Since their first mention on Complex in 2013, for the design of Bath’s Obsidian album cover, Los Angeles-based Folder Studio has only gotten bigger, stronger, and bolder. Despite Folder's recent establishment (the studio is not even two years old), the members have managed to develop a cult following for their blog, publish a book, and take on well-regarded Angeleno clients such as Thom Mayne’s Morphosis Studio and the mutative art collective/institution Machine Project.
On a chilly Friday night in December, I sat down with Folder’s founding members: Takumi Akin, Wesley Chou, and Jon Gacnik, to reflect on the past year and a half—works in progress, sources of inspiration, triumphs and tribulations, pet projects, their typographic preferences, the sanctity of their studio space, and their definition of the term “standard with a twist.”
So what are some big updates since we last heard caught your work in 2013?
Jon Gacnik: It’s been a crazy year…moving out of Takumi’s kitchen to a proper studio space…moving again to Chinatown now…projects for LOVE.XXX and UCLA’s Design Media Arts Department…
Takumi Akin: Also the New York Art Book Fair and releasing our first self-published book—an anthology of the first 100 books on our blog, Informational Affairs…
Wesley Chou: We’re also currently in the middle of a few different projects.
Are you able to talk about what projects those are?
WC: One of the things we’re working on is the new website for Morphosis Architects; that’s been in the works now for a few months. We’ve been working with them to create a new home page experience—I guess that’s all I can say about it for now.
Another one is Machine Project. We’re rebuilding their website. That’s still in the design phase, so we can’t say anymore about that. [Laughs]
TA: But there’s also a book project. It is going to be a Project X Project paperback titled The Benefits of Friends Collected, vol. 2. The book features 45 artists with each artist randomly assigned to write about another one of the artists in the book. It will be released at the L.A. Art Book Fair at the X-TRA table.
We also have some self-initiated projects going on, as well, one being the typeface that we’ve been working on since day one of Folder. One of the weights will hopefully be released soon.
WC: The idea behind the typeface is that it is a manifestation of our taste. And as the studio has grown, it’s evolved into a completely different typeface.
JG: I mean, even just the last preview of the font…
HC: It's not at all what it looks like now—right?
JG: It's totally different. I mean—there are relations for sure, but within the past few months it has...
TA: It’s still a serif font. [Laughs]
JG: It’s just a process of refinement. I think that since our taste in fonts has evolved over the past year, we want that to be reflected in the font that we’re making. So I guess it’s growing. There’s still a long way to go. Wes had the entire typeface drawn with all the weights and all the special characters, and we were polishing it and getting ready to launch it, and then everything stopped because we got hit with a bunch of other projects.
When we came back to it, Wes was like: “I’m gonna redraw the whole thing.” That wasn’t the intention, but it’s what happened when we came back to refining all the characters.
Are there favorite typefaces for the studio? Do you guys have preferences?
WC: Yeah, there’s definitely a few. We tend to go for the really standard stuff but with, kind of, a twist.
What does “standard with a twist” mean?
WC: “Standard with a twist” means that you have these standard typefaces like Times, and you put a twist on it. And that’s what we like.
JG: True. And I think strangely enough, part of it, at least for me, is probably informed by just needing to use basic fonts like Arial or Times on the web at first. So fonts based on standards like those are just a little turned up or down, and those are definitely things we’re into.
WC: I think it’s pretty indicative of our taste: the “standard with a twist.”
I mean I think for most people, they don’t even think about typefaces, or that they have be drawn. So, is it important to you guys to show your process? Particularly in the case of the typeface that you’re working on? Obviously the end product is what’s more refined, but is it important for you all to show the type's evolution or remodeling?
JG: I think we always want to, but we’re all crazy perfectionists. Our internal projects, especially, are fairly intimate, and it’s stuff that we just kind of work on and don't really document too much along the way. We’re pretty reserved as to what we show during the process.
WC: There definitely is documentation for client work, though. But for internal work, we just kind of chip at it...
JG: As we feel it.
TA: Yeah, yeah.
JG: And that’s probably because we have the luxury to do that, too.
To do internal projects you mean?
JG: No, to take our time and just sort of...
Do things your way at your pace?
JG: Exactly. And that’s also partially because we have to for the client work.
TA: We’re also debating if we want to show our process with some of the client projects online or having some case studies on our website.
As a studio you’re relatively new, so I think that maybe as the studio grows, you’ll have a larger archive to draw from as a resource.
WC: Yeah, totally, that’s all part of it. The way we do research is kind of in a very similar vein, revisiting ideas we’ve taken for granted.
But how do you do research? I saw a couple of little mood boards at the old studio, but…
WC: Mood boards, definitely. But before we get into the mood board, because the mood board is just a visual manifestation of a series of concepts, we do research on the topic pretty intensively. And then from that, we draw conclusions, and then we say, “All right, this is the set of ideas, how do we manifest that visually?” And that’s how we start with the mood board.
Are there any projects that you’ve already completed that you can share with us?
WC: I like to talk about our work with D|MA. To give a little background: We worked on their site for the graduate program. D|MA is our alma mater, so we already had a little bit of insight into what the problems were that we were trying to solve with that website, which is their entry guide for new students. The issue was that the entry guides weren’t attracting the kinds of students they wanted, so we asked, “Why is that?” They were getting a lot of graphic design portfolios, and they’re not a graphic design program. In past years, they were giving out printed, really designed guides out to the public. Since the physical object they were giving out was so graphic design focused, people were associating the program with graphic design. So how do we circumvent that? We brought it online and did research into what people weren’t understanding. And what it basically came down to was that people didn’t understand what was meant by “media arts.” That gave us another jumping off point to say, “Okay, so let’s do research into media arts, let’s do research into the professors, and what they did in media arts, and let’s make that really transparent for prospective students.
That’s where the concept came from, and aesthetically, it’s all a translation of that idea. When you look at the site, it’s laid out in a very straightforward manner. We’re using basic typefaces and a basic layout, really.
Even the color scheme: red, green, blue, black, white.
TA: Yeah yeah yeah, super basic.
WC: Right, and the content flow was really important to us to start off with: What is it? What is the program? Why should you apply?
So was the concept purely a reference point for this, or were there other sources of design inspiration that you were looking at for this project?
WC: A lot of the time the inspiration comes directly from the topic itself. So, in this case, it was about stripping the program down to its most basic, and then applying that to what a website is. Bare bones, it's RGB—black and white; Arial; Floated left. So a lot of the inspiration comes directly out of the research and the topic that we’re dealing with.
What are your other sources of inspiration, whether music or graphic or painterly or architectural?
WC: Reading 2x4 Studio’s Michael Rock book, Multiple Signatures, was a good source of inspiration for me. Reading that at the same time that we were starting the studio had a big impact, at least for me anyway. It gave me a lot of ideas about what a design studio could do, what kinds of projects we would really be able to take on, and what kind of roles we could even fill in society: designer-as-author, designer-as-curator, or designer-as-translator. It’s very interesting. It gave me a lot of ideas about the possibilities for what our studio could do.
Other than that, I feel like keeping up with current events, like what’s going on in science, politics, technology, really gives us a good framework to put our design thinking around, honestly. It gives us context to live.
TA: For me, in terms of designers, my most recent favorite designer is Walter Nikkels, he’s a Dutch designer and typographer. We picked up a book published by Valiz at the New York Art Book Fair in 2013… it’s beautiful. I’ve known a little bit about him and his work prior to this book, but when I saw all of his work, it blew my mind. And also the book is just so well-designed.
But, we don’t necessarily limit ourselves to designers for inspiration. We’re really interested in finding design or other ideas in old books. I’m talking about books ranging from art catalogues to an instructional guide about underwater modeling or....
TA: Yeah, birds! Or a biography on the last wild Indian in North America. We enjoy looking at books that people don’t typically look at...and that’s not because of the sheer reason of wanting to be different from everyone else, but more to find the gem ideas that are hiding in these old, dusty books.
I feel like applying some of these old or maybe forgotten ideas to today’s design practices can oftentimes result in something that’s unexpected and interesting.
TA: Especially when applied to something like a completely different medium, like websites. That’s one of the reasons why we started Informational Affairs. We really wanted to expose what we were discovering.
It’s interesting that you were talking about looking at books, their graphic information, their transition onto the web, and referring to those incarnations as two different mediums—which I would agree with. But also, you have these books coming into the IA [Informational Affairs] blog right, so you bring the books into this web format, and then also take them back out of web format and bring them back into book form.
There’s a sort of circular thinking in there. Did you find that process going from book to web back to book to change your impression of the original document? Or how you related to them?
WC: I don’t know if that was our intention, but I’m sure there was a lot of that happening.
What about for all of you personally? People come to the blog—the Tumblr—and they come to see what new book you guys have uncovered and chose to document. But you guys are the ones who are actually interfacing with these books on an intimate level—the books as books, not simply as graphic elements. Are there any books after this whole process that you are more fond of? Or sick of seeing?
WC: Honestly, the making of the IA book is a great excuse to actually parse through all the books versus just documenting them. It’s sort of a way to reclaim them as books I guess, instead of just as digital images.
HC: Or even as novelties. Like, some people buy coffee table books, and they sit there and never get used as a book. They are essentially just a cover graphic extruded and shown as a book-like form that just exists on the table.
Who was working on the book mainly?
JG: I mean, we’re all really involved in the making process, but it was primarily them [pointing to TA and WC]. We all go and pick up books…we always buy books together, and that is a super collaborative process. Even picking the spreads that are going to go on the blog—that’s all a group exercise. But when it came down to actually creating the book, they were taking the lead on that.
I’ve been really inspired by Lust; they’re based in the Netherlands. They’re currently doing bigger and more institutional projects, like with the Sandberg Instituut. But they were also doing things like generating ascii porn as a type specimen for a bitmap font, and that was in the mid-'90s. I just feel they’ve accomplished the crazy job of marrying programming with really strong typography and design for nearly 20 years, and that was really a formative reason for me to get into programming. I think we all did a workshop with them when they came to UCLA.
Also, as my role in the studio has become more development-focused, I’ve developed a lot of unrelated sources of inspiration outside of design that just gets super technical, so I won’t get into it. I just feel like it’s a part of my job to keep the studio up to pace with all the new stuff happening in the development world—keeping our technology super current.
Our design, at least on the web, is definitely informed by the programming side of it, too. We’ll design stuff statically just to get ideas sketched. Programming prototypes is where we look at just a bunch of ideas and see what works and what doesn’t, and that process goes back into the way we approach the next steps of our designing. The entire process just feeds itself until we feel we reach something that works for us and our clients.
WC: The thing that a lot of people don’t realize about the coding aspect is that it’s not just writing in a particular syntax, it’s about building the code in a way that is designed.
JG: Yeah, and we do strive to build the code as beautiful as the design people see. The code itself is ideally written very logically and is well-structured and well-considered.
Designing not just what, but also how.
Maybe this process of designing not just the object, but how the object is structured and built, is what is absent from a lot of “design” today. There are so many attempts at superficial design—a shellacking of high-polish and little substance, and people think that’s good design…with clothes, buildings, music, websites.
WC: Yeah, polishing a turd, putting lipstick on a pig. [Laughs]
We don’t do that here. Anyway, it is really a way for us to cut our teeth and to sharpen our tastes together.
Do you feel like the New York Art Book Fair was also another way?
WC: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something we’ve never done before, so I feel like it really puts us more on the same page. I think that it strengthens us as a studio.
So can we talk a little bit about New York? I’m curious as to what the experience was like. Jon, you mentioned that some people were coming up to the table saying things like, “Oh man, this is the book [featured on the blog]! It’s really here…” And what was the experience like selling your own books? What was it like as a newer studio?
JG: It was hot. [Laughs]
TA: It was insanely hot.
JG: But I don’t think we felt like super newbies at the book fair. I mean, we’ve been there before, so we kind of knew what to expect, but it was definitely an exercise in learning to talk to people about the object that we made, and getting approached by people who want to distribute it.
WC: Not to say that we knew everything. We don’t. We didn’t.
It’s also probably totally different to be a studio in private—a studio amongst you and people who know you—to be a studio in public… to have to explain yourselves and in some cases sell yourself in the public sphere as a unit.
JG: Well, it’s also because, before, we always went to the fair as spectators—to gain inspiration ourselves and meet people. But the book fair is really modeled after an industry convention, and there’s this whole business aspect of the book fair that was totally new to us this year, being a vendor at the fair.
The most exciting parts were really talking to people who were going to the fair for the same reasons that we used to—people who were just really interested in the work that we were doing, or just the book [Informational Affairs] itself. We got to talk to them about our collection.
TA: It was really great to meet a lot of people who we were following on Twitter or Tumblr, and it was actually really strange to meet someone for the first time, who we had some interactions with online but none in person.
JG: Like people who popped up, and you didn’t really recognize them and realize that they are someone—like multiple people were explained and introduced by their Twitter handle during that trip.
Now have you settled with anyone where you’re having the book distributed?
JG: A few spots. Primarily Aentenne Books, which is a big distributor in the UK and Europe. They’ve picked up a bunch of copies. That’s our main European distributor. There are also few smaller stores like the [MoMA] PS1 shop.
So, a more direct question: what have been the hardships you’ve faced? Any major milestones this year?
TA: I think not knowing our limit is a really dangerous thing. At one point, we were simultaneously working on seven projects, and all we were doing was writing emails, and the deadlines were creeping up on us, and basically we had very little time to do some serious production work. So we were feeling beyond stressed. We made the decision to hire a fourth member, Albert, to help us out with emails, project management, and anything that got in the way of production. Hiring someone full-time was actually a huge milestone for us. And one of the best decisions we’ve made as a studio.
JG: Oh yeah, definitely. Especially in the beginning, we got hit with a bunch of really exciting projects all at once, and just responded, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes—we can do it.” And we knew that we could do it, but then we just got really overloaded.
TA: Yeah, we were just excited about so many projects.
JG: Also, just learning to manage ourselves as an entire studio, which is a whole other learning process in and of itself. We’ve all been freelancing, and we sort of knew the business; we worked at other studios, so we had some experience coming in, but then when you have to manage the entire process, there’s just so much other business that you don’t know about.
Yeah, well, with freelance you can at some point just stop driving the car—at some point your job is done.
JG: Right. As a freelancer you don’t carry all the responsibilities.
TA: You’re just kind of going by yourself.
JG: But now, we were having to not only worry about ourselves, but each other. And then if we have to bring on anyone as a contractor, then we have to worry about them, and take care of them too, while maintaining support for our clients. We had to learn very quickly how to balance everything.
WC: I mean, I think we’ve done a good job taking everything in stride.
I don’t think you would have been able to move into a new studio space if you weren’t doing something right. Even that is another milestone: moving. Granted, it’s really recent, but even to have the privilege to move; like you wanted to upgrade, and you could, and you did.
JG: I mean, there are multiple reasons why we got the new space. Our environment is super, super important to us, even just for working. If any of us have a hard time focusing at the studio while at work, it just makes everything more difficult for us.
So you were talking about how the space is important—precious. Are there things that you absolutely need in the studio? Other than the basic things: computers, Internet, speakers, electricity, etc.?
TA: Definitely slippers, because I’m way more productive when I’m physically comfortable.
You mean, when you’re shoeless?
TA: Yeah, we picked up these super high-end slippers from Daiso. [Laughs]
I noticed them when I first came in! They’re grandpa slippers!
TA: Yep, $1.50 a pair. That might be the only thing.
JG: Yeah, they got me a pair, but I always forget to take my shoes off.
Well, maybe if you didn’t triple-knot your shoes then.
JG: These are just leather laces.
HC: So Takumi needs the slippers, anything else?
JG: I don’t know, we’re so damn basic.
HC: That’s definitely going to be the headline, “We’re so damn basic.”
WC: “Standard with a twist!”
JG: But really, I usually need sparkling water and my mechanical keyboard. In terms of other needs? Maybe some things that we really want that we don’t have—we should get a studio cat.
Any upcoming things that we should know about?
TA: Yeah, there are a few new internal projects, and we’re going to be at the L.A. Art Book Fair. The Informational Affairs book will probably be there, as well.
JG: We were hoping for a second edition, but [there's] no time.
TA: It’s not even no time; we have to at least have 200 books.
How many books are a part of the collection? [Everyone pulls out their phones]