October 26, 2013

Think Studio’s John Clifford Celebrates Graphic Design in His Book “Graphic Icons”

It was through a tweet by editor and web designer Lisa Hazen that I discovered John Clifford, founder of graphic design firm Think Studio, and the author of Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design. Here, John talks about the making of this book, the wonder of graphic design, in addition to creativity, work, and more.

On book Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design

From your Preface, Graphic Icons is “a very personal list” of influences. When were most of these influences encountered in your journey as a graphic designer?

From my design history class in school. Most people in the book came from that. Digging into those influences really brought me back to the excitement of learning, and reminded me why I love design. I didn’t discover some of them until later, though: Ladislav Sutnar, Erik Nitsche, and Muriel Cooper, to name a few.

Design and Paper booklet designed by Ladislav Sutnar

Left: spreads from A History of Communication (1968).
Right: posters for General Dynamics (1955–1962) designed by Erik Nitsche

Image rendered as “soft type” by Muriel Cooper for MIT Media Lab

And was this list a physical one, or in your head, that you kept?

In my head.

Seventeen cover (1948); Charm cover (1954). Art direction by Cipe Pineles

The ratio is noticeable between female designers
and their male counterparts. What is your take on this?

Well, my book is a history book. Women didn’t start gaining prominence in the field until…well, recently. I profile Cipe Pineles, who was the first female art director of a major US magazine. In the 1940s and 50s, she art directed Glamour and Seventeen, as well as Charm, which targeted a new audience for that time: working women. I love her fashion layouts—they were not phony glamour, but showed the clothes in use: at work, commuting, and running errands. Her designs were great, and her philosophy of taking her female audience seriously made her a great example and a great influence. Would I like to see more female icons? You bet. If I did a book on contemporary designers, there would be many more women.

Chapter opener for the Midcentury Modern section

Your revelatory experience of your first graphic design history class, taught by Steve Reoutt, matches mine—a class taught by Victor Margolin. Before taking such a class, were you aware that graphic design had a history? Please elaborate on your perception and understanding of graphic design before getting educated about its history.

Well, I guess I knew there must be a history if there was a class on it. But, I thought it was probably going to be old and stuffy and decorative. I was in school in the 1990s, when a lot of the popular design was complex and layered and people were experimenting with legibility. I had no idea how strong and bold and, well, modern this “old” work was. I found it almost shocking. It taught me that history is not boring, and that there is so much to learn from the people who came before me. I also identified more with much of the historical work than I did with what was happening at the time. I guess I hope this book might do the same for someone else.

Compared to other publications that curate graphic designers, what makes Graphic Icons different?

I wanted to make this “skimmable,” if that’s a word. Other history books tend to have a running narrative that should be read from cover to cover. I think that’s great for a thorough study, but I wanted a book that you could flip through and quickly learn something. It won’t replace those history books, but maybe serve as an introduction to them. I wanted to keep the language simple and clear (I’m pretty sure you won’t find words like “gestalt” in here), with lots of big visuals. Also, this book is more about the people, not movements. I wanted to connect faces to these names. So my friend Herb Thornby sketched portraits of the designers, which I love. I hope it will make them more relatable and memorable.

Wim Crouwel’s 1964 calendar and Vorm Gevers poster for Stedelijk Museum (1968)

Is this your first book you’ve made and published?

Yes—my first!

What was the process like to get permission for all the graphic design work displayed throughout your work? It easily looks like a ton of work and more so. What are must-don’ts in this process?

Oh, that was tough. That part took way more time and work than I imagined. I reached out to other authors for advice before starting, and they all warned me. Must don’ts? Don’t think it will be quick or easy. Don’t expect to get permission for every designer you’d like to feature. And don’t think you won’t need to follow up with people again and again. And again.

Opener for El Lissitzky section: On the right is the cover for Veshch magazine (1922)

The fidelity of substance and craft is evident with and within your book, can you describe the experience of making a book?

I’ve always designed books. My first job was the one-person design department at William Stout Publishers, which specializes in books on architecture. I have probably designed a book or two every year since then, many for my steady client The Monacelli Press. From a design perspective, typography is obviously very important, as are photo editing, pacing and sequence. El Lissitzky said that the sequence of a book is cinematic, and I love that. I had never written a book, though, so that part was all new to me.

Quote from Herbert Bayer explaining the thought behind his all-lowercase typeface Universal; Poster for Olivetti adding machines (1953)

Why did you decide to work with a publisher and not self-publish?

I knew I needed to have an image budget to show the work of these icons, so I really needed to partner with a publisher. Plus, I was already researching and writing the book, which is not what I normally do. For areas like distribution and marketing and publicity, I wanted to work with someone with expertise in the field.

What tools did you use to make your book?

Pretty much Adobe Creative Suite for design and image retouching, and Microsoft Word for writing. I tried the iA Writer app so I could also write while I was on the go. I like it, but didn’t actually use it very much.

From start to final manuscript, how long did it take to complete your book?

A year. But, there were also several years of thinking about it and exploring ideas, and a year of working on my writing and crafting the proposal before actually “beginning” the book.

Poster designed by Josef Müller-Brockmann (1957)

Who is the ideal reader for your book?

It’s a good introduction to design history for students, and an easy reference for practicing designers. Also, many people work in design without a formal design education. For example, a web designer might come from a programming background rather than a traditional design background. I hope this is useful for people like that too. I think it’s also accessible enough for non-designers with a general interest in design. Many people know the names of the important architects and fashion designers—I hope this book helps people learn about the influential graphic designers.

Poster and film title stills from The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) designed by Saul Bass

For those who want to write and publish a book, what is your advice?

Do it! For me, it was hard. Lots of late nights and weekends, very little personal life, lots of self-doubt. It sounds pretty appealing, right? But it was great to do something I’ve always wanted to do, and I think it’s always healthy to do something you’ve never done before. It’s funny: writing is so different from design, yet so similar. They are both ways to communicate, and I think working in one can help your work in the other.

What are you doing to get the word out  about Graphic Icons?

Talking to nice people like you, for one. I hope to be able to write some blog posts and get some reviews. I’m getting a little better at the Twitter and that Facebook thing, and would love to be able to speak at schools and conferences as well.

Title page of Graphic Icons

Where can people buy your book?

From the publisher Peachpit Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or you can find an independent store through IndieBound.

Another book by you in the works?

Not now. I could use a little recovery time, and some time to focus more on my business, Think Studio. But I’d love to do another book someday.

On creativity, design, working

What is your take on the profession of graphic design in our current times?

It’s constantly changing, and the rate of change seems especially fast right now. It’s exciting. Change takes away many of the old ways of doing things, but it brings us new opportunities. You have to keep learning and growing. But, I think many of the problems and principles are about the same as they have always been. That’s why I think it’s important to learn about the pioneers.

Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy at?

I think they’re at work, and they’re busy. There are a couple of good books that focus on that subject: Women of Design, by Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit, and Women in Graphic Design 1890–2012, edited by Gerda Breuer and Julia Meer. There’s also Birdwatching, a great blog celebrating female designers around the world. I mentioned Cipe Pineles earlier. When she was starting out, people were interested in her portfolio until they learned that her unusual first name belonged to a woman. Has it gotten better since then? I think we’d all agree it has. Could it be better still? Absolutely. I’d like to hear from the women in the field—they will have better insight than I do.

What is your definition of bad design?

There is a ton of design that is obviously bad on sight—signs that use inch marks instead of quotation marks, signs that use unnecessary quotation marks, Dr. Zizmor ads on the NY subway—but I think the main point is that if it doesn’t work, it’s bad. A logo that looks cool but isn’t flexible enough to work in every way needed is bad design. A website that doesn’t work on an iPhone in 2013 is bad design. I always say that while I like to think my work is real pretty, more importantly, it works.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?

Usually talk it out like rational adults and resolve it. I don’t find disagreements to be a big problem in my work.

IBM Think sign, a treasured possession that helped John Clifford name his studio

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute to doing the quality of work you want to do?

When I started the book, I cut back a little on client work and gave up my studio space to work at home. It’s been great. I have a young son, and am able to spend time with him even when I’m working long hours. Now that the book is finished, I’ll see if it’s best to continue like this, or if I should get a separate office again. The space itself is comfortable with good natural light, which is always a requirement. Good music plays at times, while it’s nice and quiet at others.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?

I still sketch by hand a little bit as I’m exploring ideas. For collaborating and getting things done, one of our clients has a server where we are connected with them and with the retouching/prepress company. It’s great for sharing files quickly and easily. Sending files through email or links is already feeling old-fashioned.

How do you stay creative? What are some of your sources of motivation/inspiration?

Everyone in my book is an inspiration, and spending time with them while working on it has been extremely inspirational. Several people in the book, like Paula Scher, Stephen Doyle, and Ed Fella, suggest (I’m paraphrasing here) doing things you’ve never done before, or doing things that you don’t really know how to do. I’m a big believer in that. Look: I wrote a book! I didn’t know what I was doing. But it definitely fueled a lot of creativity. Besides other designers, architecture, music, books, art, travel, and friends and family are influences. While graphic design is important, the rest of the world is, too.

What is your advice to people who aspire to be a creative practitioner?

Find your strengths, admit your weaknesses. See if you can collaborate with someone who can cover your weaknesses. Work hard. Keep learning. It’s not easy, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

How does New York City contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

New York is fast and exciting, and people here really excel at what they do. You can’t be lazy here; you have to work hard. That’s inspiring.

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All images courtesy of John Clifford.

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Typeface of quotation is Univers (1957) designed by Adrian Frutiger.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews with people who love making things.

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