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Creative Questionnaire: Sixten Abbot

Sixten Abbot is the Art Director (as well as a photographer and copywriter) at Sullivan & Co., a communications and marketing firm in Providence, Rhode Island. Sixten, which means victory stone in Swedish, told me his parents named him after one of the tragic main characters in the 1967 film Elvira Madigan. When hes not spending his free time as a semi-professional band photographer, youll find Sixten piloting his kayak through the icy winter waters of New England.

Current Project:
I wish I had the luxury of working on just one thing! At the moment, Im trying to wrap up a moderately sized site with a custom flash piece, just starting a national logo redesign, doing some writing for a local energy companys brochure… and theres always other little things: retouching, color correction… the list goes on!

First step in my design process:
I guess it depends on a lot of things: first, what you consider the first step – naturally, you try to gather as much information as possible. In addition to the client, theres the competition, the audience. These days, people seem to want to design for everyone – but thats as successful as design by committee, i.e., not at all. Even if the audience is broad, they have things in common. The best thing is if you can make a connection to an individual that you know, and design for them. Not their individual taste, per se, but as a gut check. As much as the industry would like to deny it, this is an art as much as a science. Trust your instincts.

Aspect of design I give the highest priority:
Usability, usability, usability. A close second would be suitability – is it appropriate?

Method for overcoming creative block:
Do something. It wont be good, but just get started, like automatic writing. Nobody keeps track of your bad ideas, so dont be afraid to get them out. Because the good ideas are always just beyond them, on the other side.

One typical myth about web design:
800×600. Seriously. Windows default resolution, on a 15 monitor, has been 1024×768 for years. With browser chrome (you know, tool bars and stuff, not Googles Chrome browser – how confusing is that?), the above the fold measurement is somewhere around 900×500, depending.

Most challenging aspect about web design:
Microsoft. Couldnt be happy with the W3Cs standards, they had to invent their own.

Most underrated aspect of web design:
The flexibility necessary to account for vastly different amounts of content. In a printed piece, there are ways to work around things like product groupings that vary; you can run them in, smoosh them together… You cant really do that online. It requires more forethought, and sometimes there isnt time for that, so its conceivable that even a well-designed site can have a really ugly page when all is said and done. That should never be true for a printed piece. So despite its flexibility, the web is really quite unforgiving.

When I first knew I wanted to be a designer:
Heh. I hate to cop to it, but honestly – it was when I realized I wasnt going to be an illustrator. Freshman year at RISD. It was an easy decision, when youre surrounded by that many talented illustrators – I decided it was better to try to be good at something that I had less experience with than to try to get better at something I was only moderately good at.

John Maeda, Laurie Anderson, Joshua Davis, Colin Moock, Yugo Nakamura, Tobias Frere-Jones, Richard Feynman, John Williams Waterhouse, Benjamin Franklin.

Oh, visually? Anything I can get my hands on. I think a lot of us are still looking at echoing analog processes, somehow. Theres an unknown quality in the result which I think resonates with the human spirit. Its part of what makes some design warm and others cold. The more analog, the more error-prone the process, the more we recognize the human hand behind it. Do I sound like a Luddite?

Favorite tool:
Its stereotypical, but – Photoshop. Especially ironic in light of the above, but fifteen years with somethings hard to let go of, you know? And analog processes require so much infrastructure. And, if I may be allowed to stray from the strictly design tools here, two cameras: my Holga S and my Pentax k20d. Although if theres anything Im looking forward to, its REDs forecast DSLR.

Favorite design resource:
Gotta be Communication Arts; they set the standard.

The one typeface for a deserted island stay:
Hoefler & Frere-Jones Requiem family. Gorgeous and quite extensive. Second choice would have to be Helvetica Neue – it never ends.

Hmm. Ive actually stopped using them because I bookmarked too much, too quickly. But sites I hit often: boingboing, wired, pharyngula, slashdot, Giant in the Playground.

Design-related book I highly recommend:
Its probably too much of a given, but: Bringhursts Elements of Typographic Style. Or Eric Gills, An Essay on Typography. I know, I know – Im a product of my education. And I have to admit, I havent read a book on design (or directly related to design) too recently. What can I say? My tastes are too broad for me to spend my time away from the office reading about stuff thats directly related to what I do in the office.

Currently reading:
Like my current projects, there are just too many of these to list them all. I recently finished Naomi Kleins, The Shock Doctrine. Not for the neoconservative at heart. Also, lest you think me too intellectual, I also just finished (for the first time) Orson Scott Cards, Enders Game and Xenocide.

Life lesson:
It doesnt matter what the salary is – the people you work with are the most important thing. No amount of money can make up for misery.

If I werent a designer, Id be…
Its the same answer I gave over thirty years ago: when I grow up, I want to be an artist or a scientist. I guess design sort of splits the difference.



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