Yr02, Ep13 :: Gage Mitchell & Jen Stewart on Sustainable Design

 

Gage Mitchell & Jen Stewart

by This is Design School

On this episode, Gage Mitchell & Jennifer Stewart, partners at Modern Species in Seattle, Wash., talk about the complexity of and need for sustainable design in today’s world. And, how celebrating small wins can help when feeling overwhelmed while confronting large scale, wicked problems.


CHAD:

Gage Mitchell and Jennifer Stewart thank you so much for joining us on This is Design School today.

JEN:

Thanks for having us.

GAGE:

We’re happy to be back in school.

CHAD:

Yeah! Back in school…for the hour. This is the most important hour of your education you’ve ever had.

JEN:

Fantastic. Because I don’t remember the other hours. (laughs)

CHAD:

So, we wanted to talk to you today about a few things. But, where we can start is what you’re doing now and how you got there.

JEN:

Sure. Right now we run a sustainable design studio in Seattle, Wash. in Belltown/downtown, I guess zip code-wise we’re downtown. It’s a tiny little nano-studio; four of us. Myself, Gage and two designers. Gage, how the hell did we get here?

GAGE:

I think I got on an airline. I can’t remember which airline, but… (laughs)

I was working in a studio that did branding for high-end residential developments that were selling four to 10 million dollar homes. We got to do all of these beautiful materials for these residential developments to brand them and promote them. The budgets were amazing. We got to do whatever we wanted. It was sort of in the housing boom so money was growing on trees.

JEN:

It was kind of a dream job for someone fresh out of design school especially if you studied print a lot when you were in school because you have this checklist in your head of all of these cool processes that you couldn’t afford at Kinko’s. So, it was like, “Foil stamp! Varnishes! Spot Varnish!” There’s all of these cool things when you’re selling a 10 million dollar home, a 20 dollar brochure is totally reasonable. So…

GAGE:

They had a lot more money than our non-profit clients.

JEN:

Yeah. (laughs)

GAGE:

So, we’re designing all of these beautiful pieces. One day when we were at one of the launch parties, with all of this fancy food and all sorts of delicious drinks (which is, of course, where I was as a food geek) I was staring at some people out of the corner of my eye watching them pick up my brochure and was trying to see how impressed they would be when they opened it up. And, of course they were wildly impressed…

JEN:

Of course. (No, they weren’t).

GAGE:

…you know, I’m sure. They were taking pictures of it and sharing it on Instagram, which didn’t exist then. But, in reality they picked it up, sort of looked at it for a second, put it back down where I thought would be on the counter, but continued to lower it into what ended up to be the trash can right next to the counter. (laughs) Right next to the pile of brochures, oddly.

JEN:

It’s like a cat maneuver. You know. When they’re like, “This shouldn’t be here.” And, they slowly, like, bat it off the counter. (laughs)

GAGE:

For some reason they had cracked the seal and it was no longer good.

JEN:

Eww! Unclean.

GAGE:

It is now contaminated.

CHAD:

It can only be touched once.

JEN:

That’s right. There like, “Meh, this is garbage now.”

GAGE:

And it, at some point, had gone in my mind from this thing I had worked my butt off for a couple of months and super proud of all of the processes and print techniques and the nice papers that we used. And, it went from that to being a pretty piece of trash.

“In sustainable design it’s very much about a whole systems thinking approach. So, we very much try to think about what’s going to happen at the very end.”

 

JP:

And, so now what do you do with trash?

JEN:

Now we plan for the trash. So, in sustainable design it’s very much about a whole systems thinking approach. So, we very much try to think about what’s going to happen at the very end. What’s the end user process? So, there are certain things, certain coatings on papers and varnishes that make recycling much harder. So, we pay attention to that sort of thing. Certain inks, such as fluorescents that are quite toxic. And then also where the paper comes from. How are the people who made this paper treated? How is the land treated that the paper came from? And even when it comes to digital stuff… Where’s the server farm where this thing is being hosted at? Does it run on renewable energy? Does it have a waste water treatment plant? Because it’s a big waster.

But, it’s not so much that trash no longer exists for our design, it’s just that we’re aware of it and we try as much as possible to control the entire system, including all of the invisible parts. Or, what eventually became visible to Gage. So… In Charlotte, it was much more painful because both of us were already a tree hugging hippie type and Charlotte had like no recycling at the time—maybe cans and bottles, but other than that… That beautiful brochure wasn’t going to be recycled.

GAGE:

Maybe if we had lived up here at the time I would have said I designed pretty recycling.

JEN:

Yeah, exactly.

GAGE:

In North Carolina it was pretty trash.

JEN:

So, basically we were both burnt out. To be honest when we went and took off to travel for a while it wasn’t because we were like, “Oh, we gotta figure out what kind of design studio we’re going to start.” No, it was more like and, “F-this. I hate my life. We need to go and travel for a long time. We are burnt out and we hate everything.”

GAGE:

It was a little bit more of the, “This isn’t what I pictured my job would be.” You know, for both of us. So we just left to take a break and figure out what else it could be, but also to take a break and travel the world’s food markets, I guess.

CHAD:

So you guys didn’t like your situation, you made a plan, and then you said…

JEN:

We didn’t like out situation, we read a book (laughs). I said to Gage, “Let’s go on vacation. Do you want to go to Thailand or India?” And he said, “Umm, Thailand?” And, I said, “Okay.” And, then I researched for a while and I formulated a plan that was, “We should sell everything we own, quit our jobs and go live in Thailand until all of our money runs out.” And, I introduced that idea to Gage and gave him about, I think, 24 hours to figure that out. It was something to the effect of, “Honey, this is what I think we should do.” And, he said, “I think I’ll have to think about that.” And, I was like, “Yeah…”

“I formulated a plan that was, ‘We should sell everything we own, quit our jobs and go live in Thailand until all of our money runs out.’”

 

GAGE:

I mean to be fair, at the time I actually liked my coworkers and liked the studio I was working in, I just didn’t necessarily like the clients. So, it took me a little while to figure out whether or not I wanted to do that. And, of course there are those exercises I was just talking about and I realized, “Well, there is no worse case scenario out there. I could just take a little break and I can always plug back into the professional world at some other point and some other place.”

JEN:

That and I threatened to leave you if you didn’t go along with my plan.

ALL:

(laugh)

JEN:

So, when we came back to the United Sates, we were looking for cities with under four percent unemployment, because at the time it was 2009 and that was a hard thing to find. And, that had a major university in case we wanted to go back to school to delay reality and that sort of thing.

And, yeah. We ended up in Madison, Wisconsin for a while and we lived quite happily there for a year and a half. Let’s see, we were there for two and a half years, and I said we lived happily there for a year and a half because half of that time was winter. And, if you’ve lived through a winter in Wisconsin, you don’t live happily. So, that’s why we moved to Seattle.

GAGE:

That’s why they have more bars per capita, or something, than anywhere else in the country.

JEN:

That’s true. They do know how to make excellent alcohol.

GAGE:

Well, what they do is they eat a lot of cheese and they drink a lot of beer.

JEN:

God bless ‘em. Good people.

GAGE:

Which they both were really good. So, if you haven’t been there, go for the cheese or the beer.

JEN:

I miss it… a lot. Not enough. But, a lot.

CHAD:

So, what was your biggest takeaway from this big living abroad, you know, finding yourself journey.

JEN:

Oh, god. So, you what my big takeaway was don’t do something big like that unless you have a plan or a point. We had no plan, no point. There was no finding myself. I’ve always been right here between the top of my head and the bottom of my feet. No need, or just look right in the mirror. So, it was less about finding ourselves and more about running away from our situation and the lives we had created and wanting to start all over.

And, there is nothing like starting all over when you arrive in a new city and you know no one, and you have two backpacks. It was great to rebuild. Probably the impact of our journey was experiencing other cultures and getting out of our very, very American mindset. Which, I’m sure having been back in the country for a long time, we are fully back into our American mindset—hopefully just slightly broadened. But yeah. The huge benefit was just in coming back with nothing and rebuilding our lives from scratch the way we wanted.

GAGE:

Professionally, there were a couple of things we learned unintentionally while we were traveling that kind of influenced the way we built our design studio. One of them was, we were sitting in a bar in Brussels, Belgium, where we were drinking delicious beers. This bar had over 2,000 different beers and all of the correct labels and paraphernalia for it. And, we were drinking some amazing beers. I think Jen found her love for banana beer while we were there.

JEN:

I love banana beer so much.

GAGE:

Because people in Belgium, they don’t care what kind of beer your drinking as long as your drinking beer. That’s the rule.

JEN:

If anyone who is listening has a connecting with Mongozo, it’s a company that makes banana beer, we need it in the United States. We’re tired of traveling for it. But, anyway…

GAGE:

So, long story short, we’re sitting in there and I was realizing that all of this designed stuff all over the walls and on the glass I was drinking from, somebody had designed that. And, for some weird reason, having worked in the field where I was designing brochures for multi-million dollar mansions, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could go out and try to find work doing design for companies that I actually care about.

“And, for some weird reason…it hadn’t occurred to me that I could go out and try to find work doing design for companies that I actually care about.”

 

JEN:

What a concept!

GAGE:

Yeah. It seems really logical now. But, I guess when you’re in employee mode, you just think, “I need to go get a job.” And, you’re not thinking what kind of work that company does.

JEN:

To be fair, there are many design studios that are very hand-to-mouth. Like whatever is coming in, they’ll take it. And, there’s fewer niched companies out there.

GAGE:

I’ve talked to some studio owners since I’ve started my own studio, who say they say yes to anything that comes in the door.

JP:

So, I’m assuming that means you guys don’t say yes to everything.

JEN:

No. Unfortunately we probably say no a little too much. We’re very obnoxiously picky. But, we’re also a nano-design studio. That’s not me bragging. That’s me just basically saying…

JP:

You’re wanting to say small.

JEN:

Yeah. We’re four people.

GAGE:

We’d rather stay small doing work we really like than grow and have to take on bad work just to feed the employees.

JEN:

Yeah. So, I mean, to the credit of other studio owners, once you get to a certain size the amount of work that just comes in freely versus the work that you have to go out and get, that ratio becomes pretty painful. And, so you do take in whatever comes along. So yes, we’re purposefully staying pretty small, but we want to grow a little bigger.

JP:

So, how do you make the choice of who to take on and who not to take on?

JEN:

So, responsible companies. That’t the big deal.

GAGE:

Well, responsible is a big one, but almost passionate people who are wanting to make a positive impact on the world. I guess would be one way. We end up getting to work with a lot of company founders who are passionate. But, if you’re passionate, making a ton of money and then selling your company, there’s other design studios for you.

But, if you’re passionate about fixing the food system, or creating big change in the healthcare industry, then that gets us more excited. And, I feel like if we’re excited about it, our employees will probably be more excited about it. And, especially with the current generation of designers out there, there’s a lot of research showing that this up and coming generation cares a lot more about the value of the work they’re doing or the impact they’re having than necessarily the salary.

So we figure, if we feel that way and our employees feel that way, then it makes sense to sacrifice those giant paychecks we could be getting if we said yes to everything and just work on stuff we find meaningful and could make the world a better place.

Because we’re so small it makes sense to pick a niche to focus on so that we can spend our marketing dollars wisely. And since, Jen and I are both obsessed with food, and have been for a long time, we’ve ended up focusing mostly on the organic food world. But, we do personal care products and some social cause companies as well.

JEN:

Jp, in your classes, are you hearing a lot of people talking about how they want to work for socially good companies? Or, do they feel disheartened because they feel like these types of companies don’t exist? Or… What are you hearing?

JP:

I would say a couple of years ago it was very much about social cause or social advocacy. These days, I feel like there’s a better balance. And I don’t know if balance is the word I should use. There’s a tipping towards complacency. And, this idea of, “Well, what can I really do?”

JEN:

Right.

JP:

And, it’s somewhat scary to see that. Because I think I saw that in the early 2000s. Of well, “What can I really do about this?” And, knowing that things are in cycles, I’m hoping I can snap them out early enough that knowing how to design and knowing how to develop a sense of worth both in the quality of the work that you do, but also in the clients that you choose or in the careers that you are moving towards, that will change and allow people to engage in design in a different way or engage in art in a different way.

GAGE:

Well, that’s sad to hear that complacency is taking its course.

JEN:

It’s not really that surprising, though.

GAGE:

It’s not surprising, because it’s difficult to make a big change.

JEN:

It’s overwhelming. I mean the more you see on the media about how we’re in a really rough world, you feel like you can’t do much.

JP:

Right now I have my students working on a project that is about conceptual development. Well, they just finished it. And, the focus was on voting, and I always leave these open ended giving them part of a sentence and they have to fill in the rest of the sentence. And, it was surprising how much people were engaged in the things that they chose, which was a complete opposite of what I was expecting. So, I was like, “Yes! I am excited about the fact that you are interested in changing the drinking age.” There was one about fixing the foster care system. There was one about Planned Parenthood. There was one about GMO’s. I was like, “Oh! Great! You’re not thinking about voting for republican or…”

JEN:

Right, there’s no specific party. They’re issues.

JP:

Yeah. So, granted I told them to pick an issue. But, I thought they were going to pick, like gun control, or Planned Parenthood.

JEN:

Something that’s big and in the media and everything, but like the foster care system? You don’t hear about that in the news. That’s awesome.

JP:

Yeah. Exactly.

GAGE:

And, the students will be happy to know that AIGA Seattle has chose, as one of our focuses for 2016, to focus on design for democracy, which is one of AIGA’s national initiatives.

JP:

Which is one of the things I had them research out, which was the previous design for democracies.

JEN:

Nice. That’s awesome.

GAGE:

So, tell them to keep an eye out for whatever we end up developing. Or, if they’re really excited about it and want to help figure out what that is, volunteer!

JP:

Yeah. I’m hoping that this will help spark an interest for them to do more with AIGA Seattle.

“There’s also a giant myth out there, that’s an understandable one, that unless you’re working for a sustainable design studio, you can’t do anything.”

 

JEN:

And, possibly hopefully to be lifelong voters. However, I do want to emphasize regarding the complacency you were talking about, Jp, that there are design studios like ours and like these other design studios that we speak with that are sustainability focused. However, there’s also a giant myth out there, that’s an understandable one, that unless you’re working for a sustainable design studio, you can’t do anything. And, I think that goes back to the whole voting thing. I think, “Oh, I don’t have a voice, so therefore why exercise it.” And, it’s like, “No! You get to have a voice. You get to have a say, even if you don’t get your way.”

We don’t always get our way. We’ve made designs for pouches, flexible squeeze pack pouches that can’t be recycled. We don’t want those things to exist. And, yet at the same time we won in a bunch of other areas. So, it’s about speaking up and about trying to guide things in the right way. And, a lot of times you have more power than you think you do. But, you only have that power if you exercise your voice. So, educating yourself about sustainable design and then trying to plug it into the process wherever you are, that has a huge impact. If we have nobody coming to us but people who are already into sustainability, how much impact are we really having?

I think it’s really important for young people to understand, especially if they’re really interested in socially good, environmentally good, economically good, to get into companies that aren’t already focused that way and to push. Just start pushing. Not huge pushes, because you don’t want to get yourself fired. But, push.

GAGE:

And, if you’re a good employee, your boss is going to want to accommodate whatever your interests are because you’re a valuable person to them. So, if you and all of your coworkers are saying you want to do more socially good projects or do more in terms of sustainability, then your bosses will probably listen.

JEN:

Or, if you just say like, “We don’t need 800 processes on this thing because it no longer makes it recyclable.” And say, “Hey, let’s not do this coated stuff, that’s practically laminated.”

GAGE:

Or, how can we achieve the same look with a more sustainable process.

JEN:

Or, like, “Do we have to host this site at a non-green host? Can we host it at this other host that is super awesome and happens to be charged by windmills?”

JP:

So, thinking about the employee component of that. When you’re hiring your two employees, were you looking that they had some sort of socially conscious or design with sustainability in mind? Or, did you have other criteria that you look for?

GAGE:

They definitely had to care. They didn’t have to have a deep knowledge of sustainability.

JP:

So hippies, huh?

GAGE:

Yeah. (laughs)

JEN:

They had to be hugging trees. They had to send a picture of them hugging trees. And, then if they could show a picture of their heart bleeding, that was important. So… (laughs)

GAGE:

Well, we knew that it was unrealistic to assume anyone would come in with a deep knowledge of sustainable design especially. But, you had to care enough to think along those lines. Or, to ask the right questions. Or, to not push back when we suggest something sustainable.

But, ultimately you just had to be someone who wanted to do something better. And, then you had to be a good designer, of course.

JEN:

To be quite clear, being a sustainable designer is much harder, much harder. Because it means having to put yourself through further education, quite a bit of further education outside of school. So, you get out of school, especially someone who is a junior designer, and they’re like, “Oh cool! I’m out of school and done with classes.” And, then we just hand you a stack of books, and we’re like, “Great! Here starts your sustainable design education.” Like, you gotta want it.

GAGE:

Well, actually something that might be useful to your students, is speaking of hiring… When you see a job post up there, that post was written in a very specific way because the studio has a very specific need. We would post up with requirements of, “Tell us why you care about sustainability,” or, “We want this kind of experience and this much of experience and these are the kind of criteria we’re looking for.” And, you would believe the number of resumés, I want to say about seventy-five percent of the applicants we got, did not follow those instructions and did not fit those criteria at all. And, they didn’t bother explaining why they were still applying even though it didn’t fit!

JEN:

It’s like they thought that maybe we wouldn’t notice.

GAGE:

And, they’re like, “I know they said they wanted five years of experience, but I’ve got an internship, and that kind of counts.” And, they didn’t say why they thought they were a good candidate. So…

JP:

So, are you saying that following directions makes a difference?

JEN:

Yes!

GAGE:

I know it’s hard for creatives, but color in-between the lines. Or, if you still somehow miraculously think you fit that criteria, even thought you don’t meet the criteria, explain it in your cover letter. Actually, the employee we just recently hired, she did not fit the criteria. And, the only way we even had a conversation with her was because she sent us cupcakes. She obviously knew we were food focused and bribed us…

JEN:

And, in her cover letter she said, you know, “I’m not the conventional candidate. Give me a chance.” So we sent her an email and said, “Explain yourself.” (laughs)

GAGE:

So, we just sent her a very blunt email and said, “Well, why are you applying to this job. You obviously don’t fit it. If you don’t fit, explain why you don’t if you still think you’re a good candidate.”

JEN:

Yeah.

CHAD:

Place yourself as the underdog and own it…maybe.

GAGE:

But, don’t just ignore the fact that you do not fit. And, pay attention to what people post. People post, or employers write those descriptions for a reason.

JEN:

Or, don’t send cupcakes.

JP:

Chad, do you notice there’s a foodie in the group and there’s a non-foodie in the group?

JEN:

Yeah, seriously.

CHAD:

I was just asking, “Did you get our cupcakes?” (laughs)

JEN:

Oh, uh no. Which… I mean I’m about to leave. So, if you want to go get those.

GAGE:

Oh, wait. I thought you were going to send them after the talk. Isn’t that what you bribed us with to come in? We were promised cupcakes.

CHAD:

Right.

JEN:

We are getting cupcakes. Yes?

CHAD:

Jp, we’re going to have to do cupcakes.

JP:

(laughs)

GAGE:

I think we were promised cupcakes made with stout beer or something. I’ve seen some cupcake shops that will do beer cupcakes.

JEN:

Yeah. Bloom Bake Shop does them. So…

CHAD:

So, one thing you were talking about earlier is how design is kind of in this unique position because we make lots of things, and people use these things. And, one thing I’ve often heard being talked about as well, is design is getting a much larger voice in the business world. And now, more so than ever, design is poised to really make the change that is needed in…everything, really.

JEN:

Yes. Yeah.

CHAD:

But at the same time, Jp is saying his students, and I know I’ve seen this with my students and my peers, is that there’s a large sense of complacency and nobody feels like they can make a change. It’s interesting. I’m wondering, do you guys operate under a certain code of ethics, or…?

GAGE:

It sounded like there were two topics there.

CHAD:

A little bit, yeah.

GAGE:

So, the business world is starting to take notice of design. And, I think part of that is companies like Apple that are design driven are outperforming other non-design driven companies. And, there’s actually the Design Management Institute, which is like an AIGA but for design organizations. So, you join as a company instead of as an individual. But, they did a study. And, they found design driven companies outperformed the S&P by 228% over the course of that study. So, I think based on that, and also the fact that a lot of business schools are noticing the old way of business isn’t enough anymore. You need to instill some sort of creativity and to start thinking more about the user and your customers instead of just doing things the way you want to do them because you’re the business.

So, there’s a lot of powerful stuff that is going on there that designers can capitalize on more and start to think more strategically and begin to learn more about business so that we can have those good conversations and we can influence the trajectories of the businesses that we work with.

And, then the other question was about ethics and a code of ethics or standards, I guess professional practices?

CHAD:

Yeah.

GAGE:

So, we do follow the AIGA professional practice standards.

JEN:

We’ve even sent them to clients in certain cases, where we say, “We cannot do that. We follow the AIGA…”

GAGE:

So, there are things that we go through that I don’t know how many other design studios…like as you said, it’s not as common as the architecture world. But, we do have certain ethical standards that we will not cross.

JEN:

Those ethics exist for a reason. And, it’s so that you can look at yourself in the mirror and so that you can go to AIGA networking events and shake hands with everyone there. So…

CHAD:

But, I think what’s interesting is as soon as you switched to talking about ethics, it often started talking about how you interact with clients a lot. And, I think one thing is that as a group of designers, is developing a code of ethics around how we treat the Earth. Or, how we do that.

JEN:

Yeah. And, society, culture, the economy…

CHAD:

Yeah, society…other human beings, like each other, right?

JEN:

There kind of isn’t that.

CHAD:

Yeah! My curiosity is that AIGA especially, is often geared towards—that verbiage, right—is helping to deal with clients. Do you think that’s enough? Or, do you think we should be thinking about how we can transition that into how we can begin to use a code of ethics to reference sustainable practices.

JEN:

I love that idea. I really…

CHAD:

Well, it’s tough.

“…our profession of design, when you compare it to other design disciplines, we are considered the weakest and I think it’s because we often allow ourselves to be the weakest.”

 

JEN:

No. I think that’s a fabulous idea. And, the fact that it is tough is the reason I think that it doesn’t happen or isn’t going to happen. The fact that design, our profession of design, when you compare it to other design disciplines, we are considered the weakest and I think it’s because we often allow ourselves to be the weakest.

GAGE:

Because we think everything we do is very subjective and it can’t be measured. But, that’s not true at all.

JEN:

When you talk to somebody who says, “I’m an engineer.” You immediately have respect for them. When you talk to somebody who says, “I’m an architect.” You have respect for them. Industrial designers, interior designers, heck interior decorators, often times get more respect. We’re often the punchline for most movies.

GAGE:

I think it’s because we often portray ourselves more as artists than as designers or business people. And, we like to think that design is so subjective. And, the reason we’re saying that is because traditionally graphic arts was fairly subjective. We knew some things about color theory and whatnot. But, it was really just a matter of taste. Do you like this design? Or, do you like this design? It was more about which one you prefer. But, these days design is much more of a science. And, now the only thing that is subjective is whether or not you personally like that brand, or you personally like that poster.

JEN:

But, that has nothing to do with whether it is good design.

GAGE:

And, there’s a lot of things that you can integrate into your design process that, to consider the environment, whether or not this is responsibly sourced paper, for example. Or, to consider people… Am I sourcing these cotton t-shirts from a factory in Bangladesh that’s going to, you know, have terrible workplace standards. Those things aren’t subjective.

JEN:

But, the problem is that when it comes to architecture, you do have to know things about material integrity. You have to know about brick. And, you have to know about stone and steel and all of those things. Whereas with graphic design you really don’t have to know a lot about material integrity. You don’t have to know where it comes from. You don’t have to examine it at all.

GAGE:

The keyword there is you don’t have to. And, that’s part of the problem. In architecture you have to have a certain level of education in order to get your license. And, you have to have ten years of experience, or something, under somebody that actually has a license before you can even take your test and get your license. So…

And, I’m just kind of making this up right as I sit here. But, I wonder if one of the solutions is we need to separate back into two different fields. Like there should be graphic arts and there should be graphic design. If they used any good design principles, it’s a piece art. Right? And, then there are some studios who are doing packaging, or are doing brands, or who are trying to launch social movements that actually have a lot more to think about. You have to think about the culture. You have to think about the people you’re designing for. You have to think about the materials. And, you have to think of the end of life.

JEN:

We find that there are two types of students that come out of design school. Sometimes, there are people who kind of mix the two. But basically, there are those that are graphic artists and there are graphic designers.

Graphic artists want to insert themselves into the design. They want to express themselves through their design. They’re very much in the mindset of the artist, or they want to… you know…speak a message. Whether or not that message has anything to do with that particular brand or the purpose for that design existing.

Graphic designers are trying to design to create something that exists for a specific purpose that exists outside of them. They’re trying to design something that communicates this message about, you know, being a clean hospital or something. Whether or not they’re passionate about it doesn’t have anything to do with it. They are designing to reach this end goal and it’s very strategic.

GAGE:

Yeah, they’re trying to solve a business or community problem using creativity and the design process, which is a different thing from making pretty posters.

“There’s a lot more to design than it being art. It can be artistic. But, I don’t believe that’s the purpose…certainly not anymore.”

 

JEN:

Right. So, beautiful and beautifully effective are two different animals and there are plenty of design schools out there that are really art schools. And, the fact that graphic design exists in the art department is another area where, you’re like, “Okay, it maybe it should be in the psychology or the business department.” Like there’s a lot more to design than it being art. It can be artistic.. But, I don’t believe that’s the purpose, uh, certainly not anymore. So…

JP:

I love that variation and difference of graphic arts and graphic design. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone articulate it that well, so.

JEN:

Yeah. Thanks.

CHAD:

I think that was a big argument in the move away from the term graphic designer for a lot of educational programs. And, the switch to visual design or visual communication design was because they were like, “Well, we make more than graphics. It’s more complicated than that.”

JEN:

Yeah, and I feel like design is a great word for strategy. Strategically figure out how to reach this end goal. Whether it be a campaign or service, or whatever. We should stick with design, I think. But, we should take out art.

GAGE:

Or take out the word graphic, as they were pointing out. I’ll just, maybe, quick side jump back to the ethics thing. I do know that in the recent update of the AIGA professional standards, they did include some things taken from the living principles and the design for good movement to include some ethics outside of just how you treat other businesses or your clients to include some other things.

JEN:

It’s just hard to include ethics that involve things that you don’t expect people to know. And, honestly they don’t expect people to know about these things.

GAGE:

Until design schools start teaching more about sustainability, economic impact, you know, environmental impact, cultural impact, all of these kinds of things. Until more undergrad design programs teach that, there is no way you can require it of the field, of students. They just don’t have that knowledge. But…

JEN:

I will love it when someone gets out of design school and they have a degree in graphic design and people are like, “Whoa. That’s impressive.” Like that should be hard.

GAGE:

One argument I’ve heard against design certification, which makes me stop and think a little bit, too, is that if we really want to be more inclusive as a design profession because it is so middle-class white, you know, the people that fill it.

We need to be more inclusive of people with more difficult backgrounds, or people of color, or blind, or deaf. There’s all sorts of people that should be included in the design field that aren’t currently included to the numbers that we’d like them to be. And, one argument I’ve heard against having some sort of certification system is that it just adds another barrier that, there’s already barriers, financial barriers, to getting into a good school, or whatever, that keep you from becoming a designer. And, to sort of add certification would add another barrier in there.

But again. I go back to the fact that we can just have either a split of the professions. Or, maybe you don’t have to be certified in order to practice. But, you have to be certified in order to get certain levels of jobs. Because do we really want somebody that doesn’t have any education in sustainability doing some big sustainability project? No. So, maybe you need to have a certification to do that.

JEN:

Or really, any sort of large scale project.

GAGE:

But, if you want to make posters and t-shirts for the rest of your life, then sure.

JEN:

Yeah. Stuff.

CHAD:

As we tie things up, what is the ideal world that you think should… or, what do we need to do to change? And then, how can you inspire people to get there?

JEN:

So, I went to school for creative writing and I got a minor in philosophy, which has given me some unique perspectives on things. And, when it comes to complacency and impact of your life, I very much turn to René Descartes. Descartes was the guy who said, “I think, therefore I am.” And, Descartes also inspired the movie, The Matrix—whether or not you like it.

It was his philosophy, and his line of thinking that he came to, after locking himself in his apartment after a good week straight or so to write up all of his meditations and things. He said, listen, I can’t figure out how to determine if I do indeed exist beyond my actual thinking. But beyond my actual thinking, I can’t tell if I actually exists and this body is mine and the people in front of me actually exist and I’m in this room, or if I’m a brain in a jar that is being electrically stimulated to think whatever they want me to think. Believing I’m a brain in a jar and there is nothing I can do to change my world or my life does me no good whatsoever. So, therefore I’m going to operate as if A is true, and screw B.

And, that’s the way I view complacency. Complacency, to me, is deciding that B is true; that you’re a brain in a jar and you’re nothing to no one and you can’t do anything. And, what’s the point? Why would you believe that? I mean, you might be right. You might absolutely right. But, you can make no impact whatsoever. But, deciding that before you can even try is just stupid. So, just try. Just try. That’s what I do to encourage people.

“Complacency, to me, is deciding…that you’re a brain in a jar and you’re nothing to no one and you can’t do anything. And, what’s the point?”

 

JP:

I think therefore I design.

JEN:

I think therefore I design. (laughs)

Why not? If that’s what you love, and that’s what you’re passionate about, and that’s how you want to make an impact? Fuckin’ do it.

GAGE:

Yeah. I don’t know if I can top that.

ALL:

(laugh)

JP:

And…cut.

GAGE:

But, I had something to say. But, mine was going to be a lot softer, along the lines of, I’ve noticed a couple of different kinds of careers of my colleagues, friends, people I know. And, it seems that some people take the path that other people tell them to take—I would say those are the complacent people. You’re just doing the things that other people tell you what to do and, more often than not, you’re not going to love your job. You might make decent money, because maybe that path ends up working out pretty well. But, you’re probably not going to love your job because it’s going to be somebody else’s job that they told you to do.

JEN:

You took what came along.

“Figure out what matters to you and go out and actively pursue that. You may not have more money. You may not work less. But, you will be more fulfilled and you will enjoy your job a lot more.”

 

GAGE:

Yeah. And, then there are some people who have, kind of, unplugged themselves, so to speak, from that system and thought, “Well, I don’t have to do their version of my career. I can figure out what I really care about and actively pursue that as my career. So, even if you don’t change the entire world, you can change your career. It’s as simple as that.

You can find the things you want to design for. You can find the problems you want to solve. You can find the companies you like working with. And, you can pursue that as a career. You can pursue those jobs. And, five years down the road, if that’s not doing it for you anymore, you find something else because you have the opportunity to live your life and you have the opportunity to build your career. So, don’t just do what—no offense teachers—but, don’t just do what your teacher points you to. Don’t just do what your boss tells you to do. Figure out what matters to you and go out and actively pursue that. You may not have more money. You may not work less. But, you will be more fulfilled and you will enjoy your job a lot more.

JP:

Amen and church is over!

JEN:

Wooo!

ALL:

(laugh)

CHAD:

Well, Jen and Gage, thank you for coming in and sharing all of the amazing work that you’re doing and your great point of view that needs to be heard.

JEN:

Thank you for having us. Hopefully we didn’t offend too many people. Well, nah, screw it. Just be offended.

More Episodes