Nearly every Thursday, the studio Wkshps gathers for a workshop. The ten employees huddle in the conference room of their space in downtown New York City, and hold a round-table of sorts, minus the round table. Topics vary: From deconstructing the design references in Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View to brainstorming images for a client presentation to learning how to maintain inbox zero. “It’s a mix of the practical and the utopian,” says Prem Krishnamurthy, who co-founded Wkshps with fellow designer Chris Wu.
Before starting Wkshps, Krishnamurthy and Wu worked together for more than 10 years at Project Projects, the studio Krishnamurthy founded with his former colleague Adam Michaels. Last year, Project Projects splintered; Krishnamurthy and Wu started Wkshps in NYC, while Michaels and Shannon Harvey opened a new studio in Los Angeles called IN-FO.CO.
The split, which both parties diplomatically describe as creatively necessary and completely amicable (sorry, no gossip here), allowed the designers to focus on building smaller studios, which would reduce the mounting bureaucratic and monetary pressures that come with an expanding business like Project Projects. But more importantly, the split meant that, after 14 years as partners, they could explore new ways of working and designing.
A fresh start is sometimes rooted in the material—a new space, a new team, a new city—but more often it’s conceptual. For Krishnamurthy and Wu, Wkshps was chance to shed some of the rigidity they’d developed during their time as Project Projects. Not much changed, tangibly. They’re still in the same office space as Project Projects, and their current team is comprised of designers who came from the former studio. They work with a lot of the same art and museum clients Project Projects was known for, though they’re also expanding outside of the cultural arena with identity work for the hotel chain Eaton Workshop and the website Bklyner.
The real change, Krishnamurthy says, is about how they approach their work. “A lot of the shift comes down to different working methodologies and also the changing nature of design,” he says. “We’re now focused on larger, complex, multi-part projects that include graphic design’s traditional media like books and publishing, but that go further to think about the holistic idea of ‘identity.’”
Wu and Krishnamurthy don’t approach identity as designing a logo and slapping it on stationary and a website. Ideally, they say, an identity starts more organically. Last year, Wkshps designed a book for the New Museum’s 40th anniversary. The word “NEW” slants across the cover in a shimmering, holographic foil, as a reference to a window installation the artist Jeff Koons made for the museum in 1980. Soon the wordmark, which wasn’t designed as a logo, started popping up on museum badges, staff shirts, and in email blasts. “It basically had a second life,” Krishnamurthy says.
They couldn’t have predicted how the design would be used, and they wouldn’t have wanted to. More than anything, Wkshps seems to be a lesson in relinquishing control over every little detail, as evidenced by the name of the studio itself. “We used to be more precious about our designs,” Wu says. Before the studio opened, Wu and Krishnamurthy held a workshop to workshop their name. “Almost everyone wanted it spelled out,” Wu recalls. They decided to go with the Silicon Valley-esque Wkshps because it railed against expectations and ultimately lent the studio more graphic flexibility.
If you look at the website, Wkshps doesn’t have a logo—instead it’s a gif of rotating typefaces that create a glitchy typographic blur. In a shocking twist of events, the first line of text on the site has an indent (no big deal until you ask a modernist to rationalize it). “I don’t think we would’ve done that in the past because it wasn’t proper,” Krishnamurthy says. “But also, we can change it tomorrow.”
Wu and Krishnamurthy credit the workshops with breaking their aesthetic rigidity. It’s a chance for them to hear other perspectives. To learn, or rather relearn, that there’s not a single best way to design something. “Who wants to die in their own system?” Krishnamurthy says. In that way, Wkshps was a personal reset button. It was an opportunity to design a studio that’s transparent and collaborative—two terms often thrown around as markers of designer wokeness.
Buzzwords aside, the goal is to ensure everyone on the team knows as much about a project’s bottom line as they do about its typography. “There’s rarely a set hierarchy between team members,” Wu says. All general inquiries about new work go to the entire studio. The expectation is that all designers—not just business managers and project leads—know how to scope and price a project. “Everyone at the studio knows what we bill for every project,” Krishnamurthy says. “That might seem minor, but I’ve always worked in graphic design studios were you’re kind of in the dark about the big picture.”
Granted, not everyone cares about the big picture. For some people, perfecting pixels and executing aesthetic minutiae is what makes graphic design graphic design. But Krishnamurthy and Wu believe full transparency creates a sense of communal buy-in that’s sometimes hard to achieve with project-oriented work. It gives all ideas the same foundation to work off of, which makes the entire design process more egalitarian.
Ceding control can be kryptonite to designers, who often have a natural tendency to want things just so. But Krishnamurthy and Wu seemed to be relieved with the new set-up. “For a long time we were perfectionists,” Krishnamurthy says. “There’s something to be said for that, but it’s also exhausting.”