Fellow Awards 2013 Interview: Clement Mok
Interviewed by Chuck Byrne

Since the 1980s Clement Mok has probably influenced the development of the graphic design profession as much as any other designer.

After graduating from Art Center in Pasadena he worked for Lou Dorfsman at CBS and Donovan/Green in New York. From there he joined Apple Computer and worked on the original Macintosh team and then was head of Creative Services.

Realizing the impact the Macintosh computer and changing media were going to have on graphic design, he began a long period of helping designers across the country understand what was coming and appreciate the implications for the profession. Beyond merely alerting, he helped designers understand the positive aspects of the computer revolution on graphic design production, process, aesthetics and business.

He continued this effort after leaving Apple and starting Clement Mok designs (CMd) in 1988, which established his reputation as a designer of highly effective but light-hearted work. CMd became Studio Archetype, which then went on to become part of Sapient, a global IT and business consulting firm, in 1988 with Clement as Chief Creative Officer. Since 2002 he has been an independent consultant and serves on the boards of several startup companies and educational institutions. For most all of his career he has organized or contributed to innumerable AIGA activities. He served on the AIGA SF board in 1986/1987, then went on to serve on the National Board twice (in the late ‘80s and the late ‘90s) before serving as national president from 2001 to 2003.

Believing designers should use their abilities to develop their own enterprises, he started one of the first royalty-free stock image businesses in 1992, and cofounded NetObjects, a Silicon Valley software startup for building websites in 1995. In 1996 he wrote “Designing Business,” outlining the rationale for having a designer as a founding member of a startup. Recently he has developed several educational iPad apps and became a founding partner in SUGARFISH, a growing sushi restaurant business in Los Angeles.

CB: How did you become interested in graphic design?

CM: Architecture was my first love. Graphic design followed. All I wanted to do as a little kid was to build and make things. There were never enough Lego pieces in the house. My brother and I used to build elaborate fortresses by draping bedspreads and sheets over chairs, tables, beds or whatever we could find. It drove our parents crazy when we raided the linen closets for our supply of new building materials. The ability to create experiences that were all encompassing was the thing that most appealed to me about architectural design.

I knew very early on, probably as early as grade school, that I was more interested in the arts than I was in math or the sciences. I would steal yarn from my mother’s knitting basket to make “Ojos de Dios,” Mexican God’s Eyes… remember them from the ‘60s? I was fascinated by how certain color combinations of yarn worked better than others. Instead of a couple of God’s Eyes, I made a few dozen, and my mom was furious at me for using up all her yarn. Mine were restrained, only two or three colors. Looking back, this was probably when I developed my sense of how to use colors.

Photography was one of my dad’s hobbies, so he had a darkroom in the basement of the house where I grew up. I must have had the attention span of a fruit fly even then. I was never interested in taking photographs or using the darkroom as it was too technical. Go figure! Now I deal with technical issues all the time. But I appreciated the results in the prints that he made. He had photo magazines around the house, and I found myself studying composition and layout in their photos. I started my design education without realizing it.

In high school I was a terrible student. I was “challenged” by math and science, so making plans for becoming an architect faded. It wasn’t until I joined the student newspaper and the yearbook staff that I realized I was drawn to graphic design. I volunteered to crop and size photos for the editor, and it wasn’t long before I found myself laying out the newspaper and running it off on the mimeograph machine all on my own. I took to it like a duck to water.

In my sophomore year I had the option to sign up for graphics shop. It was unusual then, even when vocational training was part of the high school curriculum. Mr. Rand was the teacher. He had been a pressman at Vancouver’s largest daily newspaper. Soon I found myself spending all my after-school hours in the his workshop, tinkering with the letterpress, learning to case type, sorting donated type and putting them in their type trays, learning how to silk screen, and even running an A.B. Dick offset press.

In my junior year I started to help Mr. Rand after school to print tickets and posters for various school dances, concerts, and theater productions. It wasn’t long before he asked me to design a few of these pieces. It was then I decided to take art classes and learn how to draw.

By the time I graduated from high school I had a portfolio not only of drawings, but also “printed pieces.” This must have impressed the folks at Art Center College of Design because I was admitted right away.

It’s interesting that my introduction to graphic design started with learning how to use technology first—letterpress and offset press—and then subsequently by learning how to design within those constraints. It’s the same way I approach designing for the digital medium, whether it’s desktop publishing, CD-ROM title development, application development, websites, or iPad apps. Tinker and learn the medium, then design.

CB: You went on to Art Center in Pasadena. How did the school contribute to your design aesthetic and approach to process?

CM: When I applied to Art Center, they told me that I would have to unlearn everything I was taught. Art Center would provide “the proper” education necessary to become a “professional” graphic designer. My parents and I were impressed by Art Center’s spiel even though we had no clue what it meant. Truth be told, there was nothing to “unlearn” since what I knew up to that point was really about print production and nothing about “design.”

Art Center gave me the fundamentals, drawing, typography and composition. It wasn’t so much about developing an aesthetic, but more about acquiring an appreciation for craftsmanship, learning to learn, and perhaps the most important lesson—being professional. To me it meant being responsible for your work and respectful of your profession. It also meant recognizing the difference between your work and your art. You learned that criticism of your work is not a personal affront.

If I were to pick an aesthetic I acquired, it would be my tendency to use illustrations as a way of “explaining” information. I think I use illustrations to “humanize” information. This probably came from the illustration majors at Art Center at that time. Also, at Art Center during the ‘60s and ‘70s, advertising was a big part of the program. It was always “headline” and “big image,” so whether you’re cognizant of it or not, that’s what you walk away with.

CB: You were on the original Apple Macintosh team and then went on to head Creative Services at Apple. What was it like to represent graphic design there during this revolutionary period?

CM: I’d better answer the question with some context about how I got to Apple and why we did what we did at that time.

I went to work at Apple because I saw Steve Jobs on the cover of Time Magazine. I thought it would be a great opportunity to work for someone “famous.” Never in a million years did I think I’d be involved in something that would change the graphic design profession. I was only twenty-four years old, and Steve Jobs was only three years older. I did not expect him to teach me anything about design, but boy, was I wrong.

Looking back, I know now that I learned from him how to design a complete idea. When Steve Jobs referred to the “design” of a product he was always thinking of an entire user or brand experience. Everything—hardware, software, user interface, corporate communication and advertising—constituted the design. He was years ahead in thinking about what “design” should be. Back then he convinced us who worked for him that with thinking like this we could change the world. Yup, I drank the Kool-Aid.

This is not a new idea if you’re familiar with the work of Charles and Ray Eames. But, when you see it put into practice by a crazy genius—it sticks with you for a lifetime. Steve Jobs did not believe in playing by other peoples’ rules. He insisted on creating new standards. Another way to put this is that the great thing about inventing the future is that you set the standards by which you are measured. “Make it insanely great!” as Steve would put it. The ad copy he wrote with folks at Chiat/Day on his return to Apple in the late ‘90s sums up what it was like to be around him: “Here’s to the crazy ones.”

CB: What was it like working at Apple during this time?

CM: It was exhausting, exhilarating, and frustrating, in that order.

It was exhausting because we worked ninety hours a week. It was not only to please Steve, but also because we knew that we were preparing the way for others to follow; others at Apple or the people who were going to use the Macintosh. We acted as translators of techno-babble and demonstrators of new technologies, so that people could understand the magic happening on their computer screens. That ethic and way of working eventually embedded itself in the culture and values of Apple.

Exhilarating because we had front row seats to witness the evolution and the future of graphic design. I still remember Paul Brennard (President of Aldus Corporation) walking around Creative Services in 1984 explaining to Tom Hughes (Creative Director, Macintosh) about a page layout program call PageMaker and how it all worked with Adobe’s Postscript and the first LaserWriter. No more MacDraw, MacPaint, and the dot matrix printer! It was the birth of desktop publishing. When I left Apple in 1988, multimedia and CD-ROM were in the works as part of the next generation of computers. It was not difficult to see that graphic design was going to be impacted.

At the same time everything seemed to be changing in graphic design. We saw the birth of a new design aesthetic challenging existing preconceptions. It came from people inside and outside design. Type fonts by Susan Kare and Zuzana Licko; illustrations by John Hersey and Mick Wiggins; and experimental work by Wolfgang Weingart, and Rudy Vanderlans.

Frustrating because traditional designers were not getting the importance of the concept of “desktop publishing” and how it would eventually impact the way designers design. Designers perceived desktop publishing as “crude:” something people at quick print shops used—or secretaries in an office. While I was at Apple I tried having workshops, hosting tours, presenting at conferences, to evangelize the technologies. The design community did not want to and would not recognize the importance of what was happening. I think part of the problem was that I was on Apple’s payroll, and my credibility and unbiased viewpoint was suspect… and rightly so.

While at Apple I was blessed with the opportunity to work with some truly great people from Apple Creative Services, Chiat/Day, frogdesign, and Regis McKenna, plus hundreds of talented photographers, writers, designers and illustrators. They were (and are) some of the smartest people on this planet. Likewise, if it were not for my mentors and supporters like Tom Hughes and Tom Suiter in those early years at Apple, I would not be where I am today. The lessons I learned and the skills I acquired defined who I was after I left Apple to start my own consulting practice.

CB: After leaving Apple you established a larger studio rather than the more usual modest start.

CM: I left Apple in 1988 to start my studio because I felt stuck. John Sculley was CEO of Apple then (1983-93) and the company was charting a course toward market growth and becoming legitimate in the business world. The interesting challenges and progress were in software. Apple was stuck in selling hardware. If you remember, it even spun off a software company called Claris.

I proposed to Apple that I work as a part-time employee, functioning as its design “evangelist” to the growing number of desktop publishing software companies. The rest of my time, I would be a free agent. Although Apple immediately understood and saw the value in someone working to develop relationships and explore new ideas and possibilities between Apple and the software companies, they were worried that this part-time arrangement might set a precedent for others in the department. It was either full-time evangelizing at Apple or on my own.

In hindsight, this was the catalyst for me to strike out on my own. It was good timing. The Macintosh software industry exploded. I didn’t approach my studio as a one-man boutique, but more as a Silicon Valley startup. There was a need there, and I built a service to fill it. And because of the relationships I had built over the years at Apple, we had a steady flow of clients from the start, which propelled our growth. In the three years after I opened Clement Mok designs, we had to move the offices three times. We had grown to more than twenty-five people.

My involvement with the evolution of Mac and desktop publishing was a distinct advantage. I appreciated the immense capabilities of emerging technology. This made it a lot easier for the firm to speak the same language as the high-tech companies who were shopping for design firms. We were able to quickly grasp the fundamentals of their products and to offer them insight both in the area of design and business.

My goal was not to build a large studio. What drove me was to follow an idea and find ways to design it. If it had to be a large studio, so be it.

Of course there were mistakes along the way.

CB: Throughout your career you have encouraged graphic designers to expand their horizons beyond merely providing a service to developing their own different enterprises that make use of their design abilities and interests.

CM: Many of the businesses I’ve pursued came about because of place, time, and opportunity. I was in the right place at the right time and ready when the opportunities presented themselves. They were things that were interesting to me and something I felt I could learn from. My stock photography business started in the early 90s; NetObjects, the website software business, started in the mid ‘90s; and then an e-commerce website in the late ‘90s. The idea of being alert to change and then figuring out how to address a new need is not just applicable to high tech. It can be applied to every industry, every part of life. Even the restaurant business I’m involved in now.

CB: With your experience in larger corporate and studio settings, how do you motivate your people? How do you establish and maintain a design direction or aesthetic?

CM: It begins with a establishing a set of values that define the company/studio/practice. Then the work should reflect and reinforce those values. This is mission and vision stuff, and many designers start rolling their eyes because it’s too corporate or too new age. I used to think that way as a young designer, but as I’ve changed careers often and find myself directing not only graphic designers, but software designers, web developers, information architects, and now social media specialists, I’ve come to value the “mission and vision stuff.” Having a core set of values and a vision statement anchors the team and helps everyone to head in the same direction.

Examining values also clarifies what things are most important to you personally, to the studio, and to those who work with you. This was the advice I got from Skip Sagar, my business mentor, when I told him I wanted to model my business on the office Charles and Ray Eames had. Values are applicable for big or small studios/clients. I will not start a project or an engagement without understanding the values or the mission of an organization. Again, Apple played a big part in shaping these views.

Over the years I developed three checkpoints I look for in a product or business idea and the work being done for it. Is it useful? Is it useable? Is it desirable? Is the idea useful or a mindless waste of talent and resources? Is the idea or design accessible from a communications as well as usability perspective? Is it compelling in a way that someone would desire to acquire it or to be engaged with it?

CB: When you became national president of the AIGA, you made a concerted effort to open the profession to “new media” and the opportunities it offered to graphic designers.

CM: It wasn’t so much a focus on “new media,” but rather a different way of looking at the industry, to encourage designers to “advance” the profession. I wanted graphic design professionals to see that there are many different design career paths other than working in traditional print design studios. It’s my belief that we must take ownership of our profession, meaning we have to be alert and open to the future, and be aware of its potential for design. Otherwise we cannot influence the future of our profession.

CB: What are your thoughts on the current state and development of the design profession?

CM: It’s hard to see the transformation right away. But, in the last ten years the changes have been profound. I said the same thing ten years ago and ten years before. The profession continues to morph and change at a relentless pace.

San Francisco has the highest concentration of design firms and practices in the country. Right now many Silicon Valley startup companies require a designer as part of their founding team. The diversity of services offered by the design profession here in the Bay Area forecast the future of the practice.

Hard boundaries that used to define design disciplines like graphic design, product design, environmental design, branding, advertising, software, and interaction design are melting. Firms are building their businesses by integrating strategy, identity, print, green practices, product, packaging, environments, user interface, and/or communication. Thanks to the foresight and leadership of designers here, Bay Area firms are offering social, green, and sustainable-oriented design services.

The Bay Area is ground zero for most of the amazing technologies that impact lives around the world. The products, and all the design work done for them, come from the engineers, industrial designers and graphic designers right here.


Chuck Byrne has been a member of the design faculty at the University of Cincinnati and the California College of Arts and Crafts and retired from San Jose State University in 2010 after teaching graphic design there for 17 years.

His design work has appeared in CA, Idea, ID, Graphis, and PRINT.

In addition to serving as a contributing editor to PRINT magazine for over a decade, he has also written for EYE, the AIGA Journal and Emigre magazines. His articles have been included in the anthologies “Looking Closer,” “Design Culture,” and “Graphic Design History.”

His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University Art Museum, The Detroit Institute of Arts, and the American Institute of Graphic Arts Archives at the Denver Art Museum. Additionally, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have included his work in exhibits.