Designer of the Week: Rachel Abrams
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Name: Rachel Abrams
Name of Firm/Studio: Turnstone Consulting
How would you describe your work? Formally, I describe the work as helping small, medium, large, x-large public organizations and commercial enterprises see and say what they mean:
In my various roles for Turnstone’s clients, my work improves and reimagines everyday experiences of public and for-profit products and services, in the built environment, and in digital spaces.
With words that illustrate and pictures that explain, and treating design as a verb, a process, a change agent, Turnstone helps clients tell complex stories with clarity to consumers, customers and citizens.
My work tends to be medium-agnostic: Writing and drawing, the outcomes vary, but the theme is usually to make life work better for someone, somewhere, somehow. I’ve found myself in the business of making heavy stories light, making dry matter appealing, complexity good looking and accessible.
Making things that live on screen, on the street, on decision makers’ desks, Turnstone’s varied work is most easily understood when demonstrated by project. And I’ve learned to say, “I have jobs” instead of “I have a job” or worse, the freelancer’s favorite “I don’t have a job.” I’d often be asked if Turnstone is “just” me, and I eventually figured the right response is, “Yes, all me.” Susan Sontag wrote about the significance of these distinctions: better to be at the center of things than merely in the middle, unable to take sides, she observed. I’d always joined great teams to contribute strategy upfront, and these days, the projects that require me to execute an idea, as well as conceive it, are more collaborative than ever.
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Design school attended: Royal College of Art, London – Interaction Design, 1998-2000. In those days the program was called Computer-related Design, which was commonly and sorely mistaken for CAD. A program of fewer than 20 people a year, it was like the Bauhaus with electronic breadboards.
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Where do you find inspiration? From a bunch of energetic people and places but also by regularly disrupting the graft, so let’s go with 1 part Monocle magazine-style overstimulation to 1 part serious downtime:
– From specific friends and collaborators whose minds work differently from anyone else I know but somehow get me to stretch mine. My former student and intern, and now ongoing collaborator, Emery Martin (co-founder of Electronic Countermeasures, and also my current collaborator), has always been one of my wisest counsel.
– Messy desks at Pentagram always have some shiny new printed matter winking at me on the days I go in to join forces with those superheroes.
– From exhibits. When I’m back in London, I’ll try to pack in a pile of shows. I’m very proud of two of my friends who’ve become curators of major institutions there since I left. Without fail I always draw inspiration from the stories they’ve shaped. It’s my way to reconnect with the city that shaped my sense of the world. And in its finest moments, London really does reflect the rest of the world in the best ways.
– Deep, deep, deep in the notes list on my phone. Between grocery lists, FedEx tracking numbers and wotnot, there’s great wisdom … or at least a book reference I’d forgotten about.
– Between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., live music. All day, I’m required to be analytical, verbal: I’m a talker, no doubt, but there’s also a lot of quiet, active listening, silent interpretation, in my work. I end up experiencing what I hear visually, I suppose articulating ideas calls for that. Then music allows me to space out enough to process, reflect, without words. It’s less about switching off, more about changing channels. I find staring at a laptop keyboard doesn’t allow much drift so that loosening becomes essential for problem-solving and opportunity-spotting. If you don’t know what I’m on about, pay close attention to all the pub scenes in “The Imitation Game.” The breakthroughs come in these interstitial scenes away from their desks.
– And, cheesy as it sounds, from teaching, actually. There’s something about having to figure out how to convey enthusiasm for something to people who’ve no idea about it that forces me to make linkages between ideas that otherwise, rather arbitrarily, live in separate job folders.
Do you have a favorite among all the projects you’ve worked on?
I’m certainly proud to have been involved in Walk NYC—it’s fun to walk past my work every day. [Abrams talks more about designing NYC’s wayfinding “infostructure” here.]
Making cabs available for street hailing in Brooklyn and Queens and upper Manhattan is also something I’m happy Turnstone contributed to. Asking ‘What if…?’, we [as Design Trust fellows] nudged the City to formalize what was not only already happening but also clearly in great demand. Changing things for the better can be slow until it’s obvious and immediate.
I also love that my live drawing and visual thinking has taken me to Senegal, Texas, the English seaside and backstage.
Recently, I’ve come to love best the work that I’ve generated without a very strict client brief, the stuff that has a personal stance to it, a visually elaborate rant with a toolbox of design skills and processes, a heap of research, some star collaborators, profound experiences brought to bear.
Specifically advocating for clearer thinking about technology, the economy, creating more just environments for people to work and raise families, the animated documentary short film I just finished for Open Society Foundation was one of those moments. Yvonne Jukes and Kate Nicholson and I were like Charlie’s Angels on that project. Grants are permission to wave your opinions about in the world, and it feels like a huge responsibility while you’re slogging through the work, and then a huge privilege to have anyone pay attention and act on them.
Is there a project that stands out to you as having been the biggest challenge of your career so far? Challenge is such a loaded word: In one sense I only want to do projects that are challenging, insofar as I don’t want to be about to tell at the outset what the outcome is going to be, I just want to know how and trust that we can get there, then figure out what that there looks like. That pretty much covers all the way finding work, the taxi projects, the live drawings, some cannot-be-mentioned-before-launch branding projects. I treat them like maps and puzzles: Rules and constraints that are generative, not restrictive, interest me.
I mean, much elaborate, emotionally evocative music is made with just 8 notes so I think of thoughtful, complex design solutions the same way: there’s a process and a budget and schedule but the context and temperaments of teams and other resources like luck and a great idea in the mix produce infinitely variable outcomes. That’s how it stays interesting to me. The other less constructive sense of “challenging” is almost always to do with what Eric Berne called “Games People Play.” For details, I guess I’ll have to write my memoirs.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future? Am definitely defending the space to draw in as many different contexts as I can. It’s as if the strategy and written work about and for design and designers has been a foundation, a (decade-and-a-half-long) preparatory phase—now I’m getting down to the bedrock, some serious creative partnerships, meaningful deliverables, to the heart of the things that seem worth spelling out—in pictures. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible I’ll get drawn back into the debates that OSF film tackles, and start a feminist bank. Or finally build the next taxi of tomorrow for NYC, which will have to be a boat at this rate. But let’s be clear, I couldn’t explore any of this without regular client work, which I am at least as grateful for.
What’s your best advice for designers today? 1. Decide early in your career, maybe in your second or third real gig, if the point of these first jobs is to teach you how to climb the corporate ladder (which is perfectly legit) or if it’s to grab skills and take them elsewhere (the public realm is gonna need you … the global South might deign to hire you), or it’s to teach you how work works so you can start your own thing.
2. The other stuff that doesn’t feel like designing (getting work, paying bills, marketing) is all part of the work. It takes time to develop a voice. It emerges through not around the work, it turns out.
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