Heiman Interviews Vanderbyl: Fellow Series
I was lucky to spend an afternoon with Michael Vanderbyl up at his wine country home late last year chatting about all things design. We talked for over two hours and after gallant attempts to edit this interview down, I ultimately felt that Michael’s stature and accomplishments in the design world warranted inclusion of our entire conversation and the multitude of rich insights he shared with me. I hope you agree. —Eric Heiman, Spring 2015

Eric Heiman: You were born and raised in the Bay Area. A local!

Michael Vanderbyl: Yup. Born in Oakland and raised in Castro Valley. Dad ran a meat market almost his whole life. I worked in the meat market for one day when I was 9. I came home crying and said, “I don’t wanna do this!” [laugh] They were not doting parents at all. My dad was a very tough Dutchman and he said, “Okay, you don’t have to.” But I had to mow all the lawns and work around the house. Luckily, I have an older brother and he joined the family business.

EH: So your dad instilled that tough European work ethic in you? Or was it something that you always had?

MV: The work ethic is definitely my dad. He worked six days a week his whole life. Only had Sunday’s off. The story I love is that one summer day, it’s hot and he came home said to my mother, “Jean, the boys need a swimming pool.” He went to the refrigerator, grabbed a 6-pack of beer, went to the shed, got a shovel, nailed four sticks and just started digging a hole. He hand-dug a swimming pool over the whole summer. That was his stubborn, Dutch bullheadedness. He just did these kinds of things on his own.

EH: Not unlike you designing your own chair because you can’t find one you like. You’re not going to wait for an industrial designer, or a furniture designer to do it for you. You’re going to do it yourself.

MV: Exactly. My dad had a lot more in common with my brother because my brother followed in his footsteps in business. My dad never really understood what I did, but he was tolerant of it, which had a lot to do with my mother. But his work ethic—to this day, I don’t think I ever really worked as hard as he did. You can say I work hard, but you have no idea what hard work is. My dad did the hard work.

He was my role model, this tough Dutchman who carved out his own business with his own money, his own time and energy. It supported my brother and I through adulthood. I'm the only one in the family to go to college. When I finished there was this big debate in our family around whether he could actually close the shop long enough to come to graduation.

EH: [Laugh] Really?

MV: I go, “Are you kidding me?” The only kid in the entire family—including cousins and all—to graduate from college! So finally he decided he could come, and closed the market for a couple of hours to attend. So he cared…

EH: When did you actually discover design? High school or college?

MV: CCAC’s design school was so small at that time. I was taking a lot of fine arts courses, where now you maybe take a semester or two of general arts and then, bang, you’re into it. Design was a new thing when I was a student. We were coming out of the “Mad Men” era when I was starting high school. Design was just starting to come into its own, and as soon as I discovered it I thought, “Wow, this is cool.”

I’ve probably told you the story of my high school counselor who told me I wasn’t smart enough to be an architect. True story. It’s all Mrs. Jonas’ fault [laugh]. For years, I would start my lectures with a portrait of her from the yearbook. Poor woman. She’s probably been dead for decades. So I go to CCAC to be a commercial artist or whatever it was. I went into the library and found Kamakura’s Trademarks of the World book, Armin Hoffman’s book and the sky just lit up. It just blew me away.

This was ’64 or ’65 so the whole Swiss thing wasn’t well known yet. I was thinking, “People do this? It’s so clean, it’s so precise, it’s so black and white.” Wolfgang Lederer, my professor, came more from a book arts place in his instruction. My education was basically half from the CCAC library and half from him. That’s why I got a little messed up. I could do the Swiss thing really easily and Lederer kept pushing me to do stuff that was more delicate. He helped me soften that hard Swiss edge.

EH: How big was CCAC then?

MV: My class was about 80 people total, 20 in design. Imogen Cunningham was the honorary doctorate that year. I was the valedictorian.

EH: No kidding. Why am I not surprised you were the valedictorian?

MV: My commencement speech was about communication, why we’re supposed to understand the people who communicate with the world, but we [the artist and designers] don’t communicate with each other. It’s art versus design and one is better than the other. Why can't we talk amongst ourselves as we’re all trying to communicate to a broader audience? That didn’t go over really well.

EH: So you had this art vs. design perspective from the very beginning. That’s really interesting.

MV: Because anybody who goes to a fine arts school feels that rift immediately. That one is lesser than the other. I would sit in my history class, and think, “Michelangelo had a client.  He had a patron. He didn’t make everything up from scratch.” The popes and cardinals said, “this needs to be the stations of the cross” and so on. That sounded more like design than fine art to me. So why did the artists get to claim all of that as theirs? Michelangelo was an architect, too! And the artists would begrudge that as well. That architecture is not art. How can you say that? Because the architects build the building to put your art in?

EH: There are so many debates around this. One way I look at is that something might be “art” to you but not to me. Maybe you can call what you do “art” if you’re a so-called artist, but if this piece of design gives me an “art experience,” then it’s as valid as having an “art experience” at a highbrow gallery show.

MV: I think only time and history can prove whether something is art or not. No single person can truly make that assessment. I used to sit up at CCAC graduations as dean and be pissed off because there were the “artists” and then everybody else were the architects, designers, industrial designers. But they’re all the “arts.” I felt like the artists should actually be called painters or sculptors, what they actually make. Culture and time will prove whether what they produce is “art” or not.

EH: I love this comment you made in an old magazine article I found: “You can call designers from California and our work fun, but it’s not laid back.” You seemed really angry about that perception.

MV: Because “Laid back” does not describe the work. It was rigorous. Look at Michael Manwaring’s work. It was all very serious. It was all very serious when I did work for Esprit. It was about defining Doug Tompkins’ attitude towards fashion, not the east coast’s idea of what it was. It was all very intentional. Yes, it was an expression of joy and exuberance. But it wasn’t because we were “laid back” and weren’t taking things seriously.

There’s a difference here in California. Esprit didn’t know how to be in the fashion business because they didn’t go to lunch every day with New York guys in the rag trade. It’s the Wild West out here. Entrepreneurship and liberalism is very much part of the Bay Area and the different ways we look at things.

EH: You’ve talked about the influence of both hardcore modernists like Armin Hofmann and then the more illustrative whimsy of Milton Glaser and the Push Pin group.

MV: Yeah, it’s the mixture of the figurative and the abstract. I like both! With Push Pin it was also the humor. You don’t see necessarily see outright humor in my work, but there’s levity occasionally. The work is still done in a very serious way. That’s basically my personality, right?

EH: Haha. Right.

MV: I always tell my students, “Don’t work on having a style because you can't help it anyway. You’re going to have one, so work not to have one.” That way they’ll have a broader perspective and a broader palette to work with when they’re solving problems. That’s what happened to me with all the influences that were around at the time. I ended up making my own style and approach.

EH: I also found a Communication Arts feature on you from 1979. The work still had a very modernist feel, but also seemed on the cusp of the shift towards what you and the other Michaels are now known for. What provoked that shift in the 1980s? Was it just an organic thing? Was it because you, Michael Manwaring and Michael Cronan were working so close to each other?

MV: Well, Swiss design was so strong and still fresh. Not a lot of people were doing it. I did a piece for Bank of America’s Trust Division or something, and it was just like those Josef Albers prints— all abstract graphics. My big profound design move there was I actually set an entire 24-page brochure for a bank in Helvetica Bold. All the body copy! But then I printed it in gray. It was a lot easier to read. For the Swiss designer in me at the time, that was a big breakthrough!

Then I got this commission from the California Public Radio and that was the next breakthrough. I'm thinking, “Okay, I can be abstract and literal at the same time.” Up to this day, I’m still amazed they actually went for that. The colors, the adding of ad lib stuff that had nothing to do with the main piece—it all started to sort of gel for me after that poster and I became much more expressive. It was still Swiss in that there was an orderly quality, but now there was more to look at.

EH: That was it. Wow.

MV: Everything started to move in that direction. Logos were all abstract geometric shapes then. I thought, “No, this makes it too easy for somebody to go to that same place.” So I made them all geometric and figurative, so no one could say, “Oh, that looks like Chase Manhattan Bank.”

EH: And this time, I'm also assuming that you were aware of what Wolfgang Weingart was doing and…

MV: And April [Greiman], Jamie Odgers, yeah. April and I had met because we had spoken on panels together and Tom Ingalls, who had worked with April and moved up to San Francisco, connected us further. We were all just doing the work, the clients seemed to like it and so we kept doing it. People also forget that the work celebrated from that period is only a small fraction of the work we actually did. The other two-thirds didn’t look like that. You only had a few clients for which that work was applicable.

EH: That’s what was most interesting about finding all those articles that show the full breath of your work at the time. You see the famous piece with everything else and it’s “oh wow, there’s the breakthrough.” That context is everything.

MV: Yes.

EH: So you were also part of the group that founded the AIGA San Francisco chapter.

MV: Mm-hmm.

EH: You and your peers are also credited with putting San Francisco on the graphic design map. What was the context before you helped Bay Area design go widescreen?

MV: When I got out of college, the big designer was Nicolas Sidjakov. I don’t know if anybody still knows who he is, but what amazing work! This guy could draw like an angel. He did the most beautiful posters for the ballet. Then there was another designer who was a bit hard-edged, Tom Kamifuji. And Jerry Berman. Tom Kamifuji and Nicolas were friends, but Jerry Berman and others like Bob Pease, Margaret Larsen, John Casado and Barbara Stauffacher never really talked to each other. There wasn’t really a community, more a disjointed scene with really interesting stuff going on that we were all fans of. We loved all their work, and even if their work was different, it made us proud to be on our own and making it in the same city that they did so well in. We just started creating a tighter community and CCAC had a lot to do with it.

EH: It all goes back to CCA. Nice.

MV: I was asked to come back and teach in ’73 or ’74. I had just started my business and then Wolfgang asked me. I loved it right away. But I remember him pulling me inside and saying, “You know, Michael, you really need to lighten up on the students. You’re getting a little tough.” I said, “This is coming from you, Wolfgang? You used to lock the door at 8 o’clock so nobody could get in if they were late!” [laugh]  

There was this gradual sense of gravity talking to each other. One-quarter of those lunches with Cronan and Manwaring were about business and usually it was some really terrible thing that was happening to one of us. The other quarter was how we were excited about this one project we were working on. And then the other half was giving each other shit, just cracking up and laughing. It just got to be this habit. We all “sensed” when it was lunchtime. Or if one of us were having a really bad day, that person would call early and make sure we all went. It was easy because our offices were so close to each other.

Later we did this vanity book where we invited all of these local Bay Area designers to participate. We had meetings and eventually said, “Okay, the grid is this. You pay this much money. That’s your portion of the book.” We had a print broker in Japan. Basically it was to promote San Francisco design, but I doubt if it ever really got us any new work [laugh].

EH: But it probably helped legitimize the scene, right?

MV: Sure. Dennis [Crowe] was just talking about how he used that book as his guide to Bay Area design. We did the book, and then a few years later I got onto the national board of the AIGA. Woody Pirtle [in Dallas] and I were the only out-of-towners. Dallas and California were on fire at this point. It was like California, Texas and then Minnesota came online all of a sudden. New York finally notices there’s design in other places! We were winning a lot of the AIGA awards and they invited Woody and I to be on the board.

I remember a board meeting at the Champion Paper Headquarters in Connecticut and the most amazing thing for me was that I found out that Paula Scher was engaged to Seymour Chwast. For the second time! [laugh] They asked Woody and I, “What do you guys think about having chapters?” and we said, “We think it’s an excellent idea but be careful what you wish for. This will not be the same organization which is now basically a New York Club…”

EH: Right.

MV: So I went back and talked to all the San Francisco design folks and said, “You know, if we get 18 or 17 people to sign up who are already members, we can be a chapter.” They say someplace in Ohio was the first chapter, but we were actually the first real chapter under the official AIGA guidelines. It was really one of those things that if you missed a board meeting, you’d be elected president.

EH: Ouch.

MV: Yeah. And [laugh] I don’t think things have changed much, right? Everybody was very active because nobody wanted to have to be president, and we basically built the chapter from that.

EH: And between that and CCA is what helped galvanize San Francisco design.

MV: It was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy at a certain point because there was absolutely no plan whatsoever. The thing I always tell people with all the Michaels hoopla is we had nothing to do with it. Our parents all named us Michael. We didn’t all get together and name ourselves.

EH: But it made for a good story. Poor Jerry Reis!

MV: Yeah, yeah [laugh]. Well, he was there. And we were never enamored with it at all. We were all just doing our work. We all liked each other. We just all happened to have the same name. God bless our parents for thinking that out [laugh].

There were also a series of shows that really put West Coast design on the map. There was an AIGA “California Design” show we did with the LA chapter that had this great poster where LA designed one half and SF designed the other. It was picked up by AIGA National in 1986, maybe? This was one of the special shows that they did. Then the Fortuny Museum in Venice did a “Pacific Wave” exhibition in 1987. The Italians were so enamored with the whole California thing. It’s interesting, none of us promoted it. Somebody asked for some work and you just sent it. I think if we had intentionally tried to promote it, it never would have worked [laugh].

None of us were that good at PR. I remember talking about it with Manwaring and Cronan, and somebody said, “Let’s talk about getting a good PR person.” I said, “No. If somebody calls and asks for something, we’ll just bury them the next day with as much work as we can.”

EH: Like Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.” The interesting subtext here is that when younger designers see these mythical figures like yourself from afar, they assume you were this lone wolf that worked alone, slaving away in your studio. But it sounds like the community aspect was hugely important to the success all of you had.

MV: It was, is such a great community. We were no different than Robert Mondavi and the wine industry—if I couldn’t do a job for somebody, I would pass it on to somebody else in the community. You wanted the work to stay in the community.

EH: Well, you’ve argued designers here were a little bit more congenial, a little less competitive than maybe in New York.

MV: Yes, very much so. Michael Bierut can tell you the story. He was doing a project in San Francisco and came out to visit. I’d known Massimo [Vignelli] for years and through visiting him I became good friends with Michael. We were closer in age than I was with Massimo. I said, “Well, come to lunch,” and he still tells us how he couldn’t believe it. We were all together talking about work, talking about projects, talking about clients and he says, “That would never happen in New York,” and we were saying, “Really? I mean why would you not?” He said, “Well, we wouldn’t go out to lunch together because we would be too competitive.”

EH: Interesting.

MV: You guys are like us in that way. I mean, you, Jeremy [Mende], Cinthia [Wen] for instance. When things are like hell, it’s good to go to lunch with somebody that knows the pain you’re feeling or the joy you’re feeling, right?

EH: Oh yeah. We don’t do it enough.

MV: You had a good day with a client, or a bad day with a client. Cronan always had a better story of how things went bad [laugh].

EH: No, it’s a huge part of why I’m here. I think a big reason I moved out here from the east was that it felt more communal here. Yes, there was this renegade spirit to California, but also this camaraderie—we all came out here to reinvent ourselves and we want to do it together.

MV: I think the one thing that I have enjoyed most about this community is that there is nothing wrong with liking somebody else’s stuff. That it’s not like, “Oh, I'm better than they are.” You’re pushed to be better. You want do something now to get that same kind of energy and recognition.

EH: Yes, I think Jeremy, Cinthia and I work much like that. I don’t think we’re directly competitive because we all do things very differently, but—I can speak for myself at least—we motivate the other to take the harder route, push this a little harder, rethink things completely.

MV: Right, exactly. I would always tell my students “Every time you design, it should feel like new shoes, slightly uncomfortable. It should feel really bad or really good.”

EH: It’s nice to hear that you still have that same fear. “Is this is good or just kind of stupid?” is a question I ask myself a lot.

MV: I had dinner with a client about 10 years ago and on our second bottle of wine he asks, “What’s your exit strategy?” and I go, “Exit strategy?” “Yeah, aren’t you going to retire, quit?” “No, I'm not.” I'm going to flop over at that desk and they’ll just drag me out. I look at people like Picasso and Frank Gehry. Who says you can't just keep doing this?

EH: Speaking of Picasso and Gehry, with architects and artists we’re used to seeing these long careers. But with graphic design, I’m barely into my forties now and I already feel like I'm an old-timer. You’ve really managed to sustain this career and remain relevant. There aren’t too many people that I know personally that have managed to do it, not to mention the work is still out there front and center when we think about design.

MV: I think the advantage I have is that I don’t just do “graphic design.” That alone makes my career more interesting because I'm not facing the same thing every day. The medium is always different and I think that makes me more elastic in the way I’m thinking about stuff.

EH: And probably keeps it more interesting.

MV: Yeah. It makes it a lot more interesting. Especially when you get to do “the trifecta”: design what’s sold, design the brochure, catalog or brand, and then design the space everything lives in.

I also like my clients. I’ve always tried to be friends with them. Business friends, though—and we don’t play golf together or anything. I’d be a terrible golfer! [laugh] I’d be mad all the time! But we share ideas and I’ve always been interested in their business, beyond what my typical part is as a designer. Some call me a “strategist.” I just say, “Oh, I think I'm just more like my dad.” How he ran a business, applied certain principles, what he thought about as a business owner. I also connect it back to when I worked with Dean Smith. He would wear a Brooks Brothers suit, a blue oxford cloth shirt and a knit tie. He would go into a meeting and he would know the client’s stock price that day. They always respected him more as a designer because of that. I’ve always found that you can do a slightly weirder stuff if you don’t scare the client.

They begin to trust in you, you solve their problem and that allows you to do more for them. That keeps me more interested. A lot of designers and design programs see clients as the “enemy,” that it should be this adversarial relationship.

EH: Yes, I felt that a little bit in design school.

MV: Yeah, they’re difficult at times but that’s part of the process of design. It’s how you convince somebody that who really doesn’t want to do what you want them to do to have the guts to execute your ideas.

The other thing I learned early on that helps sustain my business is that I always work with the highest person in the company. I know a lot of younger designers that end up working for the marketing director and such. They sit in meetings with 20 people and they’re trying to get their designs through—

EH: Yes, I’ve been there. It can be really tough.

MV: That’s why I’ve always worked with clients no one knows about, at least at first. Companies that are small, but have nothing but potential. That’s my business. Making them into a name. That’s been the plan since the beginning, I think.

EH: That’s an interesting distinction because I think that most designers are thinking, “I want to work for big companies like Nike because that’s where I can be really creative.” But every company needs good design. Hypothetically, at least.

MV: When I worked for Esprit, Joe D’Urso had just done the LA work for them, and I was thinking, “How am I going to be better than that?” But when I worked for HBF, they didn’t have anything before I got to them. The bar wasn’t high. There was no bar, period.

EH: We’ve had discussions before about business acumen. Do you feel like this ability came naturally or was it something you had to work on?

MV: I could be wrong, but I think you have to be born with it.

EH: Oh well.

MV: I think it’s a natural thing [laugh].

EH: It certainly seems that way. Both the ease you have with it, and conversely the unease I have.

MV: And it’s not a gift of bullshit.

EH: No?

MV: My staff to this day is amazed with how I can read a room. Nobody has ever talked to these people before and I’ve already got it mapped out. I can take the nuance of an inflection in a single word, just the way a person speaks. I think that’s something that you get better at, but you also need that inborn intuition. I also think what happens is too many designers don’t listen.

EH: [Laugh] Guilty as charged.

MV: They just want to drive their idea through. And there are so many times when you can get your idea driven through easily, by just listening to what your client is saying. Letting them think through what you’ve shown them and then wedging your perspective into what they are saying.

EH: It sounds so easy.

MV: Yeah, it does sound so easy [laugh]. But it is! Once you’re tuned into doing it, everything gets easier. That is, it’s easier if you’re dealing with a person who makes the decisions. I found out very early in my career that when I was dealing with the executive vice-president or marketing manager, it was three layers away from the real decision maker. This person was making decisions based on their job security and not on whether it was right or wrong in the context of the problem at hand. The minute I was able get in front of somebody who could actually make a decision, the work got through.

I totally understand why designers get frustrated when they have to navigate all these layers. You can sit in these meetings all day and often the weakest voice in that meeting is the designer. All these people with their “marketing strategies” are the often the ones who have all the power. I’ve built my entire business so I don’t have to go to these meetings.

EH: Right. You said something to me once along the lines of “strategy is for middle management, design is for CEOs.”

MV: Do you think [Thomas J.] Watson [of IBM] sat through a Post-it note strategy session with Paul Rand? Rand just said “Get George Nelson and design some products.” But the world has shifted a bit now.

While judging the Print magazine competition recently, I said to myself, “God, we’re back. We’re back to where all the amazing work is being done for little clients again.” Incredible stuff. Cream of the crop. With heart and soul and beauty and intelligence. The one thing missing was a client of any substantial size. In some ways that’s really depressing, but in some ways maybe that’s where design needs to go so it can come back. It’s almost like strategy is killing the big companies from doing anything good.

We’re also in some artisanal weird thing that I think is lovely, but, man, one more whiskey bottle with incredibly beautiful type... [laugh]

EH: But it seems that the strategic part of the process is actually becoming the more valuable component than the actual application itself, which is frustrating for people like us who have predicated our practice on the actual application, regardless of whether it’s a system, artifact or whatever. You still have to road test the strategy before you can be sure it works. That application still matters a lot.

MV: And a lot of the strategy is a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. You could insert any company name on top and it would work. You can have the best strategy but if it’s not executed really well, it doesn’t matter. It goes the opposite way too. If you have something really well-executed but the thought behind it doesn’t work…

EH: Exactly.

MV: … there just has to be this marriage. It’s a great time for design and that’s often been a bad thing lately. Everybody’s doing it now and too many people are not doing it well. Where before, there used to be these towering icons you could look up to. Now, it’s these companies like Interbrand, and what have they really done that’s been a success? Is there anything that just knocks people out? I can't like the AT&T thing, the terrible logo they did. And they didn’t make AT&T a better company. They didn’t make UPS a better company. Those companies were stronger in design before these big companies got a hold of them.

EH: I have this theory—especially in the tech-saturated Bay Area—that in this quest to make sure that everything works well, user experience, and so on, we’ve left behind that aspirational art quality and getting to the essential truth of something in design. It’s getting a bit lost in this swing of design back towards a rational, science-based approach. How are you able to still transcend this trend with the people that you work for? How has working in this new context affected you?

MV: Well, I guess I’m just fortunate or lucky. I also don’t have a lot of tech clients. I just don’t get them. But that whole thing about truth is something I really believe in. I know that sounds highfalutin.

EH: That’s OK!

MV: “Truth” to me is finding out what the company does that no one else does. Or if they’re doing the same thing other companies are, what’s the one part of what they’re doing that is a little bit different. Something they can defend and own. The problem with most technology companies right now is so little of them understand that they won't exist in five, ten, fifteen years. And if they do exist, they probably won't be anything like what they are right now. By the way if you go to Chicago, they aren’t having this conversation. This is a Bay Area phenomenon.

We live in this weird place and you would think that these companies would take advantage of the amazing design community here. But they’re not making anything that the world needs, unless it’s truly a disruptive idea like Uber, where you take something ordinary but retool it in a way that it becomes something completely new. Not that the world needs another chair, but…

EH: [laugh] Right.

MV: And that is what’s sustainable—helping clients by figuring out what that unique thing is. It’s hard sometimes because they’ve been raised in a culture that is all collaboration and I'm about the worst person at collaborating [laugh]. I'm all for collaboration as long as they do what I say, right? It’s like what Doug Tompkins used to say, “I totally believe in focus groups as long as they agree with what I'm doing. If they don’t, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Just look at Steve Jobs. He just did it, you know. He didn’t necessarily know what the exact answer was, but he knew the question. He always knew what he wanted that unrealized thing to do. Then he’d leave it to the designer to figure it out. The problem now is too many companies don’t think that way. They don’t trust the designer, and they’re only going to create things that they’ve always seen before or that are derivations of other things.

My heart aches for San Francisco because we’re exactly in the same place [as the first dotcom boom]. We’re in this bubble. One of my employees has a friend whose boss said to him, “Oh, it’s never going to end.” It will end, and it’s not going to be pretty. Because too many of these people didn’t think about what would be sustainable.

EH: Yeah, I remember doing freelance work during the first dot-com boom and thinking to myself, “I'm not really a business person at all, but I know this company isn’t going to succeed.”

MV: This is not working, right.

EH: I came of age as a designer in that time when the practice was really questioning itself. It was about authorship and even the notion of a client was often left out of the equation. Part of this was very self-serving, but it did make me question how and for whom I would design. So I struggle with this charge from clients to present this very super aspirational—if not completely unrealistic—view of who they are. I see it especially in the branding sphere. Adam and I try to tell clients that design isn’t going to solve all your problems. You also need to address problems that we can't help you with. What we do won’t matter if you’re not going to walk the walk in the first place.

AT&T is a good example. That logo, their branding is not great. But I keep thinking to myself even if we had an undeniably Saul Bass-classic mark in there instead, it really doesn’t matter if AT&T’s customer service isn’t going to get better.

MV: I’ve done that with clients before. I called customer service. I tried to order something and it was a horrible experience. So I said to the client, “Well, here’s one of your problems. You need to fire people in customer service today.” The logo isn’t going to solve these problems. It’s a lot more than that. I work with clients to try and figure that stuff out, too. It’s not hard. I just told them, ”You have to treat people nice. You have to care about them. And if you can’t care or act like you care, you have to tell them. Not lie. Just say you can't. Simply being honest with people in the beginning will get you further.”

I will accept honesty before I’ll accept somebody promising me something and then not delivering:

“We’re not going to make it, but I’ll have it here in two weeks. I know I said a week but I will guarantee it will be here. I'm sorry for it and I apologize.”

EH: I'm glad you’re talking about this, because I think that when I see work by towering figures in design like yourself that win awards, it’s easy to look at them in a strictly artistic way. That’s how we evaluate design, really. But a lot of your success has been predicated on this ability to navigate the business part of the work, which is rarely mentioned in these kinds of forums.

MV: I know it sounds very simple, but I want to make my clients money. Because when I make the money, then they hire me again. And I don’t have to do something that is less cool. I just have to make sure that it solves the problem. I’m not doing it just for me.

You talk about the era you were raised in. A lot of projects are totally about the designer, not about solving any problems. And I love some of that work. But for me, it was always about if could I solve the client’s problem. That they got a phone call from someone who said, “Yeah, I really love that piece you put on the website. It’s awesome. Who did that?” That’s what I want, because then they’ll hire me back. I did a design that I thought was cool, that they thought was cool, and that some random person thought was cool.

That’s a really good line to use because sometimes clients don’t understand the actual work. Somehow, they think it’s all about them. It’s not about them. If you talk about how you understand to whom they’re selling and against, then it moves the discussion away from what that design looks like. It’s not that they won’t reject it, but it gives them a different perspective. I’ve always positioned my work there.

For instance, you tell them “You’re going to do business ‘weird.’ Every architect and designer, because there’s no furniture in the showroom, is going to think, ‘Holy s--t. This is a cool company.’ You’re so confident that you don’t even need to show your product.”  That makes no business sense to them. I say, “It doesn’t matter. Just do it.” They’ll get the recognition, and that builds trust. The next time they trust you a little bit more and you build these long-term relationships. Because you’ve done things that were maybe pushing edges, but not just for pushing edges’ sake. It’s about trying to make them stand out.

EH: Right. It’s what the design actually does for the client.

MV: Sometimes at CCA, the super personal projects would drive me crazy. I guess I was thinking of architecture. The things that are pushing architecture forward are the buildings that get built. Not that the building is a “poem.” I think these personal projects are often really good and I often love them, but I want that experimentation to show up in the next thing they do for someone else, you know?

EH: Right. When I teach the Postmodernism unit in Jeremy’s design history class and I cover the northern California part, I say, “We can't just look at these things as visual artifacts.” I emphasize that the importance of the northern California design was also that it brought all this cool fringe design into the mainstream, into business, into places that normally you wouldn’t see it.

MV: Exactly.

EH: You’ve talked about how much of fine art has gotten very aloof and design has this opportunity to fill this void, to be a relevant public art form all its own. I love this quote of yours: “Because we’re involved with the communication aspects of design, we’re constantly confronting the cultural common denominator.” I think it’s part of the reason I got out of architecture—that it didn’t feed enough into everyday life or the things I was really interested in enough. It was just “Architecture” with a capital A. And fine art was limited to the white cube gallery.

You’ve said this for 20, 30 years. How do you feel about where design lives now? Has your opinion changed at all? Do you still feel that there’s potential that’s still been unfulfilled?

MV: There’s a quote from someone that says, “Art becomes art once it proves itself to society or culture.” I’ve said design is about solving problems, and that always sounds so mundane. It can be the most complicated or the simplest problem and that art element is always there, but it’s there to support some idea that’s trying to be conveyed. Fine Art to me is—I mean people are just doing weird, cool stuff that’s inspiring, right?

EH: Sure.

MV: Maybe I'm not just seeing the best of it. It just seems so self-conscious and so…

EH: Insular?

MV: Yes, almost as if it doesn’t want to be accessible. Maybe that’s my ignorance of what’s really going on in art right now. To me, the most exciting work right now is in architecture.

EH: Recently, at bookstore in LA, I found a copy of the Graphic Design in America catalog from the seminal exhibit of the same name in the late ‘80s. I later compared it to the Graphic Design: Now in Production show and catalog, which is probably one of the seminal exhibitions and texts for graphic design today. The biggest difference I saw between the two shows was how much less of the work in the recent exhibit was in the “public sphere,” so to speak. It seemed a lot more hermetic. Less embedded in everyday culture. Much akin to what you’re saying about fine art.

MV: Exactly.

EH: You’re an educator and you’re a practitioner. You’ve talked about how design really needs a better criticism to legitimize it. I'm wondering what thoughts you have around that statement and where we are today in this respect.

MV: I think we’re further than we’ve ever been. There’s really compelling writing now. We went from the poison pen to some really thoughtful discourse. What I find hard about graphic design is the writing seems to come out of—well, it doesn’t come out of practice-based inquiry like yours. I don’t disrespect it, but I don’t give it as much credence, I guess.

Because graphic design is something that if you’re standing outside the practice, it’s very easy to be critical of it or make generalizations. It’s like architecture. If you never had to build a building, deal with the dry pilings and work in the code system, you just don’t truly know what it’s about. Theory in practice—the way you prove your theory is through whether it works or not.

EH: Right.

MV: You have a lot of people that are writing about design that aren’t designers and I think that’s okay, but we need a broader range of people to talk about it from the inside, too. Like Michael Bierut, for example. His observations really ring true. A pure design theorist is a good counter to that, but we need more of what Michael and you are doing. People who understand the cultural responsibility of what design is and what it takes to do it well.

Design still has a functionality component to it that makes it not fine art in its intention. The moment of conception had nothing to do with the self-consciousness of that being art. But there’s a lot of design that wants to be like fine art now, no real purpose. I had a hard time with students who were seduced by that kind of work.

EH: I was seduced by it as a student. I still am to a certain degree.

MV: It puts off the inevitability of doing great work because you have this “personal work” that you pour your creative juices into, and then you become more of a ditch digger in solving actual client problems. Why not push like crazy to have part of your soul in that client piece? You have that fire to care about solving a client’s problem, but you also want to make something artistic and beautiful.

EH: Well, it’s hard to do that! Especially since we’re in an age that has swung more towards design as problem-solving, less towards the art side of what we do.

MV: [Laugh] Right, right. We’re like the Swiss again! I was very influenced by them! But the whole form follows function, there should be no designer “identity”…no, those guys went a little too far. People need to know that I had a hand in this. It’s not that it has to be my “style,” but it shouldn’t be anonymous design either. And that’s the danger in a lot of design work these days.

It’s a danger for students because then they get really disillusioned when they get out. They don’t understand how to push a client to see that this needs to be more than just “solving their problem.” That they’re going to take up a lot of real estate in the cultural space and this needs to be something rich, special. Anyone who comes in contact with it needs to be challenged.

We do that even more when we design spaces. Stopping people for just a moment. That’s hard. I'm overreacting, I'm sure, but you have this whole school of thought that is putting on exhibitions of just experimental work, no client work.

EH: Design for design’s sake.

MV: And design doesn’t really live in a gallery in the first place. Well, it does with historical work that over time proved to be not only functional but also culturally relevant and beautiful. It’s a historical record.

EH: I was conflicted in school because that “design as author” trend was big. David Carson, Cranbrook, I loved it. I loved that middle ground it occupied between art and design. And when I started working, suddenly it was “oh man, this is a little more constricting than I thought.” I got a little disillusioned for a while, but then rediscovered design as this public vehicle that had power to really activate people outside these more hermetic contexts. That interaction with people and getting them to really use and engage with something I made is almost as important as the artifact itself. Now, I push students to make work that’s in the public sphere and really tries to activate people on the street.

MV: Your [Boy Scouts] treehouse is that exact kind of project. It’s not only cool to look at, it’s not only an interesting space, but its purpose is to challenge your audience. That’s the entire package! It hits on all cylinders and it doesn’t live in this rarified place. It lives where it actually touches people and makes them think.

EH: Boy Scouts in West Virginia, no less.

MV: Exactly.

EH: One of the Core77 competition judges said something like, “I don’t like what the Scouts stand for, but I give this project high marks because it’s a lot harder to do something interesting for the Boy Scouts in West Virginia than it is for, say, a retail space in Tribeca.”

MV: Right. Your project is exactly what I'm talking about. You were fulfilled. The client was fulfilled. The person who experiences it is fulfilled. It’s hitting all the right notes. It is extremely honest and sincere as to what it is. It’s not trying to fool anybody. It’s not trying to take advantage of people.

EH: It’s not about persuasion, really. It’s about informing people.

MV: Informing, yes. I guess that’s why I get so cranky about the designer-art thing because it’s too easy. Those Treehouse issues were all hard problems to solve and that’s the difference. That’s what makes it more like architecture and not fine art. There is self-initiated work that I find really compelling and interesting. Jeremy’s projects, some of Sagmeister’s. It’s work that goes beyond, “Whoa, that’s cool.” But it’s not better than what you did.

EH: The issue you have is that this work is elevated way above the client work that we do.

MV: Right.

EH: I think that’s the struggle that I have, too. You’re not going to get recognition unless you’re doing arty posters for other designers. That’s frustrating for me as a practitioner because what appeals to me about design is this idea that I can do something that, say, my parents—who are smart people, but not designers—can enjoy, appreciate and love.

MV: Absolutely, absolutely.

EH: A lot of the work that I was doing as a student was more myopic and experimental—which had its place for sure—and I would show it to my parents who, again, are very smart people and they’d say, “What the hell is this?” Because it was speaking in this alien language that only other designers knew and didn’t really acknowledge this everyday world. That was the main conflict I really had to work through after getting out of school.

MV: But see, you totally reconciled it. You realized that, as a designer, every project can't be that, right? And once you get yourself as a designer, you know there are certain projects that you just have to do the best you can and others where you can really excel.

EH: Yes, choose your battles. A lesson I seem to never learn [laugh].

MV: Do everything to the quality that it needs to be— hopefully more that it needs to be—and it’ll sustain you as a designer. That’s challenging, right?

With these gallery shows, it’s always the same people showing up. Always the same people patting the same people on the back. There’s a whole publishing world around it, too. I’m at a certain point in my career, my life—well, I'm never going to be there. I don’t enter that many shows and when I do enter, it’s never those kinds. And whenever I'm entering competitions, it’s totally for the client because I don’t need the gratification anymore. When you get older you’ll probably feel this way. I have drawers and drawers jammed with certificates, but I make sure that I send one off to the client, too.

EH: Your drawers are a lot fuller than ours. Hence the reason we still enjoy the gratification.

MV: Great clients allow you to do great work. I say the same thing each time but, again, awards are just a byproduct of doing the work. What’s more rewarding is when you design a wine label and it sells out in 60 days. It never sold out before and the wine is the same wine. That’s how powerful graphic design is.

EH: But that’s the love-hate relationship that we have with design. We don’t want to admit that’s part of what we do.

MV: Yeah, right.

EH: Art gets that back door exit, right? “Well, the intention was never to sell anything. It’s just me and my work on the wall.” I think we’re often frustrated with that component of what we do. Well, some people are, I should say. I don’t want to speak for all designers.

MV: No. I love it when my client makes money because I know they’re going to hire me again!

EH: I want to shift to the way you work and your process. I found this quote of yours from 1989, which I love: “Give me an airy space with soft music where I can sketch, draw and create. That’s designing.”

MV: Wow.

EH: Now we’re in this day and age—I mean, in 1994, when I took Michael Manwaring’s class he said, “You don’t have to know how to draw anymore. Just get a disposable camera.” Obviously, methodologies change over the years, but is this still the way you do things?

MV: An “airy space”? Wow.

EH: I know! [laugh]

MV:  I think somebody took a few liberties there. [laugh] Soft music and I have never been a thing.

EH: It was an article in Novum.

MV: Oh, on Gebrauchsgraphik?

EH: Yes!

MV: Oh my God. I forgot about that. Where’d you find all these things?

EH: I just went to the library.

MV: Wow.

EH: You’ve kept your office purposely small so you can be more directly connected to the work?

MV: Yeah. Over the years, I’ve had clients who’ve wanted me to expand, to open offices on the east coast and I said no, no. At one point I was up to about 12 people and something went out of the office that I hadn’t seen and I said, “No, that’s it. I'm turning into Dean Smith.”

When I worked for Dean. I’d fill him in on what we did on the way to the meeting, and I remember saying to myself, “I never want to be here.” I like designing and concepting the work, working it through and then presenting it, because I can answer questions that a salesperson or the staff designer couldn’t answer. I also have a better chance of pulling it out if something starts to go south and I’ve been there from day one on the project. So the way my office works is that we’re small.

EH: When you say small, it’s like 8 people?

MV: 7 to 8 people. Basically, all the concepts of the projects—whether it’s a written form, a sketch or whatever come off my desk. I’ll pick a designer who I think will work best with that type of client and then we collaborate together to develop the design. I always call it co-piloting. I’ll sit behind them while they’re working on the computer, just like at school a lot of times.

EH: “Shoulder beasting” is what we call it [laugh].

MV: Shoulder beasting! I love it! That’s great. With certain people there’s an amazing shorthand when we work together. Half the time I'm thinking let’s move it up or enlarge it, and they’re already going there because we see it the same way. And Peter, who has worked with me for 20 something years on the architecture side, he and I… it’s almost gotten to the point where I’ve taught him so much about space planning, that he’s better at it than I am.

EH: That’s what you want in an employee.

MV: For a space I’ll do a sort of thematic sketch. A perspective looking through the entrance of a showroom and then I’ll draw a little vocabulary. It might be walls, dividers or details. Then I’ll tell Peter what it needs to be, to space plan this, and see where we go from there. It gets more refined until we do renderings. With graphic design projects it’s the same sort of thing. I’ll do some thumbnails, or sit with a designer and sketch it on the computer together.

EH: Do designers ever bring things to you after you give them a sketch and go, “Hey Michael, I thought it might work a little better this way and…”

MV: They know better than to do that. It’s pretty hands-on. Sometimes I’ll give them a little space. I’ll say, “I think it should be kind of like this and see what you think.” I mean, the reason I'm still doing this is that I get to design it, you know.

EH: And Barbara?

MV: I always tell people that Barbara runs the place. I just work there. I still do all the client contact, but she’s able keep them all happy and balanced. She has good relationships with them so they feel comfortable. If I'm tied up or traveling, they know that she’ll make sure everything is OK. She’ll also work with the staff because sometimes I don’t have time to convey intent to them and she’ll relay that as well. She’s irreplaceable.

EH: You’ve said something to the effect that “Design is not a career. It’s a lifestyle.” I’m also certainly one of those people where design feeds into all parts of my life. But did you ever feel like sometimes it’s—

MV: It’s a curse.

EH: Yes! Exactly.

MV: It’s totally a curse. I remember my daughter being angry with me once. She said, “Dad, you’ve made it so I care about things that other people don’t even see.” I said, “I'm sorry. That’s just the way it is.” I'm better at letting it go now.

Just ask my wife. It’s been hard for her, too! [laugh] I have the world’s best wife. She’s good at being a client: “Go ahead and do what you want, honey.”

EH: Is that about pleasure for you? Is that about a certain degree of control over your environment? I often tell people that I'm the best A-minus / B-plus designer out there, and the reason is because there’s 10% of my life that I just don’t want to be affected by looking at the world like a designer. It’s okay if that corner of the house is messy. I sometimes feel that being a designer sometimes brings out a part of me that I don’t like.

MV: The control…

EH: You’re watching TV and you instantly start criticizing A, B and C because you can’t help it. It’s a taste thing, too. “I can't believe you like that!” and so on.

MV: Well, design to me is taste. At the core of it. That’s why you can have really good fashion designers who can't draw but have extremely good taste and can put things together.

EH: Right. [fashion designer] Matt [Dick] is a great example. He can do all kinds of design because his taste is so impeccable, right? No one wants to talk about taste, class. It’s a huge part of design and no one really wants to talk about that. It’s kind of an ugly word.

MV: Problem is, it’s the truth. Doug Tompkins and Esprit is another example. He had good taste and he collected good art. He liked good architecture. He understood the quality of one thing over another, materials, everything.

We have a saying in my office that the illusion is true. Michael Bierut and his wife Dorothy came by, and Dorothy [laugh] almost sounded insulted and irritated. “Have you cleaned all this up just because we were coming, or is it like this all the time?” I said, “Oh, it’s like this all the time.” But to me design is about control. We all have this curse, and…I kind of like it [laugh].

EH: You kind of like it?

MV: I kind of like it. [laugh]. I’ve told students “You know you’re a designer when you can't possibly walk down the street without making a value judgment about everything you see.” I hate the color of that car. The 8 is backwards on that sign. You’re just so visually tuned to everything that you can't help it. You just see the world differently than other people.

It’s true blessing and a true curse at the same time, but what happens is that as you get older you’re willing to live with certain things. When we go to Montana, one of the things I really love is how badly designed everything is [laugh]. You go to a bar and you think, “Man, I could not reproduce this if I tried.”

It’s the worst pastiche of commercial weird s--t, but I almost appreciate it more because it’s not authored or intentional.

EH: Right.

MV: I always call it “design puberty” with students when they discover this about themselves. All of a sudden, they’re looking to criticize everything. It’s like being horny all the time. You have to tell them to slow down. Sometimes it should just be that way.

EH: Yeah. I remember the first assignment in Michael Manwaring’s class when he said “Okay, take out a sheet of paper, write your name on it. Then take another sheet of paper and write your name in a typeface that you know,” and so on. We turned them in and he asked “Why did you do this in the upper left-hand corner? Why didn’t you think about the space on the page? If you’re a designer and someone asks you to write your name on a piece of paper, you need to think about that like a designer.”

MV: Yeah, even the simplest thing.

EH: The time with you I always remember is that when we went down to LA together to do that lecture with Sean [Adams]. When we checked into the hotel, there was a big light sconce that was above the lobby desk that was slightly askew. When we finished checking in you told the staff, “Oh by the way, your sconce is not straight. You need to fix that.” I laughed and you looked right at me and said, “I'm serious” [laugh].

MV: [laugh] And I’m a slob compared to what Massimo was like! Or Barbara Barry. I remember sitting at my conference table with her and the light fixture hanging low over it still had the wattage sticker on it. She talked for 10 minutes on why the sticker should be taken off. You could only see the sticker through the faint reflection of the glass table!

EH: You’ve also been a design educator a long time, and a huge influence for so many students including myself. The thesis class you created at CCA has had so much longevity. What does being an educator mean to you? What’s the dynamic between your practice and education?

MV: I mentioned earlier that Wolfgang Lederer asked me if I would come teach a course. I found that I really liked teaching because it made me understand why I did the things in my work, because I would have to talk in great detail about what I usually did intuitively. I found the experience in the beginning extremely informative, as a sort of self-analysis.

EH: Yeah, of course. Same for me. Still.

MV: I’d get these profound questions out of left field and I’d have to come up with an answer on the spot, and that response would be truthful because I didn’t have time to think of some highfalutin answer. Plus, if you have a bad day at the office and then walk into a classroom with students that are excited and on fire because it’s all new to them…it keeps that “don’t let the bastards get you down” thing in check. It’s a great reminder that design is fun, enriching and rewarding. Then, of course, it was the community, the other faculty, too.

But it’s always been the students—like you—watching them go through that process of “There’s no hope, there’s no hope,” to all of a sudden, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I totally understand it. It’s so cool. I get it.” There’s something rewarding about having some responsibility in guiding them through the journey of becoming a better designer.

EH: That’s a great feeling. I'm curious to hear about the genesis of the Thesis class. I have to think that when you started it, you had no inkling of the amazing work that it would generate.

MV: I didn’t realize it would be as long term impactful as it’s been. It came about because I wanted a capstone to the educational experience. We were pretty regimented all the way through the program then. I used to joke, “If you get nothing out of CCAC, you’ll at least get 15 to 20 20” by 24” boards that have your work on them.” We needed something that really challenged the students and allowed them to think big. And take the word “graphic” out of the equation.

EH: What year did this start?

MV: The late 1980s. I told the students they could do anything they wanted. But I gave them a single word. That was the only parameter. And when I said react to it, I meant not as a brochure or an ad campaign or a logo.

EH: Where did the one-word idea come from?

MV: I just was trying to figure out how to start them all in one simple place. I had no idea it would get as weird as it did, in the sense that half of the time you couldn’t even trace the project back to what the original word was.

EH: I remember that [laugh].

MV: There were times when I thought of the word while I was driving to class the first day. It was that spontaneous sometimes [laugh]. I was really trying to convey the idea that the project is about communication. I know that seems really obvious, but design was becoming a lot about formalism then. And I kept saying, “No, it’s all about the idea and conveying that idea. Making sure that any audience that sees it knows where it came from. It has to be totally understandable to someone who has no previous reference point to the project.” That would be the measure of success. It can be anything you want, but the solution can’t be so oblique that nobody understands it.

This is also when I was doing a lot of work that wasn’t straight graphic design and that’s what I wanted to encourage in the students. And not just because of what I was doing. I wanted to redefine what one thought a graphic designer does, period. I also wanted the work to be something that didn’t look like it came from Art Center, that didn’t look like it came from any other institution.

I also wouldn’t want any information about the students beforehand because I wanted them to be able to have a fresh start in the class. It just snowballed from there, for better or worse. Better that we got some great projects, worse that I got this reputation for being so tough! [laugh]

EH: The perception was less you being a hard-ass than the weight of the project. I remember it was a tough class for me because a lot of us had been reveling in this formalism and you were pretty hardline about the project springing from this pure idea. It must have this degree of clarity and this degree of accessibility. Suddenly we had to clear away the oblique bullsh--t and really get to the core of what we were doing.

MV: I felt that the students needed this kind of experience because they wouldn’t necessarily be told by a future boss or a client exactly how to solve a problem. A client might come in and say, “I need a 24-page brochure and a pocket folder,” and I wanted students to be able to say with confidence, “You don’t need any of those. You need a film.” I was trying to get them to break loose from the usual systems. You’re going to create the problem. You’re going to define the problem. All you have is a word. It can be anything. Take the personal and make it universal. That was always the rap. It made teaching a lot more interesting. It also made it harder.

EH: That’s a really hard class to teach.

MV: You’re basically teaching 20 separate classes. But that’s always what made it fascinating. And then there’s a certain point where the students take off on their own, and it’s just a thrill to see what they do. Like with your thesis project. What I loved is that it gave students a chance to do things that were funny, that were extremely serious. It showed them that there’s a spectrum to design. It’s not just the medium. It’s also the tone and how you convey the message. I’d say, “Whether you do something that’s extremely intellectual or something that’s lightweight, they both have the same value to me.”

EH: The class certainly expanded the idea of what authorship was in design for me, too. What definitely stuck was how the idea could really dictate the form. And today there are so many more media forms designers have access to. You were very prescient on that front. I always go back to the CCA college seal, too. “Theory in practice.”

MV: Exactly. It was 1906 or 1907 when CCA started and that philosophy hasn’t changed. In fact, it means more now than it did then. Even though this generation drives me crazy sometimes, I think the profession is in really good hands. They have the knowledge. I always asked students, “Are you sure you can do that?” and they’d say “Oh yeah, I’ll take the tutorial. I’ll be fine.” And they’re programming crazy stuff like that [snaps fingers]. They don’t have those barriers that historically really encumbered earlier generations. But this new internet “culture of choice” does have its downsides, too.

EH: A lot more distractions.

MV: Everything around making design comes a lot easier, too. There’s a theory that graphic design might disappear altogether in this new tech-enabled world. But there are still design problems to be solved, and not just in virtual worlds. You’re still going to sit in a chair. You’re still going to eat food and there will be a container for it. There’s still going be a space for them. Tangible, real things still exist. They all need to be designed. I just think some of the people that are going into graphic design may not have a full understanding of what its ultimate purpose is all about. Or its potential.

EH: And speaking of that, you’ve had a long career and seen a lot. I'm curious if you’ve thought about which of these changes are really going to reshape what we do and which ones feel cyclical? What are the durable parts of graphic design that are still really important regardless of what happens?

MV: Well, to me, it’s all positive. It plays into my long-term game plan that has graphic designers taking even more turf, so to speak. And once you have more control over the playing field, you increase your possibilities for success, right? I don’t just mean financial. I discovered a long time ago that if I can control the brand, then I can control some of the product, and then I can control where it’s sold. And I think we’re at a point where design does have that influence because the line of where it starts and stops isn’t as defined as it used to be.

And technology has made the process so much better. You can get to where you need to be so quickly and evaluate if something’s going work or not. It’s going to sustain the business even more and give so much more control to designers. I mean, God, when I think of what we used to have to do for a presentation! I almost think you should make students do a project using old methods just once, so they appreciate how good they have it [laugh]. But it’s also about understanding that these are still just tools in the arsenal for presenting ideas and solving problems.

EH: It’s so much easier to be a designer or entrepreneur now. You can make something so quickly, digital or physical. There are so many platforms.

MV: So many other avenues and outlets to use for clients or your own business. Kickstarter, things like that. No one’s more thankful than me about all these changes. At Massimo Vignelli’s memorial, people were reading some comments that he made about technology, and—I love you, Massimo—but you were so wrong about that [laugh]. Technology is the best thing that’s ever happened. It’s opened up so much for graphic design, and so many boundaries are disappearing.

EH: Yeah, the umbrella is definitely bigger, right?

MV: Yes, it’s bigger and you don’t have to convince anyone of that anymore. Convince people that I can do the identity and the showroom. Clients don’t compartmentalize as much as they used to.

EH: You’ve talked about how Memphis [the 1980s design collective] was such a radical idea at the time. All these architects, industrial designers and graphic designers are going to work together and do everything. And now, you could argue, that this model is almost the status quo. And technology more than anything else has enabled this trend.

MV: It’s leveled everything. Making a film twenty-five years ago was a real undertaking. Now you can pick up the phone and you can do a little film in a week. It’s just crazy.

EH: It is! One of my students a few semesters ago asked if she could bring her daughter to class, since it was her spring break and she was out of school. She’s 8 or 9 years old, so I said, sure, whatever. We’ll give her a project! So she comes in and I tell her “Hey, your job today is to do a project about what we do in this class.”

EH: She photographed and filmed people as they were working, created her own film titles on paper, shot those as well, added sound and edited it all together on her phone [laugh]. In one class! So on the first day of the students’ video project a week or so later, I told them I wanted a full rough cut by the end of the class period. Because if her daughter can do it, so can you. And they came up with some great stuff! It’s just amazing what you can do now.

A few last questions. You’ve done and accomplished so many things over your career. Is there anything that is still on your design career bucket list?

MV: For years, I used to say an airline. I’d put the stripes going around the plane! [laugh] I’ve been really lucky. I’ve done a lot that I was totally unqualified to do, but I’ve had some amazing partners and clients who allowed me to do it. I can remember thinking “I'm getting away with murder here.” There’s not really any specific thing. I feel really fortunate, and I'm just having fun doing the stuff I do. I’ve also become this weird dude up here in the wine country. It’s been fun applying the knowledge from my years in the Bay Area to wineries and such up here because this is a super different scene.

EH: That’s for sure. It’s like la-la land up here.

MV: Because it’s all about like how “wootsy-tootsy” you can make something. It’s a $500 bottle of wine. I'm not really doing any commercial wineries. They’re all bizarre high-end things and fun because the less we say on the label the cooler it is. Whenever I get some new project in a new area, I I'm able to leverage all the various work I’ve done before. So they’re expecting something different and I get to do exactly that. So back to your original question, I can't really think of a project that I'm just dying to do. I just feel fortunate enough to have broken enough rules as I have at this point.

EH: This is a very existential question. What do you really want to be known for centuries from now? What is it that you want people to know you for, whether it’s a project, or something you’ve said, or a philosophy? That’s kind of a heavy question.

MV: Yeah, it is. Am I dying? [Laugh] No, I'm just kidding.

EH: And if there’s no answer, it’s fine. I'm just curious.

MV: One of my designers just left to go to graduate school. She used one word to describe everybody in the office individually, and for me she said “generous.” That wouldn’t be a bad thing to be known for. I don’t mean financially, but with my time, with students and with my clients.

Often clients weren’t able to afford certain parts of a design. And I’d say, “I don’t care. You need to have this part done.” I’d figure out how to do it, or pay for it if they didn’t like it. I’ve never wanted people to think at any point that I've not been fair to them. But, yeah, generosity would be a good thing to be remembered for.

EH: Yes, you’ve been very generous in a multitude of ways.

MV: It’s really funny. I was the young guy in the room in every meeting, and then literally overnight I was the oldest guy. And I don’t know when that happened, really. All of a sudden, all my clients are younger than I am. The president of Teknion is 52!  It’s the weirdest thing, but the good thing about age is you still don’t know everything, but you’re a lot more prepared and have a lot more perspective. It’s kind of a cliché, but there’s a real advantage to have been in that same meeting 20 times. Being able to see other people’s points of view and know when you’re going have to argue or not argue, or when it’s worth fighting or not fighting. That really comes with age and experience.

The one thing I'm more conscious of these days is being as an open-minded as I can. That’s another thing I like about the thesis class. It really opens your mind and makes you much more excited about everything. When I'm around people that start getting down on the younger generation, I say “No-no, they’re going to be fine.” They’re going to survive, especially the good ones who will do so much more than we did because they’re so much smarter than we were.

EH: No kidding.

MV: That’s why I always look to people like Frank Gehry and Picasso. There’s a way to still stay relevant. You don’t think about what your age is. Picasso’s work evolved and changed up until the end. That whole thing we were talking about earlier—being slightly nervous about everything you do. If you’re not feeling that then I think you die as a designer. It never really occurred to me to retire. Poets, writers, artists, architects, designers—we’re all lucky to do this. It keeps you young!

Eric Heiman is a designer, educator, intermittent writer, so-so drummer, and LP sleeve art enthusiast. He is a co-founder (with Adam Brodsley) and creative director of the San Francisco design studio Volume Inc. Volume’s work has been featured, published, exhibited, and honored by publications, museums and professional organizations worldwide. Eric’s writing has been featured in such publications as Eye, Emigré, and AIGA’s Voice; and he is also a contributing writer for the SFMOMA’s culture blog, Open Space. Eric is an Associate Professor of Design at the California College of the Arts where he won the college-wide Excellence in Teaching award in 2003. All of this wouldn’t have been possible without Michael Vanderbyl’s example, instruction and continued mentorship.