Marty Neumeier on Robert Overby

When I was still a promising young graphic designer—all graphic designers are promising when they're young—I had already established a successful studio with a wall full of awards. The pride I felt in my achievements had gone well beyond pride into the realm of secret embarrassment. How could one young person be so remarkably talented?

One morning at the studio, while working on a Highly Significant Project, my concentration was broken by the familiar cling-ting of the front doorbell. I got up from my drawing board and peered around the corner. A homeless man had walked into the reception area and was now riffling through my samples. One tail of faded flannel hung over his dirty white jeans. The knees were torn, and bare toes broke through the tops of his canvas shoes. His face was unshaven, and his hair, cut military-short, stuck out at odd angles.

“Can I help you?” I said, like the proprietor of a china shop.

“This your stuff?” he said. I nodded.

“Your type's terrible,” he said.

I could feel my veneer peeling. “These pieces are national—international—award winners.”

He stared. “So?” “So,” I said, “what's wrong with the type?”

He tilted his head. “Well, just look at it.”

So began a decade-long relationship between mentor and protégé. Designer-cum-artist Robert Overby—Bob?—later, just Overby—forcing me to look at the visual world without blinking. Me wondering what he got out of it.

He'd show up once a week with no warning. We'd have lunch. Afterwards he'd say, “Okay, let's see it,” meaning whatever I was working on. Then, shaking his head, “If you're going to do that, you'd better take a look at Brodovitch.” Or Rand, or Lissitsky, or whoever it was who did it first or did it better.

Sometimes I'd protest: “You hardly even looked at it.” “I have fast eyes,” he'd say.

He had to adopt me, because on my own I wouldn't have sought a mentor. And if I had, I wouldn't have chosen Overby. He was nobody's paragon. From what I could tell, he had few friends except for his own mentor, Danziger, whom he often fought with. His personality was a Rand-like contradiction of tough guy and intellectual, and a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis had long ago caused him to dispense with the social niceties.

His critiques were stark and raw and never failed to irritate me. Yet they came from a respect for craft rather than from maliciousness, and from a deep admiration of the world's great designers (who, by implication, were not me). Many years later he would toss me a crumb: “You've become—well—a fairly competent designer.”

In the early eighties, he moved south and I moved north, and our friendship (the words mentor and protégé were never uttered) shifted into maintenance mode. Although I didn't know it, I'd been given a gift very few people ever get.