The Daily Heller: Lou Danziger at 100 (and Beyond)

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Lou Danziger once offered these words of advice: “Work. Think. Feel.” Work: “No matter how brilliant, talented, exceptional and wonderful the student may be, without work there is nothing but potential and talk.” Think: “Design is a problem-solving activity. Thinking is the application of intelligence to arrive at the appropriate solution to the problem.” Feel: “Work without feeling, intuition and spontaneity is devoid of humanity.”

The interview below was conducted with Lou in 1998 and republished on the occasion of his 90th birthday. For many in my generation back then, 90 was old. Today, a healthy handful of 90-ish designers and illustrators are with us, albeit not all still working. Lou has now made the quintessential centennial milestone, gratefully his storytelling skills are intact. I am grateful to him for advancing my deep love of history with stories about his colleagues and other consequential figures. Thank you!

Talking about the pioneering work that has earned him the respect of all designers:

“I began teaching a course called ‘the History of Graphic Design’ at CalArts, I believe in 1972 or ’73,” he detailed. “It was a course begun by [the late] Keith Godard a year earlier, and it was, to my knowledge, the only course of its kind at the time. It all began because Keith and I, who were colleagues at CalArts, would often commiserate about how difficult it was to teach students who had no knowledge of the design pioneers. Keith thought we should do something about it and put the thought into action. As far as I know, Keith should be given the credit of teaching the first course in Graphic Design History that was listed in a school’s catalog.”

Although I did not attend the 100th birthday celebration in the announcement above, nor did I ever study with Danziger, I applaud him for bringing design history out of the darkness and into classrooms, books and exhibitions.

Danziger, born Nov. 17, 1923, in the Bronx, New York, stood on the shoulders of pioneer Modernists, yet extended the reach of Modernism through his own achievements. Although Danziger is reluctant to be tied to any dogma, insisting, “No matter what I do, I want to do it well,” his design exemplifies the diversity of Modernism and his teaching promotes the diversity of design. Danziger is a “designer’s designer and an educator’s educator,” states Katherine McCoy, former co-chair of Cranbrook Academy, about the man for whom designing and teaching are two distinct but decidedly unified disciplines. Indeed, he has significantly affected many design genres—including advertising, corporate work and the design of books, periodicals, museum catalogs and exhibitions—and influenced the hundreds of students who attended his classes at Chouinard, CalArts, Harvard University and the ArtCenter College of Design. Danziger lived the modern life, from his studio (designed by Frank Gehry) to his every spoken word.

From our 1998 interview:

How do you define Modernism?
I really have come to dislike the term. I think that most designers today mean something else when they use it. A better term for me is “contemporary design” rather than modern design. It’s contempory-ness is an important adjunct of what I think of as Modernism. The basic premises for me are those of El Lissitzky. The work must be practical, functional, economical, problem and content driven; it must use modern means. It must serve, if at all possible, the needs of the audience and society. It should also serve the needs of the client, as well as my own. There is always an area where all of those interests and needs overlap, and there is where one finds the solution to the problem. From Paul Rand’s work and writing I learned that the solution is always found in the problem itself. The “look” is not brought to the work but rather emerges from the process. This is also a premise of Lissitzky’s, but I understood it best from studying Rand’s designs.

Is there relevance in teaching Modern methods today?
Bad question. There are no methods. There is no system. No rules. You can help students learn how to connect themselves to the task at hand. To connect not to the world of “dezine,” but this stuff they’re working on. You can demonstrate that originality comes from that connection. It is good to know about grids, contemporary design issues and technology, etc. But that is not what it’s all about.

How would you describe an ideal design education?
A great teacher or great designer and some great students hanging out. An environment where students find themselves discussing their work and the design world with each other. I believe ultimately that great education is self-education, especially in the arts. The students are not empty bottles waiting to be filled. They’re full. What is needed is to get the stuff out. An ideal education develops confidence, ego strength and a thirst to discover one’s possibilities. I think a good teacher doesn’t teach but creates an environment or climate where people learn.

As a teacher, how do you appeal to students?
I mostly like them. By and large they are all better than they think they are. I seem to be able to get them to see that. They always produce what they think is over their heads but is not. I don’t think that Lustig really taught anything specifically about design but we all wanted to be like him (I didn’t care for much of his work, even as his student, but I sure wanted to know what he knew). Perhaps I also impress my students with what I know. I don’t do it consciously. My teaching is always improvisational. Much of the creativity in teaching comes from designing the assignment. If I think that this particular group of students is not sufficiently imaginative, I don’t try to tell them to be more imaginative. I develop an assignment which can only be solved by being imaginative.

I have been influenced by all sorts of teachers, and since it must have affected who I am, it must influence my teaching; I have no idea of how. If I were to try to describe how I teach, I don’t really know. I think I help students see the possibilities in any given problem. I do think that all of the students are different; they get on the train at their own station and get off at their own destination. Some have to be kissed, some have to be kicked, and only your own intuition tells you which ones and when. I also think if they are better when they leave my class than they were coming in, I’ve done a good job. For everything I teach them there is something I have neglected. You can’t begin to teach what there is to know. I guess to really find out about the nature of my appeal, you need to talk to my students; I’ve had over a thousand by now and they are all over the world.

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