April Greiman is regarded as one of the most influential designers of the digital age. She has been called a pioneer in this regard, making it acceptable for a graphic designer to explore their craft using a computer. In 1984, computers were seen by much of the public as science fiction props, specialized industry tools, or subverted novelties. The design community regarded them as an embarrassment to the long history and craft of an art form.
A native New Yorker, April is a graduate of the legendary Basel School of Design in Switzerland. Already making waves in America’s design community, in 1986 she accepted the role as guest designer for issue #133 of the influential Design Quarterly magazine. Not only did she shake up the magazine’s format by creating an issue that unfolded into a 3′ x 6′ poster, she produced the work solely on the blasphemous computer, which she began working with two years prior.
The issue, entitled “Does It Make Sense?,” contained a life size, nude self-portrait, layered with symbols and typography (above) became an instant industry-benchmark and forced the design world to sit up and take notice of the contributions computers could provide.
Though sometimes overshadowed by this great feat in guiding an industry to change, April’s career continued to push boundaries in ways that are still felt. Schooled by the famous New Wave master Wolfgang Weingart, April is also credited with introducing America to New Wave, postmodern design.
By experimenting with typography and image placement, in direct contrast to the rigid swiss grids of the past, New Wave postmodernists challenged the notion of modernist ordering systems and asked designers to experiment with the artistic possibilities that lay beyond the grid.
Posters designed by Greiman
April’s work in particular is often identified for its 3D, spatial qualities that provide a unique experience to the viewer. Challenging every convention in the industry, even the term ‘graphic design,’ which she feels is too limiting, April prefers to be called a ‘trans-media artist.’
We caught up with April in her Los Angeles office, Made in Space, where she’s spent the last few years working on large architectural and environmental projects, creating her own hotel/spa retreat (Miracle Manor) and continuing to challenge the way design affects, interacts and communicates with those around it.
This interview was presented in two parts:
Part 1: April Greiman on technology
Part 2: April Greiman on trans-media
Part 1: on technology
JOSH SMITH: You were one of the first designers to touch a computer, first Mac in 1984, but I wondered how that happened. At the time computers were expensive and relatively underground. How did you get your hands on one? What made you decide to invest in something like that?
APRIL GREIMAN: I went to the first TED conference in 1984 with one of the founders of TED, Harry Marks. I don’t think Steven Jobs was there at the time, but Alan Kay, who’s one of the inventors of the Mac, was speaking there. He was working for Xerox Learning Park, where they did research and were designing a notebook or laptop type of computer. After the conference, Harry Marks said, ‘we are going to Macy’s department store. I want you to see this little computer.’ I said ‘no way.’ I’d tried an Amiga prior to the Mac and it was fun, but a little too dopey for me. But Harry was a bit of a mentor to me. He basically invented the technology and software that launched motion graphics. We used to go out on photo shoots together just driving around, shooting things we were interested in. Anyway, he dragged me to Macy’s and the next thing I knew, there was a line around the block, waiting behind me to try the Mac! I was immediately hooked, so I bought one.
Apple Macintosh 128K, photo by Wikipedia user Grm wnr (Left) and Macintosh Plus, photo by Wikipedia user Rama (Right)
128K! How could you do anything with that?
Well, exactly! If you look at the some of the work done in the early to mid-eighties you can see the limitation. We finally got a 512k machine, the Mac Plus, which is how Design Quarterly was done. We used MacVision, which was a little beige box that hooked up to a video camera and ported right into the Mac. You could scan over an image and it was tiled out. We kept moving the camera, scanning and repeating.
Totally different process, using computers today…
A lot of experienced designers disapprove of students learning with computers rather than the hands-on methods they learned in school. Do you think young designers are missing out?
I tend to pretty much exclusively work with digital tools. If I’m doing color palettes for buildings and architects I have a huge library of color chips and different systems, so testing colors is still a hands-on thing. That’s the only ‘analog’ work for us, really.
And your photography?
I don’t touch film, it’s all digital. All of our printing is digital. I haven’t touched a piece of film for 20 years. I really haven’t.
Photography by Greiman
Photography by Greiman
Have your design views changed in light of new technologies or trends?
Not really, I mean the body of ideas is ever expanding, but there are some core things that remain. I see everything as an object in space and have always been interested, since the Basel school days, in creating visual and spatial hierarchies. So for me when web design came into the realm of possibilities, I loved it because I didn’t look at it as a page. I was already looking at it as spatial media that you would journey through space to access information from. What a great thing.
I see everything as an object in space…when web design came into the realm of possibilities…I was already looking at it as spatial media
Do you feel like websites have a long way to go to embrace that kind of spatial quality? Sometimes when I look at a website, I feel like they’ve just borrowed from other websites, or copied what’s been done in printed work.
Well that’s the thing about HTML, you can just copy all that code and paste it into your desktop and then just add your own images, it all looks very templative. There are very few, I think, inventive and unique websites.
It seems like such a new medium, it has so much further to go and there’s a lot to explore.
Part of it is you know you can make websites in Photoshop or in Illustrator, so everybody is doing that. But, to a certain extent, they are primitive technologies; in terms of the potential of what can be done. It’s just repeating tasks and cut-and-paste and not really thinking. We are sort of subscribing then, to what engineers of the software have thought about this medium of communication. Because, keep in mind, designers like us are not designing the software. We’re not writing code. We’re just using the code.
That’s an interesting point. Some of the technology that guides us may also be holding us back…
It’s always been a problem that people who actually invented, produced or designed creative tools come from more of a technical background. Let’s say you were a student, learning Photoshop or After Effects. You go take a class to learn it and they would show you 95% of the things you’ll never use in that program. It’s because the people who are designing it are not the ones designing with it. They are not solving the kinds of problems we are. So you kind of have to wade through and get stuck in somebody else’s quicksand of engineering and technology.
Keep in mind, designers like us are not designing the software. We’re not writing code. We’re just using the code.
Part 2: on trans-media
In part one April discussed how she acquired the newly released Macintosh computer in 1984 and introduced it to a reluctant design community. She shed light on the limitations of this early technology and the continuing transition within our industry.
During the course of this discussion, April pointed out a limitation that lingers today. That is the idea that our design tools (including software like Photoshop) are sometimes created by technical professionals who can be far removed from the everyday needs, challenges and process of designers.
In part two, the discussion shifts to more topical information on the design field at large. She provides valuable advice and a glimpse into the methodology of someone who continues to push back conventional limitations.
Greiman’s large-scale mural at the Wilshire-Vermont LA subway terminal (left), Cover of WET magazine, 1979 with Jayme Odgers (right)
JOSH SMITH: You seem to avoid working for typical corporate clients. I mean, it seems like you’ve managed to avoid the…
APRIL GREIMAN: …Dumb clients? Yeah I would say people find me. Over the last few years I’ve just had some pretty great opportunities so that I don’t have to. But I would say during the early part of my career I did turn down some clients if I didn’t identify with the content or their morals. I would never work for a tobacco company, for example. I also got invited to do an annual report for Northrop and I turned it down because I wouldn’t have anything to do with weaponry. I’ve just really just been inching along with the clients who somehow find out about me through something they’ve heard or seen. I still think that’s the best way, although right now it’s not my favorite economy to be working in.
I don’t think you’re alone there.
It’s good that I’m a closet Buddhist, because I’m used to just taking it one day at a time.
People say ‘Oh April GreimAn…she’s a graphic designer,’ but I haven’t called myself a graphic designer since 1984, when I got the Macintosh.
Is there anything that gets overlooked when people talk about your work?
I’m sort of tagged ‘New Wave/Postmodern’ and I think that the vast majority of work that came after is probably the most important work, with a bigger scope. Definitely the work we’ve been doing in the last five years is much more complex. I’ve sort-of coined the phrase ‘trans-media’ for that. I really think that’s what our strength is and what I’ve been interested in. It’s kind of being a specialized generalist.
What project are you working on at the moment?
Recently we’re working on a twenty eight hundred acre mixed-use complex and park in Irvine California. Over the last half a year, we’ve completed some of the concept design. Now we are concentrating on fourteen hundred acres with the landscape architect Ken Smith, who’s in New York. The architecture firm is also in New York, so we’re the local firm here, but we started off being the colorist for the park and it evolved.
What does it mean to be a colorist for a park?
Picking the color for the whole park, coming up with a concept and a palette that is really enduring and can apply to everything from the architecture materials to plants and specifically for signage, print and a graphic design program.
You mentioned that New Wave and Postmodern are labels that you get stuck with…
Yeah, people say “Oh April Greimen, yeah sure, she’s a graphic designer,” but I haven’t called myself a graphic designer since 1984, when I got the Macintosh.
That label ‘Graphic Design’ was something you fought when you were directing the CalArtsdesign program…
Well, it’s so broad; I mean what is it even? Fine art is visual communication as well. But at that time I was really frustrated because I was bringing video and computer into graphic design and meeting a lot of resistance, so I thought you really can’t call it graphic design. That term is really indicative of a technology (print) that isn’t the only medium anymore.
Some people prefer applied arts…
Yeah… yeah, or commercial art.
Poster for ‘Objects in Space’ at Selby Gallery, 1999 (left), Workspace poster, Moscone Center, 1987 (right)
I notice your work ‘breaks a lot of rules’ especially in typography. As a young designer you’re always told to stick to a grid and keep things the same size.
That’s fine when you first start out, but Wolfgang Weingart taught me differently. We didn’t start out with baby steps. He’d just throw us out into space and say ‘start’. So my M.O. became about trying stuff and not worrying about the grid or the structure until I have a feeling for what I’m doing. Then you tidy it up after. If you start off tidy, it’s really hard to get messy after.
If you start off tidy, it’s really hard to get messy after… Leap into the void and just start with what you’re interested in.
Seems like good advice for those of us who might cling to a typographic grid too much.
Yes, just jump in. Leap into the void and just start with what you’re interested in. You can always apply ordering systems and production needs after, but you can’t start with a tidy grid, pour text in with one size type and one weight and expect too much to happen.
It takes some skill to move past those rules and still produce legible, beautiful type treatments.
I really think that people who do fine typography are fine artists.
Do you think there’s a difference between fine art and design?
I don’t. People, particularly in America, are really stuck on labels. It’s hard to get out from under your label, where in Europe and Asia we’re all artists. Except in America. You know, everybody is hung up on whether you’re a fine artist or a designer. I think the best of art is all well designed. And the best of design is all pretty fine art.
What do you think is next in design? Do you follow trends or do you think there’s any movements happening right now that are taking things in a new direction?
I actually think that the iPhone is pretty mind-boggling. We’re now carrying around a computer that’s a little bigger than a credit card…and the power of this thing; you’ve got your own library, your own global database. It’s just amazing.
With access to all this information, I wonder if we’re all going to be so smart in a few years or just…
Greiman’s U.S. Postage stamp celebrating the 19th amendment (left), Poster for Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, designed with Jayme Odgers (right)
How does it feel to see your work or your name unexpectedly? I mean did you ever get a letter with your stamp on it, or come across your name while reading?
Yeah it’s kind of a hoot. I mean you always pinch yourself and say ‘why are they choosing me’ or ‘why are they enamored with something I’ve done’. It always comes as a pleasant surprise. I know students are given assignments to do something ‘in-the-style-of.’ So there’s a zillion of those and I’ve seen people do such bad things with my work, trying to imitate a style (that I really don’t have). But there is something there-an aura or something about the work that people could say ‘it’s one of these certain people who made this.’
I think the best of art is all well designed.
And the best of design is all pretty fine art.
I would say people identify the spatial relationships in your work to being an ‘April Greiman thing.’
Hard to take credit for creating space, but I’m willing to do it after a couple glasses of wine or something!
I guess you didn’t invent space.
I was made in space that’s for sure.
Do you have any advice for young designers?
Just make sure you love what you do…
or this would be a pretty crappy way to spend your life!
Miracle Manor, Desert Hot Springs, California with Roto Architects
April Greiman continues her work from her Los Angeles studio Made in Space. Her spa and retreat, Miracle Manor, is located in Desert Hot Springs, California. She makes a concerted effort to give back to the industry she loves by leading workshops for young designers and lecturing around the world. She also teaches a class at Southern California Institute of Architecture entitled Seeing is a Way of Thinking. idsgn would like to thank her for taking the time to share her insight with our readers and we look forward to her future contributions to our community.