Step Q&A Jeremy Mende

Sean Adams interviews Jeremy Mende, Published in Step Magazine

Last year, I was asked by Adobe to produce a series of podcasts on the subject of design. What I learned was that lighter shirts make you look fat on camera. I also gained access to talented designers I’d never met before, including Jeremy Mende. It’s an easy temptation for designers to begin to sink under the weight of their own self-perceived importance; the conceptual thinking behind a project can become so dense that audience access is precluded. Mende has a strong commitment to the conceptual aspects of his work, yet his touch retains lightness… No easy task. I cornered him at an afternoon pool party—yes, it is L.A.—at my house and, amidst the splashing and shouting children, we talked about his work and vision. Since Mende is from San Francisco, he never did venture out from under the umbrella.

SA: Jeremy, what’s your story? Eric Heiman [of Volume SF] introduced us, and I was blown away by your work. Where did you come from, and how did you start as a designer?

JM: I really was not aware of design until later in life. I remember that designed objects were around-my parents had an Eames lounge and the like-but at the time I understood design as having something to do with status and taste, and not as a medium for expression or something one could build a personal connection with.

Without much of a plan I went to UCLA and studied psychology. I was very interested in how people make sense of things, but I kept looking for ways to translate that into something visual. In reality, I just wanted to make images, and I was looking for a reason [to do that]—somehow I was taught art was something you had to have a reason for. I tried painting but didn’t have the technical skill. A friend of mine was studying design. It was the first place where I saw intention and the act of making fitting together. It made sense to me, and I convinced the school newspaper to give me a layout job. While working there, I discovered some early-generation Macs, and I was fascinated with the control the machine afforded. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had an intuitive sense that the way something looked influenced the way it read. At the time I just enjoyed the opportunity to make visual things. But in hindsight I realize this fed back into my interest in psychology and perception.

SA: After I saw your Giant Robot figurine, I asked you to explain it. Your response was so clear and analytical. Is basing your work on critical and conceptual thinking important to you?

JM: Thinking conceptually is important to me, although my definition of what a concept is has changed rather dramatically. Good work, whatever the medium, is driven partly from an authentic idea and partly from a unique way of expressing it. [A concept] has to result from something more than just the idea or the expressive method. Otherwise the result is at best clever but never really satisfying. This notion of a personalized and whole gesture-one that can’t be broken down into “parts”—is what I find compelling. In this sense, the concept is really how idea and expression are fused.

SA: How do you keep your work from feeling too “heavy”? It’s not so dense in critical theory that nobody can access it. There is an aesthetic sense of beauty in the work. Isn’t that appreciation for aesthetic form verboten in some circles?

JM: I think it’s this interest in what I’m calling an “authentic gesture.” Theory can be a great tool to unpack complex forces, but it isn’t intuitive, and it isn’t the work. All really powerful impressions are felt intuitively—not cerebrally. One either achieves an authentic gesture or one doesn’t, and the work either elicits the feeling or it doesn’t. Getting the work to “feel” right is really my present interest … the feeling is the meaning.

SA: You’re working in one of the most saturated design markets in the world. Every time I go up to San Francisco, it seems that there is nothing left that hasn’t been designed. Tell me what it’s like to work and live there.

JM: There are a great many designers, but for all the density, there is not much discussion as to what the role of graphic design should be aspiring to. I was lucky enough to work in Holland and Switzerland, and in both cases, design occupied a much more social, less commercial place. Designers there are very aware of what others are working on—where the collective spirit of innovation is focused. The scale and pedestrian nature of cities like Zürich and Amsterdam allow people to come across graphic design much more often. And there is a kind of silent dialogue between designers. It’s very energizing, and I think my interest in the poster as a medium comes from this tradition. In San Francisco there are a number of us who are invested in design as an expressive medium, aside from its commercial potential. We share a few cultural clients, and watching what we each produce for them has begun to generate a similar conversation. It isn’t widely inclusive yet, but my hope is that it gains momentum and challenges designers to reach for more unexpected results.

This is a bit Utopian, but I believe we can have a vastly more dynamic visual culture than we currently have. Expressive methods go beyond opportunities for designers and create opportunities for anyone who is watching and reading to make personal sense of the world. It seems to have been forgotten, but beauty does have social value.

SA: I know you can’t be spending your entire life in the studio. What’s the rest of your life like? Anything really licentious?

JM: Aside from staying out too late and the odd hangover, not so much to say in the lawless and immoral category. In terms of lifestyle, I take a kind of reactionary pleasure in what amounts to an anti-design aesthetic: no black, no mid-century furniture, no tattoos, no pets, no collections of “vernacular” street signs, no “ironic” thrift store art. My car has become something of a joke among my friends, because it would be difficult to find one with less visual appeal. It’s definitely become a conscious choice, and I have to plead guilty to a reverse-vanity here.

SA: You’re also involved in public art. Don’t you have enough to do? Why is that important to you?

JM: I’m interested in exploring the means and potential impact of visual communication. To do that one needs an audience. “Public art,” as we’re calling it, has that opportunity built in. And when I say visual communication, it’s not that I am so interested in messages per se. I’m more interested in creating something that projects an atmosphere or feeling. Language—spoken, written, performed—is based on signs. But contrary to the assumptions of linguistic theory, I believe in an intuitive reading. Forms convey a sense of something. People will argue that this is still a learned, sign-based system, but to a certain extent I disagree.

Jung talked about a collective unconscious—a constellation of shared images and ideas. I am interested in a way of speaking graphically that is less about the mechanical relationships between signs and signifiers and has more to do with innate deciphering. Some forms just project certain meanings, before language and before rationality.

SA: I’m going to touch on something here that might cause designers to throw this magazine across the room: I’m intrigued by your “style.” Now, I don’t intend to imply a shallow veneer, but there are common themes of integrity and unexpected visuals in your work. What’s your process like on a typical project?

JM: It’s very important for me to have opportunities to break new ground, and in that sense we are always trying to identify new ways of working. Two questions we find ourselves asking over and over again: “Is this direction a move for us?” and “Does it add anything to the larger design dialogue we’re interested in?” If the gut answer to both of these questions is yes, we’ll keep looking at it. When possible we try to slow the process down. We just finished something for the AIA [American Institute of Architects] that really illustrates this. The budget allowed us to look at many things and follow some directions that were very abstract. What we ended up with was an approach much more like painting than designing—more intuitive mark-making than logical construction. It was not a particularly efficient process, but committing to it led us somewhere new. These kind of discoveries are the most rewarding.

SA: What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned since you’ve been in the design field?

JM: The one thing I find myself thinking about is the relative lack of power graphic design has in terms of eliciting strong reactions from people. One goes to see a film and, if it’s a good one, it’s an experience—it affects you. I’m interested in making work that tries to deliver something experiential, not informational. Unfortunately, print graphics are a kind of archaic, peripheral element in people’s lives. People overlook them in favor of more animated media. For those of us really invested in this, that’s a hard realization. I once told a class I want to make graphic design that’s like a car alarm-hard, elemental, impossible to ignore. Stylistically, I’ve rejected this, but that impact is something I’m still looking for.

SA: Are you involved in other media besides print? You’re a whippersnapper, so I assume you’re crossing platforms all the time. What kind of challenges does that present?

JM: We’re finding that an ever-increasing percentage of our work is online. The challenge for me is to try to develop a similar connection to the web as I have for print. This has not proven to be easy. The best analogy I can come up with is if one has experience writing novels, and then you’re asked to write a screenplay. Both are writing, but the mechanics and techniques used to create narrative space are very different. It takes a few times to sort it out and a willingness to be a student again. I’m lucky in that I have some employees who have far more web experience than I do. One in particular, Amadeo DeSouza, has helped us rethink our way of working so we’re designing much more with the grain of the medium than we used to.

SA: Give me a specific example when cross-platform designing and thinking was especially challenging.

JM: Country Music Television [CMT] hired us to do the national campaign for one of their new TV acquisitions: the Miss America pageant. You have an incredulous look on your face—and you’re right to. The subject matter and audience were huge departures for us. Developing a way to dramatize the product in a way that didn’t feel like we were being totally disingenuous was a challenge. Happily, both CMT and their brand are very flexible, and irreverence is part of who they are. Irony was a natural lens for this, and we developed what came to be called the “Crowning Moments” campaign. The key visual was a grid of deliberately awkward portraits we selected from video of all the previous crowning ceremonies, and it really captured the emotional spectacle that is the pageant. It was funny, visually memorable and worked to question our culture’s fascination with beauty and the cult of celebrity.

It also helped to recast the whole thing as reality TV rather than “national coronation.” That felt like a much more honest way to represent it, as well as an honest way for us to approach it.

SA: I heard inspiring feedback about the AIGA Next Conference in Denver last year. One woman said she’d been planning to drop out of school, but the conference changed her mind; she was re-energized and reclaimed her passion. My favorite was an e-mail I got that said, “Thank you—the joy is back.” But it’s a scary time; the definition of what a designer is is rapidly expanding. What do you think? Is the future bright for designers?

JM: There is probably good evidence of an increased emphasis on design by industry and commerce, and in that sense there will be more work. In terms of how design is consumed by culture, however, I am less optimistic. As a medium for representation, graphic design is credited with having a great deal of persuasive power. This is true in some applications, but design is used mostly to sell commodities, not ideals. This isn’t to say that it can’t be used to promote ideals, only that the greatest call for its service is commerce. Designers are trained to make consumption attractive and not to be ideologues or advocates. It disturbs me that as a profession we have largely accepted this, especially when there are huge environmental and social problems that compelling communication could help to change.

The good news is there is a growing ethos on the part of design to be proactive and actually identify problems as well as potential solutions. Last year we wrote and designed a book for Public Architecture’s 1% Solution that looks at the design industry’s lack of a formalized position on pro bono work. The book, The 1% User’s Guide, presents a best-practices model for how designers and nonprofits can structure pro bono projects in mutually beneficial ways, with the ultimate goal of increasing the positive social impact of the nonprofit sector.

Our hope is that the profession as a whole adopts a more formal and committed stance to social and environmental engagement. It is happening, but good models are needed, and they are only just now emerging.

SA: Tell me something about yourself that is surprising, something others may not know. And it can’t be “I really love Cooper Black.”

JM: I once got so frustrated with design, I left it to go work in an emergency room. Sometimes it’s valuable to scratch the surface of something just to learn it’s really not for you.

SA: OK, here are my questions that are not design-related, but very important: Favorite book? Favorite movie? Favorite restaurant in San Francisco?

JM: The best short-story writer that ever lived was an Argentinian by the name of Jorge Luis Borges. His story “The Aleph” holds in just a few pages the essence of love, pride, language and the infinite. This is both one of the smallest and largest pieces of narrative fiction ever written. Favorite movie: Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. He managed to create something beyond story and style that felt poignant and real-like he actually cared if he got the humanity of it across. Favorite restaurant in SF? I could break this down … but in the end I keep going back to the places where you feel the commitment of the chef in creating an authentic and personal experience- where food, wine and environment seduce you as fully as possible into the moment. There’s an analogy about design in there somewhere.

Jeremy Mende