Discourse, Joe Stewart

18 Aug 2020


Work & Co has built up an already impressive list of accomplishments — everything from the company leadership, to the culture, to the body of work. What are you most proud of so far?

That’s very nice of you to say. I’m most proud of some very, very basic things: I think the work we’re doing is good, and I believe in it. I like where I work, and I think my co-workers do too.

Maybe it seems too simple, but the goal of this project was really just to make good work, and make it with people we like in an environment we like. That was really it. The name “Work & Co” is just that - the two things that matter. The work you make and the company you keep.

It feels nice. I really do feel proud of the company. I guess I’ve never thought about that, but ya - I’m just proud that the idea worked and we’re all really happy. It’s silly to say – but – I love that. The partners at Work & Co and I all feel good about what we’ve been able to do so far and how good it feels to stick to your guns and go for it and have it work.

I will also have to say I’m very proud of the integrity we have shown as a company to only work on the things we really care about. We really love digital product design and think it’s important (and fun to work on). That’s all we do – just focus on digital product design. At times, it can be hard to say no to some opportunities that come your way that could grow our business, or whatever – but – in the end I’m really proud that we all simply agree upon what’s important to us, and that really is those two simple things. Work. Company. I really love that.

Conversely, is there something you can now say you would have done differently?

I think one thing that was a little hard in the beginning was that from day 1, Work & Co was on two coasts. I was on the west coast, and everyone else was on the east coast. I really (selfishly) wanted to move back to the west coast. I have two little boys, and it’s hard to do that in Brooklyn, so I moved to Portland right when the company started. This probably made things much harder than they needed to be… and I think I owe the NY guys a few beers over it, but – it’s all worked out. We now have about 80 people in New York, 20 in Portland, and another 20 in Rio. It worked out in the end, but it was a bit of a learning experience in terms of starting a company across multiple offices from day one.

Work & Co only makes digital products and services, yet the philosophy seems to give a pretty distinct nod to traditional principles of graphic design: type, form, play, wit. How important is it that these critical elements of our discipline remain elevated in the work you produce?

I’m glad you brought this up. So – all of us working in digital right now are the first generation of digital designers. We’re making the rules as we go. There are no greats to look up to or masters to study. It’s very hard to find inspiration in digital design, considering there isn’t much history there.

At Work & Co, all of us really go to the past - to other mediums to try to see how those before us solved problems. You bring up traditional graphic design in your question, and that’s a big one for us. There is so much to learn from what happened in print before our time to solve the same problems we face today. For example - today we have to design a website with 10 stories above the fold. Well, guess what - they literally had to do that too when designing newspapers, so - go study that. You’ll find your answer. Digital design is 99% type and grid. If you can nail type and grid, you’re gold. So, we study the masters of type and grid religiously, and all of them worked in more traditional media.

We’re also very very inspired by industrial design. Our job is to make tools… digital tools, but – it does the same thing. If we do our job very well, you will like using that tool. This is most often experienced in industrial design. Having a favorite knife because you love the way it feels, or the thought that went into it. Using certain pencils because they fit the best in your hand. Enjoying pressing the button on your coffee grinder… that’s a weird thing to like, but we all have these little things in life that we love to use. These things are what we strive for.

So, because there really isn’t much of this very high design for digital yet, we study the past to try to design for today.

Similarly, how important is it, as a designer, to remain close to and understand the work of design pioneers, like Saville, Vignelli, and Rams to name just one — those that truly helped shape our discipline?

To me it’s number one. This is the start. You have to know where this stuff came from. You have to understand what worked: How did these guys make it work? What was different about the way they thought or designed or practiced or approached that somehow made their work better than everyone else’s? So much of design is just reshuffling of existing ideas – and – to not know where the idea started from is very limiting to a designer.

It’s really similar to music. You can hear a song now and know that this band is just ripping off another band, and you’re better off listening to the original. Chances are the original guys probably had a much better album because they knew what they were doing. Same with design. If you look at the album covers before Saville, and the album covers that came after Saville… well… you know what I think: just study Saville.

Do you find that their work is still able to inspire day after day despite a growing artificial patina vying for our affection? I suppose what I’m asking is: can the digital design work of today possess soul? An ethos?

I think their work - the people you mentioned (Saville, Vignelli, Rams) - is still able to inspire day after day and forever. It will never stop. It’s in the pantheon. These people produced some of the best design the world has ever seen. To me, this is like asking if the statue of David is still inspiring even though it’s old. There are very few people working at this level now, and I don’t think any of them are working in digital. I don’t think digital, as a medium, is there yet. It’s not mature enough to ‘possess a soul’ as you say. It’s just too early. It will get there, and we have seen hints of it. Maybe the closest example I can think of is the original iOS. One of our Partners, Felipe, says it’s the best digital design that has been made, and he might be right. It was simple, and everyone on earth from age two to ninety-nine knew how to use it, and it did some very complicated things. Maybe something like that has an ethos. But, short of that… no… I don’t think we’re there yet. Maybe the Google home page? I don’t know… it’s all still black & white TV. We’re not anywhere near Vignelli, Saville, or Rams.

I’ve noticed that you refer to design as a discipline. What does that mean for you? Is it methodology? A mindset? What is it that makes how you view design a discipline?

Design is a hard thing to talk about. Most of design is very boring and laborious and terrifying. It’s mostly sitting at a desk or in a room and not knowing what to do. And that not knowing is scary and uncomfortable, and you spend half your time in that mindset, then the other half very meticulously and laboriously executing the idea to solve the problem. It’s “fear fear fear, a-ha!, dull dull dull” – that’s design. Because of that it’s tough to talk about - so I use words like discipline or medium to be able to talk about this really long sort of amorphous thing.

At its best, design is problem solving with intent. I can think of design as a discipline - as something to be studied and revered in order to make better decisions or execute those decisions better. I can also think of it as a medium - an approach I believe in to problem solving.

I don’t think design is a process. I don’t think there is a pattern for good ideas. Having a good idea is not replicable. I don’t think that sticky-notes and whiteboarding will necessarily lead to a good idea. Maybe sometimes it does, but the truth is nobody knows where the next good idea is. And that’s scary. So we have to trick ourselves into not being scared, and try to think of design as something that you can study and get better at. And, you do. You get better over time, but it’s hard. It’s not any less scary, but it gets easier to express your ideas, and your ideas get better. I often think about a saying used in road cycling, “it never stops hurting, you just get faster.” I think that’s what design is like.

Speaking of inspiration and discipline, I’ve found that it is integral to find inspiration outside of one’s profession in order to stay engaged, focused, sane. The same with discipline. What are these for you? I gather you’re a road cyclist (same here). How does the personal Joe nurture the professional Joe?

It’s easy to get stuck, or tired, or burnt out on design – especially if you stay on one project for a long time. I’ve spent years on the same project, and after a while you can’t tell what a good idea is anymore. Looking outside of design to reset is something everyone does. Some people do it with more intent than others, and I don’t know that I specifically do other activities in order to improve my design, but I think it probably happens accidentally. We all have those moments of surprising problem solving when we don’t expect it… in the middle of the night, or in the shower. It feels like the tip of the pencil gets dull, and you have to stop in order to sharpen it.

As you mentioned, cycling is a hobby of mine and I’ve really grown to love it over the years. Like design, it’s not something you have to stop as you get older. You can be with it for decades, and I really like that. I love the aesthetic of cycling, the romance of a big race like the Tour de France, and the bikes themselves are incredibly beautiful to me. I think half of my love for cycling is drooling over the bikes. I love being alone on the road. It’s a great sense of quiet, that is sometimes interrupted by these sharp points of danger, which is a great way to snap yourself out of almost anything. I love that you can see a place very differently on a bike than you can in any other way: you get the details of walking somewhere slow, but you get the larger context of the surrounding space. I really learned New York on a bike, and I think it’s the best way to experience that city. It’s an amazing way to stop thinking.

I’ve also, more recently, gotten into chess. I’m a terrible player, but I still enjoy playing. Trying to learn chess is a great way to feel bad about yourself – you constantly feel stupid – it’s extremely humbling. After some time, you start to be able to see how big the game really is, and it’s scary. It’s a terrifyingly complicated game that basically 5 people in the world are any good at. The rest of us are terrible, but that is actually sort of fun and comforting once you accept it.

The principles of chess also translate across other parts of life. A big part of it is the process of how to make a decision. You have to take your time and try to make the best choice, which is not necessarily the most obvious. This applies very well to design, of course. I have become better at taking the time to analyze the situation. I think chess taught me that. And it comes up about 100 times a day, so slowing down to try to make the best decision with intent is an incredibly useful habit. It’s also super fun, surprisingly social, and very addictive. It’s also the best game for iPhone, so you can always play someone wherever you are: it’s magic.

You mentioned in a recent exchange that part of what you wanted to change with starting Work & Co is the amount of time you spend actually designing — doing the thing we were trained to do: think and design. Do you at all feel like we’re moving away from these activities — thinking critically, engaging in discourse, drawing, designing with intent? In other words, do you feel we’re moving forward?

I really love designing. It’s fun. And for whatever reason, I had to start a company in order to be able to get back to doing it. I’ve had the chance to do a lot of introspection about what I want to get out of my career – and out of design in general. There were times in my life that being good was the goal, or being well known, or doing something that is remembered, or leaving a legacy, or changing the world or something. After years of thought, I think I have settled on what is important to me, as far as work goes. I want to enjoy what I’m doing. That’s it. On a daily basis, every day, I want to go into the office and enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy designing. I enjoy working through ideas. I enjoy working with other designers, developers, and strategists. I don’t enjoy spreadsheets, PowerPoint, staff resourcing, or thinking about profit margins. Seems simple enough, but to set up an environment where you can actually do this is pretty tricky.

So, when thinking about starting a new company, this was my goal. That’s it. So far it’s working. And, there are all sorts of side effects that I didn’t really plan on. 1) My work is the best it’s ever been. 2) I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. 3) The company is successful. None of this was a primary goal, but while focusing on my simple goal, enjoying what I’m working on, everything else fell into place.

I really just want to design. The act itself is the joy. That is the big revelation. The designing itself is the goal. It’s not any more complicated than that.

I referenced a growing artificial patina earlier — in part a jab at the pervasive nature of startup culture. What’s your take on what the startup landscape has done to design culture as a whole?

Boy, I’m divided on this one. Start-up culture is pretty divisive right now, and design gets mixed into it.

It’s nice that so many startups value design and consider it a key tenant to their company’s success. Younger people, who are a big part of start-up culture, I think naturally value design more than previous generations – which I really appreciate. They’ve grown up in the world where Apple is king and design counts. So, you’ve got all these next generation Steve Jobs’ out there looking for their Jony Ive. I love that.

The dark side of that is when design becomes a buzz-word to promote another agenda. Right now, it feels like the vast majority of start ups are only looking to make quick cash, and I hate seeing people promote “design” as a formulaic lever to do that. Design is sacred to me, and it’s hard to see startups abuse it and treat it like a commodity in order to reach their true goals. There is nothing worse to me than a salesman pretending to care about design because they think they can make more money that way. Charlatans.

But. Anyway –

I think the net is actually positive. There is a whole community that didn’t really exist before that thinks design matters, and that is a good thing.

My relationship with design can, at times, be quite tempestuous. There’s been times I wanted to just walk away. What is it that keeps you coming back day after day and working to get better? Has there ever been a time when you’ve thought “fuck it, I’m done”?

Oh man, yes, for sure. It’s hard to stay in it. It’s tiring. It’s taxing, and it never gets easier. Design is always hard and always scary. That will never go away.

I’ve been a full time professional digital designer since I was 19. I’m 38 as of this interview. In the last almost 20 years I’ve had a lot of dark moments with it.

The thing that has always kept me going is the moment when the project you are working on is the best thing you have ever done. When you’re designing something, and you know it’s the best thing you’ve ever made… man… I like that feeling. I think I’m still getting to work on things that are better than anything I’ve ever made, so, I want to see where that goes. As I keep at it, keep sharpening that knife, it gets sharper and sharper and the design gets better and better. I’m working on a few things that are really pushing the craft. To me, that says ‘keep going, don’t stop now.’ It’s why I choose to stay so close to the work – that feeling of making good products is such a huge motivator to me sticking in the game.

Also, working with other designers I look up to is a big one. This comes from my partners, my clients, and also younger designers at Work & Co. It’s so inspiring to see a young designer create a really thoughtful prototype and to work with them on promoting their craft. It makes me want to push harder on my own work.

Are there any books that you would say have been influential in shaping your career? Ones you consistently come back to for inspiration?

We could’ve just talked about this! I have a pretty decent collection of design books at home and in the office. I am always on the lookout for new ones. One of the nice things about living in Portland is that there is an amazing book store a few blocks from the office called Powell’s. I sneak over there on my lunch break pretty often to go look for books.

Most of what I look for is retrospectives of a designer or a company. I am not as into collections of a lot of people’s work; I really like buying books about a single entity. You can get inspired by the work itself, but also by their career. I’ve been designing for almost 20 years, and I get tired. It’s great to be able to look to people who did it for 50 and see how good they got. It makes me say “oh fuck, look at this designer – she’s 70 and still killing it – I want to be like her.”

Let’s see – here are a few books I have been into lately.

The Bob Noorda book, which I think is just titled Design is fantastic. Noorda was a designer at Unimark – maybe most famously he worked on the NY subway system with Vignelli – it’s amazing to see his work. Always so strong and bold.

I picked up an Otl Aicher retrospective which is gorgeous. I only knew him from his 1972 Munich Olympic work, and it was eye opening to see his commercial design. I didn’t know he did the Lufthansa mark which is one of my favorites.

I liked the Erik Spiekerman book Hello, I am Erik – it’s just nice to see a designer who is still working and killing it talk about design. Same goes for How To by Michael Beirut. Both of these books are fantastic.

Also, I really like to read about design companies. I try to study the successes and failures of design companies in order to try to make good decisions with Work & Co. There is a book about Unimark called, Unimark International: The Design of Business and the Business Design, which is great. It’s the story of a superstar design company growing too big too fast and taking on too many things and exploding. Lots of great stories and lessons there.

Pentagram has about 500 books, and I try to read most of them. I look to them as a role model for creating something over a long period of time that consistently produces incredible work. In a few decades, I’d love to be on that level with our company for digital product design. So I’m trying to soak up as much as I can about them, which is helpful and inspiring. I also love following their new partners – I am really into the work of Natasha Jen right now – she’s so daring, it scares me.

Lightning round - a few books I really like and recommend:

Naoto Fukasawa — Japanese industrial designer – most notably for Muji. I love the way he explains his thinking. He also co-authored a book just called Muji which is also great.

Vignelli from A-Z — I read all the Vignelli books, but I like this one the most. It shows his good stuff, but also a lot of his goofy stuff (like the clothes… oof) – again it’s great to just hear him explain how he and Lella think.

40 Days of Dating — I think Jessica Walsh is incredible, and I try to stay up to date on everything she does.

Helvetica / Objectified / Urbanized: The Complete Interviews — This book is the full transcripts of the interviews for the films – I love reading the longer form Interviews.

Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style — This is the book that I recommend for people when they are getting started, or people who don’t study design as part of their job. When developers or strategists ask for a book recommendation I always go with this one.

I think we all have something — something small — that we look forward to each day. Something that helps set the tone for the day or view it through a softened lense. For me, it’s that first cup of coffee after meditation each morning. What is it for you?

I usually wake up around 5AM and go to the gym – it sucks to get up, but it puts my head on straight. I have more patience, concentration, and stamina when I work out. It’s good for the body, but it’s great for the brain. If you want to have a good day at the office, have a good day at the gym first. I’m skinny and weak and I’m sure I look silly trying to bench press, but, just going makes me feel 100x better.

Like you, I’m also into meditation. I use the Headspace app, which is fantastic. I recommend it to anyone. It makes something pretty difficult to learn and maintain very simple. The UI is great, but the program itself is fantastic. It’s really an A+ product.

I also love to read a bit right when I get to the office. Just reading for 10 minutes or so before I settle in gets my mind straight. I try to do it first thing. It sets to tone for the day. It’s nice to read just to calm yourself, but also, if you’re reading about great work it lets you see the big picture and not sweat the small problems so much.

You’ve already built a solid foundation for Work & Co. What’s next? Where do you and your team want to take it?

The ultimate goal is to be the first great digital design firm. Since the medium is so new, there really isn’t one yet. So – I think the best ad agency is W+K. I think the best branding agency is Wolf Ollins. I think the best graphic design agency is Pentagram. Best digital company? There isn’t one yet. We want to be that. As with the others, it will take time to get there. The plan is to take it slow, make long-term decisions, and focus. Focus on the work, on the people we work with, on making sure people have a good life, on recruiting the best people in the world, on making amazing products with our clients… repeat.

Again, it’s super simple – we want to keep getting better at what we’re already doing. Keep sharpening the pencil. Keep improving, learning new skills, improving our design theory, just keep going. And as we keep going, we want to make sure we’re enjoying every moment of it.

For me, simply to design is the goal, the reward is in the act itself. My next step? Just keep designing.