Michael Mabry

2014 AIGA Medal
1955, Niles, Michigan

Recognized for expertly melding design and illustration to create a playful and sophisticated visual language that is highly intuitive and intuitively right.

Someone who worked with Michael Mabry once likened his creative style to that of a jazz musician: “He’s the Miles Davis of design.” Mabry improvises, weaving layers of complexity into his work to arrive at designs that are at once original, playful, sophisticated, elegant and cool.

Over the past 35 years, the Bay Area–based Mabry has carved out a lasting legacy as a designer and illustrator, expertly mixing the two disciplines. He has created distinctive brands, corporate identities, packaging and illustrations for a wide range of internationally known clients, including Adobe, Chronicle Books, Hewlett-Packard, The Land of Nod, Lucasfilm, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and the New York Times.

Mabry’s approach to branding design is less regimented than that of most agencies. “More than I sketch, I doodle on whatever available paper is lying around—Post-its, receipts, newspaper,” Mabry says. His research exploration is intended to get “the client to articulate what their hopes and desires are.” Mabry’s concept development is more intuitive than analytical, an epiphany that emerges from an intense reflective process. It is a process that has served him well.

Raised in Park Forest, Illinois, Mabry attended Iowa State University for a year and then went to the University of Utah in 1974 to study architecture, but found that graphic design was more to his liking. While working as a designer in the university’s continuing education division, he had a chance encounter with Jerry Berman from the renowned San Francisco design firm Sidjakov & Berman Associates. This led to an invitation to join their office in 1979, where Mabry worked under the tutelage of the legendary Nicolas Sidjakov. “Nicolas was a beautiful designer and had a firm understanding of communication clarity and mastery of typography, which I hope is instilled in my design foundation,” Mabry says.

It is. Mabry is often admired for his sensitive use of typography and the way he integrates hand-lettered text into his imagery. In Mabry’s hands, type is as much a visual element as it is a means of communication. He is also known for generating his own images, a habit he picked up while working at the university, where “there was absolutely no money to hire outside talent,” Mabry recalls. “That self-reliant approach has definitely stuck with me.”

In 1981, Mabry left Sidjakov & Berman Associates to open his own studio in San Francisco. Even as his reputation grew to national prominence, he intentionally kept his firm small. His wife, Sarah Keith, is his business partner, and his staff has never exceeded eight designers. He moved his office across the bay to Emeryville in 1999, and then in 2013 to his home in nearby Piedmont, where he can produce unique personalized solutions for his clients and remain hands-on through every stage of the process. His intensity of focus is relieved by Antidote Press, the aptly named one-man silkscreen printing shop he runs out of his garage, where he produces handcrafted, limited edition note cards and prints.

Mabry, who teaches graphic design at the California College of the Arts and is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale, has maintained his involvement in the larger design community throughout his professional life. A past president and treasurer of AIGA San Francisco, which recognized him as a Fellow in 2011, he also served on the board of AIGA from 1988 to 1991.

Mabry’s design and illustration work has been recognized by the American Center for Design, the Art Directors Club, Communication Arts and Graphis. It is in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, Hong Kong Heritage Museum, SFMOMA and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

Michael Mabry will be presented with the AIGA Medal at The AIGA Centennial Gala on April 25, 2014, in New York City.