Where would I be without Bob Aufuldish? I shudder to think.
Back in 1995, Bob drafted me for the very first semester of Sputnik, the in-house graphic design studio at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC, now CCA). I was three semesters into my design education and taking it way too seriously—from the content I chose for projects (the Holocaust or media censorship anyone?) to my careful think-too-much-make-too-less design process.
Bob taught me to have fun. Bring some random props in and we’ll make some cool assemblages. Let’s flood that whole side of the brochure with silver ink. Make that “450” on the cover HUGE. Let’s put on some crazy hats and do the Sputnik staff photoshoot on the roof. He gave me the courage to just forget meaning and profundity for a little bit, make some groovy stuff, and just see what happens. Plus, he was doing kick-ass work for the band Soul Coughing, too? This guy was just too cool for words.
How do I apply for a scholarship? What should I bring to the interview? Where should I work? I asked Bob all these questions first. Because he wasn’t just cool, he was candid, he was smart, and he did everything to his own beat. (Probably a post-punk bassline. Yes, he even plays a damn good electric bass.)
Our design careers have diverged in the particulars over the years. But they still align around art books, a love of the first five R.E.M. albums, and finally a stubborn diligence to design, teach, and live on one’s own terms. If anything, that’s the key inspiration I’ve gleaned from almost 25 years of Bob’s friendship and advice. I still struggle to live up to that ideal. Bob, on the other hand, makes it look easy. (You should hear him sing the Sid Vicious version of “My Way,” too.)
Eric Heiman: What do you bring, if anything, from being raised in Northeastern Ohio? I’m curious because I grew up very nearby—but also because it’s so far away from both San Francisco and any so-called cultured design centers.
Bob Aufuldish: That’s a long and complicated question. I went to high school at an all boys Catholic school that was right on Lake Erie in Cleveland and the weather was really, really, really bad. Gym class was held outside in the winter in shorts and t-shirts because they’re insane. I’m sure they don’t do that anymore. But part of that is the Midwestern work ethic, a desire to just really knuckle under. If you want something, you have to just throw yourself at it as hard as you can and there’s still no guarantee. That’s the Cleveland mindset. It’s all uphill, all the time, forever. And there’s going to be several landslides on your way up the hill.
EH: You mentioned gym class and that makes me assume that you don’t look at that part of childhood fondly? Was it tough to find your place?
BA: My parents were very supportive, certainly, and, as it turned out, I did find my place in high school. I worked on the newspaper and back then the newspapers were made by hand. We did paste-ups in order to save money so that we could do more issues. When I was a senior, they made me editor and that’s when I really began to understand the form mixed with the content—mixed with the generation of content—all coming together in one place. And I really loved all that. I thought maybe I was going to be a journalist, but I realized that what I really liked was designing the masthead, assigning photographers to go get weird stories, finding a guy to do a cartoon in every issue, and so on.
EH: Was that the moment when you realized, “Oh, this is something I could do as a career?”
BA: Yes, Jim Coburn, the teacher who ran the newspaper knew what graphic design was and that you could go to college for it. He saw that I was responding most to that aspect of working on the newspaper. He also knew the best place to go to school for graphic design at that moment was RISD. So I applied—and didn’t get in. [Laugh]
EH: Were there any other signposts before this that you can remember?
BA: I started getting Rolling Stone in high school, which would have been the mid-to-late 1970s Roger Black era. I also think Annie Leibowitz was still shooting for them at that point. I just remembered being completely entranced by its visual power. Rolling Stone used to be enormous. You’d open those pages and they weren’t shy about making a letterform six or eight inches high next to a portrait of somebody. It was just so cool.
EH: Now that I think about it, Rolling Stone was huge for me in that respect, too.
BA: The other one for me was National Geographic because of the information graphics. They would have these weird three-dimensional paintings with all this information and rich detail. In fact, I happen to have the earth’s moon map right here where my dad made notes of the location of the Apollo landings. They’re in here somewhere. Wait, I thought he put—Dad, I thought you put—well, never mind. [Laugh]
EH: We got National Geographic, too, and I was always struck by the format—yellow frame, perfect bound, it was this very special object.
BA: And you weren’t allowed to cut them up for school projects!
EH: You didn’t get into RISD and went to Kent State. When did you start there?
EH: It’s still in Ohio, but there are also some serious cultural changes happening—in music especially. Punk, postpunk is exploding and with it a lot of the other peripheral culture including design. Was that something that you were very conscious of as a design student? And what was the design curriculum like at Kent State then?
BA: The program at Kent was basically the life’s work of j.Charles Walker. When he arrived there in the mid 1960s, there was no program at all. And he slowly but surely built it up over decades. He didn’t retire until the 2000s, I think. He was there for over 40 years. One interesting thing, that we don’t have at CCA, was control over that foundation program. But at Kent, if you wanted to be a graphic designer, you went in from day one, freshmen year. You’re learning all that foundation stuff, but you’re learning it from a very design-centric perspective. You’re not learning it from a fine art perspective at all.
It was highly integrated, remarkably structured, and everything led to the next thing in a very logical way. But it was also very, very, very late Modernist in its viewpoint. It was the Helvetica show all the time.
EH: Not even Akzidenz-Grotesk?
EH: No, you weren’t allowed to use it?
BA: No, I didn’t even know what that was until later, probably. It was just Helvetica.
EH: Going back to where I started, was any of that music-related change happening at Kent?
BA: Yeah, absolutely. There was all the punk stuff because Kent had, at that time, an incredibly vibrant music scene. Though no one ever got signed or got out.
EH: Except Devo.
BA: Yeah, but they were long gone. They loomed large, though. The club where the bands that I played in had one of the yellow hazmat suits mounted on the wall behind the bar. Someone got out of here alive and in one piece! It didn’t take a genius to see the stuff I’m doing in class and what I’m attracted to when I go to the record store are not intersecting in any way whatsoever. I’m a well-behaved Midwestern Catholic lad. I’m doing what I’m told. But at a certain point this other stuff looks way more interesting and fun. And the ideas about how there doesn’t have to be a super linear level of communication in something that you make became clear really fast.
EH: Your work, as I’ve always known it, is much more expressive formally and diffuse in its communication. Did this shift away from what Kent was teaching you happen after school?
BA: No, it totally happened in school and it had to do with two things, I think. One would be Xerox machines that could enlarge and reduce in small increments. Oh my God, that was incredible. Copying something, taking the copy, blowing that up, taking that copy, blowing it up. Doing that to type or images or anything—it just instantly becomes formally powerful because it doesn’t look anything else you’re seeing.
Second, there was a letterpress class. Kent had a pretty extensive letterpress lab. And when you were a junior, you could take that class as an elective. Just the idea that the type was physical, that it had to be manipulated in space, was amazing. The fact that you could print in a color, on substrate that was other than white—wow. It’s not black type on a white field anymore. It could be pink type on an orange field. And even if the typesetting or the type itself was fairly straightforward, because we didn’t have great type to pick from, well, you could make it orange! And then they had lots of random wood type. We began driving around on weekends to flea markets to find old wood type to bring back to the shop and print our own weird things. I find this old letter O, and that’s mine, and only goes in my work.
EH: Just like today, there was this mix of old and new technology playing a big role in the work.
BA: Right. You take some Xerox thing and you run that through the letterpress. Then you print some big wood type on top of it in a weird color and it’s solid gold. But it’s nothing like what’s happening in class. It’s not that I thought the classes were horrible or dumb or anything. Both at the same time was actually a great mix.
EH: Your work has always had this very idiosyncratic and unique blend of the expressive and the rigorous. April Greiman’s work is like that, too—even at its most expressive, you can see the rigor of her Basel education holding it all together within an inch of its life. Were there any school projects you remember that really cracked all this open for you?
BA: Speaking of April Greiman, at Kent they had these summer workshop sessions run by John Brett Buchanan where he’d have three designers come in, each for a week. And one summer, I think between my junior and senior years, April Greiman and Jayme Odgers came—and talk about a total head-melting experience! April would come in wearing one dayglow pink sock and one dayglow green sock and I was like, “This woman is the coolest thing ever.”
And for our project, we spent an entire week redesigning a Laurie Anderson album cover [Big Science]. April brought the record in and it played in the studio all week, over and over and over, until someone freaked out and started playing Motown after class ended. But that was fantastic. The idea of expressive typography that was also super rigorous—I loved it. She was incredible.
EH: You went to grad school right after you finished your BFA. Talk to me about that decision because this was a time when grad school for design wasn’t really as prevalent as it is now.
BA: If you’re going to school at Kent State and you’re not going to stay in Cleveland, the logical place to go is New York. And at Kent, every spring break there would be the New York trip. The faculty would organize a series of tours, gatherings, and portfolio reviews there.
I would go and no one would ever respond to my work, ever. And this is back when your portfolio was a big plastic thing. I remember getting my portfolio back one time and, literally, someone had eaten their lunch while they were looking at it. There was mayo and little bits of lettuce between some of the pages. I was like fuck you guys. Because if you meet April Greiman, and she’s from LA, and she’s super cool, and we get along, and the project I made for her came out pretty great, and then you go to New York and some guy gets mayo on your portfolio, well, I knew going to New York wouldn’t make any sense.
In Cleveland at that time, there was one good design firm. It was a small community and it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to crack it. I was at a loss. I was coming up on graduating. I had made it through all these reviews and chances for them to throw students out. Then j.Charles Walker, with whom I’d never had a class as an undergrad said, “Hey, we’ve got a spot in the fall for a teaching assistant. Would you want to do that?” And I was, “Well, what does that even mean?” “Well, you teach, and you get a studio, and you do graduate classes, and we pay you, and the tuition is covered.” And I thought I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with my life. Let’s do it.
EH: What happens during these three years of grad school?
BA: The good thing was that, basically, my graduate education was three years of independent studies.
BA: If I could convince some faculty member to sign off on something that I wanted to do, then I would get the units. I would just do the work, meet with them periodically, and then teach my class. I had to go and take other graduate-level classes, which was a nightmare because I’m at a university, and if I take an English class, I’m there with people who are in grad school for English. So, you’re getting smoked by these people.
EH: Although being at a university, it must have been nice to be exposed to these other big departments and majors, even if it’s peripherally.
BA: Yeah, sure. I took a class in electronic music composition where I got access to a Moog synthesizer that was an entire room. You could go in, sign up for studio time, and make weird shit, and then “Here’s my project!”
EH: Wow, that’s awesome.
BA: It was so fantastic.
EH: What’s interesting about that and the independent studies is, at this time, the notion of self-authorship is starting to emerge in design. When I think of you and your work there’s a very forceful voice in it, at least formally. But we also know that designers often desire a framework or parameters in which to drive the work. During grad school, what was that mix for you? And how did you feel about teaching?
BA: The first semester teaching was terrifying because three months earlier I was just some kid among all the other kids and now I’m the teacher. And I’m supposed to know what the hell is going on. And, of course, I had no idea what was going on. I was just winging it the whole time. But the good thing about teaching is you learn pretty quickly. You realize, “Well, actually I do know something and if I can find a way to get the students excited about it, and find a way to take them through this experience, it will work.” But at first it was just terrifying.
In terms of my own work, at this point I become friends with Eric May, the professor who ran the letterpress studio, and he gave me my own key to the lab. Pretty much every semester I had some kind of thing I cooked up with Eric May. For example, there was a conference at Kent State that was about this theater group from the 1960s and ’70s called the Open Theater. And Eric knew the guy at special collections who was running the conference needed some design collateral. So, I conspired to letterpress print a lot of it. Commemorative posters and so on.
EH: They were design projects that allowed you to really explore different processes and styles and so on.
BA: Yeah, I basically spent a lot of time just figuring out projects I wanted to do and then getting credit for them.
BA: One project I did—and it was amazing to me that no one had thought of this—was the School of Art had a gallery. For every show they’d put on, it was this crazed rush to figure out how to just get a postcard made. So, I went to the gallery director and said, “Hey, I’ll do everything for you if you can convince my graduate advisors that I should get credit toward my degree.” And he was, “You’ll do
everything?” He convinced my advisors and I designed all the materials for the school of art, all the little postcards, everything.
EH: Were you always this scrappy?
BA: I don’t know where this comes from. Basically, I like to stay busy.
EH: Did the earlier experience with April Greiman plant the seed that maybe California was the place for you?
BA: The other part that sealed the deal was another one of those summer workshops during graduate school when Michael Manwaring, Woody Pirtle, and Michael Vanderbyl each came for a week.
EH: It always goes back to those guys, doesn’t it?
BA: It does. It does. [Laugh] Woody Pirtle gave us all this work—a stupid amount of work—to try to get done. Still, we weren’t quite meeting whatever expectations he had in terms of the amount of work we were producing and he says, “You guys just wait until Vanderbyl shows up next week, because he’s taught before and he’s going to kick all your asses.” I thought Oh, my God, I pull three all-nighters for this man and it’s going to get worse? But between Michael Manwaring and Michael Vanderbyl—that was the key to wanting to come here as opposed to Los Angeles.
EH: So, after graduation, it’s off to San Francisco?
BA: At that point, Kathy [Warinner, Bob’s wife and business partner] and I were together. After we graduated, we worked in Cleveland for a few months. We saved up about $5000, I think, and then it’s Okay, time to go.
EH: You get to San Francisco. Had you already had contact with people? How did you stick the landing in California and get work?
BA: Well, before we left Kent, we printed our résumés letterpress.
EH: Oh wow.
BA: Because we thought that would get us noticed. But the type was set on a Linotype machine and I had somehow got two of the lines out of order on my résumé. If you read it, it made no sense. And I didn’t notice this until I was folding these things up and putting them in envelopes to send them to designers. I was petrified. [Laugh]
But like I was talking about earlier, no black type on a white field. Navy blue type on light gray paper that has little blue hairs in it. With a giant warm red B.
EH: That explains so much about the 1980s right there.
EH: Who did you send the résumés to?
BA: The way we found information about people was from the Print Regional Annual, back when each region of the country was far more discernibly different, stylistically. And it was a lot fatter. They put a lot more work in it back then.
EH: Of course! The Print annuals!
BA: There would be a California North section, so you just go through it and, hey, that work looks cool. Are they in San Francisco? Yes, who is that guy? Go to the library, get the San Francisco white-pages.
EH: Those were the days.
BA: So much work. And then we made these little file cards for each place we wanted to hit. And I still have the box of file cards in the garage.
EH: Oh, wow.
BA: Yeah! And we’d make notes: when do we send everything, when do we call, what did they say, what do they wanted us to do, all that stuff. I could probably still tell you when I dropped my portfolio off with Jennifer Morla and what she said to me. [Laugh]
EH: A+ for you in Professional Practice class.
BA: We saw a lot of people. We met a lot of people. There was someone who said to me that the combination of a letterpress résumé and the fact that I had a graduate degree was enough for them to want to meet me—even though they had no intention whatsoever of giving me any work. They were just What kind of person does that?But we got freelance work pretty quick. We arrived, I think, at the beginning of March and then by May or June we had work. Bits and pieces of freelance stuff where you go in and all you’re really doing is the paste-up for people.
EH: And then the first full-time gig was with Steve Tolleson? How did you get there?
BA: He was on my list but was very hard to get in to see. When I finally got to see Michael Vanderbyl, he asked me who else I was trying to see. So, I got out my file cards and we went through them. He was really super helpful, saying, “You don’t want to see them, you’ll never fit in there, go see this guy, these people are all good.” But also at every interview I would always ask, “Who do I not know that I should see?” Steve was one of those people Michael recommended.
EH: Obviously, hindsight is 20-20, but when I think about Steve Tolleson and the legacy of his work, and then I think about your work—that’s a really good fit. But did it feel that way when you first got there? What was the experience of working there? What did you learn?
BA: It was a lot of learning, yes, on my end for sure. When you’re young, you think you have all this to offer and then you go in that first day and it’s “Oh my God, I have no idea what’s going on here.” I didn’t know anything about business. I still know almost nothing about business. But back then I knew absolutely nothing about business and Steve’s big ticket was doing annual reports. What I loved about doing annual reports and about being a graphic designer with Steve is I got to go into zippy Silicon Valley conference rooms and meet with the CEOs of a publicly traded companies. And they’re going to listen to what we have to say. That was a total mind-blower. We would go in, usually with a writer, and say, “We listened to you, done some interviews, here is what we think you should do, and here are some comps.” And they’d be “Great, when can you make the whole thing?” It was awesome. We did all of this amazing, cool, super-fun work.
EH: And so that was part of the 1980s Northern California design movement, a fusion of commerce and the avant-garde.
BA: Absolutely. And I think it’s because what they were doing in Silicon Valley was making stuff that was not necessarily tangible in an ordinary sense of the word. They needed design to help visualize What is this thing? What does it mean? What does it do? Designers got to invent what the future was going to look like at that moment.
EH: There had to be a critical mass of work that you were seeing around you, people coming to San Francisco to lecture, and so on. Do you remember anything that really struck you in that period?
BA: Tom Bonauro’s work was just mind-boggling.
EH: Yeah, he’s amazing.
BA: He was mind-boggling because he was doing work that was unmistakably his, but it was for other people’s purposes. And what I also love about his work is that no matter who those other people were, you could always see Tom in it. You could have a discussion or an argument about whether or not that’s appropriate behavior for a graphic designer. But at that moment, and to some degree even to this day, I find that an entirely laudable methodology for working.
EH: How many years of working for others before you started your own business?
BA: I worked for Steve for about three-and-a-half years and then I saw that CCA(C) had a teaching spot open, so I applied for that and got it. I’ve only had a normal job for three-and-a-half years of my life.
The story I tell people is I left Tolleson Design because Steve made it seem so easy to do great work. I delusionally thought that I could do that, too. If I had known how hard all of this was, I’d probably still be working for him.
EH: That’s how everybody starts their own business, right? You don’t know any better. And Steve Tolleson, at least from my vantage point, is a magician. Think about how he’s still going like gangbusters today.
BA: Yeah, that’s a big office.
EH: I’ve always felt you’ve had a persistence of vision in your work, so that had to have something to do with why you went out on your own, right?
BA: Because the work at Steve’s got so much attention, headhunters would call me. Thank heavens for naïveté. It was not clear to me why Rita Sue Siegel’s was office calling me at work. Certainly, leaving and becoming a junior creative director at a much bigger firm, moving around the country, up the food chain until you’re, whatever, some kind of titled person was a possibility. It just didn’t resonate with me. Steve created a machine that made making great work almost ordinary. And for me, as someone who didn’t understand how extraordinary that was, I started getting bored.
Steve also taught at CCA and whenever he didn’t want to do his class, he’d look at me and say, “You’ve taught before. Go do the class this afternoon.” And I would go over and I remember [Elixir Design founder] Jennifer Jerde was in his class among other amazing students. And even though after grad school I told myself I was never going to teach again because it was so hard, when I was interviewing for the job, talking to Michael Vanderbyl, I mentioned that I taught Steve’s class from time to time and there’s all these great students. Was that typical? And he said, “What do you mean? Yes, of course, they’re all like that!” In Michael Vanderbyl’s mind, all the students were Jennifer Jerde-level students. And they were! Working with these kinds of students was just incredible. You could tell them things and they would know what to do with it. It was just extraordinary. So, I was hooked.
EH: The idea was for you to teach and then have your own work, other interests, and so on.
BA: Right, I wanted a balance between those things. Then, in the meantime, Kathy had already quit her job at Landor and was freelancing around. She had already started as a sole proprietor, maybe six or nine months ahead of me. Seeing her do that made it clear to me that Okay, this is possible.
EH: When you start a design practice, you do everything yourself. As Volume has grown over the years, I’m not doing everything myself, my hands literally making the work a lot less, even if I’m still intimately involved in all the creative. You’ve purposely stayed pretty solo, but your work has evolved greatly over this time period. Can you talk a little bit about some signature moments in the business as your processes either evolved or changed?
BA: Early on, the overhead was super, super low. And the Macintosh made it all possible.
When we were working our normal jobs, we didn’t spend much money. In retrospect, if we had had any kind of sense, we would have bought San Francisco real estate. But instead, we bought a computer, and a monitor, and a printer, and I forget what all else for about $12,000. That put us in business at a time when most designers were either uninterested or anti-computer, so we were able to use this to a strategic advantage.
And then knowing how to use the computer allowed for other kinds of work. When designers started designing typefaces, all you had to do is buy this $150 software and, boom, you could make typefaces, too. I’m already drawing letterforms in Illustrator and there’s a way to cut and paste between Illustrator and Fontographer? Oh, my God. Suddenly, making typefaces—or making a typeface specific for a particular project—became a possibility. Or designing decorative material that you could put in a font so you could just type the damn thing became a possibility. It opened up and plugged into the kinds of things I was already interested in.
EH: Can you talk a little about your collaboration with Kathy? Did it start in grad school?
BA: We didn’t collaborate in grad school, but we conspired to take classes together. We got permission to do an independent study in silkscreen, and we were the only people in the class, so there was a lot of hanging out in the silkscreen lab. That was super fun.
But in terms of the collaborating, I think of us as a miniature Pentagram. There’s no staff and only two partners. It’s one organization with two people sort of pursuing their own agendas but are there for each other when they need help. For example, the David Kelly project for CCA. David Kelly makes these little diagrams and portraits of people on his whiteboard, and I thought, A-ha! I know Kathy can do those kinds of drawings. So, she did all these drawings for the project, made arrows and other decorative material, and then I assembled it all.
When Kathy's working on her projects, sometimes there is some kind of “InDesign hell” situation that arises and I try to help her out. We do logic checks often; we’ll show each other things before presentations. She’s good at seeing them as a whole: “You’re showing, this, this, this and this—where is that other thing?” And I’ll be like Oh shit and I’ll run down and make that adjustment. But there isn’t that kind of “I draw on your sketch, you draw on my sketch” back and forth.
EH: Are there any moments or specific projects over your career you point to where you think, “Oh, I definitely accomplished something new and exciting here.”
BA: The project for the college about the Thesis project. The three little books.
EH: I remember those books. I still have them on my desk right now, actually. Still my favorite CCA(C) logo, too.
BA: Right, the little bumpy wheel! I designed them by printing out laser prints as galleys, running them through the waxer, cutting them up, and making boards. I set all the type in this typeface, this typeface, this typeface, and this typeface, and I cut them all up and moved them around until they made sense and then rebuilt it in the computer as one file, in what must have been Quark [Xpress] at that point.
EH: That’s a really interesting anecdote. Would you say your stylistic inclinations were influenced by this hybrid process of analog and digital?
BA: Yeah, because it was very hard to do this kind of typography then. I had to figure out weird workarounds.
EH: Yeah, there’s a reason that the Modernists chose their very reductive vernacular—because they were also at the mercy of how one produced it.
BA: Exactly. This is the beginning of design getting super free, which was great. And the computer allowed me to combine everything. I used to call the Macintosh a letterpress on my desk because it allowed me to do everything I did in grad school—scanning this weird thing I Xeroxed, run it through the press, and put type on top of it.
EH: Any other moments that come to mind?
BA: Once I started making typefaces, designing the stuff to promote them, and using the typefaces in a way to talk about what they were about was also super interesting. Not worrying if you can read them, that these letters are just forms. And then when the screen-based work started happening, with Macromedia Director and such. Work that is now unplayable. [Laugh]
EH: I remember that Soul Coughing piece that you did which I loved because I love that album [Ruby Vroom].
BA: It’s a great record.
EH: “You get Jim Backus and I’ll get Koresh.”
EH: And who doesn’t want to use [the font] Ad Lib.
BA: Well, I used that because they used it on the record.
EH: I know, but still.
BA: The art director wanted me to use it. And I was sure, why not? These guys are nuts.
EH: Is it accurate to say lately that your work has been primarily focused on photography and art books?
BA: Yeah, I’ve come all the way back to the beginning of why I started in graphic design which is publications. There are number of reasons for that. One is that annual reports, which were very lucrative, aren’t done anymore now that SEC changed the rules about reporting to shareholders. So, poof, a billion-dollar industry disappears.
I was also starting to teach more, so designing books, which have this very long arc of design and production, fit into that structure very nicely. It also allows much smaller things to happen in between. If I have this big book going, then I can do some little things while it’s off with the editors.
EH: What have you absorbed over 20-plus years of designing books—especially as the book has stayed so consistent across these changes in how we make design and interact with media in general.
BA: One thing that’s changed is how much access I get to the people the book is ultimately for. If you’re doing an exhibition catalog, it’s usually for the curator who has envisioned this exhibition. Traditionally, the designer gets no access to the curator. You meet with the publications people. But over time I’ve made it clear that if I can meet with the curator, then the process will run a lot more smoothly and the result be a lot more interesting. Now, especially at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, I meet with the curator early on.
And I love those meetings. I go in and I’ll ask, “Has a show like this been done before?” and almost always they say yes. Great. “What’s the best book that’s ever been done on this work?” And, of course, they know exactly what that book is. They fetch it out of their library and then I say, “Let’s go through this book and tell me everything you like and don’t like about it.” We go through it, I take notes, and now know that they don’t like sans serif body copy. And so on. It cuts out a lot of the upfront bullshit. Some curators will show me design references that they’re interested in. For the Cult of the Machine book, the curator gave me all of this material from early 20th-century Modernism that I could respond to.
EH: I haven’t done as many art books as you, but in hindsight, I’d guess that most of those projects that turned out well was because, as you said, I had access to the curator. That’s the ideal situation. But it’s not always that. What I find really interesting about you as a person, and by extension a designer, is that you seem to be both extremely amenable to suggestions and at the same time very strong-willed in terms of maintaining a certain vision of your own for projects. How do you manage that?
BA: Probably the longest lesson to learn was how to turn my ego down to simmer. Are the folios worth fighting over? Probably not. If you don’t want them here, we can move them over there. I don’t think it makes any sense, but if you got to have it that way, great. Usually with exhibition catalogues, they’re remarkably similar to magazine articles in that the big hit is the opening. And once you turn that page, it’s a text machine that runs. If you open an exhibition catalog to any given spread in an essay, there’s nothing about the spread for one essay that’s going to differentiate it necessarily from a spread for another essay. But the openers will hopefully have some kind of personality that differentiates them from each other.And that’s the place where I put most of my energy because these books are often very scholarly, and the essays are long and dense. It’s a top-to-bottom, two-columns, get-those-figure-illustrations-in-there-somehow kind of situation. It really becomes all about the openers.
EH: What’s your dream job at this point?
BA: For the books, part of it is who do I get to work for? The museum world is both big and small. Who wouldn’t want to do a book for the Met? For MoMA? That would be, no matter what the topic was or how well it even came out, automatically interesting because I’d be working with different people, under different circumstances. That’s all interesting to me.
With the photo books, the best situation is the one I have right now with Pier 24, because those shows are very thematically driven. There are opportunities to take the language of the show and do something with it, even though they usually have very specific ideas about how they want things to be.
I guess the longer-term ambition is to become even more involved—maybe I’m doing part of the editing, maybe I’m doing the sequencing. There are times where I get a bit of that. I’m working on a book for a photographer right now where he is basically, “It’s that stack of prints right over there with weird categories on them.” Or sometimes it’s, “Here are all the files, here’s all the projects, make some sense out of this for me.” That’s really fun and I can do that for sure. I just don’t often get the opportunity. And then you meet with that one person and they’re “Wow, why did you put these next to each other?” and you tell them and they’re either good with that or they say don’t do that again.
EH: Right, but at least you had the opportunity.
BA: Exactly. Other ambitions? One thing that is funny about doing so many books now is that I don’t have much time to do books for myself as much. I have all these photo projects that are in various stages of completion. Some of them are so old that I’ve done the edit and I look at it and I don’t even know why I did what I did anymore. Why are the photographs in this order? What was I thinking?
EH: Related to that, what I’ve also admired about you a lot is that that your creativity is not bound by design. You’ve always been a photographer in your own right.
BA: What’s nice about design is that it’s a box you can put a lot of different things into. If you love to take photographs, then finding some form for those photographs to live in is a natural next step. And if you’re a designer, you know how to do that. You know how to think about formats and sequencing and pacing and turning this group of things into something else. That’s really interesting to me to be able to operate in that additional way. But where did that come from? Well, in undergrad school, we had one photography class. It was required because we needed to know how to take pictures that we could use in our design projects.
And I just I loved that class. I did badly in some of my design classes that semester because I’d just be out shooting and then spending days in the darkroom. It’s hard to make a good print. It’s really easy to ruin your film when you’re processing it yourself. I just continued to shoot photos and then once there were scanners and Xerox machines, I started assembling all of the stuff together.
EH: It’s been 25-plus years since you’ve been teaching at CCA. I’d be curious to know what has changed for you in terms in the way you approach teaching. And then what has stayed constant.
BA: Well, the relationship to students shifts as you age. When I first started, I was the older brother. Everyone needs an older brother to tell them what records to get and clothes to wear, so to speak. Then you’re the crazy uncle. Now I am literally Dad. My daughters are the age of my students now—which is both fun and terrifying. [Laugh]
But I think what I give students is permission and encouragement to think bigger or go farther. I’m always kind of poking them with a stick. “Two spreads? Shouldn’t there be five spreads? Would it be great if there were three spreads between those two spreads? Could we see that next time?”
EH: I also think you’ve always had this sense of mischief as a teacher. That was very liberating for me as your student. I try to channel that part you now that I’m a teacher.
BA: Yeah, I hope that’s still there. The best class for that was when I taught that interdisciplinary UDIST class called Art:Text. The first project was to make a typographic intervention on the campus. We got in so much trouble. God, I loved it! Some students put sod on a staircase and the Facilities people came to me. I thought I was going to get punched out. I was like, “Look, it’s just there long enough for us to talk about it and take a picture. It will be down in 15 minutes. Come on!” And then once I had the students move outside of the classroom areas and into the city, it was just great. People hung words on fences down by the railroad tracks. It was very fun.
EH: With teaching, I often think I’ve always wanted to do this project and I’ve never had kind of a professional personal outlet for it, so I’m going to have the students do it so I can live vicariously through them. I assume it’s the same for you.
BA: There you go. Yes.
EH: Since you’ve seen such a long arc of graphic design since you started as a student, do you think at all about our role and relevance in the next few decades? Are you worried about it? Where we’re going and where we’ve been?
BA: The scariest thing I ever heard someone say about design is that “Design is too important to be left to the designers.” [Laughter]
EH: I want to know who said that!
BA: “We finally understand that design is important and now that we understand it’s important, let’s keep a close eye on those designers.” And that’s not something I want to particularly labor under.
EH: But do you think that maybe graphic designers need to be a little bit more ambitious, or at least take on responsibilities beyond just the usual form / content concerns? I sometimes get frustrated with the narrow view that graphic designers have of what we do and who it’s for.
BA: I think sometimes we’re guilty of being overly driven by form. I know I am.
EH: Sure. I am, too.
BA: Because, for me, often times how interested I am in what I’m doing is how formally inventive it is for me personally. Not formally inventive in a broad global sense. Just Have I ever been able to pull something like this this off before? But I think if you come into a situation with a client and all you’re talking about is the form, then, yeah, you’re setting yourself up for being the recipient of that quote.
I somehow understood—even all the way back in high school, working on the newspaper—that form and content happening together is key. If either one of them gets out of whack—and what’s in whack changes depending on the situation—then the design isn’t going to work.
EH: What about your students? Do they understand this or have the same dilemma?
BA: I think the students now are already less form-oriented than we are. There’s simply a lot more to worry about with design now. But it’s still about making the design compelling enough to draw us in. That’s the job of the form. To signal that something is important, is interesting, and therefore you should spend time with it. If you can’t do that part, then it almost doesn’t matter how much research, or content, or knowledge, or wisdom is embedded in the thing because it’s never going to land with somebody.
EH: So, metaphorically, even if the iceberg below the water line is getting bigger, the amount of ice above water is still the same?
BA: Yeah, exactly. [Laugh]
EH: These kinds of questions are always tough, but what would you want to be remembered for most? And then with that, any sort of words of wisdom for future generations of designers when they find this interview 20 years from now, working with the Adobe Creative Suite embedded in their eyeballs?
BA: They’ll be like, “What’s a postcard?”
BA: Hey, I did a lot of postcards. Legacy stuff, hmmm…I’ve been very fortunate to have this kind of two-track, two-tiered kind of career with teaching and the design practice. The legacy with the teaching is all the students that I somehow was able to help, acknowledging that there are some students I wasn’t able to help, and that there are probably some students where I was distinctly unhelpful (but not on purpose). I’m always trying to be helpful, it just doesn’t always work. And the older I get, the more conscious I get of that. I’m just standing up there talking and I hope I’m saying the right stuff. I hope I’m saying what they need to hear at this moment.
And then the graphic design part? I don’t know. There is that Chuck Klosterman essay that’s part of his book…
EH: What If We’re Wrong?BA: Yes! The essay about what in 300 years will essentially be remembered as rock and roll. Even if you think it’s the Beatles, it won’t be the Beatles. It might be Lennon and McCartney but if people only remember one of them who will it be? Maybe it’s Elvis, instead. Part of me thinks the work I’m doing right now is the most interesting and most important of my career. But it’s very conceivable that the most interesting and important work to people down the road might be some of the earlier work.
EH: [The font] Big Cheese!
BA: It might be Big Cheese, which is mostly Eric Donelan—unless it’s the poster that they love, then that’s me. But that era of work, all those CCAC announcements and postcards that you love. It might be that work that ends up being remembered. It just depends on what the arc of the profession is. If suddenly people become interested in quirky combinations of photography and typography, then it’s the mid-1990s work. If they’re interested in a certain kind of book design, then it’s the work now. If it’s photography monographs, I still have ways to go before I’m in the conversation of the great photography monograph designers.
Words of wisdom? Geez, just go for it. [Laughter]
EH: Just go for it. That’s a good place to end.
Eric Heiman is the co-founder of the celebrated design studio Volume Inc., teaches design at the California College of the Arts, and still plays drums from time to time. Bob helped make all of this happen. Even the occasional drumming.