Cultural Responsibilties: Rob Giampietro Talks Shop with Use All Five

Rob Giampietro is a designer and writer, currently filling the role of Creative Lead for Google Design NY. Levi Brooks spoke to Rob about what he’s learned from his past, and the future of design at Google.

cover of Span Reader (2015)

UA5: Congrats on the recent launch of Google Fonts. How are things going in New York?

RG: They’re going really well. It’s summertime!

UA5: We recently learned some new things about your career history. You interned at Target in college on the design team, you started your own studio, worked for Pentagram, and then you also worked for small studios like Project Projects and, now, Google Design. How do you compare that smaller studio environment to the larger corporate design environment? Do you have a preference?

RG: Yeah, totally. It’s awesome to be reminded of my internship at Target because, though it was very foundational to me at the time, I somehow had forgotten to think about it in the context of my job now. They are actually very similar in terms of settings. Both were large corporations that were really devoted to design, and had really interesting groups of creative people working together to advance that interest.

I had special permission from my school to work at Target when I was 14 years old. I worked with a designer named Eric Erickson, who was one of the leads there at the time. He and others on his team seemed like a cool artists: not like normal adults, but people who seemed to just have a lot of fun at their jobs, and they also got to play with computers. As a teenager, those were my two greatest ambitions: not to be normal, and to play with computers all day. So, right away I saw graphic design as an avenue toward that.

At Target, I got to see how really complex design projects ran. I remember making sketches for Archer Farms, which is a Target brand that still exists. My sketches didn’t make it too far in the brand brainstorming, but it was really fun to learn all about how it all works. I think those are skills that really helped accelerate me towards launching a studio because I felt like I had some exposure to how [projects happened in the real world]. I pretended to be a grown-up at Target, and so it made it possible to be an actual grown-up sooner in certain ways.

And then the other thing that was amazing about Target was that they had this incredible library, and they had all the Art Directors Club annuals. They had every Emigre magazine, every Eye magazine, and I would just go in there for hours and get inspiration, and I had to basically teach myself to become a graphic designer that knew something about something. I don’t think I knew at the time how lucky I was. I felt like everyone that was a graphic designer has that kind of library, and had access to that stuff, but really I now realize it’s quite rare.

As an intern I got sent out on a lot of tasks, and random jobs, and errands, and the things that interns do, and I found all that to be really valuable. One thing I had to do a lot was assist one of the print buyers of Target, and this was when there very little digital work, mostly print. I would go on press checks with her, and she would teach me about her job–how you proof images, what the different printing terms were, choosing paper stocks, things like that. So I knew going into college, and after that, how to print something and make it look good. I see a lot of similarities, but also Google is very, very different. And it’s more like a college in some ways. Target often felt more like an in-house ad agency so I would contrast them that way.

Poster for Google Fonts

UA5: That’s a great point. I didn’t realize Target had that type of environment. I remember sneaking off to Borders every bit of time that I could, looking at the magazines that you just talked about, and that’s how I got my design education–in addition to the internet, which was growing up in front of me. I’d love to hear more about starting your own studio with Kevin Smith, working with some of the bigger art galleries like David Zwirner and Gagosian in New York. What was that process like? Tying it back to Target a bit, what was that like in having that education from Target to springboard you into these studio settings?

RG: Coming into college at Yale, I had this context of working at Target, and also working at my high school to make graphics and posters, and things like that. So I’d always seen design as something that either was a profession or an extracurricular activity. The idea of studying design was something that I knew I was excited about, and that was one of the reasons why I went to Yale. But when I got there, I hadn’t really thought of studying art, and dedicating my whole career to art, and it took me a couple of years to realize that in order to be a really good graphic designer I needed to give it that kind of focus, and that kind of attention, to learn how design intersected with all of visual creativity and art. I was immediately drawn to any extracurricular that would let me make design. So I designed the Yale Literary Magazine, which had a great slate of designers–I met Prem Krishnamurthy because he was also designing the Lit Mag at Yale and we went on to be partners at Project Projects together.

Being something of an introvert, I used graphic design as a way to meet people. It was a really good way of interacting with people, and knowing what was going on on campus. It was the 50th anniversary for the Yale School of Art’s graphic design program the year I graduated, and they had a symposium. A lot of the notable people that had graduated or worked with the program over its 50-year history came back and they gave talks, or sat on panels, [including] Bill Drenttel, and Jessica Helfand [of Winterhouse Studio]. I talked my way into the symposium by offering to tape record all the sessions… I literally had a Walkman tape recorder, and I just held it in my lap and sat in the front row. I met Bill and Jessica there, and later that summer they encouraged me to apply to their studio for internship.

I don’t have an MFA, but I consider working for Bill and Jessica to be my grad school, because their studio, Winterhouse, was in the northwest corner of Connecticut. It was very removed–all my friends who graduated from college were going right to the city, living in New York, but I was basically living in a guest house on a farm up in the Litchfield Hills at the foot of the Berkshire mountains, just being a graphic designer 15 hours a day. It was like a real education, but in a very broad way–it wasn’t like a grad school education, it was really a life education. Kevin Smith was the other designer employed there. So, we became very close, and we talked about design all the time.

I left the studio after about a year in search of a social life in NYC. Kevin followed about a year and a half later, and by the time he got to New York I had been doing the same thing that I did at Yale: trying to meet people and using graphic design as a way to talk to them. What happens when you do that is people try to recruit you to do projects for them, and I was more than happy to do that, and just couldn’t do it all myself. Because Kevin and I had such a great working relationship, we decided to start a studio. The first project we got at the studio was [from] my friend Stella Bugbee. Stella had to hand off a project that she couldn’t complete, doing a book for for Cindy Sherman for a gallery called Skarstedt Fine Art. So, literally our first job on the first week we were open for business was to design for the book for Cindy Sherman, and I got to go meet Cindy Sherman and present our designs to her.

We had three days before the meeting, so we put it together, and she loved what we did. It was this amazing thing, and then it just all rolled forward from there. Skarstedt was friendly with Larry Gagosian, and he showed the Sherman book to Larry and recommended us. Gagosian was working a lot of the time with Bruce Mau in Toronto, and wanted to have a firm in New York that [shared] the same time zone. The art world, really, when they see something that they like they tell each other about it.

That was one vector of our business, certainly, and then the other one [involved work for] The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria.

They asked us to do an annual report. They had hired a big firm to do it, and they had not gotten something that they wanted. We just put together what we thought was really nice typography, a really thoughtfully done thing, that was all about the AIDS crisis around the world. They were a loyal client for many years and recommended us to their colleagues at the World Health Organization and other places. So, basically Giampietro+Smith’s mix was 50% art world, 50% global health, and we were very proud of that mix. It was a good way to pay the bills.

I think on the art world side, those projects were really about collaboration, and what we excelled at was what we called “making the suit”. It was almost like you have a body, and you have to make this beautiful suit to dress the body up, and make the body look great. If you’ve done your job well, somebody says, “Wow, that’s a great suit” but it’s not the thing they remember at the end of the night, you know what I mean?

UA5: How did you approach these projects with art galleries and institutions versus nonprofit organizations or public health organizations? Was there a different mindset there, or were they similar–sometimes people say they’re similar in just solving a problem for them in terms of communication, or something bigger. Some people also say they’re different based on the client, but it would be interesting to hear your take on both of those.

RG: I think they’re very different. I actually enjoyed the difference. With global health clients, they really were hiring us for all of our expertise. They wanted to give us a word document, and they wanted it to be designed as quickly as possible, and know and trust that it was going to be done with a high degree of craft and care. The priorities were really to get numbers that were current; by the time the reports were printed, they were less than a month old. So, that means, if you think about production time, that we’d have two weeks to design it, and a week to print it, and then it would show up at a summit for people to review, to have current figures to react to. So, I really enjoyed that. Kevin and I would get these documents, dive in, and really do them all ourselves. Everything from ragging type, to the data visualization, and different things like that. We just loved that it was pure design.

I think on the art world side, those projects were really about collaboration, and what we excelled at was what we called “making the suit”. It was almost like you have a body, and you have to make this beautiful suit to dress the body up, and make the body look great. If you’ve done your job well, somebody says, “Wow, that’s a great suit” but it’s not the thing they remember at the end of the night, you know what I mean? I think that maybe correctly expresses the relationship that design has with art, where the best work we might do had to elevate the artists and their work. And particularly for galleries that were using some of these catalogues as sales pieces, for ways to drive collectors to be interested in the artwork, it really wasn’t about showing what great designers we were. It was much more about carefully and sensitively working with either the artist directly, or their representative, or their estate. If you could build a viewing room that would be perfectly lit to show this art in person, you would do that; but since you couldn’t do that, you were making a book. But it has to have all the same sensitivity, and care, and thoughtfulness in building that room would have. That’s how we thought about it at the time.

UA5: Yeah, it sounds like it’s almost utilitarian…I think almost utilitarian versus fashion, in a sense. It’s almost a little bit like that. We see it the same way when we’re working with different clients.

RG: Yeah, one was very much collaboration–highly collaborative. Then the other one [was] a little bit more [like] we were craft people. We were given this thing, and we were trusted to make something that was really a beautiful expression of our craft.

Google Fonts

UA5: Let’s get right into your time at the Rome Prize Fellowship. I know you went through a lot of transition at that point; I would love to just hear about the writing and lecturing you did, [and] the collaboration between a lot of people there, and the field research you did. How did it change you as a designer, as a creative? I think it would be interesting to hear that as well, just about your time, and how it impacted you.

RG: When I was there I was really enjoying taking a timeout. I spent a lot of time by myself, [and] I spent a lot of time learning about Rome with other people. Often, as fellows of the Academy, [we would] take each other to different places and be curious about what the other fellows were interested in and let that enthusiasm carry us to places we wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Through that process I got to see things like Mussolini’s private gym, or the first Montessori school, or a functioning artist squat in an abandoned factory–all these really incredible places that are outside the normal tourist areas of Rome.

Even within the churches, and the Vatican, and all those places that are more what you think of when you think of Rome, [I was] finding so much richness, and fascination that, I think, it made me a better designer. Thinking about the Vatican Map Room alongside something like Google Maps–the way that geography has always been a way to organize and think about the world, and your place within it. I was just having all those kinds of flashes there all the time. Because it wasn’t directly the visual culture of today, it made it more possible for me to be associative in my thinking, trying always to find connections between the things from my work and the things that were happening in Rome. I did a lot of writing about that experience, and in the end I created a kind of live radio hour with a composer named Paula Matthusen who had done recordings at a lot of those sites I was describing. We collaborated to make this live piece, and I did a number of readings in Rome with some of that audio enhancement.

While I was there, I found that I really loved having multidisciplinary colleagues. I loved having institutional support. I loved having a different context from which to think about my practice. I had gotten this inquiry from Google’s Material Design team about helping manage their new New York studio, and helping them drive their vision for their design system forward, and all of those qualities of interdisciplinary colleagues, and institutional support, and a new context–all of those qualities of things that were really exciting to me from Rome seemed like they also really applied to the job at Google. So I think without having taken that step back, and giving myself that pause, I don’t think I would have set up my next professional moment correctly for myself, but it was really nice and surprising to have all of those things align so well at the end.

There’s going to be a moment for education and inspiration around machine learning in order to help people understand the value that it has, and to be informed about the role it can play in our future place that it should have in our products.

UA5: What are the current conversations happening inside Google around design? Specifically around AR, and VR, how design plays inside some of these varied experiences. Where do you see these things heading? I think Material Design helped with some of that, but I’m guessing you guys have your own conversations separate from material design about some of these things.

RG: Well, I have a couple different focuses that are starting to emerge for me at Google. One of them is actually leadership, and management, and empowering great people to do interesting things. I realized at Google that one way to really make a big impact is to help other people make a big impact, and make yourself really good at learning how to help them and encourage them to do that. So part of my day is always driven around doing that.

One of my research interests at Google is certainly around how we build design culture, both within the company and beyond. Google is a commercial actor in a lot of ways, and it has to be thoughtful and innovative there. But it has cultural responsibilities also, and I think with some of those cultural responsibilities that are within design, we are always exploring questions like How do we contribute? Especially in a way that feels correct, and appropriate?

I’ve also been thinking a lot about typography. I was one of the folks that helped drive the Google Fonts relaunch. It was a big team, but it was really exciting to be a part of that product launch, and I think just seeing that go live was an enormously gratifying thing. It was something I came to Google wanting to address, and very quickly I was approached by that team who was equally excited about doing something together. To be working more closely together now is also a great reward, to have everyone there as colleagues. There’s still a lot of work to do, in improving the typography that’s already in Google Fonts, and thinking about where the catalog goes from here, and especially in supporting designers around the world, there’s really not enough non-Latin, and multilingual script options for web designers out there. There’s huge communities of people all around the world that aren’t supported well enough with great typography, and that’s really a Google-scale problem that we can help with.

The third thing: the Eameses worked with IBM in the ’60s on that wonderful exhibition, Think, for the World’s Fair, when the culture was at a point where there was a lot of fear around computers: fear of computers replacing people’s jobs, and making people redundant, and also just fear of what computers were for, and that cultural shift. That exhibition did a lot in helping to educate people, to naturalize the computer in a lot of ways. One of the things that’s been fun at Google is to look for similar opportunities, and similar areas of our work. One of the things that jumped out to me is machine learning, and machine intelligence, and that conversation is moving on a similar track 50+ years later. There’s going to be a moment for education and inspiration around machine learning in order to help people understand the value that it has, and to be informed about the role it can play in our future place that it should have in our products. So, thinking about how that can be approached within today’s culture is something that I’m thinking about right now.

Span Reader (2015)

UA5: What do you find personally exciting about the SPAN conferences? Any interesting insights from the first few conferences you’ve hosted? Any longer-term effects that you’re starting to see? What I’ve told the people here at Use All Five is that it’s probably just as beneficial to Google as it is beneficial to everyone that goes. The content that comes out of it that you guys put online, which has been really helpful…we’ve been sharing some of those videos across. I’d love to just hear how you’re feeling about it.

RG: I think that SPAN definitely falls under that “building design culture” area of focus that I mentioned before. It’s our way of facilitating and contributing to the cultural conversation around design. Google speaks often to others, and we really felt the need to create an opportunity for others to speak to us, and to us, to share what they know and to listen to them, and also to be highlight people that we think are important for others to listen to. In terms of organizing it, the conferences in New York and London last year were so tremendously rewarding, and really gave us a chance in particular to open a dialogue about interactive design history, including companies like Olivetti and IBM that really were foundational. So, it was exciting to have someone like Davide Fornari, whose writing about the history of Olivetti’s sponsorship of the arts we reprinted our SPAN Reader. Davide was someone that I actually met in Rome–he was at the Swiss Institute while I was at the American Academy.

SPAN is really a team effort. We all throw ideas into a hat, and try to shuffle them together into what we feel like is an interesting narrative about design and technology. That means celebrating all kinds of design, and letting a certain amount of cross-pollination happen. So, in New York, certainly with someone like Nick Benson, who’s a stone carver, working with ancient techniques and everlasting material. He was someone that we felt like we could really learn a lot from–his practice is very different but yet very resonant with our own.

UA5: What are you reading now? Anything interesting? Any recommendations for the designer audience that we’ll probably be speaking to?

RG: I’ve been reading a lot of writing by a historian named Fred Turner who’s based at Stanford, and he has a book out called The Democratic Surround, which follows his earlier book From Counterculture to Cyberculture as a kind of prequel, looking at how ideas that would resonate especially in Silicon Valley arose from a multitude of sources through WWII and into the Cold War. Turner is someone whose thinking really captivates and inspires me. In a way he’s exploring how culture turns ideas into action. The Eames’s IBM exhibition we were discussing earlier figures prominently in the book, it’s even on the cover.

The Eamses's exhibition, Think

UA5: I’m interested in that Eames exhibition from the 60s, and I want to share it with somebody. Is there a good book in terms of covering the topic, or are there other ones that talk about that exhibition?

RG: The other book that I would recommend on that exhibition is The Interface by John Harwood, but there’s great writing on it by Beatriz Colomina at Princeton and Catherine Ince, now at the V&A in London. I have some of those references from my syllabus at RISD earlier this year, which was called RE-THINK!

Related Links:

To see more of Rob's personal work and writing, visit his website, Lined & Unlined

You can follow Rob on Instagram, Twitter, and Medium

Illustration by: Christine Jackson & Troy Curtis Kreiner

The interviewer, Levi Brooks is the CEO/Co-founder of Use All Five.
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