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Jan. 11, 2006

The Guy Who Designed The Works
Worked Really Hard And It Works

Posted by Eva

We were psyched about Kate Ascher's book, The Works, just because it appealed to our geekier side. But then we remembered our job, and we got psyched about the more graphic design side. So we tracked down the book's designer, Alexander Isley (who runs an eponymous firm), and asked him a couple questions.

UB: What's your graphic design background?

AI: I graduated from The Cooper Union; my first job was Sr. Designer at M&Co. I then went on to be the first full-time art director of Spy magazine. I founded my own studio in 1988. I'm presently critic at Yale graduate school of Art and president of AIGA (The Professional Association for Design (!)) New York.

UB: How did you get involved in The Works?

AI: We were originally approached a couple of years ago to do the book. We were called in by the publisher, and Kate and I hit it off—both issues of infrastructure and the transmission of complicated ideas to normal people interest me tremendously. Sorry, geeky it is. I showed her things I loved; Herbert Bayer's World Geographic Atlas from 1953, phone books, old diagrams, etc. and we really seemed to be enthusiastic about the same things. I walked out of the meeting feeling such a connection and with such good feelings that I knew we had the job. So, of course, they gave it to someone else. Quite disappointing, but one has to move on. Lo and behold, a year later they called back and said that it had not worked out with the other designer and would we be interested in doing the book? (Note: this NEVER happens in real life.) So we said yes. At this point, the time had been used up and the whole thing had to be written and designed in about six months. Crazy.

UB: A great thing about the book is how thoroughly clear and lucid everything is, both in terms of the words and the pictures. How did you go about reducing such complex operations into such readable design?

AI: This was an amazing project to work on, mostly because Kate is so great. She and her reseachers had been working on gathering material for about 4 years, and had 15 thick binders full of source material. It was our job to work with her to figure out how to put this into a form that made sense. We assembled a team of a dozen or so illustrators and established a style guide to ensure that the rendering styles would be similar. We then sketched out the entire book, working with Kate to envision how the material could be rendered and laid out. Once we decided on content and subject matter, we commissioned the illustrations and then Kate wrote the text. Kind of a backward way compared compared with how most books are put together, but in this case the system worked well. At one point we had four designers working on the book along with an art director, managing director, and "illustration wrangler".

UB: Have you done any projects that you think were good practice for something of this scale?

AI: Not really; we've done quite a few books but nothing that required this amount of complex coordination with so many players. But we have, however, done a lot of projects that were new experiences and I kind of thrive on being terrified and having to think my way through a problem.



UB: What kind of projects do you typically do?

AI: I founded my studio to do as many cool different things as possible. I know it's good business practice to stake out a specialty and then specialize in it, but I find the prospect of doing that so excruciating that I find it difficult to even type these words. Having said that, we do focus on doing work for cultural, architectural, and fashion clients. And sometimes they overlap!

UB: My favorite part of the works is the journey of a carrot. What's yours?

AI: I do like saying "hump yard," but my favorite part has to be knowing for sure that fewer than 25% of the buttons you push to change the "Walk/Don't Walk" signs are disconnected, but they are still there because it costs the city $400 per intersection to remove them.

UB: What was the biggest struggle you faced?

AI: Scheduling. We had to get this out in time for the holiday 2005 season and, as I mentioned, it gave us six months to envision, write, design, commission, and make final artwork for the book. In the world of publishing this is head-spinningly fast. The editor, Ann Godoff at Penguin, has saintly wisdom and patience.

UB: What are you working on next?

AI: My wonderful team and I are working on the 20th anniversary anthology of Spy magazine, for Miramax Books, which is quite a trip down memory lane. It makes me feel old but happy that I'm a pack rat. We just finished doing the typographic design and inscriptions for New Jersey's 9/11 memorial, designed by Fred Schwartz, and are working on the signage and advertising for The Octagon, a luxury residential building on Roosevelt Island that used to be a mental hospital. We're also doing packaging for Elizabeth Arden Spa hair products and a new identity for the VH-1 Save the Music foundation, work for Chevron's Technology Ventures Group, and branding and identity work for The Actors' Fund of America, an amazing organization. It's quite a mix, but I have a short attention span—and I am psyched about coming in to work every day. Also, I love getting paid to learn new stuff.

© 2006 Inc.

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