About midway through our intake questionnaire, we ask prospective clients to describe what animal best represents their organization’s personality. It’s a question that invites and reliably elicits entertainingly unexpected, thoughtful responses. Still, it’s a special day when someone describes themselves as a war-paint-wearing, battle-scarred “female centaur holding a spear.”
Go on, I’m listening.
The unapologetically badass centaur in question is Girls Garage (formerly Camp H), a unique camp and after-school program for girls ages 9–13 based in Berkeley that seeks to cultivate confidence and agency through a design- and building-centric curriculum. They’d recently acquired a new space and name, and—with unalloyed enthusiasm and drive behind them—were ready to grow into it all without losing sight of their original mission.
Our case study on Girls Garage covers much of the collective process that led to their eventual identity, which I won’t retread here. I would instead like to discuss the messy work of the heart and mind that swirls invisibly beneath the deceptive grace of finished work, and of the deeper things you learn about yourself and how to go about doing what you do. The ensuing account is necessarily limited, both temporally and in scale, to my contributions to the enterprise. To borrow a common caveat: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author.
I wish I could say that reading our questionnaire filled me with nothing but the selfsame unadulterated enthusiasm that suffuses Girls Garage’s work. There was no shortage of excitement on my part, to be sure—how could anyone not perk up at such a signally spectacular answer?—but a not insignificant germ of apprehension seeped in almost as quickly: Shit, what do I know about designing for a girls’ building and design camp?
This doubt I knew was a function of a broader anxiety, that of feeling like a pretender whose disingenuity is perennially on the verge of being found out. Imposter syndrome is, I later found out, surprisingly common, though having not come to design by way of formal channels certainly didn’t help. That said, prizing action over deliberation has its occasional advantages, and in the end I didn’t answer the question so much as ignore it. Really, though, I’d opted to “fake” it until I “made” it.
At any rate, what was much more concretely helpful was a lengthy call with the incorrigibly upbeat Emily Pilloton and Christina Jenkins, Girls Garage’s founder and program director, respectively. Listening to them describe their mission reaffirmed and redoubled my initial excitement, adding passion to mere interest.
The back-and-forths and initial sketching of ideas that followed were not without their own internal challenges, chief among them the creation of custom type, which I’d not done before but knew would help Girls Garage distinguish itself.
Type design was—and I would say still is—a glaring hole in my skillset, one whose absence felt all the more conspicuous at a studio known for its work with it. The discipline’s relative arcaneness and uninhibited disdain for subpar work certainly made the task appear more daunting, though perhaps less so than the fact that I had never fully grasped and appreciated the made-ness of all letterforms. That is, the “ordinary” text that surrounds us, of the sort we absentmindedly write, encounter, and use daily, appear altogether ontologically different from their more spectacular and self-evidently made peers. Their very ubiquity imparts the appearance of naturalness, and therewith the untouchable mystery of irreducible things that just are.
And yet they, too, are ultimately artifices; made of shapes, malleable within the permissive bounds of custom, and subject to universal principles of visual design. Those who regularly alter them to address practical problems—and distinguishing a girls’ design and building camp surely falls into that category—are unburdened by any abstract considerations of the nature of type. It follows that the aforementioned tension doesn’t have to be answered because it’s demonstrably unnecessary. Perhaps there’s really no question to answer in the first place.
Besides, the practical problems have deadlines attached, and seemingly lofty challenges of representation dissolve in surprisingly straightforward resolutions. You and the client work out what they’d like to say, and you help them say it by drawing from a well of personal and accumulated knowledge and reconfiguring what you find in unexpected ways. It helps immensely to be able to chat about it with someone vastly more experienced and skilled along the way [points to Will].
So for Girls Garage, it went something like this:
Start from Wim Crouwel’s work because those corner joints and tight construction reflected the structure and made-ness they wanted to communicate, and the underlying grid still allows you to add some funky crossbars to give things a bit more character. But that turned out to look too digital, so you revisit things and look to stenciled type for its industrial connotations. Maybe those corners can make a comeback in some way that still makes sense, and after a couple of tries they do.
None of those more remote problems appear once pencil hits paper, and you emerge better prepared for the next challenge.
Appropriately enough, acquiring confidence through doing is essential to Girls Garage’s M.O., and I got a chance to see it at work when I flew out to Berkley for our portrait shoot (for which we owe many thanks to the wonderful Gizelle Hernandez). Seeing the fearless builder girls learn to construct bookcases—happily and intently as the young do, with the occasional reminder that safety glasses must be worn around the miter saw—was a powerful reminder of the necessity of suspending doubt in order to learn, whether the medium is wood or metal or type. It’s not about “faking” it until “making” it, but fearing less, building more.