“These simultaneous texts rhyme at certain points and clash at other points.”—Rob Giampietro

Rob Giampietro: Former Principal, Project Projects / New York NY

“these simultaneous texts rhyme at certain points and clash at other points.”—rob giampietro

What is the collaborative process at Project Projects?
The studio was founded with a deep interest in art and architecture. I think the disciplines and the design naturally sort of turned back out again, to look at the world and seek to represent it and reflect upon it. Even as designers, all of us are writers, editors, curators, book publishers, interactive designers, and teachers. At any given time, we all wear not just one, but many hats. We are always seeking to build bridges from design, which is a place of agency, a place of making, to other things in the world. I think the studio really approaches design as communication, and it is a place that is full of art and craft at the same time.

Within the studio, we have many different configurations. It depends on the project and the set of relationships that come with the project. I might know someone and want to be really involved. There might be components of the project that speak to different interests of ours from a content level; for instance, researching copyright laws, gift economies, or things like that. A lot of times, when projects come in that have to do with modes of circulation or distribution, I like to get involved in those, in order to further that dialogue through the work that we make here. We all have certain research interests, along with design skill sets, and each of these feed the makeup of a project team and the different configurations that we choose.

Each project has someone that is kind of in charge of it. We have found that it is really helpful when you are working collaboratively, to have someone who is the owner of the project. Or the tiebreaker person, who gets to make the deciding call. Every project has a principal in charge, but it can be more or less distributed leadership as well, depending on the nature of the project. The other thing that governs the configurations that we choose for projects, are whether or not that team has worked together before. Sometimes, it is good if a team has done a difficult thing before, to have them build on that again. Other times, we like to shake it up. It is a pretty fluid thing. We have an amazing team of people here who are all really talented and add a lot to the studio in different ways. It is a matter of engaging their interests and having us engage each other in dialogue. That’s why we all love working here.

Collaboration—All together now? Special Section of Print

courtesy of projects projects

Is there a certain process that each project goes through?
There really isn’t a norm. Some projects are things we’ve done a few times, like an artist monograph, an architecture website, or a large-scale exhibition. We more or less know the best way for those projects to go. But every project comes with its own constraints, and its own particularities. Often, the most interesting visual solution, the part of the project that is really going to capture people’s imagination, is going to come from finding and emphasizing that point of difference. That is one of the earliest discussions that we have: “How is this thing different from other things that are like it? How can we celebrate that and make that visible?”

I think that is particularly true in the case of architecture websites. I work on a lot of the interactive projects in the studio. We have done many websites for architects, but all of them are different, and that’s because we are very engaged with how architecture is represented online, and we are really interested in having very specific discussions with each of the firms that we’re working with on a given project. So it is not one of those one-size-fits-all processes. It is really about digging and digging and digging until we find something that’s like, “Oh, you only want to see your work in context.” Or, “You only want to see your work as seen by other people.” Or, “When we go to your studio, it is this very colorful experience. How can we bring some of that energy into the web?” There is always something that differentiates anyone’s practice or anyone’s project, and we set out to look for that in the beginning and make it visible.

Can you talk about teaching and its relevance to your collaborative work?
Teaching is definitely a big part of what we do. I think I probably teach the most out of everyone in the studio. I’ve taught at RISD since 2006, in their grad program, and other different classes. I have also written a lot about teaching. I have written for the Graphic Design: Now in Production catalog, and more specifically, about the development of the Graphic Design MFA Program as a cultural influence over the last 50 years—how it has changed what designers have produced, how designers are produced, what designers seek when they go to school, and how they self-actualize when they are there.

Collaboration—All together now? Special Section of Print

courtesy of projects projects

We have also done a number of experiments in the studio with teaching more collectively. Last year we worked with Allan Chochinov, who is the head of the Products of Design MFA Program at SVA, and he asked us to conduct a very quick workshop over a half-semester, teaching graphic design to product designers. Any time we get a chance to teach graphic design to a group of people who are not graphic designers, we always get excited about that, because it’s another bridge-building exercise. That was a case where we had a bunch of product designers in the room, and we got to pay really physical attention to the book. We thought about the physicality of the web and the way that metaphors and analogies play a role in the way that we talk about things that are spatial. Everyone in the studio, including staff, taught a class in that workshop.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve taught a Wintersession workshop at RISD, which is a funny little three-week period between the fall and spring semesters in January. It’s always a time when my graduating MFA students are on the final leg of their thesis journey, and there is a lot of anxiety, fatigue, and frustration. So I always try to use the three-week period as a chance to shake things up. We make a large number of projects in a very short period of time, kind of sloppily, but in a way that you often do as a graphic designer when you don’t have a year to think about something, or when you only have two days to think about something. We really set the students loose.

One of the things that they do every year is that they come to Project Projects. During those visits, we have a number of people that are at the studio now, and even people who are alumni of the studio, who all sit down and give different perspectives on the students’ work. That’s a case where it’s really great to have students in our space and for them to see what it is like to be a practicing designer, meet our staff and other people that have worked in the studio, and get all of these different perspectives.

Collaboration—All together now? Special Section of Print

courtesy of projects projects

The other thing that we do sometimes is we have lectures and events at the studio with people that we have collaborated with. Last year during Design Week, we did a session about a new website for the architecture firm FXFOWLE, where we had an awesome discussion with the editor of The Architects Newspaper and a few partners of FXFOWLE. We have had a number of speakers here over the years. We try to make the studio somewhat porous in that way.

Why spend so much time and energy for teaching design, both within an educational institution and through your own space?
As much as we like to make design, I think to be able to sustain your work as a designer, you have to intersperse more civic and discursive things within your practice, things that really get you out meeting people, getting other people’s perspectives, and giving yourself a chance to reflect upon your own practice. I have always found that, even things like this, just talking to you, gives me a chance to reflect on what it is that I’m doing and thinking about. Doing that in the classroom is like an appointment with yourself, as much as it is giving back to your students. And it’s also about just keeping current. Part of being current is the practice, but part of being current is also being with people who are from a different perspective or background or time or generation from you. So we always try to hire people that we can learn from, but I also love teaching people that I feel like I can learn from.

How does your studio facilitate collaboration and/or interdisciplinary work?
We are in the Bowery in downtown New York. The Bowery is a really dense and bustling space. The borders are the Lower East Side and Chinatown. There are a lot of energies that really come together. We work with other people who are nearby, like when we designed the Graphic Design: Now in Production catalog for the Cooper-Hewitt with Chris and Dominic Leong, who are these two architects who have a practice called Leong Leongthat happened to be next-door. The gallery P!, is also around the corner. There are a number of local businesses and artists and galleries, who we collaborate with, that are all really close by.

The studio itself is kind of an open plan. It was designed by our friends at WORKac, with whom we shared a studio before we moved to our current studio. One aspect of the space is that we have a library that is open to everyone that comes here. The library definitely fosters collaboration, and it represents a collaborative interest that then gets disseminated to the staff and everyone else.

We are very local in some ways; in other ways, we are really global. Some of the clients that we work with, are in other countries or dispersed across multiple countries. We are doing a project right now for a collective of museums in Europe. There are several different museums in multiple countries. We like those kinds of blurry boundaries between working very locally, eating from the same couple restaurants that we really love in the neighborhood, and then also going to Istanbul and Mexico City to do a project. We like that dichotomy.

Collaboration—All together now? Special Section of Print

courtesy of projects projects

What does your studio look like? Can you describe the space?
It’s a former factory building, but it is narrow and long. It has really large windows in the front that open to the street on the Bowery, so it does get quite loud sometimes if you open the windows, but we like that hustle and bustle. There is a big screen where we can have videos or slide presentations and things like that. Our conference table comes apart, and that gives us a little more room to pack people in here if we have a lecture. When you get off of the elevator, there is a lunch table where everybody eats lunch together. We have a small kitchenette and storage room. Then there are three or four different pods of workspaces, so we all sit in pods and shuffle around. For the most part, it is pretty open.

How is writing an interdisciplinary design tool?
A lot of times, writing gives me a longer reach. If you are in a classroom, you say some things to some people, do that year after year, and you begin to change and they also change. It changes your practice in ways that you don’t expect. I think that is all really valuable, and I think the practice of saying those things is valuable to me. But I also think there is something valuable about writing that down. I’m saying, “At this point in time, this is my perspective. You can judge me on the merits of whether you think this is a good argument or bad argument, whether you think this is accurate to how the discipline is moving or not.” I value being able to have focused discussions that really bring people out of the woodwork and lead to new ideas and new discourse. I’ve always thought that writing does that; it is the hardest thing that I do. It is also one of the most rewarding things that I do.

Design is such an interesting thing, with so many components and different countervailing forces that shape something. It is really interesting to write about that process. In writing about design, I’m also writing about myself as a practitioner. I’ve tried to write about all of the aspects of my design process over the years, and I think that I have a lot more to touch on. But I admire people like Rudy VanderLans, Richard Hollis, or Jan Tschichold who’ve all spent the time to write about their practices as designers.

Is that writing as process, or writing as documentation?
For me, it’s more at the end of a process rather than at the beginning. It’s not so much that I write to figure out what I think, although writing has often changed my mind about something. You often begin with a hunch, and you want to write a piece that explains that. But then in the process of writing, you end up disagreeing with yourself, changing your mind, and end up being able to articulate your arguments better than just a hunch, which might have been a little bit soft before. I love that process. I think the reason that you go through the difficult process of writing is that it does offer a really deep level of awareness, an insight into what you think and how you think. Very typically I will be working, and I will be somewhat conscious of what I am doing. Or I will be teaching, and I will have to try to articulate something to a student. I articulate it and then I make a note to go back to that thought, and a month or two later, I sift something out and say, “Oh, that’s actually a term for something that I want to write about.” Writing does come much later, toward the end of the process rather than in the beginning.

I feel like some of the pieces that I have written have engaged other authors’ work. There have been specific responses to some things that I have read. The article that I wrote called, Form-giving, is a very specific response to this book I read by Lewis Hyde called The Gift. To blatantly contradict myself, that was a case where the essay came at the beginning of a period where I was wondering if design couldn’t be thought of through the lens of gift theory. When I was reading that book, I felt like the whole thing was about design in a way, even though it wasn’t talking about design. The same is true of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, by Mark McGurl, which is a book that I read because I was interested in creative writing programs, but as I was reading it, I saw some strong points of alignment with my experience as a teacher of graphic design, and also some strong points of difference. I was interested in exploring that, and using some of McGurl’s tools in that book for graphic design MFA programs.

Sometimes there is an exercise that you want to try out. Especially when I was writing more frequently on my blog, I thought of writing as exercise. It’s like, you wake up, and you want to put something into words, even if it’s just a paragraph or something just to keep you loose and limber. I don’t get to do that as much now, but I do try to carve out time for writing that is very focused.

Do you link writing to collaboration?
In some ways it is very un-collaborative, in that you are often by yourself, hammering away at something. But at the same time, you are in dialogue with other writers that you have read, although you’re not sitting in a room next to them.

Very often, very few ideas develop without speaking to somebody about them. Almost every piece that I wrote for Dot Dot Dot came out of numerous conversations with David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey. First, it happened in a kind of very open-ended way, like we would just be talking about a book or a set of ideas for something that we had. And then at a certain point, one of them would frame the idea, and say, “Can you write a piece about that idea for the next Dot Dot Dot?” It would always come as a bit of a surprise, but Lewis Hyde talks about labor of gratitude, which means that you are thankful for the opportunity, so you wind up working very hard to fulfill the possibility of that opportunity. That’s a case where you have been in dialogue, but you go off and try to figure out what you think.

There is also a sort of dialogic collaborative process that happens with the editing process. I am a huge believer in editors and sympathetic readers who you can give your piece to and say, “Does this make any sense? How would you change this? Does it fall apart in the middle?”

I find that, while writing is very similar to speaking, designing collaboratively is really about listening. The longer that I can listen before I speak, or the longer that I can wait for the client or the other designers on the team to give me insight into the thing we’re making, the better the solution is often going to be.

Can you talk about all of this in relation to your blog, Lined & Unlined?
Lined & Unlined is a place for my thoughts. Most of it is my writing, and it came out of the desire to have a writing portfolio in the same way that a designer has a design portfolio. That was its initial motive. It has grown a bit over the years. I have put a lot more resources on there: books that I would recommend, and I have a clip file now where I try to be diaristic about keeping track of what I’m reading and looking at. I also share a lot of syllabi and teaching materials, because when I was starting out as a teacher, I felt like there weren’t enough resources to look at.

In another way, though, Lined & Unlined is there to be shared. Often you are asked to write for journals or small publications in other countries, so the idea of creating some sort of body of work as a design writer gets fragmented very quickly. I always thought there was something forceful about having all of your work collected in one place and making it accessible. And the site has grown to become that vision. It’s a body of work for me as a writer and a thinker, but it is there for everyone to make as much use of it as they possibly can.

Are you trying to resolve things for yourself?
For me, as a writer, certainly. My output is not as massive as it was when I was younger. I have Ellen Lupton to thank for that to some degree, because she said to me, “You want to pick a couple of important things to focus on each year, but you don’t want to burn yourself out.” I think that was really good advice.

I think that there is definitely a desire at Project Projects to advance the discourse of design and to advance the idea that design has the capacity to change culture. I don’t know where that comes from, other than to say it is shared, and all of us have that ambition. We come to work every day with that kind of ambition. That comes to the point about: What do we share? Design is already expansive, but making it legible—maybe that is a kind of shared terrain.

How do you manage downtime as a group?
Collectively, we go out and grab lunch or grab drinks after work pretty routinely. Our schedules are pretty busy, and we all travel a lot, but one or two times a month, we make a little time outside of the studio to talk more broadly.

Personally, I try to build in deadlines for the work that happens outside of the studio. If I am writing something, the best way to write it is to have a deadline and have somebody who needs it. Because of that needing of it, in a way, the pressure wills the piece into existence. Otherwise, I would just stare at TextEdit for a while. I do feel like, if you are going to work on something outside of the studio, it’s important to have a schedule for that work and feel like you are progressing. I have tried to create a little bit more balance. I think the work/life balance is important, and as a designer, you can easily overload your visual circuits and forget that it is important to try new experiences—whether that means going to a weird opening, or eating some weird food, or not thinking for a little while. Again, it’s Ellen’s sustainability point. There is a level of things that you know in your third decade of design that you don’t know in your first decade of design. I would like to be in a position where my voice is still relevant and I still care about writing. I want to keep writing something that can be shared. To do that, you plan to make it sustainable.

Do you tend to work with anyone in particular at the studio?
We have kept our studio pretty small. We are around 12 people right now. That gives us a certain amount of leeway with collectivity of the whole group. I go to my partners, Prem and Adam, quite a lot, and they come to me. We have a Senior Associate, Chris Wu, who has great taste, and who we trust completely with a lot of things. I love learning from the interns that come for a couple of months. I love the energy that they bring. I really think that they have a different perspective that broadens Project Projects in some way. I try to spend as much time as I can with everybody.

Can you give examples of references that influence your work?
I was commissioned by Artists Space to do a lecture on the history of their logo and its various permutations over the years. In doing that, I took the opportunity to not just look at the history of their logo, but the history of logos for arts institutions more generally. A few years later, they invited Dexter Sinister, who also edits Dot Dot Dot and The Serving Library, to create a show on identity. And in connection with that, I published the lecture. The lecture crystallized some ideas I had and also ideas that we had been discussing at Project Projects.

Collaboration—All together now? Special Section of Print

courtesy of projects projects

They found their way into the identity work we did for SALT, a cultural institution in Istanbul, and for a class in SVA’s new MPS Branding program that’s co-chaired by Steven Heller and Debbie Millman. Those different discussions, teaching the class, and giving a lecture at Artist Space, all fed into what we ultimately made for SALT. A key idea for the identity system involved using a custom typeface, which arts organizations have done before, especially the Walker Art Center with Matthew Carter’s typeface Walker, and that was a very important reference in working with SALT. How have other institutions before that used typography? Magazines and newspapers before that also came into play. The idea of being able to metaphorically use a typeface as an exhibition space that would disseminate itself throughout the city, felt like a new idea that came from combining gestures that were in other museum identity systems, but in a new way. I think that if I hadn’t taken the time to survey all of those different organizations at the invitation to Artists Space, then we would not have been able to do a presentation on our thinking to SALT, which started the discussion in a particular direction. That is a case where, sometimes, when you have done your thinking in advance, it really pays off. And it benefits you, not just in terms of getting a job, but in terms of being able to have a more engaging and thoughtful conversation in that first meeting.

Can you discuss the Collaboration Special Issue that you did with Print Magazine?
Print came to us. They had just got a new editor, and they were rethinking how they were doing things. I’m sad that they are gone now, but at the time, they had this idea to commission different designers to do the middle section of the magazine. Each one would have a different theme, and they would reach out to different design groups that had been tailored around that theme. They thought it would be great to kick it off with collaboration, because it would be a collaboration between the magazine and us, as the designers. Also, they viewed our studio as being a particularly interesting in terms of the ways that we collaborated. We had a few initial discussions with them. One thing that needed to happen, was that we wanted to get a bunch of different people from different areas together to talk about collaboration. We didn’t know what we wanted to do with it, but there was always a sense that we could pick up aspects of that dialogue throughout the whole thing, that spoke to collaboration in more specific and more abstracted ways. We did that, but we actually did that much later in the process. We also approached different writers that we knew and we had story meetings. Project Projects turned into a little editorial group during that time. Then, we would run these things by Print, and we would have a dialogue about how we had never really seen Print Magazine do a story about a printer, and that we would love to do that. Or that we don’t really see design studios getting to talk about money that much, and that we would love to see a conversation about business structures alongside a portfolio project. Or something from our friends at Artists Space, and the process of redesigning and rebranding that space, and how it had been a challenging but really productive collaboration. We wanted to figure out if there was a way of covering all of this.

It ended up being fun to engineer these opportunities. We got to commission photographers and work with all of the type designers that we knew to give us an unreleased typeface for all of the article headlines. It wound up, in a way, being a portrait of our network of people, some of whom are designers, but many of whom are not. It was really fantastic to also work as editors, which is one of the founding interests of the studio: how design and editing feed back on each other. We all worked at magazines early on in our careers, and we are all involved in graphic design now, so we wound up having this private panel discussion at Artists Space, that we recorded, transcribed, then let it run throughout the issue. It really has a lot of great points.

One of the things that’s fun to see, is how that little transcript pairs with things that are being spoken about within the article that is hosting it. There are times when somebody’s talking about something that is really ruffling their feathers, and then at the same time another person is talking about something that’s more harmonious or hilarious or conflictual. These simultaneous texts rhyme at certain points and clash at other points.