Inside Design: A Plumb Job

MacFadden & Thorpe by Jason Polan
Inside the Plumb Process with designer Brett MacFadden of design firm MacFadden & Thorpe. Sketch by Fall 2014 Plumb artist, Jason Polan.

My name is Brett MacFadden, and with my business partner, Scott Thorpe, we run a design studio in San Francisco called MacFadden & Thorpe. In fall of 2012, our friend Tucker Nichols came to us with an interesting potential project.

Plumb Logo Sketches
A look into the development of Plumb’s identity. We wanted a logo that was handsome, simple, versatile, and a pleasure to use.

He had been talking to the people at Knock Knock about an idea for a new kind of blank notebook, one in which artists were given reign to create books that truly reflected their way of working and worldview. Fast-forward through a lot of this and that, and a few months later we found ourselves brainstorming what this imprint would be, what it would be called, and what kind of products we have dreamt of creating. For us, this was a truly unusual situation. MacFadden & Thorpe has made a lot of graphic-design books in particular, but this was the first time we found ourselves in a situation to help shape a product line from the ground up.

As designers, the Plumb product development approach has a lot of desirable attributes. It’s preferable, for example, to have also had a voice in the company’s name when working on a logo. All the better when you can start with a word you like, with letters that fit together handsomely and are punchy and direct.

The Plumb Bob
The final Plumb mark takes its graphic form from a plumb bob—a weight that hangs from a string to gauge whether a thing is vertically true, or plumb.

When applying a logo to products, it’s certainly nicer to have designed the logo, and in the designing, to have had the luxury of considering how and where it might be applied. It’s important to recognize the good fortune we had in having Knock Knock and Tucker as partners in this venture. Even with the considerable advantages we were given with Plumb, it can all be easily unraveled when designer and client don’t see eye-to-eye. We like to describe an ideal project as a tug-of-war in which both designer and client are on the same side of the rope, which has certainly been the deal here.

The Plumb process is also unusual in that although we shepherd the design of every book, the design is very much the product of collaboration. It’s not inaccurate to say the artists design their own books, and our partners, Tucker and Knock Knock, are active designers as well. This is in stark contrast to the way most artist sketchbooks are designed—whether that artist is Monet or Bansky. Their work is applied to an existing format as decoration, but the format is only minimally relevant to the artist themselves.

First Steps
For each season of Plumb, we initially winnow down a field of proposed artists to three. With each of the three, we begin with a general conversation, conducted in person if possible, and over video chat if not. This first stage has a bit of a first-date quality to it. We want to get to know the person and their creative life. We want to see how they use their sketchbooks, what they wish they could have in a book, what inspires them, what would be funny to do, or wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that? It’s not unusual for this conversation to veer off into other territory and for those veers to curve back into the final products.

4.Chatting with each artist face-to-face was crucial during development. Skyping was our best friend.
Scott and Tucker Skyping with artist Jason Polan. Chatting with each artist face-to-face is crucial during development. Skype has become our best friend.

For instance, in our first Skype call with Nathaniel Russell, one of our Fall 2014 Plumb artists, I was on vacation in New Hampshire, Scott was in our office in San Francisco, and Tucker on his porch in Marin. Nat called in from his studio in Indianapolis. Fitting our scattered geography, the conversation ran near and far. Nat is a musician and a record collector, and so many of his inspirations came from album covers. So we talked about how nice it is to draw when you listen to music, and eventually we were joking about a sketchbook in the form of a record album. Many artists are perpetual doodlers, and we talked about the times in between, where you just doodle in a free-form fashion. Times like just after you woke up and you’re waiting for the coffee to brew. Or waiting for the bus, or just walking around town. These conversations are kept very purposely loose and unlimited. If someone suggests that a sketchbook could take the form of a very large giant crumbled ball of paper, which has happened, we aren’t going to say it can’t.

In the Thick of Things
After this first conversation, we go back and start to mock-up ideas based on the discussion. This is the leading edge of tangibility, in which jokes, what-ifs, and even practical concerns start to take the form of a book. In the case of Nat, we sketched up a book in the form of a record cover. And a series of little notebooks called Waking, Waiting, Walking. The artist might send us some art to try out, or we might just use images we pulled off the web. These early ideas, too, are kept loose and open to change. We start to discuss these with the artist, with Knock Knock, and after a series of additional meetings, they become less speculative and more real.

Nathaniel Russell's Drawn to Music Sketch
A drawing of Nathaniel Russell’s Drawn to Music in its early stages.
Nathaniel Russell's Drawn to Music Final
The final version of Drawn to Music.

Sometimes a book emerges almost fully formed. Lots of ideas are quickly disposed of. Others evolve considerably over the process. New sketches are made. Considerations of budget, market, production limitations nose their way in. The team at Knock Knock starts obtaining print bids, and pre-production mock-ups of the books. The latter is always an exciting thing because we get to evaluate the feel, heft, and function of the book. These almost always lead to further modifications. Perhaps the paper should be floppier. Or, as happened with a recent Linda Geary book, we recognized that the cover was going to quickly get dirty and banged-up. So along with Knock Knock and the printer, we consider what can be done to improve it.

Linda Geary's Stack Book
In process: Linda Geary and her Stack Book.

The Final Product
If you consider how most books are produced, it’s hard to underestimate just how much more work the Plumb approach is. Every single product that Plumb makes is designed from scratch. There are no standard formats, materials, or really anything to act as a blue print.

Fall 2014 Plumb Items
Our Fall 2014 Plumb items.

In a cost and labor sense, this is by far the least efficient way to go about it. But our priority isn’t totally efficiency, our priority is making real the dream that launched Plumb in the first place—what if we worked with artists to create their ideal books? Off the rack isn’t going to fulfill that goal.

We’re very proud of what Plumb has wrought so far and just as excited about what’s in the pipeline. To get existential for a moment, the ability to be creative and expressive is one of mankind’s greatest gifts. Plumb gives us the rare opportunity to experience that ourselves, enter into that state with our partners, and ultimately mass-produce a product with the express purpose of creatively collaborating with its audience. It doesn’t get much better than that.