Iker Gil interviews graphic designer Jason Pickleman
Jason Pickleman is a graphic designer. And an art collector, artist, DJ, poetry writer, and host of a bingo night at the Museum of Contemporary Art. He is MORE. Iker Gil interviewed him at his studio, JNL Graphic Design, to know more about him, collaborating, art, business, education and MORE. The cameras of Spirit of Space were there to document the event.
IG: When reading your biography in any of the articles that talks about you, you are defined as a graphic designer, but you are also a known art collector, artist, DJ, poetry writer-poet, and host of a bingo night at the Museum of Contemporary Art among other things. Do you define yourself as a graphic designer?
JP: That is like saying, “do you define yourself as a breather?” Graphic design to me is just a tool, like a hammer is a tool. I am a graphic designer because the things that I make, whether they are books, or paintings, or sculptures, or poems, they are made with the tools of graphic design. I’m a graphic designer but I think a lot of people are graphic designers. A lot of painters are just graphic designers and call themselves painters because it probably sounds more important on a resumé. I think that is an important distinction, graphic design is not a profession, it is a tool.
IG: It is more of a representation of…
JP: It is a mean of representation. A graphic, what is a graphic? What is a design?
IG: How do all these activities tie together? Is there any common thread?
JP: The common thread, I think more than anything, is that I have been trying to live my life as an adult around interesting people and around projects that I find exciting and captivating. I have got a pretty short attention span, I am not ADD or anything, but one of the nice things about being a professional communicator, most people would call it professional graphic designer, is that you get involved with people that have dreams, entrepreneurial dreams, and we help them out. We make these things, we give them these images, or these books, or these objects, and then they go off and try to make millions. And I am right back at square one again trying to find a new entrepreneur, or a new client, or a new curator, just to do the whole process all over again. But I like to be abused, I like to be helpful to people. I am not really interested in the finished thing, so much as just wanting to be a good person and to get my hands dirty in a number of cultural projects whosewhich sum total, whether they are theater groups, or architects, or curators, the sum total of all those efforts make Chicago a really great place to live as an adult, which is really my big concern. I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, and except for four years in college, where I went to Boston University (my Dad said that unless I went at least 800 miles away from Chicago he would not pay for it so I ended up in Boston). But after I got my degree in English literature, I moved right back to Chicago. I like this city. As easy as air travel is, I have no interest in wanting to relocate or be ‘mobile me’. I am really happy to bunker down in Chicago. I do not feel like I am being excluded from any part of the cultural production apparatus. Yes, there is more book publishing in New York, or yes, there is more fashion going on in New York, or there is more media production say in Los Angeles. There is still enough of all of those things happening here in Chicago, and in the Midwest in particular, that I keep getting asked to participate in, and just participating in all that stuff is really where my heart is at.
IG: Is there any other field that you would like to explore yourself?
JP: I know this sounds kind of wishy-washy, and not very insightful, but I can say with all honesty, no. There is nothing else I want to do. And I know that because I never wanted to be a graphic designer either. I never wanted to be a graphic designer, but I am. I never wanted to be a husband, but I am. I never wanted to own property, but I do. I never wanted to have a family, but I have got a thirteen-year-old son. I never wanted to own a car, but I own a car. I have lived my life without any big desires and I am just tromping along writing the things that I write, making the pictures I make, and somehow I have parlayed all this stuff into all of these things: houses, cars, professions. At this point, I have made over a hundred books for my clients. Do I want to make another book? Yeah, I would love to make another book and I am sure at some point, somebody will ask me to make another book.
IG: You have worked with local and national architects, public institutions, and private companies to design on projects ranging in scope from their overall identity down to their logos, brochures, business cards, and signage. Do you approach your projects differently depending on the client, or do you have a process?
JP: No, there is no process that I always fall back on. If I fall back on anything it is on reading. When I have a new client, first thing I do is I just read as much as I can about either the organization, their project, their audience. If it is an architect, I try to find as many monographs as I can, just to feel what it feels like to be these people. And that is a very personal and very selfish pursuit on my behalf. I can’t say I am really doing it to fulfill the needs of the client. I am just doing that for my own personal curiosity. Once that is done, I go on autopilot in terms of design. Because I am very typographically centered with my professional design work, the selection of typeface, the spacing of those letterforms, the composition of the letterforms, combined with whatever the specific message is, to me that is about 50 per cent of the job right there. Every client that walks through our door, already has this immediate pallet of material for me to work with. We did the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College and they needed a new logo or logo type. Just having to say t-h-e-M-u-s-e-u-m-o-f-C-o-n-t-e-m-p-o-r-a-r-y-P-h-o-t-o-g-r-a-p-h-y-a-t-C-o-l-u-m-b-I-a-C-o-l-l-e-g-e-C-h-i-c-a-g-o, jeez… that is all you need! Just having to say that out loud, what the hell do you do? And they just refer to themselves as M-O-C-P, Museum of Contemporary Photography, M-O-C-P. So you are already there, it is M-O-C-P, M-O-C-P, M-O-C-P. Is that part of the process? Is that part of the design agenda? These things just happen. The clients come to me with the answer, the design answer, they almost give me the answers. And I have to almost stop myself in many early meetings of giving them the answer that they have just expressed to me for fear that they will think my job is too easy. In fact, there is this wonderful story that somebody told me once about Massimo Vinelli, who is, you know, one of the great designers of the later 20th century, sitting in a big corporate meeting and him just sketching out a logo for a big multimillion dollar company. This was just at the introductory meeting and I guess his assistant or his partners pulled him aside, and said: “Massimo, you can’t do that!” He said, “But this is what I do! It’s so easy, this is how you do it!” So I try to keep that to heart. And you never really know whether your job is going to be easy or hard. I just finished a direct mail campaign for the Poetry Foundation. Do you know them?
JP: I just think they are so great. Here is an organization that has been around for 75 years, it is been living hand to mouth and then, some old lady dies, and in her will left the Poetry Foundation 100 million dollars. This is an organization that has been operating on 10,000 dollars a year, 30,000 dollars, whatever that number is, and all of the sudden they have a check for a 100 million. It’s so funny!
IG: So now they need a logo!
JP: Yes, but they did not hire me to do that. They hired some really great people in New York, a group called Winterhouse. I believe it is been doing all their magazine work. But they are located in Chicago and they needed a more close at hand design resource and they are four blocks away from me, so I kind of fit the bill. But that is neither here nor there. What was I saying? They just wanted a simple direct mail campaign, and they asked me how much it would cost. I threw out a pretty low number, and they said OK. And I think right now we are on our 11th round of design corrections, and we are not even changing the design of a logo or a picture of something. It is just a letter! It is like a correspondence from the director like this! This is all it is! And they are, “Well, can you add a little more space in between the ellipsis? You know, I was thinking, are there different ligatures that we might consider using for some of those kerning pairs?” I admire their level of presniquitiness and their level of attention, and actually, after about the 7th round of corrections, I started really enjoying every little comma change and, “Oh, can me make that small caps?” And I am like “Yes, we can make it small caps”. Often times, that would bug me, or I would be just like, “whatever, this is direct mail, this is like fancy junk mail. This is what we are making, we are making junk mail. It is gonna end up in the trash and you are worried about the spaces around parenthesis”. I really do admire them. I guess that is another aspect to the business of that. Even though I am doing really super mundane things, and often times making very negligible artifacts, a.k.a. junk mail… We are actually printing 400,000 of these letters. I have never done anything with this kind of quantity before. It is hilarious that there is still this attention to detail and hey, you know, I like poetry, I think most poetry is lousy, but when you find a poem that kind of makes you sing a little bit, it is worth reading 100 bad poems. And I think poetry is one of those things that if I can have a small little part in propagating across our country and the world, yes! I’ll add some spaces around your ellipsis.
IG: In the next few weeks, you are teaming with the Chicago restaurant Blackbird to “offer a 5-course dinner with wine pairings, in collaboration and in response to your highly colorful, electric and literal work”. This is an unusual and interesting collaboration.
JP: Yes, Chef-Artist collaboration.
IG: How did this idea get started?
JP: I have been working with a number of Chicago restaurants. I think I have designed about 18 logos and menus for just Chicago based restaurants. Half of them I think are even still in business, but we are talking over 20 years. One of the most productive and fruitful, has been working with the guys who own Blackbird, Avec and the third restaurant The Publican, which I am happy to tell you we just got nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Graphic Design for this restaurant.
JP: Yes, I am pretty stoked about it. I have been working with these guys for more than 10 years and just in the way they have come in and out of my office over 10 years for meetings and various things. After 10 years, this is funny, after 10 years they just kind of dawned on Chef Paul Kahan, “Hey, you are an artist, you are not just a graphic designer, you are an artist! We should do something together!” This is 10 years of them coming in and out! It was one of those aha moments and I said, “Finally!” That was about two months ago. He said I could pick any date I wanted so I picked Tax Day, April 15, because I figured out that was a number that everybody could remember. I figured with the economy the way it is this year… fuck it! Tax Day is the perfect day to go and have a $100 dinner that none of us can afford, or should not be affording. It is a nice irony. So that is how it started. And the way it is going to work is still evolving but the two chefs of Blackbird came in to my studio here, and actually they were sitting right here, and looking around and they were overwhelmed with the amount of artwork that is all around us, and they kept saying, “What are you going to do, what are you going to do? What are you going to put on the walls?” And I was like, “Well, I will put that on the wall, or I will put that on the wall, or I will put these books on a shelf”. And, he is like, “Yes, but what are you going to do?” And I am like, “What are you going to do in the kitchen?” And they are like, “I don’t know”. We started talking about lowest common denominators in our respective professions and typography, and linguistics, grammar are things that I offered as my plate of things that I am bringing to the table. And I go, “What are you bringing to the table?” They are like you know, “starches, seasoning”…We really broke it down, and I’m like, “What if we kind of combine our lowest common denominators?” And we started brainstorming about…I will give away some of the things. I am writing a poem that they are going to cut into noodles, like little alphabet noodles, like you get in a Campbell’s tomato soup, you know, and so we will present every person with the poem spelled out with noodles and then we will brush the noodles into the soup or the consommé, so you have this language, you have this beautiful poem that you read…
IG: So you start with the poem, and then the poem becomes food.
JP: Exactly, and then you eat it. I kind of like that. So he and I are kind of battling ideas back and forth like that.
IG: Is there any collaboration that would you consider most successful in terms of the process?
JP: You never really know the answer to that, and that goes back to this thing that I was saying before that I do not have any desires to make anything in particular. But the desires I do have, I find out later on in various ways. When I make a book for somebody, like this book, you know, I made this book for this art collector. He and I worked on this very closely for 6 or 7 years. This was a dream project for me because the client had an unlimited budget and an unlimited time frame. We would get it done whenever we get it done. But I remember I was at a museum in New York and I saw this book on the director’s table off to the side and it was prominently displayed. He had no idea that I had made it, and that really filled me with a great deal of, not just pride, but a sense of positive accomplishment. The things that I desire to do are those things that have a life beyond my production and my hands on time with it. Unlike the Poetry Foundation direct mail piece, which I spent 30 or 40 hours on, that is just going to go in the trash. It might have some resounding effect in my rate subscriptions, or it might open someone’s head to the notion of, “Maybe I should subscribe to Poetry Magazine”. That is nice to know that my work can do that, but I’m materially satisfied as well when you see an object with its own life affecting other people. The flip side to that is that I have also seen my books at the used bookstore on the remainder rack for 99 cents, and that is…that is a bitter pill to swallow, let me tell you.
IG: Well, I have seen the book Shanghai Transforming that you designed in several Museums of Contemporary Art, so you have to be proud about that.
JP: Yes, just wait until you see it on the close out rack at Fred’s used bookstore in Berwyn.
IG: Now that we talk about economy and budget, with the current crisis, do these trends affect the balance between art and business in your work?
JP: It doesn’t. If you ask my wife this, my wife manages the money, she would say that I am delusional in this respect, but it doesn’t, not at all. Like the work I did on your Shanghai book. I did tens of thousands of dollars worth of work on that book without, you know, any serious compensation financially, just because it is a great project! And if I have to wake up at 2 am freaking out about a project or something, it ought to be something aesthetically interesting and culturally rich, otherwise we are just making cornflake boxes. We live in a consumer culture and we are part and complicity in the production of a lot of unnecessary crap. Everybody. None of us need to eat at Blackbird or eat at L2O, or any other fancy restaurant. We do not have to shop at Whole Foods, we can easily get the same bag of carrots at Dominick’s for half the price. We are complicit but, if there is any savior or any satisfaction in our culture, it might just be with art, and it might exist with people who are putting some sensitivity into the landscape, whether that is an object, whether it is a situation, or if it is just a floating aesthetic that influences a stranger. And if we can be part of that little small piece of the puzzle, that is the best thing I can come up with without, you know, joining the Peace Corps or doing something really meaningful.
IG: You have taught at the School of Architecture at UIC and at institutions like Archeworks, which are architecture programs. It seems that the way we are working today involves more people from different fields and the issues that we are addressing cannot be solved by just one approach. Should every person know a lot of different fields or should they be very good at one field and know how to work with others? Are people trying to cover too much by themselves? Where is the limit?
JP: I think it was Samuel Beckett who said, “You can’t read everything, it would just take too long”. And I have always taken that to heart. I think we are all stretched, and probably stretched for the better. I was asked to the teach at the University of Illinois in the School of Architecture, teaching freshmen studio along with four other licensed architects. But I am not an architect, I know nothing about architectural structures, or tectonics, or engineering. And it really was, I thought, quite insightful for the director at the time, a guy named Daniel Friedman, to say, “You know, really at an early point in an architect’s development, they need to speak to people who are not architects, people who are involved in design issues that are not necessarily related immediately and specifically to the building of buildings”. I segued in to teaching through the back door because of Daniel Friedman’s vision. And that worked really well. I felt comfortable, I never pretended to be anything that I wasn’t, I felt as though I was an informed outsider. And it was very clear about when I didn’t have the answer to something, always fess up, right upfront, do not pull the wool over somebody’s eyes. And the same happened at Archeworks. I taught at Archeworks for three years at Stanley Tigerman’s request. I wouldn’t have done it if Stanley himself personally didn’t ask me to do it. I never thought of myself as a good teacher, or that teaching was something I wanted to do. But teaching really is just like working with a new client, they need something, they need something that they do not have. A student wants information, or knowledge, or an experience that they do not have. At the end of the day, you are really a conspirator, a facilitator, a coordinator and occasionally, maybe by default, a teacher. There were freshmen who didn’t know how to use an architect’s scale ruler, and I always thought it was funny that I would teach that part of the curriculum. “OK, this is quarter inch scale”. I just taught myself how to do it, it is not hard. I remember the first time I looked at that scale ruler, I think I was about 18 at the time, I’m like, what the hell? You couldn’t make heads or tails out of all those things, the lines, the triangle, like, “What is the pyramid?” It is one of the things that I actually know how to do that relates to the practice of architecture so I was always really proud. ”Oh, I will teach that!” I got that one covered! I got that lecture!”
IG: But the funny thing is that there is a graphic design department within the School of Architecture building. I am sure some of the professors were confused and thinking you should be going through the other door.
JP: I think some of the graphic design professors in the school were a bit tiffed that I was not teaching there, but they did not ask!
IG: For this first issue of the journal, we asked people working in different fields to submit their definition of MORE. You submitted MORE or LESS. Can you further explain your statement? What is your point of view about the love / hate relationship between MORE and LESS in the overall history?
JP: Especially in Chicago with our modernist baggage and our Miesian legacy.
IG: And now with the Buckminster Fuller exhibition at the MCA, with his statement More with Less.
JP: I would like to know, you will have to excuse my ignorance, when was it exactly that Mies said Less is More? What was the context of that statement and where was he when he said it?
IG: That is a good question
JP: Somebody must know! It might be talked about completely out of context. It seems like our culture is on track to include our lives with more, and then more, and more, and more… and there are fewer and fewer people who are involved in the less part of our culture. In fact, of all my acquaintances, I only know one person who has thrown up his hands completely and said, “This is crazy, this whole western lifestyle, this capital lifestyle, is nuts!” He sold everything he had and he bought a pick up truck, and he is living in the back of his pick up truck down in Florida. He is completely off the grid, but as best he can. But the rest of us, we have got our iPhones, and now we have got our laptops, and now we have got our iPods, and know we have got…god knows what other pieces of equipment. Everything is… our website, our URL, our email, our social security number, our three digit code to our lock at the gym, and you need your four digit code for… whatever! It is more, more, more, more, more.
IG:So do you think this is the future of MORE? MORE of excess?
JP: This is a perfect example of what we are doing here today. You are creating a video journal or magazine, and who are you? You are nobody Iker! You are just some kid! And here you have access to really state of the art lighting, excellent video capabilities, sound recording, and plus we now have the distribution channels for all this stuff. Now any schmoe with a will can put together and distribute a ton of information. I think we need to circle back to this question of more. The thing about more is that it is never enough. And I think that is what Mies was trying to get at. Our culture by default, being based on capital and spending and buying, and spending and buying, and working, and working, and working to make money to spend, to buy, to spend, to buy, to work, work, work, so you can spend…we will never be satisfied as a culture until we kind of change that paradigm. And I do not think this is going to happen in my generation, I do not think it is going to happen in my son’s generation.
IG: Do you think there is going to be a main stream of MORE but there is also going to be another alternative way? Is there any hope to add another layer of MORE?
JP: I hope that happens, but I do not have a lot of faith that it will happen. The human project seems to be very self-centered. And I am complicit, and I am first in line there. I do not have the answers. I just know that professionally I am involved in an apparatus of making more and more and more for more and more people. But hopefully some of those mores, lead to a little bit of joy, and litter or decorate the culture with a sense of charm and perhaps a sly subtext that might just bring various minds together. That is really what I want, that is what I want to happen to me! I want you to be doing that so I can get some of it!
IG: List three MORE you believe in and three MORE you hate.
JP: The Megamillions today is something like $230 million, it would be nice to have more money. But the only way I am going to have $230 million is if I get struck by lighting and win the Megamillions. It would be nice if somebody called this office, or walked through the door that asked us, or me, or the studio, to make more public art, art that is a design project that will exist outside of this office for an extended period of time in the public eye. We have one project that we completed last year for the Chicago Transit Authority, for the CTA, and it is a big 40 foot wall. And it is going to be there for a 100 years. It is going to be there after I am dead. And I know it is solid, I know some people have gone out of their way to look at it, I know some people have walked right by it and not even realized that it was a piece art. I know because people have told me. The woman at the cash station in the shop has told me on a couple of occasions, how attractive it is to strangers and how strangers are always coming up to her and saying, “What is that thing? What is that thing all about? It is kind of neat. Will you take my picture in front of it?” It would be nice to have more of those opportunities. I would like more time but that is not going to happen.
IG: And three MORE that you do not want to see.
JP: Junk mail. Stone washed denim maybe, I think we could use less of that, but I will probably change my mind in 10 years.
IG: Finally, list a person, group or institution that you believe is MORE.
JP: I guess what I would like to see is more independent spirited businesses pop up. More of this do-it-yourself aesthetic. Just in my lifetime starting with the hippy commune sound of sensibility of, “Hey, we are just living on our own, we are going to grow our own stuff, we do not need you, we are just gonna to glean things we need”. To the punk rock kids who said, “We do not need the music establishment, we do not need the hierarchy of the music business to put out our music and frankly, you have kind of screwed everything up anyway, cleaned everything up, so we are just gonna turn our guitars and reverb up really loud and make all the noise we want”. To the kids who are making fanzines, who are now publishing their own books, who are finding ways to distribute their own books. And really the people who are making new distribution channels outside of mainstream distribution channels. They way you are making this video, the way artists make their projects, almost as though every artist is just a little cottage industry. So I guess I would like to see cottage industry. It is the underdog versus the big corporation mentality. I always, for better or worse, I am always rooting for the underdog. It is my Achilles’ heel.
Jason Pickleman is a graphic designer and partner at JNL Graphic Design based in Chicago. His clients include the Steppenwolf Theatre, Hyde Park Art Center, The Renaissance Society, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago Transit Authority, and Avec restaurant.
Iker Gil is an architect, urban designer, and director of MAS Studio. In addition, he is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture at UIC. He is the recipient of the 2010 Emerging Visions Award from the Chicago Architectural Club.