Design Culture: Paul Sahre on graphic design — not about the machine
by Shane de Lange (@shanenilfunct) Paul Sahre is a notable American graphic designer known for his cover design and illustration, produced from his New York-based studio, the Office of Paul Sahre. He has worked with magazines such as The New York Times and Newsweek, and authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman, among many others. His book, Two-Dimensional Man, deconstructs the concept of a design monograph, revealing his personal reflections on the tradition and craft of graphic design shaped like a memoir. He has delivered lectures and workshops globally, and teaches graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Design Culture: You went to Kent State University, to study graphic design for various reasons detailed in your book, Two-Dimensional Man, where you were classically trained as a graphic designer with a strong modernist foundation. You are also traditionally trained in hand-lettering and printmaking, particularly serigraphy. On top of this craft-based orthodox training, you’ve said that you’re happy that the internet didn’t exist when you were growing up. Do you think that a revival of the traditional craft of graphic design can help young designers today, given that there is so much derivative and gentrified work out there?
Paul Sahre: Yes. And I encourage my students to get off the machine more. But there’s one part of your question that I want to clarify, about how I am glad that the internet didn’t exist when I was in school. It was more about how permanent the platform is. We think of it as being impermanent but I would have said and done so much stupid, idiotic, stuff. Worse than the stupid and idiotic stuff that’s already on social media today. I would have been totally right up in the lead, doing the most-embarrassing stuff. You’d think of this stuff as being temporary but it’s not, you know? That’s what I really meant by that.
In a lecture recently, I used one instance that happened in a recent project, leading to my reasons for why I think it’s important to get off the machine. It was an album cover that I did for the band, They Might Be Giants, and I was doing a lot of analogue stuff — all cut-up typography — and I was really going back to my roots. And I came to a realisation about it: for the most part, designers today aren’t even conscious of the idea that they’re in a designed environment. That they’re designing within a highly controlled space. And that’s fine but it suggests certain things to you in terms of what you do with your work, or where it goes, or what it really even means. And the way I would put it is, back before the computer, we spent all of our time, all of our energy, and all of our money buying equipment. All these different tools and everything else to line type up on a baseline, perfectly. Everything was about taking something that was impossible to line up and get it to all line up, using crop marks, and blue-line pencils, and triangles, and T-squares, and art boards — all this stuff. Well, now, that’s what the computer does automatically. And so, I always feel like I’m doing the opposite; I’m trying to do everything to fight against the software that is trying to dictate to me what to do.
DC: Your book is a lesson in contemporary approaches to visual communication and it’s a memoir detailing your own personal journey. But it also presents a somewhat-unconscious history lesson in graphic design. There are elements of Constructivism, Suprematism, Bauhaus and De Stijl that filter through in sections, and at other times one can’t help but notice components of Dadaism (Marcel Duchamp and John Heartfield, in particular), alongside references to the Calligrams, visual wordplay, and the concrete poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire and Stephanie Mallarme. Was this intentional on your behalf or was it an unconscious bi-product of your classical training?
PS: It was definitely conscious. I would put these under the heading of “obscure references”. There are a lot of obscure references in the book; they are sort of a shorthand to tie into some of the ideas that you’re talking about. The art references are maybe the more obvious ones, simply because they inform me becoming a designer. But there are plenty of obscure references about music and football. I have designed a lot of covers for the author, Chuck Klosterman, and I can’t remember the exact quote, and I can’t remember which book it was, but he said: “I realise those are fucking obscure references, but some people demand obscurity” [taken from Killing Yourself To Live: 85% Of A True Story].
In the end, I really wanted the book to be more for a general audience, even though I knew designers would be reading it, too. So, you have to walk the line between telling a story and not interrupting the narrative with too much detail about something that someone can Google [in] three seconds, if they want to know what the obscure reference is, if they don’t get it. And If they do get it, then they’re piecing it together, like you did.
DC: Taking the notion of obscurity a little further, you seem to have an appreciation for two modernist artists in particular, both exponents that I picked up throughout your book. The first artist [is] Marcel Duchamp, and his penchant for wit, humour, and clever conceptual thinking, evidenced by the addition of your grandfather’s Old Spice/GI Joe assemblage , and the theatre window installations that you made for the Soho Rep, and the “you are alive” readymade that you have hanging in your studio. The second artist is Andy Warhol, portrayed by the photo of the enamel sign paint tin in the book, your love for serigraphy, and the Pop-Art infused, posterised aesthetic of the monster-truck hearse campaign you made for They Might Be Giants, to name a few. Am I correct with this reading?
PS: Absolutely, the two of them, specifically. I was thinking about it, there’s just that sense of humour that is very crucial to the artists that I’ve always responded to. It’s obvious stuff; you might not even call it a sense of humour. They’re not telling jokes but they’re thumbing their noses. There’s a lot of humour in it. And they just go there, whether it’s a dick or a urinal.
Duchamp is absolutely essential. I love the idea that he’s the most-essential artist. And he wasn’t considered that. His work and his ideas are everywhere. And it’s great; I feel like the right artist is behind the wheel, to some degree, you know what I mean? That’s a weird sort of analogy; it’s funny though.
And not many people have picked up on this, but the Join Us album cover is super-similar to that Velvet Underground cover with the banana on it [by Andy Warhol]. If you look at those two together, it looks like I just had the banana cover sitting there, and I was trying to make it look just like that. I actually love that album cover, although I don’t have that album. It was just stuck in my subconscious; it’s clearly influenced it, or maybe even dictated it. I don’t know.
DC: Online resources and digital platforms, such as Behance, Dribble, Pinterest and Instagram, seem to be shaping the way that young graphic designers work today. One could argue that this goes beyond influencing or inspiration; it is a symptom of total access, or rather terminal excess. On top of this, interactive design and experience design are spoken about as if it’s something new or revolutionary. Graphic designers have always facilitated interaction and created experiences; why do you think this perspective has changed with contemporary media and digital technology?
PS: Oh, I don’t have an answer. But I know that part of it is a self-serving, sort of future-view that a lot of the voices are espousing, that I find very irritating, frankly, because I know what they’re up to. You can name any of them. What’s that guy at MIT? John Maeda, yeah, a real snake-oil salesman. Anybody who says they know what the future holds is full of shit. You know what you do when somebody is on stage talking crap like this? Just raise your hand and ask them: “Can you guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow?”. If they say yes, you know they’re full of shit. If they say no, you have to congratulate them on telling the truth. And I would be shocked if they would actually say no. All this future-talk? It’s self-serving. So much of the design dialogue right now is future-talk. It’s like, we know it’s coming. Well, if you know what’s coming, you have got an advantage, so why wouldn’t people listen? It’s bullshit. Nobody knows; they’re just selling you something. If something says print is dead, they have a motivation to say that.
I think there’s so much, from the orange man down to these digital people, who think they know what’s going to happen in the future. It’s all a con. What people call themselves is also very telling, like what you say about “futurists” today, or “interaction design”. Once again, it’s for self-serving reasons; if you have the answers, then people need to listen to you, they have to come to you. And if something like “interactivity” isn’t the latest thing, that’s not good for most people who are applying it. A lot of this is probably just seeing this stuff evolve over time. I mean, I used to do a lot of “interactive new media”; they used to call it that. You know, “information architecture”, whatever you want to fucking call it. People appropriate it; they take it and use it for their own purposes.
DC: You have said that, no matter what you make, you can’t control how it will be interpreted, suggesting what Roland Barthes alluded towards when he wrote about the “Death of the Author”. Falling in between the spaces of meaning, embracing the unknown — it is essentially a leap of faith that every designer needs to take with each new project. With reference to the brief that you gave your students, “Design a Message for the Future”, how much consideration should a designer give to their work, and how it will be interpreted and used in the future?
PS: So, the “design a message for the future” brief was the one with the Hockey News. The reason I mentioned that is that it was tongue-in-cheek — the fact that you had to design a message in the future using a worn-out hockey newspaper from 1973. John Maeda would not find that funny; I do [laughing].
You know my answer to this; I don’t know what’s coming. I think I’m happy to just find out as time goes on, and concentrate on doing the things that interest me and give meaning to my life as a graphic designer. And that can be a business card, and it can be [a] book cover.
But, how much consideration? You know, this is an interesting question, because I think it ties much more into permanence. And a general sense, as part of the human condition, of wanting to have our lives have meaning. If you are here on this planet, and you live your life, and struggled, and strived, and fought, and kicked, and did all the other things that we do, and then you’re gone, and then there’s just nothing; that’s a hard thing to accept. Why do writers write, and painters paint, and designers design, and architects build, and athletes compete?
I think it comes back to that Voyager gold disc, you know, sending it out into space, what humans [do] and have done, on a record. It all actually happened. It all happened. Graphic design is not something, or anything you decided to do in life, that has permanence and can be understood somehow, and will mean something to somebody in the future, in the way that you want your work, the things that you make, and the things that you leave behind to have meaning for people now. It’s not that I would necessarily separate that impulse out, because I definitely am. One of the things about the whole digital thing that’s not as compelling to me is that you unplug something and it’s gone, might not have ever existed. There’s something about a physical object that lasts.
So, I don’t know if I have an answer. I definitely don’t. But I have always thought that I don’t want my work to look dated, and I want it to mean something, at some point in the future, to somebody. I don’t think we could really control either of those two things: whether somebody is going to care about, or if somebody is going to understand anything from it. And it’s probably not even a consideration. Again, I think it comes back to this kind of larger idea that, for some reason, people, humans, have this need to leave a record. From cavemen to modern times.
It all just gets back to motivation for me, to some degree. Why one does something. One of the things I’m trying to get my students to do is make. We had had this discussion about holding the tiger by the tail, or whatever analogy you want to use. That it’s great that there’s an audience, and that’s providing motivation. But, as I said before, I feel like that’s not sustainable. And if you let that really settle itself in you in terms of motivation, creatively I think it’s not going to be for the best. There is a backside of that motivation that might not help you long term, in terms of your making. But it’s always great to have something that motivates you, obsesses you, makes you want to do whatever it is to get you up in the morning.
DC: On that existential note, I think we can call it a day, if it’s all the same with you?
PS: No, it’s great. Yeah, a lot of interesting open-ended stuff in there. I definitely appreciate your take, and your commitment here.
DC: Thank you for that, really appreciate it. And thank you for taking the time to chat.
This interview expresses the uncensored opinions of Paul Sahre.
Shane de Lange (@shanenilfunct) is a designer, writer, and educator currently based in Cape Town, South Africa, working in the fields of communication design and digital media. He works from Gilgamesh, a small design studio. Connect with him on Pinterest and Instagram. He contributes the new monthly interview-based column, “Design Culture“, to MarkLives.com.