Designer Mackey Saturday has branded some of today’s more notable identities, such as Instagram, Oculus, and Luxe. Now, after running his own studio for 10 years, he’s become the newest and youngest principal at Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. The New York agency has pioneered American graphic design forward over the last 60 years, responsible for the brand identity and logos of companies like NBC, National Geographic, Chase Bank, Hearst, and dozens more. For Mackey (and his clients), the future, it appears, is quite bright.
First, let’s get it out of the way that Mackey Saturday has an awesome name. It feels more at home alongside ‘50s comic strip characters than amidst the iconic principles with which he now shares office. Notwithstanding, Mr. Saturday has earned his place at the table alongside founding partners Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, as well as partner and designer Sagi Haviv.
Much of Mackey’s life has provided him the experience and talent and tenacity required to deliver design work that stands next to some of the most iconic identity work of the past century. Now one year in, it appears he’s living up to that standard quite well. We caught up with Mackey in NYC to learn more about his story, how he’s faring in his new role, and what it means to contribute his voice to the prolific legacy of design that precedes him.
So how did things begin? Tell us about the creative background of your childhood?
“For myself, art or some form of creativity was always a part of life farther back than I can remember. My parents tell me stories about when I was a really young child and I would sit and draw for hours on end and then get really mad and crumple something up and throw it in the trash and freak out and go, ‘What are you doing?’ I would always be very upset, and I would say ‘It just doesn’t look like what’s in my head,’ and that would make me so frustrated.”
“For a very long time, I guess I’ve always been into at least trying to get the ideas that are in my head out into the real world. The other side of that was that my parents raised me in a way where they had told me, ‘If you want anything, you have to try to build it first.’ Whether that was trying to get into skateboarding and figure out how to [build one], or if that was a new toy or something, from a very young age I started to have to think about the realities that everything had to be thought up and created by someone, and that [someone] could be myself. I needed to think my way around things, not just believe they were made of magic and could just appear if I had a few dollars. It was this idea to just get me to really understand how things came to be and to see my own problem-solving potential, so I appreciate that about them. Neither of my parents are actually creative people, so it was kind of funny that they still helped build that side of me up so much. Problem-solving, thinking of solutions creatively—that whole mindset has been something that was infused in me from a very young age.”
“Then as I grew and I went through school, I was mostly just involved in fine arts. No design, and in fact, when I was in high school, my mom told me, ‘You should really look at graphic design. That’s a great career.’ I told her that graphic designers were cheaters because they used computers.”
So, mom is always right?
“Yeah, mom’s right, because I ended up going to school for fine arts and got a BFA, but then after I graduated, I actually stepped into doing design as a practice compared to just visual arts. Because all through high school and college, I did fine arts to make a living—I would do murals and commissioned portraits and things like that, however I could get by doing different types of art. Then, once I got into design, I got to see that there were problems to be solved, too. It wasn’t just subjective, just making something that was pretty so to speak. I got to use that critical thinking I had always loved from a very young age and combine that with the art that I enjoyed so much, and it really made for a perfect balance for myself.”
You grew up a fine artist, and now are primarily doing professional design. The concepts of Art and Design are referenced as complementary as often as they are competitively. How do you address that?
“It’s a hard question because I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast answer. People have given a lot of answers that are all correct to some sense or another. The core of it comes down to the idea that design is meant for communication—usually there’s a problem and design is some sort of solution. Art has a little more freedom to be subjective and expressive. And while design can be expressive, it’s not part of its requirement. Its requirement is really to solve a problem. There are different ideas of that, of course. I’ve just fallen into the camp of doing design because I get to solve tangible problems with it and it’s calculable. You can look at it and decide ‘does it work or doesn’t it work?’ compared to ‘do I like it or don’t I like it?’. Because in design, that’s actually quite irrelevant. ‘Does it work? Does it solve the problem? Does it fall in line with the requirements?’ I find that a bit reassuring because that’s much easier than the thing I was plagued with as a little child of just liking it or not liking it. Not getting what was in my head out onto the paper.”
What are those anchor points or keystone pieces of inspiration for you?
“Some of the literal designers I was looking to were people like Saul Bass and Paul Rand who were very famous in the identity world. Even though they had teams, they were still known as ‘the guy’ that you go to. Then as I expanded, I was looking at people like Takenobu Igarashi from Japan and even looking at different artists that had impacts on design. Even some of the guys that I work with today, like Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar who started [CGH] back in 1957. I was looking at the way that they did things and how they had this real focus as individuals and the clarity that they were able to bring to their solutions. That was what really endured.”
Do you have consistent sources of inspiration or a process that you go through?
“I wish there was an exact formula because I would follow it and would get to my solutions a lot faster. I think there are different sets of things that I know. Try one, try the next, move on from there. I do have a pretty robust library of old design books that I’ve collected over the years that I’ve really sought out a lot of things from. They weren’t rare or hard to find, just really well-curated collections.”
“I’m not necessarily a nature guy where if I go to a mountaintop, all of a sudden I get inspiration, but I do find that some type of activity spread in between things is very helpful. I like to skateboard as much as I can. There’s a skate park at the park across the street from my house. If I can surf, I love to go do that as much as I can. Those kind of things help break it up.”
“But then again, ideas totally come when you’re riding on the subway or when you’re on a plane or when you’re doing these things. The thing that I have found is critical and what really helps solve problems is just fully engulfing myself in that problem. And then when I can’t stop thinking about it, when it is always present, then those solutions have the opportunity to come up when my mind is cleared and when I’m not thinking of anything else. But subconsciously, then I notice that thing, and it sparks what can be a great idea. It’s rarely in moments of deep, deep focus that I come up with the right solution.”
How do you find a balance of trend versus timeless design? Especially if/when clients want things “on trend”?
“It’s a common question, and a lot of times what that requires is just some time explaining what a logo really can and can’t do. People think that a logo can come to mean a lot of things, that [the logo] in itself means everything about your company. But in reality, most successful logos don’t say or do much of anything. Like the Nike swoosh; it’s just a check mark. The Apple logo doesn’t say anything about its products or its services. They’re very simple things, and their whole point is just to identify.”
“Once [a client] understands that the logo’s task is to identify, not to communicate—that their communication can come through all of the other things they’re going to do, all of the other pieces of the brand, all of their advertising—it helps them understand that. It’s a vessel. A vessel that can take on all of these things but can also shed them and not lose any value as that happens. The Apple logo, for example, has seen a few different renderings, but the logo itself is the same. So it’s able to absorb trends to stay relevant but always perform its purpose, which is that communication.”
“You have put the associations you have with these companies onto those logos, and that’s what a great logo is able to do. It’s able to take the weight of all of those experiences and associations you have with the brand. The logo itself doesn’t explain all of that. It just holds those memories that you have, and that is the simple visual that you are able to tie them all to. A logo is a lot like a flag. It doesn’t necessarily say anything about a country. In fact, most of the time they are extremely simple. Just a couple of blocks of color or simple shapes, but they represent an entire country, an entire people group, all the things that are there, and people rally behind that. So we want to create that flag for a company.”
About a year ago, you moved from running your own studio to join as a principal to Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. That’s huge.
“I moved here a year ago. It was right at the beginning of January was when I joined as a principal along Tom and Sagi and Ivan. It was a big change just because I had never considered doing anything else except run my own studio forever. But this was really a chance to work alongside people that had literally helped pioneer the industry that I’m a part of. Not to sound morbid, but they’re kind of the last living people from that era that experienced it and have gone through so much and have the ability to speak to what can really last and what can really endure. So the chance to work alongside them, and them to ask me to carry on their torch was very humbling. It’s a very big opportunity.”
No kidding. What does that mean to inherit and to try to continue the legacy of 50 years’ worth of design and be a part of that?
“Oh, it’s very intimidating. And it’s a lot of pressure. But it’s pressure that I welcome and I’m grateful to have. It’s the kind of pressure I enjoy. It’s not a pressure that’s normal of working in design, which is pressure from a client to make them happy. It’s the weight of ‘Okay, I have to make things that can stand alongside and look as though they were created by any other person at this agency because we all work together.’ It’s great. It takes away a lot of those frills of, ‘Oh, am I making something that’s cool?’ Do people care about this or that?’ No. It needs to stand alongside these things that have been around for 50 years. And it needs to be able to last for 50 more.”
“This year, 2017, is 60 years for the office. I walk around New York City and it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s another logo they designed and there’s another one and there’s another one. Yep. We designed that. It’s a very high bar that I am forced to make sure I’m executing at. It’s either at that level or it’s not. It’s trial by fire, but it’s made me a lot better very quickly. The first time an idea that I had come up with was chosen by a client was pretty incredible. Then when somebody said, ‘Oh yeah, that looks like Ivan did it, right?’ To know that I had done it…that was a very big compliment.”
Is there a signature of CGH that informs the types of designs you do? Or is it simply a question of quality?
“It’s really a quality question. We’re actually very proud of the fact that no logo looks as though ‘we’ did it because every client has a different problem that needs to be solved. Hopefully, the logo just looks like the client, and you only ever think of them and never think of us. That’s kind of the less glamorous side of being a logo designer. That nobody really knows you did the work.”
“I think if you see a logo that we did, and you find out we did it, you might say, ‘Oh, that makes sense,’ because it’s probably very simple. It’s probably pretty bold. It’s not going to be frivolous in any way, and it’s going to be reduced down to a single concept. It’s not going to be trying to do too much.”
“I have a funny test that I do with new work in the office which is, ‘Is it distinctive enough? Is there something a little bit off so it’s own-able by the client?’ Meaning that somebody else doesn’t already have it. That it’s recognizable. That it’s theirs. At the same time, ‘Is it simple enough that if I show it to Ivan, he’ll approve it?’ If I can hit those two sides, that’s kind of the magic.”
Do you have any favorite logos from the past, from CGH, that stand out to you as particularly interesting or bold?
“One of my favorites is the Chase Bank logo. That one got designed in 1960, I think, so it’s really coming up on some years. But it’s had that ability to last. It’s very impactful in terms of simplicity but has the ability to endure and be ownable and unique. Another one of my favorites is a newer one CGH did for Harvard University Press. It’s just six rectangles, but they look like books on a shelf, and they’re also an H. There’s just something very magical about that level of simplicity. It’s a modern take for a very classic institution, but it works very, very well for them.”
“I love Showtime, even though I don’t watch TV. I just always loved that logo for some reason. It’s always stuck out to me. Also, National Geographic…it’s the ultimate essence of owning an incredibly simple piece that functions so, so well. It’s drawn from the physical. That icon still means National Geographic, even though people don’t necessarily know where it comes from. The ability to own a yellow rectangle and to never question it. What an accomplishment.”
Is there some sort of mark or legacy or impact that you want to leave in some sort of way?
“That’s a good question. I think there are things I would like to influence, but I don’t have one piece I’m driven towards. There’s not some award I want to win. I just hope the designs I create have the ability to endure. A big part of why I joined [CGH] is that I want to help bring some of these newer companies that are really changing the world into the arena where really good design lives. Silicon Valley can be kind of a vacuum, and you live in that and you see only these things are around you. People get suckered into bad design, and they get suckered into things that don’t have the ability to endure, even though they’re creating these companies that are changing the world. So I do hope that my client list coming into a company that has such enduring history can create the kind of work that is deserved for the kind of ideas that are out there right now with a lot of these new businesses. But then also, I want to make sure that I’m bringing relevant and informed ideas to businesses that have been around for 100-plus years, too, and helping them evolve as the landscape changes.”
What advice do you have or would you have for young designers, people that are coming into this whether they are in school or getting ready to enter the professional design world?
“I’ve said this over and over again, but I still believe it, that you should really focus your skills but diversify your time. It’s tempting to want to do a little bit of everything and to get in. Because there are so many different areas of design now. Design has grown so rapidly and continues to grow that there’s opportunity everywhere, but it’s very hard to become a specialist if you just continue to dabble in a lot of little things. You can create a whole lot of mediocre pieces and have touched a lot of different things, or you can really focus in and create spectacular things but maybe not in as wide of an array of places. I think that’s more gratifying and more enduring to do.”
“When I say ‘diversify your time’, I mean don’t get locked in a box, either. Spend your time doing things that educate you in things outside of the design world. Learn about different people groups and cultures and beliefs and spend time in art and music and culture because that’s really where your designs need to live. You need to understand the people and understand the environments where your design is going to, to live and work and breathe. So spending your time there in as wide a variety of places as possible is going to inform your design in many more ways than sitting behind a computer or even practicing.”
What do you think are some of the things specifically that your partners’ experience in the industry has brought to you?
“They just have a clarity in the way that they look at things that I never could get to on my own, just because I haven’t had the time and the experience to know that. They are able to look at the work they create and the work I create and have such a clearer picture of its potential as a design, and that’s been huge, because as much as I can learn from that, I can at least reapply those principles that they show me or explain to me back into my work.”
“They have this magic where they are able to see things as designers, which all designers do, but then they are also able to really step out and see things as an average human and understand and not get persuaded by their own ideas or fall in love with things too quickly because they are too proud of the work they’ve created. That really only comes with time and wisdom and a lot of humility, which they have. That’s part of what’s brought them along for so long. But at the same time, Ivan has this thing where he always says like, ‘Never put anything in front of a client that you don’t believe in, because they’ll pick it, and you’ll be blamed for it.’ It doesn’t matter what they want. It doesn’t matter what the trend says. It doesn’t matter if you’ve convinced yourself that it’s some magical solution. If it’s not right and it’s not great, don’t put it out there.”
“They have molded their own tastes, even. That’s the kind of funny thing that’s different from an artist who forms an opinion that is focused on their art and on making things around the art that they want to make. These guys have almost formed their opinions around what a design needs to do, not about what they like.”
In his youth, Mackey had a difficult time getting what was in his head onto the page. So it’s ironic that he’s made a living getting others’ ideas onto the page. With great success. Despite the fact that anonymity and collective input is the name of the CGH game, we can’t wait for the next great logo to emerge from behind closed doors and to speculate: was it his?