Forest Young is a designer and educator whose knowledge ranges widely and who challenges audiences in unexpectedly delightful ways. At Wolff Olins, where he is Chief Creative Officer, he leads design initiatives for the world’s most influential companies. His work has been exhibited at MoMA, he is the recipient of many awards, and he is a graduate of the graphic design program at Yale University. In this episode, we talk about, well, just about everything.Episode Transcript
Forest Young: It was probably a couple months from graduation. I looked at my classmates, a lot of them were scurrying to New York City. I talked to [artist] Tavares [Strachan] and Tavares said, “Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m going to the Artic Circle to cut out a five-ton block of ice with a modified nine-and-a-half foot chainsaw over a frozen river. I don’t know how I’m going to get it back but … that’s the point.” And I thought, My goodness, that’s so interesting. It wasn’t a proposition, because he wasn’t asking me or inviting me to do anything with him. But I said, “I need to be a part of this. How can I be a part of this? Just for my own edification.” And he said “Well, you could fly down to the Bahamas and you could stay at my family’s place; you could crash on the couch.” So, FedEx was experimenting with a new frozen-shipping cargo container unit that they were willing, as a kind of a barter for exposure, to do it no cost. So, the project was to ship the heaviest thing you could ever ship, the most volatile, temperamental thing that you could ship, to Miami. And then he arranged for a seafood ferry to bring the ice from Miami to the Bahamas, to Nassau.
And there was this moment where I said to myself, “What’s your role in this project? Are you literally going to help physically bring the ice into this freezer?” I think we had … forty-three seconds to get it in the freezer before it deformed. And it was this pristine Judd sculpture–looking piece of ice. We finally got it in there, and we were like, “Oh my gosh! The wonderment of it all!” And that a Bahamian brought it back. So, it was all those things, and the representation of a Bahamian travelling to the North Pole, and all the things that go with that symbolically. We raised his explorer flag at the North Pole and brought it back. I developed this symbol of nautical flags to celebrate the journey. Actually, the Bahamian secret service was alerted because they thought it was some type of gathering or plot to overthrow the government. There was basically a secret-service detail that showed up to the exhibition opening. The whole experience was just completely far gone and wild, but the ultimate takeaway was that the easy path, or the path everyone else is doing, didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like it had the right degree of, I guess, adventure or tension.
Paddy Harrington: Can you talk about your origins as a designer?
FY: You know, design, or, as it was called when I was thinking of going into it, commercial art, was never very attractive to me. I think a lot of it was because I came from a family of artists. Little did I know that my grandfather was also a secret artist who was doing amazing fine-art photography when no one was looking on Route 66. So, I feel like I had all this familial support for some kind of artistic expression, but it was so familiar. It’s what I knew.
At some point, probably in high school—I was taking college-level art courses, really trying to push myself to get better at my line, figuration, and all that kind of stuff—and I thought, Man, this does not feel new to me anymore. And it was absolutely terrifying. So, when I went to college, it was much to the disappointment of my AP Art teacher, who was absolutely devastated that I didn’t go to art school. He was like, “This is a travesty, you’re going to get a 5 on your AP art exam and then you’re going to go do like, some stupid professional trajectory.” I had to go through that to realize that design, as I understood it, as commercial art, was just the pinky toe if the organism. When I became familiar, much, much later with the constructivists, or El Lissitzky and Rodchenko, or some of the Bauhaus teachers, I discovered that design was expansive. It wasn’t a straitjacket, which I always thought it was. I learned that if you can create a chair, you can create a house. If you can create a house, you can create a toothbrush. If you can create a toothbrush, you can create a book. And it was also a great way to collaborate with people. There were Man Ray’s collaborations with all these people that had this salon essence to them. I though, Oh man, I guess that is design.
But I didn’t jump at the impulse. Part of it was that I wasn’t ready to jump at a profession that felt so natural, but felt like I should be pushing toward something I would need to get better at. I didn’t see design as this endless pursuit. I thought that I could draw anything, understand color and form. Instead, I wanted to do something that I’m terrible at. I always joke that my goal in life is to learn how to roller skate. I couldn’t imagine a reality in which I could go to Central Park and join the Central Park skate group. I think I would have had an out-of-body experience. I think that’s the happiest group of humans—I will take them over any kind of religious organization or cult. The Central Park skate circle is the happiest group of humans I’ve ever seen, in terms of pure joy. It’s just so fluid and so happy that I thought, Man, roller skates one day. So that is my bucket-list thing, to skate in the Central Park skate circle. But I think that, ultimately, I realized that you have to stop hedging your bets. You’ve got to choose a path. I thought, I want do something more expressive, I want do something more creative, something bigger and louder than I’ve ever done.
And so, while I was studying acting and I was doing very embarrassing web design and identity design, while I was learning my way through the Adobe suite of products, I saw an invitation to sign up for a fabric competition. And, again, it’s like, how bored was I? Or how ambitious was I, in terms of doing something I had no idea what I was doing? A giant roll of fabric came in the mail. I thought to myself, What are you doing? This roll is enormous, you know nothing about it, you can’t even operate a sewing machine. I did want to fold it, take a picture of it, maybe Photoshop it. And I made a chair. It was a chair that was inspired by Picasso’s Bull’s Head, the idea that a bicycle saddle could be reclaimed and take on a different form—that of an animal or a creature. So, I called it the Cycle Chaise and it won this international design competition. And so, the Carnegie Fabrics Corporation gave me this windfall of cash, I was in Interior Design magazine, and they were like, “You know, sir, we have to exhibit your chair at the merchandise mart for NeoCon. You’re going to next to Vitra.” Like, what is going on? And I thought to myself, You have to make a decision right now. Because now, things are starting to gather momentum. So, I dared myself to apply to two programs. I do this thing called Zen Google, where I go to Google, and I try to be as calm as I can, and I just ask an incredibly vulnerable question into Google, and then I just accept the result and I just go for it. And so I was like, “best program to study theatre,” and it was like Juilliard. And I was like, “best program for design,” and it was like Yale. So, I just applied to both programs. And I knew, it’s like the Fritz Perls, Gestalt [therapy]. There are two chairs, you sit in both chairs and you’re like, Theatre? Design? Theatre? Design? And, over time, one wins, one has a greater resonance and is more authentic. And so, okay, I guess I’m going to go to Yale and do design.
PH: And when you got there, what did you see?
FY: Yeah, so I think design is very interesting. First of all, it’s so interesting how many different definitions of design there are. There’s the definition of the difference between the fine arts and the applied arts. Is somebody giving you a problem, or do you have a problem that you can’t exorcise yourself and therefore you must keep solving it yourself through your body of work? That’s, like, the delineation version of artist/designer. I’ve seen a lot of people kind of speak about that. Then there’s the kind of small-d design, which is that I’m caring, maybe in a romantic manner, about the incredibly small details in the craft; everything feels bespoke; and there’s a caring relationship to that craft, where everything feels like a one-to-one relationship. Then there’s big-d Design, which is transformational, which can be cultural transformation or change. They’re all kind of competing definitions.
The idea of seeing the past, present, and future not as a line, but as a circle, was the transformative moment for me.
I think where design’s role of past, present, or future comes into it is not just somewhere from those two definitions of design. I used to think that the past was the past. That’s before I was exposed to people like Alain Locke or philosophers that talked about the usable past. The idea that the past could be a creative act, that there actually could be a way to imagine or choose to create your past and not be put in an asylum—that was just mind blowing. Seeing someone like Pharoah Sanders or Sun Ra being like, “No, I didn’t come from a slave ship, I came from a spaceship.” It’s like … uhhh, well, okay, that’s amazing. So, you’re now operating from this place of incredible empowerment. You’re like, “OK, yeah, we helped them build the pyramids, and we dropped in over here, and we taught them how to read.” The idea that the past doesn’t have to be inherited and completely digested without any type of resistance was completely eye opening. I had had an idea of a linear trajectory—that the past is something that has happened before, the present is the moment now that we can choose to be in if we want to, and the future is something that is like science fiction. But I realized, in looking at some of these figures, that you could negotiate both the past and the future simultaneously. It’s much more of a loop. So, all of a sudden, it went from a line to a circle. And when it became a circle, I was like, Well, I can go so far into the future that it actually comes all the way around to the present—going through the past. Or I can go to the past and probably find the future, it will probably be emergent, because there are these active patterns, cyclical motifs about what humans do and desire that really haven’t changed. So, if you can find the pattern, you can anticipate what it will be. And if you go backward in time, you can find out what the origins of [that pattern], or what it will be, what its trajectory is. So, the idea of seeing past, present, and future shift from a line to a circle was the transformative moment of me thinking about the future differently.
PH: Changing course a bit, what do you mean by diversity as a competitive advantage?
FY: I think a lot of the diversity and inclusion conversation that is incredibly top of mind, particularly in San Francisco and the Bay Area, is because of recent news about cultural issues at various places, but also about the realization that when biases are incorporated into the products themselves, they lead to disastrous ends. You know, I talk about the Shirley Card probably truncating or discouraging so many photographers that were looking to shoot people of color or were people of color themselves. That’s all because of a card, because of a device, because of a design that was incredibly flawed or one-dimensional.
PH: Could you talk a bit more about that?
FY: Sure. The idea is that actual products themselves could embody a bias that then results in 1) people being discouraged and 2) people being less safe. So, take a lot of the products being developed for authentication, whether they’re gaze tracking or, for instance, for a self-driving car to be able to scan UV light across the cabin. You’re looking at contrast profiles between skin tone and the whites of the eye to determine whether your eyes are red or not, and it can detect this much better in those who are not people of color.
The idea that you could be less safe as a person of color because a product actually embodies a bias takes it out of the “diversity and inclusion as something that’s en vogue or PR spin”; it’s actually an emergency. It’s an emergency because if it’s not addressed, our cars would be less safe, our cities would be less safe, our homes would be less safe because the countries’ [societies] are changing and the technologies are not keeping up. They’re not keeping up with that change because of the ways that products do not evolved or are not seen. I think Shirley Card is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of other technologies that are not keeping up with that change and are being called into question.
Cognitive and physiological diversity are important, too. Product teams considering these issues will have a competitive advantage.
When I say diversity, I would love for diversity to stand for cognitive diversity as well as diversity of race and gender and other kind of fluid ways that people associate or define themselves, and also accessibility. And I feel like accessibility is this elephant in the room. Whenever designers have to solve problems at scale, there’s always the question of, well, does it need AA or AAA contrast? And designers go, “Whoa! What does that mean? I’ve just been designing gradients.” And well, there are a lot of people who can’t actually see that color, whether it’s red/green color blindness or other issues. You can easily find a simulator online, and all of a sudden they go, “Oh, it looks so dull and boring.” And it’s calling into question what is beauty, really, which I think is the right conversation to be having. There’s beauty, which is just a formal consideration. There’s beauty in the Jobsian sense in that design is just how something works, an elegant solution we can look at like a mathematical proof. But I think beauty, in terms of something that satisfies one’s inner desire but then is also beneficial for the larger group, is definitely where we need to go.
So, I think cognitive [and physiological] diversity, meaning that … someone who is left-handed and right-handed, someone who is tall and short, someone who can walk and somebody who can’t walk, somebody who can see and somebody who can’t see, as well as the traditional definitions of diversity. I think [considering these issues] will give a competitive advantage to those particular product teams. I remember somebody asking me, “How do you deal with all of the microaggressions working in San Francisco?” And for people who don’t know, there are a lot of microaggressions in San Francisco, by people who would define themselves as being left-of-center and for all the right causes. But, walking into a place and there is that hundredth of a second when you realize that somebody thinks you are waitstaff, or you’re there to pick someone up, or they ask you where they can find something in the store. And sometimes it’s not spoken, sometimes it is, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is crazy!” But all these microaggressions are like small little metal daggers that are just going [makes beeping sound effect] on the daily, just perforating skin.
At some point, I chose to see those daggers as an opportunity to realize different ways people were perceiving reality and, actually, I was being gifted by having an expansive view of all the different ways humans see other humans. So, it’s like the ultimate user-experience challenge. You know, the challenge is turning microaggressions into almost like a hyper-UX sensibility—or empathy. To be hurt means you know what it feels like, and it feels bad, then one can actually have an expanded emotional space through which to be empathetic.
PH: So, what’s next for you?
FY: I’m very interested in helping to mentor more young designers. I’m realizing as I age in the profession even more about issues of representation, issues related to, “Oh, I’ll never forget when I was in the audience and I saw Forest Young on stage.” It starts to sound ridiculous. I thought working at the Cornell Fine Arts Library—where my job was to dutifully remove the book jackets from all the books coming in—was a great way for me to get exposed to artists I never heard of. It was literally an ongoing train of books. I would take the book jackets off and read the little description and blurb. So, Paul Rand’s monograph came in, the one by Steven Heller, and I was like, Oh, my gosh, this is an African American and this guy is clearly a Civil Rights fighter, a cultural hero. I can remember seeing that book jacket and it seeded an idea about a professional trajectory that was very real. It was illusory and it was a distortion, but it was very real. So, I imagine, I have to make more time to do more speaking engagements or to talk to people who are thinking about going into the design profession. Or I have to be active in places of higher learning and not just be in these cul-de-sacs working on science-fiction projects, that there has to be a kind of balance of the force. And I think my next phase is going to pay homage to [those ideas].
First Things First is produced in partnership with the Association of Registered Graphic Designers. It is hosted by Paddy Harrington and edited by Max Cotter. Frontier’s sponsor music is an edited version of “sketch (rum-portrait)” by Jahzzar from the album Sketches.
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