What Matters: Alex Center on Swimming Pools and Hating On Design Crits

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Alex Center is a Brooklyn-based designer, mentor, speaker, husband, podcaster, creative director, and founder of the award-winning design studio CENTER. He is best known for building iconic brands like Vitaminwater, SmartWater, Conbody, Kin Euphorics, Good Light, Heywear, and United Sodas of America. 

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

That is a question I’ve asked myself a lot lately. For the last 15 years, this would’ve been easy; the answer would be designing. Making, solving problems, working with others, and all the things that come from being a designer bring me more joy than anything else. But today I have a new answer—swimming. Yes, swimming. 

There’s a feeling that I get from being in a pool, surrounded by water, and the only word I can use to describe it is freedom. No one wants to talk about anything complicated in a pool. No one asks you about their creative opinions in a pool. There’s no technology or social media in a pool. 

A pool is a place where the only thing that matters is the pool. That makes me incredibly happy.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

I used to draw for fun with my mom when I was a young kid. We would set up a fruit bowl in our kitchen and sketch it as realistically as possible using pencils and markers. My mother is a talented artist and I credit her for teaching me at a young age that drawing could be an enjoyable hobby and a lifelong profession. Thanks, Mom! 

What is your biggest regret?

I don’t have a ton of regrets in my life. I’m pretty good at blocking things out and moving on when I make a wrong decision or if something doesn’t go my way. Is that healthy? Probably not. 

The biggest regret that I have, at the moment, is that when I left my job at Coca-Cola, I didn’t take more time for myself before I jumped into building my studio. If I could go back, I would’ve taken a few months to rest/recharge/regroup before I jumped into my next chapter. I haven’t taken off more than two consecutive weeks in the last 15 years. I definitely regret that.  

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

I block it out and move on. I trust that some things are just not meant to be, and while I try to control most things in my life, some things are simply out of my control.

What makes you cry?

The thing that makes me cry is death. There’s something about the fact that we are only on this planet for a finite amount of time that really makes me sad. Whenever I watch a movie, and it reminds me of this, it really gets to me. I think the first 15 minutes of Pixar’s Up is the hardest I’ve ever cried in my life. Oh, and my mom’s retirement party. I cried like a baby. I really struggle when I’m reminded that our time is limited. 

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Not long at all. I wish it would last longer. Earlier this year, our studio won two Cannes Lions, arguably the highest achievement in creativity. I was ecstatic. But the immense joy I felt on Monday was already gone by Friday. It’s a real shame as I dedicate so much of my life to my work. You would think that achieving something at that level would last a little longer, but it didn’t. That made me rethink some things.  

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I think I do. I don’t know what it looks like, but I hope it feels like a beach at 5 pm on a late summer afternoon. The sun is going down, there’s a light breeze, and I have a comfy chair and a great book to read. 

What do you hate most about yourself?

I hate that I can’t take criticism without being offended and hurt at my core. I feel like I should be in a place where if someone says something critical about me or my work, I’d be able to let it roll off my chest and not let it bother me so much. I’m pretty thin-skinned, and I hate that about myself. I also hate that I can’t seem to find balance in my diet. I’ve had a challenging relationship with food my entire life. I find myself looking at people with great or even normal body shapes and think, why can’t that be me? I hate that. 

What do you love most about yourself?

The way I treat and care for others. I think if you asked my friends and family and all the people I’ve ever worked with or for, they would say that I treated them with respect, appreciation, and kindness. I pride myself on that. When I’m gone, I hope I’m remembered for how I treated others more than anything that I’ve made or accomplished.  

What is your absolute favorite meal?

I love a fancy Michelin-rated restaurant as much as anyone, but at my core, I’m a pretty simple guy. My favorite meal is a plate of buffalo wings, a french onion soup, and a burger. I’m also definitely going to need an iced cold beer to wash it all down.