The first thing you’ll notice walking into the new offices of designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth is the collection of coveted graphic design books—in pristine condition and facing cover-out—for sale in the front showroom. Behind that, floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors lead into a room where two long desks and four computer monitors face each other. To the sides, black stools tuck neatly between sets of drawers and underneath sparsely populated white shelves. It’s an aesthetic and mode of operation most accurately summed up in the new design office’s name: Order.
“We think order is good design,” says Reed as the three of us sit around a large white table toward the back of the open studio (disclosure: I know Smyth and Reed personally). “Categorizing and hierarchy and all of those things that make up systems design—our philosophy of design is that everything is related.”
That design philosophy is also reflected in the pair’s interest in vintage graphics standards manuals from the heyday of corporate systems design—a hobby they’ve managed to turn into a thriving multimillion dollar business. Since finding an old standards manual for the New York City Transit Authority in the basement of Pentagram in 2012, where they worked at the time, the pair has made more than $1.9 million reissuing old manuals and launching them on Kickstarter. Now, they’re leveraging their online success to open their own design office, with a brick-and-mortar bookstore to boot.
Reed, 29, and Smyth, 30, opened Order after five years of working at Pentagram. There, they worked under Michael Bierut, one of the most famous corporate branding designers working today, and a mentee of the modernist Massimo Vignelli, a master of systems design. (Vignelli’s ethos is summed up in his famous quote: “If you can design one thing, you can design everything.”)
Incidentally, the NYCTA manual is the work of Vignelli and Bob Noorda, and is a classic example of the archival manuals that Reed and Smyth now reproduce under the publishing company Standard Manual. Now relics of the golden age of corporate identity design, the graphics manual books once offered companies meticulous instruction on how to apply their visual identity system. For designers who revere modernist graphic design for its clarity, simplicity, and adherence to an overall cohesive system, these rare manuals are like catnip.
Smyth and Reed struck gold when they realized that certain standards manuals hold mass appeal outside of the design world. After the launch of the NYCTA reissue on Kickstarter defied all expectations—they raised seven times as much as their goal—Reed and Smyth reissued the manual for NASA’s storied “worm” logo. Between the two campaigns alone, they raised over $1.5 million. They’ve since released the 1976 manual for the Official Symbol of the American Revolution Bicentennial and the manual for the 1977 identity Environmental Protection Agency. Last month, Standards Manual struck a distribution deal with Distributed Artbook Publishers (D.A.P.), and in the next few years they’re planning to expand their title list beyond reissues and into original collections of archival material.
The founding of Order, which officially opened for business this week, was due in large part to the surprise success of the NYCTA and NASA manuals, launched in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Reed and Smyth stayed on as associate partners at Pentagram while running Standards Manual on the side, but last summer they started talking about opening their own design office. And they were in a unique position to do so: The money from Standards Manual meant that they didn’t need investors, and wouldn’t need to sink any personal money into getting started.
Though Standard Manual is funding Order as it gets off the ground, the two still operate as separate companies. Reed and Smyth estimate that about 80% percent of their workload is designing for Order’s clients, a few of which include art book publisher Phaidon; The Underline, a still-developing public park in Miami; and Maude, a “modern sex essentials company.” The other 20% of their workload is operating the publishing house. Tucked away in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, the design of their orderly office reflects their unusual business model; the office is street-level, with the storefront acting as a bookstore/showroom for a limited selection of graphic design titles. The pair hopes it will bring in passersby in the neighborhood, and want to ultimately be able to make the office a hub for the design crowd, complete with readings and events.
Right now, Order is just made up of the two partners, a designer and a project manager, and Reed and Smyth predict they will try to keep it relatively small. Their mode of operation is modeled after Pentagram: Each of the two partners brings in his own clients and completes the work individually, then they pool the profits. Even on Bierut’s team, each designer worked separately, essentially taking ownership of projects and seeing them through start to finish.
“It’s all we really know,” says Smyth, though he adds that for them the appeal is also efficiency. With a small staff, the overhead is low, and each designer can focus on his own work while maintaining consistency the company’s overall aesthetic. For now, everything is in Order.