The Preachings of Design Shaman Marc English

One of the best parts about recruiting judges for the Regional Design Annual: Getting a chance to browse their brilliant archives. Today, second in a series of six judge profiles, we bring you the words and works of Marc English, who will be judging the Southwest region of the RDA this year. Enter by Feb. 5 to nab our early-bird rates!


Official bio: Step Inside Design magazine called Marc English “the Johnny Cash of AIGA,” referring to him as “teacher, preacher, shaman, showman.” According to the Austin Chronicle, “You might want to wear a welder’s visor and some chain mail just to be on the safe side; in his hands, ‘design theory’ is a radical, insurrectionist weapon. Joe Strummer would’ve dug this cat. …”

English studied design at Massachusetts College of Art, after a stint at the Berklee College of Music, where he studied composing, harmony and arranging. He began his career in Boston working for a number of studios on projects in communication design for Fortune 500 clients, broadcast design for ABC-TV’s Boston affiliate, and creating museum exhibits for national and international clients, before opening 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, a series of industry-specific case studies providing insight into the role design plays as part of a strategy for success.

English has picked up a stack of awards that are sitting in boxes in his garage for work in any number of given areas, and 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, Print, Communication Arts, Graphis, I.D., HOW and a few others that have thrown him a bone.

English has served as a director of the AIGA, and as president of both the Boston and Austin chapters. He currently teaches graduate studies at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer on design, identity and the ecstatic experience in the creative process.

As they say in Texas, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.

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Originally from: The Boston area. From the Walden Pond of Thoreau, across the revolutionary battlefields of Concord, Bedford, Lexington and Menotomy.

Path that led you to design: My mom gave me a copy of The Beatles’ Revolver album when I was a kid. That began so many avenues of exploration, at age 10. The music itself covers rock, soul, R&B, pop, psychedelia, trance and even Indian classical ragas—and this was in 1966 when it came out. The lyrics are reflective, mournful, insightful, rebellious, challenging and both goofy (“Yellow Submarine”) and profound, as “Tomorrow Never Knows” borrows words from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. While I did pursue and study music for a while, I always had a hand in art and design, and the cover for Revolver is the first for the Beatles that was actually art. Designed by Klaus Voorman, whom they’d met in Hamburg before they hit it big, his cover art includes both illustration and photography, and works on several levels. And most insightful, the name of the band is not even on the cover. That’s some bold shit.

Your career, in a nutshell: I’ve had the career I never wanted. I never wanted to work for myself, but work under a mentor. Never happened. Always looking for opportunities to do good work, and have never cared about the money. My boss is an idiot.

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Design Philosophy: Care. Question. Listen. Commit.

The key to good design: Caring.

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Work of which you’re most proud: Back in ’92 I designed a perpetual calendar for pregnant women, for the TV station in Boston I was working for at the time. They were handed out on the street and in health clinics, for women with little or no healthcare. Illustrations of fetuses to scale—pretty sure never seen before or since—along with DOs and DON’Ts, in English and Spanish. I’ve done better design since then, much of which I really love, but no work has ever been as important, as this piece actually affected lives—women were coming into clinics with these in their hand.

Moment in your life of which you’re most proud: That’s a question I’ve never considered. Professional or personal? Hmm. I’ve been teaching since about 1989 or so, and every time a former student reaches out and thanks me, tells me I changed their life, that allows me to sleep easier. That could be No. 1, in terms of academia. In terms of service, rolling out of the role of president of the Boston chapter of AIGA and down to Texas, and breaking up the Texas chapter to start the Austin chapter and then found Design Ranch, is right up there, in terms of building a foundation for a community. Interesting self-reflection: Neither of those have anything to do with my own design.

Personally? I think of when my daughter won her first Humanitarian Award, in elementary school, but that’s her doing (though I like to claim at least a bit of influence). Me? Maybe just the times I’ve stopped to help strangers with flat tires or offered to listen to someone who was in a jam.

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Cause that means the most to you: Justice. Justice in any manner, from voting rights to civil rights, from women’s healthcare to women’s education (particularly in developing countries). Consider: If love is the most important thing in the world, justice is the social manifestation of love.

Favorite designer: I don’t have one. I have several. But if I have to pick one, I will give a shout-out to E. McKnight Kauffer, as most who read this will have no idea who he was. In my early 20s, before I decided to pursue design, I found a calendar that was filled with his art in a dumpster near the apartment in Boston where I lived. He was an American ex-pat who worked in London back in the 1930s. His handlettering, selective cropping, bold images epitomize the term “graphic design,” and finding that calendar (which I still have, decades later) proved inspirational.

Favorite typographer: I’ve always been partial to Eric Gill, for his humanity and ability to infuse his work with personality. While his personality certainly held much to be avoided (sex with his children?!), his WORK tried to approach the sacred, which is saying something.

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Favorite artist: Paul Gauguin’s paintings have brought tears to my eyes. His images are rife with humanity, upon which he often layers symbolism that one does not need to understand to appreciate. His colors, his technique, were almost punk rock in their own way: Loaded with emotion and vibrancy, they went straight to the heart but did not bypass the head. He was a thinker first, a painter second.

Religious

Biggest inspiration: I think I really have to go back to the Beatles album Revolver. I’ve noted elsewhere aspects of the music, writing and art. A few years ago I was asked to participate in a national campaign which promotes libraries. We were asked to choose a word that exemplified what we “geek,” as in what inspires us. I imagine I was asked to partake in the project, and they thought I would say “design” is the word I geek. After a bit of thought, I realized the real word that has guided so much of what I do is “explore.” The Revolver album led me to explore literature, cultures (India, Tibet), psychology (loneliness, love, discovery), musics (the classical strings of “Eleanor Rigby,” the production and backward tape loops of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the sitar of “Love You To”). I got lucky, with that album being the first I ever got, as it got played over and over, while staring at the cover art. It was inspirational on every level. If everyone has their own version of the Rosetta Stone that explains who they are, that album does it for me.

Motto: You only live once—if you are lucky. And if you live like I do, once is all you need.

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What the Southwest means to you: There are two things that most inspire me: history and geography. The Southwest has each in spades. I first visited Texas when I was 10, making it down to Mexico with my dad. At 26 I wound up working with a team of researchers in the Four Corners area, mostly in Utah, documenting archaic pictographs and petroglyphs of the pre-Columbian natives who lived there.

Have you entered Print’s RDA in your career? Yup. Sure have. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve submitted my work, as I’ve felt professionally validated a long time ago. Of course there’s more than validation that makes the RDA important, as it leaves a bona fide artifact, showing the actual state of the art at any given time or place.

Anything else: My daughter’s name is Rebecka, and I always like to give her a shoutout. R is a great letter, so I was careful to find a name that not only looked good, but had a great sound. Rrrrrrrr sounds great. The whole name trips easily over the tongue. And as people always spell my first name incorrectly, I’ve passed that on to her, too. HEY REB!

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Enter Print’s 2016 RDA today—Early Bird Deadline is Feb. 5!

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