Q&A: John Clifford, Author of “Graphic Icons”

Whether you spent years studying graphic design in school or came into the profession by another route, John Clifford’s book, “Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design” is a great way to acquaint yourself with the history of the profession. “Graphic Icons” goes beyond the big names like Saul Bass, Paula Scher, and George Lois to include lesser-known figures who introduced the concept of corporate identities, brought white space to magazines, designed the first abstract corporate logos, and invented infographics; Clifford also profiles some of the first minorities to rise to positions of power. You’ll start by looking at all the images, but as you keep paging through the book, you’ll settle into dozens of personal and professional stories you’ve probably never heard before.

A few weeks before coming to Washington, D.C., to discuss his book and talk about the broader world of publishing at an intimate salon, Clifford discussed some of the themes with Scott Kirkwood, Communications Chair for AIGA DC.

Given the ways design is constantly changing (now at a faster pace than ever), what can we learn from designers who worked 30-40-50 years ago?

You’re right, design is changing so quickly. We’re designing for screens and devices that were unimaginable a generation ago, and the tools we use are completely different. But, design is still about solving problems, and many of the problems are the same: How do we make something stand out? How do we make complex information clear? How do we create a memorable identity for an organization? It helps to see how others have solved those problems; so much of what we can learn from them can be applied to what we’re doing now.

You share some of the groundbreaking design decisions like Alexey Brodovitch incorporating white space and double-page spreads into magazine design. Why is it important to know WHO did it and WHEN?

Well, understanding history makes us better designers. We learn more about theory and core principles, and we develop our critical skills. It also teaches us about culture, politics, and economics. I know I get so much inspiration from history. Not in the sense that I want to design something that looks just like Alexey Brodovitch did it, but that I want to look at something in a new way like Alexey Brodovitch did. We can all learn from their pioneering spirits.

I’ve always thought it was strange that many people know the names of the important architects and artists and fashion designers, but don’t know the names of the graphic designers. That’s odd, since graphic designers create so much of our everyday world. It would be great if my book could change that.

What would you say all of these people have in common? Any traits or approaches that today’s designers might want to emulate?

They are all curious. They are willing to try new approaches and types of projects. And they do not follow trends.

I like that you included the failures of many of these designers—some in the early stages of their careers, some near the end. Can you talk about the importance of failure? Everyone in the creative field says how important it is, but in reality, it seems few people really accept it, especially in a city like Washington, DC.

Well, to be creative, you can’t fear failure. Or, at least you need to be able to handle the fear of failure. Paula Scher says she needs to take on projects where she doesn’t really know what she’s doing, and that is how she grows as a designer. I love that. Otherwise, you’ll stay safe and become stagnant.

I was struck by the number of designers who came from Europe to find success in America. Any thoughts on why that may be?

The U.S. was a bit slow in embracing modernism, which flourished in Europe in the early 20th century. Around World War II, many artists and designers, like Ladislav Sutnar and Will Burtin, fled Europe as the Nazi party rose to power. They started new lives in the States, bringing their modern sensibilities with them.

So much of the design we see now is logos for internet start-ups and digital interfaces like Virgin America’s recent hit, whereas much of the work in your book is, of course, print advertising, TV and film titles, propaganda posters, iconography, etc. What was it like to look back into the archive at these simpler projects?

It’s interesting you say simpler. Virgin America’s new UX design is a great example of simplifying and getting rid of all the extra stuff that’s usually in the way when we book a flight. Going back to the early 1900s, Lucian Bernhard’s Priester matches poster is an example of the same thing: getting rid of all the Art Nouveau ornamentation and focusing on the product they were selling. How’s that for a history geek answer? It’s a good example of same problem, different times. Digging through all these projects brought me back to the excitement of learning, and reminded me why I love design. I hope others can get that same feeling.

Read more about Clifford’s book “Graphic Icons” over at Fast Company.

By Scott Kirkwood
Published October 14, 2014