When did you realise you wanted to be a designer? “When I was about seven years old and what’s funny is I could take you to an exact place in Cleveland. I could tell you where I was sitting. I remember everything about that moment when my Dad said ‘Oh look at that’ and pointed to a Clark fork lift truck logo. There’s an L in it so it just works. It’s the surprise, the privilege of getting a hidden message, like solving a crossword, being dealt a perfect hand in poker or getting right letters in Scrabble. Part of graphic design you have control over – your imagination – and part of it is about what you’re given at the time and the context you’re working in. But that logo changed my life and it still gives me pleasure and delight.”
What was your first job?
“My first paying job was sorting bottles and carrying packages at a local beverage store in Ohio, for a dollar an hour. My first real job, however, was working as a salesman in a shoe store. I really liked that job and was good at it. My first graphic design job was working at an old fashioned commercial art studio in downtown Cleveland called Pitt Studios. This place did everything, including illustration, hand lettering, and occasionally something you might call design. All at the very tail end of the ‘Mad Men’ era. I think of it very fondly now.”
How would you describe what you currently do?
“I say I’m a graphic designer. Sometimes people say ‘What logos?’, ‘What websites?’ or sometimes they say oddly, ‘What with computers?’ and I say, ‘Yeah with computers and stuff’ and they might say, ‘Have you designed anything I know?’ It can be baffling to people.”
What has been the biggest change in design since you started?
“The obvious answer has to do with technology and to do with speed. When I started in 1980 I remember the arrival of the fax machine. Big revelation. Before that I remember type-setting when someone handed you the final manuscript of a document. At the very beginning they’d hand you a pile of type written pages and they’d say: ‘This has been approved by everyone,’ and then you would take that type and manuscript and indicate how all the type should be set, what font, what measure and everything else, and the great thing is you would call up the typesetter and say: ‘I need it delivered by ten tomorrow morning’ and they would say, ‘Sure.’ Then you would put it in envelope at your front desk and someone would collect it. They’d work all night and set it and it would be delivered the next day but you could just go home because there’s nothing else you could do. It’s the pace and the media that have really changed though. I remember literally paying $20,000 for a test animation on a logo and it would take them two weeks to make. Now I find one of our new interns and I’ll say: ‘What animation programmes do you know? Can you do this?’ and I’ll show them what I want and they’ll say: ‘I’ll try’, and it will be done by lunch.
What is your favourite project that you’ve worked on?
“Most people will say their most recent is their favourite or they love them all… Well, I don’t like doing design for designers, I like problem-solving. It’s a classic design cliché but I get really scared if someone says: ‘Here’s an open brief do what ever you want.’ I really don’t like that, it really bothers me. And it’s even worse when the audience is other designers. Back in the early ’90s I got asked to chair a design competition for the American Centre for Design, and that meant that I got to design the poster. I was so paralysed about deigning it as it was a call for entries to a competition about graphic design for graphic designers and I was going to do a piece of graphic design that was supposed to enable all of this to happen. It’s so self-reflexive and you get caught in this rabbit hole and its inescapable. I said: ‘Do I have to do this?’ and they said: ‘Yes’. I had so many bad ideas. Some of the worst ideas I’ve ever had. Eventually I started this whole stream of consciousness thing around ‘What is good design?’ and then I started writing the statement and thought: ‘Why don’t you just put that on the front of the poster?’ Simple. But then what typeface? Do you pick Helvetica and people say: ‘Great it’s all in Helvetica? Do you do it in a serif typeface and people think: ‘I always knew he was as traditionalist.’ It was around the time my oldest daughter was four years old and learning how to read but didn’t really know the alphabet. I went home and said: ‘Liz, Daddy’s going to read you out some letters. Just show me you can write them. So I dictated letter by letter, the entire statement and she scrawled it on a single piece of paper. I was so proud I had taken an idea and drained all of the design out of it but still allowed it to communicate. It was funny, when I had the initial idea I did a sketch of it and sent that to the client – my own version of kids’ handwriting – and of course the real thing can’t be anything but real, otherwise it looks so hackneyed and awful. She got a credit on the poster but now she’s a lawyer. Maybe I drove her out of design.”
What is your favourite project that you haven’t worked on?
“As a teenager, the most exciting graphic design I saw was record packaging. It got me into the field as much as anything else. I have been doing design now for nearly 35 years, and I have still never done an album cover. Thank God that vinyl is back — I still have a chance.”
What was your biggest mistake?
“My biggest mistake, which I make over and over again, is not taking one last look at something I’m working on. I can’t tell you how many times I take that last look when it’s too late, after the project is finished, and I see that one extra thing I could have done to make something perfect. I like to work fast, and I’m very impatient; this is the down side of that.”
What is your greatest ambition?
“I’m a workaholic, so I have a scheme where I’m going to take some time off and read – the Pentagram partners know. I’m not one for vacations really. This has more of a structured context – it’s a controlled sabbatical, weeks not months. I’ll see how that goes, although it’s not my ambition to lay around, read and not work. I’ve been really lucky this year with work, which has put me in some interesting situations. I’ve found myself in locker rooms with American footballers or at the New York Times when they decide what’s going on the front page. I need to have a certain kind of experience for it to work. I would say my ambition is to just find even more interesting people to work with who do even more inspiring things so somehow play a role in exposing things to a bigger world.”
Who is the most inspirational person you have worked with?
“The good thing about Pentagram is that it’s a truly collaborative and collective environment. I get inspired by my partners’ work all the time and when I have the nerve to ask them about what they think of my work in progress. Sometimes I’m so scared to ask I just hide it. Their input is so accurate and precise, so I would say my 18 partners around the world first and foremost. I also worked with Massimo Vignelli for ten years and what was interesting about Massimo, he died on a Tuesday and I saw him on that Friday afternoon the week before; he still had this energy and optimism and right to the very end exuded happiness and still cared so much. He managed to do that miraculous thing by merging his life and work a in a way that was really incredible and that’s why I hesitate to say my big ambition is to stop working. The really inspirational thing about Vignelli is that he made his life and work the same thing, which is different from being a workaholic working all the time. He just loved design so much he just figured out a way to connect it up to all the other things he was doing. If you like what you do you don’t have to work a day in your life – it has been said many times.”
What piece of advice would you give to people starting out in design?
“Just do a lot of work. You have to do a lot to get good at what you do. It’s more than practising; you have to do bad things before you can do good things and if you’re any good at all you have a curse because you can tell the bad things are bad. If you’re not talented you can’t tell – you do crappy stuff and you think it’s great. I remember when I was younger, all along I would have an image in my mind of what I wanted and then it would get out there and it just wouldn’t quite be there and other times I would get it almost all the way there and time would run out, or my talent or my abilities would run out. You have to just keep doing that and doing that is the only way to get better. Self-criticism is your secret weapon. Pentagram competes everyday for commissions with people who are just out of school; they could be in school. They’re formidable competition. It used to be that we would have a big grand office and they would have a terrible little office, but now we both have websites and their website is exactly as big as our website – it’s just that we might have more stuff on it. But people are looking for clarity not quantity. You guys have a great website and the design press has become a really great advocate more than anyone for younger designers. I have designers that work for me and someone will see something they’ve done in their student portfolio or a small project they’ve done in the office where they have primary authorship of it and they’ll feature it on a site and suddenly they start to build a reputation. If you love design there are so many ways to start doing it. Two guys who work for me found a copy of the Vignelli-designed New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards for the New York subway system signage. It’s a single bound book published in 1970, the rules of which are followed to this day. First the guys scanned every page and put it online and it broke the internet in certain circles because it’s basically an undiscovered manuscript by your favourite pornographic author. Then they said: ‘Why don’t we print a facsimile edition?’ so they started a Kickstarter campaign. They acquired the rights and were given a 30-day window from the transport authority to do a one-time printing of it. Their target was $108,000 and they cleared that before dusk the first day. They had $800,000-plus dollars. Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed. They still work for me. It’s a beautiful edition and I wrote the foreword for it. Yeah, they said: ‘We’ve got this little project,’ and I said: ‘Go for it’. They just were just enthusiasts and wanted to bring it into the world. What would it have taken to make that happen in 1985? You would have needed a trust fund or a rich uncle or something…”
Design Week was speaking with Michael Bierut at Design Indaba.