Interview with Andrew Means of Transom Design about the building and operating of his studio and how emotion defines our understanding of a visual world.
Full transcript of interview with Andrew Means of Transom Design
Recorded remotely in Spring of 2020
jm: How are you doing?
AM: Good, how you doing?
jm: Doing well, thanks for joining me here today.
AM: I think we might have the same hat, is your hat sea creatures hat on your wall?
jm: Totally! Did you work on there?
AM: We didn't work ont he hat, but we we built all of their websites.
jm: That's awesome, how long you been working with him?
AM: We started working with them maybe back in 2015, we've been with them for a long time.
jm: So you started Transom Design in 2013, can you tell me more about how that started, your background before you got there, and kinda where that all is headed?
AM: I was a philosophy major in college but started getting into design, I remember seeing the movie _Gattaca_ and the opening credits had the letters like tracked out like hugely tracked out. It was the first time that I think I was really kind of aware of typography. It was this is kind of formative moment, I started making posters and doing stuff for the radio and for my band at the time. Worked briefly after college as an art director for an alt weekly and then moved back over to the west side of the state, was in a design job as a marketing manager for a company but was doing a lot of freelance web design that gradually grew and grew until I decided to kind of make that my full-time thing. From really 2006 to 2013 I was doing freelance web design and development and some visual identity and stuff like that, mostly for very very small businesses.
Through some connections I started working with a guy Dave Parker and we became friends and colleagues and did a bunch of design work for him and in 2013 he was like 'Hey why don't we start a web design company, why don't we start an agency?' and I was like 'yeah that sounds great.'
Within about a year, we both started to realize that like running a web design company wasn't really exactly- like Dave had bigger fish to fry in terms of he was like very, he still is, he's a pillar in the startup community a real super super knowledgeable guy and so it made more sense for him to continue doing what he was doing. He left the company at that point and I brought on a partner, I guess 2014 or something like that, that partnership lasted probably again maybe a year-and-a-half and at that point then I was like actually there's there's some sum mismatch there and and since 2015ish been running the company myself.
jm: Was that kind of a turning point than when you said 'I'm going to lead this vision.'
AM: It definitely was. You know I think that's probably one of the biggest turning points that I've experienced professionally, was realizing that it was a bad fit in terms of you know what both of our expectations were. And very very similar to like to a relationship you know you like okay well now we've gotta figure out how to extricate ourselves from this. So it was definitely a good object lesson, for one obviously making sure that any partnership that you get into is like really really well vetted. I think at the time I was like I just want somebody else to handle all the things that I don't enjoy doing when I should have been looking for somebody who is really aligned with you know the overall vision and values. So there's that but then there's also that lesson of like how do you keep perspective when things are, are kind of tough and you're some place that you've never been before.
jm: You want to lean on someone to help you through that, but at the end of the day if they're not on the same page as you then they aren't. They are almost creating more stress in that scenario.
AM: Yeah yeah exactly.
jm: You talked about really owning your own talents your own skills, do you find your base creative source to be very internal or is it external influences and sources that you operate from?
AM: I don't spend very much time on Dribbble or on Pinterest or on whatever. I think my needle probably skews more internally than otherwise. I find design inspiration most often in older pieces of design, like old subway posters from France in the 40s. Like my favorite designer is probably Erik Nitsche a whole bunch of amazing album art and also did this whole series for General Dynamics in the 50's called _Atoms for Peace_. He's just incredible really really incredible artist, you know contemporary of Paul Rand and those guys, he's a Swiss designer. But yeah I mean most often I think the stuff that I find really influences me is older things. Sometimes you'll see like a piece of type and something that was published in the 1700's or something and you're like 'oh my gosh it's so good.' I think I have a really a real engineer's brain that loves order and and loves trying to like solve problems, I'm always amazed at like album covers. I guess a lot of inspiration comes from album covers but like album covers that were made by people were not designers and are making what my brain would default classify as a mistake, but is just so perfect. Little strange typography choices, strange layout choices that for whatever reason like work perfectly. Even though they completely blow up whatever kind of grid you know you might have applied.
jm: Independently those decisions are like the opposite of what we're all trained to do. Kind of the Gestalt of the thing that doesn't make sense individually, collectively comes together as something better.
AM: Yeah exactly. I think just like trying to chase that, it's so fleeting or not fleeting, I mean it's kind of like the way they like you wake up and you wake up with a full sense of what that dream was about but as you start reaching for it like it just completely evaporates and I think that same sense of like 'I'm going to do something random' and 'I just need to mess this design up' and it's so challenging to actually have it work out in that regard to try to manufacture that kind of chaos you know it's very challenging.
jm: You think about it too much and as soon as you're thinking about it then it's no longer random. Are you looking at work outside of the design industries? I ask because I look at a lot of architects or musicians or people who are still in creative fields, but their approaches are just not in a medium that I know anything how to work with and so it's the contrast I don't know it's something that I've always looking at.
AM: I think as anybody with an aesthetic sense, you've got lots of different ways to bring in aesthetic inspiration. I love music, I've played music for a long time and that definitely is a fuel. Whether or not I'd be able to say that like 'oh my adoration of Steely Dan somehow like is going to make it out into a design is something. One of the big journeys that Transom has been on, you know we were formulated as a web design agency we're like we're going to do web design and so we did that and that was fine and I had done some visual identity over the years and so that was always kind of like on the menu. But over time we really realized that without having everything the visual identity and the messaging being part of the process, that we were gonna give our clients a subpar product that that was not going to serve their needs. You know, if we were expecting them to suddenly become a very excellent copywriter even though everybody kind of feels like 'oh I'm sure I could do that, that's easy.' Without doing that we we were ultimately kind of handing over of a product that wasn't really serving their needs and so over time I've really become much much more aware and interested in the way that our brains make decisions and the role that emotions have in that process. And to a degree much greater than I think 20th century western society kind of expects, you know most people think of their brain as being like 'I make a decision then and then my body does the thing.' You know the more that we learn about the way that we make decisions it's that our emotions make a decision and that our brain can have narrates the the process. The thought is somebody like riding a horse you know and like you turn the reins and then you go this way but it's probably much more akin to like a monkey riding a water buffalo or something you know. It's like the monkey is thinking is like telling a story about what's happening and the monkey is thinking I'm a really important monkey like I'm above all these other beasts and stuff, but at the end of the day like we're so, not controlled, but we're so like we just are our mammalian brains to such a huge degree that the cognitive part of it is this is much less in control than what we thought.
And so when we're thinking about building a website or thinking about writing messaging or designing a visual identity, we're always trying to bring it into the emotions and figuring out what kind of emotions are we trying to create and how do we go from there. That really opens up where we can get inspiration from, so I like reading a book is it this amazing- you know Antoine de Saint-Exupéry the guy who wrote _The Little Prince?_ he was this incredible pilot and that was his main thing was being a pilot and before he was an author and he was also involved in the Spanish Revolution just has like a crashed in North Africa flying mail was like marooned and stuff. And so he's got this book called _Wind, Sand and Stars,_ I think it's something like.
Reading that book and he's got a section about how he's marooned in the in the desert and they find this orange that they had forgotten about and they had been able to build a fire, him and his copilot, they build a fire and he's sitting there they've just found this orange and they're delighted so they've split this orange and he has half of an orange and each segment is, is everything. He's like looking up into the night sky and into these stars and there's nothing else. Cuz he knows he's going to die and he's like for the first time I understood the glass of rum or the cigarette that's presented to the condemned man, the smile I used to think it was like some sort of attempt at courage the smile as he smoked the cigarette. But now I understand that for the condemned man that cigarette is everything and that glass of rum is everything and they've never tasted rum like that but never tasted a cigarette like that in the same way that orange for him in that moment was everything to him and it was the most exquisite experience that he could possibly have. Moments like that where you're kind of like 'wow that blew my mind' like reading that and I think that now I'm kind of like how do I Infuse that sense of longing or that understanding of the moment into something that maybe is a lot more mundane you know for whatever client we have like how do we make wine special in that way how do we infuse that into, you know, something that is as pedestrian as a website. So I think maybe from a, not necessarily from a design standpoint, but now I feel like most of my inspirations are coming from ideas.
You know design is about communication, that's what makes it different from art right? The art is something that's arranged to evoke an aesthetic response right? Design is something that's arranged to evoke an aesthetic response and communicate something. Like design can fail. It's debatable about whether one can fail in art. I think for me, obviously I care very deeply about what work goes out the door. I think my passion is helping our clients communicate on an emotional level, because I think that's where the most immediate and palpable, and I think effective, communication really comes from. The why behind behind what what people are doing and then you have to translate that why into something that's actually going to be portable in the sense that it's easily tellable.
We talk a lot about myth with our clients we say that like all great brands are ultimately myths. Most stories whether they're true or false after a certain amount of time will become myths, because that's the shape, that's the type of thing that our brain holds information in. It's like the best way for a for a piece of information to be held in our brain. They're always connected to emotion, they're always fairly simple, and often they teach us something.
One of our clients Kiona for example, they were like 'well we're kind of like the nerdy cousin who helps everybody with their homework but never gets invited to the dance' and we were like 'well, that's a really interesting position to be in.' Because they were providing grapes to all these like wineries that we're getting all these huge stores and stuff, but they were still people thought of them as a real value brand. And to a degree they priced their wines low kind of on purpose, or lower than then they could on purpose because they weren't beholden to any banks and didn't need to make x amount of profit there this farming family this kind of they don't have these aspirations of becoming the next like (Gallo)[https://www.gallo.com/] they wanted to do exactly what they were doing.
And so our site for them was not like when we went out to do the photography we weren't like okay everybody we need you to dress up nice and then we're going to get the whole family together and drape a sweater over your shoulders like a tennis pro or something like that. Everybody wore the exact clothes that they normally wear and the Carhartt jacket with like the tear in the sleeve and stuff and you know they're out in the vineyard climbing on equipment and squishing grapes in like dirty calloused hands. We started to kind of craft the myth about this farming family that were the first people to plant grapes on Red Mountain, which is now become one of the hottest AVA's in the country (American Viticultural Area). But again we could have been like 'okay let's build you a site, you'll have online sales, we'll say what time you're tasting rooms open' but the more important thing is how do we tell a story that's really affecting and distinct.
jm: You were talking about your business partners, but have you ever had a client relationship that you had to end or remediate in that process?
AM: It's so much about expectations. One of the things that I always feel like we can do better and I think historically has been more than anything else in his always caused the most friction, is when clients' expectations and your expectations get out of sync. More than anything else, that's that's one of the things I think is the most critical and the most easily overlooked. Especially because you're doing a process that you'ce done a million times and a client is doing a thing that they've done maybe once before? Once or twice before. It's very common for people to especially with regards to visual identity or website or messaging those are all investments that happen five years, ten years, sometimes twenty.
jm: And very personal discussions to be having with the business owner.
AM: Very. We had one wine client where we were working with him for a long time. It's very common for us to work with clients for a very long time before they're kind of ready to really examine their visual identity. We found very little benefit in coming in hard out of the gate. If somebody doesn't know that they need a new visual identity it's very difficult to convince them that they need a new one. So a lot of times you really need to establish all of that trust with the client by doing other work with them before you can start to say you know 'here's some of the ways that your identity right now is not communicating what you want it to communicate' and they can start to to move from their.
jm: Work up to it but also business coaching, design coaching happening at the same time.
AM: Yeah it's all of those things at the same time. It's like therapy.
jm: It's not the first time I've heard that.
AM: Any agency that's not relating in that way with their clients I think is kind of missing out on a way that they could be managing that relationship that has the potential for something deeper and better to happen. Without approaching it from that kind of aspect you can really miss things that are very important. Unless the client feels comfortable and trusts you to tell you things that they might be play afraid of or unsure of yeah there's things that you can miss that could be a really really helpful to the client.
jm: When you're managing expectations between you and the client, how are you keeping your own team on track with meeting or moving those expectations?
AM: We have a small team so that makes that very easy in some ways and it introduces its own sets of challenges. As far as day-to-day we use Asana for task management and we do daily stand ups and that's really helpful to get a sense of where we're at with each project, what are the challenges that we're facing and how are we going to do for this next review deadline.
jm: Thinking out loud as you go and documenting and creating artifacts and sharing those artifacts as a point of internal process.
AM: Because we're such a small team I am both the creative director and the project manager, so there's times where that necessarily kinda falls thru the cracks. Because we're a small team it can be something where we can say 'hey can you take care of this?' and somebody's able to without needing to document it. That also introduces areas where that can start to get out of sync between the team or between a client. That's just one of the biggest challenges of being a small agency is like we chose Asana specifically because it had keyboard shortcuts that allowed me to create a new task where it needed to be created in five seconds rather than ten seconds, because that's the difference between a task and created or not, it's just how pulled my attention is from no one thing to another.
jm: Is there a tension between your creative director half of your brain and your project manager half of your brain? You want to make something really good but you also want to continue to make profit off of a project.
AM: That's probably, I mean that's the central challenge you know. If profit weren't an issue then you know we would be just spinning inordinate amounts of time like fine-tuning things and coming up with crazy cool new ideas and stuff but as a business you have to weigh each one of those decisions. You have to look for areas where you can reuse code in a way that doesn't make a product any less or especially any less well-suited to the to the client. You have to look for like we got this super cool thing that we could do which is going to take an extra sixteen hours or this cool thing that's going to take an extra four. And it's like, well we're going to do the cool thing because it's the difference between us actually making any money on this project or breaking even.
jm: Have you found a set of practices that make your business more sustainable that you keep going back to?
AM: I think in terms of process that regular check-in I think is probably the biggest thing. Because then you can kind of its gauge when you have time to extend to do those cool things. And obviously like scoping is huge that's a pretty massive skillset that is constantly being improved, is like how do we scope better? You know people come in and I like 'I want a new bathroom for my house' you're like alright cool. One contractor will deliver a bathroom that's you know completely outfitted at Home Depot and it's going to cost this much money and then another contractor will outfit the bathroom with you know vintage tile from Morocco. And with websites because the construction techniques can vary so hugely they can be really really challenging to get everybody's expectations in sync and to figure out what's gonna be possible within the budget. That's just something that is not, it's not an exact science.
jm: One, how do you how do you feed your team creatively and how do you build the culture that you want to be part of the studio. And then the other direction how does knowing the craft deeper, affect what you feel capable to do for clients? You know, you can design a website for days and have no idea how to write code and it could be fine, but you can't necessarily design something entirely without knowing how it functions or make a screenprinted poster and not actually know how ink gets onto paper.
AM: When I was freelance, and I would design and I did everything myself I was a one man shop. And so I would design a logo and typography and identity and then I would design the website and then I would code the website. There was a lot of times where I would look at my situation and kinda my skillset and would I feel like man, I would be so much farther ahead as the designer if I was just a designer. I would be so much farther ahead is a developer if I was just a developer. For a long time I really wondered if you know those seven years that I was doing that if I was kind of wasting that time. Now as a creative director I can work with my designer and I can work with my developer and I can translate between those two and I think knowing that having that knowledge of code and having that knowledge of design is hugely hugely helpful. Specifically with respect to web design.
And maybe there's a parallel to be drawn understanding kind of armchair anthropologist or developing a visual identity or developing messaging. Yeah I think in general the more generalized your knowledge the better, provided you're not so generalized that you're not able to produce any product.
jm: Maybe an uppercase T where you're really deep in one thing but also very wide in as many disciplines that interest you.
AM: Yeah and you could go as a wedge or you start to make it make them more into serifs or something like that where you're more deep into that.
jm: And how do you encourage that in your staff? Or how do you find people that are also that shape that shape of discipline and interest and how do you encourage them to continue to learn?
By virtue of us working closely together and making sure that explanations are not just 'oh we can't do that so we're going to do it the other way' it's seeking to understand like why is this limitation in place or why is this other option preferable?
jm: If you can describe what you see is a successful studio is it the combination of these different kinds of personalities then? The generalist is you sitting back directing, or kind of not composer, but the actual orchestra leader and you let each individual player be good at their specific interest?
AM: I think the successful studio is the one that pays its employees and pays its rent and does good work for its clients. For my studio, that's what you expressed is largely my aspiration. And whether it's at some point you know, we grow into a place where there are other generalists who are beneath me or alongside me, working and they're kind of doing the same thing that I'm doing right now- but my goal is always to have my employees to feel empowered and for each one of them to be using their own talents to kinda you know, play their own instrument as best as they can.
jm: If you had to describe the relationship between kinda your studio and the greater creative culture in the Pacific Northwest be it inhouse groups or other studios, are you collaborating with your peers, are you competing with other studios, are you competing against inhouse groups?
AM: We don't do that much collaboration with other studios but there does seem to be a real kind of collegiate atmosphere, at least among the studios that we know and the other designers that we count as colleagues and friends. I feel like it's a rare that somebody is like 'damn it those guys got that job' usually it's like 'oh that's cool those guys got that job.' I think in general, my experience has been one of largely kinda collegiate you know, people are looking celebrating good work that each others, that other people are doing. There was a time when I was trying to set up a regular group of like Pioneer Square creatives we were just doing like a little happy hour thing. I still think that would be a fun thing to do we've done it I'm done number of times but it's always hard to keep those kind of things going.
jm: Yeah I mean I would come. I don't own a studio in Pioneer Square but I would be there.
AM: The times that we did it, it was really fun. It was neat to kinda compare notes and not bitch about clients, but talk shop you know? Maybe when this thing blows over we can set something up. I think we did maybe three or four of them or something but they have their own lifespan and they just take somebody else getting like 'you know what, let's get that ting going again' and it sprouts back up.
jm: Right, and you can't host every time, but if you have a enough people to rotate it. Do you see the overall growth of Seattle affecting this kind of community? Or affecting your business?
AM: Recently, recently because we put a lot of energy into cultivating our winery clients and our authority in the wine industry as a as a provider, that has diversified our geographic reach, at least within Washington. So we have a lot of clients in Walla Walla and Red Mountain and in Woodinville and so you know we're not solely focused in Seattle. We have a lot of clients in Seattle and I think the growth Seattle has seen over the past decade you know that rising tide has lifted all ships but it also brings up salaries and makes it challenging to find good employees, because any of my employees can go work for Amazon and make you know an order of magnitude more than they're making now. And I think that's just kind of the nature of the beast of how Seattle has grown.
jm: To touch on the idea of design education and kind of state of that: do you have internships and what are your opinions of design education today?
AM: We have done internships, as a small shop it can be really challenging to make sure that we have the resources to give an intern the instruction that they would need in order for it to make sense and then also for it to not be a huge kinda burden on us. I think design, and I'll include coding education, is largely my experience has been a disappointing one. I think there are a lot of design and development schools or programs yeah programs, that a lot of them are kind of like learn to code in just six months or learn to do this in however much and and they're charging you know in some cases exorbitant amounts money yeah, and those skills are important. But I think that the expectation is often that when people come out of them, you know everyone time we post something we're flooded with applications of people who are woefully under qualified. And it may just be that our agency isn't large enough to be able to accommodate people who don't have you know kind of expert level skills. We've got it we got a designer and we have a developer and we have a smattering of like contractor developers who are all like very very highly-skilled. The person kind of leaving there six month code bootcamps is, there's just no place for them in our agency right now. But I think the disappointment comes from the expectations that I see in people leaving those programs where they've been told we're going to teach you everything you need to know when in actuality, like knowledge is only part of it and the knowledge that they've been given is only a fraction of the knowledge that they need. There's almost a wisdom I think that that you can't really teach and I think really it only does come from doing and I think that's why I think internships are hugely hugely important, frankly the designer that we had prior to our current designer was actually a student and came to us asking for an internship and we were like yeah we can do a stop a summer internship and over the course of the summer he progressed so rapidly that we were able to have him working on client work very very quickly. And at the end of the summer he still had another year of school and we were like 'well look, we want to hire you. You can certainly go back to school if you want or you can come work for us.' That's obviously like, and he he decided 'well I might as well get paid to complete my education.' That was certainly an experience where that was kind of best case scenario for for an internship at where you know we recognized his talent you know to start off with going into it. I think that seeing how quickly he grew in that internship and in the past we've had other than internships like how quickly you can pick stuff up in that environment, I think it's a really critical part of of any education.
jm: Do you think there's a line of thinking of actually certifying what it means to be a designer? I know there's there's talk about formalizing education in a way that is not a degree but it's is rather more of a license?
AM: For what I want out of a designer I frankly don't see any value in that. I think that the things that I value in designers are not things that you can take a test for you know? I don't care if somebody knows it what typefoundry made Baskerville but I do care if somebody has empathy. I do care if somebody is a good listener, I care if somebody takes direction well, those things are infinitely more important I think. I would think that like being some sort of like somehow like a 'licensed' designer- uh and also I think has an aesthetic that is roughly aligned with an agency's aesthetic. I almost think that some sort of license type of thing or accreditation would or could exacerbate, again it's like there's been a shift in the industrial revolution (I'm kinda talking out of my ass here) but like I feel like I'm putting together my own kind of history right? Is that I think that the Industrial Revolution is a massive shift in the way that we as a species approach work.
Like work used to be: you learned a trade and didn't have any choice about it usually right? It wasn't like 'well I don't want to go to learn how to be a shepherd uh, like I want to do this.' Like you didn't have any choice, it's like your dad was a shepherd you're a shepherd. That craft, or you're dad was a blacksmith or whatever, that craft was taught over years and your knowledge of the craft is something that's accumulative and rich and deep and hands-on. Then the industrial revolution happens and you go into a factory and they're like 'pull this lever, every time you see this thing pull this lever' or you know 'inspect this nut, thread this on to this thing and hand it to the next person.' And so then you have choice about where you work, you can decide well 'I don't like putting nuts on bolts, I'm gonna to go to this other factory where they have a lever pulling job.'
And so you've got choice and you also are able to learn a craft in an afternoon sometimes. And it can be just like 'okay cool, you got it.' But I don't think that changes- like, our brains haven't evolved to that reality right? We've got the same exact brains that you know homo sapiens have had effectively for millennia. We have the capacity for much much deeper amounts of learning than can be conveyed and in six months or something. So I think that the idea of being credited because you went through a certain program I think that would just exacerbate this post industrial revolution thing. Where it's like you've checked all these boxes so therefore you know how to do it, but the knowledge is like is such a bottomless, mmm bottomless is a negative thing, it's a limitless thing for so many of these skills.
jm: Are you happy? Are you content in your business as it exists today and does it get you up at 5 am with a smile or where is that going and what would make you that happy?
AM: Well speaking completely selfishly right now what would get me up at 5 am and what historically has got me up at 5 am with a smile the most is, and especially now as it's starting to get warmer but we're also like we're locked inside, would be like to go out sailing. To try to catch the tide at 5 yeah that would be amazing.
jm: Oh yeah I'd love to be there right now.
AM: Professionally, I'm sure that there exists agency owners of my size of our size who are perfectly happy all the time and feel like this is exactly the job that they want to be doing and couldn't ask for anything better. Mine is definitely a balance of like how do I manage the challenges that are that are constantly in front of me some of which are very small on some of which are much larger and more strategic or or even kind of limitations of my own personality and I recognized it like even in very very large companies the shape of a company from a moral standpoint or from a work ethic standpoint or an aesthetic standpoint are very much a reflection of the leadership of that company. And so the personality of the people leading that company will invariably be reflected on that company and it's not lost on me that the successes of Transom are like I can feel happy and proud of the things and the ways that we succeeded but also our failures are very often you know the buck stops here and in my own personality is uh, I'm acutely aware of both of the positive and the negative limiting factors in the positive factors of my own personality on the company. So that definitely is a very rich experience and I don't know that I would make a particularly good employee at this point. And there are things that I absolutely love about it, like when we pull off a project and the client is happy like when the client the best did parts of my day are when an employee is proud of their own work and I'm proud of their work then that's a really great part of my day and and one of client says, especially lately, when client says thank you for helping us to articulate something that we didn't even really know that we needed to articulate like that that's a good day when you have clients saying that. To answer your first question- I am genuinely happy, but there's there's no way to I think be untroubled and in a sense that like any small business owner I think will tell you that like that's a, you're carrying that pack and it's a heavy heavy pack and sometimes it feels lighter but it's always there.
But you also get to decide where you want to go you know? You go backpacking and you get to see you know the (Wonderland Trail)[https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/wonderland-trail-thru-hike] and you get to hike over 'let's go over that saddle' and so you do you know? It's incredibly difficult work but it's but it's really really rewarding and you're not doing it for anybody else like you just do doing it for yourself and your employees. For my part I don't want to be an agency that's like you know I don't want to be the next Wieden & Kennedy they do incredible work but like I always want to be a small. There are times that I'd love to be larger than we are I'd love to wear you know maybe three less hats than I have to wear. I think definitely happy but it's hard work.
jm: Consistent. Consistent and worthwhile.
AM: Yeah, thanks a lot.