By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
And if SPELLRIGHT happens to convince some kid to fall in love with letters and words? All the better.
The small group of bankers, lawyers and software consultants who assemble at the MATTER studio one winter afternoon look out of place among the street-art images for sale, the poster that proclaims, "Buy some shit today. Jack shit," the giant yellow gas-station sign that advertises Super Unleaded for $1.99. The visitors are gold-level members of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and they're here to hear about the studio's unique selling tools from Griffith — who just happens to be a few minutes late.
When he finally arrives, wearing a gray sports jacket and scarf emblazoned with his definition of graphic design, Griffith seems a bit harried. He's just come from two back-to-back business meetings; to make matters worse, the slide projector he needs for his presentation isn't yet set up and a giant plywood G is blocking part of the projector screen. But once everything is arranged and the formal presentation begins, Griffith quickly settles into a groove.
As Griffith likes to say, "I give good meeting." He rattles off concepts such as product differentiation, target consumers and mapping return on investment; he discusses succeeding in noisy business climates; he mentions the branding work and research projects that MATTER has completed for the likes of Virginia Tech, the National Science Foundation, the medical device company Byers Peak. And all the while, the projector screen shows examples of the intricate business charts and visual aids that MATTER creates for its clients: riots of arrows and images and text that resemble stylized versions of Rube Goldberg machines.
Griffith knows that work for people like this is what will pay MATTER's bills. But he also knows that his blend of sarcasm bans, typeface esoterica and pooping poodles isn't for everybody in the corporate world — and he shed his chameleon skin a long time ago. "I'm not the guy who doesn't want to make money," he says. "I just don't want to short-circuit myself to do it."
While his company's unique approach has resulted in some stellar business relationships, it doesn't work for all potential clients. "There are a lot of design studios that want to work with everyone, and that just doesn't happen here. That is not what Rick is about," says Griffith's wife, who handles the business aspects of the studio. "Rick can be brutally honest about things, and for some people, that doesn't fit."
That brutal honesty, as well as a penchant for hijinks, has earned Griffith some detractors. A few years ago, an AIGA Colorado event highlighting his work was called off after complaints from a local graphic designer apparently offended by Griffith's punk tendencies. And Jason Otero, who founded MATTER with Griffith, split from the firm soon after and relocated to New York City. "I worked with Rick many, many years ago and would prefer to leave that door closed," Otero says in an e-mail.
Ever since he sent that giant, type-swathed knife, Griffith says, "there have been a few people in this town who have consistently been horrified by my work. The reason why some people don't get me is the same reason why other people do get me."
Still, he insists he's grown older and wiser and left many of his boneheaded ways behind. Besides, there's no time left in his days to trifle with artistic rivalries, what with all the client meetings to attend and exhibits to curate and type-oriented excursions to arrange and once-a-year print sales to plan. It's not easy being big and bold, always standing out from the crowd like a single, distinctive letter on an otherwise blank page.
"He is carving a path that hasn't been carved before," says Wurtzel. "He is not a white man going down the same old path. The traditional type of businessman who owns a design firm doesn't fit Rick's profile. How can I expect what he does not to take so much work?"
Sometimes, though, that work is too much even for Griffith. One night in early November, after participating in a printing conference at the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Wisconsin, Griffith started driving to Chicago, where he had a 6 a.m. flight the next morning. At some point he dozed off behind the wheel, colliding with a semi-trailer.
"I was as fortunate as anyone could be while colliding with a semi at 70 miles per hour," he says. "'Fortunate' is the only way I can describe it. 'Fortunate' covers a lot of stuff in my life." He walked away with little more than hematomas in both of his legs, and even managed to make his flight home.
Still, the experience "changes a few things for me," he admits. For example, he pays heed to the alarm he's set on his iPhone that goes off every morning at 6:45 a.m., a warning that's labeled "Last wake-up call to change the world."
"The pressure is on," he says. "All we have is time, talent and objectivity."
Even after the fish tank of mojito mix runs dry at MATTER's eleventh annual print sale and party, Rick Griffith is still going strong.