The idea struck designers Gail Anderson and Jeff Rogers as they passed digital files back and forth to their intern. Even design, they realized, is "a beautiful assembly line," says Anderson. So they made their own version of the American classic (see sidebar), and it become one of four covers created for this month's issue of Fast Company.
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The editors of Fast Company asked three hall-of-fame graphic artists, and one cult "commix" artist, to create cover art inspired by the issue's theme, "The United States of Design." The results drew inspiration from Ellis Island to American Cowboys.
Say "American design," and the first thing to pop into Carin Goldberg's head is Sarah Palin's eyeglasses. Just the frameless specs alone—not the actual person behind them, says Goldberg, a graphic artist who has created some of the best-known book jackets and images of the last two decades. "Her glasses, to me, were this iconic image that so many people wanted," she says. "I just thought how design—whether it's good design, bad design, political design—affects the way people vote, think, and feel about their lives."
Palin's glasses, which were designed in Japan, are nowhere to be found on Goldberg's cover. Instead, she offers a typewritten list that looks like an artifact from the Ellis Island museum. It was while thinking of "the cliche notion of the melting pot" that Goldberg and her husband began thinking up the names of foreign-born designers who moved to the U.S. "I wanted the list to look authentic, like it'd been found," Goldberg says. She used a Lettera 22 typewriter (made in Italy), and the design of the machine itself is present in the final text. "Mistakes matter too," she says. "We love the mistakes."
Manual labor is present in underground commix artist Jayr Pulga's cover drawing too. The heavily cross-hatched drawing shows the intersection of past and present: Cowboy and horse alike are saddled with today's ever-connected technology. "That speaks to the impact technology has on a person," Pulga says, "regardless of where he lives."
Place is important to Pulga. "My work in general, and specifically my comics, tries to mix my South American sensibility with my North American up-bringing," he explains. That diversity and variety within a single artist's work reflects what Pulga finds particularly American about U.S. design. In an earlier version of the same idea, the Statue of Liberty held an iPad and Starbucks cup. "Thankfully," Pulga says, that idea was rejected.
Geography is also the foundation of Paula Scher's minimalist cover, where the words "The United States of Design" fall into the shape of the U.S. map against a red background. Scher, a partner at Pentagram, was inspired by the treatment she gave to the outlines of Philip Johnson's Glass House and Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth house in her limited edition print "Modernism USA." Her cartographic obsession comes from both her family—her father was head of the USGS map-making division—and her experiences as a graphic designer. "My father told me that all maps lie, that there's always distortion," Scher says. "People put information in and take out information."
"And that's what graphic designers do, essentially: Graphic designers control and manipulate information in the way they make their choices."
Freedom of speech—what better way to encapsulate the glory of American design.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.