[The following is taken from the book Inspirability (HOW Books, written by Pash, spring 2005), which proposes "What inspires you? This was the question asked of forty of the world's top designers," including Milton Glaser, Chip Kidd, Stefan Sagmeister. I think it's a priviledge to be lumped in with Glaser, but am not so stupid as to consider myself one of the U.S.'s top forty designers, let alone the world.]
Design shaman Marc English is an Austin, Texas designer, author, and educator. His studio, Marc English Design, creates visual communications for a wide variety of clients in the U.S. and abroad. A quick example of Marc's personality, via a simple summary of 72 hours with him in Hawaii this spring - Evening 1: Marc pulls me and Seattle-based designer Terry Marks up on stage with him in front of a crowd of about 100 students and design professionals to air-band wearing Mexican wrestler masks. Evening 2: Marc, Terry, and I and two non-English speaking Japanese girls Marc had managed to entrance [only because I had a ukulelel] spend a hilarious and fun evening exploring Honolulu. Evening 3: Marc stands me up for dinner-because he was in an emergency room having 37 stitches sewn in his leg after being swept off some jagged rocks he had hiked out onto on Oahu's north shore. Does this say "free spirit" to anyone? Marc is an exercise in adventure, creative spirit, and wonder.
ME Ten years ago - I can remember it very clearly - whenever people would ask me where I got my inspiration, I started telling them that I would try to get as far away from design as possible. The big thing for me was to go out for a hike, climb a mountain, stuff like that. And the idea really was satisfying curiosity. To always try to see what was on the other side. And that curiosity I've had has taken me to all kinds of different, wonderful places. You know me, I've been collecting sand and soils on my travels for a number of years. I love that. I love knowing that different villages have different colors of clothing, and understanding that identity is not a logo, that each village, each community has their own identity. So that's the stuff I've been into for the longest time. And now it's just second nature to me. So the funny thing is, I don't even think about graphic design anymore. I love it, but I don't care about it.
P Design is more instinctual to you now.
ME Exactly, it's just become instinct. Whereas the more important thing has become those big picture issues that people have addressed for thousands of years. I remember reading, several years ago, Aristotle talking about balance in our lives. He talked about courage, and how it was in the middle of recklessness and cowardice. Because to the coward, any bit of courage is reckless. And to the reckless person, anything less than recklessness is cowardice. So the things I think about now are these age-old human issues, and the first of those for me is courage. Then comes integrity, and honesty, and truthfulness. And on top of it all, passion for what you're doing.
The designers who are doing the finest work - just like the best bakers, or doctors, or firemen - they care about what they're doing. They love what they're doing, what they're creating. At the end of the day, they're not doing their job first for others, they’re doing it first for themselves. Whenever I'm talking to students or I'm giving a lecture I always try to emphasize the importance of creation. The first book of the I Ching is about The Creative. The fifth word in the bible is "created." "In the beginning, God created . . . ." Well, why did God create? You know why?
P Because God was a designer!
ME Exactly! Because God was a designer. Because God wanted to create, needed to create. Many schools of theology place emphasis on the creative.
P I'm curious, would you say that this is something you've come to think about differently the older you've gotten?
ME Well, sure. I may have refined my thinking from ten, twenty years ago. I mean I certainly have. But that means that I expect more of myself. There's nobody harder on me than I am. No one - including my clients - could be as hard on me as I am. Therefore I expect a lot from them. But the older I get - and the better I get - I expect better clients. And that doesn't always happen.
But it goes back to "why do we create?" Artists will create for themselves. Designers often get caught up in the notion of problems to solve. And that probably explains why I like designing my own self-promotional stuff best. Not that it's all about, "hey look at me!" It's because the one story I know best is my own. The one I'm the most passionate about is my own. Simple human nature.
P Well then, what are the kinds of projects or clients that come along that do excite you or inspire you? What makes a really great client? Is it about the content, is it about the people? What do you respond to most?
ME That's such a great question. I wish I could say that it's always the content, but it's not. Our work relies on internal business mechanisms, and ultimately we can't control them. I feel if I can work with people who have found a way to raise the bar in their industry, then that's great. The reality of our world and of what we do is it's so often just about rising above mediocrity. If you can take a client above the mean within their industry, that's fantastic. Now that still may not be above the mean within all the design that's being done, but that's why I don't think with every project, "hey, how can I rock the world of design?" That's not what it's about. It's about trying to tell a client's story as honestly and powerfully as possible, and find a way to really get it heard. I guess the projects that come across my desk that I care the most about are the ones that have to do with film or literature or music. And that certainly doesn't mean that they're going to be either the most well paid or the highest profile. They're the closest to my heart because that's the stuff I was raised on. I was raised on listening to music, reading books, and watching films.
P Are those mediums that you still go to now for escape or recreation when you're not hiking and you're not working?
ME Oh absolutely. I mean, I grew up watching Lawrence of Arabia, which brought me to the Sahara. And look at how that has influenced my work. Watching Casablanca brought me to Casablanca. And both of those films drove me to read certain books. One got me to read Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence - which is a brilliant book - as well as Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands, an account of the Arabian Empty Quarter in the 1940s, or of the travels of Ibn Battouta, a 14th-century world traveler from Tangiers. Casablanca got me to read the biography of Humphrey Bogart. Who in his time was a brilliant artist who had a very specific kind of integrity. He stood up against blacklisting.
One of the earliest books I ever got had an unbelievably huge impact on me. When I was ten I got a copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey. So much of what I do goes back to those books. Each of them is about heroic struggles. And they both had certain maps of the world that allowed me to go beyond my little ten-year-old's world. And you know, with The Odyssey, while it may be the story of a ten-year journey, a ten-year struggle of hardships like we all deal with on a daily basis, the reason it still resonates is because it's a love story. It's about a guy going home to his wife and kid. And that's what we do at the end of the day if we're lucky. We go home to our wife and kid. If not, it's still the struggle. Still between a rock and a hard place. And in the meantime, trying to just get up and do your job - whether you're a plumber, whether you're cutting lawns or you're a politician or a graphic designer - it takes integrity and honor. Which means for us that we have to understand the honor of every project and every client, and we have to understand the integrity of every typeface and every layout. And knowing that - and feeling it and doing it - is the only way to go to bed at night and know you've tried your best.
I am writing because some words that you wrote in the inspired green book have had an impact on my life. I have been practicing design for over 15 years, very locked, lethargic by of my own fear of being creative, to the point of thinking in quitting and leave all this love for creation behind, today walking with nothing in my mind other than getting a coffee I stopped at a library and as usual I browsed the design section and found this book, I got touched by key works from all of you, but I am writing to you because was in you profile that I found humanity integrated with design, I mean, you give it a spiritual purpose, a meaning in transforming this worlds and inspiring others. This almost made me cry, it suddenly touched my heart, I realized the purpose of what I do and why I should be doing it.
[a Columbian national living in Toronto]