It’s okay to get a bit hot under the collar about beautiful design, says Justin Harder
Our trade isn’t the most glamorous, in that we don’t get underwear in the mail from our fan base. But a couple of days ago I received a Facebook message from an attractive young girl who said she admired my work, which inspired me to think about some major influences of mine: people who I’ve admired and have made me see the way that I do, or at least inspired me to do what I do.
I was practically raised on campus at the Art Center College of Design in California, where my dad was studying transportation design back in the 80s. My adolescent library was one of a private design school, filled with the slickest design books and magazines that still blow my mind. One of my first design crushes was Syd Mead, without a doubt. I still have the copy of Oblagon that my dad owned before I was born. Its outer shell disintegrated years ago and there are pages falling out but it’s still one of the most favourite books I own. We’re talking toxic designer marker sketches of the Tron logo, not to mention the number system he designed inside. If Tron wasn’t a movie, and I had tattoos, I’d probably have that type on my chest. But, like most good design, it looks better in a book. Anyway, this beast of a book has renderings of spaceships, hi-tech planets, yachts made for yachts, cars, and, yeah, Blade Runner! All done in gouache like a champion.
Syd was so beast that it was hard to find another crush. Sure, there were some flings in-between. I wanted to be a painter like Salvador Dali in junior high: firstly because he invented his own language; and secondly there was a moment in one of his films where he’s playing a piano with live cats sticking out of it. To this day it’s still weird but I loved it. His imagination was inviting and scary at the same time. His paintings were clever and graphic with a tonne of sadness. And for a mad man, his execution was clean and tight like Syd Mead.
After Dali, I had a good run with skateboard design. My first deck was the original Powell, a Tony Hawk deck in red made of 7 ply. It weighed more than most surfboards do now. Its best friend was the Mike McGill model that had a snake coming out of a skull’s mouth. They were designed to scare parents and look bad-ass as they accommodated the messy floors in our bedrooms. Years later, when skateboards went to Jenny Craig and wheels were merely a membrane of thin skin wrapped around a bearing like a band aid, a new era of skateboard design was born, which wasn’t solely dependent on rock ‘n’ roll with lightning bolts, skulls and snakes to piss off our parents. It was still punk and rebellious, but cleaner with more sophistication and wit. Our local skate shop hosted these fine specimens. Inside, on the wall, shiny decks like candy screamed with colour and irony.
What made this new era of skateboard design amazing was its simplicity. Some would recycle the foundation of a recognisable logo like Tommy Hilfiger, Tag Heuer or Burger King and replace the typography with a pro skater’s name. Critics might argue this to be piracy or lack of imagination, but I disagree and hail it with brilliance. It was good fun, with a middle finger to pop culture while retaining graphic charisma at its finest.
On to the real crush here: the wonderful Designers Republic (tDR). It was the fall of 1998 that I got accepted into Art Center. I was stoked. I met a dude at orientation and, without malice, he made me realise how nave I was and that I didn’t know fuck all about my major, which was graphic design. My cherry wasn’t popped until this guy invited me into the club of IDM ( intelligent dance music ). What a wonderful place this was: it was elite, special, esoteric, pretentious, smart, sophisticated, pompous, different, sometimes painful but in a good way. I loved it and still do. In retrospect, it only made sense that IDM would reflect its precious sound visually through the eyes and fingers of the wonderful tDR.
Can we talk about the surplus of superfluous logos they designed that melted my face – and how I still design logos just for myself and will never sell them because they are like children to me? How they owned Helvetica; not to mention the outlandish tracking that we wish we did first – tracing whatever they wanted and it always looked cool, la the Grammy winners video, which changed my life, making purple a colour worth using again. But just because they did type you can’t read, who cares? This is design mentality: you should stop reading for a second and COL (clap out loud). Thank you tDR! You were maniacs and I wish I could have been part of that madness. tDR was the Hipgnosis, the Zoetrope, the Bauhaus of its time.