Method & Craft: Interview With JR Crosby
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
Let’s start off getting to know you. Who are you, where are you from, and how did you get your start in design?
JR Crosby | designer, maker, American and I’m from the sticks.
As is the case for many, my passion for design (esp ‘making’) was born from sheer creative curiosity and a desire to craft tangible solutions to problems… that, and a waning interest in architecture. Although I designed for money throughout college in Iowa, my survival first depended upon it as a freelancer in Chicaaago.
I moved from Chicago to Austin to help build the marketing department for an education company. Next, I made the shift from in-house creative to agency-life as designer & art director for Austin-based Föda Studio. Then I moved back in-house to head up a small creative department at a young Connecticut-based company who was reinventing granola, of all things. When that company was acquired, art director Annie Mayfield and I opened up shop as Ptarmak. Incredibly, a guy named Greg Fleishman, then lead executive at Kashi, Co., let us pitch for some business. He gave us our start.
Was it a desire of yours from the start to find and run your own studio?
Yes and no, not exactly. As a youngster, I often dreamt of owning my own shop ‘one day.’ I talked about doing it. I came up with names and logos. But my plans had no plan whatsoever. I daydreamed in escape from any real opportunity. I ‘paid my dues’ to avoid risk. Like most twentysomething creatives, I was chock full of naiveté and wanderlust – driven by boundless energy to ferret out ‘corporate’ injustices, and passionate about my own theories (i.e. oversimplifications) on cures for the common client.
Looking back, I realize those dreams were simply my own misappropriated desire for creative freedom. Owning and operating a business didn’t interest me until I understood what it meant. Specifically, not until I saw the opportunity (or need) for a unique business structure… An operating model adapted to the specific needs of small and mid-sized creative shops. The idea seemed like a suitable experiment. Enter » the corporate collaborative… and the birth of what we affectionately refer to as Ptarmak, Uncorporated.
How has that experience differed from working in-house and agency-side?
This question calls for our good friends, “image” and “analogy”. They always make complex answers seem succinct and insightful…
Owning your own business is like untangling, inspecting and hanging Christmas lights.
In-house management is like playing house as a kid: It’s good, clean fun – part fantasy and part reality. It’s potentially constructive but often constrictive, and there’s usually more role playing than homemaking.
Agency work is like life as a teenager: A typically dramatic and confusing time, underlined by a silly and somewhat futile fight to be understood and validated… dotted with good times and bad decisions. Still, I’m not sure I’d change a thing.
Can you elaborate more on the term “corporate collaborative”?
I’m frequently asked whether Ptarmak is a corporation or a collaborative. The curt answer is yes. Both/and.
PTMK is a ‘corporate collaborative’… a term we tend to define as an incorporated group of innerpreneurs, united toward the common good. The basic concept is combining the best of corporate and collective business models and philosophies. The argument is that by applying the proper filter here you better accommodate the unique requirements of small to mid-size creative shops… assuming you can pull it off. So that’s what we’ve tried to do. The concept is basic. Pulling it off is not.
The most complex aspects of our structure are a lateral architecture and an orbital operating philosophy. Our most defining characteristic is a relentless orientation to the ‘group’. Our model is founded on the simple notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not a maverick concept when it comes to managing people. But what’s novel are the unique considerations and requirements for managing creative people.
As a founding member of Ptarmak, how do you keep up with the responsibilities of running a creative team and ensure the integrity of your work?
Creatives (and I am one of them) tend to be; anti-authoritarian, supra-sensitive, opinionated, proud (and over-protective) of their discoveries, quirky, self-imposed insomniacs, observation junkies, caffeine addicts, frustrated musicians, etc. We are usually walking contradictions; detail-oriented folks who completely lack an attention span – and slaves to a routine we’re emphatic about breaking.
Running any creative team requires management of all THAT. And management of THAT requires a creativity of its own. It’s much more than drafting policies, trolling for opportunities, setting business goals and evaluating efficiency. In this context, ‘managing’ is just business speak for focusing, empowering, refocusing and defending. The crux, as I see it, is relationship management. After all, we’re service providers. Our product isn’t our pretty work so much as the process, the relationship, the experience, and the results. Internal culture isn’t much different.
Providing an environment for creative people to work is one thing, but an environment that works to provide for creative people is altogether different. I can say from experience that one prerequisite to success in a culture like ours is full subscription and accountability from the entire team – survival is next to impossible without it.
Again, it’s not a new concept – but it is a difficult one to execute. We knew going in it wasn’t going to be easy or efficient. It was, and remains, our belief that when it comes to creatives; easy makes it worse, difficult is more rewarding, ‘efficiencies’ cater mostly to the short term, ‘authority’ is the enemy and mutual accountability is the answer.
To me, ‘integrity of work’ implies two things; a consistent quality and an ethical standard. We’ve learned that applying those values as requirements for the relationships we enter into (clients and co-workers) does a lot to maintain the integrity of our work.
That said, here are 8 things that help set the stage for a consistent quality of work: (note: this list applies more to teams of designers vs. freelancers or artists)
1. Obviously, you need a standard of intent. Are you aiming for ‘great’ design or successful design? Work only with folks who share that viewpoint. “Both” is not a viable option as an approach.
2. Surround yourself with good people who view design as a lifestyle (vs. a career).
3. Develop a kit of briefing tools that (actually) yield valuable context and direction, and (actually) evaluate your work against it.
4. Select the right clients. You need a standard and you need to stick to it. It’s ok to say no on principle OR gut… but do so graciously.
5. Establish and defend a culture of trust and validation – it’s paramount for productive internal critiques and a collaborative process with your clients.
6. Stay teachable & be receptive. The idea is more important than the ideator. Ideas should be group property and everyone is qualified to contribute.
7. Decide which hill(s) you’re willing to die on. If you wait to consider this until the heat of a disagreement with the client, you’ll either fold or risk a rash decision. It’s obviously a good idea if your client knows where your flexibility stops before you begin.
8. Don’t show work that lacks integrity. And quit taking yourself so seriously.
What are your favorite aspects of the design process?
Gulp. That’s like picking your favorite child, isn’t it?
I don’t know where I’m headed here – but I’ll start by stating the thing I love most about the act of designing. I’m all about the exaltation and humiliation of discovery. It’s a spiritual experience for me.
In the design process, I’ve found two things that really fertilize discovery; observation and intuition. Observation is great. It’s always honest and informative. But my favorite aspect of the process is the role of intuition. Sometimes it’s the lock. Sometimes it’s the ignition. Usually, it’s the key.
The interesting thing about intuition is that, when properly filtered, it makes our discoveries hauntingly familiar, in a very personal way. It’s a key informer to the process but it biases our solutions as designers. It exists prior to creation, and still it offers the highest creative reward. Fulfillment. A taste of creative freedom. I think that’s beautiful.
However, it’s as important to challenge intuition as it is to give it air. If intuition is misappropriated for selfish gain or overindulged for personal expression it becomes a trapdoor to the process. Intuition can be a tyrant. But I’m not sure there’s a creative force that’s more critical to design.
Ok, I just have to add… I also love those epiphanic moments when some incredible idea (finally) leaps forth from somewhere deep in our right lobes. It’s the idea all other ideas were suffocating and it comes floating on a stream of serotonin. You know… the idea.
“YEHSSS!’, we shout, triumphantly… ‘dude, that’s IT!” Frantically, we look around for someone to share the moment with. We drop our pencils or Wacom™ pens – maybe take a victory lap around the studio. We’re so excited to make it real… to give it life! Those innocent seconds are the greatest of our careers. If we’re lucky, we have a few of them throughout the course of each project. I try to relish in them. They’re usually followed by two panic strickening realizations that mean hard labor. What if it’s been done before? What if they don’t go for it? That’s when the really good work begins.
Are there any areas you’re interested in improving your skill-set, or learning more about?
Honestly, I want to improve in every aspect. More honestly, I need to.
But not to skirt the question… I spend an embarrassing amount of time trying to improve in the area of improving. It’s self-defeating, really. At PTMK, we recently added a motion graphics wing. I’m learning a lot there. At home, my wife and I recently added a baby boy… she did an amazing job designing the nursery, now I get to do his bedroom. I’m also building a workshop in my garage. Those are all creative outlets I love because they’re a good combination of the strange and the familiar. I’m a firm believer in working with your hands. The value of creating something tangible can’t be overstated.
Other than that, I’ve always wanted to learn how to work a ranch, hold my horses, tie knots, call home, speed read, cure cancer, and answer questions.
Describe your work day (hours & rituals you keep) and your work environment (how your workstation is set up & what your office is like).
With the exception of a few offices, our studio is generally an open space with series of workspaces partitioned by parallam bookshelves. There’s a two foot tall strip of amazing cork flooring that runs along two walls. It surrounds the workstations with thousands of pieces of inspirational ephemera and stuff we’ve designed. Oh, and there’s an entire wall is made of rock salt. The finish out was more of an experiment than anything. We wanted to see what would happen if you combined an Icelandic airport with Savannah, GA.
One of the things I’m most proud of at PTMK, is our flexible scheduling. Everyone has the freedom to set their own schedule – to work when they’re most creative, to recharge when they aren’t. This is something I believe in to my core. As long as great work’s getting done on time, I don’t know why you do it any other way.
I’m a morning person. Some nights, I’m in bed by 9. I tend to keep the following schedule:
M: 9:30am – 6:30pm T-Th: 5am – 3pm, and again from 5 – 6pm F: 4:30am – 2:30pm Sat: 6 – 10am; 4 – 5pm Sun: 7 – 8am; 4 – 6pm
Early Mornings: no question, this is about uninterrupted ‘me’ time. Usually, I spend these hours reading and listening to TEDtalks, writing the more difficult emails, sketching and trying to capture the wilder ideas.
Mid-Mornings are for checking up on projects, ideating, and clarifying next steps with clients.
Midday is for researching, designing and listening to audio books.
I spend afternoons reviewing creative and working with my hands. My brain is fried by this point.
I try my best to be in a position to cut out early on Friday.
Saturday’s time is for reviewing the week, troubleshooting issues and process, researching and gathering inspiration.
Who wouldn’t like to sleep-in a bit on Monday? I use Sunday’s time to set that up by planning for the week ahead.
I feel like I’m always on vacation.
Show us an image of the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this week.
JR, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for taking time out to talk with us!
I’m curious, which one wins in a thumbwrestling match, method or craft?
This content was originally published in Method & Craft.