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Maker Stories

Meet the Extraordinary Designers of the Extraordinaires® Design Studio

June 12, 2015

Groundbreaking designer Paul Rand once exclaimed, “Everything is design. Everything!”

While Rand’s declaration of design universality is sweeping and inspiring, it can also be confounding; its broad appropriation of, well, everything can stifle further conversation. If everything is design, then what’s the nature of everything? What’s so important about design? Where do you begin?

Irish designers Anita Murphy and Rory O’Connor suggest a place to begin, offering a way for curious non-designers to explore the process, challenges, and rewards of design through The Extraordinaires® Design Studio, an inviting activity kit that challenges young minds to think outside the box. Whereas Rand staked his claim to the totality of human endeavor, Murphy and O’Connor’s approach assumes nothing, first asking the most basic questions: “what is a designer?” and “why does the world need designers?”

Anita Murphy and Rory O’Connor

Designers Rory O’Connor (left)  and Anita Murphy (right) with their Extraordinaires Design Studio Kit

Through the guided play of their studio game and the introduction of some extraordinary “clients” (the Extraordinaires themselves, including a teenage vampire, a fairy detective, and a gentle giant), Anita and Rory invite hands-on exploration of these fundamental questions, raise many more, and encourage young designers to ask their own in a spirit of playful inquiry and empathetic discovery.

We had the pleasure of discussing the inspiration and aspirations behind the Extraordinaires with Anita and Rory in a recent conversation:

How does the Extraordinaires Studio experience differ from that of being a professional designer in the real world? What’s been simplified or enhanced here?
Many professional designers comment on how effectively we’ve captured the design process in the Extraordinaires Design Studio. We’ve presented design as a simple 3-step process, while in reality it’s a looping process, involving constant iteration for a professional designer. A key element that’s been enhanced is the Extraordinaires themselves. In the real world, a designer solves design challenges for ordinary people. In the Extraordinaires Studio, you’re tasked with helping characters with extraordinary needs—like a giant or superhero, robot or ninja—and who wouldn’t want to design a remote control for a ninja?

Expansion Pack and Case

The Design Studio features an extensive array of bizarre characters – Extraordinaires – each of whom present a unique design challenge

Assuming the goal of the Studio isn’t necessarily to produce the professional designers of tomorrow, what are the main skills fostered or lessons learned?
Empathy is a key skill fostered in the Studio. You must design for the needs of the Extraordinaire. This involves thinking about what others want, and not just what you like…thinking about the end-user. It offers a structured approach to creative thinking and problem solving, reinforces that there is often more than one answer to any challenge, and that the key is to ask lots of questions. While we would love to inspire a new generation of designers, our real goal is simply to encourage people to look at their world in a new way, to ask questions and consider how they might make it better for themselves and for others.

Do you see this primarily as a competitive game, and if so, what does that teach about the competitive nature of design? What can this experience teach about the value of constructive critique?
The Studio is more collaborative than competitive. The only person you are competing against is yourself as you try to make each new design better than your last. When playing in a group, discussion tends to become more collaborative as players use “yes… and” feedback to add to each other’s design. In the Awards ceremony, we designed the cards so that any feedback is focused on the features of the design and not on the player.

Design Kit Testing

Amateur designers collaborating on their fantastic designs 

Although it coordinates with the Extraordinaires website, the Studio seems to emulate the look of a tablet or laptop, but using low-tech, analog media. Did you consider making the entire product a digital interface? What was behind the decision to make it paper and hand drawing based?
We did consider an entirely digital platform for the Extraordinaires. When we first came up with the idea, however, we made the decision to keep it as a physical toy, thereby making it more accessible to children, in a way that digital wasn’t. Many designers still swear by pen and paper for capturing ideas. There’s something powerful about the eye/hand/brain interaction that occurs when doodling on paper. Many design lecturers have also expressed their gratitude that we kept it analog. They share their frustration with too few students taking the time to capture their ideas on paper before turning to their computer. In the future, we will enhance the play experience with certain digital elements, ultimately creating a hybrid digital/analog experience. We do intend to keep the pen and paper for the foreseeable future, however!

Have you considered ways to allow players to realize their designs or inventions in three-dimensional prototypes – like connecting to 3D printing tools?
We think there’s nothing more satisfying that seeing an idea made real, in 3 dimensions. The whole ‘maker movement’ excites us greatly. We’re already exploring options on how we can support players wanting to realize their ideas in 3 dimensions.
Our background is in 3D animation, so we know only too well what a huge leap it is to take an idea on paper to a 3D model ready to print. We think a more realistic approach is to build prototypes using found materials like cardboard, construction toys, or modeling clay. This way, you can test your design and refine it before digitally modeling it and printing out parts. We say, “before you make it, design it.”

 

Deluxe Design Studio Kit | UncommonGoodsDeluxe Design Studio Kit 

How does the Studio encourage players with design abilities but limited drawing skills or other ways to represent their ideas?
Design is not about being a great artist; good design is about great ideas and solutions. We encourage people to find their own way to communicate their ideas; this may be by drawing and sketching, but it could also be a written document, physical model, or video presentation. We factored this in when we created The Extraordinaires app. It allows you to record a presentation orally to accompany your design.

Can you comment on the spirit of innovation in contemporary Ireland? Did that spirit inspire any aspects of the Studio?
There’s an incredible amount happening here design-wise. In fact, 2015 is the Year of Design in Ireland! There is a large program of events planned to explore how design can really help people. This resonates strongly with us.

Being from Ireland, which is really just a small island on the edge of Europe, we have always been grounded in our Celtic heritage of craft and storytelling, while looking externally to Europe, North America, and Asia for additional inspiration. It’s exciting for us to hear from schools in Singapore, gamers in Poland, or families in the US who play with and love our products.

Any particularly good user feedback you’d like to share?
We really value the feedback we receive from customers and fans. We’ve been told that the Studio takes children’s creativity seriously. We’ve received praise for the way it appeals to both boys and girls. In fact, some of our biggest fans are female. Others appreciate the flexibility it offers, allowing a child to play on their own away from screens or as a family in a group. Many parents have expressed their surprise at just how much they enjoyed the experience of designing for the Extraordinaires.

Our favorite feedback is that the Studio drops you into a real design experience. It breaks down the design process and combines drawing, creative thinking and fun.

Pirate

The UncommonGoods team had a lot of fun designing with the kit – now Mr. Pirate can finally open his restaurant

Ready to meet the Extraordinaires and help them with some of their extraordinary design needs? Their box full of playful design challenges and fantastic fun is just a few clicks away, and no design degrees or drafting skills are required.

See the Collection |Design Studio Kits | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Phil Thompson

January 14, 2015

Phil Thompson | UncommonGoods

Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Jeanne Gang—some of the greatest, most renowned names in architecture–have marked their space on the Chicago skyline. Their skyscrapers, public buildings, and homes in the Windy City have shaped modern design over the centuries. It is no wonder, then, why illustrator Phil Thompson finds inspiration in Chicago’s Prairie Style bungalows, classic six-flat brick Craftsman buildings, and skyscraping architectural landmarks. As a recently departed Chicagoan, I can attest that Phil and his wife and studio mate, Katie, live in one of those architecturally remarkable apartments that most of us dream of finding. Built in 1912, the Craftsman flat has many of its original Deco fixtures and warm, comforting wood detailing.

A colleague here at UncommonGoods tipped me off to Phil’s intricate custom home portraits. The cleanliness of his structured, blueprint-like approach suitably matches the sparseness of his studio. He surrounds himself just with what he needs: drawing paper, a basket full of trusty micro-pens, and drafting tools. There are a few exceptions to the sparseness—all of which are largely contained within a small bulletin board—a calendar, the usual lists of to-dos, and some inspirational quotations. Phil also prominently displays a beautiful postcard-size watercolor by his grandmother to remind him of his artistic roots.

I am always thoroughly impressed and warmed by artists that are able to seamlessly and successfully blend their passions and skills. Phil and Katie are two of those artists. He pairs his discerning eye and exacting hand with a passion for accurately rendering architectural styles and the home. Phil’s Classic Home Portraits honor those places where we build memories, families, and community.

Phil's Studio

What are your most essential tools?
Micron Pens, down to their smallest size, and Strathmore drawing paper. But the pens in particular. If I ever find out that company is going out of business, I will buy their entire inventory of pens.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
My home/studio is in brick 6-flat building built in 1912. Our unit has most of the original woodwork, leaded glass, and some of the original lighting fixtures. It was done in the Craftsman style, which I find have the most beautiful, warm and inspiring interiors.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Lunch is my best downtime. It’s my time to get out to one of the great places in Ravenswood, especially those along the historic railway “corridor” behind our backyard.

Phil Thompson at work

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
Always plan to pay more in taxes than you anticipate. If you’re transitioning from employee at a 9-5 to a business owner, you’ll get well-acquainted with sales tax and payroll taxes.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
If you want to earn more money, forget about trying to outsmart the housing market or real estate market. Focus on finding a business that blends your passion, your skills, and customer demand, and take it one step at a time.

Classic Home Portrait | UncommonGoods

How do you set goals for yourself?
I have an annual sales goal that keeps me going. Daily, I write down a matrix dividing work and personal tasks into “important/urgent” and “important/non-urgent.”

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
When I get a big custom commission or get a big flurry of print orders, it’s usually dinner out with the wife–on a weeknight (gasp).

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
It’s on the bulletin board in front of me: “Success is not final, failure not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”- Winston Churchill

"Success is not final..." Churchill Quote

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft? 
I want to apply the type of line-heavy stuff I do with pen and ink, to traditional etching/linocuts,and create prints. There are two local shops that teach this type of skill, and I’m planning to take a class there.

How do you recharge your creativity?
Podcasts about people’s personal stories and struggles. I’m fortunate in being able to work and listen at the same time, so I’ve listened to months’ worth of podcasts like this. Hearing about how other people are inspired and come up with stuff, how they worked around roadblocks, gets me charged up.

Phil and Katie Thompson

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
My wife is like the Roman emperor giving the thumbs up or down when I show her a finished product. She’s honest. Sometimes the result stings but over time it makes my work better. She also is a cornucopia of ideas about new ways to present my work and new subject matter.

Maker Stories

All the Love for James Gulliver Hancock

August 22, 2013

james gulliver hancock

Since I was five years old, drawing distorted family stick figures and doodling all over notebooks has been a permanent hobby of mine. I still catch myself drawing in office meetings or on those too-long subway rides. Not that I’m talented at all, I just love the way a pen feels against a blank piece of paper. It’s as natural as eating or sleeping to me. So when I got the chance to interview someone who literally makes art and drawing their living, I was beyond pumped, especially since that artist just so happened to be the inspiring  James Gulliver Hancock. He’s a passionate, quirky artist who re-imagines his world around him into an urban whimsical fairy tale and claims to be sick when he’s not holding a pencil in his hand. 

Over here at UncommonGoods, we only have tremendous love for James Gulliver Hancock. (And kind of just love saying his name.) He collaborated with us to design his “All The…” drawing series and made some pretty sWHEAT graphics for our beer steins. He juggles living in between Sydney, Australia and Brooklyn,New York and everywhere else in between that fits into his family’s career paths and hectic schedules. He says, “We sometimes feel like a creative gypsy family circus, making videos and pictures and music as we travel around the globe.”

His most current project is drawing All The Buildings in New York. I was lucky enough to be invited to his current studio, which is conveniently New York City itself, and watch the drawing mastermind work his magic. We met under the Washington Square Monument, and right away I spotted him in his bright red pants, looking up towards the sky, in full concentration holding his weapons of choice: a pen and a notebook.

James Gulliver Hancock

I love your art work, especially the products we have here at UncommonGoods. What exactly ignited the “All the…” series?

It all started with traveling, I always keep a journal when I’m traveling, and I usually draw more than I write. I often found myself drawing the objects that I obsessed over in different places, or the things that dominated my experience. When I started road tripping around America I was drawn to draw different things I found in different places. I love concentrating on certain things and learning everything you can about that thing. If you’re drawing boats, you get to know all the types of boats. If it’s cactus, you see there are so many types; drawing really makes you look deeply at things. It’s like people that collect things, I admire that kind of focused obsession… the guy that knows everything about 1950’s salt and pepper shakers is a fascination to me.

James Gulliver Hancock

 What made you realize that drawing was what you wanted to do as a career?

I knew from a very early age, from a little boy I always drew. An early memory is from pre-school when we had to rotate between activities (drawing, puzzles, napping), so when I got to drawing I devised the most complicated drawing I could think of so I wouldn’t have to do the other things any more. I’m still like that, figuring out my life so I can draw as much as possible.

James Gulliver Hancock

Can you describe the moment when you realized “Holy crap, I’m actually doing this…!”

I have this almost every day. It’s so awesome to be drawing everyday and have people around the world, appreciate and love (and pay for!) what I do. I’ve also managed to integrate travel and a family into the fold of awesomeness too. My wife is a musician and we are often on the road, me with a portable studio to keep working. We sometimes feel like a creative gypsy family circus, making videos and pictures and music as we travel around the globe!

Lenka

You  live an aspiring artist’s dream and have traveled and showcased your work everywhere in the world: New York, Australia, Japan, France, England…the list goes on! What’s your secret?

Making stuff all the time helps, and telling people about it all the time. Being an artist requires you to be pro-active in making and then showing your work. People aren’t necessarily going to ask you to do something. A lot of the time you have to just do it and show them what it could be for them to get excited. Travel is essential, too; with the internet you can get a lot of international exposure without leaving your home town, but by being in a place, your energy shifts. You might meet someone and links begin to happen. Sometimes people I’ve met for half an hour while traveling becomes a client years later.

jgh_alltheroofsinparis_2-700x466

Where was your first exhibition held? How did you feel the day of? (Were you basking in all your glory, dissecting every single problem, or heading to the toilet to re-compose yourself?)

I was definitely hiding in the toilet room. Some of the reason I’m an illustrator is so I don’t have to perform in crowds! I’m doing lots of talks now for my new book and have to get up in front of lots of people, and I find it terrifying! But it’s fun also. I do love having this solitary process that also comes out into the world and interacts with it. As for my first exhibition, it was probably when I was a kid and I filed my family into a room that I prepared with things on the walls. It felt natural to me to ‘perform’ in this way, more natural than other kids doing fake TV shows or something.

All the Buildings in NY

Where do you go or what do you do when your inspiration is completely lost?

Wandering is the best. I went for the longest walk around Manhattan yesterday and saw, heard, smelt so many things. Consequently the ideas are flowing! I also seem to get inspired when I’m going to sleep and waking up, when the constraints of the day have faded away and the brainy mush floats around with new ideas.

photo (1)

On your site, you mention that you feel sick when you’re not drawing. Other than not drawing, what else makes you sick when you’re not doing it. 

Riding my bike clears my mind for sure. I can ride and ride and ride, and feel so peaceful, even in Manhattan. It becomes like a computer game, dodging the obstacles. The rhythm of riding is so hypnotic. But drawing every day is really what keeps me happy. If I can’t draw I have to make something else, whether it be cooking, or craft or something, making stuff is what I do.

Beer Steins by James Gulliver Hancock

What’s one of your all-time favorite quotes?

“Color tells it all, black and white tells just enough to stir the imagination.” It’s by an Australian photographer, Max Dupain, who took a lot of amazing black and white photos. I love the idea of sharing just enough with the viewer to get them thinking too. To leave room for them to bring something to the image– their own associations.

Do you have any secret vices that causes immense procrastination? How do you monitor this vice?

Luckily drawing is my vice, and because it’s my work I don’t have to monitor it, the more I do the better! Other than that, I shouldn’t eat so many chocolate muesli bars and cake, but hey, that’s what the bicycle is for.

jgh_icebreaker_5-700x591

Are there any major projects, collaborations, or ideas you’re working on now that you want to talk about?

I have a 1.5 year old son and have so many ideas for children’s books that I haven’t had time to do yet. I also have a new book coming out in 2014 that will be amazing. Stay tuned!

What’s one piece of advice you have for that person out there that has a creative passion and can’t seem to make a career out of it?

Keep doing it, keep making projects and publishing them somehow (print, web, whatever) and then show them to everyone you can think of.

QUIFF – redux from James Gulliver Hancock on Vimeo.

Maker Stories

Inside the Designer’s Studio with Claudia Pearson

May 17, 2012


When the second floor of Claudia Pearson’s Brooklyn brownstone opened up, she knew it would be the perfect place to set up a studio. Claudia was using a corner of her family’s apartment to create illustrations for books, magazines and the merchandise she was creating. Space was getting tight as her two sons and business were growing so moving to the downstairs was an easy decision.

Claudia is the designer behind the 4 Seasons Tea Towels and one of our newest UncommonGoods artists. She is not a new name around Brooklyn flea markets and I have admired her commercial work and illustrations for cooking magazines, so I was excited to visit her sunny studio and learn about her craft and her business.


What are your most essential tools for creating your art?
My illustrations are a happy marriage of analog and digital techniques so my essential tools are pencils, erasers, inks combined with my printer, scanner and Photoshop.

Where do you find inspiration within your workspace?
I recently rented the apartment below where I live with my family so after 15 years of working at home I now have a separate studio. It’s filled with sunlight and walls to pin up my work in progress. We live in a leafy Brooklyn neighborhood on a corner so the sounds of birds and life outside keep me connected.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Sadly at the moment there isn’t such a thing. I’m constantly working on commercial projects for publishers, advertising and editorial clients. I do check my favorite blogs with my coffee first thing in the morning and did recently add a sofa where I can relax and check emails.


What are some of your time management secrets?
I work with two computer screens, one for illustrating and another for email so I can respond to emails immediately. I make a list of tasks for the next week at the end of each week. I divide the list up by the days of the week and make sure never to load up one day with too much stuff, making my list manageable. I also have an assistant who comes once a week. Now I can let go of some of the things that used to take up a lot of my time. I have a great assistant who is able to take care of skill-oriented tasks that are not specific to me.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
As a designer who relies on outside sources to produce my products, planning ahead in production was definitely a learning curve. Staying on top of suppliers and being firm about deadlines.


What advice could you offer yourself 5 years ago?
I would recommend creating schedules all the time throughout the year and during slower times making sure future products are designed and ready for production. Also to foster good relationships with design blogs and magazines that can provide valuable marketing.

Where does collaboration come into play in your work?
I’ve always loved to collaborate with people who have different skills to me. In 2010 I worked with a local chef; she came up with seasonal recipes that I illustrated and we established a set of 12 recipe cards that take you through a year of local ingredients. Last year I collaborated with a local ceramicist and we put my seasonal fruits and veggies on cups. It’s fun to apply my work to mediums that I’m unfamiliar with and bring variety to my line. I’m currently developing ideas with another local chef and food writer for a cook book so stay tuned.

So far I have been fortunate enough to have collaborated with friends of mine which has made it easy. Make sure when you are getting into a partnership or collaboration, especially with a friend, that roles are clearly defined in a way that makes the individuals’ work equal.

How do you set goals for yourself?
These days most of my goals are set for me by clients and their deadlines. When I’m designing a new line of tea towels I work seasonally and make sure I have a 6 week period to create artwork and get samples printed. My business has grown at such a phenomenal rate over the past two years that I now need to take stock and make a 5 year plan.


How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
When a creative job comes my way and I feel it will be a benchmark in my career, I take my family out for a nice dinner and we chat about it together. We have two sons who are 9 and 7 and they are extremely inspired by my world. I enjoy sharing my ideas with them and see how it is enabling them to flourish creatively.

How do you recharge your creativity?
We love to travel and try to get away whenever we can. Traveling has always inspired my work and now with kids, it’s fun to see the world through their eyes. We go to London every summer to visit family and friends. We also try and sneak in a trip to the Caribbean every few years. Failing that, a weekend upstate will certainly recharge my batteries.