“If I start doing something with my hands all the young designers gather around. They wonder what the hell I’m doing.” — Steve Frykholm
Frykholm’s (pronounced like “brick home” with an F) stories of his 40+ year career as the first internal graphic designer for Herman Miller kept the audience at Hopscotch Design Festival rapt in the very same way. In an age where a two-year stint at a job can seem like a lifetime and where college students today can expect to switch careers – not just jobs – between three and seven times before they retire,1 it seems almost unfathomable to think about how Frykholm could stay creatively and professionally satisfied through eight CEOs and countless projects mostly centered around something you sit in, on or at.
Maybe his hands were the secret.
The tug-of-war between analog and digital was a recurring theme at the event,2 articulated and repeated in myriad ways…
- Struggling with the perception that you’re “not working” if you aren’t staring at a screen. Or maybe at least your boss’s perception.
- A nod to Orwell’s 1984 in an admonition that “TECHNOLOGY = WAR” by Christopher Simmons, principal of MINE, a design and branding firm in San Francisco. To prove his point, Simmons played a Verizon ad depicting a family of four cozied up in a tent watching Star Wars (thanks to their stellar 4G connection) while ignoring the massive clear sky filled with real stars overhead. After the video ended his statement said it all: “This is f****d up.”
- Potential missed opportunities to see connections that don’t exist in cyberspace, illustrated by keynote Austin Kleon’s example that when you look up a word in a paper dictionary (you know, the kind with actual pages and really tiny type) you see all the other words around it. PATIENT and PATINA appear next to each other. Both are about time, and as Kleon put it, “that’s the kind of mind-blowing thing Google can’t give you.”
- Simmons also mentioned stripping context, the nuances that are missing when we get information by simply looking something up. As a kid he reminisced about finally being grown up enough as a 12-year-old to get to play records on his parents’ Bang & Olufsen system, listening to the Beatles White Album, reading the lyric liner notes about Revolution and asking his parents to explain Chairman Mao. The answer he got was an answer, but it was also partly their politically motivated opinion, a “true moment of interaction.” He added that “you don’t have to wait for things now; you can very easily avoid all kinds of other stuff, the serendipitous experiences, as you thread your way around new information.”
Frykholm drove home the point that serendipity feeds creativity in a story about his series of 20 company picnic posters that landed in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
As described on AIGA’s website, the professional association for design, “Soon after arriving at the Zeeland-based furniture manufacturer, in 1970, Frykholm was asked to design a poster for the company picnic, named the Sweet Corn Festival. Working with designer Phil Mitchell, Frykholm came up with a 29″ x 39″ screen print of a pair of teeth clamped around an ear of corn, printed Pop Art-style in high-gloss inks. Part of the impulse also came from muscle memory: ‘I had learned to screen print while in the Peace Corps teaching at a trade school for girls in Nigeria,’ says Frykholm.”
No joining the Peace Corps on a whim? Maybe no MOMA.
In a panel on entrepreneurship Michael Hoy of BoomBoxFM also talked about “happy accidents” telling us to “not to rule anything out, to ask tons of questions, try everything, test it and see what sticks.”
After he advertised his initial service using a poster proclaiming FREE KITTENS in bold letters with “just kidding, not really, but free music is pretty cool too” in much smaller print he pulled in test pilot users that helped design BoomBoxFM’s product: new music, personally curated and delivered via email. Using the tagline of “Let us introduce you to your new favorite song” the company has built a base of more than 40,000 subscribers, adding 400 a day.
His story was the perfect real-world example of Design Thinking, another recurring theme throughout the event. Design Thinking was how New Kind’s Matthew Munoz kicked it all off, setting the stage for the next two days with the reminder that moving forward takes thoughtful design and creativity. “The rules have changed…you can’t analyze your way into a new idea.”
As explained in 2014 by Reuven Cohen, a contributor to Forbes, “The interesting part of Design Thinking is like the creativity it attempts to foster, the very concept itself is continually evolving. One example of a design thinking process could have several stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Within these steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen. The steps aren’t linear; they can occur simultaneously and can be repeated.”
Kleon’s keynote reminded the crowd that a computer makes you edit ideas before they are born and that a sketchbook make possibilities endless. Perhaps more importantly, he made the point that “going through the motions” is very relevant in design, that moving things around in the physical world — dice, pencils, pens, toys — kickstarts your brain into thinking.
One of my favorite #hopdesignfest concepts was Frykholm’s claim that “there can always be a first time.” In 1948 he designed a catalog that was gorgeous but way too expensive with its $30,000 print-run price tag. After management shut him down, he came back in a few days with the same design, except this time it came complete with a hard cover and book jacket to be sold for $3. After the initial reaction that “nobody in the furniture industry sells their catalogs!” the executives at Herman Miller took a chance, and it was so successful they had to print a second edition. It gave the company a reputation larger than life, and its largest competitor took the bait, pricing its catalog the next year at $5.
Matt Curtis, director of global partnerships at TED, talked about the organization’s transition from 300 people at the inaugural 1984 conference — the “kind of dinner party you’d always wanted to throw with the most interesting people” — to 2.5 billion TED talks in 120 different languages. Embracing its concept of “ideas worth spreading” TED adopted radical openness, licensing its platform to the masses. It worked: after the shift to democratizing content, ticket prices went up 50% and the event wait list increased by another 1,000, while committed fans now police the brand’s standards worldwide.
Antionette Carrolls, founder of Creative Reaction Lab, challenged us to think about design in a different way, “using Social Impact Design to approach but not solve” critical issues. As described by AIGA, “When most designers look at how to approach social issues, they tend to think about creating a meme, a poster, or T-shirt design. Spurred on by the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Antionette Carroll wanted to do more. She initiated the idea of hosting a Creative Reaction Lab, bringing together 12 designers for a 24-hour brainstorming session last August to look at sustainable approaches to the bigger issues particularly systemic racism, St. Louis’ racial divide and police brutality brought up by the death of Mike Brown.”
Through her Creative Reaction lab, more than 60 ideas culminated in five projects: Cards Against Brutality, Look Beyond Your Fear, VibeSwitch.co, The Red Table Project and Connected for Justice.
Formerly know as #BeyondToday, AIGA explains Connected for Justice as a “volunteer matching system that helps people who have identified actions they want to achieve around racism and the situation in Ferguson, and helps them build teams to realize the projects. As of November, the platform had already made 727 volunteer matches, with many more since then. It helps people move past the sometimes paralyzing idea of ‘But what can I do?’ by connecting them with people who have the ideas but need help.”
One of the most visual symbols of the effort was a mirrored casket, allowing protestors to reflect images from their point of view. The powerful tool now resides in the Smithsonian.
In contrast to many of the event’s speakers, Bluecadet’s founder Josh Goldblum sang the praises of technology. His Philadelphia firm specializes in “culture clients,” institutions that educate while entertaining, and in his words typical museum content is “like watching a sports game you’ve never learned the rules to.”
With the right delivery, technology can not only make information more accessible, it can tell the story better. One of his projects used bluetooth beacons streaming audio throughout the grounds at Monticello. Through the technique visitors can better understand the slaves’ perspective, a story that absolutely needs to be told but would not be nearly as impactful by simply reading a brochure.
Simmons also transparently struggled reconciling the benefits of technology; his example was a digital locket to replace the old kind that flipped open to reveal a carefully cut-out picture of a loved one. With the new version “you can’t lose the memories if you lose the locket, but I now have a PRODUCT (technology) between me and my memory.”
He went on to talk about how Amazon has fundamentally changed the book industry. Rather than a conversation with a knowledgeable bookstore clerk, next reads are now recommended by algorithms, and the books with easily searchable titles sell well. “By determining what we read, technology is determining what we know,” leading to his conclusion that “First, we make the tool. Then, the tool makes us.”
A lasting image from Simmons’ presentation was the “caution tape” his studio created. When they installed it onsite people obeyed the instantly recognizable yellow and black combination instead of reading the words “everything is ok.” The medium was stronger than the message, underscoring how radically important design is to making sense of the world as we quickly filter through content each and every day.
I ended my Hopscotch Design Festival experience early to attend Innovate Raleigh, but loved the last takeaway from Jake Levitas of Our City, a new nonprofit organization that “empowers residents to imagine and build the future of their communities—by helping governments, cultural institutions, and individuals make their cities better together, through imaginative public design festivals, workshops, and installations.”
He and co-founder Ray Boyle’s mission?
“We want people to see the world as changeable, then go out and change it.”
We have the tools; we just need to use them. Maybe everything is ok.
- Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics clearly states it doesn’t compile this specific statistic since there is little consensus on what actually constitutes a career change, that’s the number widely accepted by industry experts. ↩
- The irony of researching, taking notes and writing this story on an iPad to publish on a digital-only platform is not lost on me. ↩