An Interview with Julius Friedman
By Bill Noblitt
Photo by Gordon Baer
On the day I called Julius Friedman, a Louisville photographer and image-maker who has won national and international design awards, he was frazzled. This particular crisis was about pizza, and, boy, was Julius hot. He just got off the phone with the pizza magnate client who quibbled over the design bill. Julius described the job as designer by committee since the client even got his brother involved. Julius said he must have redone the job five times. No, it was a crisis, and Julius was having a bad day.
“We did this job five times, and it became so hot that we couldn’t Federal Express it to Chicago,” he explained. “We have to buy an airline ticket for the job. Today, the client rang up and said, “We don’t think we like it. We want to change it. By the way, we don’t understand why your invoice is more than your quote." That was the straw that broke the pixel’s back.
“So, I asked the client,” Julius said, “If I ordered a 14-inch cheese pizza and after you deliver, my girlfriend says, ‘I think I want sausage.’ I say, ‘We now want a sausage pizza. By the way, we want a 16 inch.’ By that time, a friend comes over and says, ‘I’m a vegetarian. Maybe we can make the pizza half sausage and half vegetarian.’ I send the pizza delivery guy back to get our changed pizza. I then asked the client, “Do we pay for all three pizzas or do we just get charged for one?” That’s why my bill is for more money.”
It was comforting to know that Julius Friedman has bad client days just like the rest of us.
How do you nurture your own design talent?
I’m a one-man band. Mainly I choose jobs where there’s really no money involved in it. The cause is more intriguing to me than a company like Budweiser beer or Kentucky Fried Chicken. I will rent studio space, and a friend will be using the studio next to mine. He’s shooting a pack of cigarettes and makes $10,000 a day. These guys always tell me I could be doing the same thing. It’s a trade-off. The fun stuff usually doesn’t reward you monetarily. The way I keep fresh is to do stuff for architectural preservation, for the homeless, for illiteracy. I design for causes that interest me.
You lead UCDA’s “Hot & Now” workshop where people attending go out into a city and photograph what’s important to them. Is this type of exercise important to staying fresh as designers?
I never thought UCDA’s “Hot & Now” would become a reality. When I was on the plane going to the first one in Chicago, I thought, “It worked for me, but I’m not sure it will for others.” I gave the assignment. I said there’s no right or wrong, no good or bad, nothing about F stops. Just go out like a child and photograph things you respond to. This comment thew some people off. They asked, “What’s the assignment, though?”
I said, “There is no assignment.”
I could almost hear them thinking: “I paid all this money to go to Chicago, and there’s this cockamamie guy giving me two rolls of film and tells me to do whatever I want to do. What’s the point?”
“Hot & Now” became something of an encounter group. Even people who lived in Chicago said of others’ work, “I live here, and you’ve shown me things I never saw walking down this street.”
I believe you need to rekindle that child-like sense. I think that’s why “Hot & Now” works. We don’t talk about war stories. We don’t talk about technique.
We just go out as children and crawl around and respond to something. Then, we come back and talk about it.
I got some really nice letters. I tell people that they can do this at home. They don’t have to come to a conference or seminar to do it. We just don’t take the time to do it.
Do designers censor themselves and just go with what’s safe because they know they can sell it to the client?
I think many times we as designers sell out. We think our clients would never buy this idea, or we don’t have the time or we don’t have the budget. And I say: “Let’s try.”
Sometimes when you’re a child, you ask stupid questions like: “Why can’t I?” I think we forget how to do that. We become so professional and so jaded. Some of my best imagery was a mistake.
We don’t take chances. We look at our portfolios and say to ourselves, “It’s the same solution I came up with 10 years ago, and it isn’t any better.”
We as designers need to make it different. We need to take a chance.
I look at admissions work, and most of the view books and search pieces look and sound alike. There’s no uniqueness.
I don’t think it’s only schools. I think most advertising is that way.
That’s the whole idea behind stock photography. We’ve become so generic in our imagery that why should we go take a shot of a nurse and doctor in an operating room when we can buy stock? Our imagery, therefore, is coming more and more out of the catalog.
What is the role of a graphic designer in the communications process?
Our reputation and our portfolio define our role. After that, I feel we’re nothing more than problem-solvers. We sit down with the powers that be, and we get what is called input. From that input, we, as professionals—and I use a small “p” because clients don’t think we’re a big “p” yet—go back and interpret in graphic terms a communications solution based on our experience.
As designers, we solve client’s problems based on graphic terms. It’s one of communications. If it’s a publications package, a display or signage, clients hire us as communicators to solve that problem.
We have a very strange profession. We’re one of the few professions that is totally custom-made. Most businesses can pull something off the shelf for a client. “You want a 1407? Yes, we got it.” The client comes to us as designers, however, and gets a custom job.
You’ve won many design awards over the years. What do you think of peer approval?
I think we have these design competitions because no one really congratulates us. So, we have to thank ourselves. We pay this money and hope our peers like what we do.
I believe we should have a show called “Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and everyone puts in five pieces that represent their firm’s work. Instead of us all getting together and saying how great we are or how we hate each other now because we didn’t win one of those and you did. This just perpetuates paranoia among designers.
In a “Good, the Bad and the Ugly” competition, then, everyone’s a winner. Instead of us congratulating each other, invite the public so we can educate them about what this profession is about. Let them decide who’s good, bad and ugly. But we thank ourselves, and we moan among ourselves, and it never goes beyond the circle.
Where do you best ideas for images come from?
I think it’s like anyone else. They come from personal history. Experiences. That’s all we are really, experiences.
I start with the premise that anything is possible. I don’t start at the bottom and go down. Let’s start at the top.
Humana (a national care group) wanted me to do a huge poster for their employees. Their agency provided a comp that showed a smiling nurse looking at a child whose arm had been cut off. lt was just so much blood and guts. Why would someone who worked eight hours a day want to take this poster home and look at it? So I came up with the idea about quality of life—that we want you to be healthy and if you’re not healthy we’ll take care of you. I did that analogy of a flower—it has a beauty, a life expectancy. If you nurture it, it will grow, and if you don’t, it will die.
The agency asked, “You want to show a photograph of a rose?”
And I said, “Let’s just try it. You have 70,000 employees, and if they don’t like it, I’ll tear up my invoice. I feel that strongly about the piece.” They let me do it. It was a very successful campaign called the “Quality of Life.”
That’s where ideas come from—not from the client. Most clients want what’s called proved design. Forty years ago this worked, and we’re still doing it.
Your problem is the same. How do you do enrollment or alumni work and keep it fresh? How can you push this somewhere? I respect what university and college designers do because I feel it’s difficult. I really respect what you have to do to make that exciting year after year.
It’s interesting what you said about selling your ideas. I attended one UCDA presentation where the designer discussed a visual idea for a booklet. She showed the ones that were rejected, and, quite frankly, I believed that one of the rejected ones was the perfect solution. It was incredible to me that the university or college client didn’t go for it. How do you diffuse this situation that creates an atmosphere where the on-staff designer is no longer treated like the professional?
We spend more time trying to educate our clients than we do designing. I really think design organizations really have to address this problem. Until we have a buying public that has taste and has respect for this profession, I think we will always have this problem. I think most of the people we deal with have no idea what we do.
Why won't some of our clients let us do our jobs, then?
I worked with one client and told him that it was going to be a four-month ordeal. I said: "Why don't you take off for four months—I guarantee it will come in on time and under budget. Just don't worry about it.”
He said, "I can't do that.”
So I told him that I wanted him to be a part of the whole process. “Tomorrow morning, we’re going to begin shooting this job, and I want you to come along. We’re going to do 14 stills.” It’s 2 p.m., and then it’s 4 p.m.. And at 6 p.m., we finished one still life. I said: “That’s one down and we still have 13 more to go. We start shooting at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. Can you be here?”
“No, no, no. It’s fine,” the client said. “You guys are doing a good job.”
He didn’t realize that you don’t do 14 Polaroids in 20 seconds. After that, my life with this client was a lot easier because he respected what I did. When you're a professional, it’s easy, but when you’re an amateur, it’s hard. There are some out there who don’t allow us to be professionals. Most people consider architects professionals, but most of the time they don’t put us on that same plane.
Clients will call you and ask you to give them a price for an identity program, and you give it to them. Then they’ll say, “We have this student here who is willing to do this whole identity package for $200. Why is your price $20,000?”
I always tell them, “Just in terms of track history and everything, if you cannot tell the difference between my portfolio and their portfolio, then if I were you I’d go with the $200 bid.”
Did you ever work for a university?
Yes, I worked for a university once. I worked for the public information office. I designed this whole unified package, but each department wanted its own identity. It was worse than working in the so-called real world. No one wanted what the other schools or departments were doing.
Then we had to print everything at the campus print shop. I got this piece back, and it was the wrong PMS color. It wasn’t even printed on the same stock I specified. And it was late and everything. We had to fill out forms to get our jobs printed by the campus print shop. I told the campus printer: “After the job is printed, fill out this form based on what you did and for once it will really match what we received.” The printer got really offended by that.
We were designing this big book, and I had had it with the print shop. So, just for the hell of it, l went out to the best printer and give him the specs. The outside printer's bid was cheaper than using our in-house printer. The outside printer guaranteed the specs and the delivery date. So I went to my boss and said, "Look, a real printer, and it's cheaper.”
He said, “We can’t do that.”
I asked, “Why? It’s cheaper?”
He said, “It’s policy.”
I cleaned out my desk, left and never returned.
What is quality design? How do you know it when you see it? What should quality design do?
I have two definitions. What you as a designer think quality design is, and what the person hiring your services thinks it is. As I said earlier I don’t think there's ever one way to solve a problem. I think when you're an accountant and you come up with 2 and 2 are five, you go, buzz, wrong. It's easy to say it's wrong.
We're dealing with taste. Your taste is often different from the taste of the person hiring you. A graphic designer is nothing more than a hired gun. A client hires you to solve a communications problem. It is not our problem until we accept that challenge then we as graphic designers have an obligation to solve that problem based on the needs of the audience.
I just did a presentation. The guy was sitting about 15 feet from me behind a desk. There was no way he could see what I was proposing. All he said was: “Do you like it? Do you think it is great?”
I said: “I wouldn’t show it to you unless I felt strong about it. In that case, yes, I’m very please with it.”
So, quality design to me is first pleasing myself with the solution. Then hopefully I can sell that solution to the client. He or she may never think that’s quality design. Most people who hire our services have no idea who the audience is or what they’re trying to accomplish. Most of them say: “I don’t know what I like, but I may like it when I see it. But that’s still questionable.”
You hire someone based on his or her reputation. You don’t critique a brain surgeon. When your dentist says, “I think you need a root canal,” you don’t say, “Are you sure? Don’t you think I just need a filling?”
I try to tell clients at the beginning, “Let’s don’t do comps. Let’s just sit down and use the King’s English and say that we base the concept on the tomato. Now, if anyone in the room has problems with tomatoes, I don’t mind changing the concept. But if I spend $1,500 for a cibachrome print of a tomato and I hire a high-powered photographer to shoot the tomato for $12,000 and then someone says, “I hate tomatoes,” then that is an expensive blunder.” Why can’t we just talk about concepts verbally? Get all the input you can and then once someone says that’s fine you go back and do that piece.
Do you think that it’s our fault because we aren’t communicating clearly, or we’re not understanding what the client’s telling us?
I think to be a great designer you have to be articulate. We aren’t in our garret doing our own kind of graphic thing and hope that someone loves what we do as much as we do. The successful designer has to be articulate. We have to be taught skills in writing and speaking. These, quite frankly, should be part of the design curriculum. We should learn many more skills than just Macintosh and F-stops and pixels. We’re selling communications and that’s psychology and economics and business. We’re in commerce. People come to us because they want us to inform someone or sell something. And it’s commerce.
I think many people, though, don’t want to admit that we’re dealing with commerce. Some people want to believe graphic design’s a fine art and not a commercial art. You can wed fine art with commercial art. I think there can be a marriage of the two.
It really saddens me when I go to printers. I look on the floor and see hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of coupons being printed. It’s not even going to be read. It’s going to quickly end up in a landfill. So much imagery bombards us.
We can agree that a lot of good design and bad design is a subjective thing. My viewpoint may be different from your viewpoint. But both of us have to admit that there’s bad design out there. Why is this?
I tell a client that if this publication isn’t worth cutting a tree down then don’t print it.
I was lecturing somewhere.
Someone said: “A lot of your work is on Kromekote paper. Don’t you feel guilty since you’re hurting the ecology by not using recycled paper?”
I answered this person very bluntly: “I would feel really bad if I had just spent $50,000 of a client’s money on coupons, and the piece was going to end up in a landfill.”
Most of the work I do is for posters that have a life expectancy of a lot longer than 30 seconds. I hope the pieces I produce are still on someone’s wall 10 years from now and not in a landfill. Therefore, I don’t feel guilty using something like Kromekote.
Whose fault is it really? Are we the enemy or is the client the enemy or is it both of us? Why is there so much bad stuff? Is it the schools who are turning out bad designers? I don’t know.
Part of what I see in design is that a lot of current trends with wild use of type and icons almost promote illiteracy. Is this true or am I just old-fashioned? Or have designers found a new way to promote or present a message?
I was taught that typography is a beautiful thing, and the first thing about typography was to make it work because it had to be read. I find now that typography has become a fashion.
I come from the old school where I can remember hand-setting type. Then there was linotype–I’ve done that in school before. Then there was cold type, then Alpha Type and now there’s Macintosh type. People are taught to blow up the type to fit a space. There is not this finite thing about leading. You can take typography and layer it. You can take typography and layer it. I can set “Bill Is a Great Guy” in 48 pt. Helvetica. Then I can set it again and overlap it and overlap it and overlap it. Finally, I have a big black square. I know I said “Bill Is a Great Guy” in 48 pt. Helvetica. Does anyone else know that?
I feel a lot of current typography doesn’t communicate anything. I remember getting a call for entries from an organization that a well-known designer designed. It was so esoteric and so hard to read–you know it was with white type on white paper. You couldn’t read it. I spent a long, long time trying to figure it out. In some cases, I think the computer has made type totally illegible. I think kids being taught typography today have no idea about the past, about point size, about legibility. They’re creating a kind of visual illiteracy.
That’s the kind of stuff that ends up winning design competitions. Typography should be one of legibility first. I think I could spend the red of my life designing with one typeface and never exhaust the possibilities of that typeface. Just because we have more doesn’t make it better. I think limitations are good.
Do you use a Mac?
I don’t have one personally. I rent computer time, and I design right on the Mac. The computer is a tool. It’s not going replace creativity. It’s going to enhance it. What’s bad about the computer is that everyone who has one thinks he or she is a designer. It goes back to the professional thing.
What other design issues are on the forefront?
I have to ask myself before I design something: “Do I believe in this product?” I refuse to do cigarette advertising because it kills people. There’s an ethic that we as designers have to address. Whether or not we print 2 million pieces of worthless design that almost immediately ends up in the landfill. When are we going to address the design field as a profession? We have to quit congratulating ourselves in terms of the annuals and educate the public on what we do. Until we educate the public, we will always have the same problems. Who owns imagery? I scan in a piece and manipulate it a bit and call it my own. Is this right? These are a few of the issues I’m concerned about.