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‘Embrace history. Embrace the future’

5 July 2023
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Gail Anderson, former Senior Art Director at Rolling Stone, told Galway why “persistence” and “hard work” are the keys to a “long career”. By Kernan Andrews


As the Institute of Designers in Ireland expands its reach across the regions, IDI and Design Skillnet were delighted to partner with Design West to host two events, bringing international talent and inspiration to as broad a range of designers as possible. 


The first event, held in Dublin on 22nd June saw US-based designer and awarded educator Gail Anderson in conversation with Ireland’s own designer and illustrator Grace Enemaku, founder of IDI’s DesignOpp initiative. Using Design Skillnet’s platform as a backdrop, together they charted their own career stories, identifying parallels between their experiences as women of colour working in design. 


Gail Anderson in Galway in partnership with Design West, IDI, Design Skillnet


The second event, held in Galway on June 26th and supported by the Galway Culture Company saw Gail delve deeper into her formative influences and mentors, and the insights she has gained across more than 40 years as a professional creative and educator for the School of Visual Arts, New York. 


“Persistence and hard work are as vital as talent when it comes to a long career in design.”

Having attended the Galway event, Kernan Andrews writes: Persistence and hard work are as vital as talent when it comes to a long career in design, while constantly “reassessing your approach” will allow a designer to remain relevant.


These were among the thoughts on design discussed by Gail Anderson, the American designer, writer, educator, and former Senior Art Director at Rolling Stone magazine, who was in Galway on June 26.


In a wide-ranging, and engaging talk, the New Yorker spoke about her design career, formative influences and mentors, and the insights she has gained across more than 40 years as a professional creative.


Ms. Anderson’s passion for design began in childhood with her love of children’s picture books, and continued into adolescence with Jazz LP covers, Archie comics, and the “typeface and colours” of teen magazines.

“‘What is this? Who made it?’, I would ask,” she told the audience. “‘Who gets to do this for a living?’ This was design and writing. ‘Who gets to combine these?’”


A seminal influence on Ms. Anderson was the leading American designer, Milton Glaser, who she got to know while attending NY’s School of Visual Arts. His famous quote – “The real issue is not talent as an independent element, but talent in relationship to will, desire, and persistence. Talent without these things vanishes and even modest talent with those characteristics grows” – has been a guiding principle throughout her life.

“The students with loads of talent, you know they’re going to be rock stars,” she said. “The students with a modicum of talent, but who are persistent and are hard workers, they’re the ones that make you go, ‘Ah! There’s something there.’ It’s my job now to find them and help them blossom because hard workers get ahead.”

“Design can date very quickly.”

Working in Rolling Stone saw her design a variety of covers for the magazine, as well as provide illustrations for articles. “It’s work I am still proud of,” she said. “It never felt too trendy and so it never became too dated.”

She cited this approach as a key element of good design, and quoted the designer and educator Paula Scher, on the importance of finding ways “that are new, yet still reflective of one’s core ethic”.

“Design can date very quickly,” Ms. Anderson said, “so you have to keep reassessing your approach. There is a value to being scared and being aware of when you are coasting.”

“Embrace history. Embrace the future”

She recommended that designers, “Embrace history. Embrace the future”, by keeping up to date with technology as “technology is always changing” – she noted when she started at Rolling Stone, things “were done mechanically. Later I was one of the first staff to use a Mac. The move through technology never phased me” – while her own work at the SVA teaching student designers, “keeps me young”.

“Allow the client into the design process”.

Another mentor was SpotCo president, Drew Hodges, who encouraged her to “allow the client into the design process”, and where necessary, to let them “take the credit for the design idea”. She spoke of the value of presenting numerous ideas, even partial or incomplete ones, and getting the client’s direct input. While she admitted that letting clients take credit for ideas could be irritating, it did encourage repeat business and trust in the designer.

Ms. Anderson treated the audience to displays of her numerous designs for musical theatre, magazines, book covers, and a special stamp to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. “The biggest and smallest thing I have ever done,” she declared.


Gail Anderson's Work for Rolling Stones

“You’re never there as just a designer. You have to be a Swiss Army knife.”

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Anderson cited Zhipeng Zhu, Rian Hughes, and Jerry Crake as examples of exciting new designers, noting that Crake began to design in his 50s. “Don’t think you are over if you haven’t made it by your 20s or 30s,” she said.

She also advised young designers on the importance of “soft skills”, such as “speaking clearly and convincingly”; the importance of “good writing skills, and being conscious of copy editing”, as well as business skills such as the ones we facilitate via Design Skillnet such as “knowing how to ask for more money”, sell yourself and services as a designer and so on. Her 31 years old teaching at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and as a design educator also taught her the importance of defending and critiquing work and keeping yourself on your toes while she witnessed and kept up with new trends, she said.

As Gail said “You’re never there as just a designer. You have to be a Swiss Army knife.”

However, she added that downtime is equally important for a designer’s creativity and career. “Go see the world,” she said. “Take time off. You come back a better designer. You think everything will fall apart if you’re not there. It won’t!”


These events were brought to you thanks to FLOWthe IDI and Design Skillnet’s online tool to support designers and employers through their career journeys and by Design West and Galway Culture Company, Galway Chamber and Creative Ireland.

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