DJ Stout | Essays

Remembering Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks was Austin design. He was one of the first graphic designers anybody knew about in this burgeoning Texas city, and because of the force of his personality–his great sense of humor and overall coolness, he became the embodiment of an Austin designer. He set the mold.

When I began my design career in Dallas in the early 1980s, I was already aware of Mike Hicks and the work he was doing in Austin. His reputation as a witty conceptual thinker and a skilled craftsman was known not only statewide, it was beginning to gain recogntion on a national level as well. In those days Austin—and Texas in general—wasn’t known for the creative arts, or anything remotely creative for that matter. Mike seemed to spring forth fully formed from out of the void. He was the state’s first design star and he quickly became my personal hero and mentor.

Original brand mark created for Whole Foods 

Primary brand for Seton Health Care System and one of many publications produced for the health care provider. 

To me Mike represented everything that a great designer should be. First of all, he was hilarious. If a great sense of humor is a sign of intelligence, then Mike Hicks has to be one of the smartest graphic designers to ever pick up an X-Acto knife. Much of his best work was effective because it was wickedly funny. In the mid '80s I attended an editorial design lecture in Austin featuring Fred Woodward, Texas Monthly’s art director at the time, Dugald Stermer, who had designed and art directed the infamous left-wing publication Ramparts, and Roger Black of Rolling Stone fame.

Mike had designed the poster for the event, which looked like the front page of a trashy grocery store tabloid. It was sarcastic and irreverent and it became my holy grail. I hate to admit it, but I sort of repurposed the idea for a feature I designed as a test when I applied for the art director position at Texas Monthly following Fred’s departure. It did the trick and I became the art director in 1987. That sense of parody and wit became a hallmark of my editorial design work at the magazine for thirteen years and I’m certain that Mike Hicks was my primary inspiration.

When I got to Texas Monthly Mike had already left his mark on the magazine. Like me, Mike hailed from West Texas and attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock. After a ten-year stint as a musician, he moved to Houston and founded Flat Lizard Graphics, which quickly won national recognition for its work in corporate marketing and editorial design. A joint agreement with Texas Monthly and GSD&M Advertising brought him to Austin. Here, he helped the publication gain national presence in New York as a viable regional media and contributed to the magazine’s design, editorial, and circulation efforts.

Primary brand for Sweetish Hill Bakery

About this same time, he established Hixo, Inc., a high-end design firm with a penchant for witty, intelligent solutions. The name Hixo, a sarcastic spin on big corporate names like Texaco or Pepsico, became the perfect moniker for Mike’s original, sassy brand of design. Within a few years, Hixo achieved a national reputation for excellence. The firm weathered two economic downturns and continued to flourish, with offices in Austin and Santa Monica, California, until 2004 when Mike retired and re-established Hixo as a small, boutique creative firm.

A partial list of Hixo’s clients included well-known companies like American Airlines, British Caledonia Airlines, BookStop, Barnes & Noble, Continental Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Shell Oil Company, Exxon, Chevron, Trammell Crow Company, Southland Corporation, IBM, Microsoft, Adolph Coors, Lone Star Brewery, and Conde Nast. The companies that have really resonated with me, however, are the ones I have interacted with over the last thirty years that I’ve called Austin my home. Mike’s branding work for local institutions like Sweetish Hill Bakery, Austin Museum of Art, Seton Hospital, the University of Texas, and Whole Foods have become icons in this dynamic city. Mike’s original logo for Whole Foods is still used by the grocery store behemoth all over the world.

From top left: logos for River Systems Institute, Steel Island Drum Company, Austin-based Bistrolli’s, and Bookstar.

In 1981 Texas Monthly Press published Mike’s "How To Be A Texan." The tongue-in-cheek manual he wrote and designed became an instant classic and helped to define Texas Monthly’s “Everything is Bigger and Bolder in Texas” zeitgeist. Mike authored two books and was a contributing writer and editorial advisor to a number of magazines and professional journals. His verbal skills and ability to turn a phrase made him an exceptional writer and he continued to write essays and songs he posted on his website throughout his career. I admired this literary aspect to Mike’s persona and this too became one of my litmus tests for a great designer.

Small space newspaper ad series for MetCenter leasing effort. 

Created for Global Provence, a business letter, to demonstrate how down market products were selling in tight economic times.

Mike was an avid reader who was curious and interested in everything—not just the world of graphic design. He was a faculty member at the University of Texas and lectured extensively across the US to professional and academic audiences. He has been an important, beloved part of the Austin community and has inspired and mentored countless young designers and seasoned pros to boot. In 2007 Mike was honored by the AIGA when he was selected to be the Austin Chapter’s first Fellow Award recipient for his significant contributions to the graphic design profession.

He will be missed by all.

Posted in: Obituaries

Comments [3]

Sorry to hear this news. Headed off for a family trip to Texas before we were married, I asked my now wife of 30 years to look for a copy of "How to Be a Texan" which I had seen in the CA Design Annual. Damn if she didn't find it and bring me back a copy. This was before the internet, Amazon, etc., so it was pretty special when she handed me the book. Still have it along with the follow-up "The South Made Simple." Thanks for this interesting write-up.
Matt Ralph

I especially love the River Systems Institute mark.
joseph blair

Mike was one of the GOOD GUYS. He was funny as hell, smart, talented of course but WAY More than that hew was a fine human being. He will be missed
Eric Baker

Jobs | June 13