1000 JOURNALS, CROWDSOURCED CREATIVITY.
There’s a website called IAmSomeGuy.com. It’s the online entryway into the 1000 Journals project, which collects journal entries from people all over the world, and which has been the subject of a book and a documentary. But the guy behind the 1000 Journals project is not just some guy to designers. He’s Brian Singer, who currently manages the communication design team at Facebook, and who is the editor of a new book, Graphic Content: True Stories from Top Creatives. He joined me to tell the story of his own creative life.
Brian, what’s with your moniker, “Some Guy”?
Brian: When I originally started the 1000 Journals project, I wanted to be anonymous. And I thought it would be funny if the email address at the website was SomeGuy@1000Journals so people didn’t know who they were emailing. Now I’m officially a published author under the name Some Guy.
Debbie: Did you think that people might wonder, “Who is this person?”
Brian: Possibly, but everything in that book is something that other people made. The only contribution I made, other than assembling it and curating it, was to write “by Some Guy” and “foreword by Kevin Kelly.” That’s all I added as far as the artwork goes. It’s a collaboration of all the contributors to the project, therefore I felt it was okay if I faded into the background.
Debbie: I understand that you’ve always been fascinated by what people scrawl on bathroom walls and in public spaces. Why?
Brian: I went to college at California Polytechnics in San Luis Obispo. I studied in an O-shaped building and in the bathroom there, for whatever reason, there was a lot of stuff written on the walls. There were things about war and drugs and sex and politics and everything you could possibly imagine. I found it interesting that people would use a bathroom wall as a means to express themselves. I also thought it was weird that so many people took Sharpies to the bathroom.
Debbie: You graduated with a Bachelor of Science in graphic design from Cal Poly. When did you know that you wanted to be a graphic designer?
Brian: When I was looking at the long list of majors and realized they all looked lame except for graphic design. Growing up, I enjoyed making things. When I was a kid, my school put on a play about the history of the United States, and they asked all the students in our class to draw the program covers. Mine was selected, and for whatever reason, that’s what got me interested in it.
Debbie: Do you still have the cover?
Brian: I don’t. My mom probably does somewhere in a drawer.
Debbie: Beginning in 2000, you had a series of exciting design jobs. You worked for Josh Chen at Chan Design Associates. You worked at Pentagram. You worked for Jennifer Morla at Morla Design. But it was on June 17th, 2000, a typically cool San Francisco summer day, that you embarked on a project that would ultimately change your life. You took a thousand sketch books, glued a thousand covers on them, stamped them a thousand times, hand-numbered them from one to one thousand, and sent them out into the world, no strings attached. Why?
Brian: It was something that I had been thinking about in college. After I left college, I had gone around and photographed bathroom walls at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and bar bathrooms in San Francisco. There was something about the bathroom wall conversations that I thought people should continue adding to. I was walking up 8th Street after work one day, and I had one of those ideas that if you don’t do it, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life. So there wasn’t really a choice. I started out with a thousand because it seemed like an absurd enough number. Sending out ten or one hundred seemed too easy.
Debbie: You stated that the feeling of isolation created by the internet led to the idea of the 1000 Journals project.
Brian: This is when blogging was first taking off. It felt like a time when culture was starting to transform because of this new medium that we were using to run our businesses and interact with each other. It made us much closer, but at the same time, I was feeling more disconnected from things.
Debbie: What gave you the sense that randomly sending out blank journals for people to create whatever they wanted in the pages would be a way out of isolation?
Brian: The journal is a physical thing, and it’s a physical connection you can have to someone you know, or to a perfect stranger. There’s something romantic about that. It might make the world feel like a smaller place just because you happened upon this thing and you contributed to it.
People always ask what my expectations were about the project. And the truth is that I had no idea what was going to happen. They all could have fallen off the face of the Earth. There could be a thousand of them still moving around right now. But I did hope that people would take them and internalize them and do something they wanted with them. And contribute a slice of their life or some thoughts or advice or a little piece of themselves, to this project.
Debbie: As the project unfolded, what did you start to see about humanity?
Brian: When 9/11 happened, there were entries from a bunch of different people all responding to the same event. When the war in Iraq happened, the same thing. So it was fascinating to see how people were dealing with the same issues. Their opinions on them might differ—whether we should or should not go to war—but there were a lot of common feelings. It was a little window into our culture.
Debbie: You left the first hundred journals at random places all over San Francisco. You handed them out to friends and people who you worked with, and to strangers. You had people giving them out in Australia, in South Africa, in Denmark, and in England. I read that as word started to spread, more and more people wrote to you asking for journals. And you individually mailed all of those out.
Brian: It seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t.
Debbie: It’s a lot of work. Soon after, you created an online signup list where anyone around the world was able to request a journal. There were long waiting lists and some people became desperate. They were offering money and trading things to anyone who could give them a journal. How did this groundswell influence how you were feeling about the project?
Brian: It definitely became a thing in the early 2000s, when it reached the height of its popularity. The anxiety or desire of people to participate in it felt very good. I had created something that people wanted to be part of. At the same time, I’d send these things out and then I wouldn’t hear from the recipients for two months.
When the project became popular, people got more nervous about what they were contributing. They wanted to do something great. Yet they didn’t have time at that moment—but they’d have time on the weekend. And then it was the next week. And then it was two months later. Because it became popular, the pressure of contributing to it became so great that the popularity actually slowed it down.
Debbie: Was the intention for people to populate the journal with thoughts, drawings, collages, etc., and then send them back to you? Or was the idea that they would send it to somebody else to continue the work?
Brian: Send it to somebody else. The only time I wanted them back was if they were completely full and there was no corner left unturned where somebody could scribble a little thought. At the very beginning I imagined these would be traveling bathroom walls. It turned out that people were a lot more respectful than that. You’d get more prose and thoughtfulness and artwork than you might get on the wall of a public bathroom.
Debbie: One of the journals was the subject of a treasure hunt: Journal number 354. One was abandoned at an airport. That was Journal number 1. And number 949 was stolen at gunpoint.
Brian: Yes, though truthfully the woman who had that journal was mugged. Her bag was stolen. It just happened to be in the bag. I don’t think the mugger was like, “Give me that journal.”
Debbie: As part of the project, you created a website where people could upload images they had contributed to a specific journal.
Brian: They could either scan whatever they’d contributed, or they could scan everything in the journal to date.
Debbie: How long was it before you first received a journal back?
Brian: I think it was 2003.
Debbie: Were you surprised?
Brian: I did hear it was coming because the person who had it was making sure it didn’t get lost.
I’d get a note saying, “It’s almost full.” I was checking my mailbox every day, and one day it showed up. I sat down on my sofa and I read through the entire thing.
Debbie: What was that like?
Brian: It was great. It was almost a sigh of relief that one had finally made it back. It had been through 13 states. It had been to Brazil and Ireland. It had all these amazing stories in it that you wouldn’t have seen from the website because nobody scanned it. People were just playing with the journal form.
Debbie: In 2007, a documentary film was made about the project and the filmmaker interviewed nearly half of the one thousand contributors. How did she find them all?
Brian: She spent the first year just doing research. She tried to track down every single journal along every single path. She would send me notes saying, “I talked to this woman and she says she doesn’t have the journal but I think she does.” Then after she’d done that, she spent a year traveling around the world filming. During the course of filming, she uncovered stories of people whose work had been written or drawn over in some way. [Debbie, he originally said “whose work had been gone over” and I think by that he meant “written or drawn over,” so I changed it to that—do you think that’s accurate?] And then she was able to track down the people who did that. Some people take things very seriously and some contributions are, “Oh yeah, I put a bird on it.” The whole time I had been thinking primarily about the entries in the journals. What are people writing? What are people drawing? Andrea, the filmmaker, thought about the people behind that. What are their stories, and how are they connected?
Debbie: How were you able to fund the 1000 Journals project? That’s a lot of journals to buy, covers to make, and mail to send.
Brian: I had to use a lot of Epson print cartridges. We make choices with our money. Some of us have cable, some of us don’t. Some of us have nice cars, some of us don’t. When I was doing the journal project, I was living in a 10-by-10 room in San Francisco. I had a hand-me-down bed and a hand-me-down dresser. I had a fold-up desk. The car was a hand-me-down. I spent my money on what I wanted to spend it on. Now I can afford my own stuff, but at the time—mid-20s when you’re just starting to save up your first little bit of money—you can do whatever you want with it. You have to decide. And I chose journals.
Debbie: At the beginning of the film, you quote the great artist Gordon MacKenzie from his book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball. If you ask a kindergarten class how many of them are artists, they’ll all raise their hands. Ask the same question of sixth graders, and maybe one-third will respond. Ask high school grads, and few will admit to it. [IS THIS MACKENZIE QUOTE/ SHOULD IT BE IN QUOTATION MARKS?] Why does our impetus to be creative change over time?
Brian: I think we start to fear criticism. The nail that stands up gets hammered down. We fear the judgment of the group. As we grow up in society, we are trained to fit in. If we were all trained to be artists, then everybody would be an artist. But we’re trained to follow a more traditional path in our schooling. That’s unfortunate because it blocks off a lot of thinking that could benefit society. You’d be amazed how many people say they can’t draw. Everyone can draw, but it’s something that you have to learn—and you just practice at it.
Debbie: I am astounded by the number of my undergraduate seniors who—at 19, 20, 21 years old—edit the possibilities for their future based on what they think they can accomplish. Why do you think that happens?
Brian: You start to craft the identity of who you want to be at that time. I used to joke that my goal in college was to get into the magazine Communication Arts. I wanted to win an award, and then I would know I had made it. Then I realized, what’s the circulation of Communication Arts or any design publication versus the circulation of Teen People? A lot of young designers look up to people in our profession, but there’s a whole world beyond that context that we should be looking at. It’s not about making an impression on other designers. It’s about making an impression on the world.
Debbie: Your 1000 Journals project has reached 40 countries and every US state. In addition to the documentary, you also published a 212-page book. You’ve had exhibits all over the world. At the time all of this was going on, you were also starting your own business, Altitude, which you helmed until 2012. Why did you start your own business when you were heavily involved in these self-generated projects?
Brian: I did fairly good business at Altitude for a small shop, but I spent all the money on the side projects. That’s the whole reason I was working. I felt that doing my own thing would provide me with the freedom that I needed if I wanted to pursue a side project for a while. For those seven years, I had a nice balance of work that paid the bills and side projects that I enjoyed.
Debbie: During those years you were also continually working on your fine art. You created mixed-media pieces from flyers stapled to telephone poles. After years of weather, these community billboards became a rusting graveyard of events past. So you removed the paper scraps and reassembled them into graphic structures inlaid with chaotic bits of image, typography, and rust. And then you began creating your own flyers and exposing them to the elements before tearing and reassembling them into new forms. What was the impetus for that project?
Brian: In San Francisco, the telephone poles are these beautiful textures of old flyers and rusty staples. I kept looking at them, thinking, “How can I get that into my house?” It’s what I wanted to hang on my walls. It eventually occurred to me that I could take the flyered surfaces off the telephone poles. Of course, there are thousands of rusty staples that you need to remove, so it wasn’t easy. It’s also something that no normal human being would do because it’s silly.
Debbie: Are you saying you’re abnormal, Brian?
Brian: I’m saying I’ve got some OCD problems. I would bring some tools and sit there, trying to remove the paper and rusty staples from the telephone poles. When I got it home, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. But I started rearranging it into these shapes.
Debbie: What kind of flyers were you making on your own?
Brian: The problem is that it takes years for these things to get layered and caked on and weathered. I’d taken down most of the good spots in San Francisco already, so I was running out of paper. I thought, “What if I try to recreate this on my own?” I developed a laborious process of printing out my own flyers, stapling them, rusting them, removing them, tearing them, reassembling them. It’s a little absurd. Some of the flyers have been strictly typographic and some are more pattern-based. It’s funny to tear up a flyer that has a striped pattern on it, and then reassemble that same exact pattern.
Debbie: You’ve said that you’re interested in exploring the printed word as a visual representation of information in your works on paper, attempting to uncover new meaning in what is slowly becoming an outdated form. Do you feel the printed word is outdated?
Brian: There’s been a transformation in the way we receive information. The primary way we get our news now is through the internet, not newspapers. There’s something so tactile and beautiful about our relationship to paper and printed words—I like the idea that it’s all information that’s been assembled in some way. We might read the words across the page but what if it was chopped up or re-arranged in a way that meant something different?
Debbie: What is your process for uncovering new meaning?
Brian: Some of the products I’ve done involve word frequency, so for those, I look at the frequency of words that show up in a book. I’ve done work with the Bible, looking at, for example, the number of times the word gold shows up versus the number of times faith shows up.
Debbie: What’s the ratio?
Brian: More gold than faith. I’ve done love and evil the same way. Evil shows up about twice as many times as love. I’ve done fully redacted versions of the Bible, where I’ll go through and black-out every single word in the Bible except for gold and faith, or love and evil.
Debbie: How long does it take?
Brian: It takes a long time. It somehow keeps me sane.
Debbie: Let’s talk about your new book, Graphic Content: True Stories from Top Creatives. At the beginning of it, you thank designer Eric Baker for planting the seed for the book with his amazing stories. What kind of amazing stories was Eric sharing with you?
Brian: We were at a conference in San Marcos, Texas, called Creative Summit. After the event, all these great people were hanging out on the front porch of a hotel, drinking scotch and telling stories.
Eric Baker rolls into this heartwarming story about reconnecting with his grade-school teacher before she passed away. While he’s telling the story, I’m looking at the 10–15 people around us. They’re enthralled, hanging on every word he says. At the end, I had this feeling of beauty.
After the conference, I wrote Eric a note and said, “I want you to document your story, and I would love for you to contribute it to this project.”
Debbie: You write in the introduction that you doubt that anyone has ever sat back and thought to themselves, “What the world needs now is another book about design.” Aside from Eric’s storytelling ability, what gave you the sense that this could be a vibrant book?
Brian: It’s a different side of the people who are in our industry. We’re very familiar with their graphic works, or their teaching. It’s that other side that you might not get to see.
Debbie: You’re working at Facebook now. What made you decide to leave your own company and go to work for Facebook?
Brian: After about seven years of being in my own studio, I was getting a little bored with the type of work that was coming in. We were small and we weren’t able to capture the giant projects. People would approach us about another website, or another logo. I felt that I needed to try something new and push myself. If there’s one quality I have, it’s that I will continuously put myself in uncomfortable situations to force myself to learn or adapt. My first time teaching, I went home and cried. It was just awful. I totally blew it. But I learned and got better at it. So I asked myself
, “What’s the most difficult thing I could think of doing right now?” And I thought, “In-house corporate at a tech company sounds difficult.” I started looking at companies where I could have an impact, and Facebook was at the top of the list.
Debbie: How do you write a kickass cover letter when you’re Brian Singer? How do you even begin to describe yourself in a couple of paragraphs other than saying you’re Some Guy?
Brian: It’s not easy. I have a hard time when people ask me what I do.
Debbie: What do you say now?
Brian: I do a lot of stuff. It’s all over the place.