Since leaving the Army in 1957 to cofound a graphic design firm at a time when graphic design as an industry barely existed, Tom Geismar has created more than 100 corporate identities. Many have universally recognizable logos—as partner at Brownjohn, Chermayeff, & Geismar (now Chermayeff & Geismar, and Haviv), Geismar oversaw the designs for PBS, Xerox, Chase Bank, National Geographic, and Mobil. And he's an equally prolific exhibit designer, having worked for the likes of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the Statue of Liberty Museum, and the Smithsonian.
Now 83 and still working in the now thriving graphics industry, Geismar is being honored with a retrospective at New York’s School of Visual Arts. The 26th annual Masters Series showcases work from Geismar's more than six-decade-long career—from early student sketches and hand-set type to famous logos to lesser known designs for birthday cards, posters, and book covers.
Co.Design caught up with the influential designer to discuss how the graphics industry has changed since his student days, his five-decade-strong creative partnership with Ivan Chermayeff, and why Bauhaus artist and educator Josef Albers was the best teacher he ever had.
What is your creative process like when designing a logo?
Our tendency as a firm is to really try to understand what the issues are, who the client is, what they’re trying to do and say, and then to explore lots of different possible approaches. Eventually, we narrow those down. We don’t show all the sketches to the client—that process is for ourselves, so that we believe we’ve done everything possible to think this through and explore all the possibilities. Then we start looking at some of the better ideas in context, since we strongly believe you really need to see how these would appear not just on a piece of white paper or on a screen. It’s a couple months-long process.
What are your work habits like?
Personally, I need quiet to work. And since I’m in the office most of the day, I end up doing a lot of work at night, at home, where I have that quiet and lack of distraction. I also really like to do research and understand what the issues are before starting to design something. Other people have ideas immediately, but I don’t tend to do that. I want to get to know the subject and do my own research in an isolated, quiet way, then work out ideas, expand them, and so on. Everyone has different ways of doing it.
How do you use drawing in your design process?
I’ve always loved drawing, but use it really as a way of describing ideas and getting to ideas, not as artwork. One thing I tried to do in the [SVA] show was to make it not about art but about design—by not framing my posters in the show, for example. I’m perfectly happy being a designer.
How did your creative partnership with Ivan Chermayeff begin, and how have you kept it strong over 57 years?
It’s a lot like a marriage. After school, when Ivan and I had gotten to know each other fairly well, I went into the Army for two years. After a year and a half, we hadn’t been in contact, but one day he wrote to me—we used to write letters in those days—and said he was thinking of stopping his freelance business and forming a small firm, with another fellow named Robert Brownjohn, and would I like to join them? I was in the Army, but I said sure, I had no plans for my life after the Army. In the SVA show, there’s a letter from Ivan, written a month and a half before I got out of the army, saying “We look forward to seeing you. Here are some business cards for you—give them out.”
Our general approach to design is similar. Our personalities are very different, the way we work is very different, but we have great respect for each other, and we share values, which is really important, whether it’s a creative partnership or a marriage. Our way of working and thinking about design has really not changed that much over time. The techniques have changed, what with computers and all that, but we still stick to this Modernist idea of design as problem-solving, which we do take seriously.
How has your work and your approach to designing changed since you started out at Rhode Island School of Design?
The most obvious change is that “graphic design” even exists now. When we started out, there were just two or three schools in the country that even taught graphic design, but RISD, where I studied as an undergraduate, called it “commercial art.” There were just a few really talented individual practitioners—Paul Rand, Lester Beale—but beyond that, there was not much. We basically knew everyone in the field, were friends with all the people who were doing it — we haven’t changed that.
[Chermayeff and I] had the idea of working collaboratively, structuring our firm more as an architectural office. We had the idea that graphic design could be much broader than just things in print. Those were all ideas we had from the beginning, and we’ve kept the same approach: design as a problem-solving process. We’re trying to bring imagination and intelligence and ideas over the time. Now it’s become a huge field, with thousands and thousands of graphic design graduates every year.
Who were some of your main influences early in your career?
I was lucky to be at Yale when the graphic design department was just starting out. Alvin Eisenman, in charge of the department, brought in people who were leading designers of the time —Herbert Matter, Lester Beall, Armin Hoffman. They were all great inspirations.
Also, Josef Albers was teaching color, painting, and drawing when I was at Yale [as a master's student]. He was the best teacher I ever had. The thing with Albers—people always thought that Albers wanted you to do what he did, which was not at all the case. He had a way of shaking up the students, giving very specific assignments, making you think. He would show examples of what other students had done previously, and then people would come in with things that looked like what he had shown as good examples, and of course he would trash them. What do you contribute if you just take what someone else has done? He had this way of making you think about color in very basic terms. It was a lifelong lesson—what he taught stayed with me.
A lot of the great designers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and ‘70s came out of one high school in Brooklyn— Abraham Lincoln High School. They were called the “art squad,” and it was all because of this one teacher, Leon Friend. It makes you wonder. The talent is there, it’s everywhere, but it’s a matter of having someone to help bring it out.
The Masters Series: Tom Geismar is on view at New York's School of Visual Arts until October 18.