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Episode 33 October 4, 2016 | 39min

A Conversation with Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand, Part One

Our co-founders talk about design with Michael and Jessica.

Show Notes

How designers see the world: this week, Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Michael Bierut, a partner at the design firm Pentagram, and Jessica Helfand, a senior critic at the Yale School of Art. In the first installment of a two-part conversation, they discuss the institutions where they’ve built their careers, the balance between expertise and curiosity, how they teach the fundamentals of design, and the value of rituals when you’re trying to get the work done.

Rich Ziade: Paul!

Paul Ford: Rich!

Rich: I wanna welcome you to Track Changes.

Paul: The official podcast of Postlight, a product design studio in New York City.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: So today in the studio, we have two pretty amazing people. And since there were two of them, and they had a lot to say, we’re gonna do a two-part episode.

Rich: Great.

Paul: So it’s Jessica Helfand and Michael Bierut.

Rich: Pretty cool.

Paul: She teaches at Yale. He also teaches a little at Yale, but is as senior partner at Pentagram.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Ever heard of Pentagram?

Rich: Oh yeah.

Paul: Pretty good shop.

Rich: If you care about design, you’ve heard of Pentagram.

Paul: Yeah, you do. They just, it’s, it’s, everyone has an opinion and most people have a kind of love for Pentagram.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: So let’s get into it with them.

Rich: Awesome.

Paul: We’ve had some very accomplished people in here.

Rich: Yeah. This is raising the bar for us a little bit.

Paul: Honestly, you and I need — like, we literally need to leave here and go to a tailor. [laughter] Because…

Rich: Immediately afterwards.

Paul: Because what you’re hearing is the laughter of Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand, who work together on a ton of different things. Let me give real, real bios for these people. Let me not half-ass it for once, OK?

Rich: I don’t think you have the option.

Paul: No, this, these are, these are, like, these people know stuff. Like, I’m just sort of picking — there’s like a vibe in the room of just raw design knowledge that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before.

Rich: No. [laughter] It’s a vibe!

Paul: Before we allow them to speak, I’ll tell you that, “Jessica Helfand is a founding editor of Design Observer, an award-winning graphic designer and writer, a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Eye, and Communications Arts magazine, she is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale” — or international-e, OK — ”and a recent laureate of the Art Director’s Hall of Fame” — which, I’m guessing, where, Jessica, let’s, hi.

Jessica Helfand: Hi Paul.

Paul: Where, is that here in New York City?

Jessica: I was sort of hoping it was in Cooperstown, like right by the Baseball Hall of Fame. [laughter]

Rich: It’s down the road.

Jessica: I think that if they saw my lack of prowess in terms of all sports they would rescind whatever offer was coming way.

Paul: They could all be together. So you are very, very closely associated with Yale University.

Jessica: I am.

Paul: And what is your role there?

Jessica: Often called a lifer, as in a person who never leaves. Well, I was educated there as an undergraduate and later went back for my MFA. I’ve been on the faculty in the School of Arts since the mid-nineties. Michael and I are both senior critics in the School of Art. And beginning just this fall, just this summer, actually, we’ve joined the faculty of the School of Management, as faculty in design.

Paul: So I want to get into that, and also you have quite recently, May, a book came out, Design: The Invention of Desire.

Jessica: That’s right.

Paul: Also from Yale University Press. You’re very on-brand.

Jessica: I’m very on-brand.

Rich: It’s in the contract.

Jessica: It’s also called boring.

Paul: Yeah. Like I mean, if you told me your jacket was by Yale…

Jessica: No, it’s kind of embarrassing. I’ve never been to a football game, which is, my father will never let me forget.

Paul: I mean, it might be time.

Jessica: My loyalties might seem quite, you know, debunked…

Paul: It’s not, it’s not too late.

Jessica: That’s true.

Paul: So also immediately to your left, is Michael Bierut. So Michael Bierut studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati, and has been a partner in the New York office of Pentagram since 1990. Now, OK, design at Yale is a big deal. And Pentagram is a big deal. Like, if a bomb hit right now, it would be —

Rich: Everything going forward will be slightly less attractive. [laughter]

Paul: There would be a lot — yeah, logos get like, ten percent crappier.

Rich: Yeah. Kerning starts to break.

Paul: Yeah, everything goes wrong.

Rich: Everything’s a little out of whack.

Paul: There is a significantly bad effect.

Rich: It’s like, ooh, Exxon, what happened to you? [laughter]

Paul: And Michael’s also, we should also point out, a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art, and since we are promoting these people for this very moment, let’s also point out that he has a book from HarperCollins, How To Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and Every Once in a While, Change the World. How does that look on Amazon, when they have that title.

Michael Bierut: It sort of negates the purpose of the rest of the page, actually, because everything you need to know is in that little picture, sort of, so…it looks OK.

Paul: OK. It just sort of feels like that would really overwhelm the, like, that title just would…it’s not a tweetable book title.

Michael: No, I realized that much, much later, actually. Too late.

Rich: I have to say, the title, I sell a lot, for our agency. I mean, it sounds cold, when you boil it down to selling. But I sell through design a lot. And I have to say this, I’m gonna read this book, and it effectively baked the description into the title.

Michael: Yeah, it’s what it says on the can, is what’s inside.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I mean who in God’s name doesn’t need that? [laughter]

Rich: Yeah. Right. Exactly.

Paul: Actually, can you just tell, though, what is Pentagram.

Michael: So Pentagram’s a, it’s like a design company, based on an unusual sort of model. The model is that it is a partnership between creat — among creative people. Right now there are 21 partners in 5 offices, and each one of the partners runs a smallish design group within the overall structure. So it’s been around since 1972, a long time, all of those partners are creative people, we all manage everything by consensus, there’s no managing director, there’s no business person, it’s just sort of a bunch of art school graduates who sort of banded together, partly for fun and partly for mutual protection. You know, it’s like a gang, I guess. Gang ethos?

Paul: The thing I’m always fascinated by Pentagram is actually what it doesn’t do, like there’s so many design-focused places, particularly in New York City, where the focus slowly shifts away from design towards more agency-style —

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: There’s two ways to think about branding. There’s like, we’re gonna create a true identity, and then there’s also all this other stuff, and service-oriented work, and it seems like Pentagram, I’m guessing, very consciously has decided to stick with a few things.

Michael: Yeah, I mean, we, all the partners, we’re all designers and we all like making stuff. If you’re a designer, making it is part of it, but you also have to get clients, you have to, you have to figure out what they need. Once you design the thing, you have to figure out a way to persuade them that the thing you designed satisfies that need, then you have to help them get it out into the world, so the making part, which is in the middle, is the fun part, but you have to take pleasure in the other parts, too.

But the making part is the thing that we’re all really into. And I think, what I’ve seen happen a lot of times with design businesses is that quite rightly, a designer will go into a partnership with a business person, or sometimes there’s a three-legged stool, there’s the person who’s like the creative designer, there’s the operations person that makes sure the rent is paid and the lease on the Xerox machine is up to date and everyone is registered for health insurance, then there’s an outside person who sells and is the public face of the place.

And usually, the more successful those latter two people are, the bigger the place get. The bigger the place gets the more kind of vaguely tortured the creative person is, because that person then is, like, spending all their time doing what they don’t want to do, which is administering a large firm with a lot of activity. And so a lot of times, the creative person leaves. Then the two remaining people decide they’re never going to make that mistake again, they’re just gonna hire more malleable people who are willing to take orders, and commoditize sort of the design/creative part of the operation.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Michael: Which I think, I think that’s a very sensible business choice. But the Pentagram model has successfully inoculated themselves against that by having it be over its entire 40-plus year history run entirely by creative people. So a lot of times, our financial model is real simple, and I thought that was based on some sort of commitment to rigor and clarity. Now I realize it’s because almost the entire partnership, to a person, stopped taking math classes after 8th or 9th grade. [laughter]

Paul: This is a very simple business model.

Michael: Exactly, yeah. Because we can do division, but we don’t really…

Paul: It’s what design —

Michael: We can do multiplication, division, but beyond that it’s sort of complicated.

Paul: It’s what designers can understand.

Michael: Exactly, yeah.

Rich: Is it safe to say you’re not wired to growth?

Michael: No, we’re not. We’re not. In fact, the way we grow, traditionally, is having a new partner join the firm and then take the firm in a slightly different direction, and we do, I’m, you know, I’m 58 years old, so I’m antediluvian. I have younger partners who also might give a completely different description of the firm, and who certainly have different ideas about the kinds of activities they want to do as designers. But there’s no pressure on me personally to, you know, to, I mean, I have to pay my share of the overhead, ideally, and it’s nice to get paid for your work and everything, but I don’t, because we’re not owned by anyone, we don’t have to show year-after-year growth.

Rich: It’s almost like a co-op.

Michael: Yeah, it is, it is, it is, it is. It is, it’s like a combination of —

Jessica: I thought you were gonna say it’s almost like a cult.

Michael: It is like…

Paul: Maybe a little of each.

Michael: Yeah, a cubby…yeah.

Paul: Jessica, what’s your relationship been with agency world over your career?

Jessica: I have none.

Paul: OK.

Jessica: I’m kind of a cousin to Pentagram, because Michael’s been very kind to me and so when I’m in the city, there’s usually some partner that’s not there, and I sit at their desk. So I’m like the, in the Goldilocks an the Three Bears, that’s my relationship. I’m Goldilocks to Pentagram.

Rich: So if someone approached you and says, I love, I love your book, I would love your help, would you say no?

Jessica: I would say yes, I have two children in college. [laughter]

Rich: Oh! So you —

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. I’m not saying no about that.

Rich: So you do mercenary-type efforts…

Jessica: So I had a studio for many years.

Paul: Freelance.

Rich: OK.

Paul: Mercenary is a little strong.

Rich: It sounds a little more badass, though.

Paul: OK.

Jessica: Yeah, badass on one end, sort of calculating on the other. [laughter] I had a studio for many years.

Rich: OK.

Jessica: And we had four or five people working for us, and…my partner, my husband, and our partner at Design Observer Bill Drenttel died in 2013. I sold the house, I shut down the studio a year later, and I’ve been running Design Observer primarily since then, and doing a little bit of consulting on the side.

Rich: Got it.

Jessica: And I think it’s given me great clarity about the kinds of projects I want to do, and the kinds of people I want to work with. And one thing that I have started to do that’s, it’s turning out to be really a compelling piece of my new worldview, is I’ve always wanted to have a more international life. I grew up in Paris, and I think I got into design early by thinking, unrealistically perhaps at the time, that design could be a kind of international language.

And so, you know, a few years ago, I joined AGI, this international design consortium fellowship that Michael’s also part of, and it started to introduce me to some people in other parts of the world, and I started teaching internationally, and I just, I don’t know, I think that with a big studio, I was not able to entertain those kinds of projects. So I wouldn’t say that they’re single-handedly helping me wall up the tuition bills of university for my two children, but it’s, but I think I have more clarity now that I have less overhead, and less of a responsibility for others.

Michael: I was gonna say, I think that Jessica and I have very different kind of, on the surface, it looks like we have very different…models of working. We both call ourselves designers, but we work in different ways. But our commonalities are that because of the way that Pentagram is set up, I actually have a lot of freedom to work on a blog with Jessica, to teach up at Yale, to write stuff, as well as taking on big kind of commercial assignments. You know, logos for big companies and stuff like that.

I try to avoid taking on work that just pays a lot of money, and I’ve kind of tried for years, pretty successfully, to avoid just saying yes to something just because I think there’s a big check involved. My team, and sure, the overhead of Pentagram, is economical enough that I don’t need that much to kind of keep it going. And so I’m able to take on a lot of kind of non-commercial work, work that’s cultural, and work that could be relatively low-paying. And I think that, you know, the kind of practice that Jessica has, and had even when you had a handful of people working for you, was always much more about non-profit institutions, calls for work, stuff like that.

Yet I think you and Bill, while you were running that studio, also never hesitated to engage with a big challenging problem if it came up, just because you found the size and the scale challenging and interesting, which is I think what compels me about it.

Jessica: Yeah.

Michael: I don’t think there’s anything that fun in just a big budget. I think if you’re getting paid a lot of money, you’re working with horrible people who drive you crazy, it’s sometimes, that money, like, is never enough, you know? Whereas if the people are interesting, and the cause is worthy, and you’re, you’re learning something about it as you’re doing the work, you know, it just is its own reward, to a certain degree.

Jessica: Right.

Michael: That’s very idealistic, so you can kind of be cynical now.

Paul: It seems to me, I mean, you both, you seem very motivated by joy, right? Like there seems to be this, like, I’m gonna go to the world, and you’re gonna do —

Michael: I’m gonna try new pizza toppings. I was thinking about, what my adventure would be. [laughter] I don’t want to go around the world, but I will try that pineapple topping, I guess. It sounds crazy.

Rich: But that’s a tension, I think, you know, we just started a studio less than a year ago, and we have this conversation almost every two months, of, OK, so we’ve got the client work, and we’re starting to put some money in the bank. Are we ready yet to carve out the sandbox so that we can play and do some stuff that is a little more out there, that no client would ever give us, but is gonna be very enriching and incredibly…satisfying.

Jessica: So the answer is yes?

Rich: For us, what, every 60 days?

Paul: No, I think that conversation — we were just told the answer’s yes, so it’s done. [laughter]

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Well this is really tricky, right, because I think what, there’s four practitioners around the table, and four people who work in a very meta way, who have to build things and nurture people as well, and that’s a constant tension, and for me, and this, I know this is true for Rich, and it sounds like it might be true for you guys, too, like, making the thing is the home base. Like, if I can’t do that, I…

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: And I’m currently distant from it. It means that days are a little harder than they need to be, because I don’t have that nourishment, because I’m just kind of like, I’m not taking, it’s a one way that you don’t take care of yourself, is not making things. And we’re not making many things, we’re building a company, so that we can make bigger and more dynamic things…

Rich: Trying to sprint ahead so that there is enough daylight to put some resource aside and say hey, let’s go do something a little nutty.

Michael: Right.

Rich: We try to rationalize — at least I try to rationalize it as, this is great marketing, when we put this out. We get to showcase to the world…

Paul: Yeah, you have a need to sort of justify it —

Rich: I do!

Paul: In like, a nice, capitalist context. I just think it’s, like…

Rich: [laughter] I do.

Paul: Once signal goes out, people come in. I mean, you guys — we’re doing this podcast, you guys podcast very frequently as well with Design Observer, and you have a broad audience with Design Observer, and it feels like that, that signal seems like it must be nourishing too, right?

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: What does the feedback feel like, as it comes in?

Jessica: Well I think we have different, I don’t know how Michael would answer this, but I think the feedback for the podcast has been different than for the blog. Obviously the blog was a multiplicity of voices over 13 years.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: We’ve been doing the podcast almost just about two years. I think we’ve done 40 episodes. And I think we’re really starting to hit our stride. Also, it’s just the two of us. We’re very interested in what the intersection is with our purview as designers with a larger world, which is very much consistent with the original mission of Design Observer, but because it’s only two of our voices, it’s funneled through a smaller prism. A prism nonetheless, because we’re different people and we have different perspectives on things, but it’s a lively, engaging way to look at design’s value outside the studio.

Whereas I think that the writing that we have done together and separately on Design Observer is a different kind of investigation into a single thing, that collectively over time becomes many things. But I think the podcast medium is a very exciting one, because you can be timely, and we can talk about things that are in the world, and the world is a very visual place. So increasingly, we’re finding ourselves talking about politics and sports and global tensions and journalism, to the extent that the point of entry for the public is a visual one, that’s a design story.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: And so, week after week, I think we’re finding no shortage of material, and we’re just really kind of enjoying that.

Paul: I feel, we’re in some ways the mirror image. I mean, we did one show which was all about the web platforms that the presidential candidates were using.

Rich: Yeah.

Michael: Yeah.

Rich: We poked around under the hood on all their sites, and…

Paul: And what that could tell you about sort of the ethos, and…

Michael: Oh wow, great, great.

Paul: It’s very playful, right? And you can, I think that the thing that’s lovely about that, right, is that you’re not, you’re not saying that you have this, like, one straight-up epistemological system that’s going to address everything. And I feel that that’s just sort of part of adulthood, is just acknowledging that the thing that you love more than anything else does not have all the answers in the world, but you’re still going to continue to love it as much, you can’t quite help yourself.

Jessica: Right.

Paul: And that’s us with technology.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And with sort of building and product. It’s just, like, it kind of radiates off of you, both of you, which is really kind of — it’s nice to see. I can’t, I don’t know how to communicate that in auditory form, but…

Michael: But I think you — I mean, I think you guys, and anyone interesting you meet, they both have a kind of expertise, but they also have a curiosity, and if you meet someone who’s just an expert and doesn’t appear to be exhibiting any curiosity, who just is so eager to just kind of keep completing the puzzle out to the last piece, and then move on to the next one without kind of looking outside the borders, those people are dull, and they end up kind of not being that fun to listen to.

And then if you listen to people who are only curious, who are sort of like, you know, they don’t have a framework to kind of interpret what they’re curious about — I always find that intersection between someone who has real expertise in a subject matter, yet is really fascinated by things that are outside that subject, really, those people are always, inevitably, really interesting.

Paul: I think what’s interesting is that we’re all also drawn to make media now.

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: These platforms are here for us to start to communicate some of that outward in a way that it didn’t used to be.

Jessica: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: And you’re a teacher, too. I’m looking at Jessica. But like, this has been sort of part of what you’ve been doing forever. I mean, this is your job.

Jessica: Yeah, and I mean, I think the classic way you teach is you show up and you critique work, and in the past five or ten years I’ve really started to originate different…reluctant to call them pedagogic models, but in a sense, they are. Like, how can you, in a world that’s increasingly visual, how can you reach people who don’t think of themselves as visual but are, and get them to open their minds in a different way?

So I taught a course for several years, after my book on scrapbooks came out. It was called Studies in Visual Biography, that met once a week in the studio and once a week in one of the collections at Yale. And it got these kids away from Facebook, and into, like, the bowels of the research capabilities of a library, to research people’s’ lives other than their own. And if you’re dealing with someone who’s 18 years old, the ability to show them that something matters that’s not in that myopic, closed ecosystem of them and their friends is a tremendous paradigm shift. And then now I teach a course on the color blue, that’s even more that way.

Paul: Well that was going to be my next question. I’m fascinated by this class. So what, what happens when they come in on the first day?

Jessica: So the thing I have to say to your listeners, people assume that I’m just teaching designers, but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. So this is a freshman seminar at Yale. They enter on a lottery. There’s, I think, 40 of them, and they rank what they want to do, and they get in or they don’t get in. So there on lots of different topics, and many schools are doing this now. There’s actually great seminars at Pomona. I know the California schools are doing them.

And so the dean asked me to come up with an idea for a class that could be anything to anybody, and the example he gave me was “water,” like you could teach a course on water, and it could be about sustainability, it could be about the environment, it could be about bookbinding and the, the warp of the paper. And I immediately knew I wanted to do a course on blue. So I get 18 students —

Paul: Wait wait — could you unpack the “immediately” there? [laughter]

Jessica: Immediately. OK. What I’m, I’m really interested in the fact that you think you know what it is, and you have no idea what it is.

Paul: OK.

Jessica: It’s everything, and it’s nothing. It’s…we look at blue color and blue blood, we look at the Tiffany’s box and the Gallois package. I bring in a singer-songwriter to teach them how to find the blue note, which is the note between the major and the minor scale, which we do on blue harmonicas. We go to the art gallery, we look at Edward Hopper’s skies for hours on end. We go to the Natural History Museum and we have an amazing ornithologist who talks with the students about why birds have blue feathers.

So the point is that at the end of 28 sessions, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a designer or you’re a choreographer or you’re a chemist. What matters is that you realize that opening your mind to a different way of seeing the world is what’s gonna get you to the next thing. And the kids that make the best work are not the ones who think they’re artists. They’re the ones who are linguists, they’re the ones who are poets. I mean, partly it’s because they’re 18, and they don’t, they’ve just not been on the planet long enough to have any bad habits, when it comes to, like, their studio practice.

And part of it is just that they’re, they’re like puppies. They’re just, like, so energetic and smart and filled with optimism and relentless determination and, to Michael’s point, curiosity to beat the band, and so, it is just a gift to me to be able to spend three hours a week with these students, and at the conclusion of 14 weeks, they literally are different people. And they’re then poised to enter the next phase of their education with a much more open mind. And that’s what design should be. It’s not about kerning, at that age. It shouldn’t be, I think. I think it’s about having an open mind, and an open heart.

Rich: Is there a grade?

Jessica: They get a grade.

Rich: What’s the mechanisms…?

Jessica: I would answer that in two ways. First I say to them, if you’re the kind of person who cares what your grade is, then the door is over there, because the ones who are what I call “tricks for biscuits” kids [laughter], the ones who spent their whole lives wanting to get into Yale, like, I don’t want them. They should go take…

Paul: Awwww.

Jessica: They should go take, I don’t know, intro to psychology or something. [laughter]

Paul: Tricks for biscuits!

Jessica: The point is to just not be that. And then, you know, half of it they get for showing up, and half of it they get for just being willing to do these crazy exercises I ask them to do.

Rich: Engagement, yeah.

Jessica: Which is they’re making films, they’re, you know, I had a student make a film using a $3 fan from the Salvation Army, like, that was the kinetic — it was the most unbelievable thing, and he was an environmental science major, he was on the track team. Like, unbelievably great.

Rich: Got it.

Jessica: Not because he was reading Eye magazine and knew exactly what to say to me, the design professor.

Rich: Right.

Jessica: It was because he was willing to say, oh, maybe if I move something, I can make a film, and maybe the film is a rendition of a color that’s different, and it’s about the atmosphere…he’s a science guy. And I’m not a science person. I’m not equipped to teach science. But I’m equipped, I think, because I’m old enough and I’ve been through the wringer, through design school, that I got to the point where I thought teaching design is not about form, yet, at that level. Because my own education was so steeped in form at such an early point that I found it really stultifying. And I think that there’s plenty of time to hone your skill and your craft, but I think having an open mind for ideas other than what you saw on your Facebook feed five minutes ago, that’s what these kids need.

Paul: So if I wanted to create a conversation with a group of people about blue, over time. Most people won’t get to go to Yale. But that sort of thinking is amazing, and it is life-changing, if you just go deep on a thing.

Jessica: You stand still and dig deeper, which my friend Andrew Howard, who I teach with in Portugal every summer, he said, that’s the point. The point is you find a thing and you don’t walk away from it, you just stay there and keep going.

Paul: Do you think that “Blue” would travel, or is it that it’s you and “Blue”?

Jessica: Oh it totally travels. I teach workshops all over the world based on this class.

Michael: But you have to be there? You have to be there as the….

Jessica: No.

Paul: Someone else —

Jessica: No, absolutely not. No. And I think, I think the more I teach, and the more I write books, and the more I think about the kind of practice I want, the more I think the whole point is for us to see to these ideas in the mind and the work and the studios of other people.

Paul: See this just sounds, I don’t know, I don’t know to you, where you’re at right now. To me, I think, I’m looking at you, I’m like, I can see you being a little suspicious about “Blue.” I’m ready to do this now [laughter], like I’m ready to be like, to hell with the company, I’m gonna go get, I’ll go down to, like…

Michael: Wait a sec, hold on there, hold on.

Rich: Let’s talk about this after the podcast.

Paul: No, but let’s just go to Blick and just, like, get some pens, get some paints, and just, like, have a minute. Also I have four-year-old twins.

Jessica: Awww.

Paul: Yeah! So, but I have nothing clean, everything is just falling apart, and I started this company when they were three.

Rich: It’s been intense.

Paul: It’s been intense, but I’m just thinking, like, God, you know, what would it be like to be able to think like that, and the funny thing is, is it’s not the subject.

Michael: Yeah, yeah. That’s correct.

Paul: It really isn’t. It’s, it’s, I can see everyone, like, it’s a little Whole Earth Catalog to be like, oh, it’s blue, but I’m just like, that sounds fine.

Jessica: OK, so I want to throw something to Michael. At Yale for many years I was on the admissions committee, I know Michael still does interviews for applicants, and we always are impressed by the student who has self-initiated work, and I would say that more often than not, the thing that makes the cut for the student, obviously talent and presence of mind and personality and other things matter, and grades, I mean, there’s a lot to get into graduate school.

But when a student exhibits the initiative to make their own work, and they don’t come in to say just we did this, we did this, because in fact, you’re on a team, but what did you do? It shows that they have made the time, and privileged that incentive to make work in a way that shows us that there’s a potential for a stamina that tends to really work out very well in the program. I mention this because it is really hard to carve out that time.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Jessica: And Michael, a few years ago, came up with this great idea for a project that is now being replicated all over the world, that, in some ways, cuts through this, and you should talk about it.

Michael: Yeah, as Jessica says, we both teach at the Yale School of Art. And Jessica’s really a good teacher, I’m in awe listening to her describe that seminar on blue. I consider myself a pretty bad teacher, and other people share that opinion, I think. [laughter]

Jessica: No.

Paul: No, I teach, too. I’m terrible.

Michael: Like, I just, it takes a kind of attention span, and I also think it takes a kind of like, believability, confidence in the improvability of human nature that I’m not sure that I possess in full. [laughter]

Paul: It’s kind of an act of love, and I just, like…

Michael: You just — [laughter]

Jessica: You have twins, you’re spent.

Paul: I mean, thank you for giving me a nice —

Michael: You give at home, you give at home.

Paul: I will be reusing that justification.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: That’s great.

Michael: But —

Jessica: ’Til they’re in college.

Michael: But one, so I used to teach, like, for weeks on end, and now I just teach this two one-day workshops in the School of Art. And a number of years ago, I was working on scheduling what these two miraculous days would be, and for years — and I’m good at teaching one-day workshops, I can do that, just kind of come in, give an assignment in the morning, and I would say, the only rule is, it has to be done by five. If you’ve got a great idea and you can’t finish it by five, you fail. If you’ve got a crummy idea and it’s done by five, you’ll pass. You know, I mean, so bake that in —

Rich: Get it done.

Michael: Yeah, so I did that a few years in a row, and it was fun, and then I got these two dates, and I had this weird kind of intuition about them, and I counted up the days between them, and they add up exactly to 100 days. So I came in the first day and I said, OK, here’s the assignment: just pick something and do it over and over again for 100 days. And on the last day, we’ll all come in and we’ll show each other what we did.

And didn’t even come anywhere near filling one side of one piece of 8.5×11 piece of paper. People were kind of baffled by it, like, does it have to be designed? I said, I don’t know, it can be, it should be something you can document, so it can’t be you’re just gonna, you know, think of a song in your head while you’re brushing your teeth.

Rich: Right.

Michael: I do that anyway, so it would be easy. But it needs to be something that you could actually document, and one of the reasons I was interested in this is I had gotten to this point where just like Jessica was saying, I think actually making things takes a kind of discipline, and there’s this quote from Chuck Close, which goes, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Michael: When I read that, I sort of thought, you know, I’ve been doing it wrong, I keep waiting to be inspired, and instead you have to have a way of doing work even if you’re not in the mood, even if you can’t, and I just sort of thought, OK, you know, if you just do it over and over for 100 days, and something happens, and what’s interesting is that people, it sounds like boring to people, but it doesn’t necessarily sound hard, but it ends up being really hard, and what ends up being really hard about it is around day 12, when you start to get really sick and tired of whatever thing, no matter how trivial, you decided to do? [laughter]

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: And then is it like an aerobic state, where at a certain point it becomes a meditation and you’re —

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Jessica: And you feel bereft if you don’t do it.

Michael: And then what people have to do, I think part of the trick is, you sort of have to get through those parts where you really feel you’re losing the thread, or even, I’ve had people in the middle of it just sort of, like, change up the rules, and that’s really interesting, because I don’t say, you know, like even if you pick the thing, you’re picking the thing, and you can cheat your own definition of it, if you want.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Michael: As long as you do it every day. And people have done amazing things. What’s funny is that it’s such a simple idea.

Paul: What were some of the things they did?

Michael: One guy…see if there are just a few ones I can remember off the top of my head. One student decided that every day, he would put on the song “Here Come the Warm Jets” by Brian Eno, and do a piece of artwork inspired by that song, that had to be — and the artwork had to be completed at the same time, before the song ended, OK?

Paul: OK.

Michael: And so —

Rich: Concrete.

Michael: And it was just called “100 Warm Jets,” bang, that was it. Another, a woman decided to introduce herself to a stranger and take her picture with that stranger every day. And this was a little bit before the age of selfies, actually, where that sort of seems like, oh, don’t people do that all the time? You know, but this sort of seemed like an insane idea to me. I think she was doing it with a 35mm camera or something.

Jessica: There was somebody who, one of our students, Rachel Berger, who’s now in California, did this great project, she was my student that year. She went to the hardware store and, of course, this is a big destination for the Blue class, and got color samples with really stupid names.

Michael: Got 100 paint chips.

Jessica: She got 100 paint chips, and she put them in a paper bag, and every day she pulled one out and wrote a short story about one of the colors. And so much of the story was informed by the title of the color —

Paul: Sure.

Jessica: Which became a huge project that I do with my students now.

Paul: That’s great.

Jessica: But you know, so, they’re determining the coordinates that frame their understanding of what that thing is gonna be.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: And that’s the project, that’s what design is, right, it’s an editorial conceit.

Michael: And then so what’s interesting about it is that it’s just like you can have this vague desire, I’m gonna be creative or make something, but that’s somehow, I mean, at least I sort of, I think I have a lot of barely submerged, or perhaps not even submerged, neuroses that actually motivate me, and one of them has, I’m very into habituation. There’s some things that I do just because, like I’m afraid the world will end if I —

Jessica: Running.

Michael: Don’t do the same thing every day. I run three miles every morning, whether I want to or not, just because if I stop, then maybe I’ll never do it again. There’s stuff that I do that’s like that, which I think deserves examination, and treatment, perhaps, in a forum other than a podcast. But what’s interesting is the magic number 100 and kind of, this combination of specificity, 100 days, and the open-endedness of the thing you have to do, is really tantalizing to people. And people drop out. They can’t get past 30, or they, you know, I”m talking to them on day 50 and they say, oh, I have to confess, I haven’t done anything since day 17. And I’m like, I, like, I’m like, your loss, buddy. It’s like, but the people that finish, it’s like, so cool.

And so what’s interesting about it is I did a post on Design Observer, I just showed — I just reprinted the syllabus such as it is, and then I showed, like, a handful of my favorite projects that fell in this category. And then people started, like, doing it all over the world. You know, I mean, like, literally a woman in New Zealand did it. All of a sudden it became kind of this self-administered therapy that some people who do it, take it way more seriously than I would advocate in my class. I’m sort of like, too laissez-faire about it. Some people are sort of really serious and rigorous about it, and I’m like — but that’s what’s great about it. People can kind of morph and take it different ways, so.

Paul: You know, there’s another Chuck Close anecdote that I love, which is someone called his work boring, and he just said, what do you think it’s like for me? [laughter] And it’s just, like….that to me, I might think of that every single day. Every day. Because I’m just like, yeah, oh, yeah. I also, I see talent as actually often as a rea — like, a negative reaction to issues of form, right, like, it’s a negative stimulus, and we talk about it as this very positive, wonderful thing, like, look at this talented person, and then when you, when you get to know them, they’re highly anxious about those irregularities, and need to fix them. So over those 100 days, as you’re telling me that story, I’m like, OK, they’re creating the form, and then allowing themselves to be annoyed by it.

Michael: Yeah, exactly right, exactly right. And it’s just funny, it’s just creating things, making things is real work, and you know, after I got into teaching, I started finding examples and quotes and things, you know, and one of my favorites is the writer John Cheever, who when he was first a writer — he moved eventually up to Westchester.

But when he was living in Manhattan, the only way he could write was he would get up every dayhe lived in an apartment in the Upper East Side. He could get up every morning, put on a jacket and tie and a hat, and I picture him with a briefcase, kiss his wife goodbye, get on the elevator, take it all the way down to the cellar of the apartment building, where the super allowed him to have a desk. [laughter] He’d hang up his hat, take off his jacket, put it over his chair, sit down at this desk and start writing stories that ended up being in The New Yorker and The Collected Short Stories of John Cheever.

Sometimes it would get so hot down there, he would take off all his clothes and sit typing in his underwear. Then at five o’clock he would put his pants back on, his shirt back on, his tie back on, his jacket back on, his hat back on —

Rich: Commute home.

Michael: “Honey, I’m home.” [laughter] You know, can you imagine? But like, you know, all of us have rituals that help us actually prepare for the work we have to do, and it’s true for coders, it’s true for musicians, it’s true for designers, and I think for a lot of them, it’s like, God help you if, like, if you need three cans of Red Bull, if you need that one song playing, if you know, if the desk has to be perfectly clear, or, I mean, you really need, you get addicted to those things, because they’re the things that kind of liberate you to do the work.

Paul: These are stories about identity, too, right, like his identity had to be right.

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: I feel that very, especially in technology, there’s an enormous set of questions about diversity, inclusion, and identity, and it’s, it’s endless and tricky and constantly changing, and it’s just sort of one of the big struggles, because I see people go for the identity rather than the work, but actually the two are conjoined. Like you’re in a culture, and you want to participate in that culture. The internet’s changed that, too. You go and kind of read guides as to how to look and behave and…

Jessica: And I think the tricky thing is that, you know, we live in an age of best practices, and so young people coming of age as designers are trying to figure out how to insinuate themselves into a world that so privileges what’s team-based and what’s transparent and what’s democratic that before you’ve even forged your own identity, you’re part of a pack.

Paul: Yeah, that’s very true.

Michael: A pack that actually is demanding a kind of conformity to something. And I think the biggest mistake people make is sort of getting infatuated with the idea of joining this tribe and kind of getting clad in the trappings of that group, and not understanding that being a poet doesn’t have anything to do with how you look in the author photograph on the back cover, it has to do with this, this requirement that comes from deep within, that you have to write poetry.

Paul: But this, this is a fundamental tension. I mean, I’m talking to two people who teach at Yale, and one who’s a lead at Pentagram, right? These are two of the great tribal identities in our world, in your field. Yale Design is extraordinary, it’s the feeder school for all the academic leaders in New York City. And…

Jessica: But I’ll tell you something: I had an experience recently that really changed my perspecitve on this, and it really comes back to what you were saying about idetntity, and sort of a sense of personhood. So there was a man who was the dean of the School of Art when I was a grad student. He happened to be the father of a friend of mine — I grew up across the street from him as a very small child. He’s now 84. he’s a painter. He’s retired from Yale, he was dean for many years. And he hasn’t shown his work in a long time. Like, 40 years a long time.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: Like if you google him, you won’t find anything. But this man goes to his studio every day and makes work. And he’s having a very small show, and asked me to write something for the catalogue, and I said to him, David listen, you have to understand something, I only write about people who are dead so they can’t disagree with me. [laughter] It’s actually true. It sounds funny, but it’s true. I’m very thin-skinned as a critic. I said, but if I was ever going to make an exception, this is the time.

And so what ensued, this was last spring, I made about half a dozen studio visits to his studio. And he, you know, it’s in the basement of his house on a cul-de-sac in a rural bedroom community of New Haven. And then I went off to write this essay, and the privilege was so huge to me, to see someone who’s a generation ahead of me, as I try to figure out the next chapter of my life as a maker, right? So I’m a teacher, I’m a writer, I’m a designer, I have a studio, I’m a mother. We all have these, like, different identities that we have to bridge. But there was something about seeing this person who has this incredible discipline and love of what he does, that he goes to the studio every day, and I just, I didn’t realize when I set out to do this, what an incredible journey this was going to be for me.

And I mention this because I think it’s very on-topic, based on what we’re talking about right now, but also because he said something really great to me one day, and it was that, I said David, you know, I have a painting studio, the book that just came out has paintings in it, I feel kind of betwixt and between painting and design, I don’t have a practice with employees anymore, should I be having a different kind of art practice, and I was just really flummoxed about the entire identity personhood of me. And he said to me two things. First of all, he said, people like us are gonna make stuff. Like, that’s what we do. We make stuff. And then he said to me, and I thought this was such a great line, he said to me, the thing is Jessica, it’s not what you have to do. It’s also what you get to do.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: And I realized that he saw that studio as this kind of seed bed of opportunity for — and a lot of what he does, like, from one week to the next, is he’ll just move things around on the wall, and it’ll become a whole new juxtaposition of a set of situations that become fodder for a conversation or a drawing or a painting. And I thought there was, for me, there was something great about that. Totally devoid from technology, right. This was just about idea, mind, form, making, process, sketchbook, understanding, you know, from one day to the next. 100 days, another 100 days. Building a body of work over time.

Paul: Wow.

Rich: Good stuff.

Paul: There is a lot going on with those two people

Rich: There is.

Paul: All right, hold on. Just, let’s stop there for a sec.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: We’ll come back next week with more.

Rich: There’s a lot more to cover.

Paul: Yeah. That was, this is good stuff. All right, look, Rich, this Postlight’s official podcast, Track Changes.

Rich: Yup. Yup.

Paul: And if you want to get in touch with us…

Paul and Rich: [email protected].

Paul: Subscribe on iTunes. All the regular stuff. You know what’s up.

Rich: By the way, five stars, across the board, let’s keep that rolling.

Paul: It’s good stuff.

Rich: That’s awesome.

Paul: We appreciate the feedback, the good feedback, the critical feedback.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: All the feedback.

Rich: Talk to us.

Paul: We like good feedback. We’ll come back next week with more from Jessica and Michael.

Rich: Have a great week, Paul.

Paul: All right, Rich, let’s get back to work.