Ryan: Before we get started with the interview, I’m curious about what you’ve been up to. I know you’re working with Wire and Twine, right?
Yep. When folks ask me what I do, the answer is, “As little as possible.” My goal in life is to work just enough to make great stuff and enjoy life. That’s one of the reasons I live in Ohio. I can afford to make mistakes and experiment.
The long answer? I’m a designer. I tend to hang in the realm of web, icons and identity, but I’ll dip my toe in print from time to time. For fun, we make t-shirts and other goods at Wire & Twine1 and, for personal enjoyment, I take photos. Right now, I’m working on an identity project, a website, an iPad app, and I’m sure there’s something else I’m forgetting. I should use my to-do list more.
Describe your path to becoming a designer.
It was a bit of an accident. I fell in love with design in high school and didn’t really know it. Listening to music and looking at album covers by bands like The Pixies, I saw the little words, “album designed by Vaughan Oliver,” so I started buying 4AD albums just because I liked the album art. I fell in love with his style: a mix of photography, form, and type. It was a little grungy sometimes, unpredictable, but you could always tell it was his work.
During this time, my high school also got a single Macintosh and laser printer. We were the first class to assemble the newspaper on a computer. That was in 1989. I fell in love with moving pixels around.
For some reason, I had in my mind to attend Ohio State and pursue a film degree, but when I got there, I found out that the film program was being phased out. Trying to figure out whats next, I reasoned that film is visual, so I enrolled in the graphic design program. In the back of my mind, I always thought that I would get back around to film.
I dove into the design program at OSU, which at the time was a Bachelor of Science. Our professors explained why this denotation was unique: design was a science, a process that could be applied to anything. Essentially, you look at something, see what the problem is, craft solutions, test them, and launch. Then you do it all over again if you want to make it better. You can apply this to anything. I thought, I can do this, I dig this. It’s clinical.
I completed the 4 year program at Ohio State and studied in Switzerland along the way. That time abroad really started to inform my minimalism. I’m a clean, simple designer. Some may see this as laziness. It goes back to that whole, what’s the least amount of work I can do? But ultimately, that’s the work I don’t hate. There’s a joke among friends that know me. When asked if I like something, I say it doesn’t displease me. So much of design displeases me, but if it’s clean, functional, and does its job, I’m happy.
Unknowingly, I was probably always a designer, I just didn’t know what that was. I was lucky that I fell into it. Once I did it, I enjoyed it, and it was reaffirming to know that the way I evaluated things visually had an approach, rules, technique, and even purpose.
“Unknowingly, I was probably always a designer, I just didn’t know what that was. I was lucky that I fell into it. Once I did it, I enjoyed it, and it was reaffirming to know that they way I evaluated things visually had an approach, rules, technique, and even purpose.”
Was there a specific “aha” moment during that whole process where you knew that design was what you wanted to do?
Hmm, you know, I don’t think there was a specific moment. In high school, I worked on the homecoming floats for my class starting my sophomore year. I was the lead guy. We visualized plans and created a team to build these things out of wood, chicken wire, and folded up pomps (tissue). They were ridiculously ornate floats and I loved it. That’s one of my life goals, to build a parade float again.
I think that joy of having something in your head and then seeing it become real is an “aha”. It’s like a high. You want to do it again, to get better at it, or prolong it. I still get that way when a project launches. There’s the excitement and then the release, which can lead to backlash, praise, or people actually using something and getting value out of it in a tangible way.
How about your childhood? Was creativity a part of that?
Oh, yeah. I was the youngest of 4 and I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but I was separated by my siblings by more than a handful of years so I got bored easily. I have this very specific memory where I was crying to my mom that I was bored. She took me by my shoulders and said, “Never be bored. There’s so much in the world to do. How could you ever possibly be bored?”
Whenever I had an inkling of something I wanted to do, my parents were incredibly supportive. Early on, I really enjoyed drawing, so they took me to Saturday morning drawing classes at the art museum in Cincinnati. At an early age, I learned printing skills, painting, drawing with a pen, stipple, cross-hatching. That was informative as far as building a visual language. I went to art camps, computer camp, and took creative classes in school. Even choir had a discipline that relates to a design approach. I also liked Legos as a child. They were a lot like pixels back then, just squares, and you had to see what you could make with them.
Ryan: It seems like you have a pretty fun work environment with your partners at Wire & Twine. How did that come about?
In my first drawing class at Ohio State, I was struck by this girl, Wendy. She had her own angle on things. I dug her immediately, but after the first week, she was gone from the class. I saw her in the hall and she told me she dropped the class because she didn’t think it was going to be challenging. She convinced me to switch to the art class she was in because the teacher was awesome. He was. His name was Mike Arrigo and before switching to his class, I thought I had a good grip on how to draw. He taught us how to re-see the world. It was really a simple technique of removing what you think you see; everything is reduced to shapes. We would start by squinting and looking at a blurry subject and then sharpening the picture. I got better at drawing and, through the process, I became friends with Wendy, who was also in the graphic design program. She single-handedly got me through college. She’s the organized one who has a plan and doesn’t freak out by long-term thinking. I’m a little more emotional and impulsive. She helps me chill out.
After college, Wendy and I worked together at a web company in Cincinnati and met up with this character, Tom, a designer that just moved back to Ohio after some time in California. He and I instantly hit it off talking about music and a shared love of art, design, quirky humor, and creating things. Wendy and him also hit it off and got hitched. That was about ten years ago. Somewhere in the middle, I was off working on my own and these two had started a family. Tom and I had been experimenting with screen-printing in our spare time and it just seemed like the right moment to get together, make stuff, and see what happens. So we started printing t-shirts in their basement and soon outgrew the space. Wire & Twine seemed to officially get off the ground when we took over the woodworking shop on their farm.
Our mission is to create, teach, and share. Wendy is very visual, she’s got a very personal style that is sensitive, articulate, and orderly. Tom is crazy artistic, a designer, but he also can build things from electronics to contraptions made with wood. I am the guy who loves the web. We’re all creative. We’re probably too creative for our own good. We don’t plan well. We’re probably not the best with numbers and day to day logistics and management. But, we get by and we still love each other as people. That’s important because when you’re cooped up like that in a small space, you’d better like the person you’re with or be able to say exactly what you mean and not harbor any disgruntlement. Is that a word? It is now.
Our space is pretty rural (about 45 minutes outside of Cincinnati). The studio is usually a mess. We’ve got a workshop for woodworking, a darkroom, a screen-printing press and a bunch of inspiration detritus. I should also mention that Wendy just started teaching Montessori preschool. Right now we’re figuring out how we can blend that new angle and become even better. She’s the vote breaker so things aren’t going to change entirely.
You talked about your family being supportive of you. Who do you think has encouraged you the most along your creative path?
The people that have probably supported me the most would be my mom and dad. My dad passed away a few years ago, but my mom until this day is super supportive… It’s funny because I just did a tattoo for Tattly. It’s the word “mother” and an anchor. There’s a lot of truth to that because my mom’s always been an anchor for me. She’s my base whenever I get too off-kilter. I can go to her with things like, “Oh mom, I just did this logo and everybody hated it.” She’ll reply with, “You know, it probably won’t matter in a few years.” I know she’s right. She really is my anchor.
It doesn’t end with my mom. I had really supportive teachers in college. There were a couple who you could tell you were getting honest answers from versus the ones who were just clocking in. I can give you names… Shirley Olsen, Paul Nini. They were awesome people, no bullshit. They had a perspective and helped you develop your own. I mentioned Wendy, who I met the first day of college. She’s always been supportive of helping me succeed, whether it was getting through school or doing our best work when we worked together at the same company.
I skipped one part there. It was after college and before striking out on my own. I had a boss named Robert Abbott and we had a company in Columbus called Ignition. I worked for him for 2 years and I was a terrible asshole. I was right out of school and thought I knew everything. I learned so much from Robert about design, process, and humility. It’s something that isn’t taught in college. It’s not just about doing good work, it’s about explaining your work and selling it, about giving it the proper context so that other people can understand it and feel good about it and tell other people. It’s like building consensus and buy-in. That sounds reductionist and cheap, but there’s value to that. Explain your work. You can do it in few words, but you really get to the heart and soul and reason of why you made certain choices in a design. That’s something I learned from Robert… how to articulate choices. I consider it invaluable information.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Sure, of course I do. I think that sometimes I catch myself being too selfish. I hit myself over the head and remember that there’s greater joy in putting things out there, whether it’s getting feedback or seeing the good you do. When I go out downtown in Cincinnati and see someone wearing a shirt I made, it’s awesome. Our angle at Wire & Twine was that we never wanted to be the snarky t-shirt company. We wanted to be positive in our messaging.
No matter what you put out there or make, everything is more important than yourself in a way. This is probably one of our faults as a studio and me as an individual, but I love doing things for free, for fun. Some of the greatest joy is giving something to someone who probably couldn’t afford what you do. They’re so appreciative and you know that what you did is going to help them and how they do business or go through the day. I like making custom birthday cards for people. That is what it’s all about. I don’t really care about design as a profession, but design as a thing that touches people.
Are you satisfied creatively? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
Hell, no! Never satisfied. I probably should be. I was just talking about this with a musician friend recently. She asked me what I was working on and if it was what I wanted to be doing. I said, “For the most part, yeah, but in the same breath I also don’t feel like I’ve done the thing I’m supposed to be doing.” I feel like I’m collecting all these bits of skills that I can pull together in a meaningful way. I don’t know what that is yet.
In the next 5 years, I hope to hell that I’ve figured a little more out and that I’m closer to it or I’ve done it. I think that it includes the web. I also think it includes design, film, photography, and life. I don’t think it includes +1 buttons, “liking” something, or comments. Those might be ancillary to the solution. I just feel like it’s all going to come together and will probably be a personal project. But I would like it to be something that is portable, that other people can take the architecture of and pour themselves into.
“At some point, I snapped and started to say yes more often. I’ve said yes to things that I’m uncomfortable with and they’ve turned out to be life affirming and more important than I could have imagined.”
If you could, would you go back and do anything differently?
I would invest in a lot of different companies I felt were awesome and went gangbusters. (laughing)
But for the most part, no. When I look at the choices I’ve made and the things I’ve done, I don’t feel terrible about anything. I might feel bad about how something went down or how it was described. You might phrase it differently, but ultimately it would be the same outcome. I don’t have any regrets about the things I’ve done. I only regret the things I didn’t do.
At some point, I snapped and started to say yes more often. I’ve said yes to things that I’m uncomfortable with and they’ve turned out to be life affirming and more important than I could have imagined.
I once asked my good friend and colleague, Anne, “You’re always going out and doing stuff. Aren’t you tired?” She replied, “If I said no, people would stop asking me to do things.” I realized maybe I should stop being such a shut-in and go out more and do things.
What piece of advice would you give to another designer?
I don’t have anything prepared. I try not to talk about design very much, to be honest. This might take a little bit of thinking.
If you’re doing something, it might be good, it might be bad, but be able to back it up and explain why you did it that way. Sometimes the best thing that you could do requires no explanation because it is very clear, but only if that’s your goal. Your goal might be to make something simple, complicated, or beautiful… whatever it is you’re doing, BACK IT UP. Start with your goal in mind, pursue it, and do it. The rest will fall into place.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
Ohio affords a certain pleasure to relax, make mistakes, and experiment. If I was in a bigger city, if my rent was really high, and everything was more expensive, I would have to work substantially harder to make that happen. There’s a real laid back way of life in the Midwest that people often discount. I think that’s a major influence of where I am.
I also love the seasons. They shake you out of your rhythm and groove and force you to think how you’ll go about the day. Seasons allow you to value a really beautiful day or enjoy cuddling up and eating grilled cheese and tomato soup when it’s cold outside. All those things I really love. It’s awesome having all four seasons here in Ohio.
Ryan: You mentioned grilled cheese and tomato soup. Did you eat that a lot as a kid, because we did?
Who didn’t? I mean, whose mom or dad, whoever was home, was just really tired and didn’t want to invest in a long dinner? It’s the best thing ever. We just got a restaurant here in Cincinnati and all they do is grilled cheese. I went there and gave them a big thumbs up.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Very much so. Although, I have to say that especially when it comes to work, the opinions I value most are from people who aren’t designers. Everybody is a designer and has an opinion. I got it. For the person who is going to be using or experiencing design, are they happy with it? Does it work for them? How would they make it better? It’s nice to hear from everyone.
When it comes to the creative community specifically, seeing things like Dribbble take off, it’s just awesome. It’s nice to know that there is a community that is springing up virtually, so that even if you’re isolated, you can bounce your idea off of a lot of people who are spanning ages and skill-sets. It’s like being in school again. It might not be what you want to hear, but it’s a good thing.
It’s fascinating when you think about it. We have all this community around us now, so easily accessible online and able to find pockets offline. It’s fantastic to see a group of people with like minds get together for a whiskey and bullshit about what they love, whatever it might be.
Alright, time for some lighter questions. What does a typical day look like for you?
I get up around 9am and get to the studio at 10:30am (that’s my goal). I like to take lunch and leave at 5pm. If you do the math, I’m not doing very many hours a day. (chuckling) The thing is though, because I love what I’m doing, I don’t mind working for a few hours in the evening and finishing things up in the quiet of night. I really value the evening or late at night when I need to knock out problems that require a lot of focus.
A normal day starts off with drive-thru breakfasts and I curse myself for the calories and convenience. They need to make drive-thru breakfasts healthier. If it’s going to be oatmeal, I should be able to suckle it through a tube.
Work starts with customer or client support email. Then I close email and social networking apps and try to focus on one task at a time or else I can’t get anything done. After I finish a task, I’ll give myself a little pleasure time where I surf the web or catch up on feeds and then I get on to the next task. Tuesdays and Thursdays we ship and print. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I’m mostly web. I like breaking up the days where I’m doing something physical versus my sloth, desktop jockeying. I really like it when we have things to print and it gets me off my ass. Then I might go home or hang out with friends and family. There are a couple hours at the end of the night where I’m solving a problem or reading a book or the internet. That’s a typical day. It’s really quite boring. I’m cool with that.
Current album on repeat?
Um, it’s horrible, awful. I’m pulling up iTunes because I can’t answer this one. I know the song I keep playing over and over is that darn “Gucci Gucci” song by Kreayshawn. It’s so embarrassing, but I’m fascinated. I can’t tell if she’s gonna be huge. Another artist that falls into this camp is Ke$ha. People say she’s daft, but I think she’s genius. So, props to Ke$ha, you can put that in print.
The album I have on repeat most right now is Within and Without by Washed Out. What’s nice is that I can put it on and go right to work. Also, I don’t want to annoy my studio mates. I like Tim Hecker, Radiohead, Dawes, and the Zac Brown Band. I’m not ashamed.
I don’t know if you saw this, but my partner and I are working on an album titled Pure by Thomas & Christopher. We recorded the songs in one day.
Ryan: So when is it realized?
We just need to get it pressed on vinyl. Maybe we’ll give it for Christmas gifts. Unlike most albums, this is less about the music and more about the packaging. It started as a joke. Good friends were all tasking each other to write new music and scheduled a listening party on April 1st. I found out about it two days in advance and told Tom we should make something for it. He asked if I was serious and I said, “Yeah, and I can totally see the cover. We’re shirtless back to back and it says ‘Pure’ above us.” He asked if we could be holding kittens and I said, “Hell yeah!”
From there, it was pretty much recording whatever we could improvise to fill up an EP.
Favorite movie/movies or television shows?
No clue about T.V. at this point in life. Let’s see. I have favorite movies listed on my website. My number one favorite movie of all time is Harold and Maude. It’s just so weird. It’s melancholy, quite lovely.
Movies I have on my website that I will still stand by… Go, Tremors, I loved Adaptation at the time. The Breakfast Club was seminal growing up. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gattaca, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s so hard for me to sit in front of the T.V. and watch a movie if I have a laptop or a phone. I get distracted. That’s why I love going to the movies.
I do love beer, is that food? Right now, I’m drinking Lagunitas IPA or Bud Light. I can be a cheap date. Favorite food though, I have these food memories that are really specific. Benihana has my favorite ginger dressing. There’s a restaurant in Cincinnati (Boca) that makes the best brussels sprouts soaked in butter and paired with scallops. I’m not a scallops or brussels sprout person, but when I have this combination it gets seared into my memory. Of course I’ll never complain with grilled cheese and tomato soup. My mom’s vegetable beef soup is a favorite too.
We have one more serious question for you. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
You know, I think that plays a large part into the thing I’ve got in the back of my head which is, how do you put yourself out there online and make it meaningful? I think that a lot of the themes I have in life apply to understanding legacy. One is that design is really good, helpful, and pervasive, but it’s not the domain of designers, it’s the domain of people.
Right now in my photo album, if you hover over the photo, you can see it prior to editing. I do these things because I want everybody to realize that there’s no magic going on here. Pretty much every photo can be bad or good, but we have it within ourselves to do these things. I hope that at some point, I can put enough of the things I do into a legacy that encourages people to explore finding solutions for themselves. I don’t know how that will manifest itself, but I think that it’s prudent and it’s a part of what I’m working toward.
Your legacy is also how you’re perceived. I always struggle with the person that I am versus the person I express myself to be, whether it’s a real life situation or online. Online, I try to write down the good parts, but the bad parts are there too. I would hope that my legacy is not tainted and that it’s really honest and true to who I am and not a misrepresentation. For the most part, I don’t care about what my personal legacy is as much as I hope that whatever I do can be remixed or remade into something that is useful for someone who is alive. If it can influence somebody in some way to make something new or take it from there, I’m cool with that.
“I hope that at some point, I can put enough of the things I do into a legacy that encourages people to explore finding solutions for themselves. I don’t know how that will manifest itself, but I think that it’s prudent and it’s a part of what I’m working toward.”