Engineering Our Appetites for Better Design

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“The point is not to have fun. It’s not about amusing yourself.” So says Martin Venezky, a man who almost makes the phrase “blurring the boundaries between graphic design and fine art” into a non-cliché. “Design is about studying. It’s hard. It’s slow going. You’ve got to develop a strategy and a process. Then you can amuse yourself with it.”

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He’s talking about his own process for making art/design, developed over years of experimentation. “Nothing starts with a sketch. The process is organic and unpredictable. I want to set up conditions in which I can’t predict the outcome, what the finished work will be like,” he says. “I want to observe closely how things shift and change, and be open to unexpected moments.”

Venezky is a professor in the MFA in Design program at California College of the Arts (CCA) as well as the mastermind behind Appetite Engineers, the San Francisco-based firm he founded in 1997. His body of work includes exhibition design for Reebok, print work for the Sundance Film Festival, museum and gallery catalogs, notable magazine design, and image-heavy books on topics ranging from sports and popular culture to fine art and photography. Lately he’s been making large-scale installations at tech campuses and hand-crafted illustrations for Wired and The New York Times.


The consummate design teacher, he’s always experimenting and learning himself. Right now—I visited his object- and book-filled studio two weeks ago after admiring his AIGA poster in the SFMOMA “Typeface to Interface” exhibition—he’s in the process of figuring out how to reduce the number of colors in his compositions, even trying to eliminate color altogether. “Colors can be too easy. Can I make it work in black and white, without bright green, bright red?” he asks. Spending an hour or so with him made me want to throw away everything I leaned about “commercial photography” on shoots in New York and go back to school and become an artist again.


1. He begins each project with materials and objects, which might include colored paper and sheets of acetate, samples of faceted Plexiglas, electrical parts, scraps of sheet metal, and the discards of architectural firms and model-makers.

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2. He also makes pencil drawings using rulers and circle templates. “Doing all this forces me to work across media,” he explains.

3. He photographs the materials, objects and drawings, looking for patterns and interesting cropping possibilities. The images could be still-lives shot on his copy stand or details of plants and leaves, landscapes, architecture and interiors. “I use a camera to explore,” he says. “If I’m photographing wood I’m not taking a portrait of wood, I’m exploring the properties of wood.”

4. If typography is part of the composition, he works one letter at a time, cutting out and layering each character and pasting it down.


5. He sends his files to Walgreens and gets 4 x 6-inch glossy prints made, which he mounts on the wall with pushpins, moves around and reorganizes, changing scale and relationships. When completed, this bulletin-board collage is the “comp,” the blueprint for the finished piece.


6. When he’s pleased with the arrangement, he retrieves the original high-res files and recreates the arrangement in Photoshop. The finished product then becomes art for gallery shows, album covers, book and magazine covers, such as the cover of the 100th issue of Design Issues.


So, you might ask, if there is no anticipated outcome, no sketch, how does this art become magazine covers and other design work that clients may need to approve? “Consider your clients collaborators,” Venezky advises. “Invite them into the process. Get them excited about it. Let them watch as it unfolds. This way, your office is like a laboratory or playground, and every day is an adventure.”


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