When and how did you find your passion for design? In my freshman year of high school, I took an introduction to journalism class that covered not only the basics of journalism writing, but also how to create print layouts in InDesign. I became hooked. My junior year, I became editor in chief of the paper and soon realized that while I enjoy writing, my true passion is design. I was completely enamored by the idea that different layouts and elements—photographs, captions, infographics, pull quotes—could directly affect the way a reader understands the information on the page. My senior year, I became editor in chief of design, and another talented student became editor in chief of copy. Together, we collaborated on the intersection of form and content. It was a truly incredible experience to have before I even turned eighteen. I nervously abandoned my half-finished applications for college journalism programs and applied to college design programs. Now it’s coming full circle, as I am continuing my career as a designer who writes.
How has working as a design director at game company Cards Against Humanity and its shipping company spinoff, Blackbox, affected how you think about branding? Working at Cards Against Humanity broadened my understanding of what a “brand standard” could be. When designers think of a brand, they think of aesthetics and usage guidelines. When copywriters think of a brand, they think of tone of voice. When consumers think of a brand, they think about the experience and the emotions and aspirations the brand is selling. A designer must consider all of this when developing and implementing a brand.
The brand of Cards Against Humanity isn’t built on Helvetica and black and white. The brand is built on humor. As design director, my main responsibility was to tell jokes visually and to employ humor as the number one brand attribute. This involved some pretty rudimentary but successful experiments early on. While designing the event signage for the Penny Arcade Expo in 2015, we created a fifteen-foot-tall pennant flag that looked like alphabet soup. We literally destroyed the Cards Against Humanity logo by placing the letterforms haphazardly on the flag. It was unexpected and funny, and it was ultimately successful because of the context. In the setting of a gaming industry event, it was clear that this was the Cards Against Humanity booth. When humor is your core value, you have a lot of flexibility to expand the visual system of a brand.
Is there a particular trick to designing jokes? The trick to designing jokes is the same trick as telling jokes—let the audience in on the joke. Everyone wants to be on the inside of a joke. All of Cards Against Humanity’s stunts and pranks involve their fans—it will set them up, but it’s up to the fans to follow through to make the joke land, whether it’s giving money to dig a giant hole to celebrate Black Friday or raising money for a political campaign through product sales. It’s like capitalist improv.
The other part is to keep it simple, which is a tenet of effective communication design. Strip out any element—copy, visuals, experience—that complicates the joke. Tell the simplest story, and make it simple for the audience to join in on the fun.
At what point in the design process do you think designers should start working with writers? I believe everyone working on a project should be involved from the very beginning, even if only for a kick-off. Designers, writers, developers, strategists and the client should align from day one on what the goals are and share ideas on how to achieve those goals. Good ideas can come from anyone, and collaborating without egos early on allows the team to build on the best ideas.
You won the Command X face-off at the 2015 AIGA Design Conference. What did the experience teach you about pitching? Showing work in context really helps to sell the audience on an idea. Rather than show a PDF of a poster, show what that poster looks like when an actual person is holding it up at a protest. Mock up advertisements on billboards. And speak with passion. If you’re not passionate about your work, no one else will be.
What kinds of changes—in both the agency and the design industry—do you observe rejoining Chicago-based creative agency Bright Bright Great, where you first started out? Recent graduates have a better grasp on art direction than the recent graduates from four to eight years ago. I attribute this to Pinterest, Designspiration, Dribbble and other websites that serve never-ending streams of visual sugar. It’s easier to imitate good art direction because it’s easier to find. The challenge for this generation of designers will be learning how to differentiate their work and not rely too closely on inspiration.
Design programs still haven’t figured out how to teach web design. I see a huge gap in design education there. Many schools have dedicated user experience or human computer interaction programs, but they don’t often teach visual design. Graphic design programs often force students to take a bare-bones HTML/CSS course, but don’t teach them how to design for screens. It’s like asking someone to build a house without blueprints. I was expecting this to change since I graduated from undergrad in 2012, but it really hasn’t. It’s a dream project of mine to revamp a design program’s curriculum to fully prepare students to design for screens, from user experience and research to visual design and prototyping.
Tell us about a few examples that demonstrate why you love the Chicago creative community. Chicago has been my home my whole life. I have the Chicago flag tattooed on my arm inside a heart that says “home.” I would be a hypocrite to ever leave—and I don’t feel like I have to. The Chicago creative community is lively and welcoming. There are many independently owned studios that are successful here, and there’s a spirit of pride and celebration amongst them. It’s small enough to be welcoming, but not so small that there’s no one new left to meet. I especially love the Chicago chapter of AIGA, of which I am the co–vice president of member experience. The programming offered by the chapter is critical, engaging and relevant to designers today. There’s no babble about Pantone swatches or Adobe discounts. It’s full of mentorship programs, panel discussions, grants for students and more.
You’ve been described as a “design troublemaker.” What are you hoping to shake up in the realm of design? I’m here to follow through on the promises we all make to ourselves. That means: Calling out bullshit when I see it. Understanding that all design is inherently political because it is a commercial tool in a capitalist setting—and accepting the responsibility that comes with that. Designing ethically. Hiring women, people of color, transgender people and queer people in higher numbers than white, cis, straight men. Writing critical essays on design. And not being afraid to swear while covering something in rainbow gradients.
What do you consider your greatest ethical responsibility as a designer? I was lucky to be included in the Designer’s Code of Ethics project by San Francisco–based studio Mule Design. Mike Monteiro wrote an essay titled “A Designer’s Code of Ethics” and printed small books on design ethics with Scout Books. He also launched a website that sells posters with the ten tenets of the code of ethics. They’re available at designtherightthing.com. I highly recommend reading the essay—and hanging a poster as a reminder in your studio.
One of the tenets is that a designer is responsible for the work that she or he puts out into the world. Our design has consequences. Some are more apparent, like working for the National Rifle Association or the American Civil Liberties Union. Others require more self-reflection and critical thought about the company you are providing services for. What does the company do with its money? How does it treat its (female/nonwhite/LGBT) employees? What’s its environmental impact? Does the new app it has you working on allow its users to evade local law enforcement? These are things designers must think about. By working with a client or for a company, you are cosigning all of their behaviors. Your intention doesn’t matter.