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Dialogues with Creative Legends: An Interview with David Calvin Laufer

David Calvin Laufer discusses his many dialogues with influential visual designers and business leaders, such as Paul Rand, Herb Lubalin, and George Nelson.
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Peachpit: For those who aren’t familiar with your book, Dialogues with Creative Legends and Aha Moments in a Designer's Career,  it explores the relationship of creativity and business, told through a series of interviews with influential visual designers and business leaders, such as Paul Rand, Herb Lubalin, and George Nelson. When you first started interviewing these designers, did you think you might someday publish a book about your experiences?

David Calvin Laufer: The first four “legends” in the book were all speakers who spoke at Carnegie Mellon during my student years. I found tremendous energy coming from such highly accomplished designers as Bucky Fuller, Victor Papanek, Charles and Ray Eames and Saul Bass. Those early dialogues helped me shape my ideas of what I wanted out of a design career. After college, my focus shifted to seeking employment. I had no thought at the time that I would do a book about them. The idea of doing a book came along much later.

Peachpit: What is your process for finding these creative legends and getting them to agree to be interviewed? 

David: The first interviews that I initiated happened in my 20‘s, when my wife and I went to Europe. I wrote to a dozen designers whose work I had seen and admired in the trade magazines, Graphis, CA and Print. Of that dozen I was lucky to land interviews with Walter Herdeg, Heinz Edelmann and Ruedi Rüegg. I learned that luck, timing, and persistence were important, but having a referral from a name known to the person I was trying to reach meant even more. Even though we are tremendously more connected now, I believe those ingredients are all still true today. In fact, from talking to young creative people today, landing a face-to-face interview may be harder now that in the past, because everyone is so short of time and many rely on reviewing PDFs rather than seeing the whole candidate. Ruedi Rüegg told me their mantra about hiring was “People, not Portfolios.” That philosophy has, sadly, given way to portfolios first, only then people.

Peachpit: Tell us a little about your book. Who is it written for, and what can people expect to learn from it?

David:  I prefer “Dialogues” to “Interviews” since some of the most valuable exchanges took place without planning, and others were more like group conversations. The book is a couple dozen dialogues, arranged chronologically. I try to provide the reader with some of the same revelations I experienced—that is how we settled on the subtitle of “Aha Moments in a Designer’s Career.” The dialogues themselves are connected by some narrative that provides just enough background to make the “Aha’s” cumulative in their effect.

Today, more than any time in human history, our civilization depends on creative people to make intelligent, ethical and visionary choices about their careers, and also on our ability to collaborate creatively in multi-disciplinary groups. I will count the book a great success if it gives the rising generation of creative talent some way to shortcut their search with Aha’s that guided great creative careers of the recent past.

Peachpit: What lessons did you learn from writing this book? Do you think these creative legends all have something in common that made them who they are?  What can we learn from them?

David: I went to New York with the idea that if I could meet and interview famous designers, I could learn how they had planned their careers and benefit from their plans. I frequently learned as much by the challenges of obtaining the introductions and meetings as I did from the dialogues themselves. I learned that creative careers are difficult to map in advance. Creativity is by definition an individualized thing, so there are no templates for greatness. There were some common threads in the life stories I heard.

First, they seemed to be good, or lucky, or both, at finding great mentorship early in their careers. It really helps to be around someone who can just flat do great work. They frequently described a period of learning how their mentors worked, then eventually finding the need to set out on their own quest to apply what they had learned.
Second, many seemed to have an inner drive to excel, beyond what the commercial world wanted from them, and a sense of knowing the great work they wanted when they saw it, not relying on feedback from others.

Third, they all worked hard to gain the trust of their patrons to get the control they needed to do great, new or innovative work.

Lastly, though they all need control, the way they achieved it was unique to each creative personality. 

Peachpit: How has meeting these creative legends influenced your career?

David: Each of the interviews in the book had an “Aha Moment” and remains memorable for those reasons. Often, what became an Aha moment was totally different from the questions I was asking.  I wasn’t a very skilled interviewer, especially in the early years, but fortunately, many of my mentors had been on the same path I was traveling, so they could give me good insights anyway.

Peachpit: Is there particular advice that you use everyday that you gleaned from the interviews, stories, conversations, and lectures? 

David: With few exceptions, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the creative people I met. They for the most part stood little to gain by spending time with me, yet they were generous with their encouragement, insights and recommendations to others. Sometimes what they told me was harsh or shocking, but it was because they saw that as the fastest way to help me with the very limited time available. This generosity is the cornerstone of the creative community. If my book does nothing else, I hope it encourages a renewed enthusiasm for creative mentoring. One rarely regrets generosity.

On a more foundational level, their attitudes about the relationship of designer to client and to society have proved to be durable. Not that they all agreed with one another—those attitudes are very individual! Paul Rand had a very hardball style, demanding a “no changes” policy as a precondition to his work. George Nelson, by contrast, obtained his clients’ trust by his thoughtful good humor. Both needed control to do excellent work, but their means of arriving there were unique to their personalities.

One of the Dialogues is with James Craig, a fine book designer and author of a dozen books about design. Craig articulates his “recipe” for a good design project, one that he sees as having the potential for greatness. He said “If you treat every project as if it were going to be a gold medal winner, you will dash yourself to pieces.” He advocated learning to do fast, professional design where that was needed, then only invest one’s self completely where the project has all the necessary “ingredients.”

Peachpit: Was there an interview or encounter that stands out as a personal favorite?

David: Each one had a special place, a certain buzz about it. George Nelson was one of the most generous with his advice and his introductions to other people in the profession. The dialogues with Paul Rand and Herb Lubalin were special because they were so difficult to reach; they were so visible and their work so extraordinary. But I think looking for a “pinnacle” is the wrong paradigm. It is more like a web, a feeling of interconnectedness. Each of us builds a career by connecting people and ideas. Each connection adds to the richness and depth of our resources. Then it is up to us to be resourceful and make something useful and beautiful to leave to the world.

Peachpit: Was there someone you always wanted to meet but were unable to?

David: Oh, my goodness, thousands. There were and still are many more brilliant creative minds I would like to meet. No single person could get close to visiting with all of them. I would like to have met Frank Lloyd Wright, but through Nelson and Papanek I felt I got some direct exposure to him. Dialogues is not a “Who’s Who” or even a “Top Ten” list. There is a saying—Buddhist I think—”When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Dialogues is best compared to a scrap book—of teachers and students who appeared at pivotal times. Each one provided some thought that elevated my work. I hope, through sharing their insights, to elevate many others.

Peachpit: Are you still seeking out creative people to interview?

David: I am active in AIGA, the professional association for design, and I am constantly learning from the many bright and energetic people I meet there. I’m evaluating ideas for several new books that could involve additional interviews. Seeking partnerships and connections is a lifelong activity. There is another saying, attributed to the sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill: “The artist is not a special kind of person, every person is a special kind of artist.” It is probably much older. But I think one of the essential contributions of creative professionals is to help everyone they meet and work with to discover and contribute their own unique talents.

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