Creativity, Collaboration and Career Success: Q&A with Gail Anderson

By Robert Half on October 1, 2014 at 7:00am

Famed designer and typographer Gail Anderson has cracked the code to career success – and collaboration is key.

Gail Anderson's success can be attributed to her incredible design talent, but also her unique ability to work well with others. She's known for creating iconic editorial designs for Rolling Stone and memorable posters and identity systems for famous Broadway shows. She's also cowritten several typography books with Steven Heller. In 2008, Anderson received an AIGA Medal, the highest recognition for achievement in the field of graphic design.

Read on to learn how creativity, collaboration, craft and a penchant for collecting have elevated every facet of Anderson's career.

What is your earliest creative memory and how has it manifested in your professional career?

My earliest memories are of drawing on my Magic Slate, an acetate-covered grey film that you erased once you were finished with a drawing. Not to be confused with Etch-a-Sketch, Magic Slates were cheap, had themes like Bugs Bunny or The Archies, and wore out pretty quickly.

It was a little sad to erase a masterpiece when you were ready to get started on a new one. But they were far less expensive for my mom than sketchpads, though as I got older, I did have some of those, too. Drawing on a surface that didn't allow you to keep your artwork taught me that nothing was precious. That was a good lesson that came into play years later when I went to work at The Boston Globe. Ronn Campisi, our design director, said that the paper was fish wrap the next day, and he was right.

When I travel across the timeline of your career, there appears to be a passion for collaboration. What are the keys to successful collaboration and why has it been so integral to your success?

Gail Anderson worked with Antonio Alcalá and Jim Sherraden on this striking Emancipation Proclamation stamp.

I learn from everyone I collaborate with, and those seeds were planted in Boston, during my Globe days. I worked alongside Lynn Staley, and she was both nurturing and generous in the ways she allowed me to design with her. I never felt like I was out there alone. Several years later, at Rolling Stone, I got to work with probably the best editorial designer in the country, Fred Woodward. Because of my collaborations with Lynn, I was comfortable sharing, being sensitive to my boss's needs, and eager to learn more. Working with Fred was rewarding and just plain old fun – it doesn't get better than that.

It's also less stressful to collaborate; another person shares the burden of solving a problem with you. In the end, it's simply more enjoyable to work with someone you like and respect than to toil away all by yourself. Those many years with Fred made collaborating with Steven Heller on book projects a no-brainer. And it allowed me to work with Antonio Alcalá from the United States Postal Service and Jim Sherraden from Hatch Show Print to finalize the design of the Emancipation Proclamation stamp with no egos involved. It was our project, not mine.

I'm currently collaborating with designer Joe Newton on projects ranging from book jackets to outdoor installations. I'm at my best working with other people, whether it's illustrators, art directors or designers. The key to that success is mutual respect, as corny as that sounds, and a willingness to take a few risks in the development of the work. It's made me a better designer, and a better person – I hope.

You teach a course at the School of Visual Arts called Just Type. How important is craft and process in developing a young designer's ability to see, especially in a digital world where communications can be delivered in 140 characters or less?

Craft is still crucial, no matter what age group you're working with. I teach in the MFA Design Department Designer as Author/Entrepreneur program at SVA, as well as undergrad and pre-college classes. Getting students to slow down and try lots of directions with their typography is not easy since the tendency is to scroll through what you see on screen and just select a font.

Process is still relevant. When working digitally, it's too easy to go right to what you think is the finish line. I feel like there has to be that initial step of working with your hands, if only to create the roughest of pencil sketches. I'm sure there will be plenty of young designers who'd disagree with me – it's probably an age thing. I didn't grow up tethered to a monitor. It all seems so fluid for those who did; I'm in awe.

What new projects are fueling your creativity?

Gail Anderson and frequent collaborator Steven Heller recently released the book, "The Typographic Universe."

Steven Heller and I are currently working on two books about graphic design and typography. Another collaboration of ours titled The Typographic Universe was just released. I'm also writing my first solo effort titled A Catalog of Hand-Drawn Packaging for Princeton Architectural Press. Joe Newton and I are designing a book for the State Department, which is a whole new area for us. And, of course, school is back in session and I've returned to teaching at SVA. After more than 20 years in the classroom, I continue to be greatly inspired by my students.

I'm happiest juggling several projects and classes, even though it's pretty exhausting. The variety of jobs that Joe and I have done together these last two years has been energizing and challenging. We'd both like to try our collective hand at academic branding, so maybe that'll happen at some point. It would be fun to do packaging, too. I like being busy.

Me too. I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I wasn't busy. So, I've been dying to ask you, what's on the horizon in typographic design?

I initially thought the hand-drawn type thing was a trend that was ready to wane once it began appearing in advertising. But now I'm thinking that the authenticity it brings to projects makes it more of a movement than a trend. Perhaps I've just been looking at so much of it since I've been researching A Catalog of Hand-Drawn Packaging that it feels like part of the zeitgeist, but I really believe that to be the case. There's some beautiful work out there.

You're known for collecting all sorts of interesting objects like salt and pepper shakers, bottle caps, cast iron toys, and botanica candles. If all those personal treasures were sealed in a 100-year time capsule, what message would they convey in telling your story?

All that stuff, ugh, I'm such a pack rat. I thought that I was over the whole collecting thing, and then I discovered the candles and herbal remedies about three years ago. I've stopped buying them, but still try to find the local botanica in every city I visit. I guess the message in my time capsule is clearly "Gail Anderson: hoarder!"

If you could have coffee with up-and-coming print and editorial designers and give them career advice, what would you share?

Would you believe I've never had a cup of coffee in my life? And not for any real reason other than that no one ever offered me one when I was young, and I figured I had enough vices as I got older. So, if I could have tea with up-and-coming print and editorial designers, I'd tell them to make sure they have a little interactive or motion experience in their toolboxes. They shouldn't limit themselves solely to print, even though that's my first love. And I'd tell them to make sure to take a little time off to travel. I don't know what I was thinking all these years of never taking a vacation.


Images courtesy of Gail Anderson.

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