This week, I’m so excited to share this interview with Alex Griendling. Alex has been making great work for a long time, and has always been passionate about creating exciting side projects. His work has been featured in places like Abduzeedo and FPO, and I was honored to be a part of his illustration project, Raygun52. He had some fantastic things to say about failure and how that impacted him, so let’s get to it.
I live in South Bay, just south of San Francisco. I currently work at Google. I guess my title there is “just” a graphic designer. I work with a small team (6 of us) and we make up the Google Art Department. Over the past year and a half we have been working to create a comprehensive style guide for Google, to make the brand more cohesive.
Oh yea, I know. There are lot of challenges in that. A lot of that comes from Google’s culture, it’s very democratic in that everyone gets a say in everything. That works in a lot of cases, but it also makes design work a lot more difficult. When everyone has a say in something, you have to really fight for things not to be designed by committee. That problem will never be solved, it’s an ongoing thing. That’s part of being a designer, it’s going to be the same anywhere. It’s more front and center of an issue at Google just because of the culture they have.
Oh, man. From the beginning: I grew up and went to school in Kentucky. Right out of school, In an effort to get out and get as far away as I could, I moved to Los Angeles and got a job there designing movie posters. That was interesting, because my education was more traditional print. Movie posters are a very niche subject. Design goes into them, but more than anything it’s image building; trying to figure out how to make 20 images look like a single piece. You can look at most big budget movie posters and see that a lot of people do it’s a pretty shoddy job of things being put together.
I did that for two years, and then wanted a change of pace, so I moved to Minneapolis which is pretty renowned for it’s design community. I just freelanced there for I guess about a year and a half. It was great, because I got to get back in touch with more traditional graphic design work.
I also got to apply all of the photoshop things I learned in LA, working on ad campaigns, etc. Usually they’d have someone outside the company who would touch up photos, and I could do that since I had been doing that in LA. If I can assemble 20 images into one, I could cut out a car, put it on a road and make it look ok. It was awesome, because I could use that skill set but also develop my illustrator skill set, and get back in touch with more vector based work.
Google contacted me after I had been in Minneapolis for a while, and asked me to come out here. So I did, and now I am doing almost exclusively vector iconography and logos. It’s kind of weird, in the past 4 to 4 1/2 years I’ve made this transition from raster image work to pure flat vector work.
Yea, it’s great, I love it. It happened completely by accident (laughs), but it all worked out.
I think a lot of it comes from me wanting to see something, but no one else has done it. The best example of that is the Time Travel Calendar. I wanted a calendar that compiled all of this time travel data from movies and comics and games and all that, but I couldn’t find it. I thought “well, I’ll just make it.” That’s the easiest way to get what I want, and hopefully I can make it the way I want it to be made.”
Now, working at Google from day to day and developing their new style, I’m… I don’t want to say restricted, because that has a negative connotation, but I work in Google style because that’s what represents the company and it needs to be cohesive. So when I leave and work on my own stuff at night, I want to work on things that don’t look like that.
I make a lot of pixel art stuff, and a lot of linear work utilizing mono-weighted lines. Now I’m trying to get back more into drawing. It’s nice because I get to practice one thing at Google, but outside of Google I’m free to do whatever I want. I try to take advantage of that as much as I can with side projects and stuff.
Totally, and that works both ways, which is great. It took me a long time to find the drive. In school I was always staying late in studio until 3 am, I would crawl back to my dorm in the early morning. But when I got a job right out of school in LA, I would go home and not want to do any more design. Part of that was because I was working until 8 or 9 each night.
But I just love making stuff, I want to make stuff all the time! I don’t really know what triggers that. My dad is a designer too, so I grew up being encouraged to make stuff. I guess I’ve just taken that to heart as I grew up.
It’s been really great starting off there with what is essentially a new team. There are a lot of trials and tribulations that come along with that, being a six person team trying to change the course of a giant, titanic of a vessel. It isn’t easy, but it’s also been an opportunity to see something from the ground up, to start with nothing and say “Alright, how do we want Google to look?”
Then there’s the part where you have to convince other people. That’s not easy, but it’s also really rewarding when it works out. I think that’s an ongoing thing. No company’s image is ever done, it’s evolving constantly. I want to stay at Google and help that evolve as it needs to. Every day there are new issues that need to be resolved and new things to tackle, and I like that.
(laughs) Ok. My biggest failure thus far has been the 2011 Time Travel Calendar. I made this after I had been freelancing in Minneapolis for a few months. In between projects I always tried to come up with my own projects to work on to keep my skills sharp. I decided… God, I don’t even know where to start, this is such a fiasco of a story! (laughs)
I wanted to make a Time Travel Calendar, and what I envisioned that being was something that combined time travel events from movies, television, and video games. What it would do is this: over the course of the year it would put those events on a single timeline, so throughout the year you could see like “Oh, in 1984 at the same time Marty is traveling back to 1985, a Terminator has arrived from the future to kill Sarah Connor. It puts these events in a fun context that they hadn’t really existed in.
I got the idea to do this… probably in August of 2010. That left me, at that point with not much time. Calendars usually come out in November, you’ll see a lot of design blog posts on calendars around then. I didn’t start making the calendar until September.
So, at that point I had about two months to make this thing. There were too many things that I was doing for the first time with only two months to do them. Just a short list of those “first things”: It was my first time dealing with a printer for a personal project. It was the first time that I had sold anything online, and the first time that I had shipped stuff to send to people, the first time that I handled designed a multi page document like that on my own outside of an agency context. It was also the first time I made a suite of icons: what I did was for every tv show or movie or video game involved, I would make an icon for that property. That icon existed next to a little block of text that would briefly describe what happened on that date in that movie. (laughs) It was the first time for such a lot.
I got quotes back from printers probably around November of that year, and the quotes were a lot higher than I was expecting. I kind of had to revisit it, and figure out how I could make it work. At this point, the thing should have been done and out. The first failure: waiting way too long. So I revisited it, got the costs down, and decided that I would print about 250 of them, and didn’t expect to sell them all. I figured there was no way that people would be interested, since I was making this for myself, and there was only a slight chance that there might be others nerdy enough to appreciate it.
So I got 250 printed, and I started writing blogs, saying “Hey, I made this thing! If you like it, and you could post about it, that would be awesome!” And… (laughs) this is the beginning of my downfall because they all posted about it. In the first 24 hours I think I had over 500 orders. I had 250 calendars, and enough shipping material to ship only about 100 of them (laughs).
It snowballed into this insurmountable thing, while I simultaneously had to get more printed from the printer, had to order more shipping material, figure out how to ship this mass of stuff as well. All of these orders were coming through on a site I had designed the night before I put them up for sale. Again, too many firsts, not enough time. I got the calendars and figured I needed a site to sell them on so I made it.
So it’s mid November, and I’m waiting on all of these calendars and more shipping materials, and then I get a freelance job. Then, my days are occupied doing that work, and then I had to come home and pack all this stuff… This is traumatic, re-living all of this stuff.
(laughs) The first orders that were placed didn’t ship out until 2-3 weeks after the fact. That was completely due to my own incompetence and lack of planning. I didn’t think that this would do as well as it did. And then somewhere in the midst of all this, Paypal locked my account due to the sudden influx of all these payments. So now I couldn’t access any of the money that I needed to ship these things. To ship these, it’s about $5 a pop domestic, and about $10-11 for international shipping. All in all I shipped about $750, so that adds up. So I had no money to ship all the calendars (laughs).
And then people started getting the calendars from the first 250… and it was rife with spelling errors, and some of the information from the TV shows was incorrect. Not a lot, but for example, in Lost… I’m going to screw this up right now, but whatever… from Lost I had listed Desmond as being Daniel’s constant, but really it was vice versa, so fans freaked out about that. So I shipped these 250 calendars out, and instead of saying “Joan of Arc” it says “Jon of Arc”. This despair started creeping in.
I got a hold of the printer and explained the situation, and said I would update the file and send them the fixed version. Which they were able to do, but that just delayed me shipping more calendars. Then, after updating it, I shipped those out and there were still damn errors all through the whole thing… (laughs) It was just defeat upon defeat in this thing that was really exciting. It was the first time I had made something, and a lot of people wanted it, and that was a really good feeling. But then to realize that I had failed to make something that lived up to the standards that I try to hold myself to.
This being my first introduction to these people, who would go on to buy the 2012 Time Travel Calendar? It was a really bad first impression made to about 750 people, and to whoever decided to read comments on the blog posts about the calendar. God, I even misspelled Libya… ugh, it was so bad. Back to doing too much stuff and not having enough time. There were a few visual inconsistencies I didn’t like… the suite of icons I think were pretty bad. They weren’t objectively awful, but hindsight is 20/20 and looking back on them there are things I could’ve done better.
On paper, I sold 750 calendars. I got around 300 new twitter followers during that time. There were a lot of good things that happened, but success is not about how many things you sell or anything like that. In the end, for me, success is being happy with the work you produce and other people being happy and excited about that same work. So in this 2011 Time Travel Calendar, it was a failure because none of that stuff came to pass. I’m sure some people liked it, but I wasn’t happy with how it turned out. Oh man, so depressing.
But doing that trial by fire over two months, I learned a hell of a lot. I learned a hell of a lot the bad way, the way you don’t want to learn, but that’s ok, sometimes that has to happen. When I made my 2012 calendar, I started designing it much earlier. I already had a clear idea of the fixes I wanted to make. You can’t turn off the design part of your brain, so for a year it was in the back of my mind.
Matt Stevens had a very successful Kickstarter on his book about his interpretations of NIke’s iconic shoe, that got me thinking about the Calendar. I wanted it better in every way, from printing method to the paper used. I set a goal to print 1,000 and get rid of them all. I started a Kickstarter project, it seemed like a good way to test the water and see if people were still interested. It worked, I ended up getting funded in 3 days after posting and was able to make all of the improvements I thought of.
I had a consistent visual language, I improved the icon set, and I double, triple, quadruple spell-checked the hell out of that thing. I did not want a Jon of Arc situation again! Doing this earlier, and doing it a second time allowed me to make a better product, and make more products like posters and buttons to support the calendar.
Honestly, I was pretty hesitant to talk with you at first. A lot of people bought that first calendar, and I didn’t want to say “What you bought was inferior” because at the time I was pretty proud of it, all the failures aside. But in the end, I was able to make the 2012 calendar, which I believe made good on a lot of the promises I made with the 2011 version. I was able to reclaim some of my design honor, I guess.
Yea. There’s always going to be instances where you look at work you made in the past and think “Oh man, why did I make that decision?” or “That’s not very good.” I think every designer has that, and if they don’t then they should be concerned. I’m always skeptical of designers [Specification: Designers that are my age] that still really like work they made 8 months ago. You should like what you make, but you should recognize there are flaws with it. If you don’t recognize it, that might be an indicator that you aren’t growing professionally.
Objectively, with the 2011 calendar, there are a lot of bad things. Not spell checking your shit is a bad thing. Some of those failures are part of learning, but others are not acceptable.
I agree 100% with everything you just said. There’s too much focus on instant gratification, and not enough focus on long term skill development, conceptual development, all of that. Which in the end is going to help you a hell of a lot more than someone clicking a heart on something you just made. A lot of that is superficial and doesn’t matter at all. I think we’re playing a dangerous game when we put that stuff ahead of professional advancement.
It made me slow down a lot. Not so far as slowing down making things, I probably make more stuff now than I ever have. Part of that is the fact that the more you do your craft the faster you’ll get. More like if I have an idea now that might take a lot of time, I don’t say I’ll get it done in two months. There’s no rush to get stuff out as soon as you think of it. It’s better to sit on it. I’ll finish something but now I won’t post it online right away, because many times I’ll sit back and find something I can still improve.
The biggest takeaway from all of that is: slow down.
Right, and it’s hard not to post stuff. I guess if you’re doing it right, you’re excited to share what you’ve made. It’s exciting to make something, see it and realize you made it and you want to share it with people. You have to fight that want. It’s not that I still don’t struggle with that, especially with the way things are moving. Twitter and Instagram, etc is all built for now, now, now. There isn’t much patience anymore.
The best example of slowing down in my work is the pixel art that I do. I build those things pixel-by pixel, and animate them pixel by pixel. It’s an extremely slow and inefficient process, I know that. There are better ways to do it, I’m kind of an idiot for doing it the way I do, but it makes me slow down. I think that building that process into the work is something I learned directly from the failure of the calendar. It still lives with me (laughs)
Totally, and I don’t know when the general design populace will catch onto that. We live in this disposable culture now, where there’s always something new. Designers are affected by that as well, every year our Adobe software has bells and whistles that make things easier, but no one learned how to use all the tools they introduced last year.
They did that content aware filter, and… I don’t know, it just makes it too easy to make crappy work, I guess. Versus just doing it by hand. When you do it by hand, you’ll notice things you wouldn’t have if the computer was doing it for you… Slow down, world! And maybe I’m just a grumpy old man.
I do the same thing, flip through work really rapidly. I think about how I only look at things for a second or two, and the scary thing is… people are doing the same thing to my work. All of the little precious decisions you make, and the time you spent on which serif is better, no one will notice. That is disheartening. I don’t know that there’s a solution to that right now, but it’s out there. The animated pixel gifs I’ve been making force the viewer to wait for the animation, so that may help since you have to wait for it.
This is obviously something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot, this disposable, no patience culture that we live in. I dunno… someone else way smarter than me will come along and figure it out, and we’ll praise him or her.
Oh man… advice. Don’t take it to heart. A failure might seem huge to you, such as my example. It seemed huge to me, but in reality there were only 700+ people affected by it. The world didn’t end, there were 6 billion people who didn’t care about my failure. So just learn from it. I know that sounds like “Oh, let’s get around a campfire and hug” but maybe it’s there because it’s true.
I had a teacher in college who called it the China effect: There are a billion people in China who don’t care if you screwed it up. That makes failure a little easier to live with, being able to think about the big picture.
Yea, the only way to get better is to make more stuff. You won’t get any better sitting around, moping about what you screwed up.
Thank you for having me. I love that you’re taking the time to do this. I think this is a really good thing, for all the reasons we talked about and more. It’s good to stop and consider the failures, and not simply champion people and projects all day.