Ruth Ansel: 2016 AIGA Medalist

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Early in 2016 five names were chosen to represent the field of graphic design. Their achievements, services and contributions to the field have been beyond exceptional. And for that, they have been honored as AIGA medalists—a tradition that dates back to the 1920s and is considered the most distinguished honor in the field.

We had the opportunity to collect bits of advice, inspiration and anecdotes from this year’s recipients.

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Ruth Ansel, Harper’s Bazaar, photograph by Bill King, New York 1965.


Ruth Ansel was awarded the AIGA medal for “her visionary work as an art director, for fostering emerging creative talent, and for her commitment to bridging the gap between art and commerce through design.” Read her full bio written by James Gaddy on AIGA’s website.

Q: Did you have any major inspirations while growing up that led you to the creative field?

A: I was a child of the movies growing up in the Bronx. It was a refuge and escape from reality. Stanley Kubrick (a hero of mine) who also came from the Bronx never did the same movie twice. I never did the same magazine twice. The movies brought me to magazine design. Magazines like Harper’s Bazaar were the closest thing I could find to films in that they were about telling stories through pictures.

Q: What has been your favorite project to work on, or a project that really stands out in your mind as important or successful?

A: The subject of fashion is change. Change of attitude, changing the definition of beauty, changing lifestyles. My favorite project has to be the Bazaar “Pop” issue of April 1965. More than any other, this issue showed my ability to capture change as is was happening. Dick Avedon, Bea Feitler and I attempted for the first time in the history of an American fashion magazine to conceptualize a new way of seeing fashion—to break with tradition and bring fashion in from the streets. For one brief moment in time everything seemed possible. Being present when we landed a man on the moon was a life-changing experience for a young designer. I couldn’t help but be inspired.

Q: What was the most difficult thing you had to do during your career?

A: The most difficult thing was being unprepared for that first shock of being fired from Bazaar when they brought in a new editor. I believe the measure of success in life is how we cope with disappointment. We are all defined by the choices we make. So I took a moment to pivot, to define myself and set my sights on moving forward to become the art director of The New York Times Magazine just as Watergate was breaking. I took a chance. This gave me a new found confidence to trust my instincts and move on. Maybe I would fail, but not taking a risk would lead me to a safe place that would hold fewer creative challenges. And pretty soon you‘re repeating yourself, and you’re no good at all.

Q: AIGA’s biography covering your life says, “She was also a child of the moment: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, pop art, street fashion.” How do you see pop culture influencing design and vice versa? Are the two closely related?

A: I think I see culture of all kinds influencing design. Just think of Steve Jobs and Johnny Ives at Apple. These two travelled into the unknown together. They proved once and for all everything is possible if you have vision, passion and a deep commitment to visual innovation. Design and technology can be as elegant as a Balanchine ballet when you marry them together. Jobs and Ives have revolutionized how we feel about the objects we hold in our hands every day, and how it makes us feel about ourselves. We feel they cared about us in a way that uplifted our daily lives, enhanced our sense of self. And that is a great gift to carry with us each day beyond the text messages on the screen.

Q: Is there any advice you wish you had been given before becoming a designer?

A: YES. It goes something like this….My best advice is to find out who you are. Hold on to your passions and dig deep while trusting your instincts. Step outside of what is expected. Embrace accidents and know that eventually you will discover the perfect solution to a creative dilemma and be very joyous while doing it. Understanding the changing dynamics of what’s happening in the world today allows you to dare; and as my idol Zaha Hadid said, “Who dares wins!”

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Valentine’s Day, “Vanity Fair,” art by Keith Haring, February 1984

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1946-1980 fold-out poster, University Art Museum, Berkeley, designed by Ruth Ansel and Charles Churchward, 1980

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Jean Shrimpton, “Harper’s Bazaar,” photo by Richard Avedon, April 1985

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Jean Shrimpton in NASA spacesuit, photo by Richard Avedon, April 1985

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Shoes and Legs, “Harper’s Bazaar” fold-down, photo by Jimmy Moore, August 1966

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LEFT: Judith Jamison, “New York Times magazine,” photo by Bill King, December 1976. RIGHT: Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, “New York Times magazine,” conception and design by Ruth Ansel, September 1974

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Madonna, “Vanity Fair,” photo by Herb Ritts, December 1986

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George Harrison, The Beatles, London and Dao Dua, “The coconut monk” “Mekong Monastery, Vietnam” “Avedon the Sixties” book, photos by Richard Avedon, 1999

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Cover of “Vanity Fair,” January 1986, photograph by Annie Leibovitz; art direction and design by Ruth Ansel

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“Harper’s Bazaar” fold out cover, photo by Hiro, September 1968, art direction by Bea Feitler and Ruth Ansel.

Images from Ruth Ansel’s website.