Ellen Lupton interviews Alex Isley, June 23, 1994. Unpublished.
Where do you see your work fitting into the history of design?
I’ve always just wanted to do work that people who don’t know anything about design will think is cool. Stuff that my brother would pick up and like.
I’ve been labeled as one the “humorous designers” because of my work for Spy magazine. I often don’t want to show that work to new clients, because it creates certain very limited expectations about my work.
Who has influenced your work?
Not the “designer designers.” I’m very word-oriented. When I start a project, I start by writing down a lot of words, not drawing up a grid. That’s how I work.
Being word-oriented is evident in my type-heavy approach. I like to pack a lot of information into stuff, so people can learn something from it. I’m not interested in doing “big bold posters.”
Did Cooper Union have any effect on you?
I went to NC State for two years before going to Cooper. There, you literally learn to pour concrete before you learn anything about “graphic design,” because you don’t specialize until later. “Design” could mean architecture, environmental design, graphic design, any field. It was terrific, but they had only 2 faculty members, and 2 years there was enough.
I only went to Cooper Union because it was free. There wasn’t an underlying philosophy there, except for George [Sadek] and William [Bevington]‘s courses on typography and the Art of the Book. Yeah, those were important courses.
It seems that something important was happening in the mid-80s: M&Company, Stephen Doyle, your work at Spy. How do you think that came about?
It happened because Tibor was smart enough to hire me and Stephen Doyle.
I met Stephen during my last semested at Cooper, when he taught there very briefly, filling in for someone else. Stephen suggested that I go work with them at M&Co. It was a very interesting place to work. Tibor was reacting against slick “design” at that time, which was an exciting position. I didn’t just want to go work in a design office. M&Co was a good place for young designers.
What work inspires you?
I mostly read a lot of newspapers. I’m not that interested in looking at graphic design, and I don’t spend a lot of time in museums or libraries.
What’s going on in design right now?
Everyone I know wants to get out of New York.
Right now, the big split in design is generational: old versus young, Vignelli versus David Carson. What do I think of David Carson? It’s cool. It’s important that people are doing experimental work.
I don’t know if anything really exciting is happening right now in graphic design, though.