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An Interview with id29’s Doug Bartow

Like many, Doug Bartow stumbled upon graphic design and typography almost accidentally. But before that could happen he had the good fortune of flunking out of engineering school to get started down the right path. Recently, his id29 studio released a punchy publication entitled How to Be a Better Client. The book has gotten designers’ attention, but what can it teach clients? Or was it written for designers in the first place?

JASON TSELENTIS: Doug, how did you go about discovering design? Was it something that you learned about in high school, grade school, or from design books?

DOUG BARTOW: I was an 18-year old colorblind engineering student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY who had never taken a formal art or design class. It took me a year and a half—and a lot of my parent’s money—to realize that my high school skills in math and science didn’t equate to a career path I was interested in pursuing. I was always very good at mechanical drawing and tinkering around in the periphery of the design arts—like reproducing stamps on our hands with magic markers to get into pubs underage—but had never taken design seriously. One tends to reevaluate potential career paths after basically flunking out of engineering school, however.

JT: What about a degree? Did you complete your college education even though engineering school went ka-poot?

DB: I ended up transferring to the State University of NY at New Paltz where I spent 5 semesters earning a BFA in graphic design. I had the pleasure of studying with Professor Muneera Spence, who has an MFA from Yale and had studied under Rand. She beat me daily about the face and neck with typography, and I soaked it all in with a voracious appetite. I think I was drawn to typography initially as a design student because of its ease of entry for me. It was pure form and texture to my eyes, and didn’t require advanced color theory to understand. I still enter most projects (today) with a typographic idea in my head before a color or image. This became part of my process. I was a good enough design student at New Paltz to get an interview with Kathy McCoy (and, equally important, the students) at Cranbrook Academy of Art for admission to their MFA 2D design program. I was 6 months out of my BFA degree, and had the good fortune of getting selected for admission to Cranbrook.

JT: Talk more about the typographic process above. Is this something that’s driven by language or type style?

DB: I try to keep my distance from particular styles in typography. I think it’s important to understand trends, mostly to make sure you can avoid them whenever possible. I learned typography right about the same time that computers displaced traditional typesetting in our industry. This gave me a sense of the tradition and beauty of a classically designed page, but also the means with which to alter and distort that form very easily.

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MASS MoCA Marquee Sign (photo: Nick Whitman)

After I finished the MASS MoCA wordmark, designing the marquee sign for the rooftop of building 12 was fairly easy. However, design school didn’t prepare me for the 2+ years of political wrangling with the mayor and local zoning board it would take to get the sign approved and finally erected. Note to young signage designers out there: make sure you oversee all aspects of such installations. The riggers had originally planned to install the letterforms starting at the end and working backwards before I informed them of the potentially embarrassing spelling of the sign without the initial ‘M’. DB

MASS MoCA Unnatural Science exhibition poster

Finding offset printers to sponsor major exhibitions is one way for cultural institutions to make the most of their marketing budgets. Excelsior Printing (in North Adams) came through for us at MASS MoCA in a big way in 2000. We printed 2 versions of this poster: one on 100# satin cover for the museum shop, the second on 80# dull text, which folded down as a self-mailer with a performing arts schedule and ticket order form on the back. DB

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JT: What motivated you to do graduate research at Cranbrook?

DB: That’s an interesting way to phrase that question. I had always been visually interested in the work coming out of that program (esp. Hori, Venesky, Bates, Makela x2). Cranbrook’s freeform studio environment gave me the flexibility to explore my own ideas on my own terms, and research became a critical component of my process there. The real benefit of that program (one that is rarely written about) is the studio dynamic created by the other students in the program. It’s a beautiful and inspiring campus, and students have 24/7 access to their studios—and we used it! I learned the most from my interaction with other students (from all the disciplines there, not just design). For me, those 2 years taught me why to design; where I had spent my previous time learning how to design. That delineation, however subtle, has been critical to informing my process and methodology to date.

JT: After Cranbrook, what career options did you consider?

DB: During the spring of my second year at CAA, I reached out to Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s Director Joseph Thompson about their project’s need for design help moving forward. I was familiar with MASS MoCA from the local news, as North Adams, MA is only an hour from where I lived in Albany, NY. I met with Joe, and together, we created a job. I graduated from Cranbrook on a Friday in May 1995, started as Design Director at MASS MoCA the following Monday: official employee #4, used my own Mac, space heater next to my desk. Taking the job was risky, as the funding for the project was held up in red tape at the time off my hire with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The master plan had been approved by previous Governor Michael Dukakis (author of the Massachusetts Miracle, failed Presidential candidate). The current Governor at the time, William Weld, wasn’t as convinced. I didn’t get a paycheck for half a year, and there was a chance, if the project was canned, that I would never get one. However, 6 months into my work there, the Governor came around, and he released the state matching grants for the project. Now we only had to raise 8.6M to convert a dilapidated electronics factory in a dying New England mill town into a world-class center for contemporary art made my artists that 99% of the local residents had never heard of. Bring it on!

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id29 open house invitation (detail)

The Fly-bottle postcard.

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JT: Although you had some financial challenges to cope with, I’m sure that you had some kind of reward. Otherwise, why do it at all?

DB: I spent the next 4 years designing and developing the visual brand and look and feel for the entire project (basically everything completely solo) in anticipation of our public opening in May 1999. We did a bunch of pre-opening exhibitions during that time as well, and I got to work closely with David Byrne, Natalie Jeremijenko, Robert Rauschenberg, and a bunch of other renowned artists and curators. We finally opened to much international fanfare in May 1999. It didn’t occur to me until later the volume and breadth of work I actually got done for the opening: from the identity and wayfinding system/exhibition design for the entire campus, to all the printed collateral, www presence, catalogs, art cards, visitors maps, etc.

MASS MoCA is a very unique, forward-thinking arts center. We did anywhere from 50-75 performing arts events every year, in addition to the work in the 110,000+ sq. ft. of gallery space. We made the decision early on to program the visual and performing arts based upon the same themes. In 2000, when the big gallery show was “Unnatural Science,” we showed silent films with a scientific theme, for example, backed with a live orchestra who had written a new score for the film. This approach to programming kept what we offered super-fresh, and also allowed me as a designer to develop a seasonal identity for every large exhibition and performing arts season we undertook. The budgets were small and the turn-around time was short (your basic not-for-profit approach to marketing). We did almost everything in-house: custom installations and literature displays, the fit-out for the museum store and most of the site signage. I used a lot of core-ten steel and hand-sanded aluminum plate for sign grounds. I found those raw materials really complimented the look and feel of our interior retrofitted 19th-century mill space, without being too fussy or over-designed. Working with our fabrication team, who also installed and built most of the art in the galleries with the artists, we got real good at building exhibition signage from concept to finished, installed pieces in a very short period of time. I spent the next 4 years at MASS MoCA cranking out the goodness for a bunch of international quality exhibitions and performing arts seasons, some details here.

The job was great, but I was on a design island, with only my summer intern for company. The non-profit scale pay and one-hour commute for 8+ years eventually wore me down.

JT: Low pay. Long commute. Something had to give.

DB: My wife and I had our third child in 2003, and 10 hours in the car per week were 10 hours less spent with them. I had a good friend, Michael Fallone, whom I met working freelance at a large agency in Albany, NY between undergrad and grad school. Michael is a brilliant creative director/agency suit guy, and we actually talked about starting our own shop back in the early 90’s. I ended up going to grad school, Michael went to California for a few years, but we kept in touch. He ended up moving back in the area, and my wife ran into his wife in the summer of 2003, and she explained that Michael was thinking about making a career move from his VP agency gig. I initially got involved to help him find the right fit, as he was focusing on the northeast U.S., but soon we got to discussing our 10 year old plans over a few pints, and, after many sleepless nights and planning sessions, we both quit our jobs, bought some Macs, rented a studio, and called everyone we knew in the business and asked them for work. That’s the story behind our name. ‘2’ was Michael and myself, ‘9’ was the total number of spouses and kids that we put in all sorts of financial peril by quitting our good jobs and starting a business without any clients.

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id29 studio (click to enlarge)

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JT: Talk about the start up phase. Too often I hear about the first 3-5 years being hell. Is this true?

DB: Fortunately for us, a few old friends come through for us in a big way, and we got busy right out of the gate. We worked 80-hour weeks for six months doing anything and everything we could. Given my not-for-profit background, I was initially surprised at what was fair market value for our services. We priced ourselves slightly below most of the local agencies, and were still profitable enough to hire our first employee six months after we opened our doors. Our brownstone studio quickly became too small, so we moved to an old collar factory right on the Hudson River, next to one of our first clients, Brown’s Brewing Company. Research is key! We haven’t looked back from there, and we are now seven strong, with our eyes on hiring a few more people in the near future, depending on workflow.

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How To Be a Better Client

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JT: When studios start out, they spend a lot of time telling clients what they can offer. Now, you’re telling clients how they should behave. What was the impetus for the How to Be a Better Client book? It all seems rather tongue in cheek, but I gather you did it for a reason.

DB: Rather than the obligatory self-promotional crap that some design firms send out annually, we decided to cut right to the point with How to Be a Better Client. Here’s some of our goodness, and if you follow these simple steps of client self-improvement, you might have the privilege of working with us someday. Does a bird show-off when it flies?

JT: Already you have it in book form, as a PDF, and even a short QuickTime film. How do you plan on expanding it?

DB: We also have an audiobook version of it, which you can listen to if you’re (un)fortunate enough to be put on hold on our studio’s phone system. Amazon Kindle and Happy Meal versions are currently in negotiations.

JT: Advertising maverick David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man had an entire chapter dedicated to How to Be a Good Client with tips like these:

  1. Emancipate your agency from fear
  2. Select the right agency in the first place
  3. Brief your agency very thoroughly
  4. Do not compete with your agency’s creative
  5. Coddle the goose who lays the golden eggs
  6. Don’t overextend your creative
  7. Allow your agency to make a profit
  8. Don’t Haggle
  9. Be Candid, and Encourage Candor
  10. Set High Standards
  11. Test Everything
  12. Hurry
  13. Don’t waste time on problem babies, don’t milk a dying brand
  14. Tolerate Genius
  15. Don’t underspend

However, you do a whole book on this topic. What part (if any) from Ogilvy’s Good Client list above do you agree with? Disagree with?

DB: I like Ogilvy, because he’s a Scot and I believe he got kicked out of Oxford, but the word “Confessions” makes it sounds like he did something wrong. Our handbook is a tongue-in-cheek effort designed to teach our current (and future) clients how to make our firm as comfortable and profitable as possible, with little or no effort from us. We feel that we work hard enough already. There are selections from our portfolio in a thinly guised “special advertising section,” in there as well. We already have “good” clients, what we need are better clients. There’s so much seriousness in almost every aspect of design today. We decided to take a break from that for this particular project. I think the power of humor as rhetoric is underused and often overlooked.

JT: Why should people read your book instead of Ogilvy’s?

DB: Price point, of course. We’re so thoughtful; we’re giving our book away.

JT: So what’s next? Where do you see id29 headed in the future?

DB: Growth for us has always been an intentionally slow process, and if we are 12-15 people total in 2-3 years, I would be surprised. I got into this business with the somewhat selfish notion that I wanted to do great work for great clients, and actually design and create stuff everyday, and not get bogged down in the minutiae of managing people/chasing paperwork/running a business all the time. Needless to say, we have to run the business everyday, but overseeing a staff of 8-10 is much easier than a staff of 20-25. A lot of how our studio works is based upon some of the principles we identified early on as “things that we don’t want to do”, such as: hire designers and make them do mindless production work, run our people ragged so we end up with a revolving door, have a political, ego-driven culture where work gets awarded based on anything other than merit, and not be able to freely share ideas in a creative climate where everyone benefits from openness.

I was once told during my early years as a design student not to expect to ever be able to work in a creative shop that valued open criticism, and sharing of ideas (as freely as they were shared in design school critiques). I never accepted that, and try to instill those “crit room” ideas here at id29 as part of our creative process as much as possible. We have a large one-room studio with all the monitors facing the center: no partitions, no cubicles, no offices. We all know what everyone is working on, and we have an open dialogue and discuss (with candor) the direction and strengths/weaknesses of our work as frequently as possible.

I’ve always considered the process of design education as a lifelong commitment, and seek to bring in designers who share that same value set: ones who are hungry to make their mark in the world, enjoy fast paced work, but also want to flex their muscles and get their design voices heard. You need to let designers design. That sounds as simple as it is ideal, but there are so many shops that for whatever reason, can’t make that happen everyday. I also know art directors afraid to bring in talented designers for interviews for fear of eventually losing their job to someone with more talent. How absurd! We want to hire people with work and ideas that make us madly jealous; the kind of work you look at and instantly love (but *hate* at the same time because they made it look so easy to do). That’s what excites me: the prospect of growing our team to make that gestalt where our work becomes greater and more satisfying as a result of our collaborations. It’s always been about the work for us. The difficulty is trying to scale that idea, grow as designers and be profitable at the same time (while keeping our sanity and marriages intact).

JT: Thanks, Doug.

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In addition to running the day-to-day operations of id29 as its Director + Principal, Doug devotes his time to working with AIGA National in the hope of creating a new chapter in the Albany, NY area.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 4514 FILED UNDER Interview
PUBLISHED ON Mar.06.2008 BY Jason A. Tselentis
WITH 5 COMMENTS
Comments
pesky’s comment is:

Thank you. An inspiring tale....

On Mar.07.2008 at 08:22 AM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

“things that we don’t want to do”, such as: hire designers and make them do mindless production work, run our people ragged so we end up with a revolving door, have a political, ego-driven culture where work gets awarded based on anything other than merit, and not be able to freely share ideas in a creative climate where everyone benefits from openness.

OH MY GOODNESS. You are my hero.

On Mar.07.2008 at 11:13 AM
alex charchar’s comment is:

There’s so much seriousness in almost every aspect of design today. We decided to take a break from that for this particular project. I think the power of humor as rhetoric is underused and often overlooked.

I agree with this whole-heartedly. In the 18 or so months that I've been working at an in-house studio, I've seen marketing people (as well as other clients) try so desperately to come off uber-straight and narrow and therefore inject no humanity into their jobs.

The jobs where the client (and of course, designer) were having fun, not taking themselves or their words too seriously and, most of all, enjoying the process, were the jobs that were the most successful as they had some (obvious) personality.

On Mar.07.2008 at 09:44 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> That’s the story behind our name. ‘2’ was Michael and myself, ‘9’ was the total number of spouses and kids that we put in all sorts of financial peril by quitting our good jobs and starting a business without any clients.

That's hilarious. This should actually become a ranking given to design firms when they start. Ours would be:

UnderConsideration: id21 or id23 if we count our cats.

Thanks, Doug, for taking the time to do the interview. It's always great to see how others' careers evolve and what are the triggers behind certain decisions. And I didn't realize you had gone to Cranbrook, I guess that explains the design of the Unnatural Science poster : )

On Mar.10.2008 at 03:53 PM
Jim’s comment is:

I went to school with Doug at SUNY New Paltz. He was just as impressive then. Keep up the great work, Doug! Muneera loves you.

On Mar.10.2008 at 04:45 PM