Fellow Awards 2011 Interview: Michael Mabry
Successful as both a designer and an illustrator, Michael Mabry worked for legendary San Francisco creatives Nicolas Sidjakov and Jerry Berman before opening his own firm in 1981. A past AIGA San Francisco president and member on the AIGA National Board, his work is included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Hong Kong Heritage Museum and The Center for the Study of Political Graphics. Michael’s work was also featured in a solo exhibition in Osaka, Japan and a group exhibition on California Design at the Museo Fortuny in Venice, Italy.

Known for a wide variety of creative solutions for an equally diverse clientele including The Land of Nod, NetJets Europe, the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the New York Times, Mabry works out of a modern loft in Emeryville with his wife and partner, Sarah Keith, and staff members Peter Soe Jr., Margie Chu and Lilyanna Bone.

He can also frequently be found working at his kitchen table or painting in the garage of his Piedmont home, as we’ll see from this interview with Patrick Coyne, editor and designer of Communication Arts, who worked briefly at Mabry Design. Michael also talks about finding balance, taming the ego and why humanity brings relevance to visual communication.

PC: You’ve been in business for almost 30 years. What’s been the biggest change for you?

Mabry: Becoming a father was huge, as it is for everybody. Basically when Emily came I said I’m going to spend time with family. Less judging, less speaking, less doing all that stuff to make sure I’m there for family. It was the right thing to do, but I do miss the interaction with my colleagues.

PC: You used to have a great office in downtown San Francisco, but then you moved the office to Emeryville. Was this also a lifestyle choice to spend more time with family instead of commuting?

Mabry: We were up on the sixth floor at Sutter and Kearney. When Loma Prieta hit, our building shook while we watched stuff falling from the other buildings. It wasn’t traumatic like, “Man this place is going to come down pretty soon.” But with the Bay Bridge closed, we couldn’t get home easily and Sarah and I thought, if we ever have a family, we’ve got to move so we could be closer in case of an emergency.

PC: But then the Oakland Hills fire hits and you’re thinking maybe this isn’t the best place to live?

Mabry: That was a few years later (laughs). What is it about this California?

PC: You’ve purposefully kept your firm small. Is this so you can maintain creative control?

Mabry: It’s so I can design. That’s what I like doing and that’s why I thought people would come to us. Also, it’s not the most linear process. I don’t work in a formulaic way. I have habits, but it really depends on what assignment I have. When I’m an illustrator, I work differently then when I’m an art director or when I’m doing hand-lettering or typography. I like doing them all, and it’s difficult to ask someone to create something we haven’t done before.

PC: Is that because you have no idea how it’s going to end up?

Mabry: I usually know what the concept is but it’s just a doodle on a napkin. I just have no idea how I’m going to do it. Each one’s a little different. I like simple things in concept. But I’m the opposite of simplicity in execution. Sometimes I have a hundred bitmapped images layered one over the other over the other. And when you hit preview, it’s just lines everywhere (laughs). I have gotten better working on layers.

PC: What’s the breakdown between design and illustration?

Mabry: The last couple of years, I was illustrating for the New York Times, as well as Land of Nod. That was taking up about half of my time. This year I’ve been so busy doing other projects, illustration takes up about a third of my time.

PC: So you’re turning down a lot of work?

Mabry: I don’t know if I’m turning down work…there are just some things I can’t do because of timing and other commitments.

PC: Are there any projects that stand out as favorites or were pivotal to your career?

Mabry: Of course, but it’s like choosing your favorite child. Il Fornaio got me a lot of notoriety. That took me to Levis, which was a total art direction project working with big-name photographers and talent. That was pivotal, but it also took me to the edge of the abyss when it went away. There was some political strife within Foote, Cone & Belding and we were collateral damage. We then went from that to Metro Furniture. Even though it was an illustrative job that got me into photo-art direction work, I stopped doing any kind of illustration work for about seven years.

PC: What got you back into illustration?

Mabry: I was gone on photo shoots for two months straight during the holidays when Emily was two and Sarah said, “You can’t do this anymore.” So I thought maybe I should start illustrating again. I’m sort of working like Nicolas (Sidjakov) did. He was a fabulous designer, illustrator and art director. I learned from the best.

PC: You cited Sidjakov as influential back in 1987 when we profiled your firm in CA. You didn’t actually work together that long?

Mabry: I was there about two years. Sometimes there are unwritten things that you learn from people just from being around them. He would talk about his life in Paris while smoking and dropping his cigarette ashes on my drawing. I’d try and brush them off and he’d rub them into my drawing (laughs). It’s hard to explain because he didn’t say, “Michael this is what we do, this is how you do it,” but I picked up on it and to this day I think I’m retracing his path in some way. He was known for winning the Caldecott for Baboushka and the Three Kings, which I had heard about but had never seen. When I finally looked at it I realized that his characters were things that I thought that I was creating on my own. There was a difference because of the medium used, but they were almost identical. It was at that point I realized how stupid I was thinking I was in control of my own destiny. It was an amazing epiphany. It humbled me and made me more realistic about who I was.

PC: Who else would you cite as an influence?

Mabry: Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast had a huge effect on me. I bought that book you guys did ( The Push Pin Style ) when I was in college and I dreamed of doing that kind of work. It was an amazing connection between imagery and text, and the marriage seemed like a very humanistic way of working versus being overly systematic. Also Paul Rand and Alexey Brodovitch. Brodovitch was actually a pretty good illustrator before he got into art direction.

PC: What do you do to stay inspired? You must hit burnout at some point?

Mabry: Pretty often. It’s probably continual burnout (laughs). I always have another project outside of design that I have on the walls. I get one painting done a year. Not that it’s that complicated, it’s just the time that I have available. I’m doing an oil, very layered. It’s what a designer would do…typography, words, a little political in nature.

PC: I don’t remember you painting. I do remember you used to create wood-based three-dimensional objects.

Mabry: I just decided to try it. I’ve never painted before so I’m trying to teach myself. I’m probably doing some completely bogus things. Emily will be stuck with these.

PC: So you’ve always had some personal form of expression?

Mabry: Yes. And that helps because it’s not based upon anyone’s particular need. There’s no deadline. I just paint down in the garage. It’s not particularly romantic by any stretch of the imagination (laughs).

PC: Do you end up applying what you’ve learned in your commercial work?

Mabry: I think I do. Not from a technique standpoint but from an informational layering of imagery that probably comes from a sensibility of seeing things before you paint them, knowing they’re going to work, working through the values. There was a period of time when I painted on cardboard, which actually had commercial applications. What I’m doing right now seems so different from what I’m doing on a daily basis, I’m not 100% convinced that there’s a direct connection.

PC: Sometimes you’ll just experiment with materials and mediums?

Mabry: Just to see where it goes. It’s probably more therapy than anything else.

PC: Considering the illustrative theme in your work, a lot of people might be surprised to know that you have very little formal training in art.

Mabry: I never really considered art as an option. Graphic design was about solving problems using art, words and ideas. I never took print making or painting in college, just the bare minimum I needed to graduate. But as I was exposed to the way other people worked I felt I could broaden my relationship between art and what I do, either by the way I think about projects or the execution. A lot of people I work for don’t even know that I illustrate and visa versa. Some people just think I’m an illustrator. They don’t know I’m a designer, which is fine. Nicholas Blechman came up with MK Mabry, which is my byline in the New York Times. I thought that was clever because if the stuff really sucked, nobody would think it was me (laughs). But the downside to it is it’s hard for people to find me.

PC: You don’t have a separate identity or Web site for MK Mabry?

Mabry: No. The Web site’s another story. It hasn’t changed in six years (laughs). It’s the same thing, a little conveyor belt of images. It’s a placeholder. We have a new one we’ve been working on but it sits too long and then I say let’s rework it and then we get too busy…it’s just an ongoing lunacy. I would like to get it together because it’s a little embarrassing.

PC: Another theme in your work is humor.

Mabry: I know it may seem a little kitschy but I always try to add a little smile. If you can’t entertain or add some delight into people’s lives by what you do, for me it seems like a missed opportunity. I laugh at everything, even the bad stuff, I can find the humor in it somehow. A lot of designers are afraid of humor and cute things. There’s been a permeation of art from Japan that’s broken down the barriers for Western designers, but until then there wasn’t much of an embrace. It was always, “We need to be accredited, then people will take us seriously.” But you still end up dealing with the client’s spouse who doesn’t like the color and whatever crazy comments that seem disrespectful. They happen every day. That’s our position in life (laughs).

PC: Any regrets? Any mistakes you wish you could undo?

Mabry: I told a few clients to get lost that I probably shouldn’t have. If a relationship’s not working out, I just want to cut it off. At one point in my life I think I got a little too full of myself and thought my position in the graphic design world was a little too elevated. I also had some missed opportunities with my family because I was too busy working. That was a mistake.

PC: So you’re not taking yourself too seriously anymore?

Mabry: Oh God there’s no reason to (laughs).

PC: Any advice for those just beginning their career?

Mabry: In today’s world we have a tendency to do things very quickly because it’s asked of us. I don’t think enough time is given for reflection, to really think about the problem. If the industry is going to survive we have to add worth and meaning otherwise we’re going to become obsolete. If you spend the extra time to really think about what you’re doing, to delight people and tantalize them in some way, it doesn’t have to be humorous, if it touches their heart, then there’s a reason for you to exist. There are big rewards for people who take the time. Those people will stand out. It’s just hard to do that, especially if you’re working for someone who doesn’t really believe that. Try not to work for those people. I know that’s hard now when people are just happy to have a job.

PC: Anything you wish you knew when you started?

Mabry: That I was actually going to get old? (laughs) That I had to grow up? (laughs) I’m still coping with that one…I guess I should have stayed in calculus in my senior year of high school because that derailed my architectural ambitions, but I think I’m far happier doing what I’m doing than being an architect.

PC: What would you be doing if you weren’t a designer?

Mabry: I’d probably be selling Dyson vacuum cleaners (laughs). I have no idea. It just seemed like design was right for me. There was no plan B. Even Sarah has said ‘I can’t really see you doing anything else. You’re not qualified to do anything else.” I could probably be a pretty good gardener, or a carpenter if I started earlier, but no. I sort of lucked out.


Patrick Coyne is editor and designer of Communication Arts. In addition to determining the layout and content of the magazine, Mr. Coyne writes feature stories and the editor’s column. He has also guest lectured at numerous creative clubs and universities.

The recipient of numerous awards for his design and art direction (including a silver medal from the Society of Illustrators), Coyne received the 2004 Design Leadership Award from AIGA. Prior to joining CA in 1986, Coyne studied at the California College of the Arts, worked for Michael Mabry Design and SBG Partners and established the multi-discipline, San Francisco-based design firm of Patrick Coyne Stephanie Steyer Design Office.