Timothy Goodman: The [Creative] Kid from Cleveland

how-summer-thumbEditor’s Note: The following article was featured in the Summer 2016 issue of HOW Magazine (featuring 3D printed cover art by Timothy Goodman). Subscribe to HOW today to get a quarterly mag packed with inspiration, career advice and industry insights. 


by Ellen Shapiro

Timothy Goodman pushes the limits of what being a designer is. He’s not limited by traditional definitions. His website, www.tgoodman.com, doesn’t look or feel anything like a typical design firm website. There are no explanatory captions, no jargon about “strategy” or “how we help our clients achieve their goals.” It’s all images, and you just get it.

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Sure, there are client projects like Time magazine covers and Oreo holiday packages that look like pillows you’d want to sleep with. But, look, there’s a video of Goodman kneeling on the floor during a Las Vegas trade show with a Sharpie in his hand, lettering a mural of Tupac Shakur lyrics. There he is leaving wallets with money on park benches all around New York City. And there he is leading the “Build Kindness Not Walls” protest in front of Trump Tower while the major networks broadcast it live.

And there he is, reaching down deep, telling his issues and fears to a relationship therapist and making content out of them. There he is confronting his biological father for the first time. It’s content that strikes a lot of chords with viewers and fans. For example, while everyone else was just talking about the new rules of dating in the age of Tinder and Snapchat, Goodman was broadcasting his experiences through www.40daysofdating.com, where (in case you haven’t heard or seen) he and designer Jessica Walsh dated and journaled about it for 40 days, with Walsh’s commentary on the left side of the page and Goodman’s on the right. This experiment gained 5 million unique visitors, worldwide press coverage, became a book, and was optioned for a feature film by Warner Brothers, which also reportedly acquired Goodman and Walsh’s life rights.

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3D printed sculpture by Tim Goodman for the Summer issue of HOW

No wonder he speaks with such clarity and confidence. Yes, he’s perfected his “story” through talks and interviews, but there seems to be a real honesty, a fearlessness to dig deep and reveal the insecurities that plague us all, and that we’re usually too scared to talk about, much less make a website or book about.

Goodman presents them publicly on custom websites that combine text, handlettering, drawings, photography, screen shots from Twitter feeds, video, music. Everything Goodman does—and there is just so much—seems to have ridiculously high production values, like the best cable network reality shows.

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At the same time, he writes, “Now that I’m getting older”—he’s 34—“I take vitamins, exercise, and go to sleep at 11 p.m.” How does he do it all? I met with him in the offices of Collins in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he rents studio space, to find out.

Tim, this is the “creativity” issue of HOW, so I’d like to begin with your definition of creativity. Is it inborn or can it be cultivated? Once you “have it,” do you have to keep working at it?

Life can be harsh, and we all need to do whatever it takes to get some pleasure out of it. That’s why we go to the movies, follow a band, root for a sports team, travel. And some of us make things. We all need something to distract us from the fragility of life. I don’t know where creativity comes from, but I do find that creative people seem to constantly chase “the new.”

It’s like the first sip of a cold beer or the first date you go on with a girl who isn’t quite sure about you. I love that feeling between anxiety and excitement.

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3D printed sculpture

Here you are at Collins, one of the world’s hottest agencies. And you’ve been all over the news. In case readers haven’t followed your story, where were you born and raised, and how did you get where you are today?

I’m a good old Midwestern boy. I was born in Cleveland, OH. I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, but honestly until that time I was a dead-end kid. I was raised by a single mom in a broken, low-income home. I was only interested in girls, stealing, partying and experimenting with substances. I’m still proud of my bruises and scars.

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What kind of bruises and scars are you getting these days?

Self-inflicted emotional bruises and scars. I’m interested in exploring my behaviors and fears. I still work with my hands and also with my feelings, metaphorically and physically. I don’t want to hide or run or destroy or prove anything. I just want to see and be seen.

Even as a self-described dead-end kid, were you making art in high school? Getting any notoriety?

Nope. I had no direction. I was only interested in having fun and getting away with doing as little as possible. My grandmother is an artist, and she was always taking me to museums and buying me books, but I had no interest. Later, when I started taking classes at Tri-C community college in Cleveland, I was truly thankful. At fi rst I wanted to do interior design, but then I started getting serious about looking at colleges and art schools in NYC to pursue a graphic design education.

I was able to chat with my grandmother about the decisions I wanted to make. I probably wouldn’t have that initial interest and passion if it wasn’t for her.

Do the current bruises and scars come from the pain of dredging up the memories and virtually doing therapy in public? Or when someone tweets something like, “oh, you’re nothing but an exhibitionist,” do you ever wonder, why do I open up myself to this?

I like to take the pain and make work out of it. Miles Davis says, “You have to play a long time before you can play like yourself.” A lot of that comes from going through personal adversity. Criticism always comes when more eyes see you and your work, but I never doubt the work I do, nor do I have any regrets. I find that all our stories are universal and I’m interested in sharing my vulnerability with an audience. It makes me feel less alone.

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In 2014, Ford asked Focus owners to share memories, some of which Goodman hand-illustrated on a new Focus.

Tell me about working with your hands.

Before I moved to New York, I worked for a home improvement company in Cleveland. My boss, Dave, became my father figure and mentor, and is to this day. I owe my life to him. Luckily, he saw potential in me and didn’t fire me (even though he should have a hundred times). From him I learned stuff like wallpapering and cabinet-making and faux-fi nishing. He had patience and allowed me to grow and mature. From him I learned to believe in myself and to be audacious.


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Was there a moment when you realized that you really had the potential your grandmother and Dave saw? What was happening, exactly? Were you faux-finishing a wall and Dave said, “Kid, you could be a real artist”?

With Dave, it was almost the opposite. He saw potential in me, but he was also very hard on me. He said I had “Kool-Aid dreams” about making it in NYC as a designer. I wanted to prove him wrong. But when I went after my dreams, he supported me along the way. He taught me an unruly work ethic. Now I realize how fortunate I am to be doing what I love, and how lucky I am to do it in New York. I try not to take any of this for granted. But I’m still that kid in many ways. I feel like I snuck in through the back door.

When you were looking at colleges, what did you see as the big advantage to the School of Visual Arts, besides being in New York?

The SVA program and Dean Richard Wilde just seemed right because there was a certain freedom to explore and discover. I wasn’t interested in making the “perfect” portfolio to get the “perfect” job. For me, it was about discovering who I could be, rather than fitting into the industry. SVA allowed me that opportunity. I soaked in everything I could, taking everything from every teacher, every spectrum of design, every philosophy, every opinion. I loved being a chameleon and learning fundamentals from one teacher and about experimentation from another.

How did the “dead-end kid” afford the tuition and the NYC living expenses?

I read the book How to Go to College (Almost) for Free by Ben Kaplan. I learned that there are scholarships for everything, including tall people, which I am. I applied for over 100 scholarships. I won eight or nine of them and got enough to come out of a three-year, $130,000 education only $25,000 in debt. I also got an RA job, so I didn’t have to pay for living either. But the biggest thing I learned from that book was how to write about myself. In order to win scholarships, you have to understand your story and how to differentiate yourself.

Did you take typography classes at SVA? Were you always interested in typography and lettering?

Yes. I had great teachers like Sara Giovanitti and Richard Poulin who taught me everything there is to know about type. While I’m more interested in conceptual work, their lessons still contribute to my design sensibilities now, and my handlettering.

And after you graduated?

I got a job as a book jacket designer at Simon & Schuster under John Fulbrook. In 2008, Brian Collins hired John to be a creative director. I came with him. There I was, the impressionable kid from Cleveland one year out of school. Working at Collins blew my head open. We did big, exciting work: the CNN Grills—pubs outside the Democratic and Republican national conventions in Minnesota and Denver that year—the identity, the neon signs, the entire experience. Then we worked on Microsoft’s first-ever store. Brian was a big influence.

He told me, “You can be anything you want. You can be a voice. You can write. You can speak. You can do self-initiated projects.”

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That’s what you’ve done. But first you went to California to work for Apple, right?

Yes, Alan Dye, who’d worked with Brian at Ogilvy, was there, and I worked for him on a wide variety of stuff with a great team of people—iPhone graphics, product packaging, in-store graphics, and art directing lifestyle photography. But after a while I realized that I really wanted to be in New York, back in the hustle-bustle. I’d come to a crossroads. In California I’d been rushing home every night and weekend to work on my freelance design and illustration and mural work, and was much more stimulated by that. I came back to New York in February 2012 and hit the ground running.

I had 1,200 Twitter followers at that time and sent a unique valentine to every follower, opening a dialogue, asking how we can take our conversation to the next level.

Twelve hundred valentines. How did you do that?

I got it down to a science, 40 seconds per. Each was a thank-you note—“Thank you so much.” Opportunity comes when people know who you are. From that, I had thousands of people writing to me. And somehow that led to work for Starbucks, Target, Nabisco, Airbnb, J.Crew, Google. Permanent installations, packaging, Instagram art.

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Sample from Goodman’s ongoing Instagram series “Instatherapy,” tagged #instatherapy_tim, which he prints as posters and sells in his online shop.

How big an influence was Sagmeister? Who were your other influencers, besides Dave and Brian?

I’m not sure anyone is not influenced by Sagmeister. His influence is literally everywhere. My other biggest influences were Paul Sahre, Brian Rea, Christoph Niemann and Rodrigo Corral, guys who made imagery that was funny and witty. They also ran their own studios, doing things on their own terms. They were my design heroes. Now I’m mainly influenced by women I’m lucky to call peers: my crazy-talented friends Jessica Walsh, Gemma O’Brien, Elle Luna and other ladies who are killing it.


I want to bend and twist and shake and squeeze the most out of life and my work without getting too caught up in the endgame or the failures along the way.


Your murals: How do you plan them out? Do you just make rough sketches first or carefully engineer them?

It’s always different. Sometimes I do freestyle murals, where I make a list of words and objects with the client beforehand and just walk in and do it. When I need to get a sketch approved beforehand, I take a picture of the space and comp it up in Photoshop so they know what it will look like, and I can change and tweak the art. When I come in, I project it on the wall, trace it with pencil, then paint. With serious corporate clients I might work on a mural for a month before going in.

Is it fair to say you have no long-range plans other than to continue what you’re doing: client work, teaching, freelance, coming up with self-generated projects that attract zillions of Twitter followers… and see what happens?

[Laughs.] Yes, that’s fair to say. I like having space to play. And I like to work. Working-class people in Cleveland work. After high school, I hauled buckets of wallpaper paste up steps for four years. Success is about having options. I’m doing everything in my willpower to not have “a job.” I want to bend and twist and shake and squeeze the most out of life and my work without getting too caught up in the endgame or the failures along the way. It’s about approaching design as a practice, not as a profession.

Which project are you most proud of?

I can’t answer that. It’s 12 Kinds of Kindness. It’s 40 Days of Dating, which got us a book contract and has been considered by producers and directors as a reality show, a Broadway play, featured on CNN and the Today show, and optioned for a feature film.

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Still from 12 Kinds of Kindness

When people hear the word “design,” they often think of interior design and fashion. Do you think that when 40 Days becomes a feature film, people might learn something about graphic design?

Perhaps. But ultimately it’s a Hollywood story. The characters and story will stay the same, but I doubt the public will learn any more about graphic design than they did about fashion in The Devil Wears Prada.

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Spread from 40 Days of Dating

Do you have any fears about how you and Jessica might be depicted?

Nope. I’m a product of the TMI generation. I’m interested in exploring my own vulnerability and sharing that with an audience. I have nothing to hide.

After 40 Days, you moved on to 12 Kinds of Kindness. What was most important to you about that project?

Working the steps. Step 12: “Dive Deep.” I confronted a lot of stuff and finally met my biological father, whom I’d never met.

So these things are real, not theoretical?

They are real. 40 Days of Dating is really about how a self-proclaimed commitment-phobe, me, interacted with a woman who had serial relationship difficulties. Those days weren’t easy. We had to honor our commitments to each other, to speak to each other every day, to go to a relationship therapist.

And the therapist went along with this? For publicity or for real?

For real.

Once upon a time, when people were in therapy, it was secret, almost shameful. They snuck away to the therapist’s office, which had double doors and white noise machines. You and Jessica brought therapy into the open, posting in almost-real time about what happened in your sessions and how you felt about it. Do you think that is what most struck a chord with your fans?

Yes, possibly. This experiment checked off boxes that we didn’t even know were there. We had no idea it would go viral. However, people love a “love” story, they love to be voyeuristic, and I think we can all relate to bad dating scenarios. I think the biggest thing that struck a chord was how honest we were, and seeing how a man and a woman can interpret the same experience wildly differently. Which is why we designed the website the way we did.

When you’re not designing—in all its forms—what do you like to do?

I love the New York Knicks and NBA basketball. Going to Knicks games is one of my favorite things to do, eating bad food with a good friend at MSG, the world’s most famous arena. I love jazz and the history of jazz, dating back to the 1800s. I love hip-hop, Dylan, Tupac (see my mural of his lyrics), Kanye, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong. Traveling is very important to me, and I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of it the last couple of years. I really enjoy flying and I love everything about planes and airports: the people-watching, how upset and impatient people get in the airport, and looking out the window as we take off and land. It’s one of the only things that makes me feel like a little kid again. When travel is for business I always try to turn it into a little pleasure too! I love Barcelona, Paris and LA. Barcelona is my favorite because of the food and the people—they make me feel like life should be truly lived. Writing is a big hobby of mine, and it’s no wonder that all my self-initiated projects are very heavy in writing.

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Mural of Tupac lyrics

Have you taken writing classes or workshops? Where did you learn to write so well?

I haven’t taken any classes outside of a general college writing class. Do I spell well? I don’t know if I do.

You do. You write long, well-crafted essays. How much time did you and Jessica spend rewriting and editing every day?

We spent a lot of time. I’ve always believed it’s important for design and writing to coexist together. I see writing and design with the same lens: you continue to craft and edit to fulfill your message.

Can you to describe a typical day or week in your life? What’s it like to be Timothy Goodman? Like hours in meetings, on a computer, designing, on social media, doing stuff with friends, sleeping, etc. What don’t you have time for?

My day is always different depending on what I’m working on. Sometimes I’ve got my head down working on client work until 10 p.m., sometimes I have a million meetings and I’ve got to run to meet my girlfriend for dinner. Sometimes it’s slower and I goof around texting with friends. Every Wednesday evening Jessica [Walsh] and I co-teach at SVA.

What’s the name of your class? What and how do you teach?

It’s a visual communications class for juniors. We mix it up with half esoteric conceptual assignments that are meant to be self-initiated, and half more traditional assignments.

What are you working on right now?

I’m preparing my TEDx talk for Chicago. Between speaking gigs, workshops or doing murals or live installations for clients, I’ve been traveling a lot these days.

Your videos look like they have really high production values. Fairly large crews of people are needed to make them, right? How can you afford that?

Those videos aren’t high-production at all! In fact, many of them were shot on an iPhone. We worked with one video person at a time. It was very simple and easy. We have no backers, no budget; it all comes out of our pockets. So we have to be as efficient and cheap as possible to accomplish our goals. Which makes everything even more impressive.

Readers might be inspired to come up with their own self-generated projects, like protesting with Sharpie-lettered signs around an issue that they’re passionate about. Is that kind of imitation a good thing, or not?

It’s only bad if you’re literally copying. I just want young designers to understand that there are no rules. Obviously we all have to pay the rent, but if you can find or make time on the side, then why not? If you want to start writing, then write. If you want to start drawing, then draw. If you want to make weird stuff and put it on the internet, do it. While I do feel we graphic designers have unique abilities to make statements and/or tell stories in ways that haven’t been done before, we can play a role in anything we like.


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