Outstanding in the Field is a recurring blog feature. Here we interview someone of interest to our work in human-centered design. In this installment, Story+Structure Founder and CEO Chokdee Rutirasiri interviews Jeff Monahan, Founder and Creative Director at Proper Villains.

As a designer it is always fun to talk shop with a fellow practitioner. You get to trade war stories and compare notes on different ways to solve problems. I first met Jeff while being recruited to join the Board of Directors at Design Museum Foundation. Jeff is the current Vice-Chairman of the Board.

There is a clarity in Jeff's design approach that cuts straight through any superfluous noise to get to the  “why” and “how” and “what” on creating great experiences.

Jeff’s career has been defined by the creation of beautiful things that elevate brands. Jeff founded Monahan & Rhee, a branding firm with offices in New York and Boston that delivered award-winning work for some of the world’s leading luxury and lifestyle brands, including Vera Wang, Bang & Olufsen, Godiva, Gucci, Wedgwood, NEST Fragrances, and Hartmann.

Previously, Jeff founded Alchemy Creative Studios, a Boston design firm whose work is now included in the permanent collections of the AIGA National Design Archives, the Smithsonian, and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Jeff’s preamble to Alchemy was as Managing Partner and Creative Director of Pisces, one of Boston’s premier postproduction houses. There, he wrote, directed, and managed work on behalf of the Boston Red Sox, Coldwell Banker, The DeWolfe Companies, Discovery Channel, John Hancock, McDonald’s, and Public Enemy. 

A Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award nominee, Jeff is Vice Chair of Design Museum, advisory council member of the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies), and past advisory board member of the Luxury Marketing Council.

Q: Why were you put on this earth?

A: Professionally-speaking? To make beautiful things that build brands.

Q: How do you start?

A: We start every project by defining goals, doing lots of research, and developing design theories that can inspire thoughtful solutions. Everything that we design is informed by these initial steps, ensuring that it is rooted in theory and oriented toward problem-solving. If a design isn’t anchored in theory, and doesn’t address the client’s needs, it is fine art—which is also valuable … but it is not design.

Q: What is single most important lesson you carry with you every day?

A: That in order to do great work we must have great clients. That simplicity is timeless—and difficult to achieve. That designers need the confidence to believe they know how to solve the problem at hand, the humility to understand there may be a better idea, and the willingness to explore new ideas. That taste cannot be taught; the craft of design can be taught, but taste is innate. Is that a single lesson?


Q: As we have discussed, you have a very strong opinion about logo design. Could you share your thoughts?

A: Do I? Hmm. Let’s see. Well, I believe that a great mark can be drawn with a Sharpie. As crucial as quality of execution is—the selection of exactly the right typeface, the craft with which a mark is drawn—that is just the price of entry: It is the theory behind a logo that makes it great. If a logo relies on color, or gradients, or some other graphic device to be correctly reproduced, it should be reconsidered.

Massimo Vignelli

Massimo Vignelli

Q. Has the definition of “design” changed since you first started your career?

A. I guess I’d parse the answer into two pieces: (1) process and (2) outputs.

Regarding process, design still follows the classic principles that Massimo Vignelli defined as Semantics, Syntactics, and Pragmatics. In this sense, design has not changed. It still follows an iterative approach informed by strategy and theory.

The outputs of design, however, change constantly. The evolution of factors such as media types, platforms, and software is ongoing and endless, and a designer must keep up with all of them, especially if one is a generalist.

Q: Favorite music to listen to while working?

A: We listen to music all day here at the studio—it is a really important part of our environment. The choices vary, sometimes based on mood, sometimes based on what we’re working on. If we’re writing copy, for example, we’ll go instrumental … which could be downbeat electronica or jazz or classical or soundtracks. Other days could be old blues, 60s/70s rock, Americana, folk, rap, hiphop, funk, r&b, punk, electronica. Pretty much the only thing we stay away from is pop, which seems to make all of us a little crazy. Maybe it isn’t well designed…

Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today and I'm sure our readers will enjoy your thoughts on design. 

You can check out some of Jeff's work below:

Story+Structure works with companies like Proper Villains on projects often when we find a need to bring in someone who has a proven record or special method for achieving exactly what the client is asking for. If you would like to learn more about working with us feel free to reach out here.