ART CHANTRY IN 22 QUESTIONS>
22 Qs: Designer Art Chantry.
Interview + design intro by Ronald J. Cala II/CMYK 48
There are few people who have made as big of an impact on design and few names are as recognizable in this industry as Art Chantry. While his opinions may be among the most publicized and recognized, he may also be one of the most misunderstood men in the field. Some may think they know what he thinks, but they rarely take the time to understand why he thinks it and that is the important part. This icon of the industry has been kind enough to be completely candid and extremely thorough with CMYK and we appreciate it. Don’t miss this opportunity to gain insight from a man who is part of an epic breed of designers and one of the true old-school creative talents. artchantry.com
- Do you think the computer has hurt or helped the industry? Frankly, I think the mechanization of our industry was a big mistake. The computer (and our own industry) dumped 20 times more liability and responsibility on us without even asking. Now we, as freelancers, have to supply the design, the illustration, the photography, the copywriting, the proofreading, the account management, the typesetting, the prepress, the print management, etc., etc., etc., and everything else you can think of that we used to contract out.
We have to take on all the duties for far less pay (or worse yet, a fixed hourly wage). We also have to compete with anybody who literally bought the software in the last two weeks (such is the nature of the competition today). We have to support $15,000 worth of equipment and upgrades and even more overhead. Seems like a really bad business paradigm to me. We used to offer magic; now we offer a technical chore.
In the old days, we worked more like directors of a symphony—we hired all the “musicians” (technicians and artisans) and then directed their efforts. In addition, each “musician” brought along with them their own unique quality control system. They made us look like geniuses. Then we marked up their services 100% and billed them to the client. We actually made money from hiring people to make us look good. Try to do that with a computer.
The worst part is that if anything goes wrong at any point in the process—whether it’s our fault or not—we have to take the blame. How many times has a client taken your work (or perhaps some underlying managed by the client) and rebuilt your work on the disk (aka “fixed it”) and completely ruined it? That’s happened to me so many times I can’t count. Then when it’s all a total disaster, they (naturally) blame the designer (because we make great scapegoats). What is there I can say? “I didn’t do this; you did this”? They assume I’m lying. Thanks to computers, clients now know enough about what we do to be really dangerous.
- Is technology good or bad? Technology is good. How we use it is bad. For example, have you ever figured out how a nuclear reactor works? All it does is boil water. We use the nuclear decay process to generate heat to run old-fashioned steam generator technology. That’s like pounding a thumbtack with a sledge hammer. Complete overkill. Boys with toys.
The computer is a tool; we are all agreed on that. It’s a hammer. In fact, it’s a solid-gold hammer. It’s beautiful and elegant and flashy. But all that solid-gold hammer does is pound nails. And just because you have a solid-gold hammer, it doesn’t mean you’re an architect.
- Is it important to know how to do things by hand even if you no longer have to? Absolutely. Hand-eye coordination is one of the most important keys to the development of creative thought. To have that direct connection between the mind and the result (hand) is something that just does not happen on a computer keyboard. If you look, you can see why. Start with your hand. Then follow it up past your wrist, then along the arm, up and up and up until you see your shoulder. Then, guess what’s next? YOUR HEAD! It’s true. And what’s inside your head? Your mind! Yes! Imagine that! It’s directly connected!!! Amazing, but true!!
- What is one thing you think the new generation of designers doesn’t seem to get? I don’t think they understand very much at all about printing. And if you don’t know printing, you don’t know graphic design. Because that’s what we do—we design things to be reproduced on printing presses (and yes, that includes websites; they’re all based on printing paradigms too). Trying to design things to be printed on printing presses and not even knowing what one looks like is like learning to paint without ever having touched brush to canvas. It’s absurd. But that’s exactly what’s going on now. I fear almost all young designers think “printing” is all the same as desktop printers. I think they have never considered printing on anything but white paper.
I taught a workshop at RISD a couple of years ago. The night before the workshop began I did a lecture and presented my work to the public. So, when the students came into the workshop, the first thing I asked was, since they had seen my work, I was wondering if they had any questions they wanted me to tackle in the workshop.
A quick word about these students: They were just about ready to graduate (most of them within a month). Before they could even apply for the three-year design program, they had to have a four-year degree in a related field. So these students had been at study for over seven years on design. They were ace. They were crackerjack. They were the sharpest students I’d ever encountered. They were the future generation of American design.
So their “spokesperson” (they actually had met and chosen a spokesperson) said, “Well, yes, Art. There was one question we wanted to ask. We were wondering if you could explain to us the difference between silkscreen printing and offset litho printing.” What kind of “graphic design education” were they paying for?
- Is there any rule that should never be broken? “Never design graphics that kill.” Besides, it’s way too hard to do. I’ve tried.
- Is there any rule that should always be broken? “Always carry a gun.”
- Name five designers that every student needs to know. Ouch. That’s hard. Let’s try this. These are five extremely important American designers that you’ve never heard of and should be taught about in universities, but aren’t:
1) Von Dutch
2) Harry Chester
3) Terry Gilliam
4) Harvey Ball
5) Harley Earl
6) Cal Schenkel
(Sorry, it’s hard to stop at just five.)
- What are some places you go for inspiration? Television. We really underestimate the power of television to inform us about American graphic design. I think that’s because so many “design culture” folks are elitist snobs and find television distasteful. You often hear them bragging that they “never watch TV.” Man, how can you figure out what’s going on in America if you don’t watch TV? That’s crazy talk.
- Do you look at design annuals? No, not any more. I used to, but I drifted away from contemporary graphic design. It’s never been more true that “everything looks the same.” There is a homogeny in contemporary design that must be the result of lousy design educations and the power of instantaneous communication. Bland, derivative ideas spread like wildfire. Garbage in/garbage out. “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” I only seem to look at design language from the past, now.
- What do you think is the best way for a young designer to get their name out there? Enter design shows (believe it or not.) Or participate in a subcultural scene (like gigposters.com). Basically, “get involved.” Nobody is going to bother to come to you. You have to go to them. Duh. The very best promotional effort I ever undertook was letter-writing. I began to write fan letters to my favorite designers and included some of my work. I didn’t do it for very long, but I made amazing lifelong friendships.
- Does it pay to be different? No. “All new ideas are first perceived as a threat.” I think Oscar Wilde said that.
- How important is it for new designers to know and understand the history of graphic design? Extremely important. Otherwise, you keep inventing the wheel, which is stupid. Frankly, the history of design is a recent idea (strangely) and has been tackled only over the last 20+ years or so. And it’s not been written about very well. There is a lot of lazy, myopic design history that’s been written out there. The contemporary viewpoint that has passed for “gospel” up until now should maybe be retitled “The history of graphic design as seen through fine art” and then subtitled “As practiced in New York City.” That would be a fairly good encapsulation of how the history of graphic design is taught.
- What is better/worse about today’s design world than that of the late ’80s, early ’90s? I think I’ve tackled that question already
- Is design art? If so, how does it differ from traditional fine art? No. In fact, my thinking about this subject is so completely heretical that I think “fine art” evolved from commercial and applied art (and not the other way around). Think about the first cave paintings. They were magic, not art. They were about function. They were depictions of the spirits of select animals that were ritualistically killed in the middle of magic ceremonies. Then the hunt would be successful because you’d already properly and respectfully killed the spirit. You can even find spearpoint damage on the drawings.
After the ceremony was completed, the image was literally “tossed out”—just like a beer can. It was deep inside of an unlit cave, so nobody ever looked at it again. In fact, when they performed the next hunt ceremony, the shaman would often paint the next animal image on top of the old one, like it wasn’t even there anymore.
Modern folks look at these things and say, “Look at that herd of buffalo!” But ideas about perspective and foreshortening like we see really didn’t get “invented” until 10,000 years later. Early man’s mind’s eye didn’t see perspective abstractly like that. Even the Egyptians made layered bands to suggest perspective (the bottom layer was the foreground, the next layer was further away, etc., until you get to the after-life at the top).
We’re just so stupid that we assume that it’s all about “fine art” driven by muse and beauty. We think what we see is what they saw. But, in fact, it was industrial design. Commercial art. Beer cans. Muse-inspired “fine art” is a luxurious offshoot of what we do. Technically (by today’s definition of “fine art”), we DO NOT make art. We make “artifacts.”
“Fine art” is a completely different dialog (spoken among artists, critics, collectors, galleries, and some museums). It has almost nothing to do with the dialog a graphic designer participates in. Since graphic design is mostly taught in “fine art” departments in schools (“an unfortunate source of income,” I’ve heard said), we are trained to think we are part of the fine art dialogue. I think that’s ignorant.
- Is there ever a point where a designer no longer has to worry about getting work? Does it ever really get any easier? Nope. It’s never gotten any easier. I’ve always had to struggle to survive. It’s just the way it is for me, I guess. I’ve stopped worrying about “why” and only worry about “how.”
- Describe the perfect client. The perfect client is the perfect collaborator. All the best work I’ve ever done has always been a complete and true collaboration with a client. They are 50% of the results. Always. And when the client and you are collaborating sympathetically, then it never gets better as a process. It’s truly a magical experience. You both work toward a common, shared goal and use all your inspirations and ideas to reach it. It’s a gas …
- What are some of the biggest clients you have turned down or walked away from? That’s a silly question.
- Was there a project you had to work on, but hated doing it? Certainly. Happens all the time. I’m a capitalist and I have to survive in a system that tries to take everything and give you nothing in return. So, many, many projects are nightmares you just have to endure. Then you have to figure out how to get paid by corporations who have entire divisions of lawyers and accountants whose sole job it is to try to avoid paying their bills. It’s just reality. It’s a really tough way to make a living.
- What do you think about your work being collected? It’s sorta nice. It means folks appreciate (and understand) the language you speak. It’s a good sign of being simpatico. It means you are doing your job correctly.
- Do you consider that at all when you are creating the design? To a point, but not entirely. I’m much more focused on satisfying the client’s needs and trying to communicate those needs through this visual language I master. Graphic designers are marketing propagandists. We use this visual language to change the way people think about something: “Buy this product,” “go to this concert,” “vote for this candidate.” It’s a language everybody knows but they don’t know they know it. In our culture, “yellow” means something. A circle means something. A square means something totally different. And we use this language to trick folks into thinking differently about something. We try to trick them into making choices our clients want them to make. We fuck with their minds. We’re dangerous people.
- If you have an unlimited budget, do you still try to keep the cost low or do you go all out? I’ve never, ever had an unlimited budget. I fear that it would paralyze me. Every project I’ve ever worked on has been a very, very low-budget project. When you can’t throw money at a solution, you have to use your mind. I work for peanuts and produce miracles. That’s my rep. So I have no idea how to answer your question.
- Have you always wanted to be a designer, and do you think you always will be? Yup and yes.