As we prepare for the inaugural AIGA Eye on Design Conference, we meet some of our esteemed speakers to find out more about them, their work, and what you can expect from them on the big day.
Hamish Smyth’s enviable CV includes a long stint on Michael Bierut’s team at the New York office of Pentagram from 2010 to 2016. In 2015, he became an associate partner. You may also know him from his work with Standards Manual, an independent publishing imprint focused on the preserving graphic design history, which he co-founded in 2014 with partner (and fellow former Pentagram designer) Jesse Reed. Earlier this year Smyth and Reed founded NYC consultancy Order.
As the co-founder of Order and Standards Manual, and previously as an associate at Pentagram, you’re an entrepreneur and businessman as much as you are a designer. Would you say the two roles share many of the same qualities, or does it feel like you’re wearing two very different hats?
I don’t feel like I’m wearing two different hats, more like one giant hat that has taken some practice to pull off. I think entrepreneurism and business skills are, sadly, one of the biggest areas lacking in design education today. Schools are doing a good job in training skilled designers, but many graduates find themselves lost when it comes to starting, running, and promoting a business. The “running” part gets very complex, and in design a large part of that is working with clients, presenting your work, and convincing them to accept it.
I was so lucky to learn the business stuff from one of the masters, Michael Bierut. Many people don’t realize that while he’s an enviable creative force, his real superpower is convincing a room full of cynical suits that it’s okay to think about fonts and colors, and it’s actually worth spending money on a design.
What would you say has been the most rewarding project thus far for you?
The most rewarding project I’ve worked on was also one of the simplest. In 2012 Michael Bierut, Tracey Cameron, and I were working with the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) designing the WalkNYC pedestrian wayfinding system (my second favorite job). During that time, DOT was introducing some new rules around traffic parking, and they asked if we could take a look at the layout of the parking signs.
We ended up making some small changes that, we think, have had a big impact. First we flipped the designation of days and times. Previously it would say No Parking, 10am–4pm, Monday–Friday. We changed that to say No Parking, Monday–Friday, 10am–4pm. It made more sense to say the name first.
Second, we introduced big numbers designating how many hours you could park. It used to be buried really small in the text. This really helped people get a quick read of the sign as they craned their necks in their cars (and a faster read of the sign means less time with their eyes off the road).
Third, we added icons for things like taxi ranks, truck, ambulance, and press parking. Same with above, faster read.
Fourth, we left-aligned everything. All the text was centered before, and it’s a well established idea that it’s easier to read text that’s left aligned.
Last, we standardized the heights of the signs, with none being taller than 48”. The old signs could get much taller, so we saved them money on material and fabrication costs.
We had to leave a lot of stuff the same, like the colors and fonts (as dictated by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices), but even these small changes made an impact. DOT user studies concluded that the new signs were, in fact, a lot easier to read.
The coolest thing is that there are now hundreds of thousands of the new signs installed. We can’t go anywhere in NYC without seeing our work. I also love seeing them on TV and in movies!
You’ve worked alongside your partner Jesse Reed since your Pentagram days. What do you believe is the role of partnership and collaboration in the design process? Any tips for friends who also work together?
Jesse and I have adopted a similar model to Pentagram. Michael would assign his designer a job, and we rarely collaborated with others on the team in an official capacity, but we’d always be bouncing ideas and asking others for feedback. So far that same approach has worked well for us at Order.
Tips for people working with a partner? Find someone that is not too similar to yourself. You need the differences to create friction, and that’s where the debate and good ideas flow out of.