“Yes, And…”: Micah Smith & the Philosophy of Improv Comedy in Design

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Micah Smith applies the philosophy of improv comedy to get the next big design gig.

Micah Smith went to college for a business degree, but a summer internship in Seattle nudged him toward a graphic design career instead. He parlayed another internship at a screen printing shop into dozens of gig posters commissioned by one of the first social networks. And he helped out a friend by designing a wedding invitation for a stranger, which led to a fruitful long-term relationship with TED. By making the most of personal connections and leveraging the tools of improv comics—like saying “Yes, and…” or asking “What if…?”—Smith has turned a lot of little opportunities into a pretty big career.

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“I went to MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, for a business degree, and about half-way through I started seeing all this design work online, from the guys from Asterik Studio in Seattle and Aesthetic Apparatus in Minneapolis—a lot of the gig-poster crowd,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about design at that point other than that I loved it—my last art class was after recess in sixth grade. But I went to Seattle over spring break and asked the guys at Asterik if I could intern at their studio, and they said, ‘Hey, if you want to come out here for a summer, we’re not going to stop you,’ so I did, and it was eye-opening.”

Smith was a sponge, absorbing everything he could, scribbling down the titles of books and magazines on their shelves, holing up in the bathroom with a copy of Illustrator for Dummies to decipher the baffling instructions he’d often receive, and eventually polishing his skills enough to design T-shirts for bands on the Warped tour. (As it turns out, he’d stumbled on a pretty talented group of people: Don and Ryan Clark would go on to open Invisible Creature, Demetri Arges would become executive creative director at Digital Kitchen, and Greg Lutze eventually launched the Visco photography app.) When the summer was over, Asterik connected him with the owners of a screenprinting shop back in Kansas, where the next chapter began.

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“Blue Collar Press was run by all the bands I listened to in high school and college, like the Get Up Kids and the Anniversary,” says Smith. “I started there as an intern, and a few weeks later they asked me to separate printer files and do other pre-press work. And if there were any bands that wanted T-shirts designed, they’d throw a few projects at me. I was in heaven—these guys that I literally looked up to, on a stage, were giving me a chance. When I suggested that we do gig posters based on what I’d seen in Seattle, they said, ‘Ok, I guess we’re doing gig posters now.’ It was a fun sandbox to play in for a few years.”

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Apparel design for Wilco, worn by Seth Rogen in the movie Funny People.

Smith spent his last year of school attending classes in the morning and working at Blue Collar in the afternoons. The gig posters soon got the attention of MySpace, which sponsored “secret shows” that were announced 24 hours in advance, leading to long lines outside of tiny venues for the likes of Cold War Kids, Maroon 5, and Tenacious D. Smith’s artwork accompanied dozens of announcements, and everyone who attended the show took home a screenprinted poster. He held onto the MySpace work during his work for agencies, and it was a solid base to launch his freelance career, eventually leading to connections with bands like Wilco, Spoon, Feist, and St. Vincent. Much of that work has been featured in Gigposters, Volume 1; 1,000 Indie Posters; and the Little Book of Screenprinting.

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Smith now believes that nearly any assignment can lead to a bigger opportunity. When a friend who worked at Facebook was too busy to create a wedding invitation for another friend, Smith stepped in and helped out, producing an image with a gig-poster feel, of course. The wedding invite led to a wedding program, which leveraged the groom’s tech background to link wedding-goers on a deeper level through social media hashtags—far from a revolutionary idea, but one that hadn’t typically been linked to a single tangible product before. The groom went on to the C-suite at TED, engaging Smith on smaller creative projects, and eventually suggesting they adapt some of their thinking for TED Global conferences, which were still printing badges on stickers you might find at an office-supply shop. Now TED is using new materials and RFID technology that allows attendees to use an app to photograph each other’s name tags and add themselves to a small social network; users can even receive notifications when one of those new acquaintances is nearby—a feature designed to foster more impromptu conversations.

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Smith is currently busy crafting branding for several co-working spaces in Kansas City, and he’d love to do more work in environmental design for restaurants as well. When the owner of Baja Burritos found out that Smith had created album art for the band Waterdeep, he reached out to see if Smith would create posters for his shop. Since he’d created more than enough gig posters for a lifetime, Smith suggested, instead, a possible redesign for the restaurant’s paper cups. The new blue cup has become a favorite of Instagrammers sharing their most recent meal, and it’s now the primary icon that people associate with the restaurant.

“I always like to take the Second City improv mindset of ‘Yes, and…’ or ‘What if…’ which led to the Baja Burrito project,” says Smith, “If I’d been walking around thinking ‘I’m never going to do a wedding invitation,’ I would’ve actually been saying, ‘I’m never going to work for TED,’ without knowing it. With the wedding invitation that started it all, I asked, ‘What if we did more than a wedding invite?’ and that’s what made the groom think about me for the TED conference. Just keep asking yourself, ‘What more could this project be?’”

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See more of Smith’s work here and follow him on Twitter @amicahsmith.


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