2015 AIGA Medalist Dan Friedman

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By: Jessica Farris | May 1, 2015

Dan Friedman

Each year, AIGA selects a series of designers and visual artists to present with the AIGA Medal. A truly distinguished honor, the medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements, services or other contributions to the field of design and visual communication.

One such individual, honored this year among four others, is the extraordinary Dan Friedman. One of two of this year’s medalists to be honored posthumously, Friedman passed away in 1995, but his profound legacy lives on in his groundbreaking work.

Friedman was chosen as a medalist for his eccentric and revolutionary philosophy of “Radical Modernism”—a blend of Modernism archetypes and postmodern energy.

Active in the realms of education, design, art, writing, and social activism, Friedman’s body of work prompted a distinct displacement of modernist design, incorporating more emotion and energy into Modernist ideals.

Evolving from a teacher at Yale University’s graduate graphic design program, to a designer at Anspach Grossman Portugal (where he undertook the rebranding of Citibank), to the first associate in Pentagram, Freidman Friedman left his mark on some of the most prominent names in the design world. Before long, however, Friedman abandoned the corporate world in favor of the radical downtown New York art scene, where he flourished in pursuit of work that had more personal meaning, including activism, invention, and eclectic experimental art.

“I have, for many years, used my home to push modernist principles of structure and coherency to their wildest extreme,” Friedman said, according to a biography by 2002 AIGA Medalist Chris Pullman. “I create elegant mutations radiating with intense color and complexity in a world that is deconstructed into a goofy, ritualistic playground for daily life.”


I had the opportunity to speak with Pullman, Friedman’s friend and peer. Below, Pullman offers his thoughts on Friedman’s life and career:

Q&A with Chris Pullman

What can you tell me about your relationship with Dan Friedman?

My first glimpse of Dan was in 1969 in the Blessings, a very good Chinese restaurant in New Haven. He had just arrived at Yale, on Armin Hofmann’s recommendation, a shy, awkward guy in a tight navy suit, grey shirt, black tie, with a shock of unruly hair and a strange, halting way of talking.

In the beginning our relationship was touchy. I was the junior faculty member at the school and while I sort of liked Dan, his sense of superiority, no matter how well founded, irked me. He was very sure of his own ideas of how and what to teach. I would listen to his well-founded notions of how to run a school, feeling the underlying condemnation of my own training, which, measured against the rigorous, highly refined philosophy of Basel, appeared haphazard and defective. This made me somewhat wary of his friendship.

But When April Greiman joind him in New Haven, my wife, Esther, and I began to socilaize. He and I collaborated on the development of the visual arts program for the new SUNY campus at Purchase where we both taught for a while.

In the mid 70’s when I moved to Boston to join WGBH and he moved to New York to join Anspach Grossman Portugal, we sort of fell out of touch. It wasn’t until Dan had made the leap from corporate design into the wild hip-hop art scene that we reconnected. In 1984, out of the blue, he invited me to come to the opening of his show at the Red Gallery of “post nuclear” installations, wall hangings and trash furniture and I beheld the new Dan in his striped day-glo suit and pork-pie hat.

From that point on, he was a regular summer visitor to the cottage we rented north of Boston on Cape Ann. He seemed to like the laid back routine, an escape from the exhilerating but chaotic and dangerous life he was experiencing in New York in the 80’s. Somehow, as he became outwardly more and more different from us, our connection grew more and more familiar.

In 1993 he came up with his friend Laurie Mallet. He was in great spirits, about to start teaching again, this time at Cooper Union. He brought with him the layouts for the book that he was creating called Dan Friedman: Radical Modernism. We pured over the pages and fussed about the text. The following year it was published by Yale University Press, a beautiful compilation of his diverse work and compelling statement of his philosophy of design.

Not long afterwards, I got a call from a former student, telling me that Dan was in the hospital, and that we should get down to New York soon. After concealing his illness for a decade, he died of AIDS in July 1995.

In what ways did Dan’s work forge new ground in the realm of visual art and design?

Energized by his encounters with Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart at Basel, Dan used his time at Yale to devise a methodology for students to explore typography so that it encompassed a wider, more expressive range of outcomes than the high Swiss modernist idiom that prevailed in the 60’s. He published this methodology and his student’s work in two issues of the influential journal Visible Language in 1973.

That same year he engineered two whirlwind tours of the US for his mentor Weingart. Lecturing at scores of schools, including Yale, he offered his engaging alternative to the cannons of high European modernist typography, amusingly titled “How One Makes Swiss Typography.” This trip suddenly turned Weingart into a cult figure and kick-started student interest in his typographic experiments. Dan’s advocacy of a different way to think about typographic communication, combined with the example of his own work, helped to shift the cool, Swiss version of modernist typography toward a more exuberant and expressive visual language.

On your website, you point out “how important this little-known designer was in accelerating the shift away from high Swiss modernism towards a more inclusive and energetic formal language that dominated the 80′s and 90′s.” Can you expand on that? Where have you seen his influence most prominently?

The gradual spread of what came to be know as “New Wave” typography could be seen in the teaching of Philadelphia College of Art (now The University of the Arts) where numerous Basel-trained teachers were concentrated (including Hans Alleman, Ken Hiebert, Christine Zelinsky, April Greiman and Dan Friedman) and Willi Kunz in New York.

It’s fair to say that the three of them—Dan and April, inspired by Weingart’s pioneering work and with assists from other Basel graduates like Ken Hiebert and Willi Kuntz–led the way for a generation of what came to be called “new wave” typographers and designers less steeped in the traditions of classical modernism and inspired by the changing culture in the 70’s and 80’s to employ a more playful, surface-oriented formal language
. For example: Katherine McCoy’s program at Cranbrook, and her students Alan Hori, Scott Makala, Nancy Skolos and TomWedell; Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans in their influential journal Émigré; Jeff Keedy and Lorraine Wild at Cal Arts; and evetually David Carson and Ed Fella.

How did his work evolve over the course of his career?

He morphed from a teacher (at Yale and SUNY Purchase) to a corporate designer (at Anspach Grossman Portugal and Pentagram) to a hip-hop designer, artist, and furniture maker, and finally to a writer and cultural philosopher. He produced a diverse but coherent body of work that was formally excellent and philosophically and morally consistent.

What can you tell me about Dan’s social activism, particularly in regards to the AIDS crisis?

When the AIDS crisis swept New York in the early 80’s he turned his design skills to promoting AIDS awareness. And through his work and writing he tried to break down the division between art and design and to see design as a part of culture.


How did Dan and his work influence you—and how do you think you influenced him?

I witnessed Dan up close at Yale and in his later career and was impressed with his intense engagement with his work and the beautiful and fanciful work he produced. When I helped form the Boston Chapter of the AIGA in the early 80’s I made sure to invite him multiple times to come and lecture about his work to the Boston design community. I was so impressed by his life and work that I have tried since his death to keep the profession aware of him by teaming up with his brother Ken to place his traveling exhibit at schools around the country, most recently in New York at the AIGA Gallery in October 2014.

I’m not sure how I influenced him, other than developing a growing friendship and mutual respect over the course of the 25 years I knew him.

What did he enjoy doing when he wasn’t working?

In a way he was always working. He traveled with his friends to the Caribbean and India. With his other artist friends in New York he participated in elaborate, theatrical fantasy “evocations.” And he transformed his apartment through continuous experimentation with form and meaning.

What can you tell me about Dan’s work for Citibank?

It was a huge and beautiful example of a “corporate image” makeover resulting in an elegant re-imagining of Citibank’s old brand mark, and a big thick book of graphic standards that exhibited Dan’s more humane version of Swiss modernist typography and color harmonies.


What do you think were his greatest artistic influences (artists, styles, causes, etc.)?

One important influence was the publishing of his ideas on a rigorous but expansive typographic pedagogy in Visible Language that reached and influenced a generation of educators and their students.

Another would be his apartment experiments. And I hope his recognition as a medalist will be another.


View of Dan Friedman’s Apartment


What is your fondest memory of him?

Perhaps his visits to our cottage in Annisquam, north of Boston, particularly when he came to see our batch of new puppies in 1991.

Do you recall him facing any particularly challenging projects? How did he overcome those challenges?

I think his biggest challenge was dealing with the horrific decade from 1985-1995 when most of his friends were picked off by AIDS; and his ethical and philosophical reconciliation of that moment with the positivistic tenets of early modernism that were so important to his world view.

What advice do you think he might give other creatives?

I would offer them the manifesto he placed at the end of his book:

Live and work with passion and responsibility; have a sense of humor and fantasy.Try to express personal, spiritual, and domestic values even if our culture continues to be dominated by corporate, marketing and institutional values.Choose to be progressive: don’t be regressive. Find comfort in the past only if it expands insight into the future and not just for the sake of nostalgia.Embrace the richness of all cultures; be inclusive instead of exclusive.Think of your work as a significant element in the context of a more important, transcendental purpose.Use your work to become advocates of project for the public good.Attempt to become a cultural provocateur. Be a leader rather than a follower.Engage in self-restraint; accept the challenge of working with reduced expectations and diminished resources.Avoid getting stuck in corners, such as being a servant to increased overhead, careerism, or narrow points of view.Bridge the boundaries that separate us from other creative professions and unexpected possibilities.Use the new technologies, but don’t be seduced into thinking that they provide answers to fundamental questions.Be radical.

More work by Dan Friedman:


Read about AIGA Medalists Paola Antonelli and Emory Douglas.