"Mother's Little Helper" from "The Good Life: Bliss in the Hills," in Emotion is Promotion: A Book of Thirst, Rick Valicenti, 2005
The more graphic design monographs are published, the less certain we seem to be about their purpose. Are they history? Inspiration? Self promotion? Self indulgence? This confusion often begins with the subjects themselves. Some emulate the authority of the art history book but add confessional captions suited to a tell-all memoir. Others lose themselves in experimental layouts that provide a live demonstration of creative viruosity, but impede understanding by the uninitiated.
And then there's Rick Valicenti. In his newly-published book Emotion as Promotion: A Book of Thirst
, Valicenti does the seemingly impossible: he provides a glimpse into a designer's life that is at once accessibly seductive and brazenly idiosyncratic. It is a combination that few would attempt and even fewer would pull off. Valicenti does it.
Many designers find themselves trapped in situations far removed from the passions that led them to enter the field in the first place. Each of them can take comfort and inspiration from Valicenti's ability to reinvent himself. He started out as the consummate professional. An early triumph was the lurid and ubiquitous red Helvetica Bold logo for Chicago's Jewel supermarket chain; in the book he surrounds it with over four dozen similar logos, viewing his role as the Patient Zero of the gruesome Helvetica Bold epidemic with a mixture of pride and horror.
Nearly a decade of buttoned-up success followed, and then he threw it all away."After eight years of operating a design-as-vendor-operation titled R. Valicenti Design," he writes, "I decided I would build a practice only for a discerning clientele. Cultural institutions were my first target." A typo (1st, 2nd...3st
) suggested the studio's name: Thirst. Emotion as Promotion
provides a comprehensive look at the nearly 15 years of work that followed from this decision.
The studio's work is shown in a refreshingly intelligible, even obvious
, manner, ranging from conventional assignments handled unconventionally (a annual report for the Chicago Board of Trade), to risky experiments that defy classification (a self-funded ad in I.D.
that exhuberantly embeds the slogan "Fuck Apathy" in an anti-Bush message). Valicenti calls on clients, co-workers and collaborators to provide the context in similarly inventive ways: reconstructed meeting transcripts, reproductions of email exchanges, and — for two particularly heartbreaking failed corporate identities — full-blown Elizabethan dramas.
Stories of clients gone bad are fun to tell, of course, and they've become a staple of the contemporary graphic design monograph. In contrast, Valicenti is unique in his unselfconscious passion for those clients that love him back: Herman Miller, Gary Fisher Mountain Bikes, and especially Thirst's most enthusiastic patron, Gilbert Paper. A recorded conference call between three Gilbert executives titled "The Client's on the Line" goes on too long (and, in true Valicenti heart-on-his-sleeve fashion, is almost downright mushy at times) but serves as an unvarnished demonstration of one of the book's aphorisms: "There are only two ways to secure design's opportunities: reputation and personal relationships." Valicenti has built the first through the second.
The creation of Thirst wasn't the last transformation in the restless career of Rick Valicenti. In 1995, the studio closed its downtown location and relocated to Valicenti's suburban home forty miles away. "My new desk faced the woods (beyond an open courtyard, beyond our pool). Right behind me was the kitchen door. Our cherry table, once reserved for meals and homework, made itself the hub of a Thirst boardroom." In a world where most of us carefully guard our hip profession's black-clad image, Valicenti cheerfully embraced all the trappings of midwestern American suburbia, documenting the neighborhood McMansions
and casting his soccer-mom neighbors as surreal heroines in Photoshopped fantasies. The raw material is anything but hip, which makes the resulting imagery especially arresting.
The change was temporary. "Our routine dissolved when another round of success came to Thirst, which soon outnumbered family in the residence," says Valicenti. "So ended the Good Life." It is telling that Valicenti spends so much time seeking a balance between two things — success and the good life — that most people find anything but mutually exclusive.
Towards the end of the book, Valicenti writes:The seduction of the big brand name is very real; the excitement of the phone call from New York or Frankfurt or Tokyo is quite attractive; the notion of designing a brand mascot or national advertising image is a thrill. But somewhere along the way the glitter would fade and it would be just me and the process. I never woke up with a real sense of purpose or a relationship I could value. So in the end, if I would not want to have a new client wake up in my house and share breakfast with my family, why should I give up my time for them?
Designers yearn to be provided opportunities for personal expression, but we labor under the illusion that business must be, in the end, an impersonal activity. But is it? Taking the work personally involves considerable risks: exposure, rejection, embarassment. Emotion as Promotion
is a valuable testiment to how substantial the rewards can be.