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Interview: Takenobu Igarashi

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Describe your current interests and approach. I work in both two and three dimensions, and for me it’s very natural to make the bridge. I’ve been greatly influenced by Swiss artists who explored grid systems and mathematical order for form creation and space. I’ve also been influenced by Japanese architecture, which relies a great deal on grid and unit systems.

My approach is to present my ideas first in pure form. I make, for example, three-dimensional alphabets. I make many of them for myself and exhibit them in galleries. Those who view my work in that context come to understand the pure ideas. These ideas are often picked up in my work for clients. This is how I’ve worked for the last twenty years.

What are the priorities in your work? In Japan, everything is integrated: art, design, product and environment. After World War II, unfortunately, our culture took on so many western influences so quickly that some of our important traditions suffered, particularly our relationship with the environment. In Tokyo, there’s a great deal of chaos and ugliness which I despise. Design that improves our environment is one of my great personal satisfactions.

That’s why I’ve recently undertaken more product design work. I used to work for architects and do a lot of environmental design, but now I’m more into products. We have so many ugly products. Japanese products are very good at function but not design. Compare Italian design. So many good products with real originality. But Japanese cars, for example, are all the same and not very well-designed.

How do Japanese clients differ from American or European clients? One needs to establish a much deeper understanding, on a human level, between yourself as a designer and the client in Japan. Clients are interested in making a long-term commitment to a designer. They judge you not only by appearance but also by personality. They want to be able to trust a designer for a long time, and it takes a long time to establish that kind of relationship. Showing your portfolio doesn’t help. You’re usually better off having a drink or just spending time together.

Once the relationship has been established, they are more open to your ideas. We can design anything. We can propose not only design ideas but also new business ideas. American and European clients already have a strong idea of what they want. Japanese clients are more vague.

The decision-making process is also very different. The American or European client want to see your idea and will then make a decision: yes or no. The client wants to make sure all people involved are happy with the decision, so the leader doesn’t make decisions alone. They want a lot of input. If someone disagrees, they want to know why. They seek to create compromise.

You have studios in both Tokyo and Los Angeles. How would you characterize the two cities? Japan is a very old culture, so in Tokyo there is a mixture of old and new and lots of interesting contrasts. Los Angeles has lots and lots of space. In Japan space is very limited and distances are short. As a result, there is much more awareness of detail. Los Angeles has no sense of detail.

Published in Statements, the quarterly of the American Center for Design, 1990

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Interview: Rick Valicenti

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How does your personality inform your work? The concerns of our office are usually my concerns. Right now, we’re interested in recoding and decoding and reappropriating. But we don’t announce these concerns specifically; we employ them to make the client’s statement accessible in new way.

I wish I had a serious point of reference. That’s what aggravates colleagues or makes people curious about me. I wish I could tell somebody what it was that drives my work; I wish I could say we’re interested in making evidence of the designer invisible like Tibor or we’re interested in the fusion of technology and the creative spirit like April. Instead, I say “Let’s see what we can do!” The best way I can describe it is that it’s about making the experience of design an experience.

What kind of experience? That’s determined by the genre and the client. But whatever the experience is, it must be a really great experience; not a B movie but a Bartolucci movie, even if you have to use Helvetica. You give the client the best experience you can in the situation. It’s not very complicated.

How has the role of the designer evolved? My heroes satisfied their most demanding business clients and made things happen. But then something happened to suck the spirit out of the process. Maybe it was the introduction of marketing people into design. We had to sell product, and we had to play by the rules. We had to package information in certain ways to create identities that looked like others in the category. As soon as you start doing that as a designer, your role as translator of the intent of the communication process has been put aside.

Ten out of ten clients who contact us are in search of design talent that is willing to listen and respond. You can educate clients about which typeface you’re using and why you chose it, but you can’t inspire them with that type of dialog. You can only inspire them with, “Here’s a great idea. Take a look at this!”

Published in Statements, the quarterly of the American Center for Design, 1991

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Propaganda

The complex pluralism of our media environment has forced graphic design practice to evolve beyond rational problem solving, personal expression or the desire to balance the two.

Direct engagement with the subject, object and contexts of design by passionate designers, especially those working outside the culture of professional graphic design, has fostered the rise of new design methods that focus on collaboration with the audience, the sharing of expertise and a recognition of the diversity of experience.

Those working in this new mode do not seek pre-defined problem statements but instead conduct investigations and participate in multiple dialogues in multiple media through which appropriate metaphors are discovered.

This evolution has expanded the scope and potential of graphic design.

Published by AIGA in Propaganda, 1998
Tony Nelson, photographer
Mr. Nistler, design
Rob Dewey, concept and content

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Interview: Bradbury Thompson

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Bradbury Thompson’s career spanned more than fifty years. During that time, he witnessed and participated in dramatic technological changes, changes he was able to transcend with a classicist’s typographic sensibility. His design of publications from Mademoiselle to Westvaco inspirations to the Washburn College Bible were but part of a body of work legendary in its scope and beauty. He is also held in high esteem for his contributions to design education while serving for more than thirty years on the faculty of Yale University. I spoke with him in 1990 while he was in Chicago to receive the Master Teacher Award from the Graphic Design Education Association.

How do you view current trends in graphic design? There are many new technologies which are no doubt exciting for graphic designers to encounter. They offer so many possibilities, however, so many typefaces, that there is the temptation to use them without restraint or an eye towards readability. Typography can be fun if you do things inventively, but it should be done with a purpose that has meaning for others, not just you or your friends or your colleagues.

It reminds me of the Victorian 1880s and 1890s when new and elaborate typefaces were being used in ways inconsistent with the true function of typography. The extravagant arrangements of typefaces created in that period are reminders of what I see going on now. We must not forget the purpose of typography, which is reaching others.

An important characteristic of good typography is readability, the kind of readability that we experience in books. This is reflected in basic upper and lower case typography and the use of punctuation. Capitals are particularly important, but not when used by themselves in quantity. I find the setting of text in all upper case to be quite unreadable.

I also feel that consistency is important. I particularly like the use of upper and lower case in headings and subheadings, for example. If you want to design something with true integrity, you must use the same principles throughout.

But what about the concept of style? Are you saying that style is inappropriate in graphic design? We are governed by what goes on in our world. We are experiencing a period of change in terms of what’s technologically available. So live it up, as long as basic readability and service to the reader isn’t compromised.

Right now there is the tendency to use the new technologies to create work that does not adhere to fundamental principles. Those working with type should have fun – I certainly did – but not at the expense of readability, aesthetics and effective communication.

Should the profession try to educate those who have newly gained access to the tools of typography? There tends to be a flattening out of impact as a technology reaches more and more people. The technology also shapes the way designers think. It will all come back around, the way the Victorian use of ornate typography gave way again to classic typography based on the objective of readability and the objective communication of ideas.

What effect has teaching had on your work as a designer? I have been fortunate to teach. As a teacher, you are working with young men and women, which help to keep graphic direction in balance for both teacher and student. Benjamin Franklin said, “You tell me and I forget. You teach me and I remember. You involve me and I learn.”

The teaching of graphic design is especially benefited by direct involvement with students. Ideally, my students were assigned publication projects that required original concepts, historical research, design, writing, editing and the eventual combination of weekly segments into a cohesive, integrated book.

If the students worked with images and alphabets of past centuries, they were required to create formats in the spirit of our own time. The project was reviewed and discussed thoroughly at each stage of development.

Your career has been shaped by long-term relationships with remarkable clients, which in many cases allowed you to work with minimal restrictions. Tell us about the development of those relationships. If you think I’ve done some interesting things – well, I’ve just been lucky.

In the beginning, back in Topeka, where I worked on the high school yearbook and the college yearbook at Washburn University, I worked directly with the kind of persons who printed the book, who set the type, and who shot the photographs. During high school and college, I also worked half days directly with kind engineering draftsmen on plans for roads and bridges.

I admired the very nice magazines of the era. There were not many magazines at that time that had fine art or photography, except those very fancy ones: Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar.

I had seen Westvaco Inspirations at the printer in Topeka, and once I moved to New York took the chance and the opportunity was there. It did allow me to do my own thing. The consulting relationship with Westvaco has lasted for 52 years.

After the war, I had an invitation to work for Art News and Art News Annual. They were handsome publications; the editors selected great works of art. But it didn’t provide the same kind of pleasure as the Inspirations work, where I had complete control and where one of the aims of the publication was to show great printing. The association as design director with Art News continued for 27 years.

I was also asked to be art director for Mademoiselle which was not Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, but to young people it was, and this was even more fun. That association continued for 15 years. Working for those three – Inspirations, Art News and Mademoiselle – provided a complete magazine experience.

Another pleasant long-term relationship, as you have described it, has been the 21-year association with the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee and the design of over 100 stamps.

Over time, I’ve been asked to redesign publications of all kinds, including trade magazines such as Business Week, Modern Plastics and Electronics. There was another kind of reward experienced here. In these situations, I was asked to address things that were not right. Since I was considered objective and came from the outside, I was able to solve problems. It was a satisfying thing.

This is often as important as anything else. Young people will realize this. Many times people do great work not for money but because they get to do what they want to do, because it goes to the people that they want to reach and because it is helpful to their community.

Published in Statements, the quarterly of the American Center for Design, 1990

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Designing Experiences

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As marketers have become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to identify and target refined demographic and psychographic segments, markets have grown and matured. Consumers have been been given more choices, and store shelves have become more crowded. Communicators struggle to break through the clutter, bombarding us with an overwhelming number of unsolicited and unwelcome messages.

Advocates of a brand-centered approach, which has been billed as the answer to the limitations of traditional marketing methods, suggest that can brands act as signifiers of abstract attributes like “authenticity”. But this approach to engaging audiences can only take us so far.

Traditional product development and marketing methods are based on a rational, predictive and analytical view of consumer behavior, when in fact individual consumers behave in ways that are irrational, unpredictable and utterly dependent on context. The evidence indicates that consumers resent marketing intrusions and instead seek rich, rewarding experiences from those brands to which they grant their attention, money or loyalty.

People develop emotional responses to brands through a rich mix of sensory and cognitive activity that is deeply subjective. In other words, people create mental models of brands based on experience.

In the past few years, a spate of articles and books on “experiential marketing,” “relationship marketing” and “permission marketing” have appeared. It is in the highly competitive retail, entertainment and hospitality industries, however, that the staging and management of experiences are probably best understood and typically best realized.

Published in materials for the AIGA national conference in Las Vegas, 1999

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Bare Bones

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Materials promoting the 41st International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA), titled “Bare Bones”, were made intentionally ugly and spoke of a gathering “in response to layoffs, cutbacks, cancellations, fear, debt, lost accounts and dysfunctional families.” The word on the street was that the conference itself was facing financial difficulties and was cutting corners to save money. No doubt as a result of this negative set of impressions, conference registration was down compared to previous years.

The acerbic Ralph Caplan set the tone by noting that “less is more, more or less.” Dealing with limits is the essence of the American West, so the Aspen setting was in a way appropriate. While the West was once considered a limitless frontier, vast and open, its political history is almost completely dominated by the fight over a single natural resource: water.

Yet Aspen, playground of the rich and famous, was an incongruous place to be considering the notion of limits. The police in Aspen drive Saabs. It felt odd to walk out onto the streets of this well-heeled town after viewing a documentary on the Great Depression. (The film series was one of the conference’s best features.)

Society as a whole is dealing with a growing awareness of limits; not just limits to our resources, but also to our management, financial, economic and political systems. While author Michael Crichton made an impassioned plea for all of us to attend to the immense failings of those systems at the close of the conference, it would have been better at the beginning and set a more urgent tone to the proceedings. One hopes it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and inspired more than a standing ovation.

Morning sessions included futurist Paul Saffo on the impact of new technologies on creativity and originality, James Autry on values-based management, industrial designer Bill Stumpf on developing personal rather than consumptive relationships with objects, psychologist Richard Farsen on the absurd contradictions of modernity and poetry critic Helen Vendler on the aesthetics of minimalism.

Afternoons featured small workshops where one could make a film with Saul Bass, discuss visual problem solving with Jay Chiat and Henry Wolf, or design an exhibition with Mildred Friedman. Other workshops provided opportunities to work with outstanding photographers, architects, planners and designers.

Evenings presentations, which shed light on the theme from a performing arts perspective, were a highlight of the conference. Cellist Janos Starker conducted a master class, a profound demonstration of the rewards of concentrating on mastering the fundamentals of one’s craft. The biggest “event” of the week was a solo performance by David Byrne. The raw energy of his voice and guitar, laid bare by songs that exposed his quirky wonder at the world with anger and guilt, visibly shook those in attendance, not least Byrne himself. Appropriately, he closed with Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World.

When times are tough, essential truths become clear. The extraneous and contrived slip away. Several truths revealed themselves at this year’s conference:

Small is beautiful. Simple, decentralized systems are more efficient and less likely to suffer crippling breakdowns. The are easier to comprehend and manage, and serve to make participants feel part of something bigger than themselves, thus serving spiritual needs as well as physical ones.

Emotion is life. Recognizing and valuing the value of human emotion is essential when developing and managing successful systems. Honesty, passion and insight are the differentiating factors that matter most.

Our ultimate responsibility as designers is to people, not consumers. Empowering individuals is the only legitimate justification for our profession.

Get back to basics. The further one is removed from the essential, the less one is connected to life itself.

Seek balance. We must regain a sense of balance; we must live, work, create and destroy in harmony with the biosphere. If a consciousness of the consequences of our actions doesn’t underlie everything we do, we risk the end of everything.

Published in Statements, the quarterly of the American Center for Design, 1991

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Synthesize

The systems in which design solutions are implemented and evaluated are growing extremely complex. As a result, the contexts in which they are developed can often be enhanced by contributions from other professional disciplines. The most advanced consultancies, for examples, now utilize the tools of linguistics, behavioral psychology, organizational development and cultural anthropology to inform their work.

For design to fulfill its potential as a tool for managing complex systems, designers must recognize their limits and know when to look outside design for ideas and information. At the same time, designers should recognize and vigorously advocate their unique ability to synthesize ideas into coherent, integrated communications.

Published in Graphic Design: USA, February 1992

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Still Evolving

From the time of Gutenberg, prepress functions have been traditionally performed by specialists using equipment designed specifically for that purpose. Similarly, the design of printed communications has generally been the domain of those with specialized training in the relevant methods and tools. The perception outside the design profession is that this has now changed forever.

Over the past century, there have been several revolutionary changes in prepress technology. The first came at the end of the 19th century with the advent of hot-metal typesetting. The second came in the middle of this century with the introduction of phototypesetters and the first color separation scanners. The third came in the 1970s in the form of proprietary integrated prepress computer systems. The fourth is the shift to widely available hardware and software. Prepress is now a computer application, rooted firmly in the mainstream computer industry.

Whenever an industry undergoes a cycle of change, its structure is redefined. New methods emerge; others fade away. New skills are required; others are no longer relevant. The process of producing printed communications has now become open. There are ever fewer barriers to entry and a huge installed base of microcomputer-based publishing systems. Research indicates that this base will grow dramatically over the next several years.

While a wide variety of new tools are available, designers have been slow to adopt them. Meanwhile, computer users are being told by suppliers that they too can create “professional-looking” documents without having to hire a designer. Books and magazines on print design and “desktop publishing” have proliferated. In addition, new interactive media are emerging, along with the need to attend to the human/computer interface. The role of design professionals in this new environment is still evolving.

From a report prepared for the board of the American Center for Design, 1989

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Immaterial

Language is, to borrow a phrase from the world of software, “platform independent”. Whether transmitted by fiber-optic cable, microwave beam or ink on paper, its deep structures of meaning remain intact. The formal contexts in which language is presented, however, profoundly affect its ability to communicate. With the contexts of graphic design becoming increasingly immaterial, the profession’s preference for the tangible is helping it become peripheral to the communication process, just at the time when our skills and methods should be more valuable then ever.

From a letter to Emigre magazine, 1995

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The Illusion of Control

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To what degree are the outcomes we seek as producers, creators and strategists determined by predictable rules inherent to the systems and technologies we employ? And to what degree are external factors responsible for our results? In other words, what is our authority and from where does it derive?

Under certain circumstances, open systems reach a steady state in which they are far from equilibrium and maintain that state. They are highly improbable, highly complex. Moreover, such a state can be reached from different starting points and in spite of disruptions along the way. The state is what is called “equifinal”.

Ilya Prigogine, winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1977, showed that organized systems arise naturally out of unorganized matter rather than being extraordinary flukes. He proposed the existence of a previously unrecognized principle: the creation of order by fluctuations. The tendency to move forward toward a highly organized state – rather than backwards toward a simpler state as traditional thermodynamics would suggest – is a property of open systems, or those that exchange matter and energy with their surroundings.

Prigogine saw open systems as being in a state of disorder, becoming unstable, and then entering a state in which energy accumulates and structure develops, all due to the fluctuations inherent in such systems. Fluctuations are always occurring, but some grow large while others are eventually smoothed out. If fluctuations reach a critical size, they stabilize in the equifinal state. Non-order can therefore be an important source of order in open systems.

Because of these ideas, Prigogine is seen by many to offer a bridge between the physical and social sciences. Noam Chomsky defined emergence as “the appearance of a qualitatively different phenomenon at a specific stage of organization” and suggested the example of human language competence, which must be among the most complicated structures in the universe and arises in evolution only when a certain stage of biological complexity is reached.

Many contemporary linguists believe that there exist universal structures of the mind which make language happen and preserve its variety and complexity, regardless of their specific form. According to Robin Lakoff, for example, “Every language has about the same number of rules. Indeed, we can be reasonably sure that our own language has the same amount of syntax, the same amount of structure, as Proto Indo-European.”

We could say that an anti-chance device inside the brain prevents language from becoming entropic or noisy as time goes on, so that it does not rely completely on the accidental, time-dependent features of experience to maintain its orderly structure. Language, Lakoff points out, has an internal rationale which keeps the number, if not the types, of rules fairly constant. Some biologists look at the language of genes, another information storage system, in similar terms.

The manipulation of complex systems to stimulate emergence is not a bad definition of what we do. So by developing a deep understanding of a open system’s initial conditions, we can more successfully introduce fluctuations that result in greater richness, far from equilibrium, whether that system in a organization’s culture or a market’s cognitive framework.

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