A New York State of Design: How NYC Became the Design Capital of the World
Location, location: How did the Big Apple become the world’s premier design hub—and does it still hold the title?
The fantasy goes something like this: You arrive in New York City and start at the bottom, and eventually become partner at a prestigious firm; you open your own firm; you design for a large publishing house; you work in-house for a Fortune 100 company; you break into the comic book industry as a successful illustrator and expand your client base to become a freelance illustrator known all over the world; or, of course, you [insert your own vision here]. Everyone’s New York Dream is different, and when it comes to making it to the city and truly “making it,” enthusiasm and resilience are two ingredients you need for the endeavor. (Talent helps too.)
Designers continue to flock to The Big Apple chasing big dreams, despite the impossible odds facing them or the challenges that dog their every step. Given the difficulties—and that border-free democratizing force known as the internet—why do so many designers succumb to the New York graphic design siren call?
It could be the history, the ghosts of designers past. Consider Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, Bradbury Thompson, Alexey Brodovitch, Herbert Bayer and Cipe Pineles. Or maybe it’s the access you get in the New York graphic design world, as San Francisco designer and educator Martin Venezky recounts. “I was able to meet all kinds of designers and art directors at all levels with no trouble.
Somehow it suggested to me that designers in New York simply feel more secure with themselves and their position … and therefore they aren’t in the least afraid to meet new designers.”
New York Graphic Design as Inspiration
Mark Richard Miller, creative director and co-founder of Dark Igloo in Brooklyn, believes in those opportunities wholeheartedly, feeling that New York offers “equal parts access, inspiration and education.”
There are plenty of doors in New York, especially in the New York graphic design world, and if you play your cards right, you can get into them, networking your way into one after another. Jennifer Baker Brown and her husband Neil Brown, of Baker+Brown, moved to New York in 2007, and kept afloat during the economic downturn. They were in the right place given the circumstances, according to Jennifer. “As the U.S. moved deeper and deeper into economic downturn in 2008—2009, I realized how grateful I was to be in a larger market during that time period, knowing that if either of us lost our jobs, we were in a city where there was sill greater opportunity for creative professionals.”
The networking possibilities still seem boundless to her. “New York feels like a big place. So many people. [But] once you get inducted into some part of the industry, it’s all connected. Somebody you know knows somebody. There’s a lot to choose from. Your network becomes really tight. There’s every possible industry to work in imaginable.”
On the whole, although it doesn’t account for every designer, AIGA membership offers some insight into the numbers. Of all the AIGA chapters, AIGA/NY is the largest at 3,500 members, with San Francisco (1,775), Chicago (1,600), Minnesota (1,395) and Los Angeles (1,200) following. In terms of population, Milton Glaser has seen things change over his decades in New York, with more and more designers entering the workforce every day. As one of the founding members of New York’s Push Pin Studios, along with Seymour Chwast, Reynolds Ruffins and Edward Sorel, Glaser was part of the fabric that made the New York graphic design, illustration and art community what it is today.
If you do come to New York, Glaser suggests, “Work like hell, do it efficiently, and work with people you like.”
Iconic work for iconic companies, publications and institutions has been coming out of New York for a century, influenced by international design movements, eventually giving rise to East Coast Modernism. Lester Beall’s designs during the 1930s were strong and bold, comparable to Dada, Constructivist and Bauhaus works created abroad. And Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig and Bradbury Thompson each defined their own signature styles during the 1940s. It was reminiscent of work by designers overseas, such as Alexey Brodovitch, Herbert Bayer, Will Burtin and Alexander Liberman, who also made their way to America and settled in New York. The eye-catching, striking and asymmetrical styles that had become hallmarks of design from Europe and Russia had found a new home in America, in The Big Apple, featured in work that radiated out from the heart of the city to the rest of the country in magazines, advertisements and public service campaigns.
As the advertising age ramped up, the firm of Brownjohn, Chermayeff and Geismar became a force in the industry, thanks to the fresh, unique sensibilities they brought to visual communication. Corporate design and identity evolved in the 1950s and 1960s as companies looked to expand and become internationally recognized. Designers were brought in to create not merely a logo or emblem, but to design an entire communication system. Transforming from Brownjohn, Chermayeff and Geismar to Chermayeff & Geismar Associates, the firm spearheaded efforts in corporate communications that made waves worldwide.
Meanwhile, designers working independently or in-house paved their own paths. William Golden remade the image of CBS. Paul Rand defined a look and feel for IBM that was equal parts technical and playful. George Lois created iconic advertisements, magazine covers and corporate communications. And it all came out of the city.
Many of the opportunities that existed for designers during the golden years of the 20th century are still available today, which may have something to do with why so many designers long to live and work in New York—since, as Glaser says, opportunities can be multiplied by 100.
And it’s not only greater opportunities, but also bigger gigs, on a bigger stage. “If you’re looking to enter the big time, come to New York,” he says. Molly Watman worked for Glaser from 2004–2012, sitting next to him daily, devouring his guidance and wisdom. Now the owner of Brooklyn Herborium, she designs much of the company’s visual communications, including products and the website, and still finds time to do design on her own terms for clients. “New York is the epicenter of our culture, even global culture to a certain extent. So I felt drawn here like a moth to the flame. And it’s a tough city, but if you can make it through the difficulty, it rewards you with its beauty. It’s a constant source of inspiration, learning, newness and nostalgia.”
Of course, the New York graphic design community is no longer the world’s only design hub. You could also go to California to get those things, with plenty of big stages, big cities and big opportunities. Louise Sandhaus, faculty at California Institute of the Arts and principal of Louise Sandhaus Design, wrote the award-winning book Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design 1936–1986.
“We can’t look at a screen—whether that’s TV or a computer—without being reminded that California is the epicenter of the media universe,” she says. “California is literally creating our future since they’re consuming every corner and crevice of our existence like popcorn only to feed it back [to] us.” To Sandhaus, not only does the West Coast have the weather, but the technology and entertainment industries also present plenty of opportunities for designers. “I think the jobs are in the big corporations—in L.A., it’s Disney, Mattel, etc., while in Northern California it’s Apple, Google (now Alphabet), Facebook, Uber and the many, many, many more smaller companies and startups.” Sandhaus says that “people who are interested in cities of the future probably think of L.A.”
“If you’re looking to enter the big time, come to New York.”
So, California or New York? Which locale matters most when it comes to getting work and making it? Maybe neither, according to Deborah Adler, even though she has fond memories of all the time she’s spent in New York. She began her design career as an intern at a small studio in New York, and went on to take night classes at School of Visual Arts, studying with Glaser. She got into the MFA Designer as Author program at SVA, where she created her SafeRX thesis project, a prescription system that eventually became available at Target. She went on to work with the company to further develop the design that became ClearRx. After graduating from SVA, she worked with Glaser for six years, learning skills and gaining insights that enabled her to open her own studio on East 8th Street in Greenwich Village. Adler’s New York design career has spanned many years, featuring some of the “best conversations” with Glaser, “either coming or going somewhere in a yellow taxi—how quintessentially New York.”
But Adler has some words for people who believe that if you want to make your way in design, you need to come to New York. “Although plenty of New Yorkers have made names for themselves, I don’t think that’s true. I believe you can make it anywhere with the right skills and tools. It’s a designer’s work and ability to succeed that shines through, not their zip code.”
“IF YOU CAN MAKE IT HERE …”
No matter what zip code you choose, one thing is inescapable: There’s no place like New York. Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York office of Pentagram, has fond memories of the city, the culture and the designers that surrounded him in New York decades ago. He came to the city in 1980 with his bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Cincinnati, and began working at Vignelli Associates.
“In 1980, you could still sense the tail end of ‘Mad Men’ culture in the air. The names that were big in the ’60s, like Vignelli, Glaser, Chermayeff and Geismar, were still big. I remember thinking at the time it seemed like a mature forest where all the light and air was sucked up by these giant trees.” Bierut considers New York’s design culture at that time unparalleled to what was happening back in Cincinnati. “There was really no comparison. At the risk of overgeneralizing, there was no real design culture to speak of in Ohio in 1980. In the days before the internet—shoot, this was before fax machines and FedEx—there was no substitute for physically being somewhere. And for me, New York was the place to be. It was exciting and dirty and dangerous.”
By most accounts, New York is still an exciting place to live and work, but when it comes to the dirt, erstwhile New Yorker Armin Vit has choice words. Vit, co-founder of Under-Consideration, worked in New York from 2004–2009, including a stint at Pentagram on Bierut’s team. “When we first moved to Austin and I would visit New York, I would think, Man, I miss this place. Now, I go back, and think, What a fucking dump. I’ve really grown disenchanted with it. I appreciate what it has to offer, no doubt, but as a place to live, I find it extremely unappealing now.”
Yet Vit still returns to the city, having hosted his Brand New Conferences in New York in 2010, 2012, 2013 and, most recently, 2015. New York has a “guaranteed audience” where he “can get 200–300 designers to come to a conference.” It helps to have a conference in a city that has a high concentration of designers working in branding and identity design, Vit says.
Despite calling New York a “dump,” Vit suggests that the city offers something that no other place can, and recommends New York “99% of the time to any designer with an ambition, because there is no better place to learn how to do design, how to deal with clients or where to learn from the best.” He continues, “Go to New York to ‘make it.’”
But if you go there, and “make it,” then what? Do you make New York your home? Journalist Mary Schmich thought otherwise, sharing these words of wisdom in the Chicago Tribune: “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.”
THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (FOR BETTER OR WORSE)
Like Vit, some people who feel compelled to come to New York eventually feel equally compelled to leave. Neil Brown of Baker+Brown feels that lofty, unrealistic views contribute to the exodus. “I believe many come to NYC with a romantic, idealized view of the city (and what it will do for them, not what they will have to give up for it—not talking smaller square footage here) and spend six months, a year, maybe two, working through the honeymoon phase before waking up and realizing their fantasy is false. Some accept it, some don’t. Some never even realize it, and can be destroyed for a time because of it. The same is true for any idol in our life.”
Don’t easily give in to the mirage you’ve seen in popular culture, mass media or social media either. Sandra Shizuka of karlssonwilker inc. agrees, noting, “NYC is not always what you see in the movies, and Brooklyn is not always what you see on Instagram.”
Bierut has advice for people looking to move to the city: “I’m almost afraid to say this, but I honestly can say that I’ve never seen anyone who was talented, smart and hardworking fail in New York. The only way to fail is to have an unrealistic definition of success.” Shizuka echoes those sentiments, suggesting that people carve out their own success on their own terms. “‘Making it’ is subjective; not all of us are going to ‘make it’ in the same way. In New York and in life, it can be extremely stressful and disappointing to follow someone else’s footsteps. Hence, just find your own interpretation of ‘making it.’”
You have to promise to be yourself, and remember that New York ultimately doesn’t promise anything promising. It’s expensive and the pace is hectic, and living conditions might not be what you’ve experienced elsewhere. Brown and his wife Jennifer Baker Brown have lived all over the U.S., including Auburn, AL, Atlanta, Charlotte, NC, and New York City. Despite everything they’ve faced in New York, they have stayed, even though there is plenty to contend with: “Harsh winters. Tiny apartment. The subway at rush hour. Getting groceries home. No doorman. No laundry in building (though love fluff and fold!). Four flights of stairs—up and down every day, several times a day. Emergency construction at 2 p.m.
People urinating in the streets. Strange odors and gases rising up from the belly of the city. Sidewalks that randomly explode in the middle of the day.” Yet there are rewards. “But … the people. Our friends. Our professional network. They are the best in the world. Period.” For designers like Jennifer and Neil, New York works for them, and they work hard to make it work.
As every designer knows, you can live anywhere in the U.S., in a small or large city, and do cutting-edge work that’s on a big stage, thanks to technology connecting us all as a global village. Work coming out of one city might look like work coming out of a completely different city—even a smaller city—say, someplace on the other side of the world. But New York is New York, and as Bierut says, “there is still something about the compression of time and space and activity that you get in New York that makes it feel like nowhere else.”
Bierut came to New York decades ago, during a different time, when it was a different place. The city has changed and it’s always in a state of change, but perhaps the people coming to New York possess a unifying force that will never change: “Moving here took a kind of crazy nerve. Maybe it still does.”