The seal—featuring Chief Seattle—looked official and, as a visual arts nerd, I wondered whether Seattle really had a citywide design department. (We do not.)
Officially launched in April, the Seattle Department of Design (SDOD) is a project founded by friends and collaborators Ryan Hunt and Nate Hoe that releases mostly wearable merchandise celebrating often-forgot-about graphic designs from Seattle's history. In short, they are trying to make civic pride cool.
The two met while working at a menswear store in Fremont several years ago, bonding over their shared love of art and design history of the city. Collaborating on numerous projects throughout their friendship, the idea for SDOD blossomed a couple of years ago when both Hoe and Hunt wanted to commemorate Seattle's cool-ass design history with something you could wear.
“A lot of [starting SDOD] was having conversations about being in Seattle and wanting to make things here, but also a lot of people leaving Seattle for bigger cities,” said Hunt. “We kind of had this running joke like, Seattle just needs a better PR team or better merch.” SDOD is an interesting concoction of both.
Their drops have focused on the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, the Washington Apple Commission, and King County Metro (a drop featuring the Seattle Art Museum was taken down, as the museum is a private entity). Each drop has gotten bigger, beginning first with t-shirts then expanding to buttons, blankets, hats, sweatshirts, and even ponchos (which sold out immediately). Everything is designed and produced in Seattle, made in limited quantities.
Mostly based around Instagram, in the weeks and days proceeding each drop, SDOD drops tiny morsels of research that goes into each project. The narrative around their most recent drop, centered around King County Metro, weaves together a Seattle Times story about bus drivers forced to retire because of the pandemic and the agency's ever-changing graphic identity. SDOD also goes deep on the waves that adorn each metro bus stop, designed by Steve Gardner in 2003 that often get lost in the background of daily life.
Though Hoe said they plan to get into more printed matter soon, creating wearable merch was important to them as it's directly connected to a kind of public display of civic pride.
Lifelong Seattleites might remember certain Apple Commission commercials, the Mighty Mole, or perhaps a particular Juneteenth poster from way back when. But what I find most interesting (and most helpful) about the project is that it "unearths" campaigns, commissions, and municipal identities lost to time. And with the growing amount of transplants to the area, there's a potential to visually ground Seattle in something other than plaid and the Space Needle—and, I guess, Jeff's big shiny, untouchable balls.
“There was a time when I think Seattle felt more free to visually experiment and less worried about this flat design standardization of things that you're kind of seeing now,” said Hoe. “It was really fun to see some of these older…typefaces or illustrations or brochures, things where the city definitely experimented a little more visually.”
SDOD has been keeping to a loose schedule of dropping campaigns every few months and plan to continue that pace into the future. For upcoming drops, Hoe and Hunt are interested in other civic departments, citywide events, the 1962 World's Fair, and "weird zines" the city used to give out a few decades ago. They're hoping to get more collaborators and more in-person events in the future, but for now they are taking it as it comes.
This Saturday and Sunday, SDOD is hosting a pop-up at Gift Shop in the International District. From 10 am to 6 pm, they'll have limited merch from the latest drop as well as exclusive merch and research for visitors to poke through.