James Victore

Step Magazine by Sean Adams

James Victore

“Never go on stage with children or dogs” is a common rule in the theater world. The design world equivalent is, “never follow james victore as a guest speaker.” I made this mistake once, and i felt like mister rogers next to che guevara. James transcends the easy classification of designer. He is an unrepentant communicator and activist. His work is strong, humorous, and unforgiving. This courage is rare in a time when alternative points of view are positioned as “unpatriotic.” James victore clarifies the idea of personal vision and perspective, and reminds us of the importance of communication in a pluralistic society.

SA: I spoke at Portfolio Center recently, a month after you were there. Before the lecture began, one of the students asked, “Do all designers swear a lot?” What did you say to those kids? Remember this is a prime-time magazine.

JV: Swearing for me is like punctuation.

SA: I know we’ve discussed avoiding the design-star mill questions, so I thought we’d hit it right away. This “rock star” idea seems to be floating around the design world these days: Victore’s a rock star, Sagmeister’s a rock star, Scher’s a rock star. I don’t know where that puts Mick Jagger in the rock-star world. So, what’s it like being a rock star?

JV: I think it must be lots of fun, but all the crack has left my brain a bit addled. Ask Stefan.

SA: That’s funny, Stefan told me to ask you. Now for an abrupt change of topic: We live in a time when the world is painted very black and white—you’re good or evil, you’re with us or against us. You clearly have no problem taking a clear stand on an issue that may not be the polite or politically correct approach. Why risk the criticism?

JV: First of all, there is no criticism. I think most folks are afraid of the perception of criticism, so they take no chances. I’m very spoiled. I work with smart, sexy, brave clients who want to make powerful statements, and I get to be myself in the process. I don’t have to disguise my voice just because I have a commercial client. I am not a politician, I don’t need or even want to make everyone happy. This allows me the freedom to make work that comes from Victore and not some empty vessel.

SA: Have you always been interested in work that is political? And I mean political in the cultural and societal way, not the Democrats and Republicans.

JV: You can’t change anything by riding the fence. I don’t make many real politically charged works. Not as much as I’d like, but I do try to make my everyday work charged or energized or pregnant with meaning. Humans are curious and interesting and diverse, yet we tend to call them a “market.” I think that’s not only atrocious, it’s just rude. I want to be a storyteller, I try to envision more of a one-on-one scenario with a viewer and my work. With my subway posters for the School of Visual Arts I try to think what would really inspire or entertain someone riding the train. How can I make my work a gift to them? Thinking like this means that the work’s about me and my opinions, but it has to be. This is about connecting to real people. I don’t see enough designers putting themselves into the work.

SA: How does this attitude translate to different clients, from SVA to Aveda?

JV: It doesn’t have to. That’s the interesting part. My clients work with me because of our alignment. We share the same goals. My studio wants comrades, not clients. Whether it’s a large company, like Aveda, that has a social/environmental agenda, or an illustration for The New York Times, I like to try to find that tiny kernel of truth that makes it all interesting. James Joyce wrote, “In the particular lies the universal.” Which means that the more authentic and genuine you become in your expression, the more others can relate to it. So, if you want love, attention, and appreciation, you need to give love, attention, and appreciation. You need to put it in the work. I think this is what separates great work from the herd. Working with the truth, and not just a trite design motif like CSA clip art takes a bit more effort, but also makes my work and life worth it. And I have found it also excites other people.

SA: When you’re out there judging competitions, or just seeing design in general, what do you think about the current state of the industry?

JV: This conversation turns to the idea of mediocrity run amok in our business. I know that in the end business rules, but business does not have to be so butt ugly. It only takes a little effort. It’s not as if that’s what the public wants. It’s what Marketing wants. Marketing seems to run on fear and self-doubt. I’m sure the public would love something better, but nobody gives them the chance, nobody gives them the benefit of the doubt. We constantly second-guess the public and end up pushing the safe status quo. When I started in this business I thought— rather naively—that if I worked really hard at developing my craft and my ability to tell a story, I would have clients flocking to me. It would seem to be a rational thought, no?

SA: Is that the fault of the designers, or the clients?

JV: Neither. And both. The saddest three words in the English language are It’s just business. Because of business, primarily the fear of losing it, clients—and by trickle-down effect, designers—cannot afford to have an opinion. What a lousy position to be in! How the hell can anybody make anything of value without an opinion? It relegates us to picking colors, typefaces, and some regurgitated clip art from the ’50s.

SA: I find a common error I see in design, our work included at times, is that the work is constipated. Not restrained in a good way, but safe and recessive. It’s symptomatic of the culture in general, and the reluctance to do or say anything that is contradictory, complex, or difficult. I know you must have some jobs that you keep hidden in a flat file like the rest of us, but the work I see from you is brave and bold. How do you maintain this?

JV: Thank you for the compliment. In the studio, we work very hard to have fun. My objective—with every job—is to try to take it where no one else would ever go. To invent. To surprise myself, and hopefully my audience. Of course, there are some jobs you do for God and some you do for money, and I approach every job as if it is for God, but when it turns into a money job we get it done. The trick is to find brave clients who you like and who trust you and have lots and lots and lots of money.

SA: There’s a fine line between admiring a designer and simply reproducing. The “Who are your heroes?” question seems wrong for you. Maybe a better way is to ask who has affected you in outlook and in work?

JV: To answer honestly, the other folks who drive me, who remind me to stay on course and try to ring true, are musicians. We listen to lots of different music here, but we always come back to Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, and Neil Young. The visual artist that inspires me most these days is the English graffiti writer Banksy. His work doesn’t seek approval. It is fearless, attractive, smart, and funny—everything I want in my work. Like Cash, he’s badass. I like badass.

SA: What’s life like out of the studio? Are you screaming at strangers in the park? Watching endless repeats of The Facts of Life?

JV: This is a good time to dispel the myth. People feel that since my work has passion and a resonance, that I am the “angry old man.” Sean, I am a happy guy. I work hard and have a good life. I’ve got a great, sexy wife and a wonderful boy. I like surfing and motocross and have lots of fun, when I can squeeze it into my day. And we don’t have a TV. And I’m not old.

SA: Talk to me about activism. Do you consider yourself an activist? Is it, to paraphrase, “Disgusting or delightful?”

JV: I’m not an activist, but maybe I’m a dreamer. I still believe that design can change the world.

SA: I was asked at a speaking engagement recently about “selling out.” I’ve never understood what that meant. It seems to have a liquid definition. First, is it a good or bad thing? Second, what does that mean to you? Third, how would you cross that line?

JV: Selling out does seem to have two meanings. If my plates sell out and I have to make more, this is a good thing. But if I claim to give a shit about the world, but I pay my rent by designing for a cigarette company, that’s a bad thing. It is very difficult to be true these days. And, of course, one should never cross that line.

SA: Tell me about a typical day for you.

JV: Most of it is so typical I won’t even bore you with it. My favorite part of the day is 5 a.m. I wake early to read and study. This is my time to “sharpen the saw.” I don’t know enough about philosophy or economics or even myself, so I read and study these things. I try to turn my weaknesses into strengths.

SA: You seem to have an endless amount of creative energy and passion. Do you have fun when you’re working, or is it like, “Cheese and crackers, another message piece?”

JV: The first rule of being in business for yourself is “Have fun.” I love my job and I take it very seriously. I get to make myself laugh for a living. And if I do a good job, a lot of other folks laugh, too.

SA: If you weren’t designing, what would you do?

JV: I’d be designing. Of course I’d love to spend the rest of my life on a warm beach surfing, but I have found my dharma, my unique talent and purpose. And this makes me endlessly happy. All I need to do is find the right comrades [read: large corporations] to work with in order to multiply this excitement.

SA: What was your favorite project? Why?

JV: My son Luca is always my favorite project. It’s the one job that is most difficult and most rewarding.

SA: When I’m in New York, where should I eat?

JV: My house. My wife, Laura, is an excellent cook. And I have gotten very good at using that wine-opener thingy.