What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design?
When I was 14, my brother gave me a pirated copy of Photoshop. I think it was Photoshop 4 — the one where you only had one undo, no history palette, and a limited number of layers. He told me to learn it and that it would be good for me. It wasn't long before I was designing websites and slicing them up and putting them online. That was magic. Before I knew the basics, the idea that I could make a website was unbelievable. In high school I took a class called "commercial design," where I learned that this thing I had been doing was called graphic design and I could get paid for it. It was an easy decision after that to major in Graphic Design when I went on to college.
Are you involved in any mentoring/teaching/workshops and if so, how does it shape your practice?
In addition to my full-time practice at Thirst, I am an adjunct professor at DePaul University. Teaching has been a great experience; it provides a nice balance to practicing design. I started teaching about six years ago, and since then my time in the studio has transitioned more and more to direction and management. I spend most of the day working with the other designers in the studio collaborating on projects. We work together, sitting side-by-side at the desk. Early on, I had trouble articulating what needed to happen with a particular design for it to be successful. I often had to work through the problem myself, switching control of the computer. The classroom environment demands that you look at a piece, assess it quickly, and provide feedback that will push the student forward. Over the years, I've gotten much better at doing this, which really helps when we're working in the studio. For most formal problems I can make a quick sketch that directs the next step. The pitfall is that it's easy to fall into regular methods of design, and the creativity suffers. So I try to practice ways of keeping fresh, and this is another area where working with students can help. There are moments when a student does something — either by accident or on purpose — that really surprises me. It's a reminder that sometimes the best things that happen are accidental, or occur when you don't really know what you're doing.
Who’s on the team, what are their roles and why do you love them?
Rick Valicenti is the founder and one of three principal designers in the studio along with myself and John Pobojewski. Rick is our design director, and my longtime mentor. We started working together ten years ago when I started at Thirst as an intern. Rick has done more for me and my career as a designer than anyone else. He works like a producer: commenting and critiquing on all the work happening in the studio, always amplifying the creative edge.
John Pobojewski is the second principal designer in the studio. He's been at Thirst for 13 years. Together, he and I lead most of the projects in the studio, each with our own list of clients. John's emphasis is in digital and motion work. He's our resident technology expert, whereas I tend to work on identity and print-based projects. John uses programming as a design tool, and it allows him to create stunning work that would be next to impossible to create by hand.
Kyle Green joined Thirst after getting his MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Kyle brings a great work ethic to the studio, and he's as comfortable working in motion as he is in print. He’s always excited to collaborate and he’s hilarious.
Taek Kim received a BFA in Communication Design from Hongik University in South Korea and MFA in Visual Communication Design from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). He is by far the most detail-oriented designer we have in the studio. You can hand something to him and know that it will be crafted with precision and be creatively spirited. Also, Taek’s kinda big in Korea.
Anna Mort also has her MFA from SAIC. She joined the studio to help curate the CHGO DSGN exhibit that Rick curated in 2014 and we couldn't let her leave. Anna quietly helps us keep the studio humming. She works directly with Rick on a select group of clients, she jumps in when needed to do some production work, and she performs a curatorial role on content for websites and art for buildings. You can always count on Anna to be done before you expect her to be.
Zach Minnich earned a BFA in graphic design from Bowling Green University (Rick's alma mater)! I have never worked with someone who is more excited to learn than Zach. Zach has carved a niche for himself in the studio with his 3D work. He's always experimenting and learning new techniques, and we're always looking to fit those elements into our work.
Barbara Valicenti is Rick's sister and office manager. Without Barb, Thirst would fall apart at the seams. She is accounts receivable, payable, HR, and reception all in one. She's literally the reason why we all get paid!
Tell us about any collaborations you have been working on.
We're currently working on neighborhood brands for Columbus, Indiana. It's a really special project for a really special city. Columbus is home to a tremendous collection of modernist architecture by some of the great names: Saarinen (Senior and Junior), Pei, Girard, Weese, etc. Not to mention it has an identity designed by Paul Rand, lovingly referred to as the “Dancing Cs.” Our studio has been asked to develop brands for four districts. Through our conversation and research we've arrived at the direction of adaptively reusing Rand's Dancing Cs. There is great love for Rand and the Cs, but they've been put in a box and it's time to free them!
What is the design landscape like on your city and where do you fit in?
I live in the greatest design city in the world. We have a special situation here in Chicago; the city has grown up around the Burnham master plan, where the New Bauhaus was established, and is the place where Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Mies van Der Rohe taught. It’s where the Unimark gave Massimo Vignelli his start, where the Container corporation developed talents such as John Massey, and where the Society of Typographic Arts (STA) developed and got kicked out of the AIGA for being too rowdy.
Despite all that history, Chicago may be the most approachable place to practice. Some of my best friends are fellow designers and competitors. It didn't take long after moving here before I felt like I was part of the family of Chicago designers. Now as the president of the STA, and I'm doing my best to continue the legacy of our design history, and to nurture the community.
What do you think the design community could do more of to give back?
I've benefitted tremendously in my career from Rick’s mentorship. In a way, this kind of mentorship goes back to the origins of graphic design -- when graphic designers were in the print shop. At that time, there was a formalized apprenticeship system in place. Somewhere in the transition of graphic design from a craft to a profession, when designers stepped out of the print shop and into the boardroom, the idea of apprenticeships fell out of favor. We industrialized our profession and separated the modes of creation. To typeset text you would send it off to a typesetter who specialized in that sort of thing. You'd then get it back and paste it into your layout. With the development of digital typesetting, designers were once again tasked with setting their own type. Here we are again, back in the print studio, locking up lines of type — on screen this time. While the industry has gotten more professional, there still is an element of the job that is the craft of design. You can see this challenge play out in design education where we debate whether or not teachers should be teaching students the software. I personally don't believe that a designer can learn everything they need to know in school. Most of their important learning is going to happen after school and on the job. That's why I think it's important that all designers take on the mantle of mentorship. For our profession to progress, and stay true to our origin, we need to pass on our expertise. We all need to guide the next generation.
What are your three must-read design books/blogs/podcasts and why?
1. The Elements of Typographic Style: Robert Bringhurst - I still reference this book when setting text. John has it sitting on his desk at the ready.
2. Meggs' History of Graphic Design- Design is a continuum, and you're in it whether you like it or not. In order to intelligently design and critique design you have to know the context from that got us to where we are today.
3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction - I'm not the best writer, but I'm working to get better. You can't skate by in your career without writing… with all the briefs, descriptions, bios, proposals, and emails. You have to be able to write well or risk looking like a dork.
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