We chat to Sean Kelley, one half of San Diego studio Mother Sponge. He talks about lego in the attic, why a Purple Cow is a great companion and his description of his wife and partner in design, Stacy, leaves us feeling a little warm and fuzzy inside.
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started?
I studied sculpture at a liberal arts university, and had no clue what graphic design was all about until years into working in media jobs. In some ways, I think I’ve always been in love with some form of design as a I grew up– absorbing the atmosphere at my dad’s solo architecture practice, obsessively building with lego for hours in the attic, constructing driftwood forts on countless beaches. But I don’t think it’s fair to say I fell in love with design until I had a good understanding of what is really is– what it really means to design every day, recognize and employ good marketing, and endlessly fight for better solutions.
What are your three must-read design books and why? How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy– some good perspective, especially for art kids who are frightened (rightfully so!) by advertising. Brand is a Four Letter Word by Austin McGhie, because the word ‘brand’ gets thrown around alot and McGhie provides a no-nonsense definition that all designers and marketers should understand, if not take as gospel! Elegantissima by Louise Fili is part design-porn retrospective of her career, part unveiling of her process, and all inspiration (especially for anyone focused on food and packaging). If I could pick a 4th, it would be Purple Cow by Seth Godin– a marketing book but one that has informed my design work for years and is a good companion to Brand is a Four Letter Word.
What qualities and skills do you look for in a graduate?
Talent is helpful, but dedication to the process is better. Following directions will get you a diploma, but going above and beyond will make you stand out. Take school projects to somewhere unexpected, seek help from those outside design to inform your work in a new way, create self-initiated projects to explore techniques or subjects that you couldn’t in your classwork, break away from the fucking computer screen and use a pencil until your hand falls off. Perhaps most importantly, seek a diverse set of mentors with persistence (people are busy!). The wisdom of these folks will seep into your brain and your work and lead to good things.
Who’s on the team, what are their roles and why do you love them?
My wife Stacy and I are a team of 2. Her influence has made me a better designer, businessman, husband, father, and overall human being. I love her tenacity for good design and her disparate sources of inspiration such as bats, Hitchcock, weavings, Baja, and anthropomorphic succulents. I also love how her hair gets wavy after swimming in the ocean in humid climes, but that’s another story.
Tell us about any collaborations you have been working on.
Stacy and I have a long-term collaboration with Miki Iwasaki, an architect, furniture designer, and artist working in large scale public works. We have been honored to share studio space with Miki for the past 6 years, and work together on tap handles/ interiors/ custom furniture for breweries, art installations for residential buildings, and various community art/design events. It’s also been a huge priority for us to work with a wide range of illustrators, as each project calls for a specific look. Stacy and I are always on the lookout for great artists and distinct illustration work. I’ll often discover illustrators long before I find (or create!) the right project to bring them in on. This ongoing practice of art curation and direction is fundamental to what Mother Sponge is about.
What do you think the design community could do more of to give back?
Learn from Buckminster Fuller, who believed the only thing holding the world back from ending starvation is a design revolution. There will always be ways to use design to make the world as better place– just look around your community and get to work. As Josh Higgins (founder of the SoCal Poster Project and the Haiti Poster Project) has been known to say, “give till it hurts.”