Columns / Insights

Five out of Five

Levi Brooks
How did you first get interested in design and art? I’m incredibly fortunate that I was born into a family that supports the arts. My mother was actually a graphic designer at one point in her life, but ended up pursuing her true love—being a plein air artist—after I was born. She instilled in me a love for the arts and design very early on.

My true jump into design began in high school. Luckily, I had two things happen for me: my family was finally able to afford a computer that could run Photoshop, and I discovered the magazine aisle at my local Borders bookstore—RIP. I learned the latest in graphic design by simply picking up the magazines and books around the store; Communication Arts was one of those magazines! I want to thank all those Borders employees for not giving me a hard time for hanging out all afternoon.

The design scene on the Internet at that time—1999 through 2000—was small, but welcoming. I ended up being one of the first users to join a site called DeviantArt, which is still alive and kicking. I learned so much from the other users on DeviantArt before I went off to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)’s Design Media Arts program for proper training.

You and Jason Farrell cofounded the Marina del Rey, California–based studio Use All Five. How did you two meet and get your studio off the ground? Funny story—I met Jason on the first day of school at UCLA. We became fast friends and enjoyed pushing ourselves in the latest in design and technology. We freelanced independently throughout school, but toward the end, it just made sense to pair up and launch a studio. He had skills that shielded my weaknesses, and vice versa.

Literally the day after graduation, we drove down to Venice Beach and leased out a tiny office near the main drag. We didn’t even have a place to live! The early clients were not glamorous or fun to work on, but every young studio needs this kind of work to survive. We eventually landed a life-changing project with Thom Mayne and his architecture firm, Morphosis Architects. The project, named Morphopedia, a Wikipedia-like website featuring the firm’s projects, won us awards, press and recognition. It was a launching pad for our studio and helped us secure bigger and better clients.

As a studio, one of our top values is to support and cherish the arts.”


Although you and Jason started Use All Five with the intention of doing experiential environmental work, the studio has since shifted to design, digital and strategy. What are the barriers to getting into environmental design? At the beginning, Jason and I wanted to work on projects that touched on all five senses, as we felt the work would have a better overall impact and connection to the audience. The name Use All Five actually comes from this idea of the five senses. Unfortunately, this kind of environmental work is hard to come by—especially if you’re nobodies!

Environmental design work is difficult because the production of this kind of work takes a big team and a healthy client budget. Also, your studio has to have years of experience in the field in order for a client to trust you with that big of a production. We had neither and realized it quickly, so we pivoted to focusing on design and digital work.

If you want to get into environmental work, the best thing to do is to experiment on your own projects. Self-funded and self-initiated projects are the best way to build your portfolio for a given medium. We finally have some environmental projects launching this year which touch on all five senses—ten years after we started the studio!

How has Use All Five refined its research and discovery process over the years? Early on, we did little to no research. We just wanted to make. This—as we found out—is a serious mistake. Research and discovery gives you ample inspiration and material to create the right solution for the audience or problem you’re trying to solve.

We’ve been inspired over the years by IDEO’s design-thinking methodology, which pushes a studio to put in a lot of upfront research by conducting interviews with stakeholders and the prospective audience in order to try to understand the subjects as much as possible. We saw early success with this strategy, but we always felt it was a bit too narrow at times. IDEO’s design-thinking methodology is incredibly powerful, especially with feeding designers customer or audience insights, but it has no tools for looking at the larger context of what is happening in society or culture. This, I feel, leads to work that looks and acts the same, with fewer risks being taken in the design work itself.

We’ve been pushing ourselves and our clients to be more culturally relevant. We feel it’s imperative for every project to understand where things fit into culture. We think of culture in two ways: big-C culture, or what’s happening in pop culture, art, fashion, etc., and small-C culture, or the latest in language, food, behaviors and norms.

If your project misses these important developments in culture, we’ve found that it won’t stick or resonate with the world. What makes this so hard right now is that technology is changing culture incredibly fast. For example, Snapchat was a direct response to how teens were sharing photos through text message. Now it’s changed how we communicate completely—all in less than a few years.

What’s more challenging—developing a digital presence for a cultural institution or a tech company? A tech company, hands down. Cultural institutions have so many rich resources and connections to work with as a baseline for creative concepts. Most of them are also open to ideas that rock the status quo and push the boundaries of what’s possible. Technology companies, on the other hand, are looking to keep it simple and powerful. They are mostly data driven and want to be assured what they’re doing won’t come back to hurt them. I’d say they are more risk averse overall.

Use All Five recently launched a self-initiated project named Artifax.us, a website that drives awareness and support to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to keep it alive. What was going through your mind when you first started developing this site? As a studio, one of our top values is to support and cherish the arts. We have clients, friends and family who dedicate their lives to the arts. Furthermore, the arts gives so much back to us.

Once we heard that the NEA was threatened, we rallied together and discussed how we could best use our talents to drive awareness and educate. After a group brainstorm, we decided that it would be an exciting technical and creative challenge to create a website where people can easily fax their representatives with artwork and personalized messages. One of our shared interests, as a studio, is how digital design can influence physical experiences.

Faxing as a medium intrigued us because it is something every representative has in her or his office, but it’s hardly known about today. We wanted to take advantage of a technology that has existed for decades, but is rarely used by constituents to contact Members of Congress.

How did these thoughts end up influencing the site design and visitor experience? We wanted the digital experience to be quick and impactful. We knew people being on their phones meant tapping buttons, swiping left and right—we wanted to leverage these practices into a seamless user experience: pick an artwork, enter your zip code, pick your representative, write her or him a message, sign it and send it! This is a big philosophy at Use All Five: What’s the smallest interaction we can ask of the user which will return our client a big result? We achieved that with Artifax.

Levi Brooks is the cofounder and chief executive officer of Use All Five, a highly collaborative, design-focused studio in Marina del Rey, California. Its tight-knit group of exacting designers and developers provides innovative, insightful strategy, design and technology services. The studio has had the pleasure of working with many influential organizations over the past decade, including Google, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Brooks motivates and inspires his team with the latest in culture, design and technology. He’s a proud UCLA Design Media Arts alumnus.

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