Today is National Grammar Day, a day for us editorial types to gleefully pull out our biggest red pens (just kidding!), which reminded me of our 2012 interview with graphic designer Tom Davie. Davie’s handmade design artwork incorporates clever wordplay with fonts and editorial symbols. My favorites are his tongue-in-cheek Neue Helvatica (2011) and Paragraph Indentation (2010). Check out his art and read an excerpt from the interview below. You can read the complete Tom Davie interview on ArtistsMarketOnline.com.
Keep creating and good luck!
Tom Davie: Hand-Made Design by Tamera Lenz Muente
Situated on the top floor of Tom Davie’s home is a white-walled room filled with light from three dormer windows. Small paintings arranged in grids line the walls. The canvases are painted with numbers and symbols, some embellished with glitter, others encircled with bold colors. Nearby stand boxes of old books, stacks of vintage record albums, jars of paint, spools of thread, sculpted paper letters and antique soda crates. In one corner, new boxes are stamped with Davie’s studio moniker, studiotwentysix2.
You might assume a graphic designer’s studio consists mostly of a computer. Tom Davie likes to work with his hands.
“I named my business when I was training for a marathon,” says the Cincinnati-based designer. A marathon is 26.2 miles long, and Davie has run three so far. His studio name captures some of his working methods, as well. His recent line of posters, prints and note cards are products of his marathon-like process—he lets ideas simmer for weeks, even months, before deciding on the best way to execute them.
Davie worked full-time at two different graphic design studios, one in Dayton, Ohio, and one in San Diego, until enrolling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to complete his master of fine arts degree in visual communication. He has been an independent designer, artist and educator since 2004. “I love having control over how I spend my time and creative energy,” he says. “Being a freelance designer affords me the ability to work with my own clients, assist other design firms, and produce my own print, poster and mixed-media series—work that I know would never get created if I was employed full-time at a studio.” However, he believes that freelancing is not for everyone. “Do you understand the entire design process, including production and printing? Are you comfortable dealing directly with clients, presenting work and seeking out new work? If not, being independent might not be the best choice.”
While Davie’s work ranges widely from graphic design to illustration to paintings, his interest in typography is the vein running through it all. “The process that I use for most work is the same: brainstorming, concept generation, sketches, studies and research,” he says. “Almost all of my work has a digital base, but the commercial work tends to stay digital while the fine art work typically is hand-drawn, painted or constructed in its final form.” His versatility allows him to move fluidly between client-based work and his own. “In most client work, I am trying to solve their problem. In fine art work, I am trying to solve mine.” While solving his own problems, he delves into his deep fascination with typography and its history, incorporating many influences outside design.
In Davie’s recent work, letters and words become both object and subject. Rather than creating images that serve the text, he gives text the main focus. “I think that words are what makes graphic design, graphic design,” he asserts. “The amount of text and its organization separates it from the other arts. I embrace text and, if anything, make the text my imagery. I’m trying to elevate it from something that supports an image into the primary visual element.”
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In his work Paragraph Indentation, Davie cut out the editor’s mark for a paragraph into the pages of an actual book, once again incorporating sculpture, photography and design. In another, he built the words Justified Column out of children’s wooden letter blocks. And in the tongue-in-cheek Neue Helvetica, he superimposed a medicine bottle with a transparent red cross to suggest that the Helvetica typeface is a cure-all for design problems. In all the works of this series, Davie takes nondescript objects and turns them into thought-provoking, monumental images.
Davie has completed a few painting series inspired in part by typography and printed material. In 2007, the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio, featured his Parishioner Series, a collection of abstracted portraits mined from the pages of a 1974 directory from the church, where he served as an altar boy. He layered the parishioners’ faces on top of one another, emphasizing the printed dot patterns through a tedious drawing and painting process.
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Davie’s incorporation of found books and other printed matter stems from a deep appreciation for design history. “I’ve always really liked printed material, and I like reading, so it’s only natural I gravitate towards using old books,” he says. “I like the natural decay that happens to paper. You can’t fake that, and I don’t want to try to create that with a computer.” He’s also enamored by old printing methods and hand-drawn typography. “Technology has advanced—printing used to be chunky, with a lower-resolution line screen in the 1950s and ’60s. Printers now want the line screen—the number of lines per inch—to be invisible. I also like things that aren’t just computer generated.” Referring to his collection of old issues of the influential 1970s art and design publication Avant Garde and 1930s typography books, he remarks, “Somebody hand drew all this. So many people rely on digital media now; it’s amazing that all this was done by hand back then. It’s really beautiful stuff. I like to make sure that I have this history for myself and refer back to it, and as a professor refer my students back to it. I hope that someday it doesn’t go away.”
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A hometown client
While Davie can take the time to conceptualize the perfect execution of his own work, commercial design typically doesn’t allow for that luxury. “I don’t incorporate hand-made aspects into client-based work because of the time constraints. For example, one recent job required me to come up with four concepts over seven different product lines, and I had just 72 to 90 hours to do it. I could barely sleep let alone take the time to concept and draw. They prefer having several ideas rather than one highly conceived idea. Emphasis is usually put on quantity, so the client can select what works best for them. I can remember only one time when I presented just one idea, and the client loved it.”
That one time was a project Davie completed for a community arts center in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. He admired the Sandusky Cultural Center’s mission statement, but felt their logo wasn’t keeping with the mission. So, he proposed a new logo as a way to contribute back to the community where he grew up. “I called them, and said I thought I could find a way to represent their image with a new logo. I found out the director had designed the logo thirty years earlier, so it was time for a new one.” Davie doesn’t do a lot of pro bono work for non-profits since he relies on his freelance work for a substantial part of his income, but he did the Sandusky Cultural Center logo for 100 dollars in pizza. “I created a typography based logo that has a lot of flexibility,” he says. “I wanted to make the letters in the word cultural all connect to suggest ideas coming together. They presented the single design to their board of directors, and they voted unanimously to approve it.”
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The art of marketing
Davie has done an impeccable job marketing himself. “Aside from designing and art making, the second most time-consuming aspect of running studiotwentysix2 is marketing and self-promotion,” he says. “I would guess that over the course of a year, I spend about one-quarter of my time dealing with that part of my business.”
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He cites his website as the best investment he’s ever made. “It gives me a global reach and allows me to update content at will. Every dollar that goes towards domain and server costs, I consider money well spent.” Studiotwentysix2.com has been picked up by several design bloggers, which generates plenty of traffic to the website. “This can be both a blessing and a curse,” says Davie. “Soon after I got my website up and running, a German design blog wrote about it. I got about 7,500 hits in just a couple of days, but I didn’t have my work up for sale yet. It was a lost opportunity.”
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In the works
Davie has several new projects cooking in his studio. He’s started a series of literary illustrations based entirely on typography. Rather than creating an image, he isolates interesting quotations from the story. He’s already completed a set of five posters from Alice in Wonderland, and plans to move on to other classic literature, hand-lettering and photographing the type. Also forthcoming is a collection of hobo signs. “These are depression-era symbols that hobos chalked onto surfaces to communicate with each other,” he says. Continuing his interest in codes, visual communication and typography, the work revives historical graphic forms unfamiliar to most people.
One thing is for certain: Tom Davie is never short on ideas. A life-long obsession with the graphic arts that began at age eight with winning a fifty-dollar savings bond in a local convenience store’s drawing contest has resulted in a fruitful career that combines commercial work with fine art. “And to this day,” says Davie, “I still have that savings bond.”
Tamera Lenz Muente is assistant curator at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio. She regularly contributes articles on the visual arts to Cincinnati CityBeat, as well as The Artist’s Magazine, The Pastel Journal and Watercolor Artist.