Sam Potts

Design fit for superheroes and other stories: Patrick Burgoyne meets well-read New York designer Sam Potts

Brooklyn’s family friendly Park Slope district is home to a rather unusual shop. The sign outside offers ‘sidekick placement services’ and promises that ‘dastardly plots will be foiled’. Inside, goods on sale include large tins of gravity, secret identity kits and bottles of all-purpose antidote.

Opened four years ago, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co (motto: “If we don’t have it, a superhero doesn’t need it”) is itself a charming, lovingly crafted alter ego for 826nyc, the New York outpost of writer Dave Eggers’ chain of non-profit drop-in tutoring centres for creative writing which began in San Francisco. 826nyc is entered via a secret door hidden by shelving in the back of the shop. The elaborate ruse is a gesture toward the original San Francisco centre (address, 826 Valencia) which was in an area that was zoned by the city for retail use. The only way that Eggers and his colleagues from literary magazine McSweeney’s could set up their venture was by putting in a spoof shop that would satisfy city requirements while the real business of tutoring schoolchildren went on out back. In the case of 826 Valencia, the group decided to sell pirate supplies: the project now has further centres around the US, each named 826 and each with its own retail theme – 826nyc kits out superheroes while, for example, 826la has the Echo Park Time Travel Mart and 826Boston the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute. Not only does the strategy satisfy city regulations, it also creates a much more exciting environment for the children and a great deal of pr for the centre.

While school-age students within learn about the secrets of creative writing, a great deal of the same has gone into the Superhero Supply Co itself. Its jars of sasquatch mucous and tins of X-ray vision, sales of which help fund the centre, are beautifully realised. The store signage and its products were created by Sam Potts, a 38 year-old graphic designer whose work marries his twin loves of writing and type, delivered with a dry wit.

Although he has created identities for organ-isa­tions such as New York’s ifc Center for inde­pend­ent film and even websites, it is the expression of language and its form on the printed page that marks out Potts’ work. A literary background is immediately evident on visiting his website where a spoof mission statement greets visitors, inviting them to fill in missing words in strategic places – “Sam Potts Inc is a _ _ _ _ design practice….” The site self-effacingly admits that the Brooklyn store is ‘probably why you’re here’ and it is undoubtedly Potts’ most high profile work to date, but other projects underline his playful facility with words: two almanacs of ‘fake facts’ for comedian and school­friend John Hodgman (pc in the Mac ads) for example, or a wonderful New York Times Op Ed illustration (something of a right of passage for the NY designer) on why Dungeons and Dragons fans are no good with girls.

Potts had an unusual route into graphic design. Originally from Boston, he studied comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. After graduation he took various publishing jobs including proofreading and editing English text­books while at the same time producing his own zines. The latter combined his interest in writing with a desire to make things: “To create an object rather than just a piece of writing,” as he says. “Then one day I went into [publisher] Simon & Schuster, where I had been proofreading and I told them that ‘I like to make these little zine things and I wondered if I could design books but I don’t know how: is there somebody in the design department I could ask?’ They said I should talk to [head of design] Amy Hill as she needed an assistant – it was the luckiest break. I talked to Amy, showed her my zines and said ‘I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m interested in books and maybe I could design them’. She hired me and we got along. I was ordering supplies, making copies, a couple of weeks later I started learning Quark and eventually they gave me spines to design and then after a year or so I got a whole book. I went home and read all of [Alexander] Lawson’s Anatomy of a Typeface.”

Potts realised that he might be in need of a more formal educa­tion if design was really going to be his chosen path. “[New York designer] Eric Baker did some books for a friend of mine at Simon & Schuster so I went to him for advice. I took him my zines – I thought that might work a second time – and some books I’d done, as well as some matchbooks that I used to make by hand. He said ‘this is OK but it’s rudimentary, you should check out this place in Atlanta….’”

Which is how, in 1998 Potts came to attend the post-graduate programme at Atlanta’s Portfolio Center where he immediately felt at home. “I was 28 years old, I had a classmate who was over 30, someone had majored in psychology, someone else in marketing – they all had inter­esting, different backgrounds. It was a design school not an art school, craftsmanship was stressed but we were meant to finish with ideas rather than well-made stuff. I was learning how to think about design problems but in a way that I could bring my inter­ests to – I did a lot of projects abut New York because I was homesick, I made a lot of books, but then I also made a house, I made a restaurant … it was two years of play time in a way.”

Potts says his hope was that his time at Portfolio Center would enable him to go straight into a design job – “to skip being an assistant”. This he managed by reconnecting with Baker who had visited him at Portfolio Center. “I worked for Eric for two and a half years. It was the kind of studio I thought I might want to have: historically informed, relatively small, relatively print orientated, not a big branding place. This was 2000, half of my cohort went to work for dotcoms – I remember one went to work at a place called Euphoria which could only have existed then. I was tempted by that but then the economy completely changed, there were no new jobs, and in 2002 I decided to leave Eric and go out on my own.”

Given his background, does he feel slightly removed from his peers in the design world? “I guess most designers are ‘nontypical’, but I feel more so: when other kids were drawing logos in their notebooks, I was reading. Even though I have this nontypical, verbal path into visual work, it’s a profession that still allows you to use that. The Brooklyn store was an opportunity to do lots of writing, and typography obviously has a connection with the written word.”

In his single room studio off Union Square, Potts sits well in a New York community of small independent, largely print-based, graphic designers. If Vanity Fair ever decided to devote one of its group portrait shots to this scene, Potts would be there alongside the likes of Nicholas Blechman and Karlssonwilker (CR June), perhaps at the feet of Stefan Sagmeister and Paul Sahre.

“I don’t think I’d totally deserve to be in a Vanity Fair picture with them, but it’s something to shoot for. I’d be the one barely visible, on the inside of the cover,” says Potts. “I guess I fall into that group by temperament. Even if we’re not all friends, we all feel, maybe not competitors, but more colleagues in the same boat. It’s a very supportive community, it is competitive but it’s such a big place that there’s loads of work.” (Potts was speaking in early October so things may be about to change on that score.)

Potts’ experience as an up and coming graphic designer highlights the importance of such mutually-supportive communities in the profession. Initially, he says, he found help through Armin Vit’s Speak Up website where designers would gather and help each other with problems such as how much to charge or where to find a good letterpress printer. Now he is on the board of the New York chapter of AIGA and has another, slightly more senior community to draw on. Having a connection with the wider world is important if, like Potts, you find yourself working on your own, out of your apartment, relying on word of mouth for work. “I wouldn’t tell anybody else to do exactly what I did,” he says. “It would have helped to have had more experience, to see someone like Michael Bierut do a pitch or see large scale projects carried out. There’s a sense of power you can learn from being a part of a bigger thing.”

As with peers such as Sahre or Karlssonwilker, Potts’ client roster encompasses those familiar staples of the independent graphic designer, cultural organisations, publishing and music: would he, should he, aspire to operate on a bigger, more challenging scale? “I’m really not the right person to conceive a logo for a large corporation,” he says. It would, “be like wearing a suit that doesn’t fit.”

So does he feel any connection to his peers in the Landors and FutureBrands of the world? “I have a cousin who is a design strategist – he doesn’t actually design – and I feel that he’s in a different business to me, but when he works with a designer to execute whatever he and and the client ceo think is their mission, I am in the same business as that designer. We’re all dealing with ideas, we’re all dealing with the transition from idea to form. I certainly feel I could do a giant brand execution, or I could learn to do it. You can learn the rules, but people like me, the reason we’re in small studios is because we want to figure out what our ‘thing’ is. We know we want to serve other people, we’re not about self-expression, but we want to figure out how to be designers for ourselves. If you look at the way Marian [Bantjes] works [CR August], or Paul Sahre, or even a slightly bigger place like Stephen Doyle’s studio, those places are moulded in the mentality of the person.” For indie record labels or indie film, read indie design – individuals bringing a personal voice to a mass medium and, though niche and speaking to small audiences, often producing the innovative work that drives their whole industry forward.

Sooner or later, however, most designers want to play on a bigger stage. This perhaps has been the success of Pentagram in New York – offering the city’s talented, independently-minded designers an opportunity to take a step up to larger projects while maintaining their individuality. As with so many designers, Potts’ major challenge is growth and how to manage it.

“I went to an aiga conference last spring and Douglas Riccardi of Memo showed a chart of how his studio had developed. It went up a little bit and then straight across and he said ‘this works for me’. I had the idea that I’d have to get bigger and bigger projects even if my studio was still only one person, but that talk changed things: I realised that you don’t have to grow. The ideal thing for me in the immediate future is to figure out how to make money doing this,” he says, gesturing to his tiny studio. “It’s so much fun.”


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