Interview with Bob Aufuldish, Design Director of Sputnik Design Studio

Liz Tran, Bob Aufuldish, Nathanael Cho, and Deborah Lao

Sputnik is CCA's in-house, award-winning undergraduate design studio. Sputnik is a unique model that simulates (and in many ways certainly is) a typical professional client/agency relationship, where the client is a CCA staff member with a project, and the agency is Sputnik. Graphic Design faculty member Bob Aufuldish has been the faculty advisor for Sputnik since its inception in 1995.

Aufuldish has taught at CCA since 1991. In 1990 he cofounded the graphic design studio Aufuldish & Warinner. He has designed diverse projects for such clients as Adobe, Advent Software, the American Institute of Architects, the Center for Creative Photography, the Denver Art Museum, Emigre, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 1995 he launched the digital type foundry fontBoy to manufacture and distribute his fonts.

Here he talks to Nathanael Cho, Deborah Lao, and Liz Tran, all current Sputnik students, about the Sputnik experience. The interview was part of an exhibition-making advanced studio course led by Jon Sueda, in which the three were enrolled in spring 2012.

How did the idea for CCA's student-staffed, in-house design studio come about?

In 1995, the CCA board committee overseeing publicity was reviewing all the stuff the college was publishing. The chair of that committee was a former advertising agency person, and he said, "This stuff is terrible. We need to do something about this." At the time, the college didn't have the resources to hire people to design everything and manage all the projects that needed to go out.

David Meckel (now CCA's director of research and planning) knew I had gone to a school that had an in-house graphic design studio staffed by students. I told him what that program was like, and we decided to start something like it here. In the beginning, it was myself working with CCA vice president for communications Chris Bliss and two students, Eric Heiman and Nadine Stellavato. We didn't do a lot of work -- just a few projects here and there. This is because people were a bit skeptical about a group of students being able to pull off important projects. My attitude always was: All you need to do is point students in the right direction, and they'll do great work. I was right!

How did Sputnik eventually establish itself?

As with any new studio, it took time to build Sputnik's reputation and relationships with all the programs and departments around the college. Now we're definitely part of the institution.

Where did the Sputnik name come from?

The initial idea was for a "satellite" studio, so I started thinking of satellites as possible names. "Sputnik" seemed like a fun name at the time. When we first started, the college was called CCAC, and the Soviet Union was the CCCP when it launched Sputnik, so there was a goofy correlation. For a while we had this running gag of space themes in all the work. There is a famous postcard by Jon Sueda for an exhibition of Sputnik work called Live Long and Prosper that used a photograph of a Mr. Spock action figure. Eventually, the space gag died off.

Does Sputnik have a specific design philosophy?

I've always tried not to impose my own design philosophy on Sputnik, and simply give guidance. Sputnik is not an extension of my design firm; the students are not working for me. My job is to help them generate the thing that they are trying to make, in the best way possible, while fulfilling the requirements of the project. So, when the student is done, he or she can have ownership over the work rather than me saying, "This was my project and these people 'assisted' me." I'm not interested in that at all. The idea that it is the students' work has always been the underlying philosophy of Sputnik. To me this is why all the projects continue to be so compelling over the years. You can look through them over time and see that they each have a unique voice. That voice is not my voice; it's the voices of all the designers who passed through here.

The Sputnik philosophy is pretty different from other schools that have programs like it. Elsewhere, students are generally working as assistants to faculty or staff. When I explain Sputnik to people, they think we're nuts! But how nuts can we be? It's worked for more than 15 years.

Wat kind of restrictions does Sputnik run into?

Primarily financial limitations. I could let that bother me, but I don't. Limitations and parameters are part of being a designer, and I think that a lot of the time, the work our students do is more interesting because of those limitations. Sometimes, in our profession, the primary interest of a piece is directly related to its production values. For example, it's cool because it's oversize, or because it's on incredible paper, or because it uses all these inks. I think our work is cool because it's brilliant. It doesn't matter what it's printed on, or what have you. It's just smart, interesting, and rolled out in a big way.

How is it different working with student designers versus professional designers?

The difficulties generally are the kinds of things you run into with anyone who hasn't had a lot of experience. Maybe work habits aren't quite in place yet, and the student thinks they can let things go and pull an all-nighter to catch up. That just doesn't work. But the only way to figure it out is to make the mistake and learn from it. You can get all kinds of advice, but until you experience something for yourself, it's not going to be true to you.

What compels you to stay with Sputnik?

This is a blast. I mean, how much motivation do I need? Teaching is fun.

Are there any consistent threads that run through the Sputnik work over the years?

We like to get students out of their comfort zones. Sometimes you can see that a student is a very interesting and capable designer, but once they find out there's going to be a print run of 20,000 of whatever they are working on, they kind of freeze up and feel like, "This is a REAL job so therefore I have to design this to look like 'real' design." And that's actually the opposite of what we want. We actually want them to make whatever interesting, crazy stuff they're thinking about.

Every group has a different personality, but I disagree with the idea that today's students are somehow fundamentally different because they are Gen-Y "techie" people. Today's students are still young people trying to figure things out. People who work hard and are smart will make good work. That has not changed. I don't think there have been any huge differences from year to year . . . ha, except that everyone seems a lot younger to me now.