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Famed Graphic Designer Tom Geismar

March 5, 2010

     Logos have been iconic images for many businesses over the last four hundred years but so have the designers that create them. Tom Geismar is one of the most highly-acclaimed designers in the graphic design profession. He has created many iconic logos including those of Mobil Oil, New York University, Chase Bank, National Geographic, and many more. He graciously answered a few questions in an interview on Logo Design Love that I would like to bring to your attention. (You can read the full interview here.)

Q: 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.

 Q:  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.

Q. 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 variation in color, form, etc.

Q. 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, ect. 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.

Q. 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.

– Jenny GD/AM

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 8, 2010 12:47 PM

    Earlier in the term I wrote a paper and gave a presentation on Chermayeff & Geismar, the design firm Tom Geismar helped found. Nice article, Jenny!

    – Hannah

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