DesignMaven Revea!ed (Part One)

There are very few that can claim such a distinctive online writing style and knowledge base as DesignMaven. I’ve always been a fan of what he has to say, whether on Speak Up or Design Observer. There’s a serious passion when he posts. I’ve been fortunate to share e-mail conversations with him over the last couple of years and have admired his energy. As I take time to reflect on my own design drive, I thought I could learn a thing or two from the man himself. That is why I was honored when he accepted my invitation for an interview. I hope you get as much from reading this as I did from talking with him.

Part two of the interview can be read HERE

Michael Surtees: Who is DesignMaven, how did he come to be?

DesignMaven: DesignMaven is the alter ego of Frank Briggs. He’s a mythological character he’s the Anti Hero. He takes on many guises.

Such as, The Marksman, Dorian Gray, The Alpha Male. When I write Design Commentary I represent all these personalities. Most notably, The Marksman for his astute acumen in Identity Design Commentary. I’ve never made an online appearance as the Marksman.

The Marksman. Is generally, used for my e-mail correspondence. Marksman can be misinterpreted and over some peoples head. I chose a Universally understood Moniker.

In literature and film an anti-hero is a central or supporting character that has some of the personality flaws and ultimate fortune traditionally assigned to villains but nonetheless also have enough heroic qualities or intentions to gain the sympathy of readers or viewers. However, through the course of events, as we get to know the character, they grow and change and may actually become popular. A well-known example of this Clint Eastwood in his early film work. Films such as A Fistful of Dollars, The Good Bad and The Ugly, For a Few Dollars More.

How did I come to be?
DesignMaven, is a descendant of the Sacred Mountain, Olympus. Summoned to Earth by his Father Zeus, GOD of Corporate Identity, Branding, Film, Titles, 3 Dimensional Design, Product Design, Retail Identity and Environmental Design. To be the Guardian of Identity Design and Design History. To provide mere mortals with Wisdom and Encouragement. However, he cannot participate nor alter and change the course of Identity Design and Design History on Earth with his Capability and Knowledge. Most important, DesignMaven is unemployable by First Tier Consultancies and Corporations. His participation in Identity Design and Design History on Earth is in the capacity of Good Will Ambassador. To personally participate will alter the course of History.

MS: Do you remember a time when you weren’t passionate about design? Was there a single event that changed your outlook to be so interested in design.

DM: Not really, I’ve encountered Design Burnout. I’ve been drawing and painting from a child. Since I was five (5) years old. I’ve always wanted to be an Illustrator. By the time I was actually able to practice Illustration and support myself. The industry changed. Do to stock Illustration.

And publications using more photography. Illustrators were suffering in the 1980s. I evolved into Design. Which I think is a natural progression. Quite comfortable doing both.

MS:Having had “design burnout”, how did you get past it?

DM: There was about a four (4) year period I did not work in Design. Do to technological advances in the field. Coupled with lack of interest. Although, I worked on the early Macintosh Computers. I was an Independent Designer. A friend, Emory Diggs was the manager at a local copy center and gave me Carte Blanche on their equipment and color xerox machines for about five years. He’s the only person that can get anything he need from me in reference to Design other than my immediate family, without paying my fee. I’m indebted to him. True Friend. How can you not be loyal to someone like that? During this era employers were demanding that you acquired the knowledge and skill of the digital era. I fought it as long as I could. Actually, thought some segment of the Design Industry would be the lone voice of tradition and reason.

It didn’t happen. Many Designers embraced the new technology. While others did not. I was, The Last of the Mohicans to embrace the new technology. Eventually bought a computer. Once I bought a computer, I never looked back. It’s totally different owning your own computer, opposed to using someone else. Although, I was not working as a Designer. I still had my hand in it.

People were always asking me to Design. I would say, “I don’t own a computer. If I create by hand, it’s going to cost more. If I give the job to someone that has a computer, it’s going to cost just as much. And their work will not be up to up to my standards”. Three things led me to purchasing a computer. Access to typography. Control over the Development and Ideation of my Design, and Production Control. Albeit, a former classmate who moved up the ranks to become a Design Manager in Government. Informed me he no longer worked in Design. He was transferred to Photography. Wanted to get back into Design after several years and could not. Because he did not own a computer and did not understood how to use software. A Lifetime friend, Gregory Scott, Designer, Artist, Image Consultant to Luther Vandross, (now deceased) and Patti Labelle, others encouraged me to purchase a computer. Listening to Tony Brown of Tony Brown’s Journal iterating on every show. Every home should have a computer. After six months of listening to Tony Brown and reflecting on other experiences Prudence and Better Judgment Won the Battle.
I love tradition. There’s no way, I can live without my computer!!!!!!!!!

MS: What’s your design archive like? What’s in there, is there one single piece that you prize above all others?

DM: My Design Archives is an Infinite Knowledge Base and more profound than the Internet. Allowing me to expound on any topic of Visual Communication. If that sounds evasive Michael, it’s meant to be.

I’ll expound; there’s some information the Internet cannot provide. If you ask the Internet to provide you with Corporate Identities from the 1970s it doesn’t have that capability.

If there was a discussion about 1970s Identities I have that information in my archives. If you ask the Internet to show you Corporate Identity Consultancy Capability Brochures from First Tier Identity Consultancies it doesn’t have that capability. That information is within my Design Archives, as well. If you did a search on the Internet for work produced by Legendary Identity Designer G. Dean Smith. It cannot provide you with information or samples of G. Dean Smith’s work. I have that information within my archives.

I possess a few trinkets. My archives would’ve been astronomical if Herb Yager Saul Bass’ Partner sold me his Saul Bass Archives. There were only certain items that I could afford. Herb savvy business man that he is. Really didn’t want to break up his archives and sell pieces of it. Thus, Herb felt for the betterment of mankind. His Saul Bass Archives should be remanded to the custody of a Museum and not a private collector. Herb’s got the Rock of Gibraltar in reference to his archives.

Things I’m most proud of are the complete set of Saul Bass and Associates, Bell Telephone System, Identity Manuals. Other than the Bass Family, I’m the only person on earth that has them. Thanks, to my mentor and Good Friends Robert W. Taylor, former Design Associate of Saul Bass, & Associates whom brokered the deal with Mr. Thomas Ruzicka former Design Manager of Bell System and AT&T. Of course Herb Yager gave me his blessing allowing me to posses them.

Personal artifacts given to me by Paul Rand. Now, I wish I possessed a Paul Rand Identity Manual. I’m working on it.
Walter Landor, in 1993 when he was ill sent me one of two copies Landor had in existence of his book Walter Landor Associates, Idea Special Issue, 1977. I’m quite sure, I’m the only person from my generation with this publication. It is rare and a collectors item.

There are others, I don’t want to bore you with my trinkets.

MS: How has design changed from when you started to the present period?

DM: I began in 1970 as an apprentice to an Illustrator, when I was fourteen (14) years old.

Everything was done by hand. Except camera production. At the time there were many specialist in Design. In my day, there was specialist. Beginning with production people layout artist, comp artist, airbrush artist, illustrators, photographers, typographers, and art directors.

You did not become a Designer until you graduated to layout artist or art director. Often times, that did not happen. Depending where you worked. Typographers were first and foremost considered Designers. In some circles you were not considered a Designer unless you were a Designer of books or periodicals.

Today, the Designer is the END ALL IS ALL. Because of the computer, he/she has many responsibilities and is responsible for every aspect of conceptualization to finish art. Often times act as typographer, production designer, photographer, illustrator, etc. Today in-house departments have been remarkably reduced in size.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the computer revolution in the early 1980s changed the game forever. Those that didn’t adapt fell by the wayside. The personal computer ended a lot of careers that were not susceptible to change and a new way of working. Once the Design Industry embraced the change. It was essentially adapt or die. If there was a period that I was dismayed with the profession, it was this era. I didn’t purchase or own a computer until 1999. I’m sure, I’m one of the last Designers from my generation to embrace the change.

MS: What’s your definition of design?

DM: Design is an Intellectual Activity with a craft aspect to it’.

“Design” = Development, A Plan, Purpose, or Intent initiated via Ideation, Orchestration, Delegation and Collaboration for Compensation.

“Craft” = Execution + Rendering = Production.
Designers almost always need others to bring their Ideas to Fruition. Because of time constraints Designers need not be involved in the Craft aspect of their business.

That being said, Design is a Lifestyle. And all encompassing of our daily lives. As humans we could not survive without Design. Design is as important to our survival as Food and Nourishment for our bodies.

How do you define a successful design? First and foremost Design must Communicate and satisfy the client needs. Successful Design has to understand the role it plays in its market, target audience, core values, consumer base and need. At the same time, reward the receiver by making them feel something. Touching and/or tapping into the Visceral and Cerebral sub-consciousness. There are many ways to accomplish this. It can be brought into fruition with typography, imagery, color, and semiotics. With the Internet and television all the aforementioned to include movement, animation, and music.
A combination of those elements is imperative for visual impact.

MS: Outside of design you seem extremely knowledgeable in PUNK and NEW WAVE, (read www.designobserver.com/archives/002917.html) Dare I ask if you have a jazz collection? What makes something interesting to you?

DM:I listen to many forms of music. Appreciate all genres. Began listening to Jimi Hendrix when I was eleven years old.
I was raised in Church and grew up on Gospel music. Rhythm and Blues was always being played in my neighborhood if not in my home. Coming from that religious up bringing I almost straddle the fence of not being able to listen to secular music. The first music I owned was Ray Charles. My mother gave my brother and me two albums to share by Ray Charles. That was my introduction to owning records. The first album I ever purchased was Jimi Hendrix, ‘Are you Experienced’. Proceeded by Led Zeppelin, ‘Houses of the Holly’ and Pink Floyd, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

I bought both of those together. I was approximately, fourteen or fifteen years old.

Growing up there was an assortment of music being played and I was introduced. Examples, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Curtis Mayfield, Billy Stewart, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Joe Tex, Little Anthony and the Imperials, The Five Stair Steps, The Delfonics, Otis Redding, Sam Cook. On the flip side, you had the British Invasion, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Hollies, The Zombies, The Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Lulu, The Merseybeats, Peter Noone, Eric Burdon, The Yardbirds, The Moody Blues, (Others).

Before the aforementioned genres were Blues, Classical, Country, Doo Whoop, (Street Corner Symphony).

I listened to all those genres of music some more than others. Jazz was a natural progression. Beginning with Eubie Blake, Alberta Hunter, Pops Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Mel Torme, Billie Holliday, Abby Lincoln, Philly Joe Jones, Sun Ra, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Francis Albert. (Many others) Names to numerous to mention.

MS: Is it important to have design heroes, and if so, why?

DM: Most important, I think is a need to be aware of Design History. Meaning the events and practitioners whom shaped and advanced our Profession. What you take away from that experience and exposure to enhance your life to benefit your career can be most rewarding.

Certain Illustrators and Designers I identify with are family members to me. I lived with them all my life. Their work was in my home.

Example, my mother collected Top Value Stamps. On each issue of Top Value Stamp Magazine was a commissioned painting by Norman Rockwell. As a young child, I lived with that imagery. And as an aspiring young Illustrator, how could I not identify with Norman Rockwell’s skill and draftsmanship. Also in my home was a poster of the second N.Y. Film Festival, Philharmonic Hall Lincoln Center Designed by Saul Bass. As an avid reader of magazines, should I say, at my young age, perused magazines.
There were the Westinghouse Advertisements by Paul Rand in Look Magazine. The Saturday Evening Post, and Colliers, with Illustrations by Austin Briggs, my all time Favorite Illustrator, (many others).

Designers that I Glorify are as much a part of my family as biological family members. I’ve lived with them all my life. They had a profound effect on my life at an early age. I really had no Idea they were Rich, Famous, and Successful, until I became an adult.
When, I became an adult. The Designers that I like and worshiped were used as a measuring stick for my personal growth and development. During my pre-teen and young adult years, Norman Rockwell and Austin Briggs were important because I was trying to achieve their skill level and technical facility. Not emulate their style. Trying to achieve their level of proficiency in composition and rendering skill.

That level of achievement is impossible to achieve at an early age. With Saul Bass and Paul Rand they were used as role models because of their extraordinary range and capability. From them I learned Design has neither boundaries nor limitations. The process of discovery and problem solving are the same for all disciplines of Design. Only the production or craft aspect changes.

I got as much of their work as I could acquire. Used their work as a measuring stick for my own personal growth and development. Again, not to emulate their styles. Began investigating what made their work Great and Acknowledged by the Industry and their Peers.

As I got older my interest shift to Identity Design. I was reading symbols and in love with symbols from a tiny tot. My favorites were the Chevrolet Cross, Texaco, Seaboard Coastline, John Deere, Dixie, Bell System, Hunt Wesson, Westinghouse, IBM, abc, CBS, ESSO, Sinclair Oil. Armstrong Floors, The Man from Uncle, The Saint, James Bond, (others).

Semiotics, has always been an important aspect of my growth and development as a Designer, from a child. Again, Saul Bass and Paul Rand’s work were in my home. Either we possessed Design Ephemera or the work appeared in publications. Its not like I went to school and everybody was into Saul Bass or Paul Rand. We had Art History Classes and the instructor discussed the merit of the Artist contribution to Fine Art. There were no Design History Classes when I was in school. Dare I say, any of my college instructors were aware of Design Luminaries? If they were, they didn’t talk about them. It’s not like I read an article on the aforementioned luminaries and became infatuated with their success or work. I’m not that shallow. Meaning, I don’t gravitate to people because of success or fame. Which I think is a bigger sin, to be infatuated with someone one year and when they fall out of fashion move onto the next Design Flash in the Pan Cult Figure. Suffice to say a lot of these people are being forced fed via certain vehicles such as publications and conferences. Many of these people never live up to their press or Cult Hero Status. I’ve yet to be impressed with any of these Cult Hero, so called Celebrity Designers this younger generation of Designers find so impressive. It’s definitely hard for me to buy into their cult like status. Because people love them when they’re hot and move onto the next American Idol or Poster Boy when they fall from grace.

I’ve always enjoyed self-discovery. I vehemently don’t like being FORCED FED something that I know via personal research and self-development is not true. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. I pick my own Heroes. I don’t allow other people or any publishing vehicles to tell me whom I should like. Who’s hot and who’s not. Genuine success in any industry comes from Longevity. The Designers that are hot today, will they be relevant twenty years from now? I think not. The Designers that I admire and glorify stood the test of time for fifty (50) years or more. Today is just as important maybe more when they were alive. Look at the shamble Corporate Identity is in!

I’ve had the same favorite basketball, football, and baseball teams since I was a teenager. I continue to love them and support them until this day, win or loose. My point of contention, I’m not a fair weather fan or bandwagon jumper. Referencing people who support teams because they win. Or become infatuated with Designers because they become popular or cult figures. All the Designers that I enjoy and embrace except Michael Bierut and Paula Scher are from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Designers after those eras, I generally don’t have an interest Exceptions are made for personal friends and Female Designers who I enjoy and respect their work. Such as, Elinor Selame, the First Lady of Corporate Identity in America, Rose Marie Tissi, the Greatest Female Designer Practicing today. (Bar None) Margaret Youngblood has created more Identity Design than any man has in the 21 Century thus far. Margaret is no longer employed at Landor. Connie Birdsal, with Lippincott & Margulies has been in the forefront of Identity Practice over twenty years. Anne Reeves; partners with her husband Mamoru Shimokochi. There are other females Designers of note to numerous to mention.

I’m endeared to Identity Designers first and foremost male or female. Identity Design is my expertise. Heroes are exceptionally beneficial for personal growth and development. Design Heroes are no different than Heroes for other professions such as Athletics, Music, Business, etc. The kid or young adult that dreams of becoming the next Dr. J, or Michael Jordan, Yo Yo Ma, Al Dimeola. Bill Gates, Bob Johnson, Hillary Clinton, or Barbara Walters can fulfill their dream healthily with someone to pattern themselves.
Essentially, inspiration, aspiration, determination and dedication should be the core values governing ones personal vision. Design Heroes can’t hurt you. Heroes can become catalysts to achieve your dream. What’s the lesser of two evils an imaginary friend or Design Hero? I’ve never had an imaginary friend.

My Heroes, I lived with them all my life.

End of Part One
Part two of the interview can be read HERE

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