Interview By Ella Rue
Illustration by Madelynne Dela Rama
Logos, Posters and Photographs by Marc English
Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 33, Issue 4, Winter 2008)
Austin filmmaker/writer Cary Roberts referred to him as “the Stanley Kubrick of design.” Step Inside Design magazine calls him “the Johnny Cash of AIGA,” referring to him as “teacher, preacher, shaman, showman.” The 20th anniversary issue of HOW magazine listed him as one of “20 Designers We’d Like to Have a Beer With,” and in hyping the book Inspirability tossed around the phrases “luminary” and “design superstar” when referring to him. But Marc English believes only half of what is said about him: the teacher, preacher bit.
English studied design at Massachusetts College of Art after a stint at Berklee College of Music, where he studied composing, harmony, and arranging. English began his career in Boston, working at various studios on communication design projects for Fortune 500 clients, broadcast design for ABC-TV’s Boston affiliate, and museum exhibits for national and international clients. He opened his own studio in 1993.
English has built his reputation by creating a body of work that focuses on identity—the heart and soul of any individual, institution, or corporation. He is the author of Designing Identity: Graphic Design as a Business Strategy, (Rockport, 1998) a series of industry-specific case studies providing insight into the role design plays in success.
Sitting in boxes in his garage are the awards that English has garnered for his work. Among others, he has been recognized by the AIGA, American Center for Design, American Advertising Federation, American Corporate Identity, New York Art Directors Club, Broadcast Design Association, Society of Publication Designers, International Typographic Design, Communication Arts, graphis, I.D., Print, HOW, and Step Inside Design magazines.
Above left: Inside Marc’s studio, Austin (July 2005): Marc has had the Claes Oldenbeg poster hanging since 1985: Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America. He got the Joe Hill poster in Seattle, at the Left Bank Bookshop.The Clash, OK soda, Brigette Bardot in ‘Contempt’, and a head from the piñata head collection. Above right: Wall of Marc’s studio, Austin (July 2005): Studio clocks, calendars.
English’s studio has been featured in Graphic Design America 2: The Work of Many of the Best & Brightest Design Firms From Across the United States and Inspirability. His work can also be found in the collections of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, Germany; the Merrill C. Berman Collection in New York; and the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitano, México City.
English has served as a director of the AIGA and as president of its Boston and Austin chapters. He has served as a member of the Massachusetts College of Art National Alumni Council and sat on the board of directors of the Austin Film Society. English, who has taught at the university level in the U.S. and Mexico for more than a decade, currently teaches graduate courses at the Academy of Art University, in San Francisco. He continues to travel and lecture frequently, and was the first designer from the U.S to speak at both Guatemala and Tijuana's premier design conferences.
Q: What contemporary designers inspire you and why?
A: I really can’t say that any contemporary designers inspire me, as I have learned that inspiration—for the most part—comes from within. Either we have spirit or we don’t. That said, there are contemporary designers whose work I admire. To name a few: David Kampa, Chip Kidd, Chuck Anderson, Laurie DeMartino, and Stephen Doyle. I admire their work because their work is infused with spirit. You can tell that they care about what they are doing, they love to create, and design is their vehicle.
Q: With regards to doing work for the public good, who has inspired you, and why?
A: When I was 12, in Arlington, Massachusetts, Mr. Whitman was my junior high history teacher. He had been in the Battle of the Bulge, and it being 1970, turned us on to Earth Day and the environment. Several of my classmates and I went to the Boston Common for the Earth Day festivities. I can still recall the green and white striped “ecology” flag. “Ecology” was the global warming of its day and there was a movement, a representational icon. As a side note, I see no icon for similar issues today.
As I was an avid camper—and typical kid that liked to play outdoors—the environment was something of which I was very much aware. Mr. Whitman had us picking up trash around Spy Pond, where our school was located—we were leaving the world a better place. Which ties in to what I learned from my dad camping when camping, and later as a Boy Scout: Pack it in, pack it out. To this day I still pick up litter that has been left on trails.
At the same time I was aware of what John Lennon and Yoko Ono were doing, staging their “bed-ins” for peace and love, their “50 acorns tied in a sack.” Which is essentially the core of all work for the public good—it says: we care. Can you imagine a celebrity couple today using their no-doubt paparazzi infested wedding week to stage a call for world peace? Pro-bono publico, for the public good.
Q: Where do you find inspiration? Has this changed throughout your career?
A: My sources of inspiration have not necessarily changed; it’s just that now I recognize them for what they are. When I was younger I would look to other designers to see what I was doing right or wrong. But ultimately, I have always turned to my own life and experiences, drawing from what I know, and being open to all manner of history, culture, sociology, anthropology, music, art, etc., finding ways to incorporate those subjects or their influences at the proper time.
Q: In your life what was the greatest gift that you ever received and why? What do you feel your greatest gift has been to others?
A: My natural curiosity, coupled with the ability to care, have lead to a life of exploration in any number of areas and allowed me to share any insights gained with others. The greatest gift I received was my mother’s encouragement to read, which had lead to a degree of autodidactism. Nice word, huh? Having the last name of “English” pretty much keeps me aware of words, so I can thank my dad for that one. And now that I think about my dad, it was his taking me on the road as a kid that opened my eyes to other kinds of people (we drove from Boston to Mexico), other kinds of soil (I can still recall seeing red Georgia clay when I was 10), and any number of cultural ways of life that were not like those of my native New England. Add to that my dad’s tendency to have never met a stranger. He spoke with anyone as if he had known him or her his whole life.
My greatest gift to others would be my ability to inspire and lead, based not on self-aggrandizement or monetary gain, but on doing right by others, depending on the context and situation. And to further sharpen the point, to make clear that the root of the word “inspire” is spirit, that we have to find ways to understand and capture the true spirit of all our work. But really, I can’t say what others would say, that’s just what I feel, particularly as over the years I’ve come to terms with the fact that while I’m a good designer on any given day, I’m a better teacher, and I gained that ability from not only my parents, but from all my teachers.
Q: Do you feel your design work has impacted society? And if so, how?
A: The short answer is yes I do believe my work has affected society. The longer answer of course is to the question “To what degree?” Sometimes to very small degrees, like creating a one-off brochure for the Boy Scouts, only as much as that brochure informs a finite audience, with a given message. A second part of that question would be regarding the pro bono work specifically.
The most important piece of work I ever did was while employed as assistant design director at WCVB-TV in Boston. It was 2 x 4 feet perpetual pregnancy calendar for women who got zero healthcare, handed out on the streets of Boston, as well as at local McDonald’s restaurants, which directed them toward specific inner-city clinics. I wasn’t selling ketchup (the project was underwritten by Heinz) or even literature, but creating a piece that affected lives in the most fundamental way: telling pregnant women to get checked, lay off the crack, stop drinking.
The unique quality of the poster was that I drew informal line-art illustrations of fetuses to scale. Which one NEVER sees, in any textbook. The scale of the poster allowed for that. Which meant when a woman’s fetus was 5 months old, they could actually compare their belly to the image on the poster and have an accurate idea of scale and development. I convinced my superiors to spring for the extra cost and print the reverse side completely in Spanish. There were also phone numbers for clinics where they spoke Haitian Creole, Portuguese Creole, and Vietnamese.
When clinicians and counselors told me that women were coming into the clinics with the posters in hand, I knew it was right on the money. By the way, the image of the pregnant women was based on the issue of Vanity Fair with a pregnant Demi Moore on the cover. And with no small degree of humor, the African-American woman I was working with told me my illustration of her butt wasn’t right for our target audience, and asked me to expand upon the subject. I did, with a smile.
Q: Where are your boundaries? Specifically, are there clients you would not accept because of moral or ethical reasons? If so, what are they and why? Conversely, what causes do you feel are imperative to support? And why?
A: Not long after moving to Texas I got a call. Someone had found me in the phone book. Would I design a book on costumes? “Fantastic!” I thought. I was new to town, had no work, and here was a book. An art/history book. I love history, art. It sounded great. At first. Then I did what I always do: I asked questions. And more questions. And still more, getting to the heart of the matter.
It turns out the book was for kostumes of the Ku Klux Klan and the call was from some guy outside of Austin. I was shocked, my Yankee Transcendentalist sensibilities affronted, offended. I declined the job!
In retrospect, I think I should have done the job. Here’s why: one, I believe in documentation and documentation of costumes or uniforms, even of those whose actions are despicable, have their place in the annals of anthropology, to say nothing of social science; secondly, by taking on the project I could have taken their money and turned around and donated it the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org), to which I had made donations back when I was living in Boston and sucking on the corporate teat, and had a little extra cash; and lastly once the book was done, with copies of the book and dollars in hand, I could have sent out a press release of some kind, with the counsel of the SPLC.
I feel causes that need support are any dealing with justice, equal and human rights, the environment, and health. That pretty much covers a lot of territory.
Q: Design is about making and packaging things and ideas. Historically, design has been seen as a force for changing the world. How do you feel design and/or art have changed the world? Or maybe more locally; society, a community, or even an individual?
A: I don’t believe that historically design HAS been seen as a force for change. I believe for the most part—and I believe we have to speak broadly, if mentioning history and change—design is in fact relegated to the few: the few forward thinkers, the few visionaries of industry/art/science/culture, the few designers that are truly filled with the creative spirit, who direct that spirit and their efforts towards design. So in short, there AREN’T that many who “see” design as a force of anything, unless it is window dressing, fashion and decoration.
But yes, Johannes Guttenberg, Alexander Graham Bell, and Steve Jobs were/are designers, in the sense of designing systems that begat products that begat cultural shifts in communication, which begat ways that have changed the world. Martin Luther, Benjamin Franklin, and Karl Marx were proponents of publishing rants and distributing ideas to the masses, which again have changed the way we work today, for those ideas begat CNN, MySpace and YouTube.
But on the local level, there is a firm here in Austin, Milkshake Media, that was instrumental in helping the Lance Armstrong Foundation with those yellow LIVE STRONG wristbands that tacitly endorse cancer research. One can see any number and, all manners of people in public and on television wearing those yellow bands, which suggest awareness. Of course the yellow wristbands begat all the copycat versions, as did the red AIDS ribbon of a few years back. Have they changed the world? Sure. Can I quantify it? Damn it, Jim! I’m a designer, not an economist!
Q: Do you feel that designers and/or artists can galvanize others to take action? If so, how?
A: Only in so much as they are part of something bigger, contributing their work to the work of others. Designers design, artists make art. What we design, why we design, is always part of something bigger, so if one wants to take action they have to be part of something bigger. I’m not saying designers can’t make a poster, let’s say, and plaster it around town, but unless it is drop-dead, spot-on perfect, it’s not going to get much respect or attention, and designers don’t know everything, don’t know all the facts, which is where the teamwork comes in. Damn it, Jim! I’m a designer, not a doctor!
Q: Of all of your achievements, what do you feel is your crowning one to date? And what makes it so important?
A: I’m not much for crowns, but I am proud of a few accomplishments. In 1998 my book, Designing Identity, was published, and though it contributed to professional discourse, it is dedicated to my daughter, Rebecka—quite by design, of course—knowing that no matter what happened to me after the moment I sent off the final manuscript, that a copy of the book and that inscription would be on permanent record, housed in the Library of Congress. So I’m proud of the dedication to my kid, and by those words, which I still stand by, as they were about identity, heart, and soul.
Along those lines, it has been said, “Wisdom is justified by its children,” so we'll see how my daughter turns out. But in the meantime I know that I have made my corporate identity teacher at MassArt, Bill Hannon, proud, and at the other end of the spectrum I have seen former students and interns go on to do meaningful work in the field, and have found that many of my former students from both Boston and Austin, as well as many who have heard me lecture across the U.S. and afar, have tracked me down to say “thank you” for any number of things. So I find it of professional importance to know I’ve been a passionate and realistic link from Hannon to any number of people who continue to fight the good fight.
And part of that good fight is doing work for the public good.