Excuse us while we gush about Gail Anderson. An award-winning designer, esteemed educator, and prolific co-author of over a dozen books on typography and design, Anderson is a powerhouse and image-world iconoclast. She’s also the brains behind this limited-edition print highlighting the righteous words of Congresswoman Maxine Waters. (Two fave role models wrapped into one artwork! *fans face*) Her most recent accolade? She’s this year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for the National Design Awards. That’s a huge deal, and an honor that Anderson is more than deserving of. What might surprise you is, even with all this accomplishment and brilliance at her back, Anderson is refreshingly honest, down-to earth, funny, and inspiriting.
For our new installment of In the Studio, we got to see where the magic happens and get Anderson’s unmissable responses to our inquiries. Anderson alternates between two NYC office spaces where she makes her work—one on the East side and one on the West—and a studio nook upstate. They’re brimming with all sorts of supplies and inspo from her decades of experience. Playful typography may be what she’s known for, but Anderson is really a design chameleon who relishes the opportunity to explore a new audience, and extols the virtues of collaboration when she advises designers how to create compelling work that’ll capture the essence of a client.
Below, dive into pics of Anderson’s studio spaces. Then, get her take on the nostalgic glory of old-school art tools, the power of a perfectly composed playlist to motivate a day of art-making, the beauty of a good breather as a way to get over creative blocks, and more!
Where's your studio?
I am the creative director at Visual Arts Press at the School of Visual Arts, so I work out of our office across from the main building at SVA on East 23rd Street. I also have a studio called Anderson Newton Design with Joe Newton, and our office is on West 29th Street, in the fur district. So I am bi-coastal, both east side and west side. I don’t work out of my apartment in the West Village at all, but I like to work from my combination laundry room/studio up at my house in Woodstock. I can efficiently tackle several loads while emailing, writing, or designing, all while admiring the top of Overlook Mountain and a huge wasp nest that I’m increasingly fearing.
What's your favorite tool in the studio?
I dug up a rubber cement thinner can awhile back that people in the office always wondered about. What is that orange triangle with a spout? It made me feel very old, but also pretty nostalgic for the days of paste-ups, so it might be my favorite tool. But I’m also pretty particular about notebooks and have become a bit of a hoarder, so my collection has become a bit of an obsession.
What do you wear when working in the studio?
If I’m working at SVA, I typically wear yoga pants/leggings/tights—or whatever you call them. They come from the JJill catalogue; middle age lady heaven. I have linen shirts for warm weather, and flannel shirts for cold weather, and I always wear a scarf, because neck is getting a little scary looking as I get older. It’s not about looking jaunty—it’s total camouflage.
What's on your in-studio playlist?
I still have an iPod, though I’ve recently graduated to an iPod Touch. I’ve been listening to a lot of Sister Rosetta Tharpe recently, and a good deal of calypso. I always have music on in the office, and just made a new Carter Family playlist after watching a documentary on a recent flight. I probably have about 1500 CDs and am still importing music into iTunes, so I had to scan my shelves for quite awhile to find my Carter Family CDs. I’m all about the playlist, so it’ll take me awhile to get that one organized just right.
What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
I typically scan the New York Times when I get in—the actual newspaper, not the digital version. I save the sections I want to read in more detail, or sometimes just tear out stories and put them in a basket. And then it’s on to email.
What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
Back in my Rolling Stone days, we worked late pretty much all the time, and definitely during closings. I slowly changed my ways when I worked at SpotCo, though I did like staying in the office by myself at night once in awhile to solve the problems of the world. I still do the occasional late night at SVA since sometimes I just need some uninterrupted time to get caught up. And Joe and I work into the evening when we’re together at the studio, so there are still more "work nights" than there should be. I actually really like starting the day early, and if I’m up, will come in as early as 7:30 or 8. I’m liking the early morning thing better than the late nights of my youth. I’m sharper and more productive in the morning, and am definitely a slow-and-steady person when possible. I love chipping away at ideas.
Your design projects have run the gamut from Broadway to newspapers to books. How do you adapt your approach for each audience but maintain your signature style?
I don’t know that I have a signature style, though I guess I’m known for playful typography. I really take the audience into consideration when I’m working, and am enjoying designing with art students in mind at SVA. Joe and I are working on key art for an upcoming Broadway musical right now and it’s been fun to get into that audience’s collective head again after a few years away from theater. I’ve learned how to turn up the volume or dial it back, and I think I’ve become a good art director of designers, encouraging them to really think about who they’re designing for.
You're an experienced educator and lecturer. Is there any lesson you wish the art + design world place greater emphasis on? How does teaching inform your own design process?
Teaching has helped me become a better communicator, and it’s certainly taught me patience! Early on, I realized I had to find the right words to explain my ideas clearly and to be able to critique work in a constructive way that doesn’t knock the wind out of people’s sails. Teaching has made me a better art director. I’ve encouraged the designers I’ve worked with to collaborate on projects and not worry too much about ownership. That’s a tough lesson for a student, but I’ve only seen good results out in the “real” world when people work together.
What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
I get up and go to other people’s offices or cubicles and bother them. I turn into the helicopter creative director, asking questions, checking the status of projects, and making dumb suggestions. I often have some big idea that begins with, “What if we…?” and I watch the other person’s eyes either widen in fear or roll back in their heads.
Which artists' 20x200 editions do you most covet?
My first 20x200 piece was one of Paula Scher’s maps. And now I have my eye on a Gordon Parks print. I love Mark Ulriksen’s Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, but I totally missed out on that!
Whens, Hows & Whys
When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist and how did you get there?
I started making Partridge Family magazines when I was a kid, using pictures from Spec and 16 magazines along with my own illustrations and typography. Later, in high school, there was a book in the art room called Careers in the Commercial Arts, published by the School of Visual Arts. My art teacher, Christine Francis, had taken evening classes at SVA and suggested I go there. We had the Paul Davis “To be good is not enough when you dream of being great” SVA poster in the classroom and I was totally sold on the college based on that tag line and Paul Davis’ wonderful painting.
How do you get over creative blocks?
I’ve learned that it’s best to step away from your computer when the going gets tough. Go out and get some grapes, order some clothes online, walk around the block, or ask for help. And good ideas don’t happen late at night, at least not for me.
Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
I like to have a place to go where I’m surrounded by books, even if I don’t crack one open every time I start working. I like my office at SVA because it’s a little secluded—I'm in the back of a small office building so there’s no NYC traffic noise, and there’s a surprising amount of light. You need a place, or in my case, places, where you can just sit comfortably and focus. And you have to have your stuff around you—the right pencils, notebooks, and pens. I don’t know how much people print stuff out anymore, but I think it’s important to have good wall real estate to pin up inspiration and work in progress. I have a big magnetic wall, and am fascinated by hi-octane magnets, though they’re so fragile. I am clearly easily amused and like to surround myself with stuff that makes me happy or gives the illusion of an organized mind.
The 411 on Gail Anderson
Gail Anderson is the creative director at Visual Arts Press at the School of Visual Arts, and a partner at Anderson Newton Design. She is co-author of over a dozen books on typography and design with Steven Heller, and is a member of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee for the United States Postal Service. Anderson is an AIGA medalist, and has taught at SVA for almost half of her life.