Sean Adams | Essays

Margo Chase

Last Sunday, Terry Stone called me and said, “I have some terrible news. Margo died yesterday.” This comment made no sense to me. It couldn’t be Margo Chase, it must be another Margo I didn’t know. I wouldn’t believe that it was Margo Chase. That would be impossible. I don’t know anyone in my life who had the same vibrant, exuberant, and extraordinary energy as Margo. She spoke fast and had an easy laugh. Margo was endlessly energized and excited by whatever and wherever she was. She was truly stellar. The design profession and all of us lost a treasure last weekend. I will miss her passion, humor, and remarkable optimism.

The following is an excerpt from Final Flight: Margo Chase, a Great American Designer, by Kristin Ellison

Working with Rock Stars

For the first ten years of Margo’s career, she focused on design for the music industry. She worked with the best (Geffen Records, Columbia, Warner Brothers) and won limited edition packaging projects for high profile talent like Cher, a project that ultimately landed her a Grammy. These projects were the pinnacle of design jobs because of their prestige and visibility, but also because they afforded unlimited creativity. During that time Margo gained great notoriety. As Louise Sandhaus, professor at California Institute of the Arts and principal of Louise Sandhaus Design noted, “She was the ‘it’ girl in the 1990s when her design sun rose and she opened her own studio (Margo Chase Design in 1986, now Chase Design Group).” Louise continued “When I began the second phase of my career after grad school in mid-90s post-modern LA heyday, I was coming from the punk grunge type hothouse CalArts. But on the other side of the seeming divide there was Margo’s contrary, yet familiar, punk goth lettering. While rules and refinement at CalArts seemly abandoned, there was Margo doing type we could relate to, yet couldn’t hold a candle to in terms of her finely crafted elaborate forms. She was a parallel design generation.”

Margo was known for her intricate and elegant type design. More often than not, her jobs would include custom lettering, some of which was eventually built out into complete typefaces and sold under the name “Gravy”, a nod to the additional money they’d earn from it. Margo’s mother was an amateur calligrapher who introduced her to the practice, as well as the famous calligraphers that inspired her. Margo became known for her gothic style, which was in part due to the early influence of her mother, and the fact that in the 80s as she was honing her craft, it was all the rage. She loved to doodle for hours on end and many times the shapes she played with in her sketchbooks resulted in the arresting typefaces so many coveted.

Around her ten-year mark, the music industry was becoming more corporate and Margo was ready for a new challenge. She had enjoyed years of creative freedom, but felt that the music industry did not fully utilize the power of design. She craved more strategic challenges so began the process of starting to shift the direction of her business.

The Next Chapter

Margo successfully transitioned the business, and for many years they've provided finely crafted and strategically aligned logos, letterforms, and designs for leading brands like CVS, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Campbell Soup Co., as well as clothing lines, cities, and even Peter Rabbit. The company now has offices in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and the UK, and much of their success is the result of an intense design process they created. The first step involves developing a “psychographic map”. This allows them to map the aspirations of the brand to the aspirations of its customers. Next, they develop a specific persona to use when testing out the brand. This fictitious character, who has a name, an address, likes and dislikes, is used to determine the direction of the design. From there, they visualize the brand’s visual language across all the relevant touch points (photo, type, color, pattern, etc.). This process enables the team to really get to know who they are selling to so they can make an effective campaign. It also allows them to be able to justify dramatic changes from a client’s previous look. Seeing the theory behind the concept helps clients understand where they need to take their brand and feel confident doing so.

Building a Team

As with any company, the culture is such an important element. It’s often what determines success or failure. Margo’s incredible passion and generosity fueled her team, her clients, and the work itself, growing her business into one of the leading creative agencies in the US. Clark Goolsby, Vice President and Creative Director recalls. “I was always so impressed by Margo's ability to get excited about literally anything. She was such a curious person, and she loved problem solving. As the company grew, and our clients got larger, she attacked the problems of larger brands with the same insatiable curiosity that she applied to all her work. She loved to dig into new problems and figure out how to solve them.” Paula Hansanugrum, Creative Director notes “She was the most energetic and genuinely passionate person I knew. She had endless ideas and looked at every new project, big or small, with the same level of thoughtfulness and enthusiasm. Having worked side-by-side with her all these years, I can say that she is easily the hardest working person I’ve ever met.”

Margo’s passion and bravery extended beyond her work and onto the airfield where she found her greatest freedom, a passion she shared with her husband Patrick Dugan. Her father was a pilot so she was no stranger to the sport. She loved being up in the air and looking down to the ground so she followed in his footsteps. Eventually, she wanted to take her flying to the next level so her father suggested emergency maneuver training, a safety course he had taken. Here she was taught how to recover from spins and loops, and other dangerous situations. But what she took away was not as much the relief that she could get out of a tight spot, but the exhilaration of doing terrifying tricks successfully. It was this course that opened the door to her passion for aerobatics. If you’re not familiar with what this is, it’s “an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft's attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.” This is as daring as it gets and she loved it! Margo explains “Pretty soon I was like, yeah! This is great! It was like the most empowering feeling, because here's this thing you're terrified of, and you suddenly realize, wow! This isn't that scary.”

She began competing and loved the precision it required. She likened it to drawing calligraphy in the sky and spoke of the beauty of the performance. There is no do over in aerobatics, you get one chance to execute the moves perfectly, unlike design where one can iterate and tweak as long as time will allow. The other appealing factor in aerobatics is that it’s a non-gendered sport where men and women compete against one another, and it’s not unusual for woman to own the podium. But flying did not just fuel the personal side of her life, it fueled her work and gave her the courage in the studio to take risks, something she pushed her team to do as well. “Margo was relentless in her pursuit of the best design. She pushed and challenged everyone around her (including our clients) to always look beyond the obvious, to a place that often felt uncomfortable. It was only then that we could arrive at something magical...something you didn’t even know was possible.” Recalls Paula on the day of her 7th anniversary as a “Chaser”. Tragically, the fearlessness and passion that brought her great joy also resulted in a life cut far too short. Margo’s plane crashed on July 22, 2017 in Apple Valley, northeast of Los Angeles. Margo was just 59.

Margo’s Legacy

There is so much to say about the work she and her team have created, but at the end of the day, what everyone remembers the most is her kindness, generosity, humility, and grace. For those lucky enough to know her, she changed their lives by inspiring them to reach beyond what they thought possible. Her creative agency will carry her vision for the organization forward as she would have wanted.

For more information about Margo, enjoy this great documentary from LinkedIn Learning detailing the many aspects of her life and career.

Posted in: Obituaries

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