Ernesto Morales: Design for Discovery and Delight

Ernesto Morales discusses how his past and his passions came together to create Studio Malagón, and how design can be a catalyst for creativity and community.
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Ernesto Morales

Founder and Creative Director, Studio Malagón

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Ernesto studied communications in college, but he was always focused on applying those skills to his true passion for design.

Studio Malagón draws its name from another one of Ernesto’s passions: music. He used to DJ under the name “DJ Malagón.”

Ernesto found inspiration for his studio while living in Mexico City, where his family is from. He used to walk the streets and take photos of small details, objects and colors that helped inspire his designs.

Ernesto is driven to use design to foster connection and to support people who are thought leaders, working to make a difference in the world.


IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone, you're listening to the TEN7 podcast where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology business and the humans in it. I'm your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Ernesto Morales, the founder and creative director of Studio Malagón, a graphic design agency that creates moments of connection in Austin, Texas. Ernesto leads a creative team that we are currently collaborating with on the new TEN7 site, and I am so excited to be talking with him today.

Ernesto, it's my great pleasure to welcome you to the podcast.

ERNESTO MORALES: Yes, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to speak with you.

IVAN: Are you joining me from Austin today, like I said you were based in?

ERNESTO: Yeah, I am. I'm in my backyard studio.

IVAN: And do you have a wonderful view of the warm green outsides of Austin?

ERNESTO: Yeah, it's true. Summer is something that people dread here, and it creeps up on you and suddenly it's just here, baking you. So that's what I'm seeing right now is the sun's coming up after a week of rain.

IVAN: And it's May, so I imagine it's going to get much hotter there pretty soon. [laughing]

ERNESTO: [laughing] Yeah, it's a bit of reverse of cold weather places like Minneapolis where summer is the dreaded season.

IVAN: [laughing] Yeah, Isn't that, right? So, you didn't grow up in Austin, did you? Where did you grow up?

ERNESTO: I grew up in Houston, just a stone's throw away, actually on a street called Skipping Stone Lane. [laughing] My parents are from Mexico City and they moved to Houston right before I was born and raised me and my sister Sylvia there, and we’re still very well connected with Mexico. There they have a lot of extended family that we would go visit once or twice every year growing up. And so, we grew up in the suburbs of Houston, an area that's very international, in Jersey Village High School in northwest Houston, and we're still so connected to our Mexican family and roots there. So, a little bit of a multicultural upbringing.

IVAN: And you mentioned that you went to high school there. What era was that? When did you go to high school and what did it look like around culturally and from a pop culture perspective for you?

ERNESTO: It’s funny, I think just immediately of technology, right? Like, the way that I was communicating with friends was always on AOL Instant Messenger, and it was getting, sneaking access to the family computer and eventually taking over the family computer for my just friend conversations. So, I grew up with a lot of creative introverts and chat was our way of talking and we were kind of an alternative rock kind of crowd. I was in an alternative rock band as a drummer.

IVAN: Oh, you were?

ERNESTO: Yeah, yeah, I was.

IVAN: Well, let's hear about that. What was the name of the band?

ERNESTO: Long, long ago, it was called “The Shrieks” and from what I remember, our lead singer, lead writer, Nick Norris was interested in finding something that was SEO friendly in a way, like “The Shrieks” is just a thing that is memorable as like, a band name, in the very early days of searching for things on Google, I think. He was very advanced. We were following a lot of the garage rock movements of the time and he was really a genius songwriter, and all of the people in the band were more adept at musicianship than I was. I was just there to kind of beat on the drums [laughing] and never really leveled up my skills, but I was just having fun with the band.

IVAN: Did you want to be a musician when you grew up? Or was it kind of design early on?

ERNESTO: It was design early on. So, when we were graduating from high school, I threw a final summer party at our house, and I did this very nerdy thing of having a sort of guestbook, where people could write their names as well as their future careers that they had in mind. We were all going on different paths, right. And I think I still have that thing somewhere; I wrote “graphic designer.”

I had run into this book at a bookstore that really made me fall in love with design, made it all click for me. It was called The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kid and Chip Kid is a graphic designer and this book was about a graphic designer going to graphic design school, so it's very specific. Also the book itself, the experience of being in bookstores, was where I fell in love with just the intimate connections, these moments of connection that you mentioned at the top, and how design can create those and create this very personal experience of something that you hold in your hand, or you interact with, a lens through which you see the world. And so, I was very attracted to that energy, that power, and in just exploring where my creativity could lead in that direction.

IVAN: What year was that?

ERNESTO: It was in 2004 that I graduated high school, and I graduated college in 2008. There was a lot of, feels like bygone traditional graphic design where there was a common canon of traditional graphic designers, Paul Rand was at the top, and there were other white men to follow or kind of like from a European tradition, Swiss design. There was a lot of still classic standards that folks held on to and it was the early days of web and digital design. There just weren't any real disciplines around that yet.

IVAN: And you couldn't even implement any of the designs really online either, right? Helvetica became a web font so much later, like the best you could work with was Arial, and maybe Times New Roman.

ERNESTO: Exactly. So a lot of limitations, a lot of links just as blue as they could be and red when they were clicked on. So yeah, that was a very different era. That was when I really fell in love with design through the sort of traditional print lens. And I fell in love with the more experimental folks of the eighties and nineties, M & Co., Stefan Sagmeister, people who created not just again, a book design, but a beautiful package with a sleeve insert, and there's this deep concept, and when you open up there's a hidden message here and there. That whole just layers of meaning and concepts that just make you connect more with a thing, that was always what drew me.

IVAN: So, after that summer party that you threw, you made your way out to Boston to Boston University, and you knew you were going to be a graphic designer at that point.

ERNESTO: I did, but I grew up with my dad being a business manager, the kind of role that is in a big corporation; he worked for HP. The kind of role that I still really could not explain to you in a sentence.

IVAN: [laughing] I have a friend who I can't explain his job either, so I totally get it.

ERNESTO: [laughing] Yeah, I feel embarrassed by it. But I grew up in sort of this kind of pressure to have a career that had more clarity around it and graphic design, at least the folks that I was following were more in this kind of artistic leaning and didn't fill as much of a clear career path, and so I deviated a bit, and I think that that deviation helped because it wasn't that much of a deviation, I studied communications at the College of Communication at Boston University and that was a lot of breadth. It was a lot of writing. Your first course was writing 50 profiles of famous people in 100 words each. We would do script writing and PR writing and then we would do other projects like advertising and video production.

And it was a lot of just broad based thinking about communication, what is the true meaning and message we're getting out? What is the audience? How are we defining them? Who are the competitors or other people in the space? It was just this broad and strategic way of thinking. Then I came in and applied to graphic design.

I took an elective that was graphic design in a different school, and then I took a few advertising courses where I tried to hone my design skills. I was interested in that part.

But it was not like a design curriculum that I took, I ended up just amassing a portfolio of enough design things that I then took into some internships that I then grew into the next internship. And so, my career was just slowly pieced together through a lot of just working on doing the extra work to try to “oomph” my design, without having a formal design instructor to tell me, these are the standards you should follow.

IVAN: How amazing that your communications career would become so fundamental to the work you do today.

ERNESTO: There were times when I didn't want to bring that up, because I didn't want to bring up that I was self-taught in graphic design, because that could look like I had something missing. And now just looking back, I realized the breadth has really helped.

IVAN: Yeah. So what was your first design role then out of college? And how did you land it?

ERNESTO: Yeah, out of college. So I had done in college, a few internships and had a little bit of a working resume and a little bit of a working portfolio. And I had this friend, Ava Roski, who worked for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which was then around 2008, was like a relatively new building, very big landmark, new architecture, and they had a big landmark, new brand to go with it. So, she introduced me to the designer, who had the ICA on retainer, and his name was Jose Nieto, based in Salem, Massachusetts, and I went up there on the commuter rail with my little portfolio, and I very shyly presented my work, and he was very detail oriented.

I remember him commenting on certain things that he would have done differently or was suggesting that I could learn from, and I came back from that just thinking Oh, boy, I got a lot of work to do. But then it turned out, he called me back and wanted me to be his intern. We had connected on some level, and he was really eager to teach me and to have someone to teach. He was so passionate about design.

He was the one who introduced me to these groundbreaking thinkers like Sagmeister, and I would always just ask a question, and he would stop what he was doing and pull out a book and show me how he might respond to that question and we would drive around, go check on the print production for something, and on the whole drive, he would just answer my questions. It was just such a generous mentorship that was just the day in and day out of being an intern with him, because it was just the two of us most days.

IVAN: What do you think he's doing now? Are you still in touch with him?

ERNESTO: Yeah, I checked in with him a few years ago. He's sort of a creative director position at a place called Argus. I tried to check in with him, but it was through LinkedIn, because that's all I had of his anymore, and LinkedIn messages sometimes people respond a month later, because I’m not used to it, [laughing] so we missed the coffee date.

IVAN: Oh, that's too bad. Those early influencers and mentors can make such a big difference in one's career and one's life.

ERNESTO: Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about reaching out to those early mentors and just giving that sense of gratitude and that check in.

IVAN: Yeah, that would be amazing. And so, then you were interning in Salem, and I know you've been all over the US and also working in Mexico City. So, you grew up in Houston, went to college in Boston, first job was out in Salem. What was the impetus to move to Mexico City and work there? What were the circumstances around that?

ERNESTO: Sure. So my parents being from Mexico City I had always visited as a child, but had always been just kind of wrapped up in the bubble of family like we were just literally breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we had appointments with family all day, or else we were stuck in the house. There was not a lot even into my 20s, not a lot of go off on your own. And part of it was just my parents being cautious. They had grown up in Mexico City and didn't want their kids just kind of “out in the wild” and the unknowns and the sort of unwritten codes.

You know it's just like any other big city, there are unwritten codes that you have to follow and understand. Actually I was attracted to it because I became a DJ, so I followed the musician thread a little bit into adulthood. And I was very focused on this kind of Latin American electronified sound that was going on in the 2012 era. There were genres like Moombahton, and Digital Cumbia that people were just releasing bootlegs of this stuff. And I was just curious, this is my roots, I'm playing this music up in Boston, but I'm from Mexico, and I feel like I don't really understand the culture on my own terms, and I just wanted to go down there.

I went down with my DJ partner Sarah Skolnick, who now goes by Riobamba. We went down to what she arranged, because she was always just making engagements for us, she arranged as a travel diary of us as DJs in Mexico City that I would design for our websites, that we would take video for it, so again, my communications background, kind of turning this whole thing into a package. And at the same time, we were touring. Then, I just met somebody who was hiring a graphic designer, and I stayed. It was kind of like, total serendipity moment, but born from trying to connect with my cultural roots.

IVAN: You probably heard me laughing about the fact that you said you were a DJ, and that was not insulting at all. Mostly, because your middle name is David, and your initials are EDM. And I think that's just another genre of music that's electronic that you could be DJing. And so, I thought that the connection there was quite amusing and funny.

ERNESTO: Yeah, it's true. I've owned that in different times, too. So yeah, EDM, I sign off my emails now as EDM.

IVAN: How have the different cities you've lived in influenced the way that you design and the way that you think about the creative process?

ERNESTO: So, I've been lucky to just be in communities that are very entrepreneurial and self-starting. I graduated in 2008 in Boston where the recession was hitting, and I wanted to work at small design studios, but the opportunities just weren't there. I was working at Square Zero in Salem for a little bit, but then that dried up, and I decided, let me move closer to home, a lot of my Houston friends have migrated to Austin, let me go see what's going on in Austin. And Austin had a lot of dry opportunities as well, I was kind of just piecing together this freelance career.

But at the same time, in the many places that I've been, I have just been, again, lucky to meet people who are self-starters, and entrepreneurial, and in more recent years, when I was in Mexico City, I was amazed by how many people that I would meet, were running multiple different endeavors with multiple different creative partners, and they had like very established brands and websites for just the event series that they were doing, or the music series or the design studio.

So many different people just making their business and their simple marketing materials to put their name out there. So, when I was in Mexico City it was really the inspiration to think this could really be my studio. I've been freelancing now on and off trying to just piece together the gaps in my education, trying to piece together my income, but what if I sort of leveled up and treated this as a studio and took on that, that whole name?

IVAN: And so, Studio Malagón was born in Mexico City is what I think you're saying?

ERNESTO: It was. And originally, actually Malagón was my DJ name.

IVAN: I see, so DJ Riobamba and DJ Malagón?

ERNESTO: Yeah. And we were together as a duo, we were Pajaritos, which means “little birds.” But Malagón and Riobamba actually, both of those are place names, but we kind of found them through our own channels. And Malagón was this story that's very connected to my parents being cautious about me exploring Mexico City on my own. I was going to meet a friend of mine who also was half Mexican and living in Mexico at the time. I was going to go meet her in the broad daylight afternoon, in the center of downtown, my mom was telling me to be cautious about what kind of cab you get into. Be cautious about this and that.

And so, mid 20s, completely uncautious, I would just walk into the first cab that I see, and the driver is 18 maybe and the ID on the window was clearly someone else, clearly like a father or an uncle [laughing], someone in their 50s, 60s, very faded ID and yet the ID had the name Malagón on it. And so, I got off and met my friend, Samantha Catan and just kind of went on with my day but that stuck with me, because I was struck by this idea of this person holding on to this other person's identity and I was at the same time doing this sort of identity search. I literally had a sort of deadline on when I had to put my DJ name out there.

But I was just trying to figure out my life and career, that concept of sort of flexing a new identity and like putting on a persona was something that resonated with me then as a DJ, and then I sort of thought well, you know, there's DJ Malagón, why can't my design practice be Studio Malagón? Now I have this channel that's just our sort of playlists called Radio Malagón, and it just feels like this extension of that identity that was kind of borrowed and then I took it on.

IVAN: Wow, what a cool origin story. One of the only things I know about Mexico City is that the Frida Kahlo Museum is there. Is that close to where you were by any chance? Did you spend any time at that museum?

ERNESTO: No, it's funny. The Frida Kahlo Museum, my wife, Sandy Russom, has been with me to Mexico so many times. We met while I was living there, and yet, we've never been able to go there because it's far, it’s like an hour's distance. It’s actually in this place called Coyoacán which was not Mexico City, it was a different town that got eaten up and incorporated into Mexico City. And the time that we went there, most recently, we saw a line that basically was two, three hours long of, you know, nice day, lots of travelers trying to get into the museum, buses dropping people off, and we were like, Okay, well, maybe another time.

IVAN: Maybe another time you’re going to have to go back and do that soon.

ERNESTO: Mexico City is so inspiring. To me, Mexico City is so inspiring on every corner in every nook and cranny. There's such a mix of new and old and traditional and contemporary and rich and poor. And, you know, there are a lot of complexities to that disparity, but there's a lot of just rich exploration and I ended up realizing I really am a foreigner here. My family's from Mexico, I speak fluent Spanish, I appear Mexican, but people would always ask me, as soon as I speak a few words, where are you from? [laughing] I just couldn't quite blend in, but I think that as an outsider, I just got such a rich experience of trying to piece together this idea of what is the ghost of me that would have grown up here, if not for that one job opportunity that my dad had.

I was staying in the house where eventually five generations of my family set foot in and just kind of making a new life for myself there and understanding what is my relationship to the city and this culture and literally if I had to go somewhere, I would plan to walk as much as possible from A to point B, and just go down streets I hadn't gone down to, and I just took out my phone and photographed so many little details and used Instagram for the first time and found this whole community of people just capturing little moments that are just sort of serendipitous relationships between objects, this bright colored chair leaned against the wall and the sunlight catching it in this way. It doesn't have a deep, rich story but it has this moment of connection and beauty in the day.

And I have been thinking about how little I walk lately, during COVID times and walking is ultimately [laughing] the way that I get inspiration and the big reason for it, I think, is just because I don't know what's going to happen. My mind is emptier. I'm not sitting around solving a problem, I'm just out there kind of observing quietly, my surroundings and so many things can come of that.

IVAN: And how poetic that the name and the genesis of your studio is in the same place where generations of your family have been. That’s a beautiful connection between the beginning of your studio and your past.

ERNESTO: Yeah, it's really nice. My family really made a very intentional effort to keep us connected with our extended family in Mexico. And they wanted to stay connected to us, of course, but just taking us there and making sure that we always had face time, like I mentioned breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings with folks in our family to connect with them once a year, every two years and just feel like that was an important side of our life.

IVAN: Do you think you had a mission when you first started the studio? And if you did, how does it compare to what your mission is now?

ERNESTO: When I first started, I was lucky to be really right away, introduced to the kinds of industries that I'm still attracted to which were art, culture and media. My first internship at Square Zero I was working with the ICA in Boston. We worked with Mass Art, and we worked with Contemporary Theatre. We worked with the American Repertory Theatre, based in Cambridge. And so, we were doing cover design for theatrical productions, we were doing promotional brochures for art exhibitions.

And to a degree that was just my early understanding of what my mission was, was that I wanted to work for people who produced art and culture and media. And that has stuck as a thread. I've ventured into side projects, whether it's the DJing, or other projects that are generating my own art, culture and media, and then designing that. And that's just the area that I feel most richly connected to is, we have now kind of landed on this working tagline of “Design for the delight of discovery” and trying to create the designs that are going to introduce people or be that first cover image or that first introductory design that people see when they're engaging with this piece of media, this piece of art entering this experience. And so, that is something that I always want to lean into, is just working with people who, now the vision is coming together.

I literally woke up at 5:00 AM this morning, and couldn't sleep with the positioning statement for the studio that was kind of coming into place. And that positioning statement is pretty well linked to my early ideas of working in art and culture and media. We do visual design for ideas, stories and experiences, not products. That's the working idea. I never wanted to work for products or emphasize product benefits, I've always wanted to work with people who are putting big ideas out there, who are working in publishing, generating podcasts, and creating the whole designed experience around what media they're creating.

IVAN: That's a great segue into talking about how we've been working together, and the work that we've been doing since the beginning of the year on the new TEN7 website. I think you and your whole team have brought an incredible amount of insight and knowledge and experience to working together. And I'm really excited to start to share with the world what we're actually doing. And I'm really looking forward to the next phase of the work that we've been doing together.

What I wanted to ask about was your process, and your process with us. I struggle to say us because I don't treat you and I don't feel like you're a vendor. I feel like we're working together on this thing that we're building and this thing that we're creating, but I do realize that there is this service relationship, and that you have a process, and that you've used this process before. And what I'm curious about is, how has your process changed? How has it been different? Where have you needed to flex in your work with the project that we are collaborating on?

ERNESTO: I really appreciate, first of all, just the trust and the sort of at level partnership that you treat my studio with. Ultimately the big key to us collaborating so well is just that we're partners in this and that feels like it just opens up a lot of trust. My senior designer, Melissa Brimer, we have been working on a handful of brand and website packages, and we have honed a sort of basic process around it.

The process is generally kind of an industry standard, but the part that I love about working with TEN7 is that you have this comfort in opening up under the hood and seeing the inner workings of our design directions and the early drafts. I remember when I first was giving my art direction to Melissa, which is just a screen recording video of me talking through, “Here's a bunch of inspiration, here's a bunch of tactical tools that we can look at, in this mood board. Here's a bunch of type and color thoughts,” and I offered to record that for you as well, you were excited for that and that I think just is a really nice opportunity to bring you in, again, not really as the feeling as a client, but as a team member and to be able to get into the sort of messy design process while things are still like, “Oh I’m getting this emotional reaction from this thing. Not sure if it's a thread to follow”. I think that being able to get collaborative in a messy way and just kind of throwing ideas out there, that really brings the best creative.

I try to bring my clients to that level as well. What I appreciate about TEN7 is that you have this vision that you have been formulating into words at the same time as we were kicking off the visual design aspect of your brand and website. And I think you being in the headspace of envisioning, that is a perfect handoff for us creating visuals around that vision. And so, we try to tease that out in our clients to sort of go beyond providing us the content and the specs for a thing. Like, dig into what is the vision? What is the deep meaning and value that you're trying to create, that you want this audience to feel? We really appreciate those clients who can be in those blurry conversations as the vision and visuals are both coming together because again, it just brings better creative.

IVAN: I agree, I think that it's hard to trust someone that is responsible for the future of your brand. Right? You can't just hire someone and trust them immediately, there has to be some sort of connection, there has to be some trust in the relationship, there has to be in some cases, data and evidence as well. And I'm just so glad that we've been able to collaborate the way we have, and this podcast will publish but we still won't have launched anything publicly from a visual perspective. But boy, watch out, because something amazing is coming out soon.

What has been hard? What has been difficult for the team? What has surprised you or delighted you about the project?

ERNESTO: It’s really hard to come up with difficulties in this. I'm not just saying that to be overly positive. The would be difficulties, oftentimes in the design process, there's just a lack of communication, or lack of clarity around what your vision really is, or how you might respond to this or that, what's your underlying emotions behind things. But we've had the pleasure of breaking through that, we have very open communication, and we have very open critique of what's working and what's not, and that sort of vulnerability is really treasured. That's something that I'm actually learning that I can apply to other clients, is just not being afraid to be vulnerable, and to ask questions that might clarify a major facet of what we're working on. So just having that open pathway and bringing in your strategist Lynn into the wireframe reviews, and there's a lot of just the open critique and open conversation that breaks through what is typically the challenge.

IVAN: I think that's a glowing compliment. And I wasn't looking for one, but I appreciate everything you said. [laughing] So I was looking at your LinkedIn profile as part of the research I was doing for this episode and I remember seeing this the last time I looked at the profile back before we started working together, and there was this company called Object Solutions. On the outside and at the outset, you take a peek at it, and it looks like a real company, feels like a real company but there's just this really weird, dystopian future edge that it has, almost like Black Mirror, that show about all those weird futuristic things, right? And then I kind of clicked on it and I looked at the website and I spent time watching all four videos that were there, and the Sleep Achievement Medal really was something that stuck out at me. And then I looked at when Object Solutions was created, and it was created, I think, early in 2013, or 2014, something like that. So it wasn't recent. And it's really a project by you, right? It's one of your projects and it's dark satire. How did you come up with this idea? What were the influences? What was your thought pattern around creating Object Solutions?

ERNESTO: Object Solutions, I really appreciate the lens that you have on it, because that's exactly what I tried to create in the design, was something that could pass for a real company, but you just see between the lines and this dark future they're presenting. And I've always been interested in futurism and future forecasting.

And in college, this is sort of 2006, my friend Chris Maggio and I would always talk about these topics, just sort of what if scenarios that were absurdist, about what if robots were integrated into every single thing we touch that kind of thing. And we created this thing at the time called the Institute of Future Impactful Thought, it was like a rough prototype for this. And I just kept going with that thread. It was a school project that kind of died and I was just like, “I really still want to make this thing that could house all these absurdist inventions that I come up with all day”. And the invention that really kicked it off was the magnifying spoon.

IVAN: [laughing] Yeah, that was a good one. I'm sorry, listeners to be interrupting but you have to watch the magic spoon video on Sorry to interrupt you. Keep going. Keep going. [laughing]

ERNESTO: So, the magnifying spoon was born literally to solve a problem that I had, which was I was working in downtown Boston at a design studio, went to grab my lunch, brought it back and it was a burrito bowl without a crunch, but I felt a crunch. [laughing] I investigated the crunch, there was a small piece of glass in my burrito bowl.

IVAN: Oh no!

ERNESTO: And so rather than just get super angry and everything, I just always carried my ideas notebook around and I just thought, “Wouldn't it be funny if I had this obsessive tool that I could use to magnify my meal, and thus I would have caught the errant object before I bit in.” And so, I'm already getting into that voice just describing it, just this highly technical and overly optimistic tone of like, what if you had this most amazing object that's going to solve all your troubles.

That was the sort of voice that came out of it and I would just take my lunch walks and have a little notebook and be writing on the column of the restaurant where I was waiting for my takeout sandwich, I would just be writing the scripts. I was so fortunate to meet up with these folks, Juan Pablo Vietnine and Carlos Maldonado in Mexico City that I just described the magnifying spoon to them, their industrial designers, and they said, “You have to make that. We know where you can make that.” And Mexico City downtown has, from indigenous times, has a very sort of specialized block by block zoning of what kind of products you can buy in that one block, and so you can go down to “the lens block” and get your custom lens done by a custom lens maker who can carve it out like a spoon for you. Then you walk over to “the jewelry block” and you can have a custom jewelry maker replicate a spoon handle that you brought and take the lens and figure out how exactly to clamp them together. And then pretty soon you have this bright gleaming object that you can use in film production.

So, I went to New York with my friends, Chris Maggio and John Wilson. They are very enmeshed in the film network there, so we had a green screen space their friend Brad rented us, and we just created this stark, dramatic product demo video around the magnifying spoon, around the full body moist towel. There was one called the ergonomic pants, which didn't make it to light. And they sort of let me drive the creative direction even though I had never done this before. I was kind of trying to partner with them on the vision, but they were like, “Well, it’s your vision. What do you want?”

And I just pieced together this entire world. You know I was just following the inspiration without having a deep vision for the purpose or the final outcome. It was just that I wanted this thing to look like a company, to have product demo videos on the website and to make a statement about how we rely on technology, how we turn to technology whenever something fails us, or whenever something is difficult to manage on our own terms. So it was really just this whole world built around the inquisitiveness around what is our relationship with technology and where do we want it to go?

IVAN: What's striking to me is that this was produced years ago, eight years ago, which in internet times is like five eras or something. But when you think about what you're saying, and what you've produced as possible future, are these products really that ridiculous when you think about them now? Especially the Sleep Achievement Medal, we have to talk about that, because eight years ago, no one would be caught dead carrying something around their neck that had a flashing amount of hours that I slept last night. I don't know that anyone would want to do that now, but I feel like we're closer to wanting to do that now than we were eight or 10 years ago. I wonder what ridiculous thing we can think of now that will just be normal 10 years from now?

ERNESTO: Exactly. The Sleep Achievement Medal was this little glowing digital emblem that you would wear on your chest that just displayed how many hours you slept last night. I think that's maybe a feature in the Apple Watch now? I don't know. But at the time, it was just something that I found in Mexico City that you could program the LED to do any pixel pattern that you wanted, so I designed all the pixel patterns for one hour of sleep versus 14 hours of sleep, and how those would look different.

IVAN: I saw the 14 hours of sleep, I thought, Really? [laughing]

ERNESTO: Hey, that’s the ultimate achievement. [laughing]

IVAN: I guess.

ERNESTO: Yeah, actually, my friend John and I in between shots we were wearing a one hour of sleep and 14 hours of sleep medal. We walked into a coffee shop to get coffee for the crew, and I think I was wearing the one hour, and the baristas just gave me a free double espresso. They were feeling bad for me. [laughing]

IVAN: You’re kidding? Really? [laughing]

ERNESTO: Yeah, so, a real test that actually worked.

IVAN: Wow. That’s amazing. For our listeners, you should check that out and look at this wonderful fake company that could be real that Ernesto created. And also, what a great portfolio piece for Studio Malagón. Right? This is something that shows up when you do research into you and your studio. And this is an additional display of the thought process and the creative process that you have.

ERNESTO: This is really what I want to keep digging into. The kind of thing that I want to do with Studio Malagón that's the bigger vision is we want to work with folks who work in art, culture and media and want to produce art, culture and media ourselves and have this perspective that we generate.

The vision for Object Solutions has always been a little bit difficult because the future moves faster than you can make fun of. [laughing] It was always a means to sort of look 10 steps into the future and create this absurdist view of the dark future we could lead toward if we don't do some critiquing around our relationship with technology.

And there's like a humor to it, but it's like a real serious message that it’s trying to inspire. There's design fiction or speculative design, a lot of disciplines that have emerged and flourished that in the time I had just found a handful to model off of.

So we just want to keep participating in that conversation, and yet to visualize the future, I have found that I think audio is a good way to more broadly, imagine the what ifs, because you don't have to spend your time creating a prototype of something and then the next day, it's on Kickstarter in a different version that someone is trying to put out there.

There's a little bit more, I want to think beyond the future that I could personally manufacture and kind of imagine fictional scenarios and imagine how we would turn to those with this corporation Object Solutions as this corporate caretaker who is taking care of all your concerns, and you can outsource all your problems to and have them handle them for you.

IVAN: So you've kind of described the future through this company Object Solutions and sort of a big brother aspect. What's the future of Studio Malagón? And what do you envision for your agency moving forward?

ERNESTO: Yeah, I have been digging into this myself and trying to answer those big questions, trying to work on the business, when I get the chance. We have this goal of honing more into working with art, culture, media, working with people doing visual design for ideas, stories and experiences. And just to participate as thought leaders on our own, in generating ideas, stories and experiences from our own lens, whether it's this critical, dark satire of the future, whether it's creating musical experiences, or just generating dialogues about design, as an industry, as a tool.

That's the next realm. It’s a little bit like the direction that you've taken TEN7 in where you are an agency that provides services, but you also have a strong perspective that you put out through your blog and podcast, and then that brings the kinds of clients and team members that are interested in the passions that you have and the perspectives you have.

And so that's kind of like the circle we're trying to create in the coming years, is, put ourselves more out as thought leaders, establish really more of a honed vision of what our perspectives are in the world of design and technology and beyond, and to have that be the way that we meet the people that we partner with.

IVAN: It's been glorious to speak with you and to listen to you speak. And I just have so much fun talking to you and working with you. And I'm just appreciative of the time you've spent with me today and for sharing your thoughts on the podcast with us.

ERNESTO: Yeah, absolutely. I am so grateful for you inviting me on and for you to trust us as your partners in working on this new vision for you. I'm excited for the world to see it as well.

IVAN: I am excited too and thank you very much for your time today.

ERNESTO: Yes, thank you.

IVAN: Ernesto Morales is the founder and creative director of Studio Malagón, a graphic design agency that creates moments of connection in Austin, Texas. You can find them online at

You've been listening to the TEN7 podcast. Find us online at And if you have a second do send us a message, we love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.


This is Episode 120 of The TEN7 Podcast. It was recorded on May 21, 2021 and first published on June 9, 2021. Podcast length is 50 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumacas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.

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