Design Notes · · 22 min read

Absolutely Everything Is a Lesson: Jesse Reed, Standards Manual

Identity designer Jesse Reed on the lasting power of brand standards.

Absolutely Everything Is a Lesson: Jesse Reed, Standards Manual

In this episode, Liam speaks with Jesse Reed, identity designer and co-founder of Standards Manual — a publishing imprint known for preserving and republishing historic design style guides and assemblages of designed artifacts. In the interview, Reed explores his experiences working at Pentagram, and how identity design is related to time, truth, and the organizations it ultimately serves.

Liam Spradlin: Jesse, welcome to Design Notes.

Jesse Reed: Thank you.

Liam: I was first introduced to your work through Standards Manual, where you’ve worked on these compendiums and assemblages of branding systems and objects, from things like the EPA and NASA, and the New York City Transit Authority. But I want to hear a little bit more about the journey that led you there.

Jesse: Um, I’m from Ohio. So, I went to the University of Cincinnati. In that program, you have co-ops, which are basically internships that you do during the program. So, I did six of those, four of which were in New York City. My last one was at Pentagram in New York City. So, I was kind of familiar with the city and kind of the, the graphic design, sort of, profession and, you know, how it was thriving here.

So, after I graduated from Cincinnati, I, I moved straight to New York, um, in 2010, without a job. I actually went into Pentagram, just to kind of say, hey again, and that I’m in town. Interviewed with a few people there. Nothing kind of came of that, but a position at the Museum of Modern Art was available. And people at Pentagram were emailed about that, and then I kind of said I was in town. So, the timing worked out perfectly. And I got in touch with Julia Hoffmann and MoMA for a junior designer position there.

So, that was my first job in New York City. So, I started off, basically, like a month and a half after I moved here, at MoMA as a junior designer. Was there for a year and a half. And then, at that point I kind of reconnected with Michael Bierut at Pentagram, and there was a position open on his team. And he, we wondered if I, you know, was interested in applying for it. And I kind of was, not reluctant, but I just felt like my first job, I needed to be there for at least two years. So, I was kind of like, well, I don’t know. I’m not really to move. But of course, like, me and my dream job, so I’ll go interview.

So I did and, you know, ended up getting it and went to Pentagram, I think 2011, right from MoMA. So, and that was like, a very fast history. But basically getting us to Pentagram. I was on Michael Bierut’s team, you know, started just as a normal level designer. There’s not really hierarchies there. But just a designer. And in 2012 is when we found an original copy of the New York City Transit Authority Standards Manual, by Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of Unimark, and we found it in the basement of Pentagram randomly. I think a bunch of us were looking for a tarp to cover something on the roof. So, we were just, like, digging through drawers, and we found the red binder.

And I knew what it was. A few other people knew what it was. And so, we were just like, is that what we think it is? We all just gathered around one of our desks and just flipped slowly, page by page, through that binder. And just like, couldn’t believe what we were looking at. Hamish Smyth, who is now my business partner in everything that I’m doing, both of us naturally, I don’t know, said, hey, we should do something with this and show other people. Let’s, like, photograph every page. And maybe we can make a quick website.

So, and we did that the next day. And put up this really quick, no frills website. It got a bunch of hits. And then, about a year later, the MTA became our clients. We floated the idea of doing a reissue of this book, so that other graphic designers could have it. And we kind of thought we’d maybe sell like, 500 copies. Someone introduced the idea of Kickstarter to us, and we kind of explained that to the MTA. They agreed to let us kind of use that content to, uh, make the book. And we did the Kickstarter in 2014. And that’s kind of when all of this began.

Liam: I want to rewind a little bit to your-

Jesse: I know. Sorry.

Liam: -to your experience at Pentagram, before-

Jesse: Yeah.

Liam: -you kind of unearthed this amazing artifact, which it sounds like quite a scene.

Jesse: Yeah.

Liam: But I want to hear a little bit about your experience there, and just like, some of the projects that you were able to work on.

Jesse: I’ve said this so many times. If anyone’s ever heard myself or Hamish speak, we credit a lot of our abilities, our quote-unquote success or the way that we are as designers to Michael Bierut. I feel very fortunate to have been on his team and to, you know, really have him as a mentor. And I would say, if anyone has the position to be in sort of a, a one-on-one, kind of mentor, mentoree scenario, to kind of jump at that opportunity, if you can. Because you know, sometimes when you work at really large companies, you can kind of get just, like, lost in teams, where I was fortunate enough to work for one individual sort of partner, who was very hands-on and very, I guess, just interested in the growth of his designers and the people that he was working with.

If you know Michael’s work, that’s what we, we did. It’s a lot of identity branding. So we, you know, developed everything from the logos to typefaces, and to, you know, design systems. Everything that kind of goes along with it. But the nice thing about his work is that he doesn’t really have one particular type of client. He will work for restaurants or non-profits, or higher education, or really large corporations, or like, individuals who are just starting a little company, whether it be, you know, they’re an architect starting their own firm or they’re a consultant doing whatever.

My daily sort of work routine was completely different from week to week, month to month. Because, yeah, like I said, sometimes we’ll be doing, you know, a huge sort of branding exercise for Syracuse University or doing a restaurant like On Rye or [inaudible 00:06:24]. Or, um, whatever it may be. So, I started as, you know, mid-level designer. And you kind of get into the, the flow of how Pentagram works. And I should say that, you know, every partner at Pentagram works very differently from one another. So, the partnership is essentially autonomous studios, working under the same roof.

So, Michael’s working style was, I guess, unique to anyone else’s. And I really like that. So, he would get a new client in, and think either Jesse is available. Or, you know, he really likes doing this type of corporate identity. He’d be good for this. So, he kind of assigns me or any designer the clients. And eventually, you get about a group of, you know, it could be anywhere from five to 12 active clients that you’re working on at any given time. And because the team is actually very small, there’s only about 11 or 12 of us on the team, you’re responsible for a lot. There are no production managers. There are kind of two project managers for the entire team, and they kind of oversee, like, really big stuff if you need help. But you’re kind of left to your own devices, to schedule meetings, do production, do the design work, work on the presentations. And you, you collaborate very closely with Michael on the eventual solution.

But it was a lot of pressure, I think, at first. I wasn’t sure how to handle so much responsibility on my own, ’cause coming from MoMA, you kind of have an art director that you work with. And then there’s a creative director who’s overseeing everything. And then you have two production managers who help, you know, bid print work and find whatever it may.

Liam: Now it’s all you.

Jesse: Yeah. And then you’re like, now, it’s left to figure all that out on your own. So, it was about a six month learning curve before I felt really comfortable doing it.

Liam: You mentioned, kind of, digging back into history, or perhaps like being influenced by a specific moment in time. I’m interested in this moment in time, and like, certainly when we approach a project as humans, we bring to it our perspectives about things that we understand right now. Is it a goal in your identity work to separate the identity from the moment in time? And if it is, how do you do that?

Jesse: Yeah. It’s not an easy thing. I mean, this is like … That’s kind of the constant challenge. So, when you are thinking … And again, this is with, everything I’m talking about, uh, I won’t repeat myself about kind of, um, us really looking very closely at each individual, uh, scenario. So, if you are developing an identity that, in the client’s mind, needs to be around in five, 10 years’ time, you have to put sort of current culture aside. And really focus on them.

Because you’re right, being a designer, that kind of the … The answer to these questions is almost like, fighting the temptations of, of culture and current societal influence, or whatever it may be, and like, pop culture. You have to not look at that. And so, the biggest sort of flaw that I see designers, mainly younger designers making is they will make these collections of, you know, mood boards of things that are happening, like, right now and that are very in vogue. And those things will not be the same in five years.

So, if you’re creating an identity for a company that shouldn’t spend time, money, or resources on doing this every two years, you have to think about what will work for them in a long term sort of scenario. So, it’s just a constant exercise of restraint on not letting those things influence your work.
So that’s identities. But if you’re doing a campaign, and something that is sort of of the moments, then I think you can take more cues from, you know, what is happening right now in, you know, film or technology. You know, like, cryptocurrency is kind of a big thing that is talked about these days. And we’re getting a few clients who are dealing in that realm of, of that industry. And so, there’s history of currencies, and the way that people use tender and exchange money. But it’s a new way of thinking about it.

You kind of have to think in the moment and apply current influences and applications to what you’re doing. So, I think campaigns and sort of things that are only meant to last for a year, sure, look around you and take those influences. But if you really want to help your client and avoid them having to repeat themselves over and over again, then just think strongly about what their mission is, what they actually do. Like, what are they making? Where did they come from? Where did their ideas come from? Who is behind the organization?

And then, if you do that, I think you’re kind of set up for success. It’s … Even if the quote-unquote design or the style isn’t agreed upon by everyone in the world, if there’s still substantive thinking, it’s sometimes hard to argue with. So, I think when we approach design, we kind of do it so that if there is argument, we have some way of backing it up. Rather than just, we think it looks great.

Liam: Speaking of the idea that not everyone in the world will agree on, maybe, the visual style or some component of the design. I’m interested in how you think about designing a new identity for an established client. Like, a company that’s been around for a while, and perhaps needs a new identity.

Jesse: Yeah. I have mixed feelings about it sometimes. Only because when that happens, sometimes it’s because of someone new in power, someone new in charge. And from their perspective, if they are, you know, the president of a company that has been around for 30 years, and they’ve been doing things the same way for the past 10 or 15, one way to signal change in leadership is to do that visually. I mean, that’s the thing that everyone sort of sees and it makes an impact.

So, you know, sometimes a, a new president or a director will come in. And they’d simply, yeah, just want to signal change in the environment, change in the culture. And you know, they’ll do that by changing the logo, because so then, it’s kind of a really easy thing to do. And you know, they’re not completely wrong. It is easier to do that than maybe change the entire structure of a company.

Then, that sometimes disrupts the strength of a brand and a name, I think, when you sort of let things build up over time. It constantly is like, solidifying and strengthening over time. And when you change that, it just looks sort of like a, a disruption. And so, yeah. My mixed feelings about that is, I don’t know if that’s always kind of the right reason, just because someone’s in power.

But I think if you are making a significant shift in the way that a company is run or the way that they’re going to do things next, then I think sort of a visual stimuli or a visual kind of connection to that is, is healthy. So, I’m more in favor of if you’re improving the business, then you know, you can signal that through some sort of visual communication.

Liam: So, going back to what you said earlier, the brand and identity should always speak to the truth of the organization.

Jesse: Definitely. One classic example is Coca-Cola, how they really have never changed their core identity since the very first time it was drawn. And then, you know, their main competitor Pepsi has gone through it many, many times, and now you see them going back to … Everyone does, like, throwback cans or jerseys or things like that.

And so, you know, it kind of begs the question on what was really the point in that change? And you know, maybe to them it was like, we, we’re signaling sort of a, a change in the way that we make our products or we’re doing things differently. But again, I mean, just the strength of Coca-Cola, everyone … It’s just fascinating how everyone wants to change things and make things new, but then everyone is constantly obsessed with the past and with things that are sort of quote-unquote vintage, or these legacy things. Uh, and they’re always like, bringing them back.

And so, maybe that says something about, we should just kind of have faith that something is going to work over time. And time and substance are two really important variables when you’re talking about any new thing that you’re putting out into the world. I mean, even like, a, a name on a brand is not the same when it is first born, to, you know, comparing it to something very similar that’s been around for five years.

Um, like, its place in our culture, time is something that you need to just give before judging whether it’s working or not, or good or bad.

Liam: That’s, that’s a good lesson for everyone, probably.

Jesse: Yeah. I think so.

Liam: I’m always interested in the constraints that designers face in, in different disciplines. And I know that identity design must be one with plenty of its own constraints. So I’m interested to hear generally about some of the constraints that you’ve run into in that kind of work.

Jesse: I think most designers, or at least some designers in, you know, one school of thought, or one camp of design, thrive on restraints. And I think I am one of those people. I think Michael is one, as well, kind of all the designers on his team. When you have a completely wide open-ended territory to do whatever you want, without any restraints or sort of goals in mind, it’s harder to make decisions. So, I think the restraints allow you to really look at things systematically and sort of pragmatically about how this brand or identity will really work.

So, right, if you’re designing a restaurant’s, or, you know, thinking about an application like, the side of truck graphics or, like, if you’re designing, I don’t know why I’m thinking of these weird applications. But like, if a client came and said, “We are a new fishing rod company,” it’s pretty obvious, sort of what applications you’re going to be designing for. But then, you know, sometimes you can imagine new applications that the client doesn’t think of. Like, you know, if you’re making new fishing rods, maybe it’s kind of like, you know, old school sort of sports. And maybe they’re not thinking so much about their web presence or the way that, like, social media can help their business.

And so, you know, we try to always think of a really good idea. Like, have you thought about doing this, um, just to give you more exposure? Or to just help the, the company. And sometimes, that can be, you know, internally. Think about the employees working there. Maybe the employees wants, you know, really great uniforms. Or maybe they want, like, a cool notebook. And so, we’ll make stuff like that. Like, you make fishing rods, but let’s make you a really cool, you know, notebook to give to all your employees, or, like, a bag. And that’s just sort of, like, a badge of honor that your employees can use.

So, I guess the, the answer is, restraints are really good. And it just helps frame perspective and set goals. But at the same time, um, I think we’re not afraid to always kind of think outside the restraints. And there’s no harm in always giving your opinion and voicing new ideas, and then, clients really appreciate that.

Liam: In a related vein, I want to draw comparison to interface design, which is what I’m most familiar with. And when doing that, I think we try to think about both the medium or the application in which the user is experiencing something, which for me, is going to be screens all the time. But also, their broader context in life when they’re using that thing. So, I’m interested in how that’s accounted for in identity work.

Jesse: Yeah. We always consider that. It’s things like, you don’t want to make anything that someone can’t afford. Or if they have, you know, vision problems, that it’s going to make it harder for them to sort of literally see or understand the work that you’re making. So, you know, a restaurant is another good example for menus. I think designers like really, really small type. And I do, but, um, at a certain point you have to think about the context in which that menu is going to be read. And it’s going to be, if you’re in New York City, you know, the, basically looks like the lights aren’t even on, and you have a little candle on your table to read the menu. Um, that’s not good sort of user experience.

And so, I don’t know, maybe menus should have, like, all 50 point type on them, or something. I know my, uh, my stepfather would appreciate that, instead of, you know, everyone kind of getting out their phone lights. So yeah, thinking about context, like, one, about just legibility. And then, again, you know, budget. I think that is one thing to talk about, if there’s a company and they’re non-profit. And they can only afford to make so many things, don’t show them, like, what their logo looks on the side of, like, a jet that some, you know, millionaire would have, if they had like, a private jet.

So, you think about, you know, those sort of restraints. And yeah, again, like, the end user on, like, really what is the most practical for them. But then think creatively. Like, again, like, we do a lot of print work. So, that’s in my background and what I kind of know best. And so, if, for example, you know, you might have to make printed flyers or brochures, and black and white paper looks cheap, and it looks like it’s done at Kinko’s, buy colored paper. And that’s, like, a really easy way that, you know, a non-profit can have a little bit more of an exciting sort of visual presence or, you know, communication materials without having to go and print things offset and spend thousands of dollars on really expensive printing.

That’s, for me, like, where the creative thinking comes in. And when I think creatively, I think about how can we solve these problems better for people? And then, again, that’s, like, us rationalizing what we’re doing, other than me just saying, you know what? I think you should really spend all this money, because I, you know, I did it, and it looks really great. And it’s just gonna look fabulous. That does not matter, if it doesn’t work and they can’t afford it. And they can’t actually use it.

My creative thinking is, like, how can we work around the obstacles that most normal people, uh, face every day? And people that, you know, spend their life savings or their time away from their kids into this new company that they’re creating. Like, I’m trying to help them.

Liam: Yeah. And not convince them to buy the jet.

Jesse: Exactly. You don’t need the jet.

Liam: Maybe this happens concurrently with the creation process, maybe it happens after. Maybe it happens the whole time. But codifying an identity, kind of laying down the guidelines and a style guide for this thing that has been created. First of all, I’m interested in how you approach setting down a set of guidelines that encompasses all of the things that you’ve created and that you know this will be applied to, but which also leaves room for future applications that maybe you can’t predict.

Jesse: First, we always design stuff. We design stuff first. We don’t start with, sort of, a rigorous system. If it’s, you know, a new identity that has pretty broad application, group or, you know, a scenario where a lot of very different things need to be kind of accounted for, we’ll just kind of go crazy and not have any rules. I mean, we’ll think of a very strong, uh, starting point and a concept that makes sense. Um, and so we then, uh, you know, in the very beginning, you’re sort of building up this kit of parts that is logical to us. So, you know, you’ve created a mark, and that mark represents, you know, X, and you have a typeface because there’s some sort of relationship to this.

If you’re doing things that require a lot of really tricky design moves that only a graphic designer could really understand, I guess, one, you have to consider the, the capabilities of that organization. Like, do they have an in-house design team to really pull off all these really great looking designer-y moves? Uh, and if they don’t, then I think you have to think a little bit more, you know, in a more restricted way. And again, that’s like I was saying, like, really think about who the client is and what their resources are. If they’re just left to their own devices, and you kind of create this very complex system, are they going to be able to execute it?

So, we think about those two kind of scenarios. Like, who will take this after we’re no longer in the picture? Um, and one thing that we always mention to our clients and try to guide them towards, is really investing in a designer. I think, you know, where … We live in a, a very highly designed culture now. Um, companies that didn’t consider design as part of their DNA are now very much considering it. And I think, um, everyone’s sort of aware of its impact on business.

And so, we really are advocates for at least hiring one designer or looking at if you need a whole design team to really, on a daily basis, start executing all the stuff that we’re going to give them. So, we always keep that in mind. But it’s really, I think, first, do a ton a work. Test things out. See what doesn’t work. And then, you can deliberate from there and sort of consolidate what the main outcomes were of that kind of design exercise. And then writing them all down in a very easily understood way. That’s kind of how we go about it.

Liam: I also want to speak specifically to your work on the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016. On your site, the guidelines that you provided for the identity were simple. That they allowed for a lot of flexibility later on. It could be adapted, and you gave a lot of examples of how it could be adapted to various contexts, different aesthetics, different imagery. So I’m interested in how you strike the balance between providing that flexibility and also maintaining a very strong core?

Jesse: Yeah. That identity is, you know, very fascinating for many reasons. Michael and I, and Julia Lemle, we were kind of the three people involved from the very, very beginning on that whole project. And when we started, the outcomes were sort of unknown. And like, who was going to be using any sort of design system still wasn’t completely clear. So, when we started, I guess the audience that we were designing for were everyday people. It was for everybody, and truly we were kind of tasked with this mission on creating something that anyone could sort of make their own version of. That really was kind of the impetus for the entire project.

On one hand, it did need to stand alone and sort of identify Hillary Clinton. Um, but at the same time, the campaign really wanted anyone to make their own version of it. And so, we needed to make it simple enough where, like, literally a five-year-old could draw it and make, you know, his or her version of it. And so, at the very beginning, there was a lot of research kind of done. And I think you would probably guess this, but if you say the word Hillary, uh, most people kind of know who you’re referencing, especially in context. And so, we just had this idea of the H, just like, the block H by itself. And it kind of created this window, and sort of this palette that you can put anything on or in. And then kind of make it your own.

And so that worked for sort of the crowd interaction part, and kind of the inclusivity of what we wanted the mark to do. But then, if you just took that H and made it like, one solid color, and it was supposed to represent just her and not anything else, it didn’t have enough uniqueness to it. And so, you know, the arrow came in as this idea of kind of moving things forward. And then also, this device that simply meant Hillary for, and then you could put anything afterward. You could just use that symbol.

So, that was kind of our, uh, involvement. We were at the very beginning, and we really just came up with this symbol, this mark, how it was used, how it was paired with typography. We worked with Lucas Sharp to sort of customize, you know, a typeface that he had previously drawn that we were going to use specifically for the campaign. So, and you know, developed a color palette, um, and then just some basic guidelines around how to use that mark, uh, and that symbol, um, to its fullest advantage.

So, yeah, the guidelines were pretty simple and straightforward. We did some basic applications, and then, you know, it became pretty clear that, you know, this campaign, obviously, was going to be a pretty serious one. And she was building her campaign staff, um, and Jennifer Kinon, uh, was appointed the lead creative director on the whole campaign’s creative side. And so, she really took those guidelines, and her and her team expanded them to worlds that we couldn’t have even imagined.

And again, that was like, a part of it. It was always, when we were sort of pitching the idea, we were always saying, like, we don’t even know what people are going to do with this. Like, you can’t know. You can never know that Shepard Fairey was going to make this poster of Obama and, you know, put hope on it, and that was going to be almost the official, unofficial symbol of the campaign.

So, it was almost like that Shepard Fairey moment that we were always, kind of, hoping would happen. And I think, I don’t know if any sort of celebrity did anything to that level. But I will say, equally if not more so, you know, Jennifer and her team took it to a whole ‘nother level of execution and thinking, and applying that in such a beautiful way that, again, like, time and substance really, the, that was the result of those two things.

Liam: I want to close on, uh, perhaps some more practical advice from you. Throughout the conversation, you’ve brought up a number of different media that you have accounted for in your work, everything from, like, menus to truck wraps, to uniforms to notebooks. Fishing rods.

Jesse: I’ve never designed a fishing rod, by the way.

Liam: Right.

Jesse: I kind of wish I had. I don’t know where that reference came from. I don’t know, it just, my past fishing [crosstalk 00:28:01] or something.

Liam: But theoretically, and even a symbol that could be applied to literally anything with a marker, crayons, pens, whatever. I’m interested in how, as a designer, you manage to learn about all of these different media, if it’s something that you’ve learned as you went, or if you have any advice for learning about all that, to be prepared for what you need to know to design an identity and keeping that knowledge current.

Jesse: My biggest source of advice would be, when you graduate college and you have this degree, you’ve learned all about graphic design or whatever, you know, interaction design, digital design. Whatever this kind of visual profession that you’re going into. When you’re out of school, you still have a solid five years of learning. I think you should act like you still know absolutely nothing about what it is you are making. The, you should have some level of confidence, and you have now the, the foundation and the tools to prepare yourself to put them to work. But you’ve just been, at that point, given the complete toolkit.

So, you know, you have your box of stuff that you’ve learned. But you have not applied them yet. And you’re not even sure how they will be applied or to what. So, I think when I finished school and started my first job, I absorbed as much as I possibly could. Kept pretty quiet, pretty like, low to the ground. I think people do want to hear your opinions and your thoughts, so you should not be silent. And you should have ideas, and you should contribute. But in the back of your head, always think, I’m still absolutely learning. And this task that I’m doing, it seems so menial. Or it seems like this amounts to nothing. How is this going to apply? Or how is this going to … How can I use this in my portfolio?

Do not think about how this is going to be worked in your portfolio. Everything, absolutely everything is a lesson. And that could be, you know, dealing with a really horrible client. Um, I dealt with a lot of those. Not, like, horrible. But just ones that wore, that were on another level of intensity that I was not ever exposed to. And I just thought to myself, I don’t know if I can … I literally thought, I wasn’t sure if I could do this. If I, if I was right to be a designer, working with these types of people and all these, like, different industries. And I left my bubble of sort of, MoMA, where everyone’s on the same team. And you kind of have, uh, support everywhere, you know, that you look. And everyone’s kind of working towards the same sort of goals.

But, um, you know, looking back on it, I really learned so much about, uh, personalities and all those sort of things. But I think if you’re a designer and you’re practicing design, learn everything else. You know, if you’re speaking to a new client, don’t ask them about fonts or colors, or, or logos. Ask them about the business that they’re making. Ask them about the way that they make money. Or the way that they don’t make money. Or who their audience is. I mean, ask all the questions that are not about design, and that will influence your design.

And you do that for years and years. I’ve, uh, only been professionally working for eight years, and still daily, I feel some sort of fraudulent activity, or I don’t know fully what I’m doing. And you have to really just trust the process. And I think that’s what you do, you learn over time, that they, you can’t really learn in school, is that there is a process that you go through. And if you go through it, it seems to have worked out every time so far. And that’s what I think younger designers and new designers should think about.

Liam: I think that’s great advice. And it’s in a class of advice that, at least for me, might not make sense until you actually do it.

Jesse: Yeah.

Liam: Um-

Jesse: So, pretend you know nothing, and eventually you might know a little something.

Liam: Yeah. That’s all we can hope for.

Jesse: Yeah.

Liam: All right, well, thank you again, Jesse.

Jesse: Yeah, thanks for having me

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