The University of Connecticut (UConn) graphic design program had invited Husky alumni to act as advisors for current students embarking on their senior projects. To help students select the advisors most applicable to their individual pursuits, we alums created video presentations of our work.
I wasn’t feeling myself—droopy with added pandemic weight and still a month or so from shaving off the denial of just how rapidly I was balding. Not that we advisors-to-be were necessarily required to be on camera for our video presentations, but the mere thought of that—and rediscovering ego in the context of this low-key class reunion vibe—made me chuckle. If you’re ever in danger of taking yourself too seriously, it’s disarming to instead lean into absurdity. And so “Balloon Man” was born. (And subsequently killed.) Though alumni of UConn’s Puppet Arts program would be rightfully appalled by my woefully untalented improvisation here, I did have their quiet yet acclaimed history in mind as I hid below frame gesturing wildly along to my own narrative audio track. (Shout out to UConn puppetry garage band, The Castasides.)
The 90% true story of my progression from UConn design senior, to my present professional-ish life as a 40-something balloon.
I’d earned my Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from the University of Connecticut with a concentration in Graphic Design. (Although at that time it was billed as “Communication Design”—perhaps an attempt to better articulate design’s inherent reason for being, without limiting that form of complex problem solving to merely graphic solutions.) I fell backwards into the arts program almost by accident. As a confused and anxious high school student without a clue of what to aim for, I’d actually applied to UConn as an anthropology major. Meanwhile, my hobbies were music, computer programming, and illustration. By the end of my freshman year, that knack for drawing and an interest in photography had haphazardly lead me to the visual art building—where the “interesting” kids seemed to be congregating. But I still hadn’t realized the design concentration was were I belonged.
Ivy for the price of State
As I churned between interests, UConn’s art school was likewise churning. The dean had resigned (or died?), and a permanent replacement had yet to be appointed. I’m not certain if it was a result of this slow-motion leadership transition, or purely coincidence, but at the close of my sophomore year, the entirety of the graphic design faculty at UConn left for greener pastures. Everyone, except for Mr. Edvin Yegir. As the last instructor standing, Edvin was tasked with recruiting new faculty and creating a design program ahead of the fall semester—no small endeavor. In order to quickly scaffold a cohesive design curriculum and ensure a common vocabulary across the new faculty, Edvin turned to the pool of recent graduates from his own alma mater, Yale University’s graduate graphic design program. The first wave of recruits from what would grow into a longstanding informal relationship between the schools consisted of Mark Zurolo, Randall Hoyt, and David Frisco.
It’s difficult to convey the impact that this freshly minted UConn design program had on that 19 year old, rudderless version of myself. I’d more or less rolled out of bed into my local state school, yet found I was on the receiving end of an Ivy League graduate curriculum. (Not that we students always capitalized on this good fortune, but when we did manage to meet those high expectations the results were golden.)
In-progress painted portrait of what became the “UConn design trinity” from left to right: Randall Hoyt, Edvin Yegir, and Mark Zurolo. (Sadly I’ve forgotten the artist’s name; a then-graduate painting student at the University of Connecticut.) If I recall correctly, David Frisco had moved on from UConn by then, but several more Yale design grads would follow, continuing this newly established tradition of teaching UConn design students.
Mr. Edvin Yegir
Each instructor brought their own talents and personalities, but Edvin was undeniably the spiritual center of the program. Ever dressed in black with his floppy curls and John Lennon-esque spectacles, he was soft-spoken yet authoritative. He was insightful, kind, and patient.
After catching sight of Edvin in a phone booth wearing black leather gloves, his eyeglasses replaced by sunshades, we began to joke that he appeared to be an “international man of mystery.” He attempted to self-regulate his smoking habit, and when he did indulge he would hide this from students so as not to accidentally endorse a behavior that he knew to be destructive. (I will admit to, having already a habit of my own, occasionally purchasing a pack of his favorite Dunhill Reds in emulation. Not a clever thing to do, but we are human after all.) Edvin loved finely crafted vehicles—a patron of brands such as Ducati and Lotus (much to our wide-eyed amazement).
In the spring of 2003 I was in my final semester as a Communication Design major, and also completing my year of Design Center—our portfolio-gated cadre of advanced (ridiculous) design students that collaborated on real-world (often UConn-related) design projects for university credit. In those days Design Center was physically located in a saltbox home adjacent to the old Print Shop on Storrs Road. (Here’s a Google Maps capture of Design Center from 2011—before it was leveled to make way for a goddamn Price Chopper parking lot.) As Design Center students, we were given keys to this tiny home and we effectively lived there together. (If only the shower had actually worked, we definitely would have.)
Edvin Yegir on the rooftop of UConn’s old Design Center building holding a fresh copy of UConn’s annual literary / arts journal, The Long River Review—a recent Design Center client. (That year’s edition featured a cover photograph by and of fellow graduating fine artist Laura Salierno.) Photograph by yours, truly. Spring 2003.
One of our collective projects was to design the 2003 exhibition catalog for the graduating MFA students. That year’s theme as chosen by the grads and faculty was “Intersection.” As fans of wordplay and association, we naturally chose to set the catalog in Interstate—created by one of our typographic heroes, Tobias Frere-Jones. Not content to merely pun around with fonts, we endeavored to go conceptually deeper by literally intersecting the work with itself through an elaborate folding design that we invented specifically for this catalog. I recall attempting to carefully explain this folding design over the phone to a representative from our local print shop, Thames Printing, only to be scolded by this confused employee that the proper term for what I was describing was a straight-forward saddle stitch (she was terribly mistaken), and that I really ought to choose a different career because I was not cut out for design. (Decades later the print industry’s been rather chastened, hasn’t it?) It’s worth giving our bizarre folding design a look over; see the UConn 2003 MFA “Intersection” exhibition catalog.
On a beautiful spring day several weeks later, a much kinder representative from Thames had swung by Design Center to share print proofs for our “Intersection” catalog. I argued that rather than color proofing the sheets indoors under poorly calibrated incandescent bulbs, we ought to do it outside in actual daylight. Edvin was perhaps reluctant but ultimately agreed, much to our shared joy. (If calmly sitting on that gently sloped rooftop just a single story from the grassy lawn below seems dangerous, you should have seen JP Chirdon skateboard off of it as we filmed him from underneath.)
Color proofing our “Intersection” 2003 MFA final exhibition catalog in actual daylight on the rooftop of UConn’s old Design Center building. From left to right: Apirat Infahsaeng, Anzelina (Okarmus) Coodey, our Thames Printing liaison (inside from window, barely visible), Mary Banas, Erica Flamand (obscured), Edvin Yegir (facing away from camera and holding a copy of our “Intersection”), John Paul Chirdon, and Bryan Langdeau. I was the photographer (and instigator). Spring 2003.
Every so often Edvin would host a dinner at his home in Branford, Connecticut for design students and faculty; an old seafood restaurant converted into a residence along the shoreline. (It’s since been razed and replaced by something more fitting to its contemporary surroundings, but with considerably less character and warmth.) I recall a few years after graduation, meeting him in Manhattan for a brunch once; arriving outside and peering through the restaurant’s windowed facade just in time to catch him in a brief farewell embrace with a beautiful woman, who then left before I had arrived at the table, making introductions unnecessary. Some time into our meal I mentioned this and asked who she was. “Oh, that was just my sister,” he explained in his quiet Iranian accent. Spotting my confused expression he followed up with “You thought she was my lover?” and nearly doubled over in laughter. Those belly laughs are perhaps the loudest I have ever heard his voice.
An unexpected phone call
In August of 2021 my old friend and UConn classmate, Mary Banas, phoned me with the news that Edvin had just been in a road accident. Riding his Ducati on a beautiful summer day, he drifted across lanes while taking a curve, was struck by an oncoming vehicle, and died at the scene. (See One killed in collision between motorcycle, car on Route 9 in Woodford and Rider identified in motorcycle vs. car fatal crash in Woodford.)
I hadn’t spoken to Edvin in nearly ten years; that last time was in London when he and Mark first established the design study-abroad program with Central Saint Martins—extracting a class of UConn design students from the backwaters of Storrs, Connecticut; dropping them into the heart of an international city. (I was living in London at the time, hence the meet-up.) How could it be that the death of a college professor that I hadn’t kept in touch with…why did I find his passing so significant? I think that’s a testament to the sort of person he was. The world was a better place with him in it; now lesser without him.
From the original crew that revamped UConn’s graphic design program in the early 2000s, only Mark remains. Which is to say, the program remains in great hands. And he’s accompanied by a strong brace of talent that is of course anchored in that Yale design tradition. (So do take advantage, youngbloods. You’ve still got Ivy for the price of State.) Or do worry—in twenty years you, too, may find you’ve transformed into a balloon.
So that’s the context of the video; made about five months after Edvin’s passing. I claim above that “Balloon Man” was perhaps born of bruised vanity, but … after digging up those old photos and recalling those memories, I just wasn’t ready to be fully present; needed something distracting to cut the mood. (And I can only imagine the grief of Edvin’s family and colleagues.) Here’s the transcript of the video, annotated with notes and hyperlinks to help make better sense of the references contained within. Balloon Man’s wardrobe was helpfully curated by Mr. Atlas Smith.
Hey there. I’m Stewart Smith. I became a Husky in 1999—that’s literally last century—and I thought I was going to major in anthropology. It took me a while to gravitate toward the graphic design program here—and just before I did, a funny thing happened: ALL of the design professors quit!
Everyone except for Edvin Yegir. Edvin quickly hired a handful of folks and together they built an entirely new graphic design program from scratch over the summer. So, that’s the beginning of the program that YOU find yourselves in RIGHT NOW.
I was incredibly lucky to be on the receiving end of that education. And now YOU are the lucky recipients of that deep design knowledge. [This alludes to Edvin’s recruiting from Yale University’s MFA design program.]
So you’re working on your senior project. I remember those days. Maybe you’re like I was, so anxious and running on so little sleep that you’re half delusional. Don’t despair. Balloon’s here to make it ok.
So what are you making for your senior project? For my senior project I made a zine; sort of a low budget magazine. You see, back in high school I’d created this quarterly zine called “Tweed.” It started as a cut-and-paste / photocopied thing. And eventually I pirated some desktop publishing apps (don’t tell anyone) and taught myself how they worked. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it planted some good seeds that I’d pick up on later as a graphic design student: things like visual hierarchy, typography, the interplay of text and image… So for my senior project I decided to take what I was learning at UConn and apply that to a brand new print issue of Tweed. And I’m a bit relieved to say that I cannot find a copy to show you.
Brooklyn, New York
Right after UConn I moved to Brooklyn, New York and I worked for this guy, David Reinfurt, in his tiny Manhattan design studio called O-R-G. He really nurtured my instinct to mix code and graphic design.
During that time I made this music video on a very old Apple computer from 1979. Constraints can be really good for creativity and this very old computer was full of constraints. My music video began as just a personal project, but once the band saw it they loved it. It even went viral for a while—and this was before YouTube, and all those social media apps that are ubiquitous today—so I was pretty proud.
[Here’s where I entirely skip over chasing the shadows of my professors and mentors by attending Yale’s MFA graphic design program myself—moved to New Haven for two years, then back to New York. In retrospect it feels very odd to have omitted this.]
I have a lifelong love for the World Wide Web. I love good hacks and fun / unexpected interactions. I made this version of Atari’s classic “Pong” game. The game isn’t played inside a window—it’s played WITH windows! Browser Pong also went viral, which was a fun way to wrap up my time living in New York.
London and Karlsruhe
You see, after that I packed up everything I could carry with me, and I moved to London. And even though I was living in the UK now, I started working as an artist in residence at a place called ZKM. And ZKM—this well-regarded art institute—happens to be located in southern Germany. So I’d work from home in London for a few weeks, then I’d fly over to Germany and spend a week or two living across the street from ZKM. I was holed up in this dormitory for hospital nurses. (And I think it may have been haunted.)
One of the best parts was that my good friend and longtime collaborator, Bobby Pietrusko, joined me there. He would fly in all the way from Boston. We’d work frantically all day long, then party half the night, and then do it all over again. Good collaborators can make hard work a joyous experience.
So there we were, making these really large, immersive data animations for ZKM’s art exhibitions. Visitors could walk inside these circular rooms and be surrounded by data. And these were the early days of data viz. We had to construct our own databases, build our own animation software, and collect and enter our own data too. It was madness.
Return to New York
I spent about 3 years in London living this digital artist lifestyle. But it was time to move on. I returned to New York, and joined Google’s Creative Lab. Creative Lab is sort of an in-house ad agency for Google. I wasn’t used to this level of corporate infrastructure: Producers, copywriters, quarterly reviews, management chains, and so on. Those aspects took some getting used to. But the work itself was fun and collaborative.
The Chrome team—the folks who make Google’s Chrome browser—they were really happy with how popular their Chrome for desktop had become. And now they wanted to promote Chrome for mobile devices. They came to us hoping we’d make TV commercials or a poster campaign; something like that.
Instead we made a game. It was a slot car racing game that you played right in your phone’s web browser. We called it Racer. You could race together with up to 4 other friends and the racetrack was drawn right across all of your the screens. Sundar Pichai, himself, unveiled Racer at Google’s big developer conference that year. [Edit: It was during Sundar’s keynote, and I was personally on hand the evening prior for Sundar to quiz me about Racer, but he was not on stage when Racer was unveiled—my memory failed me!] Not only was Racer was a hit online, it showed off what modern mobile browsers were capable of—and that was the real brief, right?
I’d been obsessed with Rubik’s cubes for a while and it was kismet when I discovered that Google was partnering with Ernő Rubik, himself, on a traveling exhibition all about his wonderful invention. I built a web-based digital model of Erno’s magic cube and that became the basis of the exhibition branding. It also became one of those “Google Doodles”—you know those things that replace Google’s logo for a day. So in that 24 hours something like a billion eyeballs saw my work. And that’s kinda cool.
I got an early look at consumer virtual reality headsets and I thought the demos were really compelling. I started teaching myself how to make VR for the Web—and inventing the parts that didn’t exist yet. (If you’re into that sort of thing I open-sourced just about all of my WebXR work.) I got to put all of that learning to use when I teamed up with Jonathan Puckey and Studio Moniker on this VR music video for the band LCD Soundsystem. It was a lot of fun. And meeting the band was pretty cool. We had a big launch party and also got to see them perform for free.
Ok. I have to wrap it up, so I’ll make this quick. I worked at Amazon for a few years on more Web-based virtual reality stuff. And last year I turned down a job offer from Facebook, which was a head trip. And one of my old bosses hired me back at Unity—yes, the game engine company—where I’m working on some crazy augmented reality stuff that we’ll launch next year. And just to end on a curve ball, my real side-passion is quantum computing.
I’m not sure what quantum computing—or really any of this—has to do with graphic design per se. But here’s what I do know: Soon YOU will graduate (hopefully) from a program that has instilled in you some amazing intellectual tools—from questioning the client brief, to understanding your audience, to communicating through composition itself. These are really powerful abstractions that you can apply to just about anything you take on in life. So take those tools and go carve your own weird path. Good luck!