Jesse Reed — Interview
Dennis Moya : Hello Jesse how are you?
Jesse Reed : Hello — I’m caffeinated, and in my one hour of morning zen.
DM : Can you introduce yourself?
JR : This can be a long answer, or short, so let me try to get somewhere in between. My name’s Jesse Reed, born in Australia but consider myself an Ohio-native. I went to the University of Cincinnati (in Ohio) and moved to New York City after graduation in 2010. My first job out of college was working as a designer for The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) under the direction of Julia Hoffmann. A year and a half later I moved into a position for Michael Bierut at the New York office of Pentagram. After three years I became an associate partner for Michael, and just recently left that position two weeks ago! In 2014 another associate, Hamish Smyth, and myself started a small publishing company called Standards Manual—since leaving Pentagram we’re both focusing on that full-time as well as a new design consultancy, Order.
DM : Where does your interest in graphic design come from?
JR : Graphic design was introduced to me while I was already in college—before that, I don’t think I ever said those two words out loud or even knew it was a profession. In high school I was a band nerd and thought I would play drums in my punk band forever. I had no professional ambitions and I honestly didn’t care where I went to college, or even if I went at all. Luckily my parents didn’t let me do that, but I still only chose Cincinnati because they accepted me (the only school, I think) and it was in-state (I didn’t visit a single school beforehand). Originally I was going to major in business, but then my father suggested I switch into fine arts. Photography was a pseudo-hobby of mine so I decided that could work.
Somewhere towards the middle-to-end of my freshman year I saw some foundation design studies that my friends in the design program were doing. I can clearly remember what they were—simple line interval studies like ones that you would find in an Armin Hofmann book. Once I discovered that graphic design was a thing, some sort of deep primal instinct made my gut turn, in a good way. I applied to transfer into the program on the day of the deadline, and somehow made it in. That was the best decision of my life, and one that changed it forever.
DM : You recently co-founded with the designer Hamish Smyth the design consultancy order. What can you say about your collaboration and this new project?
JR : Order is a very exciting thing for us. If you would have asked me even a year ago if I was ready to leave Pentagram and start my own studio, I would have easily said “no way.” For whatever reason the timing was right for both of us and we could feel in our guts this was going to be our next move. Since Hamish and I had been working closely together with Standards Manual for the past two years, we’ve found that we do business really well together. Our philosophy around design is more or less the same, but our personalities are different enough that there’s a good balance of character. It’s a good cop, bad cop scenario for sure.
Hamish and I really like to do things quickly, and not just talk about it. Even if we’re not completely sure it will be successful, if we both agree it’s worth a shot, we’ll immediately put things in motion and at least try. Order will be mostly client-facing work, but we do have some ideas about other initiatives we want to take on. For one, the studio is going to double as a bookshop that carries strictly graphic design titles—our own, others, new, rare—but only graphic design. We want it to be a destination for people visiting New York to find the best books on graphic design without having to dig through piles at other general selection stores. Our inventory will be selective, but we’re big believers in design history and having students know where things originated from, not just what’s on blogs. So we’ll hopefully carry a lot of influential design books that we were given as students / young designers.
The second is a portion of our business to support small non-profits on a pro-bono basis, particularly in places outside of New York City. We want to supply the resources for them to better communicate with their communities and not have to pay New York City prices for them. This is a developing concept but one we really want to stick to once we’re up and running.
DM : You also co-founded Standards Manual with Hamish. How did you get the idea to do this?
JR : This happened all by accident and was never intended to be an actual business. It all started when we found an original copy of the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual in the basement of Pentagram. We photographed every page and made a website. After a few days the site received of 250k unique visitors, which was alarming. We thought it would be awesome if there was a republished version of the Manual, but didn’t think it was possible, by a major publisher (risk would have been too high). A year later we were nudged by Hamish’s girlfriend, Alex Daly, who runs a crowdfunding management company, to look into doing a Kickstarter for it. At the same time, the MTA was also our client at Pentagram so we had someone we could actually ask. They agreed and we launched the campaign. At the end of the 30 days we ended up raising $800k+ and selling just under 7k books.
The campaign was much, much more successful than we ever imagined, and it has now led to forming an actual imprint. We’ve gone on to do a second edition of the NYCTA Manual, and two other titles—the NASA Graphics Standards Manual by Danne & Blackburn, and the American Revolution Bicentennial Graphics Standards Manual by Chermayeff & Geismar / Bruce Blackburn. All books sell on our website and we have 2–3 more planned for 2017.
DM : Do you have a designer that you admire?
JR : Honestly, Michael Bierut. Maybe it’s because I know him personally and have seen him more as a human being than other designers. I love Otl Aicher and John Massey, but I don’t know their personalities (I’m sure they were terrific, too). But as anyone who knows Michael can attest to, you won’t meet a more genuine, humble, incredibly smart, and supportive person—and on top of that, one hell of a designer. He has the ability to retain everything, apply it in ways that would take you much longer to piece together, and deliver it with grace. I’ll never be Michael Bierut, or anywhere close to it, but I’ll never forget the conversations, meetings, and observations I made while working under his leadership.
DM : Is there a book which opened your eyes about design?
JR : Armin Hofmann: GRAPHIC DESIGN MANUAL.
DM : The last word…
JR : If you’re a young designer and wondering when that sick feeling goes away at the beginning of a project—it doesn’t.