February 2018

Jesse Reed & Hamish Smyth, Founders of Order

Having worked together at Pentagram, designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth founded the publishing imprint Standards Manual in 2014. After three successful reissues of graphic design standards manuals, the pair inevitably founded their design practice, Order. Order opens up to us about giving back to the community, boring design and the creation of Standards Manual. Order currently is composed of four personnel: partners Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth, designer Nicholas Stover, and office coordinator Jessica Adams. This interview was conducted via email in September 2017.

You, Hamish & Jesse, were introduced to each other while working at Pentagram. Can you explain your relationship and finding that you worked well together?

The interesting thing about Pentagram, specifically Michael Bierut's team was that each designer works autonomously from one another. There isn’t any actual “team work” besides supporting each other with feedback, being honest, and occasionally helping out in a tight spot. While some might think that sounds terrible, it actually allowed everyone to become much closer because we weren’t competing against each other. Each person works differently, and that’s encouraged.

Hamish and I, along with the other designers, became pretty close very quickly. When the NYCTA manual was found in the basement, Hamish and I naturally took the initiative to photograph it and make the first version of standardsmanual.com. By doing that, we both sensed a quality of “making things happen”— and doing it very quickly —that began our closer working relationship. Luckily, the intuition has held up and our business partnership has developed really well.

While working with Michael Bierut, you both left Pentagram to start your own studio. Most graphic designers would kill for that opportunity. When did you both realize you wanted to pursue starting your own studio?

Starting Standards Manual in 2014 was definitely the seed that everything grew from. It was a baby step in starting a company, hiring other people, making our own decision, etc. After a few years of running that business together, it becomes all-encompassing and too much for nights and weekends.

The actual moment came when Hamish and I were speaking at a conference in Atlanta. We were taking a walk in a park—we know, very romantic—and Hamish mentioned that he was thinking of leaving Pentagram within the next year. I also expressed my time was probably coming to end, and within 20 minutes— literally —we had decided on a name, bought the domain, and registered email accounts. Again, we do things very quickly once we make our minds up.

The “feeling” is unfortunately hard to describe when you know the time is right, but we both had it. We had momentum with Standards Manual, and if there was ever a time to take the jump, it was now. We learned everything we could from Michael, and essentially owe him more than could ever be expressed—but we’re not the only people that he’s impacted like this. The guy can’t help but teach without letting you know it’s happening.

I imagine that transition rattled some nerves. You guys must have copious amounts of fortitude.

Ha! I don’t know about copious amounts, but for some reason, we’ve found a confidence in a decision that we both agree on. I trust Hamish; he trusts me. If we’re both equally stoked on something within the first minute of discussing it, our enthusiasm trumps any doubt. Having said that, we don’t always know that what we’re doing is going to work out, but we can’t be constantly worried about success or failure. If it’s important; we do it.

When it was time to find your own space, you settled in Brooklyn. Can you explain the process behind finding this space and the factors in picking the location?

We didn’t initially think or want to open shop in Brooklyn. We looked at spaces in Chinatown, Lower East Side, and other neighborhoods in Manhattan. At the end of the day it was too pricey for the space we had in mind. Eventually, we started branching out and looking in our own neighborhoods—Jesse lives in Williamsburg, Hamish in Fort Greene. Greenpoint is situated just north of Williamsburg, and we had heard of some spaces open for rent on Franklin Street. The first one we looked at got taken the next day, but as we were walking to see another space just up the street, we stumbled across 212 Franklin. I think it was love at first sight. We were very aggressive with getting the lease signed asap, and luckily we did. It’s perfect.

You have a storefront in your studio. That's quite unique. What's the reasoning behind this?

This was one of those things that we talked about during our park walk in Atlanta. We both thought it would be awesome to have a ground level space where people could come in and maybe have a look at our Standards Manual books, just a simple shelf or something. Then we floated the idea of a little cafe where people could sit and read books, drink coffee, and hang out, but the coffee shop in front of a non-cafe business is pretty overdone in New York.

Then it clicked that we should open a bookstore, and why not have the subject matter focus strictly on graphic design? We had never heard of such an idea and it made total sense. We both really love selling things to other people—not in a dishonest way, but we love providing something that someone else wants. We know books can be controversial in that light, but we stand behind their importance.

Additionally, we wanted the space to act as a place where students could come, where book releases could take place, and events could be held. So far we’ve had a lot of student groups come through, and in a few weeks, we’ll be hosting our first really important “non-Standards Manual” event.

Do you ever feel distracted with having passersby enter the storefront?

Sometimes, but pretty rarely. Our office coordinator, Jessica Adams, greets customers and answers questions. It’s pretty quiet during the week, but Saturdays can get pretty hectic. Luckily, we try not to work then!

But to be honest, we love meeting and speaking to people this way. We’ve met people from all around the world—other designers, non-designers, friends of designers—they all just want to know more about the profession and its history. It has an added bonus to the sometimes autonomous working environment of a typical design studio, so having people come in and break up the day is a much-welcomed distraction.

Good design is making order of a problem to deliver a clear solution. What is the story behind choosing such a simple and relevant name?

It started with Vignelli. Massimo has this saying, “If you can design one thing, you can design anything.” In theory, we think that’s true, but in practice, it gets a little iffy. At first, we wanted the company to be called “everything" but we soon learned that we can’t actually produce everything, and I think the name was taken. Then we started discussing what it actually is that we do in our own practice, which led us to say “everything is in order”. Order. That was it.

Hamish and I are pretty boring designers. We like charts and maps and things that are perfectly aligned. We’re not very expressive, but we find more pleasure in figuring something out than leaving our own personal mark. So that was it. “Order” applies to everything we try to do.

Do you think clients sometimes have this preconceived notion that "design" means it has to be an expressive/colorful/illustrative/etc solution?

I do. A large part of the design process is often educating the client. We always try to explain the decisions that we’re making, and why they may not look like “design”, but in fact are very important design decisions. Now, we don’t intentionally try to be boring, and we do offer more expressive ways for the client to communicate messages, but they’re always rationalized and never arbitrary.

Do you find it hard to sell your design style to clients?

Nothing about selling design work to a client is easy, but fortunately, most of our clients trust us and get it.

The Vitsoe 606 system is quite striking and a beautiful representation of the order in good design. I take it your work ethos "everything is in order" applies to your studio space?

You got it! The shelving was all Hamish’s idea and was the thing we started with when planning the office design. They’re an investment, but they’ll last forever. We love them.

Does the ordered culture of the studio affect the work you output?

Totally. We surround ourselves with examples of excellent design—that we think, at least—as should everyone else should. Now, “excellent design” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but you can’t be an orderly designer and have a messy office. We keep things tight, and at least for me, it helps me focus on producing better work. Expressive designers might have things taped all over the walls, and that’s their version of a perfect nest. This is ours.

Within months of opening Order, you hired a full-time designer. Did you ever imagine you would have to expand so quickly?

We had always planned on immediately hiring two positions: designer and coordinator. Nicholas started as an intern and very quickly transitioned into a full-time designer. We’re very lucky to have found him and Jessica. The four of us feel comfortable right now, so I don’t think we’ll be expanding beyond this anytime soon, but we do have projections over the next 5–10 years to grow. Baby steps.

How do you guys relax and recharge between projects?

We make books.

It would be an insult for me not to touch on Standards Manual. Most know the story. In Kickstarter funding alone, Standards Manual raised a little shy of 2 million USD. Candidly speaking; who is buying these books?

Each book has a different audience. New York City Transit Authority has designers, transportation enthusiasts, and residents of New York City. NASA also has designers, and of course space nerds. EPA probably only hits the hardcore identity designers and same thing with the Bicentennial manual.

Across the board, I would hope that students are aware of the books. We give free copies to any educational institution that asks, and every page of the manuals can be seen online. Our new book, NYCTA objects, is a little different and we’re still figuring out the audience. Obviously, it’s New Yorkers and probably the transportation people, but I also think that it translates internationally, just as New York does in and of itself. The objects represent a city, a history, and shifts in culture. Brian Kelley captured something really special with this collection and we hope people dig it as much as we do!

Where is Standards Manual heading next? Do you want to branch out of identity standards reissues?

We do, and Objects is the first stab at that. We’ll probably do one “manual” a year, but have plans for a few other off-topic titles. We’re trying to maintain the theme of preservation with the other books we do, with the goal of bringing something into this world that people didn’t have access to before, or maybe haven’t seen. We’re working on a monograph for a very well known design agency, a tech-related book, a photography related book, and then a few other manuals. It’s going to be a busy few years.

How has Standards Manual paved the path to founding Order?

Like I said, it showed us how well we work together as business partners. We make decisions easily, we both love design, and we want to make shit. Having both worked under Michael essentially trained us to apply the same discipline when it comes to client management and deadlines, so we’re constantly referring back to the way Michael handled situations as a way to figure out what we’re going to do. At this point Standards Manual is almost like our internal client, and order is the office designing everything—both companies get toggled between daily.

Running your own imprint and design studio is a tough balance. How do you keep the energy balanced between the two?

There’s no real strategy, except making sure everything is getting done when it needs to. If we have a book launching or needing attention, we do it, and in between that we’re working on order clients. It’s a quality that definitely came out of Pentagram. We didn’t have account managers telling us what to do and when it was completely up to you to manage time and expectations. Maybe it’s not the most conventional way of doing things, but it works for us. We also don’t have specific roles within each company. We both handle things that need to happen, and like I said before, we trust each other that it’ll get done correctly.

That’s the key to a partnership: trust. Cliche, but for a reason. Just like that sentence.

I believe in giving back to the community. If it can be done through design, even better. Tell me a little about the Change Order initiative.

Michael taught us to be generous, and this is our way of hopefully doing that. We’re not doctors or engineers, but we know how to communicate effectively. If that’s the one skill that we’re able to give to people then we think it’s worth a shot.

The goal would be to find a non-profit, NGO, or smaller organizations outside of New York and dive into their problems/issues/desires as a group. We’d go in and explain how design can impact their daily activities, even if it’s simply finding better paper stock, or getting rid of paper stock all together! Whatever it is, we’re simply trying to give people who can’t afford New York City prices that same care and attention that they deserve.