“Oh, I love being the bad cop. We like it when students synthesize conflicting advice.”—Nolen Strals

Bruce Willen + Nolen Strals: Co-Founders, Post Typography / Baltimore MD

“oh, i love being the bad cop. we like it when students synthesize conflicting advice.”—nolen strals

How did you meet?
Bruce: Nolen and I met in art school at MICA around 1999. We were both into similar types of music and went to shows together. We also had mutual friends. The first time we started collaborating was when I came up to Nolen over the summer one year, and said, “Hey, do you want to start a heavy metal band?” even though neither of us really knew anything about metal. We just thought it would be cool to start a metal band. Since we had a band, we naturally had to make shirts, posters, stickers, etc. We branched out from there to do film festival posters for Johns Hopkins and posters for other concerts. And then we started getting work that actually paid us.

Nolen: But that was years later. When Bruce and I were in school, we were the only two people I knew of, who collaborated. Unlike Bruce, I wasn’t a design major. So I was only in the design department one or two days per week. My major was General Fine Arts. I initially went to school to be an illustrator, but then I changed my mind pretty quickly. I still wasn’t exactly sure where to go with it, so I decided to go with GFA, since it’s so wide open; you can cherry-pick classes in every department. By my junior year, I was screen printing concert posters for shows on campus and around Baltimore, which provided an opportunity for me to illustrate and hand-letter. I wasn’t really thinking about graphic design when I made these posters. I was just making them.

Bruce: I had seen Nolen’s work around campus. When I met Nolen I thought, ”So this is the guy who makes those posters that I steal off the wall.” In the late ’90s, the MICA culture was a lot different. It was a lot smaller too.

Nolen: I had three design classes. Bruce was in two of them, and his work always struck me as smart and thoughtful. He always had these big ideas, more so than many of our other classmates, so Bruce always impressed me.

The Double Dagger posters were generally made by Nolen?
Nolen: The ideas came from both of us. Like the Johns Hopkins 2007 poster over there, the whole thing was Bruce’s idea. He drew the type. And I drew the rat.

Bruce: Nolen, did you do the explosions, or did I do the explosions?

Nolen: I couldn’t tell you from here, I’d have to go up and look at it. I guess that’s a good thing.

What was your band’s collaborative process?
Bruce: Our first band was called the League of Death, but that reformed into Double Dagger. Double Dagger is defunct now.

Nolen: Bruce would bring in an idea, and then he and Denny, our drummer, would hash it out. As they figured out the sound, I wrote lyrics to the tone or tempo or atmosphere of the music. I also had ideas for themes that I wanted to write about. As I listened to what they were composing, I would compare my writing to see if it matched up to the spirit of the music. Then I would flesh out the length of the song.

Bruce: There was a lot of back-and-forth conversation between the three of us. A lot of the material would come together on the fly during practice, as we were all playing.

One good thing about collaborating on music is that every time you play with another musician that has different tastes from you, they will make a contribution that you would have never thought of on your own. A good band has different approaches from all of its members, while still retaining enough similarity whereby people can be on the same page when talking. There has to be enough similarities in people’s approaches for the collaboration to work. You have to hit a sweet spot. People need to understand where everyone is coming from, but still leave room for everyone to have their own approach, so that they can bring slightly different ideas to the table. This is also very true of a design collaborative.

Does that process also correlate to the writing that you do together, like with the Lettering and Type book?
Bruce: Definitely. The way that we work together has a lot of give-and-take. Usually, one person does the bulk of the work on a project, but it is not created in a vacuum. There are many points along the way where we talk about where things are headed. It’s a joint authorship.

How do your backgrounds influence your collaboration?
Nolen: Well, I’m from north Georgia.

Bruce: I’m from New Mexico. We both grew up in small towns, which I would say gives us unique perspectives on the world. For instance, people who grow up in New York City, or other big cities that have bigger cultural scenes or affluent residents, often have a different appreciation for community.

Nolen: Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the small-town thing. What it comes down to, is access. I never saw the internet, or even knew what it was, until I graduated high school in the spring of 1997. I only knew two people who had it. The way I found out about things was very limited and in a concentrated way. Any time you’re in situations where you don’t have a whole lot of access to the outside world, those few times that you do have some exposure to something, really resonate with you. You latch onto it and dissect it. You get invested in it to a pretty high degree, and I still have that mindset. That’s still how I think.

Helicopter Parents

courtesy of post typography

Does growing up in a small town lead to valuing community and human interaction?
Bruce: I think so. Nolen and I both come from a DIY, indie/punk background. Like Nolen said, growing up in a small town means you don’t have the same kind of access as people living in cultural centers. You don’t have the same exposure. A million cool events aren’t just around, happening all of the time. So when something does happen, everybody goes to that event, even if it’s slightly outside of your town, because there is such a tight-knit community of people who are really supportive of music and art. When you see that people are passionate, that value is instilled in you from a young age. People in small towns are supportive because there really isn’t any other support system built-in besides the community. People have to work hard to make anything cool happen.

Nolen: That definitely instills values of hard work, community, and collaboration because small towns don’t have larger structures to facilitate that. People have to work together with other like-minded people to create a culture that they want to exist.

Bruce: It definitely affects your ethics. It’s like, here is this other person who is doing something really great, and it may not necessarily be my thing, but I know what it’s like to push for something, so I should probably try to support them. Growing up in a small town helps you empathize with other people. You are better able to imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes, and give them a chance to prove themselves.

How are you indispensable to each other?
Nolen: Without Bruce around, my work wouldn’t be as well-rounded or as surprising. A few years ago, I was trying to describe the way Bruce thinks to somebody, and what came to mind was that Bruce is very agile in his thinking process. I operate from my gut quite a bit, and I think a lot of other visual people do too. But Bruce can move around and make intellectual connections in a way that most people are incapable of.

Bruce: Our ideas get stronger because we edit one another. My ideas would be way more one-dimensional without Nolen.

Post Typography Studio

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How does your studio environment facilitate collaboration?
Bruce: So it’s not just us—we have interns and employees around all of the time now. We want our studio environment to be open and collaborative. For instance, if somebody else is working on a project, they’ll often say, “Hey everyone, come over here and check this out. What do you think?” This constant critique and back-and-forth is a minor collaborative process, but having the ability to get frequent and instant feedback is extremely helpful. The environment at Post Typography is intimate and informal. We’re in the studio, and we talk whenever we want to.

Nolen: Even with brainstorming sessions, we often just all turn our chairs to face each other. Sometimes we move to the conference table, because it’s good to physically move your body around sometimes.

Bruce: We have found that it is nice to not always be in the same space all of the time. Every once in a while, I’ll leave the office to work somewhere else on a project, like a restaurant or coffee shop.

Nolen: When I work from home, I almost always have a movie or TV playing in the background. I find that it helps me to concentrate if I have something to ignore.

Does chatter in the studio accomplish the same thing as coffee shop noises or TVs?
Nolen: Yeah, having other people around helps me stay on track.

What is your collaborative process?
Bruce: It changes for every project depending on the medium, the audience, and what we are trying to accomplish. But every project starts with the same approach, which is we discuss and think things through together, during some kind of brainstorming session. Sometimes that involves the whole studio, and other times it’s just two or three of us, but we come up with as many angles as possible.

Do you involve everyone on a project?
Bruce: It depends on the scope of the project and the availability of our team. If it’s a smaller project, or if some people are really busy, then we don’t always involve everyone.

One challenge for us has been time management, especially because we work on a lot of lower budget projects, and we can’t just call, “All aboard!” If we did that, we would be broke. But we do try to think about how we can maximize our time while still producing high quality, collaborative work.

Nolen: We try to include everyone whenever it makes sense.

Bruce: Especially on a larger project, we need everybody to have a voice. Maybe somebody will only have the smallest nugget of an idea to contribute, but that idea might be the keystone to the whole concept. And the idea wouldn’t have been realized without that small bit of interaction or involvement. That’s what is so great about our type of small, collaborative studio setup. Bringing in other people is really important, whether it’s a small contribution or a major contribution.

White Stripes

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Beards Rule

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Has the change in group size altered your collaborative process?
Bruce: Yeah, to an extent. The bigger a group gets, the more unwieldy it is. You also run the risk of having people who are not open to other people’s ideas. When artists and designers work on something, they get attached to it. It can be hard to hear criticism from other people. If you’re working in a collaborative studio environment, you have to be open to changing your idea.

Does having a group help facilitate interactions with clients?
Bruce: That’s probably more true when we’re dealing with a frustrating or closed-minded client. It’s nice having two people, so only one of us has to deal with that at a time. “Hey, Nolen, you can respond to this email.”

Nolen: One person can flip out, while the other person can write the response.

Do the two of you chill together outside of the studio? Can you turn off the collaboration?
Nolen: When Bruce and I hang out, we try not to talk about work.

Bruce: At least not too much. It’s really easy to get sucked into work. But it’s hard because, as an artist, I’m always influenced and thinking about stuff, even when I’m not working on it. Chilling and talking helps me come up with ideas, and it’s nice to have Nolen to do that with.

Nolen: By the same token, it’s good to be reminded that your friend is more than just your business partner.

Bruce: It’s nice to know that when we talk about a design project, he’ll still understand me when I digress into something completely different or even off-topic. Our brains have to be thinking about multiple things at once, or else they dry up.

How do you team-teach?
Bruce: The few times that we’ve lapsed into the “good cop/bad cop” dynamic, Nolen is the bad cop.

Nolen: Oh, I love being the bad cop.

Bruce: We usually teach at the same time. The nice thing about team-teaching is if something comes up at the office, one of us can stay at work to deal with the crisis while the other one goes to the classroom. Although, we definitely prefer being in the classroom together because we are able to respond students’ work in a more rounded way.

Nolen: Something that I really like and think is good for the students, is when Bruce and I give contradicting feedback. If a student brings in a project in its early stages, it could either go one way or the opposite way, and we’ll each take different sides.

Double Dagger Tour

courtesy of post typography

John Hopkins Film Fest 2007

courtesy of post typography

Bruce: Then students are like, “What do I do?”

Nolen: We tell them, “That’s for you to figure out. It’s your project.”

Bruce: If the class is good, the students will often give differing advice or feedback on their own. If it’s bad advice, we try to steer them away from that. But we like it when students synthesize conflicting advice.

Another thing that I like about team-teaching, is that when a student puts work up on the board, and I don’t have a good response for them right away—this is especially true when the work is really bad, and I’m at a loss for words and don’t know where to begin—then Nolen is good at stepping in.

Do you teach collaboration, or does it rub off on the students?
Bruce: Yeah, I think so. But that should be happening anyway. If you’re in school, you should be talking with people and making work together, and if you’re not, you’re wasting a lot of your time and money. The whole idea of being in school is to be in a learning environment with other people. Sure, you can sit in front of a computer and grind it out. And you can do every graphic design tutorial that you want and look at graphic design blogs all day. But that isn’t maximizing the idea of going to a school. Computers limit what you can gain. School is a collaborative environment, and it’s something that we try to foster.

Nolen: Plus, critiques and personal conversations that provide critical feedback are rare. Students probably won’t get that at their first job or while freelancing on their own.

Bruce: Yeah, school might be the last time students get to be around such a diverse group of people. We try to get them to see that and take advantage of it.