Tsilli Pines is an talented designer and teacher, host of Creative Mornings Portland, co-director of Design Week Portland, and more.

The Interview

Hi Tsilli.
How are you?
I’m well.
Thanks for coming down today.
I’m very happy to be here.
To get started why don’t you tell me about your name? Where does your name come from?
My name is Hebrew. I’m Israeli. I moved to the States with my family when I was six-years-old. They had not anticipated that English speaking people would need to say my name so they didn’t really take that into account when they were naming me. Yeah, actually even in Israel it’s not the most common name.
Is it a family name?
It is.
It was my grandmother’s name. It’s also kind of an obscure biblical name. It’s in the begat section of the Bible where such and such begat such and such.
Just where they’re name dropping?
Yeah, totally a name dropping section. I had no idea about that until a couple years ago and someone pointed it out to me.
Interesting. I wonder if we searched your name on Google if you’d come up first.
Pretty much.
Yeah, it’s me and a couple other people but they’re all imitators.
Right, right.
I’m the original.
Original and best.
Of course.
How did you … You came to the States when you were still pretty young. How did you get interested in graphic design or the creative profession? What was your first spark?

You know I had no idea that graphic design existed. I feel like that’s kind of a story of a lot of people Gen X and prior where now you almost can’t grow up without an awareness of design as a practice of some kind. I’m just so impressed by how younger, and younger, and younger people are interested in it when I had absolutely no idea that these things were designed by a person, didn’t occur to me. In retrospect you look back and go, “Oh”. I spent a lot more time on the cover of my book report than on the book report when I was in junior high.

I guess I was pretty drawn to the visual exploration of the subject more so than reporting back on it. Yeah, I, much like a lot of my contemporaries, it was the rise of the internet that kind of got me in the door. When I finished college I started looking for any job that would have me as a social science major, like how does this apply to the real world. Oh, it doesn’t.

I just took a job with a content provider for AOL at the time and was doing production and stuff. I realized through doing that that somebody was actually designing stuff that I was coding. I was like, “I want to be on that side of things. I don’t want to be just making other people’s designs happen.” I went back to school and went to Parsons for really just a year. I already had a degree so I wasn’t really in it for the degree. I was like, I need to learn some basic typography, layout, and all that good stuff that they teach at respectable design schools. At the time there was such a gold rush going on with the dot com boom that it was really easy to get a job.

All I needed to do really was get to the point where I could get a basic portfolio together, and then I got snapped right up. It was such a different landscape then than it is now. I just jumped right off into a job and learned a ton on the job. I learned a lot more working than in school. That was pretty much a better scenario of getting paid to learn instead of paying to learn. I left before I finished my degree because I was just like, “Well, this is my goal was to work and I’m working, I’m building out my portfolio, and who needs anything more than that?” Yeah, that was my very long winded answer.
Okay. You’re still in New York at this point?
Yeah. I was in New York for Parsons. I had moved there for school, was there for a year, and then for two years I was working for a company that was actually a subsidiary of a Canadian record label. We were doing tons of music, web stuff that was not necessarily tied to the label. We had a huge client in BMG Music and we were doing all the artist’s sites for them. One of our better known, large scale projects was one iteration of David Bowie’s Bowie Net web presence. I was there during that time which was really exciting and fun. Then after three years in New York I’m getting on into my late twenties. I realized I either need to make a lot of money to stay here or you’re just going to be hustling for the rest of your life. I was ready to come back to the west coast so I moved back to San Francisco.
Okay. How long was it between when you went to San Francisco and when you went to Portland.
I grew up in Berkley, went to school in L.A., came back to San Francisco for a number of years before New York, and then I was in San Francisco for five years after my stint in New York. My husband and I visited a friend of ours that had moved to Portland just for giggles. We’ve never been to Oregon, let’s take a road trip and go through all the awesome tourist spots, Crater Lake, and what-not, and spend a little bit of time hanging out in Portland with our friend, and go back home. No designs for anything. By the end of our time here we had been sucked in. We were like, “Oh my God, it’s really nice. Hey, you can buy a house here.” That’s unheard of in the Bay area. At the time we were like, “Oh, we’re going to be renting forever.” It took us a couple years to engineer a move up here but we did and we’ve been here since 2006.
Okay. It seems like you got comfortable pretty quickly and then started getting involved in events and stuff like that. How did you find the community in Portland, and how hard was it to get involved in all of the events that you work with?
Well, you know, I, for most of my work life, was very heads down and not very involved in community events, well-networked, or anything. It was just like, I’m doing the work. I’ve been working with the same studio for twelve years now I think. Yeah, this is going to be twelve years. It was just like I’m heads down on my project. I started doing some of my own side projects and just trying to vary up what I was doing in general. I felt like I’m pretty bad at getting involved in things in any way other than being responsible for some piece of them, making them happen, and having to show up somewhere, and have to answer to a set of responsibilities. I knew that in order to get involved with the community I would have to produce something or contribute in some way.

My friend John was running the Creative Mornings chapter in Los Angeles. Like everyone else I was watching all the videos that were coming out of New York, L.A., San Francisco, and all those early cities. Loved the videos but had never been to an event. He came to visit and was telling me about the experience of organizing and what it’s like at the actual event with people coming back every month and the good vibes. I was like, “Wow, that sounds awesome. Why isn’t there a chapter in Portland?” At the time there was no formal process for becoming a chapter of Creative Mornings. It was sort of early on in the ramp up. I just pitched through my friend and said, “Let me see if I can pull something together.” I had no business doing this because I didn’t know anybody, I was really poorly connected. It was totally brazen. I just figured if I have a connection to Creative Mornings then people will at least know what that is and have a reason to talk to me.
They’ll have to talk to you.
They’ll have to deal with me! Yeah, I just decided that was what I was going to do. They took me on mostly because my friend John is really close with them and they trusted him.
Right, right.
To their peril. I started going around and seeing what other design events were going on at the time and making sure to meet all the people that were organizing those events because Portland is not New York, you want to make sure that you’re not booking the same person for multiple events at the same time. I was kissing rings around town. That’s how I met Eric Hillerns who, at the time, was running Design Speaks. We just struck up a friendship, and there were so many cool things happening around town, all the stuff that Kate Bingaman-Burt was doing at PSU, and Yvonne Emerson Paris had started up. We make, and we just knew all these cool people doing cool things. Eric has been in Portland for much longer than I have so he’s seen some attempts at Design Week happen in the past but they were a lot more top down efforts where it was we’ll get the city involved. Those things take forever because bureaucracy. All the good intentions in the world can’t really move that boulder uphill.

We were just looking at it and going, “Hey, we know enough people that are doing stuff already, let’s just tell everybody to aim their events at one week in October and we’ll call it Design Week.” It was this funny thing that we were like, “There’s maybe going to be ten events and we’ll call it Design Week, and it’s totally cheeky. We’ll do it and put a stake in the ground and see if anything happens.” It just snowballed, it was amazing because getting all those ten initial events together and all the amazing people that organized them around the table well, they knew other people that were interested in instigating some kind of content or whatever. By the time the first Design Week rolled around it was forty plus events, sixty plus open houses, and we organized that by the seat of our pants in five months.

The response was so great that we thought there’s something here. Clearly … We didn’t even realize that we would need to have any central organization for it. We just thought we’re all running events so it’s a collective, and very quickly it became clear there’s a need for Design Week to be an entity of some kind that pulls in a lot of great stuff. Last year was very much about that, about building the infrastructure that you need to sustainably run a festival every year. Yeah, it was a one thing leads to the next kind of experience of getting involved in the community.
It seems like a theme here with both of these, both Creative Mornings and Design Week is that you recognize that there is an underserved need for a central point for the design community to rally around in Portland and choose good vehicles for doing that. Creative Morning was like you say, I definitely was watching the videos and I was like, “Oh, wait a minute. It’s in Portland? That’s exciting.” Same with Design Week, it seemed very informal and then by the time when I heard about it and it finally rolled around I was like, “Oh, this is kind of pro. This is awesome.”

Yeah man. Oh, that’s nice to hear. Yeah, I think that people don’t take things seriously until they see the there there. It was interesting the first year we had this crazy period of a month before Design Week actually started where once we had launched the website people realized they’re really doing this. They’re not just talking about doing it. They’re really doing it. They’re going to make this happen. We had all these people get on the bus right at the last minute because it was really energizing to see something actually taking shape than people just being like, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” You can talk and talk and there are a lot of great ideas for how to do this stuff but executing it is an entirely different thing. When people see that people are on the ground getting stuff done then they’re so excited to join the effort.
Why do you think the whole concept of, and maybe you can’t speak to this because you’re just the Portland chapter and you just work the Portland chapter, but why do you think Creative Mornings as a whole took off like it did? I think it just maybe snowballed. It’s a whole chapter now.
It definitely did. Yeah, it’s crazy and wonderful. It’s kind of viral in its way. I think that it’s really hard in the same way that it’s hard to quantify what makes content go viral. I think it’s hard to say why certain events, ideas, or whatever strike a nerve but I can see that some of the ingredients are prerequisites for it having become as popular as it is. That includes the fact that it’s free. Oddly the fact that it’s in the morning I think has to do with it in terms of the live events because A, you’re not competing with other events, B, people can do it and then just go about their day so it’s not competing with their plans after work, and C, it’s just feels like a low commitment thing. Being like, “Oh, I’ll just drop by.” It’s real casual and it has that vibe. I think people also really sense the fact that it’s all run on hustle and smiles. That it’s just good people with good intentions doing something for absolutely no reason other than that it’s great to do it.

I think that’s part of it, just that it provides a space where there’s no agenda. There’s no association that’s running it for a particular discipline. There’s no affiliation really with anything. Everybody’s welcome. Creativity is greater than just design. It’s really broad. I love that about it because as designers I think we can get really wrapped up in looking at other work that other designers are doing and you get really drawn into a bit of navel-gazey way of searching out inspiration and new ideas.

The nice thing about Creative Mornings is let’s talk to chefs, let’s talk to biologists, let’s talk to people who are doing things entirely outside of our niche. It infuses new ideas and cross pollinates a little bit more. I think people sense that and really are juiced about that because it’s really fresh, really inspiring content.

I know that usually most or all of our team goes to those, and I always feel good about it because a lot of those people who are talking are just like our clients or they could be our clients. I think it’s important as a designer not to forget that your client is actually really creative too, probably more creative than you are.
Right. Yeah, and they know the set of problems that they’re trying to solve.
Exactly. I think sometimes as a designer you take for granted someone’s expertise in a certain field and the fact that they’ve thought as creatively as you have about where this pixel goes or that one. Interesting. You taught when you were in New York at Parsons. Is that cool? Is that true?
It’s true and it was cool, it was both. It was both true and cool. Yeah, I went to Parsons and I was connected to the school that way, but also someone that I was working with was teaching. It was a fairly new program at the time. It was a graduate program that was essentially a new media program. In the late nineties, early oughts, it was such the wild, wild west of internet education. Nobody in the schools knew what to do. A lot of these design schools were Swiss based design schools with really traditional approach, which is great, and I wish every designer could be trained in all that stuff, but also they had no idea what to do about all these new technologies. It was really this time where someone who’s in their mid-twenties knew more about some of the stuff that was going on with web design than people who had been in the graphic design field or teaching in the schools for much, much longer.

It was a weird little opportunity for someone who doesn’t have really the credentials that you would expect to be teaching at the graduate level. I thought it was absurd at the time but you could sense it even then, that it was like nobody knows what’s going on here except for the people who are in the trenches. Everything was rewriting itself so quickly it was so hard for these institutions to catch up with it. I feel like it’s still a challenge though. Many schools are doing such a better job now than when we were coming up.
Yeah, I think … I definitely sense that it’s hard for them to keep pace because we still have people coming to us from schools where they’re like, “So, when do we build stuff in Flash?”
Whoa, never.
Yeah, the sound of crickets. Yeah, I’m sorry we stopped doing that when the iPhone came out. It’s funny, when you mentioned that I imagined Gutenberg in his twenties, “Ah, you guys don’t understand. This is the future.” He’s giving classes in the evening.
That’s exactly what it was like. I feel like it still is. Really most shops that take students on essentially as apprentices or bring them on as junior designers realize they have to invest an enormous amount in that person to get them up to speed with the state of the art. Even for us, I don’t know how you feel, but it’s crazy keeping up with what goes on. You just really have to constantly be on top of your game, and constantly looking at every tiny step forward, and keeping pace with it. Then that information is really hard for anything that’s curriculum based to fold in really quickly. There are specialized programs now that I think their whole purpose is to do that right? If they have adjunct instructors that are in the field it’s a lot easier to stay on the cutting edge. It’s a challenge, it’s a challenge with the shifting sand. I feel like graphic design didn’t change very much for a very long time and then suddenly when it moved into the interactive space … And it’s basically an entirely different discipline right? It’s changing constantly now.
Yeah, for me it’s like a lot of times someone will come up with a technique just randomly. It’s not a new version of a web browser made this possible it’s just that someone figured it out, and then it solves a problem that you may have had forever. When I was learning design it was like, “Well, here’s your French curve.” You can make all kinds of curves with that. You only need to make a curve. It’s crazy now.
A lot of the principles are the same in terms of good design, but yeah, the way that things are executed, and certainly a lot of the work flows and UX and all that stuff, totally different world.
Yeah. Do you have a favorite part of the design process for you personally?
Yeah. I, like everyone, tend to like the front end of the project a lot because you’re learning so much. The whole thing is educating yourself about the problem and really thinking broadly about all the different things that you can bring to that. When stuff starts getting further down the line I think it’s really much more challenging to stay fresh and engaged with it rather than just editing, fixing, and getting lost in the trees. Because that front part of the process is by nature, so exploratory, I think the most obviously fun part of the process.
You said you’ve been with the same agency for twelve years? Can you say who that is?
Yeah, it’s Fine Design Group.
We started out in San Francisco. I was working with them there. That was after the dot bomb. I was so lucky to get a job before that happened in New York and have a good, strong working portfolio of real projects. When I moved to the Bay area everything had been decimated. It was complete luck to get a job at all at that time because the Bay area was emptying out. People were just like, “Can’t find work. Going back home to mom and dad’s house.” Really total destruction. I lucked into that job and at the time they where shifting from a print studio into an interactive studio. It was really fun to be part of that process. It was a really small group at the time. We were six people. I worked with them in San Fransisco for four years and we wanted to move to Portland and when we came up here I looked at the landscape and was like, “There are a lot of really small shops and big dogs.” There weren’t a lot of these medium sized employers. It would be cool if I could keep my job. I asked them if I could freelance or telecommute or something, work something out.

They’re like, “Well, we actually have a contractor up there right now anyway. If you want to move up there why don’t we just open up why don’t we just open up a satellite office or something?” Okay, cool. We opened up this small office and the craziest thing happened where everybody from San Fransisco slowly, slowly was like, “Oh, there’s a place where we can go.” They moved up and a lot of new hires happened here and it became the primary office over time. Yeah, we opened in 2006 or seven up here and then it’s now thirty-some odd people in Portland with still a small presence in San Fransisco and one in Michigan, but primarily we’re based here now.
On the subject of one of your projects that’s called, I hope I’m saying this right, New Ketubah?
That’s perfect.
Well done.
Okay. What can you tell me about that?
That was one of my side projects when I started getting some ants in my pants, a while back thinking let’s diversify what I’m doing. I got married and there’s this traditional marriage contract essentially in Jewish weddings that you sign during the ceremony and it’s considered a good dead to make it as beautiful as possible and you basically hang it in your home as artwork. I was just looking for one to use in my wedding and it was impossible to find something modern. Everything was in the illuminated manuscript style and very beautiful, really wonderful artists, many calligraphers do this. Really beautiful stuff just totally not my style. Alright, well I’m going to make my own and then a friend of mine ask me to make one. Okay there’s nobody doing this. At the time it was really the last untouched little niche where modern design had not arrived.

I doubt that’s true but I would love it if it was.
I know, right? I was like, “All right this is a super niche thing but nobody’s doing this.” Again, I sensed a need and started designing a little collection for that, and learned a lot about all the different texts because the texts that I used in my wedding, and many of them, are modern commitment texts which are like vows. People will have it in English and Hebrew as a nod to the tradition, but there’s also a traditional text which is like a canonized text which was used for thousands of years. It’s not very romantic, it’s essentially a prenup. In Israel it is essentially the same as the marriage certificate that you would go get at City Hall because church and state are not separated in Israel. If you have a Jewish wedding in Israel you’re getting a state document, this religious document.

At the time that it was created it was a pretty progressive document in that it ensured the rights of the woman. You are entitled to the following things in the marriage. Now, it reads as this completely archaic thing that almost sounds sexist now, but some people still use this text because it is the traditional text. I had to really educated myself about it because it’s written in Aramaic which nobody really reads or anything anymore. I had to learn about that and learn about how to properly fill it out so that it’s kosher because if an orthodox rabbi is officiating then it has to be right, and it needs to hold up in a religious court, and all this stuff. A huge learning curve for that.

Then, the most interesting thing happened after a few years of doing that all of these other people started coming into the market and doing modern Ketubah. I see a lot more … I see options out there in the market now that are not my designs that I would totally have bought. I would’ve bought that if I had had that option at the time. Lots of great stuff going on now. It’s exciting because it’s like resynching this really old art form in the context of contemporary design. The history of this document is so interesting because it always reflects the place in which its made. You see Ketubah that’s made in seventeenth century Italy and it looks like seventeenth century Italy. You see one that’s made even earlier in Iran and it looks a lot like the designs of a mosque in Iran at the time.

It really reflects the culture in which it lives. That’s one of the interesting things about the Jewish diaspora is that people are scattered throughout the world and the culture is informed by the resident culture. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been really interesting, and actually really excited because I’m going to be launching some new stuff this year for that in collaboration with a really amazing typographer in Israel. He’s an experimental typographer who has incredible work. We’re going to release a new set of things together this year. That’s being reinvigorated a bit. I honestly got a little bit bored with it for awhile. It’s really interesting these long-term projects that you do and thinking of ways to stay interested in them, change up, and keep them vital.
I think that’s an unrecognized … Certainly for me, that applies to web design, especially because it’s moving so quickly. If you aren’t passionate about it you’re screwed. Some young twenty something punk’s going to come along and just run circles around you.
Right. In a lot of ways design is a young persons game in the sense of the way culture chews through design. Youth culture is king in our culture. There is that feeling that I’m increasingly having where, “This is the young person’s game and I’m so old.”

On the other hand with web design the large scale projects are so complex and require so much more than aesthetics. Aesthetics are really a tiny portion of what they entail, and that is not a young persons game. That takes a long time to learn and it’s a craft. I feel like we do have a little bit of job security on that front at least.

I feel like as we grow up, having been around this for awhile, it’s going to become an industry where people who are … I don’t know what job position it is, but we’ll eventually, I assume, be regarded like a great is in, historically in design. They’ll be a Saul Bass in web design I assume.
It’s so interesting to think of who that would be.
Is it the art director or is it just some front end coder who comes up?
Yeah, it is interesting to think about how this is going to get canonized in the same way because it seems so much more ethereal and fleeting than past forms.
Yeah, it does. That is my biggest worry about what I do because when I design a website I always think this has to last for five years, and in the web design industry that’s crazy talk.
Five years is forever.
Yeah, that would be great if that were true. That’d be great if I didn’t have to revisit that site for five years. If you were to say that to someone who was designing a Bible … The Gutenberg Bible, that thing stands up. There has been lots of design over the years. You still go back to the seventy-two Olympics and it’s just like, “How did you do that? It’s so great.” Perfect, classic, you can’t improve on it.
It does. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get to that wonderful mid-life, existential space where you really start evaluating everything that you’re doing against the end game. What’s the long view on that and what’s going to remain? Does it have to? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe just the doing is enough. These are the questions that I think you confront mid career where it’s not so much that that hungry time of do, do, do, it’s like you want to have more of a sense of where you’re going and what’s going to be the artifact of all those efforts.
Part of it is I have two little kids now. Which is to circle back to Creative Mornings, a big part of the reason why I like it so much being in the morning is because I can actually go. There’s no way that my wife and I could both go if something was in the evening.
The evening.
That would be so hard to manage. You’re juggling … In the morning that’s great. It gets you fired up on your work day. On the subject of timelessness of design, I would love to be making websites that I would feel confident that when my daughters grow up they would be able to see what their dad did and they wouldn’t just be like, “Oh, you used a blink tag?”
Oh, Dad.
I prefer a scrolling marquee. Do you have a dream interview for Creative Mornings or a dream host for that?
For Creative Mornings?
It’s a pretty amazing task.
Yeah, I go after all the interesting people. There are some folks that are elusive. I won’t even name check them because some of them are like, I’m just never going to do that for reasons that I don’t care to share. Yeah, I’m basically always on the lookout for what’s interesting. Now that we’re doing themes it’s more challenging because before it was just let’s line up cool person after cool person. Great job. I would just come across someone amazing and be like, “I can put you on next month.” Now it’s a lot more challenging which is great because it forces you to go out of your comfort zone a little bit and be like, “All right, how am I going to … What am I going to do about the theme backwards? How am I going to?”
It forces you to think in a little bit more of a targeted way. It changes the way you keep your feelers out because you’re putting everything against this list you have in your mind. Going, “I know I have this.”
That’s interesting. Now it’s turned into a puzzle for you.
Yeah a little bit.
It’s backwards. How could this person do backwards?
Backwards was one of the most interesting themes.
Who was the backwards …?
We had Mira Kaddoura who did a project called The Wonder Clock that was counting down her fertility. That was the backwards angle, a count down. It was time. Seattle had a typographer that works with the Arabic alphabet which is sort of backwards in that they read right to left and we read left to right, but I think if you’re really being accurate about it we’re backwards, they were there first.


Creative Mornings Portland. From left to right, Tsilli hosting, an attentive audience, speaker Mira Kaddoura

Exactly. Portland nailed that one, come on.
It was really interesting to see how it was getting interpreted. That’s the whole beauty of the themes. Now that there’s so much content coming out every month, seventy videos a month, who’s going to watch even a fraction of that?
Wow, I had no idea it was that many.
Right. Basically there needs to be some thread between them that will compel somebody to watch more than one otherwise it’s just a gigantic cacophony. It’s been challenging but really fun. In a way it kind of reinvigorates hosts that have been doing it for a very long time and they’re like, “Okay, another cool person, another cool person. Okay, I really need to think of who we are going to have for rebel.” I’m enjoying that but it is more challenging, it’s definitely more challenging. There are months where it’s nail biting. You’re like, “I just don’t know.”
I’ve noticed for awhile it seemed like you had a regular venue and now you’ve been moving around. Is there a reason for that? Do you find it more interesting if that changes up?
I think it is more fun for the audience when we change up because you get to see different spaces, and it draws different people because for some people it’s more convenient to be on the west side and some on the east side.
I imagine the last location was very convenient for you.
Very convenient, yes. There is a fun factor. It’s more complex for us to move around obviously because there’s a new set of …
To learn how sound is going to work again.
…environmental challenges in each place, but we’re enjoying moving it around. To answer your question more directly, we were at Ziba for many of our events because they were so generously hosting us. Every time we’re in there they’re paying for us to be in there. This is an effort to relieve some of the pressure on any given venue to pony up for us. Because we’re a free event we have small sponsorships that cover breakfast essentially and then a little bit for videography, photography, and stuff, but that’s it. Any place where we are is hosting us for free and that’s a lot to ask. Yeah, we’re just trying to mix it up a little bit.
Well, Tsilli, thank you so much for coming in today.
It was my pleasure entirely.
It was a great conversation and I look forward to more amazing, creative talks that you put on.
Thank you. I look forward to seeing you there.
All right.