Peter Saville in 2007

A handful of excepts from an interview with designer Peter Saville conducted by Debbie Millman in 2007:

“I believe that communication design is for others and to others. This is an important thing tor younger or would-be graphic designers to recognize. There is a great misconception in this era of graphic design that it is a medium of self-expression. …Partly because of work by people such as myself.”


“There are a vast number of people who tell me they became graphic designers because of my record slips. I have to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I apologize. I usually say, ‘I’m sorry about that,’ and they smile knowingly. Because it’s not like that anymore. You do not do what you want to do. And yet, this notion is rather prevalent. It’s prevalent in design education at the moment.

There are a lot of self-initiated briefs going on in design education. And this is helpful to the individual who wants to look deep and ask questions about where they want to be. But that discovery has to be structured within the context of business. It’s not art. We should really call it communications design, because graphic design doesn’t really mean anything. What is the job? The job is communications design, and that is conveying somebody else’s message to a prescribed audience. Who you are and what you think about it doesn’t necessarily come into play. The job is to articulate the message from A to B.”


“I had a channel that slowed me to do what I wanted to do, which did broker enormous influence. As soon as I made the step out of the music industry – then I was confronted with the reality of communications design. […] By 1985, I had three D&AD Silver awards, but I couldn’t do a letterhead. As much as I was flattered by the request to do a letterhead and identity for a gallery, I realized that I may be successful as a record cover designer – and people may pay us lots of money for that – but for this, I would have to go back to the beginning. I had to start from nothing and learn from the ground up.”


“I believe that good design is fundamentally oriented around truth, and once it loses its truth, you’ve lost it completely. The semiotics of good design imply that if we’ve redesigned a magazine, it is now better; that new problems have been solved; that new challenges have been addressed. In contemporary projects, we’re often not making things better, we’re just making things different. ‘It’s just different because we’d like you to buy more.’ It’s just decoration. Design is losing its essential values because it’s being used for the wrong purposes. It’s being used to sell stuff. It’s being used as advertising.

I was proud and happy to do fashion in the ‘80s when I felt that fashion was something still being disseminated to people. But now it’s like a drug. Now it’s like an addiction. You do not need a new handbag every season. You just don’t. And they’re all rubbish. You don’t need them.

The big problem for communications designers is they have to earn a living. And this is the new job. We do the handwriting for these people. I likened it recently to pop culture: It’s gone from being like acid to being like crack. Pop culture is like crack. It doesn’t give you anything. It just wants to take your money, and when you’ve run out, you can fuck off. And unfortunately, the graphic design community has become the lecherous boys of this business. It’s a big problem.”


“There’s lots of beautiful work going on, but what is it for? What is it for? You’ve got this new problem, and it’s something that can be dealt with, but not with a frigging 5,000 more graphic designers every year. I believe you must question whether or not you identify with the need you are articulating. You should ask yourself, ‘Am I doing something that is embarrassing?’

If you go around feeling embarrassed, it’s a very good signal. And you know when it feels right, and when it feels embarrassing. And this is a big, big problem for graphic designers. Because we are being asked to legitimize commerce.

The very essence of what I am trying to say is this: We must be communicators of the world. We help other people see things. This is at the heart of what we do. And of course, where you do that and how you do that must stay apace with your own life and evolution. I mean, I’m 51 years of age now! People still phone and ask me if I want to design album covers. They tell me I can do whatever I want, but it’s very difficult for me to explain that the rack of a record store is not where I wish to express myself. Go ask a 20-year-old.

For me, it’s really important to stay within the terms of your own relevance – which means don’t be permanently 18. Shift your point of engagement to that which is relative to you. Try to find work that has meaning. You have to help invest meaning into the work. And it is very difficult to invest meaning in something that doesn’t have meaning to you. And that really is the key: you’ve got to like what you’re doing, and then you do it well. You’ve got to like what you’re doing, and you have to put meaning into it for others.”

— (via)

Charles Eames on being an amateur

From the December 1961 issue of the Irregular Bulletin, Charles Eames on maintaining a non-specialist approach to art and design:

“Struggle to maintain an amateur standing. When you become too much of a professional in one area there is a tendency to reduce the problem to a formula. You’ve been over the road before and you know that a certain type of solution is apt to come up. But more dangerous than that, you know how difficult it is to do many things in that field and therefore as you become familiar with the field, you’ll avoid the things you were fool enough to do earlier. By cutting off the things you once were fool enough to do, you really cut down the scope and development of the whole approach. You lop off the indefinable outposts of your experiences Then the amount of creative initiative, love, unselfconscious devotion and application you give to a problem begins to be limited. The amateur has the advantage. He is uninhibited, unselfconscious. He doesn’t know enough to know that things can’t be done — and he does them. He can, of course, get himself into a spot — nervously, financially — and must fight it out. It is this kind of fight that produces something positive.

Art is part of the measure the degree to which a job has been done well. We must try to create a climate in which any job has a potential of being a work of art. Just doing the job well isn’t a measure of the artistry. To function at any job as a really competent specialist is not necessarily functioning as an artist. A specialist does any job according to the book, taking into consideration all the measurable factors. To the degree to which a man functions as a specialist, he is functioning in terms of problems that have been solved. Now the artistry normally comes when he carries this concern beyond measurable factors. The relationships that are made in such cases are never the result of chance but the attitude of the artist. To the degree to which he is functioning as an amateur (an inspired, concerned, and competent amateur) he can often put himself in a position of treating a problem conceptually where a specialist can’t. Any problem that hasn’t been solved before is solved by the amateur for there is no professional. And this is a point of high creativity, a traveling without rules because there are none.”

— (via)

Anne Burdick on style

“Skinning existing formal styles can be a shortcut to instant relevance. Design annuals do their part by providing reproductions of only the surfaces of winning work, minus context, audience, or parameters. They foster an environment of superficiality. Without an understanding of the motivation behind the appearance of a piece, and why it is considered successful, it becomes much easier to peel back the surface skin and reapply it elsewhere.”

— Anne Burdick (via)

Lanny Sommese on design

Posters by Lanny Sommese

“I’m subsidized pretty well as a teacher, so I can pick and choose my jobs on the basis of creative freedom, not money. To a large extent, that’s why my work bears a resemblance to fine art. I consider myself more of a ‘posterist’ in the European tradition than a graphic designer in the American mold.

When I was attending drawing classes as a kid, I couldn’t draw all that well. I could draw faces, but I couldn’t draw feet and hands. I did a whole series of drawings, a hundred or so, showing people with their hands behind their backs and their feet submerged in mud. It’s only been in the last eight to ten years that I’ve realized my inability to draw a hand like Michelangelo, or the way they taught me in studio classes, was what made me unique. So not only do I leave in those little quirks, now I amplify them. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against teaching students to draw perfectly. I just think it’s bad to chastise them if they can’t.

It seems to me that a lot of designers take themselves much too seriously. They’ve lost their sense of humor. I’m going to take that one step further. They’ve lost their ability to find an original solution to a problem, humorous or not. They’re depending on a formula.

Of course, as a posterist, it’s easy to ignore the grid philosophy of design. With signage or corporate identity, that kind of systemic approach is very important. It makes life easier and gives the work continuity.”

— Lanny Sommese (via Communication Arts, May/June 1983)

Legibility in the Irregular Bulletin

Pages from the Irregular Bulletin #50

A great (albeit small) collection of late 50s/early 60s proto-zines from the Art Department at the Immaculate Heart College has recently been uploaded to the Internet Archive. The Gloria issue (no. 50), clocking in at over 400 pages, is particularly spectacular, and opens with a note from the editor:

“The Irregular Bulletin is an informal public-relation sort of thing…never intended to be great and probably isn’t…continues to receive recognition from cultural sources, private and public…considered avant-garde…is actually rather Victorian…The Library of Congress asked for all back issues…….perhaps is partially successful in slowing down the ‘take-it-for-granted’ school…and, to the same degree, in speeding up growth in ability to contact the REAL-ness of things, on the level where they cannot be taken for granite…..perhaps suggests to a few people the need to re-evaluate their criteria for passing judgement on what is Proper…or…appropriate……perhaps reminds people (a few) that beauty has many more faces than custom is willing to accept …that knowledge of the nature of things in themselves is the only path to wisdom and fulfillment. …or…rather…all this is what its editor wishes it to become…in fact…she hopes it is ‘escape literature’…not escape from….but escape to the path along which the REAL may be daily encountered…so that life itself may be a little less daily…..”

It also addresses the topic of legibility and their approach to typography:

“If you find it difficult to read the Irregular Bulletin…be grateful….Skimming has become a bad habit…It may help you collect information but it prevents your enjoyment of the fruit between the lines that deserves to be savored…we mean in other collections of printed words
These 464 pages (count them…don’t look at the last page) have nothing between the lines. They exist simply as an exercise in non-skimming to prepare you for the poets”

Jan Tschichold on books

“I have always found that the object of true book culture is the normal book for everyman, for scholars and libraries. Of course I have a few selected costly editions among my books: however I take them out rarely and think ‘next Sunday, when the others have gone to church’ – and then I find something better to do.

I can be proud of the millions of Penguin books for the typography of which I was responsible. Next to them the few luxurious books I have made play no role. We need no grandiose books for reach people, rather well-made normal books.”

— Jan Tschichold

It’s All Been Done in 1969

A piece from a 1969 design panel discussion in Communication Arts on “branding” and similarities throughout design:

John Peter: Has Push Pin ever gotten involved in corporate identification?
Seymour Chwast: Some, not very much. I designed a trademark for a small film company about a month ago. Two weeks later I opened Print Magazine and I saw that Lou Klein had designed a trademark, exactly the same mark. And it sort of scared me to see this thing.
George Tscherny: Nobody has pronounced trademarks dead, but I think they really are… it’s a little bit like a mother of a friend of mine who used to say: ‘They don’t write any more good songs because all the good tunes have been used up.’
Seymour Chwast: Aren’t there still a few abstract symbols? Can’t you do a sun that no one’s ever done?
Arnold Saks: I’ll bet you, you do what would be the most incredible sun in the world, and you’ll do a trademark search and sure enough the damn thing’s going to turn up.

M&CO designs for Talking Heads

An excerpt from Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist on the process behind the design of the Remain in Light cover art:

“David Byrne and his band members in the Talking Heads had had a tough time producing an ambitiously conceived, blind embossed cover for their second album, Fear of Music, and were tired of the whole design process. Seizing the moment (and engaging in a practice as old as the term ‘spec work’) Kalman volunteered to do their next album – subsequently named Remain in Light – for free, and subsequently pitched them ‘a zillion comps.’ Although he was zealous, nothing worked. ‘And they were right,’ Kalman recalls. ‘We didn’t hit it. We were doing all textures, because we had figured that since they had already done an elaborate tactile package, they would want to have a foam rubber, sandpaper, or some other weird cover.’

A few months after the initial attempt, two of the band members, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, arrived at M&Co with four faintly sinister photographs that had been digitally concocted at the M.I.T. Media Lab with a process that partially obliterated each band member’s face with a red mask. ‘This was around the time of the Iran hostage crisis,’ says Kalman. ‘We immediately seized on those four eerie pictures as the way to go.’ Next, with [Carol] Bokuniewicz, they came up with ‘500 different solutions’ for the arrangement and choice of type until Kalman remembered a little tissue that he had made with the ‘As’ in ‘Talking Heads’ upside down. The band liked the approach. Kalman also designed a lyric sheet for Remain in Light, which he designed by specifying the typography over and over to give it a musical cadence. ‘I am quote proud of it to this day,’ he admits, ‘especially given the technology it was done with.’ On the back of the sleeve are pictures of World War II planes treated with the same masking effect. The album was released and M&Co marked its own debut as a design firm in the cultural arena.”

Saul Bass on ideas

“I don’t believe those neat stories about how one arrives at ideas. What happens, in my view, is that we mask the process with a rational overlay.”

— Saul Bass

Cranky Rick Valicenti

“So kick back..
make yourself comfy and ask:
what (the fuck) did we really do during our professional lives?
what did we do with all those award certificates?
what right answers have we really provided?
what serious problems did we really solve as problem solvers?
what wisdom have we really left behind?
what have we really said about ourselves?
what do we make that we can really be proud of?
what have we done to show we really care?
what of our (collective) offering really feels enlightened?
what messages have we spread to really insure a peaceful spirit?
what goods and services have we aligned ourselves with that are good services?
what might our soul really look like?
what image in the mirror should we really believe?”

— Rick Valicenti, 6.26.02: Cranky (via)