As a designer who once built and destroyed a life-size monster truck hearse; contributed to the New York Times; and having taught at the School for Visual Arts for the past 13 years, Paul Sahre is regarded as one of the most influential graphic designers of his generation. Two Dimensional Man: A Graphic Memoir is his unique take on a traditional design monograph – “part memoir, part art book, part mediation on creativity.”
The book is a collection of personal essays and how their stories intertwine with artwork culled from his 30-year career. Throughout, Paul portrays the creative life as one of “constant questioning, inventing, failing, dreaming, and – ultimately – making.” We spoke to the Two Dimensional Man author about its unique format and some of his favourite enclosed stories.
Why, now, have you chosen to create this book?
The book happening now was a result of a series of things that I had little or no control over. The process started in 2010 with an innocent question from Deborah Aaronson (then editor at Abrams) “Where is your book?”
I started writing about my first car. It was well received (Deborah thought the writing was good), but I was asked, “But what does this have to do with design?” I kept writing but we kept running into this question. Then I got busy and shelved it. It was revived in 2016 when John Gall (now at Abrams) asked if I wanted to do a book, not knowing about the earlier attempt. I handed over the stuff I had written previously and we were off.
Why did you choose this format as opposed to a more traditional design monograph?
I’m not sure other than I didn’t want to do a monograph. I knew that. A monograph seems like something you do at the end. I’m in the middle of my career. I’m not done. Or maybe I was just afraid of a retrospective. What it might do. As a designer I generally operate without set expectations of what I design. A monograph might change that. I like things the way they are.
Specifically why a memoir? Most graphic designers find graphic design fascinating, but most question why we have committed to it. How does someone end up being interested in two-dimensional space, semiotics and typographic form? Why be a graphic designer? Is it even a choice?
How do the stories explain your relationship to the art and design world?
The book has three parts. Part 1 (Chaos) is my upbringing without design, Part 2 (Order) is design school and Part 3 (Entropy) is me trying (and failing) to apply the order I learned in design school to family/life.
Most of the essays are about family/life but then link back to design in some way. Then there are some about the work that then link back to family/life. And then there are stories that have nothing to do with design but that help the overall narrative.
Lastly, could you share a favourite story (or two) from the book?
There is an essay titled Adventure that is me playing a text based DOS game on my father’s TRS-80 computer. This was one of the first mass-produced personal computers. Why is it in the book? I suppose for the irony. Computers were in my life from an early age but I decided to avoid the “family business” (my father was an aerospace engineer). No math and computers for me, I’m going into ART! Now I stare at computer all day.
One of my favourite essays is Suicide Not Heart Attack, this is one that – on the face of it anyway – doesn’t relate to design. It’s about my father finding out that his father – who died when he was 12 years old – had committed suicide instead of a heart attack as he was always told. I included this because I felt it was powerful, and that it would help the reader understand a connection to my brother’s death at the end of the book.
It’s another example that life can’t be designed.
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