“I’m interested in how designers can affect the world, not just the world of the 2000 people who look at graphic design,” says Michael Rock, co-founder of acclaimed New York-based design studio, 2×4. This is perhaps an inflammatory thing to say to a journalist from a magazine catering to that very audience, but it’s representative of a carefully considered position.
Rock elaborates: “We didn’t set out to be an avant-garde studio or a studio that only thinks about graphic design. We wanted to do projects that happen in the real world. When we get the chance to work on a big mass-market project we’re always happy and not disdainful at all. It’s not that I have anything against people who define their practices in terms of a narrower, more exploratory manner – I’m also interested in the work that comes out of that experience – but it’s not the path that we have chosen for ourselves.”
That path has been clearly defined since Rock founded 2×4 with partners Susan Sellers and Georgianna Stout back in 1994. “There was a very strong underlying idea to what we were doing right from the very beginning,” he explains. “What we aim for is a certain intellectualisation of the process of graphic design, or the self-referential aspects of it. We’re trying to inject a certain kind of criticality or reflective thinking into the work itself.”
Rock’s analysis of the state of the industry is measured, strategic, intellectual and often a little dry. Applied critical thought comes naturally to a man who has been immersed in the American design education system for over 20 years (he is currently a professor of design at Yale). But 2×4’s projects for a host of clients, including the fashion elite (Prada), cultural organisations (the Brooklyn Museum) and commercial clients (beauty range Malin+Goetz) reveal that this intellectual rigour can be married to commercial application.
In fact, despite the eclecticism of their projects and clients, the consistency of the 2×4 approach has led, if not to a distinct aesthetic then at least to a recognisable signature. “It’s not about squeezing something into a certain style,” insists Rock. “It’s about the way you treat content, the ways you use the forms of graphic design itself. You can identify a Hitchcock film even though the content is quite different from movie to movie: it’s about the way not only that he handles the shot and the photography but also the way that the story is parsed out, the way that suspense is built. I think that the same is true of designers who have built interesting bodies of work. You can recognise their repeated moves, even though the content might be completely different from project to project.”
In fact, Rock and his partners are so alert to the potential hazards of rut-forming repetition that their entire approach is based on exorcising stylistic tics or overly obvious solutions. “We have various ways of going about solving problems, or creating language through design,” says Rock. “When we first started practicing, the three of us would work on something together and then pin up our ideas and talk about them. And that’s still the way we work today [their studio now numbers 20 full-time staff members]. We’ll see all our typical tropes played out in the first round – ‘ah, there’s the rotation trope, there’s the distortion trope…’ But we work through those and then the second round is more interesting, and so it goes on. It’s almost like we have to dispense with all of our typical ways of working first and then slowly winnow an idea down from these very general gestures. We’re always trying to extend an idea that might start in one place to somewhere else.”
“What makes design an extremely important and interesting act is that it’s a sophisticated form of public speech,” he continues. “As a designer, you’re the intermediary between a content developer and a consumer and in a way you’re both there and not there: You’re a channel. But something happens when a project passes through that channel and, if you’re aware of that and you’re strategic about it, what happens is your mark, your work.”
“One of their best qualities is that they know how to listen, and how to articulate their ideas and concepts verbally as well as visually,” says Andrew Goetz, co-founder of Malin+Goetz. The beauty brand commissioned 2×4 to create their entire identity, from logo to packaging to website design. “Not only are they great graphic designers, they are great problem-solvers,” Goetz adds. “They are always able to communicate their ideas in a way that is both convincing and intelligent. As it turned out, they presented us with three really solid concepts that we totally loved. Choosing which way to go was one of the most difficult decisions we had to make in developing our brand.”
Another case in strategic point is the graphic work 2×4 has created for fashion brand, Prada. Their recent Guilt installation was a wonderfully subversive take on consumerism which took language from an imaginary Guilt brand manual and displayed it on the walls of Prada’s New York store. “The beauty of working with Prada is that they’re open to doing interesting ideas,” says Rock enthusiastically. “Miuccia Prada is extremely supportive of work that plays with their own image. The Fondazione Prada just had a huge show of Tom Sachs, the sculptor who makes guillotines out of their packaging, while they were supportive of the Prada Marfa project, where those guys built a fake store in the middle of the desert. Miuccia is really smart in realising that rather than trying to close down your image and not let people do things with it, if people engage with it then it creates new possibilities. The idea of the Epicenters is not to do another Niketown, which is an absolute distillation of the brand, but to do the opposite: to break out of the prison of your own brand. Nike is so perfectly controlled, but Prada can be completely contradictory to its brand and do things that are really on the edge.”
And while Rock argues that 2×4 is neither edgy nor experimental, their attitude towards the potential of design remains refreshingly grandiose. “When I think about Prada, I don’t think just in terms of the people that buy it,” says Rock. “The reach is much broader than that: the people who like it, who follow it, who maybe can’t afford it, the people who visit the store, people who visit and don’t feel like buying anything, people who work in the fashion industry who use the ideas as a foundation from which to develop something else. It’d be a mistake to narrow it down to a simple consumer base, because the residual consumers of information are very broad. There are so many more people who have seen images of the Prada store or read articles about it than have ever visited it.”
Likewise, he remains convinced that, for graphic design to reach a zenith of effectiveness, the individual has to put body and soul into every aspect. “The more engaged we are in the work, the better job we do,” he says simply. “A job is never done in competition to a client’s needs. We don’t foist things onto them, or give them things that we don’t feel are the right vision. But the work will have more depth and more meaning if you believe in it and are behind it. In business terms it’s super value added to the project. I hope, anyway, that our enthusiasm for those things is a really positive aspect, not a conflict of interests at all.”