In 2014, he teamed up with fellow Pentagram designer Hamish Smyth to found publisher Standards Manual. The side project began as a Kickstarter campaign to republish classic graphic design manuals, such as the Nasa Graphics Standards Manual and the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual. It has been a huge hit within the design community and currently lists nine titles on its website.
Then in 2016-17, Jesse and Hamish decided to leave Pentagram and founded their own design agency, Order. Specializing in brand identity, publishing, signage and wayfinding design, their approach is research-based, systematic and practical, as their tagline “It’s all in order” sums it up.
We chatted with Jesse about their love of grids and structure, working with Kickstarter, and adapting to the post-lockdown world.
How did you found the Order?
There was a time in Atlanta, Georgia where Hamish and I were talking at a conference. We were having breakfast and Hamish said, “You know, I’m thinking of quitting Pentagram, maybe in a year.” And then, a few minutes later, it went to six months. And then, a few minutes later, it turned into three months. So this idea quickly spread.
I said, ‘Well, I’ve been here for five years. So the time when I could leave will probably come soon too. We were already working together on the publishing company’s standards manual, and it was going really well and taking up so much of our free time. So we quickly decided to launch our own design firm.
After breakfast we took a very long walk and did a Google domain search. We found a name, Order, purchased the domain, registered email accounts and within five hours we had a plan.
So how did you come up with the name?
We tried to think about how we describe our approach to design. We are big fans of Massimo Vignelli if it’s not obvious. And he has a very good quote: “If you can design one thing, you can design anything.” So we initially thought of the name ‘Anything’, because we wanted to not only design identities but also books and signage; we didn’t want to be isolated to one thing.
Then we thought of “Everything”. For example, anything you need, we can design it. But then reality hit us, that we couldn’t design a chair, a computer, or a car. So somehow it snowballed, “Well, how do we approach design? “We organize and put everything in order. So we first found this line: “Everything is in order”, and then we just shortened it to Order. And it made so much sense because that’s how we like to organize things: we like grids and structure a lot.
Was it hard to leave Pentagram, given its huge place in the design world?
Absolutely yes. Hamish and I started Standards Manual in 2014, but neither of us wanted to leave Pentagram: it was our dream job. We would have liked to work for Michael [Bierut], he’s the most amazing boss. But after five or six years of being there, you learn so much. At that time, we were both associated partners, so we carried out our own projects, more or less independently.
Michael was still very involved, but he gave us a lot of freedom where we didn’t even have to run things through him or get his approval; you just made the decisions. So I was like, ‘Wow, I feel like I could do this almost on my own’; it gives you confidence.
Hamish left after the new Mastercard brand launched in 2016, and I stayed another six months as it would have been detrimental to Michael’s team if we both left at the same time. We didn’t want to put him or the team in a bad position.
When I told Michael I was leaving, he said, ‘I knew it. I just thought maybe you’d wait another year. So what are you going to do?’ I said, “Well, Hamish and I are going to start something.” He said ‘Yeah, that makes sense’ and then he gave me a hug. And was it good.
One of Order’s first projects was to rebrand Kickstarter. That must have seemed special to you?
Yeah, that was wild. Obviously, we had been creators on Kickstarter, which is how we started Standard Manual, and Hamish’s current wife, Alex Daly, has worked closely with Kickstarter and other creators. And so, somehow, someone at Kickstarter knew that we had launched Order.
They initially called on us for a brand architecture project. And then we suggested that they go a little further and rethink the identity. It wasn’t really a start. It was really an evolution. Because of the standards manual and the books, we had become known as the “guideline people”. In truth, we’re no more expert than most graphic designers who deal with guidelines on a daily basis: we happen to publish books about them. But we will take it!
I think the pandemic has made everyone realize that you don’t have to be physically in the same place. We’ve done so much great work for clients we’ve never met in person.
What are the different things that you and Hamish each bring to the table?
So the reason Hamish isn’t joining me for the interview is because last year we launched a third company called Standards – not to be confused with Standards Manual – a guidelines tool based on the website. So Hamish is basically 100% focused on developing that, and I’m now 100% focused on The Order.
As for our strengths, Hamish is very good at high level and strategic thinking – being a very good CEO – although I like the company just as much. At the same time, I’m still an astute designer at heart.
I love giving presentations and going into detail. I think I have the strength to foster the creative energy of a team and to work on my own projects. I’m very interested in things like kerning, color comparisons, and all that cheesy detail.
Of course, that’s not to say it’s not going well for Hamish or vice versa. But that is where our personal strengths lie.
Since the pandemic, everyone is moving towards a more hybrid work model. Which do you prefer: working remotely or in person?
I think it depends on who you ask. Our design director, Garrett [Corcoran], he’s been with us for almost four years now and loves the office environment. I think he wants everyone to be there all the time. Other people, I think, really enjoy the atmosphere at home. And personally, I like it between the two.
I love working from home: it’s my place of concentration and attention. In fact, I am very easily distracted by other people and other things going on. So even before the pandemic, when I was working from home, I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve done so much.” But just yesterday, we all went to the office because we have a new intern starting Monday, and she just wanted to come say hi. And to be honest, it was great. We were all working and very focused, and it was nice to be around people. So I like the flexibility to do both, whenever you choose to do so.
Does where you are based still matter? Does it help to be on the doorstep of these big companies? Moving in the same networking circles?
I do not think so. We had no problem gaining jobs due to the location. I think the pandemic has made everyone realize that you don’t have to be physically in the same place. We’ve done so much great work for clients we’ve never met in person. It was nice to see some customers in person, so it’s not one-sided, but I don’t think it’s absolutely essential.
After five years, what do you think of Order today?
I don’t want to sugarcoat or say that there are no problems. But yesterday in particular, when we were all in the studio and everyone was working together, I had this moment: “This is awesome!”
The team is so strong. We do such a good job. We have so many great customers right now, and a lot of fun things are happening. We just launched a character foundry in December, and we’ll be launching more new features in a few weeks. So I still have a lot of creative energy and enthusiasm for graphic design that I haven’t lost yet, luckily.