Issue #19 May 2006

[Graphic] design exposed


There's a t-shirt I see around the office a lot. Across the chest, in extra-small monospace font, it reads "I'd rather be collaborating." It's a reminder and a mantra, one I've spotted on everyone from director to design intern. And it's not just a slogan for a t-shirt. As a young graphic designer who is new to Red Hat, I've come to learn that collaboration is the basis of both our business and--more importantly--our community.

My understanding of collaboration centers on the basic tenant of ownership--or, rather, the lack thereof. Most designers protect their work fiercely. So it was a pleasant surprise to come across a talented designer, Issara Willenskomer, with a unique perspective on ownership.

At his website,, you'll find beautifully constructed web pages rich with work. Willenskomer has a downloads section where he posts documents that anyone can download and use as their own. And not just web-ready graphics--Willenskomer includes layered source files that are completely editable and totally educational. In addition to seeing finished examples, fledgling designers can pick apart the source files and deconstruct his methods. We were so intrigued by this approach, we knew we had to talk with him, and share our conversation with you.

Josh Gajownik: Tell us a little bit about yourself--education, influences, dreams, hobbies, pets?

Issara Willenskomer: [I was] raised in the pristine rural hills of northern California. I showed zero aptitude for the visual arts. It wasn't until my third year of college that I discovered photography, and then, a year after that, I began to unlock my creative potential with the aid of computers. Most of my artistic/design influences are negligible. I discover bits and pieces that I respond to and let them influence me.

I don't have any pets but I love animals a great deal. I had this idea for a company, called 'Rent a Beast,' which involved renting out cute animals for the day. I travel a lot and I thought it would be cool to be able to fly to someplace for a job and rent a cat or a dog that I could feed and take for walks. Of course, you'd have to ensure that the people who rented the beasts were completely nice to them. The only real way to monitor this would be if we could understand what animals said. When the animal/human language barrier finally gets breached, I'll be sure to get this off the ground.

JG: How do you pay the bills?

IW: Mostly freelance creative direction projects, directing commercial spots, music videos, occasional forays into art or creative direction for various interactive applications. Sometimes, yes, I work for the Man.

CMY sketch

JG: I really enjoyed the CMY sketch on your site. The decision to include a download section was unique. Normally it's just desktop backgrounds, AIM icons, etc. It's unusual for a portfolio to offer full layered documents for download, like yours does. What was your motivation for doing this?

IW: First off, thank you. Second, my motivation was two-fold. I like to share. Giving feels good. I wanted to feel good. Secondly, and perhaps more intellectually, I want to challenge the notion of ownership. Our culture has--as one of its basic tenants--the notion of ownership. An individual or an organization can... possess something in the fullest possible way.

If we follow the outcome of this logic, we realize that the owner can prevent other people from having access to that which is owned... When the Europeans first tried to buy land from the Native Americans, they were met with a great deal of... skepticism. The very notion was, clearly, absurd. Five hundred years later, companies can patent genes they discovered (often with government funded monies) and own the very material that makes up your body.

Clearly, there is a problem with this system. ...It seems perfectly natural that a company can own a song, a book, an idea. This belief manifests itself in day to day interactions.

In designer manifests itself in the idea of competitive advantage. In the hyper-competitive world of design, holding on to ideas ensures that competitors will be unable to duplicate your internal processes and thus profit from your work.

JG: As a follow: Because you release your work so freely, are you ever surprised by where and how it turns up? Are there any uses that would make you reconsider offering it so openly?

IW: I was surprised to see one of my images turn up in a poster for a band, verbatim, with no credit given. That was funny. I'm not very concerned about bands and individuals using my work. At some point, I'm sure I'll see an ad campaign by some huge corporation blatantly ripping me off, and then we'll see what happens.

None of these scenarios would make me reconsider offering up my source files, though. The numerous positive responses I've received...have been really great, and I don't believe those people should pay the price because of a few bad apples.

JG: Has the open sourcing of your work increased the opportunities you have for collaboration? Has it changed the way that you work with other designers? What kind of feedback do you get from the website?

IW: So far, I've received a few opportunities to collaborate, but I haven't pursued them yet. I think I'm moving past a "design for design's sake" phase and entering a "what can I do with my talents to change the world for better" phase and haven't found any collaborators in that area yet. The feedback I've gotten from my site has been very wonderful, with some people writing really inspiring things to me.

JG: Advances in design technology have increased the opportunity for people not typically considered "designers" to pursue creative works. How do your shared works contribute to this? What do think will be the result of this sort of progression? Will design flourish or fail? Designers?

IW: That's a really great question. And the answer is complicated. I think at a fundamental level you have on your hands the age-old debate of art verses craft. You will always have people debating the merits of each, and I tend to shy away from those kind of debates. What it comes down to for me is something I learned in my early days of photography...I was shooting with a piece of [expletive deleted] Russian-made twenty-dollar plastic dual-lens reflex camera called a Lubitel. Other students were lucky enough to have...a Hasselblad, but what intrigued me was that conceptually, their photos were no better than mine. During critiques, there was no way to discern a difference. To me it's less about what you're using and more about your motivations, your reasoning, etc. Talented people can always make lemonade from lemons.

To address the question, "Will design flourish or fail?" This is almost meaningless. Historically, you need look no further than the creation of the camera and how the world of painting was thrown into hysterics. People were afraid that photography would destroy painting due to its superior ability to record light, but clearly their fears were unfounded. The same will ultimately hold true with "design."

JG: Where do you think you will be in 10 years? What will you be doing? How about 20 years? 50?

IW: My hope is that I will be content in 10 years, and up through 50 years. The icing on the cake is if I could be on a tropical beach petting a sloth.

JG: What do you like to look at these days?

IW: I'm still in love with photography, particularly Richard Avedon, the Starns Brothers, my photography professor in college, Don Anton, and the work of my photography friends, who are incredibly inspiring. I also love Flickr, and spend hours there. I spend a lot of time just looking at nature: trees, insects, birds...being fascinated at the pure beauty of the world. Our environment is a wonderfully complex thing, and it never fails to reward the curious.

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JG: Morning or night? Chocolate or vanilla? Photoshop or Illustrator?

IW: I never get up early, though I should. The morning is a magical time. I can remember taking walks with my grandpa when I was very little, when he and I were the first ones up. Those memories are precious.

Photoshop and Illustrator are the bee's knees. I spend so much time with them, they're almost like my red-headed step children. Lately, I've been spending a ton of time in Photoshop just learning color design and correction and I love spending time in Illustrator just messing around. Illustrator is kind of like my garage...and Photoshop is like my cheap little photo studio that I rent out in a bad part of town.

About the author

Josh Gajownik is a designer at Red Hat and a graduate of North Carolina State University. In his spare time, he makes beautiful paintings and brilliantly witty t-shirts.