Michael Bierut | Slideshows

James Victore: Straight Up

Cover of Victore, or, Who Died and Made You Boss? by James Victore, designed by Paul Sahre, published this month by Abrams

There are some things you remember clearly almost twenty years later. It was the early nineties. I was dropping something off at the receptionist’s desk in our office. And there, popping out amidst the clutter on her desk, was a business card for a theater group. I picked it up. “This is nice!” I said to our receptionist, Elizabeth. She was an aspiring actress making ends meet by answering our phones.

Elizabeth was startled. “Really?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I wonder who designed it.”

The next day she had the answer. “Here, I wrote it down, but I don’t know how to pronounce it.” And there on the card she offered was written a name completely unfamiliar to me.

“Wow, I’ve never heard of him,” I said. I looked again at the card. “He’s really good.”

“He is?” asked Elizabeth, genuinely puzzled. “How can you tell?”

The name, of course, was James Victore. And the question remains: how can you tell?

It sometimes seems there are two kinds of graphic designers in the world. One kind sees each project as an opportunity for self-expression, producing a body of work that bears an unmistakable mark, that is more alike than different, that is more about the maker than the message. At its best, the output of this kind of designer is personal and passionate; at worst, it’s repetitive and self-indulgent, the mark of the attention-seeking diva.

The other kind of designer attends first to the client, to the message, and to the audience. This graphic designer’s role is to be neutral and invisible, an efficient conduit between broadcaster and receiver. The best of this kind of work is devastatingly effective; the worst is anonymous and forgettable, the product of the kind of hack who gives design a bad name.

James Victore is good because, amazingly, he combines the very best of both ways. His work is unmistakably his. Every one of his pieces bears his handwriting. More often than not, this is literally true: few designers have done more to render typography foundries irrelevant than Victore. The human hand, his hand, is always in evidence. Yet this signature approach takes so many different tones. His handlettering can evoke Spencerian script or the scrawl of a stickup man, a puff of cigar smoke or a mushroom cloud. All of it, though, has one thing in common. It conveys the sense that the words don’t want to wait around to be put into type, justified, and kerned. Instead, the ideas are rushing to get out.

And there lies the paradox that makes Victore so hard to classify. His work, so personal, conveys ideas with the directness of a speeding freight train. If his intention is to shock, as sometimes it is, it is because the subject matter — racism, the death penalty, unsafe sex — is shocking. The results can be shockingly funny as well: just ask the subscribers to a leading design magazine who were given a quick and viciously literal lesson on the difference between Shinola and its customary opposite. And don’t expect an apology if you’re offended. You won’t get one. Nor will you ever, ever miss the point.

If one were envious, one might shrug off Victore for taking the easy way out. After all, he works with art schools, cultural groups, worthy causes, the kind of clients one might think would offer ideal opportunities for memorable design solutions. However, people who talk dismissively about shooting fish in a barrel have probably never taken aim at one of those slippery devils: it’s harder, and messier, than you think. Victore has the powder burns to show for it. And in the midst of those celebrated big bold ideas, all delivered with fierce and accurate punches, one is always surprised to find an example of beautifully structured information design. For example, turn over what is perhaps Victore’s most celebrated poster, featuring a game of hangman that’s completed to devastating effect in the viewer’s head. There on the back is a sober typographic treatment of the poster’s subject, Racism and the Death Penalty, laid out with the straightforward clarity of a brochure for Swiss pharmaceuticals. The two sides of one talented designer were never so perfectly illustrated.

Beatrice Warde once described the two kinds of designers with an extended metaphor in her celebrated 1955 essay “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible.” Some designers, she wrote, create solutions that are like elaborate wine goblets, “solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns.” These are the expressive designers who let their personalities get in the way. Others prefer to pour wine into a “crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent.” These are the neutral designers, desperate to stay in the background.

So let’s make this simple. Here’s how you can tell this designer is good. James Victore does away with the goblets altogether. He simply wrenches the cork off the bottle and pours the stuff right down your throat. Are you thirsty? I know I am. Cheers. 

The above text by Michael Bierut, is the introduction from Victore, or, Who Died and Made You Boss? (Abrams, 2010) by James Victore and has been reprinted here with the publisher's permission.

Also of note: On September 14, 2010, James Victore celebrates the book with a presentation at the School of Visual Arts in New York with Michael Bierut and Paul Sahre. Book signing to follow. More info here.

Posted in: Business, Illustration, Media

Comments [19]

Nice post Michael. I agree, great work.

I was lucky enough to have James as a teacher and would say the only thing more inspiring than his work is he himself. Cheers indeed.
Loaf America

can't wait to open up a copy of Victore's Secret. See you sexy bitches on the 14th. I wouldn't miss it.
felix sockwell

Michael, you begin your piece on James Victore (which, by the way, was insightful and illuminating) by pointing out that there are two types of designer, ‘One kind sees each project as an opportunity for self-expression … [the other] attends first to the client, to the message, and to the audience.’

This discussion gets to the very heart of design practice and theory. But your attempt to position Victore as having one foot in both camps is, for me, problematic in a wider sense.

If we can be afforded the luxury of discussing his work in isolation or in a vacuum all would be well, but at a time when graphic design as an industry struggles for professional acceptance and whose work in the main is understood as largely subjective.

Should we not bend the stick towards celebrating – or at least promoting the idea of the designer as mediator over self-expression in an attempt to quash the predjudices above and illuminate the design process for practitioners?

Because the hand of an individual is present in his work does not necessarily equal self-expression over the content – if the designers mind is fixed squarely on the content.

I am drawn to the work of British graphic designer Ken Garland as – and perhaps along with Victore – graphic examples of this approach.

While Garland often used photography of his own children and their friends in his work and furthermore used the same few typefaces over a lifetime career, Garland could not be considered a designer who put his own ideas into his work in opposition to the ideas of the client.

[email protected]

Alex Cameron

Alex, while I understand your argument, I wouldn't advise mixing Victore into this debate. Thankfully, Michael hits this one pretty much on the nail.
Rocco Piscatello

More dirty plates™£¡¡™££™¡¡™££¡™¡™££¡™


Maybe your intention is to shut me up if so forgive me, but I am intrigued to know what you mean, why should Victore be left out of this debate?

Alex Cameron

+1 Alex. Does Victore meet his clients needs before his own? Or does he just "pour it down their throats"? I'm interested to hear about Victore's clients that never worked out. I'm sure they exsist.

seems hella dated (and not so very good) like steve heller's previous sycophantic rave about seymour chwast, and the book hurts the eye (a copy can be seen at the MoMA store downtown nyc)
ryan williams

Give me my wine in either one of those crystal goblets or one of those fancy gold ones any day, but please don't pour it straight down my throat.
Rob Henning

In this “Age of Apathy” what is Graphic Design?
(a) “Crystal goblet”
(b) “big fucking club with Spikes.”

Victore smashes the crystal goblet out of the park.
Tuesday, September 14, 7:00PM
SVA Theatre, 333 West 23 Street
Free and open to the public

Carl W. Smith

This was very well written and an interesting read.

I like the discussion of the two sides of the fence: pleasing the client or expressing yourself. While it may seem to some of you that designers like Victore forcibly "pour it down their throats", I think that's a bit harsh and judgmental from where I'm sitting.

The designer's hand is always present in every work, though some more noticeably than others. It is always present in the sense that each of us has our own approach, techniques and visual style that shines through, but it is ultimately applied to each client differently for their specific positioning.

In Victore's case, people know his approach and visual style from his previous work, and go to him when their goal is to reach an audience who finds Victore's style appealing and on target. It's not always initially intentional, but each designer develops a visual style all their own... some, like Vistore, just differentiate themselves more.

- Tartsie.com

Tartsie, I like the balance of your argument. I too think the designers hand is more often than not noticable. While I think it important to differentiate between the two competing ideologies that lie behind the 'self-expression' v 'neutral' or post-modern v modernist and indeed what came before in graphic designs short history.

Nevertheless, to get back to your point, just because a designers hand is apparent, does not necessarily equal self expression over the clients message.



Salud...Victore...love the chummy book design by Paul Sahre.
Joanna Rieke

'Typography foundries'? Is that where they cast the hot metal typography? Or is it a 'type foundry'?


Salute Victore IS King.

behind the curve, down here in texas, in spite of james being in town to hawk his wares. so nice to read michael's always-insightful take on design, and in this case, james. right on the money. now on to check out sahre's work . . .
marc english

Interesting article

I think we all have to remember that at the end of the day the graphic design industry is a service industry that provides a service to clients that pay us money to improve how they look, or what message they need to communicate for money.

I'd say that you need to have both sides, both artistic and realist that you are essentially selling a service - albeit a creative service.

For those who are on their incredibly high 'artist' horse - they need to get off it.

For those who are in it for the business and buck who remain invisible - do you remember what you were like when you first started out designing?

Steve Fogg

Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.
Dennis Hobson

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