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

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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Talent doesn't come with an out-of-date stamp.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."

Apparently, there is a fountain of youth. "Work has been the blood of my life," Sussman says, "but priorities are changing. I've become more distanced from micro-managing. I am thinking more." Lois echos the sentiment in his familiarly boistrous way: "I'd go out of my mind without having to solve a communication problem every day of my life. I'll die either at the computer designing with my son Luke, or on the basketball court with all my pals—with no regrets." He rattles off a long list of current projects including an ad campaign of Superfocus eye glasses, an ad campaign for Physician, Heal Thyself, the branding and ad campaign for Nail Your Mortgage, a revolutionary process to nail down affordable, transparent mortgages in these tough economic times, "and a couple of others I can't talk about yet." And yes, he still plays hard-contact pick-up basketball games at least once a week.

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Poster on the theme of "chocolate" by Tom Geismar


Tom Geismar, who for 50 years has shared the marquee of Chermayeff & Geismar and has designed some of the most recognizable logos in America, says "As long as you are able to work every day, and, importantly, enjoy it, why not keep doing it? My observation is that most people who stop working, and have nothing as demanding to replace it, rather quickly fall apart."

I asked Bob Gill, co-founder in 1960 of Fletcher Forbes Gill (the forerunner of Pentagram), designer of films, musical events ("Beatlemania"), commercials, and author of 19 books, including the forthcoming omnibus, Bob Gill, so far, if turning 80 has special significance. I should have anticipated that his answer, from the title of his book, would be "No!"

Undeterred, I asked whether he ever imagined he would still be working this long. "I have no memory of ever thinking ahead professionally," he claims. "I went to Europe on a whim and stayed 15 years. I returned to New York also on a whim, and I'm still designing, teaching, and thinking about books because there's nothing I'd rather do." Then he adds with a touch of pride, "and I still encourage my students to think independently, instead of regurgitating what the culture decrees to be 'trendy.'"

Tomi Ungerer, satirist, illustrator, children's book pioneer, and memoirist, who among other things altered the course of advertising illustration in New York in the '60s with his "Expect the Unexpected" campaigns, says "With 80 you don't have much time left. And because I've trained myself all my life to have ideas, I am a slave now of too many ideas waiting in line, waiting to be used. I don't think ever in my life I've had that many projects on my shelves. I'm very grateful to have the energy to do them." Ungerer explains that his significant current pleasure "is the enjoyment to carry on with my thinking through collages and sculpture, and the missing volume in my autobiography of the New York years."

Success obviously impacts longevity. The "new eighties" started their careers in a less competitive field. Their respective studios and firms emerged during a postwar economic boom, when corporate Modernism and cultural eclecticism were embraced as a means to further prosperity. Each of the designers made names for themselves in and out of the profession. "I feel that we in this age group were very fortunate to come into graphic design when we did," notes Geismar. "In many ways it was a new field, pioneered by those a generation ahead of us, like Rand, Lustig, Beall, Lionni, Schleger, Burtin. It was a time when the culture was ripe for new ideas. The 1960s was surely a time of great upheaval, but also one of great opportunity. It was when our approach to design was set, and it certainly continues to influence my attitude to design."

Some of the "new eighties" retain the high-profile clients they've had for decades. Others have found newer, younger clients who value their past accomplishments, like Steve Jobs when in 1986 he hired in Rand to design the NeXT logo. Age has its privileges, when truly smart clients realize that the store of knowledge and experience is a huge benefit.

With age comes confidence—a stimulant by any other name. "Sounds like bullshit, but every job I do, I think is my best work yet. I wouldn't trade my career with anybody," Lois says.

When asked the inevitable question—what would you do differently if you could?—Ungerer spoke for his peers. "This is a question one shouldn't ask. Since we are manipulated by destiny, one follows what one has to do. It would be ungratefulness on my part to think I might have done anything else—I always learn from what I do, even if it was bad. I've been so spoiled by fate or destiny, as Edith Piaf sang, 'Non, Je ne regrette rien (I don't feel sorry about anything).'"

Vignelli shares Ungerer's sentiments: "My career went beyond my imagination. I am quite satisfied with the impact our work and theories had in USA in the last 50 years. That is my legacy." Meanwhile, Sussman says, "life is really a series of moments which range from mountains to valleys and plateaus, via dreams, stairs, elevators, escalators, trails, air, and water, and friends and mentors."

However, when I asked Chwast if his career went as planned, he paused for a moment and said, "No, I'm still waiting for the assignment that will be my breakthrough." But he added with a grin, "As Paul Newman said in The Verdict, 'This is the case. There is no other case.'"

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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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