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If you want to understand what makes Volume Inc. tick, you won’t get a pat answer or a clichéd response. Founding partners and creative directors Adam Brodsley and Eric Heiman seem to float above convention, defying categories and transcending the traditional boxes that designers are taught to think in.

The work of their San Francisco–based firm spans such a spectrum of media—websites, print collateral, product demos, video, typography, exhibition design, books, bicycle-powered light bulbs—that it is hard to label it as graphic design without attaching several asterisks. Brodsley and Heiman seem more comfortable talking about what Volume is not. The firm’s website declares: “It’s not branding, strategy, user experience, social media or even design” and describes the aesthetic of one of its award-winning projects as “not hipster hip.” A retrospective exhibition of the company was titled Masters of Design: Our Work Shouldn’t Be Here.

That 2013 show, mounted at Western Gallery in Bellingham, Washington, featured more than a decade of the firm’s work. It also challenged the audience to consider whether graphic design should even be displayed in gallery spaces. Unlike artwork intended for exhibition, design’s original purpose is lost when it’s displayed behind lucite as an objet. Brodsley and Heiman maintain that such design without context and engagement is the proverbial falling tree that no one hears. Does it exist? Is it really design?

These kinds of paradoxes abound in their work for a roster of nonprofits and cultural organizations, and also in their personalities—whereas Brodsley is reticent, yet quick to laugh, Heiman probes effusively into serious terrain with earnest pronouncements. The two admit that they “don’t agree about a lot of stuff” and don’t socialize too much apart from work, which they believe is important to their success.

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Yet it’s apparent that they create an ambiance of playfulness just from their choice of the name “Volume,” which offers a clue to both founders’ creative origins in three-dimensional design. Brodsley worked on exhibitions and environments at Mauk Design for many years, and Heiman has a degree in architecture. They prefer to say that Volume specializes in a design process, one that penetrates past the surface level. “It’s as much about the how as it is the what,” says Brodsley. “We are always looking beyond ink, paper, screens and pixels. We don’t think of our work only as artifacts, but as systems at work that other people use and plug into.”

Their brand of systems thinking means that although most of their projects are technically ephemeral, they aim to inspire sustainability and create enduring relationships. Their design for the donor recognition wall at the York School is embedded with a time capsule that won’t be opened for 100 years. The green innovations exhibit they created for the Boy Scouts of America’s solar-powered model tree house is intended to train kids in lifelong conservation habits. And their recent book design for the DIY magazine ReadyMade, which features innovative instruction manuals, will remain useful to readers even after the projects inside are completed—the book’s chipboard spine also functions as a ruler. But even with all of the grand ideas, Volume’s work can also be purely mesmerizing.

IDEO editorial director Shoshana Berger co-founded ReadyMade magazine and has worked with Volume on a number of projects. “What they always bring to the table is this spectacular fussiness,” she says. “They come up with these meta design languages. Sometimes they allude to another time or refer back to the iconography of a lost childhood, sort of like a Wes Anderson movie or Portlandia. And they do it in a way that is so pleasing and not overly twee,” she says.

With a modern twist on nostalgia, Volume sends out invitations and mails their annual holiday cards imbued with agency and animation. Berger describes how she received a vintage album cover in the mail, and the record itself had been imprinted with the firm’s invitation to its tenth anniversary party. “They’re archivists, always searching for material and practicing creative reuse,” she says. Another year’s holiday card invited recipients to select their own gift by checking a box on a beautiful letterpress card. Friends could choose from recent books the team had designed or get their own personalized color palette from the office’s ever-growing collection of stray Pantone chips. No snowflakes or reindeer there.

Having something take root in a much more public, nondesigner forum is really what we aspire to do. Design is for people, not Pinterest.”—Eric Heiman

Despite its breadth of disciplines, Volume maintains a lean team of just seven designers (and Brodsley’s dog, Ziggy, a Rhodesian ridgeback) in a light-filled, third-floor office near San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, which abuts the forested escarpment around Telegraph Hill. Though they say they prefer a nonhierarchical workspace, each partner enjoys a spacious private office that opens onto the central communal desk where their team circles around wafer-thin Mac desktops. “The architecture just sort of leant itself to this arrangement,” Brodsley admits sheepishly. But everyone is delighted to now be above the street noise and haze that pervaded their previous ground-floor office located in the colorful, yet crowded Mission neighborhood. The giant unified desk reinforces the firm’s emphasis on collaboration, as does their glass-walled conference room where regular idea sessions take place. (Heiman bristles when I refer to these as “brainstorming” sessions, citing recent findings that have “debunked that practice as pretty useless.”)

But part of the team’s success is rooted in how they bounce ideas around liberally, fostering a culture that values feedback and input from everyone. Outside help, say, a cabinet builder, a graffiti artist or a social media guru, is frequently brought into the mix, and clients are considered integral to the creative process. It’s not uncommon for the partners to deploy inventive exercises like comedic improv and role-playing to answer the key questions of a design brief. When I wondered how he and Heiman manage to integrate so much input, Brodsley grinned widely and said, “We like the collaboration with clients, with our designers and with each other—otherwise we’d be fine artists.”

It’s no surprise, then, that they have a highly pedigreed and progressive client list (SFMOMA, Rizzoli, Mohawk Fine Papers, the California Academy of Sciences, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) and that they rarely work with companies selling the proverbial widget. Even though Brodsley and Heiman say that this is not intentional, Shoshana Berger disagrees. “They are highly principled. I know Heiman likes working with local organizations that he admires. They are not in it for the money,” she says.

For 826 Valencia, a nonprofit organization founded by novelist Dave Eggers that helps youth develop writing skills, Volume was brought in to design a web store after a fruitful project revamping 826 Valencia’s main site. The store, which sells pirate clothing, castaway paraphernalia and secret treasures, partially funds the tutoring program, but it also complies with a city ordinance that requires them to offer retail in their plum location in the Mission district. This was the project on which Volume cut its teeth in interactive media, and they developed a design that toed the line between irreverence and sophistication. Its user-friendly backend allows short, funny videos, modular filler content like “advice from a pirate” and pithy quotes from students animated by scrimshaw designs. They succeeded in highlighting the true product of 826 Valencia—student writing. “We wanted to communicate more about the store’s essence and voice and less about the products,” says Brodsley.

We are always looking beyond ink, paper, screens and pixels. We don’t think of our work only as artifacts, but as systems at work that other people use and plug into.”—Adam Brodsley

In a 2009 campaign for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), largely recognized as the leading institution for contemporary art in Northern California, Volume’s team smashed normative ideas of what art museum advertising could be. They pasted comic figures whose eyes had been struck with lightning bolts on top of stereotypical black-and-white stock photography into posters, flyers and street banner promotions. The images gave off a liberating, somewhat psychedelic vibe. The idea was to emphasize how seeing the art would make visitors feel electrified. In one of their signature meta maneuvers, they also publicly circulated common reactions to the YBCA, creating a pamphlet showcasing the typical responses of non–art world types to contemporary shows: “I don’t get it!” and “What’s the Big Idea?”

“The campaign was cheeky and slightly subversive, like contemporary art, but it didn’t diminish the institution’s stature or sacrifice their authority,” Heiman says. Nonetheless, the creative team was relieved at the resoundingly positive reception of the campaign. “I was scared because it went against all the things I thought we should be doing for an arts organization,” Heiman admits.

But the strategy worked, and the YBCA marketing team invited them to return a few years later to recast their brand image for YBCA:You, a new type of membership program that grants participants more intimate and exclusive ways to engage with art. Participants, called “YOUers,” develop individualized programs with museum staff. On any given week, a YOUer might get access to a one-on-one docent tour, a VIP event pass or early admission to an opening party. The personalized inter-action helps YOUers take an active role in the institution’s art programs, a key benefit Volume sought to emphasize in the street banners and public posters that launched the campaign. A gallery of face, hair and shirt shapes filled with wildly varied patterns demonstrates the customizability of the program.

When the Volume team presented their ideas to the museum’s employees, “None of the staff were too effusive about it at first,” Brodsley says. “But when it was [former executive director] Ken Foster’s turn to talk, he said that he had been waiting 20 years for a campaign like this. He said: ‘It’s [expletive] brilliant’ and then hugged us! Best client meeting ever.” YBCA marketing director Kathy Budas adds, “They really got us. Their images are about how you feel here. It’s balloons, it’s an exploding volcano, it’s a calm sea—all of the ways you respond to the artwork,” she says.

When Brodsley and Heiman spotted people taking numerous selfies at the image wall, they saw their work helping YBCA remain relevant in the tech-focused San Francisco Bay Area, where nonprofit funding often hinges on social engagement. The campaign went on to win top awards from AIGA and Core77, among others, but Brodsley and Heiman seem to care more about the public’s reaction. “As much as we relish praise from our peers, having something take root in a much more public, nondesigner forum is really what we aspire to do,” says Heiman. “Design is for people, not Pinterest.” ca

Jessica Carew Kraft (writingkraft.com) is an independent print journalist based in San Francisco, specializing in cultural trends and sustainability. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Grist magazine, ARTnews and other publications. Originally from the Midwest, Kraft trained as an anthropologist at Swarthmore College and Yale University, then worked as an art critic, graphic designer and adjunct professor.

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