An interview with Tom Geismar

Tom Geismar

Has your approach to design changed over the years, and if so, how, and why?

I know it’s something of a cliché to say this, but we really do view graphic design, and especially logo design, as a problem solving process, a process not dissimilar to that used in other related disciplines such as architecture and engineering. The initial task is to understand and define what the issues are, and what the goals should be. With that background in mind, we strive to come up with the best possible design “solution” to the problem, using imagination and artistic invention to create something memorable and meaningful. In that sense, our approach has not changed at all. The way we went about designing logos for Armani Exchange and the Library of Congress in 2008 is essentially the same as the way we went about designing logos for Chase and Mobil in the 1960’s.

Xerox logoXerox Corporation logo, 1963, by Tom Geismar

Do you think design has been overcomplicated with marketing analysis? Do we think “too much”? Have we essentially lost sight of simplicity?

The issue isn’t whether “we think too much”, it’s whether we accept marketing analysis as the last word, or simply as one piece of the larger puzzle, and recognize that it only reflects what has been, not what could be. From a logo design viewpoint, an entity with a clear definition of its goals and aspirations makes the job a lot easier.

How large a role does sketching on paper play in your design process?

For me, sketching on paper still plays a key role in my design, mainly because I find at the beginning of the design phase it is a much faster way to try out ideas, and variations on ideas. Sketching also allows me to indicate certain forms, especially curves, that I find difficult and cumbersome with the computer. And sketching allows me to suggest an idea or concept, while drawing with the computer leads very quickly to a sharply defined object. Of course, once an idea is more fully developed, the computer is a great way to study variations in color, form, etc.

National Geographic logoNational Geographic logo, 2002

When creating a logo, what influences your decision to use a wordmark vs letterform vs emblem vs pictorial vs abstract symbol?

The decision on how to approach a logo design is very much determined by how we define the issues involved, including the name, the type of organization, how the name will be used, etc. For example, if you have a client with a short, distinctive name, perhaps a wordmark would be the best approach. In 2005 we took this approach with Hearst Corporation, which had a number of operating divisions that all used the Hearst name followed by a descriptive word, such as Hearst Magazines. So we developed a distinctive bold wordmark for Hearst, and a contrasting type style for the generic descriptors that followed.

Hearst logoHearst Corporation logo, 2005

Hearst logo

Can you share some advice or great stories on selling ideas to clients?

Logos are funny things. At first they are just designs on paper. Eventually they come to embody all the qualities of the organization they represent, and most people cannot separate the “design” from their full range of opinions about the organization. The hard task the designer faces is trying to help the client see how the logo might eventually be perceived, how it will work for them, not just whether they “like it”. We learned this lesson early on when we first presented the Chase symbol to the chief executives of the bank. The man who was then Chairman said he would go along the decision of the others, but personally he hated it and did not want to see it on his letterhead his business card, or anywhere in his office. Six months later we ran into him at the bank. He was wearing a pin with the symbol in his lapel, and a tie-tack with the symbol holding a tie that was itself a pattern of the symbol. To him, the mark was no longer just an abstract design, it had become the representation of his organization.

Chase bank logoChase Bank logo, 1961

Chase bank logo

You have completed work for Mobil and PBS, two companies on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Is it a designer’s responsibility to consider the companies for which he works and their effect on society? How do you reconcile working with a company that you disagree with philosophically or ethically?

You have to work for people whom you respect. Over the years we have refused to work on various projects because we would feel uncomfortable doing so. But the issue is a complex one. For example, on the surface, perhaps Mobil and PBS might seem to be on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but during the many years we worked for Mobil (before the takeover by EXXON), it was the most progressive of the major oil companies, explicitly stating their positions, championing good design, doing impressive public-interest advertising and being, in fact, one of the major benefactors of PBS, along with numerous cultural and art institutions. In short, we respected Mobil and its people, even if we didn’t always agree with their positions.

Mobil Oil logoMobil Oil Corporation logo, 1964

Mobil Oil logo

PBS logoPBS (Public Broadcasting Service) logo, 1984

Do you work for non-profit as well as profit-making organizations, and, if so, how do they differ?

Yes, in fact many of our recent clients are non-profit or governmental organizations. It’s easy to agree with their positions, but working with them is not very different from working with a profit-making organization.

Univision logoUnivision logo, 1989

Have you designed a particular logo that didn’t make the final cut or that you thought was stronger than what the client ultimately chose?

This has happened to us on various occasions. We do our best to convince our clients to go with the mark we feel is the strongest, but for a variety of reasons that’s not always how the project ends up. On the other hand, while we study a great many alternatives, we try never to present to our clients any designs that we cannot stand behind.

National Aquarium logoNational Aquarium in Baltimore logo, 1980

New York University logoNew York University logo, 1965

After a lifetime of working in the field, would you choose to be a designer in the present landscape of communication design?

I feel fortunate to have spent my entire working life as a graphic designer, and being part of a small organization where I could interact with talented partners. As an independent designer, whether on your own or part of a firm, one is exposed to many different people involved in a wide range of activities. If curious, you can learn a great deal. Today the field is much broader than it was when we started, and it’s more competitive. Yet the opportunities are great for someone who is curious about the world, interested in defining and solving problems, and passionate about design.

Ivan Chermayeff, Tom Geismar, Sagi HavivFrom left to right: Ivan Chermayeff, Tom Geismar, and Sagi Haviv

Thanks very much, Tom. Thanks to those who submitted questions, too. You posed a lot more than what’s shown, but alas, Tom’s a busy man, and we could only have so much of his time.

Related is an interview with Sagi Haviv.

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