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James Victore: Don't Be A Design Zombie

James Victore: Don't Be A Design Zombie
Published October 21, 2010 by Jocelyn K. Glei

James Victore is a man of action. He believes that knowing about jazz and wine and auto-racing can make you a better designer. That graphic design is about experiences and stories and using your hands. That the best designs punch you in the gut – or, at the very least, stop you in your tracks.

When I visit his Williamsburg work/live studio, Victore is charming and humble, describing himself as still being “the unknown designer at age 50.” This is, of course, entirely untrue. (Aside from the fact that he’s not yet turned 50.) While you may not know the man, you very likely know the work. Once you see a Victore image – many of which live in the collection at MoMA – you rarely forget it.  With the release of the new book, Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss? (Abrams, $40), which collects 25 years of his work in a hefty volume designed by Paul Sahre and introduced by Michael Bierut, the name and the striking body of work should now finally go hand in hand. On paper, Victore’s designs feel like muscle cars with a coiled charge concealed just beneath the surface. In person, he exudes a similar kinetic spark – affably skimming from topic to topic, as we talk about art (“Franz Kline’s work really blows my skirt up”), work (“I can’t pay attention to everything at once”), and life (“Ask for more. Always. Ask for more time, ask for more creativity, ask for more money”). 

What’s a normal day for you?

I like to think we’re like the army. We get more work done by 9am than most people do in a full day. Chris [Victore’s sole co-worker] comes in at 10:30am or 11am. We decide on what needs to be done. We rarely work past 5pm. We’re pretty efficient. We make decisions. I look at the agency system, and it’s such a waste. That’s why people like Time magazine come to us. They know they can give it to us on a Wednesday, and it will be done on Friday.

So how early do you get your start? ‘Early’ is a relative term.

It depends. Usually between 4:30am-6:00am. It’s a good time for me to write, and to have some quiet time, and to catch up on emails and things that need to be done. Or get a lot of sketching done.
We’re like the army. We get more work done by 9am than most people do in a full day.

So you keep to a pretty regular schedule. What do you do when a client emails you wanting something, and you’ve already knocked off for the day?

Chris laughs about how we give them the ‘stiff arm’ – it’s Tony Heisman running through the crowd [Victore makes the sound of a football player knocking guys down]. This isn’t necessarily the word I want to use, but you have to ‘end train’ people. We know the difference between urgent and important and not everything is urgent.

You mentioned “making decisions” earlier as part of the way you function efficiently. Do you think a lot of people get bogged down by that?

Part of the problem these days is there’s so much choice. At some point, someone just has to say: We’re going to do it like this because I want to do it this way. Because, if you don’t, you’re going to be churning out oatmeal. You look at some graphic design today, and you can tell that nobody is in charge.

You’ve been doing a few little films for the book release. Is that new territory? How did they come about?

The publisher wanted a little flat, static image for the book for the website. We weren’t really feeling that. [He plays me the promo video that they made.] So this is a great example of how we work. We had 5 minutes to think about it. So we said let’s get out of here. Let’s go under the Bodhi tree where genius is. So we went around the corner to the Italian restaurant, had a pizza and a bottle of wine, and halfway through we said: “You know what would be really funny? A book with chickens walking around on it.”
You look at some graphic design today, and you can tell that nobody is in charge.
So we come back to the studio, and Chris calls Iowa. “Do you have chicks? Yeah, we have chicks. How much are they? $34 for a dozen. Excellent, we’ll take a dozen chicks.” So that’s Thursday afternoon. They say they’ll be hatched by Tuesday, and then they’ll ship them. The next Thursday I get a call from the post office, “You have a perishable package here.” So I’m standing in line, and I hear “cheep cheep, cheep cheep.”

That must have been a neat experience.

Yeah, and we have a story – more than just making some little thing. So I called Chris and said, “Chicks are here, we need a tripod, a video camera, and some barbeque sauce.” So we shot the thing in the afternoon. I kept them one more day, because I wanted to be with them. And we learned how to feed and care for them. Then Saturday morning we took them to McCarren Park and handed them off to a farmer who will raise them. That’s how we do stuff. We just make it up.

You have this quotation on your book cover from William James, “Distraction is the most corrosive disease of the 20th century.” Why’d you choose that?

Distraction today is this [points to my iPhone, which is recording our conversation]. I believe that these things are killing our discipline, killing our ability for solitude, and killing our ability to be bored. Children need to learn how to be bored. They don’t need to be entertained all the time.

So you like time away from computers. Do you do all of your sketching and writing on paper?

Paper, and not in the studio. I’ll go to a bar or a restaurant. When I did the book, I left the studio every morning and I went to the park and sat for an hour, hour and half. I brought an idea, and I wrote longhand in one of these big sketchbooks. Then I would come into the studio and work during the day. Afterwards, at 4 or 5 o’clock, I’d go to my bar, sit with a beer or two, and refine it. Or write on a new idea. So it became this really nice process of every day. And it became a habit. I can’t do the think-work in the studio. The studio’s for putting stuff together – for work-work. And if we’re not doing work-work, then we leave. How many great architecture ideas have been drawn on napkins? Because they’re free, they’re not thinking about work.
iPhones are killing our discipline, killing our ability for solitude, and killing our ability to be bored.

And it’s fast, right? We’re obsessed with efficiency, and sometimes we forget how much faster drawing is.

My third students [at SVA] aren’t allowed to use computers. It really frustrates them because they don’t know how to use their hands. But I say listen, I know how much time it takes to boot up a computer, and open InDesign, and you get a box, and you type a letter in it. And you make it this big. Then you make it this big. Then you make it this big. Then you make it this big. Then you move it over here. Then you make it red. Then you make it this big. And it’s like: You’re not designing! You’re organizing. That’s easy. Worry about that later. And this is stuff I learned from heroes. It’s the work you do before you ever put pen to paper. That’s the important part.

Is there anything else you tell your students?

Being conscious of your habits is one – and creating good habits. Being conscious of your peers, the people you’re around. You know, there are some people in your life who are like zombies [Victore raises his arms straight out, speaks in monotone] “Be like us…” and they are some people who are good for you. So you have to look around every once in a while and take stock. You might even be married to a zombie!

More about Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

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