Deep into engineering the appropriate look for a history of Mad Magazine, New York graphic designer Alexander Isley speaks of the five minutes of good ideas that emerge from hours of careful thought. And as he describes the mechanics of his creativity, it seems more a matter of editing material than of generating it.
Famous for creating the saucy, spirited look of Spy Magazine, Isley will speak about the world of graphic arts at 8 p.m. Monday in the Mount Royal Station Auditorium of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He is visiting the college as designer in residence in an annual program sponsored by the Art Litho Company.
Since opening his own New York design firm three years ago, Isley and his four staff designers have completed more than 250 projects for such varied clients as Warner Bros. Records, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, MTV Networks, J&B Scotch, Random House, the American Lung Association and the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. He is art director for Archaeology and Forbes FYI magazines as well as serving as consultant to US and Conde Nast Traveler.
So far, his business has chased him.
"In this field, the first thing is to spend a lot of time with the client," he says. "Business sometimes gets overlooked in favor of creating pretty pictures. The way something looks is the very last thing that comes along, or you're not doing your best job.
"Things can look too good and not mean anything. Or they can be laden with meaning and look terrible. The real challenge is to get them working together."
A native of North Carolina, Isley graduated from the Cooper Union School of Art in 1984 and went to work as a designer for M&Co., a New York graphic design studio. He became the first full-time art director for Spy in 1987. Along the way, he picked up a lot of design prizes from such organizations as the American Institute for Graphic Arts.
"In the beginning, it was important to do whatever I could to get recognition. I always wanted to have wrinkles and look older, but having a lot of awards helped."
He says his most satisfying projects to date have been designing an invitation for a Brooklyn Academy of Music production of the opera "Nixon in China" and creating the Fair Square Ruler, a Swiss Army-styled implement sold in museum stores.
Some of his earliest visual influences include Mad Magazine, old album covers and liner notes, and Modern Screen magazine covers, which were chock-a-block with lurid, bouncy cutouts.
"Like most graphic designers, I wanted to be an architect," he says. "I didn't know what graphic design was until I got to college."
The career suits him just fine.
"I have a short attention span and I tend to get impatient. An architectural project can take five years to complete and you often work with 40 other people. This way, I can design something and see it in print on someone's desk two weeks later."