Chi: Hello, and welcome to another episode of This is HCD. I’m your host Chi Ryan and in this episode, I’m speaking to Derek Horn, a designer at Beardwood&Co., a New York-based branding agency focused on design, strategy, and innovation. He’s also a volunteer director at Out for Undergrad, a non-profit that helps LGBTQ undergraduate students reach their full potential. Derek recently wrote a fascinating article that caught my eye called: In praise of an undersigned world, for the online magazine guideline. In the article, Derek discussed his discovery of the undersigned world in New York City, hidden beneath the glossy brands, bright lights, and shiny advertisements, there are layers of design by necessity that began to inspire his work. Welcome to the show, Derek.
Derek: Thank you for having me. I’m super excited to be here.
Chi: It’s a pleasure to have you here. What inspired you to become a designer?
Derek: I was born and raised in Syracuse, New York.
Chi: A place that has a very hard name for us Aussies because we’re like, how do you say that?
Derek: Yes. Like many designers, I grew up having a passion for drawing and painting and all of these other fine arts. I also had parents who rightfully wanted me to have a job and wanted me to think about that as I thought about my future. When I went to look for colleges, I was pretty dead set on getting out of Syracuse. I had spent 18 years there, I wanted to see what else was new in the world. Low and behold, I applied to Syracuse University’s communications design program and ended up there. It was a great experience, we learned about building brands from the ground up with a really entrepreneurial spirit. One thing at the time that I disliked about being in Syracuse was what I perceived to be lack of a thriving design culture and creative space. In hindsight, I realised that that stuff was always there and I kind of ignored it.
I was always, I’d take bus trips to New York City for the weekend and take pictures, fill up my camera roll with all sorts of cool things I saw and bring that back to Syracuse and put that in my design projects. I had this moment after I started working where I started, being in New York, I moved here after I graduated in 2015, I started seeing all of these examples of design by non-designers that really started to open my eyes and appreciate these other examples of creativity around me.
Chi: Before we talk about the undersigned world, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about Out for Undergrad.
Derek: Sure. Out for Undergrad is a non-profit that’s dedicated to helping LGBTQ undergrad students reach their full potential. We do that by every year organising four industry specific conferences. Business, tech, engineering, and marketing for students that are interested in careers in those spaces. Queer students can apply to it, attend one of our conferences, if they’re accepted, the organisation covers all travel and lodging costs for them. Location and financial situations are a barrier to entrance.
What the conference is, students learn about career opportunities in these various spaces. Often times, things they don’t learn in school. They learn how they can bring their most authentic selves to the workplace and they’re also connected with mentors that have done all of this stuff before and can give guidance to them. In our conference teams, we raise money from sponsors, from some of the world’s biggest companies and agencies. We build a class of students. It’s really diverse and bright and exceptional. Then our team plans a full weekend of programming and activities for them to do.
Chi: Where can people learn more about Out for Undergrad?
Derek: You can go to outforundergrad.org. You can learn about how to become involved as a student, a volunteer, or if you’d like your company to get involved as a sponsor and recruiter.
Chi: I feel like there needs to be a purer design track, but that’s just me being me. Awesome. Let’s get back to the topic at hand. Tell us about when you started to notice this very unusual phenomena. Actually, maybe it’s a usual phenomenon of the undersigned world?
Derek: New York City is a really big, beautiful place, full of so many different things. My office is in SoHo, so every time I go out on lunch, there is always a new popup shop, a new example of street art. A new store. Just about everything. What is considered as an example of professional creativity? Also, so many other gritty, raw expressions and very human expressions that co-exist with it. One of the first examples of this was, one day I was out on my lunch break, I passed this street meat cart. There was…
Chi: By the way, I just love the term, street meat. It’s like mystery meat. What might it be today?
Derek: I was looking at the menu and one of the items was fish over rice. The image that was used to represent this was a bed of rice and whoever designed this literally cut out an image of a fish that might have even been alive and they just imposed it over this rice image.
Chi: I’m glad it wasn’t Nemo.
Derek: It really got me thinking. Somewhere along the way of that cart making it onto this street corner, somebody sat down and created that image in the best way that they knew how to. I started turning wheels. It goes beyond that obviously. Every day, there are millions of people around the world that are making these design choices out of necessity, whether it’s to communicate information, earn a living, or make the world a better place. Honestly, it’s been happening since the dawn or time, and even as far back as cave paintings.
Chi: It’s funny because it immediately reminds me of this one thing, this very memorable thing. There’s a carpark. What do you call a carpark here?
Derek: A parking lot?
Chi: A parking lot. A parking garage?
Chi: Okay. It’s automated, you go in, you park, you go back in and there’s a machine. You have to put your ticket in and pay. It’s still there today. Literally, if we went to Melbourne today, I could take you there. The machine is covered in notes and stickers and hand-written messages about how to use the machine. I think that’s really interesting because sometimes it’s out of necessity, but sometimes it’s as a result of bad design.
Derek: Right. Once the wheels started turning for this, I started seeing so many other examples around me. It’s everything from somebody in your apartment building that needs to get rid of furniture and they whip up a quick sign and put it in the elevator or in the stairway. It’s little mom-and-pop bakeries that are creating their own packaging with their own branding on it. Another major one is around the time when I moved to New York was coincided with Trump’s rise to power. I attended a lot of rallies and protests. I saw so many amazing and creative examples of protest signs and artwork that you can tell that people weren’t dwelling on them. They were very pure and potent piece of design that weren’t too hung up on being perfect but were very effective in their communication.
Chi: Do you have any examples that really stick out in your mind as just blowing your mind when you’ve seen them?
Derek: One of my absolute favourite places in New York City is Aster Hair Stylist in the East Village. It’s this massive underground, very no-frills barber shop that has been around for over 70 years. I think it was made popular by artists like Keith Herring and Andy Warhol and hundreds of other celebrities have been there and they have their photos of them on the walls. You walk in and there’s this incredible sign that says: We speak your language, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Polish, Romania, Russian, Greek, Farsi, Portuguese, and even a little English. There are probably about maybe 20 or 30 barber stations.
Each of the stylists take over that space and decorate it with everything from the expected hair style photos, but many of them use it as a canvas to express other things that they’re passionate about, like stickers or family photos. In some cases, some of them have their own artwork. There was actually this really great mini documentary called: Big Mike Takes Lunch, that was made by New York Nico. That shows that the general manager on his lunch break, he goes in the back room and paints these really beautiful wild paintings.
Chi: Wow. It reminds me so much – you’re tattooed too, so you know what I mean when I say this, it reminds me so much of when you go to a tattoo studio and each tattooed has their own booth. They have their tools and they have their own ways of setting up that are unique to them. Then they decorate their spaces in a way that represents them. Interestingly enough, it also reminds me of how there’s been this resurgence into old techniques of sign writing. I definitely, in Williamsburg, because obviously it’s hipster-ville here, but also in Melbourne because it’s the home of the hipsters, hand-made signwriting is huge. It’s become this massive thing. It’s funny how it’s this ontological, this cyclical type of design, where we go from high-end gloss to low-fi. Actually, it reminds me of something else too, there’s a butcher shop here in Williamsburg called Marlow and Sons.
Derek: I think I’ve walked down there before.
Chi: Marlow and Daughters. There are two of them, there’s one that’s a restaurant. It’s interesting because it’s not so much design that’s the resurgence, but the resurgence of a lost trade in butchering. With all these young people, young, hip, cool people butchering the meat in the butcher store. People lining up to buy their meat the way that you would have maybe 50 years ago in a butcher store. This resurgence of grassroots.
Derek: Artisanal type.
Chi: Yes, artisanal type things. That’s a good point to ask. How do you think that this affects the digital world?
Derek: Very interesting question. It’s one that I’ve definitely thought about quite a bit. Just because working at a branding agency, I definitely have such a respect for the anonymous and very thankless craft that goes into design and bringing designed experience to the world but being in SoHo and seeing all of these really glossy storefronts and retail experiences. It’s funny, I make a joke all the time about how pretty much every new popup store or retail space in SoHo, they just throw a neon sign on the wall and they think that they’ll attract millennials.
Even things, as on the subway, for all these kinds of new direct to consumer brands. They have their same geometric sans serif logo types. It’s like so many things, they almost start to blend together. At the same time, feel like they’re meant to target you with a pinpoint precision on Instagram or in the digital space. I definitely think that designers, we definitely hold a very valuable place in society. We can bring clarity to chaos and really consider a users’ journey from beginning to end.
Chi: I like to say that if you design the screen, you control the machine. That’s a different story.
Derek: Right. I have to say that I think professional designers, when we sit down and put pen to paper or cursor to screen if we’re not so lucky. I know that it’s easy to turn to so many of the same sources for inspiration, be it Pinterest or Tumblr, or the same set of design blogs for your inspiration. What I feel that that does sometimes is it creates this echo chamber where the same types of ideas are being regurgitated and recycled.
Chi: Well, in digital, it’s so obvious because the patterns have just become so same-same.
Derek: Right. It’s almost like there are so many – I think there are these revolutionary brands, that have almost cracked the code, so to speak. I think that there are so many other brands that are popping up, they’re like, me too, I want to be the Uber of XYZ, or the Netflix of XYZ. While I think that there are so many great models and new platforms that have been created, everything starts to – it gets to a point where things start to blend together and almost start to feel a little bland.
Chi: It’s funny because moving here to New York, we had to buy a mattress. Looking at all the different mattress companies, Casper, Keytar, Avocado, Pineapple, Banana. I don’t know what they’re all called, but they all look the same, it’s very hard to differentiate between buying one mattress online and another mattress online. I work in experience design and I like to think of it like this, the experience is the delivery of the brand promise. If we’re talking about mattresses. Well, the promise really only gets delivered when you lay down on the thing and you have a good nights’ sleep. If all the brands are the same, it’s a little hard to differentiate between that before you actually get the product.
Derek: Right. I think that there’s this huge pivot towards so many brands trying to position themselves to be lifestyle brands. I think even a couple of months ago, I read this article about how Chipotle is trying to reposition themselves to be more of a lifestyle brand. I think that there’s something that I laugh at that, just because sometimes I think that you can make a really good burrito and it’s a really good burrito and that’s a really great thing to be proud of. You don’t need to be anything more than that.
Chi: Well, it’s interesting you mention that, considering the fiasco that has followed Gillette’s TV had. Afterall, a razor is just a razor. I’m not sure that every brand has to have a position on political movements, you can just have really good razors.
Derek: Right. I think that it’s a really tricky balance. I personally don’t think that that Gillette campaign was successful. Just because it brow beats people into correcting their action. I think I read a piece that was like, for centuries, Gillette is bringing you this product that is really great and serves you, but all of a sudden, you’re supposed to stop on a dime and change your behaviour because the brand is telling you to. I totally support the message about toxic masculinity, I just think that it was delivered in a way that was very heavy-handed and perhaps did some damage rather than good in the long run.
Chi: The message is important. The medium, they made a mistake, I think. Personally, when it comes down to it, like I said, what did Gillette do? They make things that help people remove their hair. Also, I can appreciate that what they were trying to do, they missed out on, as I said, the experience delivering on the brand promise, the promise that I think people expect from Gillette is make good products that help me remove my hair. Not necessarily help me be – you know what? Help me be a better person, but there is a fine line between those two things.
Derek: Right. I think that an example of a brand that’s really done that well in the past few years is Axe. I think that they’ve been historically perceived as this very bro, macho brand. I think people think of the body spray like clogging up a middle school locker room. I think they’ve really expanded their definition of masculinity to be much more inclusive and positive. They put out this really great spot a couple of years ago. I think it was about finding your magic. They showcase so many different types of expressions of masculinity that was positive.
Chi: I think I remember.
Derek: I think there’s so much more power in showing positive examples and holding that up on a pedestal as something to aspire to rather than taking this finger-wagging stance, that a lot of people just flinch at and turn the other way.
Chi: I digress. How has the undersigned world inspired your own practice?
Derek: I think that often times when you get a brief, you can sit down, think about it, sketch. Rather than obsess about what you think the right words or typography, or any sort of expression in what the client wants to see, I think that there’s something to be said about trusting your gut at a very visceral level is a human being first and foremost, and what your initial communication instincts tell you. Then from there, you build it out. Obviously, not all of those things are going to be valuable, but I think it’s just centring yourself a little bit and approaching these problems as a human rather than – I think some people can carry the title of designer as though it’s a very lofty one.
Chi: Yes, look, it’s something that I definitely personally came up against when I was younger, that design was something that belonged to you. It was very ego driven. A lot of design still is today. Not without naming names, architecture can be quite ego-driven, but design ultimately is not for you, it’s for someone else, it’s for whoever you’re communicating to, who you’re interacting with. If there’s one thing that I took away from your article, it’s that often designers, especially those of us who consider ourselves to be human centred designers, we go out and we do research and it’s a little bit not deep enough.
You’re going out, you’re talking to people, you’re listening to what they say. You’re not necessarily seeing what’s going on. You’re not observing deeply enough. In your article, you observed something that was fundamentally human. This act of doing something out of necessity. Maybe that’s something to take to your own practice as a designer, for me, certainly, is to be more aware of what people are doing out of necessity.
Derek: Right. I think at the end of the day, it comes down to respecting the ability of the ways that people communicate, regardless of their ability. Obviously, I think the results of that run the range from beautiful to ugly, to clumsy, to awkward, to thoughtful. As designers, we can help connect the dots for people. Rather than turning our nose up at some of those more naïve examples of communication, I think we can learn a lot from them, and at the same time offer our advice and services to make them more beautiful of potent.
Chi: It’s interesting because I’m imagining a situation where a designer is asked to redesign the meat cart for the operator. The designer comes along and creates this set of concepts of these fancy meat carts and doesn’t really get the owner of the cart involved and doesn’t ask those questions about what it really needs to be. When in reality, the meat cart operator is the one who knows their customers the best. They know their business. Like you said, we’re designers, we’re design experts, we can connect those dots, but without getting those people involved in the process, you’re going to have a disconnect. Maybe that’s where the disconnect is happening, with brands like Gillette.
Derek: Definitely. One of the things that we do that I think is a really great part of the creative process is we do what’s called a visual creative brief. It’s basically an exercise where our team gathers so many different examples of imagery, typography, graphics, all sorts of other things, depending on the project. We cut them out on papers and lay them out on a table with the client. We walk through with them and select which examples that they think is more right for their brand. Then from there, our design team creates a mood board that is a really great springboard for us to jump into the design process. Often times, a client can brief you and say, “I want this to be very modern, very clean”, but those words can mean ten different things to ten different people. Having that shared visual foundation to start from just sets everybody up for success in the long run.
Chi: How can our listeners get inspired by un-design, what would you recommend they do?
Derek: I would say, I know this sounds very trite, but put your phone away for a little bit, go walk outside. Even just right outside your door in your immediate neighbourhood. Pay attention to the little details around you that you might just blow past every day on your way to work, or wherever you have to go. It’s very easy to get tunnel vision and ignore all the little nuances and details around you. I think from there, once you start seeing them, it’s like a snowball effect, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. It’s really cool once you open your eyes to it.
Chi: Where can people get in touch with you?
Derek: I’m actually in the process of doing a soft relaunch of my personal site. I’m trying to that a hub for all of my writing, my work with O for U and some of my professional and conceptual design work. If you want to check that out, you can head to: derekjhorn.com. That’s D-E-R-E-K-J-H-O-R-N.COM. I’m also on Instagram @dj.horn. If you want a healthy dose of celebrity memes in your feed, along with some design nuggets from around New York and beyond, give me a follow. If you or your company want to learn more about getting involved with Out for Undergrad, and I hope you do, you can head to outforundergrad.org.
Chi: Thank you so much for being on the show.
Derek: Thank you so much for having me.
Chi: There you have it. Is the undersigned world inspiring your work? We’d love to get your feedback or thoughts on this topic. Go to: thisishcd.com and register to join our Slack channel to join in the discussion. We use our Slack channel to shape future episodes of the podcast, as well as sharing interesting design related content every day. I’m Chi Ryan, thanks for listening. See you again soon.
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