18 October 2006


OK, here goes. I’ve never intended this blog to be about me personally, but whenever I talk to a group of design students they often ask the same questions. This time one of them made a transcript. Many thanks to Stephanie Diederich at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’ve edited the text a little and fleshed it out in some places.

SD: How’d you get into your line of work?

JE: In the late 80’s and early 90’s I became increasingly aware of events in the news: riots in my home town, in Miami, Florida, the first Gulf War, genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans. I had a pretty privileged, middle-class background and when I went to art school in New York City in 1991, I was suddenly faced daily with poverty and homelessness. By the time I got to grad school, I was making increasingly politicized artwork. I decided that I didn’t want to make big abstract oil paintings or decorative objects for rich people. I started playing with cheap, reproducible work — multimedia, works on paper, tiny paintings to give away. My work was increasingly populist and my peers and faculty were increasingly defensive about the fact that I wasn’t “buying in.” I dropped out after a semester and decided that rather than use my politics in my art, I would use my art for my politics. I decided to become an activist designer.

I’d had a roommate who was a graphic designer and who inspired me with his politics and in 1996 it was pretty easy to find freelance Web work if you knew anything about HTML or Photoshop or a little Quark XPress. I started out doing basic HTML and that turned into a freelance career. I would bounce between corporate design work and volunteering for groups I was interested in. I just started approaching non-profits I liked. Some responded and some didn’t, but eventually with all my pro-bono work I started to build up a nice little portfolio of design for non-profits and activist groups. A few years later, larger non-profits started to have an actual budget for design and web work, so I was able to find paid work for non-profits.

SD: Do you work with a lot of non-profits now that don’t have a budget for design?

JE: Well, in the last year my situation has changed. I’m no longer an individual freelancer, I now run a company with employees and we’re pretty swamped with corporate work. On evenings and weekends, I do occasionally do some flyer design or basic site design for groups that I like. The company has had a few non-profit clients, but it’s less frequent than when it was just me.

SD: Do you find working in New York helps?

JE: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I haven’t lived anywhere else in a while, so I can’t give a very scientific response, but there’s definitely a large concentration of non-profits in New York City. New York is a densely populated area with a wide variety of communities, so yeah, I think it’s definitely been to my advantage to be in the city.

SD: Do you think it’s more difficult to work with more socially concerned clients than larger corporate clients?

JE: It really depends. I mean, I’ve had some good and bad clients on both sides. Each has it’s own challenges.

SD: It’s just par for the course in design?

JE: Yeah. In some cases you’ll have a client that you really like to work with, in other cases, you’re more exposed to the internal power structure of the organization, so decisions become very contentious. It really depends on who you’re working with. With web work, it also helps if clients are a little bit technically savvy.

The big difference is, of course, resources. Non-profits can be quite shy about investing in a technology platform or media project. Non-profits can also be conservative when it comes to marketing and branding. Given a pot of money to expand their program work or enhance their web presence, most would probably choose the program work.

On the other hand, because non-profits generally do things on a tiny budget, my skill set fits nicely. I’m a generalist — I know a little programing, a little design, a little writing, a little strategy. It’s cheaper for a non-profit to hire a generalist than a big team of specialists.

Also, be careful about making the distinction between “corporate” and “non-profit.” In the U.S. at least, non-profits are, in fact, legally incorporated entities. This puts limits on their organizational structures and activities.

SD: Are there any really good methods of communication or outreach or marketing that you’ve picked up on through your work with socially conscious clients?

JE: You mean in terms of promoting my own design services or in terms of outreach and advocacy of the issues?

SD: Um, the latter.

JE: Again, it really depends on context of the campaign. It depends on your constituency, it depends on the issue, it depends on geography, the moment, the media and political climate. Things that work well in one situation won’t work for another. There’s any number of things that make a campaign successful or not.

Over the course of time — I mean, my background is as a designer, not as an organizer — I’ve picked up some general principals just seeing what works and what doesn’t. But there’s always more to know and to learn.

Obviously, organizing a national campaign among certain constituencies is very different than organizing a very local campaign in New York City. One may be better reached by a print campaign which they themselves produce, rather than an e-mail newsletter drafted by a professional copywriter. I don’t know if that answers your question or not.

As for as things that work, the first thing to do is just listen.

I also like simplicity and clarity. User testing helps too, if you can swing it.

The greatest thing is seeing people take your work and run with it. When I saw election posters that I’d designed up in people’s home windows, or an image I’d designed stenciled and stickered around town, it was fantastic. You really feel like you are helping spread the word or building a movement. It’s great hearing about when people use your work for their own struggles.

SD: How would you advise students hoping organize a social campaign?

JE: There are two approaches I’d recommend. One is to find an organization that you like that already has a campaign and constituency. As designer, it’s also easier for me to work within specific constraints. I also think you’re better able to make change by working with a larger movement.

If there’s an organization you like, just look them up. If you send an e-mail, and they don’t respond to the e-mail, then call them. If they don’t respond to your call maybe go to a meeting. If that doesn’t work, then find someone else!

On the other hand, don’t wait for anyone to contact you. Just make something and put it out there, and pretty soon people start to see it.

I currently working with an anti-war coalition in New York City. I initially approached them. I had this design I thought was kinda cool and sent it to them. I was like “Hey, you know, I like your work, and here’s this thing that I made and if you want to use it, feel free.” And they actually couldn’t use it because it was too political. As a non-profit with 501c3 status, there are rules about what you can and can’t say with regards to political campaigns.

Then a month or two later, they wrote saying “You know, we couldn’t use that, but we liked your work, and if your interested, we have this thing, could you help us?” So that was the beginning of a relationship I’ve had for a couple of years now.

Take an issue that you care about and just make something. Send it around, maybe it’ll turn into paid work, maybe not. It’s pretty cheap to make a website or a batch of postcards. If you can’t afford that, there’s xerox, stencil, silkscreen... It may not lead to anything more, but there’s a certain satisfaction in just doing it yourself.

I’ve found that any time I initiate my own project it comes back to me in unexpected ways. People express interest in what you’ve done, and they either wanna do it, or want you to do it for them, or something different, or you meet people interested in what you’re doing. If you have an idea, just execute it. Once you do one project, people start to see it and word of mouth starts to spread.

I also think it helps to build a portfolio of the types of work that you like to do. If you have a portfolio full of stationery and business cards, but what you really want to do is political posters, well, people may not make that connection. It’s a very rare and special client who can see that you’ve done one thing and know that you can do this other thing. Clients may not necessarily know that you have this interest or capacity. If you’re interested in a particular issue, in a particular media, it certainly helps to have work that represents that. And doing your own projects is one way to go about that.

SD: Do you ever think you’ve been pushed beyond your limits on any project?

JE: [Laughs] All the time. Usually it’s in terms of time. Often, I’m never quite satisfied with a design in progress, and then I hit the deadline. It’s difficult.

Recently I had an idea that I thought was very clever, but the client didn’t feel comfortable with it and so they wanted to change this, and then they wanted to change that, and piece by piece they tore it down. The original idea was lost, so I was sad about that. But it happens all the time. You present an idea you care about to the client, sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t.

In terms of my professional work, my company charges by the hour. I just think it’s more fair. You are paid for the work you do. It’s slippery when you charge a fixed fee. Often client changes go on and on, and the web is not like with print where it goes to press and then that’s it. If you work for a fixed fee, you really have to enforce process, and I’m not very good at that, I tend to be pretty accommodating to the client. In some cases, it may not matter, the project may be more important than that. In some cases, you think you’re doing the right thing by offering a discounted rate and then it just dwindles as time goes on. It becomes very frustrating.

SD: Do you find it easier to work with a bunch of designers or by yourself?

JE: It depends on the mix. I have a very good relationship with my business partner now. He’s more of a programmer than a designer, but he pushes me to make very good design decisions. He has a good eye and he’s a very good strategic thinker about these things, so that’s a very satisfying relationship.

Working with some designers can get very contentious, with people changing each others’ work, making decisions that the other person wouldn’t — one person may have a rationale for doing things one way, and the other person doesn’t recognize it and does something else — it depends on the process, on the relationship between designers, and on the project. Of course, it depends on personality as well. If people are very protective and take things very personally, it’s very hard. But if people have a more generous spirit, it’s easy to collaborate.

I’ve often been inspired by people that I’ve worked with. Let’s say we have to show three or four comps to a client, and I’ll do a couple, have a colleague or contractor do a couple others, and often I’ll be inspired by what they return, and I’ll make a fifth design, and maybe that design will be the best.

SD: What’s your favorite piece of work?

JE: Of my own or in the world, of other people’s?

SD: Either, I was thinking your own.

JE: Of my own? That’s a hard question… It’s hard to say. Sometimes something that you really like at the time may not age well. Other things may have been OK at the time, but over the course of time, you feel pretty proud of it. There’s always more you can do, so it’s hard to say.

SD: I really liked that “An Eye for An Eye” poster.

JE: Which one, the circles, or the woman, the photo?

SD: The photo.

JE: Yeah, thank you.

SD: I just think it’s really good with the typography — just a really good solution.

JE: Oh thanks. I felt it would have been stronger with a more handwritten text, or sort of brush-written, with more variation in the line treatment, but my Arabic just sucks, and I just couldn’t pull it off. I’m so used to using the computer so it was really hard to pull it off, so I ended up just using the gothic type. Which is fine and it’s probably more legible than the more painterly solution. Anyway, thank you for the compliment.

SD: It’s pretty cool, I liked it, sent it to a bunch of my friends.

JE: Oh good. I was hoping for more blog linkage but it never really happened. I guess it’s an issue that people are tired of. I don’t know.

SD: What do you think about blogs in general?

JE: [Laughs] Well, it’s a lot of what my company does, so it’s certainly paying my bills. I read blogs every day. It’s changed the way people think about information online. And we’ve seen a couple of cases where bloggers have actually managed to influence public policy.

I wish I had more time to work on my own blog. I have a huge archive of half written ideas I hope to expand on someday. The consequences of my own blog have also been nice and unexpected. I’ve heard from people around the world and made some nice connections. I’ve published a few longer pieces in print.

There are a couple of web-based grassroots communities that have sprung up around blogs that are pretty active, but I think in general non-profits have not really found a way to tap into this, and a lot of of businesses are struggling with it, too.

Non-profits, especially the big ones with the national and international constituencies, feel pressure to be more bloggy but they also want to control the message and have a hard time spending money on their websites, so they haven’t quite figured it out. I think it’s interesting to see what’s happening.

SD: Is there anything that you would add to anything I’ve brought up?

JE: Well, designers are often pre-occupied with client work and it’s good to try to keep it playful and personal and political. At the same time, design shouldn’t be an end in itself. Very often students will ask “Can you recommend an article about social design?” I’ve written a couple of things, but my politics really come from other places — reading history or political analysis. The design then flows from that.

SD: Playing James Lipton, if there is a heaven, what do you expect or hope God to say at the pearly gates?

JE: [Laughs] Um.. yeah, I’m an atheist so this doesn’t really apply. But I think it would important to look back and consider your legacy. Did you make a lot of money or win a bunch of design awards? Or did you leave the world a little better than when you found it? That’s all.