The next interview I’ve been excited about for some time now, even though it came with a fair amount of whining from our special guests (because it was 29 questions instead of five, and it wasn’t a video blog). I’m pleased to introduce to you my good friends and fellow designers, parents, wisecrackers, educators, authors and flat out smart and great peeps, Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady. I have been their inspired fan for many years and love their view on education. Their books (both of which I think you all should have in your library – read on for more) should be required reading for all designers. So take a few minutes to read a great interview and get to know an amazing couple.
1: Do you know your first names rhyme?
Jennifer and Kenneth rhyme?
2: How did you two meet?
KEN: When I was a Junior there were these two graduate students that would run crits an advanced class we all had to take. The class was hard. We would work on projects with a two week turn-around time and minimal feedback from the Professor. Then we’d all walk in, pin up our stuff, and get shredded to pieces by these two grad students. A few weeks in they started showing up drunk. The feedback was even less constructive. Students would cry. And then they disappeared. A few weeks after that Jenn was the new grad student running the crits. She still tore us to shreds but at least she was constructive and sober. Everyone would tell me after class that the grad student was checking me out. At the end of the semester I rolled out my best line in the hallway and said “Uh… Do you have any gum?” Yep. She married me.
JENN: I have plausible deniability on checking out Ken in class. He simply lit a project on fire (I kid you not, it involved flash paper—hot stuff), and that caught my attention. I can, however, confirm that his best line was “Do you have any gum.”
4: What are the strengths of each of your schools?
KEN: There are a few: Kent’s VCD program is huge — Over 400 majors. We have a considerable amount of full time faculty so students are often working with full-time faculty every semester as opposed to only adjuncts. We also have a great pool of graduate students assisting with and teaching classes. That makes for a lot of smart people, who know the program inside and out, there to help students find their way through. We’re also our own school and we’re in the College of Communication and Information instead of the being a part of the School of Art. I think that this is going to give us more opportunity as we grow to look at design from more than a form making perspective.
JENN: I see Cleveland State’s biggest strength in its diversity. Our design program is housed within the Department of Art, and is small–a concentration of a studio art major. But our classes are rich with differing student experience. I’d say in any given semester, in a class of 20, I have at least two or three students who weren’t born in the United States. If design is a both a reflection and shaper of popular culture, what happens when our cultural backgrounds aren’t homogenized? In any random semester, working on a group project, I might have a student from Azerbaijan, a student who matriculated through the Cleveland Public School system, and a person in their 50s who is switching careers. That diversity opens our eyes wider, and makes our imagining bigger.
5: Tell us a little about Enspace and its current state?
We have partners in Enspace that continue a traditional studio practice, and we occasionally consult with them, but lately Jenn+Kenspace has been primarily focused on turning our educational mission towards the design community. In those efforts we’ve written two books, penned some articles, consulted with professional groups, given lots of talks—and now we’ve got a bright shiny new project called Parse that’s about to roll out. All of it has been focused on promoting the value of design, and of designers; on explaining why what we do has impact, and discussing how the profession can better toot its own horn. We may not have identified with them in high school, but we seem to have become design cheerleaders. (Hey, it worked for Dubya.)
6: What have been some of your greatest professional achievements?
KEN: Introducing Justin Ahrens at the 2010 HOW Conference in Denver. That was when I knew I had made it.
JENN: I only wish Ken had used the intro he rehearsed the night before. The one about “Making Footwear Matter.” I mean you were actually wearing the Rule29 Adidas that day. Wussy!
7: Can you tell us about your books?
We want our books to be accessible and applicable.
When we wrote A Designer’s Research Manual, there were a bunch of academic journal articles about design research, and a handful of books from academic presses, but nothing that explained how a practicing designer or student might incorporate research into their process, or why they’d want to. We tried to demystify. And we sought examples of research strategies and tactics in real-world projects. Designers are visual learners, seeing those theories in use helps make a case for their value. Now DRM is in a second printing, in paperback, and is the basis for the research questions on the Canadian Registered Graphic Designers Qualification Examination.
The Information Design Handbook is one of a zillion books about information design. And when we were approached about writing it, we realized that the field was flush. So we wanted to take a different look at ID, exploring some of the cognitive and communication theories behind how humans receive information. We also wanted to explore why the things you learn in design school work (it’s not just because the professor said so). So we also spend some time discussing aesthetic theories that impact information design projects. Like DRM, we have a bunch of fantastic real-world projects as case studies to inspire and illustrate.
Both of our books work because the design community was generous with their time, their samples, and their wisdom.
8: Which of your books is your favorite or did you enjoy the most?
KEN: That’s like asking a person which one of their kids they love the most and why.
JENN: And that is why we only have one kid.
But honestly, the research book was a little tougher to put together. So many of the designers we contacted would talk to us “off the record” about their process, but guarded it like they were giving away state secrets. Turns out that while they’re all branded a little differently, most studio processes are inherently the same. It just took some digging to get there. Conversely, no one is guarding their information design projects like they’re WikiLeaks.
9: Can you tell us about your process for writing?
We do a ton of research and organization at the front end. We write very detailed outlines and then produce very detailed book maps for visualization. We add word counts for each section of each page, even for captions and the number of images we’ll need to explain an idea. That way we have an approximation of how to hit what we’ve contracted with the publisher (turns out most authors haven’t determined page count kids). This is also a great procrastination tool to keep us from actually writing.
Then Ken writes a bunch of misspelled stuff that meanders around in alternating caveman / pedantic academic rant—often in incomplete sentences. The hot potato then passes to Jenn, who turns it into something someone would want to read. It generally takes her more time to rewrite then it takes Ken to write the original. WonderTwin Powers Activate! Form up thesaurus.com and an ice cold spell check!
10: Was there any marital stress during this time?
KEN: No. Every day with Jenn is magic.
JENN: My theory is that all couples have the same amount of fight in ‘em. You can either spend it on incorrect use of punctuation or battle over inlaws. You would not believe how often Ken uses the wrong form of there/their/they’re. And how terribly satisfying it is to bust him on it.
11: Why do you think strategy is important?
Clients won’t pay you to just make stuff. They want to know that the stuff is going to solve very real, very expensive business and communication problems. And if you can’t relay the reasons why the stuff you’ve made meets those needs, those clients are going to make your stuff the safest, beigest, ugliest, frankendesign you’ve ever seen. Thus strategy is important not only for the work you do, but for your peace of mind.
12: Do you teach strategy at each of your schools?
We try to, in every class and every project.
13: What is the state of the design education system in your opinion?
KEN: I think that Design education is at a tipping point and it’s a really exciting time to be involved. As the notion of what design is and how it works is changing, so is design education. 10 years ago people would have scratched their heads at the thought of teaching lecture classes in research methods to design students. Now they’re popping up all over the place. I think that there is tremendous opportunity to teach value and meaning.
JENN: The maker vs. thinker debate has finally gone cold. No one is really pretending that you don’t need to think anymore. The computer vs. hand skills debate is has also been settled. Yes, design students need to learn both. No, we don’t have to fear technology. (And if you’re still advocating for ruling pens, and French curves, it’s time for your move to Sunny Acres.) I’d say we’re in a good spot. Now the game is how to arm them with skills they’ll use 10 or 15 years out, far beyond the next technology shift. I dare say design educators are becoming futurists.
14: What one thing would you want to change if you could?
KEN: Hey Tomoya Horiguchi. If you’re reading this, I really wish we’d stayed in contact after you moved back to Japan in 5th grade. I’m sorry we didn’t find a way to stay connected. Hit me up on FB.
JENN: Right now I desperately want flat-footed Barbie dolls with less hot-rollered hair and more appealing jobs: like Deputy DARPA Director, and Secretary of State. (I want to buy Lulu a Lisa Lionheart doll, but Mailbu Stacy always seems to have a new hat.)
Oh, was this supposed to be about design education? No way we’re sticking our hands into that wasp nest.
15: Do you believe students should have internships? If so, why?
Absolutely. Internships provide a lot of practical hands-on experience that cannot be replicated in a classroom environment—even if the internship experience is a bad one. In that case, it can teach the student about what they don’t want to do or to recognize work environments where they wouldn’t thrive. That negative intern experience may ultimately provide more valuable lessons than the one that produced really great portfolio pieces. Either way it’s trial immersion in the real world. Class projects can try to simulate that, but it’s never the same.
16: Is an MFA an advantage professionally?
Absolutely, Part II. But we can look at this in a broader context and ask the question: Are advanced degrees of advantage professionally? (The answer stays the same.) As we move toward more collaborative and interdisciplinary process models, advanced degrees are going to become increasingly more valuable to design professionals. This doesn’t substitute for talent, experience, and creative hutzpa, those things are absolutely essential, it simply augments them. Our argument for the value of advanced degrees comes from the idea of shared culture. Other professional industries place high value on advanced degrees. Look at the board of directors or senior management team of any fortune 1000 company and you’ll notice that the majority of those members have post graduate experience. Take our dads as non-scientific examples: Ken’s dad was a senior vice president at a fortune 500 company (recently retired). He, and all of the other senior people at that company, including the board of directors, have PhDs. Jenn’s dad is a CFO for a non-profit. Similarly, his job required two different Masters degrees (one in business and one in urban planning). Many of these companies and organizations value advanced education so much that they pay for their employees to attend graduate school. Maybe more design firms should adopt that culture.
If designers truly believe that they can help solve the world’s biggest problems (and we truly believe that they can) then they need to start playing by some of the same rules (just some!) as the people they’ll be sitting around the table with. Could be an MFA, could be an MBA. (Better you than some suit who has taken a few courses in Design Thinking, eh?) The actual degree focus might matter a lot less than the continuing educational experience (and that handful of letters after your name). We list MFA on our business cards. A tiger once said, “A cat without stripes is not one of us.”
17: What design program do you admire as educators?
We don’t have specific programs that we admire as much as we have people that we’re inspired by. There are a lot of great programs out there, and we all know where they are, but there are also a ton of great design educators working in small programs that are doing great things with their students. For us, it’s less about where you’re from, and more about what you’re doing.
18: Other then design, what is your secret dream profession? Famous ice skating couple?
KEN: I dunno. I really like my job. As a design educator I get to do some many different things that I’m always challenged. If I had to pick… Recently I’ve been thinking that I would have liked tailoring. It’s disappearing art. That might be pretty cool.
JENN: I stand by having the best job in the world. I really, seriously, honestly, totally-I’m-not-joshin’-you love what I do every day. That includes the time with students and the time in the professional world. But if you’re making me pick, and because I could never trust Ken not to drop me during the triple lutz, I pick pulp fiction reviewer. It’d better contain a zombie, vampire or tri-wizarding tournament if you want it to get across this academic’s desk.
19: What are your favorite design books?
The Best of Business Card Design 9 (Editor’s note: You two are smart arses)
20: Which designer that is no longer with us would you have liked to meet, teach or collaborate with?
Charles and Ray Eames. Wow. They could really tackle anything. Years ago we had the privilege of viewing the archives at Herman Miller, and got to see some of their paper sketches, and watch a video of them presenting chair designs on the Today show in 1956 (this was way before everything was instantly available on YouTube). It made us both a little misty, getting to see real artifacts that we had previously only read about in books. Like finding the WWII scrapbook of a grandparent you had heard about but never met. Design family. We’ve got shelves full of crushes. Cheers to the trailblazers.
21: What super power would you most want?
KEN: Teleportation. Because I hate airports.
JENN: Immortality. But it has to be a family package deal. I’m still allowed to keep my invisible jet, and magic lasso right? I mean those are accessories, not super powers.
22: Which super power would you want your mortal enemy to not have?
We are far too Midwestern for mortal enemies.
23: What is your guilty pleasure snack?
KEN: I have way too many to name: M&Ms. Donuts. Chocolate chip cookies…Jenn will make a few dozen and they’re gone in days. I have problems.
JENN: Okay, but don’t tell my foodie friends: freezer hot pretzels with jalapeño nacho cheese out of a can. Pair with an ice cold PBR. Crisis management.
24: What do you do for fun?
KEN: Hang out with The Fabulous Lulu Petals. Cook. Yardwork. Crossfit. Cycle. Consume mass quantities of books (mostly trashy). Spend time with friends and family. The usual stuff. I would venture to say that I’m a little bit of a bore.
JENN: Ditto to the above. Except I’m fascinating. And I don’t ride a bike.
25: What are some blogs or sites you go to for inspiration?
It’s possible that we’re just going to sound old here, but we both prefer physical artifacts and experiences for inspiration. Perhaps we’re just connected to the web all day for work purposes, and it starts to feel like a ball and chain after a while? We both skim and scan a lot of news sites, and tend to especially forward along things we’ve read in the New York Times. It seems that lately we’re looking for meaningful stories, and those often spark ideas about design. We’re seeking that proverbial need instead of shopping aesthetic. If we’re mid project and stuck, we usually unplug. Sometimes your brain needs physical activity to let the clutter sink and the good stuff float to the surface.
26: Who has been the coolest person you have interviewed…besides Rule29?
A few years ago we wrote an article for HOW about creative partnerships, called “The Buddy System,” and we interviewed Massimo and Lella Vignelli. She actually picked up the phone when we called their studio (shocking!). They turned their emailed questionnaire around faster than any of the other designers we contacted, sending both a handwritten copy via mail, and faxing a version too. We saved it, naturally. You don’t throw Vignelli handwriting away. It was surreal to virtually meet someone from Design Olympus—bonus to find out that they’re approachable and wickedly funny too (direct Lella quote on Massimo’s business/operational abilities: “Massimo…you can’t even send him to the bank!”).
27: What designers work would you decorate your house with?
We have a lot of Eames furniture around the house. As much vintage as we can afford. We’ve got a molded plywood leg splint hanging on our wall and half of the people who notice it think it’s an abstract African mask. We made an installation using our mad hand skills and an old book of Pantone chips when we were flat broke, and that’s still up in the library. Posters by YeeHaw, Art Chantry, and Rule29 grace the studio walls… along with a number of paper bag puppets by The Fabulous Lulu Petals (and those she art directs).
28: What are you working on now that has you most excited?
Parse, a project that we’re undertaking with the fine folks at HOW. Parse aims to make sense of issues and information relevant to design practitioners—in five-minute bites. Think of it as tapas for your brain. And the best part for us is that we get to work with our design crushes. Most of the smarties that are writing for Parse are folks we’ve met at conferences, or worked with in AIGA circles. It’s a virtual peer group, sharing what they know best. Expert advice from someone you’d enjoy having a beer with (the stellar Justin & Sarah Ahrens of Rule29 included). Heck, it’s probably even better if you have a beer while reading (unless you’re at work and that isn’t cool). Check it out at parse.howdesign.com! We welcome participation.
Got a Parse? E-mail us. Used a Parse? Make sure you let us know.
29: What does design mean to you?
We’re stealing from the Eames. Partly because you made us answer 29 questions and we’re tired, and partly because they were so much more eloquent than we ever feel:
“To whom does design address itself: to the greatest number, to the specialist of an enlightened matter, to a privileged social class? Design addresses itself to the need.”
“What works good is better than what looks good. Because what works good lasts.”