AT WORK with Daniel Gurwin

AT WORK is a series documenting Pittsburgh creatives, makers and entrepreneurs, their work and their spaces.

This week we're at work with graphic designer Daniel Gurwin.

You're a graphic designer, but that can mean a lot of things. How do you describe what you do?

I primarily focus on creating logos and identities, and I make a lot of custom lettering. Working with companies large and small, my role is to define the visual “look and feel”. At the most basic level, I give shape to ideas.

It's a big task. What drives to you do this kind of work?

Beyond just the fact that it’s something I get emotional satisfaction from, it’s really about empowerment. Good design is democratic. Folks will say that education is the great equalizer, and while I believe that’s true, I would say that design is the other great (though only slightly less profound) equalizer. In this modern world where we have free and effective marketing at our fingertips with Instagram, easy access to the web with tools like Squarespace and Wordpress, and interconnected online markets, design becomes very powerful.

Good design sets a brand apart, and my mission is to do work that empowers my clients to put their best foot forward and stand out. Good design can’t make up for a bad business, but it can help a good business get the recognition they deserve. It can get you a seat at the table. 

Can you tell us some of the things you're working on now?

I’m currently working on developing a graphics program for a forthcoming exhibit for a museum here in Pittsburgh, an identity design for a NJ-based law firm, and an identity package for a lovely wedding photographer, among other things. This question always makes me happy, because it reminds me how unexpected and excited this line of work can be. I get to dabble in so many different worlds, and that keeps things really fresh and exciting.

"A lot of the work I do is with a cheap No. 2 pencil and a stack of printer paper. Nothing fancy. I try not to get distracted by tools when the focus should be on ideas."

Do you have a process that you maintain across different types of projects?

At the most basic level, my process is really simple. I learn as much as I can about the project I’m working on, I conduct research, I sketch ideas, create concepts, and then refine those concepts into what eventually becomes the final product.

On a case-by-case basis though, this can take on many forms. I generally sketch as much as I can by hand. A lot of the work I do is with a cheap No. 2 pencil and a stack of printer paper. Nothing fancy. I try not to get distracted by tools when the focus should be on ideas. I have a big chalkboard in my office, and sometimes I like to draw out ideas on there. I like how temporary and risk-free that type of sketching is. I can draw, erase, step back and look at it, draw again, etc.

However that sketching happens though, I don’t really like to get into the computer side of things until I feel like I’ve solved the problem on paper. It helps me engage with the digital tools in such a way that I know what I’m trying to accomplish, and I’m not letting the digital workspace define how things will look. Don’t get me wrong, though. I love working on the computer, and spend as much time if not more on the computer than I do on paper.

Sometimes paper is best, sometimes it isn’t. I try not to get hung up on those kinds of things. 

What's your design philosophy?

Design should be personal, warm, charming, and speak to the human condition. Trendy design isn’t lasting design, nor is it personal. Good design should be beautiful and functional, in equal parts. Good design should spark joy, elicit feeling, and tell you something honest about the brand or product behind it.  

Has living in Pittsburgh influenced your work?

Pittsburgh has influenced my work in many ways, but I’ll just focus on a couple. First, this city is going through a lot of growth and change. There’s a lot of vision and ambition coming to and coming back to this city. I’ve had the good fortune to work along side many of these people, and to see some of these changes from the ground up. I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to have that perspective. Certain changes to a city aren’t as positive as others, but I try to reflect on the change I’m participating in to make sure it’s something I can proudly stand behind. I’ve worked with good people who care about their neighbors and their city, and that makes me proud.

Pittsburgh also has such a rich visual and cultural history, and unlike the big coastal cities, Pittsburgh is a little more patient in it’s adoption of “the hot new thing”. I think that’s excellent. This city isn’t in a rush to become something that it isn’t, or forget what it was. You can see 90 year old ghost signs on the sides of shiny new stores. It’s an expression of tradition and history that gives this city depth. Our industrial past is visible and present, and that’s something I try to express in my work.

"When you collect something, whether books or records, and you put them on a shelf, you’re saying 'these things are important to me'. I collect the books I do because they feel important to me."

There are a ton of cool odds and ends in this room. Do you collect anything specific?

I collect a lot of vintage ephemera, packagings, labels, odds and ends. I like being surrounded by cool stuff. There’s an energy to it all. What I really love collecting, though, are pencils. Pencils. Universal, utilitarian, and ubiquitous. I generally collect vintage pencils. I like the quirky ones. Advertising pencils are amazing. So much character and history cooked into a little stick of charcoal and cedar. I love how small they are. I could have 500 in my office right now (I’m really not sure how many I have), but they fit into a couple drawers and jars and I don’t look like a hoarder.
I also love to collect books. Design books, type books, art books, vintage books, all that. There’s something really special about looking at these things on paper and not on a computer screen. Holding an old book, seeing the texture of the paper, looking at the printing errors and imperfections in the ink, it’s really emotional compared to looking at the same content on a screen. Paper is important. Computers die and webpages go down, but books are solid. I think I collect books in the same way people collect records.
When you collect something, whether books or records, and you put them on a shelf, you’re saying “these things are important to me”. I collect the books I do because they feel important to me.

There's also no shortage of words and phrases on the walls. What are the words that you live by?

“You’re Doing Just Fine”

This is a phrase I’ve held close to me for a while. I don’t mean to suggest that anybody should be complacent, and not seek to do better, but culture these days has everybody feeling like they’re one step behind, or a day too late. It’s important to pause every once in a while and reflect on what you’re doing. Hopefully you can take a deep breath and tell yourself You’re Doing Just Fine. It can be dangerous to compare your accomplishments or progress to others, but I think it’s most important to focus on your own efforts and progress. Things tend to go well when you work hard, treat others well, do your best, and strive to do just a bit better each day.

 You can see more of Daniel's work by checking out his website.