The Curious Will Inherit the Earth: Chatting with Jim Coudal
One Design: We’re at this starting point, our first pass at a publication. Unread is a biannual journal, and this first issue is about discovery—specifically curiosity.
You have such a deep bench of firsts under your belt, which is why we wanted to chat with you. And because you're very cool. We like you.
How about we start with some definitions. What do curiosity and discovery mean to you?
Jim Coudal: From a process standpoint, discovery and curiosity are both one. Discovery is a task that you must do to get up to speed on a project—to be able to complete it in a professional and successful manner. Curiosity is a trait that certain people have that can make the discovery process not only easier and faster and more entertaining and more fun and more satisfying, but ultimately more successful to the project.
People do better work when they're enjoying the work that they do—that goes without saying. Whether you're a milkman or a farmer, it doesn't matter. If you enjoy what you're doing, you'll do better work.
For people who are curious, and maybe even have what the masses would consider a short attention span, the kinds of projects where we have to get up to speed on discovering art are what’s satisfying. That short attention span has really been a hallmark of Coudal Partners, and now Field Notes.
I see that short attention span thing in the One staff as well.
‘I don't need your attention for the rest of your life—I need your attention right now with this project right now, and I need your full attention.’
Being able to switch from subject to subject and be curious about things that I don't understand is a key trait I'm looking for in people who are going to perform a service for us.
One: Can you speak more to that? We don’t do the best job talking about how curiosity and discovery are very much a part of development processes.
Jim: Well, design is not what it looks like. It's how it works. That couldn't be more front and center than (in) the development of a consumer-facing website.
Curiosity in contemporary technology, in cutting-edge technologies, in ways that information is presented through code—on the web and on mobile devices and everything else—is every bit as part of the discovery and curiosity process as choosing a typeface or cropping a photo.
But it even goes deeper than that.
When I say ‘Design is not what it looks like, it's how it works,’ I don't only mean how the pull-down menu works.
I also mean, ‘How do we process the transaction in such a way that it is super easy and intuitive for the consumer, and on the backend protects the security as well as puts the information and the money in the proper place to allow us to do less grunt work and more work about selling and marketing and making people happy?’
I don't see it as much different. Putting together the application that is Field Notes Online, because it involved lots of backend and transactional things as well as front-end and presentational things, was every bit as focused on curiosity and discovery on the coding end as it was on the design end.
In fact, probably more. We're designers. We knew what we wanted. We didn't close off avenues for other places we could go, but we knew what we were doing. We had run this site and built other sites.
What we started to do with the copy, with the text, with the voice of Field Notes, is to communicate a fairly unified and sensible personality for the brand. I think we do a pretty good job of it through our films and through our copywriting and through all these other things that we do.
You could say that One has approached the coding part of the work that they've done for us in a similar fashion. They wanted to present the inner actions and the way that things would work—both for consumers and wholesalers from the outside—from Coudal Partners, from the staff that runs Field Notes from the inside in a unified voice. The way things would work would be expected from this application, which is actually lots of things glommed together to work together.
One: That's all awesome context, thank you. I think I speak for the entire team at One when I say we’re in awe of the scope and range of all of your pursuits. Does all of it ever become daunting?
Jim: I'm not worried about it—I'm just curious about it. We've always found a way to put something out into the world, or do something—or do something else.
People will always need a notebook in their pocket to write things down. The fact that we're successful at all is proof of that, especially when everybody has an $800 phone in their pocket that can do a much better job of organizing your notes than a little notebook can.
The satisfaction of learning and being curious and doing the job is as equally as important as being a successful business, except to say that we couldn't keep doing that if we weren't a successful business. We've always trusted that, if we were interested in something, other people might be interested in it too.
Our current edition, the Clandestine Edition, is all about puzzles and ciphers and codes and secret codes. Spies. Detectives. All this stuff that is never said out loud or is said in code.
When you start researching it, it’s all so interesting. The history of it, the military history of it, the ancient history of it. We all got excited about embedding codes and puzzles for people.
We're like, ‘If we're all excited about it, then the people who follow us—why are you paying attention? If you're not as excited about this as we are, why are you paying attention to us in the first place?’
So daunting is maybe not the word. We've made things that we love that the consumers did not love as much...that's happened many times. But we still love them. I felt like, ‘Different horses for different courses.’
One: Well, where do you start? Is it really just a matter of stumbling across things and saying, ‘I want to know more?’
Jim: Yes. In general, I tend to bounce from one thing to another until I want to know more about it.
I'm certainly not responsible for all the ideas for all the quarterly editions—I'm more the traffic cop of them. I do come up with a lot of them, but everybody does here.
We have conversations. Beer helps.
Here's a good example. We did an edition last year in the fall or summer called the Dime Novel, which was based on a chapter—no pun intended—in American publishing history, in which two brothers in New York basically invented the paperback. They did it by making these little adventure stories that they could sell for 10 cents apiece.
This is going to be way too long for anything, but I'm going to tell it anyhow.
Jim: I came across how they would get the art and the type together for something that they could print with metal type. That led to discovering how they could make what was called a ‘stereotype.’
They would make the whole thing out of metal type, and then they would cast plaster. When the plaster hardened, they would take it apart, and then they would take all the type apart. They needed all the ‘Es’ and the ‘Os’ and the ‘Ts’ and everything for other projects.
They would fill that plaster with lead and make a lockup; they couldn't edit it anymore, but they could print it over and over and over again.
Somehow it led to this masthead from the dime novel series. I clicked on another link, and I clicked on another link. I went on eBay and I bought one for way too much money. I discovered the University of Northern Illinois was a place that had lots of them. Another university had this large article about them. I started to get excited about it because Field Notes—if it's anything, it's an American brand. This was a chapter in American publishing and design history.
Bryan is our lead designer. I'm like, ‘Bryan, do you know anything about these dime novels?’
He's like, ‘I think I've heard the term before. I don't really know what they are.’
I'm like, ‘Does anybody know about this?’ So I called Aaron [Draplin]. Aaron is a student of American design. I'm like, ‘Aaron, do you know about these dime novels in New York from the 1860s?’
He's like, ‘I've never heard of them.’
I go, ‘They were orange.’
‘Nope. Never heard of them.’
I'm like, ‘If I don't know about it, and Bryan doesn't know about it, and Aaron doesn't know about it, that means nobody knows about it. We should get into this and make an edition.’
It was the most satisfying edition ever because, going into it, we knew nothing about it. Sometimes you have to be open to it all.
One Design: Do you think someone can be too curious? Is that a thing?
Jim: You can be completely unfocused, which is not the same thing as too curious.
In business, there is a focus that needs to be on things. Deadlines have to be met. You know—that annual report had to be at the printer on Thursday or the winter edition had to be at the printer on Thursday. It's the same thing.
At Field Notes, we've done 41 editions and we've learned a lot about a whole bunch of really interesting things—from the NASA missions to the moon to the history of the development of the paperback in 1860 in New York City. Tons and tons of other things about publishing and about American design and history.
We used to always say we were completely focused on what we were doing until we saw something shiny in the grass to the side. Then we'd be like, ‘There's something shiny over there.’
If you own having a short attention span, that's okay. That short attention span is our superpower in a way. You should be a slave to it as opposed to trying to fix it. That level of excitement you get on a new project, that's the juice. Everything else is bullshit.
That's what you want. You want that, ‘Holy hell. This could be a thing that we can work on. What else can I learn about this? What do you know about this? I don't know anything about it. I'm going to go find out. We're going to do this. Let's talk to somebody.’
But I have this whole theory about creativity—that it's not about coming up with new things. It's about finding new connections—the unexpected juxtapositions between existing things.
Think of James Joyce taking stream of consciousness and marrying it to the entire history of Ireland and Dublin. Or Stanley Kubrick taking Thackeray's novel about Barry Lyndon and modern cinematic techniques that allowed him to shoot completely in natural light, marrying modern technological innovation with this old, beautiful novel. Or Picasso seeing multiple sides of a table full of things simultaneously. All of a sudden, painting is not a moment frozen in time. It's out of time.
For someone or a group of people with a short attention span, it’s always ‘How is this connected?’ That is where it happens.