Designers on the Ice Floe

The recent passing of 2009 AIGA Medalist Doyald Young at 84 saddened many admirers, but arguably none more than the twenty-something designers I know. I was a bit surprised. When I was their age, my friends and I chanted the mantra “never trust anyone over 30.” That was around the same time that Mick Jagger declared, “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45.” And, of course, Paul McCartney wrote, “When I’m 64.” Old age was not a virtue. Survival was a curse. Yet these twenty-somethings of which I speak looked up to Young (a name he lived up to, even when only in spirit) because they saw virtue in his experience and the generosity with which he shared it through his books and lectures.

The young—upon whom youth is purportedly wasted—have historically been predisposed to send out the old on metaphoric ice floes. But these days I’ve found that younger designers seem to realize those with decades of experience have much to offer. And they are right, of course.

Still, I recall the narrow trajectory I took when I started designing. First stage: I knew nothing and practiced accordingly. My work was formless, however, I believed virtuous for not being inspired by anything or anybody (I did not go to design school). Second stage: I was introduced to the masters. Part of me copied everything I saw; the other part resented doing so. Third stage: Ignored the masters for impinging on my creative originality. Fourth stage: Found my own so-called “voice,” such as it is. Fifth stage: Studied, understood and absorbed the masters, often too late to actually meet and learn from them. I missed out.

I recall a story told to me by a designer of my generation who met Ladislav Sutnar at the Art Directors Club in the early 1970s (he died in 1976). At the time Sutnar complained that he could no longer get clients because younger designers were ascendant—and pushy. What’s more, he was dejected because he was virtually unknown in the club that would later name him to its Hall of Fame. Sutnar did not lament that he was growing old, but that being old seemed to cancel out his achievements. Remember, this was before the graphic design history and archive movement kicked in, when past work was considered passé. New was better and best—even if the new was directly influenced by the past.

Alex Steinweiss, who at 94 this year is celebrated with a major retrospective book, Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Record Album Cover (Taschen), left the design profession in his fifties when his album designs were rendered unhip by 1960s youth-culture standards and hence no longer viable. At the time he was not given high status, but rather forgotten, as so many older designers were—like Sutnar, he turned to painting and other arts, thus drifting off the radar until being rediscovered decades later—and is now heralded for his achievements.

During these last few years many of the “young Turks” from the late 1950s and ’60s have either entered the octogenarian ranks or are close to it: Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, Seymour Chwast, Bob Gill, Ed Sorel, R. O. Blechman and Ivan Chermayeff among them. Yet to look at their work, hear them speak, or read their words, chronological age is simply a measure of time—not a state of mind or talent. The word eminence comes to mind, but even that suggests an ageist distinction. Their design and illustration work continues to communicate and function on a broad stage.

When Paul Rand, who worked until he died at 82, decided to speak in public in the late 1980s after avoiding the spotlight for many years, audiences flocked to those events. I recall, however, that some attendees were skeptical that “the old guy” would simply complain about how things were better in his day. Sure, some intergenerational grousing is always heard no matter what the age, but Rand surprised the crowds with his wit, wisdom and honesty. They were not watching some old fart in the twilight of his career, but rather a confident, experienced and mature designer passing on his notions of rightness of form and passion for creation.

There are exceptions—some old designers, like anyone else, should indeed just fade away—yet the majority of them are not old in a pejorative sense. Our field is better for having a vital “senior” group who possess a historical memory, finely tuned sense of craft and continued prodigious output. What’s more, in large part owing to increased respect for design history through classes, books and conferences, young designers cannot help but admire the elders of the profession. I for one am grateful since, as I get older, the prospect of that ice floe does not warm my heart.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.