Meet Designer of the Week Galen Smith, a lover of graphic design history, ephemera and visual weirdness in the world around us. You may recognize his beautiful graphic design work from the 2015 Regional Design Annual, in which Smith was recognized as representing the top talent from the NYC region. [View all of the 2015 RDA winners online, and if you want to see your work in the industry’s most prestigious and well-respected American design competition, be sure to enter before the April 1 deadline.]
Name: Galen Smith
Name of Studio: Hardscrabble Projects
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Design school attended: Portfolio Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
How would you describe your work?
I try to make my designs attractive, reasonable, compelling, carefully crafted, and as smart and exciting as possible. I always try to be true to the project and its own internal sense and present it in an honest and interesting way to the reader or viewer.
The basic look and style of my designs change with the subject matter, but they often reference earlier design styles and try to learn from them. Underneath the design style and concept of the project I like to have fairly strict structures and systems, grids and size ratios. I feel like these underlying design parameters help me keep the designs balanced and elegant even when they are visually casual or cluttered.
Where do you find inspiration?
A lot of my day-to-day inspiration comes from the project I’m working on, learning about its content and ideas, dealing with its text and images. Getting immersed in the project’s world always presents unexpected and inspiring connections.
I also love graphic design history, both high and low. Seeing how earlier designers of book covers, how-to manuals, type specimen books, record sleeves, and various printed ephemera approached their design problems is very eye-opening. The thinking and styling (or sometimes the lack thereof) is endlessly inspiring.
Who are some of your favorite designers or artists?
The designers and artists that I most admire are from the early to mid-20th century. I love the work of early Soviet artists and designers like Kasimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko; their work is beautiful yet structured and full of abstract energy. I’m also drawn to the photomontages and collages of John Heartfield and Kurt Schwitters with their striking graphic design qualities and the double graphic attraction of often being made out of other pieces of graphic design. I find the mid-century masters like Herbert Bayer, Lester Beall, Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand and their contemporaries endlessly amazing—so clean, striking and smart. The work of outsider artists that combine text and image also fascinates me, especially Henry Darger and Howard Finster.
Do you have a favorite among all the projects you’ve worked on?
I’m very proud of the book cover I designed for The Steampunk Users Manual (which was selected for inclusion in the 2015 Print Regional Design Annual). It was very interesting as both a design and a research project; I learned a lot about the steampunk aesthetic and about the spectacular printer-designers of the late 1800s.
But my favorite project is a book of photos of graffiti and defacements I authored called New York D!©k – Lewd drawings and obnoxious comments on New York City advertising posters. I did the book start to finish from shooting the photos to writing the book proposal, on through interior and cover design, and writing a supporting blog. The whole process was endlessly interesting and a rare opportunity to seriously work on a subject that wasn’t very serious.
Is there a project that stands out to you as having been the biggest challenge of your career so far?
The most challenging project I’ve done was a series of books I designed for Food Network personality Alton Brown, Good Eats. It was a three-volume set featuring recipes and factoids from over 100 shows. The books are 300 to 400 pages each, with hundreds of images and drawings, multiple designers and illustrators providing art and assistance, and a very involved author and publishing team. The author had a highly personal vision, which lead to a complex design solution that was eclectic and unique, but very hard to keep functioning. Each book had extra elements to research and design such as a fold-out jacket/poster, a dvd of broadcast outtakes and even a set of directions and ornaments to help you make your own sock puppets just like the ones on the show. The books were a big success, and his fans loved all the extras.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
I hope to keep on doing good graphic design on every project I do and making a living at it; it’s a somewhat humble goal, but it’s a real one. I also hope to do more self-generated projects that present graphic phenomena, ephemera and oddities, sometimes with the intent to seriously inform the design community but also just to enjoy the visual and cultural weirdness that’s all around us. I find strange and small graphic memes to be very informative in unexpected ways, and I feel that looking for them, researching them, and presenting them in interesting ways is very fascinating.
What’s your best advice for designers today?
My advice to all of us, myself included, is to do your best work, always be able to look back at a project (whether it’s a success or a failure) and know you made it the best it could be, that you learned something, and that the finished product is better off than it would have been without you. We have a special relationship with our projects that others involved often don’t understand. Our interest and our designs help the project be wonderful, and our work helps everyone who interacts with that project experience how wonderful it is.