Karin Hibma Interviews Richard Danne: Fellow Series
A conversation with Richard Danne (“DAY-nee”) weaves the threads in the AIGA story, and the story of our design community. When he was AIGA President, there were 1600 members nationally and chapters were just beginning, Thanks to his leadership and vision, there are now over 25,000 members internationally, including 1700+ in our AIGA SF chapter alone. If now is the golden age of design; it's also an "awkward phase". Our clients and their organizations are creating change. Evolution and change are partners to innovation and growth. Design is an instrument of change, and change is an instrument of design. AIGA is young at heart and moving forward, like Richard.

Karin Hibma:

Congratulations, Richard. You’ve had a fantastic career! And, you being one of the fathers of the modern AIGA and a Centennial AIGA Medalist, I am delighted that you have been named an AIGA San Francisco Fellow.

Richard Danne:

Thanks! Well, it’s totally unexpected. I’ve been a member of three different chapters, all good ones – New York, then Boston and now San Francisco. When David Asari called me, I guess astonished would probably be the best way to describe it, to be an octogenarian and be named an AIGA San Francisco Fellow.


So, start at the beginning. Give us a sense of the arc. You’ve lived a life in design, and with music, you have another life, and you’ve combined them.


Much of it is colored by the fact that I had a unique beginning. Being born on a farm in Oklahoma was an exceptional start during very difficult times in the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

My parents were dramatically different from one another. My mother was a college graduate and a school teacher when she was very young. My father had a third-grade education and was a farmer his whole life.

An extraordinary couple of opposites – who laid a foundation that has served me through my entire life. It was just a great beginning, even if they were hard times. As a matter of fact; I think it was a great advantage. It created a lift-off for me, a launch pad.

One thing about that home, there was a tremendous amount of love and support and music was such a big part of it. This interweaving has gone on for my entire life – music, and art. In the early days, when I was playing so much, studying piano and trumpet, I was drawing constantly. There was no question that this was a clue to what I was going to do with my life. I leapt from there into the world and deciding what to do meant going to college. There was pressure from the family to major in engineering. I knew at the time it was a big mistake – I’d be the world’s worst engineer. It only took a year; I switched my major to art. Unfortunately, I was at a university that didn’t offer, hadn’t heard of, design.


Don’t you equate engineering a little bit with design?


I do. But it took a while to get that. It was more that all these companies would come to interview on the campus for engineers, yet nobody would ever interview someone pursuing art. So, it was the idea of sustaining yourself, making a living – that was the big thing. Coming out of those very difficult times, the economics of the period we lived through, you can understand it. At the same time, it wasn’t helping me because I had shown in a million ways that art and music were my interests – the creative world.

I had a jazz quartet all through college, so in one way I was already making a living. I made top grades, so in my senior year they let me chart my own course curriculum. I ordered a typography book and started giving myself assignments that were more design than art. I was moving in that direction, plus I was most interested in photography and that fit into it. I also did jazz posters and promotional things on my campus.

One wonderful instructor, Eleanor Evans, suggested I go to Yale where she had studied. She knew Josef Albers rather well and arranged a scholarship for me, but then Albers retired. She was also connected to UCLA Graduate School – so she sent me there instead and that really changed my life. I heard that she passed away recently at age 102.

I graduated from Oklahoma State in 1956, drove out to Los Angeles and immediately entered summer school at UCLA. Because I lacked proper training, I had to take a double load, like undergraduate courses in typography and advertising – plus the Graduate Studies. It was a killer, yet it was amazing. But I couldn’t continue as a musician and enjoy that double life which had been terribly important to me. So I focused, bore down, and managed to make good grades. Anyway, that’s how it all happened.


You went from where design was way, way over here – to a world where design was central. How did you feel about that?


I felt like I’d truly discovered myself. I remember walking into that UCLA Arts building – after the long road trip – the student design show was up, and I was stunned. I walked around the exhibition and said to myself – I’m home!

I really had no idea that there were all these students producing the work that I was dreaming about but had had no access to. In my interview, the head of the department said, “Well, you’ll just have to start all over again”. It was very discouraging but he was right. Taking all of those courses at breakneck speed – I was definitely home and I knew this is what I wanted to do.

I had done a lot of painting, but that was one piece at a time. I love the aspect of multiples – you design something, it’s out in the real world and there are thousands of them. That appealed to me; that clicked. I knew design, which still had a huge artistic component to it, was meant to affect people, society and sales. To this day I don’t have a regret in the world; it’s been marvelous.

After I got out of school, I went to Dallas to freelance. That started my independent career through these six decades. Dallas was one of those coming cities – I felt there would be a chance to leap ahead; to get a jump on it and establish myself quickly, which is essentially what happened.

I started out doing non-profit work. Clients like the Dallas Theatre Center and Austin College and such, not well-paying jobs but opportunities to do some really interesting stuff and maybe win awards. I call it the “fun and games’ part of my career – everything was kind of free and open and loose. People liked the work and I did win awards.

I designed successful corporate things also but I hit that point – big fish in a small pond – I got it in my head that I really wanted to be part of design leadership and there wasn’t enough to keep me there.

Barbara and I came back to the west coast to see what was going on – not to look for a job – just to see if I could survive if I were to come back as an independent practitioner. We went to Los Angeles first, the interviews were great but the smog was a deterrent. Then we raced up to San Francisco. We drove around gaping at the City and loving it.

San Francisco was already a hub of creativity but there was a downturn in business. It was better that I wasn’t looking for a job, just gathering impressions and information. I just called people up for an appointment – I had interviews with Marget Larsen, Howard Gossage, Nicolas Sidjakov and Walter Landor, among others – it was really remarkable, very rewarding.

Everyone in LA and SF felt my work was more appropriate for New York. I wanted to grow and expand, be part of a bigger scene. So we headed east. My interviews in New York were rock solid, everyone said, “Come on up.” They were so supportive. It was a tremendous week. So, we moved to New York in 1963, although there was still that fascination with San Francisco.

New York turned out to be great and everything clicked. I have absolutely no regrets, we raised our family there and, in many respects, it’s home. Still, when we made our choice of where to live out the golden years, we picked the Bay Area. That says a lot. The design community here is vibrant, talent-laden and fresh; there are so many possibilities. San Francisco designers are about as welcoming and generous a bunch as you’ll ever find, and they are universally admired.

Building up a practice in New York, I began working with the giants of American industry and it was transformational. Clients like AT&T, Bristol Meyers, Standard Oil, The Travelers, and DuPont. Even the institutions were huge – NASA, Federal Aviation Administration, Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Harvard Business School. Mega!

I had several fine business partners over the years: Phil Gips at Gips & Danne for five years, Bruce Blackburn at Danne & Blackburn for twelve, and Barbara Danne – ongoing.

Today we work almost entirely in the Public Good realm. It launched my career – and now I’m back to the non-profits. And my involvement with music is woven throughout. I’ve produced live jazz concerts, as many as four a year for the Napa Valley Jazz Society. I’ve kept my love of music alive; it’s just a whole other world.


Creative non-profit work informs your bigger corporate work. In New York you started getting business right away and being a design leader right away too…


I flash back to my parents who had such high standards – the mantra was always “Be the best that you can be, and share with others.” I never forgot that mandate. In New York it was only natural that I would have an independent career, and get involved. That was a prime motivation for moving there in the first place – to get involved in design leadership and it all happened quite fast.

With organizations like AIGA there are tremendous needs, including the volunteer aspect – donkeywork like installing exhibitions. It is schlepping – but that’s how you start.

In fairly short order, I was on committees – Phil Gips and I did a Packaging Show with Arnold Saks. It was a big, important show and now we’re designing the exhibition, not just building it. I was asked to chair Communication Graphics in 1974-75, our biggest exhibition, along with 50 Books. It was a huge responsibility and I was young. I selected the first jury that wasn’t all New Yorkers with several other judges from Los Angeles, Virginia, etc. As I think you know – the board was New York centric – and all the events were in NY too. I was beginning to challenge this traditional model.


It probably was needed to tip the balance.


I had the idea in mind that we needed to reach out and be more inclusive. It couldn’t be just New York, as great as it was, just too provincial. There were so many good people springing up around the country— practitioners who deserved to be recognized.

After the CG Show, I was elected to the board in ’77. The next year I was elected President – which was both the luckiest thing and about the worse thing ever. AIGA was experiencing some hard times – serious financial difficulties and, without going into detail, misfiring on the leadership from both the Board and Executive Director. I was thrown into a difficult situation but, in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. I wasn’t afraid or intimidated by the situation. We decided to release our Executive Director and limped along without one for months.

The situation required radical action so I called for a Retreat with the entire Board; I took everybody out into the woods, we shut everything down for two days and we addressed all the issues, what was going on and what needed to be done. I brought in people from Chicago and Washington for their views. There were no phones, we just talked it all out. After that Retreat, the board met every month – which is outrageous – yet that’s how we got a grip and made so much change, everybody had to refocus and bear down. It was a singular opportunity, and I was in the right place at the right time.

We hired Caroline Hightower as the new AIGA Executive Director. She was a good fit and we were just “straight ahead!” We made fundamental changes and innovations. It wasn’t so much a grand plan as it was a necessity. I was a lucky duck; it worked!

While president of AIGA, I was invited to speak at the Stanford Design Conference by Jim Stockton. A group of SF designers had decided they wanted more profile; they weren’t getting the attention and credit they deserved. Disenchanted and frustrated with AIGA’s lack of movement, they had started their own organization. I understood completely, if there ever was a friend in that audience, it was me.

Kit Hinrichs got up to speak, representing all those wonderful SF colleagues – and made a recruiting pitch for IGD (Institute of Graphic Design). I will forever remember when he leaned into the microphone and said, “Think of this as AIGA West.”

I felt a twinge in my gut. My response was to fly back to New York and make sure two westerners were added to the national AIGA board.

After my term as AIGA president, I knew if we were going to expand and connect with the rest of the country, the most immediate need was a New York Chapter, for symbolic reasons and to show good faith. Yet no one stepped up or showed much enthusiasm for it. Why? Because New Yorkers already had everything right there, all the perks and total control, so it was an uphill slog.

Losing patience, I decided to jump in to form a Chapter Organizing Committee. I invited in the young Turks, the most talented young designers I could find – Ken Carbone, Michael Donovan, Louise Fili, Tony Russell and others – they were so eager. Those folks have gone on to do great things; many are AIGA Medalists.

It was a huge job. There were no bylaws for chapters, so we wrote ours from scratch. We worked on program ideas, got non-profit status in NY State, held fundraisers, and received almost no help from AIGA National. The whole thing took a year and a half. Many of that Committee became the first board with myself as founding president. We came out of the gate in 1982 and had a great first year.

It was by far the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire career and, finally, I was able to run screaming back to my practice!

But the real story here, where everything connects, is that the San Francisco Chapter took wing in ’83. That was the most joyful thing for me, as it meant the plan was working.

All those wonderful organizers of IGD signed the AIGA San Francisco Charter. My heart leapt when I saw the list. Your husband Michael Cronan, Doug Akagi, Kit & Linda Hinrichs, Michael Vanderbyl and more – a lot of great names on that list.

Can you imagine the sheer joy of seeing SF come in as a chapter right after New York? The joy of connecting east and west? The plan always was to connect the two coasts – and then go for north, south, and everything would follow. There was no assurance it would work, but that was the essence – the key was connecting those two chapters. A lot of other chapters fell in line after that. When you go to an AIGA conference you see how amazing the national spirit is.


You were revolutionary with what you did, and did it as a young person. It’s very hard to create change and to include the people who’d built the organization.


In those early months without an Executive Director, I almost camped out at headquarters up on Third Avenue. There were only four staff members – I was there so much they suggested getting me a cot.

AIGA was born in 1914 as a trade organization of typography and printing, that’s why graphic arts was in our name. The book industry was the number one component. If I ever needed a dose of that reality, one day I popped into the AIGA office, and there was a meeting going on in the large gallery, just one long table with about twenty-five little ladies at it. The average age was about 70 – and what were they doing? They were sewing book covers onto handmade books. This Guild had been a part of AIGA for some 55 years! I’m basically walking into another century, and they’re part of my constituency.

I made sure to talk to all of them. And they had major beefs – AIGA was forsaking them. Yes, they could still meet there and sew books, but they felt we were leaving them behind. Well, in reality we were.

We encompassed the modern world of design communication, including motion graphics and more. And yet we had one foot back in bookmaking, not just commercial publishing but handmade books! Publishing was huge – I had three book people on my six-person Executive Committee – they all felt graphic designers were “taking over.” All this while we were trying to build out a truly inclusive national organization. It was, to say the least, a very stressful time.

The printers and typographers were also upset: “Hey we’ve been part of this since 1914!” They found out that designers were going to be responsible for purchasing typography, art, and printing. By degrees the designers were taking charge, so we finally transitioned into a graphic design organization. Unfortunately there is almost no print industry now, as we knew it. That’s history and things continue to evolve.


When I got involved in the early ‘70’s “commercial art” was becoming “graphic design”. People still think our heart beats, our blood runs “graphic design”. Design is a brilliant way of understanding, perceiving and conveying information. AIGA is continuing evolving to embrace all that includes.


Absolutely. You hear it all the time. I never stop trying to envision what else is on the horizon.

I’ve been traveling and lecturing more this last year, with another big year coming up. It’s fortunate that the audiences have been extremely young. Nobody loves youth more than I do and I see a very vibrant audience. Right now the big trend is Design Style Guides and Systems – it’s a brave new world.

Jina Anne Bolton invited me to speak at her Clarity Conference two years ago with a huge audience of mostly UX designers. I asked her “Why would you want me? You know, I’m going to be a dinosaur in that mix.” She said, “No, not with your attitude! You helped create some of the very first Style Guides, so why wouldn’t we want to hear about that?” Well the reception could not have been better. They were Tweeting throughout the whole presentation and kept saying how inspirational it was.

These kids love the work I show and ask the best questions. It’s heart warming. They show so much respect – they really honor the work and they’re trying to learn from it. These talks have been very successful, and I feel we’re all crossing that bridge, including these young designers. Back to your point, AIGA is working to cross the bridge and make these overall connections.


When we have a gathering it is wonderful, they bring their own separate worlds and see connections, just like you saw in 1978.


I’ll tell you one thing; I’d rather have the cross-dissemination and everybody talking to one another. There is a lot to learn from each other.




Is it even possible again? We have the fundamental problem of folks who say, “AIGA is great, but it’s not my world”. And I have friends who just quit, they hit the wall and said, “Well, it’s over, it’s not the field that I grew up in”, they’re bitter.

I haven’t quit and never will. I did another gig with Jina Anne last year – “Beauty”, a joint event with AIGA SF and Salesforce. They come from different perspectives, I can tell you, but the enthusiasm is there. They are very curious, and engaged. There’s a yearning that I sense in the country – it shows up in our design schools too – a desire to reach back to that exciting and productive time. To bring some of that excellence and spirit to this brave new world, to fuse it so as not lose touch with great design.

At the “Meet the Moderns” event in New York City last December you had nostalgia because the four speakers were practicing in the mid ‘50’s. Yet the crowd was young, enthusiastic and listening hard to everything being said.


I’m glad that you’re still a kid at heart.


Yes, I think so. What’s ahead is anyone’s guess. It’s mostly unknown. I’m somewhat optimistic for the near term, and more optimistic for the long.

There’s going to be cross-dissemination of information and ideas. We’ll eventually create something quite good. Let’s face it, you can’t express emotion on the web the same way you can on paper. I’ve talked to professors about this – I spoke at Art Center’s grad school last year; that was very rewarding. They’re on the same page. Everybody wants to have a profound impact on society.

The web image lasts a nanosecond; it has no real shelf life. I’ve designed things to last a lifetime, timeless pieces you can hold and keep. That’s a big difference. These young people are trying to change the world they work in so that it has some of those qualities. It’s almost selfish; there’s a desire to create by hand.


Back to those handmade book covers! When you were disrupting the existing order you didn’t tear it down, you just built a bigger world around it all.


I made statements when I was young that I wasn’t interested in history. I so regret that – what I meant was I was more interested in what was ahead. It’s not about tearing down the foundations; it’s about building up the spire, “aspiring”. As you mature you realize that everything is built on history. You can apply it to our profession and its evolution. You build and expand on what came before.

We spoke earlier about the devices and the attention spans and excessiveness, it’s hard for anything of substance to get through, there’s so much visual debris. If the nanosecond doesn’t matter, it creates chaos. It’s happening to our society.

A radical change development is that there is a design component in almost every start-up now. When they put together a three or four person team, there’s a designer in the mix. They think of design as an important ingredient to be successful. Driving it all. Design has to be real smart, real contemporary, leading edge.

Schools are teaching the leadership component, that as designers you’re going to be in with business people. You might be management at a very young age. That’s a major innovation. In the past, it could take you forever to rise to the level.

I used to make a point about big design programs, especially federal ones that were so far behind Europe with design at a cabinet level in some countries. Design is so important – it’s their way of life. England, Holland, the printed money is spectacular. The designs for postage are remarkable. They expect good design to be a part of everyday life.

AIGA’s task is to obviously focus on design; build up towards the spire; keep it evolving and at the same time, not try to be all things to all people. That’s the hardest part, when there’s so much on the table.


That’s the core problem. You talk about design systems being fascinating to young designers. That’s a way they get brought into leadership.


Absolutely. Taking in a whole landscape includes the future. That’s one of the reasons it’s a hot topic right now. Envisioning it all is difficult. A design system takes so much time; you’re building something. Young designers look at what they’re doing and they know much of it is totally disposable. When they look a design system, they see it as permanent and not unlike a building. It’s three-dimensional!

Today, a design manual may be online but often there’s a binder too. It has weight, it has substance, and it’s formidable. Essentially management is saying, “We’re here and we’re here to stay”, making a real commitment.

They can be straightjackets – the early ones were somewhat rigid – “you must not do this; you can’t do that.” It took years to evolve structure that allows creativity and freedom.

It’s what people strive for, why UX designers are so focused on it right now. They are initiating style guides; they feel things have become too chaotic. If “anything goes”, it is confusing inside your own enterprise. It doesn’t have to be a 16-pound manual to bring cohesion and order. Companies are moving to imaginative systems that synthesize what they want to look like and what they want to say.

This is the start of something good. It fits right in with new ventures. Identify yourself in the marketplace. Design can make that happen, it’s visceral and immediate.


Are there other people who you would like to call out as inspirations?


I would say this Karin – I have almost no regrets about my career, but if I do have one, it’s that I never had design mentors. There were no design professors at Oklahoma State. There were at UCLA, but no one took me under his or her wing, so I was sort of “winging it” on my own.

From the early days in Dallas, I was just making it up. I might see an AIGA show or something once a year; I just devoured it. I mentioned at the “Meet the Moderns” event in New York that I’d learned from my contemporaries. I learned at arms length from other designers, some only a couple years older, like Tom Geismar, who was sitting right next to me on that stage. But true mentors, no.


I think that’s part of what has kept your perspective fresh.


I look at it as a positive thing. In my first years, I yearned for somebody I respected to tell me what to do, “Just do this.” I had to learn fast, become a better editor, or risk working on a job forever. In my career rear-view mirror, it worked out just fine.


So you didn’t have mediocre teachers and you didn’t have senior people telling you what to do. You figured it out, and you keep on working to figure it out.


Yes, for example – the early computer stuff; we took to that like ducks to water. We engaged and said, “This is it!”. We saw lots of potential. Others friends said, “I’m out!”

That’s all wrong, to quit! Here I am, moving quickly through my eighties – I’m just young at heart. I can’t live forever, but I’ll stay open-minded. Frankly it’s very exciting, these exchanges with young people. Can you imagine the number of years separating us?

And to connect and have them say my career is inspirational? It’s all you hope for.


Exactly. You are inspirational – relentlessly curious, learning, open to new opportunities. You’ve used your mind and imagination to create whole worlds.


We all have our shortcomings. I wish I had more ability, more talent. I admire people who are spontaneous in their work, but you can only work with your own gifts.

I came to this conversation with that in mind. Leadership has been the most natural experience for me. That’s what explains all this work for AIGA – and it has been a ton of work. Sometimes it was half of my life.

I always felt – a rising tide raises all boats – if you help elevate the profession that will come back to benefit your own individual practice. I can’t say that I ever really benefited in proportion, but I would do it all again.

One core thing in my story is this large component of leadership, and of service. Once you do things successfully, they keep knocking on your door – it soon becomes the modus operandi. One of the things that I’m so proud of, and I guess we didn’t touch on it, is that our average client profile was pretty long-term, too. And I’m terribly proud that we often became just great friends. Now you don’t set out to do that, but it’s awfully nice when it happens.

When we moved to San Francisco, I was starting all over again. I was probably hiding out a bit in the beginning. Oh, and I suppose a little bit of fatigue had set in too. Karin, you helped bring me out of that cave and into the light again*.

And now it’s all comes roaring back. I’ll be touring for AIGA this year with a goal to create more corporate sponsors. I’m very well positioned to help with that. The hook is NASA, but it’s far more than that. So it hasn’t slowed up, if anything it’s accelerating. A secret to living a long and fruitful life is doing just that, staying busy and productive.

As far as loving my career and the AIGA community, it’s simply the best in the world. I particularly feel that way about AIGA SF because it is so exceptional, a superb chapter!

I don’t know why they decided to honor me with a Fellow award; I certainly was stunned. But it reassures me that I’ve been invited in. This Chapter is a dream come true for me and the Award encapsulates all of that. It makes being a member of this wonderful family more real. That is a very warm thing, and greatly appreciated.

Karin Hibma is co-founder of : : CRONAN : :, a strategic identity consultancy and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business. She is an advisor to businesses and several organizations, including the San Francisco Center for the Book. Currently on the AIGA National Board of Directors, she is a proud AIGA SF Fellow.

*Watch Richard Danne “Metamorphosis”, the closing session of “Show and Tell”, AIGA SF’s 2014 Centennial exhibition.