Lana Rigsby On The Responsibility, Philosophy, And Future Of Design

Originally featured and written by SHERRI CAUDELL, 02/20/19 in ArtsATL Magazine

S.C: What is the social responsibility of design?

L.R: I’m not sure I think about design as a “calling” with special responsibilities. I think designers have the same responsibility, really, as engineers or filmmakers or people who own grocery stores—it’s the basic responsibility every human has for the things we bring into the world. Okay, maybe design does have a little extra job because its purpose is communication, and communication amplifies those other things, but the big question is: what is it that you’re helping give birth to? What are you asking people to pay attention to? If designers have a social responsibility, it is to think hard about those questions and use our work to perpetuate coherence, beauty, and goodness in this world. So often, design is the servant of commerce: we design things to make them easier to sell (think branding). But design, at its best, is a tool for starting important conversations and /or elevating the level of the things people can think about. It is important that we designers use our work—no matter the client or audience or context—to try and shift the world a degree away from ignorance and ugliness or bland homogeneity, toward something a little better.

S.C: What is your personal design philosophy?

L.R: My firm is passionately devoted to craft in the classic sense. We are geeks about printing and binding and materials, and that is after we’ve labored over every element of design and precision-kerned all the typography. (Designer John Bielenberg once called a book of ours “an obsessively-crafted design fetish object”.) But it’s funny—I wouldn’t say my personal design philosophy is rooted in visual aspects of design at all. The best work, for me, is lucid, intelligent, engaging. Creating that kind of clarity takes great effort and discipline and always depends more on deeply understanding the story than on crafting the telling. However. That said, Charlie Parker revolutionized jazz by playing—with absolutely flawless precision—faster than anyone ever had tried to play before. People had to slow down his recordings just to understand the musical structure of his ideas. This is a perfect example of immaculate, nearly inimitable craftsmanship in service of a larger creative idea. I’ll never get there, but that is an ideal I aspire to.

S.C: What are some of your favorite past design projects that you have worked on?

L.R: One of the projects I’m happiest with isn’t what we usually think of as “a design project” at all. It happened November 2016 during the US presidential election. Latinos for Trump founder Marco Gutierrez had warned in an MSNBC interview that America might soon see “taco trucks on every corner” because of immigration from Mexico. The comment inspired us: in Houston there already are taco trucks everywhere (a good thing, in our view), and we quickly went to work recruiting them to double as voter registration booths. Collaborating with a bipartisan group called Mi Familia Vota, we created bilingual voter guides and installed them, along with voter registration cards, in taco trucks citywide. The two-week campaign helped add nearly 324,000 new voters to Harris County rolls—breaking all records—and went wildly viral, covered by media from ABC to Fox News to BBC and lots more. There remains work to be done helping everyone have a voice in our country, and this project felt like a promising step in that direction.

S.C: If you could give a design student any career advice, what would it be?

L.R: Read. And travel. Read literature to get a deep understanding of human experience and poetry to learn how to think in metaphors; travel so you have the broadest variety of experiences to draw from for potential connections. Think of design as your ticket to places you’d never have access to otherwise; a setup for getting paid to learn about things you find interesting, advance ideas you think are good, and work with people you admire. Cultivate genuine curiosity about as many things as you can and never miss a chance to engage with as many different people as you can. Go to design conferences and introduce yourself. When you show your work, talk about how that work connects with your own interests; people want to know what you’re passionate about, not just whether you have design skills. Finally, start interviewing long before you graduate so that when the time comes, you’ll already know where you want to go.

S.C: Your work often mixes interactivity into what are considered classic print communications—books, for example. How and why do you do this?

L.R: Several years ago we launched a multi-faceted campaign exploring one of the biggest questions of our time: How do media shape messages? We worked with the neuroscientist David Eagleman to look at how human brains process information and how communication vehicles—from stone tablets to papyrus and paper to computer screens—each color information in a different way. The science is rich and fascinating and dates all the way back to infamous experiments done on monkeys in the 1940s. Our book was well on the way to blowing up with all this information when we decided to add content interactively instead. Page triggers inside the story lead readers to 3-minute videos of Dr Eagleman explaining key ideas. The thing was so successful that we’ve looked at integrating interactivity into other projects as well: our book for Mercedes-Benz Stadium for example, has page-portals leading to timelapse videos of the Stadium’s beautiful oculus roof opening and closing—which you simply must see to believe—and nine other embedded pieces created in collaboration with the acclaimed documentary videographer David Lewis. This kind of content really brings books to life by integrating live action into otherwise static presentations, and I think we’ll see it being done more and more. (I should mention that the Mercedes-Benz Stadium book, a private limited edition monograph, is not available for sale anywhere; luckily ArtsATL readers can visit the Stadium and see this magnificent, game-changing architectural icon for themselves!)

S.C: What do you think helped influence your out-of-the-box thinking style?

L.R: I grew up in a pretty unusual way, moving around constantly (see answer #4). I was exposed to a mind-blowing variety of cultures and situations and people. I guess I was much older before I even knew there was a box you were supposed to think inside of—I missed that concept completely. Outside the box is where I lived.

S.C: What first drew you to design?

L.R: My mother is an artist and taught me early on to draw, and to love art. I learned that to draw something you have to pay very close attention to it. And attentiveness is, of course, the only way we humans have of knowing what is real in this world. Attentiveness. It is the key to design, and art, and life, in my book.

S.C: How long have you been a designer? How long has Rigsby Hull been in business?

L.R: I’ve been a designer all my life! Rigsby Hull was founded January 1, 1991; prior to that I worked with the legendary Texas designer Lowell Williams (protege of Saul Bass) for ten years. My resume is ridiculously short: two jobs in my adult life.

S.C: Do you live in Houston? Did you grow up there?

L.R: I spent the first 12 years of my life in a little farm town in Southeastern Kansas called Towanda; after that my family bounced around all over the world. I attended FIVE high schools in FOUR countries on THREE continents, finally landing in Texas for university. I met my husband in Texas—he was my college boyfriend—and I liked the place so much that I’ve never left.

S.C: Do you have family in Houston? Do you have any children?

L.R: I live in Houston, a stone’s throw from Rice University (our “Oxford on the plains”) with my husband, our 16-year old twins Annie and Jonathan, and our rowdy yellow lab pup Leo.

S.C: Who are three of your greatest influences?

L.R: Sorry—there’s no way to narrow it down to three. I’d be up all night thinking about it.