Interview: Ivan Chermayeff

Underground Images: School of Visual Arts Subway Poster Exhibition is on display at University of Texas at Arlington until April 27th, 2015. On the occasion of the show’s opening, Ivan Chermayeff was interviewed by UTA Senior Lecturer and AIGA UTA’s faculty advisor, MiHyun Kim.

MiHyun Kim (MK): There is currently Underground Images School of Visual Arts Subway Posters exhibition is being held at University of Texas at Arlington. There are two posters you designed about 50 years ago. It is a great honor to have your work in the exhibition.

Ivan Chermayeff (IC): Thank you, yes, those are nice posters. I have done about 300-400 posters in my career.

(MK): What do you like to do when you are not engaged in the design process or client work?

(IC): I make collages. I have many many collages. I do them almost every day. I work on them in between my office work. I have quite a few. Several hundred.

(MK): What role does collage play in your design process or thinking?

(IC): My collages are studies of visual connections. I collect a lot of stuff and as long as it’s flat enough to put in collage I use it. Everything like gloves – men loose them like construction workers, they put them in their pocket and they fall out and loose them or throw them away. I collect them when I can find them. I collect pebbles that are interesting and scraps of paper or packages….it’s endless.

(MK): When you make the collages do you know what you want to make in them?

(IC): Do I know? No. It’s a beginning and I add color and make new connections. That’s what it is all about.

(MK): Now I have some questions about your logos and design work. Your work is everywhere. When you are asked to design a logo, what is your process?

(IC): When first we have to understand completely how the logo is used. Where it appears. Some people like Mobil Oil have 50,000 gas stations around the work and they don’t even exist anymore. They were bought by Exxon seven years ago – it’s that good a symbol. The process is one simply first understanding what the company does. It can be limited in its audience and sometimes it isn’t. We need to understand the company and where the company wants to go and to interview some of the management. Then there are different answer as to what makes a good logo. They should be very simple. Appropriate for the audience. It is usually a two month process to get to that point but it should look like it took five minutes. It has to be understandable and hold it’s own. We have to make sure there is no problem or likeness with their competitors, so we have to know what they are all about as well. Then we find out if the logo can be protected legally. That is also part of the process.

(MK): Do you just start to draw your idea once you know who they are and where they want to go?

(IC): Yeah. The clients are quite varied, some are universities. I’m going to Turkey for the 32nd time this May because we have a client there called, KOC. They are probably the largest in Turkey. My partners and I have done 18 for them. They own 110 companies. Yes, I think 18 since 1974. They have a string of hotels around Turkey and around. There are dozens of them. I did their logotype already.

(MK): Do clients find you are do you reach out?

(IC): Well, KOC, found our firm because they liked Mobil. They asked Mobil who did it and Mobil told them about Tom Geismar and me, so the head of their company came and said would you work for me. This was 1974. So I did and I’ve been working for them and the many businesses they do since 1974. Some of these are very public and visible and some are not because they supply others. They have a great many things going on. It evolves. They haven’t always been in the hotel business. Some business come about and grow and others die out. You can look up Koc holdings and find out how big and complex they are. They’re enormous. They literally are the biggest company in Turkey. The Turks are a very loyal people. I see them and when they come to New York they see me. We have a very close relationship. A lot of respect.

(MK): Do you feel it is a challenge to make a logo with today’s interactive and growing screen culture?

(IC): Some of the things we do are animated and for television. This is very important. And film. We work with them. For signage the media has changed. Television is everything so it has to work there as well as in print. Some people like KOC make all the school buses in the country so it has to work in all environments. And a company like OPET, has gas trucks and they are very visible and there is nobody in Turkey over the age of three who doesn’t know who they are.

(MK): When you see your logo in the environment. Do you feel pride in the work?

(IC): Sure. I like that a lot. When something goes by on the side of a bus or in the subway stations, wherever you encounter these things it is great pleasure to know someone else likes what happened beyond me or my associates and my partners. These things required being worked out to fit a variety of forms. The ones made in color needed to work in black and white. The big one need to work small. It requires a staff and people and a lot of hours. It has to be worked out completely and properly and we might have 8 weeks to do that. Otherwise it is irresponsible and won’t work for flexibly enough for all situations. That’s the reason most of the things you see aren’t very good. Because they haven’t been thought about thoroughly. They may work fine for one thing but they can not move easily into mass media or anything like that. No simple answer. But there are things that look very simple. LIke the Red Cross logo. Pretty hard to beat the Red Cross.

(MK): Do you have your design heroes and how was it like seeing the evolution of graphic design over the past 60 something years?

(IC): There are great designers, many of whom are dead. Graphic Design hasn’t existed very long as a profession. Not much longer than we have. I’m 82. Most of the people who I admire like Ikko Tanaka in Japan – he’s no longer with us – but was absolutely brilliant. Pierre Mendell from Germany was a friend and absolutely never did anything I didn’t like. Paul Rand was one of my greatest heroes and I was a friend of his. He was the best designer as far as I am concerned that ever lived……the list is getting longer. But 65 – 75 years ago nobody knew what Graphic Design was. Even when I was young you couldn’t even say what you did. You would say you were a commercial artist and people would say “oh” but that was nonsense because they didn’t know what that was either. You couldn’t say you were a designer. Nobody knew what that was, now some people do.

By MiHyun Kim
Published April 23, 2015