This month, we had a chance to correspond with poet, designer, web developer—and longtime friend of Seek—Tishon Woolcock. The result is an inspiring conversation about the connection between poetry and design, how to gain confidence by doing, and why you shouldn’t limit yourself to one discipline or form of expression. Read on for Tishon’s words—and to see him rocking Seek.
You’ve had a robust career as a mult-disciplinary designer (including a collaboration with Seek Collective!)—can you tell us a bit about the path that led you to design?
In the 90s, the area of New Jersey where I grew up had a wonderful public school system which at the time had implemented a magnet program that had specialized curriculums. I attended The Langston Hughes School of Publishing and Fine Arts in East Orange. This meant that throughout grammar school, I was exposed to a lot of visual art and literature. I was part of what they called the “gifted and talented” program where they’d bus a few of us to another school once a week. We’d go up to the top floor, which was sort of a lab space, where we got to play computer games, and do fun group projects, that were always centered around science or critical thinking and problem-solving. Looking back on it, those early years really shaped the way I approach challenging work.
I was also fortunate to attend a high school with one of the state’s earliest computer art classes. We learned all the Adobe programs, QuarkXPress (before Indesign was a thing), and even some 3D modeling. So, I sort of got this foundation in both traditional and digital art. At the same time, I started building websites as a hobby. After high school, I went on to Pratt Institute as a computer graphics major but quickly switched to communication design when I realized that I didn’t really want to make animated films. I also developed a curiosity and subsequent love of typography while riding the subways of NYC that first year in Brooklyn.
I guess this is sort of a long-winded way of saying that I happened to land in the right place at the right time in terms of the resources that were available to me, many of which were free. I’m really thankful for that.
In addition to design work, you’re also a published writer and poet—and even started your own independent press—so you’re both a visual and a linguistic creative. How does your work in each discipline inspire the other?
The two are completely intertwined. Poetry and graphic design are similar in that they both involve distillation and communication. I’ve been blessed to work with clients and companies that never saw me as just someone dealing with visuals, so I’ve been able to satisfy the part of me that really loves tinkering with words on a page.
The direct inverse of that is, say, setting a line of type, and thinking about where the line breaks should be. That’s pretty much my poetry brain playing designer.
Whether their work is creative or not, people are often told they have to master one thing to be successful. We disagree, and your multifaceted work proves that notion wrong. What has given you the confidence or inspiration to pursue so many different media and disciplines?
Honestly, I just love making things, problem-solving, and helping people. If I’m doing at least one of those three things, I’m satisfied. Also, many of the projects that I’ve worked on over the years have required me to take on a new skill. It can be scary not knowing exactly how a thing is gonna get done but seeing a project through is always worth it. Not only do you help someone, but you also add to your own sense of what you can do. The confidence almost always comes after.
Is there a particular artist, designer, or writer that has been influential to your creative work?
Absolutely! As far as designers, there are many. My dear friend Aki Carpenter has been a mentor and inspiration since our days at Pratt. As a young designer, I was drawn to the work of type designer and art director Herb Lubalin and I return to his work often.
During college, my favorite designer was probably Vince Frost.
Other inspirations include Tibor Kalman, Art Chantry, Linda Zacks and the the studios Hort, Non-Format, Karlssonwilker, and We Should Do It All. There are many others.
With regard to writing, there are also many. My mother had an anthology of Black poets that I used to read as a kid. I remember being blown away by Gwendolyn Brooks. There was also some Langston Hughes in that book, and I definitely tried to emulate his work in my earliest poems.
In high school, I got obsessed with Shakespeare and wrote only sonnets for a while. The first poem I ever had “published” in one of those vanity anthologies was a sonnet that I wrote around that time.
When I first moved to New York I used to go to the LouderARTS weekly open mic and was introduced to writers like Staceyann Chin, Bassey Ikpi, Marty McConnell, Lynne Procope, Roger Bonair-Agarde and so many other incredible poets who absolutely influenced what I’ve written in adulthood.
As a teenager, I bought a William Carlos Williams collection that I still return to pretty regularly. I also love Kay Ryan’s poetry, and Carl Sandburg is probably in my top 5 all time.
I don’t know, listing these writers makes me uncomfortable. There are just so many writers who’ve inspired me and continue to inspire me. It feels wrong to single out some and not others.
At Seek, we value personal style as a vehicle for creativity and self-expression. How would you describe your personal style?
I’d say my personal style is timeless with a touch of trendy. I generally air on the safe side with solids and denim, but then I’ll throw in a sneaker that’s currently in style, or a hat that might be more of the moment. Every couple of years, I look at what’s happening in menswear and add a few things to my wardrobe, but mostly I stick to basics and accessorize around them.
Where do you go or what do you do when you’re seeking inspiration?
When seeking inspiration, I like to walk. I’ve heard that many poets are walkers.
I like to just leave the house and wander. I also seek out water. I head toward a river, the ocean, or the lake, now that I’m in Cleveland. Once I get there, I sit. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I listen.
I also love going to museums. I almost always leave a museum teeming with ideas for new projects.
What’s the most recent piece of art you’ve felt moved or inspired by—whether a book, a film, an exhibit, etc.?
Duke Riley’s DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash at Brooklyn Museum caught me off guard. I’d gone to see the Virgil Abloh retrospective, which was very cool, and maybe it was the juxtaposition of Virgil’s work–which was very commercial–downstairs and Riley’s work as a kind of unintentional (or maybe intentional) counterpoint upstairs that made it hit the way it did.
Riley’s exhibition focused on corporate-driven pollution through the use of found objects and film. My favorite part was a series of ink drawings on plastic bottles, and other junk that were so beautiful and delicate, but were ultimately a commentary on the amount of waste produced by corporations.
That show is gonna stay with me for a while I think.
What’s the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
“If everything is special, nothing is special.”
I don’t remember which professor told me that, likely my wonderful typography professor Karen Madsen.
“If your boss asks you to do something, even if you think you have a better solution, do it the way they asked you to do it, first. Then show them how it can be improved.”
Martin Pedersen, the publisher of Graphis Magazine, told me that during my first week as an intern there, when I thought I had a better idea for a postcard than the one he asked me to design. I think about that moment whenever I’m working with a new client or on a new project.
What advice do you have for creatives who are still trying to discover the best medium for creativity and expression?
Study. If you want to design, look at a lot of design. If you want to write, read writers who inspire you. So much of having the confidence to do anything comes from seeing that it can be done. Then, once you start, don’t worry how good it is. If you keep at it, it will get to good eventually.
What are you seeking more of this year?
I just turned 39 and I’m seeking more personal projects. I want to get a little messier with my poetry. I’m thinking a lot about paint lately.
Can you share an upcoming project you’re excited about?
I’m excited about the museum work that I’m doing at Ralph Appelbaum Associates. I can’t really get into the details, but a lot of the work is centered around activism, civic engagement and the history of America and to some degree the African diaspora. I’m a believer in Sankofa and doing this kind of work feels important to me at this stage in my life.
Tishon is currently the Art Director at RAA.