Adam Michaels (Project Projects) interview

Graphic design studio Project Projects has been around since 2004 and produces high-calibre work that is not only well thought out but also aesthetically pleasing. Co-founder Adam Michaels was kind enough to have a chat about their New York practice and the process behind their work.

Interview by Julian Hutton

 — i.

— i.

 — ii.

— ii.

 — iii.

— iii.

 — iv.

— iv.

 — v.

— v.

 — vi.

— vi.

i. Studio photograph
ii. Inventory Books series
iii. Street Value and Above the Pavement—The Farm! books
iv. – vi. The Electronic Information Age Album

All photographs © Project Projects 2013

Project Projects was founded by Prem Krishnamurthy and yourself in 2004. How did this working relationship come about?

Prem and I met in 2003 through David Reinfurt, who was running a design studio called O-R-G. Around that time, Prem and I each separately worked on projects with David, amongst other freelance work (primarily in magazine design). 

When we began to work together as Project Projects in January 2004, Prem and I were relatively new acquaintances, but we had similar interests as far as the kind of design work that we wanted to do, and we both wished to figure out how to create a sustainable structure within which to work. We weren't sure that the notion of the studio would last for a month; it's a wonderful surprise that it's lasted over nine years now and involved many other people. Currently, there are ten of us on staff, including Rob Giampietro, who joined us as a principal in 2010. 

The studio focuses on servicing the cultural sector quite exclusively. Was this a conscious decision? Do you find that working with such clients allows for more interesting design solutions?

We consciously decided that the studio's time would be focused on projects towards which we feel a genuine affinity, thus providing the opportunity for close engagement with both our work and our collaborators. As it happens, we're interested in books, design, politics, art, architecture, music, etc. Accordingly, the 'cultural sector' is primarily where we do our work. 

However, that's not to suggest that the material outcome of work under that rubric is categorically superior to other types of commodities, nor do we wish to overly restrict ourselves to a fixed set of relations. Instead, the point is that we do better work – not to mention enjoy ourselves more – in situations where we have a significant overlap in interests, motivations and so on, with our collaborators.

"It's a pleasure and a privilege to imagine something that seems to fill some small void in the world, and then undertake the necessary steps for its realisation."

As well as client-based projects, you also produce self-initiated work. How important is it for you to engage in personal projects?

I'm certainly enthusiastic about initiating projects – it's a pleasure and a privilege to imagine something that seems to fill some small void in the world, and then undertake the necessary steps for its realisation. However, I find that there's less of a divide between client- and studio-initiated work than it may appear from a distance. While I would have a particularly strong interest in the subject matter of a self- or studio-initiated project, and a greater involvement from its inception, most working processes would be similar (and no less collaborative) than those of client-initiated work. When any project is completed and its outcome enters the world, the strength of its ideas and execution will always be of greater significance than its precise point of origin. 

What's your involvement with Inventory Books?

I'm the series editor and designer of Inventory Books, which is a paperback book series published by Princeton Architectural Press. So far, there are three titles: Street Value: Shopping, Planning, and Politics at Fulton Mall; Above the Pavement – The Farm! Architecture & Agriculture at P.F.1; and The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan / Agel / Fiore and the Experimental Paperback.

Each title has involved a different group of writers, researchers, photographers and so on. One of my primary interests in the series is to translate academic approaches to progressive content into an accessible, enjoyable form for wider audiences; unconventional approaches to typography and imagery are a significant part of this, so it's important that I'm able to conceptualise editorial and visual aspects fully in tandem with each other.

"When any project is completed and its outcome enters the world, the strength of its ideas and execution will always be of greater significance than its precise point of origin."

Your latest Inventory Books project is
The Electric Information Age Book and an album of the same name. Can you tell us about the concept behind this interesting mixture of words, imagery and sound?

After Jeffrey Schnapp and I finished The Electric Information Age Book, we felt like there was much more that could be done with the subject matter – which, basically, is the history of a set of 1960s/70s mass-market paperbacks which incorporated avant garde design techniques into a cheap, mass-distributed format. 

In particular, our book closely covers the history of Marshall McLuhan and Quention Fiore's seminal The Medium is The Massage. We were very aware of the identically-titled LP that came out shortly after the book, in which an audio collage approach is applied to McLuhan's reading of selected passages of text, comedy sketches, snippets of rock & roll and cocktail jazz, and so on. Accordingly, as an experimental offshoot from the book, Jeffrey and I worked with Daniel Perlin to record a full LP with a parallel approach – except we took the original's claim of being 'The First Spoken Arts Record You Can Dance To' as a guiding principle (particularly as that record is profoundly undanceable), and we tried to produce something both disjunctive but overtly entertaining (again, in parallel to the mass-market paperbacks). 

How do you find working in New York? Does the city influence your design approach?

I've been living and working in New York for nearly 12 years, which has been an incredible time. While the city and its intensities have profoundly shaped my design approach, my Midwestern background (growing up surrounded by various Modernist legacies in the Chicago area, followed by an inspiring art school experience in Minneapolis; in addition, I was very involved with the DIY hardcore punk rock scenes in each city) is of no less importance.

In 2011 you were a part of a manifesto for the Gwangju Design Biennale. Does this manifesto still ring true to your design ethos?

The text still looks good to me. That said, I have a stronger interest in the myriad ways in which those concerns are articulated by the work that we produce.

"… we took the original's claim of being 'The First Spoken Arts Record You Can Dance To' as a guiding principle (particularly as that record is profoundly undanceable)…"

Project Projects has a wonderful portfolio of both digital and print work. Do you feel it is necessary to work across various disciplines as a graphic designer today?

We've maintained a pragmatic approach to technology as it has evolved over the years. We frequently work with clients to determine the best format for a project, evaluating particularities of content, desired audience, budget, etc. For example, sometimes instantaneous, widespread distribution via the internet offers the best outcome for a project; sometimes the concretion of a thoroughly developed physical object is most appropriate. 

While at the studio we all have personal preferences as far as the kinds of things we like – and like to make – our approach to work is very much driven by an in-depth analysis of a specific situation; further, we're always interested in the new possibilities of working in unfamiliar media.  

What are you currently working on?

These days, there are about 30 projects happening at the studio at any given moment, all in various stages of production. At the moment, I'm finishing up the first volume of a four-book set compiling writings by the art historian Molly Nesbit. Other projects at the studio include a visual identity for the RISD Museum, and a new, flexible e-book platform for the cultural institution SALT in Istanbul.

The Electric Information Age Album is available at