What Matters to Alex Isley

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

AIGA Medalist Alexander Isley founded his design firm in 1988. He and his team have created award-winning work for clients that include The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Smithsonian, Sotheby’s, and more. He works out of a barn in Connecticut.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Since this is a design-focused questionnaire, I’ll put my answers through the filter of Design.

Oh, who am I kidding? My life has intertwined with design for as long as I can remember, thanks to parents who showed me that all you need to create is paper, a pencil, and curiosity.

I’ve always been bored doing puzzles (both tabletop and crossword) because, when you’re finished, all you’ve done is replicate what someone else has already completed. What’s more interesting to me is having someone come to me, often with an ill-defined problem, and ask for help in making something that was not there before: Here’s our audience, here’s a budget, and here’s a deadline… what do we need to say? What do we need to do?

That’s the kind of puzzle I like.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

When I was around four or five years old, I would create paper constructions of things like telephones, switchboards, airplanes, and cars. They would open up so that you could see all the wiring and mechanics inside, also all made out of paper. I’ve always been interested in the way things work. My only request for Christmas each year was a ream of paper and a big box of pencils. (I was pretty easy to shop for.)

What is your biggest regret?

Oh boy, I have many regrets.

  1. Deciding to walk through Tompkins Square Park at 1 AM and getting chased by a guy with a knife. I got away after he fell on me. The scariest part? Looking through a mugshot book with detectives who were relentless in trying to get me to finger someone I was sure was not the guy. (I wouldn’t do it, much to their annoyance.)
  2. Falling into the road off the back of a moving flatbed truck.
  3. Making snap decisions. I bought a car some years ago that was larger than I needed and more expensive than I could afford. (I had been on my way to buy a washing machine.)
  4. The time I was driving away from our office and my vision was blocked by a bush. I didn’t see a dark blue car coming way too fast toward me. I hit him. I saw white O-L-I-C-E lettering in my windshield as I smashed into him broadside.
    It gets worse. This happened near a fire station, and the firemen all ran out of the building to care for their friend, the dazed officer hunched in the road. (He was fine, fortunately.) Then the police Chief shows up. (It’s a small town.) He asked how I was, then said, “Oh jeez, we already have two cars in the shop. Now I have to go out and rent one!” Then the officer’s wife happens to drive by (still a small town), gets out of her car screaming, “Oh my god!” This did not seem good at all.
    I figured I was going to get a fat ticket and lots of points. But guess what? No ticket at all. I’m still not sure what happened. But he was speeding, and it turns out the bush was in an illegal location. Who knows? But yes, I still regret hitting a police car.
  5. But this is the big one: Not traveling as a family more when our kids were younger. I knew it was a mistake at the time, but I thought we’d always have the chance at some point. I was wrong. I regret this.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

I think when your heart gets broken, a little part of it will always stay broken. But that’s okay, especially if you can learn from bad experiences or circumstances. Optimism helps.

I admire Japanese kintsugi pottery repair as an approach to dealing with and even appreciating something that’s broken. Fissures are not ignored, and the focus is on making something stronger and even more beautiful, while suggesting a history.

What makes you cry?

I was afraid answering this questionnaire was going to make me cry, but so far, so good.

Certain songs make me cry, but I kind of know when that’s going to happen, so it’s never a surprise. What I clearly remember are the unexpected times I’ve cried, like when I saw the movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream when it first came out. It’s about a guy with a vision who designed a car far superior to what was out there, but the project was killed for political/business reasons. That (his design was quashed! Unfairly!) made me cry, and it caught me by surprise. It was very emotional. I was on a date, and let’s just say it did not go well.

Also the first time I read Billy Collins’ poem The Lanyard, it really got me. Probably because I’d also made a boxy red-and-white lanyard for my mom at summer camp, with a little help from a counselor. It still moves me.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Not long at all. A minute or two? I think it’s a bad idea to feel self-satisfied. (I know, I know, that’s not the same as pride and joy. I’m working on that.) For whatever reason, the feeling of joy is fleeting for me. I feel I always have to keep trying. But here’s the good part: when I arrive at an idea I like, one that solves a problem in an exciting way, nothing feels better. I’ve sometimes jumped in the air in my excitement. I need that feeling.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I hope my family will remember me fondly, and that’s the only definition of an afterlife I can get my head around.

What do you hate most about yourself?

Sometimes I make snap decisions (see above under “regrets”).

What do you love most about yourself?

I feel I’m pretty decisive, and people who have worked with me say it’s refreshing that I don’t go back and forth a lot, agonizing.

I consider this to be the same thing as the last question. This is an issue.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

What I’ve always had on my birthday: tacos and a can of cherry pie filling for dessert. I eat like a 5-year-old.