Winterhouse Interview

Portfolio Center’s Bert Bacchus interviewed Winterhouse's Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel during their recent visit to the school:

Herbert Bacchus: Describe a typical day at the Winterhouse Studio.

Jessica Helfand: We’re laughing because there’s nothing typical. We do a lot of divide and conquer. Like in any partnership or marriage, there’s a first line of defense that depends on the situation. If something happens with the kids, I run, and if something happens with a client, Bill runs. It also depends on who’s traveling. The one thing we could probably quantify is that when we’re all working on something together, which is more the exception than the rule, we have an exploratory, and we all work on things and try to get things up pretty quickly and talk about it as a group and rework it. But in general, I’m very often working on my own projects, and increasingly Bill’s doing more things with our designers in the studio.

William Drenttel: Well, the strange point is that Jessica gets up at five, and I roll into the office about…

JH: He goes to bed at 2:30am.

WD: I’m up until 2 or 3 every night.

JH: I have to be a morning person. I have no choice with school-age children. I always joke that between the two of us, we make one-and-a-half efficient persons — not quite two, but there is a kind of tag-team aspect to it.

HB: You mentioned just now that you try and get things up on the wall quickly, and I’ve heard that you two prefer to have some “un-precious�? projects to work on that you can do quickly without belaboring the process.

JH: It’s so important for us. I have to draw every day; I have to make things, and I can’t just be at the desk in front of my computer. And that’s hard, because there’s obviously a lot that needs to get done at the desk in front of the computer. Sometimes you just need something to break up the rhythm of big projects. We have some projects that go on for years, and I think that Bill would agree that we need things that keep us from getting stale.

HB: Bill, do you find that you work the same way?

WD: I think a lot of the projects stop being very interesting as design projects. Our role is so often on a long-term strategic, management, or consulting basis. And there are phases when the design work on some of these projects isn’t very interesting — or not as interesting as at the beginning, when you’re inventing it. So as a studio it’s pretty important to have a mix of projects where, at any given point, there’s some real design work. The ebb and flow of running a studio is managing this tension, both for your own creative juices as well as to keep our designers engaged. Sometimes we do a project for fun just because we need a shift in the work.

JH: Bill used to do this thing that really drove me up the wall: he would say, “I just can’t get to my projects,�? and what he meant was that we had a laundry list of things we wanted to do. We’d sit on airplanes and make lists of all these things we wanted to design, all these things we wanted to do — books we wanted to publish and write and design, exhibitions we wanted to do, all sorts of things.

And then, a few years ago we came up with this idea of forming the Winterhouse Institute as a kind of repository for all of those projects that were self-initiated. We found that once we’d made the Institute — a thing that had a name and an umbrella concept —all of those projects had a place to live. They all sort of inhabited that curatorial, imaginary space that after a while wasn’t so imaginary anymore. Below the Fold:, for example, was conceived as an opportunity for us to throw many book projects into a new context. And it became one way to get these projects out of the netherworld and onto paper.

HB: It seems your partnership has reached a level where you don’t have to be doing work you don’t want to. Do you remember there being a leap-of-faith where you decided, “We’re going to do these things that maybe nobody cares about except us,�? and once that gets out there, the client work becomes something that you want to do? Or rather you’re approached with work that hits closer to home?

JH: Yes, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

WD: Somewhere along the way, we said, "We’re not going to do corporate branding anymore. We want to work on other kinds of projects, mostly non-profit projects." Eventually, Fortune 500 companies don’t call you anymore, especially if you go on the lecture circuit and speak with a critical voice about branding. So certain things do actually become self-fulfilling. We have a portfolio of clients that are almost all exclusively non-profit, and that is the fulfillment of having said this is what we wanted to do, starting with Nextbook and then Poetry Foundation and then Teach For All.

HB: So it’s as simple as saying you want to be something and then being it?

WD: I think it is, yes.

JH: Of course, it doesn’t feel that way every day.

HB: Is the Rockefeller Foundation project something you can talk about?

WD: Well, I can tell you generally what we’re going to do. The goal is to get the best designers in America working with the largest foundations on the world’s most critical problems around poverty. So our job is, basically, to initiate some traction and momentum in the design world to get designers engaged with those issues. To create models that show what that impact and contribution can be, and to help designers find ways to participate through new models.

We’re going to run an Aspen conference in November. We’re collaborating with the Yale School of Management to develop case studies to formalize some sense of a knowledge system around what it actually means for designers to make a contribution, as well as to create business models for doing that in a more sophisticated way. We’re going to be on the road for the next two years, talking to designers and being champions for design contributions relating to social innovation and social change. Half of the challenge will be putting some meat on these terms so that they are not generic, not meaningless descriptions of design.

HB: You want to move design “upstream�? and link it with business strategy rather than just plugging it in somewhere down the line?

WD: Partially. But there’s also the reality that hundreds of millions of dollars are currently being funded through non-profit organizations. So it’s really not so much about giving designers a more important role in business; the real agenda is to get designers much more involved in the research methodology of non-profit funding, no matter where it’s going — rural Alabama or the Sudan. The largest design firms in America don’t yet know how to participate in these projects, yet the employees that they have coming to work for them want their companies to take an active role in theses issues. I believe that if you work at IDEO, you don’t only want to only be working on innovation projects at Procter and Gamble.

HB: So you’re not concerned with the Stefan Sagmeisters and the James Victores, the people who have maneuverability like you do; you’re only thinking about the huge design firms?

WD: No. We’re past thinking that only well-known designers can make a contribution. We’re modeling how large and small firms can participate, irrespective of location. There’s someone else (also funded by Rockefeller) who’s focusing specifically on the smaller firms — a smart designer named Manuel Toscano whose research will ultimately filter into our work. So there are a number of us collaborating on this initiative.

JH: You could take the position, as an individual, that your job is to make work that provokes ideas and discussion around social change, and you can even go down, yourself, and make something happen — like John Bielenberg has with Project M. I think our initiative, in working with Rockefeller and having their support, is also about looking at Design Observer’s next phase and actually amplifying our efforts to take it all to the next level. It’s not like there’s a recipe for success to make social change happen with good design, but it is about mobilizing and catalyzing the best of design and looking at how we can generate greater change in more and different kinds of places.

One of the things you quickly see, as you were saying earlier, is that Hale County, Alabama, is just one problem — with so many more across the country and the world. The question is, how do you talk about design, how do you think about design, and how do you educate designers to understand these challenges and work in tandem at the same level with the kinds of organizations that have the funding or the social knowledge or the working systems that we don’t have? And this does take the point of view that we are working in parallel disciplines. I think it’s interesting because we have in the past tended to think of the designer who engages in social change as being the iconoclast and inspiring us by example. But what we’re talking about now is not really about example; it’s about generating and putting systems in place that make real change actually happen.

HB: Since Winterhouse juggles so many different types of disciplines and endeavors, could you speak a little about time management and, more specifically, about how you change gears internally between something so seemingly disparate as writing and designing?

JH: I wish there were a simple answer but I don’t think there is. Yesterday I threw a complete fit because I have an art project due. I.D. magazine and Moleskine notebooks and two other organizations have sent giant Moleskine notebooks to sixty artists. The thing is due this week, and I have to fill it with fourteen pages of stuff, and I did a whole bunch of it, and then I stopped, and I was kicking myself for letting all these other things get in the way. I find that in the making of something — and this is how I felt in design school and this is how I feel twenty years later — you can’t just turn over the hourglass and say, "Okay, in this amount of time I’m going to be done." It doesn’t work that way. I can do it a bit with writing. I would say, when I was writing my book, “I’m going to research Chapter 5 today and I’m going to give two hours to it.�? Often I’ll start with rewrites from the day before and sort of get a running start. I think that there are occasionally these are little tricks that make writing a bit easier. Of course, writing’s never easy, but I can objectify and compartmentalize my time more easily. And the more I draw and sketch and think visually, the more facile I get as someone who can generate ideas visually and spin them out. I do draw a lot, and I always try to get my students to keep drawing, because there’s a danger that you’ll get so lost in that screen space that you get yourself into trouble. But there’s no rhyme or reason to it. If I’m writing and teaching and making things visually, I’m happiest, and if you take one of these three things out, I’m not as happy.

I would like to think I’m really organized, but while Bill and I are incredibly prolific and get a lot done, the studio’s a mess. Bill stays up too late; we work seven days a week. It’s hard to manage your time and still be really good. I think for me, personally, there is a disconnect between being really organized and being really good. You almost have to be disorganized and throw caution to the wind to do something great. So, in some ways, the busier we are, the more we get done, and the messy desk is probably a metaphor for how much is going on. It’s a pretty rich life, but no, it’s not always an organized one.

WD: I think there’s a real tension between running a commercial practice in which there’s pressure to think in hourly terms — it’s the way the business is structured and it’s how people get paid. But the truth is, really good design work takes as long as it takes. I feel like I should repeat that — or you should publish it in bold. There are a number of types of design practices — the worst example I can think of is making books: why anyone would ever want to be in the book design business …

JH: (He says this as a lover of books, and as a book collector with 10,000 books in his library.)

WD: …is way beyond me. Because after you’ve done the book, gone through a four-hundred page book twenty times to get to some final stage, you proofread it again, and then you redo the rags one more time. A four-hundred page book, even with minor fine-tuning, is still four-hundred pages at fifteen minutes a just can’t be looking at a clock. And you can’t be a young designer and want to work on those kinds of projects and want the glory of having done it, and the awards, and expect to work 9 to 5. At some point you just have to do the work.

Coming back to your original question, the balance in the studio is all about allowing for this kind of real work and time on our own projects, while at the same time trying giving our clients their due and our best efforts. I’ve always hated the syndrome where one gets corrupt clients to pay for good works: it’s a frequent and cynical response to how to manage a practice — too often articulated by leaders in the field. It’s insulting to clients. We’ve struggled with this paradox and simply want to say that one solution is to treat all work with the same seriousness, the same resolve, the same commitment. “I make money here, I do my real work here�? is not the same as “I think, therefore I am.�? It’s a sad commentary on the practice of design to fall into this trap.

JH: Book projects tend to be so all-consuming. I’m starting my next project, which I think will be in the thinking/sketching/meandering phase for a year before anything gets done. But it means I leave the office and make dinner, I get my children upstairs and get homework done, I take a shower, I get back in bed with my laptop, and I do research until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore. Now, is that working? It’s a labor of love. I’m with my children, I’m in the house, I’m not in the studio, I’m not in someone else’s studio, and I work for myself.

HB: There's nothing you'd rather be doing--

JH: And that’s it. The point is, it’s the difference between having a job and having a life. And for us, it’s our life. So we don’t feel bad about the house and the studio being connected and the house trickling into the studio and vice-versa. Because it’s who we are, and I actually think it’s made for a much richer life. I’m glad we don’t just come home at five o’clock or six o’clock or ten o’clock…it’s just an ongoing, organic, crazy but ultimately organic flow of a life.

Bert BacchusComment