Brian Singer is a San Francisco-based artist and designer. He is currently the design manager for the brand team at Pinterest. Prior to joining Pinterest, Brian managed design teams at Facebook and ran his own studio working with such companies as Apple, Adidas and Chronicle Books.
Brian is best known for his provocative social projects, such as TWIT Spotting (Texting While In Traffic), which attracted international news coverage—including The Today Show, Time and Gizmodo—as an unconventional approach to curbing distracted driving. He is also the creator of The 1000 Journals Project, a global art experiment that resulted in a book, a feature-length documentary and was exhibited at both the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Get That Bento-Box Lifestyle
Congratulations on your new job. What made you interested in moving from Facebook to Pinterest?
Thanks! There were three main reasons for my move to Pinterest: impact, location and culture. Pinterest is a much smaller company than Facebook—300-plus versus 6,000-plus—and as such, there’s a lot of opportunity to have an impact. It’s also located in San Francisco, where I live. When it comes to culture, I have to say that Facebook is amazing, truly. But what was attractive about Pinterest is that one of the co-founders is a designer. This means that design is embedded in the culture. Many companies say they value design, but having leadership understand designers’ value is ideal.
How do your personal projects, such as The 1,000 Journals Project, feed your day job, and vice versa?
I think it’s critical that people pursue side projects. It keeps the creative juices flowing, and helps take the edge off when the day job starts to wear you down. While many people try to combine what they love and what they do for a living, I’ve gone in the opposite direction: I’m trying to draw a line between the two. For whatever reason, this has helped me focus more. Perhaps I like my life compartmentalized, Bento-box style.
You continue to censure found text and make collages that are displayed in galleries nationally. What interests you about words and erasure?
I think my interest stems from being a designer. My collage work is a way to take complex information and boil it down to very simple graphic shapes. Some of the pieces have more than 5,000 individual pieces of torn paper—I counted once. With the redactional work, it’s again about removing everything except what’s needed. For example, crossing out entire text of the Bible, except the words “love” and “evil." Guess which one shows up more often.
Your TWIT (Texting While In Traffic) Spotting campaign exposed careless texting drivers on San Francisco billboards. What were some reactions you received, and what impact did you hope to make?
The reactions have been 99 percent positive. I’ve received emails from folks who were in accidents themselves, lost loved ones, or are simply fed up with how common the behavior is. I even got a few notes from law enforcement officers. Of course, there’s the other one percent, which included some pretty insulting things and a few death threats. My main goal was to raise awareness and hopefully shift behavior, if only slightly. Given the international attention the project received, I’d say the word got out. And while I could never prove it, if my campaign stopped one car wreck or saved one life, then it was more than worth it.
What's the biggest mistake you've made in your work, and what did you learn from it?
Early in my career, I was so afraid of making a mistake that it stunted my creativity. It was only when I moved to San Francisco from Cupertino, California, and fed off its vibrant energy that I gained the confidence to try out my ideas. It might sound cliché, but my mistake was in letting fear make me risk adverse.
Which designer or design firm do you most admire and why?
He’s no longer alive, but my idol is Tibor Kalman. The humor and wit he brought to his work always stuck out to me as the kind of work that I wanted to do. As for the living, I have tremendous respect for Michael Bierut, who I believe embodies our profession perfectly with a humility and grace you don’t see in many people at the top of their game.
What personal/pro-bono creative projects are you working on now, if any?
I work with local nonprofits and organizations to use journal projects as a form of art therapy. This was inspired by an initial project with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, and the impact journaling had on their young patients. For the hospital, I endorsed the grant application and consulted with the staff on the logistics of running the project. For other organizations, I simply supply journals and guide them through best practices. I’m also creating more fine art and works of social commentary, including pieces on the gentrification of San Francisco and the influence of money in our legal system.
What's one thing you wish you knew when you started your career?
I imagined things would eventually be easy. I wish I had gone into my career knowing that this profession is one of continual learning and evolution. School is just the tip of the iceberg, and there’s always more to learn. In fact, the best advice I can give people is to quit their jobs the moment they’re not learning anymore or the moment they feel comfortable. No one told me that when I was in school.
What excites you about design right now?
I’m excited about how technology is affecting our profession. Primarily in two ways: First is the way humans interact with technology. I’m not talking about social networks, though they play a big role. I’m talking about how someone interacts with an ATM machine or how rapidly touch gestures have become almost natural. The second thing I’m excited about is data and how it’s helping people. How many steps did you take today? What percentage of your monthly budget did you spend on entertainment? What’s really in this box of cereal? As our ability to capture information increases, so will the opportunities for innovation and bettering society. There are also plenty of opportunities for evil, but I think good will win in the end.