Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 34, Issue 2, Summer 2009)
Christopher Simmons is a designer, writer, educator, design advocate, and principal of the noted San Francisco design office MINE. MINE designs identities, books, consumer products, packaging, and print and interactive collateral for scientific visionaries, educational reformists, best-selling authors, museums, design institutions, entrepreneurs, telecommunications giants, and Hollywood producers. MINE’s projects have been recognized by numerous awards and features in leading national and international publications.
Simmons is the author of three books on identity design, teaches graphic design at the California College of the Arts (CCA) and lectures on design issues for colleges, universities, and professional associations. He frequently participates as a judge in major design competitions. His work has been exhibited at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Hiroshima, Japan, The Museum of Craft & Design, San Francisco, The Smithsonian Institution, and is part of the permanent design archives of the Denver Art Museum.
Simmons is a past president of the San Francisco AIGA; during his tenure the chapter grew to become the organization’s second largest and Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an official proclamation declaring San Francisco to be a city “where design makes a difference.”
Q: What is your philosophical standpoint regarding philanthropic work?
A: To preface, I think it's assumed that there is a difference between doing work for the “greater good” and work you’re getting paid for. Although we know that pro bono essentially means for the “greater good” it has become synonymous with doing work for free, and I think that’s really a shame. Part of the reason is that often times the causes that are most urgent, that are most necessary, and that benefit the most people, for whatever reason, have the least resources. And then it often falls to designers and design firms to make up either the difference and/or resources; and the bottom line. There was a time right around the end of the .com craze when the bottom fell out for a lot of people. Back then (as now) about 50% of our clients were non-profits; people working for the “greater good,” be that in education, the environment, or the arts.
Because of that economic collapse, there was this odd kind of inversion—the non-profits were getting tons of funding from people who were flush those days, then suddenly they had to work much harder for their money. As a result, they had to up their development and funding drives. Ironically, it was the non-profits that kept us in business in the immediate post-.com crash.
Q: The San Francisco chapter of the AIGA is very committed to social involvement, can you tell me some of the things they are doing and some of the things they’ve done in the past?
A: The board has different chairs representing various areas: from education, to membership outreach to design history. I believe we’ve had an environmental chair for 15 years now, long before any other chapter. I was the president of our chapter from 2004-2006. Towards the conclusion of my tenure we looked at expanding that position to not only be concerned with the environment but also being concerned with a broader range of social issues. The first and largest, and almost immediate result of that growth was the inception of a competition called Cause and Affect (CA), which one of the most meaningful design competitions out there. Don’t get me wrong; I like competitions, I’ve judged them, I’ve entered them, I’m happy when we win them—but, really, they basically exist to make money for the people that run them. People have assigned other purposes to them such as, ‘it’s sharing work,’ ‘it’s celebrating design,’ ‘it’s preserving a historical record of the best work from year to year,’ etc. Bottom line, having organized and run a few, they make an awful lot of money. Competitions for the local AIGA chapters make more money than any other thing they do. But that really wasn’t the intent of CA, CA competition was really to create a kind of a forum to recognize the work of people who work for the “greater good.” Most firms or freelances are doing that kind of work, and they’re often doing it for little or no money. They’re usually doing it because they have personal connection to the cause and they want to support it, and there’s almost always a degree of passion connected to it. Because the resources are typically much more limited, the results might actually be very effective, but when you’re looking at thumbnails of the project on a website or looking at images of the final product in an Annual they often appear fairly modest in comparison to slicker, more glamorous projects. But what the thing looks like in the end, isn’t even close to the whole story. It’s more about what they were able to achieve with the resources they had.
So they really wanted to create a deeper kind of competition that told these stories in a fuller way. It was tremendously successful and they ultimately made it into an international competition, which means they now accept entries from everywhere. I’ve talked to the organizers about this; you would be surprised with the volume of entries. I believe they’re doing this competition every two years, and I think we're going to see not just a doubling but an exponential explosion in interest. It’s fantastic to see all that work exhibited and to actually look at it and read it and learn about some of these causes that otherwise we wouldn’t know about.
Q: What are some of the jobs done for the “public good” through MINE or personal examples have you worked on?
A: There are sort of four tiers with regards to pro bono, there are some projects we get paid for. Some non-profits are fortunate to have adequate resources—they have the personnel to support their initiative, they have the money to pay for the design and to pay for the printing, the distribution and all the rest of it. That’s the top tier. The next tier down might offer modest compensation. The next tier down from that affords no financial compensation. And there’s the fourth tier which are projects that we just create for ourselves. Probably some of the most satisfying for us is the work we do work for an education organization called the Coalition of Essential Schools. They have a conference every year where they talk about practices and launch new initiatives and they basically celebrate teaching and learning, alternative pedagogies and methodologies and general education reform. For the last five years we’ve been designing their conference material, trying to make people come, trying to help them understand what the conference is going to be about and to make the conference more fun and engaging and successful for them. I have kids who haven’t yet entered the educational system; so the fact that theyre working to improve standards for a generation that includes my own children—this is something that I’m conscious of.
Q: How did you acquire them as a client? Did you approach them because it was something you were interested in or did they approach you?
A: They approached us, they were referred to us by a colleague who I have since become pretty good friends with, and they were looking for a change. There was nothing particularly inadequate about their work, I mean you get clients for a limited amount of time and at some point you think it’s time for something different. They approached someone they had a connection with; that person knew someone from a design firm, and that design firm referred us. I don’t know if they were just busy or just not interested but they came our way and we were very interested in working for them. For the most part, we don’t usually go out seeking clients; they usually come looking for us. We tend to get work that’s like the work that we’ve already done, so when you do work for a non-profit organization other non-profit organizations seem to find you. They look at what each other is doing and there’s some proof of concept that gives them reassurance and validation.
Q: Can you talk about some of the self-initiated jobs that you’ve done?
A: The one in particular that we’re most embroiled in right now is the Everything is OK, which is… I don’t really know what it IS. It really started when I was at my previous firm, we wanted to do a self-promotion piece. We thought we do a little booklet about our work—we weren’t really sure what we were going to do. We narrowed it down to two concepts; they were both going to be posters; one was going to be a straight up drawing of a large screw and a large drawing of a bush and hopefully that pictogram would reflect our thoughts at the time. I have to say that I’m glad that that administration has come to a close. I really wish we had done that poster as well; it might have paced things along. But we chose not to go that route because it was a little too negative. Instead we thought “what if we put a positive concept out there?” And the phrase “everything is ok” came up and we were saying everything’s actually more ok than they say it is. It was a post-9/11 thing and everything was just so depressing. The first thought was we would make a website that had all these links to various nonprofits working to solve really big issues. Because, really, everything is not ok: the environments in trouble, and there’s cancer, and there’s hunger and all the rest of it but here are people that are working to make it better. So you take that positive then you scratch a little deeper, and you get a negative, but you try you turn it back into a positive.
In the end we never did anything with it.
Then I went and started my own business, and resurrected the idea. I talked to my old partner in my old firm and he said we could feel free to do whatever we wanted with it. So we built the website and we created this thing and then we had to promote it. We thought we would do a poster, a self-mailer, but designers always want to break out of the traditional form and we had a designer here who had the idea of putting the message on caution tape, which immediately made sense because it’s a warning of the status quo and not necessarily accepting things as they are. So that became the vehicle to promote the site. Very quickly, though, people became much more interested in the tape than the site. The tape and the kit with the little stickers is sort of like an “activist kit,” like a graphic agitation or a culture jamming kit. It gives the public various tools that allow them an opportunity to make a commentary on the world that we’re apart of. We believe that there’s social value just in that dialogue. You don’t necessarily have to donate to Red Cross or join the Peace Corps or work for The Hunger Project, just engaging in that discourse in a public manner, and in a graphic or a visual way, is important and has value in itself. So that’s basically the direction that this project is going. Some people think it’s profound and some think it’s entirely superficial and silly, but I think there’s a clear lack of critical dialogue in the public’s sphere right now. It’s largely a symptom of the Bush Administration’s leadership and so this is a small attempt to bring some dialogue to society, in a fun and engaging way.
Q: I went through the photos on the Everything is OK site. It’s pretty interesting how people have used the tape, basically like installations.
A: Yeah, it’s really about giving people opportunity to create their own art and social dialogue. I will send you a kit. You’ll see there are little stickers in there that engage ideas of consumerism, privacy, fear, etc. but they gain much more meaning from how they’re used, and the use is totally up to the individual. I’ve often described the tape as a giant interactive caption; you’re walking the street, or driving the car some place, or you’re on the subway, and you see this scene and you think to yourself ‘I can freeze this scene and put a caption on it’—Each person who sees it imposes their own interpretation of it. The best I ever seen was there was this massive pillow fight in San Francisco, I don’t know who organized it, but maybe a thousand people show up and they fight each other with pillows. It’s just a big mass of silliness—people put our caution tape around this mass of people fighting with pillows and so you see this barrier that graphically says “caution” but when you actually read it the message is don’t worry everything is ok. There are so many layers to that scene and it was made richer by the caption. I just find the whole thing really fascinating.
Q: Who inspired you in regards to work for the public good, answer with whomever you like, I don’t necessarily mean designers, just creative people. It could be somebody from your family—it could be anyone.
A: I teach, and I do so mainly because I have the ability to teach. I believe that if you have that ability you have the obligation to do it. There are plenty of people who do things they’re not good at, or they don’t enjoy. Teachers are people I see doing work for the greater good. As I see it, you don’t necessarily have to be an AmeriCorps volunteer or something like that to be making a difference, A lot of people are making a difference just by doing their job well and inspiring others to strive for excellence or something larger than what they’re already doing.
I certainly admire Chen Design Associate’s Peace 100 Ideas. It was a very beautiful, sweet, ambitious project that existed simply to bring joy. I always found that as a remarkable and inspiring piece. And there’s this project that I’ve been involved with the last few years called Project M, have you heard about this?
Q: I’ve heard of it but can you talk more about it?
A: It’s simple and complex at the same time, the essence of it is the designer, John Bielenberg ,who lives in Maine but his studio is out here in Half Moon Bay, started Project M maybe 5 or 6 years ago. Basically what he does is get together 8 young designers, mostly students, but some who’ve been out and working for a little while, they went to some place in Maine the first time, which is how they got the M name. The idea is, they go some place and spend time in that place and let that time and that space lead to a realization of what can be improved in that community and how it can be improved through design. And then they do it. They go to the place for a month and the expectation is they will assimilate themselves into that culture in an authentic way and realize what opportunities are available and then act on those opportunities. They have to complete all that by the time they leave—so basically, in four weeks. Two summers ago they were in rural Alabama in a place called Greensboro, which is in Hale County where Walker Evans took a lot of his famous and amazing photos of the dust bowl during the Great Depression. That town remains being one of the poorest towns in Alabama, and Alabama being one of the poorer states. While they were there they explored a lot of different opportunities and eventually learned that 1 out of 4 people in that county don’t have access to fresh water, they get waters from wells, often shallow wells, most of them contaminated, which makes them very susceptible to drought, disease, etc. To get water they have to go to their neighbor’s water hose for bathing and cooking and cleaning and all the rest of it. I mean it’s pretty alarming—this is in the United States of America!
So, think about that—roughly one quarter of the population doesn’t have access to fresh water, that’s a monumental problem to try and solve. But, it turns out it only costs $425 to get someone water, about $25 for a meter (the actual equipment that you need to regulate the water) and $400 for the county to hook it up. So at $425 a person, that monumental problem just became a lot smaller. So they created a campaign to raise awareness for this issue. In about a year they raised $40,000 which is about 90 meters; with about 4,000 people in the county, we were told those 90 meters covered about 10% of the population. That is a significant impact.
There are several people who are inspiring in that scenario. One of the young designers that had the opportunity to participate in project M was Tim Bellonax who works with me at MINE. Another is John Bielenberg who organized the whole thing is inspiring in so many ways. An there’s Pam Dorr who runs an organization called HERO, which helps people find and keep their homes in that county and in that town. She was the executive at the Gap or Victoria’s Secret or someplace and she quit and started a new life there just helping people. She is absolutely phenomenal. Project M now goes back to Hale County every summer, doing a different project but working with Pam because she’s become their liaison there.
Photographs courtesy of projectmlab.com
Q: Now how is Project M funded?
A: Project M is funded by the participants, if a young person (they don’t have to be a designer but it’s mainly oriented towards designers and graphic designers) wants to go they fill out a very brief application Actually, the only questions is “draw nothing.” It’s John’s way of seeing how far out of the box a person is able to think. He assembles these people and if you get in you pay $2,500 to go, you also pay your own transportation to get there, the housing is taken care of through HERO, there’s a house they make available but you take care of your own food, the $2,500 basically goes to fund the project.
Q: So it’s essentially a designer’s mission trip?
A: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it—I’m always cautious of that term because it’s really critical to become a part of that community and to become accepted into it. Kind of remove the us and them from the vocabulary. It’s a mission, but it’s not a missionary mentality.
John Bielenberg was inspired by a guy named Samuel Mockbee. He started the Rural Studio, which is an architecture program out of Auburn. It’s like Project M except that it’s for architects, and if you start looking at Rural Studio it is phenomenal. They build some of the most beautiful, progressive, and aesthetically and technically challenging structures you’ll ever see. They built a church out of car wind shields, they built a home for someone out of compressed carpet tiles and when we were there they were creating a house whose main structure of it are, it’s called a round house, instead of squared off lumber, which is what we traditionally used, they almost look like big telephone poles with cables wrapped around it so you can actually tune the house. I mean, you can actually tighten and loosen the walls of this house manually with this huge crank.
Q: Why would you do that? In relation to the weather?
A: I’m not actually sure why you would do that, it’s a way for them creating sort of fantastic but still functional structures. This is part of a row of four homes and each of them had social engineering concept behind it. They were all individually built for less than $20,000 including all the appliances, plumbing, electricity and all of that. So they are trying to perfect the $20,000 house so that you could build high quality affordable housing that is also interesting and unique and beautiful.
That’s significantly less than Habitat for Humanity (HFH).
Yeah, and what’s interesting is that the four places are on the edge of a Habitat, so they work for them sometimes. Are these homes as structurally sound as a Habitat house?
Because they are experimental, some of them have had issues over time, that compressed carpet house—they have to go back every few years and add a few more because it starts to sag, but its become much more sound. In the earlier days they were a lot more experimental, now technology and what they’ve learned over the years has informed a lot of their decisions.
Q: Project M—is this a business or is this something John Bielenberg does out of passion for what he does? Does he make money doing this?
A: The latter mostly, if you talk to him he can tell you how it is informing his business, but it’s not something he does for a profit, that experience has transformed what his business is about.
I can definitely see how it would. What’s interesting is that things like that and things like Cause and Affect, they reveal a network of people that are interested in similar issues, and not just interested that they care about it, interested in that they are willing to do something about it. Project M takes a serious commitment. The Rural Studio takes a year, which is an even greater commitment (and many of those students can’t complete their projects in a year so they come back and work an additional year for free). They’re not just architects designing a house—they build it with their own hands. Can you imagine someone going to rural Alabama and spending two years unpaid and just creating things for people. They built an animal shelter while they were there, community centers, they worked on a baseball field, all kinds of things, really inspiring things.
Q: Where do you find inspiration and has this changed throughout your career?
A: Everywhere! There are so many forms of inspiration, I find visual inspiration all over the place, you can look at design annuals and see the beautiful things other people have done but you can also walk down the street read or hear a particular phrase and be inspired by it. Certainly when I was a younger designer I found inspiration just by looking at other designer’s work but I think now it’s much broader. So much of what we do is about not so much how good it looks how much it means or what it’s able to do. Anyone who’s working towards solving a problem or communicating a thought in a clear and effective way, I find that inspirational. Do you watch the show Mad Men?
I find that show inspiring. I find the attention to detail in the set and costume design inspiring, I find the subtleties and nuances of it inspiring, I find the anachronisms startling yet inspiring as well. So you see, it can really be anything.
Q: In your life what is the greatest gift you have ever received and why?
A: I’m going to give you an actual gift, a present, but the gift is not the thing itself. So when I was kid we use to get educational “toys,” mostly from my dad; a microscope, a tape recorder, a calculator; we’d get these things in lieu of teddy bears and G.I. Joe’s and stuff like that. I think the true gift there was what grew into an appreciation for the value of pure curiosity. Today, a tape recorder doesn’t represent any fascinating technology because it’s so easy to record sound and images and all the rest of it and they almost understand intuitively. But when I was seven or eight, I would take a tape recorder and record someone’s voice later and put my little finger on the spool and make it play slower and make their voice deeper or start and stop it and kind of edit things together to make it sound different. All of these things inform the creative decisions I make now. I think it made me interested in taking a creative approach in my life. When you’re seven or eight, just being able to punch in numbers into a scientific calculator, and watching the results is a kind of magic I could type in 3-4 and get minus 1, and suddenly I was opened up to the other side of the number line—the other half of the universe of math. When you have an experience like that, it makes you realize, wow—there’s more knowledge to be had and it just makes you hungry for more.
Q: How do you feel your design work has impacted society? Either specifically or generally.
A: We have an approach that often leads to the simplest solution that is also beautiful. I don’t know if you can say that offers an impact on society, though hopefully it has a positive impact on the people who have interacted with it. I think increasingly there is, or should be, an appreciation for simplicity when our lives are so complex. I have this dream. A couple blocks up my street there are shops and restaurants and some of them have nice signs, and some have really ugly tacky signs, you can sort of guess that the Chinese restaurant and the liquor store and the hardware store have uninteresting signs and the fancy restaurant and the little gift shop and a designer/media company up there have better looking stuff. So I dream about going up there and designing everything on that street, and create just one street that could be perfect and beautiful, still different from one another, but with a craft and clarity to all of it. Just think how amazing it would be to walk down that street. This is not a dream to take over the world through design necessarily, or be totalitarian about it. I just think that the less visual pollution there is, the more opportunities we can seize to make something beautiful, the more pleasant the world becomes. I really just can’t stand looking at ugly stuff!
Q: In a society where we barraged and bombarded with a myriad of media messages what responsibility should designers have?
A: To make them clear. Well, we first ask whether or not the message is necessary and to participate in that decision.We have three garbage bins in our garage; there is the recycling, the compost, and the regular garbage. And they’re lined up in a particular order, the compost is closest to the door when you walk into the garage because I want wettest, stinkiest stuff out of my hands as soon as possible, the garbage is next and we hardly ever fill it up, which I’m quite proud of, and the third one is the recycling. And the recycling is third because it’s right below the mailbox, where the mail comes in. And so when the mail man delivers to the door I open up the slot and take the stack of mail and I immediately toss out half of it, I just recycle it. The newspapers with all the coupons in it, the thing to lower my auto insurance, the credit card offers—they all get tossed. I can understand that it’s unlikely for the designer or the printer or whoever is responsible for making all this “stuff,” aren’t likely to turn down opportunities to continue their livelihood but I think it would be good if we could question what the real cost of this is. I don’t know what your mail experience is like but the same is true with e-mail, the same is true with the ads you see in billboards and television commercials—only a tiny, tiny fraction of any of that stuff is relevant to any one individual and a tinier fraction is relevant to society and culture as a whole. I get that it’s a system that we participate in but I just wish we could be a bit more judicious about it. And if you’re going to do it, do it, but be honest and be beautiful.
Q: Where are your boundaries? Specifically are there clients you would not accept because of moral or ethical reasons?
A: Yes, probably. It’s funny, that’s something my students are always really concerned about that. What if I have to work for Phillip Morris? What if I have to sell cigarettes? Perpetuate an unattainable image of female beauty, or whatever it is. It’s really individual and those choices are really nuanced and you don’t have to dig too deep to find fault with just about anyone or any entity. Right before this phone call I sent out some work that we’re doing for Bayer. A lot of people don’t like Bayer because they participated in the Holocaust and supported Nazis in a certain way. That was 70 years ago, they don’t have the same people there any more, it’s not the same company, they clearly don’t have those values anymore. They’ve evolved. They could dissolve and change the name or whatever and it wouldn’t be any different. It’s the same way you don’t have to feel really bad about driving a Volkswagen or a Mercedes today. For some people that’s where they would draw the line, or they would draw the line much earlier. We did, several years ago we were simultaneously working on a mascot for a catholic high school and a logo for a pornography company. We had reservations about the latter, I actually had reservations about both of them but reservations about the latter certainly. I met the people, they were kind, honest, decent people who were actually making a pretty positive contribution to the local economy and the local culture, they had a lot of respect for the community and for the people involved in the production. It’s not something that I was personally interested in being a consumer of, but I recognized that other people have the right to that and to my limited knowledge of that particular industry, they seemed to be doing it better and more equitably than anybody else. And it seemed like an interesting problem to solve.
Oh the actual practice of it in the way in which they treated their models, they’re very diligent about making sure that viewers understand that their material is purely fantasy. For example, for every production they do they also do a companion that shows how it’s made, shows how everyone’s treated, talks about the issues of safe sex, so there was this component of responsibility to it. I can respect that and I can support that even though there’s not a single title or website that I would be remotely interested in.
Q: How do feel designers and/or artists can galvanize others to take actions? Or do you feel that they can?
A: Yeah, sure, I think we can. I think for us Project M is a good example, it resonates with people, and it largely relies on the participation of others. If you look at Barack Obama’s campaign and the tremendous support that he’s had, a lot of it has to with allowing people to participate in that message. That all had to be designed.
I’ve never wanted a campaign button before but I ordered Barack Obama buttons, and I’ve never had put bumper stickers on my car but I got a car magnet with an Obama logo on it. It goes back to wanting to change all the signs on the shopping street. If it can meaningful and also be beautiful then it’s something we can feel good about being associated with. Hilary Clinton and John McCain and every other candidate, whether you agree with their politics or not, whether you feel they are saying substantial things, they have the disadvantage of being ugly and coarsely presented. No one is inspired to become a part of that.
Look at Benneton. When I was a teenager it was a really popular brand, and the most popular thing to have was this rugby shirt, with color stripes on top, a white stripe in the middle and the color on the bottom and white stripe and Benneton was written in huge letters. And I really, really, really wanted one, and my dad absolutely refused to let me have one because he said “why would you pay to advertise for them?” The Obama campaign is working on those same principles. It’s an idea you can support (Benneton had a whole ethical dimension to their brand) and you can look good doing it. It’s a lot harder to put McCain star or that squiggly banner of Hillary Clinton’s on your chest and feel like you’re apart of something that’s uplifting and inspiring, it’s just more visual pollution.
Look at them from the beginning all the way back to Eisenhower, they’re all the same and they’re all the same ideas...and then you have this one glowing, shining, rising medallion—it’s just really astounding. Anyway, that’s a way I think design can attract people to a cause, and then it’s up to the cause or the idea to be relevant and interesting to sustain them after that.
Q: One more question, of all your achievements what do you feel is your crowning one to date? And what makes it so important?
A: I guess I would have to say being in business with myself, because it allows me to do all the things I want to do in the way that I want to do them. It facilitates everything else. Teaching, being able to provide for my family, being able to provide for the people who work with and for me, we get to have a different intern every semester, they learn something from the experience hopefully, they take something away and feel more enthused about the profession that they’re choosing. We get to work with great clients who are responsible for the work that we get to do...all of that is just incredibly rewarding.