You've made several efforts in the past to share your creative process openly to students & young designers in particular. Did you make an effort to document the year as a whole?
Stefan: Yes, I kept a diary during the entire year. It even got published as a little for free paper promo by Appleton. A heavily edited version appeared in Communication Arts.
How can designers find a balance between creating work that’s socially led rather than commercially without looking like cynical ploys, especially for businesses who are mainly commercial?
Stefan: We are all much too cynical. I myself suspected numerous companies doing do goody things of commercial considerations, only to find out when I got to know the principals that authentic concern was their driving force. I thought Ben & Jerry's social engagement was a marketing strategy invented by an ad agency until I got to know cofounder Ben Cohen. He is much more interested in social change than in selling ice cream.
If you couldn't have been a designer, or do anything creative, what do you think you would have been
Jessica: I'm fascinated by people and psychology and how differently we all approach life, so probably a psychiatrist. A taxi driver would be amusing because you get these little windows into other people's lives.
Adobe Inspire Magazine, 2012
Speaking of that other side of life, do you have any hobbies?
Jessica: Stefan has a really good line, "Hobbies are for people that don't like what they're doing." I would say that's the case for me. My work is my hobby. I absolutely love doing it.
Adobe Inspire Magazine , 2012
How do you seek to remain authentic?
Stefan: By trying to be honest.
What is inspiring you at the moment? (artist, music, social issue, people, etc)
Stefan: I find the obsessions of Korean artist Do Ho Su interesting, listen to a lot of Mark Lanegan, got engaged into a campaign to lower of the Pentagon budget and as a person Mark Coska, the inventor of the single use syringe, a device that disables itself and prevents reuse is a real inspiration.
What is your greatest achievement?
Stefan: Likely the whole "Things I have learned" series. The individual projects were a pleasure to design and create, lecturing and exhibiting them was a pleasure, I was pleased with how the book came out and even now, 10 years after we started the series, I have a good time talking about it. We also got a lot of positive and steady feedback about it.
You pose nude for the sake of observing the shock value that it creates in the United States. Do you ever think there will come a day when nudity will not be shocking to the American public?
Stefan: I would very much hope so. I would hope there comes a day when nudity has no shock whatsoever and the image of a weapon has a lot of shock value. This would make much, much more sense, considering that killing somebody is forbidden. So the imagery, or depiction, of killing somebody should be shunned too. Having sex or seeing somebody nude is not forbidden, and so the depiction should not be forbidden either.
How would you describe the difference between a graphic designer and an artist? You consciously try to exceed the bounds of graphic design, but yet you seem very hesitant to take the title of artist. Why?
Stefan: Well, I grew up as a designer, trained as a designer, and always wanted to be a designer. Vienna was a good city in which to become a designer in because there is no real hierarchy between the different applied and fine art directions. This is probably a holdover from the turn of the last century, when art deco was big and the major players consciously did both. Kokoschka made posters, Klimt did murals for commercial use, Hoffman was involved with both design and art, and all lived under the same umbrella.
There is a wonderful Donald Judd quote: “Design has to work. Art does not.” Art can just be—it doesn’t really have to do anything—while design will have to function. This glass, for instance, can be extremely impractical and it can be very difficult to drink from and it might have other functions than an ordinary water glass, it might have a function of representation or it might tell me something about our time, but, in the end, in order to qualify as a glass it will also have to hold fluid. And if I design it so wildly that it doesn’t hold fluid anymore, well, then it becomes a sculpture and we would have to talk about whether it is a good or bad sculpture. But I think functionality is central, and all of our work has a function even if some of it is quite removed from the regular promotional or informational function that so much graphic design has.
What is the best advice you received that you would like to share with aspiring designers?
Stefan: When I was moving to Hong Kong and was about to make a lot of money Tibor Kalman told me: And dont you go and spend the money they pay you or you're going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life. I didn't and got easily out of it again. Most of my collegues did not get that great advice and are still stuck in the agencies.
Have you ever had doubts about what you wanted to do, or about whether or not you were good at it?
Stefan: Yes. Especially during school. I knew I wanted to become a designer (not many doubts there) but very much doubted the quality of the work. Had constant doubts in Hong Kong. Wanted to quit every week.
You started the career as a designer early, with just 15. Your style was already like what you produce today or you've been slowly evolving and working on your ideas?
Stefan: I was writing here and there for a small local magazine and then discovered that I like doing the layout better, but I'm not sure if I'd really call that activity "working as a designer". We were setting headlines with Letraset sheets donated by friendly design studios, and as they invariably had all the "e's" missing, it was easier to write that headline by hand than reconstructing the missing "e". That's where my love for hand writing stems from.
Describe your path to becoming a designer and art director.
Jessica: I was a big computer nerd when I was younger. At 11 years old, I taught myself how to code and create graphics for websites. I became really involved in the blogging world and people started asking me to create websites for them. About a year into that, I created an HTML & CSS tutorial site that also offered free website templates for many of the blogging platforms that were popular at the time. The website became really popular and I was getting about 15,000 unique visitors a day. This was right around the time that Google Ads first launched; I put one of the ads on my site out of curiosity and started making a lot of money off of it. I basically couldn’t believe that I was being paid to do what I considered a hobby. That’s kind of what I’ve aimed to do with my life ever since.
When I was graduating high school, I was a little unsure if I wanted to go more into the coding or the design side of making websites. I was deciding among NYU, Carnegie Mellon, and RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). I’ve always been a gut instinct person and my gut told me to go to RISD, so that’s where I ended up. RISD puts a lot of focus on working with your hands, which was a shock for me coming from a digital background where I was glued to my computer 24/7. I think this merging of craft with a digital background plays a big role in my work today.
The Great Discontent, 2012
Are you satisfied creatively? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
Jessica: For the most part yes. I love the studio and the work we do and am so grateful for all the opportunities that have come my way. But i'm always hungry for new projects and challenges and I often think the work i'm doing can be pushed or be better. I think most creatives are always a bit discontent with what we're doing, it's what drives us to keep doing better work. If I was completely satisfied, i'd probably just end up recycling the same work or ideas.
The Great Discontent, 2012
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Jessica: Yes, definitely. It's invaluable to be surrounded by people and friends who inspire you and who you can talk about your work and process. And who understand what it means when you whine about illustrator crashing or a pantone color not being matched correctly by a printer. I also love working in a studio versus on my own. When your stuck on a project it's invaluable to be able to turn to someone who's taste you trust to get their opinion.
The Great Discontent, 2012
What does a typical day look like for you?
Jessica: What I love about working at a small studio is that every day is different, so I don't have a typical day. One day I can be art directing commercial photo shoots, illustrating a poster the next day, or building a typographic installation for a film shoot the next. Another week I could be working on our social media or press, presenting our work to a client oversees, or meeting with our team at the studio to strategize on a branding project. I usually am in the studio by 9 and leave the studio by 7:30 or 8. I never work late into the night, I think that's a bad habit in the creative industry that generally does not add to productivity, at least for me. I need to have a few hours to wind down and get proper sleep so I can get my work done efficiently the next day.
The Great Discontent, 2012
Could you see yourself becoming either an artist on the one hand, or an entrepreneur on the other, and entirely giving up your design business?
Stefan: No. I have no interest in becoming a fine artist. Despite the fact that an incredible amount of fantastic work is being produced in the art worlds right now (I am touched more by art of the last decade then of any other in the 20th century) I find the art world itself a ghetto and its distribution within the gallery system not very compelling. I have little interest in becoming an entrepreneur: If I would have wanted to become a manager I would have gone to business school.
What lessons have you learned about how to conduct your business and make your design?
Stefan: It turned out that some of the anger I had in my day to day dealings towards clients had nothing to do with them and was within me (ie: the anger was still there when the clients were not). Most importantly, I learned (again) how much I love being a designer.