What was your point of entry to design? Since a very young age, I was drawn to visuals, and for the longest time, the only word in my vocabulary for that interest was art. But by the time I was in high school, I began to realize that the parts of art making that I enjoyed the most—problem solving, creating with others in mind, etc.—were actually design.
Today, you’re the design director for the Whitney Museum of American Art. What do you love about museums that led you to work at one? As a designer, you have a lot of choices as to which industries to lend your skills to. I’ve always felt most inspired when lending my skills to individuals and institutions that I feel good about supporting, and the Whitney is no exception. Museums in general, and the Whitney in particular, play a critical cultural role in fostering and projecting the voices of artists to the public. My team and I help give context to those individual voices in addition to a consistent voice for the museum at large—an ongoing and fulfilling challenge.
Tell us about a recent project that you enjoyed working on. I recently worked on a companion book to one of our current exhibitions, Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900-1960, hopefully the first in an ongoing series of books for our Collection-based shows. The two main challenges were coming up with a flexible design that worked well for the content at hand as well as for future exhibitions, and working within a very tight budget.
People might assume that designing in-house at the Whitney means the same thing as designing in-house at, say, the Museum of Modern Art. What’s dangerous about making that assumption? I don’t know if that assumption is necessarily dangerous, but perhaps a little oversimplified. There are definitely similarities to designing in-house within a museum regardless of the museum; we all tend to have similar budgetary constraints, working relationships with our colleagues and baseline products. However, each museum is structured differently, and a design department at one museum might have very different responsibilities than another.
For example, at the Whitney, we are responsible for the graphics for each exhibition, but not the physical exhibition design or the lighting—things that some of our peer departments at other museums do. The scale of each in-house design department varies greatly as well. At the Whitney, we have six members in our design department. Some of our peer institutions have much larger teams, some have only one person on staff and others outsource everything. Additionally, each institution has different goals regarding design, some having stronger or more nuanced perspectives than others.
Has working at the Whitney affected the way you see the relationship between art and design? Not really. The context in which something is made is everything when it comes to the difference between design and art. Some art looks like design and some design looks like art, but it all comes down to who is making what and why. I’m not an artist, but I don’t see design as lesser than art either. These professions serve very different purposes.
In 2013, the Whitney launched its new graphic identity, designed by Amsterdam-based studio Experimental Jetset—this was a few years before the museum reopened at its new location. What’s an important lesson you absorbed during the rebranding and relocation effort? For large projects that involve a lot of people and have firm deadlines, being very organized is underrated. It sounds boring, but knowing what you’re supposed to be doing and being able to instruct a team of people to also know what they each should be doing is the only way to make valuable progress.
What have you learned from following how the Whitney’s visitors interact with the work that your team puts out? People are paying attention to what we make, and through our work, we are able to foster a visitor’s relationship with the Whitney—even if they aren’t within the walls of the museum.
You used to work as a staff designer and design columnist at the New York Times Magazine. How has working at the publication prepared you for your position at the Whitney? Working at the New York Times Magazine was a similarly collaborative enterprise in that there were multiple teams of people—each responsible for a part of a product—who all had to work together to ensure a weekly success. While the timelines at the Whitney are a little more generous and the output a bit more varied than a weekly publication, the day-to-day process isn’t terribly dissimilar. The biggest difference was shifting from being a designer to being a manager of a team of designers. Instead of just worrying about making a good design, I’m now focused on how I can create an environment where good design is not just possible, but probable.