By: Jessica Farris | May 14, 2015
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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.
Called the “grandmaster of Flash” and “Michael Jordan of web design,” Hillman Curtis broke new ground in the web design world by creating the first Flash website. His motion graphics work on the web spurred the animated elements we see today. He also designed the first Adobe website and the website for Yahoo, which in its time became the biggest website in the world in terms of traffic.
A musician, a developer and a designer, Curtis’ diverse skill set allowed him to straddle creative and technical fields, prompting his posthumous recognition as an AIGA Medalist. Building on these skills throughout his career, Curtis called himself a self-reinventor.
Influenced by his uncle and original Byrds band member Chris Hillman, Curtis formed a rock band called Mrs. Green, designing posters and flyers as the band toured the U.S. and the U.K.
In 1996, he designed the first-ever website formatted for Flash Player, launching a renowned career in web design that included designing the first Adobe website and the website for Yahoo, which in its time became the biggest website in the world in terms of traffic. He designed motion graphics for MTV, Rolling Stone, Adobe, The Metropolitan Opera, and more.
His true passion, however, was filmmaking. His Artist Series short films featured artists and designers Milton Glaser, David Carson, Mark Romanek, Paula Scher, and Stefan Sagmeister. He also collaborated with Sagmeister on the documentaryThe Happy Film. With Debbie Millman, he created documentaries on Lawrence Weiner, Massimo Vignelli and Malcolm Gladwell.
Curtis passed away in 2012 at age 51, but I was fortunate enough to speak to his widow, Christina Curtis, who offered some deep insight into Curtis’ life and work.
First, would you mind telling me a little bit about yourself?
I’m a psychotherapist by trade, and I live in Brooklyn with my two children that I had with Hillman. I’m a former creative myself—I have an MFA in writing and was a poet and teacher for a long time. I started out as a young woman thinking I would be a writer and I ended up being a therapist, but I think I do therapy that’s informed by a creative spirit. I was widowed three years ago, so I’m involved in taking care of my two school-aged children and living my life.
Hillman’s work broke new ground in the realm of web and Flash motion design—and his films were vastly influential and innovative as well. What would you say were his most groundbreaking or important contributions to the design world?
The first website he built was essentially his website; he won an award for self-promotion from that very first website. It was really a website with some motion on it, and that was very groundbreaking at the time. If you look at his New York Times obituary, that’s what got talked about a lot. His motion designs with Flash were very groundbreaking, and that very much paved the way for seeing the web in a very different way. When he worked for Macromedia, he knew all of those engineers—the classic software guys who sat in those rooms and worked for 14 hours a day developing flash. He would go in there and talk with them, and he befriended them. He had a completely unique perspective on the capabilities of Flash. He took this tool and took it to the stratosphere for the time.
When he would give his talks about motion graphics in the first few years, he brought this very creative, very artistic, incredibly filmic perspective to the web that was just not there. He was looking at Saul Bass and Kyle Cooper and Pablo Ferro and working at title design and saying, “We can do this on the web. We can make websites that move and have an exciting filmic perspective, and we can do it with fast loading times. We can make high quality commercials and put them on the web.” It just wasn’t happening before then. He was very much at the forefront in terms of film and design. Josef Müller-Brockmann was a huge hero of his. He spent a long time thinking about film design and classic design and applying it to websites.
He also was an inspiring speaker and teacher, and he had the ability to do what a teacher does—to inspire and excite them, and make them think about how they can take what they’ve learned and make it their own.
What were the major media or fields of design he worked in, and how did he develop as a creative in each of those fields?
He was such a self-reinventor; he would create a world, then he leave that world and develop another—he really had three worlds or periods as a creative.
The first period was what they called his “grandmaster of Flash” or “Michael Jordan of web design” period. This included his Flash motion graphic pieces—fairly short motion pieces.
Then he had this static we
b design period, a long middle period where he spent a ton of time on the Adobe website and on the Yahoo website, which at the time was the biggest website in the world in terms of traffic. This was a long learning period where he went from short motion pieces to big sites. He had to hire a lot of people, which meant a big buildup of his studio at the time. He learned a lot about programming and learned some of the duller, less flashy skills you need to design websites.
The final period was film. It was the boredom and exhaustion of working on static websites that drove him in desperation to pick up a camera and doing these projects for pleasure. That took off, and it was his happiest period.
Still from “James Victore,” The Artist Series
How did his music influence his career?
Music was important because he had this long, rock-and-roll period of his adulthood. He had a lot of friends who were musicians, and we had this world of knowing people in San Francisco. He did pieces for Rolling Stone and created a lot of music videos. If he liked a band, he would approach them and ask to make a video. Then, of course, he worked with David Byrne and Brian Eno. He had an interest in rock, and he had a confidence in music and in the music industry, and that came out in his work.
But I remember him saying that he loved playing in the studio, but going out and performing was hard. I think music was not a match for him, I think. He came into his own temperamentally when he started being a designer and a filmmaker.
Still from “Stefan Sagmeister, ’08,” The Artist Series
Still from “David Byrne & Brian Eno,” The Artist Series
Still from “Ride, Rise, Roar”
I’ve heard some great things about The Artist Series, about Milton Glaser, David Carson, Mark Romanek, Paula Scher, Stefan Sagmeister, Chip Kidd and other artists. What prompted Hillman to work on that project?
That’s the interesting thing about AIGA—there’s a group of classically trained designers, print design people that Hillman knew, but I don’t think he ever felt that he was fully accepted. As a web and motion person who hadn’t been trained classically in design and worked in new media, he really liked some of them personally and admired them greatly, but I don’t know that he felt embedded in their world. But he did know Stefan [Sagmeister] well and they became friends.
I think he started to think about his great admiration of these designers and their work, and he wanted to do documentary short films about them.
He was a great admirer of Richard Abaddon and some of the Dutch masters and general portraiture, so he thought about who he wanted to make a portrait of. He started out with movement-based portraits of dancers—beautiful work. He put those up on his site, and then grew a little more ambitious and thought he could do some interviews.
It was natural to start with Stefan because they had a personal relationship. Stefan agreed, and [Hillman] did that first piece with him. The second one was Paula [Scher]. He knew Paula, and Stefan helped make it happen. He hopscotched from person to person: Paula saw Stefan’s and thought it was great, so he did one with her, and then there was Milton [Glaser] and David Carson. Each time, he would show them the last thing he’d done and connect with them that way. And as he made more, it became the Artist Series.
His skills as an interviewer and a documentarian were monumental for him in terms of his personal sense of pride. It was a skill that had nothing to do with design, but he turned out to be good at it and wanted to develop his skills further. He had the ability to make people comfortable and to talk with them on their level, and this showed up again and again. He really grew in his abilities as a documentarian over time.
Still from “Milton Glaser,” The Artist Series
Debbie Millman’s bio of Hillman on the AIGA website indicates that he was “uneasy” with the accolades he received as a designer. He once said: “The reason for designing new media is simple—to subtly and quietly change the world.” Why do you think that is?
I think that’s true of a lot of creative people. What coexisted within him was both a tremendous ambition and a pretty healthy ego, along with a tremendous modesty and a desire for the work to speak for itself. He was essentially a shy person.
There was a doubleness to it—he wanted it to be excellent, and he wanted to be recognized. You don’t have a rock band if you aren’t interested in some attention; it’s very performative.
Ultimately, he was an artist and an introvert—a shy, genteel, well-mannered and laid back guy. There was something mysterious there. He ended up in situations which required a lot of self-promotion. Even new media required a lot of self-promotion because it was unheard of. He had to be an evangelist for the new medium as well as for himself.
How did you and your family influence him?
I always had a whole other life—a professional life—and I wanted to keep that separate, but I read every single sentence he ever wrote and saw everything he made. I think that I was a critical editorial voice in his work.
He was diagnosed in 2010 and he died in 2012. In 2010, we bought a brownstone in Brooklyn where we lived, and he also put his office at the top with a separate entrance. He knew he didn’t have a long time left, and he knew he wanted to do the work, so he created this office where people came to him. All these people came over all the time and worked in our house. This live-work thing developed really powerfully in our house, and our children were always around these musicians and sound people and Stefan and other people working on The Happy Film. His home life and his work life, which had been separate, became very linked. In some w
ays, I think that was what he wanted—for everything to be close at hand, for his children to be playing at his feet as he was doing his work. I think there was some comfort for him in that, and our house became this happy place for him at the end of his life.
Do you recall him facing any particularly challenging projects? How did he overcome those challenges?
That middle period of static web design was challenging—the dot-com bubble and 9-11. 2002 to 2005 were years when he was doing these static websites—and not the glamorous websites like Yahoo, but very corporate, uninteresting, technical projects. At one point, he just turned to me and said he had to have some creative inspiration.
These were hard years, but it was also a catalyst for change. I think one of his gifts as a person was his fearlessness about change. He was a person who could go deep along into something and then try something else, and that served him well.
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