It was San Francisco Design Week last week, which meant plenty of schmoozing and boozing at top design studios all around the city and a resounding toast to “design” in the broadest sense. Graphic design was heavily represented (Adobe and Shutterstock even hosted a “Pixels of Fury” live showdown), as was product design and architecture.

Naturally, 99designs staff was on the scene. Here are our highlights: the awesomely unconventional home of a star architecture couple, a Swiss typography duo’s success story and the hidden showroom of a modernist furniture giant.

Each of these inspiring events had some lessons to teach that apply to all forms of design. Read on for a peek into the events and some useful principles that we took away.

Behind the Scenes at the Mission: House

Top: Mission House’s second level kitchen/study
Bottom: Mission House’s ground level architecture studio/gallery

Architecture duo (and married couple) Zooey Astrakhan and Andrew Dunbar set out to construct a unique home that would both fit their growing family and serve as a laboratory for their innovative design principles. They also had a very limited budget.

The result has impressed architecture publications across the world — and us as well!

The living room, with a view of the house’s plastic, translucent back wall

The most amazing part: the entire backside of the three-tier house is made out of salvaged industrial plastic — sum total, only $2,000. Corrugated, thick and translucent (think greenhouse roof), it lets light in and traps heat so the house does not even require radiant heating.

And when it gets too hot? No problem; the roof slides open to let in cool air.

Clockwise from left: open air bathroom, roof garden above, bathroom’s ceiling aperture


  • Good design can solve two (or three, or four) apparent problems with one multi-use element.
  • Beauty and thrift are NOT incompatible. Do as much as possible with as little as possible. (In graphic design, every shape creates both positive and negative space. Waste neither!)
  • Make your home your laboratory, and don’t be afraid to be your own guinea pig. If you wouldn’t want to live in the house you built (or wear the graphic you designed), chances are nobody else will either.

Types THEY Can Make: with Norm and Maximage

Dmitri Bruni (left top) and Manuel Krebs (left bottom) are the Swiss type designers behind Norm

Zurich-based typography duo, Norm, consists of Manuel Krebs and Dimitri Bruni — two friends who graduated from design school in the early 1990s without a single commission to their name, and are now one of the most respected studios in the world.

They have created corporate fonts for major watch brands like Swatch and Omega, and are responsible for the ubiquitous font “Replica,” which is used in publishing all over the world. They were full of wisdom and advice. Take note.

Norm’s most famous typeface, Replica (left), and a poster from Norm’s “Superficial” series (right)


  • If nobody wants to hire you yet, design for yourself. Building a portfolio is key — and make sure you are a demanding client! When they were starting, Norm created punch cards to advertise their studio.
  • Design is not just “making art.” It’s a job. Although they have the freedom to do otherwise, Norm goes into the office Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm, putting in a full workday just like everyone else.
  • “If there were only one book in our office, it would be American Wood Type: 1828 – 1900,” Norm says. If you care about typeface, consider picking up a copy.
  • Make EVERYTHING yourself. “Using a pre-made typeface is like dancing to someone else’s music.”
  • Sometimes the best way to test yourself is by forcing yourself to use cruder technology and less precision. When Norm begins work on a new typeface, they start by decreasing the number of cells in the grid by a factor of 20. Worry about details later — don’t let them bug you at first.
  • When asked to define “graphic design,” Norm responded with “superficial.” “Graphic design is always on the surface. It is the outside of the content.” In other words, a design is meaningless. Without the entity, it is branding. Build the design around its referent, not the other way around.

Herman Miller Showroom

The Henry Miller Showroom in downtown San Francisco

Herman Miller is one of the oldest and most most prolific manufacturers of modernist furniture, boasting classics like the Noguchi Table and the Eames Lounge Chair. For San Francisco Design Week 2012, they opened up their showroom – a bright open office space modeling some of their best sellers. Among them:

The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman are two of the most iconic pieces in furniture design. And the reason – they’re damn comfortable. They’re super cool-looking as well but this quickly becomes secondary to their prime use: being sat in.

The Embody Chair looks like most desk chairs for the most part. But take a closer look at the details, the back of the chair in particular, and you’ll find that’s it’s much more. A couple of interesting and unexpected details can make a design unforgettable.

The Eames chair and ottoman (left) and the backside of the Embody chair (right)

Magis Stool One was created with the goal to use as little material as possible. The structure ends up using its surrounding empty space to its advantage. The design is not just about what is there but what isn’t.

The Magis stool from above


  • Function first, style second.
  • Creative details get a simplistic design noticed.
  • Don’t fear empty space; use it! (in graphic design, this means white space is your friend).

What are your guiding design principles? Please share.