With the recent success of his Kickstarter campaign for the illustrated book, At War with War, we’ve been awash with AIGA Medalist Seymour Chwast’s obsession with all things related to battle for the past several weeks. But the inimitable designer and artist, who might be just as well known for his outspoken opinions as he is for his body of work, has a lot more to say. We had the pleasure of being part of a conversation between Chwast and his friend of 35 years, design writer and fellow AIGA Medalist Steve Heller at the Cooper Union, where they discussed God, sex, humor, and how to draw backwards.
You’ve been drawing backwards this whole time. If you’re using the Chwast method, to draw a simple shape you first begin with a finished image, say a parrot. There’s the head, the beak, the eyes, all the plumage. In the next step you get down to the underlying shapes—the skeleton, if you will. Keep subtracting and by step four you end up with the essence of the subject, or as Chwast puts it, “a pretty good circle.” How to draw a rectangle? Start with a horse, natch.
The Chwast method of drawing shapes is a good way to describe his approach to design in general: take something with a lot of layers (God, sex, war, for instance), and distill to it the core of the subject. In other words, get to the point as quickly as possible.
Make something that matters. “There always has to be a story for me. There has to be a point,” Chwast says of how he chooses images for the posters he’s created—hundreds over his lifetime both as a freelancer and a founding member of Push Pin Studios (along with Milton Glaser). In fact, Chwast produced many of the emblematic anti-war posters of the 1960’s, when companies commissioned him to design posters they would produce and sell to shops. He’s the mind behind “End Bad Breath,” “War is Madness,” “War is Good Business Invest your Son,” and “Protest Against The Rising Tide,” pictured below with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
Find humor in everything. Chwast is brilliant at making uncomfortable subjects more approachable by drawing out the funny side of things. No matter how somber a topic might seem, Chwast has an innate knack for digging deeper until he finds something universally human to (literally) draw out.
At one point in the conversation at Cooper Union, Heller asked, “Is humor next to godliness?” To which Chwast wittily replied, “It precedes it.”
Who better to tackle the topic of war? Perhaps his love of humor is, in part, what makes his disdain of war so fierce, and why he felt this new book so pertinent. Chwast doesn’t exactly seem like the warring type. But as they say, the pen is mightier than the sword. And Chwast certainly wields it well.