Stephen Killion interviews Jeremiah Chiu, co-founder of Plural and presenter at MAS CONTEXT : ANALOG
Plural is a young, Chicago-based studio founded in 2008 by Jeremiah Chiu, Renata Graw and Christopher Kalis (who has since left the studio to pursue teaching). Friends and collaborators during school at University of Illinois at Chicago, Plural began as a freelance business that blossomed into a full-time design firm.
As their Master’s studies came to an end, Jeremiah questioned the value of heading straight into an agency setting, a somewhat expected transition. Not wanting to feel uninspired, Jeremiah instead focused on the potential of becoming an entrepreneur and starting his own design firm.
“The way I saw it, this is the point in life when I have the least amount of responsibility. I was accustomed to living like a student and not having money, so I decided to take the risk. I felt that, if I had to, I could live poor for a little longer.” Sharing his perspective with both Renata and Christopher, they quickly decided that joining forces and pursuing their own firm was next on their path.
“We spent the last few weeks of school using the amenities available (professional photolabs, printing, etc) to clean up our portfolios, create a business card and put up a website, so right when we finished school at graduation, we had a job. When professors asked us what we were going to do next, we would just hand them a business card and say send us anything you can.”
As Jeremiah describes it, the beginning was a lot of figuring out the finer details of running a business and developing as a studio. “We were taking in almost anything that we could get. I did not even think about the economic crisis when we started. In a funny way, it actually was somewhat beneficial. Without any overhead, we were not suffering in the same way as some of the bigger competitors. Because we could develop a project for less, we were able to get projects that were in some ways bigger than ourselves. Now, three years later, we are discussing more what we want to do and with whom we want to work. We are in a good place as a business; we can now talk about the work we want to do.”
This past summer, Jeremiah and Renata traveled to Europe to participate in a groundbreaking two-week workshop in Urbino, Italy. Guided by a handful of great designers, including Karel Martens, Armand Mevis, Maureen Mooren and Leonardo Sonnoli, they were a part of a program dedicated to risk-taking and exploration within the field of graphic design.
“That trip was a good learning experience, because it gave us the ability to reflect on our practice. We decided that it was important to be authentic and meaningful. We have to be able to show and communicate that this is our point of view. These are ways in which we are trying to move past simply saying I can design something that looks aesthetically nice and functions well, and be more driven by the idea of telling clients this is what is best for you and your company.”
Italy was the catalyst that pushed their ideas of their chosen profession; experimentation is their true tool of the trade. Engagement and communication, whether through a human collaboration, a handheld device or more traditional graphic forms, keep them wide-eyed. When asked about the subject, Jeremiah states, “You have to communicate, otherwise your piece ultimately fails.”
Although print and web design are understood mediums of the graphic designer, Plural tries to question both the idea of how we communicate and what vehicles are best for that interaction. “As a firm we constantly ask, ‘How do we create a good experience?’ When navigating something such as a website, questions arise from whether it is best to guide your viewer or allow them to explore the space themselves. It is the goal of the office to take something that we know, something familiar, and give it impact.”
A great example of this experience-driven design process is the firm’s business card, a solid black rectangle that’s only useful when physically handled. It is through interaction that the purpose of the business card becomes apparent — through the heat of a human hand, the thermochromatic ink fades away and reveals their contact information.
Collaboration with clients is handled in much that same mindset as material exploration. “When approached by a client, we always ask, ‘Is what you want us to create the most successful way to communicate? What are you trying to communicate?’ The only way that you can make a meaningful project is if the client shares the same thought process as the designer. We try to develop a design/project that is perfect for that client and no one else.”
Work with the Whistler and Volume Gallery, two young Chicago startups, are great examples of where this approach to design holds true. Their work with Volume Gallery revolved around developing an image for the brand that included creating the website, logo and continuing to develop catalogs for the various shows.
At the Whistler, they created a site-specific installation that first documented all the objects within a bar and then pasted them on the bar’s storefront window. Complementary to this branding, they developed a projection of coloration that associates with the noise levels, and thus busy-ness, of the bar. This installation is accompanied by a printed publication, which acts as both an explanation and reapportion of the installation project.
Although the spatial considerations of graphic design are abstract, it’s something Plural hopes to continue to pursue. “Simply stated, we like to bring a certain level of interactivity to the profession of graphic design. It is a dangerous situation to have a ‘style’ and we try not to promote that with our work. Of course we have tendencies, but we never do anything with the mindset of fitting a particular formwork.”
What’s the most important thing he’s learned since starting his company? “The best advice I can give someone is practice and experiment, because if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning. We’re doing what we do because we’re engaged in continuously studying and finding new ways of approaching and experiencing.”
This mindset, and willingness to not hunt an anticipated outcome, is what makes Plural’s work so exciting. A curiosity is found in both their final designs and the process of creation that keeps their work distinct.
Jeremiah Chiu is a designer and co-founder of Plural, a Chicago-based creative studio practice. With a focus on pursuing meaningful projects, Plural explores new approaches within the design process, experimenting in a wide range of media including print, web, video, sound, interactive and installation.
www.weareplural.com | @PluralDesign
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.