2015 web presence for charity: water's annual gala charity: ball
I had the fine pleasure of meeting Garrett for the first time when I was interviewing with charity: water for a summer intern position. I had been keeping up with Garrett’s work online for quite a while and I can honestly say that it was the most fun interview I’ve ever been on. Since then, Garrett has become one of my favorite people on the internet (and that is no small feat) by nature of his sheer honesty, humility and humor.
Garrett DeRossett is a badass graphic designer and co-founder of Alright Studio, based in New York City. He opens up about his journey from dropping out of college, picking up random internships, catapulting himself to lead design at charity: water to now establishing Alright Studio with his partner and best friend. In this conversation, we chat about freelancing, working with your friends, mental health, movies and books, and so much more.
How would you describe your childhood and what is your earliest memory of being creative or curious?
I would say that I had a pretty typical American childhood. I grew up in the Midwest, in Missouri. My religious upbringing wasn’t rather exciting. My dad is an accountant and my mom is an English teacher, and neither them nor me have any clue where the creative in me came from. The first time I can recall doing anything creative as a kid is reading a ton of books. I started to read very early, around the age of 3 or 4 years old, skipped picture books and went straight into young adult fiction. I remember being madly in love with books, and being especially fascinated with book covers. I was always thought that I’d gone down a literary route—writing, teaching English, etc.. At an early age, I started to think about book ideas and things I could write about, and along the way realized that books need to have a cover!
So I’d print out Microsoft Word typefaces and put a regular piece of paper in front of it—sort of like a poor man’s tracing paper—and trace out book covers for these fake books. Now that I look back on it, it’s interesting that my journey kicked off with typography. I could never draw well as a kid—and I still can’t. But I really enjoyed tracing and drawing letters.
How did this general interest in type and book covers translate into graphic design?
My initial interest in books and book covers very quickly turned into an interest in music and album covers. I always had this conflict in my head: I wanted to create content, but I was always more interested in creating the artwork around that content. I would scrappily write a single song and be like, “Oh, I’m a musician now!” and instantly come up with a bunch of album covers for no reason. So I essentially ended up making a lot of art for fake things. I also realized at some point that it would take me a mountain of effort to become a musician of any considerable quality. That’s sort of how that leap from creating content to creating the artwork for the content happened.
I surrounded myself with a bunch of great musicians who started playing at coffee shops when they were 17-18 years old. I went around asking these friends if they needed posters for their gigs. I didn’t charge anything for them—I didn’t even know I could charge for them. Those were my initial forays with graphic design.
So it really went from book covers, to album covers, to making other stuff that people could see and then it was really just finding anyone who would let me make stuff for them.
How did that lead you choosing what college to go to and what to study?
Up until junior year of high school, I really thought that there was going to be a literary angle to what I do. At that point I didn’t really understand what Graphic Design was, and was still trying to get a degree both in English as well as Music Production. Around senior year, I had more clarity about what I wanted to do through creating those posters for my friends and experiencing graphic design firsthand.
I didn’t actually finish college, I dropped out after a semester and moved back home. From that point on, I started taking on various jobs in whatever direction I was interested in. I was interning at a web development agency and discovered another studio in town that did really cool branding work—even though I didn’t know what branding was. So I emailed them and got an internship there, and sort of repeated that process until I ended up in Austin, working for a really small startup building a social media app. I was essentially the brand designer and the would-be marketing designer after the app launched. Around all this time, I was very active on Dribbble which was huge back then. It was crucial outlet for me to get all the bad work out of my system—I would just keep making stuff, put it out there and gauge the feedback I got.
You led design at charity: water and from the outside it seems to me like a unique mix of an NGO and a startup. How was working in that unique environment like for you?
Through Dribbble, I met two of the designers at charity: water, Mike Smith and Trevor Rogers. When I heard that there is a position opening, my time at the Austin startup wasn’t exactly coming to a close, but it was pretty clear that I wasn’t an essential cog to the machine. My work at the startup lacked breadth because I was only working on this one app. On the other hand, charity: water works on a large variety of projects. My coworkers at that startup were really supportive of my decision to join charity: water and they are really good friends of mine to this day.
I was hired at charity: water as a junior designer and I was supposed to work in tandem with a senior designer. Before I even started, the senior designer, Mike Smith, left to start his own studio. There were a lot of transitions happening at charity: water that year, and because of the lack of a creative director, I found all the creative decisions going through me. Although it was a lot of fun, I was 23 at that time and felt that I was neither emotionally mature nor management savvy enough to handle that kind of responsibility.
In terms of my experience working there, I would say it’s the best job I ever had, second only to running my own business. The charity: water office is like a museum of all the cool stuff they make, all the people they’ve helped, all of the celebrities involved—and it was amazing to see all the energy and resources come together to essentially change the world. You walk in through the front door and you’re hit with inspiration every single morning.
The other exhilarating part about working there was that it is very intentionally set up like a startup. They didn’t work with ad agencies or branding agencies—they didn’t outsource any creative work. We worked in-house on everything, ranging from videos, VR films, branding for all initiatives, to designing and building collateral and websites. I got to do every kind of design that existed, even down to data visualization. I even made scannable wristbands for our fundraiser galas. I’m very grateful that it was all over the board. At the time, I didn’t know what I enjoyed working on the most, and I got the invaluable opportunity to work on everything.
It was also a special experience because of the unique group of people that I was working with. Even though my team never put pressure on me, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I talked with our Chief Marketing Officer about feeling inadequate and not doing a good enough job. They sat me down and made me realize that there was no good reason for my feeling that way. They were actually a bit perplexed with how I felt because they were pretty satisfied with me and my work. Looking back on it, I think those feelings arose from a lack of design leadership there—which by the way could be the reason I got away with a lot of work that I shouldn’t have. I was definitely pushing a lot of creative boundaries but it might have ended up alienating some of our target audience.