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Steve Gordon: Beyond Simple Definitions

Written by in Profiles

Don’t Fence Me In: Defining New Trends

Donovan Beery is a designer and commentator who lives in Omaha, NB.— He spoke with Nebraska-based designer, Steve Gordon of RDQLUS about his current work and his plans for the coming year.

Steve, you’ve spoken at more HOW Conferences than I can count. You also have written the book on freelance design. What’s the most common question you get asked  by audiences?

First, almost anytime I’m at a public function with young designers, they ask: “How many pieces should I have in my portfolio?” Next, they ask “so… what exactly do you do?” I think this is because many still can’t get their heads wrapped around  all the various things I am involved in as a creative consultant.

To that primary question, “how many pieces” is a loaded question.  It’s never as simple as a number. Regarding the second question, since you are the entire operation at RDQLUS perhaps because you’ve transitioned from design freelance to creating a clothing line, your work and interest are hard to label. How has the clothing line impacted your design work?

I’ve long looked up to guys like design thinkers who work for anyone willing to hire them as consultants. The clothing line was a way to show I understood I could develop a brand from scratch — from the cool-hunting and branding behind it to the strategic, operational and marketing executive behind it. Then it took off and  I find myself trying to keep it from growing too fast because it could easily take over all of my time. Regrettably, some zeroed in on my line of accessories and somehow decided I was off on a retail clothing adventure and no longer did design work. But my objective was to show that I know how to read the market pulse, create and bolster products & brand messaging that is relevant. Yes, I make cool streetwear. But the street wear is also designed to promote my design and strategic consulting.

Identity for an independent film festival.

Identity for an independent film festival.

When one ventures off on side-projects, there is the risk that some may not realize we do it to push ourselves creatively. In your case, you not only created this clothing label but you operated a storefront called River City Social Club. How has this effected your work and changed your focus?

Running River City Social Club expands and strengthens my ability to promote RDQLUS. It’s another example of me striving to get audiences to understand and acknowledge that the reason they know about these creative ventures is because my name  and work is connected with it. I am an “a la carte” creative director brought in at various levels of involvement to help brands do better a better job of achieving what they are reaching for.

The storefront for River City Social Club in Omaha, Nebraska.

The storefront for River City Social Club in Omaha, Nebraska.

At Against the Grain, our main love is paper obviously, but we love all good design. Do you think differently when moving from paper to fabric as the medium?

Paper, wood, fabric, metal – it’s all the same to me. I don’t think any differently when producing artwork no matter the medium or media. But the substrate is an integral part of the equation: you have to look closely at what the artwork is being applied to and how that effects the message and purpose of the work.

You had a career as an athlete and DJ before going into design as well. What brought you into design?

I was initially an architecture major in college, having chosen that early on in high school. At the same time I was developing into a world-class track & field athlete. Meanwhile, I was always doing open-mic nights, producing music and DJ’ing raves and parties. All things were happening simultaneously, so I can’t ever remember having any separation. I would design my own event fliers. I’d design my collegiate team’s warm up tees. I directed photo shoots, music videos and indie films. No of this was ever really separate. It was intertwined — and still is.

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Steve no longer DJs but that does’t stop him from designing for hip hop artist Ali Shaheed Muhammed (A Tribe Called Quest)

Name a design project of which you are most proud.

One that nothing to do with artwork. In 2009, I was tapped to study data and craft the target customer profiles for T-Mobile’s holiday campaigns. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, and it pushed me to the brink. It was the first time that someone had acknowledged all of the work I had been doing and the way that I wrote about and studied subcultures. They wanted my thinking and direction — not just my artwork.  It changed what I wanted RDQLUS CREATIVE to become.

Do you have a dream project in mind?

Working with Nike on a new product line, or with a university sports program to create a new brand & identity, or working with a major network studio to craft new brand stories and assets for a television show. Those would send me over the moon… and I’m ready to advance to that level.

Anyone that knows you would guess Nike would be on that list. Ok, so in your opinion, what’s the best new design trend you’e seen in fifteen years?

 “Flat” design coming back. We used to call it “Stop Using a Bunch of Photoshop Filters, You Idiots!”, but that didn’t roll off the tongue. Draplin calls it “thick lines,” while others call it “retro” or “minimalist.” There is always a place for design fundamentals and good composition without the need for a bunch of insecure bells & whistles. So lets call it “simplicity” — the best design trend I’ve seen over the course of my career so far.

Identity for Dyana Valentine: "flat," but it conveys her energy and personality

Identity for Dyana Valentine: “flat,” but it conveys her energy and personality

And the worst design trend of the past 15 years?

Type as a logo. Sometime the desirable “simplicity” I spoke of is taken too far — it becomes hyper minimal which — in effect — means nothing was done. Huh? Where’s all the design? Where is the thought and execution?! It’s like walking into a gallery and seeing a single ink dot on a canvas. Enough with the existential, interpretive BS. Do some work!

Any parting comments or concerns, wise man?

I think our culture is more derivative than ever. Borrowing/stealing/re-purposing  is rampant because of the way we “share” information. The work is seen in process more than ever now. Music is all about how to twist the samples. Rappers say all the same lines and rhyming the same stuff we’ve already heard. Finding the truly new is increasingly difficult so “new” becomes just takes and twists on what that which is already seen. Retro is the new retro is the new retro which is now the new “new.” What?!

I call this trend-humping.  It can be a lucrative good career by plagiarist artists who duplicate masterpieces for a public that does not pay  attention. But the artist who offer new views and explorations of  culture & messaging are those who will endure, not the copycats.