Remembering Design Legend Jonathan Selikoff
Print is incredibly saddened to learn of the passing of Jonathan Selikoff on Thanksgiving, 2017. He leaves behind his wife, Lauren, son Sam, and mother, Isabelle. Our deepest condolences are with his family.
Design Matters: Jonathan Selikoff
Having worked with everyone from Fortune 500 companies to stunning startups, the brand guru, writer and letterpress artist reflects on his career.
I first became aware of Jonathan Selikoff in 2003, via his cheekily intellectual writing for Armin Vit’s then-upstart blog, Speak Up. The blog was a community of bawdy online design critics, some professional, some not, and the atmosphere on the site could be congenial, collaborative or fiercely combative, depending on the daily post. Even when he contributed to the rowdy banter, Selikoff was never one to throw a mean missive, and his writing was always constructive, thoughtful, deliberate, intellectual and clear. In short, he was one of the nice guys. Fast forward to the present, and Selikoff is still one of the nice guys. He left his eponymous agency in July after 15 years but still often does branding work, and he’s also grown into a serious letterpress artist and an award-winning designer. While Selikoff has been challenged with a recent diagnosis of ALS, his spirit, optimism and wit are more potent than ever.
I must have been looking around for design stuff on the web and stumbled across it. I liked the quality of the commentary, the honesty in people’s opinions. It seemed to be a real place to discuss design, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Back then you were working as a design director at Landor Associates in New York City. What was the general feeling toward branding in the blogging community?
If memory serves me, I think Speak Up supported the idea of branding, and that’s part of what attracted me to it. It wasn’t afraid to call out bad or lazy branding, but that wasn’t an issue to me. Calling out unsuccessful projects, done in an educational manner, can serve as a guide for others.
Going back even further, you earned a bachelor’s degree in history, yet your first job after graduating was at a branding and design firm. How did you manage that?
Well, my first job out of Emory was as a production guy at a reprographics shop in Atlanta. [Back in school], the more I worked on design at the college newspaper, the more I learned that graphic design was actually a career. So first I had a summer job at a newspaper, working in their paste-up room from 6 to midnight. Then I had an internship at Atlanta magazine. The art director, Matt Strelecki, had taught at Portfolio Center and really let me in on what graphic design was. After working for a year, I had a chance to interview for a design job. I showed my very meager portfolio and got a very meager response. Uncharacteristically for me, I said to the interviewer, “I gather you’re not too impressed; what should I do?” He said, “Go to art school.” Within a month I had quit my job and been accepted to Portfolio Center. Two years and a much better portfolio later, I had five interviews in one day in New York City and got a job.
You were at Landor for over five years. What were some of your proudest projects there?
1: Rebranding the International Rescue Committee. [I loved] the idea that you can make a profound difference in an organization that’s not just a profit-making enterprise. 2: My very first project, rebranding a paper goods manufacturer called Fort James. What made my day was going into a bathroom at Yankee Stadium and seeing a Fort James paper towel dispenser with my logo on it. 3: Branding a telecommunication company in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Let’s just say a business meeting in St. Croix wins any day over one in Dayton, OH! 4: Working out of the Hamburg, Germany, office for six months and redesigning the package for an old Austrian bottled water company to help bring them back to prominence.
You left Landor to start your own firm, Selikoff +Company, in 2002. On your website, you had a unique section I haven’t run into elsewhere—rather than simply describing your qualifications, you posed rhetorical, yet all-too familiar problems, including the classic, “I need my customers to love my brand.”
I put that together with my wife, who’s a pretty good marketing specialist herself. I tended to get small companies inquiring about my services. They were often startups, or had just launched their first product, and she was instrumental in breaking it down to the client’s level of understanding about branding. The inquiries I got were not, “Hey, we’re launching a large brand with a conference in L.A. in three months and we need coordinated marketing collateral.” It was, “I’m launching a product and I don’t know what the next steps are,” or, “I worked with another designer and I really don’t like what they did.” So it was really about reassuring them that branding was something they needed, and that I understood the end result was more than just a pretty package or a smart logo.
One of your most well-known projects is Reserve Life Organics. What was their biggest challenge, and how did you accomplish their goals?
The big challenge was the client called me before Christmas and said, “I’m launching a new line of resveratrol supplements into Vitamin Shoppe in January and I don’t like what the last designer did.” So, time and money. Typical. In my slow evolution of becoming a smart businessman, I made a deal. I said I’d do the initial design inexpensively, but here’s what I typically charge and, if we continue, those will be the rates. She had an incredible backstory for the product, which just made my job so much easier. She didn’t make her January launch, but she did in March and it took off . I worked with them over the next five years on retainer, launching five more brands for them and seeing them go into Whole Foods, GNC, Vitamin Shoppe and every natural product shop in the country.
You’ve said that you started your letterpress studio, Vote for Letterpress, because you had to. Why?
I had always loved letterpress, and graphic design was starting to wear on me. I was tired of being tethered to a computer all day. Typography is my absolute favorite aspect of design, and I had this amazing collection of wood type. I bought a small press in 2008 and learned a lot from it, but around early 2010 I wanted something bigger. I started looking and found an entire shop for sale. Most midlife crises involve Porsches. Mine was a letterpress shop. I had the passion and the ability (for the most part!), and I knew I had to just go for it.
Your love affair with letterpress began when you were a 12-year-old attending summer camp.
The camp I attended, Long Lake, in the Adirondacks, was an arts and music camp. I played trombone in their orchestra and played at other things, like making jewelry or running lights for a play. But the letterpress machines looked cool, so I wanted to try it. I also loved model rocketry, so I dabbled in a lot of stuff . But letterpress stuck with me, and when I got to Portfolio Center, it came bubbling back up.
You’ve collaborated with a fellow Speak Up author, illustrator Felix Sockwell. What did you work on?
I’m happy to print business cards and cool wedding invitations, but the best projects were with unique characters with unique projects. Felix and I had known each other since the Landor days, when I hired him for an awful client project. Fortunately, he didn’t hold it against me. Over the years, we did many personal projects for him—posters of yoga icons, a Bruce Springsteen poster (another huge passion of mine) and a calendar for New York Public Radio. Felix has strong opinions, so we butt heads occasionally, but it usually leads to something better. I certainly appreciate that he knows what he wants. It’s better than a client who says, “Yeah, do whatever, it’ll be great.” The NYPR calendar project was insane. Two thousand calendars—one black plate, one split fountain plate where I put three colors on press at once and let them blend. Each print becomes unique. It took three solid weeks of printing. I’d print, Felix would stack prints. But we got them done in time and the client loved it. I loved it. That’s the passion part to me. I want to love what comes off the press.
You were recently diagnosed with ALS. How are you doing?
I was diagnosed in December 2015. Diagnosis took a year because there’s no test that tells you you have ALS. Tests rule other things out, but it’s not until you have sufficient progression that it’s clear this is what you have. I’m managing as best as I can with it. I’ve lost my ability to speak. I’m very weak in my arms to the point that I can no longer use one of my presses. It’s depressing because it’s robbing me of something I love to do. On the other hand, I know of many ALS patients who’ve become completely paralyzed within a year of diagnosis. I’m still walking, able to drive myself places, pick my son up from camp. I treasure that.
How has your diagnosis influenced your perspective on life and design?
I’m sad that I don’t have the stamina to take on large print projects. If something seems fun, I’ll give it a shot. But I’m more interested in enjoying life and spending time with my family, whether that means going to Costa Rica to zip line and play with monkeys, or taking my son to five Springsteen concerts last year or watching him rock out at School of Rock camp. Spending time with my wife and son and my mom is what keeps me going.