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Episode 34 October 11, 2016 | 45min

A Conversation with Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand, Part Two

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

Show Notes

How does design shape the world? This week, Paul Ford and Rich Ziade finish their conversation with Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, and Jessica Helfand, senior critic at the Yale School of Art. Topics discussed include the public’s perceptions of designers’ work, collective interest in logos and branding, the danger of creating in pursuit of positive feedback, publishing personal writing on the internet, and their recent appointments as the first design faculty in the Yale School of Management.

Rich Ziade: I gotta tell you, Paul, I think — I’m feeling like it’s time for another episode of Track Changes.

Paul Ford: Me too!

Rich: There is more to cover.

Paul: This is crazy. Sometimes we take public transit together, we often eat together, we work together, and we’re co-founders of a company. We are in alignment on this.

Rich: Hells yeah.

Paul: It’s time for us to have another episode of Track Changes.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: The official podcast of the Postlight product design studio.

Rich: Yup. Postlight. What’s Postlight, Paul?

Paul: Well I’ll tell you, my name’s Paul Ford.

Rich: Rich Ziade.

Paul: And people come to me and they say things like, Paul, someone just asked me, can you get an app built that will let me identify every baby turtle in New York City, and I’ll say, honestly, I can, I can do that, but you’re gonna need to build a back-end service so that we can efficiently track all the baby turtles.

Rich: Turtle API.

Paul: Yeah! Turtle API. And you’re also gonna need to, like, are we gonna just take pictures of the turtles and log that, are we gonna, the turtles have names? These are the questions I like to talk about with people. I like to figure this stuff out.

Rich: Yep. We’re a tech product shop. We design and build platforms and —

Paul: We’re gonna —

Rich: The apps that run on them.

Paul: We’re gonna make you a beautiful thing that you can use on your phone or on the web browser. But we’re also gonna, we’re gonna make the big infrastructure and plumbing underneath it.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: Any questions, just get in touch. [email protected]. We’re glad to talk to you. So look. Here in the studio we have Jessica Helfand and Michael Bierut.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: Do you know who they are?

Rich: I do, but…

Paul: Maybe, maybe —

Rich: Share once more.

Paul: On the off chance that somebody didn’t hear last week’s episode, I’ll give a little bio. Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand are two of the founders of the Design Observer blog, which is one of the media properties that knits together the design community.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: Globally, and in New York City. They host a podcast called “The Observatory.” And they’re both very noted authors. And Jessica teaches at Yale, and Michael is very high-up at Pentagram, very well-known design studio.

Rich: Sure.

Paul: He also teaches. And they’re, they’re collaborators. They’re people who…they work together, they think together, and…

Rich: They teach together.

Paul: And they teach together. So that’s what we’re gonna talk about.

Rich: Great.

Michael Bierut: One of the reasons that I’m specifically a designer and not an artist is because…I had, like, art ability when I was a kid, I could, like, draw, and people would say, “Wow did you draw that?” and I would be really proud of it, and I would sometimes, as Jessica well knows, be able to evade or delay getting beaten up just because I could draw well. What I learned, though, was that the artists that I knew — I would go to the art museum and I’d see paintings on the wall, and they were beautiful, but then I thought, artists, this is what artists do, they paint things and then they end up in places like this. But then I would, like, be in a, you know, a record store and look at LP covers and think, well some other kind of artists do this, and you don’t have to go to the museum, and in fact there are lots of copies of…

Rich: Yeah.

Michael: You know, “Abraxas” by Santana or whatever you’re…whatever record…or “Revolver” by The Beatles —

Paul: I’m seeing that cover, you know that cover.

Michael: You know what I’m talking about, right? [laughter] Yeah, it’s a great cover. And I thought, you know, that’s the kind of artist I want to be. And I also had these other ideas that actually turned out to be sort of true. I mean, the guy that did the cover for “Revolver” by The Beatles, who I think is Klaus Voormann, actually was a musician who played on tracks with the Stones and you know…and I thought, you’re not alone in the middle of nowhere, you’re actually sort of like the fifth Beatle, or you’re, even though you’re not onstage, you get to do the poster. You sort of are somehow participating in this larger thing. And then I think it leads to what you were saying, Paul: you get that thrill of seeing your thing out in the world, and sort of feeling, deliciously, like you’ve lost control of it.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Michael: And you know…

Paul: It resets your community identity a little bit.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: Suddenly you’re playing on a different field. Maybe they weren’t taking Michael seriously before, but then they’re like, everyone now knows what you can do.

Michael: To a certain degree, except if you…depending on what it is you do, I mean, I, my mother-in-law can’t, you know, I remember my wife just patiently trying to explain to her that I had “designed” the bags for Saks Fifth Avenue?

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Michael: And I could see her, like, looking at the bags for Saks Fifth Avenue and her being able to understand what…given that it didn’t have, like, a drawing, like, of a unicorn on the front of it, it looked hard to do, it was a bag with a handle and all this other stuff. It was sort of like…

Paul: Did you do the handle?

Michael: Yeah, yeah. So she was very polite, and she was saying, “Oh, that’s nice.” And I could tell she had no idea what I did. So I think, but on the other hand, I still remember, we worked on that for nine months, and I remember getting on the subway and suddenly someone else got on that train, they were hold — it was the first time I’d ever seen a person I didn’t know holding that bag, and I almost wanted to run up and, you know, say something. You know? “Hey!”

Paul: I’m mugging you! [laughter]

Michael: I’m a weird guy who’s gonna overreact to…

Jessica Helfand: That’s my unicorn!

Rich: I mean, it’s deeply sat —

Michael: Your shopping bag!

Rich: But that’s incredibly satisfying, I’m assuming.

Michael: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rich: You ever, you ever create, I mean, I’ve got three very talented people in front of me. I’m gonna go around the room. You ever created something that you found just right there, you and this subject in the room, deeply satisfying, that wasn’t well-received. That finally got out into the world, and the score wasn’t that great, but was incredibly gratifying and satisfying to you?

Jessica: Yeah. So my short answer is that the best thing I ever designed got killed, and I have shown it for 20 years in lectures, because I think it actually represents a really interesting idea into form situation, it was a thing I did for Newsweek.

Rich: Yeah.

Jessica: When Newsweek first had a blog, their big question was, how can we be daily and timely but still be a weekly?

Rich: Uh huh.

Jessica: And I took the word “news” and the word “week” and I split the screen, and we did two feeds, and so half the, like, the newsworthy, the hourly, month, came on the news side?

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Jessica: And then the thing that said “week” was just the weekly content, and it was just this simple geometric split to create this bifurcated screen. And one was red type on a white background, and one was white type on a red background. It was like, brilliant! My great moment of design brilliance. [laughter]

Michael: Too easy.

Jessica: And my client got canned and I got canned and that was the end of that. But if I can just pull back for one second, I think that one thing for us to identify professionally as people whose work represents us and makes the world better and more part of a community and we have clients and there’s money being exchanged, fine. But as an educator, I worry that what you’re talking about, Rich, in terms of that barometer of being liked.

Michael: Feedback, and being liked, yeah.

Rich: Yeah.

Jessica: It is such, it is a mechanism that is doomed to fail, and the reason it is doomed to fail is because it sends a message to, like, the youth of the world, that that’s where success lies.

Rich: Right, right.

Jessica: So they can say, I’m a designer for public good, I’m a social entrepreneur, and they’re sitting there worried about whose liking them, and I just think that — and that’s why I wrote this book. The book is trying to look at where we, as human beings, connect to our roles as design ambassadors, as communication advocates. But, you know, at the end of the day, as parents, and children of people, and siblings of people, and people who are, you know, citizens of the world, who have to think about paying it forward in a different way. The concern about that visual culture that inculcates in all of us that you have to be thumbs up, is, I think, dangerous.

Michael: But Jessica, nonetheless, though, I think, to Rich’s point, when you design something and you know it’s right, that sense of confidence does give you a safe haven. Whether or not you’re doing it privately or whether you’re doing it publicly, to me that sort of is part of what growing as a designer or a creator is, and part of educating designers and people that make things is, kind of helping them find that thing within themselves that gives them a secure place to sort of say, this is where I am, this is where I stand. Now they can go and do that in private for decades, or they can get out there and do that in public, day after day, and I think if all you’re counting on are the likes, you’re gonna just end up being miserable.

Jessica: But I think —

Michael: I mean, you’d have to be miserable.

Jessica: Right. So there’s also a certain number of people in the world who become designers because they wanna do things that are cool, or subversive. And this is where I take great issue with words like “hacking” and “disruption,” because I think they’re about it having an edge, and that the positioning, and the behavior privileges the thing that you do, not the making of the work, right? So we can’t make people into, you know, morally upstanding citizens. But we can crack down on this language and these efforts to create a world for our students where what’s being rewarded is some kind of meaningless kind of bully pulpit nonsense.

Rich: Right.

Michael: Then also, you know, I mean, social media’s changed all this anyway, because —

Jessica: Exactly.

Michael: As I often say, if someone would’ve told me in 1980, when I started my first job, that there would be a time where new logos were discussed with the same enthusiasm as, you know, baseball games or Academy Awards shows, you know, people would literally be taking the time to, like, say, I like it, I don’t like it, I would’ve been like, what a great world, where everyone cares about logos as much as I do! You know? [laughter] Now we live in that world, where every time I design a new identity for something, I will…I….

Paul: Brace yourself.

Michael: I brace myself, and I tell my clients to brace themselves, and everybody’s got to brace themselves. You’ve written about this, Paul.

Paul: Yeah. Particularly that there was a GAP logo.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: It was a rebrand of that.

Rich: Fury.

Paul: And it just blew up the internet.

Michael: Yeah. And it’s actually, it’s really a weird thing when you think about what’s happening there, and I think, you wrote something for New York Magazine, as I recall.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm. That’s right.

Michael: And I remember, like, you actually identified that, it just shows that these brands actually work, and consumers come to identify themselves with the brands, and come to think that somehow they own them as much as the owners of the GAP.

Rich: Isn’t that flattering?

Michael: Yes, yeah, it is very flattering, and…

Rich: And unnerving?

Michael: And very unnerving, exactly.

Paul: We haven’t fully internalized the brand-as-entity in our culture yet. Like it…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It is…the brand is ultimately now the company and sort of we all work within the framework set by — like, it’s very strange.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: The more I think about it, the more it feels like that is the dominant entity in our culture, it’s the thing that’s moving stuff around.

Rich: Well isn’t that groveling happening, you know, in barbershops? We just built the mic.

Paul: Yeah, but nobody every walked into a barbershop and was like, “Can you believe the GAP?”

Rich: That ugly logo? [laughter]

Michael: No and in fact, I wrote an essay about this, in which I quoted your New York Magazine piece, but the way I began it was this little thought experiment, where I was trying to picture my dad in, like, 1967 or so, and a neighbor approaches him, you know, at our backyard fence on a Saturday and says, “Hey, Lenny, you seen that new logo?” And my dad would be like, “What?” And he says, “Oh, they changed that…the company changed their logo.” He says, “Well, I guess. I didn’t…I’m not sure I noticed.” He said, “Well, you should check it out, because what they did is terrible.” [laughter] And my dad would be, “Really?” He says, “In fact, yeah, I’m gonna write to them and send, and send a letter to make my views known. We should all do that.” My dad at this point would literally go to my mom and say, “I think something’s really wrong with our neighbor — ”

Paul: Sure.

Michael: “And we should” — and debate whether they should call someone about getting him help, because only a crazy person would think those things. And now, everyone thinks those things.

Paul: I think we’ve just created beautiful forms that create a vacuum for opinions that never before existed. We’re extracting opinions out of people like some sort of strange lymph.

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: Like, we’re just sort of pulling them out, because they’re going to drive these giant enterprises. It’s Amazon…

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: It’s Twitter. If you don’t have opinions on Twitter, you just have bon mots, and it’s not that… [laughter]

Jessica: Right, but you know, it’s so revealing to me what people say next to their names on Twitter.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: I don’t know whether it’s Jimmy Fallon or one of the late-night talk hosts, his thing is “astrophysicist.”

Paul: Yeah. [laughter]

Jessica: Because why would…everybody is just such, everybody is hashtag this, and acronyms. And It started to really irk me, how people describe themselves. This is an odd thing, but to me consistent with the irksome nature of peoples’ kind of self-aggrandizement on Twitter is if you listen to The Moth — and I love The Moth, I’m obsessed with The Moth — but when they introduce speakers, people before they’re onstage, they tell you a little bit about them, and these people are complete unknowns. And then they tell you who they are and they don’t tell you their whole name, so you know, there’s Joe Blow, and he’s like, you know, whatever, and he’s gonna get onstage, and they say, “Joe Blow, blah blah blah blah blah. Here’s Joe.” Like, when did he just become “Joe”?

Paul: He’s just Joe now.

Jessica: Like, suddenly, to me, that is secretly elevating that guy, for those five minutes he’s onstage, to a 15-seconds-of-fame thing.

Paul: Mmmmm hmmm.

Jessica: And it’s like, people calling Obama “Barack.” I just, it makes me crazy.

Paul: That becomes a kind of currency.

Rich: Is this good?

Paul: No…

Rich: Is this bad, or is this good?

Michael: Well, I mean…

Rich: I’m hearing a lot of different things.

Michael: Here’s what I think is funny, is that…

Jessica: He’s the peacekeeper, I’m the naysayer. [laughter]

Michael: No, no, no.

Jessica: Works for us.

Michael: Your tiresome outrage is perfectly understandable.

Paul: He’s literally peacekeeping ironically right now. [laughter] He’s like, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a problem.

Michael: No, what’s definitely true, though, and what I think is disconcerting and we haven’t quite figured out what it all means is, when Harold Ross decided to start The New Yorker, you know, he wrote a proposal for what The New Yorker magazine would be. And in that proposal, he sort of is describing what will be in it, what kind of magazine it is, who he imagines the reader is going to be, you know, how that reader will be reached, who it’s for, who it’s not for. It’s a very deliberate thing that required, at that point, you know, a lot of forethought, and then in order of fact, to kind of cause a magazine to be built and printed and published, he needed, you know, investors and he made this thing so he could be able to raise the money, and then put the whole thing out, and it ended up sort of being this thing that still continues this very day.

Nowadays, every single person on the Twitter thing is going through a similar kind of process when they sort of describe how they’re gonna write themselves, what they’re gonna tweet, what they’re gonna retweet. Each one of them is like a Harold Ross or like a Henry Luce. Each one of them is like a publisher now. And that used to not be possible. You could decide what kind of hat you would wear, the kind of person, do I want to get a nose ring or not. You’d have these things about personal presentation, but it always, almost always, had to do with people you would be in personal contact with. Am I the kind of person with a firm handshake, or am I gonna…I don’t know, you sort of make these decisions that you either were taught as part of manners, or learned in school, or —

Rich: Well they were interactions.

Michael: They were personal interactions. Now, because everyone has the potential, at least, to communicate to a mass audience, even if you only have 20 followers, or 200 followers, or 2,000 followers, on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or anything, everyone’s making these calculations all the time. And it’s, it ends up being a really strange world where people both presumably have authentic identities and they’re also constantly kind of…

Rich: Broadcasting.

Michael: Broadcasting this thing to strangers, and with a very calculated effect. With instant feedback that lets them know whether or not they’re getting through. How many likes did I get, how many, you know, shares did I get, etcetera, etcetera.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: But I feel that playing with those different modes has…like, I write differently for Businessweek than I do for myself…and it’s actually kind of a give and take, like, there are certain things I’ve done — I wrote a piece about the reason I have twins is we did IVF, and so I wrote a piece about that, about the egg retrieval, and I knew that I was like, I knew that there were editors at large magazines who were going to be pissed at me for giving it to a little online publication, but I knew it would find the right audience and that it would have the right…the right community would be around it, and I knew also that the editor there was going to let me keep the structure the way it needed to be. It’s one of — it’s probably the only time in my life where I was like, I can’t have anyone mess with this.

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: So there’s like five or six things going on here, around traffic, around the sense of audience, where it’s gonna get found, and I got five emails that week saying, “Why the hell didn’t you give me that? That’s exactly the sort of thing I want.” And you can’t go back and say, like, no you wouldn’t have actually published that. You would have done these three things to it. I know you very well. And so there’s aspects of control there, and there’s also aspects of gaming it, where changing tone, changing the publication — now obviously, I think we all have a lot of control over how we present ourselves in the world. More than somebody who’s just sitting down with Twitter for the first time. But I do find that fascinating. Can I mess with voice, and get another 100,000 reads on this? And what does that mean? And is that good? It may not be. I’ve had those situations, too, where I’m like, I turn that dial and I got exactly the feedback I predicted, and I feel gross and bad about it, so let’s not do it that way.

And so I think there is a little give-and-take. There is a little more intent. There’s a little more understanding of how these systems work. I think that, unfotunately, the motivation in the systems is designed in such a way that people make often negative and harmful decisions for themselves and their communities. Because it’s just, it’s very, like, it’s very rat-and-pellet. It’s, what did you say, “biscuits for tricks?”

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: Tricks for biscuits. So we’ve created the tricks for biscuits, like, content ecosystem. [sigh] Rich and I talk about this a lot, like, what could you do, what kind of technologies could get you past that. Sometimes it’s just taking the number away.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: I think a lot of it is just sort of localizing the communication, not…

Rich: Well there are these camps in upstate, I think they’re in many places, they’re like these rural camps where there’s not much to ’em, they don’t advertise a whole lot, other than the fact that they’re gonna take your phone when you get there, and you’ve got executives and really, you know, prominent people who have very busy days and are on their phone and on email all the time — take your phone, and they put you with strangers. You can’t go with a friend. And you’re gonna build something together.

Michael: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: And it could be woodworking over a long weekend. And people come, I met one person and I’ve heard about it through others, but I met one person who came out of it, they couldn’t put into words how they felt so differently about not being connected and not having — feeling the need to talk into a channel.

Jessica: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: But instead, actually have to pause and take your time to have a face-to-face con — I mean, all of that. There’s, like, sort of this reaction that’s happening right now around it, I mean, we’re — you guys are creative, so you’re in a funky spot, because you’re putting stuff out into the world, but at a whole other level. I mean, most are just sort of like, hey, I made good cinnamon rolls. Check ’em out.

Michael: That’s creative. I mean, good cinnamon rolls are worth —

Rich: Good — fair enough!

Michael: Ten logos in my opinion. [laughter]

Rich: Yeah, yeah. But there is this, there is this, I mean, that’s I think the other bit of it, is if you are trying to become a creative, you’re sort of trying to fall into this river of stuff that is just…overwhelming everything, right? And how do I bubble up, and how do I get noticed? I mean, I go to Band — do you guys know the site BandCamp?

Michael: Yeah, I do.

Rich: It’ll let anyone on, if you have a band you can upload your music, and you can sell ’em. You actually I think can pick the price. It could be a dollar a track, it could be two dollars a track.

Paul: But it’s truly in support of independent musicians in a way that Spotify or Apple are not.

Michael: Yeah.

Rich: Yeah. Direct to your fans. And I go, I love going on there, and it makes me sad. Because everybody is trying to somehow get noticed in this place, and it’s a really big, there’s a lot of people there. And there’s good stuff there. And when I find something I like, I tend to — I don’t even need the tracks, they’re somewhere, they’re on Spotify anyway, I’ll just give ’em the $10 bucks.

Michael: Yeah.

Rich: But it’s really hard. What are the mechanisms to somehow get bubbled up, right? I mean, if you fall and record it on a phone, that might get a couple hundred thousand views on YouTube. There’s this video of this little three-year-old boy rapping fake words, and his dad’s an actual rapper musician, and he’s trying to — his dad is trying to make it. His son, with this adorable video, has millions of views, and his dad’s music on YouTube has 80,000 views, right? So this guy has poured his life into being an artist, but his kid looks too cute on YouTube. And that tipped.

Michael: Yeah. And so he has, like, a million views?

Rich: The kid?

Michael: Yeah.

Rich: Millions. [laughter] He’s like a phenom.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Rich: But the poor dad is trying to somehow crack the ceiling, and he just…you know.

Paul: See, these are new situations. Like, that’s hard to puzzle through. I’d feel weird if my four…

Rich: I’d probably get —

Paul: Four-and-a-half-year-old son just suddenly was like…

Rich: I’d probably pour all sorts of insecurities into the child. I’d ruin that child. [laughter] That child will end up a dysfunctional adult.

Paul: I’d like to think I’m better, but probably not.

Michael: But it is actually really difficult seeking an audience, in a way, and I think, I mean, I have a question for you Paul: when you first decided you wanted to write that story —

Paul: Mmmmm hmmm.

Michael: Why?

Paul: It was actually very specific. So here I am, I’ve been a writer for a while. We were in the middle of IVF, trying to conceive after several years, and I was looking at my wife and just thinking, no one, it’s actually a surprisingly untold story, particularly by men. And when you see it told by men, the few times I’ve seen it, it’s a very, it’s kind of whiny. It’s like, “I had to go in a room and there was a cup!” It’s just kind of very intimate, slice-of-life stuff, and it had nothing to do with the actual sort of long-term slog, and the class issues, the sense of selfishness, all this stuff that’s coming up. The ambiguity, the people who were critical, the kind of acceptance that you had to come to.

So I made a deal with myself that once we got through it, which in this case meant pregnancy, it might not have, I would document that. And I truly remember how much I didn’t want to write it when I sat down. And I’ve noticed, I’m very aware of these kinds of narratives, because I’ve written one and it got a lot of response. There have been very few following on. What happened is in the first pass, I would say a dozen male friends got in touch and said, “No idea. We’ve been doing it, too.” And just all these things started to surface. And then, not as much anymore, but I would say for about three years, I would just get one email a week or more. And it was also sort of like, I knew I would be judged, and I watched message boards that I am — communities that I have been in and out of for years, I watched them sort of like —

Jessica: It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?

Paul: Well…

Jessica: But —

Rich: That’s a fascinating —

Jessica: It’s a fas — so first of all, that there are community boards for anybody going through…you know, my husband was terminally ill. I didn’t really want to talk to my friends about it, because they didn’t have husbands who were terminally ill.

Paul: Right.

Jessica: And you find this stuff online, and you think, you know, there’s something kind of great about the anonymity of it. I wanted to clobber some of these people because they couldn’t write well… [laughter] And other ones who were, you know, cleaving to ridiculous ideas about science that were not scientific.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: But you know, you realize that that’s a very interesting technological mechanism, that supports an emotional truth that we don’t talk about.

Paul: That’s right.

Jessica: The second thing I wanted to say is that I wrote something very personal this year about changing my legal name, I have the same name as my kids, because we traveled all over the world together, and I wanted our passports to match. And suddenly two and a half years later, I thought, you know, my kids are older, I don’t need this. And it was just phenomenally difficult to go back to my maiden name. It cost me money, I had to have lawyers, I had to have a probate hearing, I felt like I was divorcing myself.

Rich: Interesting. [laughter]

Jessica: And I was having dinner one night with a friend and she said, “You ought to write about this.” And I went back to my studio and I stayed up all night and I wrote this thing and had it published in Slate on Mother’s Day.

Paul: Sure, sure.

Jessica: And it got a ton of traffic, but the comments were really nasty, some of them. And they were criticizing me for why did you change your name in the first place, and this is so old-fa — it had nothing to do with the fact that my kids lost their father, the facts that the mechanics of finding your identity through the court system, even if you’re a reasonably educated person, as I am, was very confusing and expensive. And there was no, there was no — so when you say that after you went through something personal and wrote about it using the channels available to you, that people weren’t critical — you know when you think about it, it’s really unbelievable.

Paul: It is, although, so, two observations there. One is Slate for a while had me write Mad Men recaps, and that comment section is like the…

Jessica: Brutal.

Paul: FEMA trailers of the internet. [laughter] It’s just…on fire. But yeah no, you know, I was an editor at Harper’s Magazine for years, and I remember one of — the literary editor just said, look, if you want to understand the sensibility of this place, people have all kinds of opinions about it, but ultimately we’re writing for adults. We are editing and writing for adults. And another friend of mine once took me, I think i was 22, and I was talking about some entanglement, and she was just like, adults have adult problems, and it’s complicated and it’s difficult and it’s not gonna be ideologically sound. And there is a desire to get other human beings to map into an ideological model, and an almost, like, primal rage that they don’t. And it’s almost —

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: You see it with the logos, like, you see it with, like, the form in my mind that I use to control and understand and live my life day to day, this person has violated it. Now, if you met them, if you were, like, getting on the bus together, they’d be like, “Hey, how ya doin?”

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: But by writing it down, by actually sort of engaging with the form, you just set off all these stimuli. You know, all this negative stimulus is just, like, pouring out of the words for them, and they’ve completely lost the ability to identify the human being. And the weird thing is that we’re also trying to do that a little bit as, when we’re doing criticism. You have to look at the work. And it’s, like, a muddled, bad version of that. The tools don’t support: the commenting tools, the systems —

Rich: Really that puzzle was never solved. I mean…

Paul: We don’t support, like, basic human warmth and identity.

Rich: No.

Paul: On the other side, for somebody typing into that box, we make it so easy for them to think a thought, and act on it, in an incredibly negative way that’s actually kind of damaging to the person who originates the story. And so, I’m rambling, but like, the thing that, to me, defines the internet in terms of how people communicate, is the long-term, there’s a defensiveness in the prose style. I am very, very good: I can wade into most arguments, chat, talk about whatever, wander out, and everyone’s like, what a nice fellow. And that’s learned over 20 years. I don’t get yelled at anymore. Because I’m really good at it. I still think all the thoughts that would piss off everybody.

And when I go and give a lecture and the students ask me about various sort of current cultural theories, I just wing it, because I know how to get through it. My dad was a prof, my mom fought local civil rights, I’ve been trained from birth to be a good actor, or to appear like a good actor. I could be a sociopath underneath, but I could still, like, play it out. So I look at this system around this stuff, and the things that would encourage human — the thing that would encourage someone to think about “blue” for a couple months just doesn’t exist. I think people do try to make it. Like, people do try to make things that encourage that kind of thinking, but they get lost in the big, loud platforms.

Rich: I think you’re in a quasi-celebrity state, when you post a 30-second video on YouTube.

Michael: Yeah.

Rich: YouTube is probably the most dramatic example of how awful it can get down in the comments. And I think that sort of dynamic is put in place just because of, hey, this wasn’t sent to me. This was sent to — this was broadcast around the world, and you’ve crossed the red line, and I can say everything’s fair game. And I think the only place I’ve found that really never got polluted that way was MetaFilter.

Michael: Yeah, I agree, I agree.

Rich: It’s incre — I mean…

Paul: But that’s where they went to town on me about my — that’s the thing, I’m a member of that community, but there was a point there where they started to write about my stuff, and I had to kind of become the other.

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: They had stuff to say, and I’m like, this is a normal thread for any other piece, but the fact that I’m here, like, actually present, this makes me not want to be here anymore.

Michael: Yeah.

Rich: Yeah but still, generally speaking, if you run into a MetaFilter thread, it’s a pretty civilized place, and…

Michael: Well, it’s because they charge that little bit to join, and it is moderated…

Rich: I think you’re no long — it’s not longer broadcast. It’s no longer quasi-celebrity anymore. It’s a club.

Paul: I will say there is one pleasure in the YouTube comment section, which is the global disaster zone, where it’s like, someone says something, someone comments, and then another guy shows up and is just sort of like, Allah would have hard things to say about you. And then it just completely…[laughter]

Rich: Devolves.

Paul: Just the worst geopolitical argument ever can happen in five seconds there, and it can just, like, turn into a game of Risk where someone has set the board on fire and just is drinking whiskey. So what we have to talk about that’s very, very important is that many of the things that we’re talking about here, the community that you guys are building, the student relationships that you’re trying to build, are sort of being synthesized into a new program, also at Yale. What is the name of this program?

Jessica: Well it doesn’t have a name quite yet, although our internal cultural shorthand for it when we proposed it was to call it the Design Institute at the School of Management, which Michael quickly said translated into DesignISM, which was very…. [laughter] They haven’t bought into that quite yet.

Michael: It’s been taken.

Jessica: But the background is that they came to me about six months ago and said, we’re looking for someone to teach design thinking, and I said, well, you’ve come to the wrong person. [laughter] And I hung up the phone and they called back. And they said, well, why not? I said, well, first of all, I know nothing about business, and they said, well, we know that, but that’s not why we’re asking you. We want you to teach this one thing. And I said, well, I think the opportunity is greater than teaching one thing. I think the mistake would be to be the East Coast version of the Stanford d-school.

And you’re Yale, and if you want to have a conversation with Michael and me, we can sit down and talk about what is the intersection of the value design brings to business, and the value business brings to design, at a place like this, at this moment. I think you have a really ripe opportunity to build something quite substantial. And they said, tell me more. And so I think Michael and I went several times. We talked to students, we talked to the faculty, we put together a proposal, and they made us these very lovely offers to join the faculty as the first faculty members in design. So we are teaching —

Paul: In the School of Management.

Jessica: In the School of Management. So you have to bear in mind here, there’s about 600 students. There are several joint degree programs with, I think, architecture, public health, forestry, school of drama, future theatre managers —

Michael: Law.

Jessica: Future forest managers, law…but, you know, it’s a really interesting place. It was started in the seventies, kind of, really to train students for service. Many of them go into governance. I sometimes say to people, it was like the Quaker School of business schools — originally they didn’t give MBAs, they gave master’s in policy and public management, I think it’s called the School of Management, not called the School of Business.

Paul: Is it only grad school, or…?

Michael: Yes.

Paul: OK.

Jessica: It’s only grad school. Wonderful new dean, who’s been there for I guess about five or six years now, who’s really built a wonderful new Norman Foster building, state-of-the-art technology. But his view really excited us, because he’s very interested in two things that I think were quite consistent with where we were coming from, from Design Observer. One is that it’s a really exciting research university, and so how could you actually look, thread through the curriculum at the School of Management, this larger humanities-based platform? With all these other schools, and all these facilities.

Michael: Because a lot of the time, I would say…

Jessica: They’re silos.

Michael: The point of entry is engineering, let’s say.

Paul: Sure.

Michael: So it’s sort of like, OK, we have engineering and how can we sort of conceive of this in some…usually they think they’re doing it as, like, form language, but then they learn it’s about user experience and that kind of stuff, right?

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Michael: But still because it’s about engineering it tends to be product-based, and, you know…

Jessica: Outcome-based…

Michael: Outcome-based, yeah.

Jessica: And stakeholder-based, and very sort of cut and dried. And so the minute you start to look at other disciplines, you realize the point of entry is more fluid, and more substantive, because it’s a hybrid. You’re looking at design in terms of its value to that particular industry. And it’s exciting in a place like Yale because you’ve got, I don’t know, 42 research libraries and collections and people from different walks of life. You really can come and participate in a bigger conversation, so you’re not — which is not to say they don’t have a really serious curriculum in things like finance, that I certainly will never understand but have great admiration for. [laughter]

But the second thing is that they have built a sort of consortium of schools that are part of a global network, and so they’re really deeply committed to teaching business in concert with a global — an increasingly global world. So this, the world that these students — all of our students, but certainly these students — will inherit is not just American, it’s not just East Coast, it’s not jut Ivy League, it’s not elitist. It’s complicated. It’s multi-lingual. It’s multi-generational. There are religious tensions, there are political tensions — all sorts of things that require of a student a kind of an understanding of a much bigger purview.

Paul: That to me is the biggest surprise since we founded the company about ten months ago, is that we were assumed to be global by default. People started calling from, you know, Singapore and India and saying, like, well what do you do, and what are these things, and these were typical connections, but you know, the second degree of social network is suddenly global.

Michael: Yeah.

Paul: It might be people I know in New York City, but then the next step out is somewhere in Asia or around Europe. And Rich is Lebanese.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: And so we also have that, we have this sort of real — which is a shock to me, like I just thought were were gonna start, like, a nice little New York City agency, and I have to think much differently than I was expecting to. OK, so that makes perfect sense.

Jessica: So they realized that what Michael and I are, in a sense, approaching this like teaching design as a second language. They realized that we’re not going to turn these people into designers, but their ability to work with designers, to understand the value design brings to their projects, and how to sort of parse that, as people who fundamentally come in though a very different channel, that’s the goal.

Michael: Or even just simply take pleasure in it, be sensitive to it. You know, I think that there are various medical schools that teach music and art appreciation, just the idea that, you know, a brain surgeon who actually is more attuned to that part of the world might be a better brain surgeon. And I think in terms of business, you know, there’s so much jargon, there are so many kind of models that, you know, like, the whole idea of management has to do with taking all these unlike processes and trying to figure out, oh, they all conform to this basic idea —

Rich: Patterns.

Michael: Of supply and demand, or they all can be reduced to a SWOT diagram, or they can all be, you know, I mean, and there’s enough evidence that people in business school kind of came up with a magic four-quadrant diagram that explains something and then became famous off it, that everyone’s on to the next one all the time.

Jessica: But the thing for Silicon Valley —

Michael: Yeah, yeah. [laughter] The magic —

Jessica: The magic diagonal of change!

Michael: Yeah, the confluence of the the two magic triangles, yeah.

Jessica: So we’re banning post-it notes and whiteboards from our classes.

Michael: We’re trying to, at least.

Paul: Really?

Michael: Yeah.

Rich: Wow.

Paul: What are they…

Jessica: This means war.

Paul: What are they gonna work with?

Jessica: Tracing paper.

Michael: Tracing paper, pencils.

Paul: Whoa.

Jessica: We’re making this argument that tracing paper’s actually a much more forgiving substrate.

Paul: Do they have to write papers with, like, Letraset rub-off letters? [laughter]

Jessica: That’s extra credit.

Paul: OK.

Michael: Extra credit, yeah. Fancy covers on your report will get you an A.

Paul: I’m gonna let the listeners google those. [laughter] L-E-T-R-A-S-E-T. Go get a nice pencil and a piece of paper. You’ll figure it out. OK, so, where are they coming from? Who are these people as they’re walking into this program?

Jessica: Oh, they’re fascinating. They come from all over. We’ve got students coming from the Navy. We’ve got students who studied macroeconomics at Harvard. We’ve got students from all over the world.

Michael: Students who studied English literature, then worked for a non-profit — almost, many of them, I’d say, maybe the vast majority of them, have, are not coming directly from undergraduate school, but have worked somewhere between, you know, wherever they got their first degree, and are now going for this graduate degree. This is often the case, but I think it’s an incredibly diverse bunch of people, with, I would also say, interestingly, a really diverse set of goals.

Jessica: And so different from design students.

Michael: Yeah.

Jessica: Admittedly there’s a number of them who studied design in school and architecture in school. There’s a huge appetite for design. There’s huge recruitment efforts from large design and consulting firms for these students, and a lot of them are getting placed in places like Dalbeg and Deloitte and…

Paul: Sure, sure.

Jessica: Ideal…

Paul: Those organizations are feasting on this.

Jessica: Right.

Paul: McKinsey Labs, and places like that.

Jessica: Right.

Paul: They can’t get enough.

Jessica: Right. And these students are lining jobs up for themselves by January of their second year. They really like that the recruitment effort is huge. We’ve not seen this on the design and art side of things to quite the rigorous extent we’re seeing, and this, they really have it locked up, they really have, it’s game-on mode for these people.

Paul: Sure. So these people are coming in, and they have had life experience that has made them say, I need, just literally, management skills. I need to understand, sort of, how to run teams, run a business, think about a marketing plan.

Jessica: Leadership.

Paul: And now there is a program for them, where they can say, I’m going to do that within the context of design?

Jessica: Yes. Some of them want to do that in the context of design, some of them realize that the role they want to play as executives is at companies where design is really privileged. There’s certainly no shortage of design-driven companies, I would say a fair amount of Silicon Valley companies think of themselves as design-driven. These consultancies are now hiring people who have different kinds of skills. There’s a huge, huge faculty in organizational behavior at the School of Management. It’s a really interesing — and they’re, I just wanted to say this, surprising though it may be, these people are really creative.

Paul: No, no —

Jessica: In the way they think about the world.

Paul: No, I absolutely believe that.

Michael: And I would say part of the interest in it is that I think the fast way to think of it is design just provides another way to think about problem solving, and I think people sort of understand that. I don’t think, and I think what we’ll discover in our class, just because of the interest —

Jessica: Which we should tell you about our class before we go.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Michael: What we find interesting is that I don’t think it’s reducible. I’ve been working long enough that I’ve…one of the most frustrating things that I have to do is sit with a potential new client and explain to them the process by which their thing will be done, going from today, where nothing exists, to one day where it’s done and we’re all, like, happy with it. At this point I’ll just say, I’m like, this is a little bit of fiction that I’ll write, that we’ll all pretend it’s gonna go like this, and it might go like this, it hasn’t up until now, but who knows. [laughter] If I keep doing it long enough, I assume sooner or later it’ll just come out that way.

But you know, it always goes another way. It’s not because of peoples’ lack of discipline, it’s not because a lack of rigor, it’s not because the plan isn’t sound enough to begin with. It’s just because, sort of more than many things, the process of design just is subject to human beings, and human beings’ reactions to things, and I’ve become better at it as I’ve sort of seen these different models play out, and I think what we’re gonna try to do in the class is, one of the things is expose the students to different kind of cases, in the form of real personalities that come to talk about how they do it. And what they’re gonna learn is that it’s really gonna be confounding to sort of, like, figure out how design practice here is the same as design practice there as design practice there.

Jessica: And Michael and I decided we really want to show them the differential more than what unites them.

Michael: Yeah.

Jessica: Actually let them figure out how to interpolate between these different things. So the class is called “Twelve Design Ideas That Changed the World.”

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: We’re teaching it in the fall and in the spring. We’ll have 24 classes. We’re going to be podcasting interviews with each of the speakers in the classes, so we’ll have 24 episodes.

Rich: Fun.

Jessica: And really, it’s to look at a range of industries, and to bring in a client or a designer or a client and a designer every week to examine some project or initiative or problem in which the transformative change catalyst ‘come to Jesus’ moment was visual or design-driven.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jessica: And this was everything from public health to public space, entertainment, we’re bringing in three people from Broadway to talk about creating a musical where the visual mise-en-scène changed the way they thought about the narrative. But very industry-specific to each of these things, and each of these stories, of course, is very specific to individuals involved.

Michael: But the specificity and uniqueness of each of them aside, what will happen is that if you listen to how people put together a Broadway show, even if you have no intention of going into —

Jessica: Theatre.

Michael: Theatre or entertainment, there’s iteration, there’s a deadline, there’s collaboration, there’s revision, there’s…

Jessica: There’s paying attentions to the cadences of the way people speak.

Michael: Yeah, there’s —

Jessica: And honoring that.

Michael: There’s an audience, there’s, you know, a feedback loop. There are all these things. It’s the same as, launching like, a…you know, launching an app, you know.

Jessica: And we’ve got Danny Meyer coming in with Paula Scher to talk about the Shake Shake, talk about the future of hospitality and food.

Paul: Sure.

Jessica: We’ve got the head of the digital strategy team for the Obama campaign.

Rich: I want to go to the Yale School of Management.

Paul: Wait —

Jessica: But the point is that —

Paul: Who’s the head of the digital…

Jessica: Teddy Goff.

Paul: Oh, OK, sure.

Jessica: So the point is just that you may think, I’m going to take this class because I wanna know, I wanna run a hospital, so I’m gonna go to that class on public health —

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Right.

Jessica: And you get really excited about the Broadway people.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Michael: Yeah.

Jessica: That’s what education should be, I think.

Paul: I mean, this is not entirely dissimilar from thinking about “blue” in many different ways.

Jessica: It’s — right. Open it up, and then let them shut it down again.

Paul: So normally when we wrap up, it’s like, hey, get in touch with an email, see you later, OK, bye. We’re gonna have to actually take a second here, and I’m gonna ask you some questions about how people can reach out about the 7 or 8,000 things that you’re doing together. [laughter] So first of all, let’s start with, if I wanted to come to graduate school and work with you two, what would be the first thing I would do.

Michael: I think, if graduate school’s right for you, you could go to yale.edu, go to the School of Management, and then there’s all sorts of classes you’re required to take, and one of them that you’re not required to take is this class with me and Jessica. So think that’s the hard way to do it. The easier way to do it would be to kind of watch this, you know, keep your eye on Design Observer, where we’re gonna announce where our podcast is gonna be. That’s gonna be free and you’ll get a little taste of what’s happening in the classroom, without the…

Jessica: Expense.

Michael: Application process…

Rich: Tuition. [laughter]

Michael: Tuition, and everything else. So I recommend that first.

Jessica: And this is our first class. I’m teaching two more classes in the spring, and Michael and I are going to be doing some other things here and there, so, there’s a lot.

Paul: So that was my next 200 questions, so that’s great. We got that done. And then what is the best way to reach either one of you, if someone has a question. I’m assuming just through Design Observer, or…

Jessica: Actually, I’m gonna make it really easy for your listeners. We both have Yale email addresses.

Paul: OK.

Jessica: [email protected] and [email protected]

Paul: Great. And then the readers should also know that there are two books — actually, I’m assuming that there, it feels like about a dozen or more books between the two of you, but let’s just talk about the most recent ones. By Michael, 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.

Rich: Favorite title.

Paul: I’m assuming that I can just go on Amazon and buy that.

Michael: That is correct, yeah.

Paul: And from Jessica, Design: The Invention of Desire, from Yale University Press. I’m assuming also available…

Jessica: Indeed.

Paul: Through Amazon. Rich.

Rich: Paul.

Paul: This was like the most communicative, well-dressed, together group of people…

Rich: I’m just gonna go get pants. [laughter] As soon as we’re done.

Paul: We’re going to Brooks Brothers right after this. Brooks Brothers Big & Tall for me. [laughter] Just gonna start over.

Rich: And get our lives, you know, in order.

Michael: It’s never too late, it’s never too late.

Paul: It is exciting to see two people who are just, like, there’s no question, like, you’re just gonna, you know what you’re doing today. You know what you’re doing tomorrow. It’s fun to see this collaboration. This is very exciting.

Jessica: We’re very excited. Thank you so much for having us.

Rich: Thank you for doing this.

Jessica: This has been a delightful conversation.

Rich: This was great.

Paul: Thank you so much.

Michael: A pleasure, thank you.

Paul: So this is Track Changes, I’m Paul Ford.

Rich: Rich Ziade.

Paul: And if you need to get in touch with us about anything, [email protected]. Subscribe on iTunes. We’re here to help you. Anything you need, just get in touch.

Rich: Have a great week, Paul!

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