Design Matters with PAUL SAHRE

Published on 2018-10-20
Photography of Paul Sahre by Emily Weiland
Photography of Paul Sahre by Emily Weiland


When it comes to work, life and the key to happiness, there are those who lead by taping up inspirational quotes around the office … before going back to their desks and quietly exorcising the last vestiges of their hair strand by strand. Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life!

And then there are those who lead by example. By mutiny.

Take Paul Sahre. 

After graduating from Kent State with a master’s in design, Sahre battled his way to a job at a small studio in Baltimore, Barton-Gillet. As he recounts in his memoir, Two-Dimensional Man, he had gone to school at Kent State because he thought the institution had a spirit of rebellion, of the radical. He had looked to design as a means to change the world. And now here he was, immersed in the dry trappings of corporate design work. He was miserable. He was making a terrible salary. So he moved to an ad agency, where he became director of the design group … and his unhappiness soared. After emerging from a particularly frustrating meeting—and in the midst of a separation from his wife—he gathered his design staff, and let “years of existential angst loose.” 

“What are we doing here?” he asked them, per The Great Discontent. “We’re just wasting our lives! We work all day on these shitty projects and then go home.”

Sahre lit the fires of a mini rebellion and not long after, one of the partners axed him. (“It was beautiful.”)

The main takeaway? Befitting of its own motivational poster, “If you are miserable, wherever you are, quit,” he has said. “Now. Work (as a creative person) is only worth doing if it doesn’t feel like work. You might also get hit by a car tomorrow. Don’t go out miserable.”

Sahre grew up in upstate New York alongside three siblings, and as a result, created art to try to stand out to his mother, an occupational therapist. He straddled the odd line of both athlete and artist, with the latter manifesting in such pieces as his “Demon Eating Human Flesh” painting (which his brother described as the best work he had done, and would ever do), followed by more detailed and realistic creations, and comic strips. 

Sahre’s father, meanwhile, was an aerospace engineer, which led to a childhood dominated by air and spacecraft, from aviation shows to a Star Trek obsession to intense homemade rocketry (more on that later). 

After heading off to Kent State to study illustration, Sahre eventually found his way to design. In Two-Dimensional Man, he recalls an epiphany that came when he was struggling with his master’s thesis. He was out hunting for ice. He was, admittedly, quite drunk. And then, beaming and seemingly heaven-sent before him, he found it: a Leer Model L40 Slant merchandiser. The trusty ice machine that never changes, that is always there for us, ubiquitous and affixed on the American landscape. 

“I opened the aluminum door and reached into the cold and foggy interior, grabbing two bags of ice—one for each hand. But instead of paying for them and heading back, I just stood there, staring like a shit-faced Newton after getting beaned by the apple,” he writes. “By any objective standard, [the Leer’s] form is clunky and awkward, antiquated even. It looks like a big industrial freezer (which, of course, it is). Whoever designed it could make it any shape they wanted at this point. Yet it does not look like an Apple product. The typography is unconsidered: a nondescript sans-serif typeface with a drop shadow and a cartoon accumulation of snow on top. Pure kitsch. … It’s invisible. You don’t notice it until you actually need it, and then the thing you need is everywhere. There are ice merchandisers in front of every gas station, mini-mart and grocery store that go unseen until you are looking for ice. How the Leer looks and what it communicates is exactly what it is. It is appropriate and functional and familiar, and there is a beauty in that, even if it’s ugly.”

That was design.

Later, while unhappily working away at his aforementioned gigs in Baltimore, Sahre began creating pro-bono posters for the Fells Point Corner Theatre, and he liked the way they came out, so he submitted them to the industry’s annuals—and they got accepted. And that led to New York publishing houses and others contacting him for work. After getting canned by his advertising agency, Sahre was soon following his own path; he got a divorce, sold his house and moved to New York City, where he established his own studio in 1997, The Office of Paul Sahre (OOPS). He worked his ass off, exhaustively, gleefully, taking on projects with zeal and sleeping in a cot set up in the back of the studio. 

In following his own path, he figured out his own way to make peace with design, work and life. He describes his approach as “reacting as a way of creating—I take situations not of my own making and make them my own.”

And that has led to a brilliant lifetime of work. There are his book jackets for the likes of everyone from Hemingway to Malcolm Gladwell to Patton Oswalt, not to mention his iconic designs for Chuck Klosterman that have led to the books being recognized as much for their content as their covers. There are the album covers, music videos and creative direction for his favorite band, They Might Be Giants, for whom he once famously built (and destroyed) a life-size day-glo pink monster truck hearse out of cardboard. There are posters, websites, illustration—and all of it tends to feel very Paul Sahre. Not in an expected or redundant way, but in there being some spark of delight, of wit, of operating not just outside the box, but of boxes bent and broken. The hallmark of the mutinist, retained. 

And then there are his personal projects, which offer a deeper, more intimate look into the mind of the designer—such as Two-Dimensional Man, which was initially concepted as a monograph, and turned out to be an engaging visual memoir.

There’s Sahre’s thrilling and obsessive Kickstarter to relaunch his father’s Saturn V model rocket, which infamously blew up when he was a kid, revealing to Sahre his dad’s vulnerability for the very first time. (Said Sahre, “Who knows how my life would be been different if my dad’s launch in 1973 had succeeded. I might be a doctor or lawyer or even an aerospace engineer like my father instead of a graphic designer.”)

Thank god for failing model rocket mechanisms and their relation to judicial practice. For in looking at his work in a universe of motivational posters, one feels the world is better off because of it. Beyond prescriptive advice, he shows that by doing what you love, you can indeed find happiness—and you can do it in your own way.

That is perhaps the most thrilling and terrifying and energizing thing about Paul Sahre overall: He proves that in a culture of carefully curated identities, you really can just be yourself. 

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


Debbie Millman: Paul Sahre is a graphic designer who is probably best known for his book cover designs and for his frequent illustrations in the New York Times. Paul is also an author and his latest book is a graphic memoir called Two Dimensional Man. In it, he tells the stories behind his illustrious 30 year design career, and we're going to hear a few of those stories today. He joins me in our studio at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he also teaches. Paul Sahre, welcome to Design Matters. 

Paul Sahre: Hi Debbie. Thank you.

Debbie: Paul, it has been almost 15 years since the first time I interviewed you on Design Matters. 

Paul: I know. How are you doing? It's been a while.

Debbie: Well, I'm wondering if we can start the show today by you telling us about something that I just recently discovered. It's about your Hollywood career that both began and ended with your role in the 1996, Winona Ryder film, Boys. I have a picture of that. 

Paul: Oh my God. Yes. 

Debbie: I found a picture; here is a picture.

Paul: Yes, that's me in the background there.

Debbie: In the background of this film. 

Paul: I was an extra in a Winona Ryder movie and yes, I'm in a party scene. What can I tell you about that? I was living in Baltimore at the time and I'm pretty sure it was Dean Alexander, photographer friend of mine down there, who is still there. Dean, I think had a party and it just so happened that they were filming this movie in town at that time and the scouting person was at the party and she's like, "Oh, we need this party for the film, this exact party."

So, they basically invited everybody at the party to be an extra on the film. So it was like, "Oh, this will be interesting." Boy, it wasn't. It was horrible.

Debbie: What was horrible about it? 

Paul: It was at this house in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter. They were filming this scene at 02:00 o'clock in the morning for some reason. Naively, I just thought, "Oh, you know, cool. We'll just have drinks or whatever with Winona Ryder somewhere." But that's of course not what it is. You're drinking drinks that aren't actually alcohol and you're herded around like cattle and it's 02:00 o'clock in the morning and you're freezing your ass off.

You couldn't make any sound on the set, so you're having fake conversations with people with your lips moving and you're not saying anything. Also, people, newbies like me that were there, but they were professional extras. There are people who do this and I was supposed to be in the corner at that party, like chatting with this woman and she just started kissing me, and I went, "Whoa." Like I literally lost it. 

I just didn't expect that. I'm faking talking to her. Then she lays one on me and then was like, "Cut. Bring me some professionals." Anyway, that was the end of my acting career.

Debbie: She was just crushing on you and-

Paul: No, absolutely not. It was totally fake. She was improvising. Method acting.

Debbie: Paul, you said that you don't recall what specifically made you want to become a designer for a living, but you do have vivid recollections of growing up with three siblings in upstate New York and making art to try to stand out to get your mom's attention. Did it work?

Paul: Oh yes. Yes. I think I also wet the bed for the same reason, but we won't go into that.

Debbie: Oh, I was actually going to ask you about that. You were way in to your early teens, right?

Paul: Yes, it was, it was not good. All better now though. 

Debbie: When did you get this funny? 

Paul: My brother, my older brother and my younger brother they were full on. They were a handful. I mean, if one family had one of those situations, I think it would be overwhelming for the parents. I mean I have two kids now and any little thing that is rocking the boat and demands attention, is just really difficult. You have four, you know, my dad was in the air force, so it was a lot of like that ladles. 

Dinner was all beans and stuff with a huge spoon. We had crew cuts until we were, I had a crew cut until I was like seven or eight, and he would just do us all at once on one afternoon, wanting to save money because it was quick. It just was super competitive. It was really competitive to get any attention.

Debbie: Talk about your older brother and your younger brother and what was so hard for you to [crosstalk 00:07:40]

Paul: I guess it was nobody's fault, but my older brother was born deaf and with a learning disability. My mom had the case of the German measles apparently at the time, it caused birth defects. I mean that caused all kinds of things that again, weren't his fault, but it was hard to get any attention I feel like in some way. That's probably in the wrong way to describe it, and my younger brother, probably in reaction to this, again, not consciously, was a such a troublemaker. 

I mean from birth, like he came out causing problems. I really feel my sister and I were in the middle and we were the ones who are just boring, don't rock the boat. I just felt like if anything else was added to my mom's plate, my dad worked full time. He was an aerospace engineer, so he was off working a lot. I just saw my mom sort of trying to deal with the chaos.

Debbie: Did she appreciate your artwork?

Paul: She did. She encouraged it. Yes, totally. No, I had a great childhood though, at the same time. I think from the outside looking in, it was probably pretty freakish, in a sort of a mild way, but to me it just felt normal.

Debbie: Growing up, there were three different phases as far as I can see, of the young and artistic Paul. In your early teens, there was the Paul who drew things like demon eating human flesh, which now hangs in your mother's house, right by the front door. Later there was your Albrecht Dürer and highly detailed renderings of house pets period. Tell us about the baboon named Wentworth, that you brought to life in high school.

Paul: Yes, I thought I was a Charles Schultz. I wanted to be Charles Schultz, as a kid. I could totally relate to this person creating his own world, his or her own world and sitting at a table drawing. I read somewhere that he had an ice rink and I played hockey, ice hockey growing up. I just thought, "Oh my God, I want to own an ice rink. This would be great." So combination of just loving the comic book and the comics and the characters and just ... I could really see myself just sitting at a table drawing, and then somehow making enough money doing that to own an ice rink, seemed like the ultimate goal.

Like there's nothing higher than that. When I was coming up with the character, I was at a certain age where I'm like, "Okay, I'm being strategic about this," like, "I'll do a monkey. I don't know, are there any monkeys? I can't do a dog, I can't do a cat." Garfield was big at the time. "Okay. What's something that has never been done? A baboon. There's no baboons characters," so it was a baboon, but I drew it through into my college newspaper.

That was before Kent State, before I studied, learn what graphic design was. I went to a community college for two years in my hometown, because I had a girlfriend who is a year younger than me, and was still in high school. So I wasn't leaving yet, and I didn't feel quite ready, I think to some degree. 

It was sort of before I went to design school and then that was gone, that thing went away. That went away pretty quickly. You sort of realize, "Oh boy, this is sort of embarrassing," and I could probably say that about a lot of things in terms of my worldview before I went to design school. Design school for me was a complete transformation on some level.

Debbie: Given your sports ability, your pension for sports, what made you decide to pursue art and how did you balance as you were growing up, this really intense sports acumen as well as being so artistic? It's a really unusual combination.

Paul: No, it definitely was. I think that ... again, you mentioned the praise thing at the beginning. I'm just kind of dipping back into your own past and trying to answer some of those questions of why you ended up doing something or going in a certain direction. That was the only thing I could really come up with, because I don't remember its genesis, I just know that I did it. I always did it. It just became part of my identity at a certain point. I have very specific memories of just that the refrigerator as like the ultimate place where you're working.

Debbie: So if it made it on the refrigerator then [crosstalk 00:12:17].

Paul: I don't even talk about that, but I also ... the walls. If you got your work framed on your mom's wall, your parents wall, then you were really doing something, and then of course ends up biting you in the ass later. I paid for that. I pay for it every single time I go back to my mom's house now because of stuff on the walls that I wish wasn't there.

Debbie: Especially your demon eating-

Paul: Speaking of which, let me just say, I don't mean to go somewhere too quickly. The book starts off with this drawing and the lifespan of the drawing kind of giving me a way to talk about something that's sort of hard to talk about.

Debbie: Do you want to tell that story? 

Paul: Well, I'll try to do it quickly. The house I grew up in as a kid is in Upstate New York, is in Vestal New York, which is near Binghamton. Anyway, I was going up there to visit one day, a few years ago, and as I sometimes will do, I will get in late and then I'll sleep on the couch in the living room. Well, this time I woke up and I looked over and here's this drawing that I did when I was 13 or 14 on my mom's wall. Not only on my mom's wall frame, but it's right next to the front door. 

My mom stylistically, she skews cute ... She does needlepoint. She has a thimble collection that's on the wall in that room, and here's this drawing I did when I was like 14 that I now call Demon Eating Human Flesh, but it's a pen and ink drawing of a monster; scaly monster who's eating human flesh. It's got fangs. It's horrible. 

Debbie: It's awesome. 

Paul: It's awesome. Anyway, I cracked up. Well, I didn't crack up. I saw it and it was immediately disturbing because my brother Angus, who is in the book, my younger brother, the troublemaker I talked about. I went to design school. He went and joined the circus and for years, he was a camel trainer, caretaker and then he moved on to elephants. Anyway, so he passed away in 2004. It was not long after that that the drawing appeared on the wall. The drawing was my brother's drawing. 

He had taken it at some point. He thought it was super cool and he had it on the circus train with him for years. Traveled with him and so I sort of had the same experience seeing it randomly on the circus train above his bunk that I had in my mom's house. He told me this, I would go and visit him on the train whenever the circus was in town I was living in. Well, how many people have been on the ... raise your hand if you've been on a circus train.

It stinks. I mean, it's an animal smell that cannot be described. Anyway, so I'm there. I'm going to design school, here's my brother and I see the drawing and he basically hands me a beer that also tastes like circus, and then he said, "You know, this is the best thing you've ever done or would ever do." Like this was the pinnacle for Angus for any creative output than I would ever have. Whatever, years passed, he dies, it shows up on my mom's wall. 

The idea that this thing is on my mom's wall is terrifying to me because of some things I already talked about; be careful what you wish for, one, but two, she has no concept as Angus really didn't, of what I actually do as a designer, what I've dedicated my life to, which I think I've gotten pretty good at, but they seem to understand this drawing that I did when I was 14, so much so that she's willing to put it on her wall right next to the front door.

Debbie: Well, you once stated that once something is created, drawn, in this case, the maker, while exerting complete control over its creation, has virtually no control over what it ultimately means to others, nor apparently where it ends up.

Paul: Yes. That's a hard thing for a graphic designer to admit to, I think, to some degree because yes, design is a controlling experience.

Debbie: Actually, that's true. You're controlling a-

Paul: Oh, I think designers think they control everything about their lives. That's sort of the basis of the book for me. It has caused me untold troubles. Learning a sense of order, growing up in chaos, going to design school, learning a sense of order that I never knew before, and then trying to apply that new order to your life, which is not possible. Like things happen and life can't be designed. 

Debbie: You were originally going to call the book Two Dimensional Man; A designer and his problems.

Paul: Well, it was just a designer and his problems for awhile, but wait a minute, before we get back to this, I just want to tell you something that just happened.

Debbie: Okay. 

Paul: You write this book, while you're writing it, I don't know. I'm trying to figure this out. Maybe I'm trying to just get my mom to understand something that she didn't understand before. I don't know. I don't think it was as simple as that. But anyway, so I had a similar experience where I brought my two boys up. I think my wife Emily was working or something and I took them up to Binghamton to visit, and we got there late again and I went to sleep as I usually do on the couch and woke up in the morning and I looked over at Demon Eating Human Flesh, and it wasn't there anymore.

She had taken it down. She had read the book, she didn't say anything to me about it. The only thing she did was took down the drawing and put something that should be on her wall. Frankly. It was like a embroidered flower or something. I just started cracking up like, "What the fuck? Like, what is that?"

Debbie: She didn't say anything to-

Paul: No, I just started laughing so loudly.

Debbie: So the crochet daisy is still there?

Paul: It's still there and I'm just ... at a certain point-

Debbie: Where's Demon Eating-

Paul: I have no idea, and I just leave it alone. You just got to leave it alone.

Debbie: I think the story is so emblematic of the classic relationship between parents and children, knowing and not knowing, sharing and not sharing, revealing and not revealing. Having seen this drawing, I'm actually formally and officially begging you to make sure that it's safe and sound and that you can give it to your boys.

Paul: Well, I didn't mention this but he died in my mom's house. He fell down the stairs drunk. The only reason she has it is because he died in this way, in this house. I did ask her about it when she had it up. "Why this? It doesn't seem like something you'd want to hang on your wall," and jeez, she just said, "Oh, I just like it. I just like it."

Debbie: When you were determining where you were going to go to university, you ultimately chose Kent State University, but from what I understand, you based it on a checklist in order of importance, and this was the checklist; a college with a good graphic design program, a college that would accept you, a college that was far away enough to prevent your parents from dropping in unexpectedly. A college that was not the University of Kansas, which was the alma mater of both your parents and where your sister was enrolled, but also it mattered to you that [Divo 00:19:39] went to Kent State, the band Divo. Tell us about the decision making criteria here.

Paul: I think I was also interested in a guy girl ratio, favorable.

Debbie: I missed that one. 

Paul: I didn't put that in the book. Think if memory serves, my girlfriend from high school dumped me. At some point, broke up with me, so I stayed for two years at this community college. By then, whatever, I was 19, I had to get the hell out of there. I mean I had to get the hell out of there. So what do I do? Kent State is not a radical place to go to school. 

I thought, "Okay, I'm going to shake things up. I'm going to go somewhere where people care about things and people want to change the world." That's not Kent State. Kent State, it's a very conservative school now. I don't know, maybe it always has been.

Debbie: In an effort to make money while you were at Kent State, you worked at a car dealership, hand painting prices and catchy slogans such as, "Look, drive me home." "Loaded, loaded, loaded," on cars for $10 a vehicle, and you were awful at first but got better. You ultimately said that sign painting also gave you a different perspective on what you were studying at school. In what way? 

Paul: Yes, it was just by happenstance that the dealership called the school of art and said, "Is there a student around who would be interested in doing this?" So Tanya, who was the secretary at the time thought of me for some reason, I can't remember why, but she was like, "Would you be interested?" I'm like, "Sure."

It was old school sign lettering but right on the windshield of the cars. Only on the left, if you're facing the car, only the left side. So it would be like the price in two colors and sparkles, and then some catchy phrase, like, "A real honey" or whatever. "Look," with eyeballs for the Os, but I got to know the sign painter who was doing them and over time, I learned, and it was great money.

I mean it was great money. I mean, partially, I didn't have student loans for long because of this, but, I would be at school in the history of the Italian Renaissance class, high minded, history of art class. Then I would go spend the afternoon painting car windshields and you just sort of realize, "Well this guy is really amazingly talented and seems to be enjoying what he's doing and he's not ... he didn't go to college, and he's making all this money and here I am going to college and paying to do this thing, graphic design, which kind of took me a long time to make as much with graphic design as it did painting these stupid cars. Why am I doing this again?? 

Then you think about it a bit and then you realize why you're doing it.

Debbie: But why are you doing it?

Paul: Why am I doing it? I think I'm doing it because it's a compulsion more than anything else. If you can do anything well in life, anything ... Well, forget. well, you've got to commit to whatever it is. Even if you don't do it well, you got to commit. 

Debbie: What does that commitment mean to you? What is your version of committing?

Paul: Oh, it's the most important thing. Getting back to your question, original question, why you ... I'm just a graphic designer now. It gives my life a sense of purpose. I get up every morning and say, "Why don't we get the design today?" That's sort of always been enough for me in a weird way. Purpose, it gives my life a sense of purpose. Like I'm talking to you right now, I'm a graphic designer, but walking over here, I was a graphic designer. Watching a movie last night, I was a graphic designer. I'm eating dinner, I'm a graphic designer.

Debbie: What does that mean?

Paul: Everything is through that Lens. Everything you experience is through that lens.

Debbie: Is it a matter of visual curation?

Paul: It's your point of view, so you can't turn it off. I have been likening it to breathing; is the best way I can describe it. It's like survival. It's like it's an automatic reflex, but you have control over at times. A lot of times you just doing it, it's just, you're not thinking about it and it sustains you in all kinds of ... It sustains me in all kinds of different ways, but it's just who you are at a certain point, I feel like. I was introduced to that idea in college, from my mentor, Jay Charles Walker, who is the head of the program there.

He and his partner, John Buchanan ran the program and Charles lived ... they both lived design. Their home, they designed and built. They designed the situation they were in. He designed the program. Charles was a modernist, so every aspect, in a way that I could never do. I think I finally had to admit to myself. I mean, I just visited him recently. They have a house in Key West and I was in the shower and they take all the labels off their ...

Sorry, John and Charles. They take all the labels off of their shampoo and products because they're ugly. Sorry, Debbie if you design any of those, but they're like, "No." I was like, "I'm not that bad. I hate to say bad, but great.

Debbie: Paul, you have enough of a body of work now a really extraordinary work. I mean, you just came back from The Alliance Graphique Internationale World Congress. You're one of I think 200 people in the world that are part of this rarefied group of designers that have to be voted in. It's extremely hard to get in. Almost no one gets in. I was rejected. Many, many people that I know and admire were rejected. So there's no question, you are really one of the great graphic designers living and working today. You've worked for the New York Times, for many, many magazines, many, many books, authors, musicians, et cetera. Why not a monograph? Why a memoir? 

Paul: I would say my answer probably has to do with just not wanting to rock the boat too much in terms of what I do as a designer. 

Debbie: What do you mean by that? I mean rock the boat. You've been talking about bed wetting in this book, you're rocking the boat. 

Paul: I don't want to change the context in which I'm able to do the work that I'm doing. I'm very lucky to sort of operate, usually, in a situation where someone contacts me to do something. There aren't really specific expectations of what I will do.

Debbie: You say no a lot.

Paul: I do. Someone doesn't call me and go, "I want a monster truck, AMC Pacer, made out of cardboard," like that doesn't happen.

Debbie: So the project for-

Paul: [crosstalk 00:26:22] giants, I'm referring to.

Debbie: We'll talk about that in a little bit.

Paul: I wouldn't want to do that. I would want to have an open situation to try to figure out what we should do and have the freedom to be able to navigate that anyway. I felt like it needed to for their sake and for mine, frankly, because I feel like design really is half altruism and half selfishness, from my perspective. That a designer is responding to a situation typically, especially, if you have clients, these aren't your concerns, there other concerns. There's some situation and so solving or figuring out that situation for a client is at its core, sort of altruistic.

It's not about you, but then at the same time, if it was 100% altruistic, it would be horrible. I think it would just be terrible. So I think a designer has to be selfish too. Anyway, getting back to the original question, I just felt like a monograph would too easily make me somebody that somebody could say, "Oh, they do X, Y, or Z." Those expectations aren't there. 

Debbie: The book is a remarkably well written one. One of my favorite things about the book is actually the first line, which I'll read. During a recent visit to my mom's house, I couldn't help but notice it." Where did you learn to write? Did you take writing lessons at night? I mean, how did you get ... I mean, it's not right that you can do so many things so well.

Paul: High school. I learned to write in high school. No, I did. I definitely took ... through college, I had [crosstalk 00:27:52].

Debbie: That doesn't count. You're a middle aged man. You can't go back to your high school and college writing lessons.

Paul: Well, I'm just saying. Probably also you asked why? I'm a masochist, to a certain degree. I have no business writing a book like that, so therefore, that's an interesting thing to try to do. I loved it. It was impossible and that's so motivating for me too. I think that gets back to the no expectations or what are the expectations? When something feels like it's impossible or like you have no business doing it, that's when you really roll up your sleeves and figure something thing out.

Debbie: No, that's when Paul rolls up his sleeves and figures something out. That's not the way I approach life.

Paul: It just makes it exciting. 

Debbie: So the stakes are high, and that excites you?

Paul: Yes, definitely.

Debbie: You structure the book in three parts, which run chronological to your life; chaos, order and entropy. How did you settle on these three elements as the major phases in your life as far?

Paul: Well, that was really with the help of a great editor, Gabriel Levinson. Gabriel, I didn't know before, but he read what I was writing and that was from him, straight up, and I embraced that because I feel like he ... he had a similar upbringing than I did and he got it. Not everybody gets it, he totally got it. 

Debbie: What is it about designing books aside from your own as a memoir as opposed to a design, a cover design or a designed book. You do a lot of book design, lot of covers, Chuck Klosterman, Patton Oswald, Rick Moody, Hemingway. What is it about book covers that you enjoy doing so much? 

Paul: It's a really singular design challenge because it plugs into a context that's very specific. I would admit to not being that interested or maybe not interested at all in the whole marketing side of selling of the book, even though the covered tends to be maybe one of the most, it's the most important kind of thing to sell a book. It's the visual. I think a book cover as more of as a door for an experience. It's an entry point for someone reading, and in that way, that function, if you will, of a book cover, outlasts, for the whole life of the book, the initial concern I was talking about, "Like we got to get someone to buy this thing."

Every time anyone picks it up, it's the first thing they see before they start reading and you're responding to something that's in a non visual form and you have to create a visual for it, that one, graphic designers don't have a captive audience. Sometimes we forget that. We're not filmmakers. Everybody doesn't go into a dark room and stare at a screen. You have to grab somebody. You have to shake them, make them pay attention to this thing, and then experience it from there. 

In terms of book covers, all those elements are totally in there. It's got to relate, but you can't give too much way. I've done hundreds and hundreds of them and I see myself not getting bored with that. I don't know.

Debbie: One of the things that I enjoy so much about your book is how candid you are about both the things that have gone well and the things that went way off the rails. Talk about your relationship with James Patterson. You talk about that you once had the misfortune of working on a James Patterson book cover. What happened there?

Paul: I've always worked outside of publisher. So a creative director is at the publisher and then they think of me for a particular title and then they contact me. Well, in this case, Michael Ian Kay was a creative director of Little Brown years ago. It was around 2000, I think, and he was leaving and he asked if I would mind if I would come in for maybe three months. All the people working for him were quitting, and then I was helping to create a new design team transition.

I thought, "Oh, you know, I've never been on the inside," just to see what it's like. Three months at little brown and I think Michael had told me before I left, he said this, "You're going to want to do all this stuff, but most of your time, 95, 96% of your time here, is going to be dealing with the shit you don't want to do in terms of covers. They're are going to be two really, two or three books that you would want nothing to do with, that are going to suck all your time out." I remember thinking, "Why?"

Debbie: Well, aren't those the books that generally pay for all the other books that are really fun?

Paul: That's probably true, but anyway.

Debbie: That's the way Chip Kidd puts it. 

Paul: He's probably right, but what do I know? I was in there for three months. Yes. So one of the books was a James Patterson book, and um, you typically with all the rest of the titles, there was something to read. There was a very set stylistic, a system that was already in place. It was an illustration, big type, whatever. It's got foil stamps, and in Boston. Anything to make it not feel like paper. So I contacted them, I reached out to him and said, "Oh, was there anything to read?" He said, "Why would you need to ... if you're, if you're selling a big Mac, you shouldn't have to eat it to know how to sell it." 

That's what he told me, and I kindly thanked him for that input and hung up, and thankfully never ever talked to that person again. That's my relationship with James Patterson. 

Debbie: How did the cover turn out? 

Paul: Oh, I have no idea. I was only there for three months. It went on longer. I don't know, whatever. They all look the same. Whatever.

Debbie: You have a really interesting relationship with saying no. You stick to your guns, you are very adamant about what you believe is right and wrong. You share quite a lot of these stories, again, along with all the successes. Share the story if you can, about working with Steely Dan.

Paul: God, you're going to go there. I will just say before I get into that, I don't know if that's actually a good thing. You know the story I just told about my connection with James Patterson. You heard my voice. So there's probably some disdain in there, whatever. As long as I don't have to deal with it. I mean, you know, good for you. I mean the guy makes a ton of money. He probably loves what he does on some level. 

Debbie: I think what's interesting, you talk about these things very candidly, you never ... I mean though, you might have disdain, you're talking about that now. It doesn't come across as disdain in the book. It comes across as these are situations that you're likely to be in as a graphic designer. You're potentially to compromise your beliefs or to be really persuaded to do something that you don't want to do, for the sake of commercial value.

You're very upfront about what that does to a person and what it did to you, and how you dealt with it and I think that's really necessary in these times when we're living in a day and age where we're constantly feeling like we're being marginalized, not just as designers.

Paul: Well, and I want to say too that, along with that, I do hope the book is a way for people just to see how one person deals with it. It's not any way, any kind of roadmap I would suggest for anyone else to follow. You have to follow your own path.

Debbie: I'm going to reframe my question. Tell us about what happened with Steely Dan and then tell us now what you think about how have you handled that situation? 

Paul: Like most projects, I'm lucky enough, I suppose again, to have people contact me. People reach out to me for work. Anyway, got a call out of the blue. This was at a time when people actually used the phone, from their manager and they want to see if I wanted to work on their latest release. This was about 2000. Of course I'm like, "Cool, a band, I'll totally do that." So I went and met with them at the recording studio. Super Cool guys, Fagen and Becker. I was super young. Early thirties maybe.

I hadn't been in New York that long. I just thought, "Oh, this is super cool. I'm usually just in my studio staring at a screen, designing book covers, not having any human interaction with people." So anyway, so I'm like, "Yes, let's do it." So they hired me to do it. We started the process maybe two or three meetings. They played songs in the recording studio for me, which is really cool. We got a cover approved and I was sent away to design the whole rest of it. It was a CD package; so went away. 

There was one thing that was the discussion about this. They were like, it was a black and white photo by Michael Northrop of ... there was two people in a field, shadow of them and then there was just some type that ran two against nature, Steely Dan. It sort of ran across the middle. It was pretty simple, but it bled on both sides and they were like, "Can you make it a color photo? Can you colorize it?" I'm like, "Like an old movie?"

They're like, "Yes." I'm like, "Well, no. It's a black and white photo. I'm pretty sure. I mean, why would you want to colorize a black and white photo? Let's just re-shoot it. It's a simple thing. We could totally do it." They're like, "Well why don't you see ..." It wasn't like, "You have to do this thing." It was brought up as a question and I sort of shot it down and I went away. As I'm thinking about it, I'm like, "Well, I'm not going to hire him somebody, Michael maybe again to shoot it again in color, let me just show them what the rest of the package looks like. And then if they want to do that we can totally do it." It was just such a simple photograph.

I go away and design the rest of the stuff, I come in and let's see. We were avoided a lawsuit on the book so far from them. So something was different. I think they were high, is my suspicion, like I just thought, "Something's weird." They sat down and unlike these other meetings we had, where it was very friendly and they were ... confrontation right away, Why didn't you colorize the photo? We told you to colorize this photo," and then they kind of went through the whole thing that I was presenting and just, "Change that, move that over there."

They had a photo of the two of them in lab coats pointing out a chalkboard to put in there. I'm like, "No fucking way." I'm just saying to myself, "That's not going in there," like I wasn't even there. Just having a conversation about what they were doing with things and it was just totally different than any of the conversation we had. There were paranoid. "I know you changed this, you changed this photo, you moved this over ..." This kind of thing. I kept trying to interject. "I don't know if we should ... do you really want to do that? But this doesn't feel like ..." this kind of thing. 

Then finally I was just like, "Okay, forget it." So I just sat there. I probably sat there for 15 minutes and they were just like pissed and I'm like, "Fuck this." I stood up and said, "Guys, I quit. I don't work this way." Then right then Fagen, jumped up and just put his finger in my face, and was like, "Fuck you. Attitude. See what I mean?" He looked over at Becker and I'm like, "Fuck me? Fuck you," and then, "Fuck you," and it just kept getting louder. "Oh, you think I was going to do any that, you're insane. Fuck you."

Then so then next thing I know, I'm on the street, I'm like, "What the fuck just happened? What happened in there? Oh my God." It just exploded. You know that something happens that's just ... you're just like blood is in your head and you're just like [crosstalk 00:39:33]

Debbie: Rage, rage.

Paul: Then it's over and you're like, "Did that actually just happen?" Anyway, that's what happened.

Debbie: Now in retrospect?

Paul: In the end, I'm glad it happened because it was awesome. It's a hilarious story I think, but yes, I mean in retrospect, you take out a project like that, you go in knowing that it's going to be probably difficult and you might not have total control over it. The only thing I screwed up was how I quit. I should have been able to keep it together and then quit later. Just have a conversation with the manager. Like, "What the hell was that? I think they were high. I'm not doing any of that. So if you don't want to work with me, that's fine. I'll even help you find somebody to finish this project off if you want." 

That would have been a better way of doing it, and just left with ... and you know, who knows? In the end, I may have been able to figure out how to not have it be awful. I love collaboration, as long as I get my way."

Debbie: You've had a really long relationship now with the band, They Might Be Giants. They saw your work in the New York Times and wanted you to do some art for their then album Join Us and you created an album cover featuring a DayGlo pink hearse monster truck running over the band's name and Helvetica. That in and of itself is awesome, but it also led to a life size version you built out of cardboard and hot glue, which you referenced before.

You seem to be able to get people to do bigger things than I think they may have anticipated. What is the secret to the longevity you have with your clients and getting them to take risks?

Paul: Well, I don't know if I really have that many examples of longevity with a specific client. I think this particular situation with TMBG is sort of unique in that way.

Debbie: You've been working for a very long time with various publishers, you've been working with for a very long time with the New York Times. You've been working for a very long time now with They Might Be Giants.

Paul: Maybe you're right. Maybe I think of myself as always alienating clients, so I only work for them once. I'm kidding ... Sort of. Well, They Might Be Giants is a sort of a weird ... You mentioned I teach at SVA. Graphic designers, always have this internal need to feel that if they could finally have a client that's something they love, that now everything will be okay. The fact is, most of the time we're designing as designers, our clients aren't things we may have known anything about before we started working with them, and hopefully then something develops there.

I've always found that when something is a dream client, it's a fucking nightmare.

Debbie: He's saying all of this with quotes, listeners. 

Paul: I mean, well around dream client. It's usually a bad idea.

Debbie: Why is that? 

Paul: Well, I, I've got many examples. I did a project four years ago with Marvel Comics. It wasn't a total nightmare but it's just like any other project sort of, but my expectations of it because of my relationship with Marvel, I was very disappointed. I'll just put it that way. The second project that I was working on was a book on Jack Kirby, the comic book artist, and he was a huge, still, a huge influence on me. He's a hero of mine.

I came into that project, it was a book of his work and I came into his project with I think Mr Kirby's best interests at heart. This was going to be great because of Jack. Well the author came into it with that viewpoint as well and so did four or five other people, the editor or whatever, and nobody agreed on what the best thing, and so I finally quit because it was just like, "This is not going to be good, this is not going to be what I think it needs to be, should be." I was right. I mean it's got tons of Jack's work in it so it's fine, but the design of the book sucks.

Debbie: How do you get the clients that you have, and have had for a long time to really do breakthrough work? How do you develop longevity with clients without compromising your spirit? 

Paul: I think in the end, it's not something that is a how to, it just happens. That would be my answer to it because like I said, you had to even remind me that I had any longer relationships with clients. I think most of the time it's sort of sad, like you do it once, you're like, "Boy, I never want to ..." It's a mutual, this kind of thing. So I think it just happens. They Might Be Giants, silly enough, it is the dream crowd project. The thing that I just argued doesn't ever exist because I listened to their music in college, when I was learning graphic design-

Debbie: Okay, I want to stop for a second, Paul. We're going off-script. You're being too self deprecating. 

Paul: Oh, okay. All right.

Debbie: People that haven't seen your work or know you, I don't want them to come away from this show thinking something different than I know you are. So I want it like that whole last part. 

Paul: What was the last part?

Debbie: You've said a couple of times, "I don't realize ... I didn't realize." I mean it's fine that you didn't realize they have longterm clients but you don't just work for people once. I mean James wanted you to work on his book again without and you said no. So there's lots of things you do. You're being way too self deprecating.

Paul: Okay, it's fine but it's totally true. It's totally true. Listen, you can be at the top of your profession or seemingly at the top of your profession and it's still graphic design. We are not talking.

Debbie: Yes, but you don't just work with people once, you work with people for years and years.

Paul: Debbie, I will also say, I think it's a disservice to make people feel that graphic designers have any fucking power in terms of work we do. We have very little. I do it by backing out of situations. I don't get in there and throw my weight around like Frank Lloyd Wright or something. If you read anything about Frank Lloyd Wright, he sounded like an asshole, but he sort of had to be an asshole to get his work done, the way he felt that needed to be. 

Well, we're talking about lots of money on big commissions, their big buildings. A graphic designer is doing ... just being honest about it, lets use a business card. People are paid to do business cards, right? It's a fucking business card, but for me, it's like the Guggenheim, but it's a business card. It's not the Guggenheim. Again, I feel like graphic designers a lot of times, get into it with a false sense of what is going to be possible out there, unless they're willing to be an appropriately demanding about something like a business card. 

What's the big deal if the type's a little bigger? It is a big deal, that's in there. It's baked into it. Anyway, I'll try to be a little less.

Debbie: Well, I think I have a higher opinion of your place in design culture than you do, and I can understand there being a difference, but the delta between what you ... it's just humongous. I'm conscious of the fact that you are a designer, one of the few designers that sets their own rules and does work that is uncompromising but also extremely successful, and there aren't many. I could probably name all of them on one hand, and I think that that's something really special and necessary. There's something that all designers and all creative people can learn from that; you're one of the few people that is ridiculously uncompromising. To a fault, you're uncompromising.

Paul: You've told me before that you thought of me as an artist and not as a designer. 

Debbie: That's true. 

Paul: I think of myself as a designer, not an artist, and no question about it. Again. I have functioned as a sort of a free service to many graphic designers over the years who've come to my studio just wanting to know how they can do what I'm doing.

Debbie: Where do you find the guts? I know that you may be in the grand scheme of things, would have wished you'd behave differently with Walter and Donald ... Steely Dan, but you didn't. Where did you get the guts to say that? I've been in meetings ... as you were talking about that, I remember being in a meeting at CVS, and being talked to in such a way that I wanted to cry and scream and walk out of the room, and I didn't have the guts to do it. I look back on that time and I think, "I wish I had the guts to do that."

Paul: You know what I tell everyone when they come and need me to tell them what the secret is? You need to go without, you need to quit the job and not have the money and maybe not make rent and barely fricking scrape by, and sleep on a cot in a freaking studio, and have a studio that's falling apart above a stinky Dunkin Donuts, that's infested with fucking mice. If that's what you want to know, that's what it is. You have to have persistence and you have to just stick up for yourself and pay the consequences. It's a give and take. 

Debbie: So it was non-negotiable for you.

Paul: And you have to work harder than anyone else. I only say this because again, I teach. I see so many designers have a false impression of what it actually is going to be and how hard it's going to be, to do work that you want to do as a graphic designer because it's plugged into culture and society in such complicated ways as you know. It's not you just deciding you want to make something, but as a designer, you need to have opinions and you need to stick to them.

What is that going to mean in terms of what you're working on, how much you're getting paid for it and how you can make ends meet in the end? A good part of the self deprecating thing has to do with that. I just feel like, you know, and when I tell these people who've come to me for advice, do you, how many people take my advice and follow what I do? I can count on one hand. Actually, I don't even need the hand. It's zero. That's fine. People are very disappointed with the answer, but like that's it. What do you want to do and what you're prepared to do to do it.

Debbie: What are you prepared to sacrifice to do it? 

Paul: You couldn't have done what I have done in, I don't know, probably India or somewhere, because the sacrificing we're talking about, it's not sacrificing. It's just what you're willing to not have. I've never been hungry or anything, but let's just say I haven't maximized my earning potential, and I'm totally fine with that. I just couldn't do some of that stuff that you were talking about at CVS. Some of my early work experiences. 

I went to school. I was taught what it was to be a graphic designer. I made type faces. I took my own photographs. I created all kinds of things when I was in Grad school; I had the freedom to do it and found something that I loved, really loved. I got out into the world and just thought, "Hey, you get a job." The job was awful. The second job was awful. The third job was awful. My first wife, you know, like begging me not to quit these jobs, just miserable.

Then I finally had to get fired from my last job and then I'm like, "Okay, this is what it's going to be." That no thing. You get a lot better at saying, no. I've gotten a lot better. I think a lot of it's just being in the right situation and being able to identify what those situations are. Early in your career, you can't do that. They Might Be Giants just by having conversations, I told John Flansburg who I talked to, who's awesome by the way, that Steely Dan story and he just cracked up.

It's like, "Okay, this might work," but somebody else, somebody I might not, shouldn't be working with, might've been like, "Ooh. I recently met with a Beastie Boys about designing of the book they have coming up. I basically told him at that meeting, I said, "Look, I love you guys. I would love to work on this project, but you need to know that this is my book too. If I'm going to work on this thing, it's your book, but it's my book too. And you need to know that going in."

Debbie: Did you get the job?

Paul: I did not. They ended up working with Connie [Pirtle 00:52:59] out in LA, who is amazing. I didn't get the job for a number of different reasons. One, they are mostly going to be out in LA, and so they really needed a place to work and I don't even have a proper studio right now. We were meeting at Pentagram, my wife's company, in their meeting room because I didn't really have any place for to work with them. It turns out that they were out in LA, I don't know what's that. I'm not saying it was that at all. We got a great meeting and I loved meeting the two of them; sort of heroes of mine too and a totally different way, but they ended up working with the person they needed to work with. 

When I heard I didn't get the project, I was a little surprised, but then when I heard it was Connie, I was just like, "Oh awesome," because they're really good hands with him. Again, I just think things sort of worked out the way they do and you get better at being able to know who you need to be working with or how to even handle the situation when you're in the middle of it, than I did with Steely Dan for instance.

Debbie: I have two last questions. A few years back you said that you were still operating by your inner 24 year old's rules. So are you still? 

Paul: No, I don't think so anymore. I closed down my studio about four years ago.

Debbie: Well, you closed out the space but you have the studio.

Paul: I'm fundamentally working in a different way now where I'm not ... over the years it was very difficult to sort of operate under the model I was working on because to have office rent in New York City, it's a couple of employee; employee or two. Doing book covers and illustrations, you got to have bigger projects, you have to have more money coming into the studio. It was always really tricky. At a certain point, and I think kids involved, New York for me and my wife Emily, were ... and this is before we were married, but we both worked until 02:00 o'clock in the morning. Maybe would take a break at 10:00 o'clock, and go out to dinner and then come back to the studio and work all night.

It was great, really great, and then just at a certain point, then we kids show up, you can't do that anymore. You don't want to do that anymore. I think that was kind of it. Right now I work at the top floor of my house. The boys are in the studio all the time. The priorities are a little different now.

Debbie: Has fatherhood of two young boys now, I think Harry and Eli?

Paul: Yup.

Debbie: Has it changed the way you work? I mean, not the process of working, but the type of creativity that you have? 

Paul: I would say yes. It's a little less singular focused than it used to be. I don't know if that's actually a bad thing. Maybe I'm kidding myself.

Debbie:  I know. I think it's a wonderful thing. 

Paul: The best way I can describe it as I have a do not disturb thing on the ... it's a door in front of the third floor. So I have the top, the third floor, if it's closed, they know that I'm on a phone call or something, but pretty much it's always open. So they come up. Sometimes they come up and draw there. Sometimes they come up to show me something or tell me something, whatever it is, the interruptions have been more frequent now that you're a little older, you know, that has to change your, our point of view and what you're doing on some level. 

I don't exactly know how, but you could say, I could definitely say by my old standards, I'm way more distracted now. That's an easy way to say it, but I don't think it's me again, maybe I'm kidding myself, but I don't think it's bad. I think it's like kind of good. I will say that we are always looking for editing mechanisms in terms of who we're working with or for. But if someone doesn't like any inner interrupted on a phone call by a nine year old, they definitely shouldn't be working with me, because it's going to freaking happen. Thankfully, everybody I work with wants to talk to them, you know, maybe or understands and isn't bothered by it.

Debbie: So my last question for you. In late August, you tweeted, "I just took a piss and Paul Rand's yard," you were of course referring to the late Great American modernists, designer Paul Rand, who's house is currently up for sale. What made you decide to urinate in his yard as opposed to the house?

Paul: It's true. It happened. I did it. Emily and I were up there looking at his house because it was for sale and I think we just kind of had this moment where like, "Should we be living in Maplewood, New Jersey, in this colonial house we can be able to ..." it was sort of the same price as what we pay for ours. Should we be living in this beautiful modernist house in Western Connecticut? 

After thinking about that for five seconds, I'm like, "You know what, I don't want to live in Paul's house." Anyway, so we thought, "Oh, but I'd love to go and see it," so we went up and saw it. So I'm up there with the two guys, our two nine year olds, Emily and our new dog. It's a long trip up there, there's no bathroom breaks and we get there late or whatever. Also the house is on seven acres, so taking a piss in Paul Rand's yard, it's not ... I didn't do it in the front yard, I did in the yard ... and so did my two boys at the same time. The dog did too.

That's the transparency of everything. It was a wooded area on the side, but the tweet is just obviously, sort of a, just supposed to be funny.

Debbie: It's classic Paul.

Paul: I love Paul Rand, I totally respect him, so that's what that was.

Debbie: Paul Sahre, thank you so much for joining me on Design Matters, and thank you for creating such important and groundbreaking and honest work.

Paul: Of course, thank you for having me.

Debbie: Paul Sahre’s latest book is titled Two Dimensional Man, a graphic memoir, and you can see more of his work at This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again, soon.