Interview / 18 questions for Mike Cina

Posted on August 19th, by Lope Gutiérrez-Ruiz in Features. 2 comments


- What lessons have you learned from working in design and within the art scene of Minneapolis?

1. I don’t really see myself as a designer.
2. People here really stick to themselves. It is a very Dutch/German town.
3. Minneapolis invented the modern form of advertising.
4. Minneapolis designers are obsessed with the “kitch retro” visual work. I still don’t know why.

[ click on the title for full interview ]

- – –

Mike Cina is the man behind many important projects in arts in design. So many, in fact, that even composing an introduction is a difficult task. He is one the brains behind True is True, You Work for Them as well as enough additional projects to make you wonder what exactly it is you do with your life. After some research we learned – and completely unsurprised at this point – that Mike has developed an impressive career as a painter and photographer in recent years. The Gopher and Cina sat down [ well, we assume he sat as he answered this ] and talked about his work, studio and some internet randomness. Image credits are owed to

– – –

Mike, your work has spanned through typeface design, sound, interaction, motion, design, painting, printmaking, photography, fishing and illustration. Since we have a lot of ground to cover, we thought we’d ask you about your role at You Work for Them, the design studio turned design shop, before we address your personal work.

– What is the story behind YWFT? How is the team composed nowadays? How was the shift from design studio to design shop? And what projects do you consider have been landmarks in YWFT’s history?

YouWorkForThem began as a way to sell typefaces and miscellaneous items. Almost immediately YWFT started carrying books and stock art that related to traditional graphic design. At the time, our main focus was graphic design for clients and eventually we phased out of that to work on the store full time. It has been something I have wrestled with a lot, as I really enjoy graphic design and art. I think the store itself has been the landmark project. The company is something that exists on so many levels, it is hard to know how big it really is.

– Why does YWFT has a branch in Bangkok?

My business partner moved there 3 years ago from Baltimore.

– After working with clients like Apple, Microsoft, HP, MTV, Coke and Pepsi, what direction is design taking within advertising? Is advertising gravitating towards a more bold and personal design or just plain ol’ corporate this-and-that?

I see companies using designers for their look and style to match what “face” they want to put on their “brand.” It is something I have struggled with my whole career, as I am normally hired for a specific look that was personal. Some companies give a huge nod to the designers they use where others do not. Some projects I can’t even show in my portfolio. These days, companies want to be seen as relevant and cool [ your friend ] and I wonder when that is going to implode.

– How did the relationship with Ghostly International develop? What are, in your opinion, the most important works WYFT has completed for them?

Sam Valenti reached out to me about my work in the early 2000’s and we loosely kept in touch through the years. We were needing some additional music for a DVD and I contacted Ghostly for some tracks at the end of 2007. He asked if I wanted to work on a Dabrye 12″ and it took off. I was wanting to produce printed work that was more personal in nature and they were looking for a new direction. I can’t say enough good things about that label. Ghostly is one of the few labels that pushes the envelope in a timeless way and Sam has a distinct vision. I think there are a couple of important works:

Lawrence – Divided : This cover is an extremely dark photo with no type on the front cover and the back has a minimal typographic layout. This breaks every rule of sales.


Bodycode – What Did You Say? : This is the first painting that I felt captured the mood that I have been trying to hit.


- And now, on non-YWFT questions:

– You are a fine artist in addition to your design work. Do those two fields coexist creatively in your work? Do you use knowledge of one to enhance the other or do you try and keep them as far apart as possible?
They are entirely different to me but can achieve the same result. I try to keep them as far away as possible and getting back into painting again has really confirmed that. Unlike a photo, you can not “tweak” a painting at all. It is exactly what it is visually, nothing more, nothing less. You cannot edit anything unless you physically alter it with a substance. So what you do has to be perfect and look exactly how you wish. As for a photo, you can change the colors or add in whatever you want in less than a blink of the eye. The manipulation is endless. That is why I see them differently and keep them far apart.

– You have said that you like client work because it gives you restrictions and a clear objective. Do you find it difficult when faced with a blank canvas? Do you panic every now and then?

Design has clear objectives normally and is easier to start. Restrictions are a good thing for me. They help guide your work in a desirable direction.

To be honest, I really struggle with blank canvases. They are very intimidating. I have two large canvases right now and I stared at them for a week before I touched them. They are very wide… anything can happen. You have to do “something” to engage a painting though. When I paint, very rarely do I have specific ideas and goals, and often it is just raw expression. A canvas has no ‘set direction’ and exists in the space that it takes up. That is about the only restriction of painting on a canvas. I think I know now why artists did sketches before they painted, it surely helps with direction.

I like to work with no preconceived ideas or “set goals” before I start. Often I mess up and have to start over, but sometimes those mistakes lead me down interesting paths. Visual exploration is a priceless luxury.

– Do you still create collages?

Yes, they exist mainly in my sketchbooks. I also collect images and they work their way into my visual journals. I love collage.

– You DJ’d for almost two decades. How does music affect your work?

I used to be able to see music when I was younger. There would be shapes that came in and out as the music progressed. It is hard to explain my love for music; it is something that my father really enjoyed and has passed down to me. Music is so many things to me: it motivates, comforts, inspires, educates, heals, entertains, and so much more.

– Do you feel most comfortable when creating designs for music-related projects?

I don’t think I feel comfortable designing. It is something that is deep in my being, but I try not to get comfortable in “my” work. I work on so many projects that require so many different solutions. If you look at the work I have done for Ghostly alone, I would guess that you can see this is true. The last thing I have ever wanted is to be a one trick pony. Sadly, in art or design, that is how you become famous. I never want to be comfortable with my work.


– What kind of music are you listening to these days?

I don’t really care much about genres, I listen to about everything as long as it has a soul to it. Lately I have found myself listening to a lot of gospel from the 70s and early 80s. Stuff like The Winans, Clark Sisters, Mighty Clouds of Joy. My main loves are jazz and boogie [ 80’s modern soul funk ].

Lee Fields – My Way [ Truth and Soul ] and Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue [ Warp ] are my two favorite lps of the year so far.

– I love music and own a gigaton of albums, but when writing there’s only one thing I can listen to: the Chopin Nocturnes by Vlado Perlemuter. I’ve become superstitious and don’t listen to the album unless I’m working on something really important. Do you have any similar work rituals or strange music listening quirks? Do you have any superstitions when designing?

Very nice choice, the Nocturnes are some of my wife’s favorite pieces. I have found myself listening to things without words more and more. I never was a big vocal person but I see more and more that it is distracting to listen to vocals while working. As far as other superstition’s, I don’t really have any that pertain to working. I prefer a clean office and desk but I seem to mess things up quickly.

– I went to, your personal website, and it only has an image than when clicked returns you to a blank page. I started clicking like a madman. Eventually I spotted some silver lines on my screen. After about fifteen minutes of this, I had to go get some air – I became incredibly dizzy and my thoughts translated into numbers instead of words. Is that what you’re trying to achieve with Trueistrue? What happened to the old website?

Trueistrue was a place where I played around with concepts, ideas, and visuals. I used to love to question things like interaction, patience, form, usability, etc through design. These days I don’t have much time and felt that I should take the site down rather than show some work that does not represent where I am at now. So for now I have my flickr account… it is not as polished but it shows people what I am up to. I also post work up on my Cargo site as well.

– And on more top-of-my-mind questions:

– If you had do the branding and image campaign for a country which one would you choose?

I would have to do Sicily as it has been the country that I have dreamt of since I was a child. The Cina side of my family was from Palermo so I have had many dreams of visiting Italy/Sicily. I have been to Italy twice now and still need to make it to Palermo. I really really like Spain and Japan a lot as well.

– What have you learned from working in the design and art scenes of Minneapolis?

1. I don’t really see myself as a designer.
2. People here really stick to themselves. It is a very Dutch/German town.
3. Minneapolis invented the modern form of advertising.
4. Minneapolis designers are obsessed with the “kitch retro” visual work. I still don’t know why.
5. You have to develop a unbeatable way of making people coming out to an event. Lie, cheat or steal if needed, heh.


– You’re from Minnesota. We are not. We have to ask: have you ever heard about something called – the Home of Minnesota Gophers Football ? / If you have, what do you think about ‘em?

The Gophers are the mascot for the University of Minnesota so that is our college mascot here. I don’t follow sports.
[ editorial note: we don’t like the Minnesota Gophers or their Gopher Illustrated website very much, we must say. We do, however, much admire their choice of domain. ]
– A couple of weeks ago we left a question at the comments section of your interview at Ghostly International hoping to win the print you were giving to the most interesting question. We did not win. Now that we just devoted a WHOLE interview to you, can we have the print?

Give me your address, I will make a care package for you.

– Hum, and what question do you think we wrote at the Ghostly feature?

No idea! : )

[ editorial note: it was the one signed by LGR, you can check it here. ]

– Would you like to ask us something in return?

I’m curious about why you chose to feature me and my work.

[ editorial note: we have been fans of Cargo Collective and the True is True website for long; also, we really dig Dabrye music, so one thing lead to another via Google. Basically, it seems we are very lucky Mike Cina groupies.]
– Lastly: would you comment on the differences between the art world and the design world? This is a recurring topic in our interviews and we’d love your two cents.

I am a stranger in the art world; I feel that I have not really entered it even though I have been in a lot of shows. The art world seems very ‘layered’ and you have to be ‘championed’ to move up in status. You also are known for your body of work in the art scene, not just a couple good pieces.

The design world is like the wild west. Anything goes, you can be 15 years old from a place nobody knows and be the “new thing” in no time. You can be big one minute and people forget you the next day. There are so many different aspects to the design scene. There are a handfull of people making amazing work and everyone rips them off and makes a career off of it. You have the people who work for agencies and make corporate work. There are companies that do ‘okay’ work for a lot of money and amazing companies that do great work for little money. It has been interesting seeing things change and I feel that the design scene, at large, is my friend in many ways. I have tried to raise the bar of graphic design by calling attention to designers who do amazing work and by carrying educational design books. My hope was that it would raise the bar in the world of graphic design.

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