Jesse Reed details Order's identities, Standards Manual's books and Michael Bierut's wisdom

Elliott Moody
0 min read

Jesse Reed details Order's identities, Standards Manual's books and Michael Bierut's wisdom

Founded by two former Pentagram designers, Order is a Brooklyn-based design office that’s created acclaimed identity systems for the likes of MoMA and Kickstarter. Alongside it, they run renowned publishing imprint Standards Manual, from which they’ve created archival books on NASA and the NYCTA. To get the lowdown on both, we caught up with co-founder Jesse Reed.

EM Hey Jesse. How are you doing?

JR Hello, Elliott. On this particular day, I’m doing ok. I’m looking for a new apartment and it’s stressful! Anyway, let’s talk about graphic design.

EM How has the studio evolved since you started out?

JR So, so much – I’ll give you the highlights. We started Order with Hamish and myself, a design intern (who became full-time after a month), and a part-time coordinator (who also became full-time very quickly) all sitting together in an 8×10’ glass room. Now we have four full-time designers, a director of operations, sometimes an intern, and a larger (but still cosy) office with a backyard. Obviously we have a lot more clients than we did at the start, but I’m really proud of the range of industries we’ve been able to dip our toes into – restaurants, museums, higher education, bakeries, therapists, banks, yoga – I could keep going, but you get the picture.

The other most recent change is starting a new company – Standards – which is a tool to build and host brand guidelines on the web. It’s in the family of Order and Standards Manual, which operates with the same staff (plus some new partners) and under the same roof. Since we launched sign-ups a couple months ago, Hamish and I have split responsibilities a bit differently. He’s going to be managing and developing Standards almost full-time, while I focus on growing and fostering the client work at Order. Eventually, we’ll be taking on additional team members for Standards, but for now, we’re keeping it small and working with our development partner, Shore, out in Seattle.

Jesse Reed details Order's identities, Standards Manual's books and Michael Bierut's wisdom

Listen first, have good bedside manner, and take the blame, even if it’s not (entirely) your fault.

EM When you started the studio, did you have a solid amount of client work lined up or was it a scramble initially?

JR Saying we had a ‘solid’ amount of freelance clients might be a stretch, but we had enough to pay the bills for a few months. I’d say Hamish and I are pretty good at balancing risk – he’s ok with a bit more, I prefer less, which results in just the right amount. At the end of the day, we have Standards Manual to thank for starting Order. We essentially financed the new office and first half-year of operations from what we made through publishing. Now the tables have turned a bit, where we don’t have to use Kickstarter to publish a book and instead we just front the costs and hope for the best. The retail store was (we’ve been closed since March due to COVID) also a solid source of revenue, which at least paid the utilities. Between our books, retail sales, and freelance clients, the risk was diversified enough that we felt comfortable giving Order a shot.

EM Are there any experiences and learnings from your previous roles that have particularly informed your own practice?

JR The best and most accurate answer is: Michael Bierut. Sorry to name drop, but it’s true. Every time we have a new client or project, I can somehow recall a situation when I was at Pentagram and watched Michael navigate similar waters. He taught me more about business (specifically the business of design) than I realised at the time. Listen first, have good bedside manner, and take the blame, even if it’s not (entirely) your fault.

The designers who worked on the first two floors of Pentagram (the old office) had a pretty serious advantage if you paid attention – we were situated almost literally next to all of the partners, either a half-floor above or below. You could hear all of their phone calls, conversations, and general day-to-day discussions. Now, this sounds like creepy eavesdropping, but it’s not! Pentagram didn’t have closed offices, and the floorplan was very exposed, intentionally so. On my first day, a designer told me, “keep your headphones off and you might learn something” – that’s exactly what I did and she was right.

EM How’ve you found working throughout COVID?

JR This might be an unpopular answer, but in terms of doing design work, I’ve enjoyed the isolation. I also live very close to our office in Brooklyn, so I was able to go in and watch over things while we were in the thick of it. I’m an introvert, so I can get on pretty well without anyone around me. In fact, I prefer it.

I also think COVID has revealed that 30-minute in-person meetings with an hour travel time aren’t really necessary. For all of the faults of Zoom, they start on time and give back the hours that I was losing on travel to doing actual design work. I predict a lot of available office space in Manhattan over the next few years.

EM Aside from working from home, have you had to adapt the way your businesses operate?

JR The only other thing COVID has really affected is our Standards Manual retail store. It’s been closed since March and I don’t see it opening back up until next summer (if I had to guess). We also stopped shipping books that aren’t our own titles, which is a bummer. Luckily our fulfilment warehouse in Alabama never stopped shipping our Standards Manual books, so that was a huge relief (and allowed us to publish a new title in June).

EM How do you strike a balance between running the studio and Standards Manual?

JR Standards Manual is pretty low maintenance if we don’t have a new book coming out. We released The Worm during COVID, which was interesting, but really not much harder than when things were normal. There’s about three months of intense planning and production work that happens when we’re launching a new title, but once it’s printed and shipping, the workload drops significantly. If anything, we’re busier trying to run Order and building Standards (the new company) at the same time. Now that we have a good system for Standards Manual (e-commerce, social, newsletter, printing, and distribution) we can go from idea to reality much faster than the first time around. The Worm came to life in four weeks, from concept to pre-order.

Jesse Reed details Order's identities, Standards Manual's books and Michael Bierut's wisdom

We love the distribution of information just as much as the design itself.

EM What birthed the love that yourself and Hamish have for historic graphic manuals and the style of design associated with them?

JR I don’t think we’re that different from most other designers, particularly ones that subscribe to more ‘modernist’ principles. We both went to university programmes that taught from the Bauhaus/International Style perspective, so there’s no denying that has an influence on our professional practice. And it’s not so much the style, but the history around the materials. We both believe strongly in design education, and unfortunately, it’s taught rather poorly in most design programmes today (likely due to budget constraints). Our books only represent a very small percentage of our profession’s history, but the goal was to make materials accessible. I think we love the distribution of information just as much as the design itself – which we both have in common and makes for a great partnership – but sure, I’m a sucker for Helvetica and proud of it.

EM When you have the idea for a new book, such as The Worm or Parks, what does the process of gathering content and permissions to use it, prior to any design, actually look like?

JR Gathering content is always the most time-consuming phase. We scoured thousands of images for The Worm to make our selections. This took about a month of full-time dedication. Parks was a little easier on our end, because the photographer who collects and documents the material, Brian Kelley, already had the images ready to go. At that point, it was just a matter of post-production (removing dust, etc.) and sequencing the layout.

And, we have a very good legal team!

Jesse Reed details Order's identities, Standards Manual's books and Michael Bierut's wisdom

EM Order’s identities just about always possess seamless modularity – be it through the coloured blocks of MoMA or monospaced typography of JFK – what draws you to that approach?

JR One thing that I’ve come to realise is that I don’t consider myself to be inherently ‘creative’ – I lean more on the functional side of design than form. So the modularity of design components is attractive to me because of how it functions, and can be incredibly useful to in-house teams. It’s not a new approach, and not one that even sounds all that exciting, but when you pair really great material (like MoMA’s collection) with a seemingly simple modular system, the result is both beautiful and easy to use (and again, we think a lot about the teams that we’re handing these systems over to, so that carries a lot of weight).

EM It’s fairly unusual for an arts institution to use colour so dynamically but for MoMA, it just works. How was the process of deciding to be particularly expressive with colour throughout that identity?

JR That’s an astute observation, because you’re absolutely right. Maybe it’s because Modernism is inherently colourful, but MoMA has always had a history of using bright colours in their identity (from the early 1930s, to Chermayeff & Geismar, through to Paula Scher’s system). One of our core recommendations was to embrace colour and not be afraid to use it. Unlike The Met, Guggenheim, or other more traditional museums in the city, we thought they could use it as a uniquely expressive and functional device. And of course, PS1 stays black and white.

EM Do you have a project you’re most proud of?

JR I know we’re talking a lot about MoMA, but that might be my favourite project that I’ve done at Order. Mostly because it was my first job out of school, where I worked as a junior designer under Julia Hoffmann. It felt very full circle to me, especially because I was working with some of the same people that I started my career with. Plus, working with Rob Giampietro was a dream – he was super easy to work with, genuinely excited about the project, and his team executed it FLAWLESSLY. That’s all I can really ask for. Crossing my fingers it lasts!

EM Let’s end on a simple note – if you could design a book or an identity for anyone or anything – what would it be?

JR There are more dignified answers than this, but for the people who really know me, they’ve learned that I have a deep love for the American fast-food chain, Taco Bell. If the head nachos at ‘the Bell’ are reading, please call me.

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