Fellow Awards 2009 Interview: Doug Akagi
25 years after he helped found the San Francisco chapter, AIGA is recognizing Doug Akagi (along with co-founders Leslie Becker and Michael Cronan) with the chapter’s highest honor—the AIGA Fellow Award. Former AIGA San Francisco president Christopher Simmons—also a former student, intern and employee of Doug’s—sat down with the honoree to hear his perspective on a career of service to the design community that has so far spanned forty-five years.

CCHS: One of the consequences of a nearly 50 year career is that you’ve seen a lot of people come and go. You’ve had something like 75 interns, maybe 100 or more employees, various partners and an incalculable number of students. This is not to mention all your colleagues and contemporaries. Anyone who knows you knows that you’re remarkably willing to invest in the success of all these people. Have you always been that way? Couldn’t you have gotten ahead faster by putting yourself and you career ahead of others?

DA: From the beginning of my career I realized that every opportunity and every accomplishment was made possible by someone’s generosity of spirit. The right thing to do has always been to pass it on.

CCHS: You were one of a handful of designers who really defined what it means to be a designer in San Francisco at a time when San Francisco was already playing a major role in defining what it meant to be a designer in the United States. Describe that scene for us a little bit.

DA: The late 60s and early 70s were turbulent but exciting times here in San Francisco. Music, art and design were all undergoing a latter-day renaissance here and the Vietnam War had politically polarized the entire nation. Hard-edge graphics and Swiss typography were the cutting edge. “Super graphics” (large designs applied to the interiors and exteriors of buildings) popularized by Barbara Stauffacher and the lively signage for places like the Cannery by Marget Larsen were setting the trends in environmental graphics. G. Dean Smith, Bruce Montgomery, Jerry Berman, Primo Angelli and Harry Murphy were the top graphic design dogs back then. Michael Vanderbyl, Michael Manwaring and I worked for these iconic designers and aspired to someday rise to their level. The energy and aesthetics born out of this period was what launched me and my contemporaries onto the SF design scene.

CCHS: You were one of the founding members of the San Francisco AIGA. What motivated you to do that?

DA: Circa 1980 there was graphic design and there was advertising. They were two distinctly different practices, but only one had a professional organization, the San Francisco Art Directors Club. The San Francisco Chapter of the AIGA evolved out of a group of designers who joined forces to publish a book to promote graphic design here.

Eventually there were 28 firms and individuals involved. We published the book, titled it Graphic Design San Francisco under the pseudonym IGD(The Institute of Graphic Designers) and distributed it through Chronicle Books. We sent copies to Fortune 500 companies and to prospects identified by all of the participants and included a response card. I believe every one of us got at least one project from the mailing. A key group of us then went on to found the San Francisco Chapter of the AIGA.

CCHS: And what do you see as AIGA’s relevance today?

DA: Our chapter is a perfect example why AIGA exists — to pass the baton from one generation to the next, each taking its turn to foster a sense of community and promote design as a relevant and essential professional practice.

CCHS: The California College of the arts (CCA) has been a huge part of your professional life and, along with AIGA, one of the institutions you’ve contributed so much of your time and talent to. What has CCA and teaching meant to you and what advice to you have for teachers today?

DA: I have always considered it a privilege to teach at CCA. Teaching there for the past 24 years has been an incredibly rich experience for me on many levels. It has forced me to constantly evaluate and reevaluate how and why I practice design. It has taught me the importance of patience and compassion and provided me with a fertile environment in which I have had an ongoing dialogue about design with brilliant students and practitioners alike.

As for teaching advice, I’ll share these three thoughts: First, you should not be a parent, a shrink, a disciplinarian or an art director. Second, you should think of yourself as a guide and a mentor whose primary goal is to support your students in discovering and developing their individual voices. Your course syllabus should be a bridge from the level that precedes your class to the level to come. Third, become a part of the college wide community and participate beyond the bounds of your particular program.

CCHS: You were born in an internment camp in Utah and later grew up in Maryland. When you were 19 you went to Japan and apprenticed to Kuniomi Uematsu. What motivated that decision and what did you learn?

DA: My parents’ support and encouragement gave the belief that I could do and be whatever I really wanted. I had an entrepreneurial uncle, Robert Iki, whose job required him to spend half his time in Tokyo. When I was 18 he offered me a Japanese work visa if I could get myself to Japan. He knew it would open doors for me. It was a scary move, but not as scary as the prospect of staying in Maryland. Thank you Uncle Bob.

Six months after arriving in Japan, Patricia Salmon, an expat living in Tokyo and an accomplished entrepreneur in her own right, arranged an interview at the prestigious Nippon Design Center. Thank you Pat.

Kuniomi Uematsu, one of the design directors, decided to take a chance and hired me as a designer. He took me under his wing and mentored me for over two years. Arigato Uematsu-san.

From these kind, generous and talented people I learned how to be.

CCHS: And what brought you back to the US from Japan?

DA: After almost three years in Tokyo, I was ready to return to the States and show everyone what an uber-designer I had become. I got a job for a very good Washington, D.C. editorial studio, Beveridge & Assoc. After a brief and humbling stint there, I came out to the Bay Area (my parents had lived here before the war). I knocked about for awhile before landing my breakthrough job with Harry Murphy. Harry was all about hard-edge, Swiss-inspired graphics. I had found a home. We won loads of awards and had a lot of fun doing it.

Harry taught me that there are no boundaries to being a designer. We could work on a restaurant one day and a poster or a logo the next. I designed the original GAP logo while I worked for him and assisted in designing the first two stores. Harry was also very open about how he ran his business and dealt with his vendors and clients. Three years later at the age of 27 I started my first design business and I believe he gave me one of my first projects. Thank you Harry.

CCHS: Funny. You were always very open about how you ran your business and how you dealt with vendors and clients, and you gave me one of my first projects. Thank you, Doug.

DA: Just paying it forward.

CCHS: So, you worked for Harry Murphy, you were a partner at the GNU group and eventually started your very own business, Akagi Design. Later you partnered with your wife Dorothy to create Akagi Remington (now Alterpop). What are the challenges of working so closely with someone with whom you’re so close — how do you keep both relationships healthy?

DA: If you partner with your husband or wife, you will be together 24/7 and often under a lot of stress — circumstances that would definitely test any relationship. On the other hand, who could you trust more than your husband or wife? In Dorothy and my case we share the same point of view, values and goals, but we also bring our own values and interests to the business. Dorothy’s client’s, for example, have predominantly been environmental non-profits, learning institutions and museums. She’s excellent business partner, designer (whose work wins more awards than mine do these days, damn it), teacher, marketing maven. The success of our practice is in large part due to her. If it weren’t for Dorothy, I would probably be a weird single guy with a really nice sports car.

I think the key for us has been that we operate as equals. We each have our own clients and operate as separate profit centers under the same roof. Most importantly we enjoy each other’s company.

CCHS: Other than your wife and design, one of your other great passions is running. You’ve completed more than 150 triathlons including two Hawaii Ironmans, two Canada Ironmans and 12 Half Ironmans. You’ve also run 20 marathons, three 50 milers and and six 50K runs. Why?

DA: I love to train — swim, bike, run — and competing once in a while is fun too. It’s very satisfying to complete a good workout and the rewards of consistent training are many fold; I occasionally win, place or show in my age group, I maintain my weight and I have a huge collection of really ugly T-shirts.

CCHS: I should point out that you didn’t start running until you were 40. Why then?

DA: When I was 40, Dorothy and I got married. That turned out to be one the pivotal events of my life. We promised each other that we would quit smoking and we declared that we would become athletes together. Our wedding registry was at a bike shop in Berkeley where we ended up with enough money to purchase two bicycles and a roof rack. I started running and cycling because they seemed to represent the anthesis of smoking. We both swam for the USF Masters Swim Team for 12+ years where Dorothy went to the Nationals one year and was ranked 10th in the nation in her age group in the 200 fly!

CCHS: You’ve said that distance running is not so much about fitness or endurance, but “pain management.” Can you extrapolate that philosophy to the longevity of your career at all?

DA: We’re all plagued by occasional bouts of anxiety and self-doubt. There are times when business is slow, a project went to another designer, your clients are difficult, employees are difficult, or something has to be reprinted. Its sometimes a painful process for sure. However, the length of my career has more to do with my sense of adventure and wanting to know what’s over the next hill than with my pain management skills.

CCHS: If I can be topical for a moment, you’ve also endured three recessions. We’re in the midst of a fourth. Can you offer any advice for how we can all get through this one, and, inevitably, the next one?

DA: The last really bad recession I can recall was in the early 80s. That’s when Rich Burns, John Clark and I started the GNU Group. The down economy worked to our advantage. We were small with a very low overhead and a diverse client base. As the economy recovered, we grew the firm from 3 to 30 employees with offices in Sausalito, Houston and Portland. I eventually learned that for me, less is more. I left to start my own studio again with the resolve to not exceed five or six employees. I remember a cheesy jingle that went, “Keep it lean, keep it mean, keep it small, keep it all.” That’s pretty good advice.

CCHS: There are certain designers who can be easily identified in their work. Some have a strong sense of style, others a less obvious but no less present sensibility. In contrast, one of the many things I learned from you was to approach each project individually — to decide what’s most appropriate for that client, that audience, that context. As a result, it’s difficult to codify your work. Would you agree?

DA: When I began my career at the Nippon Design Center in Tokyo, the designers there were huge proponents of the Bauhaus and I was exposed to much of its history and work. To paraphrase its founder, Walter Gropius, “original design should supersede a house style.” As a beginner, I adopted this rather ironic credo as gospel and it has served me well.

CCHS: So if you had to, how would you typify your design work?

DA: When I was in art school, I had a teacher who told me that the measure of a good sculpture was to roll it down a hill and if nothing broke off, it was good art. This amusing advice, combined with my training in Japan resulted in a simple philosophy: simplicity is beauty.

CCHS: Can you point to one or two simple, beautiful projects that you’re particularly proud of, and why?

DA: Three months into my first design job in Tokyo, I designed and illustrated a major children’s clothing campaign which made it into the Tokyo Art Directors Club show that year. Arigato Uematsu-san.

AIGA/SF once sponsored a poster show themed “Issues and Causes.” My poster was titled “Save San Francisco Bay.” The main image was a gyotaku print (Japanese style ink rubbing) of a Stripped Bass done by my father, Hiroshi Akagi. Thanks Dad. The poster addressed the degradation of water quality in the Bay. It remains a major environmental issue here. The poster won more awards than anything I have ever done and is still traveling in a poster show.

CCHS: I remember you saying once that every policy in your office is the result of a lesson learned from some mistake. What are you two biggest career mistakes and what would you have done differently, given the chance?

DA: That’s easy. One: I bought a Porsche 911 once and everyone asked for a raise. Two: I hired an office manager from Craigslist with disastrous consequences. But, the truth is that I don’t dwell on mistakes. Instead I ask, “What did I learn from this?”. Then I move on.

CCHS: You’ve been many things to many people — a teacher, a mentor, a boss, a partner, an apprentice, an employee. How would you like to be remembered?

DA: A devoted husband, a loving father, a loyal friend, and a kind and compassionate human being. And as someone who competed in triathlons well into his 80s!


Christopher Simmons is a designer, writer, educator, design advocate and creative director of the noted San Francisco design office, MINE™. He is a past president of AIGA San Francisco and the father of two boys, one of whom is named after his mentor, Doug Akagi.