Studio Culture Interview: Walker Arts Center

Studio Culture Interview: Walker Arts Center

There has been a design studio at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for over 60 years. Its work has been exhibited and published worldwide and it has received numerous design awards. Andrew Blauvelt has been the studio's design director since 1998. Prior to his appointment, Blauvelt taught design at several universities including Cranbrook Academy of Art.

He has been a visiting professor in the graduate programs of European, American and Mexican universities. In 1995 he was named Educator of the Year by the Graphic Design Education Association, and has served on the national board of directors of the American Center for Design.

Blauvelt describes his role as design director as dealing with everything from ‘postcards to trashcans'. In addition, he organizes talks, curates exhibitions, and writes and lectures extensively on design.

This interview was conducted via email.

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There have been many fine in-house studios - the design department at CBS, run by the late Lou Dorfsman, for example. Yet the in-house design studio is a somewhat neglected subject among design's commentariat. Why do you think this is?

Andrew Blauvelt: I think that's true and I think it's due to a combination of factors, including the belief that in-house departments are less creative than consultancies. The story is more complicated, especially when a singular name is thought to be necessary to propel a narrative (whether writing history or a profile piece), and that gets difficult when you have many people and processes involved, which is the case of most in-house operations. Perhaps it's structurally suspect too, meaning that in-house design is too bureaucratically managed and organizationally controlled.

 

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As a young designer starting out, what were your ambitions? Did you envisage a time when you would lead a studio?

Before I was in design school I thought I wanted to be an art director of a magazine, but excelled in more traditional academic fare. My intended major was political science and international relations, believe it or not. However, my real interest was in design, so I found the art school. But as I learned more about design I was interested in not only its practice but also its history and theory. So I went to grad school thinking that I would end up teaching. I began my career in academia, so I can't say that I thought I would be leading a studio in the office sense - perhaps a classroom studio. I've always practised design, mostly for cultural clients, so the transition from being a tenured professor to the Walker wasn't the huge leap it appeared to be. The leadership skills one picks up in teaching have worked remarkably well in the design studio.

Can you define your current role at the Walker?

I'm the design director, which means I'm responsible for the design of communications and public spaces at the Walker, or as I say, fully aware of the irony, ‘from postcards to trashcans'. The department includes editorial and publishing, so there is also that element. I'm also curator of architecture and design programs at the Walker, which means planning lecture series, special projects, and organizing exhibitions on design-related subjects. Lately, it's more of a strategic role looking more broadly at how we communicate to our audiences (and vice versa) and the experiences visitors can have at the Walker, both on-site and online. Although definitely unusual in its combination of duties, my job at the Walker has been the model for many decades.

What is the structure of your studio? How many designers and non-designers do you have?

Beside myself, there are two senior graphic designers and two design fellows, who come to work at the Walker full-time for one year as graphic designers. The non-designers include one person who prepares our images for printing, one studio manager who also serves as publications director, and two editors. Since there is an obvious connection to what happens online, the Walker also has a separate new media department that handles web and interpretive technology projects. I meet regularly with two web-based designers in that department.

 

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There has been a design studio at the Walker since the 1940s. Is this heritage a source of inspiration or a burden?

It is definitely more inspiration than burden. Few places can boast a tradition that long, whether a company or a museum. It was a smart, thoughtful, integrated approach to handling the museum's communications and programmatic needs more than 60 years ago and still is today. When businesses talk about the value and role of design as a hot topic today, I have to smile because the Walker has known this for a long time. When you have people like Peter Seitz2, Mildred Friedman3 and Laurie Haycock4 in the position before you, it can't help but be inspiring. I suppose the only burden is trying to live up to that legacy.

In this age of outsourcing why does the Walker maintain an in-house studio?

It's a misconception that outsourcing saves time or money. What happens is that you end up with more project management in terms of time and people, and less design. I'd rather employ the designers who actually produce the work and can produce more of it more efficiently - crudely, it's the difference between salary and hourly. The Walker is a multidisciplinary institution, which means we have visual arts exhibitions, performing arts events, film screenings and education programs, so the overall needs for such a complex organization are huge. We produce more than 200 projects a year. In actuality there are only a handful of designers to produce all of this material, on time and on budget, which can only happen when the processes and systems are in place and reliable. This can only happen when everyone knows the project status and their role at any given moment. We also save money on outside fees that can be hundreds of thousands of dollars a year easily, for things like branding and advertising campaigns or book design contracts.

All of this is handled internally.

That's interesting, because I see many firms and institutions who employ in-house design staff to do the dull routine work, but give the big-ticket projects to fashionable studios - clearly this is not the case at the Walker.

No, it's not. Each in-house situation is different, of course. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in general to devalue the work of in-house staffs, or simply take it for granted. Of course, how do we know it is less creative when never given the opportunity to disprove it? When it comes to larger-scale projects, we have the talent and expertise to execute the work internally. I'm definitely proud that we routinely produce some of the most interesting and exciting work in the cultural sector, AND we produce all of the other materials as well. For bigger projects we can throw four or five very smart and talented designers at the problem to get the process going. This isn't ‘brainstorming', it's actual designing. Sometimes you need specialized skill sets from the outside, like the right illustrator or the right programmer. We try to engage these people as creative collaborators as well.

How do you think your role differs - if at all - from that of someone running an equivalent-sized independent studio?

Well, it is probably similar in a general way, in that I spend a great deal of time in meetings, not with clients but with colleagues. The focus of the meetings is different, I think, in that I'm not meeting about a specific piece usually, but rather about much larger strategies and initiatives. Because we are bound together institutionally, we share more common interests and of course a mission. Half of my designers change each year, the permanent staff constantly adjusts to this constant churn and change - that might be different.

 

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Do you feel protected from the realities of professional life - I'm thinking of things like monthly sales targets, and the constant battle to maintain solvency at the same time as doing creative work - or are you subject to the normal business metrics?

I believe my answer would be the same regardless of the situation. We are all collectively responsible for the overall health of our particular endeavour or business, which isn't measured in the same ways as perhaps the corporate sector is, but there are still measures and expectations. There are many factors that can affect the bottom line, some of which are more in your control than others. Design is simply one variable among many in the equation of success or failure. There is a misconception that somehow museums or cultural institutions are more immune to the vagaries of the market, but that is a fallacy.

Designers who run studios tend to be either individuals who demand that the designers who work for them conform to their vision of what the studio's output should be, or else they take the view that designers need to be developed and nurtured to find their own vision. Where do you stand on this question?

Somewhere in between, I think. By that I mean that the group of designers as a whole needs to set the direction and evolution of the work, not as unquestioning groupthink but as an organic developmental process. If one is not hiring randomly, I think one ends up with a set of people who bring their own individual tastes and influences with them yet share some affinity for what already exists. If so, then the question is what can each designer contribute to the whole - I don't mean job duties, but rather aesthetically and conceptually. How do they see their contribution reflected? Do they add breadth to the existing palette or is their contribution catalytic?

You have written: ‘I've always taken pride and pleasure in operating outside of official centers - New York City in particular - but am still struck by people's disbelief that "interesting work can happen there?"' Is this an example of the thinking that has led you to work at the Walker, rather than operating in the more ‘normal' milieu of the independent design studio?

Definitely, in the sense that the Walker is the kind of museum that, because of its programming, one expects to find in New York or in Europe, but here it is in Minneapolis, of all places. I've lived in the Midwest of the US longer than any other region of the country, and I went to school in the Midwest. I seem to gravitate towards unusual and unexpected places and situations, which appears to be more challenging in that kind of context.

A place like the Walker provides a ready and endless stream of problems to solve and issues with which to grapple. To that extent, it's a convenient source of provocation.

You write about design and give frequent lectures. Do you think this would this be possible if you worked in independent practice?

Oh yes. In fact, I've been lapped plenty of times on the speaking circuit by any number of independent designers! One advantage I might have (which is a carry-over from teaching) is that I also work in the realm of ideas and subjects that contribute much to my thinking about design in general. So while I'm happy to talk about the design work produced by the studio, I also lecture about design and culture in general. Of course, I wish I could lecture and write more on these topics, but there are only so many hours in a day.

 

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What is your vision for the Walker studio?

In some ways I hope the design studio continues the way it has for the last 60 years. On the other hand, I wish the design studio could take a leadership role in the realm of research and development, so to speak, with regards to the design field as a whole. I'm not sure what form it would take, or if there is a good analogy, but there is so little R&D in design because it is so defined by traditional practice. In the workaday grind, it is extremely difficult to change gears and instead of reacting to other people's problems that are brought to you, to search out other problems - difficult but not impossible.

You run an internship program at the studio; can you tell me about this?

We used to use the term ‘internship', but in the US at least, this can mean anything from fetching coffee or making copies to an assignment that lasts for only a few weeks. Now we use the term ‘fellowship', which we changed to match the similar situation for our visual arts program. They work for one year, full-time, and they are paid, although with a modest salary. Fellows design their own projects and handle all aspects, from client meetings through supervising printing. So it gives them access to the full process of design. They often work with the senior designers or me on longer-term or more complex projects. We have had a fellowship program in the design studio since the early 1980s. It was expanded when I arrived in 1998. Basically, we solicit applications from designers early in their careers - just out of school or in their first job. It's a pretty competitive program and we select about five or six finalists to interview in person, on site. The finalists are always very good and it's very difficult to choose just two - you really want them all.

Where do the applicants come from?

From all sorts of schools, cities and countries, including California Institute of the Arts, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Rhode Island School of Design, Yale School of Art, etc. We encourage fellows to use the time to also focus on the next step in their career. Some people go to graduate school, open their own business, or become designers at other firms or businesses.

Of all the tasks you have to perform, which gives you the most satisfaction?

I like them all because they provide different experiences. As a designer, I still get excited when a project comes together, when an idea and the form it takes becomes inevitable. As a curator I enjoy seeing an idea grow, change and take shape over years and working with artists and designers, where blind faith is sometimes necessary and the idea of not knowing what will be produced is both daunting and exciting. As an administrator it is developing strategies to solve complex problems. In a way, it's not unlike the Eames film Powers of Ten5, in which the next largest or smallest thing is its own universe but is nevertheless bound together in the entire scheme of things.

 

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