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Design Moves

Cards Against Humanity Designer: "Graphic Design Doesn't Have A Critical Dialogue"

Amy Nicole Schwartz talks about jokes, failure, and what's missing from graphic design discourse today.

Cards Against Humanity Designer: "Graphic Design Doesn't Have A Critical Dialogue"

Doreen Lorenzo: How did you know you wanted to be a designer? How did you get here?
Amy Nicole Schwartz: My passion for design came out of my love of writing. When I was in high school I was very involved in journalism, and through my love of the newspaper, I started to work on actually designing the newspaper. I became the editor-in-chief junior year, and that allowed me to really focus on the content we were creating, both written and visual. I was fascinated by the realization at 16 that the way we put information on a page directly influences what knowledge people gain from the story. I ended up dedicating my high school career to what I now know as design.

In college—I went to DePaul University in Chicago—I knew that it would be important for me to be connected to a welcoming, active design community where I could meet working professionals and get internships at a variety of places. By the time I graduated from DePaul, I wasn’t done learning, and I ran straight into graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and got my MFA in design there. That experience was probably the best thing I’ve ever done for myself because it allowed me to explore a range of materials and figure out my personal values as a designer and to shape this identity and not get an agency or corporate value system instilled in me when I was maybe too young to have that.

During graduate school I had an internship and then ended up getting hired on full-time at the Chicago-based innovation consultancy Gravitytank as an interaction designer. Working there was like having a jetpack strapped to my back because I learned so much so fast. The amount of work they do, and the quality of work, the conversations you have—it’s an amazing place, and I feel like a lot of the way that I work even now, not in that role, is very much due to the way they work there. I’m very grateful for that.

And how did you end up at Cards Against Humanity?
I had known Max Temkin, one of the founders of Cards Against Humanity, from coworking in the same space together when I worked at Bright Bright Great. When Cards Against Humanity was looking for a design director, I saw the posting and thought, 'I’m going to take this.' I wanted to take a break from the kind of rapid consulting I was doing at the time and take the opportunity to really craft a product and a company and refine something over a long period of time. So I made the leap here, and this is where I am now.

The companies that I work for are Cards Against Humanity, and also Blackbox, which is a new company that the same founders started last year. Blackbox is essentially a logistics company—we know everything that no one wants to know but needs to know about warehouses and fulfillment, and we think it’s a great opportunity for us to use this knowledge and the discounts that we have and the system that we have in place to help other independent makers fulfill their product. We see so many people successfully Kickstarting products, but it’s hard to bridge the gap from getting your funding to actually getting it in your customers’ hands. The product is in its infancy, and we’re still working on it. There are a lot of moving pieces there, and it’s really exciting to help shape that.

Out of those experiences that have led you to where you are now, what’s the hardest part? You always learn a lesson, right? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Every day can be hard, especially when you are building a product like we are, and there are so many unknowns. It’s like solving a puzzle that has a million pieces and you have no idea what the puzzle’s supposed to look like at the end. I am challenged every day at work with helping to manage a product, to work on user experience, have a bigger picture of what we’re building, to delegate tasks—the list goes on. The hardest thing for me really, is wanting to do everything and be so involved in my team, and figuring out a lot of that on the fly as I go.

You describe yourself as a design troublemaker, and I actually think most designers are troublemakers. But what does that mean to you? Why do you describe yourself that way?
I like to describe myself that way, especially in the context of Cards Against Humanity, because we are a silly brand. Our visual aesthetic is very pared down. It’s a Swiss design dungeon, as we call it, of black-and-white Helvetica. But because Cards Against Humanity itself is a humor product, it gives us license to do very unexpected things. So in my job I’m basically creating assets for pranks. In my year at Cards, we purchased a castle, and I got to create a website that allows people to issue ridiculous decrees, because 150,000 people get to be king of this castle in Ireland for three minutes online. I got to create a food truck for the Penny Arcade Expo—it’s a big game convention that happens every year in Seattle—we made popsicles that had Cards Against Humanity cards frozen inside the popsicle; you had to eat it and then you got this sticky, messy pack of cards inside. Those all had funny names like "Mango Fuck Yourself" or "It’s Too Late to Stop Climate Change Cherry." A lot of what we do is humorous, creating pranks and things that poke fun in a way that never punches down at people, but it’s really just for laughs.

And I like to think of myself as a design troublemaker because I’m very opinionated about contemporary graphic design—the language we use, the spaces we create for each other, the trends that we follow. I’m very vocal about it, and I actively try to create spaces for a diverse group of people to create diverse works of design.


Let’s talk about your opinions about design—what do you think are some trends in the design world that should go away, and then on the flip side of that, what do you think is missing in design?
The trend that bothers me the most isn’t a visual trend; it’s a cultural trend of graphic design. And it’s kind of twofold—it’s related to the way we share work online and value of it and also the way we discuss it. The best examples I can think of are the new fad of everyone being a design critic—how you can post a rebrand of Airbnb or American Airlines or Uber and everyone has an opinion about it, which is great, but those aren’t often rooted in what is actually challenging about design. Anybody could make a glossy image, but no one knows the inside of that conversation. You don’t know what the client’s goals were, the users, and all the details of what they’re solving for. That bigger picture of why a design or design system or product is successful is missing from a lot of this conversation.

I also feel like the critiques that you see of these are never really rooted in anything substantial. We don’t have a true critical dialogue about graphic design. People can say that they don’t like the Airbnb logo, and you can ask them why, and they’ll say, "It looks like testicles," or "It looks like tits." It’s like, is that all you have to say about it? What qualities of it can you speak to—what does it relate to in graphic design art history? I’d like to see people make bigger connections and make a full statement beyond just a quick glance at it.

But there are also emotional responses and having what I call an allergic reaction to a design—you absolutely hate it and you can’t figure out why. That’s an interesting thing.

I get the assumption that people think your job is really easy. It’s an interesting design challenge, designing for a product that seems so simple.
Little of what I do is actually the Cards Against Humanity game. That design is already made, it sells itself. We plug things into a template and that’s how the card game itself gets made. We are actively producing expansion packs and foil packs, so I am creating wrapper art for those, but we’ve been doing an artist series lately so I’ve more been working more with artists and designers to create those. But we say at Cards Against Humanity that we don’t make jokes to make money; we make money to make jokes. The game itself is a means to our end of making experiences for people that are exciting and interesting.

I saw that you recently unveiled a design exposition in Chicago that’s actually focused on some of the design failures and mistakes made over the company’s history. Why did you take that angle? And what do you think it’s going to accomplish? I loved it because it demonstrates your learning process, not just the glossy final product.
We just put together the exhibition that’s at a free public art gallery right in Chicago. It’s an amazing intervention in the city. The theme of the series is "For the Common Good," so they asked us to make an exhibit around that idea. And we thought a great way to talk about Cards Against Humanity within that context would be to share the things that we’ve learned along the way that could help people—from the tools we use to Creative Commons.

We’re a funny company. We make a humor game, a party game, and we wanted that to really influence what we did, so the exhibit itself goes chronologically. It gives an introduction to what Cards Against Humanity is for the people who aren’t familiar with it. It shows our early prototypes of the game. We talk about Creative Commons, which allows us to share our product and let people make their own iterations of it and remix it in any way that they’d like as long as they don’t profit off of it. We’re big supporters of the open-source community, and we think that’s a great way to let people enjoy our game and do it the way they want without really infringing on any copyright.

We also show some really weird things we’ve done in the exhibit. We’ve done pranks where we had a "Bullshit Sale" for Black Friday a few years ago. We sold bullshit. We said to everyone on the website, "this is shit from a bull"—no one believed us. It was. And we mailed it out. So we talked about, how do you do this? Well, we learned that you can buy bullshit, and that it’s pasteurized and that it doesn’t smell. So then we had to produce scratch-and-sniff stickers that smelled like that so people would think that it was the bullshit itself that smelled, but really it’s the sticker. So most of the failures we learned are things like, we tried this and it didn’t work, or we tried this and it kind of worked, and this is why, we think. It’s just a really frank discussion of how we’ve fallen upwards into a real company, and what we can share along the way.

Do you think design is built into the DNA of Cards Against Humanity and also Blackbox? Do you think it’s part of the core? And how do you know that’s the case?
Absolutely. The design of Cards Against Humanity itself in a graphic design context isn’t groundbreaking. But in a tabletop card game/party game context, it’s groundbreaking in its simplicity. The visuals don’t get in the way of play. It’s a legible game—you understand what you’re doing, and a lot of other games are thrown together. They sometimes use cheesy graphics, sometimes the information hierarchy on a card doesn’t really aid in playability at all. So the experience of playing the game was foremost in designing the product itself. Two of the founders of Cards Against Humanity, Ben Hantoot and Max Temkin, were really heavily involved with the design when they made this. They’re both designers by trade, and that was really important to them when they made it, and that influences everything we’ve done and everything we currently do.

We’re designers who created this company. We want everything to be beautiful and have the best experience. We don’t ever want to sell something that’s second-rate or hinders anyone’s experience of it in any way. So it’s not just visual design or graphic design. It’s the overall experience of what we’re making. That’s really important to us.

Being a woman in the design industry, does it make a difference? Does it make your job harder or easier?
My joke response is that being a woman here is hard because we solve all of our answers by wrestling, so that puts me at a dramatic disadvantage, and I’ve had to really bulk up and take protein to convince the men of my ideas.

To answer your question, not really. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in places where equality is really key—especially intersectional diversity, so not just being a woman, but everything that makes you who you are. I’ve worked with people of different gender identities, nationalities, ethnicities, religions, ages, and I’ve just had really good luck working in places where everyone’s valued. At Cards Against Humanity, I work with a team that is so passionate about those issues and diversity and intersectionality, and we’re hyper-aware of that in everything we do, from whom we invite to speak at our panels to editing the game and the language that we put in it. We edit the game every six months because some jokes were written when the founders were younger, and, you know, young boys have a different idea of what’s funny. And then you live your life, and you realize that that’s not okay or cool or funny at all. It’s part of growth and making those mistakes, like we’ve said. So I think if anything, being a woman and being someone who is surrounded by people who have faced other discrimination based on many facets of their personality has made it easier for me to seek out and create spaces where everyone is valued equally.

How do you teach your team? How do you do it yourself, and how do you teach your team?
I think we’re really lucky in that Cards Against Humanity is a flat organization where everyone is free to offer up ideas for things that are outside of their role scope, so I can suggest ideas for an event or for copywriting, and the copywriters or customer service interns can come up with ideas for design, and all ideas are addressed equally. We have that culture of not having ego, and everyone can share something. And we always have ridiculous ideas flying around, especially for holiday promotions and the really goofy things we do. There aren’t limits on that. But what helps, I think, to get an idea across and to get people on board is how you kind of wrap it up in a neat little bow, and that’s something that designers are at a distinct advantage to do over others because we make things all day. We’re used to making pitch decks, and assets to show—mocking things up. I try to get my team to gather up assets to really make our case for it. So pulling in inspiration images, mocking something up on a poster or T-shirt or some sort of thing to give it context, making a funny video, just anything to show the other people in the company what we’re going for and why it will be successful. Same with designing an idea, or if I get feedback from someone on my team to try something a certain way, even if I think it won’t work that way I’ll try it anyway. So then I have that visual proof of why any given idea didn’t necessarily work. It’s not so much opinion or just mere thoughts. You’re putting in the work to make things happen.

You’re very involved in Chicago’s design scene. I’m curious to know why you think being a part of community and nurturing side projects is important for designers.
Community is everything. I got to where I am because of other people who have shared their knowledge, their insights, their skills, and their connections, whether they were my educators, my coworkers, or my mentors. People are an amazing resource. The whole point of why we’re here is to connect with other people. And for me, I want to give back to the Chicago design community to help out the next generation of designers, but to also actively shape what this community is. So I’ve put on design programming, run workshops, done panels, and organized gallery shows, because those were things I felt our community needed. And instead of just being grumpy and saying, like, Uh! It’s another panel with the same five people over again, or that’s another show that people had to pay $100 to apply to, I decided to stop being angry and actually make the events that I wanted to see happen. And I think people should feel very empowered to make that change in their community.

Are you a hugger?
In this office we always ask permission before touching someone. We’re very aware of other people’s space. Also the circumstances they’ve been in, in their life, that may make them react a certain way to being touched by another person. So I think I would hug someone with explicit permission and the correct relationship with them. But it’s all about consent.

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