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John O'Neill on Design and Community

John O’Neill, and a small slice of Conduit's creative process.

John O’Neill in the Conduit studio.

John O’Neill, in the library.

It's been a while since Rapid Growth checked in with Conduit Studio -- five years to be precise. The studio has only moved into their current space at 80 Ottawa NW in the last year. 

Principal and Creative Director John O'Neill is an interesting guy. He grew up in Cascade, Mich. before heading off to art school at Kendall College of Art and Design. He founded Conduit in 2001, and the design firm's first client was clothing retailer A.K. Rikk's. He rides a Harley, lives in Eastown, and works on classic cars. He's got a '65 Corvair that he's owned since he was 16. He's also a strong leader when it comes to strengthening the design community in West Michigan, sitting on the boards of both Design West Michigan and the local chapter of AIGA

O'Neill has just wrapped on the logo for 2013's TEDxGrandRapids when I arrive for the interview. O'Neill refers to the logo, a collaboration between O'Neill and TEDxGrandRapids' design lead Laurel Stanley, as "very conceptual," saying the intention was to convey that TEDx events can spark ideas that flow into the community even after the day has passed. 

"The lines sort of represent the speakers themselves, and the arrows are the attendees," he explains. "They're sort of getting caught up in the momentum of the event, but what's nice is that it doesn't stay constrained within the X. Ideas are going in different directions, colliding. (There are) areas of chaos and clarity. One leg is sort of broken off and has become its own thing, which is the idea -- that you'll meet someone, get into a conversation, and spark something that's outside of (TEDxGrandRapids)." 

The logo was inspired by a map of ocean currents from the 1800s. Looking at vintage materials is a common process for the studio when in the research phase of a project. 

"I think it's important for a logo to have a base," O'Neill says. "I think it needs to grab you."

In addition to vintage maps, O'Neill also admits to being a furniture geek, which parlays into his work with companies like Steelcase and Haworth. Conduit has been working with Steelcase on their 360 Magazine, recently launched in German. 

"I think we've been able to align what we're interested in and our talents with an industry that has a similar need," he says. 

But it's broader than a piece of furniture, or at least in terms of the way O'Neill thinks about it. "Each project takes on its own challenges in branding," he says, referring to Conduit's core business of large websites. "Sometimes I think of it as architecture… the lobby, and a few of the rooms. You're thinking about navigation, wayfinding, how you get around." 

At it's center, good branding is a strong concept that effectively communicates, O'Neill believes. This is a concept he also applied to another recent project -- Runway for Charity, a rebranding of the Design One Fashion Event, a fundraiser for the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital on May 11. "This is a project we're really passionate about," he says. "It's taken on a critical mass of interest, and we've already raised more money before (the event) than after."

Conduit is also giving back to the community via the Conduit Study Abroad Scholarship, where they help one student a year in any major study abroad. The scholarship was designed to be neither need- not talent-based and given out by Kendall as the administration sees fits. 

O'Neill himself studied abroad during his time at Kendall at St. Martin's in London, UK, a time he says was particularly transformative. He even takes the name Conduit from a street in London that belongs to an avant-garde fashion district. Not to mention, he says, the fact that a designer is the bridge (or conduit, if you will) between a client and the message they present to the public. 

As a student at Kendall, O'Neill was doing well. But studying abroad allowed him the opportunity to be critiqued by Jonathan Barnbrook, which "pretty much made me cry," he says. "It made me unlearn everything about typography that I had learned, and I did a lot of personal work." Here is where O'Neill developed an interest in Swiss typography, which inspired Conduit's distinctive plus-sign logo. 

"School needs to be difficult and critiques need to be real," O'Neill says. "Life isn't easy, and making it in the design world is not the easiest job. Clients can be fickle and picky, as they should be, and you should be even pickier. It taught me to challenge myself."

Twelve years into the business, it's clear O'Neill has managed to "make it," and in West Michigan, a place where design culture is growing. Per capita, O'Neill says, West Michigan is home to several designers and the industries that support them. When AIGA opened a local chapter in West Michigan in 2009, O'Neill says hundreds of designers were involved with the group within a matter of month. 

"Before, it almost felt like a bunch of silos," O'Neill says. "You were aware of who the other designers were, but you weren't talking to them every day. Now, it feels like we're all colleagues. We might bid on similar projects, but it's really made it much more personal and open, and in general, that's made the city stronger from a design standpoint."

AIGA works to unite the local design professionals, patrons, and enthusiasts, promoting "social interaction between designers," O'Neill says, "so that people know who everyone else is with informal connections."

"Also," he adds, "AIGA helps people with both inspiration and continuing education to make sure that you're on top of the skills that you need. "

Most recently, AIGA brought designers Katia Küthe and Phillip Duncan from Kate Spade for a lecture at the GRAM, and AIGA regularly puts on a number of social and educational events for both students and professionals. 

Up next, AIGA West Michigan will present their second installment of Early Shift, a morning lecture series, on Friday, May 10. The event will feature Greg Galle of Future Partners, who will be in town to also present at TEDxGrandRapids the day prior. 

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media. 

Photography by Adam Bird
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