Bart Crosby

Step Magazine by Sean Adams

Bart Crosby

Bart Crosby is one of the nation’s most influential designers. His work is meticulous and intelligent, defining the height of craft and concept in the profession. Bart was awarded the AIGA medal in 2005 at the design legends gala in Boston. I sat down with Bart soon after he took the medal home to discuss his career and his civilian pursuits—like racecar driving and home life.

SA: You’ve been in the design business for a long time. What do you think accounts for your longevity? How do you stay excited and interested every day?

BC: First, I love design and designing. That means designing anything—from logos to interiors to furniture to cars. I’ve been doing it since I could draw. Sometimes it relaxes me, sometimes it excites me, and sometimes it frustrates me. But it’s who I am. Second, it’s a challenge. It’s like finishing a crossword puzzle, or solving a riddle. The mental exercises I go through and the things I learn in solving a design problem expand my thinking and, at the same time, generate a stockpile of new ideas. Third, it’s been a way of achieving recognition and self-validation.

SA: Is your outside life responsible for maintaining the high quality of your work?

BC: Everything I do (with the possible exception of raising my children) seems somehow related to design: my home, my garden, my office, cooking, the way my dishes and CDs are arranged, etc. I didn’t choose design—it chose me.

SA: Your car racing is a whole other life. Tell me about that.

BC: I’ve always had a love for cars. I bought my first car (a 1928 Model A Ford) when I was 15, fixed it up, and traded it for a 1950 Chevy coupe that I then put hundreds of hours into customizing. I was married and had children early, so the car thing had to be shelved for about 20 years. But in an impulsive moment, between continuously (and necessarily) owning station wagons and minivans, I bought a (very) used 1976 Porsche from a client in Memphis. It got me hooked on Porsches, but I had to sell it when I moved from the suburbs into the city. In 1995, I bought a new Porsche 993, and in ’99 a friend encouraged me to try a drivers’ education course at Road America (the longest, and one of the fastest, road courses in North America). I loved it and practiced as often as I could. Soon I was out-driving the car I had, and decided to build a new GT racecar. All the details— the wheels, exhaust manifolds, color, interior, instrument cluster, graphics—all of these relate to design, and when I’m driving the road courses, I’m convinced that my training in life drawing, painting, and hand lettering—the study of line and form— taught me how to better read sweeping turns and curves, and that my design training actually makes me a better driver.

SA: What’s your proudest achievement in racing?

BC: Probably the designing and building of the car. But a close second came last year when I had tire problems during qualifications for a major race and had to start in 52nd position (out of 55 cars). By the end of the race I’d moved up to sixth place overall and won the outstanding driver award.

SA: When I was in Chicago last May, I was able to trick you into having me over for dinner. Your house is fantastic. How would you describe your design philosophy when designing the house? How did it impact your work, or your work impact the house design?

BC: The house is simple, open, modern with no frills, and pays homage to the past. It’s an 1885 National Historic Landmark that had been botched up in a ’70s remodeling. I restored the exterior to its original quality and totally gutted the interior, leaving much of the space wide open (the living/dining/kitchen area is 16 x 64 feet). I also remanufactured all the interior moldings to match the original, and integrated lots of stone, stainless steel, and mahogany. I’ve always been fascinated and influenced by the Bauhaus, and the house is kind of Queen Anne meets Marcel Brauer. It also reflects how I work—simple, few frills, organizing things, fixing things up.

SA: The one common element in both the house and the work is the reductivist concept. Is that purposeful?

BC: I don’t think I’m consciously reductive, I just don’t like having lots of things. I have a couple of collections but even those are very contained. When I can get things/ messages/images down to their simplest form, they become more meaningful and impactful, thus easier to understand and deal with.

SA: There’s something incredible about your work in that it doesn’t rely on an excess of decorative forms, it just is. What’s the best job you’ve ever worked on? Why?

BC: Probably my first comprehensive identity assignment (Arvin Industries), because it was my first comprehensive identity assignment! I was 24 years old, and it was thrilling to see a system I’d created proliferate across everything from packaging to signage to products and advertising. Others include the work we did for Champion International’s sponsorship of the Olympic Canoe and Kayak Team—where we created the team’s new logo, uniforms, and the venues for 8 to 16 events per year for over 10 years—and the Chicago Millennium Celebration branding program.

SA: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned about the design business over the years?

BC: That design is a business, and at times, especially the hard times, there are really tough decisions to make—many of them involving people’s lives.

SA: I’m not asking this as a competitor, but as a friend: Have you ever thought of closing your firm? Or taking on a partner? Or selling out to a larger company? Did any of those things happen?

BC: Yes. Yes. Yes. No. I did have a partner, Bill Bonnell, for the first two years of the business. Most people see me as a very stable person. That’s because they don’t live inside my head every day. All of these thoughts have occurred to me—sometimes more often than others. Running a business is a difficult proposition, and while it’s immensely interesting and I’ve learned a great deal about both business and myself, at times it can also be extremely frustrating and lonely.

SA: You just received the AIGA Medal. It’s the highest honor the profession can bestow. I know it must have felt great to get the call, but did you have any reactions that surprised you?

BC: When I got the call I was overwhelmed—completely surprised, elated, and mystified —it was a pretty emotional moment. I had to leave the studio.

SA: Do you make your staff bow to you now?

BC: I dislike bowing—so we’ve created what I call the “half genuflect”—it’s more like an exaggerated curtsey.

SA: Do you teach design?

BC: I’ve taught an Identity and Branding class at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I never attended college so creating the syllabus was quite a learning experience for me! I haven’t taught for nearly two years, but I want to get back to it. I was amazed at what my students were able to accomplish, and I learned at least as much as they did.

SA: The range of your interests and inspirations is wide and deep. Do you think specialization in graphic design is a good thing or not? Do you have a specialty?

BC: I think designers should pursue the breadth of their own interests and talents. While I specialize in identification and branding, I’ve also designed interiors, packaging, videos, tennis racquets, clothing, sports and television venues, paper stocks, and furniture. Some people specialize because it gives them the ability to concentrate on and refine a single discipline, or so that they can capitalize on a single, repeatable process. A lot of design thinking and design processes are transferable from discipline to discipline. I happen to be cursed with a mind that’s in constant motion and I’m personally interested in doing a variety of things.

SA: Who are your heroes and why? You don’t have to mention me.

BC: There are a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons. Some of them for who they are, some for what they’ve done, some for their design, some for their personal or business skills, and some for their courage and tenacity: Massimo Vignelli, Paul Rand, Bradbury Thompson, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Saul Bass (each of whom I’ve carefully studied and copied); Chuck Kasak (my first boss); John Massey, Joe Hutchcroft, and Tomoko Miho (my mentors at the Center for Advanced Research in Design); Jay Doblin, who taught me the importance and function of design planning; Robert Vogele and many of my own clients (from whom I learned how to better run my business); Colin Forbes, who showed me that you can be tough and kind at the same time. The list goes on and on.

I’ve been a member of AIGA since 1976, but in 1983 I went on the national board, and it was truly a life-changing experience. I discovered dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people that I was able to learn from. Up to that time, I’d seen the work of people like Woody Pirtle, Kit Hinrichs, Henry Wolf, Arnold Saks, Lou Dorfsman, April Greiman, Jack Summerford, and others in magazines, but now I was able to actually meet, talk to, and learn from these people. To name those whom I consider heroes and mentors would take at least a couple of pages. Even today, I’m amazed by and learn from designers who are 20 and 30 years younger than I am. For me, there are lots of heroes.

SA: Besides the AIGA Medal, what’s your greatest professional accomplishment?

BC: Longevity.

SA: There is so much great work being done in Chicago now, and there are so many good firms like VSA Partners, SamataMason, Studio Blue, and Tanagram, among others. Why is your town so great for design? Does it influence your work?

BC: I grew up in Michigan City, Ind., and I’d been to Chicago a few times as a kid, but to me it was a gigantic, exotic, glamorous, intimidating place. I attended school there at the American Academy of Art, and when I finished, a small agency in Indiana offered me a job. But by then I was kind of hooked on Chicago—I figured if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere (I hadn’t heard the New York thing yet). I was married at 20, and had three children by the time I was 25.

Chicago’s very livable for a big city—it’s like New York on Prozac. It’s a nice, affordable place to raise a family. By the time my children were grown, I’d already started my own business, spent over 20 years in the Chicago design market, and had built a good reputation.

While design in Chicago is generally plentiful, it isn’t always highly visible. Chicago companies are relatively conservative, and many don’t seem to value design as a business tool like many companies in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Since my style is fairly conservative, it seems to fit the market, but some of the most exciting projects have come from out-of-town clients —those in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and California, and from others in Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Nebraska where, for them, Chicago is the glamorous big city.

Chicago is both a beautiful and unusual city. Its lakefront, architecture, and symphony are unrivaled. It has great theater, great universities, great museums, great neighborhoods, and wonderful restaurants. And even though it never gets quite the recognition it deserves, you can get almost anywhere in the country in less than four hours by plane. And that ain’t a bad thing when you’re looking for clients.

SA: How would you define success for yourself?

BC: Achieving personal satisfaction (whatever that means). Consistently having the confidence and trust in myself and my abilities to overcome life’s daily trials and anxieties.

SA: What key things do you think make a designer successful?

BC: Design is a life, not just a job—you have to love it. Knowing why, not just how. Being able not only to design, but to articulate the value of those designs. Trying something new often. Reading. Writing. Never leaving well enough alone. A sense of humor.

SA: Looking over the course of your career, is there anything that you would do differently?

BC: I attended art school, but never college. It’s something I feel I’ll always miss.

SA: So what are you doing for the rest of today?

BC: I’m working on a bunch of projects that you’ll never see in a design journal. It’s called “What I do most of the time.”