Chicago in the 1960s was an exhilarating place for Garland Kirkpatrick to grow up. The dichotomy of the city's racial politics and its sublime architecture had a profound impact on him from an early age and helped drive him toward a career in design. “It was a big hick town with deep color lines,” Kirkpatrick recalls, a place populated by “austere modern and prairie-style architecture.” It was the era of the 1968 Democratic convention, the Chicago 8 trial, the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Those experiences planted the seeds that would later give life to Helvetica Jones, Kirkpatrick's current design practice formed in service to the communities and cultural institutions of his adopted home, Los Angeles.
Kirkpatrick's mother, Dorothy, was an educator, nurse and community activist who had a deep interest in Chicago's history. Through her influence, and that of his middle school teacher Robert Erickson (Erickson was one of the first graduate students at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology and founder of a design foundation for the University of Chicago Lab School, where Garland attended), Kirkpatrick had visited a number of Frank Lloyd Wright residences in the Chicago area by the time he was 12. “The Robie House was five blocks from where we lived in Hyde Park. I remember once having a snowball fight on the cantilevered porch,” he says.
On his chosen profession and family support:
My father wanted me to be a doctor. Thank god for my mother, who had a broad appreciation for design and the arts.
It was not until after he graduated from Amherst College—with a BA in English in 1983—that Kirkpatrick took a career in design seriously. While briefly working as an editorial assistant for St. Martin's Press in New York, he came to a realization. “I worked in the Flatiron Building, collating hundreds of pages of manuscript edits like Melville's character in Bartleby, the Scrivener. Trafficking a galley to the graphic artist piqued my interest in book-cover design,” he says. Kirkpatrick traded his low-wage job for a Eurail pass and traveled through Europe, where “design seemed baked into the culture... design was an authentic profession, like a doctor or lawyer.”
He returned to Chicago and enrolled in the master's program at the Institute of Design. He connected with the Chicago design community, interning first with the product design firm Goldsmith Yamasaki and Specht, and then publication designer Don Bergh. In 1987 he attended Yale's summer graphic design program in Brissago, Switzerland, where he had his first taste of working directly with modernist design pioneers Armin Hofmann, Paul Rand and Richard Sapper. “I remember Paul Rand saying, 'You don't need a belt and suspenders to hold up your pants.' Anything extraneous to the design had no place in it.” That did it for him; Kirkpatrick then transferred to the MFA program at Yale.
Kirkpatrick was one of two African Americans in the Yale program, following notable graduates Eli Kince, Sylvia Harris and Saki Mafundikwa. He remembers loving the nuts and bolts of design, but the experience wasn't everything he hoped it would be. “Like most students I was looking for some kind of 'design truth,'” he says. “At that time going to Yale was like a living history where projects involved icons like Hofmann, Rand, Bradbury Thompson and others. But there was no critical discussion of either the African roots of modernism or the cultural impact of design.”
Has racism limited him?
Institutionally and demographically, yes. Individually, no. Credentials and a Scotch-Irish slave name have sometimes helped me get in the room. Of course I'm glad I haven't been stopped by the police recently.
Unlike so many of his peers, Kirkpatrick didn't want to move to New York and pursue commercial design work. “After graduate school I didn't see a place for myself in the profession. I was committed to working from the margins, if anything,” he says.
He headed west instead, to freelance and teach at a number of art institutions around Los Angeles, including California State University, Fullerton; Otis College of Art and Design; and California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he was hired by designer Lorraine Wild to teach in the school's legendary design program. He was on faculty there for 12 years, two of which he served as program director. “For me CalArts was the nexus of Yale, Basel and Cranbrook—where aesthetically anything seemed possible and everything was open to reconsideration. It was a great reeducation,” he says.
On weekends he ran a design studio out of Watts Towers Art Center for the neighborhood's youth, through the Community Arts Partnership at CalArts, a model program bringing art and design education from the academy into the Los Angeles community. Many of the students at this art center had gang affiliations or were reformed graffiti taggers. Kirkpatrick found their skills at lettering to be a refreshing parallel to the typographic experiments going on at CalArts. They created design work that reflected the identity of the Towers, which were built in the 1950s by Simon Rodia, as well as the surrounding community.
His advice to young designers:
Become a storyteller. Create and design your own content whenever there is the opportunity.
In addition to his work as an educator, Kirkpatrick formed Helvetica Jones, a social-design consultancy in 1995. The concept, he says, came from the commingling of the ubiquitous typeface and the Blaxploitation-film heroine Cleopatra Jones. “On a personal level it was an attempt to reconcile my classical design background with the politics of my identity,” he says. Through this enterprise he works with artists and museums, focusing on issues of race and identity whenever possible.
Throughout his career Kirkpatrick has contributed work for grassroots efforts, designing for various nonprofit organizations. He served as the art director for the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, where he developed its visual identity. His social graphics have appeared in the independent film Fast Food Nation and have been exhibited in print collections in the United States and abroad. He has also curated exhibitions around design as a social medium, and continues to explore those ideas both in his research and teachings as associate professor of graphic design at Loyola Marymount University.
“We all know that design is not a benign activity,” says Kirkpatrick. “It has the power to inform and also to obscure. Graphic design has become inseparable from corporate and special interests. I think there's a huge potential for design to visualize diverse ideologies and to keep issues alive. The work I'm interested in concerns the latter.”