L.A. based studio Sing-Sing on set

This article is excerpted from our very first Eye on Design magazine. Themed “Invisible,” issue number 1 covers stories that reveal the code, data, and grids lurking behind our designed interfaces, and explore intangible subjects like mental health, identity, and representation. Purchase a copy here

Every day, across the world’s design agencies, the big wheels of lofty design-thought keep a-turnin’; cogs oiled apparently by little more than speedy Wi-Fi, a shit ton of Post-it notes, witty/earnest Slack chats, and an Adobe CC subscription. But what really runs the design industry? It isn’t “life hacks,” or bulletproof coffee, or the nootropics that tech blogs would have us believe Silicon Valley bros are popping like breath mints, or even nice shiny Macs. Like stagehands, dressed in black, discreetly dashing around behind the curtain to change the set, the people we don’t see are the ones who make sure the big-name, blog post–writing, conference-gracing design folk get through the day.

The New Yorker’s creative director Nicholas Blechman recently spoke about the publication’s long-serving and indispensable mailroom guy, Bruce; how his work (and, often, design opinions) is a quiet yet invaluable tour de force. It got us thinking: let’s bring these people out from the shadows, the mailrooms, the workshops. Sadly, we couldn’t chat with Bruce—“He is more comfortable existing invisibly, behind the scenes,” Blechman said. But we did track down some of the other delightful design industry cogs—in the shapes of a masseur, a set designer and builder, and a famed Pentagram chef—by asking three designers to nominate a behind-the-scenes person they couldn’t do without. Then we sent them a Fujifilm disposable 35mm camera with a flash, along with some very loose photo-taking instructions, and asked them to document their person and their person’s work station and ship back the film.

So, this one’s for you, mail-folk, HR dwellers, best boys, recycling sorters, personal trainers. This is your time in the sun—go ahead and bask.

Adi Goodrich, co-founder at Sing-Sing

Adi Goodrich of Sing-Sing, a design and photography studio in L.A.

“It’s so important to mention the set builders and everyone else who works on a project, and not many people actually talk about them.

“For a long time Dustin worked only with me; he’s my main guy. Now I sometimes have to work with other people since he’s getting work with other creatives and it’s a real bummer, as we do have a language that no one else understands. He knows instinctively how I want things to be built, as well as personal things like the space I need when we’re working. We’re both very Chicago. There’s a specific kind of person—a really straightforward person, a no-bullshit person. We have to work really, really fast. I have to devise these sets and hand over half-done drawings that make sense only to Dustin. Working like that, my coworkers need to be my breed of human. He’s a little wild sometimes, but that’s necessary.

“When I first started working with Dustin, I was doing only set design. Now I also work with Sean [Pecknold], my partner, and we do photography and set design. Dustin’s gone through that career change with us.

“I’m always super anxious, but Dustin’s attitude is always ‘don’t worry.’ He never seems to get stressed. He always knows we’re going to be able to pull it off; he’s got it figured out. I don’t know how he does it. It’s like a dad vibe where you know he’s gonna take care of you. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he’s got it.”

Dustin RueggerArt director, production designer, and set builder

Dustin Ruegger. Photo by Adi Goodrich.

“I’ve been working with Adi for four years or so here in L.A.; before that I was making fine art projects here and there and doing sign painting. Adi hooked me up with a gig and it worked out really well—I quit my other job within a month of working with her.

“Adi respects me and trusts that I know whether something’s physically possible or not. With a lot of projects there’s a huge array of materials and repurposing of things, so I have to be creative about our approach, and I like that challenge. I’m kind of a set builder, but the sets we do are different. They don’t function as reality; I’m not building the interior of a kitchen or something, I’m making a weird environment that doesn’t have a right or wrong, so Adi’s open to feeling that out throughout the project.

“All the stuff we do is really graphic, and fun to play and be in. It’s work, for sure, but it leaves everybody with a good taste in their mouths. We try not to do much stuff in post; we’re still trying to deal with the tangible world. That’s the sort of thing I want to do: figure out problems with my hands. I need to do physical things in my work, and the tactile quality is important to me.

“I come from a fine arts background where I am the creator, but for 10 years I was doing sign work for big corporations. I’d spend two weeks on a thing that would be slapped on billboards for companies like Walgreens, so it’s cool to be able to point at things like that when you’re driving along the highway and say, ‘I made that.’ Now it’s more about a person-to-person exchange. Working with Adi, it’s my job to take people’s cartoons and render them in the real world. That’s where I want to be, and that’s kinda cool whether or not my name is on it, and hopefully I get compensated when I need to be. I don’t work for free; my paycheck is usually pretty good.

Billboard by Dustin Ruegger

“It’s strange, the thing I care about more than being invisible is when people don’t understand what I actually do. People say I’m just a builder dude, but if I were just a builder dude that would mean I can’t communicate between a designer and a person who is a builder dude: I have to be able to do a little bit of all those things. I’m happy to be part of it simply because if I was to make something solely mine it would be so much weirder.

“With the sorts of projects we take on, it takes a village to do the thing. It’s important to rely on one another for our strengths and recognize our weaknesses. It’s about being able to communicate.”

Marianna Paszkowska, font engineer at FontShop by Monotype

Marianna Paszkowska at Monotype in Berlin

“I’ve been at Monotype for just over a year, so I’m still quite a fresh addition to the team, but I’ve been visiting Thomas, our masseur, since the beginning. When I joined the company, and heard there was the possibility of getting a massage, I got excited that a healthy and balanced lifestyle is part of the working culture here.

“As soon as I joined, my colleagues said, ‘You have to go to Thomas, he’s amazing.’ And he is. He uses the best organic oils, and he’s started making his own. He is also creative; he reads the body very well and does something different every time you go and see him. I’ve gone through several heartbreaks since I’ve lived in Berlin, and we can always talk about those things: he’s an amazing person to open up to. Maybe it’s just me but I have a sneaky feeling that from all the years he’s worked with us he knows more about the company than anyone else.  

“It’s wonderful to have that sort of break in the working day. We have a massage room in the office, and that’s where Thomas prepares the oils and hot stones and all the necessaries. He also helps guide us on things like the best positions to sit in. When you’re a font engineer, you spend a lot of time at your desk and you’re not always aware of how you sit. It’s very important to me when he advises me about what exercises to do after work, or motivates me to practice yoga; I have a tendency to slouch.

“Thomas believes we should take care of not only our bodies, but also our minds and spirits. On another occasion, he said he had a gift for me and asked me to choose from three bottles of scent. The one I chose, he said, was perfect if I was going on a date the next night, which I was. He was like a Shaman. I don’t usually believe in those things, but he has my trust: I sprayed the mist. It worked.

“Thomas works in half-hour sessions, and you have to sign up on a list. You pay, but it’s much cheaper than a normal massage. It happens during office time, but we have flexible hours.

“My work is quite technical, and it’s easier to focus when your back isn’t hurting. I’ve always had problems with my back, and the tips Thomas gives me really help me to adjust my position. I like to go to him if I have a challenging week, especially when I am giving a talk, as I get crazy stressed out every time. It calms me down and helps me collect my thoughts.”

Thomas Zetzmann, masseur at Monotype’s Berlin office

Thomas Zetzmann. Thomas isn’t in Berlin right now—he’s enjoying summer season in Peru. Here he is at Machu Picchu.

“I’ve worked with Monotype for almost 20 years, but I’ve been doing massage for almost 30 years now. I was swimming and there was someone on my team who was working at Monotype and said they were looking for a masseur; they just wanted to offer something good for their employees. Obviously the firms also know that after a massage people have more energy, and so they work better.

“The best thing about massage is that it balances your body. If you need energy, it gives you energy; if you need to be calm, it calms you. It works on every level—massage always gives you what you need.

“People tell me a lot of things; I think because during a massage you’re very close to a person in a physical way, you also get close in a psychological way. I know a lot of things about my clients that I imagine even their lawyers or wives don’t know. I come from a background as an Ayurveda therapist (a system of alternative medicine with Indian historical roots), so that informs my ability to look at a person and know what they need. For instance, during a massage some people need to be pushed, others need to relax, so I try to take from them what’s too much and give them what they need.

Marianna back in Berlin

“With Ayurvedic medicine you learn to treat different body types: some people always have cold hands, so they need warmth; others always have heat, so you have to work more with cold.

“Designers don’t really have a particular body type, but I have noticed they very often have the same sense of style. You see the way they dress, and you know they’re creative or have something to do with the arts. You can feel it. Of course, they wear a lot of black. And you notice at conferences they’ll have the same style of bag and things. Their hairstyles are often similar—something a little bit different, but nothing too crazy.

“Now I’m at a level where I’m never really surprised by what people tell me. Some people tell you things and others don’t, and that’s also to do with body type—I can get a good idea of someone’s personality by looking at their body. Some people hold things in, so I have to make them comfortable enough to relax. If I feel there’s tension I say, ‘this is your time off, it’s my responsibility, you can let things go now.’ Sometimes I have to repeat that every five minutes during the massage: Maybe after two minutes I feel the tension come back and sense that their mind is working, that they’re thinking about the last task they were working on. So I have to help them feel like they can let go.”

Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram

Michael Bierut. Photo by Anne Ferril, chef at Pentagram New York.

“Anne’s not just a background person, she’s an absolute star. Every single person who’s worked here for the last almost three decades has known her. She’s energetic, chatty, warm, personable—she’s a flat out wonderful person.

“I think the tradition of having a chef at Pentagram started in London. There’s some practical reasons, and some cultural reasons, too.

“Even though we all sit in an open-plan office, our teams often don’t get time to spend time with one another because of our structure: each partner has a group that functions autonomously. The lunch period provides a chance for everyone to sit side by side. In a lot of companies, that’s usually reserved for special occasions, or as a once-a-year holiday thing, but we do it three days a week.

“Anne has to feed more than 100 people, and the food is ambitious. Here, we’ll get a hot entree with vegetarian and meat options, multiple side dishes, different breads, exotic cheeses, amazing fruit—it’s really well considered, Anne takes it really seriously. Occasionally I’m out of the office over lunchtime and I’ll say, ‘can you make three plates?’ and when she plates the food, it looks like it’s ready for Instagram.

“If you visit Anne when she’s cooking and start idly gossiping, without the blink of an eye she’ll be able to keep up and say funny things. She won’t ever say, “Get outta here, can’t you see I’m making lunch!” She’s so welcoming. People will sometimes go in and help—maybe a couple of designers or staff will be cutting vegetables just for the fun of it in the hour running up to lunch, and Anne’s able to do it all with inexhaustible good cheer.

“In my 27 years here, I’ve probably had 100 people move through my team, but if I bring someone in at lunchtime, whether they left in 1996 or 2011, they’ll recognize Anne. And the astonishing thing is that she’ll know them by name; it’s amazing.

Anne Ferril. Photo by Michael Bierut.

“We’ve just moved from the office we were in for 22 years, and in all that time Anne was doing all this out of a tiny, cramped kitchen. It’s just shocking what she was able to do in this tiny space. In our new office, we’re building out a proper kitchen fitted with professional equipment.

“The smell of Anne cooking is the beautiful heart of the office. It’s an invitation for everyone to come together. Too often in American businesses it’s seen as a kind of badge of honor when you don’t have time for lunch. You eat at your desk with one hand, and I’m sure in the long run that’s counterproductive. Sit down and spend a nice 45 minutes or half hour with people you know and like, and just share a meal with them. Anne orchestrates that every day, and that’s a miracle.”

Anne Ferril, Chef at Pentagram New York

Anne Ferril. Photo by Michael Bierut.

“I’ve been at Pentagram for 34 years, so I’m the longest serving member of staff. It’s the perfect partnership for a creative person, because no one really tells me what to do. They just give me the space to create something lovely, and it’s so rewarding. That’s why I’ve been there so long—it’s like dancing with a wonderful dance partner. The people I feed here are very open to trying new things, and they’re a captive audience. I really respect that and I try to give them as much variety as I can, but within that I keep it simple: they just have one choice, it’s not like a buffet, so I try to give them something of great value that’s pleasing to a lot of people. It’s crowd-pleasing food that’s diverse. That’s my challenge and that’s my fun.

“I often start the day not knowing what I’m going to make. I’ll walk to the market, see what’s there, and do an inventory for myself: ‘What would I like to eat? Which clients are coming in?’ I go to a nearby market called Garden of Eden; it’s a small store, and I like that it’s independently owned. Mostly what I make depends on what’s seasonal, the weather, and any special considerations with clients; if someone is gluten free I’ll maybe substitute with quinoa.

“For years the favorite meal was chilli—I make a really good chilli. It’s like a restaurant when a chef can’t ever take something off the menu. Any pasta dish is good, too, they love soup, and I do a special kind of salad niçoise. What I try to do is make fresh, healthy things with lots of vegetables. I don’t make health food, but I make healthy food so that people have enough energy to do good work.

“People do talk to me a lot, absolutely, and I think that’s a special part of the job because I’m slightly removed from the overall office. Being a chef, there are aspects of the job that are a bit like being a mother and offering that kind of emotional support. I’ll give people advice, but mostly it’s just listening, and that’s an important component, being the office mom, in a way.

“At Pentagram, they give me the kind of freedom they give their designers. They respect and trust me, and that’s a nice feeling, and it’s quite unusual, I think. The staff don’t pay for their lunch, and I hope that what I make for them is a high-quality meal.

“What’s my favorite meal to cook? That’s like asking a painter what their favorite color is! I like feeding people and making people happy, that’s why I do this. Making the positive energy that helps people create is really a joy.”