Interview with Design Legend Tom Geismar
In this interview Ian speaks with Tom Geismar, one of the most highly acclaimed designers in the industry. We discuss logo design, including the process before computers, presenting to the client, working in black and white, mistakes to avoid, pricing big projects, launching a new identity, a beautiful tribute to Ivan Chermayeff and more.
Tom is a founding partner of design agency Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, where he worked on iconic logos for brands including Mobil Oil, Xerox, Chase Bank and many more.
Tom Geismar Interview Transcription
IP: You’ve had an impressive career spanning over 60 years. A lot has changed over that time. How did you approach logo design when you first started?
TG: Well, we just had different tools. That’s really the only difference. We started out doing sketching. And we still do, you know, with a pen or a pencil and paper or tracing paper, or whatever, ’cause we find it much faster and less restrictive than doing it on the computer in terms of coming up with ideas. But then, to do the artwork, I mean, you might even draw it. I mean, at that time, you know, ordering type required that you write out … you’d have the text that you wanted typed out and you would specify size and lettering and so on, and then you would send it out to a typesetter. And maybe the next day, if you were in a big city, you would get it, or the next morning. They used to work what they called the lobster shift. They would work overnight, the typesetters, and you would get back a proof in the morning. And then if you had changes, you’d have to go through the process again. So it was reasonably cumbersome, but it is what it was.
But because of that, I think we all learned how to what we called Greek type. That was, you could really draw type just with a pencil or a pen. But you could indicate it pretty accurately. It was only to study, to look at things. And so we did the same thing, I think, with logos and so on. I have a lot of hand drawn things. I use, you know, colour markers, pencils, what have you, to do it. But then you would have to make mock-ups of things if you wanted to show what a letterhead looked like or a sign or something. And you know, we used photostats and colour papers and whatever we had at hand to make something up. And that’s been the big change with the computer and printers that we have today, that it’s much easier to do… to show what something would look like in application. But the process isn’t all that different.
IP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I feel very lucky to some degree that since starting out as a designer that I’ve had access to tools that make the whole design process easier and faster. Because I’ve only ever had access to current design tools like Adobe Illustrator, I’m not familiar with the tools that was originally used. How, for example, would you be able to create, say, different size versions of the logo that you’ve actually worked on?
TG: Do you know what a photostat is? I mean, a photostat is … It’s a very large camera, basically, where you would lie something on a plate and then you would get a paper image of that, either in positive or negative. So we actually had our own photostat machines in the office ’cause we used it so often. But other people used services. And between a photostat and also film, just like the printer used to use Kodak, what we used to call Kodalith film, which converts everything to black or white to clear or solid, basically. So you would use those processes, and you’d use the photostat to greatly enlarge something. If you had a whatever it was, a design or something, you could enlarge it, you know, I don’t know what it was, 400 percent at a time or whatever, using a photostat machine. Or you could take the enlargement and enlarge it again or whatever that way. And that was … you know, that was reasonably easy to do.
IP: That makes sense. It’s certainly much easier now. Personally I’ve found that presenting logo designs to clients is one of the most important parts of the design process. So what advice can you give to listeners for presenting their work to clients?
TG: Well, we have aways felt that the only way to judge a design of a new logo is to see what it would look like in application. And appropriate applications, you know, that relate obviously to the client’s business or whatever they do, whoever they are. So we spend a lot of time doing that, making mock-ups. And that’s what I meant with the computer and Photoshop and whatever, it’s much easier to show what it would look like as a sign, let’s say, or you know, on a tee-shirt or what have you, whatever applications might be appropriate. And that’s how we always show the logo. We never just show, you know, a design on a piece of white paper. We’re always showing it in application, because we feel it’s the only way to really explain, you know, what it is and whether it works, which to us is key, whether it works effectively in the actual applications that people will see.
IP: So, do you still present the logo in isolation on a white background, or are you only ever presenting the designs in situ as you’ve mentioned?
TG: No, no. We do show it in one form or another at first, and then show what it looks like on different colour backgrounds, what it looks like in different applications, what it looks like in a very small size, what it might look like at a very large size, and so on, just to prove that it can work in the range of applications that are appropriate for that client. So all I’m saying is … for example, we will never show anything that we don’t believe will work and would be desirable. So what we won’t do is, for example, we understand that in Korea what the client demands at first is to see a hundred sketches pinned up to a wall, and they will select from those the most … We would never do that because it doesn’t make any sense to us. It only makes sense to work it out. And sometimes we have what we think is a good idea and then we start to work out what it looks like in application and realise it ain’t such a great idea and we eliminate it. So to us, that’s a very important part of it.
IP: That’s interesting. So another thing in relation to that, I know that colour can really influence a client’s choice. So some people that I’ve spoken to have designed and presented the logos in black and white at first. So, based on what I’ve seen of your work, am I right in understanding that you’re making all design decisions, including colour choices, before ever presenting anything to the client?
TG: That is true, but we always start out in black and white, because the colour … We don’t show it to the client that way, but for ourselves, it’s very important that it can work simply in black and white, ’cause the colour is somehow more arbitrary in terms of applying colour. Depends on what the situation is. But basically we start out in black and white and really thinking of it as a silhouette. And we’re currently … Someone’s gonna be publishing later this spring a book about our work, and we purposely for the cover have all black and white versions of a bunch of the marks that we’ve done.
IP: Oh, I’m gonna keep an eye out for that book for sure. Now, in relation to black and white logos, at the start of your career technology really limited what could be done with a logo, but now we have tools that can create pretty much anything we imagine, and we’ve got printing processes, too, that have pretty much caught up with that. There are also some brands that are entirely digital, too, so there are no, like, limitations for what can actually be done in these instances. Now, based on that, do you still feel that designing for black and white is essential?
TG: Well, it isn’t so much that it needs to work that way. I mean, it may never be seen that way. But it’s a way of getting down to the basic element of it and not be … deceive ourselves in terms of colour or something or the colour doesn’t work. So it’s only a starting point. It doesn’t mean that you’ll actually ever see it that way. You know, sometimes you do. But it’s just a way of working, let’s say. It’s a progression. It’s a process that we believe in, at least, and that works for us.
IP: That’s a good way to think about it. I know I personally design logos to ensure they can work in single colour, even in instances where I know it might only ever be used on, like, say, an iPhone app.
TG: Yeah. Well also, I mean, the thing that’s happened, which is interesting is, we always believed in trying to keep things very simple, very clear. And today there’s so many needs for something very small that can be read, whether it’s an app or in social media or as a … on your browser or whatever, so that it’s really important to so many people, whether they do any print or not, that … but even more so it’s all digital, that it be able to work at a very small size, that it be legible.
IP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That makes sense. We really need to focus on designing in single colour, primarily because of the need for logos to be very versatile and to work at small sizes.
IP: Now, I understand that you’ve worked on over a hundred corporate identities in your career. Have there been any mistakes that you’ve made that you could share with us to make sure that we don’t do the same?
TG: Of course there’ve been … I was gonna say, no we’ve never made a mistake. But you know, we often go up a dead end road or whatever. I mean, you can spend a lot of time working these things out, obviously. One kind of mistake that we have made is showing too many things, too many options, and showing some options that we didn’t really feel good about. And I don’t know, Ivan Chermayeff always said, you know, if you show them something bad, that’s what they’re gonna take. And we’ve made that mistake. Not that it was bad, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been or should have been. So that’s certainly one kind of thing. The other … another one, I think, is sort-of misreading what the issues are, what the challenge is, and going off in a direction that we sort-of fall in love with but doesn’t really … is not really the best direction to go in for that particular client.
IP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). How have you been able to avoid that situation, like once you’ve faced it? ‘Cause I mean, obviously, if you’ve taken it completely in the wrong direction that the client isn’t gonna be happy with it. Have you come up with any methods for preventing that from happening?
TG: I don’t know if there’s any way of preventing it, but what we do is we really try to understand what the issues are. And before doing any design, we do a lot of interviews and audits and really looking around and studying the competition and studying who these people are and what they do and what their culture is and so on, so that we really feel … We may not even really understand, especially today, some of what they’re doing, but we sorta know who they are and what they believe in and what the field is. And that’s a really important part of it. Because sometimes, you know, you just start a project and there’s a name that’s intriguing or something, and you go ahead and do something very quickly, but often that’s not the thing that’s most appropriate.
So we try to avoid that really by really getting, as well as possible, an understanding of what the issues are, and helping to define, you know, what we say is the problem or the issues. Because they’re not necessarily what the client thinks it is. In other words, a lot of it comes from observation. And because of that, we try …. We have a pretty small office and the principals are all designers, and we ourselves do the interviews and do the audit and really try to get immersed in each project, just for that reason, to really get, as well as possible, get an understanding of who they are and what they need.
IP: Fantastic advice. Now, my next question is a pricing one. At the moment, the bulk of my design projects have been relatively small. So for example, the biggest kind-of project that I’ve taken on might just be like a logo, a label, some packaging, a website, and some stationery. So they’ve all been relatively small. But you’ve worked on some incredible large free brands, such as the identity design for Mobil, the oil company. Now, in instances like that, how do you go about sufficiently scoping such project to make sure that you know exactly what work’s involved and that you’re not underselling yourself as a designer or agency?
TG: Yeah, it’s very hard. I mean, it’s basically from experience with previous jobs and what it actually took. I mean, I think we think that we’re basically charging for our time, and you know, how much time did the other ones take that were in any way similar in terms of scale and scope and so on. It’s always difficult. You know, and who they are and what the situation is. It’s always tricky to come up with pricing that’s appropriate and works for you and works for them.
Mobil is really a very different situation. We were brought into that to come up with, along with the architect Eliot Noyes, to come up with a whole idea for their service stations that would be a radical change. And when we presented it as a joint presentation and it was eventually agreed to, we then actually became officially their … We became their graphic design consultants. The Noyes office became their architectural consultants. And for over 30 years continue to do work where we had a consultancy fee and we also charge for the time we spend on any specific projects, which were hundreds and hundreds of different projects. So that was a very nice relationship, actually, for them and for us. But that’s unusual.
IP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s a really useful answer. I like the idea of seeing it as a mix of consultancy and specific deliverables. Just makes it so much easier to understand and to imagine how much I might price such a project, so thanks for that. Now, moving on to my next question. Once you’ve completed an identity project, how do you go about launching that rebrand to the general public?
TG: Well, that’s become a very tricky subject. And sometimes we’re involved and sometimes we’re not involved at all in that. Today, it’s especially tricky because everyone’s watching and everyone has an opinion. You know, there’ve been all kinds of cases where you get this enormous backlash on Facebook or some other social media thing. And we’re trying to tell clients they need to take a long term view that if an identity’s going to work for them, it’s gotta work for a long time. Otherwise … you know, it takes awhile to establish, and the longer you have it, I mean, actually, the better in terms of recognition. So on the one hand, we’re trying to look at it for the long term view. And yet you have so many people who seem to be out there just looking for something to snipe about. And so, then the clients get gun shy in a sense about making any issue of the new thing.
So sometimes we tell … we recommend they just start to use it, you know, where it’s appropriate and just let it be there without making any kind of fuss about it. But other times … It depends on who the audience is. Sometimes the audiences are their own people, the major audience. And they have varying ways of doing that. And it’s especially difficult we found with schools, with universities and so on, because you have such an ingrained group of people who care, whether it’s the faculty or the alumni or the students. And they care and they’re very vocal and they’re always reluctant to give up what they’ve had during their stay at the school. So it’s especially a problem trying to update something for an institution like that. But we have one university who did a terrific job by promoting it at a major sporting event and shooting out thousands of tee-shirts to all the students and other kinds of things, doing a video immediately after so it appeared the next day on everyone’s website and so on.
So it’s a very tricky thing. We don’t necessarily always get involved in those things, but we are usually consulted about that.
IP: Now, I know throughout your career, you’ve worked in a fairly small team. But with the scale of projects that you’ve worked on and the high profile that you’ve built up as a designer, what’s the reason why you kept the company fairly small?
TG: Well, partly because we wouldn’t know how to run a larger one. But actually, we haven’t always been so small, but the reason for that is that we were involved in many other aspects of design. We have been the curators and the designers for many major exhibitions, both historical and otherwise. We’ve worked with many architects on developing artwork for various architectural projects and so on. And those things require a lot of different skills. So our office has at varying times been up to 35 or 40 people. But not concentrating on graphic identities. And we decided, I don’t know, at this point over 10 years ago, 12 years ago, to really cut down the size of the office and to really concentrate on doing graphic identities, because it’s something we could do. We didn’t like trying to run a larger office, and we couldn’t have the same control that we could have with a smaller office, also. So, for us personally, it’s been more satisfying to have smaller office where we can have a much more of a hands on in terms of the design aspect of it.
IP: Yeah, that’s interesting you say that. So, like, when you did start to actually scale the business, was you working less on the type of work that you wanted to do and focusing more on, like, physical management of people?
TG: Well, it’s … To some extent that’s true, but also the nature of those other kinds of projects was quite different. And they’re very long term, the exhibition projects, and they were always very major projects. Whether it was the government pavilion at a major world’s fair, or presidential library, or other kinds of things, they would go on for years and required other kinds of skills: writers, curators, and others, you know, and architects and detailers and so on. So they’re complex in terms of time and in terms of the skills involved. So part of it was management, but part of it was also so many parts that we couldn’t personally do. And I think it just happens that for us, having the personal hands on activity is what we really like. So why not do it?
IP: Well, yeah. That makes total sense. I know I’m personally at the point where I could start to build a small team of my own, but I’m quite happy working on my own and just having total control of the clients I work with and my process and everything like that. I physically prefer working on my own and I don’t really like the idea of having to start managing other people and worrying about bringing in extra money.
Now, when you are a small team, in your situation, I’d imagine that sometimes the workload can get incredibly high. Do you ever need to outsource any of the work?
TG: No. We … Well, we do outsource certain aspects that we can’t do well ourselves. So we are, you know, reasonably often working with writers or strategists or some other people. But for the design work, we very much keep that in house and try to stagger the work so that it becomes a relatively even flow, as much as you can control it. We’d rather turn down something if it’s going to really make it impossible to the work already in hand, or ask them to delay it. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. But try to spread it out.
But you know, one other thing. Just to go back to the very beginning here. When whatever we were doing, going back to the ancient days, we always had people who just did what we called production. So they would do mechanicals, They would prepare the artwork for the printer, whoever it is. And that was a whole different skill set and personality, people who liked to do that. So the designer … You know, there was a distinction between being a designer and being a production artist, let’s say. And some people liked that. They didn’t want design responsibility, but they wanted … They liked to work with their hands and do things mechanically and make sure everything’s lined up and pasted down properly and so on. The computer, again, changed that. Suddenly designers became their own production artists, if you will, because of the computer. But that also meant fewer people needed in the process.
IP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s fascinating. Again, this makes me really thankful to … for all of the modern tools that I have access to. Now, with a small agency like yours and the incredible reputation that you’ve built up, I’d imagine that you’re inundated with potential design projects. Do you have any kind of process to help you choose which projects you do actually take on?
TG: Well, sure. I mean, it needs to seem something appropriate for us. It needs to be something that would be interesting. I’m trying to think. We used to have three criteria. And this goes back to sort-of the beginning of when you take a job, which I think sort-of answers your question. One is, would it be fun to do? Is it something you’d really like to work on? Sound challenging, interesting, what have you. Another is, maybe it’s not so interesting, but it could lead to other things that we do want to do. It’s a foot in the door, or whatever, however you want to put it. So that’s another criteria. And the third was, you know, is it profitable? Can we make some money on it? Will it help us sustain the office?
So ideally, we said, you should have two of those, two of the three. I mean, ideally you’d have all three, but if you can have two of the three. So you know, it could be really interesting and it could lead to something. It may be very unprofitable, but that would be a reason to do it. You know. Or, maybe it’s not so interesting, but it could lead to something and it would be profitable, so, yes, we’ll do it. I mean, you know, take this all with a grain of salt, but it’s not a bad way of thinking about it in terms of deciding, you know, which projects you want to work on.
IP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s really good advice. Now, as a designer, I’m quite a heavy reader and I have a pretty decent collection of both inspirational and informative design books, and I found a lot of other designers to be similar in this sense. So, I’d really love to know from you if there’s been any books that you’ve read that have been particularly important to your success?
TG: No, I don’t think I could name one. There was a book that introduced me to the whole idea of graphic design, which is a very old book going back, I think, to the … originally published in the 1930s and called Graphic Design before there was that term out there as a field. But otherwise, no. I mean, I tend not to read design books. I read other things.
IP: Okay. So, what is it that you’re doing to keep learning and be inspired? Because for me, that’s always come from books?
TG: Well, I mean, I think we’re all different in that, you know, everyone does maybe in a different way. But we’ve always been, and I have always been, interested in a lot of different things. So last weekend, for example, I went to a number of art galleries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a bunch of current shows, and I’ve always been interested in the art world. We go to plays and other cultural events. You know, you do read in various areas. You try to keep up with the news. You see what’s happening in advertising in other related fields. I think it’s a matter of being curious and, you know, whatever form that takes. So very aware of the world.
And one of the things that I’ve found very interesting and continues to be satisfying, and I don’t know if some people might feel differently, but we get to meet all kinds of people, basically as our clients, who are, especially today, in so many different fields, many of which I don’t even understand. But it’s interesting because, as we try to understand them and what the issues are, we get an indoctrination into some obscure field that you never knew existed, or some aspect of something. So we’ve been involved with things to do with the world of medicine, things to do with the world of healthcare, technology, some of the completely online kinds of ways of raising funds, various kinds of nonprofit organisations, and so on. And we sort-of get this free education. And I think that’s true with many designers, that if you have a range of clients that you work for, you get a kind of education in that sense that most people don’t have, when you think about it.
IP: Yeah, that’s very true. I know with each new project I take on, I pretty much always learn something new. Now, in a previous episode, I interviewed Melinda Livsey, and we discussed the use of the golden ratio in logo design. Now, I currently don’t use this in my work, but following Melinda’s studies, I’ve been fascinated to see that some design giants, such as Paul Rand, use it quite heavily in their actual logo design work. Is this something that you’ve ever used yourself?
TG: You know, it’s funny you ask that. I mean, the last part of your question, no. Not really. But just yesterday … What I was just saying before about all these kind-of somewhat, sometimes bizarre organisations that we get involved in. We’re involved with one that has to do with analysis of cryptocurrency. And it’s a technical analysis. And it has a name. It’s a very particular kinds of technical analysis. And I was trying to understand what it is, and was just looking on the web, and came across this site that tried to describe it. And it all came down to the golden mean somehow. I still don’t understand how they got from point A to point B, but in the end this thing had to do with it. But in terms of our own work, no. I mean, we don’t … I mean, maybe subconsciously, you know. I certainly know what it is, but don’t apply it directly.
IP: It’s interesting you say that, because there’s been a lot of debates. Like, some people say it’s not needed. Some people are using it. And some people are even implying that it’s a myth. But I’ve … I find it fascinating to see it in Paul Rand’s work, so I’ve always been curious if you’d ever used it yourself.
This season on the podcast, I’ve asked this same question, and I’d really love to hear your take on it. So, if you could give just one logo design tip, what would that be?
TG: Keep it simple.
IP: I love that your response is simple, too. Nothing more needed. Now, you’re actually the tenth person I’ve interviewed this season, and surprisingly, almost everyone have said exactly the same thing, to keep it simple. Now, we’re near the end of our time for the interview, and you’ve shared a lot of knowledge from your career. But I’m aware that for most of the last 60 years, you’ve actually worked very closely with Ivan, who very sadly passed away in December last year. As a designer, his work’s been really important to me, and having been so close, I know that he was, you know, a really important part of your life. Would you feel comfortable to share a few memories as a tribute to him?
TG: I mean, Ivan and I were partners for 60 years, a little over 60 years. We had been in school together for one year, and after school I was drafted into the army and Ivan came to New York to do freelance work. He got tired of it after a couple years, and as I was about to get out of the army, he asked if I wanted to help start a firm. And it was really as simple as that. We just did it in one room that we rented. Ivan, you know, he certainly … His background is in … well, not just London, but the UK, and he always felt strongly about that, I know. And he was just a really … a very creative person who was very much his own person. And he came from … his father certainly well-known, both in London and in the US more as a teacher rather than as an architect, and was the teacher of many famous architects, including Norman Foster and others who’ve gone on to prominence both here and in the UK.
And Ivan, he and I were really quite different in terms of personality. And I would … you know, was really interested in understanding the whole issue involved, to … and then we’d come up with many different designs or many different approaches, and we’d go through a lot of iterations. Ivan was much more, I’ve got an idea, that’s it. Do it very quickly. And sometimes it was right on, and other times it was, where’d that come from? But that was sort of great, you know, and we’d sort-of bounce things back and forth. And then Ivan also, of course, did a lot of personal work, especially his collages and his illustrations. And he got great pleasure out of that and was doing all that right up to the end. And he really had a terrific eye and a visual sense that was extremely acute. So it was a … You know, we had a good run, as they say, and I’ll certainly miss him greatly.
IP: You guys really did … like, your catalog of work is incredible, and I do believe that Ivan’s work will live on and he will be forever remembered. So thank you so much for a beautiful tribute. Tom, it’s been a real honour to have had the opportunity to speak with you today. I never imagined when I first reached out that this would actually become a reality, so I’m incredibly grateful for your time. Thank you for sharing so much with us, and for being an incredible inspiration to me and other designers around the world. So Tom, thank you again for being an amazing guest today.
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