Interview with
Open: A Design Studio

interview & text: Naoko Nishiguchi

When we visited the Open studio, the friendly staffs and a French Bulldog named Ruby welcomed us. The studio was full of American Pop objects, the colors of which are reminiscent of those used in their design works. There was a dog house for Ruby at the center of the studio, which we really loved. Ruby’s owner, an illustrator named Chip Wass, who is sharing the studio space with Open, often collaborate their work. The owner of Open, Scott Stowell (he does art direction as well)—told us about Open, including the episodes that he used to work at M&Co. and previously worked for the Benetton magazine “Colors” in Rome.

+81: What are you currently working on?

For the last year we have been working on the identity, broadcast design and website for a new TV show called “art:21,” or “Art in the Twenty-First Century.”It is the first program on public television to present contemporary American artists and their work to a national audience. The show’s goal is to communicate new ideas in a way that is very accessible. To have the chance to get art out of galleries and museums and into people's homes is very exciting.

Recently we’ve produced some broadcast work for MTV, including some promos for their 20th anniversary and the packaging for “So 5 Minutes Ago,” a show about cultural trends that have recently gone out of fashion. We just launched an online store for Chip Wass, the illustrator that we share our studio with. It was a fun project. The site is based on a fake brand that is designed to look like an out-of-date fast-food chain. Now we’re doing some identity work and printed materials for a non-profit organization called EarthAction. It is a worldwide network of individuals, groups and legislators who act together on global problems, including environmental and human rights issues. It's exciting to use design to help people in a direct way. We’re also designing a cookbook, a spoken-word CD, some t-shirts for the American Museum of the Moving Image, and more covers for the Nation magazine, among other things. Open typefaces and design products are also in development.

I’d like to be doing more music-related work, either in the form of packaging or videos. And work that transcends the barriers between disciplines the way that projects such as architectural signage or film titles do is very interesting to me.
I don’t like specialization. If we specialize at all, it’s in the way we work and the kind of clients we work with. Typically they come from culture, entertainment and politics, but anyone who is smart, has an open mind, and has something to say is a good client. And any opportunity to create a total experience—whether it’s a piece of motion graphics, a corporate identity, or a CD package—is a great project.

+81: Could you please tell us a brief profile of yourself?

I was born in Massachusetts in 1968. I studied graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where I also took courses in architecture, film, and photography. I was a summer intern at M&Co while I was in school, and then returned there after graduation in 1990 to work as a senior designer. When M&Co shut down in 1993, I moved to Rome to work as art director of Colors, the Benetton magazine. After a year I moved back to New York to work as a freelance designer. After working on my own for a few years, I began to miss the interaction with other people that comes from working in a studio environment. I was also becoming more interested in collaborating with others to produce work. So, at the beginning of 1998, I started Open. Now there is an in-house staff of five people, but we have a network of collaborators, including other designers, writers, filmmakers, animators, type designers, illustrators, musicians, sound designers and Web developers.

These days, besides running the studio, I teach design at Yale University. I have started writing articles about design and culture. This year I became vice president of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), and recently I have become involved in the AIGA's campaign to raise public awareness of the value of design.

+81:What caused you to be a designer?

My father is a printer and has been for 40 years or so. He used to bring home press proofs, color-separated film, printed samples, etc., when I was a kid, and I was fascinated with them. I remember this one thing that had a painting printed on four transparent films, so that one could see the image in every combination of process colors. Plus, the stat camera my dad had at work back then was as big as a room: you could stand in it.
I started doing design work early—drawing type, doing illustrations, and so on—for school projects, contests, that kind of thing. In high school I did freelance jobs for school groups, the local TV channel, and people like that. When I applied to RISD, my portfolio was all graphic design: logos, posters, package design. My high school actually offered a class in graphic design: I took it twice, but was basically the only student.

My first full-time design job, during the summer between high school and college, was at a firm in my hometown. I started doing odd jobs in the office, but quickly moved on to sketching, comping and designing everything from logos to brochures, etc. I did client presentations, press checks—the works. I only got $150 a week but it beat being a supermarket cashier (my other job), and besides, I was only 17.

+81: Please talk about bit of the story when you were working at M&Co.?

My relationship with M&Co started in 1986 or 1987 when I saw an article about the firm in I.D. magazine. I knew then that M&Co was the only place I wanted to work. A lecture by Tibor Kalman a year later confirmed this for me. I was hired as an unpaid intern in 1988. I started doing filing but after a week moved on to help with design projects. I worked all day in the studio and then went to a post-production facility where we worked all night on the Talking Heads’ “(Nothing but) Flowers” music video, which became a landmark in the history of broadcast design.

For me, M&Co was a very exciting place to be. Since Tibor had no traditional design training, he had no preconceptions about how things should be done. In fact, he hated solutions which were familiar or traditional in any way. So the work we did was irreverent and guided by a desire to be very innovative and direct. I worked long hours, but we had fantastic projects and lots of freedom, so the job was challenging and fun. Because of this, M&Co was filled with funny, talented people who were intensely involved in the work and loyal to the studio. Since I had just finished school when I started, I thought every design job was like that. I know now how fortunate I was to have had that opportunity and that experience. It's that kind of environment I am trying to foster at Open. If you put a bunch of smart people in a comfortable, stimulating place, good things are bound to happen.

+81: Do you have any designers whom you were influenced by?

Of course, Tibor and everyone else at M&Co (Emily Oberman, Douglas Riccardi, Dean Lubensky, Alexander Brebner and Marlene McCarty, among others) had a huge impact on me.
Lots of work by old masters of design such as Paul Rand and Bradbury Thompson is fresher to me than a lot of new work. I admire Charles and Ray Eames because they expanded the idea of what design is. For them, working on architecture, exhibition design, film, furniture, products or typography was all part of one big mission to make good ideas accessible to everyone.

The graphic simplicity in the work of mid-century modernists such as Lester Beall, Alvin Lustig and Ladislav Sutnar has also been a big influence on me. The same goes for Europeans such as Max Bill and Josef Müller-Brockman. Contemporary designers whose work I like include Number Seventeen in New York, which makes beautiful and witty design for film and television, and Pierre Bernard's Atelier de Creation Graphique in Paris, which continues the tradition of the very personal and political work he started with the design collective Grapus. In Amsterdam, there are firms—such as Mevis & Van Deursen and the Office of CC—that do work that is conceptually engaging and visually rigorous. Also in Amsterdam there is Piet Schreuders, whom I admire for his dedication to and celebration of parts of culture that others overlook.

+81: Do you have your own philosophy of design?

I am attracted to solutions which are very efficient, that is, that solve a lot of problems with an economic use of material. Design that is deceptively simple but nonetheless has many layers of meaning is very compelling to me. The work I do is often conceptual in nature and draws much of its power from written language. But in general, it is the relationship between the content of a piece and its visual form that fascinates me.

At Open, we begin projects by thoroughly researching (and often developing) the content, so that the design solutions we create can have a direct relationship with the ideas being communicated. It's always important to remember that design is for people to use, experience, and enjoy. Those people—clients, colleagues, and of course end users—deserve respect, which makes for a more rewarding work process and more effective results. So the idea of collaboration is very important, both within our studio and with others. And we are always putting ourselves in the shoes of the viewer, to make sure what we do is meaningful, or engaging, or funny, or surprising, and that it works in new ways without excluding anyone.

+81: What's the meaning for you to work in New York as an art director?

I prefer to call myself a designer, not an art director. To me design is about communicating ideas and solving problems—whether those problems are aesthetic, practical, or political—and isn’t limited to a specific context, medium, or purpose. Design has a lot of power, and that power can change things for better or for worse. Plus, designers have a direct approach: we make things. And I love making things. New York is fantastic because everything is happening all the time here. All kinds of people live here, and all kinds of cultures from around the world are represented here. I love riding the subway—where else can so many different people share the same space? The streets are full of information and inspiration, too, from old hand-painted signs to giant electronic billboards. You want Thai food delivered at 6 am? You can get it. Color proofs on a Sunday afternoon? No problem. You can see any kind of movie whenever you want. You can go dancing every night. You can buy records at 2:00 in the morning. And then get breakfast at 3:00. The only drawback to New York for me is the cost. It's expensive to live and work here, and despite the current economic situation, it's not really getting any better.

+81: Would you like to work any other countries? If you would, which countries?

I'd love to work in Italy again, of course. Making Colors in Rome was an incredible experience. People really know how to live there, and we still got a lot of work done. The time I spent in Tokyo doing work with Wieden + Kennedy for Coca-Cola was great as well. Designing with a different writing system was fascinating. While I experience the typography primarily as abstract forms, it carries meaning for those who read it. I think this is why the visual culture in Japan is so exciting to me. I’m a fan of Japanese design books—The Tokyo Type Directors Club annual is one of the few which I always look at and always enter (our video for Time magazine was a prize nominee this year). I’d also like to do some work in the Netherlands. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work in Amsterdam for several weeks. As an American, I am envious of the respect for design that exists in the Netherlands. There, design is more integrated with the government, with commercial fields like advertising, and with society in general. Here in the States designers have to fight much harder to get their ideas accepted. The same kind of respect for design also seems to exist in the UK, and in Scandinavian countries as well. I haven't visited there yet, but to get the opportunity to do some work in a place like Stockholm would be very exciting. Plus, I like cold weather—it keeps me sharp and awake.

+81: Could you please give any message or advice to the people who want to be designers?

Look around. Pay attention. See everything. Draw. Read. Write. Work hard. Be smart. Be open.

This article originally appeared in
+81 Issue 12 (Autumn 2001).