Michael Gericke’s storied career could be seen as the result of a combination of skill, enthusiasm, and a series of fortuitous chance meetings. Had things turned out differently, he may well have become a potter; or an art teacher; or in his own words, a “ski bum.”
Gericke grew up in a “tiny farming town” in the Midwest near Madison, Wisc., where his father ran the local bank. “He wanted me to be a business person,” says Gericke, “but my high school art teacher was an American Indian master potter, and I became very interested in ceramics… my dream was actually to get my MFA in fine art and teach art or ceramics.”
At The University of Wisconsin, however, it turned out that the professor for his “Introduction to Design” class had just retired as design director for United Airlines, where he’d worked with Saul Bass. He told Gericke that while ceramics was all well and good, you have to be pretty amazing to make a career of it; and that “design is actually quite interesting.” Enamored with the glamour of airplanes, he switched his major to graphic design.
Following art school, Gericke dreamed of moving to Colorado and teaching skiing before having to “eventually get a real job.” He then happened to meet “two guys who had started their own office in Boulder, Colorado, who were both from the Charles and Ray Eames office. And so I got a job with them.”
Those two guys were the founders of Communication Arts, where Gericke worked for around eight years and discovered his passion for designing in three dimensions.
Having long admired Colin Forbes’ work, Gericke had struck up a relationship with the Pentagram cofounder and he later began working for him. He clearly hasn’t looked back, having now been at Pentagram for more than 35 years where he’s worked on projects at the intersection of image-making, communications, and the built environment. Over the years, he’s created identities for the MIT initiative One Laptop Per Child; the 1994 FIFA World Cup; Rockefeller Center; Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, to name just a few projects.
Four decades on, Gericke’s passion for design shows no sign of waning, as evidenced in his new 520-page monograph Graphic Life, published by Images Publishing. We spoke about designing the print behemoth, what it takes to land a job at Pentagram, and more.
Having designed the book yourself, how was the experience of being your own client?
I tried to not think about the design of it until towards the very end; it was more about trying to tell stories through images, posters, exhibitions… Places, images, stories, and symbols made a unique thread through my work. I’ve always loved working both as a pure graphic designer in conveying a simple, memorable image as well as the other side of it, working with architects and urban planners on these big, immersive spaces.
Like all graphic designers, I’m interested in typography and color and all of that, but as I started to look at the pieces, I wanted to make it more of an immersive experience, or as much as you can in a printed book. Particularly for the three dimensional pieces, I wanted to use full bleed images to feel like you’re kind of within those spaces. That really guided me: the graphic design could take a little bit of a backseat to the images.
“I wanted to make it more of an immersive experience, or as much as you can in a printed book.”
Aside from full bleed images, how do you make a book feel immersive?
You use a compelling set of images that tell the story in a concise but impactful way. Particularly for the three dimensional elements, it’s about sequencing images so that you get a macro view, an overall sense of the thing as a whole, and then the closer, more human touch points.
For the more purely graphic design things like posters, advertisements, and books, as well as for the symbols section, I tried to show them in context, so that you got a sense of what they felt like in the world: you might see something on a bookshelf, or shot leaning against a wall, or against a glass window in midtown Manhattan; in some cases, you see my reflection in the glass of a framed poster.
What I think is so exciting with graphic work is that it lives out in the world, and it becomes part of popular culture and everyday experiences in different ways. Sometimes you’re lucky, and [the work] can be pretty expansive, and many, many people can see it; and then sometimes it’s for very small and focused audiences. It’s very much an extroverted way of working.
What do you find more gratifying: those projects that are in front of a lot of eyes, or the ones that are for that very focused audience?
I would say all of them are equally interesting. My wife, a psychotherapist, has said I might have been a good psychotherapist because as a designer, a lot of what we do is kind of understanding the context—the problem, the personalities, the situation—and trying to ask a lot of questions and find an answer. Then by connecting a series of ideas and looking deep and far, you find something that’s unique. That process of finding the answer is the same whether it’s for a small audience or something with a much larger reach: they’re all equally fulfilling.
What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the design industry over the last four decades or so?
There’s been an enormous increase in the level of talent and skill in the profession. Where before there were a few firms that were known for doing very good work, now, the bar has risen dramatically. The general standard is very high, which is great. The reach and the depth of what designers are doing now is so much more expansive. It touches on so many more different things than when I first became a designer, where it was limited to identities or publications, and if you were lucky, some three-dimensional things.
Now, designers are so fluid and comfortable in touching many different types of dimensions and experiences: from traditional graphic design, to interactive media, animation, motion graphics, three dimensional exhibitions, UX, UI, and truly immersive things that pull on many different types of design. The world has gotten so much more sophisticated, and technologically, it’s grown so much; and design is what connects us to a place, a brand, or an experience.
What do you look for in younger designers coming into Pentagram?
Technical skill is almost a given now, because the bar is so high generally. Maybe even most important is somebody who wants to be part of a team, and cherishes the idea that together, you’re greater than you are apart. You want to feel like everybody’s working towards something collectively. The last part is somebody who is curious—someone who doesn’t know the answer, but isn’t afraid to challenge others. I love someone who actually says, “Well I’m not sure about that” or “Should we look at this again?” It makes the work much stronger, and it’s really important to keep us fresh.
Pentagram is constantly refreshing itself: there’s not really a house style.
It’s probably fair to say that Pentagram is seen as the biggest agency in the world… what’s it like having that status?
Sometimes I think that could be a positive and a negative. Our longevity is maybe a testament to the fundamental principle that we’re not a corporation, it’s run by a practice of individual partners who are all designers. There are no account executives, or business heads, or any of that stuff—it’s a design-driven practice. It’s very eclectic, as the shape and the form of Pentagram’s personality is very much driven by the partners, so it’s ever-changing as people leave and join.
What’s also important is the direct, unfiltered relationship the partners have with our clients: it’s a very personal kind of experience between who does the work and who it’s for. Maybe the reputation comes a bit from the longevity, but hopefully, it’s because Pentagram is constantly refreshing itself: there’s not really a house style.
Do you sense any unspoken nerves around maintaining that reputation?
I don’t know… it’s never been a static place, it’s never been “comfortable” or just perpetuating the same thing—I think it’s actually the opposite. Now, it’s about how we can infuse it with new ideas and new talent from a younger generation. That isn’t based on a single individual, it’s born of the collective whole. The reach isn’t in a single dimension—we don’t just do websites or signage or logos—it’s a broader idea of design.
What have been a couple of standout projects for you?
I live in New York and one of my clients before 9/11 was the Port Authority of New York in New Jersey. When 9/11 happened, I actually was in the basement of one of the towers… so I became very quickly involved with the Port Authority in trying to help figure out what to do to protect the World Trade Centre site. That was really fulfilling to be part of.
When I first came to New York I ended up doing quite a bit of kind of pro bono work for The American Institute of Architects, and they gave me almost unlimited creative freedom to do some wonderful things for a decade or more. That was something that shaped who I was.
One of the dangers of being a designer is that you’re sensitive: you care about it and put your heart and soul into it.
Has there been anything you’ve regretted, looking back on your career?
I can’t think of a particular example, but I think maybe I take things too personally. When I’ve tried to do something that is thoughtful, creative, that I’ve put my soul into and it’s not been received well for political reasons or some corporate thing or this unexplainable reason why it wasn’t accepted… One of the dangers of being a designer is that you’re sensitive: you care about it, and put your heart and soul into it.
It’s about building up resilience: you have to continue to challenge yourself and seek out the advice and opinion of others and not always take it. In the end that will make you stronger by not giving up your convictions, but always have it balanced or challenged by others. I think that keeps you relevant and aware.
What advice would you give to design students or younger grads entering the industry now?
Be prepared: have a very good understanding of the world of design and the range of it, and work that you like. Have the skills to be able to kind of step in to do things. Do work solely for yourself early in your career that lets you express the range of what you’re interested in. That gives you the ability to develop a deeper and wider portfolio more quickly. Also, stay curious: you never know when you might need to draw on something that feels unrelated to give a project you’re working on more insight.
What are you curious about outside of design?
I love photography; I love the idea of capturing moments. I’m also a very keen cyclist so I ride quite a bit and I’m restoring a couple bikes as well as doing a fair amount of competitive cycling. It’s a bit of an escape and allows you to experience a lot, rapidly. With photography and cycling, there’s the technical design piece of it too: it’s this hyper efficient machine that’s kind of perfect.
Are you quite competitive?
Definitely, definitely. Mostly with myself.