Interview with Sam Smidt

Interviewer: Chuck Byrne and Joe Miller for AIGA



v1, 1.23.13

CB: How did you become interested in graphic design? 

SS: My future wife Marlene and I grew up in San Francisco. Her family was pressuring me to get a job. 

I’m 82 now. In 1954 I was 24 and walking around in the fog in San Francisco not knowing what to do. I was walking on Kearny Street where it intersects Market, I looked up and there was a sign that said, “Stevens School of Art.” I went up a big flight of stairs and right at the end there was a man named Stevens, in a very nice suit, who greeted me. He was the founder of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. He said, “Are you interested in a career in art and design? I didn’t know what that was and I said, “Well, what’s involved?” And he showed me this room and they had some nude models, I said, “So if you’re an artist you get to draw these?” He said, “So we’ll sign you up?” I had been in the Marines so I was able to go to the school on the G.I. Bill. 

CB: How long were you there? 

SS: About a year. Some of the teachers were excellent, but there was one Art Director who worked for an agency, I think it was McCann Erickson, and he took me aside and he said, “Sam, I hate to disillusion you but I don’t think you’ve got it. He was downright negative. It actually what made me want to leave. 

Around 1955-56, Marlene’s uncle lined me up with a part-time job at Stanford Research Town. I met my life-long friend Harry Powers there. I stayed about a year.

About that time I met a young designer named G. Dean Smith. He did a lot of important work and went on to work for Saul Bass in L.A. He decided to take me under his wing and he said, “Sam, you just got to go to Art Center.  You really need that sort of disipline.” So I packed up my car, and [we] drove down Highway 5 to Hollywood where the school was located at the time. Again, the the G.I. Bill let me do this. I graduated in 1960.

CB: Who did you study with?

SS: The most influential by far was Louis Danzinger. 

CB: What do you think you learned, what’s the most important thing you picked up from Lou? 

SS: The whole idea of conceptualizing—he wanted form in content—the value of influences from other than graphic design. For example, Lou took us to the L. A. County Museum, and we looked at pretty much nothing but Picassos — geez, Picasso’s a great teacher. We did that and talked a lot about other influences, including music. 

CB: For their form, or for the content or both? 

SS: I would say for a beautiful combination. It doesn’t come along every day, but when it does you can really feel it. He did a good job of marrying the whole thing. 

Lou and the school deserve a lot credit for my progress as a desginer.

CB: After Art Center? 

After leaving Art Center I had a job with Cal Freeman and Art Goodman gave me a job. I just couldn’t stand the pressure so i quit. I went home and Marlene said, “There’s a phone call for you from your old friend Harry Powers in Palo Alto. he asked me if i was interested in returning to Palo Alto and starting a studio with him. I looked at Marlene, and she looked at me and she said, “Let’s go.” It was really the beginning of my career. 

CB: So you came back to Palo Alto?

SS: Yeah. That was in when we started Sam Smidt Associates. 1960 I believe. So we started off, and ended up having nothing to do. Harry and I decided that since weren’t doing anything we would go to this Aspen International Design Conference.

We went on a train with a beautiful glass superdome. It was fun.; we had a really good time though. Something a guy from General Dynamics said really stuck me, “There’s one thing I want you to listen to and that is that there’s a friend and a foe to you in every company.” I went back with that thought fresh in my mind. I decided I would design some kind of nailing piece and make some calls. I went to this one small design firm nearby to see about getting some work. It turned out to be Dick Coyne and Robert Blanchard who started Communication Arts magazine.

Soon after I got a call from Dick and he said, “We’re going to close up our shop, we want to just concentrate on Communication Arts Magazine. How would you like some clients? From that start, wihtin a few years I had several Silicon Valley clients like Ampex Corporation. Within about 5 years, I was doing okay.  Some great people like Paul Sinn, Art Kirsch and Bob Sleeper joined the firm. There were some real interesting design opportunities. The best was probably at San Jose State. Harry Powers had left our firm to go teach there. This was before it was a separate program. He heard about a part time opening that was coming up for a graphic design person with professional experience. He asked if I would be interested. I said, I’d never done any teaching before but I applied for the job with the idea that I could also continue my professional career. 

Some of my best work was done for the school during this period. 

CB: When you say best work, are you talking about the posters for art exhibitions.

SS:  Yeah, things for San Jose State University art exhibits and independent galleries. Things that were typographically strong.  

CB: Typographic interpretations of what the art was about.  

SS:  Yes, exactly. 

CB:  Later you took a full-time job at San Jose State when a full program was started.  

SS: Yes, that was ‘68 or ‘69. 

CB: How was your firm doing?

SS:  By that time I was working on just a few projects at the firm. I had a couple of pretty good people at Sam Smidt and Associates. We had a strong portfolio and we were continuing to do work with important Silicon Valley clients.  It was advertising with graphic design flare to it. In 1997 I sold the business to several people in the firm so they could continue and do what they wanted to do.  It became Humple, Leftwitch and Sinn.

CB: In addition to a full-time appointment at San Jose State University you started a small office?

SS: I went to downtown Palo Alto and found a little building with the idea that I could renovate it and get get a small studio and some other space out of it? That is still my office today. Anyway, for the first 6 months I renovated the space. I became very close friends with the fine artist named Nathan Oliveira who worked neaby. Over the years we traded a lot of work.

I began building a reputation for graphic designer that understood the art world and could work with  curators.  Along with others I did work for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

CB: How did thigs develop at San Jose State?

SS: We started regularly bringing in interesting designers for the students to have contact with. I remember Dick Coyne coming and talking about Communications Arts magazine. 

One of the most interesting and successful with the students was Sheila de Bretteville. She was living in L A at the time and I convinced her to come up once a week and teach. I think that was in the 70’s. She has been head of the Graduate Graphic Design program at Yale for a long time now. 

CB: What did you look for in the designers you hired to teach.

SS: As the program grew we started hiring good full-time faculty like Lanning Stern from L A and Randall Sexton along with lecturers like Joe Miller. Lanning’s was insightful and had humor. I looked for work that made me feel warm and smile — something like that. 

CB: What do you think makes a good design teacher?

SS:  Good question. Ah, I think you have to love your students and have a dialogue with them.

CB:  How did you go about motivating students? How did you keep them going?

SS:  Well, I have my own teaching style as one that – let me see now.  Once a week I would bring bring in a big flat portfolio of all I had worked on in the studio that week. I would then show it to the students and express my thoughts as we look at it.

Many times I came fresh with from a meeting I had just had with a client and I would tell them about that experience. And if I choose with an art piece or something, because  I have to say that over that long run, I have had a few and plenty of it. We’re talking about one thing I would say to the class because not enough students I know.

CB:  How you motivate clients to go for good design work?

SS:  That’s a good question. My best work has always been between one person acting as the client working directly with me. Working with the one person is important. I try to initiate a feeling of trust. The client wants me to do something. I’m happy having the opportunity to, hopefully, do something that’s never been done before. They have to trust me. I’m not being difficult — really.

CB:  Early in your career to midway, there was a big emphasis on typography.  

SS:  Yeah, type is fun to work with.

CB:  Where did you pick that up? Art center or you just felt comfortable with type?

SS:  Comfortable with type, yes. I learned a lot from [type teacher_____________] at Art Center. He taught lettering and type.

CB:  What caused you to think about solving communications problems with type as opposed to an illustration or a photograph?

SS:  The way a type gets to people. Words expressed with type can be really a really compelling way to commuicate meaning. It is to us as graphic designers. It causes us to look for different typograhic possibilities. I just did a series of typographic posters called “Type Show” that explore the different possibilities with type.

  I did a lot of work for art museums and galleries. If somebody wants a poster for an exhibit, it’s always tempting to just reproduce some of the art from the exhibit. But something leads you to communicating what the art is with words and type?

CB: What lead you to using words and type in that great [name of artist??_____________ ] “Hell’s Angels Invading New York” poster? Did his work look like that poster?

SS: The words, type and flames echo his work. I’m responsible for letting people know that this art exists and the artist exist. 

CB:  A lot of your work seems to be reductive. You eliminate from a design as much as you put in.

SS:  Well, that’s what design is. I mean, it is a simple filing it down. We want to show enough to be provocative.

CB: And in working with the artist or the client you are coming up with the words as well as the imagery. Does this go back to Lou Danziner’s idea of the complete conceptualization of a message?

SS:  If you look at Lou’s work, you’re going to see an awful lot of typographical solutions. I feel so fortunate to have had him as a teacher.

CB:  So the first good part of your work is typography based and now you have developed this great interest in illustration.  Did you wake up one day and say I’m going to start doing illustrations. How did that come about?

SS:  [laughter] Because I love to draw.  It’s so much fun to draw and I don’t think anything particular would have influenced it except — I just love — I love it. But I would say, I think most of my best work is typographical.

CB:  Your illustrations seem to be doing something that the type is not doing.  It’s more personal, it seems to me.

SS:  More mature, wouldn’t you say?

CB: With the Healing Environment illustrations were there specific subjects that you were asked to cover or were they subjects that you thought would be helpful to people?

SS:  I’ve done 15 of them now. [titles of 2 or 3 of the books???] I’m given a subject or I suggest one for a new little book. 

Death, for example. That’s the subjects of one.  “Before I Die” is actually the title. For people who are very, very sick — I’m not talking about a little bit sick — I’m talking about this is probably the end — I mean that’s scary. I have to come up with a concept , an idea, that will help them in some way. 

I’ll come up with a little — just a little 3 x 3 inch sketch and show it in a meeting we have once a week. The little books seem to be very, very successful, from the standpoint of people buying them. I think they help people.

CB:  How do you get started with an illustration?

SS:  I don’t know — a single line.  It’s all there is… [laughter] That first line is probably the most important. 

CB:  So you really enjoy doing these illustrations?

SS:  Yeah, it’s fun, especially drawing people.

CB:  So there’s seems to be a consistent theme that the type was fun, the illustrations are fun.

SS:  I have fun.

CB: Fun with the client?

SS: Once in a while I get a client and start feeling “Hey, this isn’t natural for me.”  It doesn’t mean it’s good or bad.  It’s just not there. But then there are clients like Healing Environments, they give a sense of trust and I think “How did I come up with that?” It just kind of comes like a stroke from heaven, something exciting is going to happen. They’re wanting me and I’m there for them. 

CB:  What do you think your major contribution is to design in Silicon Valley, design or teaching?

SS:  To all those.  [laughter]  No.  My best teaching  thing is showing with what I’m doing at the time.

CB: Do you think you made a contribution to graphic design in general?

SS:  Yeah, I could say — typographical design — yes.  That work is— — what can I say?

CB: Showing the possibilities of typographic communication?

SS:  Yes, and it was fun.

But, I think I’m being given an opportunity through the Healing Environments illustrations to help people  — it’s a little deeper than normal stuff.