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Student interns received free admission to the fledgling
International Design Conference in Aspen in 1953; in exchange, they
escorted foreign speakers between the airport, hotel, and
auditorium, helped with audiovisual equipment, ran errands and
generally made themselves useful. One student intern from the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was the young John
Massey. He was assigned to help two designers from Switzerland who
he had never heard of before: Armin Hofmann from Basel and Josef
Müller-Brockmann of Zurich. This experience proved to be one of the
major revelations of Massey's life.
Massey vividly remembers picking up the two Swiss designers at
the Hotel Jerome and taking them, along with their projector and
slides, to the Wheeler Opera House to rehearse their presentations.
Over forty years later, Massey recalls watching slides of their
incredible Swiss posters and recounts how they changed his whole
life. He was mesmerized by the order, color, selectivity of imagery
and the overall aura and spirit of their work. He yearned “to be
inside that work, to have it inside of him.” From that day forward,
he abandoned his dreams of becoming an editorial cartoonist and
sought a higher level of aesthetic and communicative expression. He
embraced Hofmann and Müller-Brockmann as role models and did
everything possible to educate himself about advanced design
Massey's fascination with visual imagery dates from age six or
seven, when he pored over illustrations, cartoons and photographs
in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and decided he
wanted to become a cartoonist. He was interested in how artists
interpreted things, and his involvement in art and drawing has
continued without interruption form early youth.
Massey was the official illustrator for his high school
yearbook. While in his senior year in high school, Massey broke his
leg in three places playing baseball. He studied fine art at
Trinity College in Hartford, but had to leave school during his
freshman year for additional surgery on the broken leg.
During a year of convalescence, Massey studied editorial
cartooning at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts under Ed Holland of
the Chicago Tribune, then enrolled in the University of
Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. At the university, he was the
editorial and sports cartoonist for the Daily Illini and
also the editorial cartoonist for the two local newspapers, The
Champaign News-Gazette and The Urban Courier.
Massey's major was advertising design, but he was clueless about
what exactly design was until his senior year, when he went to that
early Aspen design conference. His education was centered on
traditional training such as figure drawing and anatomy and did not
seem especially relevant to his interests. After graduation in
1954, Massey's part-time job as book designer for the University of
Illinois Press became full time. Massey worked for Ralph
Eckerstrom, design director of the press. Eckerstrom proved to be a
dynamic, intelligent man with a great sense of humor and an
outgoing personality. From him, Massy learned the relationship
between type and paper and cultivated a love of books. Massey still
relishes the experience of receiving a book he has designed:
holding it, turning the pages, smelling the ink. Eckerstrom's
positive attitude and interpersonal relationships offered equally
valuable lessons. His impressive presentation skills inspired
Massey's own remarkable abilities in that regard.
Massey became art director of the University of Illinois Press
in 1957, after Eckerstrom left to join the Container Corporation of
America in Chicago. Before the year was out, Eckerstrom invited
Massey to become a graphic designer in Container's corporate design
office at company headquarters. Shortly after joining Container,
Massey met Container's design consultant, Herbert Bayer, who held
the title Chairman of the Design Department from 1956 until 1965.
Each month Bayer chaired a meeting to review and discuss all design
projects and issues within the company. Massey's perspectives were
broadened, helping him to achieve an international viewpoint. Bayer
articulated the relationship between art, design, life and
business. The connection between art, total reality and human
thought was discussed.
Massey's office was seven or eight doors down from the office of
Container's founder and chairman, Walter Paepcke, who built
Container into one of America's most admired corporations and was
venerated for his support of art and the humanities. Paepcke taught
Massey the logic of integrating art and design into industry, for
the benefit of society as well as those involved in the enterprise.
Paepcke was also a great advocate of continuing education for
adults and inspired this love in Massey. Paepcke's employees were
encouraged to study the humanities, so they could understand how
their work within the corporation related to the larger human
community. Massey believes Paepcke and the philosophy he developed
for Container were genuinely idealistic, yet pragmatic. Paepcke
believed businesses affected society for better or worse.
Container's renowned “Great Ideas of Western Man” ads became one of
the most famous advertising campaigns in history. It was inspired
by a design to propagate the important concepts of Western
From 1958 until 1964, Ralph Eckerstrom served as director of the
Department of Advertising and Public Relations. Massey enjoyed a
close and cordial working relationship with him, then became
manager of design after Eckerstrom left Container in 1964. With
Container's full knowledge and approval, Massey had operated an
independent design office in Chicago. When he replaced Eckerstrom,
it did not seem appropriate for a top executive to run a separate
business, so in 1964 Container converted Massey's studio into one
of its divisions, called the Center for Advanced Research in Design
(CARD). CARD enabled Massey to conceive and direct design programs
for other organizations, including Atlantic Richfield Company,
Inland Steel and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Advertising was added to Massey's portfolio, and he then became
director of communications with responsibility for all of
Container's communications activities in North America, Latin
America and Europe. Massey places great value on becoming
knowledgeable and involved in the entirety of the corporate
structure; this enables designers to integrate design into the
totality of the company. The communications program, offices,
architecture, transportation, products and packaging were all
guided by Massey as he made design an organic entity in Container's
culture. Understanding that whoever controlled budgets had ultimate
decision-making authority, he acquired this authority within the
firm. From 1964 until its demise, Massey oversaw the continuation
of Container's “Great Ideas of Western Man” institutional
advertising. It took Massey five years to fully understand the
integral relationship between the Great Ideas advertisements and
Container's corporate mission. From a pragmatic point of view, the
package relates to the world by becoming a bearer of messages about
its contents. The “Great Ideas” campaign bears messages with broad
ramifications for society. This campaign became a parallel process
and metaphor for the processes and purposes of Paepcke's company.
Making paper and packages are both arts and sciences. A solid is
converted to a ninety-percent liquid, then reconstituted into
paper. This new solid is then reformed to make packages. These
packages protect, ship and inform people about the contents.
For a remarkable two decades after Paepcke's death in 1962, his
vision and philosophy remained an influence at Container via his
employees, even through changes in corporate ownership. Naturally,
new owners and managers altered its course as time passed.
A whole community of designers emerged from CCA and CARD.
Between the two offices, as many as two dozen designers worked
under Massey at a given time. Prominent Chicago designer Bart
Crosby, who worked at CARD before launching his own firm, says CARD
was “a scary place to work because the pressure to do great designs
was so intense.” Massey told him the keys to a design office's
success were to “keep the overhead low and do famous work.” Once
Massey thought Crosby's designs for Herman Miller could be improved
and told him, “There are two ways to do things; exactly as I told
you, or better.”
“The environment was so creative and stimulating,” Crosby
remembers, “that there was nowhere else to go except to start your
Joseph Michael Essex, another well-known Chicago studio head who
worked for Massey early in his career, says, “John was the buoy who
defined where a designer could go. He once told me, 'Be classical
or extraordinary; nothing else is acceptable.'” Essex says Massey
had a way of letting people work with him, not for him. He mentored
from a distance, giving staff designers as much freedom as they
In 1983, Massey left Container and established an independent
design consultancy, John Massey, Inc. Clients have included the
Tribune Company in Chicago, FSC Paper Company (one of the largest
manufacturers of 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper in the
country), The Chicago Community Trust, American Library
Association, American Planning Association and Herman Miller, among
Massey began teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago
in 1984 and was appointed full professor in 1986. Teaching has
enabled him to share his experiences and insights with an emerging
generation of designers. He operates a course for seniors, who must
submit their portfolios to him for admission. Each semester they
design a comprehensive project for a public or private sector
client, as Massey leads the team through the process of data
collection, analysis, design, development, and ongoing work
sessions with the client throughout the semester. The course
culminates in a final presentation to the client's management group
or board. Massey delights in his work with students, and confesses
to never knowing how the project will turn out as the design
process involving his interaction with students proceeds.
Massey is fascinated with order and the potential for expression
through orderly systems. On a recent trip to Egypt with his wife,
Barbara, Massey entered tombs 3,000 to 5,000 years old. Sections of
some of the wall murals were incomplete and a red grid marking
system had been applied to the walls in modules approximately a
half-inch in size. Vast wall murals of hieroglyphics and images
were all based on this system. Massey is fascinated by the order in
earlier art, the order in the universe and the order within chaos.
His art and design are always based on a system, often a grid but
sometimes an unstated system in his mind's eye. Massey believes
even elementary systems contain the potential for unlimited
For Massey, color is one of the most powerful vehicles for
experiencing and expressing thought and emotion. “We understand our
environment in terms of the juxtaposition of color,” he says.
Planes, proportion and space are defined by where one color ends
and another begins. Hope, fear, space, our physical and natural
environment are all defined by color. The act of placing one color
next to another is the most difficult thing an artist can do.“
Massey is a classical typographer. Order, clarity and legibility
are paramount goals. His typographic palette is limited to great
faces that have stood the test of time, such as Bauer Bodoni,
Garamond, Helvetica, and Univers. ”Assembling letters into words,
which are easily recognizable symbols,“ he notes, ”is the essence
of typography.“ He muses that much typographic work today has more
to do with decoration and self-expression than with typography.
Massey has been involved in painting, printmaking and
photography throughout his career, and sees very little difference
between his fine- and applied-art activity. He says, ”A graphic
design must satisfy the problem it was conceived and planned to
solve, but it can achieve a life of its own, transcending the
assignment. This autonomous life is achieved because the creator
imbues it with a spirit.“ Massey cultivates this spirit through his
prints and paintings. He believes those who attempt to meld art and
design should understand when it is appropriate to join them or
”John really is an artist who is a designer,“ says Bart Crosby.
”He believes in cosmic energy? being in tune with the cosmos. He
has a spiritual philosophy about design and how you create it.“
Crosby says Massey became a spiritual creative force of a
generation of designers; he can ”create abstract images to
communicate with people.“
”John Massey's approach to graphic design is very
comprehensive,“ adds William Clarkson, former chairman and CEO of
Graphic Controls Corporation and a Massey client at CARD, then at
John Massey, Inc. ”He steps back and assesses the total situation
before starting to design. By understanding the total context, he
could tune into the organization, its culture, its needs? then
reflect them in his work. Or, if he senses problems, he addresses
the philosophy and direction.
“John is soft-spoken and an exceptional listener with
outstanding interpersonal skills; he builds excellent relationships
with clients. His presentation skills are masterful. With so many
professional lawyers, architects, and graphic designers, one feels
like the clock is ticking, ticking, ticking. With John, after the
fee is established one knows he is going to work on the problem
until it's right.”
John Massey is a generous and honest person, known for personal
modesty and uncompromising standards of excellence. True to
character, when I interviewed him for this essay, he talked more
about his influences, employees and clients than himself. He has
helped his clients to understand the role of art and design within
a company, and how it can help a company in achieving its mission.
He has been the catalyst for observable changes in management
attitudes about the integration of art and corporate life.
Ethics, aesthetics, creativity and hard work characterize John
Massey and have enabled him to establish a paradigm of the graphic
designer as a vital force in contemporary life.
Copyright 1997 by The American Institute of Graphic
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
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