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Designers who inspire: Meet Gail Anderson

4 min read
Emily Esposito  •  Mar 11, 2019
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How does one introduce Gail Anderson? She’s been awarded two Lifetime Achievement Awards, from Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards and AIGA; owns 300+ salt-and-pepper shakers; is the author or co-author of sixteen books, and lives in a home whose color palette was chosen by Milton Glaser.

Dang.

By trade, she’s a graphic designer, but her first love is words. From magazine spreads and books to Broadway theater posters and academic branding, Gail has made her mark in the design industry with her conceptual typography made up of memorable signs, symbols, and colors.

Photo by Declan Van Welie

“Most of what I do is typography-driven, whether it’s through type play or working with hierarchies in editorial content. More and more, I’m interested in creating that editorial content as much as designing it—I’m all about communication through design,” says Gail, 57.

Portraits by Paul Davis (for the Society of Illustrators) and Robert Risko (for American Illustration)

As a kid, Gail created tiny Partridge Family and Jackson Five magazines. She would write headlines and stories, glue in cut-out photos from other magazines, and add “lots of bad typography along with my equally bad drawings.” Archie comics, Mad Magazine, and teen glossies were a huge influence in leading her to a career in design.

Fast-forward to 1987, where she graduated from homemade magazines to Rolling Stone. Over her fifteen-year tenure at the then-bi-weekly, Gail served as associate art director, deputy art director, and finally, the magazine’s senior art director, under the direction of Fred Woodward.

Some of Gail’s work for Rolling Stone. Illustration by Alex Ostroy.

After Rolling Stone, Gail joined SpotCo, one of the largest entertainment design agencies in New York, and worked with a team of designers to create artwork for Broadway and institutional theater. Today, she is the creative director at New York’s Visual Arts Press at the School of Visual Arts, and incoming chairperson of the BFA Design and BFA Advertising departments at the College. She is also a partner at Anderson Newton Design, with her pal, type geek Joe Newton.

A poster for the Broadway show, Medea, that Gail created at SpotCo with Drew Hodges. Artwork by James Victore.

With more than 30 years of design experience under her belt, Gail now often turns to the unexpected for design inspiration.

“I’m increasingly fascinated by ceramics and pottery, and all of their wonderful textures and forms,” she says. “And travel expands your brain in such amazing ways.”

Gail also uses design books for inspiration, saying she has “more than any sane person should own in a small Manhattan apartment.” One place Gail typically won’t go for new ideas, however? The internet.

“I don’t get the same kick from looking at images on a screen—though it would save me a lot of money and space if I could get past that block. Perhaps it’s a factor of age, but it’s just not the same as holding an actual book or admiring a real poster.”

Making her mark on the United States Postal Service

Of the hundreds of projects Gail has worked on, her most satisfying was designing the 2013 USPS stamp to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation signing. The stamp sold more than 50 million copies, appeared on the evening news, and even became a clue on Jeopardy!

“I wish we didn’t have to talk about this stuff in 2019; to have to make an effort to be diverse, but that’s still the reality of our business.”

Gail Anderson
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“It’s both the biggest and smallest thing I’ve ever done,” says Gail.

Across all her projects, Gail considers herself fortunate to have collaborated with great designers, editors, writers, interns, and students. But, as a “quiet person,” she’s deliberate about having a few “little ‘me’ moments” design-wise, from time to time.

“Collaboration takes some of the pressure off as well. And it’s never about you in the end—designers solve problems, engage readers, and help create or market products. Unless it’s personal work, design is outward-facing. It’s for and about other people, so collaborating seems quite natural, and in the end, more fun, too,” she says.

Diversifying design

In addition to her many accolades, Gail made history in 2018 when she became the first African American winner of the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement. She was also the third woman to win the award in its 19-year history. These milestones are monumental and deserve to be celebrated. They also resurface the challenges the design industry still faces with diversity.

“When you make that ‘diverse’ hire, remember that person is NOT the spokesperson for an entire gender, race, ethnicity, etc.”

Gail Anderson
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“I’ve been designing for over thirty years now, and have worked with very few designers of color. That’s just crazy, especially here in New York.

“I wish we didn’t have to talk about this stuff in 2019; to have to make an effort to be diverse, but that’s still the reality of our business. There are resources out there and consultants to help if you’re willing to acknowledge the need for an office or studio that reflects a variety of voices and experiences. I hope that in a decade, employers won’t need outside help, but we’re just not there yet,” says Gail.

For studios that want to better encourage diversity, Gail has this advice to share:

“When you make that ‘diverse’ hire, remember that person is NOT the spokesperson for an entire gender, race, ethnicity, etc. I’ve been that person, and my eyes can’t roll farther back in my head than they already have several times when I’m told, ‘We want to know what YOU think, because, well, you know…’

“And remember that a diverse hire isn’t a lesser hire. That person really IS the best person for the job. Don’t ever make people feel like the bar was lowered to accommodate them. That’s often in the back of our minds, and we’re always working twice as hard to erase that perception. We shouldn’t have to wonder if we were hired ‘just because’ in 2019 (or even partly because). But it shouldn’t be so difficult to find top-notch diverse hires in our industry at this point, either. It’s a constant frustration.”

Creating a legacy

“I don’t get the same kick from looking at images on a screen—though it would save me a lot of money and space if I could get past that block. Perhaps it’s a factor of age, but it’s just not the same as holding an actual book or admiring a real poster.”

Gail Anderson
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What is left for a designer who has written or co-authored books about design, illustration, and typography? Who has lectured about design (and her bottle cap collection) at organizations and conferences around the world?

“As I’ve gotten older, I have begun to shift my focus to my legacy and reflecting on what I’ve given to others. I want to surround myself with people who want to do and be the best they can, not for the sake of awards or followers or likes,” says Gail.

To learn more about Gail and see all her work, visit her portfolio on Behance.

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