A while ago I got an email from Taxi inviting me to check out their 100th issue celebration. I poked around the site a bit, particularly reading all the quotes on design and I found one particularly intriguing by a guy named Ross MacDonald.
“Often the ‘perfect’ font is too big or too small, or won’t fit in the measure, or is a figment of your imagination that you have been looking for, unsuccessfully, for years.”
That led me to read the article the quote was pulled from, Design as a Slow Motion Train Wreck. I found it hilarious, so I visited Ross’s site, sent him a note thanking for his humorous point of view on letterpress and design, and on a whim I thought I’d ask for an interview while I was at it. Obviously he agreed and below is Ross’s witty view on his journey through design, along with a few select pieces from his vast and varied portfolio.
How long have you been involved in graphic design and illustration, and how did you get started?
Off and on, mostly on, since 1974. I dropped out of high school, left home, and started working when I was 16. After working some crappy jobs I got a job hand making paper for an artist, and then a few months later I started work as a printer at Coach House Press in Toronto. After a year of that, I started Dreadnaught Press, with my older brother Robert and a couple of other hippies. We eventually had three presses, a huge collection of lead type, a couple of Monotype casters, and a hand made paper mill.
How do you define graphic design?
I don’t draw a hard line around it and say this is graphic design and this isn’t, and I usually try to avoid people who do. Pretty much anything done for reproduction or even display is graphic design. That’s not to say it’s all good graphic design, but at some point, on a conscious or unconscious level, choices are being made. I see lots of half-assed design perpetrated by ‘designers’, and lots of great design by people who would probably punch you if you called them a designer. It’s all about making good choices.
Do you have a degree? In what? How did it help you in this industry?
One of my first jobs at Coach House Press was typesetting and printing the fake PhD diplomas from Rochdale College that they sold for 50 bucks. I always wish I’d printed one for myself, then the shame and ignominy of being an ignorant uneducated boob would be easier to bear.
One of the sections in your portfolio is letterpress. You have some impressive work there! How did you get started doing letterpress?
Printing those fake diplomas.
What would you tell a designer looking to get in to letterpress? Any warnings or advice?
It’s hard work, so don’t expect it to be too easy. It’s really fun and interesting and rewarding. And only chumps use photopolymer.
What is the best thing about working with a letterpress?
Getting really dirty. Handling old type. Finding old type. working on old presses. Using my hands.
What is the most frustrating thing?
Running out of letters half way through a sentence.
Do you have a process you go through for your designs? Describe it in brief.
I don’t have a perfect recipe I follow every time – I guess it’s the ‘throw it on the wall and see what sticks’ process. Sometimes I start with a sketch and I’m able to spec all the type and colors and paper, and then just go down to the shop and set it and print it. But usually I’ll just have a vague idea and I’ll just riff off of that – trying out different fonts and sizes, putting lines on curves, stopping and sketching a couple of things, and then trying more type, and like that until I start getting somewhere. I really like just jumping in and figuring it out as I go along. If it’s one of my own pieces, I’m often writing the copy as I go – sometimes I’ll print part of it, write more copy, print that, and so on.
I also see you have an awesome section on movie props that you’ve worked on. How did you get into creating movie props?
I was approached about illustrating a faux 1930’s children’s book for the Movie ‘Baby’s Day Out’. I worked on set for months and met a lot of people, some of whom I stayed in touch with. Years later, I did a letterpress poster for one of the guys, for his first feature-length independent film. A prop master on the movie The Alamo happened to see it, and called me to do work for that film, which led to more work, etc.
What was your favorite movie to work on? Why?
Baby’s Day Out was fun because I worked on the crew for so long and really got to see a lot and learn a lot. King of California was fun too, because it was a great script and I worked with the director a lot, and National Treasure Book of Secrets was fun just for the sheer scope and volume of work.
What has been your all-time favorite project to work on? Why?
That’s a tough one. I guess all the work I did for National Treasure Book of Secrets is up there. Lots of research, which I love.
What project turned out better than you could have imagined?
They’re all great, as long as the check clears. I always imagine my work is going to be better looking than it ends up being, but then sometimes I’ll look back on it much later and realize it actually looks okay.
How do you keep up with what’s new in the design industry?
I don’t really keep up. I probably should. It’s not that I’m not interested, I just don’t have time. Or maybe I really am not interested – I don’t know. I scan the odd Print mag, I talk to people and sometimes friends will send me a link to a good blog and I’ll noodle around on it for a while until a client calls and screams at me about their late sketches. I know enough to know that there’s a lot of great work going on.
Who is your favorite designer? Why?
My favorite designers are the ones who don’t take themselves too seriously, who use lots of illustration, particularly by me, and who don’t ever use the word semiotics.
What was the hardest lesson you had to learn in graphic design?
That mechanics make more money and work shorter hours.
What is the number one thing you would like to tell new designers?
Learn how to do lots of other things. Learn how to dig a hole or hammer a nail or cast metal or work with leather or throw knives. Spend a lot of time learning about the history of your chosen profession. It’ll take you places you never would have gone.
What is the number one thing you would like to tell veteran designers?
What is something you wish all designers would understand?
How things work.
Be sure to visit Ross’s portfolio and take a look at his work! You’ll probably particularly enjoy the photos of the movie props.
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