Fellow Awards 2014 Interview: Gaby Brink
Interviewed by Allan Chochinov

Gaby Brink is a designer with grit and heart. She has founded and led two design firms, started one tech venture and is on her way to launching another. Her ability to curate teams and create a culture of collaboration and excellence is one of her design superpowers, and her commitment to purposeful, progressive work is an inspiration to many.

Gaby’s roots in communication design have served her well in the areas she’s branched out into since graduating from the California College of the Arts almost 20 years ago, designing digital experiences and innovating for civil and social contexts. A past member of the San Francisco and National Boards of Directors of AIGA, she continues to foster dialogue and action around the industry’s role in design-driven social change and sustainable growth.

AC: How did you come to think of yourself as a designer?

GB: I came to design in a somewhat roundabout way. When I was a kid, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a pilot (I learned to fly before I was old enough to drive a car!). My parents encouraged me to go to art school and I was accepted for the initial year at the Schule für Gestaltung, in Zurich. When it came time to apply for the four-year program, I didn’t pass their muster. That’s what brought me to the California College of the Arts (CCA) in Oakland at the ripe age of seventeen, not knowing what to expect but filled with curiosity. I graduated with a degree in photography three years later, moved to New York and began working in the field. I didn’t love commercial photography as much as my fine art work and soon became curious about what other careers there might be. A friend suggested design and that’s really the first time I gave it any thought. A few months later, I made my way back to California and enrolled in the graphic design program at CCA, where I knew right away that I had found my calling.

AC: So it was CCA Round 1 and then CCA Round 2!

GB: That’s right! In the early nineties, the only graphic design master’s program I knew of was at Yale and I was not interested in staying on the east coast. When I spoke with CCA, they said I could complete their five-year program in three. I decided to just treat my second degree as if it were grad school and worked my heart out. San Francisco was the epicenter of postmodernism in graphic design in the eighties so my return to the Bay Area was an exciting time to enter the profession. The program at CCA was led by many design heavyweights—three of the “Michaels” (Vanderbyl, Cronan, and Manwaring), Jennifer Morla, Luzille Tenazas, Terry Irwin, John Bielenberg and my fellow AIGA Fellow Melanie Doherty, to name but a few. It was a close-knit community that was instrumental in helping my career get off the ground and that I have stayed in touch with ever since.

AC: I remember being blown away by April Greiman’s work when I was in grad school in 1986. Some pretty exciting times. But I think of you as Swiss, of course, and then of its eponymous grid!

GB: Yes, it’s hard to escape design when you live in Switzerland—though I never knew that there was such a thing as Swiss Design. It’s amazing how that style is ubiquitous throughout the country, still today. Maybe I, too, wanted to escape the order of that aesthetic when I came to California—I was unable to use Helvetica for the first decade of my career because it somehow represented the rigidity of the Switzerland I had left behind. Of course, ironically, when you look at the brand of my current design firm, Tomorrow Partners, you see those roots coming through strongly again.

When I was in school, we were trying to figure out what was next and we experimented with all sorts of styles. There was the rebellious aesthetic of the likes of David Carson and Martin Venesky and other prominent west coast designers. But my hero was, and still is, Tibor Kalman. I remember the first time I saw one of his Benetton billboards in Switzerland in the eighties. It was gutsy and raw and utterly out of place. People were up in arms about it. Just brilliant.

AC: Tibor—My idol. Indeed I’ve heard from several designers who used to work for him that he didn’t let people on the computer at the start of a project. Just paper and pen. Which reminds me…you still use scissors and tape for much of your work, right?

GB: You found me out! Yes, in creative reviews with our team I’m known to wield my fancy German precision scissors (a parting gift from Brian Gunderson who worked with me for five years). Mocking things up like this is a quick way to have a conversation about ideas that are otherwise abstract. I find that spit and tape still speed up the creative process!

AC: I wanted to ask you about, well, your move toward design for social impact, sustainability… purposeful design that was beyond styled branding and the like. When was your stake in the heart moment, and how did your business play out after that?

GB: Interesting how we all know when that moment happened, isn’t it? Mine was at an AIGA Compostmodern conference in 2006. Chris Hacker was talking about his work at Aveda, where they managed to integrate sustainability principles into every corner of the business—from R&D to product, packaging and store design, supply chain, HR, finance and more—I remember him talking about 98% integration. He was transitioning to Johnson & Johnson at the time where he realized he would have a larger impact, if he succeeded to bring these same principles to just 1% of that company. It was that moment when it struck me that designers, as systems thinkers, have the power to help create change at scale.

I went to the bookstore at lunch, bought my first copies of Cradle to Cradle, Natural Capitalism, and Collapse, which I devoured over the weekend, and came back to work Monday morning, ready to change the focus of my studio. Unfortunately, my business partner at the time didn’t share this interest and I realized quickly that we had hit a fork in the road from which there was no turning back.

There were no role models for the type of values driven design firm I wanted to create so when we shut down Templin Brink Design at the height of its success a year later, I had more questions than answers about what the future would hold. I did know that contributing meaningfully to complex challenges would require a range of expertise, beyond my own professional experience thus far. So my wife Nathalie Destandau, who sat next to me that day at Compostmodern, also changed course from her 18-year career in academia and went back to school to get an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School in order to then build our research and strategy practice. It was the fastest way for us to become expert in a complex space and our plan worked out better than we could have imagined.

AC: Certainly the combination of business and design can fortify the profession in powerful ways. How do you embrace the parts of business that make sense to you and keep a check on those that slave under strictures of commerce and infinite growth?

GB: By now, most successful companies understand that doing business ethically spurs economic growth. Our work often begins with articulating these values so that they can become endemic throughout a company’s culture and then get integrated into product, service and business model design over time. Luckily, most of our clients are already leading their categories in promoting progressive business so we rarely find ourselves at odds with business practices we categorically disagree with. Our aim is always to help companies do business better by putting systems in place that build capacity.

AC: Well, one could argue that the dovetailing of design and business may be the only way forward for incremental, sustaining change. I guess I’d want to first ask if you are more ‘revolution’ than ‘evolution’ though?

GB: Well, both, actually. I believe that we need a revolution because any incremental change will not get us to where we need to be as a culture, fast enough. This requires a multi-faceted approach, though, one that meets those ready to create change wherever they are and helps them scale from there. We see some of the most innovative thinking coming from social entrepreneurs who are bringing market-driven models to communities that have traditionally been beneficiaries of philanthropic support. Social entrepreneurs tend to think systemically, so they naturally see the value design can bring to these spaces. That said, at Tomorrow Partners, we are big believers in creating momentum by leveraging partnerships (as our name implies) and unlocking the potential of people and organizations already doing amazing work through design. Revolution can also come from millions of evolutions.

AC: Let’s chat about that for a minute. You’ve done a ton of client-based work, certainly, but you’ve also undertaken self-initiated projects. Can you tell us about a few of those?

GB: Many of those self-initiated projects come out of entering a new space and seeing a gap that could benefit from design strategy. When Nathalie and I first got involved in promoting sustainable design, we realized that there was no clear entry point for designers to understand the complexities of sustainability and how it can be integrated into everyday practice. So we decided to author the Living Principles for Design, a framework that articulates a roadmap for considering environmental, social, economic and cultural factors in design decisions. We did this work in collaboration with Phil Hamlett and through AIGA.

A few years later, our friend Wendy Levy came to us with an initial idea for an impact dashboard envisioned to serve documentary filmmakers. We saw potential in the concept, teamed up to raise some of the funds, and built what is now Sparkwise—a sophisticated cloud-based data communication platform that is used by civic institutions, researchers, change makers (including many filmmakers) and businesses around the world.

Most recently, we’ve been working with one of our collaborators in India, Barefoot College, to develop a digital learning platform for illiterate people. It’s one of the most ambitious undertakings we’ve been involved in—and one that has far-reaching potential. This will likely become another Tomorrow spin-off in the coming year.

AC: Tell us more about your work with Barefoot College?

GB: We’ve met many amazing organizations through our work that don’t have access to the innovation process because it is simply cost prohibitive. So a couple of years ago, we developed new collaborative models through our Labs that enable funders to rapidly immerse their grantee organizations in design thinking and making. Imagine what can happen when you bring together technologists, activists, scientists, storytellers, and designers around a shared interest—you can create new connections and rapidly arrive at break-through ideas that none could have reached on their own. Barefoot College participated in one of our 3-month Labs that the Skoll Foundation and Sundance Institute supported through their “Stories of Change” partnership.

AC: Um, even more, please.

GB: The challenge Barefoot brought into the Lab was specifically around what happens to the mostly illiterate solar engineers they train in India when they head back to their remote villages around the world. They lose contact with the college and with each other, have trouble retaining the complicated information they learned while they wait for their equipment, and it’s difficult for them to teach others to spread their learning without tools to support them. Their concept coming out of the Lab was to develop a tablet that could be used entirely without requiring literacy. The idea has gained a lot of traction and Barefoot was able to secure funds for us to send a team of design researchers to Rajasthan to spend time at the college with the women who would be using this technology. What has emerged is no longer a tablet, but a learning platform that could be leveraged for a multitude of uses from skills training to health education, financial literacy, safety training in manufacturing, sharing of best practices in small acre farming, environmental education and so much more! We are now looking for seed funding to build the platform and begin piloting it in a few of these use cases.

AC: Can you tell us about what the day-to-day is like at Tomorrow Partners? Is there a typical day?

GB: There is no such thing as a typical day but the consistent threads are food and dogs, and there’s never a dull moment! Because we’re engaged in so many different kinds of initiatives for a really broad spectrum of clients, the activities we undertake at any given time are really varied. Wasn’t it you who once said that today’s young designers “have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable”? That motto very much applies to working at Tomorrow. Our days are spent collaborating with client teams, leading workshops, iterating ideas, planning and conducting research, synthesizing it into actionable strategy, and of course lots of creative making and building. We have an amazing team spirit!

AC: That’s a great quote (it’s from Manuel Toscano). And what is it like as a partnership?

GB: Nathalie and I have been business partners for seven out of our sixteen year marriage. When we began working together, we weren’t sure what it would be like to partner up professionally but we’re having a blast and I know with certainty that we bring out the best in each other. We’ve been able to build a culture at the studio that is generative, supportive and truly collaborative and that makes for a great life. Three months ago, we were joined by a third partner, Jeremy Kaye. The three of us extend each other in amazing ways and we are super aligned around what we want to put our creative firepower towards. I couldn’t be more excited about our future as a trio.

AC: Well, let’s talk about that future. At this point you must have a good perspective on the body of work so far; what’s on your wishlist for what’s to come?

GB: I love the balance of work we do with both commercial clients and impact partners. I get fulfilled by so many aspects of our collaborations—creating beautifully designed experiences that bring joy and pride to people, developing smart solutions that improve lives in novel ways, fostering cultures of excellence within organizations to promote values along with creating value, and bringing top-notch design to people regardless of their circumstances. I look forward to doing more international work in all these realms. Overall, I feel very privileged to wake up every morning and do what I do!

AC: I guess for a final question I’d like to ask you for some advice. What would you say to readers out there who are thinking about starting a practice, or blazing a new trail for themselves?

GB: I started my first design firm in 1998, when I was 27. It was the dot com boom and we found ourselves having meetings with all sorts of tech start-ups with crazy business ideas (including these two young guys out of Stanford who wanted us to redesign the logo for their amazing new “search engine” for a few thousand shares. They decided to stick with Baskerville and primary colors, so there went that).

When we were hired to design our first e-commerce site, I had never even purchased anything online, yet. After every meeting, there were more acronyms to look up and best practices to study—we really fumbled our way through it all. That’s how we learned. And that’s how one thing lead to another. Today, we design and build sophisticated software platforms, which is a testament to never shying away from what you don’t know.

So, I have three pieces of advice: Find your passion and pursue it with gusto. Don’t be afraid to take on challenges that are utterly outside your comfort zone—in fact, do that as often as you can. And most importantly, always have fun.


Allan Chochinov is the Chair and co-founder of the SVA MFA in Products of Design Program. He writes widely on design education and the impact of design on contemporary culture. He is also a partner of Core77, a New York-based design network serving a global community of designers and design enthusiasts. He is the editor-in-chief of Core77.com, the widely read design website, Coroflot.com design job and portfolio site and DesignDirectory.com design firm database.

Prior to Core77, his work in product design focused on the medical and diagnostic fields as well as on consumer products and workplace systems. He has been named on numerous design and utility patents and has received awards from I.D. Magazine, Communication Arts, The Art Directors Club and The One Club. He serves on the boards of the Designers Accord, Design Ignites Change, and DesigNYC.