As the 2018 recipient of the Cooper Hewitt’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Gail Anderson (a 2008 AIGA Medalist) has once again proven that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Since she graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 1984, Anderson has worked as an art director at Rolling Stone, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and Vintage Books, as well as being creative director of design at SpotCo, a New York City advertising agency, writing several books, serving on the board for the Type Directors Club, teaching at SVA, and overseeing its in-house design studio.
Here, she answers questions about getting started in your career, how designers of color can navigate challenging work environments, and why it’s vital to “hold the door open” for others once you make it.
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What are some of the biggest changes in the design industry you’ve noticed over the course of your career?
When I graduated from SVA in 1984, it was assumed that you’d work on either the east or west coast. That’s where the big publishing jobs were and all of the studios that any of my classmates and I knew of. This was pre-internet—even pre-fax machine, come to think of it. Of course, designers were everywhere, but that’s all I knew; that was my orbit. If I didn’t learn about them through Print, Communication Arts, or the design annuals, they didn’t exist, at least not in my naive young design head. Designers in 2018 don’t have to worry about being in a major city. In some cases, designers don’t even have to worry about getting dressed in the morning. Your studio can fit in a backpack as long as you can find a Wifi signal. Goodbye expensive small apartment living, if that’s not the lifestyle you want for yourself.
The design industry is so much larger and more powerful now. It’s always impacted the way we make purchases and how and what we read, but it no longer exists in the background, and neither do designers themselves. We are decision makers in the boardroom, and entrepreneurs creating products and systems that affect lives. Design can have tremendous social impact, and I think people are aware of its outreach in a way that they weren’t when I was starting out. Our tendrils are everywhere.
How can designers get beyond their desk and bring design out into their communities?
As design becomes more visible, we also need to match that with design careers becoming more viable. Of course, there are folks who are taking steps to spread the word. We just need to add to those numbers. There’s a guy named Josh Horton, who I met in Memphis last year when he invited me to speak at Creative Works, a conference he organizes annually that aims to empower communities through design. He dedicates so much time to providing workshops and classes for high school students. In New York, the Cooper Hewitt has all kinds of programs for young people who might now otherwise be exposed to design as a career choice; and SVA has a great pre-college program on Saturday mornings, which kids show up for when their friends are rolling over for an extra few hours of weekend sleep. I’ve taught in that program, and it’s so much fun to be around young people with seemingly endless amounts of energy and imagination.
Way back in my Rolling Stone days, I volunteered for the AIGA mentorship program and worked with a young woman who, ironically, lived in walking distance from where I grew up in the Bronx. Small world. We went to museums and ate a lot of Chinese food. At the initial meeting at the old AIGA office, the mentors went around the room and introduced themselves. There was an older gentleman sitting across from me who looked familiar. If I remember correctly, that man was George Tscherny. George Tscherny!
What’s been extra cool about winning the National Design Award, is that there’s an ongoing component of involvement and education. My goal for my upcoming year of Cooper Hewitt activity is to accomplish something every month, even if it’s small. I was lucky to have had great mentors, instructors, bosses, and jobs. I want to make sure other kids are lucky, too.
Do you have any advice for young designers of color?
When I was starting out, the “color thing” really didn’t even cross my mind. It seemed like an issue from a distant era, until I got to the Boston Globe in 1985. I received the “minority contact list” for editorial employees, and I was appalled; then my friend, the art director Richard Baker, and I were referred to as “those two colored kids” by the guys in the composing room. Really? In the years that followed, there’ve been a few other eye-rolling moments, or ridiculous assumptions—like that I’d have a really unique or important opinion on anything related to Spike Lee. It comes with the territory, I’m afraid.
So for a designer of color embarking on their first big design job, I’d say take a deep breath. Some well-meaning colleagues will say something that will make your head explode, but step back instead and try to turn it into a teaching moment (as corny as that sounds). Make sure to pay it forward and mentor the designers of color you meet as you move up. Teach. Organize. Help.
I’m always surprised and a little disappointed when people say that they don’t have time to “hold the door open” for young designers. Not everyone wants to teach—I get it—but there are other opportunities to mentor young designers, like through internships. Overseeing interns can sometimes be like herding cats, and I know that yes, sometimes it’s easier to “just do it yourself” rather than sit down and explain things to a confused intern, but it’s so incredibly rewarding to watch a student or intern blossom. You owe it to your profession if you had a teacher, or boss, or mentor, who helped shape your career, or even your life. It’s good karma. Why risk a cartoon anvil falling on your head?