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If I had to characterize the work of Sam Potts, I wouldn’t – – because being surprised is the whole point. But to give you an idea, he’s designed satirical tax forms, storefronts for superheroes (below) and a diagram of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Outside of design, he has Twittered by mail. He has lived in China. Currently he works full-time at IDEO as a communications designer, and you might know his covers for John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That Is All.

bssco-storefront.jpg The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. Storefront. The store is actually a tutoring center for kids. Image courtesy of Sam Potts

There’s a look to his design that is totally addictive – – my favorites are where he’s working with an overflow of information and is just trying to corral the absurdity of it all.

Inspired by his work on this year’s AIGA/NY poster, I started emailing Sam with the idea that I was going to write an article about humor in graphic design. But I had so many questions about his work that it quickly turned into an interview (and I regret nothing).

What was your first design project?

What I count as my first design project is a zine I did starting in college, called “…and that Fritz Lang.” although at the time I did not call it design and did not even know what graphic design was. But that was a project that was very much about form and ideas and also a lot of vagueness and obscurity. My first proper graphic design project was designing “Bright College Years” by Anne Matthews at Simon & Schuster. That was the first book I ever designed. Years later, on my own, my first projects were Aix restaurant in New York and the JEHT Foundation, both of which sadly no longer exist.

But two things definitely came out of my time in editorial work: an approach that’s centrally typographic. Type was the first thing that I loved about graphic design. And second, editorial work is requires thinking about the structure of a thing as well as its particulars. This helps in pretty much all design work, and certainly all typographic work.

When did you start implementing humor in your own work? How has this approach changed over time?

I guess for me humor is a way of escaping the repetition of design work, which can happen when you’re self-employed (as I was, though no longer) and falling into habits. The way out of doing the same thing over and over is to make up jokes. It’s kind of the easy way out, maybe.

So then, humor started to play whatever part it played in my projects once I started to feel in control of the basic design methodology (learn-sketch-present-refine) and once I started to feel like I was getting to do the aesthetic things I wanted to do.

Soon enough you do all those things that you want to do — letterpress, fancy paper, minimalist, et cetera — you’ve got your chops. This is when it can get repetitive as you start to lean on what works and what’s familiar. Jokes were a way of feeling like I was doing my job, coming up with something new or at least entertaining.

area-hodgman.jpg John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise. Image courtesy of Sam Potts

Looking at your first book cover for John Hodgman, The Areas of My Expertise, and then later the Infinite Jest diagram there’s this tone that I see evolving – – it’s this overflow of information, where there’s so much that it just overwhelms the eye. The overflow gives the work a sense of bounce and excitement. But is that how you think of it?

It’s interesting that you connect these two projects in this way, around an overflow of information. It’s a sharp observation. Making each of these projects were such different approaches that I think of them as very separate things. The IJ poster was a self-initiated project, first of all, and it’s essentially a severe reduction of the novel (everything but names subtracted) in order to visualize connections. The Hodgman cover design — this will come as no surprise — was John’s idea. As many people have noted, it’s taken from the Dr. Bronner‘s label design, somewhere between homage and rip-off. But the concept was, the “expert” who’s written this book is crazy and even maniacal, but there’s a kind of insane version of the world and history created by this nut. If you read the Bronner’s label, the same craziness is in there. So that was the idea.

So then this would be the place to mention that humor and especially irony are really verbal things. It’s hard to do that doubling of meaning by which you can share a wink and get someone’s drift. It’s hard to do timing in two dimensions on a poster, say, because there’s no pause then punchline. Imagery sinks in in a different way, so there’s nothing to get, somehow.

Some book jackets can generate irony, mainly by playing the image off the title. But does it last? Visual jokes are kind of one-liners that are never as funny the next time. That bounce and excitement that you might see in the graphic is quite a different experience from laughing at something that was said in a way you didn’t expect. Which is not to denigrate imagery — nothing seduces like imagery and probably visual beauty lasts a lot longer in the memory than humor.

Most of the things we laugh at aren’t even jokes, anyway. They’re someone mishearing a question and giving the wrong answer, or the perfectly timed familiar expression inserted in an out-of-context moment, and so on. The whole “you had to be there” story that was funny when it happened, but isn’t funny any more. You can’t really get spontaneity with graphic design, not only because it’s so planned out beforehand but once it’s down on paper, it’s the opposite of spontaneous.

Sam-Pottscr1.jpg Cover of Creative Review, Image courtesy of Sam Potts

Do you see this tone as a contrast or a compliment to your work for the Everything Will Be All Right Eventually Creative Review cover?

That was about an unfunny topic — the economy (regardless of what state it’s in) — that seemed to have already had its seriousness beaten to death. My original sketches for that cover were jokes: a pink slip, a graph measuring schadenfreude (playing on budgetary infographics), and someone pissing their pants.

The cover we settled on was certainly dependent on cleverness but maybe not exactly humor. You get the message by turning the thing around, which the type forces you to do. Pretty sure I stole this from an old book cover that James Victore designed (and which I can’t find on the web right now).

How did your experience as an Associate Editor at St. Martins Press shape your graphic design aesthetic?

Ha! Good question. I was a college English textbook editor, by the way, so it’s not like I was bathing in the shimmering waterfall of pop culture glamor that you think of when you think of big time New York Publishing.

But two things definitely came out of my time in editorial work: an approach that’s centrally typographic. Type was the first thing that I loved about graphic design. And second, editorial work it requires thinking about the structure of a thing as well as its particulars. This helps in pretty much all design work, and certainly all typographic work.

So did you study design in college and then go into publishing?

No, I majored in comparative literature in college, which was more varied than an English major. Publishing was a natural (read:only) option for work after college and I just happened to end up in college textbook publishing. I was laid off after a few years and ended up working for Amy Hill at Simon & Schuster in the design department, where I learned to design book interiors. From there I went to Portfolio Center in Atlanta in 1998, which was my design schooling, properly speaking.

Sam-twitterpaper.jpg A Selection from Twitter on Paper. Image courtesy of Sam Potts

The Twitter on Paper project is much different from your other work because it uses hand-type and mixed media. What inspired you to write out 743 tweets?

In a word: stupidity.

I really thought I’d only have to do like 50 of them and then the thing would die out. But it was early enough in Twitter history to be a bit of a novelty and so I was shackled for a couple of weekends to a spreadsheet of names, addresses, and tweets. It got out of hand, and certainly was not profitable (each free tweet was at least $.50 in postage or thereabouts), but it was really fun. It was tremendously gratifying that people wanted the tweets, even though they technically have no value at all. It was just one of those things that seemed like a good idea worth doing, was fun, and then suddenly was way too much work. One of my favorite early replies was, “This will never scale.” It pays to go to business school, kids!

Sam-taxes.gif Special Deductions for Freelancers, which appeared in The New York Times. Image courtesy of Sam Potts.

What was it like designing the Special Deductions for Freelancers Form? In that design, you’re again dealing with the vast overflow of information – – which you’ve created yourself – – and you’re also dealing with the stark and strange world of government forms. Also – – weren’t you teaching in China – – or close to departing for China at the time? Did that affect the tone or your interest in this project?

I was in China at the time, yes. I’d been there for about 6 months at that point but luckily I still remembered how to speak English.

This project is maybe a good example of a kind of graphic one-liner. It’s a very simple concept: make a tax form for freelancers. You basically think of all the situations that freelancers deal with (working from home, wearing pajamas all day) and transpose that onto the form of a tax return. The tax return format makes it easier to execute because it gives you empty spaces to fill up with jokes, and you have the jokes because there are so many things particular to freelancers that you can reference. The concept was so plain that it made sense even in China, where they don’t pay taxes.

All the same, I’m pretty sure that Aviva Michealov at The New York Times offered me this project because I was getting a reputation for doing fake diagrams. C’est la guerre.

aiga-poster.jpgLimited edition poster designed by Sam Potts commemorating the 30th Anniversary of AIGA/NY. Image courtesy of Sam Potts

How did the design for your AIGA/NY poster evolve?

The idea for this came from being at IDEO. Jonathan Jackson (of We Should Do It All, which is so good) asked me to contribute a poster and I came up with the idea and described it to him before I realized I wasn’t following the instructions. The joke of the poster is, the AIGA is all about designers and there’s the light bulb joke about How many designers, and buried in there is this IDEO inside-joke about how we always question whatever the brief is anyway. Plus, I wasn’t following the format of mentioning “30” in some way and that’s a designer thing to do.

In the end it’s dumb because it obviously is a poster, so yeah, you can’t explain these things too much. It came about by having only that one idea and Jonathan being extremely cool about not following the directions, and having a really good piece of pink paper lying around, mostly.

What are you looking for when you take on an assignment – – is there a certain quality or subject matter that you know that you’re looking for?

Like most designers, I would guess, I get enticed by the project before I have any idea what I’ll be able to do for it. Subject matter plays into it, like the chance to do a jacket for one of your favorite authors, or the chance to do something for a particular client, like The New York Times or an old friend. You always want to design for things you’re interested in. I definitely didn’t look for projects that require humor or were specifically funny items — my experience with that is, you get way too constricted by the client’s expectations. Better to have a straightforward project, have no idea what to do, and poop out something dumb but not too dumb.