Design Matters, In Print: Frank Chimero

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Chimero hit the industry by storm as an illustrator, graphic designer and interaction designer. He was a Print New Visual Artist in 2010, and has made a name for himself as a multidisciplinary polymath working for a multitude of clients in multiple mediums. Most recently, Chimero collaborated with Tina and Ryan Essmaker, designing the print version of their popular website The Great Discontent, he has been involved in a top-secret project for NPR, and he is still doing award-winning illustration and web work. While I initially felt that I couldn’t possibly ask Chimero for a redux, I ultimately gathered up the courage to tell him the truth and request another interview. He took the snafu in stride and generously gave me another opportunity to talk about his career and his life as a designer and artist.

Thank you again for doing this a second time! I’m going to mix it up and ask different questions, as I don’t think it is a good idea to have the same conversation twice. OK, people are going to read this and they’re going to say, “Frank and Debbie are so chummy!”

The first thing I want to talk with you about is your book, The Shape of Design. What was the impetus to raise the funds to self-publish it on Kickstarter in 2011? I decided to use Kickstarter because nobody in the design community had really used it yet. It was in an unusual territory: It was a company started by designers, but the design community wasn’t participating in it yet. So it seemed like a ripe opportunity. I also felt that [my book] would not be terribly appealing to a conventional publisher. At the time, a project like this was totally out of left field for me. I had been writing a bit, but it was a risk. It worked out well in the end, but I think the large part of my Kickstarter success was because of the timing. In 2012, it was one of the first big design projects on the site.

Did you worry that you might not be successful in your funding? Not really. I had set a very modest goal for a printing: $22,000. That’s a really low budget to print a hardcover book; any lower and it would be totally unreasonable. If I made it any higher, then I would’ve had doubts about being successful. $22,000 seemed to be the sweet spot. I figured I could live off my savings to do the writing.

You were willing to live off your savings to write a book? Why? Two reasons. The first was that while I was teaching my undergraduate classes, I felt that there was a real need for an impractical design book to help people think through the process of making design that lives in the world. I wanted to investigate the answers to questions including, “What does it mean to make things for other people, and what does it mean to develop your own ideas?” I couldn’t find anything to offer to my students that considered these questions. The second reason was that I was doing a lot of editorial illustration, and I could sense there was an ax over my head. It felt like this genre of work was coming to an end for me. I was starting to get bored and I was also a victim of the editorial cycle. For example, I was being asked to make six or seven illustrations about iPhones a month! How many ways can you draw an app icon or a flat rectangle? There are people who can do this all day and keep it fresh and interesting, but I was running out of steam.

You begin The Shape of Design with a quote from E.E. Cummings: “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” Why? Getting started on a design process is about clearly phrasing these questions: “What are the objectives of the project?” or “What are we actually building this for?” and “What are we trying to do?” These are difficult questions that must be answered before any design begins.

Why are they difficult? Speaking for myself and my own creative process, you need the friction of the process to suss out your own bullshit [laughs]. It needs to be said out loud for it to seem as full of hot air as it actually is. One of the good things about pointed, well-phrased questions is that they are a good bullshit detector. I think well-phrased questions become heat-seeking missiles for clarity. If you want to do anything good in design, it helps to be clear about what you’re trying to make.

Do you find that you work better when there are more specific objectives, or do you work better when you have a more open, abstract landscape? I like having both. I want a lot of clarity at 10,000 feet, and I want a lot of clarity at two feet. Everything in between becomes the opportunity. For me, design has changed from a method of decoration to a manner of construction. How do the pieces fit together? How can we design things so they are useful, scalable and maintainable? This was particularly important when I stopped illustrating, began consulting and working as an interface designer. My new landscape was incredibly technical, with a lot of specific necessities. I think you have an abundance of technical constraints whenever you transition into that space; you’re typically designing for unknown content, so you are designing systems. The scalability of those systems is what counts. It is not simply a matter of how many pages you serve out or how big a page can be. It is also about how different kinds of content can elegantly fit into what you’ve made.

Prior to this transition, did you really feel that design was a method of decoration? I can hardly imagine a time when you were working in a purely decorative mode. I think decoration can communicate. It’s never been willfully esoteric. I’ve always wanted to get ideas across. But whatever I was doing, whether self-initiated or commissioned illustrations, I was—in large part—decorating somebody else’s ideas.

There can be a lot of value in that. Isn’t that a functional, decorative expression? Yes. Decoration isn’t necessarily bad. I think that there’s value in adding beauty and whimsy and visual elegance to something. Not everything needs to be—or should be—austere.

You were interviewed on a site called Scout Books, and you were asked to describe your style. You seemed to bristle at the question, and stated, “style is a complicated thing now.” Some people tell young designers to avoid style so they can grow in different directions. But the market demands that illustrators have a style so clients can minimize risk and predict what they will get. Other people state that no style is a style. Do you feel that there’s a Frank Chimero-ness to your work? Do I have aesthetic tendencies? Yes. Do I have habits of tone in the work I produce? Yes, absolutely. But I think there’s a lot of overlapping ideas in the things that I’m making and in the aesthetics they communicate.

How would you describe them? They’re sprawling.

[Laughs.] That’s a good word. I relish taking two things that seemingly don’t have anything to do with each other and discovering a way to bring them together. Then you can begin to describe the bigness of an idea, or the diversity of the world, and communicate commonalities between fields or ideas or history or anything. But it can feel very unfocused if you’re not really diligent. Bringing disparate ideas together and finding a way to frame them so that they are related is a tone I frequently run into.

I read that your favorite medium to work in is with a wooden pencil and some loose paper. Yes, you get to make a pile! When I’m working digitally, it’s easy to undo the work that you’ve done, so you can’t see everything you’ve created unless you explicitly duplicate something every time you change it. But with a wooden pencil and some copier paper, it’s just out there on the table and you can watch the stack of blank paper get smaller, and the stack of paper that has drawings on it—good or bad—get taller. I like being able to circle my good ideas, and I like being able to crumple up and throw away the bad ones. It’s all very satisfying and you can really visualize the work.

I love the continuity of progression. Exactly. This happened, and then that happened, and then this happened, but then I tried this, but then I went back to that. Often, I’ll write a number in the corner of each page and circle it so I really know the progress of everything and the order in which it all happened. Typically, at the end of a job, I trash that stack of paper. It’s satisfying on every level. It feels great to have the document, and it feels great to finish something and say these aren’t useful anymore because it’s done.

Do you ever have experiences where your clients have a very specific idea of what they want something to become, and you think, “No, no, that’s not right; I don’t want to do it that way”? What happens then? It happens every once in a while. I’ve been lucky; it happens fewer and further between. It’s different every time it happens. Sometimes I say, “Hey, I know you have a lot of expertise here, but this is what I’m thinking. Can you tell me why these ideas are not the right ones?” Or sometimes I’ll go their way. Luckily, the engagements are usually long enough where you can entertain people’s assumptions. That’s all that these things are—they’re assumptions.

In this case, you’re talking about a conflict of assumptions where I have one set of assumptions and they have another set. It’s really important to figure out ways to suss out which are correct. Luckily, when there have been disagreements, my clients have had a rigid enough internal process that we’ve been able to test the assumptions. What’s ironic is that when clients have a set of assumptions that are in conflict with mine, almost every single time we are both wrong.

[Laughs.] That’s really interesting.

I think we look at conflicts as if one party is right and one is wrong. Maybe conflict is an indicator that you’re both wrong.

I came across an interesting self-assessment that I want to share with you. You’ve said, “I talk to the designers, and they think I’m an illustrator. The illustrators think I’m a web guy. The web folks think I’m a typography person. The type people think I’m a designer.” I’m curious if you think this multidisciplinary skill set is a requirement for young designers today. I don’t know. I can’t speak for anybody else’s career path. Mine has been so bizarre. I started in one place and then shifted over to another. It feels like every four years I sort of look around and realize, I’m in a different country than I used to be. But it’s been a great benefit for me. I have several friends who have benefited from this as well. I think there’s a whole subclassification of illustrators now who started out as designers, but the design work that they were doing was mostly image-making. Mikey Burton describes himself as a “designy illustrator.” He went to school for graphic design, he has a master’s degree in graphic design and he worked as a brand designer for years. Now he’s doing illustration work. Oliver Munday is another great example. He’s creating illustrations and designing book covers simultaneously. Jessica Hische is a great example of this too.

Has starting your own studio changed the way you work? Yes and no.

What made you decide to take on another way of communicating who you are? That’s why the studio is called “Another.” It’s another name. Most of the associations with my name come from my self-initiated work. People don’t necessarily associate it with the work I’ve done for my clients. People presume that I’m not someone that’s hirable. This was the more explicit reason.

Did you imagine when you were first named a Print New Visual Artist that this is where your life would be? The funny thing about my being a Print New Visual Artist is that all the work featured in that issue is work I don’t do anymore. Frankly, I was not expecting to take such a sharp, quick turn. A lot has changed since then. It’s fascinating to go back and see how that momentum allowed me to change directions. I appreciate the nod for the body of work and take a lot of pride in the work that was shown.

Any idea where you might be in several years? No. No idea [laughs]. You should know this: The road drives. I’m trying to be a bit more explicit about steering things, choosing things and pursing them than I have been in the past. Sometimes you make your opportunities, and sometimes you trip over them. You can also plan yourself out of opportunities. The good thing is, at the end of the day I’m totally stoked with where things are right now and what my days look like. Sometimes it’s a matter of following a whim, and to do whatever you want when the pencil hits the page.

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