5 Lunchtime Conversations

How did the project get started?

  • background is in architecture and design from Iowa State
  • graduated in 2006 and worked at Gensler in Santa Monica
  • while he was there he got into this problem of putting together a lot of presentation boards
  • wanted to use graphics to visually communicate these ideas
  • when he was doing a lot of sketches in college he hit a rut where he couldn’t find a subject-matter to draw that inspired him
  • so decided to draw the simple things that inspired him when he as a child
  • started drawing sequoias, trains, trucks, combines
  • in 2008 he got laid off
  • then decided to try to get this idea off the ground
  • the workflow in architecture is very fragment: you design everything and then you build it
  • he tried to bring this same mentality to build a website but found that it works very differently
  • with a website you start small and build from there, and you correct along the way
  • it’s much more user-centric



  • at the beginning they sold these “noun shirts”
  • one of the problems when you’re just getting off the ground is inventory
  • if you stock a lot of inventory, the cost is lower, but if you don’t sell you lose
  • if you stock too little and a lot of people but, you’re out of stock and you lose that momentum
  • with Kickstarter you would know how many people purchased and then you’d get the stock, thus removing all the risk
  • the backers that invest in your idea are really invested in your idea and really want to support you
  • an amazing brand-building exercise and an amazing community-building campaign


When you wree initially building the site were there a lot of suprises, things you didn’t anticipate?

  • initially he was building a solution for a problem that he experienced
  • but right after he launched he got a lot of emails from educators and doctors, saying that they were really helpful for their work
  • that excited them to changed their mindset from it just being a graphical resource
  • they wanted these symbols to become more of visual communication tools and social objects and not just visual objects


Where do you see some of this graphic language going as a means of communication? What symbols do you feel are really new?

  • it’s one thing they’re not doing as good a job as they could and that’s why they’re trying to develop this API system
  • they want to allow their symbols to be shared like that
  • through the api they’re going to create some games that’ll test user comprehension


One color icons? Do you think of ever introducing color, or animation, or dimension?

  • as a a foundation, they’ll always have it as black and white
  • they want to allow people to give their visual interpretations of these concepts
  • and through technology they want to offer up the one that’s most popular


Do you ever kick anyone out?

  • struggled with what their threshold is
  • they have a pretty hands-on curation process


What happens if you receive a symbol that means something somewhere else in the world, do you accept it?

  • they see where the symbol comes from first and then might ask the person to explain it a little bit
  • they do want to accept icons like that


Did you build your own platform? What technology is it built on?

  • used a lot of web standards at the beginning but built it back in with django
  • Scott knows these things better



  • redoing that at the moment
  • right now they have a noun paired with an icon
  • but they want a one-to-many relationship
  • they’ve creating a tagging system


{ Tue, Apr 30    4 Lunchtime Conversations          


Work for Hire

  • herman miller gave them a brief and they had a design fee
  • they worked with their design and engineering team with a solution that they had already developed
  • the paid them upfront and they owned the results of it
  • this is a different model from licencing



  • licensing is a form of IP exploitation
  • relationship between licensor and licensee
  • the licensor maintatins the intellectual property but gives the licensee exclusive use of it
  • as the licensee makes money off it the lincensor gets a cut of the profit
  • certain companies are open to licensing deals
  • consignment is a different model where you have a good to sell and then a retail partner
  • licensing is a way to focus your time the way you want to, i.e. design
  • more risk than work-for-hire but more proactive and less risk than trying to produce and market the thing yourself


Who is a licensing partner?

  • different ways you can think about it
  • it happens in a lot of different industries (e.g. movies often license songs)
  • it’s a company that produces and sells the product
  • but it might not be a company that manufactures, they might just market and hand off the production to somehone else
  • a lot of brands are also licensed out to producers (e.g. Tommy Hilfiger)



  • compensation works through royalties
  • a percentage of each sale
  • in his industry you can expect less than 8% royalty on wholesale
  • it’s small because the company making the investment is taking on a lot of risk
  • ideas are cheap; implementation is expensive


The Manila Notebook

  • likes doing furniture and product work that he feels personally connected to and invested in
  • as a designer it’s tough to earn a living from one product
  • in addition to work he’s passionate about, he has a side hobby of things he’s not connected to but finds to be a fun challenge
  • began working on this series of notebooks
  • tried to spend as little time as possible on it (really want to expedite the process)
  • just wants to get it out there and see if it stuck or not
  • started in september of 2010 with silly brainstorming
  • all these ideas are working toward this pitch model so they could go to trade shows
  • created this formula of pun-like objects (e.g. tap measure shaped like a roll of tape)
  • wanted to just get things to the point that they could have a conversation around it
  • January 2011 was a trade show at the Jacob Javitz center in new york
  • presented several ideas


Is there any fear about stealing idea?

  • there is a little bit but they’ve developed enough of a relationship with these companies so they feel like they can trust them
  • the companies asked for specs after the trade show (March 2011)
  • the specs weren’t precise since the the manufacturers are more or less going to do what works for them so they’re just trying to get the specs in the ballpark
  • prefers that in agreements with these companies his name isn’t associated with the product
  • doesn’t want his identity being so bound up in the work
  • the manila notebook idea isn’t really patentable so it’s mostly based on trust more than anything
  • in general trust is still stronger than a contract since contracts are only as good as one’s ability to enforce them


Other than going to the gift fair, are there other ways to approach companies?

  • email is problematic because these companies are already getting tons of emails and it’s a really hard way to get noticed
  • it’s better if you have an in
{ Mon, Apr 22    4 Lunchtime Conversations          


Current Project

  • likes to show the process of the projects—”very physical in that way”
  • distracting dynamic windmills
  • currently working on a video piece cited at Mass MOCA (installed 2015), which is a video inside an installation
  • figuring howw to make the boulders (you need a lot of understructure to get a good looking bolder)
  • currently using the waterfire building to build the boulders


How does this thing start? What are the initial conversations? How far down the road are you?

  • was making really big stuff in undergrad
  • working with a lot of scaffolding because it’s actually quite cheap (companies don’t think to source it to students)
  • $400 for a large-scale project using scaffolding
  • loved the idea of just getting together with friends and making a big-old thing
  • went with a friend to a city with massive sheets of paper and spontaneously put on a paper cape parade
  • was on the line between design and fine art for a long time
  • working on a video game with robots and aliens
  • a big fan of one-day shows, since the audience really only shows up for the launch anyway
  • the scale kept getting larger and larger
  • appreciated compromising where you’re willing to do it but might not be able to do it perfectly but you keep on going
  • appreciated being blindly ambitious
  • the Museum School is very horizontal, while RISD is quite vertical in organization
  • everybody he know who’s just gone for it really just goes for it, rather than just committing some energy to the work they want to do and committing other energies to a backup plan (e.g. like begin a business minor)
  • being comfortable with things not being perfect
  • they love casting friends and fellow artists because they tend to just be more comfortable
  • when you work with theater people they tend to want it to be more about them
  • one of the major benefits to working in providence is the availability of cheap space
  • prefers to be very deadline oriented
  • one of the things that shocked him getting out of school was the lack of deadlines
  • in the beginning they had to apply for shows but now they’re in the position where a lot of the curators will contact them for creating shows
  • generally have shows and exhibitions and will design back from that
  • curator tells them there’s a show in two years and then they create a set of deadlines back from that point
  • very materials oriented, very resources oriented
  • “walks into space and sees there’s a gantry and then ask what can you do with a gantry; we’ve got some weird materials on craigslists for free, what do we do with that?”
  • a big trick with this stuff is that you work with an engineer
  • they have a small community with an engineer, a performer, musicians
  • like a small circus, a small cabal of friends


How does the economics work?

  • recently transitioned to a model that’s more sustainable
  • used to write grants for projects they didn’t fully develop (tended to be paper thin)
  • if you want one grant you write ten (they have 18 now)
  • gotta get used to getting rejected
  • the new style has projects that are two years down the road
  • get the horse before the cart
  • a lot of business happens at openings
  • it important to build a community and be part of a community
  • not a naturally social person, but realized it was important to get out there and socialize and build these communities and have people who can play these roles


The Suspended Room

  • elitism vs.socialism
  • ever heard a joke and didn’t feel the joke coming? if you don’t have the setup you can’t get to the moment where you can hopefully go someplace
  • likes the intersection between video art and sculpture
  • wanted work to survive past one night
  • it’s a bold thing to show a curator her own space and say “hey, you wanna do this” and sometimes it works
  • all sorts of people who have to sign off on these things, that’s why he builds 3-d models
  • the Mass MOCA project is first time they’ve been building off site
  • getting really specific and needed all the answers
  • taking the time to make models and the sketch models and all these things is really important. the further you get into this the better chance you have of it being accepted.



  • made a big mistake of not going to HD earlier
  • their rule is that no matter what they do they don’t go into debt
  • did calculations on how much they’ve spent on art projects in the past 14 years
  • most of their expenses were covered by grants
  • try to recycle materials
  • just getting to the point where they’re paying performers
  • teaching is what pays their bills


Do you see sculpture moving out of your work and video taking over?

  • their work is more dance oriented
  • doesn’t think he can compete with film (much larger scale)
  • it’s been hard to know what their scale is, what’s their media
  • doesn’t really care about his audience
  • appreciates the sleekness of the way his work looks when it gets on the lens
  • likes the one take, the building, the community of people involved
  • these are shot in one or two days
  • never asking people to do things that they technically can’t do themselves
  • knowing what their limits are
  • not really too pure though, as their work has a lot of intense editing
  • they push and pull videos in a way a purist would never, but at the same time their work is still very physical
  • “an awkward in between of accepting some limits while rolling their eyes at other limits”
  • he’s anti-loop because of his performance background since performances had to be in a loop, whereas he always like to arrive somewhere


Where does the Japanese influence come in (e.g. the Japanese tea house in the bolder project)?

  • “it just feels right and I don’t know”
  • his mentor from school is a Japanese man
{ Tue, Apr 2    4 Lunchtime Conversations          


  • the people who do this the best are professional artists who make a life out of applying for grants and residencies
  • a couple smaller projects, includingblank books that were made, paid for, and sold by them
  • center for abandoned letterhead (secured through microgrant funding)

Mies Book

  • went through many stages
  • initially came out of a desire to work collaboratively with Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani
  • natasha had seen first hand, working with architects, how they pull things together last minute and her role was to make it look good
  • then realized she could make content herself
  • so they wanted to take control of the process
  • thought at first to make a simple 6-month magazine, something fast and fun
  • she works in Lafayette Park in Detroit
  • the magazine grew into a bigger project
  • trying to publish a magazine is really hard whereas a book is a little more concrete
  • during the process of applying for grants they switched to book mode
  • hardly got any outside funding to do it
  • spent a year-and-a-half applying for grants
  • felt like they wasted their time and felt naive about it
  • for example, they applied for grants that required that they already have a publisher which they didn’t have at the time
  • their publisher paid for the printing costs
  • got some money from the university where she teached
  • their publisher wanted to print in China but they wanted to print at a place in Croatia and the Wayne State money helped cover that
  • met in 2009 with a publisher called Revolver Press but they required them to pay for the printing
  • they were able to get them to write a letter for a grant they applied for
  • wrote to Princeton Architectural Press and they said they were interested
  • but the more they heard about Princeton, they realized they often say their interested but don’t go forward
  • they would have to pay for printing, there were serious limits to format, etc.
  • agreed to write them a letter for grants but would officially sign on as the publisher
  • they had also asked for money from the owners of the towers as a corporate sponsorship, but that didn’t work
  • decided to stop applying for grants and to just go ahead and make the book
  • fall 2011, they had a preview done; printed a copy in croatia
  • contacted a friend at Metropolis Books if she knew other publishers, but it turned out that Metropolis Books was actually interested
  • when they looked at the people who were getting the sorts of grants they applied for, they found it was serious Mies scholars and architects
  • realized that they were out of their expertise
  • bulk of their expenses was in flights for Lana to come from Croatia
  • never made a magazine version of it, but they had the proposal they were circulating
  • the thing that’s ultimately useful is producing narrative about your project
  • shaping that initial text you repeat is useful and very important
  • helps you to organize your thinking

Is there something about Detroit that bring this work out in you?

  • before she moved to Detroit she didn’t do projects about place really
  • but when she got there she felt callous about doing formal projects like her Excel book
  • a city that you have to confront in a way; forces to confront the effects of late capitalism

Is the Van de Rohe book a comment on that?

  • felt sheepish about living in Lafayette Park, since as an artist in Detroit you can have a huge property, whereas she’s living in a really manicured controlled place
  • while she was there she started to hear that Lafayette Park wasn’t really Detroit
  • but she began to take issue with that, because the neighborhood is one of the most racially integrated neighborhoods in the city
  • felt like it was important to show that there’s actually people living in Detroit, countering the “ruin porn” images that were bandied about
  • also it was unusual to see this German architect’s work existing in this majority-black city

Is it a model for what could be or could have been? Would the Corbu vision have been good for Detroit?

  • the planner was a communist who was actually blacklisted
  • the place demands a kind of political agency
  • the people who lived there tend to get very involved in the neighborhood and city politics
  • because it’s Detroit and values are so low, the modernist vision isn’t quite as out of reach, though the property is still somewhat expensive to build

Could you speak to your relationship with architects?

  • one of our strengths as graphic designers is to take content and put it in a form tht everyone can access
  • they were contacted by architects and gave talks at architecture place, yet they felt out of place in those venues
  • but the architects told them that architects can’t really make a book like that and appreciated how it humanized the subject-matter

It seems like you made the book speak specifically to the people who live in Lafayette Park. There’s a real beauty in speaking from the vantage point of a non-specialist. It says in form what you want to say in content.

  • wanted to involve all kinds of people
  • as graphic designers you can figure out ways to involve them
  • they had a neighbor who archived a lot of things and they brought that into the project
  • designers can make things seem “official” or “polished” or “accessible”
  • but what happens when you’re coming to a place from the outside?

Do you feel like there’s a finite number of designer-friendly grants or did you have to look to places that usually wouldn’t give grants to designers?

  • applied for an artist fellowship recently in Detroit where two years ago she wouldn’t have felt comfortable
  • these things tend to be open-ended so there’s oppotunities there for designers
  • internal grants at Wayne State, IREX travel grants, residencies (you go and work on your project intensively somehwere)


{ Tue, Mar 12    4 Lunchtime Conversations          


Safar 7 Urban Landscape Lab

  • Central Park as “Disneyfied urban natural condition”
  • began work  on a proposal for a signage system for national parks but got distracted
  • opted for audio signage system instead, treating the 7 line as an urban park
  • interested in the weird animal conditions along the seven line (snakehead fish–invasive fish that can walk) and weeds and trees growing out of the sidewalks
  • people wanted to get involved so they made up projects for them to do


Ceation of a scaled model at studio x

  • making it global and doing a megaexhibiton of urban nature in several cities across the world (jeanette spent a year try to get grants to do it)
  • managed to get three grants to do it and they all ended up falling through
  • Beijing grant was only $10,000


Were you able to distinguish your own identity as a form or as an aesthetic from the project?

  • realized that if they were going to work with people they wouldn’t be able to do everything in their own way and make things look super great
  • they pushed against their definition of what they do
  • there was a fight against themselves to have aesthetic control
  • no one else in the process thought there were problems with it visually, since they talked more about what the work was supposed to do than what it was supposed to look like
  • found that inviting people to participate requires a more casual graphic language
  • much more possible if it seems accessible rather than if it’s super-branded
  • when they started the studio they didn’t think that all of their projects necessarily had to have clients, as “projects without clients will eventually find clients”
  • working with other people is still an important part of the culture
  • they try to make it about what other people want to do in the studio framework
{ Tue, Mar 5    4 Lunchtime Conversations          


  • the most clear part of the project was the canvas they wanted to work with, which was a billboard overlooking what was once a highway
  • the guidelines they worked from were the instructions the owners of the billboard would send to to advertisers
  • the most difficult part of the project was working on something they themselves were not going to make

How did they work it, image-wise, to final scale?

  • a lot of photographing the site and then manipulating the image in photoshop
  • final was rendered with 3D models but still mostly photoshop

Was it difficult to navigate the bureaucratic elements?

  • they didn’t get much feedback at all from the company, which mostly just have the nod
  • overall the company was mostly thrilled and didn’t give them much trouble

How did politics enter into this?

  • the pencil was obvious, as it was about lanscapes being erased and redrawn
  • they tried to keep it PG and not cause te company grief

Feedback from the regular audience?

  • they received an uplifting email from someone who lived across from the billboard and was enraged when the pencil was taken down


{ Tue, Feb 26    4 Lunchtime Conversations          

Feb 19 John Caserta (general practice)
Feb 26 Max Ackerman (art installation)
Mar 05 Glen Cummings, MTWTF.org (exhibits/books)
Mar 12 Danielle Aubert (book)
Mar 19 Michael Carabetta, Chronicle Books to review book proposals.
Apr 02 Murray McMillan (exhibit/installation)
Apr 09 Megan Feehan (exhibit proposal)
Apr 16 Julian Boxenbaum (products/furniture)
Apr 23 Chris Specce (industrial/products)
Apr 30 Edward Boatman of The Noun Project (Kickstarter)
May 07
May 14

{ Sun, Feb 17    4 Lunchtime Conversations