Illustration by Oscar Bolton Green

In anticipation of the 2016 AIGA Design Conference less than one month away (October 17-19 in Las Vegas; register by October 6), we’re getting an early dose of the kind of the design inspiration attendees can expect by hosting six conversations with 12 AIGA Design Conference speakers we just couldn’t wait any longer to meet.

One proclaims he’s “technologically challenged,” the other is a product designer for digital communications tool Slack. Yet both Amos Kennedy (the tech-phobic guy)  and Diogenes Brito (the Slack guy) are both superb designers, and ones who fight for what they believe in.

Amos Kennedy, Mules poster

Once a computer programmer for AT&T, in the late 1980s Kennedy stumbled upon a printing press and began a love affair with letterpress that became his career. He’s now based in Gordo, Alabama, where he runs a printers and print shop that houses and sells his sometimes hilarious, often wise and frequently provocative type-based designs. Brito’s career has seen him work for big-name companies including LinkedIn and Squarespace as a designer and engineer. Unlike Kennedy, his work is primarily digital-focused, though he still counts on “good old fashioned pen and paper” in his process. He made admirable steps (and a hell of a lot of positive Twitter commentary along the way) when late last year he introduced the “add to Slack” icon as a brown hand, as opposed to the ubiquitous fleshy pink color.

Amos Kennedy: At the moment I’m seeing a transition going on between the real world and the imaginary world–the real world being things you can touch and feel, and imaginary being the things you can think. There’s a trend in art schools to devalue traditional skills and craft and there’s an emphasis on 3d printing and weaving and stuff. I wanted to find out what your stance is on the need to retain older technology skills. Should art schools be doing that?

Diogenes Brito: I guess I would say that I’m not sure the focus should be on the technology at all, but what you’re trying to accomplish using the technology. In general the most interesting or effective way of teaching is through making a medium; I guess teaching by doing.

Art schools have a pretty intense focus on the skill itself, like typesetting or using Photoshop, but it should be on typography and layout and visual composition using anything. Photoshop is one of those tools and painting is, too. Maybe the answer is teaching multiple media, and learning what they have in common.

Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean by “imaginary worlds?”

Kennedy: I suppose more conceptual art, where you’re just sitting around playing with shit. I think conceptual art is mental masturbation.

Is that such a bad thing?

Kennedy: I prefer physical masturbation myself! Ha! My philosophy is that theory comes from practice, practice doesn’t come from theory. It’s through the actual making things that you learn.

What do you feel is the place of traditional crafts and art in the new world that’s being developed?

Brito: I think there’s probably a really good reason to spend at least some time with traditional craft as in most cases new tools are actually just more efficient ways of doing traditional craft, and they reference them. A painting program for instance tries to imitate real paint, so it’s worth leaning what’s being referenced or imitated. It’s a tricky one—it’s not going to give you a lot of mileage to go too deep in the traditions with a modern design workflow, but you need to know some of that back story.

Brito: How has your workflow changed since starting on a physical press? What do you think about today’s designers, who’ve started their careers as digital natives?

Kennedy: It changes because each time I am at the press, I have more experience to use the press. Through the doing, it is done. Experience allows the to experience more of the flow. Those designers are the future, a future that I can never experience. I am the past. They must relearn the lessons of the past while learning the lessons of the future.

Amos you used to be a computer programmer, why did you turn your back on that world?

Kennedy: I used to be a systems programmer, but it just wasn’t satisfying. I fell in love with printing so I just followed my bliss. Images made on a computer look lovely but they’re very stagnant. One of the things the digital realm does is it lacks the mark of a human maker, a line drawn on a computer is not the same as the gesture a person makes. When I was doing my degree I spent most of my time doing letterpress printing and book related work, building books, that sort of thing. Even though you can design books on InDesign, I don’t use any of that, I just use the press bed. Just the process of doing it, even if you do it not the way you intended to do, is a learning process.

Diogenes, you only graduated five years ago and you’ve worked for companies like LinkedIn, Squarespace, and now Slack. What project are you most proud of?

Brito: That’s hard because I’m always instantly dissatisfied with everything I do when I finish it. One thing is intangible though, the maintenance of the culture here at Slack. Since I’ve been here we’ve grown from 40 to 600 people and I’d like to think I’ve made a significant contribution to it not totally falling apart…and also the improvements to the way search works. It’s a lot of small, finnickety matching things that people won’t notice, but they’ll notice because it works, if you see what I mean.

Kennedy: How do you compensate for the lack of tactility in your design process? Hitting a keyboard or drawing on a light board is a very different experience to doing it by hand. How do you translate those nuances of creativity into the digital world?

Brito: I think as a creative in general there are always side projects involving the kind of physical work like letter pressing and cutting stuff up. Within the company although our stuff ends up on screens and is interacted with digitally, we do find ways of making it more real to people internally by drawing on boards, sketching, handing the sketches around and drawing on top of them.

What makes a company or client great to work for?

Brito: I think at first I was a little more concerned with “do [my employers] care about design?” and “I hope they respect my opinion as a designer.” I think that was a bad perspective, as I don’t think there was a good reason. It’s better to earn your place and prove you’re valuable. What’s important is how the team works together and that’s usually rooted in the values of the company and what the mission is. A lot of companies don’t have that or they just pay lip service to it. It’s about the company culture from the perspective of how people treat each other, how people communicate, and do they evaluate critically. Is there empathy and courtesy? Are people working together, instead of fiefdom or promoting their career and their own ends?

Kennedy: My clients have to say “that’s the guy they want.” They recognize that I want the best, and they want the best, too. It’s hard work. There needs to be a good relationship between a designer and a client, like planning a wedding or building a building: what does it have to do? How do you move through the space?

Brito: How has your perspective on being negro (vs. African American) shaped your work and life?

Kennedy: I am negro—a descendant of the enslaved peoples of the United States of America. It is my life. Remove this and I am not me but someone else.

How do you feel non-white designers are represented in the design world? How can more people of color be persuaded to go down design/tech routes?

Brito: The tech industry isn’t a partially welcoming place I think, for people of color. Many times it’s not about very overt things, it’s more a constant feeling of being out of place, and I think that affects a lot of different aspects of working in the tech industry in general. People who feel they don’t fit a certain archetype feel they don’t belong.

Kennedy: We are just not present. We don’t have exposure to the design world in our youth. There’s an intellectual wealth that was denied previous generations of blacks that put us at a disadvantage–we couldn’t become designers. The only reason I was a graphic design major was because I wanted to build books.

Brito: So there’s a cycle where you’re like “I want to be a designer,” and you say “who are designers?” You see one kind of person and think “I’m not like that.” You think maybe it’s not for me. You need to be able to imagine yourself as that person or in that position so the fact there aren’t many people of color means people won’t see them.

How do you think those things can be changed?

Kennedy: What could innovate is that the design world needs to recognise that they are not the ultimate arbitrator of design. If agencies wanted to include people, they would. I think they’re uncomfortable with diversity. It’s hard to accept people that you’ve been told aren’t your equal. Not every designer is going to be Paul Rand, but why do I have to be one? Why can’t I be a journeyman, and just good at my job like most graphic designers?

Brito: What’s not been a part of the conversations is the how to have these difficult conversations. They’re uncomfortable for everyone involved, and there’s no shortcut; you have to get in there and get messy and make mistakes and noone’s willing to do that if their character’s on the line. Things are improving but not at the rate people are talking about it, because we’re not talking about specifics.

It’s nice to be with a bunch of different people but one big thing is we’re designing for a big range of people. You want people from the population in general doing design for that population. Things work best when you are designing for yourself, which means you need a bunch of different “selves” to do it well in a group. The best work comes from the kind of conflict that comes up from very different people with different opinions striving towards the same goal.

Don’t miss Amos Kennedy and Diogenes Brito on the mainstage.
Illustration by Oscar Bolton Green