In 1991 the internet did not exist as an industry, and by 2001 the web had become a massive cultural force that changed our lives forever. Ten years later, smartphones fundamentally transformed culture yet again, and now, in 2020, designers, like many of us across the globe, are working from home as we grapple once more with fundamental socioeconomic change.
Looking back on the last several decades I have grown from a graphic design student to a design “professional” and wanted to take this moment to reflect and try to understand how my worldview and my experiences from then to now helped me negotiate what I would consider to be an incredibly complex and ever-shifting landscape of creative, technological, and cultural transformation within design practice.
Let Me Start at the Beginning
As a skateboarding hardcore kid from suburban Texas in the 1980’s, I got into graphic design because I loved skateboard graphics and music. I made zines and silk screened shirts and dreamed of finding new skate spots and buying the newest punk single. I realize now that my love of skateboarding and music was shared by many others around my age and this same inspiration has produced legions of designers, creative directors and Illustrators, many of whom I admire.
After completing my undergraduate degree in graphic design at the University of Texas at Austin in 1993, I headed off to the Cranbrook Academy of Art Graphic Design Department to get my Masters. All I had was a Macintosh Quadra 800 under my arm and a lot of passion. In early 1995 I had just turned 24 and was in the middle of finishing graduate school. My studiomate Doug and I had just launched the design department’s first website. We ran the phone lines through the attic ourselves and taught ourselves HTML and Macromedia Director because CD-ROMs were hot then.
At the conclusion of the graduation ceremony I shared the stage with Ed Fella and several other generations of graduates to talk about Cranbrook’s legacy. Katherine and Michael McCoy stepped down as the design department co-chairs that year, having led a quiet design revolution at Cranbrook since 1973. They showed the site we built for the department at the end of the talk, which made Doug and I feel like we were truly part of the McCoy era, and in many ways the harbinger of the internet era to come.
Shortly after graduating I sent my thesis to Rudy Vanderlans at Emigre and, surprisingly, he published an excerpt alongside features by heavy hitters such as Jeffrey Keedy, Andrew Blauvelt, Victor Margolin and Anne Burdick in Emigre issue 34. Emigre had already gone to the smaller magazine size but still had a great deal of design gravitas in the industry. At the time Emigre was my graphic design equivalent of Maximum Rock and Roll or HeartattaCk — it was where you found out about the cool stuff happening in graphic design.
My Emigre article “From technology to commodity, where do we go from here?” is basically a diatribe about how Rick Poynors’ Typography Now books were the Pinterest of that era and that designers had better watch out because the internet was going to change everything. During my graduate study I also tried to make sense of how critical theory applied to the design profession, but it still remained a ‘soft science’ justification for my formal explorations at the time.
The most life-changing aspect of going to Crandbrook was the design critique regimen that I experienced weekly for two straight years. It allowed me to develop and hone my ability to talk, debate, rationalize and retro-conceptualize a justification and logic for an aesthetic decision on the fly. As you can imagine, this skill has proved invaluable in a myriad of client projects over the years. Then, as now, I consider myself the kind of person that jumps into a project head-on, doing everything in my power to learn the ropes and to master a creative argument.
I have posted a full transcript of my Emigre 34 article from 1995 at the end of this article for those 90’s-era young creatives interested in a chuckle. To this day I’m proud of the fact that I thought the aesthetic commercialization of passionately personal design philosophies was worth protecting and preserving. At the time I had a bone to pick and was frustrated by the favoritism of design books and the fact that an obscure designer in a graduate program could be elevated and celebrated by the right image in a hardback book. Little did I know that a few decades later we would have platforms like Instagram and Pinterest that commodify and celebrate graphic design on such a massive level that is almost impossible to comprehend.
Right Place Right Time
I graduated in the midst of the first Dot-com bubble, one of the most economically prosperous times in the last half century — sorry folks that graduated in 2008. When I left Cranbrook I got a design job in Boston with some tangential MIT folks and unexpectedly got food poisoning after two weeks. The Boston vibes felt totally wrong so, I regrouped with my twin brother Mark, who was studying literary theory and English at Duke in Durham, NC, and formulated a plan of attack. During this time I saw a bunch of great hardcore shows at the Duke Coffee House and continued to put out records by bands in Texas and Richmond with my brother.
In the late summer of 1995 I finished off my work in Boston via Durham, posting stuff via 56K modem, and jumped on a four-day bus ride to Portland, Oregon. My amazing design friends Rob and Anne in Portland hooked me up with a place to live and were extraordinarily generous with their time and patience. I will always love Anne and Rob for their generosity during my six months in Portland. I also got to see Karp, which was awesome, and ended up doing some really early web design work with some smart guys that just graduated from Reed — a primitive website for Mexicana Airlines and a pitch for Pepsi World come to mind — while we were all still writing HTML in the terminal and checking email using Pine.
Needless to say, Portland at the time was much sleepier than my experience in Austin as an undergrad and I decided to break out. I got interviews at two places. Wired Magazine was doing a new digital magazine HotWired and needed a creative that knew the web. The salary was not great, and San Francisco did not feel like the right fit for me. Aside from Epicenter and Gilman, SF just had too many crusty punx and homeless folks for my taste. Don’t get me wrong, I love Cometbus, Crimpshrine and Samiam, so I hope I get a pass for bailing on the Bay Area. The other place was a web firm in New York called the Myriad Agency that became the firm MethodFive. They were a small digital agency and had some backing by Prodigy. The salary was okay, and they offered to pay for my move to the east coast so I jumped on it. Many of my Cranbrook art school friends had moved to the rough and tumble neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn so that is where I landed in December of 1995. I still live about ten blocks from my first place in the Burg.
For a time Methodfive went toe-to-toe with Razorfish, and I almost left to work there, but my boss Adeo, who was a year younger than me and had been Elon Musk’s roommate at Penn, asked me to stay. I’m a very loyal person, and at the time I did not want to let anybody down. Like all things I’ve jumped into, I wanted to make sure that I went the distance. For Adeo and MethodFive I gave the agency my heart and soul for not much salary, but because I believed in the clients and the projects and wanted to be part of an agency that was growing.
After some really big growth over two years I felt like I was part of the inner circle and a fundamental part of the success of the company and asked for a small equity stake and a raise. After internal discussions I realized that my efforts and energy were no longer valued to the degree I would have liked. This was devastating to me because I really did give 1000%, so I went out on my own taking on a small web project for National Geographic as a start. After I left, Methodfive was acquired by Exceed in 2000 for $88 Million dollars. I still feel like I personally had a direct role in Methodfive’s early success as a business. In hindsight I’m glad I gave so much because it helped give me the tools and inner drive to build my own business a few years later.
Back to the Core
After Methodfive I returned to my design fundamentals and went freelance. After only 18 months the approaches and thinking I had learned at Cranbrook seemed like a distant memory. During this time the internet was still the wild west. I had grown as a designer and also had learned to code, write proposals, talk to clients, and run a small creative team. From 1995 to 1997 I saw all aspects of the new world of creative internet development gel and I wanted to find my place within it.
The One Man Service Bureau
Breaking out on my own in 1997 at the age of 26 was a way of recapturing my own creativity and making sense of what I saw happening in the design world and what I felt I was capable of. I needed a mechanism to learn and to do work that was not client-driven, but more personal. Through my work at Cranbrook and having done several zines over the years, as well as putting out a handful of records, I was no stranger to just making things up.
For me the web design community was not unlike the early 90’s punk scene— ad hoc, accepting, and open to new rules. Looking back now I think the work I did then is certainly of a vintage, and very little of it even looks decent on a contemporary retina display. Like going to see shows at Brownies, wearing ski sweaters, and sporting brown stay-prest pants, it was what I was into at the time and was an honest reflection of my growing talent and skill. Volumeone opened doors for me and helped me get my name out there. I was invited to speak in several countries and had my work published in magazines like IdN and Creative Review and was an ADC young gun. The SFMoMA even put Volumeone into its permanent collection.
Starting My First Studio
Freelance work was plentiful and I decided to start a small agency in 1999 with a friend of mine Warren Corbitt (RIP). Warren and I had both attended Cranbrook at different times and had similar stylistic interests. Warren had worked with Barry Deck on Raygun and at Conde Nast on a content portal called Swoon. Between his work and my experience our studio, one9ine, combined formal experimentation and technical expertise. One of our first projects was working on whatever.nike.com, one of the first cross-platform advertising campaigns to begin on broadcast television and finish its ending online. We did well and we hired my good friend Lee who is an all around amazing creative and one of my oldest friends. We outsourced some of our development work to our former clients John and Peter who we trusted deeply and from 1999 to 2003 worked hard and kept our Chelsea office on 21st Street small.
By 2003 we had made a good name for ourselves working with clients like Sony and the Cooper Hewitt and entered an inflection point. Should we grow? Should we stay small? What should we take on? By this time I was wearing far too many hats. Any given day I was going to meetings, writing proposals, designing, doing Flash, building sites — you name it. My DIY roots had gotten the best of me, and I was burning out. I couldn’t keep up with doing it all but did not want to staff up or take on bigger, more corporate work. I wanted to keep doing interesting stuff and felt my business was telling me what it needed and not the other way around.
Leaving My First Studio
On December 31, 2003 I left the company I had spent four and a half years creating. I was emotionally and physically spent. The spring and summer of 2004 were really tough and lonely, but I still had some momentum. As a side project I had started a small storefront gallery called the Riviera on Metropolitan Ave. with some friends at BBH. We each pitched in a couple hundred dollars a month for rent and bills and split up the year and put on shows with our friends. By the end of the summer of 2004 my friend Jason Gnewikow was ending his small design partnership and we looked for studio space.
From Solitary to Collective
Our first Athletics office was in a bare-bones boxing gym on Keap St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was cheap and big, but only had two small windows, resulting in working in 100 degree heat during the summer. We called the studio Athletics because that was the sign on the door when we rented it, and we asked a few of our friends to join the collective. Unlike one9ine, Athletics was a group of designers with complementary skill sets, and we hired each other under a common name. This was a decade before the popularization of co-working spaces. Like the gallery, each person pitched in for rent and bills and we could each do our own freelance work as well as studio work.
At the time our projects were wide-ranging, which was refreshing. You name it we did it — design, brand, record covers, print, web, motion graphics, information graphics, icons. The collective model worked well for the first several years until work started coming in on the reputation of the Athletics studio name and not necessarily the contacts of an individual member. More formality was an inevitable solution, allowing us all to get paid more evenly and to establish basic infrastructure like health insurance and 401Ks. Growing the studio in a way we were all happy with took time. It required a body of solid client work and a buttoning up of every aspect of our business.
Business as Art Form
As Athletics started to build momentum we began focusing on re-building brands through design and technology. Projects for Forbes and Advertising Age along with Jason’s work with Malcolm Buick at Wolf Ollins on AOL we’re all huge leaps for us. Malcolm left Wolf and signed on as a partner at Athletics, and we have spent the following years optimizing our processes and focusing on bringing brands to life. During this time we brought on Jameson Proctor as the head of technology and worked to strike a balance between brand and digital. At the heart of what we do remains the desire to make things that have a life out in the world and ideally are enjoyed and remembered. We are all doers and makers and always have been.
In the last five years Athletics has grown and become bigger, more formalized and far more strategically informed and culturally-driven. We have better processes and amazing teams, and our work now is the best it has ever been. Our clients like IBM and ServiceNow are genuine design partners which is a true blessing. What I have learned over the last 16 years at Athletics is that if you build something larger than yourself you are only as good as the people and clients you choose to work with. Our executive team, Alexa and Kristen, and Chris, are at the core of our ongoing success as much as our amazing crew of managers, creatives and technologists. It takes all of us working together. Trusting others and making sure everyone is shooting for the same goal is the most important quality to sustain a successful creative practice. At the end of the day, all we can really do is work hard and cultivate our talent and the talent of others.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
As we all know, creative agencies are now inherently digital. As a result, we are at the mercy of our constant beta culture. The digital world seems to fundamentally transition about every two years. Nothing we do has as much historical permanence as in the era of Paul Rand. For most, if not all, creatives of this era our life’s work will not live in perpetuity in a flat file at RIT or Yale. What remains in this slipstream of perpetual change is a focus on craft, ideas, and developing good work that will contribute to making the world a more equitable and sustainable place. Creativity is Sisyphean. It is never ending and always changing, and embracing the fluidity of how creativity influences culture and commerce is what keeps us all moving forward.
As I look back on my design career from 1995 to 2020, with just one more year in my 40’s and the world in quarantine, I feel incredibly fortunate. Whether in Austin in the early 90’s, Cranbrook in the mid 90’s, and New York in the early 2000’s and 2010’s, I have been lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time more than once. As a designer I have been in the limelight and have also been behind the scenes. For me, the last decade feels like a huge and amazing blur. Raising a family, growing a business, and realizing that my own idiosyncratic design agenda is not that important in the grand scheme of things. I still have skills and am still curious and excited about being creative, but I am no longer driven by my own egotism and I am most happy when I get to make things that others appreciate. In times like these, as in every era, fortitude, generosity, and humility go the longest way.
From technology to commodity, indeed. Where do we go from here?
The article below was originally part of my graduate thesis and appeared in the Emigre 34 in 1995.
From Technology to commodity. Where do we go from here? Young designers and the contemporary state of graphic design
By Matt Owens
Digital technologies are a fixture within graphic design and have redefined the very shape of the profession. The whole history and development of typographic conventions can now be broken with the click of a mouse, and this digital revolution has resulted in a visual renaissance unequaled in graphic design history. Simultaneously, the accessibility of the personal computer has thrown design into mediocrity — with the right software and a scanner, anyone can become a graphic designer.
These technological developments have both widened and jeopardized the field as we know it. So the question arises: to what extent? At present, the continual search for new visual languages through technology has degenerated into easily appropriated formal concerns. In both the academy and the workplace, the question “How did you do that?” has replaced notions of concept and intent. For young designers weaned on Photoshop filters and Illustrator outlines, pushing the boundaries of text and image is an expected pursuit. These experiments in graphic form, divorced from conceptual value and substantive content, can only rest for so long on the laurels of technology.
In this world of staggering visual possibility, where do young designers look to bridge the gap between the conceptual and the digital? In his article, Been There, Seen That, Doing It Tomorrow, Rick Poynor remarks that David Carson’s embrace of corporate advertising serves “merely to conspire in and speed up the commodification of his own design process.”¹
[1.] Rick Poynor. There, Seen That, Doing It Tomorrow Frieze, № 8, Sept-Oct, 1994 p. 5
This commodification is a direct consequence of the way we have come to accept digital form-giving as only an aesthetic device — stripped of its communicative potential. The digital is seen merely as a way of making things look, not a way of communicating. Poynor himself is contributing to the commodification of design. In his books, Typography Now and The Graphic Edge, while providing designers with a glimpse of contemporary work within the field, relinquish the communicative understanding of graphic design pieces to the three-sentence caption and the reproduction picture window. This showcasing promotes, even celebrates, the separation of what we perceive from what we understand about developments within contemporary graphic design. How then, does this formalist slant help a young designer realize his/her place within the future of the field?
Must I commit creative suicide at the hands of corporate advertising to have any value within culture? Is my only power as a communicator the marketability of my own visual language? These issues weigh heavily on the minds of young designers who feel comfortable with digital technology as a means of articulation and expression.²
: Jameson touches on this separation between the conceptual and the visual with regard to the spoken word: “Again, in normal speech, we try to see through the materiality of words (their strange sounds and printer appearance, my voice timbre and peculiar accent, and so forth) towards the meaning. As meaning is lost, the materiality of words becomes obsessive, as is the case when children repeat a word over and over again until its sense is lost and it becomes and incomprehensible incantation. To begin to link up with our early description, a signifier that has lost its signifier has thereby been transformed into an image.”
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and a Consumer Society. The Anti-aesthetic: essays on Postmodern Culture. Seattle: Bay Press. 1983. p.120
When we look for insight into these issues, cultural critics tell us that this commodifying trend is symptomatic of a larger societal phenomenon indicative of late capitalism. As Terry Eagleton states with regard to ideology and the condition of non-meaning in contemporary culture:
“The sway of utility and technology bleach social life of significance, subordinating use value to the empty formalism of exchange value. Consumerism bypasses meaning in order to engage the subject subliminally, libidinally, at the level of visceral response. Rather than reflective consciousness. In this sphere, as in the realms of media and everyday culture, form overwhelms content, signifiers lord over the signifiers, to deliver us the blank affectless, two-dimensional surfaces of a post modernist social order.” ³
: Terry Eagleton. Ideology: An introduction. London: Verso, 1991 p 39)
In this view, any cultural development only exists long enough for the valuable nuances of that development to be incorporated into the larger mass culture. The blurred boundaries between design, advertising, and entertainment in today’s marketplace have made this consumption and digestion of image even more pronounced. As a result, many graphic designers suffer from creative “pastiche” as their visual languages become recognized and mimicked by advertisers, corporations and other graphic designers. When the typefaces of Scott Makela, Zuzana Licko, Jeffery Keedy and other supposed type renegades are used to sell anything form Sports Illustrated to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, we recognize the terms like experimental and radical as applied to them are essentially irrelevant.
As the novelty of digital graphic manipulations continues to be a valuable commodity in the marketplace, many young designers feel they have nowhere else to turn but to corporate advertising to make a living. At the heart of this phenomenon remains the designer’s role in the client-designer relationship. The subjectivity and idiosyncrasy inherent in design approaches today (especially those fostered in Academia) runs counter to the traditional ideas of the designer’s role as an empirical problem solver.
The modernist notion of seamless communication through visual language is merely an ideological construct. Designers are not universal arbiters of information, nor do clients possess almighty knowledge concerning success and failure. As a consequence, the responsibilities of the graphic designer become more inclusive. If, indeed our world is a rich tapestry of societal, economic and cultural interplay, designers must position themselves as an integral part of it.
Marilyn Crafton Smith discusses this re-conception of graphic design as a cultural practice by positioning a model for cultural production. Unlike the traditional communication model of sender / message / receiver, examining communications through the notion of cultural production would shift the designer’s role from a focus on empirical communication to that of social meaning. Smith states:
“Assessing the specific conditions under which messages are transformed and given meaning provides insight into ways cultural forms are inhabited subjectively by their readers.” ⁴
: Marilyn Crafton Smith. Culture is the Limit: Pushing the Boundaries of Graphic Design Criticism and Practice. Visible Language Vol. 28 №4. Spring 1994 p.308
As young designers seek avenues to cultivate their creative energies, new sensibilities discovered through technology must actively intermesh with design practice. To effectively achieve this cohesion, the vertical structure of traditional design approaches — from client to designer to audience — must be shifted to a lateral orientation — client, artifact, and designer within culture — incorporating into a broader social framework. By repositioning visual communication as a culturally indigenous pursuit, professional practice must foster both specificity and diversity.
Designers must also recognize the instrumental role technology plays in the pluralization of information. Internet access, fiber-optic communication and digital voice recognition have altered the very way in which individuals communicate with one another. As a consequence, the development of interactive software, the construction of graphical browsers for the World Wide Web and other new communication opportunities become open doors through which young graphic designers can harness their abilities and establish new professional paradigms in the design field.
Though in its infancy, these relationships are developing in small design collectives in Europe and America. The interactive workshop of Post-Tool in San Francisco is but one example of designers working to establish methodologies that address both social specificity and new communication capabilities. With the advent of these new developments, the conceptual ability of the designer — the unique skill to develop ideas and transform them into artifacts — remains our most valuable asset. In Morality and Myth; The Bauhaus Reassessed, Dietmar R. Winkler asks the questions:
“What is the design morality or design responsibility of the professional? Is it possible to have no discriminatory opinions about the contents, purpose, and impact of communication messages on users and consumer?” ⁵
: Dietmar R. Winkler. Morality and Myth: the Bauhaus Reassessed. Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design. New York, Allworth Press. 1994 p.41
These considerations redirect design responsibilities from the empirical and formal into the moral, ethical and political. With the power to harness the codes of our social fabric, the designer’s irreverent habit of applying a cultural patina to satisfy the client’s needs must be overcome. To do so, designers (both young and old alike) must assume a more critical slant to form-giving. As Smith suggests:
“Traditionally, the design object and its form have been given primary emphasis in graphic design practice and criticism. Instrumentalist notions of form, that form is a tool for the transmission of pre-given meanings, must be revised to consider the links among the content, ideological themes and the particular form a graphic design product takes. Rather than relinquish form altogether, cultural studies need to recuperate it by showing its relevance to content and the production of meaning.” ⁶
: Marilyn Crafton Smith. Culture is the Limit: Pushing the Boundaries of Graphic Design Criticism and Practice. Visible Language Vol. 28 №4. Spring 1994 p. 315
With this shift from the design object and its production to design as a cultural production of meaning, designers can no longer approach audiences as merely a “viewing eye and devouring stomach.” ⁷ : Terry Eagleton. Ideology: An introduction. London: Verso, 1991 p 38)
The articulation of ideas through text and image — and understanding of what is being said, how, and why — must drive graphic design practice forward to bring formal advances technology has provided in tune the conceptual power of visual language.