Tuesday, November 20, 2012


What designer wouldn’t want to spend every day behind a mysterious portal, next to a pirate store (where no one ever mentions pirates)?

Maria Ines Montes, Design Director at 826 Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission District, has an awesome if challenging job: She directs all design for this smart, irreverent nonprofit program dedicated to teaching writing and study skills to urban students from 6 to 18 years old.

It’s a tall order: budget and time are usually tight, and resources limited, and thanks to a distinct visual brand and rising national visibility, expectations are high.

That’s okay: Maria has enough passion and energy to spare. Quick to smile but obviously very intent on the quality of her product, Maria truly lights up when the subject turns to the young students in the program.

“I have to show you something!” she said breathlessly at one point in the interview, as she jumped up and hurried over to a desk at the other end of the office. She brought back a print proof of a new poster featuring a quote from a young writer. "'I think time never gets tired, because it likes to move around place to place.'" Maria laughed in that way you laugh when something is too amazing to be true.

"That’s so beautiful!” she said, grinning.

I've always been impressed not just by the branding of this organization - wonderful typography as well as writing - but also by its mission of helping city kids - many of whom never would've thought of themselves as writers - think and write creatively.

Maria and I finally had a chance to sit down and talk about her role as Design Director at 826 Valencia last Friday morning. Light rain persisted as I arrived at the funky, humble storefront, at (of course) 826 Valencia Street. Maria threw open a door and greeted me enthusiastically, and we sat down at a study table in the office.

SL: Talk a little about yourself and why you came to 826 Valencia SF, especially with all the other opportunities around here for a design director. Where did you work before this? 
MIM: I came here because I wanted to use my skills and my creativity to do something good for our community, and our society. Before I was here, I was at an ad agency and I didn’t even know about 826, I just discovered it while waiting for my next opportunity.

I get bored quick with things, and I like to explore things, and that’s one of the reasons why I love graphic design; you can go in so many directions, you can go into something else every few years.

I’ve worked in a very small design studio, I’ve worked on huge collage murals for Wells Fargo, then went on to design museum exhibits for a company in San Rafael. At the Carol H. Williams agency in Oakland, I was able to work on TV commercials and video projects for big companies like Disney, GM, Cover Girl and so on; that was really fun and a great learning experience.

But after that job I knew I wanted to do something to impact our communities in a positive way.

SL: What is your role here?
MIM: As Design Director, I’m in charge of design for all materials for our organization’s events, internal materials, fundraising appeals, publications, you name it. Basically I’m the guardian of the brand. I have worked really hard to elevate what we had before and create a cohesive brand for the organization. I also serve as Project Manager (because we don’t have one) and as a mentor to our design team, which is made up of wonderful and kind volunteers and interns, which we switch out every three months.

SL: Your job sounds a lot like mine, as “guardian of the brand”, so I can definitely relate to what you’re talking about. So, typical process – do you do a lot of design yourself, or is it mostly direction?
MIM: Direction. When I started here, it was only me doing everything. But as the program grew, the amount of projects grew, and it was too much. I established a design process that established minimum timelines and forecasting, but ultimately I had to start bringing in design volunteers. First one, then two and eventually four in the summer. The designers are seniors in school so they need mentoring and are also limited by the hours they can spare from their studies.
There are times because of budget or timing, when I have to draw on the skills on the volunteers, some of which have unique illustration styles; I’ll just say “Why don’t we use this, it’s perfect.”

SL: Talk a little about the relationship between visual design for the Pirate Store materials and the look and feel of the 826 Valencia web site. They are different but still feel cohesive.
MIM: When I started, the look and feel of the website was beginning to feel dated. Volume redesigned our website based on the designs I had been doing. Office rebranded the Pirate Store, all the black background and Baskerville typography, black white and gold - that was Office’s creation. Then Volume created our website and updated the logo a little based on the design material I provided them. They designed both websites, so they have stuff in common, but one reflects the Pirate Store theme, with all the black, and one reflects more what we do here. They’re cousins.

SL: That’s fascinating. They’re cousins, but I can see how you can’t have a community outreach website that’s black, it would be off-putting.
MIM: The products at the store - what’s special about us, is that we deal with something that’s really serious: education, providing tools to be successful in life, creativity – but we make it fun and quirky. Where else are you going to have a “Mustache-athon” as a fundraising event? We have a unique sense of humor. By the way, we never actually mention pirates in the pirate store.

SL: That’s funny because one of my questions is, what role does humor play in the brand? 
MIM: Humor is a big part of what we do. We invite funny celebrities to participate in our events (Ed. note: a recent fundraiser included Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) and write funny skits for the students to participate in.

Think about it: everyone who enters 826 enters through a pirate store. That’s the portal. The transition between school and structure, into a place where you can relax and be creative. It sets the tone. You enter through a pirate store. That’s quite amazing.

SL: Until you said that, I never thought about it that way. I always thought of the writing room as “the room in the back,” and the pirate store as a fundraising mechanism. I never thought about it as a sequence; i.e. you come in through a portal, leaving the street and reality behind you. That’s awesome. Was that deliberate?

MIM: So the story goes, when Dave and Ninive started the organization, they got this space but they couldn’t use it unless they came up with a store because it was zoned commercial. They couldn’t figure out what to do, but then one of the writers suddenly said, "Well, it looks like the inside of a pirate ship in here, why not open a pirate store?". It started as a way of complying with the city’s zoning system, but it ended up becoming an important part of what we do. It helps us raise money, it’s a portal to the rest of our facility, and it sets the tone for our organization. And it all started from writers just having fun and being creative.

SL: What are the key rules for creative that you’re evaluating? What questions do you ask of the creative, particularly in light of the fact you work a lot with design interns?

MIM: First I want to make sure that it’s within our brand look and feel, the writing and tone are on brand as well. We don’t have a brand manual; it’s all up here (points to head). When a designer starts working with us I’ll show her a portfolio of samples and discuss writing tone. The design should be simple. Complexity doesn’t work for us. Good typography. Clear hierarchy.

I’ll walk around and share with staff that aren’t involved with the project. I ask, are we accomplishing the purpose of this piece?

Ideally, we’d have designers paired with writers – someday maybe we’ll evolve to that - but the reality is sometimes the copy has to be written by the person who’s requesting the piece.

I’ve been looking at the body of work we’ve produced and I’m so proud of the quality of work we’ve done over the past five years with such a small budget and a small workspace, no structure or project manager! It’s like running a letterpress stationery business out of your kitchen.

That’s one reason why I emphasize simplicity. Simple, straight to the point. We have so much student work that’s so powerful. We have amazing stories to share that are written by the youth; an excerpt or a quote from a student piece says it all, we don’t have to embellish it.

See samples of Maria's work here:

See the Pirate Supply Store website here:
Pirate Supply Store

See the 826 Valencia website here:
826 Valencia

1 comment:

Julie Meridian said...

Neat interview! Very cool to hear about the ways 826 Valencia has grown and changed over time, and how Maria Ines Montes has shaped the brand along the way.