design.” So, yeah. I think today, as Chad said, that there are students who are seeing tech and translate that into Design. And, there are parents who are seeing, “I have a creative student, and I want to make sure they have some sort of career path in front of them.”

Lance:

My own experience was my parents were like, “Oh, that’s nice that you want to be an artist. But, you should get your degree in engineering.” You know. And, that’s a, especially as you become a parent, okay how will I approach it? And, I’m very much of the mindset that if you are truly passionate about a direction, you should go for that. I encourage that in my kids.

Jp:

Did you kids ever say to you, “I want to be in the family business?”

Lance:

Umm. So, one of my daughters went to PLU. And, she does have an interest in printmaking. But, she is a business major and she’s falling more in my wife’s footsteps in the world of HR. And, that’s great. I think she has a creative side, but she’s business minded.

Jp:

So, it’s almost like she’s fallen in your footsteps in that you were in the business field doing creative work and went into creative business.

Lance:

Yeah. There is a similarity there.

Jp:

I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of it that way. Or, seen that she’s kind of ebbing and flowing through both parents.

Lance:

Yeah, that’s right. Absolutely.

Chad:

Hearing you kind of describe where you get a lot of your inspiration and things like that. I was curious… You mentioned traveling as one thing that has influenced you. Is there any other cross-disciplinary things that keep you moving forward and pushing the boundaries?

Lance:

Yeah, I’m definitely inspired by a lot of areas beside just pure graphic design. The areas that inspire me, often times, nothing to do with layout on a piece of paper. It’s dimensional space, music is a big one that inspires me. In fact, when I’m looking to work with other people, or hire designers, sure they have to meet that benchmark of solid design, good personal relationship skills, having, to some degree, expertise in the software that is used currently, and so forth.

But, I don’t look at those things as much as, what’s that other thing that they do? For example my business partners, Mark is a very well recognized drummer. In fact, sometimes he’ll be flying off to California to do some session drumming with some band or something. And, that expertise in drumming helps create a rhythm and sensibility about design that influences his work. Scott, my other partner, designs and builds his own homes. In fact, he’s in the middle of building a new home right now. And, that understanding of structure and form, he’s a fan of mid-century modern style so that clean minimalist feel, you see it in his graphic design work as well. So, I really appreciate the designers’ otherness that comes to influence their skillset, their craft.

“I don’t look at those things as much as, what’s that other thing that they do?… I really appreciate the designers’ otherness that comes to influence their skillset, their craft.”

 

Jp:

Any advice on things we should reading right now? Or, that we should be looking at? Or, in the case of what you were just talking about music, what should we be listening to?

Lance:

Good questions. Okay.

Jp:

Good questions, that’s all I’ve got now.

Lance:

(laughs) A good book, Art Chantry just came out with a good book, maybe it’s been about a year ago or so, that was really good. I actually have a hard copy: Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design. It’s a great book.

Jp:

That sounds like Art.

Lance:

Music. What am I hooked on right now? Let’s see. Maybe not well known to most people, but there’s a band called The Milk Carton Kids. It’s two guys, they kind of have that Simon & Garfunkel feel to them, but the craft they produce their music with is just astounding.

Jp:

So Lance, before we conclude, I wanted to get a piece of advice. As someone who has taught students before and is in the field of design, doing design, especially creative type work with the community and businesses, what should I be doing to help students become the next Lance Kagey? Or, another way of thinking of it is what’s missing that we need to fill the gap with?

Lance:

Yeah. I think the graphic design education track is doing really well. I’m really pleased with the things I see. What I would probably encourage other instructors is to not fall back on formulaic digital design. For example, if a student is looking for a script font to look for on a poster design, why not have handwritten type as opposed to looking through digital fonts to find the script they want to use? Get out there with pen and paper and draw scripts yourself and make it more authentic and real. Or, you want a rough texture that’s kind of urban in feel? Go do a rubbing off of the asphalt in the street that’s in front of you rather than looking through digital files to find some easy cut and paste sort of solution.

“Make it more authentic and real. You want a rough texture that’s kind of urban in feel? Go do a rubbing off of the asphalt in the street that’s in front of you rather than looking through digital files to find some easy cut and paste sort of solution.”

 

Chad:

That reminds me of this one time, Jp and I went to Dubai together when I was a student. I’d gone out for a run one morning and had fallen. So, I’d had this giant… I don’t know, I’d stripped off quite a bit of skin on my leg. And, a day or two later it had kind of scabbed over and Jp was working on this one project and he needed a texture.

Jp & Lance:

(laugh)

Lance:

That is a great story.

Chad:

So, we take a picture of the scar on my leg and he uses it. I mean, you would have never known. It was quite beautiful. But, then you think about the karma involved in some of the work you do. And, Jp said that was the first time they’d ever come back and said they didn’t like it.

Jp & Lance:

(laugh)

Lance:

Oh yeah, we have one Beautiful Angle poster… Shortly after we started the project, Tom was building a bookcase. And he’s a writer, I’m, you know, a designer and he’s a writer. So, we have a great compliment there. But, he was building a bookcase in his house and he was working in his workshop and cut off his finger. And, we missed a couple of months of Beautiful Angle posters. So, when we started up again we decided we wanted to tell that story. So, we took a picture of his hand missing his finger and the poster is, uhh, pretty graphic. But, it fit so well with the words about being passionate about what you’re doing and being willing to lose a finger over it, sort of thing. And, I love that visceral quality, that honest look at life and really grabbing a hold of it. It is really one of our least desired posters, just because it is so graphic, but it’s powerful at the same time.

Jp:

Well Lance, thank you very much for your time here, I really appreciate it.

Lance:

I really enjoyed talking with you.

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