Interview By Andrea Kohl
Home and Studio Photographs and Designs Courtesy of Woody Pirtle
Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 34, Issue 4, Winter 2009)
Woody Pirtle was born in Corsicana, Texas, in 1944 and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, at the age of three. He graduated in fine arts from the University of Arkansas. After briefly working in Shreveport, Pirtle moved back to Texas in 1969 to pursue a career in graphic design. In 1971 he joined Stan Richards and Associates. While working for Stan, Woody honed his design skills and developed a keen insight into the business of graphic design. By 1978 Woody decided to launch his own business, Pirtle Design, which was soon as successful as any design firm in the southwest. He won many medals and awards for his work and in 1986 was awarded “The Golden Egg” by the Dallas Society of Visual Communications for his career contribution to the design field. He also won “Communicator of the Year” from the Houston Art Directors Club for several consecutive years. In 1987 Woody decided to accept an invitation from Colin Forbes to join the prestigious international design consultancy Pentagram, and became an equity partner in the New York Office. For 18 years he remained a partner at Pentagram and helped build the New York office into the powerhouse it is today.
Woody’s work has been exhibited worldwide and is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Zurich Poster Museum, and others. In 2003, Woody was recognized with the highest award that a graphic designer can receive: The AIGA Medal, honoring his significant contribution to the graphic design profession.
Woody retired from Pentagram in 2005 and reestablished Pirtle Design in Upstate New York.
He has taught at the School of Visual Arts, and in the fall of 2010 will begin teaching at Cooper Union in New York.
Along with other internationally acclaimed graphic designers Woody is a recurring judge for the Not-for-Profit socially conscious organization, “Good 50x70,” which promotes the design of posters for a variety of urgent global social issues
In preparation for his interview this summer, I took a trip to New Paltz, New York, to visit Woody in his beautiful late-18th century home on the banks of the Walkill River. He and his wife, Leslie, spent the last 10 years renovating this charming three-building estate, which houses his home and design firm, Pirtle Design. Touring his home and studio, I felt like I was walking through a maze-like museum. Every room was thoughtfully decorated with beautiful paintings, sculptures created by Woody himself and personal items from Woody’s past (like the cowboy boots from his childhood in Louisiana). Woody and his wife own an eclectic collection of artifacts from all over the world.
He impressed me with his open-minded, humorous, generous and humble personality. Studying his sophisticated and unique design solutions during my design education in Germany and teaching my students today about his significant impact on the graphic design profession, I was very grateful for the opportunity to meet him.
Q: Can you tell us about your childhood?
A: I grew up in a small idyllic town where most people left their doors unlocked and never worried about the things we are confronted with today. In the summer, I would leave the house after breakfast, go out on my bicycle, meet a couple of my friends, eat lunch at someone else’s house, and would finally come home just in time for dinner. I was gone all day but my mother never worried about me. I remember one day I was out with my friends in the woods not too far from where I lived, and I found a snake. I put it around my neck, hopped on my bike and took it home! (laughing). My mother went berserk!
My mom and dad went to Centenary College in the same town, settled down there and never left. After I graduated from high school, I rarely went back.
Q: What was your parents’ response to your wish to study art?
A: I wanted to go to Pratt, but my parents had a problem with me wanting to be in art. They preferred that I get a liberal arts education. I should have gone to LSU or the University of Texas, but I was interested in the University of Arkansas because of architecture. There was a teacher there named Fay Jones, who was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. That’s what really attracted me to the school.
Once I got into architecture, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to continue pursuing it. I was impatient and it took too long to get things done. I switched to studio arts and later got interested in commercial art (as graphic design was called in those days).
I didn’t really know that much about design because in the 60s it was such a young field.
Q: How did you decide upon becoming a graphic designer?
A: At the University of Arkansas I was actually in fine arts doing copper plate etching, stone lithographs, drawing, painting, all in studio arts. I was always interested in drawing and the skill has served me well in my illustrations.
I had straight A’s in art, but I didn’t do so well in the other courses (laughing). I knew I wanted to become an artist, but it wasn’t really until almost the end of university that I knew I would become a graphic designer. When I started to go to the library, looking at books and such, on the subject, I learned about Push Pin Studios and that was my first exposure to graphic design.
Woody Pirtle’s home and studio in New Paltz, New York.
Q: What did you do after your studies?
A: I really didn’t know what I was going to do and my first job was actually in Shreveport. Then I moved to Dallas. That’s where I worked for Stan Richards and the Richards Group for seven years. Then I started my own business. In the late 70s I met Alan Fletcher at a judging for Communication Arts magazine and he asked me: “Have you ever considered joining Pentagram?” I thought about it and then answered: “I am really honored, but I just started my business and it is only two years old, I don’t think I am quite ready.” Between ’81 and ’87, which is when I did join Pentagram, there was this 6-year courtship. In ’84/’85 the market bottomed out in the Southwest. The same thing that happened recently in banking and the housing industry happened back then in housing and the oil and gas industry. So my clients just evaporated, and that’s when I started talking again with Pentagram. By then they had brought Kit Hinrichs in as partner and opened the San Francisco office. Kit was my good friend and fueled my interest again. We compared numbers and were pretty much on the same page. So, I closed my office, sold my property and moved to New York. When I joined Pentagram, I was the youngest partner. I was 44 and the first American partner in the New York office. The others were from Great Britain.
Q: So, did the office grow quite a lot, after you joined?
A: Yes, as soon as I got to New York, we brought Paula Scher and Michael Bierut in as partners. Colin and I were attracted to them because we knew they would help us transform the office into what it is today. Then we brought Jim Biber in. He was the first architect in the New York office and our first attempt to become multidisciplinary.
Q: Where did the name Pentagram come from?
A: Because the names of the five founders were cumbersome when listed together, they had to find a name that would continue to represent the firm even if one or more of the partners left or if a new partner was added. Pentagram was a provocative choice and of course makes a direct reference to five. And no, we are not a satanic cult!
Q: Can you elaborate on the corporate philosophy of Pentagram?
A: Pentagram is all about collaboration. It’s about collaboration within teams and across disciplines. It’s not uncommon for a graphic design partner and his or her team to be working on the same project with an architectural and industrial design team.
Q: Has there ever been a job offer that you didn’t accept?
A: Sometimes there are products that you don’t like or feel are not socially responsible. I once had a dilemma about whether or not to enter a competition to design a cigarette package with a prize of $100,000. Paula Scher and I both decided to work on it but agreed that if we won, the money would go to the American Cancer Society.
But also, sometimes you meet with a client and the chemistry isn’t right or you don’t like what they’re asking you to do. I sometimes have to say, “I don't think this is right for me.”
Q: Could you summarize your design philosophy in a few words?
A: It may sound like a cliché but “less is more.” I’ve always strived to do work that clearly communicates and reflects the vision of my clients in the most creative, unexpected, and of course appropriate way. When I do it well, I think the work makes the optimum connection with the intended demographic. I try to avoid trends and I always strive to do work that is timeless. Like the symbol for Dallas Opera or Fine Line Features. The Dallas Opera symbol is now almost 40 years old, but could have been designed yesterday.
Q: Which designers inspire your work?
A: Most of the usual suspects. The list is really too long for these pages but if the truth be known it comes down to respect for their work--most of my inspiration comes from sources outside the design field.
Q: Are there any European designers who inspire you?
A: There are, there are (laughing). There are so many but here are the first few that come to mind.... Wolfgang Weingart, Armin Hofmann, Walkemar Swierzy, Rafal Oblinski, Rosmarie Tissi, Pierre Bernard, Alan Fletcher, Stefan Sagmeister... and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Q: I love the simplicity and sophistication of your Amnesty International “Gun trafficking” poster. How do you come up with such good concepts? Can you explain your design process?
A: All the solutions come out of the problems. The ideas could come from anywhere at anytime. And it’s basically about keeping your eyes and mind open. At this point in my life and career, I usually have the idea in my head long before I ever sit down to design.
Q: I really like your “Stop the Plant” poster design, too. Did the design have an impact?
A: Yes, the cement plant didn’t get built!
Q: During the past four years you focused on the reestablishment of your own design firm, Pirtle Design. What projects are you working on at the moment?
A: Now the office is much smaller with a lot less overhead, but I still work with many of the clients I had at Pentagram. Mostly medium-size companies and a few larger corporations and institutions like Rizzoli Publishing, Brown-Forman, WLRK, and others. I have this base of paying work that provides the income to fund the work I am most interested in—work for Greenpeace, Hudson Valley Preservation Commission, Sustainable Hudson Valley, Amnesty International, Walkway over the Hudson, and The NY State Department of Parks and Recreation—work that has the potential to make a difference.
Q: On the phone you talked about a not-for-profit project which involved the opening of a pedestrian bridge across the Hudson. Can you give us more information about this project?
A: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge was built in the 1890s as a bridge to connect both sides of the river, facilitating the shipment of goods north and south as well as east and west. There was a fire on the bridge in the 1950s and it was shut down until now. A group in Poughkeepsie got together and came up with the idea of doing a pedestrian walkway. They managed to secure private and public funding for the 30 plus million dollar project, which opened on October 3, 2009, to rave reviews. It is now the longest pedestrian walkway in the world and a destination for people from all over the region, and the world.
Q: Besides working on graphic design projects, you’re also interested in studio art. What other kind of artwork are you creating?
A: It’s ever changing. I do paintings, collages, assemblages, sculptures, and most recently photographs of shadows cast by light passing through glass assemblages and objects. I’m always looking for the next “thing.”
Q: Any thoughts on the future of the graphic design profession? What will the future challenges be for young graphic designers?
A: I think it’s going to be an evolving landscape embracing more disciplines, more technological advances and more geographic, cultural, and social diversity. In our increasingly global environment, it will be stimulating to be a part of the evolution of our profession. I just hope future generations will embrace the rich heritage of our craft and incorporate the best of it into the thinking that will define our future.