Tell us a little about your self.
I’m 66 years old. I was a faculty brat at a prep school. I don’t have hardly any academic credentials for anything that I do. For further information, see below.
How long have you been in graphic design/arts? What made you choose that career, and when did you decide this was what you wanted to do with the rest of your life?
My first job in the graphic arts world was at a type shop — 1970/71. I had a degree in English from Dickinson College. I had always known that I was “an artist,” but had not had any real encouragement or direction. I thought that, in order to be an artist, and to make a living, one had to go into advertising, but I had no design education. A semi-skilled job at a type house was as close as I could get. During the year + that I worked there, I took a couple of advertising courses at The Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) at night. At the type shop, I learned a huge amount about type, and saw design publications that got me very excited about logo design. I got my first job as a designer at a small design studio in 1972.
Are any of the designs you did for the movie Angels & Demons based on actual designs or symbols used by the illuminati that you are aware of?
No. They are not.
I knew nothing about the Illuminati.
What sort of research did you conduct in preparation for designing for the movie?
None whatsoever. I feel sure that Dan Brown did, but Dan told me nothing about the story he was going to write. I had already created an Earth Air Fire Water ambigram. My guess is that when Dan saw it, he began to envision that his story could be built around my ambigrams. The design I had done was round, and in Dan’s word, “psychedelic” in style. He asked me if I could redo it in a more antiquated, and more sinister look.
Do you feel that any of the research and design or the movie has influenced your current work?
No, I don’t. My trajectory as an artist and designer was already well established when Dan came into my life.
What was your process on brainstorming? What random things connected for you and gave you the mental leap to execute the brands the way that you chose to?
I really didn’t do any brainstorming. As it happens, Gothic Blackletter is a style that is very conducive to ambigram design. Dan wanted not only the Earth Air Fire Water ambigram, but individual ambigrams of the four elements, and the word Illuminati as well. That’s a pretty sizeable wish list for creating ambigrams, so Blackletter was the best way to go for that reason. It was a happy coincidence that Blackletter also fit Dan’s wish for the style.
Did you go through drafts, and if so, how many? Did the studio/movie people immediately like your first ideas, or did you have to tweak them and meet in the middle somewhere with your designs?
It always takes at least a few sketches to determine how an ambigram will work, and to get the stylistic details just right, so yes, it took a several steps and stages to arrive at the final drawings. It was just luck that the four words worked as easily and well as they did. The ambigrams for Angels & Demons were done in 1998, I think, and the book came out in 2000. The movie was not even on the horizon until a few years later, when The DaVinci Code made Dan’s work well known. The movie people made no suggestions or alterations to the designs for the film.
How did you get the job?
Wordplay, my book of ambigrams came out in 1992. Dan’s father, Dick Brown, bought a copy, and showed it to Dan, who was captivated by it. The only work I did for the film was a group of what were supposed to be “failed attempts” at Illuminati ambigrams — a pretty interesting challenge! The head of the props department on the film contacted me for that project. Those ambigrams appeared for about one second, as Robert Langdon shows someone a page from his book on Illuminati art.
Have you done any other design work for films? If so, what others have you worked on, and what did you do for those?
I created an ambigram for a small independent British film called “Monkeyshine.” The treasure map said the work Monkeyshine on it, but it wasn’t until late in story that they figured out that if the map were rotated, it also said “Nightengale.” I’m not sure if the movie is even available in the US.
What do you see happening in the future of graphic design/arts? What would you like to see? Is there anything you’d like to get rid of?
One reason that I’m a logo designer is that logos are a bit less subject to trends than other aspects of graphic design. I like the fact that logos are supposed to last longer than trends. And, over the course of the past fifteen years, I’ve steered my career away from graphic design in favor of painting. And I’m certainly not clairvoyant about the future of graphic design. That said, I think it would be great if traditional illustration could make a comeback. It got dropped like a hot rock when the computer and Photoshop came along, like hand-lettering was.
The one thing that I have wanted to see disappear, did eventually wither away, thank goodness, was the whole grunge and deconstructionist look exemplified by David Carson and Bikini and Ray Gun magazines. That stuff could be rationalized as a fine art movement, perhaps, but it was all wrong in the applied art field of graphic design. I’m very much a formalist. I love classical typefaces, and could never quite appreciate fonts and page designs that looked like they’d been in a tragic accident.
Did you ever want to pursue painting for galleries and museums? Is that one of your goals, or have you already had a/any show(s)?
My bread and butter work for quite a few years (late 70s and 80s) had been drawing and executing what art directors wanted typographically that couldn’t be achieved using existing typefaces. When the Macintosh came along in the early 90s, the only thing that agencies and clients wanted was for their stuff to look like it had been done on the Mac. That made eighty or ninety percent of my work disappear almost overnight. It took me a little time to decide how to respond to that development. I increased my teaching load to full time, and then I began painting in the mid 90s. Since then I’ve had two small museum exhibitions, several other one-man shows in galleries and universities, and have had work included in many group shows in galleries.
Is there any particular music that you listen to while you work, or do you have to create in silence (just hearing the thoughts in your own head)?
When I’m in the concept/development phase, I mostly have on new age or other meditative music. But I’ve been a huge rock and roll fan for more than 50 years, so when I’m doing a finished drawing or working in Illustrator, I’m likely to have on an oldies or classic rock station.
What amuses you?
That’s a great question because I have always felt that it was critically important to have fun with my work. I strongly believe that if you’re having fun you do better work, so that’s a big win-win. Hand in hand with that, I think humor is critically important in life. The more the better. The sad and frustrating and tragic parts of life are abundantly clear to me, so I feel like I have to respond by finding humor anywhere and everywhere, and creating it myself as much as possible. All kinds of wordplay, not surprisingly, are a great source of fun for me. Also witty comedians. New Yorker cartoons. Monty Python. Not sophomoric movies like Steve Carell’s and Will Ferrell’s.
What ticks you off?
I’m very much an egalitarian. I think that everyone has equal value as a human being. Any sort of hierarchy or class structure that is at odds with that idea really bothers me. A big part of that is my strong aversion to authority figures. Especially people whose sense of authority and importance comes from their uniform, their job title, or their wealth.
How long did it take for you to get to where you are now in your career? What (crappy) jobs did you start out doing to build up to this kind of success?
It took me all the way to this morning to get where I am now. Really, it just seems like one long process of gradual progress. But since about 2000, I’ve been doing exactly what I want all the time. Painting, writing, designing logos and ambigrams, and teaching. Every bit of that makes me happy.
The job at the type shop was pretty bad, in terms of hours, pay, and how much I felt valued, but I don’t think of it in negative terms, because it played such a huge role in my professional development. There was one job between that and my first job where I was hired to be a graphic designer, that was really bad. After a year and a half at the type shop, I felt that I had to get out. I wasn’t quite ready to be hired as a designer yet I guess, and the first job I could find was doing “paste-ups” for a pressure-sensitive label company (3 for 99 ¢ ! on a 1.5” day-glo circle). I never stopped job-hunting for the whole nine months that I worked there. I never put that job on my resumé, and don’t ever tell anyone about it either. (oops.)
I worked at a design studio for six years. I learned a lot, and stayed too long. I’m not so good at being an employee, and I wouldn’t want to have anyone working for me either. (See “egalitarian.”)
What is your best advice for up-and-comers in the industry?
This is a trite, I know, and maybe it’s hard to understand, but LOVE WHAT YOU DO. If you have to work at a crappy job, then do what you love to do at night and on the weekends. Never stop trying to do more of what you love. If you love what you do, you’ll do it more and you’ll get really good at it. And if other people are doing it without loving it as much as you do, you’ll be better at it than they are. (They should be doing what they love!) When you get really good at it people will love it no matter what it is. The world was not waiting around wondering where the ambigrams were. And I did ambigrams for 15 years — and LOVED doing them — before they got much attention. DON’T measure yourself by your job title or how much money you make. Measure yourself by how much you love what you do and by how much joy, happiness and fun you can distribute to others.
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