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Success Secrets from Michael Bierut:

  • Clients are most afraid that you’re going to go off and design something without really listening first.
  • Just keep asking questions: the more you ask, the more you’ll understand what the client is looking for in a designer.
  • Life’s too short to spend your time talking on the phone with people who make your knuckles white during the course of the conversation.

About Michael:

Michael Bierut is a partner in the New York office of the international consultancy Pentagram. His graphic design work has been collected by major museums around the world. He has served as the president of the AIGA’s New York chapter and of its national organization. He was elected to the Art Directors Hall of Fame in 2003, received the AIGA Medal in 2006, and received the Design Mind award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2008. He is a co-founder of the world’s biggest design blog,, the author of 79 Short Essays on Design from Princeton Architectural Press, and on the faculty of Yale University’s School of Art and School of Management.

Early Beginnings:

I decided when I was in high school that I wanted to become a graphic designer without ever having met one or really knowing that much about what they did. I liked art, and I particularly liked commercial art.

I’m from Ohio, and in my state the University of Cincinnati had a program in graphic design at their school of design. I got my degree there. And right after I graduated, I moved to New York and got my first job working with Massimo and Lella Vignelli at Vignelli Associates.

I worked there for over ten years and then joined Pentagram. That was my second, and last job.

The business structure at Pentagram:

Pentagram currently has 17 partners and probably just as many retired partners or ex-partners. So there’s an enormous body of work that’s been done on Pentagram’s behalf by people working at Pentagram for the past 35 or so years.

And because of that, our name is fairly well known, and a great deal of business comes from referrals.

But also, because of the way we’re structured, we actually don’t need that much work to stay busy and to run a good business. Our overhead is really low. We don’t have account executives or new business people.

Every one of those 17 partners is a working designer with clients. Each of the partners hires his or her own design team to support the work that they do.

Each team runs its own profit and loss. So each team is financially accountable, and tends to be very careful about how it uses money and how many people it hires to be as efficient as possible. As a result, each of those 17 studios within Pentagram really doesn’t need that much work to keep busy. It’s not like a typical multi-national firm that has a pyramid structure, where they need constant new business activity just to feed a big monster that consists of a lot of non-billing overhead people.

People who’ve influenced Michael’s work:

I could name thousands and thousands and thousands. While I was in school I interned for a guy in Cincinnati named Dan Bittman. He’s a star in Cincinnati, but isn’t as well known anywhere else, but he had a real influence on me. I also worked as an intern in Boston with Chris Pullman at WGBH. That had some influence on me I’d say. And then, I’ve been working in these two jobs, my first job for ten years with Lella and Massimo, and my second job, here at Pentagram, for 18 years and counting.

When I was younger I had dozens of heroes who ranged from the obvious people, like Paul Rand and Milton Glaser, to less obvious ones like Corita Kent and Don Trousdell. From classic designers like Armin Hofmann and Josef Müller-Brockman, all the way to great MAD magazine illustrators like Don Martin or Mort Drucker.

You can see I’ve always had very eclectic tastes and have admired lots of different people. And now at Pentagram, I have six partners that I work with side-by-side. They’re just as influential on me today as anyone else.

Favorite Accomplishment:

About 15 years ago, I was having a conversation with one of my partners, Paula Scher, and we were talking about our clients and our work and I remember saying back then, “If I only had a half dozen clients that I really liked, that I really liked talking to and who I really respected for the way that they made their money, and I really felt I was making a contribution through my talents, and that I could give the best of what I do, if I could just have six of those people, that would be all I’d ask for.”

I sort of dreamt about that for a while, and a few years ago, around seven years or so, I just decided life’s to short to spend my time talking on the phone to people who make my knuckles white while I’m having a conversation. I decided that I was not going to do that anymore.

I think I’m a very polite guy. I don’t have it in me to actually fire clients outright. You can probably tell that from the fact that I’ve only had two jobs and I’ve been married to the same woman for 28 years, and she’s the first girl I ever kissed. So I’m not much for breaking up with careers or with women or with clients.

I can’t say I went out and fired all of them. But one by one, I managed to trail off from doing things that I didn’t like. So if I’m proud of anything now, it’s that I have clients that I work with where the client is someone who I first met as long ago as 1981 or 1982, and I’ve done every single thing that they’ve ever commissioned a graphic designer to do between then and now.

When one of them comes back and they have some new project they think might be interesting for me, it’s always really, really nice to feel that I have those kind of relationships over the long term. I end up learning a lot from people like that who are smart and do interesting things and who introduce me to worlds that I wouldn’t have access to having just gone to design school.

Michael’s thoughts on the keys to success:

Most of the stuff we work with in our profession has some kind of text that goes along with it. Graphic design is about putting together words and pictures, and I’ve always sensed, even in design school, that a lot of designers weren’t into the words. To them, the words were just areas of gray space to be manipulated, moved around, and dispensed with.

I’ve always been a very faithful reader, even a compulsive reader, and I’ve found that if I read and try to understand what I’m working on, that the words gave me a surprising edge in the situation. At first I thought it was just other designers who weren’t reading the text, but then it turns out, a lot of times, that the clients haven’t read the text either.

It’s amazing how many people don’t take the time to actually read the stuff that they’re saying, the stuff that is so important and has to be designed and mass-produced and distributed to the public.

And a lot of times, if you engage with the content, you find out ways to design more precisely for the assignment. You find out ways to improve it. And sometimes you can make the suggestion to throw it out all together and replace it with something better.

The designers that I’ve always liked, the ones that I’ve always hired, the ones that I’ve liked working with, the ones that I respect, always seem to be ones that are very attuned to the content of what they’re working with, and connected to whom the audience is for that content.

I think there are plenty of designers out there who are good at resolving a formal composition. I’m not even sure I’m really that good at that to tell you the truth. But I’ve found that if you sort out the substance of the message, you end up getting a result that’s not just more effective, but actually might have more resonance with the people it’s intended to reach.

On doing things differently:

I have three kids, and if any of them proposed to me that they want to go directly after an MFA in design, I probably would try to stop them from doing it, to tell you the truth.

Instead, I would recommend that they get some general knowledge first. For example, right now my daughter’s about to graduate from a four-year liberal arts college, and she’s spent four years reading books and learning about everything. When I was her age, I was spending hours and hours and hours doing the kind of things one did in design school: hand lettering type, cutting things up with Xacto knives, hand painting color swatches, and cutting them out and combining them, things that people don’t do at all today in the computer world.

I spent literally months on end doing that sort of stuff and my daughter meanwhile has been reading the great books and communing with really intelligent professors and engaging in stimulating discussions with fellow students.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve been imagining that a time will come when I’ll be able to go back and do all that. And then you start to realize that point may never come. That would be my greatest regret I’d say.

The toughest thing Michael’s ever had to do:

The hardest thing to do is to own up to making a mistake. A few times in my life I’ve made big mistakes that, in some cases, have ended up costing me a lot of money. If I’ve gotten inspiration from where in these situations, I think it would be from the story of a structural engineer named William LeMessurier. He was the engineer for the Citicorp Tower in Manhattan. After it was finished and occupied, he realized that he had made a miscalculation that meant the building might topple over in a high wind. This is a career-ending mistake. But instead of covering his butt or calling in an army of lawyers to protect him, he simply went to the head of Citi and said he had made this mistake and he wanted to fix it. They were so disarmed by his forthrightness that they actually worked with him to fix the problem and he came out with his reputation intact. Being honest like that requires real bravery, but LeMessurier’s story proves that it’s worth it

Michael’s tips for getting new business:

I am really good at getting new business. And there are simple tricks for doing it. But sometimes I’m reluctant to tell many people these tricks because I feel like I’m able to go in and get a lot of work just because no one else seems to know them.

One is, if you spend a lot of time asking questions and are sincerely interested in the client and his or her business, a lot of times they’ll think that you’re really smart and you really “get them.” You may not be smart or get them at all, but because you’re open to the idea of learning about them, they’ll give you more credit than you perhaps deserve.

What to avoid in a new business pitch:

Most designers, when they’re going in to pitch a new client, have prepared very, very carefully. They’ve selected the portfolio they want to show, they get all their talking points worked out, and they’ve perhaps even researched the client in advance and actually are going to demonstrate their acumen by telling the client what kind of conclusions they’ve drawn about their business already.

All those things are worth doing, but a lot of times the result is they’re so eager to start rolling, that if they’ve got sixty minutes for the presentation, then they have sixty minutes worth of solid material to fill that, and then some.

I’ll go into meetings and I’ll put off the moment where I have to present my work as long as I possibly can. I’ll just keep asking questions and questions and questions and questions and of course, the more questions, the more they’re telling you what they’re looking for in a designer.

Thoughts on how to present your work to new prospects:

The more you talk with them, the more they tell you what they want to know about you. So, after you’ve asked a lot of questions, when you start showing them your work, you know what to focus on, things that you know now are relevant to their situation and that are answering questions that they have, that are in the spheres of interest to them.

I’m not sure why everyone doesn’t present this way, but every once in a while I’ll get a client who will tell me what the other presentations were like. And it’s funny to hear sometimes.

Dealing with prospect insecurities:

Clients just want to be sure they don’t make the wrong decision. And if they don’t have that much experience working with designers, they’ll go into a presentation ill at ease and feeling insecure. It’s just the way it is. For them it’s new and uncomfortable. It’s different from other situations in their life because they usually feel very capable and in command.

But when meeting with designers, they might not think they have any taste or know anything about design or something like that, right? They have a kind of fear and insecurity.

Most designers, when they’re pitching, when they’re selling themselves, think the way to allay the client’s insecurity is by demonstrating absolute confidence. They try to let the prospect know that they shouldn’t worry: “I really know what I’m doing. I’m a real expert. Look at all this stuff I’ve done. I really know your business. I spent time researching it. I’m on top of everything. You have nothing to fear. I’m really competent. You have no reason to worry.”

The prospects greatest fear:

And the problem is they miss the one over-arching fear that clients tend to have, that you’re not going to listen to them. That’s what they’re really afraid of. They’re afraid that you’re going to go off and design something, and not really listen to whatever it is they need. And, if you’ve managed to fill a sixty-minute presentation with sixty minutes worth of bragging about your skills, you’ve basically confirmed exactly what it is they’re most afraid of.

They’re not afraid that you’re a bad designer. They’re afraid you’re a good designer who is going to go off and do something that has nothing at all to do with what their problem is.

Thoughts on the importance of curiosity:

If you read a lot and you’re genuinely curious about the world, you’ll go far in this profession, because there simply aren’t that many people who are able to combine graphic design talent with genuine curiosity about the world.

The great thing about our profession is the nature of the designer/client relationship. You’re always put together with someone who is coming in with a new perspective. And I think designers complain about that sometimes. They say, “My biggest challenge is educating the client.” I never, ever talk about educating the client. I don’t believe in it.

Avoiding bad design:

In fact, when I see bad design, it’s not because the client hasn’t been educated. It’s because the designer hasn’t been educated by the client. I don’t mean taking orders from a hack client. I mean genuinely becoming sympathetic and interested with what the client is trying to communicate, what makes them interesting and special.

Ira Glass, the host and producer of the Public Radio International storytelling program, “This American Life,” expounded on what nobody tells to beginners. Singapore-based filmmaker, David Shiyang Liu, took Glass’s comments and turned them into a video. Glass’s words are insightful and reassuring in themselves, but displayed as kinetic type, we pay rapt attention with both our ears and our eyes, which makes Glass’s observations all the more meaningful. (Thanks to Delphine Hirasua.)

This video is under 2 minutes long

Will Sherwood
CEO/Chief Creative Officer
The Sherwood Group: Graphic Design & Website Design
Santa Clarita, CA

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Success Secrets from Hillman Curtis:

  • There’s a lot to gain by approaching this field as craft that can be developed.
  • Do things you love to do. The Artist Series started out as a purely personal project and became a serious part of our business.
  • When you have the attitude of looking at the client as a collaborator and not as a hurdle, you’ll often find that every client is a good client.

Early beginnings:

Both my parents were high school teachers, my mother an art teacher and my step dad, history. My step dad also collected books and as a kid I was drawn to these huge poster books in his collection…mostly dealing with world war two propaganda. I would spend hours looking through the images. Big bold posters with strong imagery and often little or no text. I didn’t know it at the time but I was looking at graphic design. Later in my twenties, I was a Rock and Roll musician in San Francisco. I was on a couple of different labels, MCA was the last one, and my story is not uncommon; built up by A and R people, managers and agents and then unceremoniously dropped. I was 30 years old when MCA pulled the plug… I’d just gotten married, and after chasing the music thing for 10 years, working the odd jobs that go along with that – waiter, bartender, house painter, all that stuff – I decided that I was done. It was time to get a career of some sort.

The problem was I didn’t have a clue as to what that career would be. But during the time that I was in bands I was also the guy who made the posters and the flyers. I started with rub-on letters and so on and some of them were actually pretty good. I definitely drew on the bold and simple imagery of the propaganda posters I’d seen ten years earlier in my step-dads books. Other bands started asking me to design their posters and fliers and so when I got dropped I took what little money I had made in music and enrolled in a Photoshop class at a night school.

Because I was older than everyone there, even the teachers, I was desperate. When I started, I couldn’t move a mouse, but I picked it up really quickly. I got some internships and worked my way up. And after a year or two got hired as a contractor at Macromedia and eventually became the Art Director at there.

Hillman’s thoughts on going into business:

When I was at Macromedia, I learned a lot. It was really my first real job. And it was exciting. After six or seven months, I met Neville Brody, who came in to redesign the brand and identity of the company. Neville had this confidence and a sense of purpose. You immediately sensed that design was serious and that your work, the choices you made, had to be justified. He showed me that design was not to be taken lightly, and that if your were going to do you needed to do it without compromise.

What I experienced working briefly with Neville made me think about next steps. I’d been at Macromedia three years at this point…and I felt that I’d done what I could do there.

At the same time, my wife and I decided we wanted to live in a world city. San Francisco is a beautiful city, but small, slow with a provincial mind set. So we moved from san Francisco to New York city. I stayed at Macromedia, working long distance for a few months, but that clearly wasn’t going to work so I decided I’d give my own business a go. I sold what little stock I had in Macromedia and used it to fund the start of my company.

First clients:

In 1998, every one was interested in flash, and my business grew by word of mouth. Having come from Macromedia, and having been there when they acquired Flash, I knew a lot about the then new software. I had also designed and implemented the first Flash website for Macromedia, and I had a few other, high-profile Macromedia jobs under my belt that were Flash-based. It was a small portfolio, but it made it easier to get projects .

When I got to New York, I rented a desk at a design company called RazorFish. This turned out to be extremely beneficial to me both as a designer and as a person new to new york. The people at Razorfish welcomed me into their community and I remain grateful for that to this day.

It became very clear, very quickly that New York City was a big and intense place, but it had this incredibly tightknit and very supportive design community. As soon as I entered the community, I started to make contacts and get referrals and advice.

The first job I got was making small web ads for Intel through an ad agency called DSW out of Salt Lake City. I did those ads for a couple hundred bucks a pop.

This was around 1999-2000 and the dot com boom was just getting fired up. Pretty soon the projects got better and the rates got higher.

I’d worked hard to put myself in a good position and was able to take advantage of some of the opportunities. The dot com boom allowed me an opportunity to move from small flash ads to larger site design. And that’s where it continues today. I rarely do Flash anymore, just for prototyping and for components on larger website designs.

Business development today:

I’m in a fortunate position in that I’ve done some large jobs and they’ve turned out well. That has led to new design opportunities. My film work is growing quite well too. It’s followed a similar course starting small – with short personal films – and growing into commercials, and directing.

Influential figures in design:

I’ve been influenced by everyone who’s profiled in The Artist Series, a series of short films I did on designers. They were chosen specifically because of that.

I fund the series myself, and it’s a very personal work. One of the rules I made was that I would only interview people who had a direct influence on me as a designer, or somehow made it easier for me to become a designer.

I haven’t had time to interview a lot of the people whom I’d like to include in the series, though. One would be Neville Brody. Another would be Kyle Cooper. Another would be, if he were alive, Tibor Kalman.

Marketing to diverse audiences:

Quite often, people look to us or to me specifically for web design, or they come to the site simply for the films, and they have no idea we do both. But we just launched a redesign of our site…Hopefully it will be easier for people to understand that we do design and film (and occasionally write a book).

On my site, in the section on film, you can watch all of The Artist Series videos as well as short films and commercials. AIGA is also a good place to go to see The Artist Series, but it’s not the most current.

Turning personal work into serious business:

The Artist Series started with design, and now it’s expanded. I’ve produced shots on a film maker — Mark Romanek — and the one on the conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner. I am always looking to expand.

The Artist Series has led to commercial work as well. We probably did 10 or 12 web commercials for Adobe’s CS2 about a year and a half ago, plus one for BMW, a series for SVA, and four for Blackberry. This thing that started out as a purely personal project has become a serious part of our business.

Most outstanding accomplishments:

The Artist Series on Milton Glaser certainly is one of my favorites. It turned out particularly well. The new one on Sagmeister is very good. I particularly like the Mark Romanek piece. And the latest – Lawrence Weiner – is quite good. I am also excited by the dramatic films we’re doing.

So far we’ve done about 6 or 7 short films. We won “best dramatic film” from the last year’s Webby Awards. And this year we have three competing against each other.

I’m trying to focus on writing scripts and working with actors at this point. I’m still doing The Artist Series and the commercials, but my goal is to make a feature length film.

Hillman’s thoughts on the keys to success:

I’ve found something that I’m good at. I think that was part of it. Design and Film both utilize a lot of the skills and talents that I was fortunate enough to be born with. That’s not to say it always comes easy. It doesn’t. I’ve worked very hard over the last ten or twelve years. I often tell students or my interns that one reason I’ve been able to do what I’ve done in this industry is simply because I worked harder than other people. That’s changing as I get older, but for the first five or six years of my running my business was often 6am to 8pm, 5 or 6 nights a week.

I like doing commercial work, but I often struggle with it. I think all commercial artist do. There’s always a time in any given project where you question your values…or your choices.

Commercial work encourages me, or maybe even forces me, to explore other purely personal and artistic endeavors, such as the documentary film work and now the dramatic film work, which then in turn… feeds the commercial work.

It’s been an effort to move in directions that are pro-active and not reactive. In this business it’s easy to be reactive and go where the work is. For example, we designed the Yahoo! Home page and we worked with Yahoo! for three years designing or helping them conceptualize many different things.

That brought in a lot of phone calls from other companies that wanted the same thing. They wanted that same sort of portal design. And it would have been really easy to aggressively pursue that business, and probably quite profitable, and possibly very beneficial to the company. But it didn’t seem like the right path for me.

I fear complacency. It’s important to question your work, stay involved and engaged in the work.

On working with consultants:

Sometimes I question my need to keep my company very, very small. I’ve certainly had opportunities to grow bigger. And I suppose, I probably could have managed the business better and not had as much worry or stress. But I like the way a small company works and I still love the hands on designing, directing and editing. I’ve never been a natural manager.

Hillman’s thoughts on building and sustaining a career:

All I know is how I built my career. I may have benefited by coming in as an outsider, someone who hadn’t had schooling. I was always, and still am open-minded about the craft. I’ve never gotten cynical, and I know I’ll always have a lot to learn…which is good. For example I still have trouble identifying a lot of fonts. (Laughter.)

I always try to remind myself that whatever situation you find yourself in, there’s something there for you. There’s some building brick there for you personally, or for your career… something to learn. And that’s how, that’s really how I’ve always approached it.

It’s really about maintaining humility. It’s coming in and being quiet and very careful and thoughtful with the work and your responsibility to whatever brand or person you decide to work for.

On getting good clients:

That’s harder. I would say that almost every client is a good client. Some people might argue with me about that, but it’s how you relate to the client. I’ve always advocated including the client in the early stage, the middle stage, and the late stage of the design process. That seemed to work for me. I know that it doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an attitude of looking at the client as a collaborator and not as a hurdle. That has made most of my clients really good clients.

If you’re looking for marquee clients who have big brands behind them, and are going to look really nice in your portfolio, that’s something that I don’t know that I can answer. I am attracted to that as well, but usually I am influenced more by how open or just plain nice someone is. I want to know I can work with someone…that’s the most important thing.

I think that no matter who the client is, we need to include them as creative partners in the process. I believe that everyone is creative and sometimes their creativity is manifested in different ways than my own. And, I shouldn’t take them for granted, and I should approach them with respect and be open to their ideas…to a point. Part of my job is listening and considering ideas and feedback and part of it involves saying no from time to time.

Outside activities:

Family is most important.. So my life now is maybe 9 to 6:00 at work, and then it’s all family.

I don’t play golf, and I don’t hunt or ski or anything like that. The main thing I do as a hobby is make my short movies. Working with the actors and writing scripts has become my main outlet.

I still do accept some speaking engagements. They help keep me on track too, because I have to think about what I’m going to talk about, and thinking about my speech reminds me of what’s important to the design or film that I’m doing at the moment.

Meeting new people is also refreshing.

Additional thoughts:

It’s a wonderful craft. There’s a lot to gain by approaching this field as craft that can be developed. It’s something you can grow with. And I think it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do as your life’s work. You just need to find ways to fight the cynicism that can come from doing commercial work. It’s easy to get cynical.

You have to believe that even in the driest and most bland corporate work, you can reach someone. And that’s sometimes hard to imagine or remember, but it’s there. What we do is concerned with communication…reaching people…and if you’re lucky, moving them.

About Hillman Curtis:

Hillman Curtis is the Principal and Chief Creative Officer of, inc., a digital design firm in New York City. His expert and innovative design solutions have garnered him and his company the multiple Communication Arts Awards of Excellence, the One Show Gold, Silver and Bronze, the South by Southwest Conference “Best Use of Design” and “Best of Show”, the New Media Invision Bronze, a Web Award, How magazine’s Top 10, and multiple Webby Awards.

Hillman was named as one of the top ten designers by the IPPA, included in the “ten most wanted” by IDN magazine, and as one of the “Worlds best Flash designers” by Create Online.

He has appeared as the keynote and featured speaker at design conferences worldwide and his work has been featured in a variety of major design publications. Hillman’s first book, Flash Web Design (New Riders, USA) has sold over to 100 thousand copies and has been translated into 14 languages. His second book, MTIV, Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, has become required reading at design schools worldwide. It’s currently in its third printing, and has been translated into 5 languages.

Hillman’s recent work includes major projects for AOL, Yahoo!, the American Institute of Graphic Designers as well as a documentary series on designers and artists and a series of short narrative films. Additionally, his music videos have been added to MTV2 USA, MTV Nordic, MTV European, MTV France, MTV Italy, and Much Music Canada.

His latest book, Hillman Curtis on Creating Short Films for the Web was released in September. Hillman is currently busy leading multiple design initiatives for Yahoo!, including the recent homepage redesign and My Yahoo concept designs. He is also producing online commercial documentaries (documercials) for Adobe, BMW and others and continues to write, direct and produce personal films.


Success Secrets from Mirko Ilic:

  • If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, they can never pay you enough.
  • It’s much easier to think for 8 hours and work for 2, than the opposite.
  • Follow your dream. Do whatever it takes. If it happens, that’s great. And if it doesn’t, at least you’ll know you tried. That’s how I built my business.
  • Getting good clients is like dating. It’s about building a personal relationship, building trust.


Early beginnings:

Going into art was just easier. I was not good at sports. I’m okay in mathematics and in most other things, but somehow art was much easier for me than anything else.  It was a simple decision.

When I first started out, at that time I was living in Yugoslavia, I was leaving my illustrations at different newspapers.  The first illustration that was published, didn’t even have my credit line. I was so eager to publish, that I was leaving the illustrations around without my name on them.

They liked them, (Laughter) but they didn’t know who to give the credit to. I showed up a week later and said, “Oh, that was my illustration.”  They said, “Great, do more.”

That was basically how I started, going round and knocking on the doors.  When you’re young and arrogant, you don’t have anything to lose. So why not?

NYT opEd: Pafko at the Wall (1992). Art direction, design, illustration: Mirko Ilic.
Pafko at the Wall

Broadway Book War

Russia Comes Apart

Starting his career:

I was born in a Communist country and the only employment available at that time was working for a government controlled company. So instead, I chose to freelance. I was one of the few, maybe even one of the first freelancers in my country.

Since I didn’t want to work for the government, it turned out that my first full-time job was when I became art director at Time magazine for all the international editions. I was 31 at the time.

I was there only 6 months. I quit, disagreeing with the look of the redesign of Time magazine. I was supposed to use the new look in Time International, which I was in charge of.  A few months later, I got an offer from the New York Times op-ed pages.




Influential figures from design:

During different periods, I’ve been influenced by different people.  As I grew up things changed, and over the years, I enjoyed many styles and many professions.

I gained lots of influence from European designers and illustrators because I was born there, but also from Americans.  I didn’t know much about famous designers, but the American underground had quite a huge influence on me too.

In 1972, I saw the illustration work of Brad Holland published in a Graphis Annual. It was so powerful. I figured that illustration was serious business and I started to pay much more attention.

Then around 1974 a friend of mine showed me Milton Glaser’s book. When I saw his work I thought, “Wow, I could be an illustrator and a designer at the same time!”  After that, I found my passion.







The Anatomy of Design
Gate-fold book by Mirko Ilic & Steven Heller uncovering the influences of graphic design (Rockport).

Thoughts on planning:

When I was 19, I made a list of the 10 most important comics. I promised myself that I would publish my work there, and everybody was laughing.  But by the time I was 26, I had published in all of those magazines.

When I came to the United States, I had a list that included The New York Times, Time magazine and Playboy.  (chuckling)

Apple’s Growing Ecosystems

This is a funny story.  My first week in New York, I got to do cover sketches for Time magazine.  During my second week I got to do an illustration for The New York Times.  But Playboy was in Chicago. So I didn’t get to do Playboy at that time.

Then, maybe three or four years ago I mentioned this fact to someone in an interview and I got call from Playboy! Now I’m regularly drawing and doing illustrations for them.


Mirko’s thoughts on changing directions:

I get bored doing one kind of thing for too long.  For example, I was doing editorial illustrations for a long time, but I wanted to do book design. And somehow I muscled myself into designing books.  Most often you need to have designed a book to be able to show around because everybody wants to see something before they give you a job. Fortunately for me, I stumbled into that first assignment and it got me started.

Then because I was designing books, I started to write books.  Then one of the people for whom I was designing a book, architect Adam Tihany, asked me if I wanted to graphically design a hotel with him. Of course I said, “Yes.”  And now I’m designing hotels, buildings and restaurants, and that is something that, if you’d asked me at that time, I would have said, “Are you crazy?”

But I like it.  And now I’m pursuing that.  And I’m getting some awards, and publishing some work here and there.

Le Cirque (restaurant)

Favorite accomplishments:

There is no one thing that’s my most favorite accomplishment.  The most exciting things, for me, tend to happen at first: my first illustration, my first designed book, my first cover for Time magazine, my first illustration for The New York Times. It’s all quite amazing. Those sorts of thrills allow me to run empty for quite some time.  (Laughter.)

There are some things that I like more than others, of course.  But I’m quite happy with a few of the books that I wrote. The Design of Dissent: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics, which I co-authored with Milton Glaser, is a kind of achievement which is very dear and important to me. Not to mention the pleasure of working with Milton.

Also, I’m very pleased with my latest book, The Anatomy of Design: Uncovering the Influences and Inspirations in Modern Graphic Design.” I did that one with Steven Heller. We managed to squeeze almost 2,000 pieces of art into the book, which is quite an achievement.

Energy Roundtable

Energy Independence

Mirko’s thoughts on lifelong education:

Throughout my life, I’ve done what I call continuous education – educating myself whenever I can. I notice how lots of kids, especially here in the United States, don’t know much about design history. We all stand on somebody’s shoulders.

I decided to create books for kids so they can learn a little bit about the past. And it’s quite achievement for somebody who can barely speak English and is dyslexic. (Laughter.)



The Sexual Male

Mirko’s thoughts on the keys to success:

In my class in school, there were two extremely talented kids who became my friends.  They were able to draw blindfolded. I figured that only way to equal them was to work harder and try to be brighter. Then I discovered that working is not enough.  One needs to think about what one is doing. I discovered that it’s much easier to think for 8 hours and work for 2, than the opposite.

Thinking about what I do before I sit in front of a white table or computer screen is really, really important. Then once when I have the idea, I work like a dog.  (Laughter.)

The Scent of War

Not Much Has Changed in a System that Failed

The Havoc in Yugoslavia


On doing things differently:

I would love to build, be an engineer and build bridges.  I think bridges are amazing.  They’re like birds that fly on the ground.  They connect people. They’re such positive things. They’re like sculptures, floating in air.  It’s quite amazing.

Mirko’s Toughest Challenge:

Probably the toughest creatively challenging period was in 1991 when civil war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. I managed to see my primary school in my small home town in Bosnia on CNN, which was showing Serbian militiamen killing women who lay face down on the sidewalk in front of the school. As war was spreading, I was glued to the television set for days and nights, trying to reach my mother on the phone, who was still living there. It was very hard to find reasons to draw or create pretty images.



Liberty and Justice

Mirko’s hobbies:

I collect old books.  I visit all the book fairs, and collect magazines.  I do research.  I’m especially interested in the 20’s and 30’s.  I have lots of Russian Dada. I enjoy old papers.  I enjoy touching them and playing with them.  And I think that’s my biggest hobby.

Thoughts for someone just starting out:

It’s very tricky because our industry is in a big shift. It doesn’t seem to have a clear future at this point in time. We are now focused on the promise of new technology while we’re forgetting that there are still ideas that might be left behind.

There seems to be too many vice presidents making the design decisions instead of the designers.

But one thing’s for sure, if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, they can never pay you enough. You must feel pleasure.  You must feel like you want to wake somebody up and show them what you’ve done.  You must feel like you’d like to run out and say, “Look, look, look, look what I did.”  That kind of feeling is more important than any amount of money.

I think when one sees the design of another person and thinks, “Wow, why didn’t I come up with that one?”  That’s the kind of design you should strive to create.

SVA: To Help See Possibilities

Thoughts on getting good clients:

Getting good clients is like dating.  It’s about building a personal relationship, building trust.

It’s tough, especially today, when most of us communicate through the internet and we don’t even see the faces of the people we’re working with. And sometimes they’re just two blocks away.

If you like what your client is doing, if you like their product, and if they like what you’re doing, if they feel the same kind of honesty from you, I think you have a chance to build a relationship.  And look, I arrived in this country in 1986, and I still work with 5-10 of the people whom I met during the very first year.





Tihany Design (booklet)

Ideas for people just starting out:

Follow your dream. Do whatever it takes. If it happens, that’s great. And if it doesn’t happen, at least you’ll know you tried. That’s how I built my business. Now, of course, I’m old and tired, actually mostly lazy; I wait for the telephone to ring or the internet to beep.  Here and there I push a little bit, but mostly the telephone rings or the internet beeps.

Additional thoughts:

It’s very important to introduce new ideas into your design. When you’re listening to music, going out to the theater, visiting museums, socializing with friends, and so forth, you will accumulate additional ideas, and from some place other than looking at other designers’ work or at the design annuals. The best ideas come from cross-pollination. Not from just recycling the same crap again and again.

Sav Taj Crtez (All Those Drawings)

About Mirko Ilic:

Mirko Ilic published his first works in 1973, and has since been publishing comics and illustrations in magazines, such as Omladinski tjednik, Modra Lasta, Tina, Pitanja, and has become the art and comics editor of the students’ magazine Polet in 1976. That’s when he helped organize an informal organization of the comic book creators Novi kvadrat (The New Square), that has been widely connected to the Novi val musical movement in Zagreb. That connection also allowed Ilic to design album covers for some of the most prominent Yugoslav bands of the time, such as Bijelo dugme, U škripcu, Prljavo kazalište, Parni Valjak, Parlament, and many others. He also wrote the song Covjek za sutra on the first album of Prljavo kazalište, but he wasn’t given the credits for the authorship. Ilic appears in Sretno dijete, Igor Mirkovi?’s documentary about the Novi val movement in Zagreb, as one of the most prominent figures of the movement.

In 1977, Ilic started publishing his works in the established comics magazines outside Yugoslavia, such as Alter Alter, Métal Hurlant and Heavy Metal. In 1980, Novi kvadrat ceaseed to exist and Ilic entirely stopped working on comics, focusing upon illustration and graphic design. In 1982, he started working for the Italian magazine Panorama, as well as for the Croatian magazine Danas. in March 1986 he left Yugoslavia and went to New York “with $1,500 in the pocket and no idea what to do upon getting there.” He soon started publishing his illustrations in Time, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and many other prominent and influential newspapers and magazines. In 1991, he became art director of Time International, and the following year he became art director of the op-eds in The New York Times.

In 1993, Ilic became one of the co-founders of Oko & Mano Inc. graphic design studio, and in 1995 he founded Mirko Ilic Corp., a graphic design and 3-D computer graphics and motion picture title studio. In 1998, he created the title sequence for the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail.

He is a co-author of several books about graphic design: Genius Moves: 100 Icons of Graphic Design, Handwritten – expressive lettering in digital age, and Anatomy of design (all of them co-authored with Steven Heller) and Design of Dissent (with Milton Glaser).

Mirko Ilic Corp.
207 E 32nd Street
New York, NY 10016
Tel. 212.481.9737
Fax. 212.481.7088
Best Life Magazine
Published: 2005
Art director: Chris Dougherty
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.
New York Times Op-Ed
Year: 1992
Title: Pafko at the Wall
Design: Mirko Ilic
Illustration: Mirko Ilic
New York Times Op-Ed
Year: 1992
Title: Broadway Book War
Art direction: Mirko Ilic
Design: Mirko Ilic
Illustration: Mirko Ilic
New York Times Op-Ed
Year: 1992
Title: Russia Comes Apart
Art direction: Mirko Ilic
Design: Mirko Ilic
Illustration: Mirko Ilic

Time Magazine cover “Canada”
Art Director: Rudolph Hoglund
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic

Time Magazine cover “Germany”
Art director: Mirko Ilic
Designer: Mirko Ilic

The Anatomy of Design
Art director : Mirko Ilic
Designers: Mirko Ilic, Kunal Bhat
Description: Gate-fold book by Mirko Ilic & Steven Heller uncovering the influences of graphic design (Rockport).
Client: Rockport

Apple’s Growing Ecosystems
Business Week
Published: 2007
Art Director: Steven Taylor
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

Darfur poster
art director : Mirko Ilic
designers: Mirko Ilic, Daniel Young
description: Poster to help raise awareness of Darfur crisis
client: Paradoxy Products

Le Cirque (restaurant)
Art director : Mirko Ilic
Designer: Mirko Ilic
Description: plates, stationary, and other graphics for the restaurant
Client: Le Cirque

Energy Roundtable
Client: Stanford University
Art director: Amy Shroads
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

Energy Independence
Client: Mother Jones magazine
Art director: Tim Luddy
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

The Sexual Male
Playboy Magazine
Art director: Rob Wilson
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

The Scent of War
Village Voice
Year 2002
Art director: Minh Uong
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

Not Much Has Changed in a System that Failed
The New York Times, 2002
Art director: Tom Bodkin
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

The Havoc in Yugoslavia
Published: 1996
The New York Times Book Review
Art director: Steven Heller
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

Liberty and Justice
Village Voice
Art director: Min Uong
Illustrator : Mirko Ilic Corp.

SVA: To Help See Possibilities
Client: The School of Visual Arts
Creative director : Anthony P. Rhodes
Art director: Michael J. Walsh
Designer: Mirko Ilic
Illustrators: Youngmin Kim, Mirko Ilic

Tihany Design (booklet)
Client: Tihany Design
Art director : Mirko Ilic
Designer: Mirko Ilic
Description: Look-book & stationary set for interior-design firm

Sav Taj Crtez (All Those Drawings)
Client: Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rijeka, Croatia
Published: 2009
Art director: Mirko Ilic
Designer: Mirko Ilic
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic, Lauren de Napoli

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