Do you remember the first time you were attracted to graphic design?
You mean graphic communications? Ha ha! You know, no, not really. If I had to guess I would say my first memory featuring typesetting, graphic elements and composition would have likely been from a periodical my parents subscribed to, and could have been found on a coffee table or kitchen counter in our home in Virginia. But actually being drawn to graphic design as a singular medium of expression, as a discipline? Probably through National Geographic. Or it could have been my father’s softball jerseys. Or even album and cassette packaging. They were all present in large enough doses.
Do you find that graphic design can be informed by just about anything?
Absolutely. Ideas for graphic design solutions to communication problems, if you can even call them that, are very literally sewn into the fabric of our lives. They’re woven deep, so you have to look hard sometimes. But, yes, I often have found that some of my best work was born not from sitting in front of a computer or with a pencil in hand staring at a void of white paper, but from a random moment while walking to the post office or while driving back from dinner with friends. It’s in those moments that I’ll see a bridge and think of a way to adapt it for a possible new way to navigate through a website, or I’ll observe the way a tree sways in the breeze and think of a way to adapt the layers of movement into a logo for a business card.
Lots of folks cite dreams as having a huge influence on their work. Would you say they inform your work?
For most folks dreams are as creative a reality as they will ever have the opportunity to experience. I would say that dreams, especially the incredibly rich, colorful and complex ones, do one thing more than anything else: they remind me that there is no limit to the boundaries of imagination except the ones that are self-imposed. And, not so esoterically, they are often composed in such a wildly filmic way that they tend to directly relate to graphic design purely as a mode of communication. So, yes, they inform my work in that they serve as a litmus test, a gauge of how much creative energy I am injecting into any given project.
Do you prefer to create the “skin” of a website as well as engineer the programming (or “back end” as it’s known) in order to maintain a hands-on approach to quality-control and design accuracy?
That’s a great question. I’ve spent many, many years developing my graphic design skills. In the process I’ve tried to take the time to explore as many technical approaches to the medium as possible. And when the internet was born and websites along with it I realized that a great challenge to my graphic design dedication would be the degree to which “web design” would trump “graphic design” as the new dominant professional descriptor. After meditating on the subject I came to the conclusion that if I continued developing my purely graphic design skills as the internet matured that by definition there would be a group of individuals whose dedication to purely programming would mirror my own. And that the best working production model for any website would therefore inherently be a two-person team: one designer, one programmer. So, no, while I am certainly focused on quality-control and design accuracy I firmly believe that every website should be born from three parents: the client, the designer and the programmer.
So, would you formally say you specialize in anything in particular then?
I suppose I would say that I specialize in staying out of the programmer’s way. Ha ha! And by that I more directly mean that while I am creating inventive means by which a client is able to lean on their website I am also constantly creating a path of least resistance for the programmer so that the design isn’t scattered or unorganized technically speaking.
And that goes back to your thoughts on sharply dividing the design vs programming responsibilities?
Absolutely. I only work with programmers I completely trust to deliver the goods. I stay out of their way, they stay out of mine. It’s a beautifully simple and healthy methodology. And it really comes from my philosophy on life and people: observe, meditate, experiment, respect, trust, engage, empower, create.
What’s your take on advertising and branding in what has become a brand-saturated mental environment?
Because I tend to shy away from working with resource-rich, politically hyper-concerned individuals and businesses, there are no severe pressures that force me to depersonalize my work. And it’s that pressure to depersonalize, to cast as wide a net as possible that tends to form a kind of brand fog. Simply put, I maintain that the client’s highest personal truths must shine through if they are to be able to unflinchingly lean on whatever it is I have created for them. I’m not one to usually offer predictions of the future as it relates to the nature of advertising or branding, but in general I feel relatively comfortable saying this: experiential branding, events in real spacetime woven directly into our built environments, will definitely play a much larger role than ever before. Our city streets will become theaters, our memories of these events will only feel random but they will be by-design and the more embedded these events are the less we will question their authenticity.
I’m not even sure I understand what you just said. Ha ha! Are you saying that real events will be staged with real people in order to communicate a certain brand’s role in the event?
Almost. I believe the designers of these experiences will likely use highly trained professional theater artists as the event’s main players. Other than that, though, yes. It’s not hard to imagine an event in your life abstractly revolving around, say, a pair of jeans or a certain beverage, is it? I’d argue that it’s likely already happened to each of us countless times. It was just never by-design that we experienced it. It’s all in the evolution of consciousness, the way we interact, our ability to comprehend and accept the role played by chaotic absurdities.
Interesting. I’m going to topic jump here, but… is there a specific kind of project you most enjoy working on?
While I more than welcome just about any variety of graphic design opportunity, I have always had a thing for small spaces. Things like business cards, CD and DVD packaging, greeting cards, small ads whether print or digital… those seem to be where I am able to really use my pressure cooker editing approach to create loads of impact.
Wouldn’t posters and websites also fall into that “small space” category?
You know, no, not really. Not by definition anyway. Posters can be installed in groups forming either a tile effect or one large single image. Therefore, they can take up as much space as the surface onto which they are being affixed permits. And websites can be designed to appear to navigate in one or more directions far beyond the screen’s dimensions. So, while what you see at any given moment may be constrained to the frame created by the monitor you’re using, the degree to which you are able to experience what is outside of that frame is only limited to the design. Certain adventure-based games are a perfect example of how that can be fully explored.
But business cards, CD and DVD packaging, etc. are by definition static, having totally fixed dimensions?
Exactly. Which is why I love them. They are each in their own unique way such a beautiful challenge. Business cards especially. I guess I’d have to say business cards are my personal favorite now that we’re having this discussion.
Because they’re the smallest?
Yes and no. More because they are such a deeply complex object, and what they are supposed to achieve socially, culturally, economically and professionally through incredibly restricted elements is sometimes on the verge of being unachievable. And that line between possible and impossible, really pushing the envelope of what something so tiny, so ubiquitous is capable of intimately expressing is a fantastic example of why I enjoy graphic design as much as I do. That and being able to provide small businesses with a well-edited, appropriately thought-provoking and high quality long-term solution tailored to their specific needs that are best met by employing the services of a graphic designer.
Do you find your talents rest in your ability to combine pure graphic design and pure branding or business needs?
It’s funny. I have experience with pure branding, pure conceptual work as a creative director, and also pure production work as an art director and graphic designer. And while I’ve been developing those admittedly somewhat linked skills I have come to realize something about my particular skillset that I feel is noteworthy: when I create a design solution, regardless of variety or scale, it is always equally focused on brand/business needs and art/design needs. I tend to edit my work, in fact, based on two litmus tests: Does this serve the existing or potential brand/business goal? Does this serve the art/design goal?
So, you embed branding/business services in all your designs?
No, I don’t by definition embed those services in all my work. However, I offer those services if the client directly expresses a desire or, based on my observations and conversations, I will openly offer those services. But, no, it’s not necessarily something that I embed. In other words, if there is a rip or for that matter if there is a gaping chasm in an existing brand, I will actively engage that person(s) in a dialog regarding the degree to which the work I will be doing is capable of helping to reshape that broken brand. Or even if there is room for a shift in the brand altogether.
Taking on more of a creative direction consultant role?
Absolutely. Sometimes all that is needed is a fresh pair of experienced eyes that are willing to help. And that would be me. I’m experienced, I’m willing to help and the last time I checked I do in fact have a pair of eyes. Ha ha!
I would agree. Ha ha! As a designer you wear thin-rimmed black glasses, right?
What kind of question is that? Ha ha! No, I actually have 20/15 vision. Meaning I can read something at 20 feet what “normal” people are only able to read at 15 feet. Huge part of my skillset obviously. Lets me design from 5 whole extra feet away from my work surface whenever I want. Lets me see things from a slightly bigger, slightly healthier perspective… I don’t charge extra for this. I’m acutely fair like that. Next question, sir.
When you were questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in early 1948 did you ever think your involvement in those proceedings would result in the ultimate demise of the Committee?
Well, being that I was born in early 1974, I would have to say… no. This interview is about to come to a close, isn’t it?
Not quite. What is it about graphic design that engages you so much? What is it really, at its absolute core?
It’s about communication and the degree to which I am able to create a precisely expressive message. It’s about concept and image and text and language and color and symbols and being inventive and seeing a client’s face explode in quiet amazement as they see their product for the first time. At its core, though, its about all-encompassing communication.
Any final words?
Anyone who knows me knows I can philosophically go big picture at the drop of a hat, but I would like to take a minute and thank all those who came before me in this field that have had a rich influence on my current perspective… especially Art Chantry, Paul Rand, David Carson, Jane Davis Doggett, Aldus Manutius and the countless uncredited designers and artists who have created works that exist strictly in the public environment serving the public at-large.