12 design confessions from Steven Heller, Tobias Frere-Jones, Eddie Opara and more

Earlier this month, the Canadian Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGC) held its annual Design Thinkers conference in Toronto. The conference theme was “Confessions”, a theme the presenters embraced warmly (and at times, perhaps inappropriately). Type designer Charles Nix attended the conference and shares twelve shocking confessions from the presenters at RGD/Design Thinkers.

  1. 1.

    Leland Maschmeyer says he slew a dragon for a bag of Solid Gold

    Okay. It was a bag of Solid Gold organic pet food. And the dragon was the world’s most puzzling illustrator. Maschmeyer used the metaphor of dragon slaying to spin a yarn about design challenges—complete with dazzling pictures of dragons and a neo-blackletter font (Harbour Bold). His dragons? Chapstick; weird illustration; and the food industrial complex. Slaying the Chapstick dragon (a market-defining competitor) gave him the irresistible packaging for EOS lip balm. Slaying the odd-illustrator dragon gave him the tranformative designs for Solid Gold pet food packaging. And slaying the food-industrial-complex dragon landed him at his current position as Chief Creative Officer at Chobani.

  2. 2.

    Steven Heller keeps a separate NY apartment for a two-foot tall woman

    Steven Heller is the most prolific and respected design historian of our time. His less-than shocking confession was that he loves collecting design. What was mildly shocking is that he has a separate apartment just for his acquisitions. And in that apartment is a grouping of enigmatic mini mannequins (mini women and men) that became the content for his book, Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins. He walked the audience through bits of the many other collections (ads, ephemera, tins, boxes, displays, design journals, and on and on) that have inspired some of his more than 100 books about design and popular culture.

  3. 3.

    Jake Barton is involved in a conspiracy to make Americans cry every morning

    As the design force behind the Storycorps booth in Grand Central Station, Barton (and his firm Local Projects) has aided and abetted the American oralhistory archive (Storycorps), NPR, and thousands of average Americans in moving us to tears nearly every day. Local Projects transforms visitors into content creators and designers, ceding control in return for true interactivity. Their work the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, the redesign of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and many other projects are fundamentally changing the notion of interactive design.

  4. 4.

    Tobias Frere-Jones revels in designing excruciatingly small fonts for 70-year-old-plus readers

    No. He’s not a sadist, but he does love a good challenge. Tough problems, after all, beg creative solutions, and as Tobias pointed out, problems answer the type designer’s existential question: “Why make more typefaces?” In the case of his Retina family for the Wall Street Journal’s stock pages, the problems were legibility and economy in micro typography aimed primarily at an aging reader. By disambiguating forms and massaging details, he was able to perform a minor typographic miracle—grace, clarity, and thrift.

  5. 5.

    Erin Sarofsky let slip that Robert Redford has a freakishly large head.

    Though that wasn’t her point. Her point was really that in the stylized illustration/animation in the breathtaking credits for Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, any variation from truth would undermine effectiveness and impact. In amazing example after amazing example of motion graphics, Sarofsky highlighted the principles (all about the concept, less is always more, designers need producers, typography is king, the client is not always a moron, etc) that make her firm a “design and concept driven production company”.

  6. 6.

    Fox News has uncovered Eddie Opara’s plot to make university students appear stupid

    Eddie Opara inveighed against the shallow, retrograde design criticism that has come to be the standard at the UnderConsideration/BrandNew blog. Proof for his argument was provided in a bizarre series of escalations regarding his redesign of the identity for Quinnipiac University—beginning with a thin critque on BrandNew, which led to a Change.org petition, which culminated in a baffling Fox News “exposé” on the identity’s typographic and design merits.

  7. 7.

    Kenya Hara thinks vegetables should wear underpants

    Actually, he proved that bell peppers wearing panties reveal their inherent nudity.Through an ongoing series of projects with his students at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, Hara is exploring his concept of exformation. Where the purpose of information is to make things know, exformation’s purpose is to make things unknown. Students are asked to respond visually to an open-ended theme (Plant, Nudity, Woman, Tokyo, River) and to make it unknown. The results are ironically revealing as they attempt to obfuscate —sometimes funny, sometimes cute, sometimes strange, always engaging

  8. 8.

    Paola Antonelli believes a Utopia of winged pigs is close at hand

    But first, we must abandon the antiquated (fascistic) design notion of Utopia and embrace the ideas of fluidity, ambiguity, contradiction, shared authorship/collaboration, choice, hybridization, and unpredictability. “I’d like to attempt an exploration of how ambivalence and entanglement apply to design. Quantum Design thrives in ambiguous states, in the spaces ‘in between’—between digital and physical, hightech and crafts, old and new, nature and artifice, developed and emerging world.” Antonelli provided a dizzying array of examples of Quantum Design, from the aforementioned Pig Wings, to victimless leather, to sculpture created by silk worms, to a 3D-printed fashion, to resurrecting extinct species, to human-biome cheese, and beyond (believe it or not). Antonelli’s theory, like Barton’s practice, often involves letting go of the product by designing the process.

  9. 9.

    Snask wants to normalize the word “vag”

    Actually, it’s Väg (Swedish for “road”). And Väg is the first (and only) band on the label Snask Recordings. And Snask—represented at the conference by Fredrik Öst and Erik Kockum—is a Stockholm-based creative agency. When not bragging about their narcissism and self promotion, they’re dogged professionals who create engaging, entertaining, and beautiful work.

  10. 10.

    Rod McDonald humble-bragged about having a grotesque, 56-member family

    Mr. McDonald is not one to brag, but the sheer breadth of his Classic Grotesque font family, and the years of work that went into its research and production, beg compliments. Amazing (and Positively Grotesque). Rod emphasized the Janus-like quality of the designer of revivals. In looking back, he quoted, typographic pioneer, Beatrice Warde, “…It is the carrying-forward of whatever has been considered too valuable to jettison.” And in looking forward, he put on display the erudition and expertise that go into making a font fit for our time.

  11. 11.

    Cory Doctorow revealed that your printer cartridge is actually a litigious computer—and that if you don’t show it “proper respect“ it will have you thrown in jail.

    This revelation is as frightningly true as it is convoluted. Doctorow cogently (and believe it or not, entertainingly) described the ramifications of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act through the example of an HP printer cartridge. I will not be cogent or entertaining, but will simply report that the DMCA limits freedom, allows corporatons to invade our privacy, hides the activities of corporations on our computers, and creates vulnerabilites to malicious software attacks. Oh, and copyright violators of the DMCA face fines of up to $500,000, up to five years in jail, or both a fine and jail for a first offense. Doctorow urged the audience to head off this dystopian future by: 1) Giving to organizations that defend digital rights of citizens, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and 2) Discussing the threats to digital rights and freedoms with others.

  12. 12.

    David Carson took an office job.

    Okay, he did for a while in 2011. Given that his usual office is a chair in his backyard, the idea of Mr. Carson working at a corporation sounds crazy. And with all deference, the results indicate it didn’t agree with him. That, and he wasn’t allowed to drink coffee at his desk.