Jeffrey Ludlow: “Design is like a comedy. The moment you have to explain a joke, the less impactful it is”

Jeffrey Ludlow is back at Lisbon-Paris-Madrid. A lot has changed since his first interview here in 2017. Things have changed to him, to you, to us as a society, to companies and institutions. The design’s standards changed, and also this blog does –a free digital space that has grown up during these years. And saying hello! again to Jeffrey, an architect who is in love with design in all its forms, I inaugurate a new chapter in which international creatives are invited to join me, expressing themselves in their own native language.

In this interview, Jeffrey talks to us about his remarkable career path in the last four years, about Point of Reference –the brand new project he is involved now, about his passion for signage and wayfinding, about the frugality of the Spanish’s culture or the deep interests of the youngest design students. Let’s see what an American architect-designer think about the complexity of our time.

Aurora Cannabis Retail Design

Welcome again to Lisbon-Paris-Madrid, Jeffrey. We talked with you a few years ago, but many things have happened during this time. What did you do? What are you up to now? Since we last spoke, a lot has changed. After 11 great years at 2×4, I left to become the second Chief Creative Director at Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, after Bruce Mau.

At the time, it seemed like the right career step: a larger company, a large team and larger projects. However, after year in Toronto, I realized that my understanding of creativity and leadership didn’t fit well into a heavily tiered corporation. I don’t regret the experience, but it was a learning moment where I recognized my limits as a creative person and as a leader en masse.

It took that year away for me to realize that I need to be involved in a project to represent it and that I excel as an involved leader of a small diverse teams rather than a large corporation. Hence the return to Madrid to start up Point of Reference. The new chapter.

The less we have to explain projects, the better

JEFFREY LUDLOW

You define Point of Reference as a small design studio where the team works with clarity and curiosity for architecture, design, commerce and culture. What does clarity and curiosity mean for you? Why are these concepts interesting for a design study? Small yes, as a reaction to the previous question, but small is more our size rather indicating our ambition or size of clients or output.

And as for clarity and curiosity as a pairing, those two words came out of us thinking about the type of work that we have done, the type of work we wanted, and what our clients said were our strengths. Although the two words appear to be opposites, the friction between the two is what we find interesting, ambitious and representative of our work.

Clarity is about defining a strategy/objective for the project. It is a goal. Curiosity is to be un-defined by a medium, an aesthetic or technique. It is about a process to not settle on a thing. It is that internal push and pull within our studio where the interesting projects come from.

Schneider Colao_Poster Series

The COVID crisis forces us to redefine many things in our lives and jobs. From your point of view, how has design reacted to this breakingpoint? COVID made us rethink a lot of things as individuals, but as an office the recurring issue was the studio as a physical space. Do we keep it, or do we discard it and work remotely forever? We initially questioned the studio as a place within the first few months of COVID, when we couldn’t use it. Enjoyed it when we could return and realized that the office was both a place virtually and a physically. Where Zoom was our Rear-View Window into each other’s lives.

Now what we have loosely settled on, is that a physical space like an office and working with each other is a luxury not a necessity, so working from home is ok. That being said, we communicate space and people who create space, so our studio is our temple and carries a lot of importance for us.

Not sure if it was COVID influenced or a generational thing, but younger students ARE actively looking to solve these big problems that we are living in whether it is COVID, equality or environmental

JEFFREY LUDLOW

What initiatives that emerged from this COVID crisis have seemed most interesting to you? The initiatives that most interest us, are those that deal with environment and its overlap into our process. Can we limit project travel, if we all can meet online? How can we influence our clients to move towards more conscious environmental choices as much as we can without being dogmatic?

Paterson Beach in Paterson, NJ designed by Mathias Hollwich at HWKN

You are also very close to IE University, teaching at the Architecture and Design School. From your experience, how has design education adapted to the new reality we are living in? I teach the final semester at IE Design Program. Where for 5 months, I guide/tutor each student on their final project. The individual projects are a merger of the students’ talents and interest.

Not sure if it was COVID influenced or a generational thing, but I think this younger generation of students is actively looking to solve these big problems that we are living in whether it is COVID, equality or environmental. My job is to focus their intentions into realistic and manageable expectations. I am really proud of my students; I have a feeling that many of my students will pursue and will their Final Projects into real projects. If design education has to adapt, it should be to tackle the reality of the world we are living in. To merge the practical and theoretical in a hands-on way, should be the future of design education.

NO MATTER THE SIZE OR THE COMPLEXITY OF A PROJECT, THE MAIN ISSUE IS USER EXPERIENCE

JEFFREY LUDLOW

You seem to be very interested in signage and wayfinding design. How do you define both?  Signage and wayfinding is very interesting for us. Although literally everywhere, it is heavily underappreciated, it is the unsung hero of architecture.

It also is the cultural mirror of our society’s norms, rules, and laws. If you saw a municipal sign saying don’t tie-dye t-shirts in the pool, it says culturally more than what it is restricting. If you see cultural institutions designed with accessible signs, it says something about inclusion for that institution. Signage is also about place making. How often do you see a classic 60/70’s residential lobby entranceway and notice that someone knew how to accent that building with the address number? That is placemaking.

We define signage and wayfinding as the intersection between graphic design, spatial design and industrial design. Where signage is the actual physical sign, and wayfinding as the way to navigate and orientate people within space. But there are so many other elements to it.

POR Syndicate SubRosa Motion

And, what complexities do you find in signage and wayfinding design projects for large spaces? We have worked on large airports, corporate campuses to small cultural institutions. No matter the size or complexity of a project, the main issue is user experience. How the architect/urbanist designed a space, may not be how an individual will use that space in real life. The challenge is to understand design intention and negotiate it with the psychology of moving through space. It is not too unlike water trying to find the lowest point.

To merge the practical and theoretical in a hands-on way, should be the future of design education

JEFFREY LUDLOW

Last week, Yarza Twins spoke to us about the differences between British and Spanish designs. They think that the brand’s economic investment is the main difference. While British and American clients know that design is a crucial tool, the brands doubt investing in design, here in Spain. Do you agree? You also work for clients from different countries, so what is your perception of the difference between Spanish and European Design? I think there are a couple of things to sift through here, especially as it is difficult to talk conclusively about broad generalities. (Speaking about Spain, not being a Spaniard is a tenuous proposition, no matter how much national or international work we do).

It is too easy to say Spanish clients are cheap and not Spanish clients are not cheap. Also, not all British and/or American clients truly value design. Bad clients exist everywhere and likewise so do disgruntle designers. That being said, yes, Spain has some frugalness. And I use that word strategically.

Frugality (or as we know it, bonito-barato-y-rápido) is a very entrenched and very inherent aspect to Spanish culture. Inditex, Spanish cuisine are all great examples of Spanish frugality. Getting the most flavor out of the least. There is also a dark side to this, only in Spain would there be loud public outcries for how much an agency was paid to change the identity of the Government Mail Identity. Overall, there is a need to justify design value to a Euro amount that is not bad, nor good, but a thing. An unmovable, cultural thing. So how do we move it, even if just a little? Prepare yourself for an unsolicited guiri opinion?

Signage design for La Casa Encendida

What if our national design organization rather than giving us the yearly pat-on-the-back award, could focused on broadly communicating to design value and ROI within a design process. What if these organizations focused on making design an understood profession to the general public rather than celebrating creativity to the same internal crowd? Maybe then the public would value what we do more. I think the AIGA, RGA does a good job at professionalizing the field in the US or Canada.

Trends come and go but, at last, what stays the same?
Design intention above all else, remains. The less we have to explain projects, the better. Maybe design is like a comedy, the moment you have to explain a joke, the less impactful it is.

We too often celebrate newness in the profession, but not duration

JEFFREY LUDLOW

Professionally you have led a very busy life. What are you proud of? First and foremost, my family. Secondly, I am proud to be able to lead a creative life thus far.

What an honor that for the past 19 years people/companies pay me to creatively think through problems with them. The longer, I am in the profession, the more I learn about and the more I admire those companies or individuals that have preserved and continue beyond 10, 20, 30 years. Cruz Novillo, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, or even Lance Wynman are just a few names that come to mind but there are so many others. We too often celebrate newness in the profession but not duration. It’s a difficult field design, so close to 20 years is something that I am proud of.