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.

Tracy Ma and David Heasty have become comfortable in the media spotlight over the course of their design careers; the former as part of Richard Turley’s much lauded design team at Bloomberg Businessweek, whose creative exploits took on near mythic proportions over his short tenure, and the latter while sharing the helm of his studio, Triboro, whose DIY work for Nike NYC dominated design blogs, Tumblr sites, and social feeds in late 2014. Both advocate a hands-on approach to design and prefer cut-and paste, painting, drawing, and other “craft” processes over more traditional layout and digital type, creating design that feels more engaging and bespoke as a result.

Now Ma has moved on to head up the creative direction of Matter Studios, with which she hopes to foster the same creative atmosphere she enjoyed under Turley, while Heasty and Triboro continue full-steam, creating compelling work for clients as diverse as Adobe, Ai Weiwei, Blonde Redhead, and GQ. Here they talk about how their education still informs their work, the value of craft, and how the modern design scene reminds them of Hollywood’s golden age.

David Heasty: I studied at Penn State and had a pretty good professor who I learned a lot from. I had a terrible computer in like the latish ’90s and a really bad printer, so I was mostly using a copy machine and a really amazing darkroom. I would go in the darkroom and compose all my layouts by projecting imagery and then scratching type out of the image or putting it on clear acetate and projecting it, then overlaying everything. I started out as a painter when I was younger, but it kind of carried through into my early design education because I was I working in the darkroom and doing it all by hand. It was during the David Carson days, so a lot of that actually seemed good—this messiness and spilling things on stuff.

Tracy Ma: That’s cool. I hired David Carson for a while at Businessweek.

Heasty: Was he good to work with?

Ma: He was fun to work with but he drove me crazy. I certainly enjoyed him. There was a story about Kelly Slater’s artificial wave.

Heasty: He was my hero there for a while… my professor was hands-on in a different way. He was cutting and pasting and doing things as more of an illustrator. Later I worked with Alexander Gelman, and he was very much the opposite in terms of being a reductionist and very vector-y. This kind of mashup has come together in our studio in that we kind of go whichever way we feel makes the most sense. So if it’s about being clean and it makes sense for the project, we’ll go that way. But if it’s something where we feel like we can go visceral and make something messy, then we’ll relish that opportunity.

Ma: I didn’t have an education. The teachers weren’t really sending me into the right places; it was uninteresting to me to make a fake poster for a fake event, which is the way design education unfolds at a college level. I was trying to do things in a way that satisfied me, and the only thing I knew was to work with my hands, which I did a lot of in high school—I went to an art school. In many ways it was a better place for expression than design school, so I was kind of rebelling against that, against college.

It wasn’t until I got hired at Businessweek by Richard Turley that I learned you could pour your soul into something professionally. It just wasn’t possible before.

Heasty: I think the Bloomberg stuff really stood out. I don’t know if you had other experiences at other New York magazines, Tracy, but I think you probably fell into this really perfect moment there where they seemed to give you guys a lot of freedom. The stuff that was coming out just seemed so different than the kind of typical magazine world in New York at that time.

Ma: It was definitely a moment when people started to not pay any attention to print, but other magazines didn’t realize that. It took a long time to go digital-first, and they were all still very much held up by the prestige of the magazine. At Businessweek we knew that was happening, so we were able to take a lot more risks within the printed pages.

Heasty: I think with your first job it’s about timing. At the time I didn’t appreciate how great a job I had, but then after I was there for a while, I realized, my god, this is like the coolest job that I could have, it just kind of fit me. It was a really small studio and I was working directly with Alexander Gelman, who was very inspiring. Because we were just a few people I had so much responsibility to handle projects straight out of school. He was also very generous with not only teaching new things, but introducing me to people in the community.

I remember the time when there weren’t the blogs out there, or they were just kind of coming out, so the idea of being able to spread your message and your work so quickly to so many people just didn’t work. You had these design magazines and if they had never heard of you, then how could you ever possibly get your stuff in them? Why would they talk about you? Now blogs and websites just digest all that, get it out there, and somebody who’s right out of school can make a big mark. It’s great.

Ma: For me it was just luck. The sheer force of printing 1 million copies of something and having it everywhere in the world, that’s just kind of like attention by force. In college, there was one cool site for design, which was Manystuff, and now it seems like that kind of niche thing is everywhere. I think the wave of using Circular font for every logo is a descendant of a lot of the stuff Manystuff was posting. I don’t remember what that was an alternative for, but I remember there was a very Dutch, minimal aesthetic and I can’t really picture what the world looked like before then. What did the world look like in 2009 or 2010?

Heasty: I don’t want to make myself sound really old, but I feel like after you’ve been in the design industry for a little while you see these trends, and once you’ve gone through several of them you can kind of trace it back. It’s funny because in a time when we think that design is so eclectic, the mainstream has become so bland and boring. You know the Circular type phase has kind of taken over.

Ma: Yeah, it’s certainly interesting how that has become so uncool to my eyes. It was the hugest thing when The Gentlewoman came out. A lot of my contemporaries would still design in that beautiful way, but I just was never able to. I think I just never learned the true craft of Dutch typography, but I appreciate it a lot, and when it’s done well it’s absolutely beautiful. But go out and fight it, is what I’m trying to say.

I was recently watching a documentary that featured Scorsese, and it talked about how he started out during the golden age of Hollywood. There was this time when all the movie studios just gave Spielberg, Lucas, and him all the stuff to make these movies with very little control, which is kind of what we are experiencing now in terms of design. I found that parallel really fascinating. It was a good time for that kind of freedom.

Heasty: I’ve seen another movie that was based on a similar thing. Spielberg was talking about making these really low-budget movies, and he said there were two types of people that were coming out of film school. There were the guys and gals who were waiting for that perfect project to come along and said “no” to all these really shitty, low-budget scripts because they wanted to do the right thing. And then there were people like Scorsese and Spielberg who took what they were given and did something as good as they could with it, and that lead to something better, and something better, and something better.

It’s the same if you’re coming out of school; you get a job, and even if it’s not the best job, you do the best you can and it might lead to something really great, or a great opportunity with some other company. It’s all about your mentality and your positive ability to transform whatever it is you’re doing into something good.

Catch Tracy Ma at the In-house Symposium and David Heasty at the Craft Symposium.
Illustration by Oscar Bolton Green