This interview is part of a series featuring the presenters participating in this year’s Core77 Conference, “The Third Wave”, a one-day event that will explore the future of the design industry and the role designers will play in it.
The need for designers to collaborate with other industries and brainstorm creative solutions to face emerging environmental, governmental and societal concerns is becoming more and more imperative each day. In such dark times, how can designers keep the fun alive during their brainstorming process? Archie Lee Coates IV, co-founder and partner at PLAYLAB, INC., knows a thing or two about both successful collaboration and playful ideation. Using tools from art, architecture, and graphic design to initiate ideas around various themes that interest them, PLAYLAB works with a variety of clients to bring quirky, lovable products and experiences to life.
Most recently, PLAYLAB had the opportunity to work with Virgil Abloh to design the accompanying book to his Figures of Speech exhibition at MCA Chicago, as well as the set for Louis Vuitton’s recent men’s spring 2020 runway show, where the studio erected a full-sized bounce house as the show’s main prop. Outside of PLAYLAB, Archie also co-founded + POOL, an initiative to build the world’s first water-filtering floating pool in New York, which has required him to simultaneously work with designers, architects and government officials to bring their vision to life.
We sat down with Archie, who will be giving a talk called “SHITSTORM” at The Third Wave, to discuss the role collaboration will play between different industries in the future, as well as tips for having fun during the brainstorming process:
Core77: To start off, can you tell me a bit about the work PLAYLAB does and how you define the studio’s mission? You started PLAYLAB when you were in college, have you changed the way you approach or talk about your work since then?
Archie: The answer kind of changes every time, which is probably the mission and a good thing. The core of the studio is my best friend, Jeff Franklin, and I. It started as an idea in college to create a space where we could explore the things that we cared about or were interested in learning about, basically. We started it in 2007, more or less, and then incorporated in 2009 so this is our 10th year. It started as a graphic design office, primarily, but we also initiated a lot of work. And the thinking there was we don’t really need to or want to wait for people to ask us to do things. We want to be able to do them ourselves. We’re a little naive in nature, or at least we really were back then.
Over the past 10 years we’ve seen everybody start working in every field, so that’s nothing new but it brings an element of freedom. As the studio grows, we continue to explore what we care about, what we’re interested in—it’s like a giant adventure. That’s a general way of speaking but we do creative direction and art direction and graphic design and branding and product direction. We do fashion shows. We design books and album covers and advise on creative strategies and stage designs and performances. You name it.
The more we move and operate, the more we realize that there isn’t a specific type of thing we want to be involved in, in terms of form or discipline. It’s more about the people that we work with and the feeling that we get from it. We want to create—always—a healthy environment that is about education, learning, growing, and experimentation.
GROWN UP FLOWERS is a multi-site installation in New York and China that launched in May 2018. It imagines flowers inflated many times their normal size, giving visitors a new perspective on these iconic and playful representations of beauty.
You mentioned that you’ve initiated a lot of your own projects, can you expand on that? Do you essentially pursue passion projects and tangential ideas and then look for ways to make them a reality?
Right. A key thing we’re working on in the studio now is developing shoes. That came from stints working with footwear companies, like Adidas, seeing how they iterate and make shoes, and then realizing we can do that in our own studio. One of our designers, Dillon, came on board over a year ago and wanted to pursue this so we let him run with it and now it’s become a serious part of our practice. We have a small museum show opening in September in Colorado, which will debut a size run of one shoe we’ve developed. This project will continue to grow and develop however we want it to.
These avenues are really important for the studio because they don’t come with a brief, nobody’s asking us to do them. But the goal is to get a check in some way so that we can continue to do it, but we’re not driven by that. We self-fund a variety of things that we do in the studio so that we can continue to do what feels natural and genuine to us and then we project that onto the world and see who’s interested in it. Conversations follow and then we start to move forward in a direction. It just seems like the right thing.
Tell me a bit about the structure of the studio. How many people are on the team right now?
We’re five people right now but that’ll change again this year. Everybody’s called a designer and everybody does everything from strategy to production work, client meetings and management. There’s a lot of ownership at the studio and if somebody wants to pursue something, we try our best to make that possible.
Image by Luca Venter
About how many projects does the studio work on at any given time? How does that break down between client projects and other projects?
We balance a lot for 5 people, it’s a little crazy. The photographer Luca Venter shot a studio portrait of us recently called “How Many People Work Here”, which shows each of us three times, making it look like we’re a 15 person office. Definitely accurate. We’re averaging around 10 “client” projects and 5 initiatives at any moment, including right now. Those projects are all at different phases, for sure, so they’re timelines aren’t necessarily all firing at the same time.
Let’s talk about the process. Say you get a brief or chat with a potential collaborator about a new idea, what happens next?
What’s funny is no matter what the project is, the process is almost always the same. We take whatever’s been given to us and we each boil it down to the simplest idea, something that feels like plain English, but we go really deep into it. We’re definitely a research-heavy office. We come back together and it’s like dumping crabs on the table: Here’s all this shit we found, let’s have a crab bake.
As we start to have conversations about it, we find similarities in the ideas and we bucket them into categories. Then we take the idea that we all respond to the best and we build a world around it. What if X happened? And if X happened, how would people hear about it? And how would people communicate about it? What is it actually made out of? What if it’s made out of this thing and we go as far as we can? Jeff calls this part “throwing the flag.” We throw the flag as far as we can and then, as a team of designers and critical thinkers, we use the limits around us to figure out what’s the best way for it to exist. Sometimes we think of it in terms of small, medium, and large options. We’ll go back to our collaborator or client and say, here’s the core concept or several core concepts and here are the small, medium, large ways to go about it.
This studio is truly an adventure in relationships and conversations. Ideas are better in groups. Jeff and I met at architecture school and that way of thinking is prevalent there, and we keep that really sacred at the studio. It’s always like: “More ideas! More ideas! More ideas! Now let’s have a conversation about it and let’s not have an ego about it. Let’s have a great conversation and see where it goes, and then let’s go make it!”
And then you’ve got the energy to go to the next thing because life doesn’t need to be that serious all the time.
CLOG is a publication founded in 2011 by PLAYLAB, INC., Kyle May, Julia van den Hout, and Jacob Reidel. Originally focusing on architecture, CLOG explores, from multiple viewpoints and through a variety of means, a single subject that is relevant now. In addition to designing and editing, PLAYLAB directs all creative aspects of the brand, which so far includes15 issues,10 events, and 2 exhibitions.
What do you do when you get stuck?
They don’t teach you this in school, but designing is only like 20% of it.
It’s really about communicating with people: figuring out how to speak to them properly, what they need, what they want. So if you’re stuck, it’s probably not because of the idea, it’s probably because of a relationship or a conversation that you’ve had, or haven’t had. It always goes back to pouring more time and energy into the people that are around you. The more face time you get with people, the better things are. The more understanding that you can have and the more trust you can have, the better things are. We talk a lot about energy, but energy is really real. It moves the dial forward. Some of the best designers I’ve ever met, they’re just producers. And the producers are the ones that know how to keep things moving.
We think like producers, now more than we ever have in ten years of PLAYLAB. How do we get this thing done in the best way? It’s very difficult and we have to relearn it for almost every project, but at least we know that that’s the goal, figuring out how to navigate those channels.
Plus Pool is an initiative to build a water-filtering, floating pool in New York.
As PLAYLAB has grown over the years, you’ve been refining the art of collaboration. Can you talk about why collaboration is so important through the lens of your biggest project, Plus Pool?
Plus Pool has radically changed the entire way that the studio operates. When we began the adventure it felt like such an impossible feat but we weren’t thinking about the details, necessarily, of how it would exist, we just wanted to paint a picture of it and how powerful that would be. The feedback loop after that was so intense and so fast that within two weeks we had a little bit of funding and we were off to the races.
We knew from day one that a project like this was going to take a substantial amount of people and effort but I don’t think any of us had any clue how many entities, organizations, companies, and individuals would need to be involved for it to be successful. There’s the Army Corps of Engineers, there’s the Coast Guard, there’s the Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Transportation, City Hall, the Economic Development Corporation. And then depending on where you’re at, there’s community groups, local organizations, etc.
It’s not just identifying these players and then figuring out where they fit in your puzzle, it’s you going out and figuring out how you fit into their puzzle and what you could service them with. That’s design.
One of the biggest things we’re involved with right now is programming and the biggest program we have is called the Summer Bluefish Program where we get kids in the water. The life of architecture projects that are proposed by developers or someone like that doesn’t become real until it’s built and it’s open to whoever it’s supposed to service. Part of what + Pool aims to do is go ahead and build that community before so that they can see and feel what they’re going to have and how it’s going to impact their community.
We’ve been able to grow this program from 20 kids three years ago to hundreds of kids this summer, from one pool to three pools. We partner with artists to kit them out with gear and we’ll partner with the New York City Housing Authority to serve a population of people that really want this program and really need the education about the importance of water quality and the ability to swim.
I’ve just spent two and a half, three minutes talking about swim programs when it’s a design project. I didn’t expect that this would be the job but it’s really good that it is, you know what I mean?
Along the way, we’ve talked to so many people and partnered with those who really know how these things come together. They advise us and push us forward—that’s collaboration. It sounds maybe kind of boring or too detail-oriented but it’s the coolest thing ever.
That’s what our office really is, a community of designers, not just in this office but outside of it.
On November 3, 2018, Virgil Abloh handed PLAYLAB a hard drive with every file from every computer, phone, and external drive that he has owned since 2008. The team was asked to curate a selection of images from his archive into a book meant to accompany his Figures of Speech exhibition at MCA Chicago.
This is a bit of an annoying question because this word can be off-putting but I’m curious, how do you define innovation and why is collaboration such a key part of it?
The new wave, the next wave, there will always be a new one or a next one but I really, truly feel like right now it’s about wrapping your arms around people and getting things done together. That requires you to communicate with other people, and that’s not the easiest thing to do.
Jeff and I teach at the School of Visual Arts in an MFA program that’s ironically called Design for Social Innovation. A lot of what we end up doing is training the students away from thinking they’re going to upend the system and change something. The term “innovation” inherently needs people. Often, the things that are the most innovative are the most simple and obvious things that we overlook because we want to do something big.
There’s a lot of conversations going around right now about this idea of the big flat now. That with the amount of technology and communication, and the Internet and everything going on, all sorts of cultural artifacts and disciplines are merging into what we call content. And content is just a pretty, smooth surface that’s easy to digest because it’s flat.
The advantage of the flatness is that anybody can do anything and everything can be relevant. The answer is to constantly throw things that maybe have no relevance to each other, next to one another.
Once you do that, you start to find combinations of things that are radical. Or maybe they’re not that radical but because you saw them in this way, you’re like, “Oh my god! This is sick!” But it has to come out of an individual, personal perspective.
What can you tell us about how all these ideas will fold into your talk at the 2019 Core77 conference?
We talk a lot as a studio and we think sharing stories about the reality of what happens at the studio is important, especially for other people that are like us or that are in similar positions. We had to consult so many people to get a sense of what it would be like to start a studio and those pieces of advice—whether they came in the form of talks we saw, or lectures, or workshops, or conversations, or just emails—changed our whole life. So we made a rule that whenever we do a talk, we won’t stick to a particular theme, but we’ll be really honest. Sort of like: “I’m going to tell you where the studio is at today, right now.”
We always subtitle our talks by saying, most likely somebody’s going to cry. Like, I’m going to cry. Running the studio has been a life-changing experience for us and when we talk about it, it’s a very real thing.
Hear Archie Lee Coates IV of PLAYLAB and other design industry leaders speak at this years Core77 Conference, “The Third Wave”! Tickets are available now.