Jeff Kleinsmith on the New Wave of Music Design

In the last three decades we’ve witnessed the demise of cassette tapes, the rise and fall of CDs, and the near end and now re-emergence of LPs. And through it all, Jeff Kleinsmith, creative director at Sub Pop Records, has pivoted at each turn, adapting and changing with the times.

He started at the Seattle-based record label when bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam ruled the airwaves. Not only was the music transitioning from hair bands to grunge, but the way music was played and packaged was changing dramatically, and it still is. Here, we talk to Kleinsmith about how his job has shifted and transitioned over the years, and what it’s like to work with musicians on their albums.

You’ve said that working in rock n’roll is a dream job some days and some days it’s the same as any other in-house gig. Tell me a little about that.

Well it’s funny. I do talks and I teach students, and I always get asked if this is my dream job. It is a dream job. I still feel that way after 23 years, frankly! But, I have to laugh at the notion that all we do is design album covers and go to rock shows. We’re doing a ton of behind the scenes stuff like creating very specific digital marketing tools or designing shrink wrap stickers, or editing catalog pages for a distributor. I think that’s not what these students are thinking of when they ask about the music industry. They’re thinking of Nirvana or Father John Misty covers or something. But that’s actually a pretty small part of our day-to-day job—creating the cover that is. Look, we deal with meetings, and last-minute crap, and clients not liking our mockups, just like anyone else. It’s the same stuff you would complain about if you were in a corporate job. Read the rest of the interview here.



Art Chantry: Design’s Anti-Hero Receives AIGA’s Highest Honor

As a guy who rose to popularity for his crude album cover designs for bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Sonics, and Mudhoney nearly three decades ago, Art Chantry is still trying to figure out the design world. In fact, he’s adverse to most design these days and resists technology as much possible. The man prefers to work with his hands, manipulating materials, images, and type in a way that the computer just can’t do, in his opinion.

Chantry is an outspoken critic of modern design and designers, but despite that, he’s being honored as a 2017 AIGA Medalist. The irony hasn’t been lost on him. It just goes to show that good work is good work, and you can be welcomed into the club even if you’re an outsider with a bad attitude. Even he couldn’t believe it when he received the call from AIGA.

Here he talks about what’s wrong with design today, his hoarding habits, and why he’s such a pain in the ass.

Do you like design today?

That’s a loaded question. I do like SOME design done today. But, frankly, I look at old design, not new design. Old design, pre-computer design—when the IDEA was the coin of the realm. I look at contemporary design annuals and see this incredibly high level of mediocrity. Page after page of beautifully rendered (crisp and clean) design that all looks the same. About every 10 to 20 pages one piece will pop out like a huge sore thumb. At first you can’t figure out why. Then you realize it’s because it actually has an idea being presented. Most graphic design today is not really design. It’s decoration. Graphic decoration. It just has to look nice, or pretty, or cool. It has to fit in to a very high standard of production values that only computers can give you.

Any design work that doesn’t look exactly like your ‘comp’ is pounded down like a nail that sticks up. Ideas are erased so fast in an environment like that. These are all things that I try to avoid in my work. Strangely, ideas are all I have to offer any more. Computers don’t have “idea” buttons (yet).

Read the rest of the interview at Moxie Sozo.


The Many Sides of Robynne Raye

If you know anything about Robynne Raye, you know that she’s outspoken, passionate, and a fierce advocate in the design community. As cofounder of the now legendary design studio, Modern Dog, her poster designs have been regularly lauded in industry publications, and the firm’s tongue-in-cheek package designs for Blue Q (among other clients), put them in an enviable position among their peers. For more than 25 years, Modern Dog was at the top of their game.

Then from 2011 to 2013, Robynne and her partner, Michael Strassburger, became embroiled in a copyright infringement case against Disney and Target. It nearly bankrupted them financially, and broke them spiritually. Fortunately, they persevered and the big corporations settled, but the firm was fractured and displaced, and Robynne and Mike were exhausted. Although Modern Dog still exists, it’s now a part-time venture for the principals, who have since taken on new roles.

Mike is an art director at the Seattle Aquarium and Robynne has been teaching full time and taking on projects of her own. If you ask her, though, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s busier than ever and she loves it. “When you’re running a studio, you’re managing people and projects, not actually designing. Design is what I love, and I’m happy that I’m able to do it again without the hassle of running a studio. I don’t see myself ever going back to that,” she says. “For 27 years at Modern Dog, I felt like I was taking care of other people. Now I only want to take care of myself.”

And she still likes to be part of the design conversation, especially when she sees something she doesn’t agree with. A few months ago, she unintentionally started a debate over an AIGA event in Seattle called Woman Up, that featured a panel of leading female designers discussing challenges they’ve encountered in their careers. Robynne was disturbed by the intent of the event, so she posted this on Facebook:

“If women designers are on the same level as men, why are we being separated? I saw this [event announcement] earlier today and thought, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Not that I have anything against any of the women on the panel (all talented and some of them I’m lucky to call friends), but I am dismayed that in 2016 we are still (collectively) separating women, and giving them their own ‘women platform.’ Why not just call this a leadership panel? Gender really has nothing to do with their talent. … I look forward to the day that this kind of thing stops.”

There was backlash and support, as the thread wound down the Facebook chain. Robynne will tell you any day of the week that it’s the work that matters, not what’s between your legs. “People were contacting me and telling me that I have to be a role model for women. I am a role model,” she asserts. “The truth is, at Modern Dog, I always got way more attention than Mike, and I think part of that is because I am a woman. I don’t see how it’s hurt me in any way. In some cases, I think my business partner got overlooked because he was male. I find it almost offensive when the AIGA is asking for women to get together and discuss gender issues, when the AIGA is about promoting design. Why leave the design element out of it?”

“Sexism is not a unique part of being a female graphic designer, it’s part of a challenge a person deals with if they are born with a vagina. If I’m going to attend an event that includes smart, talented women designers, then I would like to hear them talk about their work. If other people would rather talk about sexism and gender issues in the field of graphic design, then I’m not attending.”

Robynne acknowledges that sexism exists—in any field—but personally, it’s never been an obstacle for her. She believes you’re either a good designer, or you’re not. If you’re good, you can come up with a solution for any problem. Case in point: She teaches graphic design at Seattle Central Creative Academy, in Seattle, and she recently assigned a male student to design the packaging for a healthy herbal supplement that eases menstrual cramps. “I always think it’s funny when people assume you can’t design outside of your demographic. There isn’t any reason why this guy can’t do this,” she says.

As a teacher, she is mentoring and nurturing the talent of young designers, and she loves it. She hears first-hand the frustrations from students who need guidance, because they feel pressured to be good at everything. “It’s become a badge of honor to list 15 different things you can do, but 13 of those things you don’t really love, and it will show in the work. I tell my students that there’s nothing more satisfying than being good at one or two things. If you’re good at what you do, the work will come.”

She’s also compelled to educate her clients, and let them know when they don’t need something. For instance, a few years ago a former client asked her to redesign a logo she did for them ten years earlier. “They thought it was time to update it,” she says. But after looking at it, she told the client that there was no way she could make the logo work better than it already did. They said OK, and they didn’t change it. “I could’ve made money doing it, but I felt like it would have been irresponsible to try to take something that’s already working really well and make it different.”

In a similar vein, she’s doing several projects for a cannabis company. Originally, they wanted her to redesign the packaging, but she couldn’t find anything wrong with it. “It’s really quite brilliant. It doesn’t use a lot of resources—no glue, no plastic—so it’s already sustainable; the graphics are good; the simple diecut holds the product securely. There’s no reason to change the packaging,” she says, adding, “It just needs to work a bit better,” which is what she’s doing.

“I’m at a point in my career where I’m not desperate to take money from someone. I feel better telling someone what I really think, and it’s a good place to be as a designer.”