Studio Culture Interview: Thirst

Studio Culture Interview: Thirst

Rick Valicenti's work fizzes with a uniquely American energy. His work - and the work of his studio - is as American as the Chicago skyscrapers that distinguish the city where Valicenti is based. He says that his studio is dedicated to ‘art, with function and real human presence'.

He is the recipient of countless awards including the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) Medal in 2006 - the highest honour in the American graphic design profession.

Valicenti is a member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale). His work is included in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Denver Art Museum. He is also a teacher. For the past two decades he has given his time and energies to college and high school students in the form of lectures, workshops and personal critiques on the design industry.

In 2004, a 356-page monograph on Thirst work was published by the Monacelli Press, entitled Emotion as Promotion.

The interview was conducted via email.

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At what stage in your career did the urge to have a studio hit you? Was it there from the start?

Rick Valicenti: Twenty years ago, Thirst was founded on the desire to pursue ‘art with function'. When I went on my own in 1981, I was a relatively fresh designer, president of the STA (Society of Typographic Arts) and a new father with a desire to be certain that a paycheck was regular. It took roughly six years for me to discover and come to understand that there is a thin line and a big difference between being a designer who is a preferred vendor and a designer who has a consultant's seat at the table. In 1988 I no longer wanted to be the preferred vendor. It was this motivation and clear image of the creative life I wanted to design that Thirst came to be.

 

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You are well known under your own name, but your studio is called Thirst, which suggests a collective rather than solo approach. Outsiders might imagine that Thirst works to your agenda, but you refer to Thirst as a ‘design collaborative'. What does this mean?

The output of Thirst is a reflection of those with whom I share my life's work. While I am the reason opportunities arrive, I share the process with those who have exemplary and unique talents.

There are three names on the website - Rick Valicenti, John Pobojewski and Bud Rodecker - can you explain the relationship here?

These are the individuals with whom I share studio time with. John and I have been working together for over four years, and Bud, our intern two years ago, was invited to stay.

Is a shared vision essential or are divergences useful among studio personnel?

Individuals are just that. Everyone sees the world through their own filter(s), and when they enter the studio I encourage each member to share their perspectives. The ideation of Thirst work originates conceptually with me, and because presence is catalytic, the process and artefact of our thinking and making has evidence of my curation.

Can you tell me about the internal structure of Thirst? Number of designers? Number of support staff and so on?

In addition to the three of us, who work very closely together in a campfire arrangement, we are blessed by my sister Barbara's presence. She is our business manager and gatekeeper. We bring into the studio programmers, industrial designers, architects, printers, artists, and of course clients.

 

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What qualities do you look for in the designers you hire?

Reasonable talent, a manageable ego, and good character - period. I suppose good hygiene too!

You teach and lecture extensively - do you see it as part of your job to nurture and develop the talent you employ/work with/hire?

That is a good question, as I am forever the mentor of design. It happens with the clients I collaborate with as much as it does with those whose path braids with mine. While I am a gentle and supportive pedant, I am always conscious of my role.

I recently spoke to someone who runs a successful studio and he told me that he likes employing designers who ultimately want to run their own studios. He knows they will leave him at some point, but while they are with him, he benefits from their drive. Where do you stand on the question of ambitious designers?

I too am ambitious... ambition, however, is not the secret to being a successful employee or employer. I would say for me one needs to be ready to practise (seduction), represent presence, indulge knowingly, serve happiness, and master humility.

Is there room within Thirst for someone to follow their own vision, even if this runs against your instincts and tastes, or do you insist on adherence to your design vision?

At any given time, I am the one to initiate the (personal) professional curiosities that become the filter through which all Thirst design passes. There was a time when it was expressive typography, but since 1999 I have been consciously curious about design underscored and emboldened with ‘real human presence'. Today that filter is evolving into an awareness of how we are crafting and shaping narratives in this post-medium time we live in. We are calling it storytelling and our experiments are in this realm.

How do you keep everyone motivated - or is that not an issue at Thirst?

Thirst is a campfire and if everyone does not contribute some wood to the fire, we will all soon be breathing and coughing in smoke. Simply by painting this picture and reminding everyone of our braided path, the privilege to sit by this fire is shared.

Do you have clearly defined rules about timekeeping and lunch breaks?

No...

What is your recruitment policy?

We do our share of due diligence and realize Thirst is not suited for every designer because we are either too small or too whatever. A designer's character is exhibited through their work. If the timing is right and our needs match their desire to enter the profession or to change their workplace, we will invite them to join us for three months before offering full-time employment.

Do you have a policy on interns?

We have had at least one intern every semester and often work closely with their school to ensure curriculum lessons and often ensure up to 12 credit hours. In addition, we pay a modest monthly stipend.

 

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Can you talk about how you deal with the business side of the studio? How much of your time is spent overseeing balance sheets, sales projections, and the mundane stuff like rent and salary reviews?

Having a trusted business manager is heaven-sent and liberating. I closely review the status of business weekly and often multiple times during the week. We track and invoice time in 0.25-hour increments when we are not billing by value.

Where do you stand on the deep-rooted notion that designers don't make good businesspeople?

As you know, most don't make good businesspeople, only some do. Of those who do, some are exceptional... I have been personally very successful, but my success is not defined by my client list or my gross income. I have, however, put my two children through very expensive universities, and participated in the design of my time in practice.

You are based in Chicago - what impact does geography have on your business? For example, could you function just as well in another location?

There was a time in the late 1980s and early 90s when most of the Thirst work was coming from outside the US (from Japan and Germany) and the majority of the domestic work was from outside Chicago. Today, by design, I am interested in serving clients in Chicago or on other continents. There is a wealth of talent in other US cities, so unless the opportunity is exceptional, I have no desire to pass through airport security simply to go to Cleveland or Los Angeles.

Let's talk about your physical environment. Do you have a pristine white-walled studio, designer furniture, with a swish reception area?

No. When I go to visit other designers I like to imagine their overhead!

Thirst is located in the warehouse galleries of Wright Auctions, where each and every day we pass loading docks and open spaces littered with twentieth and twenty-first-century important furniture design and art. Our space is 2200 square feet with two large walls covered with design from living and dead master designers. The dense salon hanging is a reminder to us all that we practise in a continuum of design and designers. We have Lustig next to Bass, Rand, Weingart, Gehry, Mau, Massey, Greiman, Sahre, Sagmeister, Bantjes, Fella, Victore, Pickleman, Glaser, Fairey and Kalman.

All are signed originals, and many are one of a kind or of very limited editions. Do you encourage clients to visit your studio?

Yes, both to work and socialize.

Is your studio open-plan? Do you have your own private area? Is an area for quiet study and thought necessary?

We work within a very open environment so when the music is on mute, the thinking goes deep... in fact right now it is very quiet but for the click of the Apple keyboards.

What about studio communal life - do you socialize? Do you do studio activities?

We have some socializing... among my younger collaborators, they enjoy each other's time outside of work. I discovered recently that as I got older, my collaborators have remained the same age as they were in 1981. Fortunately, I am young at heart and in spirit so I can sleep at night knowing I go to work in some surreal reverse Peter Pan world.

 

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In 2004 you published a monograph - Emotion as Promotion. What effect did this have on your business? Did clients come flocking?

For the record, we did not receive one new business call as a result. The same is true when I received the AIGA Chicago Fellow and the AIGA national medal. The same was true when I was inducted into the AGI. These successes and publications do more to stay within design's discourse than attract new business. I must say, however, to hear my existing clients boast that they are working with a published and recognized designer is heartwarming.

How do you attract new clients?

By being present and making certain that we are responsive to those we have served over time and to those who come for the first time pre-qualified and interested in growing a relationship. Most of all I am always keeping a balance of work initiated by curiosity and work funded by commission.

If you had to describe your studio culture - how would you phrase it?

Magical, fertile, and personally rewarding.

 

Interview taken from 'Studio Culture: The secret life of the graphic design studio' by Tony Brook & Adrian Shaughnessy