Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Kaitlyn Chow
Produced by: Dan Hwang
Today’s creative arena is nothing short of dizzying. We are in a shifting landscape where meaningful social media platforms emerge every year while others pop up and then quickly collapse under their own weight. A designer no longer cranks out a few seasonal designs on a fixed calendar. Now the work is always due, always in several permutations, and always for audiences with a short memory who can't get enough.
The frenetic pace of filling the ever-increasing number of platforms with the newest and freshest ideas leads to serious questions for designers: How can I get more fully-realized designs completed faster? How can I keep a consistent look across platforms? How can I stay on-trend and still establish a voice?
Garland Lyn is one such designer with nearly 20 years of experience who is tasked with responding to those very questions. His current role is the VP of Creative at Simon malls, where his output reaches all sectors of America. Far from being a corporate suit with no roots in culture, Lyn has done work many of our readers will recognize for streetwear juggernauts like Supreme and Stussy. But he has also been at the helm for projects at Levi's and long-term work for international staples like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic.
In our conversation with Garland, an aspiring designer stands to get a few lessons that could help make sense of the contemporary design turbulence. Though the field of play keeps moving, the challenge in design, says Garland, essentially stays the same, which is the "idea of reinvention and recreation." Scroll down to get acquainted with the work and ideas of a creative who's managed to rise to great commercial success while staying intellectually engaged in off-kilter passion projects. Make sure to read to the end, where this designer at the top of the game gives advice to the neophyte on how to balance the necessary hours of preparation with the need to self-promote.
With your work as the VP of Creative at Simon malls, what sort of items are you designing? What is the overall experience that you curate for the mall shopper?
Garland: For a large majority of people across the United States and areas where the properties are, the mall is physical manifestation of what’s happening in the world of retail at the moment. My background is in magazine design, and I tend to think of the mall as a similar vehicle. People will pick up a magazine, or go to a website, blog, or Instagram feed to find out what's happening in the world. Our business, while being real estate, is akin to a publication in that it’s beneficial to us to highlight what’s the best and trending in the world of retail and helping people discover that in our centers. It’s the basis for the campaign I’m doing for Simon this season: taking the three biggest trends of the spring season in fashion and creating a campaign around those.
How have you adjusted to the shopper who is maybe not as motivated to go to the mall?
I think there’s two things - I’ve lived in the NYC area for almost 20 something years, and the types of shops you get there, and really in any urban area, are incredibly rich and varied. There’s a critical mass - a population big enough that there are enough people to support weird shops like, say, a Brooklyn deli that styles itself on Canadian poutine from Montreal. It’s a totally different mentality with that type of urban shopping, that type of boutique experience, that type of forward-thinking retail environment. I guess the thought process and the mindset is how do you bring some of that uniqueness, that next level retail, to the larger population of America? You need to constantly be evolving the experience of discovery, and Simon’s been very good at developing that mix. That’s the first response, and it feeds into a second thought. I went to Morocco and visited the souks a few years back. It was a fascinating trip - an old world market consisting of a labyrinth alleys with hundreds of shops. It’s been there for hundreds of years, and there's something deeply experiential about shopping. The experience has to be good - it has to be the right mix of interesting stores and experiences. Our creative department has done some amazing programs with experiential programs at malls - from hosting style events with Vogue, GQ, and in-mall concerts with Refinery 29.
Can you tell us about how you got started, where you went to school, and some of your early projects?
When I first got started, I loved doing graphic design; I loved art while growing up. In high school, I used to have a sketchbook and draw intensely in it every single day. It was a mental challenge of mine to finish at least one or two pages each day, no matter what I was doing – if I was too busy, if I was too tired, I would make it a point to do that. There was a big push for me to be a doctor or mechanical engineer, and there was tension with my parents, but I had set my goal to be an arts major. The compromise was that I went to Carnegie Mellon my freshman year - they had a great arts and graphic design program, but they also had a good engineering program. My parents were praying and hoping that I would switch into engineering, but it never happened.
When you get exposed to more of what you love, it generally doesn't push you away.
Yes exactly - that exposure to the foundation year at Carnegie Mellon had the opposite effect and was a catalyst, really. But, in the end I had always wanted to go to a dedicated art school and sophomore year, I transferred to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] in Providence. I owe a lot to that school—it had amazing program in design, and the people who attended were the most creative and passionate people. You could walk into any studio at two in the morning and there would be people hard at work on a sculpture, type project, or painting. I ended up doing a lot of photography there as well, graduated, and moved to NYC. When I got there, I started working for this guy named Mike Mills. He is a film director now, but at the time he was a graphic designer and was doing all the graphics for a X-Girl which was Kim Gordon and Daisy von Furth's line. He also did albums for bands - Cibo Matto, Boss Hog, free jazz musician Ornate Coleman, and Sonic Youth. Marc Jacobs decided one year not to do a show and asked Mike to direct a film for him instead, which he showed. It was my first job out of college, and I started off as his assistant.
Cool, so that got you plugged into the downtown scene then?
I’m not sure how plugged in I was, but Mike was skateboarder and knew a lot of people in that world, especially those who were artists. He was friends with Aaron Rose when he had the Alleged gallery in the Lower East Side during that time; his artists and people associated with the gallery—Dave Aron, Phil Frost, Cheryl Dunn, so I met a lot of people in that world. It was a nice intro to NYC for a young kid from the suburbs of Connecticut.
Is that how you found your way over to doing the Supreme campaign in 02?
It wasn't directly through Mike. I think at the time when I started doing Supreme, it was with my friend Ting Ting Lee. We had a company called Ecstatic. After working for Mike, when I worked, I would always be doing side projects for different people—whether it be small NYC shops or clothing labels, which kept my creative side satisfied. I had just left Spin magazine where I was working, and I don't know how they heard my name, but we got a call from James Jebbia who runs Supreme. James has an incredible eye and sense for what’s cool. Even if it’s not, he makes it cool by association. Ting and I did some campaigns for him at both Supreme and the NYC Stussy store which he owns.
You did two ad campaigns for Supreme?
I think it ended up being three. There was one campaign that was a collage portrait of Biggie made up of flyers from the hardcore punk scene in DC. I also did a pin up calendar for theme that was shot by photographer Jamil GS.
Then, going forward, you do Stussy after that?
I think it was around the same time James had just moved Stüssy from Prince street to a larger store on Wooster - and he was looking for wall graphics for the store—we did a big wall mural depicting a jet fighter breaking the sound barrier and the vapor explosion when that happens for the two entry walls. It led to doing murals for the Stüssy store in LA. At the New York store, after our mural was up for a while, James asked KAWS to do something, and the store became a rotating gallery of interesting artists. There was a lot of interesting work I did at Ecstatic.
New York City niche culture is a large jump to Simon who, of course, is on the other side as a big box retailer. Where did you make the leap to doing much bigger work?
Probably when I started going to advertising agencies—Levi’s was the first major brand. I was never really interested in the kind of distinction of small or big box because I always got into design and creative work because I love making interesting things and I love recreating the idea of a something—whether it be a magazine, an ad campaign, or a brand. I like that idea of reinvention and recreation, and I think it is interesting when people think they know something, whether it be a brand or whatever, and then changing that perception.
Let's do Levis as far as one case study for that. What did you bring to Levis?
I worked on the Levi's account at BBH in 2002. Levi’s, as everyone knows, invented the blue jeans in the 1800s; you just can’t get better than that. I was the retail creative director on the account and, and they wanted a complete redesign of everything from the packaging, their hangtags, POS, to everything else, including the typeface. It was this challenge of taking the heritage of a historical brand that started in 1853 and bringing it forward to modernity, and the now. You want to make it feel modern, but also you don't want to lose that heritage. I looked at the kinds of different printing techniques and elements during that time when Levi’s first started—moveable woodblock type and western broadsheet printing. I reached back to the experiences at the RISD typeshop when I was in college—they had a letterpress where you could actually take wooden, movable type and set it in a manual press as you did in the 1800s.
Literally with the metal setting of the blocks?
Some of the earliest movable type was wooden - it’s the signature look of the broadsheet printing around the time of that gold rush in San Francisco. The same gold rush for which Levi Strauss invented the blue jean. We took a look from that typography and made a visual language of it, incorporating the way aged ledger paper looked, the idea of numeric ink stamps for the number styles of the jeans and pulling archival elements from Levi’s amazing archives. We even did a custom typeface that Levi’s used for years.
Is it an archival typeface?
The typeface we ended up with was actually based on numbers and typography on UK license plates; it doesn’t derive from traditional wooden type directly, but had the same spirit in that it came from a functional, industrial need. It was taking that old visual printing vocabulary, translating it, and making it fresh and interesting to creating an new identity for Levis. Modern and heritage may feel like two visual contradictions, but in the end the system was the best of both worlds. I find that tension and contradiction in things opposite interesting—it always makes for good stuff—like the work for Supreme; the punk Biggie portrait. Hip hop and hardcore punk are two completely different music scenes, but connected in a portrait of someone like Biggie, you get that there’s the same mentality.
It’s a weird cross pollination of two totally different scenes, but they're not that different in their essences, and I guess that's one of the genius things of Supreme: to get those people in the same room and make it work.
It's contrary, but complimentary somehow—that’s what I love and what drives me—opposite visuals melded together to create something new and interesting.
For a project or brand, you're responsible for much more content than you were in 2003, so what are the some of the challenges of a contemporary campaign?
In 2003 while working for Levis, we just had TV, print and a web page that was periodically updated. Now it's a thousand channels—brands need to develop TV, Print, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat…oh wait, What's periscope? Oh we have to do periscope! And then SXSW happens and four new platforms hit the scene for 3 months until they die or are bought out by bigger fish. My boss at Simon, Chidi, had a brilliant analogy that it’s akin to the cold war and nuclear weapons. No one is sure how much social and and it’s platforms drives actual sales, but if you hear your competition is investing heavily in snapchat content, you would be a fool not to. All in all, I think nothing has changed that significantly in that you still need to have an idea. You need to have something that you want to push throughout all the channels that should be the same message, really. The idea of having one voice or one point of view or one personality is important. You don't want to be schizophrenic and have a point of view in one channel and be different in the other. It's a cycle of feeding the content hole.
I never quite thought of it that way. The content hole mentality is very different than a task-oriented mentality or a project-oriented mentality. Because a project finishes, and then there is a content hole there or a void no matter what you do. That's crazy.
It’s almost like the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi. IT. MUST. BE. FED. That's like the big difference between now and B.S. (Before Social). In the Before Social days, the Sarlacc was maybe a baby and just needed a little bit to be fed. Yeah, here’s your Sarlacc and it’s care instructions—just feed it a print campaign, a little TV four times a year and it will be fine, it's happy. Now it's like this everyday cycle growling “Feed Me. Feed Me. Feed Me.” I think that's the biggest challenge. You have to do things cheaper because you can't do a print quality, TV quality campaign every single day—it’s like you're doing sketches. I used to think, who the fuck cares what you’re eating today that you Instagram your every meal? But, there is TOTALLY an audience for that.
What advice would you give to a young designer who would frequent our site about how to imagine design going forward in the future?
I think there are two things that come to my mind. The first - when I was coming up, the people who loved and majored in art tended to be introverted. There is a certain type of personality that loves sketching in their sketchbooks, a bit of shoe gazing and maybe that was me too. You internalized everything, worked it out from a creative perspective with yourself and made something without the judgement of others. Only when you had worked this out, and sometimes it was hundreds of internal cycles—failures, the learnings from that, mini-successes, more failures, and eventually some successes—were you ready to share this with the outside world.
I feel like in this day and age, there’s a real push and pull between the introvert and extrovert. Social is this weird passive aggressive way to promote yourself. There’s a pressure to take that private thought process public by posting things and soliciting the opinions of the world; that in order to be successful and creative, you need to be a little bit of a self-promoter too.
Did you used to be able to get away with just shoe gazing in the past and not being a little bit more outwardly flamboyant or flashing?
Yes, but I think it was because the barriers to entry were higher. You had to perfect what you did to a point to get a show or make a mark in a meaningful way. And that was the problem then…a few people controlled platforms for showing and exposing your work. Now you just sign up for email and you have a very public platform. And that’s great; society has become less of a oligarchy and more of a meritocracy in a way. But in this new paradigm, I think I would say don't be afraid to shoe gaze a little bit longer—perfect your craft and work it out by yourself before you’re showing off to the world. There’s that whole Malcolm Gladwell idea that you need at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world-class in your field. Don't be afraid to get to those 10,000 hours before you're out there and showing your stuff off. I've always loved the idea of nerds; don't be afraid to be a nerd. Get into something and get into it super-deep to the point where you’re myopic with your love for it.
That would be part of the advice? To gaze a little longer and stick it out?
Yeah exactly. The second thought is something that was the basis for a speech I gave at the Apple store a few years back. I had always thought of my work like old 45 vinyl singles. When bands released these 7-inches there was always the A side and B sides. The A sides were the commercial, popular hits, and the B sides were always some other weird track that they were trying to promote. I always found the B sides to be the most interesting songs—something that probably would bomb commercially, but was the most interesting to hear. It’s the same with the balance of the work I’ve done. The stuff that I and I find people appreciate on a deep level has been the weird B-Side stuff. The jobs done for small on-offs for random small companies and little money but with great creative freedom, where you can truly express what you love to do without multiple departments weighing in on the end result. I’ve been fortunate that a lot of the more A-side commercial work has had a lot of freedom, but I still gravitate to those B-side kinds of projects.