Alexander Isley

2014 AIGA Medal
1961, Durham, North Carolina

Recognized for decades of design that engages the imagination through wit, surprise, intelligence and delight, no matter how complex the story.

Alexander Isley, former president of AIGA New York from 2004 to 2006 and an AIGA Fellow, is one of the ringleaders of a school of visual irony that was pervasive in late 1980s and early 1990s graphic design. Born at the tail end of the baby boom generation, Isley created work that combined conceptual hilarity with vernacular styling. His nuanced, comic design mannerisms and typographic acuity create a delightfully snarky attitude that defined graphic design of the era before digital pyrotechnics stole the stage.

Isley’s discovery of the profession, he claims, was fairly typical “in that no one grows up wanting to be a graphic designer; most of us sort of stumble upon it.” From an early age, Isley wanted to be an architect, like his father. Nothing was more exciting to him than watching his father drawing a building and then, a few months later, being able to walk through that same space.

He enrolled at North Carolina State University College of Design to study architecture, but exposure to graphic design was such a cathartic discovery, he realized it was his destiny. “Graphic design suited my impatient nature,” he explains. “There was no need to collaborate with dozens of associates, no need to meet with steering committees or zoning boards…. And you didn’t have to wait until you were 60 to hit your creative stride.”

After two years, Isley moved to New York to study at Cooper Union. There, he found his métier and honed his conceptual chops, discovering a humorous persona along the way. He spent two and a half years at the wellspring of in-your-face irony, M&Co, where just a short time after graduation he became art director. This positioned him to become art director of the mid-1980s flagship of social and cultural ironic writing and design, Spy magazine. Following in the footsteps of 2014 AIGA Medalist Stephen Doyle, who created a format for Spy that was being forever mimicked was not easy, but Isley successfully put his distinct imprimatur on the magazine, which fit nicely with its slyly stinging visual humor.

Spy gave Isley the confidence to start his own studio, in 1988. “I had some savings and no responsibilities” (and no clients or employees), he recalls, “but I figured the time was right.” In 1995 he moved Alexander Isley Inc. from New York City to the Georgetown section of Redding, Connecticut. The office is located in an 1880s building that once housed the area’s general store: “Where once there were pickle barrels there are now CPUs, but other than that most of the old character remains.”

Isley’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. It has been honored by the Society for Experiential Graphic Design, the American Institute of Architects, the Society of Publication Designers and the Webby Awards, among others.

His approach to typography and design might be considered postmodern in its rejection of modern rules, but rather than replace design ideology with more ideology, Isley injected an easygoing yet insightful personality into work that both conformed to and transcended dominant style. His light, sometimes idiosyncratic touch was well suited for audiences that enjoyed eclecticism rather than formulaic formalism.

Isley’s work is of its time but not a slave to the moment. His career is one of regular renewal and keen introspection. On the 25th anniversary of starting his own studio, Isley admitted that he thinks he’s good “in demystifying the design process for clients” and knows he’s bad “in taking on too much work we shouldn’t do because I just like to create things.” Not a bad burden, all things considered.

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