The Interviews

Marc English


is Always Going Off the Beaten Path

Interview by Leif Steiner & Emily Potts
September 20, 2016

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Whether he’s teaching, designing, or hitting the road on his motorcycle, Marc English never takes the prescribed route. No, he likes to distance himself from the tried and true, sticking to his gut instincts and following his muse.

English has become widely known in design circles as an eccentric with an appetite for adventure. He’s crisscrossed the U.S. on his Triumph Bonneville, meeting new people, sketching, speaking, and always searching for the best piece of pie. Here he talks about his journeys, people he’s met, things he’s seen, and his role in design.

What exactly are you up to these days?

For the last couple of years, I’ve been beating this expression into the ground, when folks ask what I’m up to: “As little as possible, and I don’t even start that till noon.” The truth is, I’m doing what I’ve been doing for the last thirty years: living life as best I can, with design and education paying the rent. Just more than a year ago, I was speaking at a conference in Palm Springs, and the name of my talk was “The Career I Never Wanted,” as I have never wanted to work for myself. Always wanted to work for someone older, smarter, more talented, that would take me under their wing. Life doesn’t always work the way you’d like, so I’ve had to suffer the consequences of my choices.

At the Boston HOW Conference of 1994, the late Gordon McKenzie, then creative director at Hallmark, spoke movingly about life in design, acknowledging the safest one can be is in an underground bunker with no windows or doors. I liken that to any number of dead-end design gigs — I’ll let the reader fill in the blanks as they see fit. On the other hand, Gordon said the most free one can be is in free-fall from an airplane without a parachute. I’d say that to a degree, I’ve been in the latter category, and after having my own gig for 23+ years, am lucky enough to have not yet hit ground. Before I hit, I’d like to find an equilibrium and halfway point between the two.

I’m a designer, first and foremost, as that perspective has colored the way I see the world.

But that does not mean I live to design. In fact, quite the opposite. I live to live, to explore, and then use what I’ve learned along the way, about people, nature, cultures, history, geography, science, literature, film, music, to inform what work I take on.

I’ve also been teaching for close to 30 years in one capacity or another. This is my tenth year with the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, in their online graduate program. I’ve been fortunate to have students from all over the U.S., as well as in Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, India, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and a few other spots. I love engaging with bright folks, and over the years have learned a thing or two or three from my students.

What kinds of projects still excite you as a designer?

Projects that have me engaging with smart folks. There are so few visionary leaders, that it’s not funny. My last really fun project never saw the light of day, and I’m okay with that. I was called in by director Rick Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Slacker, School of Rock, Boyhood, Before Midnight), with whom I’ve worked before (Hulu’s Up to Speed, packaging for The Criterion Collection) to help on a poster for his latest film, Everybody Wants Some!!. The guy has a vision, and is not afraid to play or work. We both knew going into it that not even a seed of my ideas may make it all the way up the food chain from Rick’s production office in Austin to Paramount—the distributor—in Los Angeles. We both knew how the machine worked, but wanted to give it the old college try. Which I guess is appropriate, considering the film is about college. But it’s always an honor to be called to the table by a smart guy (or gal) whom you respect. That he earlier gave me a walk-on in the film, as a college professor, was also a kick, considering that ages ago I had considered a career in acting.

I really dig the idea of team projects, with a lot of smart folks bringing their areas of expertise to the table. I learn, and they respect what I know. Having designed for clients as diverse as local nonprofits (GirlStart) to international telecom (Sharing Technologies), I’m pretty much game for anything that’s fun, informative, and engaging.

What’s the number one rule you tell your students about design?

For years I’ve been telling them to design things that will get stolen.

Their posters should be ripped from walls, their books should be liberated from libraries. It’s about creating artifacts that actually act as artifacts. Their packaging should be saved long after the products have landed in the landfill. Design that serves a purpose and inspires, that puts a smile on one’s face, will stand the test of time.

You seem to be on the road a lot. What are the most interesting things you see/find on your journeys?

I could seriously write volumes one the subject — especially were one to pay me. In terms of motorcycling, I’ve seen sublime vistas that take the breath away. From the moonlit nights on the Big Sur to riding under a full moon on a foggy night, the entire length of Vermont. Have taken the bike solo across the Bonneville Salt Flats and got stuck in the mud in any number of states, on any number of roads where I should not have been.

I found it interesting last year to see there are still chain-gangs in Arkansas, that Confederate flags are epidemic in Southern Louisiana, but also in every other state in the Union. I’ve found friendly and kind people of every stripe, and every political bent. On foot, I found a total stranger asking “Are you Marc English?” when I was standing in Hope, Alaska, in a village in which I’d never been. I’ve found myself pulled to my feet to dance trance music in the Moroccan village of Joujouka, while the musicians play what they’ve been playing for 800 years. I’ve seen things people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain.

Do you ever sketch on your journeys?

Sure, though hardly of the quality of those whom I admire that do REAL sketches, with precision and soul. I do what I call “Sharpie® photos.” Okay, I don’t really call them that. I don’t call them anything. But on occasion I’ll stop and pull out the Sharpie® and do a quick sketch, when I find myself in a given landscape that begs for more than a photo. By stopping and taking a bit of time, even if hacking out a ten-minute sketch with a marker, I think I’m planting the scene deeper in my memory. Years ago I’d also add colored pencil, but for the last few years I’ve been using Faber Castell Pitt artist markers, as the colors are extraordinarily vibrant. This year I got stuck in Belize (long story), with only a day-pack that included all my markers and a canteen. I think I have my priorities straight.

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Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met?

There have been so many, of course. Yet the first person that comes to mind, is a retired engineer I met in Mendicino, California, back in 2012. It was about two hours until the sun dropped over the horizon — which matters when you’re on a motorcycle, and still more than four hours away from your destination. But as I was winding and purring along, I spotted an old barn with the words DON’T FORGET THE MAGIC painted on the side. I had to stop, even if minutes were ticking. As I was taking photos of this magnificent contraption he’d built, that dripped water and chimed and gonged, when tripped by water or air, the guy came from the barn. In spite of him wanting to rush off — his wife was on the phone as he came out, beer in hand, it being end of day — I ended up interviewing him on film. DON’T FORGET THE MAGIC is what it’s all about, whether it’s about relationships or work, as it’s about whatever it was you once loved that pulled you in a certain direction in the first place. We only spent a short time together, yet I know I could have learned a lot from him.

What’s your best pick-up line? and does it work?

Never had one. I have no game. Zero.

Do you still consider yourself a Shaman, and if so, what does that mean to us mere mortals?

When I came to that conclusion, it was only after spending some time with archeologists and researchers documenting pictographs and petroglyphs of the Four Corners region of the U.S. when I was a college student. I realized we — designers — do the same thing shaman did: we leave marks to explain. Then, years later, I found myself with a Mayan shaman in Guatemala, who said that I had what it took to really be a shaman, should I care to return and study with him. I wish I had. The word shaman is from Siberia, where ethnologists first studied their role, but in fact they are culturally universal. Their role is not religious, but instead to act as conduit between two worlds: The he world we see and know, and the unknown, occupying a middle-space. Show me one designer who has NOT fallen into a trance, listened to special music, ingested a substance to stay awake, to induce visions, to do all in their power to find a way to act as bridge in terms of communication, and I’ll show you someone that’s not a designer.

While I don’t take myself seriously, I do take my work seriously. That said, before I started my own thing, I was Assistant Design Director at WCVB-TV in Boston, and when I was redoing all the corporate branding materials (except for changing the very groovy logo designed by Lance Wyman), instead of listing Assistant Design Director on my business card, I wrote Design Shaman.

No one knows what the fuck an Assistant Design Director does, and most have no clue as to what a Design Shaman does, so what difference did it make?

In all seriousness, when it became crystal clear to me, back in college, that what we as designers do has been going on for eons, I figured I’d just get old school.

Have you found the perfect pie yet on your journeys?

There’s amazing blackberry pie in Eureka, California, and in Guysborough, Nova Scotia there’s a fine butterscotch pie. In between the oceans I’ve had some fine pies. But the best pies I’ve ever had are those of Kathy Knapp, of the Pie-o-neer, in Pie Town, New Mexico. I met her while on a long road trip, where I found myself serving as juror of the annual Pie Town Pie Festival. Sure beats judging the Addys in Lincoln, Nebraska. No offense to Lincoln, of course … but I’m just saying.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned on this journey, called life?

Integrity comes with a price.

Doing the right thing isn’t easy. Emerson had it right: The most important things are, in this order–Nature and Friends. Slow down.

Best song to listen to while riding?

The wind. Only ambient sound. Do not need any further distractions while riding.

Helmet/no helmet?

Good question. When I first started riding, it was in Texas, where there are no helmet laws. I’d wear one if in rain or cold. But I suppose I wore one about 60% of the time. Now, I’d say I wear one about 95% of the time, and the times I do not, it’s because I’m going a mile down a country road, mid-afternoon, to the post office or literally in the middle of nowhere, on the loneliest of roads. The fact is, I’ve had to lay down my bike twice, once only a mile from home (broken collar bone), and once as I was just about to head out of Yosemite towards Lee Vining, after four weeks and 6,000 miles on the road. By then I was on the Triumph, and wearing a helmet.

Long ago I realized I’m not a biker, but a motorcyclist. Sure, I can fake the former if need be, but the latter is where it’s at. The short version: like any other task, there is proper gear. Motorcycles are a lot of fun and spawn great adventure, but they are also dangerous. If you are gonna ride, be dressed appropriately.

Being alive is much cooler than being dead.

Best run-in with a famous person?

A few memorable ones with Quentin Tarantino. The first time, in a hot tub with him, while he spoke of Uma Thurman wondering about … well, I guess that’s confidential. The second time when he boomed my name across the rooftop turret at Linklater’s compound. I guess “booming” is his only speaking mode, so that’s not too special. And then that one time he was walking by where I was having a client meeting at an outdoor coffee shop that was packed to the gills, and he caught my eye and yelled, “I’ll get those posters to you!” and then everyone stared at me after he left.

Rode an elevator with Saul Bass and just nodded to him, as I felt that bowing would be a little over the top.

Tell us one thing no one knows about you.

There’s a reason no one knows that one thing about me. The fact is, there are many more than one thing that folks don’t know about me, but I’d wager it’s best to keep it that way.

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