Stephen Killion interviews Rick Valicenti, founder and design director of Thirst, and presenter at MAS CONTEXT : ANALOG
With a robust portfolio of graphic works, Rick Valicenti is an icon of communication. As the founder and design director of Thirst/Chicago, he has been making a name for himself since the company’s inception in 1988. The recipient of the 2011 Communication Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, as well as the 2006 AIGA MEDAL, the highest honor in the graphic design profession, he truly needs no introduction.
SK: What inspires your personal practice/work?
RV: I am the principal, but really the design director, of Thirst, and in that, I’m surrounded by a great collection of designers. It’s a fertile place for good collaborative thinking. It’s not too big and doesn’t feel like we’re saying yes to a bunch of opportunities, but instead we tend to find ourselves saying yes to other designers and people involved in the design profession. Building it, making it, specifying it, designing it, mocking up an idea… whatever we can get our hands on.
In a way, gaining this client base happened by accident. It’s something that has truly developed over time. I think it was because I looked bored in most conference meetings and the only job that I was not irked by was when I was working with designers.
SK: Simply put, graphic design is about communication. How does this play a role at Thirst?
RV: We work both simultaneously for, and with, our clients. When we work for them, it is to satisfy a need or request (environmental graphics, website, brochure). This helps them communicate their viewpoints and ideologies. When we work with them, it is to both inspire the work we are doing as well as inform and catalyze the work they are doing. This is particularly true in our connections with architects where our communication presence, particularly in the realm of environmental graphics, often influences the formal decisions of the project.
SK: Could you give a specific example of working with a client/architect in this way?
RV: We’re currently working on a project with Studio Gang wherein the façade does not want to be violated by the marketing identification of retailers. The challenge in this situation is, how does a mixed-use building preserve the integrity of its architecture and at the same time satisfy the request of the retailer? “Hey I want the public to know that I am here as they drive by at thirty miles and hour!”
How do we as designers resolve this issue without plastering neon signs on the wall? To me that is a design process that’s incredibly collaborative between the graphic designers, architects and the clients.
SK: Is there a format you find best when working collaboratively?
RV: I wish I could say there was a firm methodology. We tend to follow the approach of talk, talk, talk. Then we make, make, make. Then we talk a little more, then make a little more. Finally we stop when we are done, when people say, “That is exactly right.”
Often, this is not what is expected. Think tic-tac-toe merging with leapfrog. Mad passionate sex merging with a handshake.
SK: You tend to question the tools of your trade within your work. How does this affect you as a designer, and ultimately influence the outcome of your work?
RV: I think most my work grows out of a sensibly that I have, that I am bored with graphic design. I am pissed off at most graphic designers because they have abused the public space. Most work is here today in the present, just long enough to be terrible. Design stuff that will very quickly find its place in the flea markets of the future.
If it is not terrible, it is well crafted but completely annoying and shallow. Fingers on the mirror, an illusion of depth, that ultimately is not there. That is why I am upset with design, and I bring that feistiness into a project. Most of the time I have to bridle myself to not replicate this riff over and over. I do so by challenging conventions.
It is very easy to pull an idea off the shelf, but it is more interesting to recreate the process of creating. We make an investment with our work, in the hope that the artifact will be more meaningful, more poignant. We want to be fully invested in the projects we do, otherwise it is just work.
SK: In any design profession, do you see the public as the true client? How does this affect your work?
RV: You are right, in architecture it is easy to access and understand how the public understands it spatially. As graphic designers, we need to respect the public and particularly the public space. We need to not pollute it with stuff and begin to tell a message of value. A message of value is, simply put, something that is worthy of being in the public debate.
SK: With that in mind, how do you see the Moving Design Coalition as a natural transition into developing continuously meaningful work?
RV: This idea began while fellow Thirst member John Pobojewski and I were teaching a class at Northern Illinois University, where we created a platform to present new thinking, to use design thinking/strategy as a way to reshape public opinion, to inform or direct policies. We found this a liberating way of thinking, especially while we were collaborating with students, mostly seniors and grad students. We invited them to look toward the future, the year 2019 in particular, to see how design could positively affect the future. A self-published book was created for the work and we continued this rhetoric by having one of the students in our office for that summer.
At the same time, we had just finished developing a brochure/pamphlet for Archeworks, which outlined their work. Of particular interest with this periodical was a spread exclaiming that two billions gallons of water leave Lake Michigan a day, which at first I thought was a typo. I went back and fact checked the number, and it was confirmed that we as a city indeed use, and flush away, that much water every day.
Astounded by this fact, we at Thirst, with the help of the aforementioned summer help, decided to make a curriculum for the intermediate learners, 3rd and 4th graders, inviting them to learn about the local water system, the water basin and most importantly their own water consumption. There was an interactive exercise within this program that required the students to log in their own water consumption for a three-week period. This documenting became a game among the students, where they began to compete on who could consume the least water. A workbook came out of this exercise and a grant was received that allowed us to produce the workbook and create a website and deliver the findings to the Chicago Public Library.
Most importantly, what came out of this exercise was a confirmation that our curiosity and collaboration could yield something of value.
SK: What brought you to collaborating with Archeworks?
RV: It began with us being asked to help develop their student publication and that jumped into the realm of me being a board member. From there, we made a film that presented an Archeworks’ project at the American pavilion for the Venice Biennale. The film was a direct result of a board meeting held after the Mobile Food Collective (MFC) was already accepted into the Biennale by the curators of the High Museum of Art. When they saw the project, the curators were not keen on presenting the particular object being developed, the MFC, and were more interested in the concept and the program. The letter being read to the board members was basically dismissing the entry as one of the chosen projects, and I spoke up and said that a film could be created that would show both the students and the project. I teamed with various collaborators, asking if they could share their talents and expertise, so that the film could be made.
The film is in the permanent collection of the Art Institute modern wing, and is going to be shown at this year’s Architecture Film Festival in New York and perhaps most importantly presented to the world at the 2010 Architecture Biennale.
SK: Could you describe, in a little more detail, what is produced within Moving Design?
RV: In the summer of 2010, taking the information and values developed from the first Moving Design Call to Action, we asked a select group of designers to commit their time and contribute a tuition/donation, without any credit given mind you, to come together for a 6-week period to make interventions throughout the city regarding this extreme water consumption. The outcome of the program showcased on a website, itsourwater.org, so that others can see what had developed during the various discussions and outputted projects.
The fallout of this self-fulfilling program was unlike anything we imagined. The policymakers invited to come on Tuesday evenings reconnected with Moving Design after the program ended, asking us to rethink and reshape their presentation to a variety of groups. We ended up being back in service with the people whom we were listening and responding to, but never expected to help. This was an interesting full circle.
A second call to action was created in the Summer 2011. As a result of learning about two people who were hit by cars while on their bikes, I found myself asking, where is the designer in this conversation? As a driver myself, I noticed an increasing number of bikers on the road, but realized I was unsure of the proper etiquette of how I should behave and what they are expected to do. With this in mind, I became more aware and began to notice the free-spirited bikers who were weaving in and out of traffic as if everything was a bike lane, but also just how the bike lanes themselves were one of the worst pieces of graphic design bullshit in the world, ending at every intersection. You know, what happens to the biker in a space like that, does he levitate over the intersection, magically appearing on the other side were the bike lane begins anew?
When it was time to have our second call to action, we said we had to put the graphic designer and artist at the forefront of the conversation. This time we wanted more designers, more conversation, more impact, and ended up getting 46 people with 6 facilitators (over 50 people all together) invested again in an intense 6-week conversation. Needless to say, we rocked it.
Logan Square became a destination of the work and we aligned ourselves with the Active Transportation Alliance, which was tremendously supportive of the work. The outcome of this second Moving Design collective was the Our Road program, which we are slow to finish. But we want to put together a book and a website where we can collect and showcase our energy and give the information back to the city.
We have met with the Commissioner of the transportation committee on developing separated bike lanes. Also, we spoke with a number of aldermen to say, hey, this could better your ward, and every time you have another mile, we could celebrate the separated bike lane. Basically, we did our best to promote design thinking and show how it was being underused and underappreciated in problems like these.
Most of all, I was reminded that in collaboration, your personal contribution might not always count for much, but as a whole group it becomes truly significant.
SK: You appear to begin with a very traditional understanding of your design profession, in this case graphics, and find ways of implanting that way of thinking and that way of working in mediums that are not yet calibrated nor understood as graphic mediums. You are not looking to create a clear structured system, but rather a flexible system for which projects can grow and mutate.
RV: There are things that designers are trained to bring to an argument, our tools of the trade, if you will. Flyers, postcards, zines, spokecards, passion statements and these things inform and excite the public. Many of these items were given out to the public during the Call to Actions free of charge, paraphernalia of the design investment, propaganda for our ideas and opinions.
We were giving things away and videotaping constituents. The collaboration was really more than just designers at work. Yes, we were the ones organizing and presenting the works, but it was really a citywide discussion that was being developed.
SK: An approach that I have noticed, a trend if you will, is the forward-thinking design entrepreneur. Rather than waiting for a client to come knocking on your door and say, hey would you do this for me, it is becoming more critical to develop awareness of a problem and then present a thoughtful solution. Your work, with Moving Design in particular, tends to build upon this point.
RV: Designers have waited for permission to do their work for a long time. Some educators even stress that design is the one artistic profession in which you are required to receive permission to practice. That day is over. The self-initiated designer is the one who says the campfire blaze is happening right here. If you want to get warm and out of the darkness, come on over, the fire is already started.
SK: And of course, you have also designed an arrow to point people in the right direction.
RV: A giant arrow with built-in LEDs!
SK: Earlier you spoke about collaborating with students, rather than teaching them. Talk more about that.
RV: I did not say that intentionally, but it is a way that I feel. The role of the mentor or initiator is truly collaborative. It never worked for me to be demonstrative, the dictator. I don’t tend to say this is what we are going to do and this is how we are going to do it. I am more inclined to say, this is a situation and lets see what our response is. I will give direction and guidance along the way, but never will I give a solution. So I think that is collaborative.
Students, then, are freer to come back to me and say I am not certain if this is working, what if we try this? I never want to end the conversation with people saying that they are not sure that something is working or that it does not work. Those ideas or ways of thinking stop the thought process and evolution of one’s works.
SK: So you would say that failure is acceptable?
RV: Absolutely. You can say the path is a series of closed doors and you have to open them for a solution.
SK: Is there a different approach when you are presented with various projects or project types?
RV: There really is, and there is a similarity in the form of questioning and also specific standards regarding craft and performance. That said, every project requires a certain amount of customization to the process.
And at times, I kind of wish that this was not the case. There is something nice about going to a place like McDonald’s and everything always tastes the same. And I know that the guy in Europe flipping the same uniformly-sized burger is doing the same repetitive task as the guy living in Illinois. I wish that could happen here, because we would make much more money. But that is not how we value success, because for us success is found within developing a cool process. Thirst has a personality, an attitude and an approach. The approach is open. The personality is liberated. And the attitude is frisky.
SK: And what is next, for both you and the company?
RV: I have been in practice for myself for 30 years. The future would be for the studio to take its spirit and its attitude and portfolio and find a way to elevate it to a level of greater challenge. I want to make our collaborations larger and more fertile. And turn it into a business that has life after me.
We want to push on that boundary, that edge of what is expected of us, and ultimately what we are able to produce. The first step in this process was to invite an industrial designer into the studio mix. In the first five months since her involvement, she has had a dramatic impact on how we think about design. I can only imagine that the multi-disciplinary approach of design will continue to grow. Why not have an architect, and communication about space?
SK: What do you think the next step is for American Design, and what is the role of collaboration?
RV: Collaboration at every level. The businessman, the public, designers, engineers, the inventors. Everyone has to roll up his or her sleeves and work together to trick it out. Having exhausted all our manufacturing roots, we are left with the service industry, and we are happy simply saying we do what the others don’t. But truly, we need to get back to that creative spirit and start thinking critically. We have to be in love with risk. We have to fully embrace risk. And designers need to lead the way.
Rick Valicenti is the founder and design director of Thirst, a communication design firm devoted to art, function and real human presence. Rick was recently awarded the 2011 National Design Award: Communication Design by The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. In 2006, Rick was awarded the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) Medal for his sustained contribution to design excellence and development of the profession. This medal is the highest honor in the graphic design profession.
www.3st.com | www.movingdesign.com | @3stDesign
Stephen Killion is an Architectural Designer and writer currently based in Chicago. A regular contributor to Architizer blog, he has also written articles for Mark Magazine and Design Bureau. With an interest in the overlap of architecture and graphic design disciplines, he acted as images researcher and contributed original images for Float! published by Frame publishers.