NOTES FROM: CIA 1st Annual Design Conference

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Mon, 11/29/2004 - 09:26.

I'll start my insight from the 1st CIA Design Conference with a few quotes from the incredible designer James Victore. To artists in the audience, he encourages them to realize the power of their talent, saying "Our opinion has value." "Learn a skill - get a job... learn to think and have a career." He regrets that these days "no one wants to suffer or give up anything" and he demonstrates how, by being different, by being authentic to himself, he has become one of the most important visual and social voices of our time.

That the CIA hosted this conference is yet another demonstration of the innovative programming in this
region offered to develop understanding of the role of art in our
world, and how artists may prosper as they create. Here we had
presenting four creators of global importance, and the enthusistic
audience clearly appreciated their insight. My notes follow - see the event promo for more background.

Session 1: Ken Hiebert is the founding chairman of the graphic design
program of The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, retiring as Professor
Emeritus in 1999. Art/design/technology integration is the underlying theme of
his continuing work as designer and educator and in his play with new
possibilities in mixed media.

Ken Hiebert shared practical insight on design education, work and life, all which he knows well. I missed the first half of his talk (feel free to post more insight on this below), but I learned much practical insight from what I heard, which will make me a better designer.

He started his design career working manually but acknowledges in this field the computer has changed everything. He is now exploring the relationship of visual design and music - looking out of the box at multimedia. But, designers must be able to pull back from technology - escape the tyranny of the PC - and work from fundamentals. He stresses the need for an expansive work-space where the PC is part of a larger area for hand work and spreading out tangible output - especially for appreciating qualities of scale. Still, for him and his field, the mouse is now an extension of the hand.

He cautions against letting the design process dictate constraints - letting technical parameters program you to a style - designers must understand to dive into each project fresh at a new level. In complex problems pull back to fundamentals.

He concludes, it is important for design students to realize they are part of an economic system and what they do has value, but Ken doesn't feel that is as much learned in school as "on the job". What "on the job" may mean was realized through the presentations that followed.

Session 2: James Victore - Beauty, Irreverence, Passion, Guts, Humor, Sex, Fake
Doo-Doo, Freedom, Truth, Chickens, George W. Dirt bikes, Marketin? Art,
Politics, Design, Blah, Blah, Blah... he routinely pushes his ideas
into the public arena by using any and all graphic means. And this is the
hallmark of his total work. Victore is a true and unfettered expressionist.
..He is a master of form who rejects artifice. Whether for a commercial client
or non-profit group, passion and purpose underscore his design. - Steven Heller

James Victore's message in follow-up to Hiebert was "F___ Computers" "F____ convention". James wasn't at the CIA to teach theory but to liberate the audience to get to work using the power of their art to be empowering. His authenticity and success are awesome and inspirational - Cleveland will have better artists because they heard him speak.

James explains he went to NYNY to try art school - School of the Visual Arts - where the teachers convinced him to drop out (funny, he's now a professor there, as well as one of the world's most important graphic artists). James stayed in NY and began hanging out with another graphic artist and started working in the field.

His first renowned work was the 1992 Celebrate Columbus poster (above) he created and had "sniped" - professionally posted - all over NY... he did this because he wanted to communicate his disgust with the NY celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus coming to "America" - he spent his money to do this because he was mad as hell and doing something about that. He's been doing something about that ever since, and the world is better for that.

James explains "that which is most personal is most general" - the more authentic you are the more others can relate, which brings them out of their shells. When he looks at students' portfolios he sees everyone trying to do and be the same - trying to be general - and they've lost their authenticity. He asks, where are YOU in this portfolio. Sees McDonaldization of design - not special - designers don't give their authentic expression a shot... push the envelop. James shows us many slides from his portfolio, where he has pushed every envelop imaginable - wow.

Most fascinating, he has succeeded by being real. He often spent his money to spread messages through his art - sniping his posters - and the world has appreciated that. The NY Subway system has now hired him to design a series of posters
that will be seen by millions of New Yorkers and visitors. He was once rejected by the school where he is now a professor - seems being
genuine works at many levels.

He says he doesn't try to push a social and political agenda through graphic design but rather is just trying to find some truth in his work. For the Subway posters, he is thinking about a series on racism and inclusion - some ideas the riders can take away with them - which would be an excellent objective for our RTA.

He acknowledged when he first started showing his opinion through his work some clients disappeared, but he had some brave clients stick with him. He showed the audience lots of great work he has done to promote the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, and wondered why more art schools don't do more with sexy imaging for themselves (hello CIA).

He likes to develop "sticky ideas" - memorable formats. Says you can't communicate with everyone so don't try. He's sad the design business is be bludgeoned by "puritans". Recalls how the public responded well to his Celebrate Columbus posters, and then cops came along and took them down - and left up the Gap ads right next to them - working for The Man. He hopes the audience realizes the power they have through their art. Says "keep your head down and eyes on the prize". "Our opinion has value". Sometimes you miss, but take the risk.

Victore spoke of working with an organization called, which was “the visual mafia� and fought Disneyfication of Times
Square – they have lost. Also spoke of the king of sniping, Jim Muller, of NJ,
who can get posters put up anywhere in the country, for a price – Victore
laments he can’t afford to Snipe all of NYNY anymore, but he is now able to
reach the entire community because organizations like the Subway hire him for
his art.

Robynne Raye spoke on “we all start
somewhere�. She couldn’t find a job out of college so she started her own
graphic design company, and she showed early work to prove it wasn’t magical
from the start. Over the years, though, Modern Dog Design of Seattle has become
important in their industry, proving smart, hard work pays off in this field.
She and her partner ate lots of Ramen noodles and hot dogs, kept costs to
zilch, and pursued work that interested them – music, social service
organizations, festivals. Got some work under their belt, which gave them a
stronger identity and portfolio, allowing them to go after bigger accounts.
Their big break came getting the K2 snowboard account, when snowboarding was
just taking off. The reason this paid off is because they were effective for
this client, by being themselves – taking risks (like Victore).

To market themselves, they made their
portfolio into a deck of cards, as one example of their innovative minds… this
became a collectable and got them new accounts and into unexpected outlets. To
get further attention they enclosed their portfolio in a fur lined box and sent
that around – as Robynne said, “if you put yourself in a position of
opportunity, opportunity will happen�, but they clearly also pushed the
creative envelope in the process. To get the attention of a Warner Brothers
record executive they wanted to work for, they created a CD entirely designed
around her – got her secretary to tell them all sorts of intimate details about
her life and incorporated them into the artwork and even names of the imaginary
songs – and they made a point of continuing to pursue the account until they
were awarded work. They then failed with the first account – Van Halen – but
fought back for more work, and eventually became a prefered designer that
followed the executive as she changed jobs… stick with it.

Because their marketing of themselves was
so sticky – e.g. the playing cards – a Japanese t-shirt company hired them to
design 100s of t-shirts, which was a fun and successful initiative – wouldn’t
have happened of they’d stuck to traditional lines of communications.

Another big break was with the largest novelty
magnet company in the world, Blue Q. They got the owner’s attention and became
friends – they seem to make this a business priority. As the client’s company
grew, they proposed expansion ideas and eventually reached a deal where they
get profit sharing on the ideas they create – the Mullet line of products is
their biggest money maker… they thrive and prosper in their own funky place and

Some wisdom:

· Priority is to be happy going to
work every day – the team stays small and enjoys working and being together

· Have to be true to ourselves

· To stay creative, they have a staff
that is diverse where each member is creative and tries to outdo each other –
compete – a way they do that is when designing posters

· Don’t censure yourself – start with
what you think is right and work wth client to refine

· If you have the desire in you and
follow through you will get work

· Keep overhead low

· Don’t show prospective clients work
you don’t want to do

She admits when they started out, the first
1-3 years were very difficult and if someone had offered her a job she would
have taken that. Seem like ultimately she is glad that didn’t happen, and
Modern Dog thrives.

Steven Heller spoke of the designer as
entrepreneur. He focused on the triumph of the MFA Design Thesis project he
leads at the School of the Visual Arts in New York. For this, each MFA student
must develop a product that will go to market. The students conceive, invent
and produce products that have social value – that transcend usual tired
boundaries. Students are instructed in business, law and social responsibility.
Whatever the students can’t do alone, they must find other professionals to do.
Rigorous process to determine if student has originality and conviction to be
worth investing in. Eames is spiritual model. Many students from the program
have successful products in the marketplace.

Some examples of projects from the current
student body (can’t mention the one who excites him the most, and info is under
confidentiality agreement):

1. A student is developing a restaurant
names FEVER – has developed concept and designs for everything from dishes to
décor – brought in an architect to lay out total space – brought on board cook
to develop range of hot sauces…

2. Lorem Ipsum T Shirt design company –
while the school directors questioned if this was innovative the CEO of Joe
Boxer was a mentor and he dug the idea and thought it was viable. The student
went out and got stores in NY to pre-purchase the first run of t-shirts proving
the fact. The student developed branding, advertising, products and a killer
website that effectively told the story and sold the product directly to
customers, making it much more profitable.

3. A student rebranded an area of
Brooklyn called Gowanus Canal – took toxic neighborhood ad repackaged it for
existing residents, organizations, and ideal transplants – not promoting
gentrification but high value and quality of life. We could use some of this

4. A student rebranded Abyssinian
Baptist Church in Harlem – first went to bishop and their design firm to gain
their blessing. Created logos, ID package, products (ties, umbrellas, etc.),
and most important took branding to the broad Harlem community with a billboard
campaign – donated space allowed church to share their ID and important simple
messages like “LEAD�, “LOVE�, & “REASON�. The Bishop arranged for a day
when 25,000 people in Harlem held up placards with these simple messages on
them, they were photographed, and that went on the billboards- very effective
in many ways. Any churches here inspired by such innovative thinking?

5. A student developed modern Arabic
fonts for the computer and graphics, which are featured on a website with other
related education and awareness material. Sells typefaces. Planning books.
Student did all the packaging, website, posters – put the Arabic language in a
valuable historical perspective.

6. Mesu – product is nested, measured
bowls for people trying to control their food intake – know how large are their
portions, from ½ cup to 2 cups. Designed good product and packaging that hit an
important market niche and became very popular – designer was overweight and
that was inspiration for idea.

7. While the MFA program discourages
“book� projects, one student convinced the directors there was a gap in
documentation on roadside “vernacular� – pictures of old signs and such – the
student photographed across over a dozen states and produced a book, fonts, and
postcards, which have proven the most profitable.

To educate, you need to build on what
students know. Entrepreneurial instinct is in us all so this program is a
natural progression from graphic design training – giving that business

CIA President David Deming asked is the
competition of becoming entrepreneurs interferes with students sharing and Steve
said they all work under non-disclosures and all work and share in a design
studio environment as a community, so sharing is not hindered – sounds like a
positive environment.

Attendee asks how they “get to market� and
Steven says every Friday a local lawyer feeds the group lunch and teaches
students about IP and related issues like copyrights and contracts – students
love this opportunity, including being fed, and some have later hired the
lawyer (my incubator in CA has the same set-up monthly with lawyers at
Reed-Smith, and we all love the free lunch and hire their lawyers when it is

Steven says they also have outside experts
come in to help students with business plans. In order to succeed, students
need to be able to address all these issues and challenges – MFAs need the
planning support. This program also uses mentors for each project – some work
and some don’t (mentions David Byrne was a mentor to a project but was just too
busy – previously mentioned CEO of Joe Boxer, who obviously worked out for the
T-shirt project). Civic Innovation Lab also uses mentors, and it is expected
some of those relationships will work and others will fail.

Students in this program typically have
design degrees but some are from other backgrounds (and they offer an
“unspoken� 0th year for non-designers for them to learn basics they
are missing) – ultimately integration of design experience in background is
important… film makers, for example.

Asked what is the ideal student?
Articulate, talented, with understanding of graphics arts industry and ability to
push the envelope – it’s got to be in you.

Asked why some ideas don’t make it to
market? Student lacks confidence or necessary skills – all have ideas but some
can’t make them reality – gotta try it.

Asked how they pick consultants and
mentors? They go everywhere with that – some work out and some don’t.

Steven mentions social responsibility is
all about the jobs you take or don’t – what you make and how. Key is to make
students aware – to understand the world around them – they need to discover
what is right for themselves on their own – may even look for right jobs but
have to take others along the way to survive.

After the session, I reflect that we saw
two elder academic statesmen coming with excellent insight on skills, from the
now ivory tower, and two from the trenches perspectives on survival and self
preservation – spiritual and material. Each of these presenters are remarkably
successful in their own rights, and the resounding theme is “be authentic�.
Beyond that, all acknowledge taking risks, evolving with technology,
continuously refining skills, and ultimately being uniquely creative. Good
advice for everyone – artists and others.

To see the work of James Victore, visit his website

James Victore profile at School of the Visual Arts website

From a website called "Speak Up" there is an interesting interview... here's the introduction, with links to "James Victore Speaks Up"

I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes trying to write a really
nice introduction for this interview. Set the mood for what you are
about to read. Many words have passed through my head to start writing
something. Anything. Passion. Unique. Raw. Personal. Daring. Bold.
Idea. Shock. Reaction.

And that is what James Victore’s does. It confuses you. It makes you
smile, frown, think. It screws you up. It makes you want to swear. Yes,
that’s exactly what it does: swear, curse, be profane. And that is the
biggest compliment I can manage to give him and his work. Nobody else’s
work makes me want to swear. It’s just a raw reaction. Just sprouts out
of my mind and there it is. Fucking amazing.

> Read the interview

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