The longer John Bielenberg talks about Project M, the more it sounds like a modern-day hippie commune—it’s all about breaking rules and expanding horizons. This past June marked the fourth year for the monthlong experimental education program. Each summer a handful of recent college graduates gather to work on a socially conscious project and participate in graphic design’s version of the Rural Studio. They live together in a farmhouse situated on two acres in Searsport, Maine, chipping in $2,000 each for production expenses. Instead of a VW van, the group gets around in a retired ambulance that functions as a kind of rolling design studio.
Perhaps the biggest 1960s throwback is the program’s free-form nature. “It’s not structured on purpose,” says Bielenberg, the program’s 48-year-old founder and partner in San Francisco branding consultancy firm C2. “Some people flip out a little. I like to let them struggle. It’s not school; there’s no curriculum. It’s really their program, not mine.” Past participants have delivered supplies to designers displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and created a book for a conservation area in Costa Rica. This summer’s program was especially open-ended: instead of Bielenberg picking a subject in advance, participants were asked to develop a project collectively.
Project M’s real value, however, probably resides in process rather than product. Bielenberg catches many participants during that tender moment before their first professional job and attempts to inspire them to dig deeper, think bigger, and create great design that comes from within. A central focus is Bielenberg’s “thinking wrong” mantra—a catchphrase for coming up with alternate solutions and circumventing those standard problem-solving paths in the brain.
But for all its free-thinking hippie appearances, one of the main results of Project M is to provide an unconventional path to fairly traditional careers in graphic design. As a 2003 Project M participant, for example, Christian Helms met and befriended famed poster designer Art Chantry. “Getting to know him—having conversations, sharing ideas and opinions—helped me and other M-ers realize that the distance between where we were and where he is isn’t that far,” Helms says. “It was reassuring. He’s just a normal hardworking guy who loves what he does.”
The pair kept in touch, and when Helms told Chantry he was moving to Austin, Texas, the older designer suggested he look up a poster artist named Geoff Peveto. Today Helms and Peveto are business partners in the Decoder Ring Design Concern, a multidisciplinary company that does work for the music and entertainment industries. It was a career-changing connection with just the kind of long-term effect that attests to the program’s success. “Project M gives people a jump start on their careers,” Bielenberg says. “It’s sort of like a farm team for the big leagues.”