Interview by Moxie Sozo

Alexander Isley
8 Times Design Got Me out of a Jam

Share This Post
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Reddit

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Designer Alexander Isley knows this all too well. As a kid, he warded off a bully with an effective, albeit painful, design solution that kept the kid at bay the rest of the school year (the story is included below). Survival of the fittest through design.

Share This Post
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Reddit

This creative ingenuity developed and deepened as he matured, designing new life skills to live by. With a degree in Environmental Design, he started his career at the legendary M&Co., under Tibor Kalman. He went on to be the first full-time art director of Spy magazine (hailed as “a piece of garbage” by Donald Trump). In 1988, he founded Alexander Isley Inc. in New York City. Isley and his staff now work out of a converted barn in Redding, Connecticut.

Here, the AIGA Medalist walks us through the many ways he has redefined, repurposed, and refocused expectations through design … and how to have some fun in the process.


1. A Design to Get the Most out of Beige

When we designed packaging for A|X: Armani Exchange, we were told that “Mr. Armani will only accept beige.” Designers always love dealing with constraints, but how could we keep our work from being bland? We decided to focus on the details by paying a lot of attention to materials. We had custom-formulated recycled beige paper made at a mill in Virginia, used off-the-shelf clothesline for handles, punched industrial-style air holes in the boxes, and sewed the bottoms of the shopping bags the way they do with fertilizer sacks. Mr. Armani got his beige and we got to have some fun.


2. A Design to Circumvent Annoying Regulations

A couple of years ago we were developing a donor recognition wall for the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University. We discovered University rules stipulate that all levels of donors have to be presented with the same size lettering. How could we show different amounts of giving while making all names the same size?

Our workaround was to vary the depths of the letters; the deeper the type, the deeper the pockets.

spiked hat

3. A Design to Deal with a Bully

When I was in 6th grade I always wore a floppy fishing hat. This made me the target for a kid two years ahead of me who’d make a point every day to run up, slam his hand down hard on my head, grab the hat and throw it away.

Some days it would end up in the woods. Other times he’d aim for a trash can, an open locker, or the girls’ bathroom. This went on for weeks. I didn’t want to complain to the teachers, and I wasn’t going to stop wearing my hat. So I turned to design to solve my problem. I went home and made a little wood insert that bristled with an array of carpet tacks. The piece was designed to rest on my head and be covered by the hat. You couldn’t tell. The next day when he slapped his hand down… the design worked.

I’m not sure exactly what I’d expected to happen; I’m sure a scream would have been satisfying. Instead, he quietly shook the hat off his palm while making eye contact with me for the first time ever. His expression seemed kind of quizzical and sad. He slowly walked away. He never bothered me again.

Isley VH1

4. A Design to Work Around a Trumpet

VH1 Save the Music Foundation provides music instruction and instruments to kids, with the knowledge that students who play music tend to do better academically. They needed a new logo but didn’t want to lose their beloved trumpet. So we stuck it in the middle.
Isley_What is Design

5. A Design to Explain Design

We were asked to create a poster for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Smithsonian Institution, explaining design to students. As if that weren’t tough enough (What is design, anyway? My parents still aren’t sure what I do!), the audience was to be K-12 students across the country — kind of a wide net! What to do?

We decided to show that design is a process often undertaken by teams. We used the development of the Bell 500 series phone, designed by Henry Dreyfuss and Associates, as a case study. The poster talks about inspiration, collaboration, trial and error, prototyping, and usability. On the back of the poster we included a teacher’s guide and handout elements that could be photocopied and distributed.

This was a tough challenge: We were the third design firm to attempt the assignment. I recall getting single-spaced multipage faxes(!) from Washington providing helpful critiques of the design, such as, ‘Your poster starts at the bottom. Everyone knows posters should be read from the top.’

When it was done, I suggested that the next poster in the series be an explanation of how the first one came about, as that was a complex process indeed.


6. A Design to Highlight a Hero

I first knew Nathan Gluck as the long-time administrator and archivist who worked in the AIGA New York headquarters. I came to learn he had at one time been Andy Warhol’s assistant and collaborator, as well as an accomplished designer and artist in his own right. As I understood it, it was Nathan who taught Warhol the resist method (ink on wax paper) of illustrating, and it was he who’d done a lot of the early shoe drawings that helped launch Warhol’s career. One year, when I was chairing the AIGA One Color & Two Color show, we needed an idea for the poster. I saw an opportunity, and asked Nathan to draw us some shoes. This is one of my favorite commissions.

7. A Design to Engage Community

When we redesigned the Connecticut Goodwill stores, I thought it would be a nice idea to have some sort of installation or art component within each location. For the flagship store, we decided to spell out “GOODWILL” in a dimensional mural, an homage of sorts to the work of Louise Nevelson and Lou Dorfsman’s Gastrotypographicalassemblage.

Not many people know that Goodwill provides a wide range of social service and employment programs, along with offering housing and career service centers.

We decided to work with participants in Goodwill’s programs, using their talents to help select, prepare, and paint (in the signature Goodwill blue) a variety of objects from the store to incorporate within the mural.

I made the structure in my basement, we painted the objects at a Goodwill location, and we did the final assembly on site.


8. A Design to Tell Grownups a Story

We created a brand guide for Highlights for Children, establishing identity and marketing assets along with the “rules and tools” for telling the Highlights brand story to staff, affiliates, and licensing partners. A big challenge in creating such documents is getting people to read, understand, and implement the guidelines. To make things go a little easier, and to convey the unique spirit and approach of Highlights, we decided to create an introductory comic book as part of the package. This seemed a good method of introducing some nuanced and occasionally complex ideas in an accessible way. We wrote and storyboarded the piece, which was illustrated and lettered by an authentic Highlights artist. I can’t tell you how exciting this was.


February 07, 2017

A Special Thanks To

Alexander Isley