SCENE: Josh and Tiffany (a.k.a. T) of Plazm chat over coffee in the woods of Central Oregon.
T: We’re old-school artists, designers, and writers with a strong knack for strategy and a ferocious appetite for building beautiful brands. Changing the world has been part of our not-so-secret agenda since 1991, when Plazm magazine was born in Portland OR.
J: (Nods) Yeah. Nice. I like that “not-so-secret agenda.”
T: Thanks. So anyway, the magazine spawned a design firm that brings a social and environmental dimension to its work. Helmed by partners Joshua Berger and Niko Courtelis, Plazm solves problems, tells stories, and delves for truth. Clients include global powerhouses like Nike and Uniqlo, and beloved local brands like Fort George Brewery and Northwest Film Festival. Last year Plazm launched a new subsidiary, The Portland Stamp Company. Plazm Design recently expanded its presence to Central Oregon. The magazine is now officially nonprofit, published in cooperation with PICA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, co-edited by Jon Raymond and me, Tiffany Lee Brown. Look for a new issue in 2019.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN DESIGNING FOR GOOD, ANY THOUGHTS ON WHY DESIGN IS AN ESPECIALLY EFFECTIVE TOOL FOR THIS GOAL, AND ANY SPECIFIC EXAMPLES YOU ARE PARTICULARLY PLEASED WITH.
J: I grew up with a strong sense of justice and was graphically and politically minded at a very young age. I remember drawing political cartoons about the oil crisis in sixth grade and making anti-Reagan posters shortly after that. Perhaps it was my family’s history with discrimination. My grandparents on my father’s side survived the Holocaust in Europe—my 98-year old grandmother the only one in her family to survive. On my mother’s side, both my grandparents were deaf, so they faced a different kind of discrimination.
T: My family influenced me in the direction of activism, environmental stewardship, and reaching out to folks in trouble. My parents are religious, very generous people, and I grew up watching them help others, constantly. My mom is a whip-smart writer who taught me how to get letters to the editor published in the local newspaper; she and I were both anti-nuke activists. Becoming editor of my high school newspaper let me take on hyper-local issues, and in college at UC Berkeley, I worked on a radical leftist paper. I wasn’t actually part of Plazm in the early 1990s. Keep in mind this is back before everyone carried the Internet in their pocket, back when Portland was considered a nowhere-backwater, if it was considered at all. I was drifting between Oregon and the Bay Area then, got involved with the nascent Internet scene and magazines like Mondo 2000, Wired, and the Fringe Ware Review. I was actually a fan of Plazm (and, weirdly, had my photo appear in an early issue, though I’d never met you). My impression was that a bunch of artists and writers and generally dissatisfied but fiery minds got together and said, “Hey, we need a place for all this creativity to go. Let’s start a magazine.”
J: Well, I don’t know. It’s true that we were not happy with the avenues we were finding for our creativity, so we made one. But there was also a political motivation and 90% of the media of the time was controlled by five corporations. If there was a big protest in San Francisco and The Oregonian newspaper didn’t run a story about it, people would never know about the anti-war movement. That motivated us, too. There was an ecological component; the environment was an important thing early on in Plazm. I worked for McMenamins and created their first sustainability program, which ended up putting me on the cover of Oregon Business Journal. At Plazm, we would write manifestos. Our first issue had two manifestos! (Laughing) We invented Devolanguage, we delved into the semiotics of the first Bush presidency. I interviewed Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, my first interview. He said, “Don’t hate the media. Become the media.” That’s what we did. We met at people’s houses, at a loft on Everett Street. The vibe was creativity. Enthusiasm. Optimism. A feeling of controlling our destinies, of taking back.
T: From whom?
J: (Laughs) From the corporate overlords.
T: The corporate overlords for whom you now work.
J: Yeah, it’s true. We do some of that. But we are challenging and questioning what we are being told. Exploring.
T: Those who challenge and question end up learning a heck of a lot. Critical thinking doesn’t just apply to creative content; you need it for strategy. It’s essential for building an incredible, lasting brand. How exactly did Plazm wind up in the business?
J: Plazm started out all-volunteer. The magazine itself has never made any money, but it led to client work. Many of us had day jobs working as designers, mostly at Wieden+Kennedy. We started getting inquiries because the magazine was out there. Nike and MTV were our first big corporate clients. The Robin Hood model is something that we’ve often referred to. Plazm Design is what ultimately was able to pay the bills and support our magazine habit. These companies would pay us, and we’d take the money and continue to fund our own activities—social and cultural causes that interested us.
T: You’ve often talked about how designers are trained in methods of mass communication… that designers and creatives in general can change things, starting small. Elaborate on that?
J: Design, strategy, and marketing matter. As a trained communications professional, you have a seat at the table. You as a designer have influence over the direction of all client projects. You can influence the amount of packaging, the materials used in packaging, the product itself. You can tell a client: ‘You don’t need to make this product.’ That’s powerful. How you show up makes a difference. If I show up with my ethical standards, if I live my values, then it influences how we advise our clients. For example, long ago we began to specify using recycled paper for our materials. In 1995 it was much harder to find recycled paper than today. I remember Niko bringing in a list, saying, “Here are the inks with high levels of metal or petroleum content.” So we could specify inks that are soy-based, less toxic for the environment. As a designer, you can start changing things on a very granular level, like, “We can’t use this red because it has high cadmium content.” Being able to insist on using recycled paper and soy inks is a small example of how designers can help move things in a positive direction.
ARE THERE ANY SPECIAL CHALLENGES, OPPORTUNITIES, URGENCIES IN 2018?
J: I believe we are in a very tenuous position. When I say we, I am talking not about humans, but all living beings. We are moving from the entirety of our physical evolutionary history—the process which created us—to one where we are directing our own evolution by volitional selection, i.e. the process of redesigning our biology and human nature. We have only this one planet to inhabit. We humans are wiping out species before we even discover them. So that’s what I would call the urgency of 2018. A giant one among many. What is the biggest single obstacle in the path of addressing it? Capitalism.
T: Personally, I’m worried about social media addiction and, very related, the outrage machine it perpetuates in tandem with the 24/7 news cycle. We’ve allowed our brains to be hijacked by social media and digital devices.
J: Money is not life. Money cannot buy life. It cannot buy time. And it causes us to do things that are not in our interest. As Naomi Klein said in her book This Changes Everything — “Our economic model has declared war on life on earth.”
T: Then why are we helping companies make money, sometimes with products that people don’t really need?
J: Well, everybody needs to put food on the table. I try to make the best decisions about each project as it comes up, from an ethical and moral position. We live in a capitalist society, you know? If you were to talk about getting off of fossil fuels—yes, we need to do it. Can we do it at the flip of a switch, or does it need to be more of a dimmer? The transition from capitalism may need to be similar. Does living my values mean that I need to go off in a cave, off the grid? An extreme stand would be to do that. I try to have an ethical filter on everything we do, whether it’s engagement with a corporation or on a project-by-project basis. One of the things that designers are good at is details. We go all the way, granular, on fully realized projects. No point in doing anything unless you’re going to do it well. From the detail level on up, we can exert positive influence on our clients’ decisions.
T: I’ve been trying to do that with social media. As creative professionals, it’s our job to counteract the unhealthy and even evil aspects of social and technology. I don’t know what the solution is, exactly. To start, I’ve deleted most of my own social accounts. I’m also writing newspaper articles about how immersing in nature and engaging with our real communities can help. Research is clear that social and digital are linked to depression and anxiety. When working on client projects that use social, I make sure we are genuinely giving the end-users something real. The attention and time we absorb? That’s time they could use to connect with real people, be with their families, do good in their own neighborhoods. Right now Plazm’s working with a wonderful client that capitalizes on engagement but doesn’t set out to addict users and absorb excessive attention. I encourage the client to make the process not just engaging but meaningful. I write messaging that says to users, “This would be a good time to put down your phone.” If I’m going to drive users to their phones at all? I want them to engage thoughtfully and walk away with useful knowledge, real opportunities, balm for their souls. Meaning, incidentally, drives longer-term brand loyalty and a deeper level of engagement. Oh, and if a client is serving a target market that’s mostly women or people of color, and their leadership team is all white men? I believe we have to call ’em on it.
J: It can be done thoughtfully. Another part of social responsibility in design and content is loving what you do. Divorce the work from the financial triggers. There are some clients I won’t work with for ethical reasons. You have to trust yourself, love what you do, and then go do it. There’s no separation between work and life—it’s all just life. What you choose to do with your time is incredibly important. You only get a certain amount of it. Use it wisely.
T: Seems like you’ve been more aware of that since your bicycle accident six years ago.
J: True. I have that perspective. It shouldn’t take a near-death experience to get one to appreciate every moment, but that’s the effect the accident had on me. Before the accident I had a strong ethical and moral compass; I’d spent years working on environmental and political issues. That’s still part of who I am. The addition is the realization of the finite nature of life, the importance of every moment. That came with the near-death experience. You get no guarantees except that you’re born, you’re going to die, and things are going to change. Everything you do matters. Our words influence others. Our actions influence others. I choose to be a force for good.