Jim Faris Interviewed by Dennis Letbetter: Continuum/Fellows Interview Series (2020)

Jim Faris is a man of greater range than almost any I’ve met. He can seem to be Zelig-like in his uncanny ability to have found the most propitious places to be throughout the world at such fruitful times: At the University of Santa Cruz learning from William Everson and Jack Stauffacher; his NEA grant which put him at The Greenwood Press to handset and print Stauffacher’s Phaedrus, one of the most important small press books of the 20th Century; learning from Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart in Basel, creating there his influential series of collages about printing and typography and meeting with his future partner Lauralee Alben; reinventing the graphic design department at The Museum of Modern Art, New York; working with several different parts of Apple; collaborating with the Australian government on a design led tax reform project; his extensive design and concept work for the Android platform at Google then Skype. It’s a career that seems almost too perfectly scripted, an embarrassment of riches.

When this more than kind, unpretentious man, is asked about any of these experiences he adopts the most human of touches and generosity of spirit in relating them, allowing others to imagine that they could have done the same, which is far from any truth. Of late he has been pursuing with a renewed passion his embrace of core design and humanist principals concerning the book. In a pause from corporate life he is now perfectly poised to devote himself to personal projects. As the ever consummate intellectual he is pursuing more than ever his expansive reading in seemingly every field. It is hard to meander in dialogue with him into areas he is not conversant with.

After time either collaborating or socializing with Jim one comes away with gems gleaned from his insight and experience which he generously offers without hesitation. Sometimes I will only realize upon reflection a day later an idea or concept of importance, almost as though he had secretly slipped a gift into my jacket pocket.

Dennis Letbetter: I have known you for years by virtue of the introduction of Jack Stauffacher, with whom we both collaborated with extensively. But for the sake of beginning at the beginning, where are you from originally and how did you first become interested in graphic design?

Jim Faris: I was born in Hollywood to a show business family. My parents met at MGM where they were making Tom & Jerry cartoons. Growing up, I always thought I would become a film director. I made a few simple films as a kid. When I was in junior high school, my father went through a period of discontent in his job as a film editor. He told me not to go into the industry. That was a huge disappointment at the time.

Throughout my life, I was always drawing and I was an avid reader. Look, Life, and other magazines made a big impression on me during the 60s. The incredible layouts and the way images and text were used to tell a story was very exciting. When I was about thirteen, I had my first commercial job, a logo for a local rock band, The Turtles. They became pretty well known and I would see the logo on TV.

DL: Do you mean the “Happy Together” Turtles?

JF: Yes, those Turtles.

DL: How did your interest in design develop? Who were your early influences?

JF: My path to graphic design really began at University of California Santa Cruz. One day while I was at the library, I noticed a beautiful hand press upstairs. I went to ask about it and learned that William Everson (the poet and printer) ran a program with a small group of students. I started spending time there and learned about hand setting type and letterpress printing from Bill. The next year, Jack Stauffacher showed up on campus and opened another press at Cowell College. I took Jack’s course on typography and that was a turning point for me. His humanistic approach and passion for all kinds of art and design set me on the path I’m still on today.

DL: Your relationship with Jack continued for decades, and we met through Jack. How did you maintain that relationship for such a long time?

JF: After graduating from UCSC, I looked for another way to work with Jack. I applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant, called the Master Apprentice Grant. The NEA paid me to work for Jack for almost a year. During that time, I helped Jack with commercial projects but the real focus was Phaedrus, a book that has become famous, which I hand set and printed under his direction. It was a marvelous and exciting period.

DL: You mention Jack’s approach as humanistic, and I wonder how working with the particular text of Phaedrus might have influenced you in your approach to design and perhaps teaching.

JF: What a great question. Phaedrus is one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Socrates and Phaedrus discuss love and language. It’s incredibly powerful. I don’t think it has lost relevance after two thousand years. That text has influenced me in many ways and I can’t separate that from the influence Jack’s way of working had on me. You can get a glimpse of his approach to research and experimentation, along with his correspondence by mail with Chuck Bigelow, in a small volume Jack published called “A Search for the Typographic Form of Plato’s Phaedrus.” Hugh Dubberly, Terry Irwin, and others have told me how much they were influenced by this slim volume. It illustrates a rich and profound understanding of typography, design, and the text.

Despite this exciting period with Jack, I wasn’t really sure that I could spend my life in letterpress. I was also interested in photography, film, illustration, and graphic design more broadly. Jack had introduced me to Typografische Monatsblaetter, the monthly magazine for typographers, from Switzerland, and to the work of Emil Ruder, Jan Tschichold, and others. He suggested that I go to study in Basel. At that time, I didn’t speak any German and I didn’t really have much background in design, but I applied and was accepted.

Jack opened all these doors. He was such a good friend and so influential on my life that I can truly call him my mentor.

DL: I consider him a mentor as well. I particularly appreciate how would always encourage if not chide those of us in his circle to stay in contact with one another, his concept of being in the “guild.”

JF: I remember Jack using that word. We enjoyed so many conversations, and those lunches on Friday in North Beach. Until just before he died, we talked on the phone almost every weekend, mostly about design and books and culture. At the end of every conversation I had a list of books to read. Into his mid-90s, he was still raising new questions for me to think about.

DL: At a base level, what did you learn in Basel?

JF: Basel made me a designer. We were taught by the studio method. It was very intense, and the hours were long. We worked day and night, seven days a week most of the time. I loved it. Having people like Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart and many other great teachers there working so closely with us was a real privilege that I will always treasure. I was there for almost three years. Lauralee Alben and I met there and we both ended up in London for a year or two. I did my first teaching there at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design.

DL: Before you left Basel though, you made a series of collages about printing and typography (“Images of Typography: Tools, Process, Sensibility: 26 collages concerning the technological revolution in printing.”). Hugh Dubberly told me that this work, “pointed a way to a whole new world—a whole new vocabulary.” He was very influenced by it. It suggests that perhaps your time in Basel was less pedagogy than encouragement and refinement in the path you were already on.

JF: That’s gratifying to hear Hugh’s comment since he is someone whose work and thinking I have admired and learned from over many years. You are right that I was already on a path of questioning how design worked and our relationship to technology. The images were a meditation on the change from letterpress printing to photographically based typesetting (and image-making) and offset printing. There were new techniques using film, pioneered by Weingart, and he taught them to us. We were doing Photoshop-like manipulation of images before Photoshop. Weini was my instructor for the collages and he decided to publish them in Typografische Monatsblaetter and separately in a book with work by Gregory Vines, whose collages were a huge influence on my own.

All this was before the computer became the central tool for designers, and after that came the internet and the web and mobile phones and networked devices and big data and artificial intelligence. As a young man I was interested in how our tools and our practices influence our experience of life (and as designers, our “sensibility”). And now, forty years later, I’m going back to that Basel work and extending it to include all that has happened with digital technologies, as well as looking back at previous centuries before print, in the manuscript era and even before that. I love doing the research and thinking about visual communication over that vast expanse of time.

DL: You are from California, but when you moved back to the United States from London, you settled in New York. Why was that?

JF: Yes, it was 1980. We saw the hostages who had just been released from the embassy in Tehran on a bus in New York City. John Lennon was killed soon after we moved to the city and we joined thousands of other people in Central Park. It was a time of change for us and for the world. Lauralee and I both wanted to start this part of our careers working in New York. We connected with friends we had met in Basel who also had moved there, and we also got to know people in the design community through AIGA. I was eventually hired at CIBA-GEIGY in their inhouse group and spent 5 years there. This was at the height of the so-called New Wave in design, but I didn’t ever really work in that manner. I was still in the shadow of my teachers in Basel, and was inspired particularly by the work my teacher Max Schmid had done at Geigy in Basel. To this day I think it’s some of the greatest packaging and marketing material ever.

DL: After CIBA-GEIGY you went to The Museum of Modern Art in New York? What was that like?

JF: I was made a department Director and had an opportunity to expand the internal group. The graphic design that had been done for MoMA was always good, but not all of it looked modern, and that seemed wrong to me. My other goal was to take over designing the books (controversially, that meant taking them away from the Publications department). The reason for wanting to design the books was to create a typographic signature for each show that would be reflected in both the exhibits and the catalogues. Often the design of the books was totally out of step with the exhibit graphics and vice versa. I thought it was my responsibility to fight that battle and the situation became political. I was aware that Nelson Rockefeller had said that everything he knew about politics he learned at MoMA (where he had been President as a young man). I lost the fight for the books and left the Museum after a little more than a year. But during that time, we did make a difference in how the Museum’s galleries, publications, and advertising looked and I’m proud of that. It was also an exciting place to be, to walk alone through the galleries when the Museum was closed, and to work on exhibit graphics with artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Serra, Mario Botta. This was one of those challenging life experiences that taught me a lot and that I appreciate in retrospect.

DL: What was the reason for moving back to California? Was it family, or roots, or maybe Stauffacher or the groundswell of all things design in the Bay Area?

JF: When I left MoMA, Lauralee Alben had already started a firm called Alben+Faris, and we decided that this would be a good time for me to join her. We already had some corporate and not-for-profit clients. We started working out of our home in Westchester county, and later moved to an office space nearby. We were there for a few years before we decided to move to California. By that time our son Benjamin had been born and we wanted him to be closer to his grandparents and other family. We settled in Santa Cruz, on the coast, near Silicon Valley.

DL: How did you make the transition to designing for the tech industry?

JF: We were very influenced by our dear friend Michael Arent, who was visionary in seeing how the future of design and technology would be intertwined. It was exciting, but to be honest I had no idea what it all really meant. I had barely touched a computer at that point. Michael introduced us to people he was working with at Apple (Jim Palmer, Harry Saddler, and Mitch Stein, who would all become long term collaborators). We did work there on interactive portable devices with Michael’s team at the Advanced Technology Group, led by Joy Mountford. It was exhilarating and almost like being in a graduate program working with and learning from some of the most creative and brilliant people in the field. It didn’t take long to realize how big the opportunity was. We made a choice to basically stop print work and specialize in design for interactive products. For several years Apple was our biggest client and I think we probably were their primary outside consulting firm working on interactive design projects.

DL: You also worked for Hugh Dubberly there. I want to ask you about it by quoting something he wrote, “For the first 10 years—1984 though 1994—Macintosh had no symbol, no logo. Then, Apple decided to license the operating system (OS), and suddenly, it needed a compatibility mark. Susan Kare had given the original Mac a smiling face icon, which appeared when [the] OS had successfully loaded. However, the smiling face was inside a classic Mac form, which many folks at Apple thought was out-of-date. Luckily, we were able to keep the smile and add to it, because of the work of Jim Faris. We spent months exploring directions, and one day, Jim came in with this great execution offering at least two readings: front-on and a side view, which might also be a conversation. Steve Jobs changed many things when he returned to Apple, but he kept the Mac OS symbol, which lives on as the finder icon.” I have heard you in lecture, and when giving, by way of introduction, a brief survey of your work, when you show the finder icon you created, there is an audible gasp from the audience.

JF: One of the things Alben+Faris had been working on at the time were multiple appearances for the Macintosh. Users would be able to switch their interface to look colorful and wild, or subdued and simple. We were familiar with the company’s technology and marketing plans. The Mac OS logo was an important branding problem for Apple. Hugh and Gaynelle Grover enlisted a group of designers and design firms to “noodle and doodle” about it (as The Wall Street Journal put it in an article about the project). After weeks of work, one morning I went into the office and made that little sketch of the user at the computer facing each other. I thought, “That must be it!” Once I saw the formulation on paper, it seemed sort of inevitable.

The longevity of the Mac Finder icon is really unusual too. At Alben+Faris we did a lot of work on experimental technologies, bleeding edge products. We were always working with the best currently available tools, but in the early years that meant 1-bit and 8-bit graphics. It meant designing for screens that nobody would tolerate these days. Rendering of type was primitive. Everything has advanced so dramatically that all that work looks very old now. We worked for great clients, GAP, IBM, Netscape, SEGA, Sony, and with lots of startups, including Elon Musk’s first company (Zip2, where he crawled out of a sleeping bag for a design meeting) and Sean Parker’s second company (Plaxo, before he joined Facebook). It was an exhilarating period, a wild ride. It’s the nature of that business that the most interesting thing is always the next thing.

DL: You and Lauralee closed Alben+Faris in 2000. What came next?

JF: To be honest, it was a rough period personally and professionally. I did some consulting, but I missed having colleagues to work with.

The most interesting opportunity I had during this period was working for the Australian Taxation Office in applying design methods to the whole tax system of the country. This was an important initiative led by Dr. Alan Preston in the ATO, who was working with Tony Golsby-Smith. Tony had created original ways of combining creative and analytical approaches to management. I was the second keynote speaker at an annual conference attended by leaders in politics and government there, economists, technologists, lawyers, and tax professionals. It was a heady thing to be sharing what I knew about design with a group not usually concerned about such things. But Alan and Tony had defined the opportunity very powerfully, to view the tax system as a design problem, to see its services as a product. With that framing, design suddenly became essential in governance of this large and important agency.

From the ATO experience and others, it became clear that design wasn’t just about how things looked, but about entire systems. This led me into a broader kind of management consulting based on design. For a couple of years I was with four colleagues in a company we called Management Innovation Group in San Francisco. We were looking to bring design methods and thinking to leadership decision making and product development.

DL: But later you returned to graphic design, to work on emerging mobile technologies, right?

JF: Yes. My friend and colleague Jim Palmer called me and invited me to work on mobile phones that Motorola was developing for the yet to be released Android platform. This was before the iPhone. I didn’t know it yet, but mobile would become the focus of the next ten or more years of my working life. After Motorola I joined the Android group at Google. I recruited Jim to come over and lead our design group. When Jim eventually left Google, he went to Skype and I soon joined him there. Jim and I share certain important ideas about design as a social process, and we usually have similar intuitions about product issues as well as how design needs to work inside organizations. When you find people you admire and enjoy working with, the quality of your life improves immeasurably.

DL: Was this opportunistic on your part initially or the outgrowth of a genuine interest? It seems clear that you charted a path of great creativity and innovation for these companies. The Jim Faris I know is such a refined, ethical, modest and discreet humanist, I wonder how you navigated the corporate landscape without getting singed.

JF: I have been singed, but survived. The mobile world was yet another example of technology transforming human experience and expanding the domain of design. People have exchanged texts with people far away since at least Roman times, now it became possible to do it in real time. Then video calling, sharing. We found ourselves in the midst of yet another revolution.

DL: For almost 30 years you have been involved with design for technology. What thoughts do you have about the changes and trends have you seen over those years? What do you think about the state of the profession these days?

JF: One of my goals when I chose to become a designer was to work in a field where I wouldn’t be bored, where there would always be new problems and lots of space for creativity. The tech field was that and more, as we now know. It’s grown explosively and disruptively, and we have to admit that it has caused a kind of creative destruction.

I do think the quality of design, all kinds of design, has been improving consistently over the years. There are so many talented people doing incredible work, all over the world. We all see each other’s work and are inspired by it. Many trends are worldwide trends. Even design for tech is being done all over the world now. This is a good thing.

On the other hand, we are starting to see some of the unintended consequences of technologies that we have created, and which have been widely adopted by literally billions of people. Let’s just think about the social impacts of mobile phones and applications. Along with all the useful functionality, there are changes in how we behave toward one another both in public and among friends and family. It’s changing everything and the experiment is being conducted in the wild. Because I came early to the mobile space, I remember that in the early days, we worried about even being able to come up with applications that people would want to use. Now it’s almost as if the whole thing is out of our control. It has taken on a life of its own.

DL: Anything else you would like to add before we end this conversation?

JF: If I had the time and space, I would really like to individually thank all my teachers, and all the colleagues I have worked with through the years. Sometimes we tend to think about our careers in terms of individual accomplishment, almost as though we were working in a vacuum. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would like to insert a massive footnote right here mentioning all the people who worked for Alben+Faris, all the people in client companies who were part of our creative process, and all the people at the companies where I have worked inhouse who were my partners in everything I did. I have mentioned some of them, but I feel great appreciation for so many others that I haven’t mentioned.

I am grateful for the acknowledgment that AIGA is giving me with the Fellows Award, and I accept it in the spirit of fellowship, something that is essential for design and is what AIGA is all about.

Dennis Letbetter is a widely exhibited photographer who has operated a studio in San Francisco since 1978. Published worldwide, his work has covered many genres: portraiture, still life, the nude, and panoramic cityscapes in America, Russia, South America, Europe, and Japan. A longtime collaborator with Jack W. Stauffacher, his work is in many public collections internationally. From 1995 until 2018 he owned and curated The Bonnafont Gallery in San Francisco, and he is currently publisher and owner of Editions Michel Eyquem. A magazine devoted to his photographic work, iMag, is approaching its 19th issue. Other selected publications include: This Book is an Object, 1989; Tulips, 1992; The Beams of Montaigne’s Library, 1996; Jane, 2000; Inscriptions, 2003; Vico Photographs, 2003; The Vico Collaboration, 2004; Vico duodecimo Axiom 65, 2006; From Shanghai to Wuxi, 2007; Toward a Human Face, 2011; Rose, Oser, Sero, Eros, 2012; and The Odes of Horace, Book II, 2019 from Arion Press.