Let the 80s Roll: In the Design World, Octogenarians Rule

Age is often associated with creative obsolescence—so why are so many of the oldest designers still so good?

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Seymour Chwast's adaptation of The Canterbury Tales

Recently I turned 60, which is the new 50. However, at 50 I often felt more like 60, and now at 60, I look a lot like 40 but sometimes my body feels around 80, which is the new 70. Age is relative; aging is biological.

My own aging made me think more about even older graphic designers who have crossed into their eighties yet are as productive as ever. Unlike other arts, where genius usually presents at an early age, graphic design is like the proverbial fine wine. Over time it achieves maturity—some of the time.

In 2011 a handful of celebrated designers and illustrators, who were born in 1931, turned 80. They joined a smaller group of flourishing octogenarians who are as vital, influential, and inspirational as they were back in their youth. Eighty may not be the new 70, but if Seymour Chwast, Tom Geismar, Bob Gill, Peter Knapp, George Lois, Deborah Sussman, Tomi Ungerer, and Massimo Vignelli (plus Ivan Chermayeff and Jan Van Toorn, born in 1932, and Milton Glaser and Ed Sorel, born in 1929) are any proof, 80 is just another calendar year in the continuum of fruitful professional and artistic design-lives.

Talent doesn't come with an out-of-date stamp. Each of the "new 80-year-olds" creates art, illustration, typography, and design that reject the stereotype of diminished capacity. If anything, their work is often more engaging, since long ago they went through the novelty stage of their careers. Free of the requisite need to be fashionable, they concentrate on design and illustration purity—and they are having fun. There is no mandatory retirement for graphic designers.

How did this current batch of 80-year-olds transcend time and fashion? Obsolescence is like quicksand; once a designer falls in it is extremely difficult to get free. So presumably equal parts talent, persistence, and ego increase the odds of professional survival.

Paul Rand, who was 86 when died of cancer in 1996, worked energetically to the end. He literally designed a logo in his hospital bed, and his later work was arguably as relevant as his work during the 1950s, when he typified American mid-century Modern graphic design. But not every designer can claim continued relevance regardless of age. When Alex Steinweiss (1917-2011), the pioneer of American record cover design, turned 50, he voluntarily opted out of graphic design, famously proclaiming that he was surrounded by "guys in fringed jackets" who wanted to choose their own designers. During the '60s rock era, Steinweiss's album covers, while beautiful, did not keep up with the demands of the zeitgeist. Only decades later, in his late seventies and eighties, was he resurrected as an historically important figure. Others, with less historical bona fides, became obsolete in a field that largely values fashionable approaches.

When I decided to write this article I immediately contacted Seymour Chwast, co-founder with Milton Glaser of Push Pin Studios and currently sole proprietor of same. We have worked together on many projects for over two decades and he's always approached them with the same high-fructose energy as a kid playing sports. There is nothing 80 about him—seasoned maybe, but not old. Twenty years my senior, he's also my best friend. Yet his response to my idea was skeptical:

"What are you going to do for us? Get us more interesting work?"

Before I had a chance to respond, he added, "Who wants to hire someone who might die before the job is finished?"

He was joking. He is more or less in denial about this milestone, and it suits him. Chwast gets to his studio at 7 a.m. every weekday and draws, conceives, and draws more and more. On weekends he makes metal sculptures on satiric themes. He's done this for decades. The only thing that's changed over the years, and this is true for many others, is that he has trimmed down his staff and overhead considerably. Why carry a heavy weight, when it's much more fun to just do the work?

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Massimo Vignelli's 2008 NY subway diagram

Other designers more readily accept their new chronological designation. Deborah Sussman, known for creating the California Post-Modern style, says, "It took me by surprise. I always thought I was exempt." Massimo Vignelli, who celebrated his eightieth birthday with the opening of an impressive gallery and archive space bearing his name—the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)—says more fatalistically, "Without any doubt, it is a landmark. Mortality is becoming more familiar than ever, but at the same time is voided of fear. I have done whatever I wanted to do, more or less, and whenever I will have to go, I guess I am ready." And George Lois, who held the title of "Mad Ave's Wunderkind" well beyond the usual burnout period in advertising, says that 80 "means that I'm getting closer to 85, the age when I was always afraid I might have to stop playing basketball with all the young studs at the Y."

In our aging and ageist society, 50 had long been a line in the sand, a kind of beginning of the end—the tunnel at the end of the light. Not anymore. Owing to extended longevity and economic instability, retirement ages have been indefinitely postponed in many professions—today a work till you drop ethic prevails.

Designers retire when they choose to, not when a corporation or government agency says they must. Barring catastrophic illness, talent is ongoing. If you've got it, you've got it forever. "I never thought of retiring," Vignelli admits, "therefore I thought that I will keep working until I die, if I am lucky. I may become unable, or clients will stop to come. In that case, I will prefer to die."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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