Fellow Awards 2011 Interview: Linda Hinrichs
Before Linda and Kit Hinrichs opened shop in San Francisco, illustrators here were paid for a piece of work and then lost all control of it. It simply disappeared. Agencies wouldn’t give it back, you’d hear they auctioned pieces off to pay for Christmas parties or see it hanging in some art director’s kitchen, you’d find your work published in places you hadn’t been told about and no one would think of paying an additional fee. But Linda and Kit insisted on returning the art, on paying for each particular use and contacting us for further billing when a piece was reused! We couldn’t believe it. It felt as if we were respected. And for that, illustrators need to be thankful to the Hinrichs, because they were the first in this area that I know about that did that.

I’ve worked with Linda over the years and what always impressed me about Linda’s design was that it was never about showing off how hip she was or how far she could push a client; instead, it demonstrated a genuine respect and kindness toward both the reader and the subject, a graciousness about delivering the message in a lovely and interesting way. And that did not preclude excitement! For instance, when Linda produced tabloids for the design department of SFMOMA, back when the museum was still on Van Ness, everyone wanted a copy, schools were begging for copies––I remember hanging pages on the walls of my studio. The work was so exciting, yet it was never first about the designer, it was always about the subject. And with a client like SFMOMA, Linda could have easily taken it to an ego-inflating place, made her voice more important than the content. But she didn’t. I’ve always thought that one can see the person behind the design in the design, and I’m certain that many people would agree that Linda as a person is as generous and considerate as her work.

WS: Linda, would you tell us something about starting the AIGA San Francisco chapter?

LH: Well, first off I want to say that I like that this award is called an honor award as I am very honored to be awarded it by AIGA SF.

That being said, I find it harder than I would have thought to remember back to the start of the San Francisco chapter and my role in it, which probably proves the theory that you don’t remember the details of what went well as much as what didn’t, in your life or career. I take great pleasure in the continued success of the chapter, especially that it continues in spirit and purpose and, hopefully, pleasure, as it seemed meant to do when we joined a group launching the chapters in the 1980s.

WS: What was it like to be a woman in design back in the beginning of JPH&S, being the first woman partner in Pentagram, etc.?

LH: This last year I found myself not only with an AIGA SF anniversary to comment on, but a 50th high school reunion happening as well, and for the first time had cause to seriously look back from the position of a ‘woman of a certain age’ as the saying goes. I graduated from Burlingame High School, a pretty high-achieving school even in those days, with classes based not only on getting into college but into Cal or Stanford (as did my older brother). But I edited the class yearbook and quickly realized I preferred layout and text editing to term papers and chemistry lab, and some good counseling sent me off to visit Art Center. Both of my parents grew up in LA––my father had a career as a manufacturing executive with American Can and was a graduate of USC, so he would have preferred UCLA––but they both signed off on my choice and off I went. At the time there did seem to be a simplistic concept that you were either arts or science, and although I did not draw or paint well, Art Center presented a different concept from the usual arts program and saw the fit for me. It was not called graphic design, however, and no one put architecture on the list, as they might today.

My reunion reminded me, however, that it was a bit of a lonely choice, and more different than I probably had understood. Art Center was at the time about 70/30 ratio of men to women, and perhaps 90/10 ratio of what were transfer or graduate students. In classes it was not so noticeable but social life was hard and there were certainly no tennis courts and not very many books, either. But I loved it, I made life-long friendships, met my future husband, and dodged critical comments on my final Bachelor of Professional Arts degree (trade school), the cost of which my dad sometimes compared to my brother’s Stanford tuition.

It wasn’t made an issue to be female at Art Center and the 60s brought careers into focus for women, but Kit and I went off to New York to work and as we now watch episodes of Mad Men, many things come back into focus. If you were young, it was assumed you would not be taken seriously anyway, male or female, so it didn’t become a real issue until you wanted to attend a meeting or talk to the client directly. Like children, we were expected to be seen and not heard. And Mad Men aside, I was treated better at the ad agency than I was at my next job––in publishing, at American Home magazine. At the magazine there were odd imbalances: so many editorial writers and editors in New York were women that male art directors were preferred in order to strike a balance. I felt invisible there. My creative group at Kenyon & Eckhardt had the Lincoln Mercury account and my boss would close his door so I wouldn’t hear the crass language of the Detroit meetings on the speakerphone. Eventually I chose to leave advertising because I felt that I would never be theatrical enough for TV, clearly where all the action was going. (And I was still not 25, not old enough to rent a car for the photo shoots.)

By the time we became successful, many younger women were doing very well, so the issues were not frequent and occurred primarily within the business community. But I expect one learns to stay in the background so as not to be suspect, even with generous design partners, as I had at JPH&S and Pentagram.

The real problem, I think, for many women, is that at some point one realizes that one wants a home, children and extended family, and it is very distracting from a full-out career, no matter how good it is.

WS: What made you decide to return to the Bay Area from NYC and what was it like to come here, in advance of Kit’s arrival, and set up the SF office by yourself?

LH: Leaving New York in 1976, in spite of having succeeded with our small Hinrichs Design Associates, was a convergence of realizing that we could leave. We had no partners other than ourselves and could make our own decision about coming back to California. But we had only family here, no design connections, so Kit came out first for scouting and realized that if Levi’s was becoming what it was about to emerge as, something big might be about to change. My father’s business world had almost entirely collapsed or moved out (the American Can plant of my childhood is now an arts and small business center in Dogpatch and the Canco tool and die building of my grandfather’s day is home to Theatre Artaud); but the banks were still big, there was a new Transamerica Pyramid, and Embarcadero Center 2 was almost finished and about to become the new home of Levi Strauss.

We got the timing right for SF but not for leaving New York––we failed to sell our beloved little Brooklyn brownstone, even though we’d signed a lease with Embarcadero Center. And we soon found out that San Francisco was almost as expensive as New York, so we had to really hustle. Kit camped out in Marty and Vance’s NY office, given his idea of a new bicoastal JPH partnership, and a friend offered to live in the house in Brooklyn. With our cat in hand, I flew out ahead of the moving van packed with both office and home and stayed with my Mom for a week to find an apartment. We asked all of our best New York clients to stay with us or to shift to Marty’s office but it was not an easy sell in the days when FedEx and fax machines were just being introduced. Warners and McCall’s said yes, and Smith Kline French and Westpoint Pepperell moved projects to Marty, but basically we were at square one, with a portfolio of work that seemed much too ambitious for most of the San Francisco clients we were able to pitch. Some even seemed offended that we would even show such projects! It took almost a year for us to really connect with any new clients here.

I had never felt like a real New Yorker even after almost 13 years there, so I didn’t look back too much, but I never regretted the experience or the exposure it brought. It was essentially graduate school for us, and like Art Center, a good match at the time. Once here, we were immediately dubbed ‘the sharks’, so I guess what passed as mild-mannered behavior in New York was considered too aggressive here, like talking and walking too fast. It was a pretty big adjustment all around.

WS: Thinking of how much I admire your rather self-effacing design, appropriate for the client, and charming, versus the more ego-centrically driven work of celebrity designers, makes me want to know how you see the role of the designer.

LH: In the 1990s all of a sudden design became fashionable in the media and became, finally, more expected in the business world. But it also became so broad a term that it is now probably as generously used as ‘fine arts’. So celebrity designers aren’t really hired as someone to communicate or sell for a client, but rather to use graphics as art and inspiration. Still, we all know that some of the most memorable graphics can be found in the most commercial uses, and that is the best, I think––to simply find a better-looking and functioning world everyday on all levels.

My courses at Art Center rarely mentioned the word ‘design’, though it was commonly used in the product and transportation design classes; the emphasis in my courses was on ideas, first and foremost.

The fact that there were students excelling in illustration and photography classes positioned us as art directors more than designers. Packaging was an exception, which seemed to combine all, so my job portfolio was aimed for a job in packaging design, mixed with advertising.

I was very excited to get my first job in New York at Sandgren & Murtha as a junior ‘designer’, but was shocked to attend a presentation by Joe Murtha with a memorable quote of ‘you cannot sell design’. And when the partners showed a client around the office, they simply opened the door connecting the studio to the account offices and said, in essence, ‘this is just the design studio.’ And this was a design office with no other source of business but corporate identity and packaging! I know that they believed in design, but they really seemed to feel that there was a disconnect between design and business and it was best to stay quiet about it. After an assignment of rearranging the Wonder Bread balloons on the plastic wrapper, (I always thought they were just spots, but they are/were balloons!) I missed the idea of ideas so I crossed over into advertising.

WS: What makes San Francisco design unique, or is it unique?

LH: I don’t know that San Francisco design is as unique as our sour dough bread, but something here seems to work for graphics in a way that it doesn’t really in Los Angeles––so it can’t just be California. When we were getting going with the SF AIGA Chapter, Texas was also getting ready and they insisted that they not be city-based but that they just be Texas. And they really did have a strong graphic look and loads of talent that they wanted to support, in spite of the long distances between Dallas, Austin and Houston. Texas had real estate and rich oil businesses but San Francisco had retail blooming and San Francisco was teaching New York a thing or two with Levis Strauss, Espirit, the Gap, Williams Sonoma, Smith and Hawken and the Nature Company!

When we worked for Crocker Bank they had an agenda almost like an advertising campaign for their annual report, probably even more energetic than Warners did for theirs. And Transamerica built their crazy pyramid even though most of their business offices were really in LA. This was a group of business people who really liked ideas and style, I expect because it helped endorse their own styles of business. They wanted to be different, and as long as they were making so much profit they could take risks not taken on the East Coast. We watched Chronicle Books begin to more than compete with New York publishers, (which had always thought of California as only a regional market), and we now love to watch McSweeney’s prove that the lit guys can find a home here as well as in Brooklyn. Back then Kit and I also did work for crazy Atari and watched in awe as, almost overnight they earned more money for Warners than did the music business then crashed just as quickly, leaving Apple to do it their way.

It is pretty hard to support a design office without a surrounding economy but once you do get noticed you can pull work from other US clients, which many designers did. Pentagram’s original London partnership brought in work from Germany and Japan when the British economy was limp and one of the best parts of the Pentagram partnership was to attract business across the US; but it really starts with your own business community first. So I expect San Francisco design is in large part a design community’s response to a thriving commercial and social one. Let’s hope for another round of that!

WS: Looking back over your work and work life what are some of the most memorable events/clients/jobs?

LH: I have to admit that I think pretty practically, so at my lowest moments I used to score points for myself if I at least brought a client up a notch design-wise and got paid OK for it. But the real successes are, of course, when you manage to truly leapfrog over a challenge and produce something special, and learn something interesting along the way. So for me the best of the art direction part was the ideas and the exchange with the client. I had no patience for the sitting and drawing a logotype part, I’m afraid.

My favorite and biggest boost in New York was designing the sales materials for WestPoint Pepperell/Martex. They were an only-in-New-York type of client and somehow found their way to our little office, and being domestic in nature, with linens and towels, thought it was just fine to employ a woman designer. Relying on my early experience with US Plywood at Kenyon & Eckhart, I planned all the photo shoots and actually managed to teach the client a lot, as they did me, about marketing and promotion as well as the proper way to make a bed. I also enjoyed a series of small catalogs for the American Crafts Museum that I designed at a very low budget, and loved working with the director.

I had the luxury of backing up a lot of what Kit was working on and learned much from him and his clients. In San Francisco, our first big break came from Crocker Bank. Kit and I worked on their annual reports together until I landed Transamerica. These were big companies who actually did invite us ‘to sit at the table’ and we gained a lot of confidence from working with their corporate communications departments. I also got to do girl stuff for a while, not Vogue level but fun, when we did fashiony stuff for LogoParis eyewear. And I loved working on the recruiting materials for UC Santa Cruz, the challenge being to try to stand out amongst piles of college brochures. I worked with a great client at UC, as we did when we worked on the Aspen Skiing Company materials. Both directors wanted something special, not banal, and it was very good to be encouraged to do so.

At Pentagram, and later from my Powell Street Studio, I worked on early tabloid pieces for SF MOMA, the ones you mentioned. SF MOMA was still in the old building and they were trying to raise support for a permanent design department. I had fun with these and enjoyed watching them become more noticed with each edition. I like to think that the energy in them carried over into the development of the museum’s design department in the new building. I also had fun working with a small children’s clothing company in Petaluma, (more girl stuff), and wished that their business had been as successful as the catalogs were.

It is greatly frustrating when good design meets poor business success, but probably more common than when both hit a home run. And sometimes even when you do well, the success transfers onto another designer. Sometimes you can draw a direct line between successes and other times there seems to be just chance or a random effect. Not always easy to built a business or a career around.

WS: Has teaching been a part of your life?

LH: Given that I was a working mom and part of a really ambitious design group, I couldn’t add teaching until later, when I started to freelance. I like to think that you teach those who work around you in a design office, at least by example (good or bad), and I really enjoy seeing the successes of those who worked with us. And I did teach Publication Design at the Academy of Art, and a couple of semesters of Typography Design for the graduate level, both of which I enjoyed, but found harder than I thought. It’s really a challenge to put things in perspective for others, and the foreign student level at the Academy was an interesting challenge and inspiration, as well.

WS: What advice do you have for young designers?

LH: On the practical side, I would again assume that example works, as in a ‘we survived, so you can’ sort of message. And I would always vote for following your passion (though there seems to be no lack of passion, or even confusion, in younger designers these days) but it continues to be a young career and it can be difficult to see a long future or just what those layers might be. So I do usually suggest looking for the established energy when you are first starting, join it and learn from it; then you’ll have the skills or the funding to challenge it and do it your way. There is way more competition these days than when we started out, but there are also vastly more opportunities and dimensions to graphic design. And in general, a big difference now is that when a younger designer does get the jobs to work on, the client really wants them to do their best and not to dumb it down. They won’t be told, as I was once by an art director at Condé Nast, that she couldn’t hire me because I would want to design something.

On the inspirational side, I would say that one should embrace the whole community. Follow the illustrators and photographers and what they are doing, and the fine artists as well. Try to get to know those close in age and you will find them great connections and possibly friends throughout your career, as Ward has been for us. Don’t forget to find those inspired and brave clients. Your careers can weave in and out of each other’s! And continue to keep friendships with other designers. You don’t compete for work as much as you might think, and it has been that community that has made San Francisco such a great place to live and work.

WS: What are you doing now and what’s next for you?

LH: I have been enjoying working with Kit on the exhibitions of his Stars & Stripes collection. Powell Street Studio houses the smaller parts of his collection and I have used working on the records that museums have requested as motivation to conquer my distrust, dislike and disuse of computers. We have had a pretty busy schedule the last couple of years, with a small exhibit in San Francisco, a really big one in Reno, and another small one currently near Tacoma. We are also working with SITES, a part of the Smithsonian Museum, on a small collection to travel with their program.

I do miss being professional at something after so many years of working, but I don’t miss the deadlines and the long hours. Like many, I would love to find one new personal project and make it work.

So I am thinking of that and hope to get going with it soon.

No excuses.


Ward Schumaker is a San Francisco-based artist whose clients include United Airlines, Hermès, the NYTimes, Le Figaro, Deutsche Gramophone and Martha Stewart. His personal work has been exhibited in galleries in San Francisco, Shanghai, Los Angeles and UC Berkeley.