Success Secrets from Michael Schwab:
- If you’re lucky enough to find something that you’re inspired by, enjoy and that you truly have a talent for, that’s a magic combination.
- You cannot be shy.
- You have to be aggressive.
- It helps to be obsessed and driven.
- When you’re starting out, strive to work for people who really inspire you, and who you admire not only creatively, but ethically.
One of America’s most recognized and beloved illustrators, Michael Schwab focuses on the interplay of positive and negative space to create iconic images that are strong and simple yet always contemporary. His resonant images codify his work as thoughtful, lasting, and sustainable; characteristics that are increasingly rare and highly appreciated by clients that include: Nike, Polo, Wells Fargo, Amtrak, Sundance, Pebble Beach, Muhammad Ali, Robert Redford, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
From his studio in Marin County, Michael is currently winning awards in virtually every major graphic design and illustration competition and is regularly featured in publications worldwide.
Growing up, I think we all had a class ‘artist’ in school -in whatever grade we were in. I was that kid. I was the kid that people would ask to do posters, or drawings for their reports, or posters for sports rallies, or whatever. I was always available. People would say, “Oh, get Mike Schwab to do that. He can draw.”
I can’t tell you why exactly, but I was always excited about lettering design and wild illustrations. It goes back to that whole 1950’s hot rod era – flames on cars and artists like Big Daddy Roth and the Mad Magazine guys. It was then that I was probably first inspired graphically. And, of course, when the 1960’s evolved into flower power, Fillmore posters and record album covers, I became very inspired as an illustrator / designer.
I grew up in Oklahoma. Someone mentioned this little school in Texas, East Texas State University. Apparently they had a graphic design department. It was one of the first times I’d heard the term “graphic design,” and it sounded intriguing. I studied under 2 very inspiring instructors there – Jack Unruh for illustration and Rob Lawton for design and advertising. Rob really opened my eyes to the art of typography.
During my 2 ½ years at East Texas State, I kept seeing work coming out of New York, most notably from Pushpin Studios, Charlie White and Paul Davis. I also started seeing the cool images promoting the School of Visual Arts on 23rd Street.
Soon, I was actually attending school there—living in the Chelsea Hotel. But, it got to be summertime in New York. I couldn’t see the sky. It started getting hot and I realized I was ready to go back home. So I returned to Oklahoma for the summer. That year, in the fall, I ended up attending Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. That would have been in 1973.
I was entered as a 5th semester student. At Art Center, I was able to study under John Casado and Jamie Odgers. It was competitive and intense.
I still hadn’t decided if I was an illustrator or a graphic designer. I’m actually still in that quandry. I think illustrators consider me a designer and designers consider me an illustrator, but I’m happy to ride the fence. I have found my own voice.
After graduation, I worked a little bit in the Hollywood area and assisted a few different people. I considered myself privileged to be John Casado’s assistant for awhile. I also assisted Los Angeles illustrator, Dave Willardson, one of my early role models. In addition, I was working on jobs for the art directors who had been my heroes – art directors like Mike Salisbury of West magazine and Rolling Stone magazine. I worked occasionally for Roland Young, the art director at A&M Records. There was lots of new, exciting design happening in LA at the time.
Then, I visited San Francisco.
Now, please understand, I loved LA, but once I got to San Francisco, I realized that this is where I belong.
Once there, I approached Chris Blum, the creative director for Levi Strauss & Co. via their agency, Foote Cone and Belding. He was famous for the very artistic, award-winning Levi’s posters and animated commercials. Chris was a mentor that I had always wanted to work for, and I created several historic posters for Levi’s with him.
By 1976, I had my own studio. I was living and working in a loft setting on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. With a view of The City, I was very comfortable there.
On making the transition from assistant to freelance to studio owner:
I watched and listened to my mentors and saw how they talked on the phone with clients and art directors. Truthfully, being in art school, you don’t learn anything about business. I didn’t take any MBA courses. I had to make up my own rules and keep track of what I was getting paid. No one was really there to tell me how to do it. I treated my apprenticeships as learning opportunities — like graduate studies.
I was very careful to work for people who not only inspired me creatively, but who I admired, ethically. I wanted to just be near those people who were my heroes. I wanted to be around them and watch them. I was obsessed with my work and my craft and the people around me. I wanted to study under my heroes. It’s like an actor wanting to be working with someone that they respect so they can watch and learn from them.
I had nothing going on at that time except work and my passion for it. There’s a point where it becomes almost an obsession. To get somewhere, however, you really need to be obsessed and driven, at least for a while.
On developing business contacts and relationships:
I was meeting several photographers, art directors and designers – everyone was inspired. It was a very exciting time and people really communicated about their craft with each other. There weren’t that many people that were part of this community, so everybody knew and respected each other. There were healthy rivalries, but everyone respected each other’s work and enjoyed discussing it.
Thoughts on developing new business:
As far as getting work, you can’t be shy. I would go to art directors’ offices. I would sometimes just show up with my portfolio. I wanted them to know my work. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, they would call me back and have a job for me. You cannot be shy. You have to be aggressive. And if you’re truly inspired, nothing will hold you back.
Most recently, my portrait of Lance Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. That felt good. I’m also very proud of the Environmental Leadership Award from the San Francisco AIGA that I received several years ago for the Golden Gate National Parks logo series. Truthfully, I feel privileged to have worked with so many creative talented art directors and clients through the years.
New business development today:
At this point in my career, I seldom call people to get work (luckily). There are even times when I have to stop myself from saying, “I wish the phone wouldn’t ring so much.” That’s a frightening thought. The alternative is not very pretty.
The phone does ring a lot, and the thing is, it’s hard to rein my enthusiasm in. Once someone describes a project — and usually they’re not calling me unless my work is appropriate — it’s very hard to say no because the creative wheels start turning and it’s hard to turn it off.
Thoughts on having assistants:
I have two incredible assistants that help me out, Lisa and Carolyn. They bring digital production skills to my studio, which I have none of. I can’t do it alone. Their presence makes my work more fun. They are my ‘studio wives’.
On the power of ink on paper:
I draw on my drawing table. I do not have a computer on my drawing table. I was inspired to draw, I think, partially because of the equipment. I love the drawing table equipment. I’m very comfortable working with T-squares, triangles, and compasses. I love the drawing tools, even the French curves. In grade school, I wasn’t really sure what a French curve was. I’d see these old things laying around and now I know every curve on every one of them. Personally. (Laughter)
I never wanted to be a typist. I like to draw. I enjoy paper and pencil and ink. There’s something about ink on paper and multiple images of it that is powerful. It’s like theater. It’s like performance art. There’s something powerful about it. It’s communication – the ability to affect and influence people
On the flow of work:
I feel privileged to be working for the people I work for now. I’m creating images for huge corporations, wine companies, athletes and movie stars. It’s very exciting. The National Park series really was a defining family of images for me.
I think it’s great for people to be inspired by many different genres. I get inspiration from many urelated places, whether it’s theater, travel or nature — inspiration from lots of different resources.
On attending seminars and trainings:
I’ve been asked to speak at events like that, but I never really attend seminars. It is probably my loss, but I’ve just never really found time to go. Again, I learn more from other people who are doing other unrelated things than just talking to other designers—at this point in my career anyway. Classes or seminars, when you’re young, are probably terrific, but be careful to whom you listen.
Thoughts on outside activities:
I go mountain biking here in Marin County. I do yoga. I go rock climbing. I like snow skiing, water skiing. I really like to get outside. I’m not the type of person that can sit at a drawing table all day, every day.
I have to get out and be physically active. I really pull a lot inspiration and ideas from being outdoors.
Tips on building and sustaining a successful career:
Do those things that you are passionate about. Concentrate on one powerful and memorable thing you can offer to people and do it better than anyone—instead of spreading yourself thin doing many different things. Strive to be memorable and powerful. If you’re lucky enough to find something that you’re inspired by, enjoy and that you truly have a talent for, that’s the magic combination. If you love what you do and you’re good at what you do, that’s the key. That would be the ideal. I still crave working. I enjoy it.
However, occasionally, I need time off — going skiing and spending time with my family. Traveling together with my wife and my sons nourishes and fulfills me.
But, you know – there’s a part of me, a couple of days before we go home, when I’m thinking, “Wow, I’m anxious to get back to the studio.”
Success Secrets from Ivan Chermayeff:
- Being an independent design office is the only way to control the work done.
- The key to success is having good ideas, not doing what you’re told, but instead fighting for and doing what you believe.
- When we present a few alternative ideas to a client, for a symbol or other design problem, we believe that any one of the alternatives would be a valid solution.
Thoughts on building and sustaining a career:
First of all, to be a success, you have to be good at your craft, and you have to work very hard. Design is now a very competitive territory and the only way to make a career out of it is to keep working at it, developing your own style, improving, and building a portfolio that gets you new work. It’s not easy.
On going into business for himself:
I determined almost from the very beginning that I wanted to work for myself. But I chose to go into business with partners, Tom Geismar (for 50 years), both of us with Robert Brownjohn (for a short time at the very beginning), and staff so I wouldn’t have to work all alone. Being on your own is a way to control the work you do and take responsibility for it. It’s also a way to control what clients you have, and choose what you take on. We’re now a small enough firm to do that.
On uncreative hours:
One of the problems of design, especially if you’re successful at it, is that it’s very easy to get involved with time-consuming work that demands more plain slogging than creativity. It is profitable to do things which are 90% follow-through and 10% creative, but it is sure as hell not as much fun, and it can be very boring. That’s one reason to be on your own: control of your own destiny. It only demands attention to what you’re doing.
On working hard:
I don’t know if working hard and putting in the hours is exactly the key. The key is having good ideas, and not doing what you are told, but doing what you believe. I don’t do what I’m told. If my clients know what to do, then why don’t they do it and leave me alone?
You have to find ways of being creative. Having ideas is what It’s all about. Working hard at it because it’s not that easy. Ideas don’t come that automatically. It’s obviously a combination of things, and you have to be convincing about what you do. Not only do you have to have ideas, but they have to be good, and they have to be appropriate. Good ideas are not necessarily appropriate under all circumstances.
On looking backward:
Basically I always think about what’s going on, and what’s to come. I am not one to look too far back. About a month is my limit. Undoubtedly, there are things I would do differently, but I don’t know what there are. Because you learn not to make the same mistakes. Also, I’m much more efficient after all these years. Doing things in an efficient way is much more sensible if you can do it.
On creative solutions:
There is no one answer to any given problem, but that doesn’t mean that if you have three or four good ones that it’s enough. I see no reason to do more than that in order to make the client the one who decides. They can decide from a few good answers, and not dozens. People who plaster endless numbers of alternatives up on the wall, half of which are worthless, are crazy. Today, we don’t give people more alternatives than we believe are valid. When we present alternatives to a client for a symbol, for example, we believe that any one of them would be good. You don’t present one good one and three bad ones.
On new business development:
Everything is on the Internet these days. That’s where we get a lot of work from the rest of the world, from people we’ve never heard of who hire us because we are on the web. I think that’s the way it works now. Paper and print, and mailing things out, is a waste of time. So, we’ve given up on making mailers. I’ve noticed, for instance, that because of the web I’ve gotten fewer Christmas cards for the last five years. And now, I’ve hardly gotten any. Dozens, not hundreds. People have stopped mailing things. Postages is expensive. Printing is expensive. Paper is expensive. It’s not just the money, it’s that you just don’t think about doing it. It’s a waste.
Obviously, it’s not going to break anybody’s back to print Christmas cards and promotional mailers. People just don’t do it any more.
Computers have changed the design world. I don’t love them. But we’ve got to use them because it’s the only way to be efficient. I don’t like computers. I don’t even use one, personally.
First of all, computers are very slow, no matter how fast they are, even if they’ve been updated with the latest software and memory. I know how to use them. Everybody else in the office has one. I know how to tell people what I want done, but I don’t personally do it, because I like drawing and cutting things out of paper, and sketching and all that. For me that’s a lot faster.
On consultants and representatives:
We tried to use them, and we had people representing us. We came to the conclusion very rapidly that it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because when you have a client, you need to talk with them face to face. Half the time, ideas come from talking with the people in a direct fashion. Every time we get a brief from somebody, a corporation for example, about doing a project, because it’s competitive they send it out to a half dozen people and sometimes more. They’re pretty inadequate. And the more complicated the brief and the more thorough the brief, usually the worse it is. It’s the opposite of what it should be. The people who are writing those briefs are writing them for the wrong reasons. Not to solve the problem, but to even out a competitive situation that they’ve established. People don’t just look around and find out who’s good, talk with them, see if they can get on with them, and then hire them or not hire them. They send those briefs to five or six firms to do the same thing. Sometimes everybody’s paid a little bit. But it’s usual that you’re responding and trying to get on a short list. It’s not very satisfactory.
On staying focused and in balance:
I make collages. Personal art. All the time, for as much of the time that I have. Evenings, weekends. I love making art, which I call experimenting with visual connections.
On learning about design:
Work hard. And, do a lot of looking. I think it is very important to see what others have done. Not just what is now, what’s going on, but what design has been. An awful lot of young designers don’t know a goddamn thing about the history of their own craft. And they should, because there’s a lot to learn, just to learn what you like and what you don’t like. You don’t have to have mentors, but you sure as hell need to know what you think communicates well within your own level of comfort. You know, it’s about approaching problems, and paying attention of what others have done in the past. It doesn’t mean the current thing of the AIGA and the Art Directors Club, and the annuals from CA and Graphis. I’m talking about the history of the profession. People need a much longer view than only what’s current.
About Ivan Chermayeff:
Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar initially formed their partnership in the late 1950s with the idea of working collaboratively and in a wide range of disciplines. Over the ensuing years, their work has remained consistent not in style but in its approach to design. Accepting the Modernist ideal that design is a problem-solving discipline, they have sought to humanize that ideal through humor, artistic invention, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Their firm has evolved over the past fifty years. Since the departure of Robert Brownjohn in 1960, they have operated under the Chermayeff & Geismar name. Many exceptionally talented partners and associates have contributed greatly to the projects undertaken.