Woody Pirtle, Graphic Designer & Artist

8.7.14 New Paltz, NY

The true to the bone southern gentleman swept me off my feet not only with his beautiful Upstate Diary logo design but also his charm and exceptionally curious mind. He discusses his secrets for success, and truly believes relationships are at the core of everything….. Let’s enter 2015 with his words of wisdom!

Interview & Photos: Kate Orne

Woody Pirtle with detail of poster celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frida Kahlo & the 50th anniversary of the death of Diego Rivera.

UD: First of all, thank you for the very beautiful type treatment you created for Upstate Diary!

WP: You’re quite welcome, Kate. It’s hard to go wrong with a classic font like Baskerville. 

UD:  At what point did you know that graphic design was your calling?

WP:  When I was applying for college, I told my parents that I wanted to go to art school at Pratt. They said, "No, no, you've got to get a well-rounded education." My father said, "You'll never make any money doing art." I said, "Well, I would do it whether I make money or not." I ended up going to a liberal arts college, and it wasn't until my senior year that I really even learned about design. That's when Pushpin Studios in New York City had begun, and I was beginning to see published material about them. I took a few design courses, and I was always really good at drawing and doing illustrations, so my work was more about that when I got out of school.

When I moved to Dallas, I went to work for a guy named Stan Richards, who started the Richards Group, which was really it in that area. I was in the right place at the right time, and it was when the market for advertising and design in the Southwest was at its infancy. I worked there for seven years and then I started my own business.

His desk with objects of interest.  Pentagram Book 5, 1999. From left Sisters, '05. Ping Pong, '05.  Bull, '05.  

UD: Stan was kind of like a mentor to you?

WP:  Yes definitely! The way he operated was that when work would come in, he would say, "OK, we have this client, and I want you to deal with it and here's the problem." He said, "You figure it out." So I would go away, and I would do the work, and later I would present my ideas to him. And he would give me feedback, "OK this is what I think we should do." Then I would go to the next step and let's say it was an ad. He would say, "You've done the core identity, now take that and apply it to the ad." So basically he taught us how to start from ground zero and build a program to its fruition.

“T” Ambassador Arts Alphabet Poster Series, '94

Stop The Plant, '03

UD:  Along with Milton Glaser and others at the top of your field, you are considered one of the legends in graphic design. How would you describe your overall vision?

WP:  Well, graphic designers are communicators, so I learn as much as I can—that's step one. I find out what the client's mission is, what the client's vision for the future is, and what they're trying to accomplish with a particular piece of work. And then, I find out what I need to know so I can determine how best to approach the problem. I never sit down and try to figure out what the solution is going to be — it emerges from the homework.

The studio building was built around 1840's. It was originally a store where textiles from the mill across the river were sold.

UD:  So what would you say is the biggest factor that could take a logo design from good to great.

WP:  I think the thing about identity design is that it has to be as simplistic as possible. It has to be understandable by anyone, especially if you're doing something that's international. And it's best when it's classical and timeless. The example I would put forth regarding that is the Dallas Opera logo. I did that logo in the early '70s, and it's still beautiful. And relevant.

UD: The beautiful D.O. entwined.

WP:  And that's before we had computers or any of that! So it was all done by hand, and then photographed, and touched up, and re-photographed, over and over until it was exactly right.

Dallas Opera, '74

UD: So looking back what has been particularly inspiring to you?

WP:  Well, first of all, it's relationships with clients where there is mutual respect. I don't work with clients where I'm just a vendor. And this goes back to when I started working with T.G.I. Fridays, when I was at the Richards Group. These two guys from the Midwest started Fridays, and I got in on the ground floor. The first thing I designed for them was a menu, which was based on the composition notebook — the black-and-white ones you have in school.

When you opened it, the menu was written in long hand, and it had doodles like you would do in school. It's funny, because I remember when I did that, I was so proud of it. I showed it to my mother, and she said, "Oh, this is so cool. What did you do? Did you design the cover?" I said, "Well, no, it's based on a composition notebook." [Laughing] I said, "All I did was put a label on it — attached it to Fridays." Then she said, "Oh I love the handwriting. Did you do the handwriting?" I said, "No, I had someone else do that." [Laughing] She said, "You must've done the drawings then." I said, "No." [Laughing] So it's like, I directed people, and that's the way I've always worked.

UD:  So one of the most important and inspiring aspects is the relationship with the client?

WP:  It's an opportunity to get involved in something where you can establish a relationship, where they respect what you do, and push you to do the best work.

Pirtle's studio in a separate, former 1840's textile store. 

50th Anniversary of The Declaration of Human Rights, 1998.  Paper Clip 1, '07

UD: You have created a large body of work for Amnesty International and other organizations. How important to you, as a creator, is Social and Political activism through design?

WP: To me it is extremely important. I feel as though it is my opportunity, as a designer, to add my voice and point of view to significant issues and events transpiring in our troubled world.

Stop Gun Trafficking for Amnesty '03

UD:  You're such a laid-back Southern gentleman; did you ever have a competitive streak?

WP:  I’ve always been competitive. [Laughing] I have to win. I come across as being laid back but I’m very competitive.

UD: So how does it manifest,  you back stab the competition? [Laughing]

WP: I didn’t need to. There is more to it then being just a really great designer. One thing about being a successful designer is that you have to be able to do a little bit of everything. It's about coming up with a great idea, selling that great idea, implementing it flawlessly, making sure you're making enough money on it, and letting that lead you to the next job and do it all over again and again and again.

Work in progress

Cellar of main house, a former tavern & boarding house from late 18th century

 4, '96

UD: So what’s the secret to a successful pitch?

WP: A successful sales pitch is first taking the client's brief and walking them through what they've told you they're trying to accomplish. Then leading them through the process of what you've done, and proving to them that the end result solves their problem, that it's perfect for them. And that’s really what it’s about.

UD: Spec work in any competitive creative field is quite common these days - love to hear your opinion.

WP: Never do work on spec! Unfortunately, it is prevalent in today’s competitive creative landscape but spec work only leads to more spec work. Doing work on spec commoditizes design and undermines its integrity. In the end, the client gets what he/she pays for. If you don’t value the worth of your own work, no one else will either.    

Pirtle in his studio with Moo Shoo, a handsome lady in the best of her years.

UD:  How has teaching broadened your thinking?

WP:  I feel like teaching is such a great experience because I assign a problem or project, and the students come up with ideas.  I think, "Oh my God, I would never have thought of that". [Laughing] It's inspirational.

 UD: Tell me about your project Design in Reverse. How did it start? What was your inspiration?

WP: What I describe as Design in Reverse is a body of personal work that is based on utilizing printed material from newspapers, ads, labels, tickets, billboard paper, and other graphic ephemera, to create collages. I also create assemblages incorporating found objects such as wheels, containers and all kinds of industrial detritus. I began in the early seventies by cutting up discarded printing plates and making objects from the pieces. My inspiration comes from what one of my Pentagram partners, Alan Fletcher, refers to as “The Art of Looking Sideways”.     

Work in progress

Pirtle collects former billboard posters as material for Design in Reverse

Detail of Clothespin 1. Painting incorporates various fabrics.

UD:  With all this new technology and software that is available for everybody now — do you think that it's still necessary to get a formal education in design?

WP: I do think that it's still a necessity. With continuing advancements in technology and the importance of ever emerging social media, it is crucial to master the tools and principles of design. That said, the availability of a keyboard doesn’t make one a designer. I think that in today’s world it is increasingly important for a young person pursuing a career in design to learn the history and development of graphic design. And, it is equally important to become familiar with the work of pioneers that have been instrumental in establishing the state of design today.

2, '12

    Clothespin 1 and 2, '07

Hitler’s Wives, ’04

 Ping Pong, '05

UD:  Has living Upstate had a direct influence on your work? If so, how? Feel free to point out any of your work directly connected to Upstate.

WP:  I was fortunate after moving Upstate full time, in 2005, to get involved in the development of Walkway Over the Hudson. My work began with the creation of the logo and led to the development of a comprehensive identity program. My work for Walkway has led to working relationships with The Hudson Valley Preservation Commission, Scenic Hudson, The New World Foundation (Local Economies Project & Hudson Valley Farm Hub), The Albany Institute of History and Art, Vassar College, Bard College and many others.

Moving and living Upstate has been a liberating experience. After spending decades working in the city, I think most would agree the beauty of the landscape here and a change of pace are truly a breath of fresh air.

The main building, from the late 18th century, was a tavern & boarding house for workers at the textile mill just across the river.

UD: Any grand predictions for the future of design? Is it all going to hell, or do you see a bright future for young designers?

WP:  Design will continue to evolve with the times, as it always has. As technological advances emerge in our global marketplace, the way designers approach and produce their work will evolve as well. I think it is a very exciting time to be entering the field of design but young designers will need to embrace as many skill sets as possible to keep up with the changes that are inevitable in the future.