How Stealing A Playstation Gave Me A Career (And Why I Love The Designer's Republic)

The other day, I experienced a joy I've not felt in years. It was the joy of finding a treasure long sought after. This particular treasure is one I've been searching for since I found out it existed; around 1998 or so. And you might think it's silly, but it's something that means a lot to me to have.

It's a Swatch watch designed by The Designer's Republic, and it looks like this:

You may never have heard of The Designer's Republic. It's okay if you haven't. Knowing who they are is even more insidery know-it-all than a music geek knowing it was The Melvins who influenced Nirvana back in the 90s, or film nerds knowing that Sam Peckinpah is who Quentin Tarantino stole all his best stuff from. This article by CR Blog is an excellent history and summary of just how impactful and legendary The Designers Republic was (and still is).

The Designer's Republic made me want to be a designer. Every single thing about them made me happy. Their mottos (Work Buy Consume Die and Talent Borrows, Genius Steals), their irreverence, the fact that they were located North of Nowhere... They were so anti-establishment by stealing everything from the establishment. Logos, sayings, ideas, layouts, designs... They collected these aspects of our culture and threw them right back into the faces of the companies they designed for, and they got paid heaps of cash for the privilege.

I collect EVERYTHING from this company. Books, magazines, brochures, prints -- for a while, I even had the packing tape and envelope from one of their shipments hanging on my wall. I have a menu from Moshi Moshi Sushi at Canary Wharf in England, a store they designed. I bought an ABIO robotic dog just because TdR designed the packaging. I have the press docket from Quito, Ecuador's public relations design relaunch. I own every single album whose cover they designed and every single game they had a hand in producing (in fact, it was loving The Designer's Republic that made me interested in the first Grand Theft Auto).

Products produced by TdR themselves are highly collectable. Their special edition of Emigre Magazine (#29) fetches upwards of $2000 on auction -- if it ever appears. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought a copy for their archives. Their books (TDR Vs. IDEA magazine - Special Projects and 3D > 2D) are limited editions numbering in the low thousands, and routinely fetch about that much if they're found. The watch pictured above, I've never actually seen for sale anywhere. I've only seen a finished auction on eBay in 2004 where it went for over a thousand dollars (until now! I finally have one coming!!)

So how did I come to love this company and all things associated with them, which turned me on to a love for design that paved the path of my entire career? Through a little ingenuity, a good bit of larceny, a Sony Playstation and a game called Wipeout.

*     *     *

My family never really had much in the way of money, but during my last few years in high school, we were, by all accounts, poor. By the time I graduated high school, I was working a decent part time schedule during weekends, and the day I graduated, I picked up a second and then a third job to make ends meet.

During the small stint I spent in college (about 6 months, from the fall of 1995 until mid-spring 1996), I was working two jobs to keep the bills paid and food in my mouth. But there was this buzz about this new gaming console, the Sony Playstation. It was becoming obvious that Sony hadn't released another Atari Jaguar or Turbografix 16 -- this console was serious business. And I wanted it.

But I had no money. At least, I didn't have the $300 for the console, plus $60 per game. But I wanted it. And something that was true about me even then -- when I want something, I figure out ways to make it happen. I budgeted what I could each week to afford it; alas, car troubles and varying needs always robbed me of my Playstation fund. But fate, it seemed, wanted me to have this glorious new console.

It was a chance encounter with a clearance sticker in the game aisle at Toys-R-Us which provided me with the means to get what I wanted with minimal financial investment. I had just finished my stint on the Playstation demo unit, beating all comers in Tekken, when I decided to look at the Super Nintendo games on sale to scratch my itch for something new to play, even if it wasn't in glorious 32-bit. I happened to see that Super Metroid was on sale for an insane $19.95.

I already had Super Metroid. In fact, I beat it once a month from the day I traded a few comic books for it. However, it occurred to me that this game was still full price at Wal-Mart for $49.99. And I remembered seeing Romance of the Three Kingdoms II (which I had absolutely no interest in playing) was on sale at Wal-Mart for $14.98, while it was still an insane $79.99 at Toys-R-Us.

A lightbulb went on in my head. There's no way that'll work, I told myself. But I couldn't resist. I had to try. I bought a copy of Super Metroid and immediately went to Wal-Mart (the one I would eventually work at that fall with disastrously hilarious results). I walked up to the return counter and, without saying a word, handed the clerk the game. With all the enthusiasm of a drowsy elephant, she blandly went through the process of "returning" the game. She asked me if I wanted store credit, or if there was something I wanted to get instead.

I was nervous. It was working. I gestured back toward the store. She waved me off, and I went and picked up three copies of Romance of the Three Kingdoms II. The entire time I was doing this, I was filled with dread. They're going to cancel this transaction and throw me out. The gig is up. There's no way I'm walking out of here with three copies of this game.

Alas, I did -- and pocketed the difference in cash.

I got in the car, cranked the engine, and sat in the parking lot for about twenty minutes. Not only did I end up with three games, I was almost fully paid back my initial investment of twentyish bucks (after tax). But now came the hard part -- getting store credit for three games that, if I was stuck with them, I would never play -- and even if I liked it, I certainly wouldn't play three individual copies of it.

I knew that if I tried to return all three to the same store, they'd suspect something. So I drove to the north side of Atlanta and visited three separate Toys-R-Us stores. As I walked into each one, I thought about how impossible it was that this was actually working -- and yet, it did. After about two hours, I ended up with a little over $240 in Geoffrey Dollars (the Toys-R-Us version of store credit).

You would think that this is where the "but then" part of the story came into play; where I tell you how I got greedy and ended up screwing myself out of a good thing. But no. I spent the weekend pulling the exact same con over and over until I had a little over a thousand bucks in Geoffrey Dollars. And over the years, I've tried my best to justify this and call it "creative purchasing" or "using the system" or whatever, but no. It was theft. I can admit that now.

I bought myself a Playstation, every game that was out at the time, an extra controller and a few of the new Star Wars toys that had just been released (and I ended up pulling the exact same con a few weekends in a row, amassing a few hundred bucks in store credit in just about every store that sold video games around the metro area). It was a glorious thing. I played Tekken until my eyes bled. I mastered Battle Arena Toshenden. I conquered Ridge Racer. And all of that was in the first week I had the thing. It was a little bit before I finally popped in this wild looking game called Wipeout. But when I did, my life changed forever.

From the opening sequence, this game captivated me. In the intro was this screen with a logo reading "I Love My DR" which said there was graphic design by The Designer's Republic:

(Can't see the video? Click here)

There was this techno music playing that didn't suck. The menu system was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. The loading screens were a pleasure to look at. The action was fast-paced. And for the first time in my entire life, I was actually paying attention to the design of the backgrounds. There were electronic billboards advertising this thing called Red Bull (which I would become utterly addicted to by 1997, when I finally found some during a trip to Vancouver, BC -- I had always thought it was just a made-up thing, but no, it was real and it was GLORIOUS).

I read through the manual. There were these really beautiful logos for each racing team, which had their own identities. It wasn't like F-Zero, where you were presented with a driver you were supposed to like and follow. These were full-on futuristic racing teams with their own corporate backing and identity. But it was the manual itself that blew my mind. The layout was... Different. It had a metallic ink that shimmered but didn't reflect light. It had all these weird logos all over it, and throughout were all these sleek lines and arrows. And all over the thing was this entity called The Designer's Republic.

For a while, I thought it was just part of the fiction. I thought it was the name of this future design firm that did all of the identities for the racing teams, which was invented by the game designers. But then, I played the game Loaded, which featured this song by a group called Pop Will Eat Itself:

(Can't see the video? Click here)

I adored this song, and sought out the album (along with every other record this group released). When I found it at the used CD store, I flipped through the CD sleeve, and lo and behold, there were all these little strange logos and sayings, and "The Designer's Republic" all over the thing. I became obsessed. I started hitting up the web, researching this firm. They were real, and they were everywhere.

What I saw from them was mind blowing. I saw full-blown logo proofs other houses would do for companies, but these guys did for just about whatever came into their brains. I saw color comp sheets. I saw creative briefs. And these things, traditionally used in presentation, were actually part of their designs and identities they built and distributed.

(click any of the images below for high resolution versions)

This was my first real understanding of design: That you could build an identity for yourself by building identities for companies. I didn't know it at the time, but that understanding was the missing piece of my puzzle. I'd been experimenting with HTML since it was a thing, but all it really did for me was give me a place to collect my love for the bands I liked and the stuff I was into at the time. But with this concept of designing things, I began building website concepts for fictions companies -- the major one being an entity I named after a stamp my art teacher used on work she felt was phoned in and without heart, reading "This Is Not Art" -- which, in 2004, became the name of my company.

Fast-forward a few months, to the fall of 1996. I had found out that Georgia State was disbanding the wrestling team to free up finances to build up the basketball program, giving me absolutely no incentive to get back into college and finish my degree. I was fired from Wal-Mart, so I had some free time on my hands to look for another job, which I desperately needed to keep the rent paid.

I began looking at want ads for jobs that weren't in food service or retail, and saw an ad looking for a "webmaster." It required an understanding of HTML and a background in graphic design. I had the first but lacked the second -- but with the hasty-yet-passionate education that The Designer's Republic gave me just by virtue of the fact that they existed, I managed to build up a portfolio of websites for companies that didn't actually exist that rivaled or beat my competition. I got the job, and the rest is history.

Design is a powerful thing when done right. Jonathan Ive has proved that with the iMac, titanium and aluminum PowerBook G4, PowerMac G4, PowerMac G5, G4 Cube, iBook, Mac Pro, MacBook, unibody MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad. Dieter Rams proved it with just about everything he designed for Braun. Even if you're not interested in being a designer, you should read The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman -- in it, he explains how design concepts as simple as road signs, exit doors and bathroom logos affect our every day lives.

I don't think I've ever brought to the table a single design that changed the world. I don't think I've even truly affected anyone's life with something I've designed. But I've enjoyed every second of the process of figuring things out, dissecting them, and presenting them in a way that allows people to take them in and use them effectively. I would say that it's my passion for design and functionality that produces my particular style of writing.

And it all started with a little bit of theft. But, as The Designer's Republic said when they stole the quote from Oscar Wilde:

"Talent borrows. Genius steals. Shit copies."