This interview contains strong language.
Part design agency, part online business, Good Fucking Design Advice (GFDA) artfully combines profanity and bold design to empower creative and non-creatives alike.
“Lose your fucking ego,” “Read the fucking copy,” and “Think about all the fucking possibilities,” are some of the many bite-sized pieces of advice GFDA dispenses via physical products, workshops, live talks, and its homepage.
Originally launched “as a joke, on a whim” in September 2010, GFDA’s website received 3.1 million visits during its first month of existence. Since then, the business’s co-founders Jason Bacher and Brian Buirge have established themselves as veritable czars of the design community.
Curious to learn about GFDA’s origins, Bench’s VP of Design Adam Saint met with Jason and Brian in New York. Naturally, the duo willingly shared thoughtful f---ing advice on design, entrepreneurship, and the deliberate strategy behind their use of the F-word.
How did the notion for GFDA materialize?
Jason: Once I started into grad school and began teaching design, I really wanted to knock the socks off of my students and blow their minds. But if you've spent any time teaching, you'll soon find that this approach doesn’t last very long. It's absolutely exhausting. Students are just not ready, in terms of mindset, to absorb that much material in so little time.
Brian: Yeah, we would often discuss Jason's struggle to deliver knowledge. We started playing with the idea of throwing in a swear word. It may seem stupid or trivial, but it's amazing how much power a hook like that has. It really cuts through and grabs attention.
Jason: Exactly. I think anybody who's had a teacher that cursed can relate to this. It didn't matter what they were talking about, if they decided to use profanity it snapped the entire class to attention. I remember every teacher I've ever had that dropped an F-bomb, even if I don't recall what they were talking about at the time.
So GFDA started as a hook to cut through the haze in a classroom?
Brian: It did. Once we began playing around with the concept of using “Fuck” to drive home a point, the idea to make something more out of it, like a website, came together really quickly. We knocked around some more complicated ideas at first, and then reduced it down to the core thing that it basically is even now. Jason started coding pretty soon after that.
Jason: We just started going after this idea and pushing each other to build something and get it up on the internet.
How long did it take for you to decide GFDA was a real business, and set aside other plans so you could get after it?
Jason: Things started happening really quickly after we launched. We were still in our first year of grad school when GFDA went live, and we just sort of considered launching a design business to be a part of the experience. Because I was closer to finishing school than Brian, we agreed that one of us would take on 100% of the responsibility for running the company while the other did what he needed to do to graduate.
It’s uncommon for businesses to include profanity in their name. What kind of reaction did audiences have to the launch of GFDA?
Brian: We got tons of emails after we launched the site. There were probably fifty percent good, fifty percent bad. A lot of people were highly critical of what we had created. They shared some very harsh words. Not necessarily profanity, but just very poignant like criticism of what we were doing. That part could have been disheartening, but then on the flip side we had tons of people that reached out to us who wanted us to start making products. They asked: “Where can I buy a t-shirt? Where can I buy a poster?” And that was the impetus for us at the very beginning of our graduate school career to find this extra time to create a business out of what we had created.
Jason: Yeah. We closed our first month with 3.1 million visits to GFDA.co, which is a pretty big up shift from the five hundred on the day we launched. We launched the idea with no expectation of it becoming anything more than just something we laugh about, maybe something we used to share concepts. We were very surprised by the outpouring of people that visited the site.
How long did it take to turn GFDA from an idea into a business?
Jason: I don't even know if we necessarily thought about it like a business at first. It was really just like: "Okay well, we'll make posters and t-shirts and we'll go from there." When we started taking transactions, that was the minute it was a business. We launched the ‘online store’ portion of our site only a month after we started. When we first launched the site, it was literally just advice, resources, and wallpapers.
You were both in grad school at that point. Did you have to do some freelancing on the side while you grew GFDA, or did you clinch it quickly enough to transition right from grad school into the business?
Jason: Because we started this at the beginning of grad school, it was something that we were able to slowly grow as we neared the completion of our graduate programs. Brian and I made an agreement that each of us would take over one hundred percent of the business while the other person finished up their program. Because I was the further in my program, we agreed that I should finish my thesis first, so I was able to walk away one hundred percent from our GFDA responsibilities and graduate. Then, as soon as I completed my degree, the very next semester Brian walked away from his responsibilities at GFDA and I covered for him. There came a point when we reached a make-or-break moment: we either go at this full-time, or we're going to miss some serious opportunities. By 2013, we both decided to go all in on GFDA. We've been doing this full time for the last two and a half years.
Considering you didn't have any previous foundation or friendship, the trust required for one of you to manage the business while the other finished his degree, and vice versa, is remarkable.
Jason: Yes. We made a conscious decision that we were going to help each other complete our respective programs because we saw GFDA as just another component of that experience. It came down to us deciding to leverage our talents and our resources, and set aside our egos, to really whoop some ass on this idea.
When we launched, a lot of people told us GFDA was the dumbest idea. They said we’d basically created a trend. And how do you turn a trend into a business? We’re constantly trying to beat this concept of our brand just being a trendy site that will fade away into background noise. How do we stay relevant in our audience’s mind? How do we continue to recreate our brand and find other ways to reintroduce our advice to new audiences every day?
GFDA is part online business, part design studio. Have you been approached for consulting services? I get this image in my head of you guys kicking in a client’s door and yelling “Just fucking start!”
Jason: My unspoken dream is to be Terry Tate, The Office Linebacker. (“Who doesn’t want to be part of the Felcher family?”) We love helping other ventures get their shit together. We want to be part of their strategy. We want to help them figure out what they're doing and how they can improve. We have been approached for consulting services in the past. In most cases, people will approach us and say: "Well, you seem to be the expert on these things." , which means we have the luxury of choosing whether or not it's a project we want to take on. Brian and I weigh those opportunities. If we think it’s worth our time, we take it on. We always see ourselves as a studio.
With your particular flavor, people probably come to you with very specific expectations of the kind of work that they want done. How do you guys maneuver around that, truly unpack things, and get a little bit deeper with your clients?
Jason: I think we do that in a few ways, but the one that's most powerful is research. We provide our clients with a more accurate view of who they are, and a strategy that defines where they should be going. With that, we can make an argument that holds water.
In an era where everyone is talking about hyper growth, scale, having a million employees and a campus... how do you intend to grow GFDA?
Brian: Personally, I'm not interested in having a million employees and a huge major complex or anything. I would love to see GFDA continue to grow, but I would love to have it remain a small, intimate scene. I'll just pick a random number—let’s say ten people total to make everything happen. That way, there are good personal relationships. Everybody knows each other. For the work that we do, it's really important that Jason and I put our personalities and our experiences into the brand. Getting too big—for us at least—would sterilize things a little bit.
Jason: Yes, the products and the brand are all really centered around personal experiences, and we want to keep it that way. I think the last two years of our business have been more about building infrastructure and establishing the right pieces in order to then focus in on the vision, make it a little more long-term, and try to carve out the path for where we see ourselves going.
Moving GFDA to a third party fulfillment center was huge for us. We vetted companies for six months before we found the right fit. Maybe that's crazy, but for us, it was important to make sure we nailed this relationship after having done fulfillment ourselves for almost four years. Moving to Brooklyn was another major milestone. One of the caveats of having a small team is that when we're focusing so deeply on these other foundational elements of our business, we often aren't able to make as much progress on the audience facing side as we'd like. As a result, I think some things that could have been done quicker or could have been put into motion earlier, maybe when the timing was a little bit better, sometimes didn’t come into play until much later.
As far as interns go, right now we have a young woman from NYU. I think she's right up there with the other interns we've had. For whatever reason, we always find incredibly talented, incredibly intelligent people that want to be a part of Brian-and-Jason shenanigans. God bless them. I don't know why they put up with us but we try to make their time as valuable and as exciting as we can. We try to make sure that we put them to good to use so that they walk away with an experience that they're not going to get anywhere else. They're not going to get the GFDA experience at any other job they go to.
Brian: Speaking of interns… After I interviewed the most recent intern we hired, I said to Jason: oh shit, I think she's smarter than you and me.
I love it when that happens.
Do you feel an urge to go beyond what you're selling and the advice that you're giving, to contribute to the design community or the world at large?
Brian: Yes, actually that's a really great question that relates to some key things Jason and I were discussing this morning. I would say we have two primary audiences: creatives and non-creatives. We approach each of them a little bit differently.
So, for creatives—that’s designers, photographers, or really anybody that considers themselves “a creative”—we present them with considerations that make them think critically about their work. Through our advice, we ask them: what did you learn from your fucking failures, what barriers do you have, and what will it take to make your next project the best one yet?
For non-creatives, we recently started giving workshops at corporations. With that, we're trying to communicate the value of creative process to people who didn’t necessarily go to school to be a designer, or an artist, or some other creative profession.
Jason: We both feel a sense of responsibility to share our experience and our knowledge, both as practicing designers and as entrepreneurs. Brian and I take teaching assignments from time to time. As our working relationship goes, when those opportunities come up, we share them with each other, say "Hey, I want to do this thing," and adjust accordingly. We're constantly looking for opportunities to share our experiences in the classroom or in incubators. This company, this thing we launched with zero expectations has given us access to so many people that it blows my mind. I'm so humbled by the opportunities that I've had to just grab a cup of coffee or share the table with incredibly talented pioneers, industry leaders, and everyday working creatives. Because of that, I look for any and all opportunities to share my community and my network with other people who I think will value it the same way. I'm always looking to put people in the right place to see if I can help them achieve whatever it is they're going after.
As the czars of advice for the design community, what single piece of wisdom would you offer to up-and-coming entrepreneurs trying to find their own way in the design world?
Brian: God damn it, I knew you were going to ask that question.
Jason: Yes, I could have bet money on that. The best piece of advice is the right piece of advice. That's my answer. I think advice is relative. When your teacher swears, you don't often remember what it is they were talking about in that instance, but you remember it because it resonates with your circumstance. The Internet today has become this advice ecosystem, with Tumblr and blog feeds (including Bench), and tons of other places we read and learn. They're all great places to find inspiration. But the things that really stick with us are the ones that speak to the nexus of opportunity and intent that you find yourself in when you come across them. So I think all advice is relative. I don't think there's any one piece of advice that I can share that would provide people with the right answers.
Brian: For me, I'll close this with the way that we close a lot of our presentations: risk everything, expect nothing, prepare for anything. In any endeavor, whether it’s to go out and start a business or just to do a small project or whatever, you’ve got to be willing to go out and put it all on the line. It doesn't matter how much experience or education you may have, you can't prepare for everything. It's just impossible. Anything could happen. Ultimately you have to be nimble and flexible. You have to be willing to change, to pivot, to not hold too closely to your perceived outcome. In doing all of that, you can’t think “If I do this, then I'm definitely going to have some sort of result. I'm going to be a multi-millionaire.” You really have to do it. You have to do whatever the thing is you're excited about for the sake of the fact that you're excited about it, for the fact that you're passionate about it, and the simple reality that there's something inside of you that just calls you to do this thing.
Through artful profanity and bold design, Good Fucking Design Advice inspires people to define direction and purpose in life and work. Follow GFDA on Instagram, and browse their products, workshops, and consulting services, on GFDA.co.