Since graduating from SVA, designer Anthony Zukofsky has been on a whirlwind tour of some of the most desirable companies, agencies, publications, and studios in the U.S., working for many of the most celebrated names in modern American, and indeed international design. Rob Giampietro, Paul Sahre, Arem Duplessis, Michael Bierut, Jennifer Kinon, and Bobby C. Martin have all counted Zukofksy as an employer or collaborator, and he only graduated in 2015.
Impressed with this unusual CV, we spoke to Zukofksy about how he got to where he is today, and what tips he has for young designers in education, or about to make their first forays into the professional world.
Tell us a bit about the course at SVA, and what kind of work you were making while studying.
SVA is an interesting place because you’re surrounded by designers you’ve only read about in books or have seen online, and next thing you know you’re in a classroom learning from them. I was very specific about the path I wanted to take at SVA. I studied two years prior at a state school that had a very International Style influence, so I already knew who the design masters were, a good amount of design history, and how to build grids, so when I got to SVA I was already a little ahead of the game. I was less interested in the new talent they were hiring and more interested in the people that actually knew how to teach—specifically designers like Carin Goldberg, Gail Anderson, and Paul Sahre. Luckily, SVA is one of the only design schools that can put you in an environment with these designers.
While studying I was producing a range of work, from identity systems to print, interactive, and animations. I was always trying to be aware of the type of work I was making and the reasons why I was making. I was always looking at different artists or odd historical references to influence my work, and not at other graphic design work. The idea of finding a “style” or following a “trend” was something that made me cringe, and pigeonholing myself was my biggest fear. I wanted to make work where you couldn’t tell who the designer was. The idea of the unknown designer has always fascinated me.
As a student, I think you should dip your toes in as many types of work as you possibly can; don’t just focus on one direction. One day in class, Paul Sahre said, “If you’ve already been to a place, why would you want to go back?” It’s simple, but it really stuck with me. It’s the notion of constantly reinventing yourself and always staying uncomfortable no matter how hard it is. I’ve been trying to put myself in that position ever since.
How much did your undergrad prepare you for leaving education and becoming a practicing designer?
Studying at SVA was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It has opened the door to every studio, agency, and company I have worked for so far, however I don’t think they prepared me at all for leaving the undergrad environment, which is one of the primary reasons why I was interning so much while I was still in school. I soon began to realize that going to school taught you how to think about the work you were doing, gave you an environment to experiment in, and provided amazing connections, but it did not prepare you at all when it came to talking to clients, strategy, writing, or even preparing a contract. I also think that’s a major problem overall with design education right now and not just something going on at SVA.
I soon began to realize that going to school taught you how to think about the work you were doing, gave you an environment to experiment in, and provided amazing connections, but it did not prepare you at all when it came to talking to clients, strategy, writing, or even preparing a contract.
What kind of relationship did you have with your tutors?
It became more of a friendship and mentorship rather than just a professor/student relationship. I was meeting with different professors once, sometimes twice, a week for two or three hours, showing work and having conversations that weren’t even about design most of the time. Some of the best classes I’ve had at SVA were the ones where the whole class just sat and discussed different topics. Some professors even hosted class in their studio space, which physically and mentally brought you directly into their practice. The best part is still keeping in touch with them and even collaborating with them, which is always exciting.
Since graduation you’ve worked at at least four of the most desirable companies a designer could work for—Google, Apple, Pentagram, and The New York Times Magazine. What’s the experience been like at each, and how did you manage to land so many sweet gigs?
I’ve always kept a strict list of studios, people, and companies I’ve wanted to work for and I’ve been so incredibly fortunate to cross off most of the names on that list (I still have it and use it). Keeping a direct path and staying on that path is so important as a designer—you should always be thinking what the next move is. It goes back to being uncomfortable and not settling. That’s one of the primary factors that has helped me work at all of these places, as well as a ridiculous amount of hard work, curiosity, and building connections.
While I was at Apple, Arem Duplessis told me that he was always more interested in a designer who has a varied background under their belt, or even comes from a non-design background. I couldn’t agree more. Don’t ever settle for one opportunity, but experience as many different environments as you possibly can. It’s a personal preference, and I understand that not a lot of designers like that feeling, and would prefer more security, but every experience has been different even though many of the places may seem slightly similar.
Was it ever overwhelming to go into environments like Google and Apple where the level of competition is so high?
Yes for sure, I mean it’s the fear of the unknown, right? Not just due to competition either, it’s more overwhelming when you’re collaborating with some of the most intelligent and talented people in their fields, not just designers but writers, industrial designers, fabricators and developers. It’s a good thing. You just have to always be nice, work your ass off and try not to step on any toes. I’ve always been more interested in learning and being around non-designers which tends to help.
Do you ever get to put your mark on a project when working with the likes of Rob Giampietro or Michael Bierut, or is it more about the learning experience?
Yes, definitely, but the learning experience is way more important for me. Design at its core is really a collaborative effort, and I don’t think you can land on proper solutions without the influence of a few different minds. It makes the work more interesting and exciting.
It would be ignorant to be more worried about putting your mark on a project than learning from these people. It’s crucial to notice every move they make and how they think about things.
Specifically, working with Michael Bierut, Rob Giampietro, Jennifer Kinon and Bobby C. Martin was, and still is, like getting a master’s degree. You’re learning from the best in design right now, jumping into their mind and seeing how they conduct things. It would be ignorant to be more worried about putting your mark on a project than learning from these people. It’s crucial to notice every move they make and how they think about things because that’s what is going make you a better designer. They all have such a clarity when it comes to problem solving and the best part is they are always even more excited to see where you can take the project once they step away. I learned even more about how to be a person when working with these designers too, every single one of them was so amiable and encouraging. They are passing down the torch.
Where do you go once you’ve worked at all these places? Is the plan to set up your own studio, or stay in-house for the time being?
We will see what the future holds, I would definitely love to open up my own studio at some point. I’m also highly interested in a few different MFA programs, specifically in writing and criticism, industrial design, or even business to help influence my studio practice one day. There are also still a bunch of different places doing incredible work that I would like to collaborate with so we will see. One thing I know is that I don’t want to being working in-house much longer.