The Designers: Actual Source’s Gunnar Harrison on research, personal projects and more
The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For the seventh interview in the series, we spoke to Gunnar Harrison, a designer working at Actual Source in Provo, Utah.
EM Hi Gunnar. How’s it going?
GH Doing well! How about yourself?
EM Doing well too, thanks! How did you develop an interest in graphic design?
GH Small steps over the K-12 years. I was constantly redrawing skate logos in elementary school. In middle school, I started listening to metal and hardcore and after a while, the band merch eclipsed my interest in the music itself. What I think sealed the deal was a digital media class I took in high school that introduced me to the software that could make all the stuff I was interested in.
You learn so much when you’re trying to get something physically made.
EM What does your journey to becoming a designer at Actual Source look like?
GH I was a big fan before working here. I was just starting design school when they started Number 04 – their former studio – so I would go to their book releases and exhibitions and try to soak in everything because no one was doing anything like that in Utah. I knew JP a little bit from before so I’d always say hi and tell him how cool everything looked. During my last semester, he reached out and asked if I’d be interested in an internship and things went from there.
EM Can you highlight something you learnt along the way?
GH It’s definitely not as fun as the design process, but being involved in the production-side of work has been really valuable. We’re a really small team so you have to be able to switch from design to production pretty frequently. Anything from preparing a book for print to assembling wayfinding signage for a book fair. You learn so much when you’re trying to get something physically made.
EM At Actual Source, how does the studio approach client work versus self-initiated projects like Shoplifters? Is there a difference?
GH It really depends on the client. The most ideal situations are when there isn’t much of a difference between the two. We try to foster trusting relationships with clients in order to make work that will both speak to their needs and satisfy our standards. At the end of the day though, it’s a design studio with a bottom line and there will always be a portion of client work that feels more transactional than creative.
The common thread between approaching both types of work is definitely research. Whether it’s an identity pitch or a new issue of Shoplifters, Davis and JP put a big emphasis on research before beginning a project.
EM Where do you tend to go for research?
GH Wikimedia Commons. If you have enough search terms and patience you can find some real gems. It’s also a nice escape from algorithms and infinite scrolls.
EM What does your setup look like?
EM What’s the idea behind your ‘bootleg’ typeface BedTimes?
GH I was interested in type design, but the idea of drawing a complete family of glyphs was insanely daunting. To get familiar with the software I started editing the letterforms of Times New Roman without any real concept in mind and after a while, I found a set of forms that I liked. It’s very much a bootleg though, so I can’t properly release or sell it. Maybe one day I’ll redraw it and put it out.
Seeing the studio continually research, edit, and iterate on typographic decisions is a huge influence.
EM What appeals to you about bootleg or non-traditional typography? Good old Hobo even makes an appearance on your Instagram!
GH Love Hobo! A big contributing factor is when I started working at Actual Source, one of the first things that was challenged was my understanding of ‘good typography’. I went through a very traditional design programme that gave me a great foundation to build on, but I never really pushed myself to work outside of it. Seeing the studio continually research, edit, and iterate on typographic decisions was and still is a huge influence.
Also, the fact that independent type design is having a big moment right now. Basically, if you have an internet connection you can make a font.
EM You mentioned your initial interest in design came from band merch. Would you say it still influences your work today?
GH I would say yes but not quite as much. When I was a teenager in 2009, going to shows was one of the few windows I had into a subversive visual culture. Since then I’ve (hopefully) developed a broader palette as far as what interests me from a design perspective. The draw is definitely still there, just not as strong.
You can still be a good designer without constantly pursuing self-initiated work.
EM What is your Lake Effect project all about?
GH The lake effect attributed to the Great Salt Lake in Utah is a weather phenomenon that locals commonly cite for ‘The Greatest Snow on Earth’ claim. What a lot of people don’t know is that in 1959 a railroad causeway was built through the Great Salt Lake, dividing it horizontally and creating two very ecologically different bodies of water. You can see the colour difference from aerial photos and it’s pretty jarring. The project came about by trying to find an interesting way to showcase the aerial photos. I chose ‘Lake Effect’ as the name because I wanted to invert its implied meaning; a study on how our presence affects the lake instead of the lake’s presence affecting us.
EM Do you think it’s important to maintain personal projects?
GH Maintaining personal projects is great, but I would hesitate to say it’s important. You can still be a good designer without constantly pursuing self-initiated work. I’m privileged in that I have enough time outside of my job to dedicate to exploring topics I’m interested in. A lot of designers don’t have that setup, especially with COVID-19 and the current social unrest.
That being said, if you have the time and you’re motivated I think it can be valuable. Self-initiated work is a great exercise for me because I can follow tangents without worrying about where they lead in the end. It’s ok to pivot into a completely new idea after working on something for weeks because it’s all about discovery and you’re not reporting to anyone but yourself.
EM How do you approach days where you don’t feel so creative?
GH It’s a boring answer, but I’ve found that sometimes just working through a lack of inspiration can really help. There’s a hump in the beginning that I have to get over when I’m not feeling motivated, and if I’m doing client work I can get over it relatively quickly by just putting my head down and checking off tasks.
It’s a little different for self-initiated work. If I’m not excited by the work I’m doing in my free time, it’s much harder to channel that same work ethic. I can go weeks without doing anything related to design.
EM Are there any other studios or creative people, in any industry, that you particularly admire?
GH I do a little motion and a little code so I’m always interested in what Zach Lieberman or DIA are doing. I also admire what DIA and other studios have been pushing by supplementing the traditional PDF style guide with custom-built design tools as deliverables.
EM Would you like to eventually start your own studio?