As the de facto curator for Illustrate Me, I count myself continually lucky: this is yet another ingenious entry that immediately brought a smile to my face as soon as it came over the transom. Rob makes a surprisingly lucid, free-associative connection between four weblog posts I wrote last month and a series of Chinese tangram puzzle constructions. It’s an incongruous juxtaposition, but the way he pulled it off, it looks like the most natural thing in the world
Right: Shape shifting. November’s Illustrate Me by Rob Giampietro. See the full-size illustration on last month’s archive page.
Along with his partner Kevin Smith, Rob is producing some of the most aesthetically accomplished and intellectually satisfying graphic design out there today. In addition, he’s something of a writer and teacher: he’s currently teaching a course at The Rhode Island School of Design one day per week, and he’s recently launched Lined and Unlined, an online compendium for his writings on design — not quite a blog, more of a ‘writing portfolio.’ It’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time to get a peak into one of the sharpest young minds in graphic design today.
Questions for Rob Giampietro
What was your inspiration for November’s Illustrate Me?
In college, one of my professors was obsessed with tangrams, which are these open-ended Chinese puzzle pieces that you can use to make a million different things. Each Tangram has seven pieces: two big triangles, a medium triangle, two small triangles, a parallelogram, and a square. After my professor showed them to me they were kind of on my radar screen, and a few weeks ago I picked up this used book in a bargain bin called “300 Tangrams.” I liked the flat black geometric shapes, they reminded me a bit of the design of Subtraction, but they also felt like they came from someplace else.
How much of that kind of free association are you able to bring into your work at Giampietro+Smith?
Well, when clients want things fast, you have to think on your feet, and free associating is one way of doing that. So it comes in handy, but you have to watch calling it that or making it feel that way, or they won’t let you get away with it.
For example, our studio is near Café Gitane, which is this great cafe down in Nolita. We take out from there a lot, so I’ve spent some time looking at the walls. One day I noticed they were all different colors. One was butter yellow, another bright orange, another lime green, and then some of the pillars and the waiters’ jackets are deep Yves Klein blue. Kind of a funky palatte, but it worked. Then we were doing this book for the artist Martin Kippenberger, and none of the colors we were proposing were working. The book was getting later and later. Finally, I just decided to throw the Café Gitane colors in there, using them basically at random, but only from that limited palette. It worked. When they asked me about the random colors, I said that I thought Kippenberger liked to make his work unexpected and playful, and they accepted that.
So it’s my experience that clients want rational solutions, but people actually don’t. People make leaps of faith and free associations all the time, and they enjoy thinking that way. It’s pleasurable and leisurely and it lets you have your own way of seeing. Khoi, you wrote a nice elegy for Paul Rand’s old UPS logo here, and you pointed out that he knew it was good when his daughter walked in and said it looked like a present. UPS just needed a package; Rand gave them a gift. That’s good design, if you ask me.
Designers often spend a lot of time trying to develop intellectual, left-brain frameworks within which they can rationalize their processes and decisions to clients. Do you also spend time nurturing this more intuitive, right-brain side as well, or is it something that just comes subconsciously?
I have to spend time nurturing it. I’m sort of an organization addict, so I’m always wanting to categorize, list, name, and index things. It takes a lot of effort to stay open and just let an experience — visual, verbal, aural, whatever — just hit me and not be thinking consicously about what I want to use it for. In my class at RISD, one of our readings for last week was “Intuition and Ideas” from Rand’s “Design, Form & Chaos.” I’m sure many designers are familiar with it, but it’s worth revisiting here.
In it, Rand first draws the important comparison of intuition to improvisitation, which resonates strongly with me because I’m a jazz pianist, and I often feel like I’m using the same part of my brain for playing the piano and designing. He goes on, “Compliance with all the laws and systems of form, restraint, and proportion will not provide proof of the soundness of a work of art, nor guarantee its coming to fruition. This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to understand or teach art. […] Without regard to available systems (e.g., the Golden Section, DIN Proportions, typographic grids), the designer works intuitively.”
While I don’t feel like Rand’s statement here is entirely true — I don’t believe even Rand thought so, based on some of his other writings — I believe there’s certianly a lot of truth in it, and, frankly, I think it’s honest and brave. I also think it helps him find his closing thoughts, which maybe I’ll steal for my own: “If a design is striking enough, it is not always necessary to explain it. Explanations sometimes obscure more than they reveal.”