Interview – Screen Magazine Issue 1
Jacob Nothing I have to say is going to be really worth… if you skip some of it, it‘s probably fine.
Patrick I wanted to start off by thanking you for coming here, sitting with us, and doing this interview.
JH Actually I have, already a tangent. Can I do it?
PS Yeah, do it.
JH I’m going to to tangent. A friend recently said, “I really…” They put on Twitter and they said… Oh maybe this is like too much information.
Patricia Well if its on Twitter then it’s fine.
PS Public record.
JH What she put out there was, “Professors please tell your students not to email designers and interview them.” and she said “We’re busy.” People are busy making stuff. I think her point was… I don’t know... Anyway, I said actually I think that most people would be flattered to be interviewed and that you should be lucky that your work gets that kind of attention. I kind of thought most of that I wanted to say more of it but anyway… The reason I mention it is, thank you for asking me to be interviewed.
PR Thats sweet.
JH Yeah! Its nice that someone would recognize your work.
PR We’ve gotten a lot of no’s, which are fine.
PS I totally disagree with your friend. We weren‘t offended if people said no. We don‘t have an expectation of people‘s time. You know we wanted to reach out to people who we felt we admired their work and they had interesting things to say.
JH Yeah! You can‘t be mad at someone for that. Also, you could just decline. Anyway, thanks for asking. I’m happy to be here. Nice to see you guys. It‘s a beautiful day. Thanks for the coffee. Let‘s get in there.
PS Alright! I wanted to start off by asking, how did you decide to start XXIX?
JH Well, decide is a good word. In that we never actually made that decision. Haha. I had a really great job at an agency but it wasn‘t satisfying after a couple years of doing it so I quit. I had some concepts of what I wanted to do differently and I didnt know how to execute them. So I left the job and originally interviewed with a bunch of places. For a bunch of reasons none of them ended up being the right fit. I almost took a full time job but decided to give freelancing a try. I was freelancing and it went pretty well. It kind of just picked up from there until Jake, who I met at the agency, and also quit at about the same time was also freelancing and got asked to do a project that was too big for him to do alone. Then we kept doing it and projects kept coming in. For a long time it was just Jake and Jacob and we had one website that was just links. It was a question and two images as response and links to our individual websites. We had that for maybe a year or two years. We weren‘t any entity together. We were just two people. That’s kind of how we always thought of it. We didn’t want to build an agency or something. We were just two people doing this together. Eventually for tax reasons we had to name it. Haha! So that‘s the unsexy answer. Basically for tax reasons we made a studio.
PS So when you guys started were you even called XXIX? Did you have a name? Or was it just a website and a dream?
PR A website and a couple of boys.
JH Exactly. The only reason we had a name was because we had to fill something out. To make an LLC you have to have a company name. That‘s our glorious founding story.
PR It feels so uninspired like “Oh I guess we have to fill out this form.”
JH Well, I guess want I don‘t want to portray or what I don‘t really buy into is there are all of these podcasts that interview founders and they position these people as I had this genius idea that I executed perfectly and I had this insight that no one else has had. Obviously starting linkedin is way different than starting a small design studio but its like yeah he has this great idea but he also got extremely lucky and all of this other stuff happened. So i don‘t like talking about it like we had this great idea and then we manifested it. I feel like we were just doing what designers do which is to make stuff and then we got enough recognition to make stuff on a progressively larger scale. We’re still nowhere where we could be as far as quantifiable stuff like the size of our business or our clients or whatever. I don‘t like to position it like, “Yeah we fucking did this.” We literally fell ass backwards into this. Had I accepted a job, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
PR It’s more process than goals like versus trying to be “a thing”.
JH That‘s the other thing too. The priority was always the work and I think that was my frustration with an agency. It was like, “How to we just do good work?” which is a way different mindset than building a business. Especially in a city like New York the work has to come secondary to the business because its so expensive. So the business side is so difficult and that‘s why you get a president. If you want to get a big agency you get a CEO. A CEO is not a designer so they’re different paths. So our mission was to do the work, not creating a business. Thats a long answer. All my answers are long.
PR Love it.
JH I tend toward verbosity, sorry.
PR Dont apologize, this is great.
PS So my next question touches on what you just said. As we said in the email the theme of the issue is “the prototype”. On XXIX’s website you say that the page started out as temporary and became more or less permanent. How does a design transition from one state to another like that? How do you decide when something is no longer temporary but is instead permanent?
JH Oh, I like that question. Well I guess in our specific… Lets see, I guess I‘ll just speak very specifically about our website instead of trying to like talk about that in general. For us, we put out something that was actually very personal and kind of uncomfortable and had some very obvious design deficiencies, if we’re being completely honest, to it. We felt is was more important to invoke the spirit of what we were trying to do rather than like hit some magic design checklist that would satisfy more people. We put it up because we gave ourselves restrictions which were more like what can we do with one page, that‘s easy to do in our spare time that hits these goals of who we are, what we do, and a couple projects we’ve done. Writing about it was way easier than making images and project pages and all this stuff. That was the MVP of what we imagined would be our portfolio site. Then a weird thing happened where people responded well to it and we’re like this is actually us so let‘s keep it, even with the weird flaws. It was a combination of it as a message resonating with people and kind of the low fidelity and stuff like that. It felt natural and kind of like real. So we’re like this is working. I’ll always take it back to practical terms- we didn’t have time to do more. So it just became the permanent thing.
PS Your studio does a lot of web development. Do you make a distinction between your roles as a coder versus designer?
PS Do you see a relationship between the iterative process of code and development and your practice as a graphic designer? Do you see the two as being related? Is it really different in your experience?
JH I think how that cycle works is very different in just like the speed that you can work generally if you’re in a design program, if you’re going to break it down from design tools and development tools, the way you work in design allows you to iterate on ideas faster in some ways. I think the development process can… where am i going with this? These are tough questions actually. Let me think about this for a second. Hit me again.
PS I’m only giving you tough questions, Sorry.
PR Take your time.
JH Run it by me one more time. I’m glad this is going to be edited. If this was on air this would be awful.
PR No, we’re just going to upload it and see what happens.
JH Just raw content, data dump, Wikileaks style.
PS Maybe I can reframe it. Maybe reframing it is easier so what role does iteration play both in doing code development and you as a graphic designer, designing something visually?
JH Let me attack it this way. Different projects have much different demands. If you’re going to be showing something to someone who ultimately has to make some decisions on it you have to show it in stages where they can like approve it for whatever reason and move on. That‘s probably a very nonacademic but very client facing answer to this question. You have to show these iterations on design before you can move on to development. However, if we’re building the studio site or something internal, we’ll actually go to code really early and work through a lot of edge cases like the XXXI site. We have a design system which informs the overall design of how this thing should work but never actually comp’d the website at all. We like had the page and oved things around until we got the results we liked, which was cool because if you‘re doing interactive design right or fulfilling the promise of an interactive experience it‘s hard to model the interactive parts of it. Whereas you can do that much more organically, obviously, in code. So you can iterate faster on other things. Getting composition and layout, there are better tools for that than code. Each part of the process has its own tools and iterative kind of things that help make it better. Does that answer your question in any way?
PS That‘s really interesting, so-
JH The most fundamental thing that we started the studio with, we had a couple like benchmarks for what we wanted to build. For so much that we didn‘t know, there were a few things we did, and that is code is a design tool and its essential to our practice and we’ll always build our own software.
PS Speaking of which, you ended up creating what I’ll call your own web publishing platform, Small Victories. How did that come about? Was that also an organic process? Was that something you had in mind as a project and executed? How did it come to be?
JH I’ve always been interested in processes and tools as the output. Literally how it came about was I was on a trip and I had all these photos and I was like I know that I could build something and upload it or publish it to a blog but they are already on the computer. So why can‘t they just automatically go to a place they can be seen. Of course there is like iPhoto and all of these other things but as a designer I was like I want to have a URL and decide how it‘s presented. I want to be able to customize but not have to customize. So it was like, its my data, I want to choose the presentation. I don‘t want to duplicate any processes unessacrily. It‘s already syncing to my Dropbox. It’s already on the internet. I just need to reveal it. So it just started with sharing photos. Then I thought about it more and I was like yeah, I could go into a text file in there, what would that look like, and then it grew into a bunch of these use cases. I’m going to stop there. That’s my answer. Oh, okay wait! I presented the idea to a friend who was actually on the trip who was a developer, because its outside of my coding abilities to do that, and he was like that‘s a great idea lets do it. We built it. Like a really quick and dirty version of it. Some people were like, that‘s cool, and that’s where the project ended basically. Then a year later, I worked with another developer who joined the studio full time because he thought it was a great idea. We actually built a much better version of it that exists today. Whoo!
PS How do you see that project moving forward? If it‘s something that started out in house as an idea you had that you were executing on your own but you released it publicly, what are your hopes for how people will take that and run with it?
JH We are actually refocusing our studio’s priorities on some of those self initiated projects because they are rewarding for us and we believe in them so we want to focus on them. If they are side projects they will always be side projects. The reason we decided to focus on them is because we’ve seen really interesting use cases that people have come to us with. Which is like design studios using them for their internal research, universities using them for portfolios for all the students. These are interesting and these are actually solving problems. There‘s a need for this thing. The concept is strong and its not fully developed. If we could do a better job explaining and and what this thing is by spending more time on it then it could be something more people find usefulness in. So we’re going to work on it more.
PS There’s a difference between working as a designer on a project that you more or less have full control over the final output, how it looks, how it operates, that’s usually what you’re handing over to a client. How is that process of conceptualization different from something where you’re essentially creating a tool or a platform where you‘re setting the rules and the boundaries but you don‘t end up playing a hand necessarily in what the thing looks like? People take the tool and make things on their own. You’re not involved at that point. Do you find that rewarding?
JH I actually love that because I am really interested in vernacular or simple solutions. Like everyday design solutions. I don‘t have design on a pedestal idea where the stuff in MoMA is design and the stuff thats not isn‘t. I like to see what people do on their own and just make stuff and i think just empowering people to express themselves is great. Especially on the internet when its becoming less expressive in a lot of ways. I think that cool and I think that that‘s actually an interesting challenge for a designer is not to design an artifact but to design a system that like has parameters and where do they break and that‘s really interesting. Also just giving people a platform is a great mission. Like here‘s a thing, go get your ideas out there!
PS I just want to switch gears a little hear. You helped start the mixed use space XXXI in 2015, how did you conceive of that project? Was it similar to XXIX in that it happened kind of organically or was that something that you started more intentionally with a set of goals in mind?
JH That was a lot more intentional, the necessity was as we were starting to have clients over and have employees and stuff we needed a real space. We started looking at regular offices and it was really depressing what was out there in terms of price and what you would get. You‘d like share a place and it was so expensive and it made no sense to us. We were like, what are others models. Thinking back to like stuff that inspired us like Haus Oldenberg Rega Manufacturing was a storefront space where he made art. The thing was the project. The studio itself was the project. So we thought maybe we could do something on the ground floor that interacts with people a little more and has some different uses besides just a place to go there and do your work and leave like could ask some other questions. That was the one thing and then we were like well we’re also going to pay for this space, could we give it to people like New York is so expensive you can‘t do non commercial work. We’re lucky to have this space, could we give it to people to use where they wouldn‘t be able to do that otherwise? Especially designers not being artists have even fewer places to show their work so that‘s another thing that we were interested in. Another one we thought about was how commercial New York City, Manhattan, is becoming. It‘s just always stuff thats for sale, and we were like could we just bring the artist studio back and have some visibility in the city. We were like okay great I don‘t know if that possible and we actually found a place that we could afford and kind of fit our needs. It‘s an amazing project. That‘s one of my favorite things we’ve ever done. We design furniture and do weird- like we’re having an exhibition tonight on moss, we do vinyl signage for the windows, we made the light out front, we have a basement where we shoot photos. It‘s like a lot of the stuff we’re interested in that no one hires us to do, its like fuck it, let‘s do it ourselves. It‘s so bootstrapped and its so not official and we love it.
PS I love that. Trying to go off script and formulate a question. I like the thread of experimentation that‘s in your work and that attitude of doing it yourself and I mean, it sounds like this is a little in flux, but how do you find the balance between doing commercial work you have to do for various practical reasons and this commitment to doing more personal or noncommercial work. How do you find the right balance or do you ever know if you‘re striking the right balance?
JH Haha! I mean that‘s like our eternal question, basically. I don‘t think we found the formula and I think in New York it can be especially difficult. It‘s expensive, its competitive, it‘s all the stuff that pushes you into the commercial world and we had to make some decisions that pushed us into being more commercial. I don‘t know at some point we just vered into this commercial world that we weren’t comfortable in. Last year we did these big projects and it seemed like a very successful year but it actually personally wasn‘t in a lot of ways, where we were like exhausted and some projects, you know a bigger project has a bigger risk, and there were some failures and there wa a lot of work. So you just zig and zag I guess. Now we’re reconfiguring what our practice is really like and how much money do you really need versus how much money do you think should be getting paid compared to what your friends are making at an agency. Could you get by on less to have more freedom? It‘s always a push and pull kind of scenario. The formula is just tough. To me, if you‘re not enjoying it, the money doesn‘t really matter. That sounds so cheesy but like it has some validity, I think.
PR There‘s value to quality of life. I think that‘s not appreciated enough. Some people just work so hard, get a heart attack and die at 54. Its like, what was all that worth?
JH Yes! Its crazy. Then there’s a lot of design jobs at big companies that are overpaid and really you don‘t work hard but you get bored. Its very hard to find like… I’m paid fairly, I’m fulfilled, I have work life balance… its a very hard recipe. There’s a lot of things that could throw it off whack. Our business didn’t change significantly in the past year but a couple tweaks totally threw off the balance that we achieved. We started sacrificing stuff that was important. Like we used to close for the month of August. People were like that is fucking crazy. That‘s unreasonable.
PR Euro boys! “Bye we gotta vacation!”
JH I mean, yeah. My mom’s Italian. That’s not weird to me but to everyone in New York that’s a bizarre idea. We ended up not doing it last year because we were like we have this project we have to do and it‘s going to hurt our business and we decided not to. This year we’re like, “Damn summer holiday was really great.” It‘s going too far and going back I guess.
PS How does having these people working in different area, like Grilli Type, in XXXI, how does that effect your work process? With them specifically, it seems like you developed a close relationship where you use a lot of their fonts in your projects. To what extent, do people working in other disciplines, you know, being there, in that physical space effect the output.
JH Its great. It feels like we’re building a community that people have like a… they feel like they’re part of this mission and I think that‘s worth a lot to us. We have a really close collaborative relationship with, you know, we have an interior designer and we’ve done three restaurants with him. WE have collaborated in a bunch of different capacities with Grilli Type. We have a freelance designer who we worked on a t least one project with. We have a freelance designer who used to be our intern and now helps us with the store and the exhibitions so there‘s been a really nice collaboration there. It‘s a small space. It‘s like a roommate situation but overall it‘s great and I think they‘re all happy to not be stuck in some WeWork situation somewhere, I mean it‘s not bad if you‘re in a WeWork but like…
PR Dont worry, we’ll edit that out too.
*EVERYONE LAUGHS IN VERY CUTE WAY*
JH I don‘t care. I don‘t like WeWork.
PS I’m wondering, do you have any projects that never progressed beyond the prototype phase? What did those projects teach you?
JH Oh man, yeah, so many. Well I guess in agency life you realize a company will pay a ton of money for something that never launches and it‘s so crazy. I never understood that.
PR It feels like the military where they just need to spend to get the next budget.
JH There are a lot of situations like that. For us as a studio because people come to us with like this is our years budget for building an entire business and we intend on having this thing launch so fortunately that doesn‘t happen to us too much. We had an amazing project which was so interesting to us and it will launch but not with us. Like we did a bunch of prototyping for it and for various reasons we didn‘t get to see it through to completion. It‘s a really interesting project. It‘s a connected device. It‘s like a phone app and then it talks to hardware. You interact with the hardware. I can‘t say a ton about it but that was a hard one where there were just like a lot of different moving parts. It‘s a learning process. You know dealing with clients.. We love the work and we wish that we could show it but it‘s all under NDA. There‘s the whole running the studio thing that doesn‘t have a lot to do with designing things. Ultimately that‘s why the project died. That‘s not really about prototypes.
PS That‘s just life.
JH That‘s kinda just laughs yeah.
PR So what did you learn from it?
JH What I learned is just to like speak up. I think its hard for designers, maybe its just me, to feel empowered to have a voice when you have someone whos paying you, you feel like that person has the power. Its not like we even had creative disagreements. We, actually as a studio, have probably launched 100 products, businesses, and brands throughout our careers. So we have a ton of knowledge on how you actually take a business from nothing to launch and we saw a lot of mistakes that were being made and how projects were being managed and stuff. It was really not a creative disagreement and we just kind of were the victim of not being more of a stakeholder in how the process should go to like bring a product to market. I would say just know your values outsides of just being able to design things and advocate. That ties into taking an expansive role on what it is to be a designer. You‘re not just applying a drawing of a thing, you‘re actually part of a process with an end result. The drawings are just part of like, that contributes to the end result of the project. Move out of the prototype stage fast is what I would say. Or more directly design. We prototyped, we made some decisions, they might be wrong, we’ll have to revisit them, but just keep moving forward. That project just kind of just stuck in this potential prototype phase where there was no clear path forward.
PR That‘s a good philosophy for life.
PR Know your values and advocate for yourself.
JH Totally. I guess also the idea of what a prototype is is interesting in that like the first release of the product is kind of like the release of the prototype also the first publicly released prototype. To say its not a prototype presumes that its done. We know thats not true.
PS I’m just wondering, how you see your role as a designer in 2018. How thats changed from when you started designing, and on top of that, where you see that going. That could be more personal or on a broader scale.
JH Yeah, I like this question a lot and I’ve been thinking about it a bunch recently. I think the world has changed significantly. I‘ve been doing this for about 8 or 9 years probably. When I started it was very much on a product and technology track. At the time it was like “Wow look what technology can do!” It was great. It was this very positive vision of the future and future technologies. We’re just in a very different world today after Facebook and Uber and all of these companies have been bad public actors. The election, right? Its just opened up so many questions that like Ive had to confront. Also what kind of products are we bringing into the world where resources arent being distributed equally and the environment is suffering for everything we make. I guess I was younger and maybe not as aware of that stuff but also no one was as aware as we are now. As a designer we need to stop and ask ourselves what we’re making and why and how to be responsible with the types of things we bring to the world right. So thats my general answer. Part of me wants to go a general art direction. For me, making… I don‘t know, posters sounds fun! Part of me wants to run a team that‘s building something complicated. I don‘t know what that is yet, where that balance is.
PS Sort of sounds like what you‘re already doing to an extent. Just the whole conception of having this mixed use space and your talking about your dedication to having personal projects. I mean even down to your references of visual vocabulary. That seems very formed by artistic practice as much as design practice, however you’re boxing that, right
JH I think the middle is an uncomfortable road sometimes. Like we do have certain financial pressures and responsibilities that comes with certain projects so it‘s not a purely art driven practice where we actually have to actually meet some goals. We’re not building something that‘s like software that‘s going to, hopefully, positively impact a lot of people. So the middle is kind of this gray area where you have the best of both but also the challenges of both. I don‘t know that the middle is a place that I would actually recommend being. We made it work for a while but i think the need to evolve is going to push you in one direction or another.
PR Plus interests and personal stuff change so might right like things that might have worked for you before might be different in another stage of your life.
JH I have a very weird. I dont know, theres this conception of the left brain and the right brain. I have some creative impulses I‘m not super creative. Im decent at math and like to program but I‘m not a computer science person. So i think the studio kind of reflects my weird middle ground of interests between applied and i don‘t know, these two opposites.
PR Doesn‘t feel that weird anymore. There‘s a lot of like this hybrid stuff thats coming out because people realize it‘s okay to multidisciplinary and being interested in different things. You can be into psychology and audio and programming and still find something special.
PS I would say that‘s true. Most designers I know, or people who aspire to be designers, who are learning it‘s now, everybody seems to have a multitude of interests. Which is part of the reason they got drawn to design. Its this idea that design can absorb other disciplines or bleed into other areas.
JH Designers have very broad interests but i guess thinking about it on the career track the middle is very unknown. You have to kind of forge that path yourself. Whereas making software at scale, thats a clear path, I‘m going to work at a large technology company, or designing books with artists is a clear path. I think how you do a little of each of those is unclear as one person or a small team.