Michael Osborne, interviewed by Brian Singer: Continuum/Felllows Interview Series (2019)

They say you should never meet your heroes, and I tend to agree. But every once in a while, you meet one and instead of disappointing you, they change your perspective on what it means to be a good designer, and the very notion of what design is.

If you look up the definition of the word “prolific”, there should be a photo of Michael Osborne. It’s not like anyone is counting, but he ran an award-winning San Francisco design firm for over 35 years, operated his letterpress printing shop, One Heart Press for over 21 years, founded his 501c 3 Joey’s Corner doing design work for non-profits for a decade, and taught package design for 27 years at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Math isn’t my strong suit, but I think that makes him at least 137 years old.

Add to that the fact that he served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, is a father, a gardener, a cook, plays the guitar, is a printmaker, and went back to school at the age of 53 to get his MFA. You’ve seen his work, even if you didn’t know it. Ever eaten a Kettle Chip? Used the LOVE postage stamp? Played an Electric Arts sports game? Gone to BevMo? Yeah, that’s him. So, as we sat down to dinner and ordered drinks, my first question to Michael was:

BS: Are you trying to make the rest of us look bad?

Instead of answering, laughing, Michael reaches into his bag and pulls out a jar of honey. As if his long list of accomplishments weren’t enough, he is also a beekeeper. And this is where the interview turned into a science lesson.

BS: Wait, you also raise bees?

MO: I am a beekeeper. I have four hives right now. Bees are truly amazing creatures.

BS: How much honey do they produce?

MO: The real question is, or at least my philosophy anyway, is that you only take what needs to be taken out in order to keep the hive balanced and healthy. If a hive becomes “honey bound” the queen has nowhere to lay eggs and she will swarm, taking half the hive bees with her to find a new home. The remaining bees will have to make a new queen which takes a few weeks, slowing down that hive’s production. Or you can “split” that busy, crowded hive and create a new hive. A new box is started by making sure to include plenty of brood {unhatched larva} from the busy hive, honey, pollen, and nectar- a little bit of everything, and add empty frames which will give them room to expand. Then magically, the bees transferred over make a new queen- which is a whole other talk show.

BS: They just know to make a new queen?

MO: They’ll build queen cells- kind of like a supersized pollen dome, around certain larva. The nurse bees stick their head in and feed the larva royal jelly, a protein food source that exudes from the top of their heads. It turns that particular larva into a queen. They’ll make several, then the first queen to hatch goes around and kills all the other queens. She, unlike the worker bees, she can sting more than once.

BS: Wow, is this basically an extension of your interest in gardening?

MO: Yeah, I’ve always gardened. My wife Jane and I bought a house seven or eight years ago, and have about an acre that was pretty much wild, and unused land. There’s plenty of room for the bees, and it’s just always fascinated me. I started by reading and looking around on the web. There’s more information than you could ever absorb on the internet about beekeeping. So much to learn. That’s my favorite thing- watching these old hillbilly beekeepers on Youtube.

BS: So what happens if humans take all the honey?

MO: You’d starve out a hive. That’s why in the fall, preparing for winter the worker bees will pare down the hive and reduce its size, thereby conserving space and food stores. They’ll kick out the drones, or males, because their job is over, and they just take up space and eat. The guard bees won’t let them back in the hive either. I’ve seen two or three workers march out the front entrance with a drone, and like, fling it over the side. They live on their honey stores during the winter months.

This is way more than I expected to learn about bees today, but now I want to go watch a bunch of nature shows and hillbillies on Youtube.

For those too young to remember, back in the 80s, the hottest designers in San Francisco were the “Michaels”. Dubbed so because, well, their parents lacked creativity in naming their kids. This was Vanderbyl, Manwaring, Cronan, and Mabry. Despite having an office close by, and being acquainted with them, Michael Osborne was a newcomer and not really invited to the party (I’d argue MO is in a category all his own). I asked about this, to see if there was any resentment or ill feelings, but no. Initially, I wanted to ask which of the Michael’s he thought was the least talented, but instead:

BS:So, which of the Michaels is your favorite?

MO:Michael Cronan, R.I.P. He was such an intelligent, funny, and gracious person. We got along very well. I think he kinda thought of me as a younger brother which I liked, even though I had discovered that I was actually two weeks older than him. He’d always tell me I was a really great, young designer. You’re doing such great work man, keep it up, like a kid design brother. I never told him.

BS: Do you have an arch-nemesis in the design industry?

MO: Yeah, sure, of course- don’t you? I wouldn’t say arch-nemesis necessarily, but somebody did come to mind right away, someone that I met in my early career.

BS: You didn’t get along?

MO: No, actually we did. We were friends, then eventually competitors. Your fiercest competitors are what make you better…at least for me. They drive you, you drive them, and that’s what’s cool.

BS: What are your thoughts on the state of the design profession today?

MO: Man, what a mixed bag. I knew it was a warning sign when clients could start rattling off the names of typefaces.

BS: When they would list names?

MO: That might seem odd or old, but there was a time when clients couldn’t tell you the name of a typeface. As soon as that shit started happening, probably right after computers swung into action, all the clients thought they were designers. Hey, why don’t you use that Trajan? {pronouncing it “Tre-Hand”}. Oy.

BS: So the clients got worse?

MO: Yes and no. Good clients are the clients that will let you do your job, like a doctor. You don’t call a doctor and tell him how to treat you. I found the perfect job has three components: a juicy, challenging project; a reasonable, solid budget; and a client that will allow you to do your job. Not necessarily in that order. If you get all three, you’ve got a grand slam. I’ve had many of these types of projects, but for some reason, it started getting harder and harder. To get two of those three components would be lucky. It almost works like this: if you could get a really great client that lets you do your job, and it was a cool, kickass project, there probably wasn’t any money in it. Or if you had an unlimited budget and a really cool project, you would most likely wind up working with layers of designer wannabe “marketing geniuses” who might tell you what typeface to use. You can almost rely on that formula.

BS: You’ve got an amazing list of clients, which of those was the best to work with?

MO: Brown Forman was definitely a special client for many years. That’s where all my Jack Daniel’s work came from. My client, there was very savvy, old school marketer. His idea of a design brief was to come to San Francisco {from Louisville, Kentucky}, and I would take him to Harris Steak House for lunch or dinner and sit in a burgundy leather booth. “Michael, you’re reinventing the Gentleman Jack brand”, so we’d each order a glass on the rocks. “Imagine we’re in a hunting lodge. We’ve just come back from shooting ducks and pheasants all day. We’re cold. The dogs are tired, we’re tired, we’re dirty. Fry up some of our ducks, pour ourselves a drink and sit by the fire. Then cigars. You’re designing the bottle and label for that whiskey, the highest expression of the Jack Daniel’s brand, Gentleman Jack. Got it?” That’s all he’d have to say. Our design briefs were over a cocktail and a meal at an old-time steakhouse, and then we’d change the subject.

I received a note from him after our Gentleman Jack brand redesign was launched in 2008 that simply read, “Michael, Gentlemen Jack sales are up 41% from September to March as a result of your package redesign. Industry-wide, this is unprecedented.” The biggest compliment I could ever hope for came in a two-sentence email. I can pretty much assure you he didn’t know the name of a single typeface, but he sure knew how to work with a designer.

At this point in the meal, Michael reaches into his bag, and pulls out a giant rock and places it on the table. Ok, it wasn’t giant, it was the size of a cantaloupe, and it wasn’t a rock. He asks me if I know what it is. I don’t. It’s a fossilized whalebone vertebrae. Ummm, what?

MO: I have a couple of friends- a geologist, and a fossil expert who are teaching me how to hunt and recognize all sorts of things, mostly on the coast. Yesterday, I found a 5-7 million year-old fossilized whalebone vertebra.

BS: It is petrified?

MO: Fossilized, roughly 5 to 7 million years old, from the miocene epoch. I have something at home this big…fifty-one pounds is my biggest one.

BS: You found it on a beach?

MO: Yep. You just have to know what to look for. If you look at this thing closely, you can see the organic bone structure that has been replaced by minerals, etc. That’s the marrow canal. This is where little attachment flanges came out, but were broken off over the millennia. It’s roughly five-sided. That’s what you learn to look for, that pattern, that organic bone matrix. The original bone material has been replaced by minerals and mudstone. I found a little piece of rib bone yesterday also. I sliced it in half with a hack saw, and then polished it, just to see what it looks like. Here it is- like the Milky Way Galaxy. Yeah, the insides of a five million-year-old bone. Flabbergasting.

It’s beautiful. And it strikes me that Michael is fascinated with nature, the world around us. This is so much more interesting than talking about kerning, but I had a list of questions…

BS: How about your students and design education, what’s changed?

MO: It doesn’t seem like students or young designers- a lot of them anyway- have heroes the way we did. Designers whose work we loved. Designers we looked up to. Designers we wanted to be like, whose work made our hearts beat faster. The very first night of class I would ask, okay who’s your favorite female graphic designer in San Francisco? Nothing. OK, favorite male designer in San Francisco? Maybe one answer. OK, someone tell me something about me? Nothing. Zip, zero, nada. Unexplainable.

BS: Is that a symptom of them not paying attention or is the industry now just too fragmented?

MO: I’m not sure. There’s just so much information, so much to do, so much to look at, so much technology. The fine lines between inspiration, influence, and plagiarism have become so blurred. Frankly, I wrote my students a scathing email one time about them not having heroes. How in the world are you gonna aspire to be a successful graphic designer if you don’t find somebody that you admire, whose work you love, someone you want to be like when you grow up? You can’t even fucking tell me the name of your favorite female graphic designer in the United States? Really? What are you thinking about? Just go into fucking real estate! {In that email, when I wrote about them needing to have “heroes”, I guess I misspelled it, and spell-check changed it to “herpes”}.

BS: So, you were upset your students had no herpes?

MO: I was like, sure, you need to get herpes. Whatever.

MO: I taught advanced Package Design 4, just before they graduate because I think that’s when they really need to be challenged. Next step is a job, and no one is going to baby you there. But I threatened several times to just drop all that and go down to the very basic classes. Maybe a concept class where you’re not allowed to use a computer. It was a major source of frustration for me as a teacher, and as a potential employer- to get them to learn how to think their way into a problem, and then design an elegant way out, without using the internet and whole bunch of crutches along the way. Pinterest is the worst fucking thing that ever happened to these graphic design students.

BS: Um, you do know I used to work at Pinterest, right?

MO: I know, but I’m not talking about you. Sorry. I love Pinterest for other reasons.

BS: Tell me about how have you transitioned from running a studio to the pursuit of woodworking, fossil hunting, or beekeeping?

MO: Well, I didn’t say, hmm, I think I’ll retire and start woodworking. Or keeping bees, or hunting fossils. I’ve learned that here’s nothing less designer-ly about these pursuits or what I’m making out of wood than there is if I showed you my website of graphic design work. I’m just designing other things now, as they come along. Designing a life at the coast, in the wood shop, or in the garden- there’s just no clients, and the currency has become wood utensils or furniture, or a jar of honey, or a five million year old paperweight. I’ve always been able to make things- I’m the very happiest when I’m making something. My bucket list includes ceramics, and bronze, sculpture, and on and on.

Michael reaches into his bag again. Now, I’d seen some of his woodwork online, but as with everything, things are way more amazing in real life than they are on Instagram. He begins pulling out a series of pieces he completed recently. A series of spoons, knives, and a “shepard’s ladle” carved out of a walnut log. They’re fucking beautiful. The craftsmanship is, well, you know in the movie Kill Bill, when she flies to Japan to have Hattori Hanzo make a sword? This is like the spoon version of that sword.

I exclaim how he could sell these handmade treasures at places like Heath Ceramics, to which he explains that’s not why he makes them. If fact, he doesn’t sell them, and only trades them for things he values from others. New life goal: Create something that Michael wants, and trade it for one of his wood creations.

BS: When they’re writing about you in the design history books, what do you want to be known for?

MO: This is gonna sound ridiculous, but there’s something to be said for making your way through this particular industry, getting through it all, and being a nice person, a good guy. Not as easy as it sounds, and lord knows I’ve tried. Your teachers, your co-workers, your clients, you can ask anyone about you and if they would say, yeah- he’s a really nice guy. That’s the best thing. I mean that.

Our dinner ends, and we go our separate ways. As time passes, Michael’s final answer sticks with me. It speaks volumes, because I think most other designers would have a very different answer to that question. It’s a rare thing, in this world when you meet one of your heroes and they don’t disappoint you, but rather, blow your mind.

Brian Singer is a San Francisco-based artist and designer who has received international attention for his provocative social projects such at TWIT Spotting (Texting while in Traffic) and The 1000 Journals Project. He has managed creative teams at both Pinterest and Facebook, and worked with companies such as Apple, Adidas, and Chronicle Books. He’s also won many awards, authored three books, and taught design in the grad program at Academy of Art University. He has served on the boards of New Langton Arts, The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, and both local and national boards of AIGA, the professional association for design. In 2019, Brian became an AIGA SF Fellow.