Fellow Awards 2015 Interview: Earl Gee
Interviewed by HoMan Lee

Earl Gee, Partner + Creative Director of Gee + Chung Design, is being honored with the AIGA San Francisco Fellow Award for his body of work and contribution to the design community. Established 25 years ago, his firm has won awards from virtually every major design competition, building an international reputation for creative excellence—designing branding, print, packaging, environmental and interactive programs for many of the most innovative companies in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.

HoMan Lee, Partner and Creative Director at Morphos, sat down with Earl to discuss his service to the design community, past, present and future. Earl and HoMan first met at an AIGA SF Portfolio Day, Earl was a reviewer and HoMan was an attendee. Little did either know that years later—HoMan, as Creative Director at National Semiconductor, would become a client of Earl’s—where they would collaborate on several award-winning branding projects together.

HoMan Lee: Earl, congratulations on your well-deserved Fellow award. Your creative work, professionalism and generosity of spirit has been an inspiration to me and many others. With a career spanning over 30 years, you’ve won a multitude of prestigious awards. What does this particular honor mean to you?

Earl Gee: Thanks, HoMan. I’m deeply humbled to be recognized by AIGA SF for furthering the standards of our profession and chapter, because this AIGA SF has been such an inspiration to me throughout my 30 years of membership. I look forward to continuing to contribute the profession and AIGA.

HL: So how did you become interested in graphic design?

EG: From an early age my parents saw that I loved to draw and were very supportive. They met at UC Berkeley then moved to Los Angeles for work. My dad started as a draftsman at aerospace contractor Hughes Aircraft Company before law school, so he had an aptitude for drawing. My mother was a third grade teacher who loved teaching her art classes most. Growing up in Monterey Park I enjoyed my art classes in the gifted program and drawing cartoons for the school paper. My elementary art coordinator Al Parker saw my potential, having me combine words and pictures to create wordmarks as an 11-year-old, and mounting a one man show of my work in the school district administration building. Thanks to his early encouragement and inspiration, I was on my way.

HL: And how did you end up at ArtCenter College of Design?

EG: My Alhambra High School art teacher encouraged me to enroll in the Saturday High classes at ArtCenter, which in 1976 had just moved from Los Angeles to their new Pasadena campus nearby. ArtCenter’s stunning building, amazing student gallery and great teachers were a revelation.

HL: It sounds like supportive parents, good teachers and proximity to a world-class institution were important influences. How did ArtCenter shape your design aesthetic and process?

EG: Entering ArtCenter as an advertising major, I learned the importance of concept to effective communication, but I enjoyed my packaging and exhibit design classes so much that I changed my major to graphic design after my fifth term. I had to take a much heavier course load to catch up, but was fortunate to graduate with Distinction. As a junior I represented ArtCenter as a Champion Imagination Scholar, studying at the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation in Pittsburgh, PA alongside 10 other student winners from the top design programs in the nation including Cooper Union, MCAD, RISD, RIT and SVA, which greatly expanded my horizons. At ArtCenter one of the most important lessons I learned from my department chair Paul Hauge was that being a designer is not only what you design, but who you are and how you see the world. I had many transformative instructors who were top designers in their fields, including Hal Frazier, Sharon Aki and Wayne Hunt. The program’s clean, Swiss design aesthetic was an important influence upon my development.

HL: I think we all owe it to our teachers and the people who saw a spark in us. After Los Angeles, how did you end up coming to San Francisco?

EG: At my ArtCenter graduation I received the inaugural Landor Associates Award as the student showing outstanding promise in conceptual design and strategic acumen. Landor was the world’s largest design firm with the most prestigious clients. Having received their scholarship I was very excited about coming to San Francisco.

HL: Can you describe some of your experiences at Landor during that time?

EG: At Landor I joined the Special Projects Group, which developed corporate identity programs for Fortune 500 companies. In my department we had 17 designers from 17 different schools, including Cranbrook, CCA, Pratt, Philadelphia College of Art, University of Cincinnati and Basel School of Design, introducing me to many different approaches to design. It was an incredible learning environment for me.

HL: Who were some of your mentors at Landor, and how did they make a difference for you?

EG: Early in my professional career I couldn’t have asked for colleagues who were more accomplished and inspirational. I shared an office with Michael Carabetta, a Cranbrook MFA taught by the legendary Katherine McCoy. He was an accomplished designer who was kind, considerate and worldly; the type of designer and person I hoped to become. After I left Landor, I would show him any piece I was proud of, because I respected his judgement and knew he’d be happy for me. I also learned so much from Jerry Kuyper, who had been at Saul Bass & Associates, and Roger van den Bergh, who had worked at Total Design in the Netherlands, Chermayeff & Geismar and Anspach Grossman Portugal.

HL: It sounds like you designed for yourself, but also to meet the expectations of your former work colleagues, mentors and teachers.

EG: I think in many cases design is much bigger than us. It’s why we try to honor the profession by doing our best to further the standards of our practice. That’s a really a keen insight on your part.

HL: What was that saying? “If I see far it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

EG: Absolutely. As a young designer, the opportunity to work with people you respect and can learn from is far more important than the starting salary. After a year of designing identity concepts, I was given a project for Trauma Foundation, which really got me interested in print design. I designed a series of square brochures which folded out to form a cross, enabling the posters to be arranged in different configurations dependent upon the wall space. Despite being my first printed piece, this modular poster series won a New York Art Directors Club medal. I attended the awards ceremony in New York, visited the museums and had an amazing time.

HL: After you left Landor, you worked at Mark Anderson Design in Palo Alto. Can you talk about that?

EG: After my brief experience with print design at Landor, I was looking for a firm that was smaller and more involved with different areas of design. Mark Anderson Design created a wide variety of work for many of Silicon Valley’s most prominent technology clients, giving designers responsibility for an entire project from concept to completion. I learned about client presentations, design, production and printing, while creating projects for Herman Miller, PG&E and the Oakland Museum. In one particular year I had the good fortune to have three projects accepted into the AIGA Communication Graphics Show and work selected for the AIGA Book Show. Mark was was a strong advocate of a designer’s ability to work in any medium. His Mid-West work ethic, generosity and commitment to clients are principles I value to this day.

HL: After five years at Mark Anderson Design and a year at Landor prior to that, what led you to start your own firm with Fani Chung?

EG: When the time came to consider starting our own firm, I couldn’t think of a better person to partner with than Fani because of our shared design experiences. We both started at Landor Associates on the same day. After about a year and a half at Landor, we both worked in Palo Alto; I was at Mark Anderson Design and Fani was at Lawrence Bender & Associates. Consequently we both knew the technology sector well. In addition, Fani has an unrivaled design pedigree, graduating from Yale’s prestigious MFA program where she studied with design legends Paul Rand, Bradbury Thompson, Herbert Matter, Armin Hoffman and department chair Alvin Eisenman. I continue to learn so much from Fani; she’s a constant source of wisdom and inspiration.

HL: I think everyone would be interested in learning about the division of labor in a small studio with two partners. Do each of you specialize in one area, or do both of you get hands-on into the actual design and production?

EG: From a design standpoint, we both are committed to creating conceptual design solutions. Fani is very strong in typography and color, and I probably enjoy branding and three dimensions more, so we have very complimentary skills. But from her teaching experience at San Jose State University and in Hong Kong, she also has an uncanny ability to look at a design and instantly know what’s wrong with it and how it can be improved. And I think that ability comes from being a great teacher and designer.

HL: So it sounds like to form a successful partnership, number one, find a person that you’re compatible with. Number two is maybe have a skill set that complements yours. And have fun!

EG: Right. If you’re going to enjoy this profession, which can sometimes involve long hours and more than a 9-to-5 commitment, I can’t think of a better way to spend your time than to be with someone you like. And when you’re working together, you’re making an investment in each other.

HL: You have the best of both worlds; you get to spend time and work with your best friend. Can you talk about some of your early, formative experiences in the design business? And, secondly, do you have any advice for someone thinking about starting their own studio?

EG: Sure. Some of our formative, early experiences include—and I think this is quite common for anyone starting a business—working really, really hard. So it’s good to start young! But in the early days of our business there’d be nights where Fani and I would take turns sleeping at the office while preparing a design presentation. We were so committed to making our work the best it could possibly be; we didn’t feel we were done until we felt it was great. That commitment to the work and your clients is always good for a designer to have.

HL: Is there any additional advice you might have? Working hard and being dedicated is a start…

EG: Yes. Work with and learn from the best people you can, because every good designer basically commits to a lifetime of continuous learning. And once you stop learning—you stop being a good designer. So someone starting out should try to have the best developmental experiences they can possibly have.

HL: That reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory where to become great, you have to put in the time—and it doesn’t matter if you’re a musician, an artist or a chess player—you have to put in about 10,000 hours of practice, or about 40 hours per week over 5 years. And what you just said about continuous learning is that you have to put in that time to become good.

EG: I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s an excellent example of the commitment that great institutions like ArtCenter instill in their students to insure a seamless and successful transition from their school experience to professional career.

HL: What you said earlier about putting in the time at night and not being satisfied until the design attains the level of excellence you demand—I think I saw that first hand. While working with you on a rebranding project for National Semiconductor I would receive PDFs completed at 3:00 am. And I just knew you were putting in the time, perfecting it.

EG: That’s pretty funny! But I wanted to go back to something that is important for young designers to remember when starting their own firm: and that is to avoid taking clients from their previous employers. With this in mind, Fani and I made a conscious effort to let former classmates and work colleagues know we had started our own firm and could use some work, which led to our first projects for Apple and Sun. So it’s best to build upon your experience but remember to respect your former employers.

HL: That makes sense; don’t burn any bridges. Your first few clients were titans of Silicon Valley, Apple and Sun; great first clients to have. You focus on high technology, healthcare and venture capital. Did you actively target those sectors? Or did that happen organically because of the first clients that you developed?

EG: I believe it happened as a result of being in the Bay Area. The reason I enjoy working with technology companies—and I believe it’s similar for you—is that we have the opportunity to work with clients who are intelligent, thoughtful and dedicated to innovative solutions. These clients are not only committed to being the best in their category but are often inventing the category itself; invention is in their DNA. I appreciate the kind of technology that improves people’s lives, and I enjoy the intellectual challenge of making complex ideas understandable, meaningful and memorable. Within the technology arena we like the semiconductor sector—one you’re intimately familiar with. As the “silicon” in Silicon Valley, semiconductors enable devices to do what they do. We started with Applied Materials, the leading maker of chip equipment, and collaborating with you at National Semiconductor led to projects with other chip companies. This sector is both iconic and symbolic of the Bay Area.

HL: Those chips enable the Apples of the world to produce the products we interact with. Looking back over your career, what are some of your most memorable experiences or projects?

EG: In our early years, the Chronicle Books tradeshow exhibit really put our firm on the map. Our solution was groundbreaking, using a Constructivist aesthetic to create a “machine” for the display of books, positioning Chronicle as a company that “sees things differently.” Our most memorable projects include designing Oracle’s Information Highway Book, Symantec’s entire software packaging line and Applied Materials’ SEMICON West invitations and tradeshows for many years. Creating the brand for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and positively impacting this important government agency was very rewarding. Our most memorable experiences are thanks to the clients who were with us from the start of our business 25 years ago and still work with us today. During the 2000 dot-com boom we were so busy that we would interview a prospective designer and have them start working the same day; it was kind of crazy. But with every boom there’s a bust, so we’ve experienced those as well. We realized that you can enjoy the good times but remember to save up for the lean times.

HL: As a designer with your own firm, you’ve had to become not necessarily an expert but proficient in other areas such as business, finance, taxes and the additional responsibilities of being an employer. How have you managed the growth in these areas?

EG: These areas are certainly time-consuming, but without a clear understanding of them we would not be in business. If there’s one thing that is important for designers to do well, it is to learn how to write in a clear and concise manner. As your design career progresses you’ll be writing client proposals, campaign strategies and project presentations. So the ability to write well is paramount.

HL: That’s good advice for those who only want to design. In a strategic design program, writing is essential to articulating that strategy and can influence the direction of a client presentation.

EG: Absolutely. I think you asked at some point about our design process. As we did with your project, we first begin by carefully researching all that has been done in the category. You cannot create a solution that has never been done before if you do not first know what already exists. So I can’t underestimate the significance of research to inform your design decisions.

HL: And that’s a lot easier to do now, with the Internet and search engine technology, rather than only with books and magazines 15 or 20 years ago.

EG: That’s an excellent point; there’s no excuse for ignorance. It really is your responsibility to know what has been done and where there are opportunities for innovation. We are committed to creating iconic solutions that have a universal appeal. If we are designing a logo for a semiconductor company, our goal is to design the best logo for a semiconductor company that has ever been done. While this is a high bar to set, it’s something we strive for, because we want to create a solution that will define the category, be the best of its kind, and stand the test of time.

HL: That’s interesting because when we hired you to design the National Semiconductor PowerWise brand, that was the goal we set for the brand: to become the industry standard, not only the company standard. So when you said “define the category,” we certainly found the right person.

EG: Thank you; you’re too kind!

HL: Let’s circle back to ArtCenter. You’ve designed brands for a number of initiatives for your alma mater. Can you talk about these?

EG: Yes. It’s been a great privilege to be able to contribute my design talents to my alma mater. For my first project, the ArtCenter Alumni Council logo, I was able to take the school’s iconic orange dot and create a meaningful form which conveyed community, support and unity. Most importantly, the logo provided ArtCenter alums with a sense of connection to the school. We’ve also created the brands for DOT Launch, the school’s creative entrepreneurship initiative and for The Design Accelerator, a partnership between ArtCenter and Caltech to promote design-driven startups.

HL: What type of impact did these initiatives have for the school?

EG: ArtCenter DOT Launch has fulfilled an important student need for entrepreneurial training, and The Design Accelerator has launched several successful design-driven startups. Both initiatives have benefitted students and alumni, assisted in recruiting efforts and helped to position ArtCenter at the forefront of educational efforts to integrate design and entrepreneurship.

HL: It must be satisfying, doing work for your alma mater and having this kind of positive impact upon students and your school.

EG: It is. I couldn’t be more pleased to be of service to the school that has done so much to enable my design career and enrich my life.

HL: Let’s talk about the AIGA side. How do you get involved with the AIGA San Francisco chapter?

EG: My colleagues at Landor encouraged me to join AIGA SF in 1984, just when the chapter was forming. In 1990 I served on the Events Committee, chaired by Lucille Tenazas, along with Brian Collentine, Rob Hugel, Piper Murakami and Diane Carr; all very accomplished and resourceful designers. It was a great introduction to the chapter, as I learned how much planning and coordination goes into creating a successful event. My most rewarding experience was the privilege of serving on the board as membership chair from 2010-2012, alongside your partner Kristen Bouvier and the amazing board Alice Bybee assembled as president.

HL: During your term as membership chair you helped to increase membership from 1200 to 1800 members.

EG: Yes. This membership growth might be what I am most proud of, as it allowed me to connect more people with all that AIGA SF has to offer, and enabled our chapter to become the second largest in the nation. Thanks to the guidance and support of my fellow AIGA SF board members, we worked as a team to make this happen, instituting several best practices for membership growth such as recruiting a membership team, holding membership training workshops and a maintaining a consistent membership presence at events. I was also proud to help install Silicon Valley chairs on our board. We saw that chapters with large geographic areas like ours can leave many members underserved. Silicon Valley, who the whole world follows, was far too important to be underserved due to geographic distance. Our Silicon Valley chairs create events for and about the region while providing greater value for our Peninsula members.

HL: And I think being more inclusive is an excellent strategy. So why is AIGA SF important?

EG: AIGA SF remains the single source for design inspiration, professional development, and creative community. AIGA has no equal; it is the one organization which connects our community, and its longevity—100 years and counting—speaks for itself.

HL: I first met you at the AIGA San Francisco Portfolio Day, and you provided me with valuable advice and guidance. What advice do you have for young designers?

EG: First off, stay curious and committed to a lifetime of learning; if you’re not learning, you’re not growing. Learn to write in a clear, concise and compelling manner; throughout your career you’ll be making a case for your concepts and thinking. Focus on creating client value, not visuals; once you start thinking about how your design decisions can improve your client’s business it changes your whole approach. Use a unique point of view—your client’s; if you’ve created a unique positioning for your client, your design solution will be unique as well. And most importantly, treat every design assignment as an opportunity to do your best work.

HL: Excellent advice. And finally, what are your thoughts on the current state and future direction of the design profession?

EG: The importance of design has never been more apparent. As disruptive new products are created online, often the product itself is design—the look and feel, user experience and positive outcome—everything designers are uniquely qualified to create. Design thinking is essential to the creation of the most efficient, economical and enjoyable way for users to engage with a company, product or service. As design is part of everything around us, people are understanding that design not only matters but makes a difference. In its broadest sense, virtually all problems can be considered design problems. This is why designers have so much to offer the world, and I’m optimistic about the difference we can make through design.


HoMan Lee is a partner at Morphos, a San Francisco creative consultancy that focuses on transforming brands by utilizing design to create a difference. With over 20 years of combined agency-side and client-side experience, HoMan is known for his ability to bridge the gap between business strategy and creative implementation. Prior to Morphos, HoMan served as the creative director of worldwide marketing at National Semiconductor.