Civilization is a design practice in Seattle, USA founded by Michael Ellsworth, Corey Gutch and Gabriel Stromberg. Check out our catch up with them below.
EM What is Civilization’s studio ethos?
C One thing that has always resonated with us is something that Milton Glaser said when we were interviewing him about his ‘It’s Not Warming, It’s Dying’ climate campaign, he said “The designer’s role is the role of good citizenship” and we truly take this to heart in our studio’s work. When we started Civilization we decided that our business and our personal ethics didn’t have to be mutually exclusive – we wanted our values reflected in our work. Ultimately our goal is to be citizen designers.
The projects we take on more-or-less fall into three categories – community, culture and cause.
Our aim across all of our work is to promote conversation and connections in our community. Our Design Lecture Series brings world-class graphic designers to Seattle to give free lectures at the Rem Koolhaas designed Central Library. Our podcast Beyond This Point is all about celebrating the people that inspire us no matter the field they occupy. We also give a number of talks and teach classes and workshops at universities and conferences.
As for culture, we work with ethical brands, like slow fashion company Olderbrother, California designer Eric Trine, cultural hubs like Hotel Sorrento, and museums like The Frye.
In the cause realm we work on projects that inspire action. Like Death Over Dinner, a campaign and web platform to inspire conversations around end-of-life. And we just started working with the #ShoutYourAbortion team to create platforms for people to change the conversation about abortion and remove the stigma.
EM How do you approach new projects as a team?
C Most of our work comes through word of mouth, but because we’re socially-driven each new project has to be run by the team before we take it on. There are eight of us sitting at one long table in the studio so no matter what the project is we will each have our hands on it at some point.
Our team was formed very organically, the three founders have known each other over a decade. The rest of the team came to know each other through working in the arts and design community. We come from museums, arts non-profits, publishing houses and publications, and Fortune 500 companies, so we all bring something different to the table.
Each series has 1600 attendees.
EM What are you aiming to achieve through your Design Lecture Series in Seattle?
C At first we started the lecture series because whenever we engaged with a young designer we would ask them, “Who are your favorite designers?” and almost without exception we’d be met with a blank stare. So we decided we wanted to do something to change that. We started the Design Lecture Series back in 2013 and began bringing our personal graphic design heroes to Seattle. The mission of the series really grew from there – we’ve found that we’re not only able to educate a new generation of designers in our region but the lectures are sparking conversations about creativity, inspiration and innovation in the creative community at large. Each series has 1600 attendees, and many of the lectures are also livestreamed so thousands more can tune in around the world. We’ve been able to reach more people than we’d ever imagined.
EM Can you touch on any particular highlights so far?
C A nice byproduct of the lecture series is that we get to hang out with our personal heroes and become friends. This past season we had an incredible weekend with Experimental Jetset. We took a roadtrip with them down to Portland, spent the weekend record shopping, browsing bookstores, and swapping stories.
EM Why did you decide to start the Beyond This Point podcast?
C With our design lecture series we are able to celebrate graphic design legends by bringing them to us, with our podcast we wanted to keep that conversation going while also celebrating all of the creative people that inspire our work, whether they’re designers, business leaders, musicians, dancers. Our studio is constantly collaborating and we wanted to put a spotlight on the different perspectives that influence us.
C Death over Dinner started with a statistic – Michael Hebb, a chef and activist friend of ours, was talking to a doctor on a train a few years back and discovered that over 75% of Americans want to die at home, but only 25% do. The reason this is happening is simple, people are not having a conversation about how they want to die with their loved ones. So we partnered with Hebb and decided to create an online platform that would help people have this extremely different conversation with their family and friends. Because we aren’t medical experts, we gathered a global team of top medical and wellness advisors – ranging from doctors and healthcare professionals to artists and authors. To fund the project we launched an Indiegogo campaign.
We wanted the project’s logo to be handwritten, so we used custom type and illustrations to lend the invitation a human touch. The yellow in the logo represents the sun setting on the horizon. The sunset could be seen as a metaphor for life, just as the sun sets but does not disappear for good, in life just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Sunsets are also considered universally beautiful, similarly death is the most universal, all-encompassing subject one can imagine, it affects us all. We’ve been blown away by the response, over 100k people in 30 countries have now used the platform to host their own death dinners.
Following the success of Death Over Dinner we wanted to use the same model to tackle another taboo topic – drugs and addiction. So we launched Drugs Over Dinner last year. We were able to find a donor to match funds for our Indiegogo campaign this time around. Arianna Huffington signed on as an advisor and the Huffington Post became a media partner which really propelled the campaign from day one.
Until now, society’s approach to addiction has been to paint the issue in black and white. So to create the identity we took inspiration from this cultural oversight and styled the logo in stark black and white. The logo evokes the intersection and overlapping of the two Ds – Dinner & Drugs. The resulting op art and psychedelic moiré give the illusion of a continuous letter. The maze-like quality not only references current drug culture and our political and societal inability to navigate the issue but it is also a metaphor for addiction.
Society’s approach to addiction has been to paint the issue in black and white.
EM What do you guys enjoy about working on projects, such as these, that are important socially and culturally?
C In all the struggles we have with running a small studio, it’s so much easier to push through and keep going when you’re doing something you believe in. When you can help someone in even a little way, it’s so rewarding.
EM What things are essential in Civilization’s studio?
C Pens and notebooks – we go through so many notebooks. We are all constant sketchers – every meeting creates more sketches so we’re always replenishing our supply of notebooks. And everyone in the studio has their favorite pen, most are ultra-thin – Marvy Uchida’s Le Pen and Muji’s 0.25 hexagonal pen are favorites.
EM Can you explain the concept behind your identity for Olderbrother?
C Olderbrother is a West Coast gender-neutral clothing line that uses locally crafted materials, and eco-conscious fabrics and dyes. In creating their brand identity we took inspiration from the brand’s playful spirit and the humor they bring to their process to create a clean, bright and contemporary brand mascot and type treatment. The mascot’s facial features are created from the letters O,L,D, & B, which evoke their very intentional garment design. The mismatched face also pays homage to wabi-sabi and acts as a constant reminder of the human touch that goes into the creation of each article of clothing and the beauty found in imperfections, each piece of clothing is naturally dyed and completely unique. The face itself is a character with a black eye – that being the olderbrother or younger brother, we leave it to you to decide which.
It was recently brought to our attention that a Chinese fast-fashion retailer knocked-off the logo and is selling the t-shirts for ten US dollars online. They’re calling it the ‘wink emoticon tee’ – rest assured, legal action has been taken (although we couldn’t be more flattered).
EM How would you like the studio to evolve in the future?
C Really, more of the same. This year is off to an incredible start – we’re planning on launching a small online retail shop by the end of the year and will have some limited edition pieces for sale.
We’re doing branding for a global tea wholesaler, development for a statewide historic preservation initiative, and wayfinding and signage for a sustainable community facility for a small whaling village off the coast of Alaska that is being threatened by climate change.
And for our 2016/2017 Design Lecture Series we are hosting our studio’s favorite designer, thinker and educator – Kenya Hara.