Jacob is the principal of XXIX, a design and technology studio based in Brooklyn and Berlin. He and his partner, Jake Hobart, lead a small creative team that designs for print, packaging, screens, spaces and objects. Their brand and digital work has won them numerous accolades and clients, ranging from blue-chip tech companies like Google, Etsy and Dropbox to cult consumer brands like Baggu and by Humankind.
RE: THE IMPORTANCE OF ANTI-HEROES
I’ve always been interested in the idea of local, non-famous design, versus how the design media creates these design heroes who are bigger than life.
I am really interested in ways for people to get recognition in their own community, and not having these major figures be so important.
I guess as a teacher, I also think about how design is taught, how it’s always around people instead of around concepts, ideas or movements. Even design movements go back to the person who started it or was important in it. I am curious about design outside of personalities.
RE: A RECENT HOME PURCHASE
I have been in my apartment in New York for 8 years, so fortunately, most of my big purchases are behind me. I actually invested in some nice furniture early on that I didn’t want to replace. So, recent purchases have mostly been books and art.
One is a poster by my friend Daniel Wiesmann in Berlin, who is an amazing graphic designer. I treated myself to a really nice poster for my home. It’s beautiful and has been a great addition.
RE: BUSINESS OWNER VS. DESIGNER
Once you think you have made it by having a staff — then your job changes radically and it’s a lot less about making stuff. My advice is to consider whether that is what you really want to do.
Are you interested in running a business or being a designer?
You can say you’ll be different — but ultimately you will end up running a business. If you’re interested in that, it’s an awesome path. But if you’re just interested in being a designer, you may find it more rewarding working with a team or a bigger organization.
No one told me the implications of what I was doing. I would advise designers to ask other people about the reality of running a business. People think they will be free and be their own boss, but there is a downside as well.
RE: A FAVORITE PROJECT
byHumankind. I think the projects that are a little bumpy are the best for learning. The learnings from byHumankind are that if you believe in a team and their ambition, you will have good results. That was a positive project.
I’ve learned to be very clear with people about which aspect of the project you are interested in and to be comfortable saying, “This is what I know will work well” — whatever it is in that scenario. Basically, to speak up and advocate for yourself.
If you are truly sure that the advice you are giving is for the benefit of the project, then it’s an easy conversation to have with someone.
I don’t give that advice lightly because I know it takes a certain level of experience, and there is a certain time in your career where you feel like you can do that. But I think it’s important to learn.
RE: HIS BAG OF TRICKS
One thing that I always rely on is developing a tool kit of techniques or moves that work for me every time. Like, there's a typeface that I know how to use well or a layout that works. I’m sure there are parallels if you are a photographer or a product designer — there are always techniques that can jumpstart your creative process when you get blocked. I actually keep a file of different starting points.
RE: A CRAFTSMAN'S MINDSET
I try to limit the amount of design media and industry stuff that I look at, and other purely visual inputs, because I feel like that’s a good way to get discouraged. You end up comparing things, like your work or your clients. I’ve found it’s a dangerous path to go down so I try to limit that input in the first place.
At the end of the day, we are craftsmen and we are given a specific task to solve.
If you are meeting the brief, then you’re succeeding. I try to keep my goals for the project very realistic and very pragmatic. I keep in mind that my role as a designer is cool, fun and actually pretty straightforward. I use tools to make things. There’s a lot of conversation about whether design is a powerful tool. I think it can be to an extent, but I try to keep my expectations in line with the understanding that this is a craft. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.
RE: THE WORLD BEYOND GRAPHIC DESIGN
It weirds me out when a graphic designer has a bunch of furniture they don’t seem to care about. I’m usually thinking, “Doesn’t your design sensibility transcend graphic design?” It doesn’t mean you have to have anything fancy, but I think there is a way of using space that is ideal. I like to have books around and things made by people we know. It makes things personal. We’re doing this to make a place where people can make things. The clients exist to make space for people to create things.
There is a world beyond just mass-manufactured things. There are people that make things that have value and meaning.
Surrounding yourself with them supports them, and also enriches your life. It feels great to support someone who started a business that is making something, especially if I know that person. I think about how I’m enabling a person to do what they want.