The design phenom blends candid typography with maximalist concepts to transport us to a powerful new world.
Could you tell me a little about your background, where did you grow up and when did you embark on your professional journey?
I was born in NY, but moved to a conservative town in Connecticut when I was 5 and raised there. My parents were entrepreneurs and growing up I figured I would follow their path and go to business school. When I was eleven, I became obsessed with an online pet named “Kacheek,” which was a part of an online game called Neopets. One element of the game allowed you to create a website for your digital pet and I wanted to make the best webpage ever, so I taught myself HTML, CSS, and various graphic programs. By the time I was twelve, I had decided to make a website that could teach other kids how to code. Google ads had just launched and, out of curiosity, I tried placing a banner ad on my website. All of a sudden, I started getting large checks from Google every month. At that point, I realised I could make money from what I considered a passion, which gave me the confidence to pursue a career in design.
I studied at Rhode Island School of Design where I was encouraged to get off the computer and experiment with materials. While uncomfortable at first, it turned out to be one of the most valuable parts of my education. I quickly realised the potential to merge analogue with digital work to make it more interesting. I also learned the value of creative collaborations in order to achieve an idea or vision I couldn’t have done on my own.
Following RISD I faced a tough decision. I interned at Apple, and they offered me a well-paid position. I was attracted to the idea of a laid-back California lifestyle and a comfortable paycheck; however, I wondered if I would be happier in New York at a design studio where I’d get a variety of challenges. Instead of accepting the job at Apple, I started a low-paid internship working for one of my design idols, Paula Scher. It was a huge risk, but I learned so much working with her at Pentagram. I threw myself into the work and worked nights and weekends on freelance projects to pay my rent.
From there I worked at design magazine Print where I developed a surreal, handcrafted, playful style that I am now known for. I then moved to work with Stefan Sagmeister at his studio for two and a half years, and we worked very well together. In 2012 we started to have conversations about how we could continue to collaborate in a way that was mutually beneficial for the both of us. I was already in charge of most of the client work at the studio and had been thinking of starting my own studio so that I could get recognition for the work that I was doing. Stefan was interested in spending more time on the studio’s self-initiated projects like The Happy Film. We worked out a partnership, which allows us to do both things and to help each other in the process.
Can you describe your day-to-day life – How does the day usually start and end for you? What gets you out of bed in the morning and what keeps you awake at night?
I don’t have a consistent daily routine, which is part of what I love about my job. Sometimes I’m travelling and giving talks or workshops, other times I am at new business meetings or photo shoots, other times I am at the office designing or working with our team. In the last few weeks, my routine has been quite boring as we’ve been swamped at the studio. To be honest, we are always swamped; I keep pretending it’s a temporary thing that will go away one day even though I know realistically it won’t.
Anyways, the last week I’ve woken up around 5-6 a.m. I do a few hours of writing or client emails. I love to multi-task, even when I am at the gym or blow drying my hair I am still answering emails or updating Instagram. I usually try to plan meetings in the morning, so they don’t break up my day as much, and after that, I go into the office. I work at the office until 5-7 p.m. I also often plan meetings at the end of the day, again, so they don’t break up my day. People sometimes assume I have a huge social life and that I must be out and about at events all the time, but that’s not the case. I am an introvert and socialising every night takes too much energy. I do have a few close friends and family with whom I will meet up with for dinner or drinks a few nights a week.
What is your creative philosophy?
I am interested in creating emotionally engaging, concept-driven work that is embodied in beautiful forms. I always try to approach the process in a playful way, with a sense of humour. I want people who view my work to experience or feel something, whether it makes them think, brings them joy or offers them inspiration. I always aim to create functional work that achieves our clients’ goals.
Travel seems to be an important part of your life, how do these journeys inform your work?
Conferences are a great way to keep up to date with what others are doing / thinking and challenge yourself to see things from a new perspective. They also bring together interesting and inspiring speakers who are experts in their fields. I myself have found much inspiration and knowledge by attending conferences that I apply to our studio’s practice. I have also met many talented creatives at conferences that our studio collaborates with.
Can you tell us about 40 Days of Dating?
40 Days of Dating is a project that I did with a good friend of mine, Timothy Goodman. We were friends for years, and we always made fun of each other for our opposite relationship problems and styles. We wanted to explore our habits and fears in order to learn more about the nature of relationships and love. We decided to date each other for forty days and keep diary entries about each date. We recorded our daily experiences, created videos, and made illustrations. We launched a blog where you can read our daily records appearing side by side. Since the launch, over twenty-five million unique people have visited the blog, and we have received thousands of e-mails from people around the world. Some people hated the project, but most people were touched and felt they related to our experiences. We wrote a book published by Abrams, and the film rights were optioned to Warner Bros, who are working on making a movie based on our experience.
What are the best and most challenging parts of your role?
Right after I started to receive a lot of attention, mostly after #40daysofdating , I found myself stifled by perceived expectations for a month or so. I worried if people expected me to constantly create this kind of “viral” or popular work. I worried about waking up one day and not having any more good ideas. I worried when making something that people would think about it, and if / how the haters might hate on it. However, I quickly realised that this was all pretty silly. I had always created for fulfilment: whether it was to make something I wanted to see in the world that I was passionate about, to challenge myself, or to give back to others. I realised if I tried to create work to satisfy others or to live up to these perceived expectations, my work would go nowhere. It’s impossible to make everyone happy!
There’s a great quote from Tibor Kalman that says, “If you make something no one hates, no one loves it either,” which I think is so true; there is a fine line between love and hate. I like to create work that starts dialogues, evokes emotion, or illuminates my own personal voice or views and beliefs. Not everyone is going to like what I do or have to say, and that’s okay. So, I stopped worrying so much about everyone else. I focus every day on doing the best work I can and keeping myself stimulated and challenged. I try to use design as a tool to illuminate meaningful topics outside of the design world that I find important. Many people don’t like me or what I make or what I have to say, and that’s okay! That is their right, too.
You have been exceptionally proactive in sharing your journey, offering personal learnings and insights via your Instagram. You don’t shy away from discussing difficult subjects and taboos in life and work. What motivates you to keep sharing your thoughts and struggles?
I struggled with depression and anxiety when I was much younger, and after I was diagnosed, I was determined to learn as much as I could about these illnesses to learn how to help myself out of the negative and closed state of mind. After recovering, I always had a desire to help others struggling from the things I’ve overcome, which was one of the inspirations behind my personal projects like #12kindsofkindness or #letstalkaboutmentalhealth . There is probably more in these areas I’ll explore in my work eventually.
What keeps you so passionate and focused today?
My work keeps me inspired, challenged, motivated and fulfilled. We have a ton of interesting projects going on at any one moment in our studio, combined with my passion projects. Not every moment of the process is “fun,” there’s a lot of gritty production and coordination. However, I love the journey of working towards something I believe in, and I’ve always understood that requires a lot of persistence and hard work. I worked my butt off to get to this point where I now have flexibility and freedom to work when and where I want to which is ideal for me. I used to never take weekends off, though in the last few years I started to as I learned the importance of letting my mind rest and recharge and the importance of occasionally doing nothing.
Where do you find inspiration?
I believe that creativity is all about making interesting connections between things that already exist. I think inspiration for those connections can come from everything we experience as human beings: our conversations, our travels, our dreams, art, a great psychology book, our love lives, etc. I try not to look within our own field of design for inspiration; that’s when you run the risk of regurgitating styles and techniques people are used to seeing. If you find your inspirations from unexpected places, and vary your inspirations to not be too close to any one source, it’s easier to create unique work. I frequent museums and shows and look at all kinds of creative work, like fashion, furniture design, painting, photography, and sculpture. I listen to music and have conversations with friends. I read books about psychology and science, and blogs about popular culture. The list goes on.
Do you avoid trends?
Trendy design and styles can work if you are designing something temporary, like an illustration in a magazine or a poster with a short life-span. However, most of the time at our studio, we seek to create work that can have a long lifespan and stay relevant for a long while, especially in relation to branding. The identity and visual language we create for our clients should stay fresh and relevant even after a decade.
Personal projects have been a huge part of your career development; can you talk about why these are so important to you?
Many people struggle with ideas, especially when it comes to self-initiated projects or their own business concepts. It’s easier with creative client work as you’re often given set rules and limitations from the client such as timeline, budgets, or pre-existing style guides to work within. With your own projects, you can do anything! That is exciting, but it’s also daunting. Most people end up drowning when the possibilities are endless. It’s like going to a restaurant with a thousand items on the menu; it ends up being much harder to figure out what you want. Coming up with ideas is actually not that difficult compared to following through.
Do you have any other experimental projects like this planned for the future?
I am focused on growing Ladies, Wine & Design. Coming up in the design industry, most of the famous icons or heroes to look up to were men. The design industry was mostly a boys club at the top, and still to this day, only 3-12% of creative directors or CEO’s are women depending on the country you are in. I started thinking about this a lot a few years ago after a woman in the industry was quite cruel to me on social media for no reason, I didn’t even know her. It made me realise that sometimes women can be unsupportive of other women because our chance of reaching the top is so much slimmer than our male counterparts.
This realisation inspired me to create Ladies, Wine & Design. I wanted to bring together women who are determined to help other women, and create a platform where we could share resources and exchange ideas and inspiration and lift each other up and support each other, instead of tearing other down. We hold free mentorship circles, creative meet-ups, salon nights, and conferences. Shortly after starting this in NYC, I had women from around the world contact me to start LWD in their own cities, and we’re now in over 170 cities worldwide!
The stories that have come out of these events have been so inspiring. We’ve heard stories of women who formed bonds through our meet-ups who went
on to create studios or new businesses together, women who were inspired from the events to make career changes to pursue what they truly love doing, women who got the courage to ask for a raise or confront a co-worker who was being sexist. The stories go on and on, and it’s very motivating and inspiring to me.
This year we launched a merch platform, Sorryihavenofilter.com where my studio designed lots of lady power merch. All the profits go towards expanding LWD. We have many ideas, from hosting larger global events in New York and abroad, to more events for chapter leaders, to expanding our mentorship programs.