Debbie Millman Interviews Brian Singer

Brian Singer is a polymath, a renaissance man, a triple threat: a designer, a writer and an artist. As a designer, he has worked at Pinterest and Facebook, helping to create and define the visual language of our times. As a writer, he has written books and essays that help to make meaningful sense of the way in which myriad designers practice, preach and live. But, to me, Brian’s greatest talent lies in his artistic prowess. Brian creates complex meditations on words and phrases that examine cultural conflict. He compresses a great deal of thought into seemingly simple pieces. For example, in his piece Defund/Defend, which I included in a show at the Museum of Design in Atlanta on the intersection of type and art, the multiple meanings of the words generate tension. What are we defunding? Are we defunding so that we can defend? Are the two always in binary opposition or are they complementary? In his painting titled President, Brian examines another angle of contemporary politics. In the context of his massive canvas, the word, framed in quotes, takes on a diminutive scale.  Singer’s intent in creating these text pieces is part of a larger series featuring phrases like “nature is bad for the economy” and “debt is good for the economy—in which he examines the criteria we use to evaluate what’s good and bad. No matter what discipline Brian works in, there is one common denominator: he brings a depth of humanity, a soulful honesty and a keen understanding of our time to everything he does, and in doing so creates timeless, brilliantly original work.

DEBBIE MILLMAN: Brian, tell me about your alter-ego, ‘Someguy’?

BRIAN SINGER: I’m not sure if “someguy” is an alter-ego, as much as my gangster rapper name. Actually, when I started The 1000 Journals Project, I wanted to be anonymous, so I set up my email as Of course, I didn’t stay anonymous, but the name and email stuck (and in fact, I’m a published author under the name Someguy, which is pretty funny).

DM: You graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in graphic design from San Luis Obispo campus of California Polytechnics State University. Is it true you picked graphic design as a major because it was “less lame” than the other options? If so, what made it less lame?

That’s pretty close.. I was looking through the available majors, and to be honest, “Applied Art & Design” was the most interesting. I had always loved art, and perhaps was swayed away from that pursuit because I wasn’t aware of what sort of job one could get with an art degree, other than “starving artist”. While I didn’t know much about the design profession, it seemed like a logical, related field of study. That, and everything else was lame. The other majors didn’t interest me much, except science, I think I would have enjoyed studying science. Fun fact, I applied to exactly one college. I’ve since learned to hedge my bets, but my backup plan was to attend a junior college to get my general education out of the way, and then transfer. I’m pretty lucky to have been accepted to the program.

DM: In the early part of your career, worked with three of the great West Coast design firms: Chen Associates, Pentagram and Morla Design. How did the three very different but highly accomplished firms influence your own work in graphic design?

BS: I’ve been fortunate to work alongside some very, very talented people. I think by being exposed to such successful design firms influenced me into thinking “oh, I could do this”. I had no intention of starting my own firm, no desire for it. But, after seeing how it was done, and how folks at that level operate, I felt more confident in my own abilities. Needless to say, I was a sponge (and still am), and learned a great deal from them. As for how they influenced my work itself, I think Jennifer Morla shaped my approach the most, in her pursuit of big, bold, graphic solutions.

DM: On June 17th, 2000, you embarked on a project that would ultimately change your life. You took a thousand sketch books, glued a thousand covers on them, stamped them a thousand times, hand numbered them from one to one thousand, and sent them out into the world one at time, no strings attached. What made you decide to do this?

BS: OCD? Since my college days, I’d been fascinated with what people write on bathroom walls. They write (and discuss) every imaginable topic, and sometimes, write things they probably wouldn’t say in person. After graduating, I continued photographing this wall writing in bathrooms at bars in San Francisco, and other. I’d been considering putting together a book of the photos, and what I really wanted was for people to continue those conversations in the actual book. The idea evolved into sending out blank journals to capture the discussions and contributions from strangers. Now, I have a lot of ideas, but when I finally landed on this one (after 5 years of bathroom photography), I realized that if I didn’t do it, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. So, I took the first step, and then the second, and stumbled my way through the entire thing.

DM: I read that you stated that the feeling of isolation created by the internet led to the idea of what you ultimately titled the 1000 Journals project. Why is that?

BS: I think it was the convergence of several different things happening, all at the same time. Suddenly, with the internet, the world was connected, and therefore made “smaller”. Somehow though, this also led to people (well, maybe just me) feeling more alone. We could connect and make friends with people on the other side of the planet, but were doing less connecting in real life (and this was all before Facebook was even invented). I’m sure a sociologist would be able to explain it better. The idea of a physical artifact connecting strangers seemed like the perfect vehicle for expression, in a time where everyone had a blog.

DM: In 2007, a documentary film was made about the project. At the beginning of the film, you quote the author of Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon Mackenzie, who stated, “If you ask a kindergarten class how many of them are artists, they'll all raise their hands. Ask the same question of sixth graders, and maybe 1/3 will respond. Ask high school grads and few will admit to it.” Why does our creativity change over time? Why does our impetus to be creative individuals change over time?

BS: I was sort of paraphrasing Gordon, but that’s the general idea, and it’s a powerful one. To me, it seems that not being creative is a learned behavior. We’re all super creative as kids, but gradually, that creativity is replaced by what? Coloring within the lines? Conformity? Somehow, we begin to fear criticism, doubt our own talent, and we assimilate into the status quo. I suppose the good news is that creativity is learned, and we just need to support it more in our education system, and as a community. Many folks need a catalyst, some form of permission to explore and express themselves. I was hoping that The 1000 Journals Project would be just that.

DM: You’ve stated, “If everyone was trained to be artists, then everybody would be an artist. But we're not trained to be artists. We're trained to follow a more traditional path in our schooling. And I think that's unfortunate. I think it actually blocks off a lot of thinking that could benefit society. You'd be amazed how many people say they can't draw. Everyone can draw. It's not a skill. It's something that you have to learn. You just practice at.” What can people begin to do as adults if they are looking to channel their inner artist?”

BS: Two things. First, is to give yourself permission and time. The excuse I hear most often is that there’s just not enough time (and, this is absolutely true). But we, to some extent, choose how to spend our time. I’m not advocating neglecting your kids or anything.. but when I took a close look at how much time I spent watching TV everyday, it became pretty clear I could re-prioritize and carve out a few hours each week. If you’re like me, it won’t get done unless it’s on the calendar, so block off an hour here, an hour there.

The second thing is to just start. A blank canvas is a terrifying thing, and people can get paralyzed because they want to make something perfect. But just start laying down paint, or sketching, and focus on making rather than perfection. I realize the irony in me saying that (I’m a planner, and my pieces tend to be the opposite of spontaneous), but I do believe that once you’re over the hurdle of “starting”, it all gets a lot easier and more enjoyable.

DM: You started your own business, Altitude SF, which you helmed until 2012. Why?

BS: Lack of a decent career path for more experienced creatives? No, I don’t think that’s why I did it. Truthfully, I think I sometimes do things because I don’t like the alternatives. Process of elimination (I’m seeing a trend here, with my college application). At the time, there wasn’t anyone in SF that I wanted to work for, and I was too chicken to move, so.. Altitude. At the same time, I’m a creature of habit, and therefore need to push myself in order to learn and grow. That question about my alter-ego… well sometimes that guy is in control, and signs me up for starting a company, or taking an improv class (both of which were terrifying).

DM: What were some of your biggest projects at Altitude?

BS: That’s an interesting question.. we did a lot of big projects, but I don’t know if I’d consider them the most important (I, like many others, find self-authored projects the most rewarding). We did work on an entire product line for a paper company, with something like 250 SKUs. It was a fun, vibrant, design system but guess what, it never made it to the shelves. We worked on product concepts for one of the largest beverage companies in the world (some of which were really, really good, and I don’t brag very often). None of them made it to the shelves. We worked with Apple for seven years, on projects that all had code names and that I can never show people. So, there’s the stuff in my portfolio, and then there’s the other 95% of the work.

DM: From 2012–2016 you concurrently worked on design projects and art projects. How difficult was that? I feel that, in many ways, they operate from different sides of the brain.

BS: I’d actually been working concurrently for quite a while, admittedly with varying levels of energy and time committed. It’s.. not easy. From a time perspective, you’re always limited, and the prioritization gets challenging. And on the creative side, there’s definitely a lot of context switching going on. I think that’s why a lot of my artwork is heavily process and production driven. Sort of like meditation, it provides quite a time for my brain as I just sit and sort paper, or glue 5,000 pieces onto a panel. Everything is a trade-off, and I think I’ve made sacrifices (some intentional, some not) to allow myself time to pursue art.

DM: I feel like your art is bigger than art. You’ve created mixed media pieces constructed from fliers stapled to telephone poles. You remove paper scraps and re-assemble them into graphic structures inlaid with chaotic bits of image, typography, and rust. What is the impetus for this particular project and what was the reaction to the work?

BS: I just love how old telephone poles, caked with years of flyers stapled to them. I’m drawn to simple imagery made up of complex things. From a far, the poles are just a texture of rusted staples and torn paper, but up close, you catch little snippets of lost pet flyers, guitar lessons, and bits of typography. I wanted to hang them in my house, but couldn’t figure out how, so I tried to recreate them by removing and reassembling the torn paper. The reaction has mostly been “you did what?”, but in a positive way.

DM: In your works on paper, you've said that you're interested in exploring the printed word as a visual representation of information. Do you feel that the printed word is out dated now?

What made you decide to work with the Bible, and investigate number of times the word “gold” shows up versus the number of times that “faith” shows up, and the number of times “love” shows up versus “evil”? How did you even come up with this idea?

BS: Years ago, I was struck by how, I think it was the New York Times, broke down politicians’ speeches, and showed how many times they said “war on terror” or “tax cuts”. The exploration of word frequency interested me, and I thought about applying it to other texts. The Bible is an obvious choice, given the role it’s played in history, and the influence it has today.

DM: The word gold shows up more than faith, and the word evil shows up more than love. What do you make of that?

BS: I think it’s less about what I make of it, and more about how viewers interpret it. I was surprised to learn that the Bible (KJV), mentions “evil” twice as many times as “love”. The Bible also mentions unicorns nine times. How people process those facts is what’s interesting to me. Art is subjective and personal, so what I think is just one tiny sliver of the impact a piece can have.

DM: You worked at Facebook and Pinterest for several years. What were those jobs like for you?

BS: How much time do you have? I could write a book… At a very high level, the jobs were challenging, and I learned a lot. It was an eye opener going into an environment with a lot of knowledge and experience, and then not knowing how to get anything done. It’s uncomfortable, but something I think every designer should experience.

DM: Regarding the corporate world, you’ve stated, “Probably the biggest takeaway is that while design skill is important, it’s not the only thing needed to succeed and have an impact. You need strategic thinking skills, empathy, holistic problem-solving, leadership, great communication, the ability to hire and motivate talent, and of course, you can’t be an asshole. You know, all the things they don’t teach in design school.” Any advice for a young person looking to learn those things quickly without making a ton of mistakes?

BS: Ha! Does anyone really truly learn without making mistakes? My biggest recommendation is, in the first 10 years of your design career, to work at a small boutique design shop, a much larger agency, and in-house corporate. That will give you a sense of what’s out there, but also help you learn what you like and excel at (and just as important, what you don’t like). The in-house piece will also make you much better at speaking the business language, and more effective working with clients wherever you end up.

DM: Tell us about TWIT spotting. What motivated you doing this project? Were you surprised by the national attention the project got?

BS: TWIT Spotting (Texting While In Traffic), was a project where I took of people using their phones while driving in stop and go traffic on the freeway. Of course, I only did this as a passenger. It was simply something I observed in my daily commute (if you’re a passenger, look around and you’ll be terrified how many people do it). So, I took the photos and put up a website, and then I put the photos in billboards. There was just something… right, about commuters in cars seeing billboards of commuters in cars using their phones. The project got some crazy-town press.. TV, radio, all over the internet.. From The Today Show to TIME to The Creators Project. It also got me a few death threats. The biggest surprise to me though, was that no one wanted to help fund the project (insurance company, phone company, etc.). I think with a bit of money to launch it in more cities, it could really have impacted the distracted driving problem.

DM: Can you talk a bit about the role AIGA has played in your life and career?

BS: AIGA has been like a good friend, who’s been around and helped see me through every step of my design career. I remember when I first attended an AIGA event and I knew no one. It was awkward, and a bit sad, but Amos Klausner (who was the chapter director at the time) came up to me and said, “hello.” He made me feel welcome. Over the years, I’ve come to realize how much that simple act led me down my path. I could have just as easily gone home, disappointed, and never come back. The AIGA community has helped develop my career, helped me grow as a designer (and human being), and I’ve made a lot of lifelong friends through my involvement.

DM: In an interview in 2016 in Print Magazine, when asked about your future goals, you stated, “I don’t know if this counts as a goal, but I’ve always joked about being a designer with no clients.” Shortly thereafter, you left the corporate world to set out full time as an artist. What was that initially like? Was it a scary decision for you?

BS:I’m still working on that “no client” thing.. When I set out to focus on art full time, it was actually pretty damn amazing. The biggest fear I had was in how I’d maintain a work ethic and not devolve into binging Netflix daily. It turns out I’m a workaholic (hooray?). There was also that challenge of going from someone established in their profession, to basically, the bottom of the art world pile. The art profession is different, and even if you can figure out how it works, that doesn’t mean you can succeed. I think the decision was less scary for me (than it might be for others), since I’d saved up in order to fund my pursuit, and know I can go back to design to pay the bills if I have to.

DM: What has life been like since for you? Are you doing any client work at all? How are you able to make a living?

BS: Oh, there’s no making a living as an artist. Something like 3% of artists can do that. I basically burned through my savings, to enable me time to focus. After a while, I did take on a few consulting projects, but it’s not much. Strangely, life has been super busy. Jumping from one hustle to another, finishing work, applying for grants, proposing things… For whatever reason, that life of leisure that I fantasized about, going out to the café for breakfast, reading, then going to the museum everyday? I did that once. The other days I’m in the studio, working.

DM: You are currently working on an ongoing project titled The Geometry Series. Can you talk a bit about how you are approaching this ambitious project?

BS: Sure, the series is essentially an exploration of the textures and patterns created by cutting into books. Think about it like this, if you cut a book in half, and then looked at the edges where you cut, you’d see patterns made from the slivers of cut type. They look almost like textile patterns. Well, I cut up a lot of these, and rearrange them into larger shapes and patterns. Everything from romance novels, to old sci-fi paperbacks that have green edges, to Bibles. The results are often simple from a distance, and up close you can get lost in them (similar to the telephone pole flyer pieces).

DM: The year is 2023. What are you doing? What are you working on?

BS: This might sound lame, but I think I’m doing the exact same thing I’m doing now. I might be living somewhere else, but in 2023, I’d like to think I’m happy, making things in my studio, and pursuing crazy side projects whatever they may be.

Debbie Millman is a designer, author, curator, educator and brand strategist. Since 2005, she has been the host of the award-winning podcast Design Matters, which is one of the world’s very first podcasts. She is also co-founder and chair of the world’s first Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts, President Emeritus of AIGA, and the author of six books on design and branding. She has worked on the design and strategy of over 200 of the world’s biggest brands.