Legendary Designer Seymour Chwast On Failure, Egos, And The Value Of Self-Promotion

Chwast, who founded the studio Push Pin with Milton Glaser and Edward Sorel, has a new book on Kickstarter.

One of the most influential graphic designers and illustrators of the 20th century, Seymour Chwast founded the collaborative studio Push Pin in 1954 with Milton Glaser and Edward Sorel. Celebrated for his irreverent illustrations, political satire, and humor, Chwast is still hard at work in his studio and recently launched a new book through Kickstarter called Seymour Chwast at War with War: An Illustrated Timeline of 5,000 Years of Conquests, Invasions, and Terrorist Attacks. We spoke with the 84-year-old designer about his rise in the industry and this latest project.


Co.Design What’s your work routine like these days?
Chwast: Usually there’s an assignment I have to do. Right now it’s a magazine illustration for the New Yorker, and I’m designing a tote bag for the Strand [bookstore]. So it’s really all over the place. And always trying to do children’s books. It’s tough to get publishers interested in what I want to do, but I keep on working on it.

I don’t understand retiring. I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t play golf. I have to sit at a drawing table or else it’s a wasted day. The nature of the work can change here, but I have to be doing something, especially with my hands.

Princeton Architectural Press recently republished my best children’s book, the Pancake King. I think more of that is being done, bringing back stuff of value that needs another life. Electronic books are something I don’t really understand. I love to do children’s books, and I don’t think there’s a big concern that they’re going to become electronic. I think children want to see pictures in real ink.


What are the biggest challenges you face today as a designer and how have they changed from when you were just starting out?
Well, when I was just starting out it in the ’50s and ’60s, posters were big. People bought posters. I was paid to do poster design. There seems to be fewer of those being done now. Everything has become so electronic. There’s far less interest in [posters] as well as doing artwork that has nothing to do with the computer, like creating a painting. Now I use the computer to do parts of the illustrations and it’s really very useful. I can really save a lot of time. But otherwise, the creativity is just about the same.

Has your perspective as a designer and illustrator has changed over the last 60 years you’ve been working?
I get an assignment or a problem I want to solve for myself, and I go through the same process. Thinking of something that hasn’t been done before, that is creative, that solves the problem in a way that client would understand and appreciate what we’re doing. That hasn’t changed.

What did your first job in the New York Times promotional department teach you and do those lessons come to bear on the work you do today?
It was a great first job because I was able to set type and do drawings and do my own little promotional pieces. I was the youngest one in the bullpen, but I was able to follow through. I learned a lot from the head of the department, George Krikorian. He was really terrific and gave me a lot of help in doing the right thing and being as creative as possible. I started doing drawings–and even wood cuts–on some of the ads that I was assigned.


Was there any advice George gave you early in your career that stuck with you?
“The first line of typography is not indented.” I learned rules. The only rules I follow are with type and that was one of them.

After the Times, you did a bunch of different jobs but said you were a failure at them. How did that experience make you a better designer?
It made me realize I can’t hold a job and freelancing would be better—going after work rather than employment.

I worked for studios, for Esquire, for the Times, for advertising agencies, for Condé Nast and all those made no sense to me. Anybody could do that–they didn’t need the talent I knew I had. So the problem was getting out there and promoting ourselves as freelancers and we did that with a thing called the Push Pin Almanack, and we sent that out to 3,000 art directors. It was a tool we used to get our work out there. It was design and illustration to show what we could do and what we wanted to do. It helped with our marketing.


What advice do you have for young designers who might be grappling with that challenge of, “Do I want to be employed?” or “Do I want to work?”?
Well, those who are like myself, it’s probably better to get a job right away so that you have some resources. Work for a salary and then freelance. Go after freelance work from publishers or advertisers, whatever. If that becomes your stronger area, then you know that you can have your own studio. And it would be good to tie it to other people. Push Pin Studios was a collaboration. It allowed us to do our own promotion, hire our own agent. It’s something people coming out of school should consider. And tying with other people they can get along with.

What strategies helped give Push Pin an edge?
Milton [Glaser, Push Pin’s co-founder] and I both were interested in typography and design as much as illustration, which is unusual. Most illustrators don’t know design; most designers can’t draw. So we were able to do things like books jackets. I did an awful lot of paperbacks, a few best sellers, trade books, along with posters–those things that needed both design and illustration. And we took advantage of that.

Do you perceive your work to be different what you were working alongside Glaser at Push Pin versus when you parted ways?
When a job came in for the studio, Milton and I worked on our on ideas and usually the better solution won. We weren’t trying to combine the talents we had; we kept our own so that each of us had his own personality in the work that we were doing. That didn’t change.


Our egos at that time didn’t get in the way, and that’s not always the case. If you get enough work that people will see and they see the style that you’re doing and recognize the work you are doing, then your ego is satisfied. And Milton and I had our own work that people saw and liked.

Early in your career you published The Book of Battles (c. 1957) and now you’re tackling the topic again with At War With War. What’s behind your fascination with the subject?
In 5,000 years we haven’t learned anything. We haven’t found a way to avoid that destruction and killing. That amazes me. Going through the timeline, you see the repetition of these countries going after each other. It’s all power-hungry kings who are interested in doing all this fighting while poor soldiers get shot and killed along with some civilians.


What impact do you hope the book has?
I have no idea. It’s not going to end war. Maybe making people a little bit aware of what we do to ourselves here and that we’ve been doing it for so long. That’s probably the only thing I can hope for.

How did you go about illustrating the book?
They’re all black and white with pen and some with markers. I also did a few woodcuts in the book where I thought it was appropriate. They hook the viewer in some way without repeating the same things, meaning dead soldiers. There’s more to war than dead soldiers. In the terror and horror of that, I didn’t want it to be missed either. But as you go through the book you find the arrows have turned into H bombs and that’s the only change otherwise the idea is to kill people.

I don’t draw realistically. To do a full-color, realistic rendering of soldiers on a battlefield makes it too pretty. I don’t want to do that. It has to be graphic, there has to be a strength–a quality about the artwork that can grab you and have a sense of what I had in mind.


Buy Seymour Chwast at War with War: An Illustrated Timeline of 5,000 Years of Conquests, Invasions, and Terrorist Attacks from Kickstarter for $52.

All Images (unless otherwise noted): © Seymour Chwast


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.


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