Delicious Blackbird

by Mike Reed in ,


Between my meetings with Dan and Jim, Ted had arranged lunch for me at Blackbird, a little restaurant tucked away on what felt like a slightly out-of-the-way street. (But which, given my knowledge of Chicago, may well be the throbbing centre of its bohemian heart.) 

The unprepossessing location is no clue to the restaurant’s quality, though. I think this may have been the best meal I ate in the whole trip – and thanks to Ted, I ate very well.

Blackbird.jpg

Inside, Blackbird was just the right balance of buzzy lunchtime crowd, urban minimal chic, and relaxed bar (where I sat).

In fact, the atmosphere was so lively and welcoming, I can’t imagine why the pictures on their site show the place deserted (like the one above). It makes the restaurant look like an Edward Hopper cantina – and one so sterile, not even Edward Hopper people can bear to be in it. 

Anyway, it was nothing like that. And the food was glorious. I had an endive salad, followed by confit duck leg, and both were beautiful: delicately served (so delicate this gluttonous Englishman looked with some dismay at the little bit of duck sitting in the centre of a great expanse of white china), but packed with flavour.

I have to confess to a chocolate torte too, I seem to recall. I also had a glass of Vouvray that was so good I wrote the name down. And ordered another one.

Basically, it was terrific. If you should find yourself anywhere near 619 West Randolph Street, I heartily recommend a visit.

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Brian McMullen – The one that got away

by Mike Reed in


There had to be one. And, in line with the angling metaphor, it was a big one.

Ted had somehow managed to fix me up for a drink with Brian McMullen, the head of McSweeney’s new children’s book imprint – inevitably named McSweeney’s McMullen’s. (That’s Brian above, talking about the wonderful Keep Our Secrets, by Jordan Crane.)

If there’s a writer who doesn’t love McSweeney’s (or a designer, come to that), I have yet to meet them. I shan’t ramble on about how wonderful McSweeney’s is here – if by some horrible chance you’ve never heard of them, use the links above and open a sluice gate of joy in your head. Who wouldn’t be thrilled to meet a McSweenyite?

And here I was, in beautiful San Francisco, settling in behind a cold glass of beer at the bar in Amnesia, waiting for Brian himself. Amazing.

Plus, that morning Jessica Hische had revealed she was a friend of Brian’s, and had promised to ‘totally crash your evening’. This was shaping up to be the perfect finale to my brief stint in SF.

Click this image to read about McSweeney’s McMullen’s in The Atlantic

Click this image to read about McSweeney’s McMullen’s in The Atlantic

So even as the clock approached an hour after our allotted meeting time, I was still hoping that there’s been some silly foul-up, and Mr McMullen would come bounding – red-faced, no doubt, and spilling apologies – through the narrow doorway from the street beyond.

Well, Brian had forgotten, that was true. But he wasn’t about to bound through any doors. In fact, he wasn’t bounding anywhere. He’d forgotten, quite understandably, because he was very sick at home, and had been so for a while. I finally received this dread news from Ted, along with Brian’s profuse apologies. 

Plus, Jessica had got stuck late at work, and then had another appointment of her own that she’d forgotten. I was stuck in Amnesia – and so was everyone else. It was too poetic to be true.

I sighed a heavy sigh, downed the last of the beer, and told myself it was for the best: I had an early plane to catch the next day. Back to Union Street I went.

All of which, hopefully, will make Brian feel guilty enough to publish the children’s book I’ve written, and which I was planning subtly to introduce into our conversation.

(Well, the hell with subtlety, right?)

Hope you’re feeling better anyway, Brian. And maybe I can buy you that beer another time.

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Rob Duncan

by Mike Reed in


Portrait from Rob’s AIGA page

Portrait from Rob’s AIGA page

Okay, I admit it – it was quite nice to hear a British accent again.

I met Rob Duncan, one half of the Anglo-American design partnership Dowling|Duncan, at their office on Geary Street.

It was weirdly like being teleported back to London, chatting in a very London-looking design studio (no, I’m not sure what that means either) with a chap whose accent seems to have altered not a bit through long-term exposure to the US.

It was the first time I’d formally presented my stuff to anyone so far. (A mistake, maybe, but dragging out the laptop – or even the iPad – over coffee always seems a bit crass somehow. Probably need to get over that.)

Logo by Dowling|Duncan

Logo by Dowling|Duncan

Rob seemed to like it though, and we chatted about our shared love for creative, witty design of the Smile In The Mind variety. We’d both discovered that book early on in our careers, it turned out, and fallen in love with it. (Well, how can you not?)

But Rob’s experience was that this brand of ‘wit’ was rare in US graphic design. I mentioned Pentagram, and he said, ‘Well, of course, Pentagram.’ But apparently most American work is much more straightforward. (It’ll be intriguing to chat to Michael Bierut about this next week.)

Packaging by Dowling|Duncan

Packaging by Dowling|Duncan

I’ll have to bow to Rob’s greater experience on this whole question, but it seems slightly bizarre that there shouldn’t be a stronger American tradition of wit in design and advertising.

This is, after all, the nation of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley; Mark Twain and Woody Allen. (To name but a few.) The nation that previously embraced Wilde and Wodehouse. Plus, of course, the nation of industry names like Doyle Dane Bernbach, Bob Gill, Paul Rand and Milton Glaser.

People say America has no sense of irony, but that’s self-evidently not the case. So where is it in the advertising and design world? (That’s not a rhetorical question, I’d be interested in replies.)

Anyway, we had a good chat, agreed a lot, and, I think, decided to do a project together. So it doesn’t get much better than that. Thanks again, Rob.

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Naz Hamid

by Mike Reed in


Naz, taken from the Weightshift site

Naz, taken from the Weightshift site

After saying cheerio to Jessica, I had another coffee and checked emails before heading out to another coffee place – Sightglass – to meet Naz Hamid, founder and principal of design studio Weighshift (among other things).

Once we’d got settled, Naz told me how ‘there are always at least one or two tech meetings or interviews going on in this place’ – Sightglass is a bit of an industry mecca by the sounds of it. And it certainly looks the part, all industrial grey steel, bare timber and steel countertops. 

Sightglass – image from Drip Blog

Sightglass – image from Drip Blog

As a digitally-focused designer (Weightshift’s clients include Google, Twitter, Adobe and Rdio, among others), Naz is naturally fascinated by the ongoing buzz of start-ups and tech industries in and around San Francisco.

The industry has matured, he reckons, from a time when ‘people were just building stuff, with no business model, and you just think, why are you making that? Who’s going to use that?’

He remembers one of his former employers, in the days of the ‘bubble’, burning through $25 million in a year. ‘Just crazy,’ was his judgement on that, which sounds about right.

Now, though, investors are playing their cards closer to their chests, as you might expect. And start-ups have to think more about real-world business plans. Companies can’t survive unless they make something people actually want – a bit of commercial economics you’d think was fundamental enough never to be forgotten.

I mention Newspaper Club, one of the great successes of our own tech hotspot – the splendidly British ‘Silicon Roundabout’. It‘s a technology business, but with a real product to make and ship to people. In many ways, a perfectly traditional business.

The Silicon Roundabout name makes Naz laugh, but he also says he loves Newspaper Club. He loves the fact it produces something real and tangible. In fact, he turns out to have a real affection for ‘old-school’ graphic design and the business of print, which for someone who remembers cutting mats and ‘rub-downs’, is heartening to hear. 

It’s also heartening to hear Naz suggest that services like mine are increasingly in demand by tech businesses. ‘They’re realising they have to be able to communicate what they do,’ he says, ‘not just to users but to investors. And they’re realising the importance of content.’

Music to my ears, naturally. And it makes me think of Scoopt, my relatively new app client in the UK. Just as Naz is describing, Scoopt had a great idea, and some smart technology. But as founder and CEO Glynn Jones is first to admit, they found it almost impossible to sum the offer up in a line, or a paragraph. (Here’s how I answered that brief, by the way.)

What all that means, hopefully, is a whole sector waking up to what ‘old-fashioned’ copywriting (and design, come to that) can offer. Because however clever a piece of technology is, no one’s going to buy it if they don’t understand what it does.

Our conversation ranged pretty widely, as they all have so far. We chatted about logo design (‘No one wants to know how it’ll look in black and white any more – it’s irrelevant. Give me all the colours!’), and about the irresistible move from paper journals and newspapers to digital media. (The recent Newsweek decision being a case in point.) Naz wondered about the issues that raises for access – not everyone can buy an iPad the way anyone can buy a newspaper.

We talked about families, and careers, and the best places to live. (San Francisco sounds pretty awesome, to use the local argot: anywhere you can go from skiing to city centre to beach in one day has to be a good place to live.)

In short, we had a good old natter, and I was amazed again (as I continue to be on this trip) how open everyone is to having a good old natter with a complete stranger who has been introduced to them out of the blue.

It’s a lovely, refreshing attitude, and – unfair as this may be – it feels like it comes much more naturally to people over here than it does the British. But then, maybe I just haven’t tried randomly hooking up with industry people in the UK. It’s definitely helping with my own ‘British Reserve’ problem, anyway. 

So thanks again for your time and thoughts, Naz. Onward.

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Hello San Francisco

by Mike Reed


A few more pictures from yesterday, or I’ll never keep up.

Ted (my amazing client at Us Is Two who’s masterminding this odyssey) suggested that I try out a service called Uber to get me from the airport to my hotel.

Uber turns out to be a brilliant thing. You register yourself (and your credit card) in the iPhone app, and then when you need a car you just open the app. It knows where you are from the iPhone’s location service, works out the nearest available car and sends it round. Mine took six minutes to get to me. Pretty quick.

Uber looks very nice, too

Uber looks very nice, too

The driver, Zen, turned out to a be a friendly guy, pointing out the sights as we went along. He’d been in San Francisco as a youth, but until a year ago had spent ten years back home in Syria – a name he gave me with a rueful smile.

‘Better to be over here, eh?’ I said, which ranks among the more asinine statements of my life. Zen took it in his stride though, and told me about his sister, still in Damascus and thankfully safe despite ‘bombs here, bombs there.’

Zen was driving a cab because that’s all he’s authorised to do, but actually he’s a computer and electronics man. He’d even customised his Mercedes with Apple chargers for passengers:

Phone charger jacks, rigged into the car’s electrics. Genius.

Phone charger jacks, rigged into the car’s electrics. Genius.

And so to the Union Street Inn, to be greeted by Kit and shown into my lovely room. Another gem discovered by Ted.

Kit had a friendly, scatty air about her that reminded me – given the context – of Mrs Madrigal, that ministering angel of San Francisco. (If you don’t know who Mrs Madrigal is, I recommend you find out.) And the Inn is lovely: a B&B that feels more like a friendly home than a hotel.

On another of Ted’s recommendations, I decided on a beer at the Top of the Mark to introduce myself to the city. It’s a 30-odd minute walk from the hotel, which gave me a chance to walk a few streets – always the best thing to do in a new city, I reckon. I got some pictures, too.

A Hopper-ish corner

A Hopper-ish corner

A California moon

A California moon

Shop window display, presented without comment

Shop window display, presented without comment

An eruption of European Gothic.

An eruption of European Gothic.

... and the city from the Top of the Mark

... and the city from the Top of the Mark

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