This interview was originally published on the now defunct oneskinnyj.com1 site. I’m proud of this interview and am grateful to Rob for being so generous with his time and answers.
Hi Rob. Can you give our viewers a bit of history about yourself (where you went to school, where you’ve worked, and where you are now)?
I grew up in Minneapolis listening to a lot of jazz on ECM and going to the Walker Art Center whenever I could. Minneapolis, ECM, and the Walker’s design department and bookstore were all huge influences on me. I got a B.A. in Art from Yale and went to work at Winterhouse. Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand were very giving and had unique practice that allowed me space to develop as a designer — it was like a kind of grad school for me. When I left to go to New York I worked at the New York Times Magazine for almost a year — a great introduction to New York — before I joined Michael Bierut’s team at Pentagram as a freelancer, which was also an amazing learning experience. When my Winterhouse colleague Kevin Smith arrived in New York we began freelancing together and launched the studio Giampietro+Smith, which we ran for five years. I joined Project Projects as a principal in 2010. Also in the mix I did a lot of design writing, was vice president of AIGA/NY, did a lot of teaching at Parsons, RISD, and SVA, and started a website of design writing and resources called Lined & Unlined.
You’ve had quite a distinguished career, working at places like Winterhouse, Pentagram and now Project Projects. Were those positions ones that you actively sought after, or did any of them more or less fall into place naturally—one leading to the next?
I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had. Any career is a mix of skill, luck, and persistence, and I’ve relied on all three. A few ideas have served as helpful guides: 1) actively engage people and places that are interesting to me, 2) cultivate and expand my interests not just as a designer but as a person in the world, and 3) be open to whatever opportunities presented themselves without predetermining their outcomes too much. When I first moved to the city, I showed my portfolio to Abbott Miller, whose work I’d long admired. I was hoping for a job working for him, but he surprised me by saying, “Have you ever thought about teaching? You’d be great.” He introduced me to Charles Nix at Parsons and I taught there for the next 8 years. I was 23.
Why graphic design? I mean, why not something else? What opportunities does graphic design provide that you feel so compelled to engage in this profession?
Design’s such a pliable profession — there’s a tremendous amount you can do under the umbrella of design, and that was always enticing to me. I love the idea of making things that reach many people. I love the social aspect of being a designer: meeting many different kinds of people, engaging my curiosities and passions. I love language and I am a deeply systematic and analytical person in both my design and my writing. And I have a longstanding fascination with typography — it seems to sit in the valley between language and form, and I like to hang out there too.
On your blog, Lined & Unlined, you write quite critically on a range of interests—design, film, poetry, pedagogy. How does writing influence your design practice? Is it an essential part of the process?
Writing plays many roles. It lets me reflect on practice much the same way teaching does, and it also lets me advocate for ideas, work, and people I think are important and innovative within the profession. At the same time it creates a space outside daily practice — writing for me often happens at night and on weekends — to develop and explore ideas. Often the best way to find out what I think about something is to write about it. There’s this assumption that you must know about something to write about it, but often the process of writing about something mirrors the process of learning about it. Certain pieces I write I know will be key pieces, but other shorter writing is almost like a gym workout — it keeps my mind sharp and my eyes open. I’m not sure that writing’s essential for me. Sometimes it’s addictive and sometimes it’s exhausting. It’s almost always rewarding.
How did you become involved with David Reinfurt, Stuart Bailey, and Dot Dot Dot?
Paul Elliman, whose writing and typographic work I admired before I arrived at Yale, is probably the common link. David was a the T.A. for a class I took with Paul, and it was also during that semester that Stuart came to town and Paul suggested we meet for coffee. We all stayed in touch. I mailed away for the first Dot Dot Dot and it came with a kind note from Stuart inviting me to contribute to a future issue. They’re my favorite people to write for, everything I’ve done with them is something I’m proud of. They create a very special environment for ideas to develop.
For many designers—and I’d imagine for many other professionals—the act of writing is approached with caution, even fear. Can you talk a little bit about your process for writing (how you approach it)?
Like anything, you get better at it the more you do it. This is why the blog and doing shorter written pieces is important. Every piece I’ve done has developed a little differently, but just like design it works best for me when there’s a collaboration — in this case, between myself and the editor of the piece. This is why David and Stuart are so important in the writing I’ve done for Dot Dot Dot. We discuss different approaches, references, send things back-and-forth over a few weeks or even months. Then at a certain point it’s time to start writing. Often I have a lot of fragments, sentences or phrasings I like. I also try to have a pool of quotes or quick section outlines floating around in different text windows. The writing almost starts to get “laid out” like a piece of design in this way. I think confidence also builds the more you write, which helps with the fear you have when you start a new piece. I place a huge amount of trust in my ear, the way the language sounds. I’ve rewritten pieces that were fine language-wise but didn’t sound good to my ear — that’s the poet in me I guess. I wrote a Dot Dot Dot piece about the 100th Chapter of Robert Musil’s book The Man Without Qualities, and I knew I wanted the piece to end with the biographical image of Musil getting kicked out of the library for smoking, a habit which lead to his early death and left the novel unfinished. I must have rewritten the last paragraph 60 times before I finally got it to sound right.
How do words and language influence your design work? At any point does semiotic theory become part of the framework for developing a concept? Further, if semiotic theory does play a role, do you find yourself subscribing to any particular tradition—Saussurean or Peircean?
Words influence me a great deal, though I don’t think about language in terms of semiotics all that often. I’m very familiar with Saussure and studied him as part of my introduction to literary theory; less so with Pierce but I was just reading up on him now and enjoyed the brief introduction I found — I’m fascinated by the different attributes and aspects of language, especially paradoxes, and in the thinking they reveal. I love some of language’s more formal and sensory qualities. I love the look of language, especially in conceptual art (artists like Lawrence Weiner, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Richard Kostelanetz, Kay Rosen), concrete poetry (poets like Emmett Williams, Dieter Rot, and Eugen Gomringer), along with almost all of Oulipo. I also love the sound of language in more mainstream poetry (poets like Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, and Nicholas Christopher) and contemporary literature (writers like Lydia Davis, Geoff Dyer, Nicholson Baker, and David Means). I like the exploration of genres, modes, reflexivity, and the written text as something that is constructed and allowed to reveal its own construction in order to produce meaning.
Staying on the same topic of influence, does what you have experienced as a professional practitioner come through in your approach to pedagogy? Are their certain elements to the practice—things that might not be getting addressed in academia—that you believe should have a stronger presence in design education today?
It’s much like the writing — my practice as a designer feeds my practice as a teacher, and my practice as a teacher in turn gives me ideas and ways of communicating my practice as a designer. They reinforce one another. In terms of where education’s headed, I’ve just finished a long essay that covers design education over the last decade or more, and I think we’re seeing an increased amount of merging between the academic and professional space. In the early ‘90s the design academy was seen as a space that was alternative to practice and its interest was largely theoretical and formally engaged, and there are some for whom it still functions that way. But I think designers increasingly consider school to be part of the production their own professional lives, and they consider learning to be an ongoing and integral process to the development of work and one’s development as a designer. And as a result of this “embeddeness” of the culture of school in everyday design practice, you have more situations where designers are setting up places to learn and exchange ideas — whether it’s conferences, participatory exhibitions, websites, etc. Our own interconnectedness via technology only accelerates and encourages this.
e are living in an increasingly techno-visual culture—where combinations of complex technologies and new visual lexicons are born almost constantly. What is the role of [graphic] design in this new culture and how has the field changed over the last several years? What do you feel has been the most significant shift in the design world within the last five years?
Design is a reflexive mechanism in culture — it both helps to both set new cultural agendas and reinforce existing ones. The same shifts that have been happening outside the design world for the last five years are helping to shape the most interesting things happening inside design. The more responsive and contextual design can be, the better.
We seem to be in the midst of a shift—a large body of designers moving away from the “client services” aspect of design, and instead pursuing more entrepreneurial endeavors. Do you feel that this is a result of the designer realizing more can be done with that skill, that design can do more than just sell products—it can sell ideologies and philosophy? Or is this shift in behavior a reaction to something larger?
We’ve always seen designers seek opportunities and models for practice outside of commissioned work — whether it was setting up publishing programs, advocating for cultural resistance, building institutions that centralize and reinforce design’s cultural capital, or finding solace in a world of “self-initiated” projects. In many ways, each of these alternative practice models is a product of their times, and the shift to entrepreneurial endeavors you mention is no different. I think we should, as designers, keep inventing more of these as time goes on. But I think as long as design’s central narrative is one of a problem-solving, analytical discipline, then the need and opportunity for service-driven practice will persist and endure. What’s notable, if anything, is the degree to which a ‘90s-era world of self-initiated work has broadened, in the ‘00s, and with the help of the internet, to a world far beyond the self — it’s now a whole design culture, large enough to support the careers of certain designers without the need for them to frame their practices through service. But I’ll sound a cautionary note here: while I think it’s good to launch projects that other designers think are great, I think it’s much more essential that designers look beyond the design sphere in framing new opportunities for themselves. These are the projects — self-initiated, entrepreneurial, commissioned, bartered, speculative, or otherwise — that I look forward to most.
Let’s switch gears and round this out with some Project Projects talk: the studio has an enviable portfolio of clients in the arts and architecture sectors and the work always seems to pulse with intellect. Why focus on those sectors? What design opportunities present themselves in these genres that might not in other sectors—like retail or hospitality?
At first I think there was an appeal in the idea that the arts and architecture represented a intriguingly distinct area of culture from the overtly commercial. While both sectors have clearly commercial aspects and implications, there’s also something intangibly noncommercial about them, something belonging to the world of ideas alone. This created an early set of affinities, both to institutions and to people, which developed into a ready source of projects. As time has passed I think we’ve discovered new and different reasons for our ongoing interest in these sectors. Both art and architecture are “founding disciplines” of graphic design, for example, and as a result share many of the same critical discussions and historical references. And both, as visual and spatial disciplines, have a wealth of aesthetically-motivated individuals who encourage design work that is ambitious and perhaps a bit outside the norm.
Top five books a designer must read that have nothing to do with design?
These have both nothing and everything to do with design, which is why designers might enjoy them:
- Mark McGurl’s The Program Era
- J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words
- James Gleick’s The Information
- Lucien Dallenbach’s The Mirror in the Text
- Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books
For those designers who are walking down that path to starting their own studio: what advice would you like to impart to them?
I thought it would be fun to come up with 10 of these:
- An untended garden quickly becomes a field: plant what you want to grow.
- Have partners, but don’t do the same things: make sure you both do something you enjoy.
- Hire people for what they can teach you, not for what you can teach them.
- Everyone should be able to take criticism: creative trust is built on critical honesty.
- Design is only one part of the puzzle: savor the discussion, development, debate, and dissemination of your work just as much as the making of it.
- Goals may be arbitrary, but not having them will be maddening when there’s no one else to tell you if you’re doing a good job: set 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year goals at the outset.
- When you take your favorite clients out to lunch, it’s a good time to propose what you’d like to do together next.
- Knowing more designers doesn’t necessarily translate into having good clients: spend your development time wisely.
- Be known for something: it helps.
- You will never work harder than when you’re building something: find balance. Sometimes the best way to solve a creative problem is to take a vacation or read a book.
oneskinnyj.com was a moniker and online repository I used for several years. It housed the aforementioned interview series, which I will be resurrecting here. ↩