Bob Smith is Portland’s favorite autodidact. He’s designed with everyone from Nike to Wieden Kennedy, he’s now with New Balance and today he shares some thoughts on inspiration, becoming a better designer, and thinking way outside the box.

Show Notes

Recorded Monday, May 13th, 2013, and this is episode number 13. Follow Ray, Kandace, Dan, or Needmore on Twitter. Please rate our show on iTunes!

The Interview

Hi Bob.
Hi Raymond, how are you?
I’m excellent, yourself.
Lovely, this is lovely little studio you have here.
Thank you.
Thanks for the beer.
Yeah you bet, cheers.
All right.
Why don’t you tell me where you are from, where were you born?
I was born in Hollywood, California. My dad moved us to Oregon when I was 10 against my will. We went from Malibu and Disneyland and Magic Mountain and all my friends were in L.A. and Hollywood to Portland, Oregon in the early `70s.
Why? That was a terrible time over there wasn’t it, it was the worst time.
I’m still mad at him for it. He got a job … he grew up in L.A. and he had had enough and I was just getting started. He got a job with Tektronix which was the Nike of his time. That sets the stage for where I came from. That’s … I have … when I go back to California even though I haven’t lived there since I was 10, I go back there I go. I feel like my people even though they are messed up.
Deep back in your lizard brain there is a California vibe.
Yeah, there is something about it and I still remember running away from Jellyfish at the beach. Just like all that crap. I think they say the first five years of your life are the most formative and then … Anyway I lived there until I was 10 and then we moved up here, so that’s where I was born. Where do we go with this?
Were you? What were you like in high school? Were you the rock and roll guy?
Its funny, I suspect everybody has this story no matter how popular you were or think you were, but I just never seemed to fit in. I never … I wasn’t nerdy enough to be nerdy, I wasn’t cool enough to be cool. I did ascend, I was honored, I was class clown honored in my senior year. I never felt like I fit, do you know, do you get that feeling?
I hated high school.
I know.
It was the worst.
I tell my kids now because my son is going through high school now and my daughter is in middle school which we used to call junior high. I said, “Just get used to it, it’s the most three years of your life.”
Yeah, your life sucks but it will get better.
You are going to cry and people won’t understand you and you might even … might be violence who knows. Anyway so …
Wow, way to psych him up for …
I know right.
It’s true though yeah.
Well I just want to manage their expectations as they say. Poor kids.
Well the problem with me was that my high school was across the street from my house.
You were that kid?
I was that kid. I lived right across the street so I never went to school, it was terrible.
I always thought those kids were so weird. It’s not like living across the street from the 7-Eleven which would be really cool if you are that age, right. All the Tank Battle you can play. Where were we headed with that?
Did you play music?
I did I played music, I always … I played drums and bands and then I started playing guitar about 10 years ago just because I felt like I needed to. I played in junior high and high school and I played in Jazz band and all that stuff. Then I played in bands after I got out. I always really loved it and I always felt curious people I went to school with who played music in band when you were in school. When they are done with school that’s when they stopped playing music and I always thought that was really curious like that was something they are being forced to do. I was thinking, “Isn’t this something you like doing?”
It always seemed really weird to me that the thing in high school, there was jazz band. Jazz was always like a foul word. Like who wants to be in Jazz band?
If you think about it, it wasn’t even real jazz it was like this weird stage, stagey … It wasn’t … you weren’t playing Coltrane for god’s sake you were playing these big band charts and stuff like that. Which I loved but I wasn’t really … I remember when I first got my first … I was supposed to buy this Weather Report record and I thought okay cool and I read it and its supposed to be really good its got five starts and everyone is raving about it.
To practice for jazz band or something?
No just to listen to it because I thought it was something. Because I realized I grew up in Tiger, I went from one of the hippest place in the world to one of the stupidest places in the world. I grew up in the burbs, “Okay I want me some of this Weather Report.” I bought it and I thought I had wasted my $4.44 because I originally I didn’t get … I was, “What the hell is this?” You know what I mean. Now it’s … the record was Mr. Gone, now its one of my favorite records of all time. It’s one of those …
It’s like my dad was always listening to like Beach Boys and classic rock and I just fucking hated it back then, I was, “God that’s so … “ Now of course I’m … I can’t stop talking about the fucking Beach Boys. I’m like wow.
I know. It’s funny my dad, first god bless him he is still alive and he actually lives with us in our house and he is the grandfather to my kids which is awesome. He kept finding new ways to reinvent himself as a nerd. If he would have stayed with the music he was listening to back then he would be super-cool now, but he found new ways to nerd himself out. After he got done with the Beach Boys he went on to Yanni and then after he got done with Yanni he went on to who knows what else. It’s just like …

Anyway that was my music thing with my family. My mom was listening to pop radio in the car and we were driving to the beach and hearing what was on the radio. It was always music. Were you that kid who always had a song stuck in their head?

Oh god I still do, I can sing a god damn song in my head for a week.
I know right it’s awful. It can be great. I remember walking to school one morning, how old was I? I don’t know. Getting that song Frankenstein stuck in my head.
No, what’s that one?
You don’t know that the Edgar Winter song?
No I don’t know that at all.
It’s this really have rock and roll song from the `70s and anyone who is listening to this right now is going to go, “Yeah I know that song, I know that song.” I remember singing that song walking to school, when I was … how old was I? I was going, “Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do.” I could play every note and I was thinking, I love that song.

That came out … that same energy when I go see a show now when a band is really good, it came and it comes from that same place in your gut where you just feeling, you know what I mean? I guess like you meant now I realized that’s what was going on then.

I need to hear that song.
I still regret … not regret, but I still wish it said musician on my passport instead of designer.
Designers don’t get enough respect do they?
I know and then lots of designers are playing music and musicians are being designers. I have a good friend, do you know Alan Hunter?
Not by name.
[Amy] Ruppel knows him, he had been on tour, he just got back with … he is a bass player in a band called the Eagles, you may have heard of right. He has been all over and I got to play with him last summer in some little stuff here around town in Portland it was really fun. He got to go on tour so I get to live vicariously through him. I always feel like I was that far away from hitting it and Portland.
You could have been in the Eagles with him. I’m just kidding.
I know.
It would have been great.
Then the kooky, crazy Courtney Taylor was in a band called the Beauty Stab, do you remember that, were you here then?
No, was that before?
It was before …
Go on.
It was before Nero’s Rome.
Yeah I moved here in like …
Which was before.
I moved here in `97.
Okay so you must … Dandys were in full swing at that point.
Musically he was I think … if I get my history right he went to Sunset High School. I think Sunset or … and he won … his band in high school won battle of the bands. He was really a very talented guy, he was an amazing songwriter. He played drums in these bands for a long time and then he did his own thing with the Dandys and of course the rest is history with him. I think the cool thing about Portland as it’s come up, you can do all of it. You can do … you can have a podcast, you can play in a band and you can design things. There is … I think any delineation you make is artificial because you can …
The town is filled with renaissance men and women, so very much like everyone …
I don’t know, it just feels like the older I get I feel, “Why would I want to limit my self?”
That was the idea behind the show name, The Job, its not really about … it’s about how things go from hobby to job to hobby. Especially in Portland it seems like a lot of people are … they are really passionate about food and then they took a stab at a restaurant and oh my god it totally took off.
Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you brought that up because … I’m missing the guys name, head of Spy Magazine, Kurt Andersen, do you know who he is?
He wrote a book called Turn of the Century. Anyway, I saw him give a talk he is a friend of Molly Hill, she’s an artist here in town. He gave a talk about a year and a half ago that totally broke this thing wide open for me. I’ll have to jump back and explain what I’m talking about after I say what I’m going to say. I’m not trained as an apparel designer. I’m not trained as anything really I didn’t go to college. I hardly have any … I’d be surprised if I have 10 credit hours to my name. I always had a job where I would do something and then I would scam my way into getting promoted and doing the next thing.

As I was telling you earlier before we started taping, I used to do displays Oscar Mayer Franks and Fred Meyer window displays, dress manikins and make signs and things like that. Then I parleyed that into a job at Nike as a designer, as a graphic designer there. I worked on apparel and I did for 10 years and during that time I slowly glow my way into designing apparel pieces. Because I was always working with really talented apparel designers and [inaudible 00:12:03] fittings. Excuse me I have to do this thing where … excuse me.

Its okay, there it goes.
Nice. Anyway I was looking at it.
Don’t worry.
I know. These jobs and I think … I don’t know, I think this is possible for anybody. You always have these opportunities to … If you are working in music that leads to maybe a career in acting or whatever. Anyway so this guy Kurt Andersen was talking about doing exactly that. He started out as writer and he started publishing this magazine called Spy Magazine which was really big in the `90s.
Sure, sure I remember Spy, yeah.
You remember Spy. He was talking about this career path where he did that and someone asked him, “Hey would you be interested in doing a radio show?” He said, “Well I have never done a radio show before but it sounds like fun, I’ll try it.” He is not trained as a whatever. That became … I forget, I can’t … this is where the facts … my source [inaudible 00:13:05] runs dry. I can’t tell you what the name of the radio show was. He was pretty successful at this and then someone said, “Hey do you want to do a TV show?” He said, “Well yeah.”

I think that turned in, is it called 360 or something? I have to look it up. Anyway that became successful and his whole point was, these … the borders we put on what we do are self-imposed. Once he … he said that to me and I was like, I thought, “God here is this guy I really respect and admire.” By anyone’s estimation he is definitely successful making it in New York. I thought, well that was my permission to go full steam ahead with this thing doing apparel design for a small company at the time. The guy I worked with and I were a good fit and we took that on the road and we went to New Balance.

Now I’m designing tennis apparel for freaking the number 13 ranked tennis player in the world and doing it for the Harvard men’s and women’s. Dang if isn’t good stuff and people are liking it and I can do it. That’s funny, like I said a lot of it is … I think you are your own worst critic. That can be helpful, it helps you from putting crap out. Or being [inaudible 00:14:25] you know what I mean? I think also it can prevent you from moving forward with something that might be a little scary.

Speaking of Dylan I think that he experienced that same thing where he had a music career for decades and nobody really heard of him. Then he did this radio show or podcast, the Bob Dylan radio hour and then everyone was, “Bob Dylan.” Just an example.
Why wouldn’t it work? Think about it right.
I think that really … When I talk to people, people who are going to work here or whatever. Its like I … to me … Maybe I’m biased because I don’t have any formal education there, but I feel for someone to … if someone is really passionate about it, that’s worth so much more, its priceless.
Oh my god.
You’ll figure it out.
Especially something that’s as new as web design.
You know what? That’s such a great point I’m so clad you said that because I was thinking about this when I was at Nike, I used to look at people’s portfolios all the time. They could be going through school and I thought, “That’s good but what I really want.” I thought, let me back up just have a space. We had basically designers found in two camps, people who were trained as graphic designers and people who were fine artists who could get … who got work as graphic designers.

It seemed to me that people whose work I admired the most were always the fine artists. They had the most cleverest solutions, they had the best ideas. Rather than polishing your technique you were actually working on your intake. One class I do remember taking in college I had this really great professor out of Mt. Hood Community College and he said … at the time I didn’t know what to do and he said, “Well you might want to go get a descent liberal arts education. What that will do is that will increase your range of source material so that you have more material to work with.

I thought about as a designer what I’m really doing is synthesizing, there is nothing new in design as we all know. There is different combinations of new ideas. The more source which I felt I had to draw from, the more the possibility for solutions would be. The other thing is I thought school was a codified way of learning. I felt like the whole time I wasn’t going I was missing out on maybe dorm life, or interacting with other designers. I don’t know about you I have a feeling … I read voraciously, do you do the same thing?

That’s how you learn, right? That’s how I learned.
There is about a couple of hours a night usually where I am … and you know it’s always … it really is a cross … I might see … At some point I was obsessed with the Swiss Railroad Clock face. Apple basically copied that idea for the iPad clock. I read that story and I was, “Let me look at this clock, why is it such a big deal that they paid a settlement, or paid to license it?”
Why is it so iconic?
It’s so good. It’s just a clock face, its just a bunch of little notches and I don’t even think it has numbers on it, but it’s just … just the balance of the elements is so nice.
Isn’t it. It was Saul Bass’ birthday yesterday and someone did a Google tribute.
I saw that yeah.
Did you see that? It reminded me how much I love Saul Bass, so much of that stuff is instinctual. There are points like, I look back at stuff I used to draw when I was in high school or even when I was … They say you copy until you find your own voice and then you … its all … that goes back to what I was saying about synthesizing. Some of these people were drawing their source … where it’s coming from its just so intriguing.
Saul Bass is one of those guys, where everything he does is so primitive and yet at the same time it’s so refined, so dialed in. The colors, the way he uses color and motion and proportion and scale. I guess if I was classically trained as a designer I can tell you … there is probably like … some probably rules that are informed by all these things. That’s proportion and that’s, whatever the golden ratio, or … However you ever … the clock is a great example there is something about it that even if you don’t know anything about design you are … it sounds very corny but your being responds to it. Something about it catches your eye.
It’s almost like when you glance at it you can take in the information so quickly, you don’t recognize the design, you just look at it and instantly you can see the time. There is no …
Which is what I love about it. Actually what I like about it, maybe you can relate to this too, is because I backed into a career in graphic design or whatever you want to call design. It’s fascinating for me to go back and read up on the history after I have already been at this for a while. I read a book, the history of Paul Renner, he is the guy who designed the future of typeface. Back then he got … I’m probably squishing this all into one big story but basically he got thrown into jail when he was designing them.

Because design represented something that was political at the time. Do you imagine getting thrown to jail for doing a poster or a typeface now, it just seems … its all style. At the time it was a little more. The reason I bring that up is because the whole Swiss thing I believe is all based in this idea of this ultimate humanism, rationalism. Making everything as clear as it could possibly be and that was the goal of it all. Not that it was going to wind up in design within reach or. It wasn’t a style.

That was just a happy byproduct.
I know right. You know what I mean, actually it was … actually there is a nobler purpose attached to what they were doing at the time with design. Which isn’t to discount what people are doing nowadays but I think there was an era I think. Something about that period of time was more considered than it seems to be now. The way people dress and the way people approach problem solving and all that stuff.
that’s definitely a larger question, I think.
Yeah I know right.
With Saul Bass and with Andy Warhol, its funny how you look at his early work and how it evolved into the real … for Saul Bass it was the movie titles and stuff. For Warhol it was The Factory and how he turned that style into something where you can still recognize a little bit of the elements of his early …
Have you seen his shoes that he drew?
Exactly we used that as a reference on a site we did recently.
Oh my gosh, it’s just … it all comes from a point … to me and not to hijack the conversation. To me I think … I love it because it all relates back to craft and wanting … to skill like woodworking or carving or anything that people used to do before computers came along. Not that you can’t do craft with computers. To me the idea of researching a topic and knowing it and working your craft and getting good at it.

It’s like really that’s … when I see someone who can really draw, I still don’t feel I can fuss my way into … here this is what I’m thinking. Well here let me work on it. Some people are really good draftsmen and that still blows me away. I‘m not that. Anyway that’s what I respond to, especially with people like Warhol he is screen printing. He came from a place that was very … where he practiced his skill and worked his craft and his eye was impeccable because he had that background of drawing.

Well he may not have actually, done the screen printing with his hand at some point it was … still he was the esthete. He guided the … he was … it was his name that was being put on it. At some point he was like Steve Jobbs he was basically saying this is good enough, this sucks, whatever.
Yeah, there is something to that where you have a point of view and its editorial and you are not just trying to make something that everybody will like, you have something you are trying to communicate. Some people will like it and understand it and other people will be offended by it. Anyway if I feel like … that’s how I feel like I have space in my museum for Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter and anybody who is trying to do something with a voice and working at their craft I think there is space for it. How is that for broad?
No, that’s was great. Talking about what you were talking about with school, I see that too because I didn’t go to college or anything like that. I always felt like … and maybe this is only Ivy League schools, half of the point of going there was to make connections and stuff. Hopefully by now, my connections came from working in coffee shops or whatever. Hopefully they are there.
I know right and that’s valuable. How is that not valuable?
Yeah, well see, they are not East Coast.
Are you from the East Coast or West Coast?
I basically grew up in the twin cities.
Yeah, oh wow that explains the [inaudible 00:24:04] connection.
Perhaps yeah and I don’t know [inaudible 00:24:07] there but we …
I know but it’s the same …
Aesthetically yeah.
People who are from … my wife is from Akron. Some of my favorite people …
We’ll I’m originally from Cleveland.
Perfect, that’s why I like you guys then. There is something really practical about you guys. I’ve got to tell you speaking of that Harvard thing, its really blowing my mind because I grew up in the West Coast. I’m working with New Balance in Boston. In all the travelling I did for Nike I never went to New England. I always … it’s always been … it’s a culture … it’s the American culture it’s so of its self and is always really intriguing to me. To be going there and the first time I went to Harvard, there really is an energy to that especially I guess that no college education, growing up on the West Coast. You go to Harvard and it is, “Oh my god this is it, there is here freaking Roosevelt went to college.”

Where I got a tour of the campus and just, “Wow this place is older than the United States.” It was no rules going to some place like that and working with them, that’s like taking everything I know about what’s normal and stood on its head. It’s I think … it’s a culture thing, right. Coffee shops are as valid a culture thing, a band is as valid a culture thing as Harvard is, it’s just a different … Its funny, it took me a long time to get over my insecurity about not going to college. Because it’s just a different path.

Not that I’m proud of it but I think I’m a lot more accepting to myself now where I feel like, “I was just a fuck up, I could never make school work.” Well it just wasn’t a good fit and its maybe not a good fit for … especially what we do, its what you know right?

Yeah, yeah. I don’t … well that’s the thing. If I had though, oh I will be a web designer, that would have been impossible when I … at my age just the word didn’t exist, the word literally didn’t exist when I would have been going to college. You know what I guess I could have studied design.
Who knows? I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in high school. I wanted to play in bands and I liked designing things. I then didn’t see how either one of those could really be a real career but …
I guess more to the point is that I don’t feel like … I feel like I have to learn something new every damn week. Every other week, it’s I guess with the business growing I’ve got to learn how to sell. I’ve got to learn how to be a salesperson and shit like that. I would never have studied that in the `90s.
It’s so funny you said that because I was thinking, I was checking this big giant sales [inaudible 00:26:48] sign for New Balance anyway, last … two weeks ago. I had been on this line for the last year and it was finally getting ready to come out to the market. I thought, oh I have to present to all these sales people and they want to know what they story is. The better I do my job of telling them what the story is, the easier their job will be selling it, which will … of course that’s good for me because I’m in sales and I’m successful as a designer, blah-blah-blah.

I started thinking. I saw some people get up there and try to sell their work and they weren’t always designers, sometimes the line manager would present it. I always thought the designer was the best person if they were qualified and were good at it to sell because obviously the inspiration comes from the designer blah-blah-blah. I just felt so sorry for these people who couldn’t articulate their vision and they got all caught up in reading the PowerPoint slides and all the stuff and I thought … I felt to me as a designer you have to do two things, you have to be a good designer, but then you also have to be good as selling. That’s as important as …

Even if you are just like …
Even though that’s not your job.
It occurred to me that there has always been and there always will be this artist patron relationship. No matter what, it could be really overt, if [inaudible 00:28:01], or if you are a fine artist you are going to have a gallery showing. Or can be as me as an apparel or product designer. There is a certain point where you take your work that you have done and you hold it up to somebody else who is writing the check or buying it or selling it and you say, “What do you think?” They give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down, but there is never not that …
There is always some degree of pitching of selling. Have you ever … do you know who Mike Monteiro is? He wrote this … a very slender volume called Design is a Job. His point was just … a big part of the point of the book is that, you have to defend your design. You can’t … too many designers. He is taking about the web [inaudible 00:28:47] we’ll make a design and we’ll expect someone else in the business to pitch it to client and then they come back with a bunch of stuff and its like, “Well this is bullshit I can’t deal with this.” You realize you need to be facing the client and saying no. I can’t change this, there is a reason for this.
I agree that’s why I think Mad Men is so fascinating.
Oh me too.
Because you see the different … how that works, for better or worse or …
I would love to see a mash up of all just the pitch meetings.
The pitching right, I know.
Not any of the fucking drama, just five, 10 minutes of each episode. If someone would make that for me I would pay more for that. Because I just don’t have the patience.
I’m so glad you brought that up, I was thinking that Nike … I guess in a really real way Nike was my educator … my real …
Your college.
My college and I saw some people who were really good at talking and telling stories and when I look at their designs I go, well they are okay, they always had this heat. They always had … people were really into them and what they did. I realized, yes please … it occurred to me, they are just really good at selling. That’s really … and I’m not saying that’s all it was but that was a large … that was my big takeaway from that. I was like, so if … and I … I have all these personal maxims hanging around down in a book someday and no one is going to care about it.

I remember, where you think to yourself and then you write it down in your head. I remember thinking, it is what I say it is, to a large degree. To a larger degree than I think most people realize it. If I think its good and I really believe in it, then it is.

Well I learn from watching other designers pitch that they don’t …
You can tell if they don’t believe it right?
For instance there is a really basic idea that you just let someone walk in the room and just see the damn design. There is a whole ceremony there, in the way you reveal it and tell the story and walk them through the story. I feel like a junior designer, someone who is new … that’s … you are giving a presentation and it’s a really intricate thing with lots of moving parts that have a lot of psychology in it its just. I don’t know how you would even teach that in school.
I don’t know … I think, its funny I think about this all the time, I used to read a ton of how to play drum books which is fine, and lots of how to design books which I still do. I realized at a certain point you just have to do the work. I have …
You’ve just got to beat the drums.
Yeah right, I tell all these anecdotes about all these … any subject you care to discuss, but one of my favorite ones is actually about this. It was … I remember seeing, or reading something about the Disney Studio back in the `50 when people get to draw there. I think that’s what turned into art center. Not art center the CalArts. Anyway and one of the illustration professor said, “When you got here … your first day here you probably have about 10,000 bad drawings in you and I’m here to get them all out of you.” I’m here to get rid of those 10,000 bad drawings.

The idea is just doing it, just doing it, just doing it. Some people have a gift and they’ll get there quicker, but what I’ve noticed, the time I spent at that other place and the time … even I gave six presentations last week its just you just get through it, you get better at it and you practice and that’s how you … The work is how you get better at that.

That reminds me of that, I don’t know if you’ve heard the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
No I haven’t.
That popularizes this idea that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at anything. Whether it’s … He theorized that if you added it up that the Beatles spent 10,000 hours before, yeah before even being recorded which is probably true. Because they would play for eight, 10 hours at a time. If you look at any great artist you just think, “Oh my gosh they were just born perfectly and they came out of this eggshell with this magic.”
The annoying thing is there are those kids in junior high school who drew the perfect Van Halen logo on their …, I was like, “God damn it, your bag-pack looks great, the V is so perfect and that S in Santana….” There are those. One of my favorite quotes these days is hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard. The reason I say that is, I was in all these crazy gifted programs in L.A. when I was a kid. I don’t know what it does to you, but I’m guessing it probably fucked me up pretty bad.

I got thinking well I’m gifted, so I don’t have to … Meanwhile, you are taking these… seeing these other kids get As and I was thinking to myself, if I really tried I could but I don’t want to try blah-blah-blah. I had to learn as an adult then, how to discipline myself to do the work that I knew I was capable of. That … my big thing nowadays and this is what I’m trying to teach my kids, good help me, is just showing up and doing the work everyday is so huge. I think it’s underrated, or it is to me anyway, it has been for a long time, just showing up and putting in the hours everyday and being there. Because … and I think that’s … when I do that that’s how I realize I’m most successful.

I guess that touches on the other reason why this show was named The Job.
The Job.
It’s very much, you have to show up and you have to do the work and sometimes you will have to try the same thing 100 times before it works.
I don’t want to, I don’t want to. I still have to do schematics, I have been doing this for 15 years, I still have to do button schematics? Yeah because either if I don’t then I give the power to somebody else. If I don’t set up a way to have it … I have to put in the work some way or another. Either I have to do the work or set it up so somebody else can, you know what I mean.
It’s like the whole Warhol Factory or anything like that. It’s like ultimately the responsibility falls to the person whose name is attached to it and if you abdicate that responsibility and you just …
Like your presentation example, presenting … if I give it to somebody else to present then I have given part of my power away.
They are going to make you look like an asshole.
I know, well I have seen people where they take your work and they objectify it. They go, “Well the designer was thinking.” They take … they are one step away from it … they have insulated themselves against it being good or bad, they don’t have any skin in the game. Whereas if the person was involved in the process and they would defend it more as a we, “Here is what we were thinking and this is what … ” Rather than, you know what I mean by arms-lengthening.

As a designer I think … first of all I have to know I am doing good work. The other thing I have to care about what I’m doing and be interested in it. If I’m not any one of those things could torpedo my effort. There is nothing worse than working on something that you don’t believe in.

You just never … you never do a good job.
Which is different than not feeling like designing that day.
If you are working on a project … if I was supposed to design something for something I didn’t care about or wasn’t interested in, I probably won’t give my best effort, especially if I don’t believe in it. The fun thing about working at … if I can do this for a second, the fun thing about Nike I found a good place for myself. The fun think about being at New Balance now is that they actually … if you dig deep enough there is a really good story there to tell and that’s what gets me excited.

When I get excited … its like when you have in your neighborhood [inaudible 00:36:49] going up, “Oh I have got this really cool thing come check this out.” Right a cool magazine or something like that and you get people fired up and involved in it, if you are excited then other people get excited and then they … and then you have people who are excited about their work.

Yeah, stories are really a huge powerful thing in the human nature. I always think if you loose a passion for something you are doing then some young gun who is passionate, regardless of their education is just going to … they are just out of attrition there is just time eventually that you can’t hold up to it. Because they are going to be burning the midnight oil. Fascinated by this thing and learning everything and just soaking it up and you are going to be like ah, this sucks.
Like you did, like I did, like I’ve done before. Where you are clicking through it, where you are reading something and you got stacks and stacks. You are reading the Paul Renner book, or they are reading the story of story Swiss Modern design or any of that stuff that they are really into it. I have this thing … I have … one of my … another one of those maxims I have, personal maxims I have with the people I work with.

Now its like if we are working on a product, if we are working on a shirt, or a dress or a skirt, or a coat or a jacket or something like that. If we get the samples back and I tell them if you don’t want to steal it then we probably shouldn’t be making it. If it’s not good enough for you to want to take home then why were you even wasting time making it. Let’s just drop it right now and focus our energy on something we do want to do. I just … I remember working at Nike and we would have these line plans, they are 14, 20 items wide. We need this, we need this, we need this because we had this last year we did this three years ago and this sold really well three years ago.

Then you get this line there was just … you all had a couple of people working on it maybe it was an inch deep like a mile away. Its was, “Who needs that, who wants that anymore?” Its fun now to see it, the tide it shifting back in general towards more craft, made in craft. If you see Imogene Willie in Nashville they are making handmade jeans one at a time for people. That’s part of what’s fun but working at New Balance not to fish the company I’m working for, but they actually … they make, I think its 25% of their production is still made in the United States. They are actually still … it’s an archaic business model but there is something about it that feels like you are supporting something.

It means something. Believe me and I’m not mocking Nike because I remember a lot of great things about there, I remember making some really amazing products. I just felt like, it was fun to take a step back and do something that looks a lot personally more purposeful and impactful in that way. I think we’ve seen that shift certainly here in Portland. How many people are hand roasting coffees and making beers and work that … You know who I love is these guys, the … I keep wanting to call them Oh My Fucking God Company. The Original Manufacturing Company.

Yeah, yeah they are great.
Fritz… they make that shit by hand, I have been in their bar they make their own god damn papa shot who does … talk about uncalled for.
They are awesome, but I’ve got to get those guys on here to [inaudible 00:40:16].
Yeah, oh my god they are great. That’s kind of what I’m taking about I think … thank god its dependent on springing back the other way, because I just …
Sometimes it’s hard to tell and maybe you can answer to this more because you travel more than I do. Sometimes I worry that I’m in a burble here in Portland and that no one else in Kansas gives a shit. Maybe it is …
I don’t travel to Kansas a lot, I can’t tell you much about that.
In New York City though I guess.
Yeah I know you know what, in London I am seeing it, certainly in Boston. My sense is if you’re autodidactic as I am I think you probably … you have your finger in a lot on pulses then you feel … I think it feels like and again this is anecdotal so I don’t have my source on lockdown with this but it feels like its heading that way.
We’ll get our research around that.
We’ll get our … and here is one of the things I cite. The Olympics last year, was it last year or two years ago where Ralph Lauren made all the opening and closing ceremony stuff. It was as most apparel is, it was manufactured in Asia, China or Vietnam of wherever. People were so upset that all the American Uniforms were made overseas, but the fact is that’s a standard practice, right and its really unusual for things to be made here in the Unite States.

Anyway the reason I bring that up is what that told me is, that was a shot over the barrel of business as usual or as the status quo and that said to me that someone like Ralph Lauren is now going to start focusing their resources on manufacturing domestically. You have people like … you start thinking about, again this all anecdotal … you have American Apparel has this big made in USA thing it does .

Yeah that’s their thing, that is part of their brand.
Right and you see more and more of what I do anyway, especially in the line of work I’m in. You see more and more of it, there is [inaudible 00:42:21] that type of people. You have [inaudible 00:42:24] up in Seattle. You have [inaudible 00:42:28] goods here in town. It’s just there is enough of these little places and for the first time, it’s actually considered … It used to be made in Germany was great. But in USA actually means quality which is bizarre, growing up when we did.
It’s true.
That’s where I am getting my readings from. I think it is coming back here, its coming back here.
I think you are right, even the … and this is to go outside of apparel, even the CEO of Apple recently said they were going to start making one of the computer lines which … When Apple first started.
They made their computers here.
Over time they just couldn’t compete on that, when everyone else in the industry that was … everyone else was just dominating and pretty soon its standard … you assume it’s not made here. Why would you think otherwise. It is exciting to thing that there is …
It’s interesting … it’s just an interesting turn of events. Anyway that to me speaks in people are interested in … and I don’t know if this is me getting older. I would be curious to see what my kids think. Rather than having more stuff having fewer pieces but better pieces stuff. Things that will last longer, buying more [inaudible 00:43:46] things. The other thing … that’s the pull, the push is on the other side of it, you have … there is all the investing in this fashion thing. The Bangladesh factory a couple of weeks ago collapsing and its … people should realize that these choices actually do have consequences.

Its interesting people, I don’t know. Now this is definitely a first world problem. “Wow, I don’t want to buy my $150 shirt at Target, I want to buy it … “ Meanwhile some people don’t have cell phones or clean water or whatever, its [inaudible 00:44:25] big picture. As a designer anyway, I think what I’m encouraged by is I feel like its getting back to craft and service of a story rather than just style. I think style will always be there.

Do you know who Stefan Sagmeister is? I remember seeing a conference of him when I was just a cub designer 15 years ago. His thing at the time was style equals art and I think that the core value was substance equals art. The idea is, anybody can paste style on anything and make it look good but he wanted to work on things that actually had a purpose. Which is. “Wow, who doesn’t want to do that?” Who wants to sit around … who just wants to sit around and crank out the latest font of the day?

It’s really appealing for a designer when you feel like so much of what you are doing is so removed from …
I mean you just feel like you are giving matching orders and someone in Asia follows them or whatever. It’s appealing to think of that whole process being a little closer in or that affecting people more directly.
Actually you are probably very well qualified to talk about this. You work with Dwayne right [inaudible 00:45:38]. He has always been about … the restaurants he opens now are beautiful and that really speaks to his eyes and his care that was always there from the beginning. Tell me about that, what was that like working with him?
Well I think that and we actually did an interview with him not for this but before that. He is really … its nice for the restaurants because people can be more directly rewarded by locally sourcing. Those amazing oysters in Woodsman. He has those relationships, he goes to the coast and meets with them and stuff. Definitely all the lighting and [inaudible 00:46:17] are just amazing, I think that’s all from [inaudible 00:46:20] Electric I think we do that in Portland. Its amazing how much of that you can do locally now. It’s really exciting that someone can be rewarded by … that’s a great business model I just love that.
Don’t you. I know I was just thinking about that.
Yeah restaurants in Portland are just one of the most exciting things.
I made a choice, when I started working at New Balance because I knew it would be all consuming and it has been. I was just trying to get a lot of print design for restaurants [inaudible 00:46:49] I did the stuff for Tumblr and there are some really big people in town to do work for it and they really appreciate great work. They are really great partners. I was sad to have to leave that behind.
Yeah, yeah. Were you doing like freelance work before?
I actually saw Jeremy probably about a month ago, down at the Ace and Palm Springs and I was I’m on to my fifth career now [inaudible 00:47:15].
Because now every time I go going to [inaudible 00:47:20] r or even Tumblr to see your work there and there is posters for the [inaudible 00:47:25].
I know right. That’s … that goes back to what I was saying about just having … developing an eye for quality. Because I have always loved clothes and then I’ve always worked with clothes even when I was at Nike I designed graphics and stories that went on clothes with clothes. That whole Nike sportswear thing I started there and that came from a storytelling perspective that wasn’t being told at the time.
What was that … what do you?
That Nike sportswear logo that you see everywhere, now I did that by hand. That came from … that was … I was at time, Nike that was … it’s been a while now, I keep thinking it was last year but it was actually about 10 years. We had … Nike was very well established as a performance apparel company, but they weren’t very good in my opinion at the time of doing what I would call classis street wear or sportswear. Which is stuff that you see in a shop like down at the compound gallery. They didn’t do that very well and I thought they could have been and other people were doing it.

I thought Nike were taking themselves too seriously as a … they called it authentic athletic and they only made things that you could actually work out in. I thought that to me that left a lot of stories on the table specifically the U of O track team Steve Prefontaine, Phil Knight story, Bill Bowerman story all the people that went along. It was a really amazing story because I think about it, it was the conference of Bill Bowerman, Steve Prefontaine, Phil knight and Geoff Hollister all coming together at the same time to create what they created was really unbelievable and it was actually born out of this `60s reaction to the establishment.

Ironically they were reacting against Adidas and now I think they are the same thing. Anyway what I wanted to do was tell the story with the apparel that captured all that and they weren’t doing it. I put together a line, I just [inaudible 00:49:41] how deep I should go at this. Anyway …

Go crazy.
I put that together and I presented it to some senior management and they … “yeah this is a good idea lets go do that.” That little Nike sportswear logo is what I drew to … I went down to Melrose one time and I went through all these thrift stores and they all had a certain Nike blue label, orange label and orange label was the very first hang tag put in the back of the clothing. It said Nike sportswear I thought, “That’s weird we don’t use that anymore.” We hadn’t used it since 1977 something, they dropped. I thought, well that’s what we should call it.

I took the Nike logo and I fucked it up a little bit. If you hang it … if you pulled them up next to each other you can realize, it’s tweaked and weird and long and they kept using it. It started out as this tiny little logo for this tiny little collection and they kept using it and now it’s everywhere. Anyway the reason I bring that up is because that means I was on to something, that means there was a story that actually had … worth telling that resonated with people.

It had legs.
I was actually just in London a couple of weeks ago and I hadn’t talked to the guy that I worked with there in a number of years and I told him about where that came from. He said, “Oh yeah everybody here knows where it came from.”
Is it the all caps one?
Yeah but it’s not the [inaudible 00:51:05] one.
Right its more … it’s more yeah.
The sportswear I drew … actually the sportswear typeface itself is hand drawn it was based on … I started out using Univers Condensed it didn’t look quite right and I tried a couple of different. I tried Trade Gothic, nothing looked quite right. I thought well I’ll just draw it myself. I was actually literally using these wonky old woven hand-tags from 1978, 1979 and try to replicate that feel.
Yeah interesting.
Its funny, now you probably get this question all the time, some odd designer will call you up and they want to use something that you did and they said, “What font is that?” You are like, “Well it’s not really a font.”
Or will just guess the font.
Yeah or will just guess it right. Have you … do you know Jessica Hische? I love, she was … I saw her talk a couple of years ago and I loved the fact that she would, if it didn’t exist she would make it up. I loved the idea of, just because I can’t find it in a font or box, or a clipper thing I’ll just go make it because it needs to exist. That really resonated … that was … she was another person who just pushed me over the edge that way.

When I heard her say that I was, “Of course why wouldn’t you?” Because what you really want is the best solution right. Not the best solution I can get out of a font package, it’s the best solution right.

Yeah we … sometimes you forget that when you are designing and you have your Dropbox and your hard drive and your gigabytes and gigabytes of source material. It’s like … we just need a bag, draw a bag, we just need a square and a circle. Sometimes you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and … That’s a great story sometimes, the fact that you drew that thing that was a little bit different than the thing already out there … its almost subconsciously I feel sometimes I worry that design is something that is hard to pitch to a man on the street. What’s so great about design? Sometimes I feel like you could demonstrate it to them and they would get it.
Do you always walk around with that feeling in your head? I do. I think, “Just give me five minutes I can show you exactly why it is.” I wish … just that confidence.
Yeah, I do, I really do. I feel sometimes we work with clients who are … we have clients all over the world and its really hard sometimes because you just want to sit down and say lets pull up this website. Let’s watch it load, lets click through it and experience it together and then this one and see what you think.
What you think and you don’t mean there is this …
I feel like I could spend all day trying to write an email that would explain the subtleties of this or that but … go on.
Again this is fun to talk to you because [inaudible 00:53:54] we are taking in information in a lot the same ways. I saw Steve [inaudible 00:53:58] talking at one of these … I think the AIG had been doing those things at the laundry [inaudible 00:54:02] they have been really good and I try to go whenever I can.
At the [Ace 00:54:06] you mean?
Yeah the [Ace 00:54:08] laundry. He said, he is so good. I forgot how good he was … he was saying … he had this really great sign that said, “People don’t care how clever your solutions are they want to know that you care about them.”
That you care about their …
That’s a great quote yeah.
Isn’t it? It’s like oh my god it’s so obvious. Think about when you are arguing with your wife about the dishes, it’s not about the dishes. It’s not about the dishes is that you never pay attention to her, it’s not about the dishes.
I feel if a client knows that you care about their brand then they will trust that what you are …
They are engaged.
They trust that you are going to be a good shepherd under the internet or something. Whereas if they feel like you don’t get it which is a challenge when you are working with someone.
Or if you have been flipping about their needs.
Its funny because one of the things when I was talking to Jeremy last month he said, he goes, we just we had to make sure that people we were with get it too.
Wow that is a great, great point yeah.
Sometimes its not a good fit, it’s just not a good fit. Its funny, I told my son a couple of years ago, I had to fire a client. He goes, “You had to fire a client, or did they fire you?” I said, “No, it wasn’t a good fit I told them it wasn’t a good fit.” Because you know how those things go, you keep trying to make it work and they don’t get it and they want you to revise it and they don’t understand what your time is worth and blah-blah-blah. You know it because you have done it with [inaudible 00:55:31] before and it has to be a good fit.

That’s why I think its interesting when you see people … now I know its true and you know its true too when you see designers when they get an award for something and they say. It sounded phony when I first heard it, “We had a great client that we worked with.” Now I understand a little bit of what they are talking about, because I have had a few of them and you realize that they trust you. I have had and hopefully you’ve had this happen to you, where you have a solution that you are giving to a client and you are really strive and you believe in it and you present it with all your heart and soul and they don’t get it.

They come back to you the next day and they say, I have had this happen a couple of times and they said, “When I went to bed I didn’t like, and when I woke up in the morning and I looked at it I loved it.” Have you ever had that happen?

I had a similar thing happen, but it was never quite that …
I might be overselling my position sometimes it just takes [inaudible 00:56:23] and you are stretching them hopefully in a way that … which means that you are on to something that’s original and memorable which is the point.
I have looked at designs that I have done in retrospect and I have certainly looked at them as I was going the wrong way and the client did … because really I’m not doing what I do, I’m not an artist, I’m a designer.
You are an arranger.
A curator.
Yes that’s true.
I’m delivering something that’s going to help their business and if it helps mine great.
Yeah you have to … its funny, I’m not always, in fact I’m pretty sure I suck at this. You are after the right solution, you don’t have to be right, you just want the right solution, the best solution. Maybe that is with you and maybe there is someone that may be better at executing that who can say.
Sure, sure it’s definitely been the case.
When you think about people who are really, really stylized and they are different … going back to music you wouldn’t have hired Dave Grohl to play on your symphony record. You wouldn’t play Vic Firth to play on your Queens of the Stone Age record.
I have always tried agency wise, tried to fight against having a certain house style, but you do, you always do. There is always … in the jobs that you accept or the types of clients you work with or just whether you are thinking about it or not, it’s going to come out.
How often … how … so I’m curious how does that go for you as … especially, because I have always worked on my own. How does that work for you when a client comes across the desk for you, how … what do you … what’s your process?
When building a website or?
No I mean I know you have your questionnaire, how do you decide if it’s a good fit?
Sometimes you are not sure and you just want to challenge yourself and see if you can do something that’s a little outside of your comfort zone. Definitely there is … a client will have an existing website and hearing them describe what’s bothering them about that and why it isn’t working is the most helpful thing in the world.
No kidding right.
If they have a website and they think, “Its not bad” and then they say, “Well my problems are this … “and they are really insightful and they are really well considered. For me listening to someone who’s really thinking things through and working with that person is delightful. Working with someone who is a little too prescriptive and heavy handed … if they are describing their problems with their site as this isn’t working, or this isn’t working or … it just doesn’t.

I can deal with that … but if they are like, “Well this is red it should be blue,” and giving those kinds of things then I feel like its not going to be a good fit. I assume that someone has looked at our portfolio and they know what our style is, what we are going for.

Right I would think …
They are not going to come to us, if they want something that’s totally not what we do.
I’ve got to say I hardly ever … when someone … the poster that was up in Steve’s place and I hope he is not listening to this, is when someone leave their phone number, I have done this a couple of times. They will go “I like what you did, can you call me.” I hardly ever call back. Because it’s you know what … I just … I don’t know.
Well the worry there is they are going to want you to do the same thing … and the same thing and that’s not the feeling.
It’s just …
Well in anyway you’ve … you are doing other things.
Yeah there is that too but I’ve always liked to think that, the work I do, I just [inaudible 01:00:20] pretty much self-segmenting. No one is going to come and ask me to do …
We’ve tried various things to get clients like running Google ads, or cold-calling at various points in our history and it has never worked.
It doesn’t, I know right.
The results that you get are people who have … we are several orders of magnitude out of their ballpark for something. They have no … they clicked on a Google ad they are not looking for a five figure website or something they are not looking for that.
The guy who I’m working with right, now who I love dearly he is the guy who used to run tennis at Nike ironically. Him and I like to say what we are doing with the tennis apparel at New Balance is we are trying to create a pull not a push. I don’t want to jam it at any place, I want to create something that people want to come get. I want to create an attraction, like you see … when I think about a place here in town, it makes me think about … I think about Blake or Lizard Lounge. Some place where you go, you are … maybe something new and interesting and you are attracted to that.
I love what Lizard Lounge is doing I love that place.
I know right, that’s the whole thing, the vibe and the [inaudible 01:01:39] the place is awesome, it’s just always something that is really interestingly curetted and displayed. You are drawn to it, rather than, “Shit I need toilet paper [inaudible 01:01:50].” That’s a whole different proposition. Again, not to [inaudible 01:01:56] so much of that is storytelling it’s something that’s interesting that you are drawn to, is a point of view and you are doing something that’s interesting.
You want to know a lot of stuff about … I remember when we started out, I remember reading a book by Guy Kawasaki who …
Yeah I have Guy Kawasaki.
It was his first book after, I think he left Apple and he was always harping on you need to position yourself at the high end. You always want to be the person who is, “You know what I understand that you might be able to afford us, but if you can here is what we would love to deliver.” You always want to be in, it’s worth being that person. It saves you a lot of …
I was talking to somebody they called me up and they said, “Hey so and so I was going to do some work for them and I told them this is what I would charge them.” I said, oh my god, you are screwed because you told them … you should actually be charging twice that and now you can’t go back and tell them that. Because you already told them you are going to work for half of what you should have. You know what I mean. I’m always coming at it, “What’s this worth.”

Again I’m a man of a million anecdotes, I remember seeing Charles Anderson and I think that he said, the trap a lot of designers fall into is that, they think they are selling a service but they are really selling a commodity. You are selling something … you are selling a brand … you are selling an idea. You are not just selling typesetting, you are not just selling coloring, you are selling … here is an idea and it’s worth something bigger than just the hours it took to do it. You know what I mean?

Yeah absolutely.
That’s [inaudible 01:03:35] that’s always stuck with me, its like, god if nothing else that Nike sportswear thing, holy shit, that is … they have been using that logo ever since I did it 10 years ago.
Our big fear is that people will look at us and think how many hours is it going to take?
I know that’s a really good … that’s a red flag, it’s like … that’s what you thinking you are getting? Not that you are going to screw them but if that’s what you are thinking right off the bat then this is … that’s not a good sign. Anyway I think … again I think of this … if it’s … when I worked for Pendleton. I was, “God I feel like I’m contributing into this cannon of great design and venerable design, people hold on to those blankets for 50 years.” I was thinking, “I don’t want to fuck that up.”
No, that’s a great thing you feel that way.
That’s … there is no higher purpose as a designer, right?
That’s a testament to …
I have lived on to be a part of that. That to me is … that’s … it’s an honor, I’m honored and I respect what you do and I’m going to take care of it and protect it.
Did you know that the Beach Boys originally were named the Pendletones?
I do.
You did know that.
I do. It makes you wonder what would happen …
We should have an anecdote off.
Here is something that I … I want to do this. Do you know about the … there is the one about the … there is the one that the Legends of Portland and how it was named. Was able to be Portland?
Or Boston.
Boston yeah, yeah.
I have been there all the time and I can’t not … this is terrible, my fifth grade teacher would slap me on the wrist for not remembering, I think it was Pettygrove and Lovejoy who they had a coin toss.
Yeah [inaudible 01:05:34].
The guy I think its Lovejoy is buried in that Pioneer cemetery over there on [inaudible 01:05:40]. He is the guy who lost the time. Can you imagine if this was actually called Boston, Oregon how confusing that would fucking be?
I think we lost out being Portland. You want to be the bigger one.
I know right, Boston … oh Boston, Mass … no Boston, Oregon.
Oh that’s too bad.
[Inaudible 01:06:00] I know I keep thinking about those big what ifs but yeah.
Its fascinating that isn’t Brooklyn a separate city?
Brooklyn is?
It was.
At some point it was.
You know they call Portland the sixth borough but is it really? I wouldn’t know that.
I think it was at some point and then they just … Same for the Minneapolis was originally St. Anthony.
… and Minneapolis they just merged they are like corporations, they merge as they grow these cities.
I know with North and South Dakota there is a big kerfuffle over one of them being the original Dakota and then having to delineate themselves between north and south. One of them feels like they are just called Dakota. The fact that they have to call themselves north and south is in a front to …
There are more important arguments than that.
I know, who cares?
The problem is no …
Jeremy is awesome, he’s, what I love about Jeremy telling that story is he is actually … his background … he went to college he has a degree in anthropology. Which I always thought don’t you …
It’s hilarious, I interview an anthropologist last week for this, who was a client of ours, Hunter Qualitative. They do … that’s I would … I should definitely talk to Jeremy.
I have far more fun talking about human behavior than I do about design.
Yeah because you know it’s …
Why do you do what you do?
Its design. I am interested in what … other stuff that just tangentially can contribute to my understanding of how design fits into the human experience.
Don’t you love it when something … when you are anointed with the perfect solution then go, it wraps it all up in a nice little package. That’s … that it isn’t that you are so brilliant that you thought of it, it’s just that it happened. The reason it’s so fine, is because you bring all this other stuff into it.
You just have to stay open to inspiration and …
Totally, where does that come from Needmore? Where does that come from?
It actually came from the record label. I was really into Guided by Voices about a decade back. Their publishing company was Needmore Songs and one drunken night I noticed that and I was, “That’s clever, I’m going to steal that.”
One of my email addresses that I thought was so clever its blife. B-L-I-F-E and that was a bite off who at the time was alife in Manhattan down in Orchard Street. There is a shop called alife or whatever they call it.
I do not know that.
They carry really cool things and it was one of the first really hip New York boutiques about 10-15 years ago.
I always think of you as bizzbob.
For the record radio listeners its and this is my …
I’m I pronouncing it wrong?
This is my failed attempt because … its bizzebobe, get it?
I do, that makes more sense.
The guy I’m working with [inaudible 01:09:05] calls me bizz, whatever, it is … whatever. It is what it is.
Cool, we should … I guess we should wrap this up. I’m paying by the minute here for the …
Oh my gosh [inaudible 01:09:22].
Just kidding. Thanks for coming by Bob.
Oh my gosh yeah.
Bob Smith where can people find you are you mainly on Facebook or do you have any … ?
I’m on Facebook a lot. I have an archaic website Wikipedia link, but mostly on Facebook or LinkedIn.
Just keep an eye out for.
Okay cool. Thanks.
Yeah. Thanks Raymond.

The Job is a talk show about design, music, business, culture, technology, the web, and Portland, and featuring interviews with interesting people. Hosted by Ray Brigleb and brought to you by Needmore Designs.