Jenny Beorkrem left a cushy nine to five design job after her typographic city posters became an online phenomenon by showcasing her work at Ork Posters. Her designs, sold to the rich and famous, are intricate studies in type, texture, and information design. She fielded my questions about inspiration, screen printing, and how she arrived at the name Ork.
JASON TSELENTIS: Who are some of your design idols?
JENNY BEORKREM: Lester Beall - Even his legacy has managed to be humble. He designed well and he designed smartly. I agree with everything he said about design and the way a designer should work and live. "If we can produce the kind of art which harnesses the power of the human instinct for that harmony of form, beauty and cleanness that seems inevitable when you see it? then I think we may be doing a job for our clients." - Beall
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - You’d have to try really hard to live in Chicago and not be influenced by the Bauhaus convictions that Mies brought. He believed in his designs and he made others believe in them by using his intelligence. Freeing the space, letting the materials be beautiful, clarity and simplicity… all characteristics I strive for in my own design style… and sort of in the way I live my life. I think the Chicago poster would fit pretty nicely in the lobby of his Lake Shore buildings.
Matt Stone - I have a big fascination with the idea of a really little, insignificant thing that you may say or do over the course of a day that turns out to be hugely significant for someone else. This is what Mr. Stone did for me. There’s a bit of a back story. When I graduated from college I had two tools to take into the world. One was a creative and witty design portfolio preview ‘packet’ to try to woo several Chicago design studios that I had my eye on. The other was a business degree to fall back on if no one would bite. Obviously, my first love was design, but after borrowing my way through an out of state school, I was tempted by reality to ‘sell out’ and get a higher paying job with my business degree. Over the first month, I hardly got a response from any of my packages, much less an interview. Then I received a very encouraging letter in appreciation of my efforts and creativity from Matt Stone, one of the principals at Sandbox Studio in Chicago. It wasn’t even an interview or a portfolio review, but receiving that letter lit a fire in me to keep going. I taped it to the side of my monitor and trudged through three more months of rejection and disappointment and mounting debt until I finally found a design job. If it weren’t for that letter, I’d probably be a consultant right now and Ork probably would never have happened. I only hope that I can do the same for someone someday in the future. Not only is he a good person, but the firm produces good design. Really, it’s all those quiet, humble studios out there like Sandbox that are my idols, contributing smart, and successful design to our everyday life without fanfare, all while taking care of the little things along the way.
JT: What do you miss about a 9 to 5 job since you left ‘the office’?
JB: Absolutely nothing. I realized at 9:05 of the first day of my first summer internship that it was awful. Young designers that may not get to escape the cube very often for meetings, long lunches or professional development, cannot be creative in there. Everybody agrees, it’s been said many times before, but not everyone does something about it in the way they run their firms. Providing the right resources, freedoms and work/life balance to your employees, even if it costs more money or time, is an investment in better solutions for your clients. Oh, of course I miss having designers or someone around to bounce ideas off of besides my dog… although she usually agrees with me, which is nice.
JT: What about your atelier? What or who is Ork?
JB: Not much of a story here. I wanted a company name when I first started doing freelance design work. My last name is too cumbersome (Beorkrem), so I explored shorter words contained in my last name. I started with ‘Beor Design’… didn’t really like it after awhile. Moved on to ‘Ork Design’ and found it a bit convenient that it rhymes with dork (which I am), so it stuck. Naturally, you don’t think too much about a name when you start out viewing your business as more of a side project, ergo I used Ork Posters… and the url was available! Bottom line… I need a better story.
JT: Working from home, what do you appreciate the most?
JB: Waking up and getting straight to working right away. I never knew my brain functioned at that moment in the day. Also, being barefoot all day. I really hate socks.
The Ork "Magic Station"
Getting her hands dirty (probably without wearing any socks).
JT: As far as the posters go, what’s the best compliment you have received?
JB: The Chicago International Poster Biennial finalist pick. I don’t think it’s wise to judge your career by the number of awards you have, but I respect all of those judges and I respect all of the other finalists who have well-established careers and bodies of work, my little city posters pale in comparison to them. My name on the finalist list (thanks to the alphabet) is listed right next to Michael Beirut. Michael Beirut? And Aesthetic Apparatus and Paula Scher further down… everyone on there. For pete’s sakes, I never thought I’d be in that company, much less at 25. I look at that list every day. Also a design student once told me that a professor showed the design in one of their classes, that was a very nice compliment too.
JT: What about negative criticism?
JB: I haven’t yet heard a criticism that needed to be ‘overcome’, luckily. People will criticize the neighborhoods and boundaries because they are subjective. But I have to go with the (assumed) opinion of the majority and the expertise I have available to me and realize that it’s a) subjective and b) susceptible to aesthetic influences (e.g. leaving out smaller neighborhoods) because the design is first, second and third about form and concept and fourth about function (or way-finding).
Random images from the collection.
Three L.A. alternatives.
JT: It’s been said that your posters are socio-affective. How so?
JB: Where we live is a large part of our identity, but I think a lot of us limit our sense of community, who we’ll identify with, sympathize with, do business with, converse with, to our close surroundings, or our neighborhoods. Hopefully the posters serve as a visual reminder that there’s more out there. We’re part of something larger than what we see every day between work and home. And, now more than ever, we have to take that, even far beyond city limits, into consideration when we make choices in our lives.
I just recently took the posters to a couple art fairs and on more than one occasion watched someone walk up to one of the posters, draw a line with their finger and snidely remark that the poster should just be cut off here, because that’s the part of the city that people care about. Well that’s not exactly the response I’m looking for, but I guess the fact that they’d make that comment tells me they’re ‘seeing’ their entire city now.
And practicing what I preach, Ork is recycled/recyclable and as eco-friendly as possible. As far as green recyclable materials, I use New Leaf Paper and French Paper. I also work with local printers and donate a part of sales to non-profits every year, one local and one outside of North America. And I think most interestingly, I don’t advertise. I’m not here to influence people into wanting a poster, I’m here to provide it if it’s something you’re looking for. This is nothing revolutionary, but it’s a start in the right direction.
JT: After doing the posters for so long, how do you plan on ‘branching out’, doing something different instead of repeating yourself? In other words, can you see yourself doing these posters, in this aesthetic, for much longer?
JB: Well it hasn’t been too long yet, 8 months or so. You mean, do I want to be ‘typecast’? Pun completely intended. No way. I wouldn’t be a graphic designer if I wanted to do the same thing over and over.
JT: So why posters? Why not T-shirts? Cereal bowls? Plates? Or will you go there next? Did you do merely do posters because you could control the output, and print them yourself?
JB: This is a boring answer, but it’s what I wanted for myself. In the beginning, the original poster wasn’t to be seen by anyone but those who were in my apartment. It was 2-3 months after it was done and hanging on my wall before I decided what exactly the posters meant and that the concept behind it was something of value to the world. I didn’t sit down and say ‘What does the world need?’ and come up with the answer ‘A poster.’ But wall art and furniture, and other home decor, I suppose, are a few of the things that you see over and over again in your home… most other things only get your attention temporarily.
One of Jenny’s favorite spots in Chicago, Montrose, that inspires her work.
JT: What are the long term plans for Ork Posters? Will you move to countries? Galaxies? Will you design posters with non-geographical content?
JB: Long term? Umm… Next week I’m hoping to finish the Seattle design. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I were constantly trying to figure out what was next. You certainly can’t always just go with the flow, but at least for now all of the answers to those questions are no.
First look at the Seattle prototype
JT: Will you move to other posters about ‘identity’ (as you claim the city posters are an identity extension)?
JB: I don’t know that I’ve consider the posters to be the beginning of a body of work, so to say. I might leave that up to the artists of the world… to be expressing oneself through cohesive works over an entire career. I’m not one of those designers that really wanted to be an artist but was afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself, I’m one of those designers that wanted to help ‘clarify’ the world and make life better by simplifying it and using my creativity to solve problems, in the broadest sense. You can certainly be both an artist and designer, but I don’t know if that’s me yet. Maybe the idea that the general population is my ‘client’ will carry on to my next project. But I suppose everything we want is in an attempt to show our identity to the outside world or to serve a function in our life, so in that sense, it’s likely it would be about identity.
JT: What ‘signature’ do your posters possess? How are they inherently Ork posters, without being impressions of Paula Scher’s map art?
JB: Well, I hadn’t seen her art before I designed the poster, only after, so they weren’t designed directly as impressions, only after the fact could they be inferred as that. I think the typeface (DIN 1451) is 90% of the ‘signature’. Whether the design as a whole looks good all hinges on the balance between the positive and negative space around the type and DIN was a superb solution. I’ve seen a copy cat someone did for themselves (a city Ork doesn’t offer) in Univers Condensed, which I did try in the beginning, but it looks terrible. If I hadn’t had DIN I would have probably ended up trying to do it by hand, and then the design would have taken on a totally different style. And I have certain rules I follow when setting the type to keep the consistency between posters, that makes up the other 10%.
JT: What legacy do you hope to leave behind with your work? What would you like to hear people saying about them 40-50 years from now?
JB: This may come across as a cheesy sign off, but all that I can hope is I leave the world a little better off than I found it.
JT: Not cheesy at all. Thanks, Jenny.
When not designing posters for the masses, Jenny can be found cycling, playing golf, cheering for the Chicago Cubs, or traveling. Although she works independently, she relies on her dog Lola for inspiration and forthright criticism.