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They Might Be Giants: A Review of karlssonwilker inc.’s tellmewhy

The matte white cover of karlssonwilker inc.’s tellmewhy: The First 24 Months of a New York Design Company became scuffed by my fingers, coffee table, brief case, and bed side table. I couldn’t let the irresistible book out of my possession.

The book tellmewhy documents karlssonwilker’s origin, ups, and downs. In 2000, Jan and Hjalti created the firm karlssonwilker, inc. Using borrowed money they opened a small office in New York and furnished it with all the amenities: some chairs and a computer with design software. With client referrals from girlfriends, family, and their former employer Stefan Sagmeister, the duo worked on a number of projects for record companies, restaurants, musicians, artists, cable channels, and fashion labels. A trusty intern helped them design night and day. Some projects were completed and others were not. A few jobs paid and a couple did not. But I got the impression that money meant little; tellmewhy is about owning your business and enjoying yourself while learning how to do it better.

Clare Jacobson lends narration to the book. She documented their Story through humanistic terms and I sympathized with the principals. The two friends had entrepreneurial dreams, fought for their concepts, and learned how to attain new business. They pushed forward despite low/no income. Through each and every project, I hoped they’d hit it big with a giant contract and fat paycheck. It’s just not that easy. As Jan and Hjalti discover, work doesn’t just come to you after purchasing a G4 and renting a studio. However, with all of the business don’ts, karlssonwilker does manage to pull off some very clever dos. They network with each and every connection they have, and make the most of all projects they’re assigned. A caption above the book’s barcode gives away their best piece of advice: “There is no bad publicity.” Anybody looking to start a small business or develop new client relations will find tellmewhy both informative and comical.

The book’s structure is as playful as its content. I read Clare Jacobson’s Story first, while referencing the photo collages of Jan and Hjalti (two handsome men) here and there. Their work (also handsome) linked up with the Story, but had me flipping pages to put the design into the context of the Story. I really enjoyed the testimonials (ranging from endearing fan mail to serious confusion) peppered throughout tellmewhy by the likes of Michael Bierut, Constantin Boym, and Peter Hall. Vectorized charts, graphs, illustrations, and narratives—part Monty Python and part Edward Tufte—somewhat explain what goes on inside the heads and office of Jan and Hjalti. Another layer of entertainment were Tiny Stories written from a surreal point of view:

TINY STORIES (2): i wasn’t there until about the middle and by that time everyone had already divided themselves into groups. i got stuck with some people who wouldn’t even talk to me. i tried to complain about it but no one seemed to care. when i get some money together i am going to bust out of this place. until then i am going to keep my mouth shut and play nice. by the time they start suspecting that i am up to something i will already be well on my way to freedom.

You can label tellmewhy idiotic, inspiring, or both, but there’s no doubt that it’s concept driven and clever. It’s hard not to compare Jan Wilker and Hjalti Karlsson to another whimsical pair of New Yorkers—John Flansburgh and John Linnell, the Brooklyn-based musicians known as They Might Be Giants. Karlssonwilker celebrated their first 2 years with a book; They Might Be Giants celebrated 20 years with a movie. Karlssonwilker has the Spoken Portfolio�; They Might Be Giants has Dial-A-Song. At one point in the 80s, They Might Be Giants were touted as the biggest band that was independent; karlssonwilker seems like the biggest design firm that nobody’s heard of. Each created somewhat of a cult following, with a unique voice all their own.

Near the book’s closing, I read “THAT’S IT FOR NOW AND THANK YOU FOR FLIPPING THROUGH THIS BOOK” in Trade Gothic Bold on a yellow flood. I’m still wondering what’s after the “now” of tellmewhy. This line from They Might Be Giant’s “No One Knows My Plan” eased my curiosity: No one understands; No one knows my plan; I must be silent, must contain my secret smile. You can’t forecast anything from these unpredictable and lovingly freakish designers.

Book Information
karlssonwilker inc.’s tellmewhy: The First 24 Months of a New York Design Company by Clare Jacobson, Hjalti Karlsson, Jan Wilker
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press; (October 2003)
ISBN: 1568984162
Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Mar.07.2004 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Armin’s comment is:

This is one of the few designer monographs I have read from cover to cover. It's not a groundbreaking book, nor will it change the way I live as a citizen or a graphic designer, but it entertained the hell out of me — and that's more than I can say for many other design books.

Clare's story has a certain dryness and mundanity (and I mean this in a positive way) that make everything… I don't know… funnier. And, like Jason, I found myself rooting for them in every project, but all the stories seemed to end in them either not getting paid, or getting paid $200.00.

While the book shows their work extensively, the strength of it lies in that it is an extension of their weirdness, humor and personality. The charts, graphs and lists are hilarious, the tiny stories are disturbing and funny, their office layout diagrams are highly entertaining and the spread showing all sorts of printer tests and nightmares is side-splittingly funny.

I enjoyed reading their immigration and visa problems, not because I relish on somebody else's misery but I so identified with it.

The cover though, if you read this book during the summer, it gets sticky.

On Mar.10.2004 at 10:09 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Seattle's rainy winter wasn't nice to the cover either.

On Mar.11.2004 at 12:37 AM
Feluxe Socksmell’s comment is:

lovingly freakish designers, no.

lovingly freakish Foosball artists, yes.

On Mar.13.2004 at 09:16 AM
david e.’s comment is:

I enjoyed the book quite a bit — the story of starting a design business on a shoestring — but I found myself getting annoyed at the partners' contempt for what a lot of the graphic design profession is about.

The best example is the packaging project for some kind of herbal stimulant. Instead of looking at the project as an opportunity to do good work, one partner views the project as demeaning, while the other sees it as slightly amusing. They describe the work as "clicking through typefaces". Then they show the comps they did, all of which are so bad they could have been done by any kid with an imac.

Not all design is about "high concept". It takes quite a bit of skill to create good design using nothing but type and form. In fact, its an art form. Their insinuation that they're above it all is irritating.

On Mar.15.2004 at 07:11 PM
Jason’s comment is:

david e. :

I can see how you'd feel irritated. While I can't judge the tone of karlssonwilker's comments like "clicking through typefaces", I believe they were learning and adapting through the entire 24mos documented in tellmewhy. The high concept designs for Sagmeister's sophisticated clients were behind them, and now they had to work on soft drinks or New York Pops flyers. It'd be a big change for anyone, and a challenging adjustment.

After two years in business, we are far from perfect.

introduction to tellmewhy

Jan Wilker and Hjalti Karlsson

karlssonwilker inc.

New York City, May 2003

On Mar.15.2004 at 07:34 PM
John Bielenberg’s comment is:

I loved this book.

It's really hard to design an interesting book and harder still to create all the content. But it's most impressive that Hjalti and Jan did it after only 2 years in business.

I wish them all the luck in the world.

On Mar.22.2004 at 11:53 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

I finally got my hands on this book and read it, indeed, cover to cover. Most monographs are mere encapsulations of work where the editorial context is from an art-historical perspective. This is different. It's a tale almost as cautionary as it is inspiring. Every time they mentioned not being able to finish a project, I wanted to scream. How is it possible to not finish a project?? Then again, I've been in the middle of demeaning $200 jobs when I thought about just not calling the client back and seeing if they ever came looking for me. The narrative is engaging and anyone else who has recently started a firm or is self-employed will identify with the struggles and occasional triumphs. I wish I had their connections!

On Apr.06.2004 at 02:03 PM
Jason’s comment is:

You can if you consider tellmewhy a recipe of sorts.

On Apr.06.2004 at 08:36 PM
Eric Heiman’s comment is:

I also run a small design partnership that is approaching 2 years in age. I feel the honesty of this book is what makes it so important and comforting. One rarely hears of the specific day-to-day struggles and mini-victories that go into sustaining a practice of even marginal integrity—let alone the degree of humility these two guys endured throughout the process—in a design monograph. Reality can bite, but never in so endearing, informative, and creative a manner as in tellmewhy. These guys are keeping the bar high in a very pure and humble way. More power to them.

On Apr.07.2004 at 07:48 PM