Cover photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Susan Sellers is a founding partner and creative director of 2×4 and Senior Design Critic at Yale School of Art. At 2×4, she leads a wide range of strategy and design projects in the cultural, commercial and urban sectors, from large-scale brand identity and experience programs to brand environments and exhibitions. Her clients include Nike, Tiffany & Co., Prada, Arper, the Guggenheim, Lincoln Center, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and many others. From 2013 to 2016, she was Head of Design at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she directed design initiatives from brand identity and visitor experience to exhibition and permanent gallery installation. The Museum’s rebranding, the opening of the historic Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue and 75th Street, The Met Breuer, as well as recent exhibitions, Charles James: Beyond Fashion and Manus X Machina: Design in the Age of Technology were implemented under her creative direction. She has taught and lectured widely and has been a visiting critic at Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, SCI-ARC and the Scuola Politecnica di Design in Milan. Susan holds a B.F.A. in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and an M.A. in American Studies from Yale University.
I am always very excited to talk to someone who is a design practitioner but also writes extensively, as I always thought that the discoursive and intellectual dimension of design and visual culture is integral to what designers do, whether they personally acknowledge it or not. What are your main things that drive you to write about design, to talk about it in your lectures, to analyze and interpret it? Is it something that comes out of a personal need to reflect on what you do as designer, or are there more general reasons?
I am by no means a conventional design writer but the interpretation of design, its role in culture, is central to my practice. I see design as a kind of collective speech, which organizes and expresses our values and ideals. When I design, I am always thinking about the associations and meanings attached to design forms – fonts, architectural forms, types of images, materials, colors – and the ways these can be manipulated to reflect on and suggest new or alternative ways of reading and understanding the world. A great example of this is a project we did recently called The Diner, which was a collaboration with Surface Magazine and Rockwell Group for the Salone del Mobile in Milan last year. We were interested in creating a space and presence for American Design at the Salone. We decided to use the form of a Diner because it has long been a powerful global symbol of many great qualities of American Design and culture: democracy, the integration of personal service and technology, ease and comfort, pragmaticism. You can also see it as the first self-organized brand. Long before there was Coke or Starbucks, there were Diners, a reliable spot along the road where you could get a bite to eat, get a cup of coffee and connect with a friendly face before you were on your way. The design language, the streamlined metal façade, the neon signage, the counter, might vary slightly along the way but the essential idea is always the same. American optimism, served up daily. We were interested in that term, the ultimate commodity of American Design culture, optimism, at this moment in time when American identity is being challenged. We were interested in creating a “counter culture”, so to speak, to discuss the status of design in this age of fear that is anything but optimistic. For me this is a type of intellectual inquiry, one that is visceral and participatory. It is almost a form of journalism. And it really is what interests me most in being a designer.
24 years ago you founded the design studio / consultancy 2×4 with Michael Rock and Georgianna Stout. Of course, I’m not expecting to hear the entire history of 2×4, but I’m interested in how you see yourself and the studio at this moment, compared to what were your intentions, ideas and expectations when you first started it?
Good question. The world has changed enormously since we started 2×4. I have been asking myself this question a lot nowadays. When we started the studio, I was a graduate student in American Studies at Yale University focusing on cultural criticism. We were interested in putting activist cultural ideas to the test in the real world. At the time, we called it “making the conceptual operational”. And while we did many small, avant-garde cultural projects, we were always interested in scale and volume, growing our practice to consider influence and impact. I think we are there! Now we work for many large scale global brands, as well as global cultural organizations, helping them strategize, understand their mission and realize their goals in an ever changing marketplace of ideas and experiences. This usually taps into this core interest in culture and the role of culture in engaging and moving people, starting conversations, and creating relationships and change. We work across culture and commerce. It is one of our core principles, because we believe that at the end of the day, the same essential questions, desires and needs undergird both types of organizations. And this process continues to be challenging, even more so now than in the past, even though many of our ideas have moved into the mainstream of design. I think the reason for that is because the world is changing so much, so fast. And the issues, like the scale of our projects, are so much bigger and more complex and require so much more to accomplish. Climate change, inequity, political acrimony, fake news, all the implications of technology… It is really is all coming to a head now. It can be overwhelming.
Throughout your design career, you worked with a large number of high-profile brands, corporations and cultural institutions, among them especially museums. What are for you the main differences in designing for those different contexts, what are the unexpected similarities between them, and what are the main misconceptions?
As I said, working across cultural and commercial organizations is central to our practice. Because we believe that everything is a brand because brands are essentially relationships. Purely transactional relationships aren’t really satisfying to anyone. People are really looking for the same things everyone: trust and consistency, authenticity, quality and reciprocity. And they fundamentally care about the same things: beauty, love, intimacy, death. This is at the core of what motivates people. Design really is about how you speak, how you engage and let people in. I guess this is why most of our work really entails the research and expression of culture or heart of an organization whether that is fashion or art, Prada or The Met. We like to get to the core of those deep driving principles and use design to make that legible and tangible to the public.
For four years you were Head of Design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I imagine was a huge, very complex project which resulted in a number of things, including a complete new brand identity. What were for you the main challenges in working for the Met, considering its huge and diverse collection, programs, its tradition etc.?
My time at The Met was an incredible, personal challenge: one for which I am still very grateful. I am still learning a lot about my time there. First of all, The Met is large and very diverse, its breath and depth constantly threatens its ability to create structure and purpose to support all its incredible resources and heterogeneity. I started at the Met at a significant time in its history, after the tenure of a legendary director, at the start of a new era in which the museum needed to redefine its mission and refocus its relevancy. What is the role of the nineteenth-century encyclopedic museum in the 21st century? What is the value of our collections? To whom do we speak? Even “What is art?” And “For whom”. How do we share more with more people everywhere? More pragmatically, the museum was taking on the stewardship and programming of what is now called The Met Breuer, the Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue and Seventy-fifth Street that was designed for the Whitney Museum. It was a moment when all eyes would be on the museum and they understood it was a unique opportunity to rethink and position themselves in relationship to all these questions. Obviously this was a colossal effort for an institution of that scale and renowned. One that required the effort of hundreds in the museum. Strategy and design was a small, but important, part of it. We needed to rally everyone in common purpose. It was really a process of organizing many conversations and initiatives, articulating a strategy in succinct, compelling way, and then, creating a robust but flexible visual language in place to connect the dots for the public. Simple! That’s brand strategy and identity basically. And then there was also the effort of rethinking exhibition and the display of objects to explore new historical and aesthetic narratives to engage the public. I am still incredibly proud and in awe of the team and many collaborators with whom I worked to make it all happen. And they continue on today. It really was incredibly engrossing, rewarding and fun.
I’d like to ask a question about your creative process – how do you approach a new project, are there any methods to it that are absolutely key if you want a successful outcome, are there things that a designer can or should learn, or unlearn, only through years of experience?
I insist on starting a project from the beginning. And for me that means intense research and strategy. We interview, read, travel and excavate, rack our brains. But we really don’t start sketching until we decide what our position is on a project. We insist on clearly defining our strategy and tactics. We use sketching to test our ideas but we never prescribe a project visually before we think and write. Language, words, are a very important part of our process. To this day, there are times when we forget or think we can bypass this step. But it is always made clear to us that our best work is, driven by strategy, and essentially, collaborative. The scale of our work demands multiple voices and an alchemy of expertise and skepticism.
Besides working as a graphic designer, you’re a prolific lecturer, and you are also senior design critic at the Yale School of Art. Can you tell me a little bit more about your teaching practices, and about design education in general, what are the things that a good design school should provide its students, and what are the things that a professional designer like yourself can only learn through his/her involvement with education of others?
I have taught in many capacities over my career but for many years I have taught primarily as a graduate thesis advisor. This is a very particular role, not like traditional teaching. And most importantly, for me, it requires a lot of listening and conversation. My role is to help students rationalize and articulate their visual practice and build a strong body of work that clearly articulates strategy and intention. And to do so in a completely individual and, hopefully, new, responsive way. I work with relatively few students per year and help them create connections between individual works and shape the substance and relevance of that broader body of design. I am absolutely insistent on encouraging which is personal, unique and captivating to them. I try not to project my own experience or preferences on their work but instead try to understand where they are trying to go and help them get there. I get tremendous satisfaction from this work. In a way, it’s not so different from working with a client. I am interested in what motivates people, creativity and expression. I want to know what drives them and why. And I hope the support and experience I can give helps them continue to shape the field and potential of design.
How do you see the current state of design criticism and design writing in general? Whom is it for? Who writes it and for which context? What is its future?
Certainly there is much more design journalism and criticism than ever before which is positive. And this type of thinking is more prevalent in a diversity of spaces, not only in art school but in incubators and business schools of significant stature from Stanford to Harvard and Yale (in the US). This is useful and important to build the area of expertise and increase the relevance and the audience for this type of thinking and writing. But it is important that designers stay involved in building the body of work and don’t get marginalized and relegated to the execution of other people’s vision and creativity. That is why writing and strategy in design practice is so important to me. Of course, creativity and ideas are not the exclusive province of any one discipline or practice but the visual quality and integrity of graphic design, and design more generally, will always be contingent on the deep and thorough exploration of its craft.