WorkServed™ 002: Aggie Toppins

Work Served™ is an interview series highlighting those who understand what it means to serve the work — that is, to do well, work worth doing. Next up in our ongoing series, graphic designer, educator and zine-enthusiast Aggie Toppins.

Describe your “work.” (AT): My “work” is defined by two roles. I’m a designer and a teacher. As a designer, I distinguish my commercial work from my independent practice. My commercial work is produced under the moniker The Official Studio and through it, I work with small businesses and nonprofits on print, digital, and brand identity projects. I deliver well-crafted artifacts — i.e.: logos, web sites, posters, publications — that help my clients share their stories.

My independent practice, The Unofficial Press, is mainly focused on artist zines and books, but I also do long-term projects that allow me to pursue ideas through the processes and language of graphic design. I’m interested in what El Lissitzky called “the book space,” which describes the potential of the publication to encompass multiple media and respond to various forms of content. I make work that uses narrative and sequence while exploring materiality. I seek to shape open readings — spaces for people to negotiate the image to arrive at meanings.

When we talk about our work as designers, it’s tempting to describe what we make as outcomes rather than pursuits. Of course with client work, the ideas embedded in the work are externally driven — the work is about whatever the client needs it to be about. But with independent work, I’m the one who determines what those lines of inquiry are. I find myself returning to critiques of capitalism while making references to funereal rituals and memorialization. I think about the intersection of public and private memories and perceptions of place. I’m interested in social mythologies; in exaggerated, simulated, and falsified realities; and in ways that people struggle within structures. That may sound academic, but I try to make it accessible in the work. I mean, one of my zines features a taxonomy of Dolly Parton’s hair! I try to distill these conceptual underpinnings into elegant, sometimes comical, and often understated images that engage viewers in an act of intellectual exchange.

I’m also a professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Being a teacher is a lot like being a designer. It takes passion, planning, a lot of listening, and putting opportunities in place that allow the people you serve to make their own discoveries. Shaping a curriculum is a lot like designing a process. Working with students to help them find their potential is a lot like working with clients. Building a course is like shaping a reading. Teaching, like designing, requires empathy as well as expertise.

Tell us about a risk you’ve taken that’s paid off. (AC): It was a big risk to go to graduate school. I left a well-paying job and took on a lot of debt for the chance to broaden myself as a human being. It was during the recession. I was newly married. And I chose a school that had us moving from Chicago to Baltimore. Nobody has to get an MFA to practice graphic design — but I was feeling limited by what knowledge and opportunities I had up until that point. I was getting bored and wanted to expand my understanding of the field critically and creatively. I wanted to get in touch with my own voice as a maker. I also couldn’t visualize myself as a creative director at an agency. 
I was more inclined to teach. I’m so glad I went to MICA. My life and my career wouldn’t be what they are today. I’m so fulfilled by my work now — both as a designer and a teacher — and I feel very equipped to practice independently for the rest of my life.

Who’s your hero? Why? (AT): When I think about the kind of person I want to be, I want to be someone who loves well. The person who taught me the most about love is my mother. My mom will share her table with almost anyone. She is deeply empathetic (but she also doesn’t suffer fools). She knows how to make special moments with small gestures. I want to be like her in that way. I often tell myself to “love through” hardship — a bit of wisdom I took from the Dalai Lama when I heard him speak in Chicago years ago. “Love through this,” I tell myself when I’m in a trying situation. 
I don’t always succeed at it, but it’s something I value.

My design heroes are somewhat of an assortment. I greatly admire Keetra Dean Dixon. She has a dual practice in which she works with clients and she follows her own curiosities. She taught me a lot at MICA about materials-based experimentation, methodology, and self-reflection. Her work is delightful, but still critically engaged. She pushes against the limits of language while staging unexpected human interactions. I also love Ed Fella’s work — I wish I could make such playful, goofy, and energetic typography that still looks so credible. Nobody’s work looks like Ed Fella’s! While it may sound banal to say, “I think Paul Rand was a great designer,” I actually do think about his work quite often! His work was also playful, but he imposed constraints on his practice that allowed him to derive focused solutions. Lastly, Brockett Horne is my teaching mentor. She was first my professor at MICA and then she was my boss. When I watched her teach, I was blown away at the thoughtfulness of her pedagogy. She is really able to get inside students’ heads and bring the best out of them. But she also isn’t afraid to lay down some discipline if that’s what’s best for the student. She’s honest — willing to tell you what you need to hear and not necessarily what you want to hear. I modeled my teaching after her example. I hope to be as caring and accessible as she is, while still challenging students.

Who/What is inspiring you right now? (AT): I think it’s important to diversify your influences so that you don’t copy anyone directly. While there are many design practices I admire, I try to look outside of our field to lead me to independent thinking. I do look to design history for influences — not always about form, but about intentions. I’m fascinated by the codified visual language of English heraldry, for example. I love old punk zines. I love the work of Karel Martens, Hannah Hoch, and Kurt Schwitters. These very different designers had unique image-making strategies and motivations that compelled them to build a body of work over time.

I read critical theory — Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault — though with much humility. Philosophical texts, although challenging to read, give me tools to direct processes of making. They sometimes provide a conceptual armature on which I can conceive of my own work. I read things that aren’t directly philosophical too. I’m a huge fan of James Joyce and David Foster Wallace. I’ve long loved Studs Terkel, the Chicago broadcaster who pioneered the documentation of oral history.

I also love modern and contemporary art. My heart leaps over the work of Ed Ruscha, Joseph Beuys, Marcel DuChamp, Ray Johnson, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres especially. These artists are all very different but each of them has something that grabs me in terms of narrative, the relationship between form and meaning, context, and how to signify.

Beyond all this, I get a lot of inspiration from traveling. I was fortunate to have visited five countries last year: The UK, France, Italy, The Netherlands, and India. Nothing puts perspective on life like being a stranger in another country. It’s like being a child — the wonder and excitement. Sometimes, I think you can really only see a place when you are new to it.

What are you presently working on that you’d like to share? (AT): I have two nascent bodies of studio work that I’m excited about digging into more deeply. First, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about BINGO. I’ve been making images that refer to the vernacular of this game. I have no idea where that’s going, but I’m really into it right now. It’s coming from a place of personal family history and the desire to explore struggles within structures, which is a recurring interest of mine. I’m also developing a series of collage-based prints from studies I made while traveling in India. I often take an x-acto when I travel but not always a computer. I end up making little compositions in my sketchbook using the stuff that passes through my life. India struck me as a place where many layers of time and experience are visually present in the day-to-day. Americans have no concept of this kind of history. Collage is well-suited for exploring what I might call personal palimpsests. I’m going to continue this work at a residency program in Burgundy this summer. What’s emerging for me is a confrontation of American-ness in the context of another’s culture. I’m not sure where it’s going yet, but it seems like a good place to build on my previous work.

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