In the early ’90s, the graphic design landscape was undergoing a dramatic shift. Desktop publishing was in its infancy and everyone was making it up as they went along—some better than others—while trying to keep up with the new technology and software. Then in 2000, the dotcom bubble burst, and in 2008 the worst recession since the Great Depression hit. Many studios weathered the storm, while others simply closed shop.
Here, we talk with the survivors of the past few decades, many of whom have reimagined their careers, and in some cases, started new vocations altogether.
Cahan & Associates, 1984 – 2009
Remember when “annual reports” was an actual category in design competitions? No? Well, I do, and Cahan & Associates always earned top honors and swept the category. Bill Cahan and his designers changed the game when it came to designing the dreadful annual report. But, in 2009, Cahan closed shop after a near-death illness. As he says, “After 25 years of working like a maniac, I saw the illness and the economy crashing as a sign from the universe to change my life. I let go of everyone in my company and gave all the work we had to two associates, who started their own firm, with the caveat that they rehire everyone.”
He took a year off to reassess his life and get healthy, and in the process ended up meeting his future wife, and eventually having a son with her in 2011. Cahan also co-founded a nonprofit called NARPP, to help advocate for individual savers by creating a universal savings plan to help people get access to a 401k plan.
“The changes over the last 20 years have inspired me to shift my priorities. It started with a thought of how can we harness the power of design to solve big social challenges that can impact people’s lives in meaningful ways? And that lead to me working with an interdisciplinary team of experts in communication theory, behavioral finance, and choice architecture who collectively have a deep understanding of the behavioral and cognitive barriers to people making decisions in their best interests,” he explains. “I have seen the impact of this kind of work, and believe this shift could be a requirement for more effective design in the 21st century.”
And Cahan adds, “On a personal note, when I am not working, I am with my family. Being a stay at home dad and husband has been humbling and challenging in the best of ways—I am learning to listen more and talk less.”
AdamsMorioka, 1994 to 2014
Sean Adams, Noreen Morioka
“In 1994, when we started AdamsMorioka, our goal was to clean up the world, make design accessible, and focus on optimism,” notes Adams. And they did. Their work for Sundance, Nickelodeon, and Disney, to name a few, was bold and bright in a time when much of the design was going dark and goth. The duo was covered extensively in trade publications, they were traveling and speaking about their work, and winning design awards.
They were not only busy running their own successful agency, but selflessly supporting and serving their professions, with Adams serving more than two terms as the National AIGA president, and Morioka as AIGA Los Angeles president. Adams had also started teaching design at ArtCenter, and he fell in love with it. It was too much of a good thing and something had to give. Late in 2014, Adams and Morioka went their separate ways.
Adams is now Executive Director of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, and he teaches online courses for Lynda.com/LinkedInLearning. Design education is his passion, and he sees so much potential in design thinking and how it can change the world. “I want designers to be the people in the room who see the big picture and challenge the status quo, not merely the person who can make a pretty logo. A software program or new technology can’t replace smart thinking and real innovation,” Adams notes. He also runs his studio, Burning Settlers Cabin and has written several books.
Morioka became a partner and creative strategist with her wife, Nicole Jacek at NJ(L.A.). But she has a very different perspective than when she was at AdamsMorioka. “There is a very obvious sexist perception about a women-owned company from clients and peers,” Morioka notes. “Nicole and I were surprised that most potential clients would expect a male team member to handle the financial and contract needs. Even more alarming was the perception that women creatives could only handle ‘boutique’ projects.” As a veteran designer, she had hoped that the industry had moved past this. “Not only do we need to be aware that our profession does this, but we need to stop pretending that it will eventually go away. Better yet, we need to give more opportunities to women so their successes can evolve and eliminate this sexist perception,” she says.
They recently left Los Angeles, and moved to Portland, Ore., to lead the design studio at Wieden+Kennedy. “Nicole and I never thought in a million years that we would leave the warm weather of L.A., but W+K team have their own unique way of turning up the heat with their talent and thinking.”
Art Director, Ray Gun magazine 1992 – 1995
Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Carson became the poster boy for breaking the rules in graphic design for his misappropriation of type and images as art director of Ray Gun magazine in the early 90s. People either loved or hated it, which was just fine with Carson. He did what he wanted to do and picked up many design awards along the way. In 2014, he was awarded the AIGA Medal for his unique design signature and his influence on the next generation of designers. Carson is still doing design his way and staying close to the beach so he can surf when the tide is right.
Much of his work of late reflects his passion and respect for the ocean and its wildlife. He recently created posters for Kill the Fin Trade, whose mission is to ban the shark fin trade in Australia, and he’s designing a line of surfboards for Starboard. The trademark Carson influence is evident in his designs. You can see the thought process and deliberation in his work, and it’s something he doesn’t take for granted, although he thinks a lot of designers aren’t using their heads enough. “There’s a gentrification of design,” he says. “Software and computers continue to make designers lazy, letting the computer make decisions for them. This will only get worse as large scale projects are in beta testing right now, and that will eliminate a lot of current design jobs.”
Jennifer Sterling has worked on both coasts, designing for clients in a variety of industries including fashion, editorial, luxury goods, and high tech. She is known for weaving textural images and typography in interesting ways to create depth and discourse. Unfortunately, many thought she took it too far in the 2001 AIGA 365 Annual, and she experienced a profound backlash from her peers for the way she portrayed the images. “I cropped the images to show why a piece was lovely. All annuals had been, to this point, a cover and a spread which really showed you nothing,” she explains. “I wanted the end reader to see the remarkable use of tactile devices, if that was what was prevalent, or the lovely calligraphy, or the juxtaposition of photography. It was all to honor these designers, many of whom were my heroes.” Needless to say, she wasn’t prepared for the reaction she received. Today, this design would be praised for its ingenuity.
Since then, she has worked on many life-changing campaigns including branding for “Vital Voices,” a non-governmental organization to promote female ambassadorships founded by Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright, and an online interactive piece for Yahoo to deliver the AIDs vaccine to third-world countries. Currently, Sterling is based in New York City, still experimenting with typography and seeing how far she can push it using technology. “While my firm has spanned two decades I have witnessed a great deal. The Internet eliminated a major constraint to accessing and sharing knowledge. Because it is in the hands of 3 billion people worldwide in the form of portable devices, it has also eliminated the need for a central or permanent location for creating and organizing information. This and the staggering advances in media compression has made innovation in all fields (not just design) quicker and easier to build on,” she says. “As far as challenges for the future the design arena has ultimately been responsible for one of two things: The product or the message. As AI (artificial intelligence) and VR (virtual reality) become more commonplace in society the questions and responsibilities of how and why will become more necessary, both as a consumer and as an innovator or citizen.”
Sayles Graphic Design 1985- 2008
John Sayles and Sheree Clark
Des Moines, Iowa
J. Sayles Design 2009 – present
This Midwest firm grew fast and steady in the ’80s and ’90s. John Sayles had the creative chops, and Sheree Clark ran the business side, wrangling new clients and nurturing those relationships. As a team, they were unstoppable … until the economy crashed in 2008. “We found our clients downsizing. The contacts we had established over the years were being let go. It became apparent we had to re-establish our approach and our connections,” Sayles explains. “Sheree and I had to face that the business could no longer support the overhead of the business, which included seven employees.” They closed SGD. Clark shifted gears to pursue her new passion which revolved around nutrition and healthy eating. Sayles took time to “breathe and reset” before starting over as a one-man shop, J. Sayles Design.
In addition to his agency, in 2015 he started a vodka company called Swell. It’s now the second fastest growing Iowa Spirits company, due in large part to Sayle’s branding expertise. “This is what I have been doing for more than 25 years. I know how to market and promote a product without spending millions of dollars.”
Clark’s journey is quite different. She’s gone from running a design business, to helping people design better lives for themselves. “Fork in the Road [her business] is truly a crescendo of all my life experiences. I work with clients to problem-solve, and ultimately to transform their health, reclaim vitality and mental focus, and help ensure they gain clarity on their vision and purpose. These are all things I have done for myself over the course of the last six-plus decades of life.”
Oh Boy, 1994 – 2002
Oh Boy Artifacts, 2001 – present
Oh Boy, founded by David Salanitro, was one of the hottest agencies in the late 90s producing elegant corporate communications and branding materials for companies like Mohawk Paper, Schwab, and West Coast Industries. In 2001, he launched Oh Boy Artifacts, a beautiful collection of high-end notebooks, journals, gift wrap and other fine paper products. These coveted items were an instant hit and designers couldn’t wait to get their hands on them. But, just as quickly as the Artifacts collection came on the scene, the agency was struggling. “Nearing the end of 2001, the recession came upon us, and the studio quite suddenly shed its clients,” Salanitro says. Artifacts carried the studio for a little while, but it wasn’t enough, so he closed shop and moved to the East Coast to continue the Artifacts collection.
He took some time off to reflect, read, and write. In the ensuing years, he returned to the West Coast and lectured at the Academy of Art University, then he moved to Chicago to work for Avenue as the executive creative director, and then ended up in his hometown, Fresno, Calif., where he currently resides. Lucky for us, he’s launching a new Artifacts collection in 2018 through Kickstarter.
“This time I see it differently, I see that it can be important,” he says, adding, “There is a certain beauty evident in a thing by the measure of care people invest in it. It’s a simple if/then equation: if we care enough about what we make, if we go all in and put the whole of our capacity into it and consider it in a larger context—the way something catches the light, the grain of its surface—then others too will pause and take notice. The consideration I give to a simple thing like a notebook, or our part in grander gestures that inspire people to forgo the paper sack and return to wrapping gifts, is evidence of that care that we pass along. I don’t want to sell paper, I want to bring back the sense of event to gift giving and encourage people to pause and grin and share a few extra moments of appreciation—of one another. … The ground is shifting. More people are trying to take better care. We are trying to craft our lives in ways that allow us to recognize beauty and smile. I’m in this for the grins.”
Modern Dog 1987 – present
Robynne Raye & Michael Strassburger
Every designer in the ’90s envied Modern Dog, led by Robynne Raye and Michael Strassburger. They designed posters for local theater companies and musicians such as Liz Phair, The Pretenders, Better than Ezra, and The Roots, among others. They made it look so cool and easy. “I think at one time—in the ’90s— we were working for five different theaters in Seattle,” Raye recalls. “There’s a very small percentage of people that go to live theater, and it was weird for us, because we were trying to get the same people to the different theaters. We were essentially competing against ourselves in this genre, and we wondered why they didn’t just hire other designers. That was very strange.”
Things sailed smoothly through the early 2000s, as well. In fact, in 2007, the Louvre requested five Modern Dog posters for its permanent art collection. Raye and Strassburger couldn’t believe it! Then in 2011, everything changed. One of their designs was ripped off and repurposed on Disney merchandise sold at Target. The two decided to sue the big corporations for copyright infringement—perhaps against their better judgment. To pay their attorneys, they sold the Modern Dog building, let go of the few employees they had, and moved the business into Raye’s basement. Although they eventually won their case, it took three years and nearly bankrupted them. Modern Dog is now a part-time venture, with its principals taking on new roles.
“I do about 8 -12 projects a year,” Raye says. “Currently I’m rebranding a small hair salon, designing a poster, and conducting a workshop at Amazon. I divide my time between teaching at two Seattle Colleges—Cornish College of the Arts (Jan. 2000 to present) and Seattle Central College (April 2015 – Present)—and doing design work through Modern Dog.”
Since 2012, Strassburger has worked full time at the Seattle Aquarium. He is still technically Vice President of Modern Dog, though he is not involved in the day-to-day activities. He also has a new company called Living Fancy. “I’m not the young buck I used to be, and after decades as co-founder of Modern Dog helping design products for clients like Blue Q, I needed to settle things down a bit,” he explains. “The most natural evolution for me was to start my own line of products as Living Fancy. Now I am my own product developer, art director, and designer! I can’t help it. I just love doing this stuff.”