Brian Buirge

co-founder of good fucking design advice

Product photos by Michael Cooper.

Co-founded by Brian Buirge and Jason Bacher, Good Fucking Design Advice serves the design community as its destination for honest, well-designed inspiration. I’m an enormous fan of GFDA’s work (and avid user of their phenomenal wallpapers,) so it was a thrill getting to chat with its co-founder Brian. In the following interview, Brian shares his insights on the unspoken responsibility we have as designers/entrepreneurs, embracing a culture of risk-taking, and what it really means to create bold work. As excitingly, we’ll also dive into an in-depth understanding of his most recent collaboration with Jason.

So, how’d you two meet? Can you share the story of how and why GFDA came about? Jason and I both attended design school at Kent State University. In undergrad we were a year apart, which meant we knew of each other, but never really spent any personal time together. Probably our first interaction was when we were both asked to show our portfolios and talk about our differing internship experiences to a group of underclassmen. Anyways, to save you and your readers an unnecessarily complicated timeline, we both ended up in graduate school at Kent State at the same time in 2010. It was here that we cemented a close friendship and inadvertently started Good Fucking Design Advice.

Early in the fall semester of 2010, Jason and I had fallen into a daily ritual of walking to get coffee following the class taught at 7:45am. The walk was an opportunity for us to trade ideas about design, teaching, graduate school, or whatever happened to be on our respective minds. One particular morning we began discussing our role as educators, and the challenges of keeping students engaged. It started as a joke, but we volleyed ideas back and forth considering the merits of a website that would give ‘design advice.’ The stumbling block we kept returning to was simply—if we couldn’t maintain attention in the classroom, why would our students visit the website? To which one of us declaratively answered: “What if we put the f-word into the advice?” From there it was a matter of naming the website (we quickly settled on Good Fucking Design Advice) and then seeing if the domain, www.goodfuckingdesignadvice.com was available (it was). 

We returned to the graduate studio, recklessly cleared our desks (you know, like when you put your forearm on the desk and then swipe from left to right to remove all objects, papers and general obstructions), and we feverishly got to work. We hrad no business plan—or even intent to sell merchandise. We simply found the general concept hilarious like a couple of adolescent boys. Throughout the work day, we made it a point to call each other’s bluffs and continue to raise the bar on the ridiculousness of the concept. It was all in the name of fun.

As 5pm rolled around that day we had our first working prototype of the website and we launched. We simply shared it with our collective friends on Facebook and we were astonished when, upon checking the google analytics that evening at midnight, we found that over 500 people had visited the site that first evening. We were astonished, and we celebrated our success with a drink in the graduate studio (shh, don’t tell anyone about that). The following days repeated this pattern, we checked our analytics in the evenings to find the site visits climbed to 6,000 and then to 70,000 on the second and third days. By the end of the first month we had over a million page views. It was unbelievable.

In that first month we started getting a lot of emails about the website. Many were very critical of us and the site, while many others were highly encouraging, asking for products and more advice. We received an appropriate amount of concern and criticism on both sides, but history paints a clear picture of which set of emails we focused our efforts on.

Currently, you’re working on something really exciting together—what’s it been like to run a Kickstarter campaign? I’d love to know a bit more about the project as well. We’re running this Kickstarter Campaign for what we’ve dubbed “The Out-of-Office Calendar,” which is a 1461-day tear-off calendar, counting down to the 2021 Inauguration. It includes important dates for voting and voter registration along with government holidays and special occasions (like Putin’s birthday).

A little bit of backstory: Nowadays I live in my hometown of Pittsburgh and Jason has moved to Brooklyn. We visit each other often as we see heaps of value in our in-person interactions. After we get together we return to our respective cities and get to work—it’s not unlike having a brainstorming session in a conference room and then returning to our private offices. Our offices just happen to be separated by a few hundred miles.

In November of 2016 Jason came out to visit. Well in advance, we had planned for Jason’s visit to be entirely focused on a project other than GFDA. We decided that regardless of what other projects, responsibilities etc. we had, that for those 2 days we would only focus on something completely new and unrelated. What the project was we didn’t define—we just knew we needed to come up with something and start to execute, regardless of the outcome.

In discussing the gravity of the election over coffee, we thought perhaps we could add some levity to the whole thing by creating a physical daily tear-off calendar counting down to the next election. The calendar would need to be 1461 pages, so I pulled out 3 reams of printer paper so we could roughly gauge the height. We laughed our asses off. From there we got to work bouncing between concerns for the big picture and also the nuanced details of the project.

We considered different approaches and ideas, finally deciding that the calendar had to be both funny and informative. We felt strongly about putting voting/voter registration reminders and deadlines into it and also felt that the humor had to be smart, and a bit indirect. The calendar is very clear about its political leanings, but we thought it a good challenge to not specifically mention either political party or the current Tweeter-in-Chief directly. There’s all sorts of fun subtleties to the visuals and language that we built into the campaign.

So throughout December we had prototypes made, got printing quotes, figured out loose pricing etc. We dabbled in the writing for the campaign and completed various design iterations in the narrow spaces between our usual crazy workload for GFDA during the holidays.

When January rolled around, we scheduled time with our friend Dylan at Dream Machine Creative in NYC to help us make our campaign video. I flew out to New York and Jason and I spent the better part of the week leading up to the Inauguration creating the video and completing all aspects of the Kickstarter campaign (while also handling the usual day-to-day GFDA responsibilities and meeting a few deadlines for a client).

As planned, we launched on Inauguration Day and are presently in the middle of the campaign with about 50% of our funding goal met. So we’re eager to see what’s going to happen over the next week.

 

Why is this important? We have a voice and an opinion (grounded in those pesky things called facts), so first—as citizens—we believe it’s important to speak up and be engaged at some level in the political process. I mean, that is the point of a democracy (even if it’s flawed) right? Secondarily as designers, we have a particular skill set and an area of expertise that we can put to use in expressing that voice. Are we doing The Lord’s work with this calendar? No, certainly not—but it’d be a tragedy to stay silent, especially now in this political climate.

“We have a voice … as designers, we have a particular skill set and an area of expertise that we can put to use in expressing that voice.

So, I’m currently looking through your About page. Out of curiosity, how do you two work together so well? With your strong love for being right and Jason’s type A personality, I’d love to know how things work so seamlessly when you’re together. Our success is borne of the tension that exists between us—and we know it. The challenge we’ve had over the years has been in embracing that tension while also learning to decouple unnecessary ego and emotion from the process. Frustration from the uncertainties we engage in is good—it’s how we know we’re on to something. But anger and insecurity are unnecessary obstructions to our process. We do our best to call each other on the bullshit and to make each other better every day.

“Frustration from the uncertainties we engage in is good … We do our best to call each other on the bullshit and to make each other better every day.

We’ve met very few people in our lives who can operate this way—and the ones who can, we’ve held close. Many people put too much faith in their thick skin, but the truth is, they lack heart. If you want to get better at anything, having thick skin is as useless as having a thick skull. A strong heart is necessary. It is what allows you to accept criticism from the important people around you to become a better designer, a better business partner, a better friend, and a better person.

In our relationship we know how to party, how to have a good time, when to laugh and crack open a bottle of whisky in the middle of the work day; and we also know when to get down to business, when to put in the long hours, and when to give and receive honest criticism. It’s a great ride, and not always smooth sailing, but we don’t fantasize that it should be. Every relationship you have in your life requires work. It’s foolish to believe otherwise.

Every relationship you have in your life requires work. It’s foolish to believe otherwise.

My (and perhaps many of your fans’) favorite part about your company, is how well you’re able to apply profanity to your work. What’s your strategy behind profanity usage; how does it work so beautifully for GFDA? The use of the word “fucking”—specifically in our brand—is akin to the use of the computer in graphic design. It is a key component, it is what everything is assembled around, but it doesn’t drive our ideation process.

We make no mistake, we know the profanity is what gets people in the door, (and also what keeps some people out). But for us, the effort is in keeping their attention, engaging our audience, and challenging them to a call-to-action that exists within themselves. We believe our followers stick with us because we reflect a mantra of disciplined passion back at people who already have that within themselves. And that’s the strategy—we’re adding fuel to the fire that our audience already has.

“And that’s the strategy—we’re adding fuel to the fire that our audience already has.

Earlier, you mentioned having also received some negative reactions. How do you deal with those who aren’t able to respond as well to your usage of profanity? While we do take some time to consider various criticisms, we always keep in mind Tibor Kalman’s quote, “When you make something no one hates, no one loves it.”

Quite frankly, many (but not all) of criticisms we have received are generally from people who are very close-minded and can’t help their knee-jerk reaction, so it is very easy to be dismissive. For example, we’ve had people complain about how our message is harmful to the client/designer relationship and that we shouldn’t be promoting a culture of ‘fuck the client to young designers. Which is absolutely preposterous because that type of thing isn’t part of our message in either direct or inferred ways.

Let’s talk about failures. Not only are you very transparent about yours, you’re able to celebrate them so confidently. Can you share a better perspective on embarrassing failures? We have a bit of a philosophical perspective on this actually.

We (and by “we” in this case I mean everyone, not just Jason and myself,) are the link between those designers/entrepreneurs who have gone before us, and those who are coming along behind us. It doesn’t matter where you are in your journey, there are people on either side of you. For us as a collective community to view at our role in this way is humbling, because you see the accomplishments of others ahead of you, and (this is the key part) you also see the responsibility you have to those following behind you.

It is easier to share your failures and short-comings when it is done in the service of others. If the act of sharing challenging experiences helps someone else to not make the same mistake, or another to know that they’re not alone in these kinds of efforts, then it is well worth the perceived embarrassment. It also helps you to not take yourself so seriously all the time. The mistakes we make are by far not the biggest challenges we face in our lives. 

This reflects a bit of our philosophy of education and what we consider to be a mostly unspoken responsibility. It is up to those who have inherited knowledge and experience to pass it on to the next generation, and it is the next generation’s burden to take that wisdom and learn from it, transform it, and revolutionize it—ultimately passing it along to generations beyond them.

“It is easier to share your failures and short-comings when it is done in the service of others.

You’re also enormous advocates of risk-taking. I’d love to learn more—how do you advise entrepreneurs apply risk-taking into their work? We are advocates for the imperative nature of risk-taking as a component to the creative process—regardless of whether you’re a creative, working as entrepreneur, or perhaps active in some capacity in marketing or in advertising etc.

If you look around nearly any market today, you’ll find the word innovation thrown around to an obnoxious degree. By its very nature, innovation means to come up with something new. If you’re doing something new then there is uncertainty and with uncertainty inherently comes risk. 

For studios, companies, and organizations alike, being innovative is important to maintaining relevancy and attention in the market. If the culture of your work environment doesn’t involve some embrace of risk-taking, I think what you’re doing won’t be relevant for very long.

A great example is Nike. We did two workshops for them last year to help further infuse a culture of risk-taking into two of their divisions—the EKIN division and their North American Retail Brand. Now of course, Nike is an amazingly innovative company, but what they also realize is that the cultural force of risk-taking has value in all their divisions (well, perhaps not accounting), not exclusively in their product development.

So, “how” do we do it? Our workshops get at the concept of risk-taking from the work-culture standpoint. Using short exercises comprised of play, team building, creative thinking, improv, and (most importantly) reflection, we get people to break their creative ruts and bad habits. Our goal is to get both individuals and groups to be better able to arrive at fresh ideas and insights regardless of department, role, or position.

“If the culture of your work environment doesn’t involve some embrace of risk-taking, I think what you’re doing won’t be relevant for very long.

GFDA’s workshop at Nike. Workshop photos by Justin Nunnink.

The internet has become an enormous advice-giving ecosystem. I tend to disregard most advice—I don’t feel much of it has any depth or context. What is it about yours that makes me stop and read? Most are trying to give you their advice and their perspective. We’re holding up a mirror and saying—look. Look what’s already fucking there.

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