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Intro to Design: A Conversation with Rod Vera

October 23, 2019 • History Factory

History Factory is proud to welcome our new director of design, Rod Vera. An industry veteran, Rod has worked around the globe on some very high-profile and exciting projects, including the Singapore Zoo and the International Spy Museum here in Washington, D.C.

History Factory’s Sam Grabel sat down with Rod to discuss his past and the future of design.

Sam Grabel: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you develop your passion for design?

Rod Vera: At a young age, I always knew I had an artistic talent. I could draw easily and was very visual, but I focused more on sports and other teenager things. I grew up wanting to be a doctor like my father. I was pretty determined to accomplish that.

But when I got to college, I realized quickly that wasn’t right for me. All it took was a computer art class, followed by a drawing class and great professors, to completely change my trajectory.

Once I realized that that’s really what I wanted to do, I transferred to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Their tagline was “for people that were serious about their talent,” and that kind of drew me in.

I didn’t become a doctor, but I’ll say that the connection between art and science is what drew me into design. There’s a very strong connection—the powers of observation. Just like science is everywhere, design is everywhere. I don’t think a lot of people understand that even the natural world is designed. There’s always a function behind everything, and everything has a purpose, and the form follows the function.

So when you’re studying design, that’s what you learn right away. The most rudimentary reference is the natural world. I love it.

Sam: So along with the natural world, what are your other sources of inspiration?

Rod: My main source of inspiration is actually fine art. It’s more the thinking behind fine art, which in many ways is a reflection of art in the natural world, as well. After all, art is just a representation of life.

Design is different than fine art. Design has a function. It has an immediate purpose. One of the things I like about it—and one of my theories—is that once design’s function is no longer necessary, it becomes art. Like an old cruise poster from the 1930s becomes art after they’re no longer selling that cruise. There’s something beautiful about that. And partly it becomes art because it’s historic as well—a moment in time when people promoted things in a certain way. I find that very interesting.

Sam: How much of your approach to design is an attempt to memorialize a moment in time?

Rod: Well, I think it’s nostalgia. A lot of things are timeless. Even though they’ve happened in the past, it doesn’t mean they’re not relevant now.

For anniversaries, a lot of the times it is capturing that moment where there was a major push forward, or a major milestone, or discovery of some kind. I did work for NASA, and I think the view looking back at the Earth was what really was the most important takeaway from the Apollo missions for NASA. It was about discovering the Earth through the lens of the moon and looking at it in a different way.

When we were developing that anniversary campaign, that was a big topic of conversation, really, and for the astronauts in that mission, it was more of a sentimental thing. It was very emotional and less about technology.

And I do think there is emotion in the corporate world. There’s a lot of corporations that are doing amazing things and pushing the world forward or the universe forward in many ways. They have a strong sense of social responsibility and they’re trying to create products that help people. I think we should pay homage to those moments.

I love history, I love science, I love art, and I think those are the three things that are kind of all working together for celebrating an anniversary.

Sam: What role does storytelling have in design?

Rod: Storytelling is really about making sure you leave right lasting impression. Storytelling is extremely important because people remember stories better than information. And let’s face it, the most important thing about design is whether you remember it at all, because there are so many competing messages in the marketplace that sometimes it’s hard to remember which company had this one ad, or this experience. It’s about remembering it clearly and remembering what it represented and why.

At the core of a good story is the “why?” Why it happened, or why they’re telling the story in a certain way.

Sam: What do you view as key criteria for effective design?

Rod: It has to be interesting to people who don’t know anything about it. Making sure that it appeals to mass audiences and it can be appreciated by anyone—that’s really important.

There’s a beauty to it. The word beauty is not just aesthetics. It’s the beauty of how everything’s put together, how it’s all packaged. A lot of people just think about a beautiful face or a beautiful flower. That’s not what it’s about. It needs to be fused together with the utmost simplicity, to the point.

I think Leonardo da Vinci said it perfectly: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” However, design is not the abundance of simplicity; it’s the absence of complexity. You don’t design to be simple—you just make sure it’s not complicated.

Sam: You’ve had quite a career—from D.C. to Singapore. How have those varied experiences influenced the way that you approach your work?

Rod: I think the biggest thing is understanding an audience: who your audience is, what they respond to, what they care about, what’s interesting to them.

I think doing a lot of work overseas—and even doing work at the same time in the United States—made me realize the differences between the audiences and helped me to understand and research audiences.

For example, it’s not just about demographics. It’s attitude, interest levels, type of people, whether they’re early adopters or skeptics. You have to really dig in to audiences.

If you’re working with institutions, you’re dealing with academics, curators or historians, PhDs, etc., They’re experts, they’re gurus, they are mavens. They look at things through a very different lens compared to the corporate world. Corporate people are really savvy with sales and marketing, and they’re communication experts.

I think probably even more important than that, though, is visualizing design intent. You need to show very smart, impactful, efficient presentations. So, I think working in Asia trained me and my teams to make sure that we visualize our work in presentations that unfold in a very easy-to-absorb manner.

I also picked up a keen understanding of architectural terms. Understanding how spaces work, what buildings need—just understanding the basics of a building and how you have to check for exhibit-ready elements if you’re doing an instillation.

As a multidisciplinary designer, I’ve worked with industrial designers, architects, lighting designers, UX/UI and software developers, graphic designers, content developers. I’ve just worked with the whole gamut of creative people. I’ve dealt with humongous projects and dealt with very large teams. I’ve also dealt with small teams. I would say it’s the range of my experience that’s helped me handle challenging project situations.

Sam: Do you have a favorite client that you’ve worked with in the past?

Rod: My favorite project has to be the International Spy Museum. It is definitely the highest-profile project I’ve worked on, the most massive, the most difficult—and I really like working with their staff. I’m very close with them, and I basically ran the project, so I was their go-to guy for almost everything.  It was very challenging. I also had a strong team behind me that worked very hard until the finish line.

We designed offices for the Twitter Asia Pacific office in Singapore. We got to work with the interior design agency that was fitting out their office and integrating some experiential elements within their scope. The space was themed around the Larry the Bird theme, which was a big departure from the kind of work we were doing in Singapore—ropes and bird nests and things like that. We were asked to come in and create environmental graphics to really spice up the office and create inspiration and motivation and appreciation for working at Twitter. That was really cool.

Sam: What are some of the takeaways from your most challenging projects?

Rod: I think the hardest part about the Spy Museum is that our clients were all very, very smart, and they all knew their stuff very well, but they didn’t all see things the same way. A lot of opinions and points of view created a lot of heated debate. We had people that were in military intelligence—actual spies—that were essentially spy historians at heart. One of the historians was on the 9/11 Commission. The education staff knew their museum and their visitors extremely well. In many ways, they probably had the best perspective since they were closest to their audience, because they’ve been watching visitors walk through their spaces for the last 17 years in the first museum.

Big takeaway for me: Learn a lot about your client’s background and listen carefully to your clients and try to figure out what they actually need and not what they want.

Sam: Where will design and exhibit design be in 10 to 20 years?

Rod: I think it’s going to come back to tangible items, and I think it’s already happening in other industries, like print. People are printing more now, because they’re starting to realize that screens are really cool, but they hurt your eyes and they’re not necessarily healthy. I actually think people are actually going to get away from screens eventually and want to come back to more nondigital things.

At the same time, people are going to start moving into more of the theme park approach to exhibitry. Imagine a theme park that’s very entertainment-based, very exciting, but lots of layers of education and engagement. I think that’s where exhibits are going. Kind of a “be entertained while you learn” approach is what people really want.

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