If you’re the founder of your own design practice, it might be tough to write a book about it that doesn’t come off as navel-gazing or self-aggrandizing—and with page after page spent talking about the merits of your work, who could blame you? But if you’re not a navel-gazing or self-aggrandizing kind of person to begin with, it’s actually pretty doable. In fact, Open’s founder Scott Stowell iraikes it appear downright easy in his new book Design for People: Stories about how (and why) we all can work together to make things better.
As you’d expect, the Kickstarter-funded book takes a very open approach, starting with a unique format that makes for a rich and multifaceted reading experience. Words are underlined as if they’re hyperlinked to their definitions in the appendix and pages are strewn with snippets from emails and conversations that took place over the course of a design project. There are 12 chapters, one per project, that are broken up by short musings from notable creatives like AIGA Medalist Maira Kalman, musician Wynton Marsalis, and designers like Willy Wong, who write about surprise, stories, and meaning, respectively. These are nice, if a little random; they don’t seem to sum up the previous project or introduce the one to follow. But the cumulative effect is that all of Open’s work—whether it’s for Good magazine, for Yale, or for a pizza restaurant—encompasses surprise, stories, and meaning as well as care, wit, clarity, connections, questions, answers, value, change, and joy (the subjects of the other interstitials).
At this point in his career, Stowell has earned the right to talk about his work in all those terms. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, he worked at Maira and Tibor Kalman’s legendary M&Co until it closed, after which he moved to Rome to art direct the influential Benetton-owned COLORS magazine—all before he turned 25. Now, two decades later, Stowell still “does things he has never done… or seen before,” says designer and design educator Douglas G. A. Scott in the book’s introduction. “Open’s work is not trendy,” he continues, “but it does possess the quality of inventiveness. The work does not call attention to itself. Rather it sends a message and expects the audience to understand it and respond.”
Stowell began thinking about Design for People 10 years ago, and it probably says a lot about his process that it took him a decade to publish it. “I’m happy it took a while,” he says, “because now there are a lot more stories to share—like when a logo made somebody cry or the day we spent with Danny DeVito… but it’s not comprehensive, definitive, or objective.” What it does do is demystify the design process by showing the studio’s ideas—both the good and the bad—that inevitably arise over the duration of a project; it shares all the thinking and rethinking behind decisions made by the team, directly from the mouths of the people who were actually involved; and it shows how a good design studio knows when to question a client’s brief and deliver something unexpected or unasked for. For instance, Open has gone against brief and pushed for different platforms (is this maybe a website, not a billboard?), rewritten the client’s copy (written by the client’s copywriters), and renamed entire projects.
Understanding how this process really works makes Design for People a big help to designers who want to learn more about how to run a studio (managing staff, running meetings, scaling the business), but the design stories themselves are told in a way that’s engaging for design lovers who simply want a chance to peek behind the finished, public-facing work and learn how all those elements actually come together. Notably, how Stowell single-handedly designed the covers of The Nation (a new one each week!) and what that taught him about building client relationships; what convincing a nonprofit to step outside its comfort zone (and ultimately end up with a game-changing logo) taught Open about the importance of creating trust; and how Open created that stop-you-in-your-tracks cover of Good magazine—the bright orange one with the x-ray of an AK-47—defying any eye-rollingly earnest assumptions about what a magazine about “good” design could be.
“The world we live in is the result of the choices we make, so we can always make things better by making the best of things, no matter what.” —Scott Stowell