AIGA NE Fellow Interview:
Owner/Designer, Oxide Design Co.
In looking ahead to our 25th Anniversary Gala, at which we’ll announce the recipient of our third AIGA Nebraska Fellow Award, we sat down with previous winner Drew Davies to get his thoughts on design, our local chapter, AIGA and the direction of the design profession.
You’re one of AIGA Nebraska’s oldest members; what do you see that’s changed since you became a member?
The good news, in my mind, is most of the core of the organization is actually very similar to what it was then, and people are still getting involved very quickly. When I first joined AIGA I just assumed it was a matter-of-course thing…I don’t know if I can point out what it was about it that I saw from the outside, but I wanted to be a part of it. I went to school and worked in Iowa and there wasn’t a local chapter where I was at the time. I was only in town for 18 months or so before I started Oxide, but my first benchmark was, “when do we earn enough money that I can pay for membership to AIGA?”
It feels like the things that were special about it then are still really special, like the way it builds community and the network it builds, locally and on a national basis. I’m really glad to see that, because those things felt really important to me. So that I’m pleased to see has not changed.
At a local level, I’m really excited to see the level of professionalism and management of the organization grow over the years. When I was on the board, it was small and people were taking it seriously, but we were still figuring it out and it was kind of shoestring-y; we didn’t have the structures in place and all of that buttoned up. I’m glad for all the people who have taken on the torch. It feels like each succession on the board has continued to move it upward. It’s not just larger in size, but the scope is expanding, and it feels like there are more events and it can be inclusive to way more kinds of people and not just this niche area of visual graphic designers. That’s one thing I think has changed for the better.
You’ve also been involved with AIGA at a national level. Did that give you a different perspective on our local chapter? What do you see when you look at AIGA Nebraska from the upper level down?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily the national board, but you see more and more about how chapters function and gain more insight each time you go to a national leadership retreats. Most of that serves to reinforce, “hey, we’re doing pretty darn well at a local chapter level here in Nebraska!” You know, lots of people are struggling through all kinds of things, but we’re holding our own and we’re growing as a chapter and doing all these great things here locally. So it’s certainly opened my eyes to that.
On a comparison basis, sometimes there’s a sense that nobody ever expects good design things to come out of Nebraska, or whatever the stereotypes are. But to watch AIGA Nebraska do as good or better than zillions of chapters across the nation is kind of cool to see from that top-level perspective.
That experience also just reiterates that the national board runs very much like any local board. You know: a collection of people all volunteering their time; lots of different viewpoints; a variety of different things to reconcile to make forward progress. When you think to yourself “these things aren’t working as well on our local board as I’d like them to” and you see that same thing happen on the national level among these design luminaries and you get to watch that process…you realize that nothing there is any more magic, and that this is always tricky. That there are always a lot of viewpoints and things to reconcile and compromises to be made, and we’re doing just as well on a local level as we are at a national level.
You’ve earned the AIGA Nebraska Fellow Award; you’ve served on the national board; you have an immensely successful design agency and are well-respected by the community. What goals still remain for you? What do you feel like you haven’t accomplished yet?
Well-respected by 50% of the community, you mean. [laughs]
I spend time evaluating occasionally whether I’m running the firm that I want to be running at this point in time. And for better or worse, right now my sense is very strongly that if I can keep running a firm with a team that I love and keep producing work that we’re really proud of, and if I keep getting to be a participant in the design process—that is all I’m hoping for at this point in time. So my short-to-medium term goals are to just keep getting to do that.
Whether that pivots or shift over the next 3, 5, 10 years…maybe. Maybe.
Partially by accident, we keep getting to do ballot, civic and election design work. We stumbled into that through luck, and kept a toehold there out of sheer…whatever the word is for banging your head against a wall is.
That sounds really nice. [laughs] I attribute it to luck, but it was continuing to work away at something that was really daunting and oftentimes unrewarding, but we got ourselves to a fulfilling spot at Oxide where we’re able to work with a great team and continue to do great design work that we’re really proud of. But we have the bonus of also being able to do this work where it feels like we’re contributing in some kind of recognizably larger way to how design affects a large number of people.
That does help me feel like I could keep doing this while also getting to make an impact. As long as those two components are there. Part of my goal is definitely make more of an impact in that space, and that challenge will always be there. It’s constantly mutating, and in my career we can only hope to make a small dent. But I’d also be pretty disappointed if that meant leaving behind getting to do some sort of boots-on-the-ground work that we’re proud of out of Oxide together.
At the national level, the last thing any of us can gun for is AIGA medals, right? I’d like to imagine right now I’m…maybe 5% of the way through with the qualifications required for that high honor. [chuckles] So I’d just like to keep doing what I’m doing long enough that the persistence translates into that kind of recognition that maybe, maybe some people who aren’t designers might recognize is important. That feels like the Grammy of the design world; the only thing your parents or your aunt and uncle might look at and say “oh, you have actually accomplished something with your life.” [laughs]
Obviously, AIGA Nebraska turns 25 this year. Looking back at the last 25 years of design, what do you see that’s changed the most?
At its core, I’m not sure how much I think design has fundamentally changed. Styles clearly change, and the way that businesspeople are taught to talk about design and reference what we do has shifted. The buzzwords change. All of our clients know the word “branding,” and even if they don’t know what it means they’ve heard it so many times that they say it and call and say “we need some branding.” There was a different word that meant all those same things 20 years ago. Maybe it was “design,” or “advertising,” or whatever.
On the surface, that’s changed. But the things that make design really successful and work, at its core, are still the same. I would tell you that the core principles of what we do at Oxide are exactly the same as what they were fifteen years ago, and they’re the same things I admired about watching “famous” designers: building consistency, and being thoughtful about making design decisions and having rationale for the things you’re doing. Even if the visual styles change, all of those things feel like they should still continue to be the core of what we’re doing.
I’ve been particularly admiring Michael Beirut quite a bit lately, kind of because he breaks the mold of chasing whatever the latest buzzwords are and selling them to people and getting clients to buy into that. Maybe this week it’s “branding” and the next week it’s “design thinking” and the week after that it’s “ideating,” and whatever it is—it doesn’t really matter.
Here’s a guy who’s just famous enough as a designer it’s possible my parents might have heard this guy’s name and might have some recognition of the work he’s done. He’s one of six designers in the world famous enough that somebody who’s not a designer might be able to recognize him. (Well, his name—not actually in person.)
And he will tell you, he’s still just a graphic designer. He carries notebooks around and he scribbles things in them and he just likes coming up with visual solutions. He doesn’t put a lot of airs around “brand strategy” work and so on and so forth. And I know some of that is necessary in the big picture, but I don’t think that’s everything design is at its heart.
There’s a quote that floats around the internet which is attributed to Michael Beirut—and I assume it must be true because the internet has never been wrong on that point—where he says the key to great design is “simplicity, wit, and good typography.” When you look at his body of work, you see that really is what made his work successful. And I think if you go back and evaluate good work and the principles of what made it successful, you’ll find that was the same 5, 10, 25 years ago, and it will continue to be the same 5, 10 and 25 years into the future.
While design principles may remain consistent, there’s a shift in the industry, and people who may have once been traditional designers are now shifting more toward digital, web and UI/UX design. How do you see that affecting the landscape of design?
I think I’m gonna stand by this and hope it sticks, but I’m gonna keep making this same argument. Bear with me.
You think about a good UI in a software app, and what makes interacting with that app and the technicalities of that UI work. And I’m gonna argue—not to keep going back to this quote—simplicity, wit and good typography. End of discussion.
The medium doesn’t matter as much as it feels like it does on a day-to-day basis. We’re definitely watching tools shift, and the way in which we share design with the world has shifted. But my sense is that the keys to success on that, at their base level, are still very similar. We just keep changing the tools we’re doing that with.
Even at the logo level, we used to do logos with a French curve and a Rapidograph pen, and now we do them in Illustrator and later we’ll do them in something else. But it’s the same idea. The base things that make logos really successful are the same no matter what tools you’re building them with. I think the way in which we serve design to people—it ends up being less important than it feels like it is at any given moment.
Right now, in this moment, we all watch this and we see that print design is almost not that important anymore and if you can’t execute design over on the digital side, you’re in real trouble. But while that’s true, I don’t think changing the medium is a change to design or the fundamental idea of design. 15 years from now when we look back, I don’t think we’ll really say that design itself changed in the twenty-tens (or whatever we wind up calling this decade). When the tools change, it feels seismic when you’re in the middle of it. But it’s not as major a change as it feels like it is daily.
However, as the tools become more accessible to anyone, because of the digital experience, I think the thing that is changing and will continue to change is that design is becoming less siloed than it once was.
People are realizing that the experience with design isn’t just the brochure; it’s the space the user walks into, and the desk where they pick up the brochure, and the website it sends them to, and the app it has them download. And if I do see anything that feels like it’s changing more dramatically, it feels like that realization—more so within the industry but also even somewhat through the world—that design is all the parts of the experience and not just a beautiful brochure.
I do feel like we’re having a clearer sense collectively about how all of those pieces are inexorably linked, rather than the mindset being that if you just have the world’s most beautiful business card it will solve the entirety of the problem all by itself. And I think that will continue more and more so. But maybe that’s very philosophical.
Design has gained a lot of prominence in recent years, and some feel that design may be “squandering its seat at the table” if all we’re doing is using this opportunity for branding.
Right. Sell more stuff to people that don’t need it. What we all do with our day jobs. [laughs]
Right. What are your thoughts on the balance between the commercialization of design and its responsibility?
I’m torn. We as designers tend to like to think of ourselves as pretty important to the world, when in reality, I think it would be good for more designers to remember that we’re commercial artists. And if we do that really well, we’re doing precisely what commercial art should do, which is affect the bottom line, right? That’s one part of what we do.
If you’re in graphic design or advertising, you are running a business that is about increasing the business of your clients in return for them paying you for your expertise. I don’t think it does us any good to try and hide that fact. It feels like crass commercialization, but it’s what we do, right? I mean, we make money by helping other people make more money. That is what graphic design is. Done.
So of course, you can see all this work we’re doing in civic design, and I believe there is an aspect of design aside from the commercial aspect of it that improves people’s lives in some way, maybe even a technically measurable way.
I don’t know how to reconcile those two things, except as I answered earlier: to run Oxide where we do those things in parallel with a recognition that there isn’t any shame in being really good at what you do, charging people money for it, and explaining to them that whatever they pay you to do that should come back to them tenfold. It’s what we do. It’s what anyone who has any job doing anything does in some form. That’s what work is.
But I also believe that design can be more than that. So of course we’re spending the other half of our work at Oxide doing civic design work.
As far as the idea that design is “squandering its seat at the table”…I like that design has gained some more prominence. There’s a recognition. It feels like it can trickle up to executives at a company and give them a stronger sense of the value of design, and it’s making inroads by having those seats at the table. We can explain to people that good design is good business, and I think people are taking advantage of that. It probably happens more at super high levels, but it feels like the trend is that more and more companies are saying “let’s get this design thing involved early on.”
I don’t know how connected that is to the design-for-good level of design. The idea of getting ourselves a better seat at the table, what we’ve been trying to do for decades, is way more in service to the business viability of design as a profession than it is the “make the world a better place” side of design.
But there’s a lot of good that design can do in the world without needing to work its way up in the ranks and earn its way in. The commercial side of design needs buy-in from the people making decisions at a high level, but I don’t know that design for good ever needed that same kind of buy-in.
So I don’t think we’re squandering that spot at the table, but I do have a realistic view of what that spot should mean: more recognition and respect for the dollars-and-cents value of design in the silo of getting designers hired and allowing them to make careers. The rest follows, and I feel like the design-for-good side is relatively separate from that. Or at least as separate as those two things can be. It might be an over-simplification, because those two things blur a lot in the middle.
Thanks, Drew, for taking the time to sit down with us!
Drew Davies is an AIGA Nebraska Fellow Award recipient. Join us at our 25th Anniversary Gala on August 13th, 2016, and be sure to nominate our next Fellow Award recipient by July 1!