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Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design: An Interview with John Clifford

John Clifford, the author of Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design, talks about his favorite designers and images, the most common traits among influential designers, and his advice for aspiring designers.
Like this article? We recommend Peachpit: Your book highlights the work of dozens of influential designers. Who is your favorite, and why?

John Clifford: Oh, I can’t pick a favorite. They’re all my…um…parents? But I can certainly mention a few: El Lissitzky, for his bold, graphic simplicity and his belief that design can prompt social change; Cipe Pineles, the first female art director of a major U.S. magazine, for leading by example; Ladislav Sutnar for starting what we now call information design; Erik Nitsche, for his beautiful colors; Alvin Lustig, for expanding into so many different disciplines, and Paula Scher, for her exuberant typography.

Peachpit: Tell us about the process of putting together this book. You have a lot of rich information about each designer. How did you research each person?

John: I went through lots and lots of source material, both in books and online. I was able to interview some of the living designers, which was great, and to speak to some of the family members of the designers who have passed away. The tricky part was editing it down. I wanted the text to be brief and direct, so that anyone looking through the book could easily learn why these people are important and influential.

Peachpit: Can you share your single favorite image from the book, and tell us why it’s your favorite?

John: Again, no favorites. I love them all in different ways. But I can tell you why I love some of them. Edward McKnight Kauffer’s Daily Herald poster, with its modern, machine-like birds and white space (or in this case, maybe it’s called yellow space), is so striking.

Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster was hanging in our basement when I was a kid. I was immediately drawn to it then, and still am today. The simple dark profile combined with swirls and curls of rainbow hair still feels fresh.

I like Peter Saville’s design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album—dark, moody, and simple, without a band photo or even a title. It fits the music.

Wim Crouwel’s calendar is a good example of his experimental type.

Chermayeff & Geismar’s 3-D signage/sculpture for 9 W. 57th Street in New York makes me smile every time I walk by it.

And I love Herb Lubalin’s very simple typographic symbolism for a hemorrhoids ad.

Peachpit: Which designer in the book has the wildest or most surprising story?  Can you share it?

John: Definitely Georg Olden, who was the first prominent African American designer. He was the grandson of a slave and designed title sequences and on-air graphics for CBS TV in the 1950s. His design for a postage stamp was honored by JFK at the White House. He went on to work in advertising, and even directed an episode of the Mod Squad, but all that promise ended in tragedy when he was shot to death. But the sensational story is not why I included him. I read an article about him online, and someone posted a comment that said something like “I’m happy to learn about an African American who succeeded in design—now I feel like there’s a place for me.” I knew then that I wanted to tell more people about him.

Peachpit: What do you hope people take away from your book? 

John: I want people to know the names of these designers. Many people know the names of important architects and fashion designers, but hardly anybody knows who the graphic designers are. I hope this book changes that in some small way. And I hope this encourages people to learn more—there are many great books on design history, and I’ve included other books, films, and places to go for further exploration.

Peachpit: Are there some common traits among all of these influential designers?

John: Yes: they were all curious, and nobody was following a trend. Many of them taught.

Peachpit: Who or what are your main influences as a designer?

John: Every single person in this book. In addition to graphic design, art, architecture, music, nature, and friends and family are huge influences. While this book is all about the influence of pioneering designers, it’s a big world out there. People need to look beyond design as well.

Peachpit: What led you to start your own design firm, Think Studio?

John: I always wanted to work for myself. It’s exciting to build something out of nothing, which is essentially what design is. I learned a lot from jobs I had at Doyle Partners and Platinum Design—not only about design, but also about running a business. It’s not always easy, but I love it.

Peachpit: What is a typical day like for you at Think Studio?

John: It’s all about balance: design, creative direction, production, administration, meetings, phone calls, managing the designers, etc. Writing this book—my first—was a great challenge. It wasn’t easy to step out of my comfort zone like that. I love the variety. It’s never boring.

Peachpit: Which design project has been the most gratifying, and why?

John: What is it with you and choosing favorites? I love all my projects (and clients) equally. Seriously, though, I love the variety, and I have learned something from each project, whether it was fun and rewarding or not. That’s one of the many things that is so great about what I do—I’m constantly learning.

Peachpit: If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring designers, what would it be?

John: Only one? Keep learning. Take a class, read a book, watch a tutorial. Try different kinds of projects and different ways of working. Work on something you don’t think you can do. Only then will you grow as a designer.

Peachpit: What’s coming up next for you, professionally?

John: Think Studio is very busy right now, which is great. So, I’ll keep designing. Or, as I like to say, making something out of nothing, and transforming the average and ugly into something exceptional and beautiful. And maybe I’ll get a bit more sleep now that I’m not writing a book every night and weekend.

Peachpit: What’s the last design book you read?

John: Mine! You should read it, too.

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