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Voice: VOL II

Written by
February 25, 2015

A week ago we announced and published our first ever bi-monthly newsletter, Voice: VOL. I. Today we are excited to share our first ever Member Highlight with you. We know that the Chattanooga design community is brimming with amazing and creative talent and that all too often we have missed the opportunity to celebrate all that we have been given through you, our members. We invite you to share in the celebration of what design in Chattanooga looks and sounds like today. With your voice, sharing your stories, projects and plans, we hope to help inspire and grow connectedness within our membership and broader design community. We’ve opened the door to communicating consistently with you and we’re walking through it. There is no better time than now!

This month it is our pleasure to highlight accomplished designer and educator Aggie Toppins, AIGA Chattanooga member since 2013. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her client and independent design practices, her publication opportunities and experiences and the educational design course offering she is leading this summer. Join us in learning more about what she’s up to these days!

Q:  The Unofficial Press is your newest venture/project/business, correct?  When did you officially launch The Unofficial Press and how long had you been thinking about “contextualizing your independent studio activity” before launching?

CRShiksaA: I launched my client-facing practice, The Official Studio, and my independent practice, The Unofficial Press, simultaneously last summer. I had been freelancing for about seven or eight years either on top of my full-time job or graduate school, but after I came to UTC and established myself in Chattanooga, I thought it was time to formally position my client practice so that I could focus on getting the kind of work I wanted most. With Official, I work with small businesses and non-profit organizations to design mostly brand identities and print and interactive media. My clients have included C&R Press, Range Projects, The Glass House Collective, and the Chattanooga Public Library.

Over the last five years, I’ve been growing a body of independent work. I launched The Unofficial Press because I’m not satisfied with defining my practice by commercial projects alone. I need to be engaged in what some call “critical making,” a way of using graphic design as a language and a
process of inquiry—a way of asking questions about the world. With Unofficial, I explore ideas without a client, but I still design for a public audience. The work is sometimes abstract, but I am constantly thinking about the reader. This is why I don’t use the term “personal work” as some designers do.I present the two sides of my studio practice separately in order to place the work its proper context. My independent work is best understood next to other projects like it. My client work looks best beside other client-facing projects. This decision proved to be a good idea. Since launching last summer, I’ve built several new client relationships and placed my independent work in more prestigious places including exhibitions and art fairs.

Q: Would you say that the books that you author through The Unofficial Press are more or less the manifestation of your desire to create (design) independently, outside of client-related projects?  Because they are independent publications, are they the place/space you find most creatively freeing, fulfilling, rewarding?

A: I am deeply fulfilled by my work through The Unofficial Press but client work is also rewarding for me. The right client partnership can lead to really special work. I learn a lot from my clients and from engaging their respective professional fields.

Making independent work is super fragalma2eeing and rewarding, but it’s also very hard and it drives me crazy. I am the only one who approves the work and decides if its fit to print. I’m often a lot harder on myself than my clients are. After the blood, sweat, and tears in the studio comes the search for peer review—getting into shows or independent bookstores. That means fielding a lot of rejection letters—and sometimes, a glorious acceptance. There’s also not a lot of places that do graphic design exhibitions in our region. So even finding the right place to put the work can be a challenge. The thing is, I love the work. I love even the parts that suck about it. How great is it that we get to do this thing called graphic design?

Q:  You recently went to the Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair, how did this opportunity come about for you and what was the experience like?  Do you have plans to continue participating and selling publications at shows/fairs like this? Are there any sneak peeks into projects/events you’re working on for the future, that you’d like to share?

A: Printed Matter’s New York Art Book Fair and LA Art Book Fair are two of the most prestigious events of their kind in the United States. The opportunity comes through peer review. I applied to LA this year and I was accepted. I hope some day to participate in the New York Art Book Fair, but it’s competitive.

LAABF was an amazing experience. First of all, there were thousands upon thousands of people in attendance which is great exposure for your work. Then, there are hundreds of vendors from all over the world who are really really good at what they do. I learned a lot, saw beautiful work, and met many great people. I also met Ed Fella, who is a hero of mine. I didn’t know what to say when I saw him so I blurted out, “I love you!” and gave him some of my zines. He was nice about it.

I would love to do the New York Art Book Fair some day. And of course, I’ll participate in Chattanooga Zine Fest this coming May. I hope to complete a Graceland zine as a companion to my Dollywood zine. There are other new things in the works, but none of it’s ready for the light of day yet.

Q:  You’re leading a CCSA – Experimental Publication Studio course in London this summer.  Just days before the final deadline, right?!  How can students find out more?  Can they contact you directly?  How many more students do you need for the course?

A: Yes! I am offering a course through the Cooperative Center for Study Abroad that is wholly dedicated to experimental publications and it takes place in London. It’s going to be a truly unique academic experience.

Like any college-level elective, if there is not enough enrollment, the course will not happen. At this point, we need just two more students, I think. Fingers crossed! Many of our students have not traveled outside of our region. To go to another country and immerse themselves into a culture unlike their own will have immeasurable benefits. I really want it to happen for them.

There are two pre-requisites for the course, but I will waive them if an interested student who hasn’t taken those classes is willing to read a little about typography ahead of time. Students can use financial aid but they need to meet with their school’s Financial Aid office.

To learn more, students may contact me directly at or check us out on Facebook. The final deadline to apply is this Friday, 2/27.

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