Aaron Joseph is the founder of web and graphic design agency Identafire, which specializes in graphic, web, and print design. Identafire and bombilla have co-created brilliant web and design projects, including RUNWAY and PL+US Paid Leave Presidential Scorecard.
What led you to bombilla? Tell us about your creative path.
I was really lucky to attend a high school that had really strong art and theatre programs. I was involved in stage crew and light crew for our high school productions, and eventually became the lighting director until I graduated in 1999. The few students I worked with on light crew were the only people who knew how to run the lights, so we got paid to operate the lighting console for assemblies or when the district rented out the theatre! That was pretty cool.
I also loved to collect all kinds of weird shit I’d find on the street with the intention of making art with it. Maybe 10% of that stuff actually made it into some kind of art piece. My art teacher saw that I really came alive when I made all this weird stuff, and allowed me to work as an AP student in art class. I got to self-direct my artmaking. I won the school’s Artistic Achievement award that year. Interestingly, most of the students I have kept in touch with that were in the theatre or art programs at that school (a public school!) are in some type of creative role today.
So I knew I wanted to pursue something creative with my life. I wasn’t clear what shape that would take and I kind of half-assed my way through GE classes at SF State for a couple years until I eventually dropped out because I just didn’t know what I was doing there. I did take some art classes there and I loved those. Eventually I decided to go to art school. I went to The School Art Institute of Chicago where I studied fiber art and printmaking. I like to say I got a degree in crocheting and screen printing, which is basically true as those were my main mediums. But I did also take some really rigorous art history classes, a green economics class, and a really interesting and INCREDIBLY rigorous class on mixed race identity. I did not take any viscom classes while I was there. I thought I’d be a studio artist, and that’s something that I would love to get back into, but I didn’t feel I could support myself that way right out of college, and I guess I’m not cut out to be a starving artist (and artists should be valued and paid well, but that’s a different conversation).
So I knew I wanted to pursue something creative with my life
I waited tables and made espresso for a number of years while taking some basic design classes at Berkeley City College. My first design job was as a Web Designer, back when there were just “Web Designers” and not UX Designers and UI Designers. If you were a good, productive designer, they rewarded you by putting a phone on your desk and making you take distracting web support calls for the sites we designed. Eventually our department basically shuttered and we all got laid off.
After waiting some more tables, I got a job as an Ad Designer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. This was my first experience working on a design team and I LOVED it. I loved the people, I loved the local, feisty, scrappy, independent journalism bent on the work. I loved seeing our work get published every week and distributed to thousands of people in the community. Then the paper got sold and I got laid off.
Later, I got hired at the same company that bought the SFBG, but working on The SF Examiner. Later, I became Production Manager at the SF Weekly, and finally, Creative Director of the SF Media Company that published all those papers. Then I watched as they closed the SFBG and the work environment became incredibly toxic. My former colleagues were now my direct reports. I had been freelancing on the side. I decided to strike out on my own, and here we are!
What do you think makes you or someone a good designer?
Humility, empathy, and seeking out the experts. Admittedly, I do most of my work alone, but I know my best work is done when I try to take my ego out of it (which is hard for someone who fancies themself an artist as well as a designer) and design from a place of being of service; finding the best solution for the client and end users. I think you have to let go of the reigns sometimes. Something you never thought of will usually arise as the solution when working with others, and you would never get there if you just continued working with blinders on, head down at your computer and not coming up for air or asking for the input, insight, and expertise of others.
I know my best work is done when I try to take my ego out of it... and design from a place of being of service; finding the best solution for the client and end users.
What makes bombilla stand out from other creative workplaces?
They are open to partnering with my company, Identafire, and give me autonomy when I partner with them. They really value finding the perfect fit for a project, even if it’s not them. I know our two companies are aligned on values of social justice, combating anti-Black racism and racism in general, working with and uplifting designers of color, queer designers, valuing our work appropriately, valuing our collaborators appropriately (and showing it!), and acknowledging the challenges and limitations that we all experience as human beings (as opposed to creating a toxic workplace where being stressed out and working while you’re sick and being afraid of your bosses and extreme hierarchies are the norm). Also, for a virtual agency, there’s a pretty good sense of belonging to a community similar to what I experienced working on design teams in an in-person setting.
I know our two companies are aligned on values of social justice, combating anti-Black racism and racism in general, working with and uplifting designers of color, queer designers, valuing our work appropriately, valuing our collaborators appropriately (and showing it!), and acknowledging the challenges and limitations that we all experience as human beings
Why do you think an organization should choose bombilla for its branding and design needs?
I recently worked on a branding project for RUNWAY with Bombilla. The level of service and expertise, the facilitation of a well-thought-out process for getting to the essence of the organization, the inclusion of stakeholders, the space to create and try something new as a designer, and Ivi’s deep understanding of all the moving pieces and essential components and highs and lows and potential pitfalls really blew me away.
What show do you recommend we binge this weekend?
What has the global pandemic taught you?
That community is so important. And that the U.S. has more problems than I could have imagined. Wear a damn mask, people! I also learned how to bake sourdough bread (focaccia is my specialty) and chocolate cake from scratch.
What advice would you give to someone that’s starting a career in the creative field?
Say yes to new opportunities. Learn everything you can in every role. Be humble. Be humble. Be humble. No one likes an egomaniacal designer, even if they’re talented. Don’t let your work be used for evil if you can help it. Have fun! Always keep learning (it staves off burnout). Schedule time off for yourself! Stop doing work for free.
Be humble. Be humble. Be humble.
Shoutout to our 2020 fall intern Yandia Miñana Pérez for conducting the interview!