Lou Danziger is a pillar of West Coast design. He has worked as a designer, art director and consultant since 1949, bringing his talents to a diverse list of institutions, from Microsoft to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Danziger studied at ArtCenter College of Design in the late 1940s and went on to become a legendary instructor at the College as well as at institutions like Chouinard, the California Institute of the Arts and Harvard University. And he turned 90 years old in 2013.
A few years ago a publisher asked Lou Danziger to give advice to art students. He offered these words – “Work. Think. Feel.” – and elaborated thus: Work: “No matter how brilliant, talented, exceptional, and wonderful the student may be, without work there is nothing but potential and talk.”Think: “Design is a problem-solving activity. Thinking is the application of intelligence to arrive at the appropriate solution to the problem.” Feel: “Work without feeling, intuition, and spontaneity is devoid of humanity.”
These sentiments are not, however, applicable only to students. Rather, they underscore Danziger’s own half-century career as a graphic designer, design consultant, educator, and one of the most prolific of America’s late Modern practitioners—the generation that came immediately after Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, Will Burtin and others.
Aswin Sadha: To begin the interview, could you tell us a bit of your childhood? Why and who influenced you to pursue a career as a graphic designer?
Louis Danziger: I grew up in New York City during the depression and when I was about 11 or 12 years old I took some free art classes that were offered in our neighborhood. These classes were part of the Federal Art Project funded by the government in an effort to support the arts and artists during the depression years. I enjoyed the activity and loved the work that I produced in class. Somehow that got me particularly interested in lettering and I began to explore the library for books on the subject. I also took a Federal Art Project class in poster design and that enlarged my interest. In the process I came to believe that the Germans were doing the best work and so I began looking at Gebrauchsgraphik Magazine which was available at a local branch of the New York Public library monthly. Without realizing it, I was absorbing some of the best graphic design work of the time including much European work that was more modern and progressive than what was being produced in America. Consequently when I began to move into doing graphic design myself, I began with very high standards.
AS: After the military service in 1945, you had a chance to study under Alvin Lustig. Could you tell us what is the most significance lesson or exercise from Lustig?
LD: For me the significance of Alvin Lustig’s teachings was not in any specific design lessons though I’m sure there were many things he said which were important in one’s development and understanding. For example I remember him talking about how important what he referred to as “definition of intention” was, that is if you wanted something to be seen as precise it had to be very precise, if you intended for some thing to be organic it should clearly and unequivocally have that quality. He would talk about the use of scale, typographic niceties and many other things, but for me his importance was primarily inspirational. He was a charismatic teacher who made one feel that design was very important and well worth the intense commitment that is required to doing it well. He opened our eyes to the design world showing us work we had not seen before by great designers that were new to us. He was always bring in very interesting books that we were unaware of. He talked about painting, literature, music, architecture and film and made us aware of all the connections. He was inspiring. One wanted to be as intelligent as he was.
AS: A year after you took a class with Alexey Brodovitch for a year in New York, did you learn photography from Brodovitch?
LD: I did not learn anything about photography in that class or even subsequently from him other than what I learned from looking at his extraordinary photography in his books such as Ballet and others. He was a great teacher and what I got mostly from him was a sense of how important authenticity was. I think that was the highest value that he espoused and it had a very strong influence on me. Since he liked me and liked my work ( he was not much given to liking anything and was a hard one to please) it did a great deal for boosting my ego and my confidence. It came at a time in my career that I really needed that.
AS: What was your first job ?
LD: When I was in high school and majoring in art I would try to get a related job during my summer vacation. My first job, probably at age 15 was as an apprentice in the art department of a large lithographic printer, the United Litho Company in downtown New York’s lower east side. I was paid 7 dollars a week. I cleaned brushes, ran errands, clipped images from magazines for the illustrator’s scrap files. The art director and the illustrators would all show me how to do things, and would patiently explain what they were doing and why. I learned a lot. The following summer I worked in a silk-screen house that did major displays for firms like Park & Tilford and Florsheim Shoes, etc. Again, a useful learning experience. I got a very thorough grounding in production knowledge as a result of these early experiences
AS: In 1949, you began to open your own design studio in Los Angeles. Why did you pick Los Angeles?
LD: I chose to live and work in Los Angeles because of the weather. I always hated the winters growing up in New York and particularly after having spent several years in the South Pacific while in the army and coming home to New York in the winter was intolerable so I left for sunny California. I have never regretted the move.
AS: What is a typical day in your studio ?
LD: Generally since I mostly worked by myself with an occasional assistant my day was fairly unstructured and was shaped by the volume of work that I had or appointments I had made. I would usually start my day by making the necessary phone calls and that behind be I would begin working. I was a very efficient and productive worker and since I was pretty much doing everything by myself I did not have to spend time explaining things to others. I always had music playing while I worked, I would often, if work load allowed, just sit and read. No matter the pressure I seldom worked after 5pm. If necessary rather than work late hours I preferred to get up extra early like 4am and work in the early morning hours. It is amazing how productive one can be during those early hours, fresh from some sleep, no phone call interruptions and all is quiet.
When I did have meetings with clients outside of my studio I would try to make those lunch meetings. During my entire career I always taught school at least one day a week, generally on Fridays.
AS: Less than 10 years after you have opened your studio, you went traveling to Europe. Why did you decide to take a year off and travel?
LD: It is hard to remember exactly why I decided to try and live in Europe. I think at the time, mid nineteen fifties, I probably did not like the consumerist culture at the time, the political climate was also quite reactionary although there was lots of good activity such as the civil rights movement, the counter culture of the beatniks and a whole new music scene going on. I think I felt somehow that I did not fit in. I was also very interested in Italian design and so thought I would try to live and work in Italy for a while and if I liked it perhaps to stay.
AS: Why are you very interested in Italian design? Where did you work in Italy?
LD: What I particularly liked about the Italian work, particularly the work of Max Huber and Carlo Vivarelli (both Swiss) at Studio Boggeri and Albe Steiner and others was their use of type and photo. It had all of the structure and discipline of the Swiss but much less rigid and occasionally quit playful. They seemed to relax the rules a bit and were often quite imaginative. The work had verve and a dynamic presence and particularly in the work of Albe Steiner there were often interesting concepts as well.
I worked for Studio Boggeri for a short period and started to work on the graphics for the Industrial Design section of the Milan Triennale being designed by the architect Alberto Rosselli. I became ill and left Italy for Switzerland to be diagnosed and treated. That was the end of my working in Europe. We stayed there for several more months just traveling around and finally returned home were I resumed my design practice.
AS: What are the differences between working in USA and Italy?
LD: At that time in 1957 I found the major difference to be one of efficiency. In the United States I was accustomed to an electric pencil sharpener, pads of layout paper, specifying and sending out for type, ordering photostats, etc. I produced a great deal of work in a day. At Boggeri’s you sharpened your pencils with razor blades, used rolls of architect’s tracing paper for layouts. Most printing was done by letterpress so that you would paste down type cut from magazines for position and the printer would make up and compose the pages as you suggested. In the States we would make paste-ups using repro proofs, essentially composing the final piece rather than the printer- compositor. I would do in one day what it would take a week in Italy. I was very impatient with the pace at Studio Boggeri.
AS: In 1965, you also traveled to Japan. A year after Art Treasures from Japan was published, was there any coincidence?
LD: I was first in Japan in 1945 during my last few months of military service. I was stationed in Tokyo and although the city was decimated I found the people and the culture very simpatico.
I returned to Japan for six weeks in 1965 supervising the printing of the Art Treasures of Japan catalog. During those six weeks I had the opportunity to experience Japanese art, architecture and culture at its best. Helped by the Ministry of Education who was involved in the exhibition I was able to visit many of Japan’s best sites in Kyoto, even some off limits to the general public. It was a great unequalled experience. Also at that time, one of my clients in Los Angeles was a distributor and agent for several of the large camera and lens companies so there were also people from that industry who entertained me royally and took me through many other wonderful experiences in Tokyo and elsewhere. Because my reputation as a designer was by now quite established I was able to make connections easily with some of the luminaries in the Japanese design world with whom I had some wonderful lunches and discussions. I made some lasting friends and learned a great deal during those six weeks. Later, probably around 1985, I began to go to Japan with some frequency as I had become a consultant to a large Japanese advertising agency as well as to a group of Japanese art schools in Tokyo and Osaka. That lasted for about 15 years.
AS: You take photography by yourself for the project. Did you take all the images for the book as well ?
LD: No I did not take any of the photographs in that book. In that book as in all the museum catalogs I have designed, the photographs are always supplied by the museum and one has very little control of either the quality or even choice of photographs. You only control how they are presented. Sometimes you can control the sequence, sometimes that is determined by the curators who author the catalog. They may prefer for example that the work be shown chronologically or by artist or other factors and those decisions of course need to be incorporated in your plan for the design. Often even within very strict limitations I can find a way to make the catalog better through the use of visual pacing where I will enlarge a detail for emphasis, or perhaps by the way I might juxtapose certain images but the material, that is the text as well as the photographs or other illustrations are always a given. If I have an opportunity to use my own photos it is only on the cover of the catalog which often is like a small poster designed to attract the viewer to the book.
AS: Do you have any favorite project? Could you tell us the design process for this project?
LD: I don’t have any favorite projects. I judge the value of the project by how well I feel I have solved the particular problem. If I solved it well I like it and if does not succeed in doing that I do not like it. Of course there are some pieces I particularly like because I feel that for some reason I have solved the problem especially well but there are ( I must immodestly say) so many of them I can’t say which are my favorites.
AS: You also taught at the Art Center School for quite sometime, what are the differences of design education before compared with today?
LD: I have been teaching design students at Art Center College of Design and other schools including Chouinard Art Institute, Cal Arts and Harvard University for over 60 years. It is difficult to answer a question such as yours briefly. I would simply say the following; the percentage of very good students, adequate and mediocre students seem to remain fairly consistent over the years. Levels of motivation change more dramatically and are related to economic and societal conditions.
I think earlier students were generally more independent thinkers whereas as the years have passed students have become much more group sensitive in their behavior. Major changes have occurred as a result of digital technology. There was a time when the person with hand skills had a distinct edge over those less skillful. Consequently many schools paid a great deal of attention in developing an fostering those skills. With the ease of computer assisted production this is no longer true and the edge is now in creative and conceptual areas. Schools have now shifted to those concerns.
AS: After dozens years of experiences could you please let us know a piece of advice for students?
LD: For the students, many years ago I wrote something in a response to this question of advice for students. It has been reprinted in many places but it is the advice I would still give and so I will repeat it here:
When I was asked by a Japanese publication what advice I would give to design students, I said I would write only 3 words.
Those are: Work – Think – Feel.
Since the editor was not content with an article of only 3 words I was asked to flesh it out a bit by indicating why I have chosen those 3 words. Here it is.
No matter how brilliant, talented, exceptional and wonderful the student may be, without work there is nothing but potential and talk. Although observing and listening may be helpful, one learns by doing. Learning is an active process! I have never known a successful designer who was not a worker and the best students always seem to be those that work a great deal. It seems clear therefore, that work is an essential ingredient of accomplishment.
Design is a problem solving activity. I take this to mean the use of intelligence and knowledge to achieve a desired end. Thinking is the application of that intelligence to arrive at the appropriate solution to the problem or to evaluate it if arrived at intuitively. I cannot conceive of the design process without thought.
Work without feeling, intuition, spontaneity, is devoid of humanity. Feelings are the bridges we use to connect to each other, one to the other. So there is my advice – work – think – feel !
I am a great believer in authenticity. Each designer must find their own voice and path. It is the only way to have any sense of fulfillment and gratification in one’s work.
AS: At last, there are dozens of definition of design. Could you tell us how do you define design?
LD: I think that good graphic design is the appropriately expressive embodiment of content.
That is as concise a definition as I have.
I think of graphic design as a problem solving activity, it is always purposeful and I believe that the problem is best solved by using means that are indigenous to the problem. I see design as being in the service of content and the content and context of the problem generally dictates the solutions to the problem.