Fellow Awards 2013 Interview: Sam Smidt
Interviewed by Chuck Byrne

Sam Smidt has been an important figure in Bay Area graphic design for over fifty years.

His work has been recognized for combining his own insightful wording with bold typography making for remarkable visual communications. His work for fine art clients has distinguished itself by his creating words, typography and graphic imagery that communicates and expresses the art rather than merely reproducing it. His work has been widely published and is in the Smithsonian Institution and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Architecture and Design collection.

In the last few years he has taken up illustration, producing books using his writing and drawings that uniquely speak to human feelings.

In 1969 he helped found the San Jose State University Graphic Desgin program. For much of the time until his 1997 retirement from teaching he headed that outstanding program. As such, he has had a dramatic impact on the careers of hundreds of designers and the quality of graphic design throughout Silicon Valley and the Bay Area.

CB: How did you become interested in graphic design?

SS: My future wife Marlene and I grew up in San Francisco. Her family was pressuring me to get a job.

I’m 82 now. In 1954 I was 24 and walking around in the fog in San Francisco not knowing what to do. I was walking on Kearny Street where it intersects Market. I looked up and there was a sign that said, “Stevens School of Art.” I went up a big flight of stairs and right at the end there was a man named Stevens, in a very nice suit, who greeted me. He was the founder of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. He said, “Are you interested in a career in art and design?” I didn’t know what that was and I said, “Well, what’s involved?” And he showed me this room and they had some nude models, I said, “So if you’re an artist you get to draw these?” He said, “So we’ll sign you up?” I had been a coreman in Navy during the Korean war, so I was able to go to the school on the G.I. Bill.

CB: How long were you the Steven’s school?

SS: About two years. Some of the teachers were excellent, but there was one art director who worked for an agency, I think it was McCann Erickson, and he took me aside and he said, “Sam, I hate to disillusion you, but I don’t think you’ve got it.” He was downright negative. It actually what made me want to leave.

In 1955 Marlene and I were married and her uncle lined me up with a part-time job at Stanford Research Institute. I met my life-long friend Harry Powers there. I stayed about a year.

About that time I met a young designer named G. Dean Smith. He did a lot of important work and went on to work for Saul Bass in L.A. He decided to take me under his wing, and he said, “Sam, you just got to go to Art Center. You really need that sort of discipline.” So I packed up my car, and we drove down Highway 5 to Hollywood where the school was located at the time. Again, the G.I. Bill let me do this. I graduated in 1960.

CB: With whom did you study?

SS: The most influential by far was Louis Danzinger.

CB: What’s the most important thing you picked up from Lou?

SS: The whole idea of conceptualizing—the value of influences from art, other than graphic design. For example, Lou took us to the L. A. County Museum, and we looked at pretty much nothing but Picassos — geez, Picasso’s a great teacher. We did that and talked a lot about other influences, including music.

CB: For their form, or for the content or both?

SS: I would say for a beautiful combination. It doesn’t come along every day, but when it does you can really feel it. Picassoå did a good job of marrying the whole thing.

Lou and the school deserve a lot credit for my progress as a designer.

CB: After Art Center?

SS: After leaving Art Center I had a job with Cal Freeman, and Art Goodman gave me a job. I just couldn’t stand the pressure so I quit. I went home and Marlene said, “There’s a phone call for you from your old friend Harry Powers in Palo Alto.” He asked me if I was interested in returning to Palo Alto and starting a studio with him. I looked at Marlene, and she looked at me and she said, “Let’s go.” It was really the beginning of my career.

CB: So you came back to Palo Alto?

SS: Yeah. That was when we started Sam Smidt Associates. 1960 I believe. So we started off, and ended up having nothing to do. Harry and I decided that since we weren’t doing anything, we should go to this Aspen International Design Conference.

We went on a train with a beautiful glass superdome. It was fun and we had a really good time. At the conference something a guy from General Dynamics said really stuck with me: “There’s one thing I want you to listen to — there is a friend in every company.” I went back with that thought fresh in my mind. I decided I would design some kind of mailing piece and make some calls. I went to this one small design firm nearby to see about getting some work. It turned out to be Dick Coyne and Robert Blanchard who started Communication Arts Magazine.

Soon after I got a call from Dick and he said, “We’re going to close up our shop; we want to just concentrate on the magazine. How would you like some clients?

Within a few years I had several Silicon Valley clients like Ampex Corporation. After about five years, I was doing okay. Some great people like Paul Sinn, Art Kirsch and Bob Sleeper joined the firm. There were some really interesting design opportunities. The best was probably at San Jose State University. Harry Powers had left our firm to go teach there. This was before it was a separate program. He heard about a part-time opening that was coming up for a graphic design person with professional experience. He asked if I would be interested. I said, I’d never done any teaching before, but I applied for the job with the idea that I could also continue my professional career.

Some of my best work was done for the school during this period.

CB: When you say best work, are you talking about the posters for art exhibitions?

SS: Yeah, things for San Jose State University art exhibits and independent galleries. Things that were typographically strong.

CB: Typographic interpretations of what the art was about?

SS: Yes, exactly.

CB: Later you took a full-time job at San Jose State when a full graphic design program was started.

SS: Yes, that was 1968 or ‘69.

CB: How was your firm doing?

SS: By that time I was working on just a few projects at the studio. I had a couple of pretty good people at Sam Smidt and Associates. We had a strong portfolio and we were continuing to do work with important Silicon Valley clients. It was advertising with graphic design flare to it. In 1997 I sold the business to several people in the firm so they could continue and do what they wanted to do. It became Humple, Leftwitch and Sinn.

CB: In addition to a full-time appointment at San Jose State University, you started a small office?

SS: In [include year] I went to downtown Palo Alto and bought a little building with the idea that I could renovate it and get a small studio and some other space out of it. That is still my office today. Anyway, the first six months I spent renovating the space. I became very close friends with the well known California fine artist Nathan Oliveira who worked nearby. Over the years we traded a lot of work.

I began building a reputation as a graphic designer who understood the art world and could work with curators. Along with several galleries I did work for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

CB: How did things develop at San Jose State?

SS: In addition to developing a full curriculum we startedhiring faculty and regularly bringing in interesting designers for the students to have contact with. I remember Dick Coyne coming and talking about Communications Arts Magazine.

One of the most interesting and successful designers who came to teach was Sheila de Bretteville. She was living in L.A. at the time and I convinced her to come up once a week and for a class. I think that was in the 70’s. She has been head of the Graduate Graphic Design program at Yale for a long time now.

CB: What did you look for in the designers you hired to teach?

SS: As the program grew we hired good full-time people, like Lanning Stern from L.A. and Randall Sexton, along with lecturers like Joe Miller. Lanning’s work was insightful and had humor. I looked for work that made me feel warm and smile — something like that.

CB: What do you think makes a good design teacher?

SS: Good question. I think you have to love your students and have a dialogue with them.

CB: How did you go about motivating students? How did you keep them going?

SS: Well, I have my own teaching style. Let me see now. Once a week I would bring in a big flat portfolio of all I had worked on in the studio that week. I would show it to the students and express my thoughts as we look through it.

Many times I came fresh from a meeting to class. I had just had been wiht a client and I would tell them about that experience. For me, it was a way to combine my professional life with teaching.

CB: How did you motivate clients to want good design work?

SS: Another good question. My best work has always been when one person acting as the client worked directly with me. Working with the one person is important. I try to initiate a feeling of trust. The client wants me to do something. I’m happy having the opportunity to, hopefully, do something that’s never been done before. They have to trust me. I’m not being difficult—really.

CB: Early in your career and up to midway, there was a big emphasis on typography.

SS: Yeah, type is fun to work with.

CB: Where did you pick that up? Art Center, or you just felt comfortable with type?

SS: Comfortable with type, yes. But also, I learned a lot from Mortimer Leach at Art Center. He taught lettering and advertising.

CB: What caused you to think about solving communications problems with type as opposed to an illustration or a photograph?

SS: The way typography can get to people. Words expressed with type can be a really compelling way to communicate meaning. Being drawn to type causes you to look for different, expressive typographic possibilities. I just did a series of typographic posters called “Type Show” that explore the different possibilities type has.

If somebody wants a poster for an exhibit, it’s always tempting to just reproduce some of the art from the exhibit. But something leads me to communicating what the art is with words and type.

CB: What led you to using words and type in that great John Battenberg’s “Hell’s Angels Invading New York” poster? Did his work look like that poster?

SS: Yes, the words, type and flames echo his work. I’m responsible for letting people know that this art exists and the artist exists.

CB: A lot of your work seems to be reductive. You eliminate from a design as much as you put in.

SS: Well, that’s what design is. I mean, it is a simple filtering down. We want to show only enough to be provocative. It creates interest.

CB: And in working with clients you are coming up with the words as well as the imagery. Does this go back to Lou Danziger’s idea of the complete conceptualization of a message?

SS: Yes. If you look at Lou’s work, you’re going to see an awful lot of typographical solutions. I feel so fortunate to have had him as a teacher.

CB: So the first decades of your work was typography based and now you have developed this great interest in illustration. Did you wake up one day and say I’m going to start doing illustrations. How did that come about?

SS: [laughter] Because I love to draw. It’s so much fun to draw and I don’t think anything particular would have influenced it except—I just love—I love it. But I would say, I think most of my best work is typographical.

CB: It seems to me your illustrations seem are doing something that the type is not doing. It’s more personal.

SS: More mature, maybe—wouldn’t you say?

CB: With the Healing Environments illustrations were there specific subjects that you were asked to cover, or were they subjects that you thought would be helpful to people?

SS: Healing Environments is a Los Altos-based nonprofit dedicated to relieving the suffering of the seriously ill. I’ve done fifteen [size???] books for them now. ‘Courage,’ ‘Strength,’ ‘Beauty.’ I’m given a subject or I suggest one for a new little book.

Death, for example. That’s the subject of one. “Before I Die” is actually the title. For people who are terminally ill—I mean that’s scary. I have to come up with a concept, an idea, that will help them get through hard times.

I’ll come up with a little—just a little 3 × 3 inch sketch and show it in a meeting we have once a week. The little books seem to be very successful, hundreds have been ordered off the site for donations. The heartfelt responses show they really help people.

CB: How do you start an illustration?

SS: I don’t know—a single line. It’s all there is… [laughter] That first line is probably the most important.

CB: So you really enjoy doing these illustrations?

SS: Yeah, it’s fun, especially drawing people.

CB: So there seems to be a consistent theme. Type was fun, the illustrations are fun..

SS: I have fun.

CB: Fun with the client?

SS: Once in a while I get a client and get the feeling “Hey, this isn’t natural for me.” It doesn’t mean the project is good or bad. It’s just not there for me. But then there are clients like Healing Environments, they give a sense of trust and I think, “How did I land with good people like these?” It just kind of comes like a stroke from heaven, something exciting is going to happen. They’re wanting me and I’m there for them.

CB: What do you think your major contribution is to design, design or teaching?

SS: Yes, to both those. [laughter] My best teaching thing is showing what I’m doing at the time.

CB: And to graphic design?

SS: Yeah, I would say—typographic design. That work is, well—what can I say?

CB: Showing the possibilities of typographic communication?

SS: Yes, and it was fun.

But, I think I’m being given an opportunity through the Healing Environments illustrations to help people —it’s a little deeper than my normal work.


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.