The Young and the Talented: Omaha’s Design Innovators

On the eve of international designer Bruce Mau’s keynote speech at this year’s Young Professional Summit, The Reader contacted almost two dozen senior designers, professional associations and organizations to find a sampling of the some of the best young design talent in Omaha.

The six designers featured here have traveled the world to become among the best in their field,  from landscape architecture, graphic and website design, information engineering, architecture and urban planning. We found professionals that have constructed plazas in Europe, provided technological advances for entire industries and have dedicated their days to improving transit in Omaha. Rooted in loyalty to the Midwest, these professionals have decided to stay in Omaha to bend Midwestern stereotypes and offer residents the opportunity to experience physical beauty in design. These rising starts will continue to inspire the newest generations of creative minds to think big and make an impact.

Anne Trumble (Landscape Architecture)

Pushing on the heavy grey door, I nearly rolled into Anne Trumble’s new design space. The vibrant South Omaha studio is early in the redesign process, with men chipping at paint on the ceiling of the main room as we conduct our interview.

“It’s been really insane,” said Trumble, strikingly pretty in her paint spattered work pants and dusty shoes. “We had to expand our space with Emerging Terrain. It’s getting exciting.”

Growing up on a farm, Trumble became inspired by landscape design by sketching the front lawn of her family home. “When I was 5 I loved watching the changes of the land through agriculture.”

She began turning art into a career in Lincoln, working on design projects for the Lincoln Zoo and Safari Park. After earning her Master’s in Landscape Design, she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to help design the Olympic logo. “I love to travel, and I have been fortunate to work in many places,” she said. “I went to New York to do landscape architecture, streetscapes, plazas…basically large places where people can gather. I’ve worked in Cuba, Tokyo, New York, Madagascar, and Vancouver…” she trails off, even for Anne, her incredible career is a lot to remember. “And Europe! I helped design the Embassy in Rome, and worked on spaces in France. I’ve been very fortunate.”

Trumble crystallized her artistic presence in Omaha with “Stored Potential,” a sustainability piece that used abandoned grain elevators for a canvas. Her projects have been many and diverse, but the 125th St. Project in Harlem, New York was one she poured her creative genius into. “It was a really wild project,” she said. “It was a series of complex negotiations between the City, Harlem and Columbia University, but it encompassed everything that I feel is important in a public space.”

The beckoning of the design world outside Omaha was a wild ride, but the snowballing success of her design company, Emerging Terrain, determined where she was to spend the majority of her career. “I was teaching Landscape Architecture at Columbia University, and loved the experience in New York,” she said. “But once the Stored Potential project was complete, I knew this was going to be my permanent home.” Emerging Terrain’s newest project, “Elevate,” will open in the summer of 2012. The elevators on I-80 will be connected, and a massive, outside eating space will be made by the dual ideas of chefs and landscape architects, two of Anne’s favorite mediums. “This project will be very dynamic, these are two types of mediums I adore.”

The need for accessibility for North Omaha to downtown is no secret in Omaha, and Trumble has her eye on a dream project that would open more than just transit. “The beltline should be a top priority,” she said. “It could be a light rail that would connect North Omaha to UNO, UNMC, downtown…it would connect every disenfranchised neighborhood with the services they need. Omaha could be an amazing prototype city, but we have to deepen the priority of landscape architecture in development.”

I had to ask if she had free time. At that exact moment, a chunk of ceiling fell at our feet. “Well, there isn’t much,” she laughed. “I love to travel, cook, read. I just enjoy good food and company. I am a bit obsessed with A&E television series as well.”

We dived into a passionate discussion of Breaking Bad, a popular television show. The electrician was waiting and more paint was needed for the upstairs bathroom. But our discussion further exemplified the relatable woman that is Anne Trumble, and how her successes have not tarnished her approachable and fun attitude.

Sloan Dawson (City Planner)

There could be no better way to experience the bus system than with Sloan Dawson, city planner with MAPA (Metropolitan Area Planning Association). It’s mid afternoon and we have been waiting quite a while for a ride, but luckily; the wind is not too cutting. “This is a great way to illustrate the importance of improving the system,” said Dawson, glancing up the street to look for a bus. “Imagine having to take this as your primary mode of transit, and in the afternoon they can be quite infrequent.” As one finally approached, we took off down the block, caught our breath in our seats, and began our ride around downtown Omaha. “Designing a bus system would absolutely be my dream project,” he said.

Stop a person on the street and ask them what urban planning is, and it is likely they will have a bit of trouble conjuring up an answer. “Planning is non-disciplinary, which makes it so fantastically open and plastic, yet elusive,” he said. Urban planning is the field of designing streets and cities, connecting neighborhoods and inner city, basically constructing entire communities.

 “I wish I could say, ‘I was born with a singular purpose, and that is to plan cities,’” he said. “But I don’t think that could be said of anyone’s approach to the subject of urbanism or the field of urban planning.” His eloquent manner of speaking and impressive resume makes him seem advanced beyond his years.

Born near Fontenelle Park in Omaha, his experience in the North side of the city sparked a career interest in the public sphere. “Very few of my childhood fascinations and passions gestured toward an eventual career in urbanism, except in the most limited of senses,” he said. “I studied history and political science in college. I had the fortune of doing a stint with Omaha by Design, which enabled me to realize how well urban planning/design could combine my interests and talents.”

Earning his Master’s in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dawson has further cultivated his interest in planning as not just a series of design prints, but of total development. “Planning is discursive and continuous, a product of many collaborations and contestations in and across space and time,” he said. “I would submit the design process offers the richest approach to envisioning the city, it guides the process of change from the abstraction of language to the realm of the physical.”

So what about Omaha? Many residents agree that while planning efficient transportation systems are important, there is still hesitation between what is relevant to Omaha as opposed to larger cities. “Planning is absolutely relevant to Omaha, as it is to any human settlement,” said Dawson. “The primary orientation of the planning profession can no longer focus on the monoculture of the automobile and home ownership as rules for structuring spatial conditions. By changing a few of our ways and expanding our choices in lifestyle now, Omaha could avoid the painful measures taken by other metro areas and become a major magnet for the drivers of future growth.”

The bus wheezed past busy streets and crowded sidewalks of riders, waiting to board. A few conversations later, I learned plenty about our fellow passengers. A breath of fresh air, the work of urban planners like Dawson may inspire you to leave the car keys at home and give the bus a try.

Jeff Dolezal (Architect)

“Tack references a course of action, or method, in order to achieve a goal, especially one adopted after another has failed. This is especially true in our work, good design is a process that vets out and tests those ideas.”

Stepping into the downtown studio of TACKarchitects, the minimal furniture and raw wood ceiling reminds me of a much more bucolic setting, far from the industrial views of an urban core. Architect Jeff Dolezal has a quiet demeanor and talks with us as we lean against rolls of blueprints. The name TACK itself stands out from the normal initialed architecture firms. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves with something meaningful that referenced our work, something people would remember,” he said, gesturing to his colleagues Rebecca Harding, Chris Houston, and new intern Ryan Henrickson. “We (Harding and Houston) worked together with our former employer for over 10 years. We decided to take our work in a different direction and started TACKarchitects in July of 2011.”

Preferring to take on projects that have meaning for all residents, Dolezal and his team look at projects that all residents can appreciate, like revamping the Goodwill stores in town to give a fresh look. “Good architecture should respond in a sensitive way to its surroundings, or cause the visitor to reflect on how the architecture frames its sense of place.”

For Dolezal, the excitement of architecture was caught early. “I went to Bryan Sr. High School where we had a fantastic architectural drafting program,” he said. “My sophomore year I took a drafting class and was hooked, from a technical standpoint. My freshmen year in college the light bulb came on and my passion for architecture and design started.”

Completing projects from Washington state to Washington D.C., Dolezal embodies a professional who seeks to not only give the client what they dream of, but also what they may not expect. “We owe it to our clients to be good stewards of their money, especially in this economy. I enjoy stretching the budget with minimal means and still achieving a kick-ass design.”

Omaha has begun to embrace physical design, loosening its hesitations and beginning to embrace new ideas. “When I first started practicing in Omaha 15 years ago, it was difficult to get clients to stretch out of their comfort zones. Reputation and trust come from past projects and what you’re able to physically show the client what’s possible.”

For Dolezal, there are no dream commissions or projects, just dream clients. “We just want to work with clients that appreciate good design and are fun to be around.” A current project for Dolezal is a home in Regency that blends the functional with an art gallery feel. “This home is for a couple and their two young children who are also huge modern art collectors. So the house has elements of an art gallery/child development center, while sitting on a gorgeous lot with these great interior/exterior experiences.” Projects like these leave little time for Dolezal to have a social life, but the dynamic environment of TACKarchitects does not leave him wanting. “I’m a work-a-holic and my work is an extension of my sense of self. Right now the majority of my free time is making furniture for the office.”

Drew Davies (Graphic Designer)

Walking into the Oxide Design Studio, you face the possibility of being chased by hounds. Also known as Rosie and Glady, these elderly pooches are the introduction to the friendly atmosphere at Oxide. “I’ve never seen them run like that!” said Drew Davies, graphic designer for the company.

Featured earlier this year in Graphic Design: USA magazine as one of the “People to Watch in 2012,” Davies is no stranger to recognition, but seems as humble as a new graduate. Careful to recognize every member of the Oxide team, Davies exemplifies up-and-coming graphic designers while maintaining an inviting demeanor.

An Omaha native, Davies graduated from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with a fine arts degree in painting. “I was lucky enough to find a design job right out of school at a small firm in Cedar Rapids,” he said. “I didn’t even know graphic design existed as a career until I was a junior in college. I remember designing t-shirts for various college organizations and one day being beyond thrilled to discover that people actually get paid to do that full-time.”

Established in 2001, the four-person design team has been working together for nearly 10 years. Eccentric trinkets line the walls; cola bottles from around the world, Lego creations, and a framed photo of the team, hanging slightly sideways.

“Design is the perfect outlet for my graphic pop-art sensibilities combined with my OCD need to create order in the world,” said Davies. “I design to solve problems, realize meaningful change, help people, and make sense of the world. The most visible example of Oxide using design to improve our city is our complete rebrand of the Metro public transit system.”

One project Davies is especially proud of had a hand in helping every voting citizen. “One project that reflects my values as a designer was the development of a set of national ballot design best practices for U.S. Election Assistance Commission. That was a great problem-solving experience that also makes a real difference in the lives of innumerable Americans.” 

Bringing solutions through design back to Omaha, Oxide thrives through collaboration with other local organizations. “My hope is that every day I’m using design to make Omaha a better city. Oxide partners with a plethora of people working to make Omaha great: Omaha Community Foundation, Film Streams, Big Omaha, and more.”

Oxide prides itself on bringing meaning to every project. In 2009, Oxide designed a series of condom wrappers for the Nebraska Aids Project’s HIV Prevention Program “MPower,” creating beautiful designs on the packaging to eradicate the stigma of handing out free condoms at clubs. Most notable design: an image of a kangaroo on the front; the message on the back, “It’s elementary: Use one when you hop in the sack.”

Perhaps it is the OCD excitement, or the incredible expertise of his team, but Davies has big dreams for new projects. “There are too many to count! I would love to design the interface for a universal online ballot for U.S. elections, design a cohesive identity system for all the neighborhoods in Omaha. Redesign all the maps and wayfinding system for the Omaha Zoo. Become the agency of record for QuikTrip!”

From the impressive portfolio they have already accumulated, there is no stopping this dynamic design team. What could be more enticing than a design team that has its own manifesto: “Design is collaborative. Design is valuable. Design is good.”

Jason Hochwender (Usability Engineer)

There is a new niche in design and an upcoming web support culture that has the capability to shift entire industries.

Jason Hochwender has done just that. A usability engineer and the Senior Manager of the Human Factors team with Union Pacific; Hochwender has seen the transition of locomotives glow with new technologies to make the operators lives easier. “My mission is pretty simple; try to make software as easy to use as possible.”

Self described as an information architect; Hochwender earned his Bachelor’s in Management Information Systems (MIS) and began working as a software developer in 1996. Along the way, transitioning technology created a need for usability engineers for the explosion of new software. Hochwender transitioned as well, currently working towards his Master’s in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) from Iowa State.

“Information architecture is organizing information in a meaningful way; it facilities finding things quickly.” Information then needs to be communicated across cooperative lines to ensure total comprehension from both the company and the customer. This is known as interaction design. “Interaction design is about facilitating communication between a user and the system or web site. They are both key tasks in the development of usable software.”

As a usability engineer, his job is unique in giving him the opportunity to interact with both customers and data. Focusing on preserving the bottom line for businesses, Hochwender is invaluable for companies who want to recruit the best minds around. “It’s always a struggle to move beyond technology for technologies sake and to really identify how it can be used to its full potential. In terms of recruiting top tier talent, Omaha has to compete with much larger cities.” To stay competitive, Hochwender insists that Omaha businesses not only use high quality software, but also train people to use it as effectively as possible.

“My goal is to provide enough technology to solve a problem but not to be overwhelming,” he said. “I am currently working on a project at UP to replace the green-screen mainframe interfaces with more modern web based interfaces. My approach is to temper designs to ease transitions into the new environment for our users. It’s been quite a challenge, but is a good representation of who I am as a designer.”

A usability engineer with degrees in various computer/human related fields could be intimidating on paper. In reality, Hochwender enjoys interacting with customers the most in his job, making him more of a people person than a cooped up computer wiz.

“There are so many intelligent and creative individuals here in Omaha that are really looking at how to use technology to its full potential. That’s what I love about my job. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of what we have going on here?”

John Henry Muller (Web Designer)

Omaha-based “What Cheer” may well be one of the most eclectic design companies around. Check out the company website, and in huge font you see the simple phrase: WE MAKE FANCY WEBSITES.

That they do. Founded in 2007 by John Henry Muller, What Cheer marries classic design with functionality. “I focus on elegant experience and beautiful aesthetics,” he said. “In other words, I love making things easier for people to use, but creating an emotional connection between the person and the content is my favorite part.” Their portfolio list includes websites for companies like Bumble and Union Pacific, and work for author and cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba, best known for his book “Inklings.” What Cheer has also worked with Brooklyn based cook Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Post Punk Kitchen, a vegan inspired website. The clients are varied but the mission remains the same.

For John Henry, the attraction to web design began during his stint at Gehlen Catholic High School in Le Mars, Iowa. “I liked art and computers. Graphic design was a logical choice. After learning a little HTML I knew I picked the right career.” After attending The Creative Center in Omaha, he began working at a small web design studio called Onsite Solutions. Taking his career to the next step, he was inclined to begin a company that embodied the same values he felt as a designer.

Choosing a name was a bigger challenge. “My wife and I promised each other that if we ever had a rock and roll band we would name it after the town “What Cheer” in Iowa. Turns out we were not musically talented. So when it came time to name this business, my wife suggested the name. It was perfect for the personable, light-hearted culture we wanted to create.”

John Henry is part of a design team of young men who look like members of a contemporary band; their focus a simple look with a dash of the unexpected is reiterated in their downtown studio. Cool concrete floors, a dash of red from the sofa, and an elevated stage area with the “What Cheer” logo in the window catching sunlight brings well, cheer to the workspace.

Loyal to Omaha, John Henry and his team focus on increasing a sense of patriotism in the city. “We’ve seen a huge increase in city pride in the last few years. The so-called ‘creative-culture’ has so much to do with this.” This pride is best exemplified in the design of the well-known “I live in Omaha” project. This website provides a template for residents to write why they live in Omaha. Begun in May of 2009, thousands of responses have generated community support and shown everyone from neighbors to elected officials what makes Omaha home. “On Valentine’s Day we launched a special addition to our “I Live in Omaha” project. It is called “I Love in Omaha.” The site had an amazing response. In the first day alone we received over 500 reasons. We couldn’t keep up with the approval process!”

As a company, What Cheer loves collaborating with other businesses, and even enjoys sharing their name. “We share our name with other interesting things: The What Cheer House, The What Cheer Art Company, and the actual musical group, the What Cheer? Brigade.” 

posted at 11:54 am
on Monday, February 20th, 2012

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