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A mentor's role in design: Sitting down with Yang Kim and Steve Frykholm

As part of our design issue, Rapid Growth Managing Editor Lauren Carlson sat down with long-time collaborators and friends Yang Kim and Steve Frykholm.
Michael N˙kamp (Steve and Yangs Fellow award ceremony portraits)

As part of our design issue, Rapid Growth Managing Editor Lauren Carlson sat down with long-time collaborators and friends Yang Kim and Steve Frykholm. Kim and Frykholm discuss what they've learned from each other, how design has changed, tech's role in the industry, and working within the West Michigan design community.
Kim is now celebrating 20 years as creative director and co-owner of local design firm, People Design, and is a leading voice in design and strategy in the nation. Frykholm, technically-but-not-really retired nationally renowned designer, first gained fame for his Herman Miller picnic posters and been a distinct voice in the industry for almost half a century. After Frykholm became Herman Miller's first in-house graphic designer and held the role for twenty years, the two worked for a decade together on a variety of projects, most notably the furniture company's design-forward annual reports.

Their mentor-mentee relationship is like no other, sparking the imagination and fun, quippy banter that deserves to be replicated instead of editorialized. In this Q&A facilitated by Carlson, Frykholm and Kim discuss what they've learned from each other, how design has changed, tech's role in the industry, and working within the West Michigan design community.

Carlson: Let's get started.

Frykholm How long has it been?
Kim: This is our 20th year in business.
Steve: We started in what, '90?
Kim: '91 maybe?
Frykholm: How many kids you got now?
Kim: Three…We need beers.
Frykholm: We do need beers.

Carlson: Is there anything you've always wanted to ask each other?

Frykholm: We were pretty open with each other.
Kim: I think we worked really hard. We worked well together.
Frykholm: What would you like to ask me now?
Kim: You know what I'm surprised about lately though, is that you still are doing a lot of lectures.
Frykholm: Man, it's fantastic!
Kim: We haven't seen each other often in the past few years, I didn't know that, you're touring a lot.
Frykholm: First of all, you don't make a lot of money doing it. [laughs]. But it's a lot of fun, and you expand your network, and you see what other people are doing in other parts of the culture. I love the youth because they are very creative and inspirational to me.
Kim: I remember early on you once told me that working with you, you wouldn't be able to offer a lot of money, but perhaps fame.
Frykholm: Did I say that? Or did you jump to that conclusion? [laughs] I'd give you "opportunity."
Kim: Well…"opportunity."
Frykholm: To do as good as you could or out the door. You really didn't have fame and fortune until you guys spun off.
Kim: As the apprentice, I'm riding on the coattails of a living legend.
Frykholm: I don't know about all that bulls%$*.

Michael N˙kamp (Portraits illustrations for a CanUX conference)Carlson: Yang, What have you learned from Steve?

Kim: The idea of originality and serendipity is interesting. These days, with everything available online, it's so hard to be original. Someone has already thought of everything you've though of.
Frykholm: You just reinvent the wheel basically.
Kim: In our early days, you only saw things in industry magazines or by visiting other people. You didn't see the world in an instant [snaps].
Frykholm: That's true…Instagram. Everybody wants a picture, they go to Instagram. Those haven't been curated. They don't know if it's a good idea.
Kim: A lot of hacks out there. I remember an interview you had done. One of your thoughts on originality is, "it's new to me." Working on an annual report, we would work through the problem and make it new to us.
Frykholm: New to us or provocative. We knew sometimes that the provocative ideas wouldn't be accepted by the CEO or CFO, but the ideas get them thinking. Sometimes the provocative ideas, we knew they wouldn't ever want to do one. Why waste your time doing a prototype that looks like it's been printed and it's finished? The reason you don't is, the first meeting is where the expectations, the brief or whatever gets reimagined because of the prototype you lay on the table. Why take the time making it look finished if it's going to change anyway?
Kim: The tools now are such high fidelity. You don't intend it to be finished but it looks finished.
Frykholm: One example: a person who used to do magic marker renderings told me the client actually thought those streaks of magic marker were what they're proposing.

Kim: One of the things I've learned from Steve is contrary to originality and serendipity is the idea of calisthenics. I know you don't really use that phrase.
Frykholm: Design calisthenics, yeah.
Kim: You have to work through the problem, do a lot of variations to visualize your ideas. I don’t care what people say, but it’s hard to see in your head. I think that people these days self-edit too quickly. They discard a lot of things…Things don't come to fruition. It's almost like blue collar work…Just working through the problem…Working through all of the options.
Frykholm: If you do this, what are the consequences? What's next? If you do that, what's really next? And next? And next? And wen you holistically look at the what's next, your little brochure might become a major corporate program of stuff. If no one ever thinks about what's next, you've just got a brochure. I believe and I know Yang believes that if you're going to amount to anything in this profession you've got to work your a** off.
Kim: Nobody wants to hear this Steve, but it's a different work ethic today.
Frykholm: You had the best kid [hugs]. Just working hard ain't going to do it.
Kim: Right. It's the combination.

Carlson: How do you view the West Michigan design community?

Kim: Would you say in Herman Miller, that the trend has been to hire outside of West Michigan, or is there a bigger talent pool in West Michigan these days?
Frykholm: Well the internal staff is fairly large.
Kim: But the hires.
Frykholm: We have hired from West MI, but I do have a bias like to have people in the group from other areas of the country and educational backgrounds. It’s one kind of diversity. And, if we have a new project that I believe requires some “new thinking or approach” I will look outside or inside the WMI area to find the appropriate resource...Who is the most appropriate to give us a drop dead solution on this problem?
Kim: I think the design community…there's more design talent here. GR is bigger. There are more young people who are staying.
Frykholm: When you first came, and I started 20 years before you came on the scene, there were a handful in GR of design firms that were sustaining themselves. The supplier community is also very important and in some cases. The supply base is just an important in my opinion. They're the last people to touch the thing.
Kim: I think that that sense of proofing, that sense of finish, because things are done so quickly, there's often no time to proof, or the desire.
Frykholm: I don't buy it There's no time to proof, come on. If I see typos and other errors I cringe. It’s just lazy and unprofessional communication. And, when I find them in my work after the job is printed or on-line I cringe. I remember a printer who had strippers and proof-readers finding my mistakes. Now that’s customer service!
Kim: The idea of perfection, what happened to that notion? In the digital world, is there perfection? It can be constantly changed.
Frykholm: Mistakes are noticed by people.

Michael N˙kamp (Portrait pin-buttons for Steve and Yangs Fellow award ceremony)Frykholm: I have a questions for Yang, when you got out of school, did you want to be in business for yourself or did you want to work for somebody first?

Kim: Yes, I definitely wanted to work with someone.
Frykholm: My question would be…
Kim: Oh, a follow up question.
Frykholm: I think, if you can tell me why you wanted to work first for someone else.
Kim: That's easy. Being from a blue collar background, I know the value of apprenticeships and having mentors.
Frykholm: What's the value?
Kim: You learn stuff.
Frykholm: I'll add one more ingredient. You're not paying for your mistakes. Someone else is. Why would you want to hang your shingle right away?
Kim: You're right.
Frykholm: You're going to screw up.
Kim: How many mistakes did you cover for me? Now I'm wondering.
Frykholm: Not too many Yang. We didn't know what we were doing half the time.

Carlson: What are the disadvantages to tech in design?

Frykholm: You can get caught up on the computer and the nuances until it becomes nauseating.
Kim: That's also what I'm talking about with the self-editing. They're caught up on their boxes self editing what could be a great idea.
Frykholm: I get caught up on that.

Michael N˙kamp (Card design by Mark Beard/Herman Miller)Carlson: What's the future of design?

Frykholm: I'm not going to go there quite yet.
Kim: These days, with Instagram and Pinterest and all these services like Creative Market, they will sell you bundles of images, Instagram-ready images.
Frykholm: Superficial design is dead. I mean real problem-solving design will never die. But if you just want to crank s%&* out there's lots of other ways to party all the time and for ten bucks buy a kit that will do it for you.
Kim: You can get like 20 logos that are basically geometric shapes in different configurations.
Frykholm: How many do you guys use?
Kim: We don't. That's the thing.
Frykholm: I don't know if I would call that design. Design is, "what is the problem that you're trying to solve." I think if you address design on a higher level, there will still be design and good design. I remember a fairly major assignment I was working on and I had a team of designers working on it, and I imagined a different design exercise every 24 hours. In 24 hours, this is the problem, being your solutions, pick one, I'll give you another assignment. But I gave them the deadline. I didn't care if they stayed up every 24 hours or got it done in an hour. Speed.
Kim: Speed, yes.
Frykholm: It's the idea, it's not the finished product.
Kim: Do you think that finishing is also part of design?
Frykholm: Absolutely. Who said, "God is in the details?
Kim: The devil is in the details?
Frykholm: Yep. I suppose that's true.
Kim: I suppose a higher level thinking, but finishing is important. So this is the problem with Instagram, Pinterest.
Frykholm: I think it's important when a designer challenges assumptions some times.
Kim: I'm having a moral dilemma myself about the readily available tools. For example Letraset made those pattern books. You could take it and transform it into something else. It's a little bit like that.
Frykholm: They've taken it a step further and transformed it for you.
Kim: That's what's hard about the tools these days. It's one step too much. These days, we spend our time painting a possible future and not on finishing.
Frykholm: We are all influenced by different things. They may be in our field; they may be totally out of our field. What triggers something in our creative mind to take what we’re working on to a different place? What will make it more provocative, original, memorable?
Kim: “It’s all ephemeral.

Carlson: So what's next for you both?

Kim: You [Steve] can relate to young designers better. He’s like the fun grand dad. You’re in and you’re out, you know a lot of stuff, you can say whatever you want. I’m like the mom and we all know what kids think of their moms...
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