In this final installment of our interview, Art Chantry reflects on the distinctions and similarities between his work and that of his contemporaries, the essence of “clip art” … and he also refrains from giving his own eulogy by declaring immortality.
A few questions: You are an éminence grise for all things indie. Is it any easier working for clients? Your work appears to have much of the same energy as it did long ago—how does being back in Washington state impact it? And I don’t want this to sound like a premature eulogy, but is there anything you’d like to accomplish before leaving the design field (or the planet, whichever comes first)?
The computer really changed graphic design. I saw it coming in the early ’80s (watched my first “paintbox” presentation). I realized that the craft and art of graphic design was going to change and be placed back into the hands of the “everyman.” It was going to become a total DIY field in time (just like what Punk did to music). If I wanted to continue doing the design work I wanted to do, I was going to have to position myself in the realm of ideas and not craft. I figured in a couple decades only about the top 20% would still be leading the way for the rest of the copycats.
I was wrong, of course; it turned out to be less that 5% creating the ideas. Luckily, I was shrewd enough to make the cut. I had to sacrifice the money, but in exchange I was able to continue in my thinking and my work past the onslaught of the DIY computer world. I still don’t use a computer as a design tool. Of course, the production (and printing) paradigm has shifted to a digital interface; nobody processes mechanicals anymore, and even simple things like typesetting are gone.
I still create all my work by hand and then scan it in for somebody I hire to set it up for printing. I create all my typography the hard way (I draw it or I cut it out letter by letter and wax it into place to create text). I still work in black and white by hand and process it in my head for color. I like to say I “think like a printing press,” which has become a very rare thing these days. Most designers now think like a computer screen. They have literally no concept of how their artwork is turned into a printed object any more. I do my darnedest to keep that viewpoint intact.
As a result of this effort, I was able to maintain my position in the realm of ideas. I like to say that “when technology takes a big step forward, I take a big step backward.” In essence, I keep trying to do work that can’t easily be done effectively with a computer. Whatever is done easily with digital I ignore and start working in a more primitive way. I also like to say my work “looks like shit because shitty is very hard to do on a computer.” And it’s true!
This way, I can provide to a client something they can’t have their intern whip out with the latest program. Computers don’t have “idea” buttons (yet). So, that’s where I can compete. I can do all sorts of stuff that the computer jockeys are totally mystified by. And clients approach me to get that because I am virtually the only one providing that service to them.
Of course, this means that clients hire me not to do design so much as do “that Chantry look” (whatever that is). I have to pump them with questions to try to figure out exactly what they mean by “that Chantry look.” Inevitably it’s some work in a style I played with and abandoned decades earlier. So, my task is to examine my old work they like, teach myself how to do it all over again and copy it. Basically, I make a living now copycatting my old work. I imitate myself for a living.
Also, with so much creative control tossed back into the hands of the client now, no matter what I give them in the end, some geek out there feels the need to “correct” my work and redesign it, often from scratch. By the time the client has had their way with my design work, it’s nothing like what I gave them—and my name is still on it. That can be embarrassing at times, but they paid for the right. It’s their project, not mine. What they actually only want is to have my name associated with their project. That branding usually means more than what I actually produce for them.
There have actually been times when I’ve actually suggested they just do whatever they want and just put my name on it. They don’t laugh. They consider it carefully, and have at times actually done just that. No joke. This is what freelance graphic design is like out here now. Thank god I established a name brand identity (of sorts) or I’d have no work at all.
The only things I demand from a client these days are respect and honesty. Sadly, the bigger the organization (especially the corporate world) the more severely lacking in those two traits. So, once or twice a year, a corporate client approaches me with a project waving a fist full of “filthy lucre” in my face. I do my best to get as much money from them as possible. Because they just want my name, not what I actually do.
Once, to design an “events program” poster, they so didn’t understand the smallest details of the printing production process that they fired me halfway through the project. But they still used what I designed, slapped my name over everything and got all sorts of attention for doing such a cool piece. I got 50% up front, so I was satisfied with that. One year my entire year’s income was cancellation fees!
On the other hand, I still do logos and record covers and posters and T-shirts, etc., for small businesses and arts groups and rock bands and community events and the like. It’s fun, they love working with me, love what I do and are happy to pay me the piddling amount I charge them. We walk away friends and collaborators. It’s deeply satisfying work and I love it. But it’s almost impossible to make a living working for them. So, the corporate nightmare is something I do to help support what I prefer to do—working with average folks on their “reason for living.”
Bucket list? Well, working the way I do I’ve produced a really huge body of work—from all aspects of design. [I don’t even remember] all of my work. For instance, just today a record label was promoting a new release by a band I haven’t worked with since [they broke up] 30 years ago. This label is putting out a reissue of their music and is using a design I did for their record which was rejected and never used.
The record label (an old friend) advertised it as having “an original Art Chantry” cover. Another old friend in the band found the sketch, played with it on Photoshop, and handed it off to the label to use as a cover all these years after. I’d completely forgotten that cover because it was never used. This is actually how design language works. I put some ideas and some words and some symbology out there and it simmers for decades and sometimes reemerges as contemporary new work in the future. I’m happy to see it happen—my work has become part of the popular dialog. I’ve added to the language of design—and that has always been my goal. My past work is now the future of those who are influenced by it.
As for that bucket list idea, I’d love to publish a big fat tome of the work I’ve done—something that [addresses] the context of its creation and demonstrates how I affected the popular design language around me. That is my life’s work. I remember Chuck Anderson warning me not to do [the monograph] Some People Can’t Surf [authored by Julie Lasky]. He said I’d just become a clip source. He said I’d never work again.
He was (sort of) right. I see my ideas and my actual artwork being used all around me as “clip art” constantly. When I moved back to the Northwest (after six years in St. Louis), I saw my actual design work on telephone poles in Seattle with the words changed to advertise different bands than what it was created for. I ran into really successful design groups so closely copycatting my old work that it was hard to differentiate their work from mine. It was a jolt—it was like I had left the city but my actual design thinking had continued living as a life of its own without me. I’d changed the dialog, affected the actual language of my immediate culture.
At first I was angry and felt cheated out of money and credit—blah blah blah. But as I thought about it, I realized I’d achieved my goal. I had actually become clip art!
You can’t beat that shit with a stick. I’m immortal!