AIGA Medalist Alexander Isley graduated from college in 1984—the same year Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh computer—and so he describes himself as part of the generation that had “a leg in both the old school, do-it-by-hand, and the digital age.” After working as a designer at fellow AIGA Medalist Tibor Kalman’s M&Co, and as art director of irreverent SPY magazine, Isley founded his own studio in New York City in 1988.
Today, Isley tells us the story of his studio’s very first commission, a capabilities flyer for a New York-based design service bureau called Stat Store.
“I’d always known I wanted to have my own design company, and had been saving up for it since I was in college. After working at M&Co and SPY, I realized that the time was right to start a business. I had no real obligations, was not married, had no mortgage, and I had enough savings to last six months before I’d have to go back to a staff job somewhere with my tail between my legs.
“So I rented an office on West Broadway, put in some drawing tables and a waxer, and started staring at the phone waiting for something to happen.
“The first assignment that came through holds importance to me for a few reasons. Firstly, since I had no clients at all at that time, getting a real assignment felt pretty good. Secondly, it came about as a result of a significant period of transition in the world of graphic design.
“I was asked to do a capabilities piece for Stat Store, a service bureau in New York City located in the center of an area teeming with design firms and agencies. For those not in the know, back in the analog days service bureaus were businesses that provided design firms and advertising agencies with things like Photostats, transfer lettering, photo prints—materials for designers to use in creating final mechanical artwork for production.
“With the advent of the ‘desktop publishing’ revolution, they realized that their days could be numbered. For the first couple of years, there wasn’t a lot you could do with a Mac professionally, but as 1988 rolled around, companies were developing software that designers could start to employ.
“So Stat Store (that name was not to last much longer) decided to get into the areas of output and digital publishing, and were one of the first places in NYC that could output designers’ files. You’d do your layout in your office, put it on a floppy disk, walk it over (or have a messenger take it) to Stat Store, and they’d output your file on to photo paper. They’d pack the job up, messenger it back to you, and you’d run it through your waxer and paste it down on illustration board, preparing a mechanical to send to the printer to re-photograph and produce.
“Believe it or not, this was considered a breakthrough in efficiency—I like the idea of cutting-edge digital technology being output and glued down with melted animal fat.”
“Stat Store decided to go all in with this technology, enabling printers to skip a step, and in theory provide even more control and accuracy to designers—very ambitious.
“So the owners called me up. I had known them from my days at M&Co, where they’d been a client. For one reason or another Tibor was not interested in working on this venture—perhaps not enough of a budget. I, however, had no such qualms.
“They came to me wanting a price list. I realized that there was a lot about this world I didn’t know, and figured I wasn’t alone. So I decided to create something that would demonstrate to the uninitiated what the capabilities of the software were, along with examples of different output resolutions.
“I developed an accordion-fold brochure, designed to fit in a slipcase the same size as a standard 3.5” floppy disk for easy storage and reference. On one side it spelled out ‘D-E-S-I-G-N,’ with each panel created using cutting-edge software of the day: Illustrator 88, ImageStudio, early Linotype PostScript fonts, etc. The other side provided close-up details comparing outputs at 635, 1270, and 2540 dpi, showing how lower-res (and less expensive) output with jaggedy type might be okay if one were printing on newsprint, for example.
“I initially laid the piece out traditionally then worked with the staff at Stat Store to create final digital files and output them to film. We kept bumping up against the limitations of the software; gradations would get clumpy, film output on different days would not register correctly, and don’t get me started about the letterspacing and kerning.
“This turned out to be a successful and important piece both for Stat Store and for me. Their output business boomed, and they quickly had to expand their space, hire more staff, and put in more equipment. This is not all due to the effect of a price list, of course, but they felt that its portrayal of them as go-to expert partners played a big role in what they went on to become.
“Side note: the new launch was so successful that Stat Store went on to change its name to DX: Digital Exchange, and we created a new identity for them. Since modem technology was new, we created a little promotion for them touting how you could modem in your files for output. This is St. Modem, a good luck 3-D religious icon to place on top of your Macintosh to prevent system crashes. He comes with a prayer:
Lo, placeth yon icon upon thy monitor; / Yea, sayeth ye a prayer of faith for protecthion of thy thoftware; / Yo! May evil thpirith beware! / Hallelujah!
“I was the model and it ended up being my face on the mailer; the artist was a realist and couldn’t figure out a way to make it not look like me. Note the computer technology of the time!”
“For me, it was nice to actually complete something, get paid for it, and prove to myself that maybe I could make this business work. More importantly, however, I’d asked to put my credit on the piece, which really helped get my name out there. I can’t tell you how many of my peers mentioned this little flyer to me for years to come. It was (and is) a smallish, tight-knit community, and this gave me a boost.
“I have a not-so-hidden agenda in my work, which is to, whenever possible, try to educate and inform people, even if this is not in the brief—especially if this is not in the brief.
“I don’t think it’s enough to try to just make something look good, although that’s difficult enough. I like a careful reader to be encouraged, rewarded, and perhaps come away discovering something new.
“I was happy to be able to put this thinking into practice even back at the beginning. Seeing how this approach could work helped me, I believe, set the direction for my work to come.”