A Half Century of Solutions

After 50 years, the design firm Chermayeff & Geismer continue to be a vital force in international visual arts.

Ivan Chermayeff, co-founder of Chermayeff & Geismer, is one of the foremost contemporary graphic artists of our time. Creator of ubiquitous corporate logos for Xerox, Chase Manhattan Bank, and the NBC peacock, Chermayeff’s prolific portfolio has garnered every major award, including gold medals from AIGA and the Industrial Art Medal from the American Institute of Architects.

Born in 1932 in London, Chermayeff immigrated to the United States with his family in the 1940s. His famous father, Chechen born Serge Ivan Chermayeff, was a powerful influence on Ivan’s creativity. Serge was an architect, writer, and educator revered for his role in the modernist movement. Ivan’s brother, Peter, would also follow the family’s creative calling and become an architect. Chermayeff studied at Harvard University, the Chicago Institute of Design, and Yale University before co-founding Chermayeff & Geismer, Inc. in 1957.

In addition to his corporate work, Chermayeff is also a celebrated artist. His posters, collages, sculptures and art installations earned him a Doctorate Honoris Causa by the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. David C. Levy, former President and Director of The Corcoran has said that, “Ivan Chermayeff’s art is profound, witty and captivating. He brings a late-20th-century humanism to the Bauhaus synthesis of form and function.”

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Today, Chermayeff remains a significant contributor to our visual environment, splitting his time between his company’s corporate work and his personal artistic pursuits. He sat down with www.metropolismag.com to discuss about his firm’s work, his inspiration, and the future of design.

You just returned from London where you presented a retrospective of your work at a conference organized by D&AD. How did it go?
It went very well. They packed the Peacock Theater with about 650 people.

What were some of the projects that you highlighted?
I showed an animated film about some of the trademarks that we designed, a compilation of about 80 of them, like NBC and Chase. I showed a few titles that we’ve done for television. I also showed them personal collages and posters that had a lot to do with my sources and how I work as a graphic designer.

You’ve often said that collaboration underscores your work process.
Yes. At the firm we very much believe in cooperative work. If you let your ego go and let other thoughts enter in, it’s actually a very efficient way to run a design office.

You must get incredibly detailed design briefs from corporate clients. How do you distill something as complex as a company’s identity into a logo?
Our attitude is that we need to know enough about a company’s past in order to begin, but almost more important than where the company has been is where it’s going. You would be surprised how many people come to us and really are talking about their past and not focusing on where they’re going. We have to objectively understand what the real direction of a problem is in order to come up with good answers. That means not necessarily doing what were told. It may in fact be quite a diversion from what was first envisioned. That happens quite often.

How do you subsequently communicate these new priorities to the client?
We very rarely show a client one solution. There is no such thing as one solution to a problem. There are many. Any one of the solutions that we show should adequately solve the problem. We do not leave that decision up to a client. Our idea is never to show anything to anybody that we can’t live with.

These days everyone wants a recognizable brand, including designers. You maintain that your firm is “style free” and that you focus on the client’s needs. How do you manage that?
Two and a half years ago Tom Geismar and I intentionally cut our office from about 40 people down to ten. And the reason we did that was because we wanted to be spending our time in design, not in being the bureaucrats of our own making. We are selective about what we do and we’re in the lucky position that we’ve developed a reputation over fifty years.

How have you and Tom remained so creatively connected over five decades?
We have a very clear sense of trust about the taste and eyes of the other. This is part of this idea of cooperative behavior. We believe that the thoughts of not only each other, but the staff, are important. That makes it fun and productive and it makes it so that we stop things that aren’t excellent from emerging or leaving the office.

Since you began, how has the computer influenced your field?
Enormously. Computers are absolutely essential, they are incredibly useful to designers, but they are merely tools. They don’t have ideas. In my personal opinion, they’ve done a tremendous amount of harm to the quality of design at the highest level. Generally, they’ve raised the bottom up, so that the quality of design is better everywhere.

When we started this business, there were a handful of people who were helping to define what design was all about and we were perhaps among the few. Now there are 60-to-70,000 graduates in graphic design alone in the United States. It’s a changing world and the computer makes that possible. But while the quality has risen from the bottom, it’s come down from the top. The reason is there’s an awful lot of programming available.

A corporation can hire a kid out of school to run a program and turn out a newsletter and it’s passable and maybe even really OK, but not excellent. It’s not creative or innovative and it’s limited by whatever is in that program and that’s pervasive today.

While graphic design is on the rise in general, are there entities out there who need good design communication but aren’t using it?
There’s poor communications surrounding us and it is at every level. My favorite example, which I think is absolutely atrocious, is McDonalds. The whole look of that is really miserable. But there it is and you can’t get away from it wherever you go in the world. There’s a certain lack of caring about whether design is important or not. People are success oriented and relatively greedy. Good design is good for business usually, though it isn’t easy to prove that under all circumstances.

Knowing what we know today about how our consumption is impacting the Earth, what role do designers play in our new world reality?
Designers have some responsibility to help create a less chaotic, more clear world. I think a great deal of the design community is aware of that opportunity and quite often does something about it.

Where do you look for inspiration?
Inspiration comes from being open. Personally, I get a great deal of inspiration from outsiders, innocents, and children because they are dealing with the problems surrounding them very objectively and in a very focused way without the baggage of a little knowledge. A little knowledge, as Alexander Pope said, is a dangerous thing.

Do you bring a different creative process to your own artwork, which is equally as successful as your firm’s corporate work?
My own artwork is an endless series of experiments in making connections and seeing. For me, art is a form of play and play is very important to design also. To be able to find refreshing new relationships is quite often what it’s all about. I don’t find a departure from what I do personally and what I do professionally. They may look different, but the process is not so different in principle.

Has your fundamental approach to your art and your work changed over the years?
If you’ve been working a long time, you probably stop making the mistakes that you made at the beginning. I like to think rather than being repetitive and old fashioned, that the work after 50 plus years is actually better. You become a better listener over time and you refine your levels of tolerance.

Young designers often feel the pressure to be current and edgy. What would you say to them about what they need to be truly successful?
They need to educate themselves and form opinions about what design is and what it can accomplish. You cannot ignore the things that have gone before you just to be modern and current because design is a problem solving business. It’s oriented toward other people’s problems and not your own. I think that young designers don’t spend enough time with their own history. Designers are not very good readers, either. Design is very connected to many other creative fields and the more you understand the better off you are.

What is currently on your reading list?
I hardly read any fiction, it’s mostly subjects that have to do with nature, biology, sometimes politics. There are journalists out there who are absolutely insightful. I just read a very interesting book called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I read recently a lot of Michael Pollan’s work, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

What are you working on now that excites you?
I am always excited about whatever it is that we’re doing.

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