‘Every time I mention Hillman Curtis amongst designers, those who have heard him speak praise how humble and down to earth he is and invariably what a great designer he is. I attended one of his lectures this year, and that reputation is right on the money, it’s so rare to find somebody who is so willing to teach others, share and influence with good nature. I’m sure he is no angel (he did play in a rock band) but one thing is for sure, he is a leader by example.’ – Armin Vit
Speak Up: Your “stumbling” upon web design after your rock ‘n’ roll years is very well documented by now. It seems like you were in the right place at the right time, do you ever consider what would have happened or where you would be if you hadnÕt started your practice around the internet boom?
Hillman Curtis: Not really… when I look back at it, my path seems fortuitous, but equally arduous. I was working at a new age greeting card warehouse filling orders and getting clobbered at a downtown boxing gym before I started with design and computers…this is back in 1993. I’d just been dropped by my record label and was too old to start a new band so I signed up for a Photoshop class, then a Director class…those classes led to a series of internships and freelance jobs, which in turn led to a job at Macromedia. I’d just been promoted to Art Director there when they acquired Flash. When I left to start hillmancurtis it was 1998, right as the boom was picking up speed. My timing was very good, but I put in a hell of a lot of work getting there.
SU: One of the reasons your work became so admired was because you could tell the most interesting stories with the least amount of bandwidth – today bandwidth is king, 10k files are not frowned upon anymore – how have you embraced technology? Or do you still prefer the “humble” ways?
HC: That’s a good question. I’d like to think that it’s the stories and not the download time that resonate in my work. But I know they are tied together and that it’s part of the deal when working in the online medium. Broadband is still a limited environment and I think there is still the challenge/opportunity to present clear communication within those limitations. I don’t think I align big files with freedom, innovation or creative expression… I don’t think I ever will. I always want to present the fastest most streamlined and compelling experience.
SU: This next question might sound a bit harsh, but trust me, it’s not meant as an insult or anything of the sort. I already mentioned your ability to make the most of the end user’s technical situations (AOL/56k Modems/Pentium 1 beige boxes) and the limitations of Flash and web in general. Do you think those limitations could just be an excuse to not push yourself and your team harder to do something more?
HC: Yes. All of my personal philosophies constantly threaten to become prison bars. My adherence to grids, to minimalism, to reductionism, to the compulsion towards over-justification… even trying to work within the limitations of the web , which I think is the right thing to do, can be dangerous if I become too rigid about it. It’s definitely my biggest challenge at the moment. I’m actually trying to break from much of this and have taken most of the summer off from client work to try to find new ways to approach my work.
SU: Print design has its share of gratuitous eye candy, but Web design is governed by it (besides all the wonderful content we can find) with an added lack of design fundamentals – how have you been able to instill some congruence to the field?
HC: Definitely with my books, in which I try to share my respect for the power of good design… and hopefully with my work.
SU: Changing gears a little bit, where is New Media Design right now and where is it headed? Are we done with it or is it just getting started? Where do you fall in the mix of things?
HC: I honestly have no answer for this one… I’m hoping I have one by the end of the summer.
SU: Let’s talk a little about your buzz sentences
HC: “Making the Invisible Visible”
This is all about theme… and maybe a better way of saying this would be; making that universal feeling felt… or speak with the heart and the heart hears. It’s saying something with color, layout, motion, rhythm, images and sequence in a way that speaks louder than text based messaging. It’s something underneath the surface messaging of any design… like the 1967 Milton Glaser poster of Bob Dylan… on the surface is a promotion/ad for Bob Dylan, but the work suggests so much more in it’s wild color and beautiful curves; freedom, expression, experimentation and growth. It’s almost like some crazy blooming flower… and thus was a wonderful reflection or response to, even perhaps an influence on, the socio-political time.
“Eat the Audience”
This is pretty simple. I got it from a story my mother-in law told me about an ESL (English as a Second Language) class she taught. She had asked her students to each prepare a short lecture to present to the class. One of her Japanese students told her that in order to complete the assignment he first had to “eat the audience”. That was as close as he could get with his limited English…what he meant was that he had to consider his audience, respect and include them in his concept, prior to writing the piece. It’s a great metaphor for new media design.
“Turn on, Tune in, Give Back”
This was one the shop came up with way back. In the middle of the boom. We were responding to the singular obsession with wealth… the blind chasing of stock options and the frantic consumption… the days of Herman Miller chairs. We decided to give a percentage of our earnings to charity and everyone in the studio got to pick one. It also had to do with the sharing of inspiration. Of trying not to hide your sources.
SU: One of the questions I hate the most is “Who are your influences?” and I will not ask this – if anybody cares to now who yours are, they can buy the MTIV book. What I would like to ask is why are you so eager to talk about your inspirations? It’s rare to see brand-name designers acknowledge their inspirations but you do so very – pardon the redundancy – inspirationally yourself.
HC: I love and celebrate my work and so I love and celebrate the work that influences me. There is nothing better than turning someone on to Tibor Kalman or Pablo Ferro, or Bradley Gosh, or Peter Saville, or Hi-Res, Saul Bass, Deborah Ross, or The Bureau, the music videos of Jonathan Glazer, the illustrator Jasper Goodall and so on. I get a thrill out of pointing to someone’s work and saying “This moved me so much that I did this…”
SU: Thanks Hillman.