The fare at New York City takeout mecca Shake Shack is undeniably tasty, but perhaps it’s the Shack’s design that has established it so firmly in New Yorkers’ hearts. The shakes come in toffee-colored cups with clean-lined blue illustrations of ice-cream cones and burgers; the same drawings grace the menus. At the top of the building’s slanted roof, the Shack’s name stands in elegant steel Neutraface letters more than two feet high. It’s modern, yet reminiscent of luncheonettes and Automats gone by.
This classic marriage of Middle American hominess and New York chic was created, in part, by Joe Marianek, whose own kindly, forthright demeanor speaks to his Midwestern upbringing as well as his city home. He was born and raised in Ohio (Columbus, then Cleveland); Marianek’s great-uncle owned a printing company, and nearly all his relatives worked in graphic design. “There was always some big person saying, ‘You’ll do this someday,’” he recalls.
Marianek’s first (and only) college choice was the Rhode Island School of Design. In his junior year he did an internship with no less a figure than Milton Glaser, who paid him in posters. He reveres Glaser’s “strong beliefs”: “You see a lot of people theorizing about design but not really practicing it with conviction,” he says. “Most people are just like, ‘I’ll do it for the money.’ They’re not successful practitioners.”
His second internship was at Pentagram under Paula Scher, who hired him after graduation. “It was like going to grad school,” Marianek says. “I did more work—and cooler projects—in one and a half years there than in the rest of my life combined.” It was with Scher (“one of the most charming and brilliant people I’ve ever met”) that he developed the Shake Shack identity. Of his illustrations, Marianek explains, “They’re meant to be very architectural and un-delicious. I knew they didn’t have to be seductive, because the food would be great.”
This kind of project-specific approach is manifest in all of Marianek’s work. His student poster for a lecture by David Byrne features an illustration of a camera and a pants-wearing tripod, deftly capturing Byrne’s offbeat sensibility. Equally effective is a retooled identity for the Cleveland Clinic, in which new colors and a standardized print system lend updat-ed meaning to the hospital’s existing logo and lettering.
That project is among many that Marianek oversaw at Landor Associates, where he was senior designer until this January, when he returned to Pentagram to work under Michael Bierut. Using design to help others is key to Marianek’s personal philosophy: “If you’re going to do this kind of life pursuit, you should solve something other than stylistic issues.” To that end, he volunteers for the Taproot Foundation, which connects small nonprofits with designers, and teaches at RISD (and, soon, SVA). This year, in addition to tackling personal projects—such as a book devoted to his great-aunt’s collection of miniature books—he’s hoping to launch a design collective for cultural institutions. “I’d like to work for visionaries, people with good intentions,” he says. Happily, Marianek’s eye is as good as his heart.