Play Press: Becoming a Graphic and Digital Designer


“Mark Fox: The Mark Maker,” an interview with Mark Fox in the Fifth Edition of Becoming a Graphic and Digital Designer by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne, published by Wiley. Other featured designers and illustrators include Michael Bierut, Charles Spencer Anderson, Mirko Ilic, Steve Brodner, and CCA colleague Erik Adigard, among many others.

Not all of the original interview questions and answers are included in the book. The following excerpts may be of interest to students or those with a particular love of symbol design:

SH: How do you know when it is right?

When the idea is smart or original; when the forms are beautiful or well-crafted; when I like looking at it. When possible, I strive to create trademarks that don’t simply identify, but that pull the eye and hold it; that reward repeated viewings.

French designer Philippe Starck has said that “The first rule of design is to bring happiness.” Although Starck was speaking of his own work for Jean Paul Gaultier, I nevertheless think of this quote when I design. How do I know when it is right? When it brings me happiness.

A few of the marks that others have designed that I believe are “right” and that make me happy: Allianz Versicherungs (Karl Schulpig, 1923); Piet Zwart’s personal mark, 1928; Eveready Battery (unknown, c. 1930’s); Borzoi Books (Paul Rand, 1945); Railex (Woody Pirtle, 1984); Lone Star Donuts (Rex Peteet, 1985).

SH: Marks are not supposed to be too complicated, why not?

From a purely pragmatic perspective, simple marks are more easily reproducible in a variety of media and contexts. The demands of cheap offset printing on inferior substrates (such as newsprint) have been supplanted by the demands of the screen and a 32 x 32 pixel space. Although the primary medium for display may have changed, the underlying formal problem remains unchanged.

As I tell my students, the trick is to create a mark that is simultaneously simple but distinctive; that reproduces well in one color at less than half an inch, but that nonetheless pulls one’s eye and engages one’s mind. If one can solve this problem, one can use the mark anywhere.

SH: Did anyone, like Saul Bass, influence what and how you do what you do?

Saul Bass designed some striking posters and film sequences, but he was never one of my influences.

In the context of trademarks, my first significant influence was Michael Schwab. I became familiar with Michael’s work from my mom’s issues of “Communication Arts” which she subscribed to in the 1970’s. (My mom Eunice worked as a typesetter in a print shop when I was in high school.) Michael is a master of simplified (silhouetted) forms which he uses to design his distinctive posters and trademarks. I had the good fortune to work with Michael when I first moved to San Francisco in 1985, and his bold, stripped-down approach continues to resonate with me nearly thirty years later. (Michael, it should be noted, owes some of his success to two earlier designers who implicitly understood the power of the silhouette: Ludwig Hohlwein and Lucian Bernhard.)

Although I didn’t find a copy until perhaps 1986, Leslie Cabarga published the first of his A Treasury of German Trademarks in 1982 and it was a revelation: I felt like I suddenly gained the gift of sight. Karl Schulpig! My god. And Wilhelm Deffke of Wilhelmwerk: between 1915 and 1919 this German studio pioneered a reductivist approach to trademark design that proved to be decades ahead of its time, at least when compared with American trends. Wilhelmwerk’s forms are simple, compact, and unapologetically black. (Look up Deffke’s symbol for Eisenhand to see what I mean.) In the essay “A Mentor” reprinted in his 1993 book Design, Form and Chaos, Paul Rand cites both Karl Schulpig and Wilhelm Deffke as important influences, as well as others whose work I would eventually discover, among them: F.H. Ehmcke, O.H.W. Hadank, Max Körner, Fortunato Depero, and Hans Schleger (a.k.a. Zéro).

I believe that the best trademarks have a timeless quality, and so I am not embarrassed to admit that the designers whose work inspires me the most were at their prime nearly 100 years ago. My work and approach are rooted in a tradition of craft; the challenge, of course, is to harness this tradition while nonetheless creating work that has currency.

Download the interview as a PDF.

Play Press: Communication Arts

plog_4_MAY_2015 Communication Arts May/June 2015 Cover

We are thrilled to be featured in Communication Arts’ May/June issue. The profile of Design is Play is written by Jessica Carew Kraft and includes a range of our work, including collaborations with former Credo Creative Director Steve Lyons and Los Angeles illustrator Greg Clarke.

We especially like the summary of the article on CA’s Table of Contents page: “A master of bold identity marks and a refined typography connoisseur marry talents in a dynamic San Francisco design partnership.” The marriage is metaphorical, of course, but it is romantic nonetheless.

Thank you to Patrick and Jean Coyne for this honor, and to Jessica for the article!

Hollywood Boulders Identity

©DesignisPlay Hollywood Boulders

Hollywood Boulders is our latest collaboration with Touchstone Climbing in San Francisco. Slated to open later this year, Hollywood Boulders will be Southern California’s largest indoor bouldering gym, with 18-foot walls and 11,000 square feet of climbing terrain.

The geometry of the tri-skull symbol suggests both an urban skyline as well as the dihedral features of a rock wall. It’s also a nod to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery which just happens to be across the street from the gym.

Fox Acquired by LACMA

©DesignisPlay Mark Fox Posters

Two posters Mark designed in the 1990’s were recently acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of the Marc Treib Collection. Treib is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and his gift of over 500 posters now forms part of the Decorative Arts and Design collection at LACMA.

“Republican Contract on America” (right) is a 1995 propaganda poster screen printed on chipboard. A quote by Nazi Hermann Göring is used to highlight the anti-intellectual, anti-cultural stance of the Republican-controlled 104th U.S. Congress.

“5ive Iconoclasts” (left) is an offset litho poster promoting a series of lectures from the same year. The 1995 AIGA/SFMOMA Design Lecture Series featured an eclectic mix of designers and artists which included Tibor Kalman (M&Co.), Vaughan Oliver (v23), the Guerrilla Girls, Jenny Holzer, and Diller + Scofidio. The poster quotes Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Cliffs of Id Identity

©DesignisPlay Cliffs of ID

Cliffs of Id is a new climbing gym from Touchstone Climbing opening in Culver City, California. It is named after a passage in Reyner Banham’s Four Ecologies of Los Angeles, a book about Southern California and its architecture: “The Plains of Id are where the crudest urban lusts and most fundamental aspirations are created, manipulated and, with luck, satisfied.”

The Cliffs of Id symbol is a winged robot, an encapsulation of the mythic future as promised to America by the movie and television industries of Southern California in the 1950’s and 60’s. Like most of our trademark work, we inked this symbol by hand prior to rebuilding it in Illustrator. The wordmark is set in a 17 Oblong, an architectural typeface by Dutch designers René Knip and Janno Hahn at Arktype.