Max Temkin

Max Temkin

“Act as though you are a decent human being, and be respectful to people.”

What led you to become a designer? Have you always been interested in making things?

As long as I can remember, I've always been making random things. Even as a kid, I would always make my own toys and things like that. I think that's common for almost all people; and then creativity is driven out of people by going to school, and being told you can't do that kind of stuff seriously. Both of my parents worked in advertising growing up, so we always had art supplies in the home, and I was exposed to a lot of good design. It was never something I thought I could do with my life until really recently.

I've always been into starting creative projects. Being able to explain those projects using design is a really good tool. I’m primarily interested in ideas and most of my work is in politics, so persuasive tools like branding and design are really important to me. I’m also very interested in language, and typography, and all kinds of other ways that we present our thoughts to one another.

Is that what you value most about design?

Yes, and I value design as a place to advocate for the user - to make things as simple and pleasant to interact with as possible. I think a lot about Dieter Rams “Ten Principles of Good Design,” which covers the foundations of good design: good design is aesthetic, understandable, and unobtrusive. Rams also covers all kinds of non-aesthetic considerations that are part of design: good design is honest, long-lasting, environmentally-friendly, and so on. You can’t really separate the aesthetic decisions in a design from the moral decisions, and I think that’s really cool.

Another thing I value about design is the way that it’s kind of unavoidable. Sometimes I have clients tell me they just want the content with “no design,” and I have to explain that there’s not really any such thing as “no design,” there’s just “bad design.”

The thing I probably value most about design is that the people who do it are really, really cool.

I think design…is political, because you're persuading people to behave a certain way, to buy certain things, to believe certain things about brands or causes…It's always political, whether people think about those politics or not. 

Do you hang out with a lot of designers?

I’m so lucky to work with some really cool people at the Logan Square Design Building. Jason Schwartz from Bright Bright Great is one of my favorite designers, and I’ve learned a lot just by watching him work. I also share a desk pod with Nick Disabato, probably the most thoughtful UX person I have ever met, who I am constantly asking for advice; Lucy Hewett, a really excellent photographer and designer; and Jana Kinsman, who is my favorite illustrator. All of those people inspire me to work harder and smarter, and also to be kinder and more thoughtful in everything that I do. Basically it’s a really good situation.

How do politics and design relate to one another, and your design practice specifically?

I think design - especially commercial design - is political, because you're persuading people to behave a certain way, to buy certain things, to believe certain things about brands or causes. You're taking someone's interest and representing it in a positive way. It's always political, whether people think about those politics or not.

The first time I really became aware of politics is when I was in eighth grade during the Gore versus Bush election. Then throughout high school there was 9/11, and there was the war in Iraq. It was a very scary, out of control time to grow up in.

I had a lot of frustration in people who believed in the things that I did, but were not communicating them well. I think that's a big problem with politics in general: there's a lot of crossed wires. There are race politics, and class politics, and gender politics all getting crossed up, and you lose sight of what the common values are that bring people together.   

In the 2008 Obama campaign, there was an alignment of great design, very clear thinking about values and what people believe, and also the technology community became heavily involved. I think that was the proof of concept of what happens when political ideas and values are very tight, consistent, and organized.

Any time you’re talking about ideas with another person, there’s always some mediating means of communication, which are by nature social and political. Language and visual language are battlegrounds of values and morals and ideas, and it’s very important for me to understand that so that I can say what I mean in an authentic way. Those have been the big things that have made me excited about what design can do for politics.

I had a lot of frustration in people who believed in the things that I did, but were not communicating them well. I think that's a big problem with politics in general: there's a lot of crossed wires. 

I understand you worked on the 2008 Obama campaign. Can you tell me about that experience?

I started on the campaign as an intern, and it quickly became clear that I could be most helpful doing design and making websites, so I learned those things on the fly. Someone would ask me if I could do something and I would just say “yes,” even if I had no idea how to do it, and then I just had no choice but to learn it.

I was also really lucky to get exposed to an unbelievable design operation, and I learned so much by just aping them until I understood it. When I needed to make a yard sign or something, I would stay late at the office, find similar campaign materials made by the design team on people’s desks, and sit there measuring the margins with a ruler until I could recreate the design.

I’m so lucky to work with some really cool people…All of those people inspire me to work harder and smarter, and also to be kinder and more thoughtful in everything that I do.  

Did you move to Chicago for the internship?

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and went to middle school and high school here, and then I went to college in Baltimore. I originally started on the Obama campaign as an intern over summer break, but the campaign asked me to stay on. I left school for that semester, which was a pretty hard thing to do.

Definitely. Did you go back to school after the election?

Yep, and I just graduated late because I took that time off.

What did you do after school?

Once I graduated, my immediate goal was to find some way to get financial stability. When you're in that position, especially as a creative person, you don't have a lot of choices - you take any work that comes to you. I was already working for a Congressional campaign here in Illinois, so I just focused on that. I did a few Congressional races, a statewide race, and a handful of Aldermanic and judicial races in Chicago.

I also helped make two games, Humans vs. Zombies and Cards Against Humanity, that started to become really popular when I graduated, so I was able to work on those quite a bit. And now, luckily, the games have become a good business for me, so I'm able to be much more picky about my clients. Now I'm working with some people that I really enjoy doing work for. 

That's great. How did you get into both political work and games?

Campaigns generally - especially a large campaign, like a Congressional campaign, tend to attract really smart, weird, interesting people. I've been volunteering on campaigns for a long time, since eighth grade. When Obama ran for the Senate, before I went to school I would go to the train station and pass out flyers to the people getting on the train. I've just been doing gritty campaign stuff for a long time and worked really hard to get to do design and strategy.

I just kind of fell into the games. Humans vs. Zombies was created by Chris Weed and Brad Sappington at Goucher College while I was there, and I’ve been helping organize and design that since the first game. And Cards Against Humanity was just something my high school friends and I made for ourselves and eventually put up on Kickstarter.

How did Cards Against Humanity start?

We originally just played it at New Year's parties. We were always the nerdy kids in high school. No one invited us to parties, so we would always just do our own thing. We loved playing games, we like party games. We like ways to interact with each other where there are rules, so you know how to behave with everyone else (laughing). We went through all the popular party games, and eventually exhausted them, and then we just started making up our own stuff. Cards Against Humanity was originally just a goofy game we started playing. Eventually it turned into a deck, and we all got copies of the deck on computer paper. We brought it back to school, and we played with our friends in college. People loved it, and at the time we got the feeling there might be something here.

We originally shared Cards Against Humanity as a free project online (we actually still do), and it just got popular enough that we decided to try and make a fancier printed version. Our Kickstarter got like 300% of its funding, and we started selling on Amazon. Now we’re on our fourth or fifth printing and we’ve become the top-selling and best-reviewed toy or game on Amazon.

Is it important to you to pursue personal projects?

Right now I wake up every day and rarely feel like I'm doing work. I'm very, very lucky that I get to jump from one project that I love to another. I love that. Frankly, I don’t have the discipline to work on things that I don’t like, and I’m pretty unemployable in that sense. If I’m going to see something through and do a good job on it, it has to be something I really care about.

Do you find it hard to separate design or work from the rest of your life?

Yeah, that’s kind of the curse of being self employed. When you work for yourself, the best part is that you own your time. So I wake up whenever I want, and I take lunch whenever I want. The dark flip side of that is that I never really feel like I have permission to relax. Even on weekends, if I'm trying to sit down and read, in the back of my mind there's part of me that's going, “Man, this is your time, you need to be doing something.”

How do you handle it when you're relaxing but your brain wants you to work?

I don't. Even if it's just in the back of my head, it's hard for me to forget about what I'm supposed to be doing and chill out. I'm always working, I always have something going on. I’m lucky that I get to make things I love, because they’re always on my mind.

I'm very, very lucky that I get to jump from one project that I love to another. I love that.

What lasting impressions do you want to leave with your work?

Anything you do, even if it is corporate, even if it is a brand: just be a person. Act as though you are a decent human being, and be respectful to people. One impression I would want to leave with my work is that you can do that, and be very successful.

I’d also like to make things that challenge the way that people look at the world and find meaning. I like making things that are funny for that reason - finding ways to laugh at the mundane or vulgar can make us less lonely and alienated, and show us meaning where we didn’t think we could find it. Kafka said that literature is “an axe with which we chop at the frozen seas inside of us.” If I can give someone that feeling, I’d be pretty happy with that.


About Max

Max Temkin is a designer from Chicago. He is the New Media Director for the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation and a national organizer of the Humans vs. Zombies game. Max designs and consults for progressive non-profit organizations and campaigns like the Obama presidential campaign. He recently used Kickstarter to fund his indie game, Cards Against Humanity.

He has a degree in philosophy from Goucher College in Baltimore, MD.

Get email updates

Sign up to get emails about new interviews and upcoming events!