What led you into design?
I studied gallery art; the theory-heavy, tech-hacking, installation kind. I’ve never quite figured out why, but there’s always been a really interesting space in culture where the art world, type-centric design and theory overlap. So it was a natural slide for me to pivot to and be able to survive commercially while still engaging with a lot of disparate ideas.
This niche exists as a really fertile space for creation, ambiguity, and cross-pollination. I’ve been able to contribute to my surroundings while readily asking questions such as, what does it mean to be here, now, today? What societal patterns are visible if we shift our viewpoint to different angles? How do design changes lead to changes in behavior or awareness? What evidence of power hierarchies or priorities do design decisions leak? What does it look like to be part of a certain culture, or to be in-between cultures?
There's a lot of archeology in design, especially if we zoom out to frame design as more than just this past century of modernism and over-confidence in a designer’s answers. There’s a lot of humility, and a lot of human-ness. The process of successful design balances both head and heart; it can teach us a lot about living in the world.
What does a typical day look like?
Since all time and movement seemingly stopped, it’s shifted, a lot. Before, I spent a lot of time between cities and continents, first splitting time two-ways, then three-ways.
I was finally dipping my apprehensive toe into public speaking. I was designing and leading workshops. March and April were scheduled to be Lisbon–New York–Seattle–Philadelphia–New York–St. Petersburg, possibly Yerevan. Instead, I’ve been exclusively in my flat in Lisbon, which I hadn’t really moved into yet, so it’s still rather empty and unfurnished. The space feels somewhat like an Arrested Development model of a home, with seemingly all the pieces until you open the cabinets to realize they’re all empty, or go to turn on a light to see that the switch is just a hole, or that instead of a fixture, there’s just a wire hanging down from the center of the ceiling.
Amid all this empty quiet, I start my mornings on the patio to get my fill of the direct morning light. I meditate. I write, or I read. Then throughout the day, I push some projects forward in my yoga-wear, with intermittent solo dance parties or exercise moves. I tidy up or clean something or check on the plants when I get bored. And towards the evening, I tend to do all my phone calls or meetings, since that’s about the time that the United States is up and kicking.
Mostly, I’ve just slowed down a lot, and I'm making up for the frantic busyness of the past few years.
What’s your workstation setup?
A roll of tracing paper, soft-lead mechanical pencils, a thin laptop, a phone or two. A camera and a sturdy tripod. The more I work and the more I travel, the lighter the setup gets. I felt as if a defined studio sometimes kept my mind locked in, in a way that being able to easily perch on a corner of a sofa or a plot of grass and still do something kept it more open and responsive.
Where do you go to get inspired?
Since the projects I work on range so much—I tend to do a lot of deep-dive research specifically for each project, and budget that time in.
In between, I’ll try to keep my influences varied, and follow my natural curiosity. I’ll curate and re-curate who I follow on social media. I read a lot of disparate articles and opinions on a daily basis. That all gets absorbed and then later gives me clues of where to start, and allows me to later make crossover connections.
Then, when a project commences, I’ll spend days upon days throwing random searches out there, and following whatever crumbs I find. A lot of the research ends up involving me racking my brain for “that one thing” that I saw “somewhere” which was < insert abstract description here >. If I’m lucky, I’ve discussed or shared it with a friend, and I start digging through those threads until I unearth it again.
What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?
Lately, I’ve been looking at different historical architecture practices and materials as part of a set of spaces I was focusing on designing before this current storm hit. But, I don’t think that’s what I should image down in here.
I think, design wise, during this quiet what I’ve been most appreciative is the small stack of paper books that I have with me. They look nice all together, and serve as their own reminders for you to pick them up and read them. They are legible in the sun. There are zero alerts that bop over them, interrupting the thought-flow or piquing anxiety. When in one, I won’t dash between the text and multiple messaging apps just-in-case. There are margins for short notes, just enough space between the lines to underline as I go.
(And, if you’re out there designing one, Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is the standard reference starter go-to.)
What pieces of work are you most proud of?
Hopefully, the ones I make next.
There’s a large architectural and social space that I’m working on right now, which I probably shouldn’t talk about lest I jinx it. But, it combines a lot of what I’m passionate about: thinking about flow and movement, transitions both in terms of spaces and points in life, thinking about how connections are made or broken, ideas of family or togetherness, and investigations on what’s the best way that we, today, can live on the planet and contribute to its health.
I’ve been fortunate to be involved in dozens of type projects, most of them collaborations, and it’s rewarding work to put back out there into the world. I’ve worked on type for Fox, Warner Bros., Uber, Adidas, Michael Kors. And these are some of our own type families and designs we engage with in parallel, as explorations to keep pushing our understanding and expertise further.
And I’ve started writing about design, which you can check out at Typographica, Eye on Design, or on my slightly dusty Medium profile.
What design challenges do you face at your company?
The business end of it. The creative side requires a lot of risk taking, stepping into spheres and on roads that haven’t yet been built. The business side, on the other hand, appreciates slower growth and tried-and-true techniques. Switching between those two modes of thinking has been somewhat of a challenge, as I’ve definitely more often been passionate about the explorative elements.
What music do you listen to whilst designing?
Any advice for ambitious designers?
Learn from everywhere and everyone you can. I’ve leaned on so much random information or experiences years later, in ways I never would have expected. Whether it’s knowledge for a project, or an ability to connect with and understand a client. I would say this habit matters even more now, in an ever-faster-shifting world. Where we don’t yet know what industries will exist down the line, what they’ll function like. Or, even, if industry is still the thing that’s important to daily life.
Be flexible in your path. How quick you spot opportunities in a shuffled deck, or recover from set-backs, can be save valuable time that’ll allow you to keep moving. I likely take greater risks than many others, but so much of my path I could have never imagined or predicted early on.
Know your core values, and find ways to advocate for them. This one is just there for itself. When the world moves into chaos, or into fear, it becomes easier to lose yourself, or your values, or your spirituality. You’ll need all those things going forward, find whatever ways you can to stay human.
Be skeptical of experts. Try out their advice, but don’t be afraid to question it. It’s often outdated, and whatever the next thing is will naturally pivot away from it.
Try to find the early spaces, or the unglamorous ones, as there’s a lot more room to grow or rise to the top in there.
Anything you want to promote or plug?
I’m mostly excited about a couple projects that aren’t ready for a public reveal, so how about I come back and throw them in here once they’re past the ribbon-cutting stage? In the meantime, maybe people would want to shout-out a hello @samarskaya, and we can see if bilateral conversations can spark, or future collaborations are a good fit.